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Discovering the Real Maldives

The Maldives is famous for its coral reefs and romantic island resorts—but what of life beyond the country’s tourist enclaves? Keen to explore the other side of paradise, a husband-and-wife team has set out to chronicle the history and culture of this still largely undocumented archipelago.

Photographs by Aishath Naj  

Tourists may be drawn to the Maldives’ gamut of water sports, but for young locals, football is the pastime of choice.

The resort was sensational. Nestled in the nook of an ancient coral atoll, adrift in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it offered fathomless luxury a thousand kilometers away from the rest of world. We ate breakfast over the reef, lunched at the sunken poolside bar, and enjoyed dinner by candlelight on the beach, stopping shamelessly at the all-day ice-cream bar in between. At the spa, I consulted with an in-house Ayurvedic therapist and had my biomarkers analyzed before cycling back through the perfectly manicured oasis to our overwater villa. Inside, the turquoise lagoon was never out of sight: beneath the hammock, from the shower, even from the toilet. Best of all, it was entirely complimentary, as I was writing a review for a Maldives travel website.

As our wonderful hosts at Six Senses Laamu showed us around their paradisiacal playground, however, there was something else constantly vying for my attention. Somewhere just beyond the endless breakfast-buffet horizon, small boats were being swallowed up by a busy little harbor. Over the shoulder of water sports instructors, languid plumes of smoke drifted up from an otherwise dormant isle, just out of reach. As I jotted down notes about the resort’s fabulous room options or the 42nd flavor of ice cream, all I really wanted to know was: What’s on the next island?

I would have to wait more than two years to get my answer.

Private-island resorts have transformed the Maldives from a chain of mysterious coral atolls strewn awkwardly in the path of intercontinental ocean trade, into a globally recognized luxury destination. From a sailor’s nightmare to a holidaymaker’s dream, the very mention of the Maldives now conjures images of tall palms and powdery white beaches, despite the fact that most people still can’t point to it on a map. Our resort was actually just under a thousand kilometers from Colombo, but even after you’ve located Sri Lanka on your atlas, the nation known to its inhabitants as Dhivehi Raajje (“the country of the Dhivehi people”) is still hard to spot, with a combined 298 square kilometers of land making up less than one percent of its area. The official number of islands in the constantly evolving (and eroding) archipelago is 1,192, with those leased to private resorts rapidly approaching 150, and accommodating 1.5 million tourists each year. Few of these travelers will experience life in the 187 island villages of Dhivehi Raajje, whose entire population numbers little more than 350,000.

As I gazed across the channel to the secluded islands opposite the Six Senses, they seemed a world away. Despite having spent years writing about the Maldives’ manic politics and majestic tourism from its congested capital, Male, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t really seen Dhivehi Raajje either.

A drumming group on Laamu Gan.
Mas kaashi, a traditional dish of coconut, dried and smoked tuna, mango, and chili.
Left to right: The Addu Link Road runs for 14 kilometers from the atoll’s capital, Hithadhoo, down to the airport island of Gan; playing with fire under a starry night sky.

Earlier that year, in March 2016, I had gotten married to Aishath Naj, a Maldivian photographer from the southernmost of the 26 atolls, Addu. Having already enjoyed a number of blissful trips to Naj’s home island, it had become increasingly difficult each time to return to the urban chaos of the capital. Within weeks of the wedding, our growing desire to capture the culture hidden away in the atolls led to the launch of our blog, which we called Two Thousand Isles. The name was taken from one of the few travelogues to have ever been written about the country, by a fellow Briton named T.W. Hockly in the 1930s, back when the islands had yet to be conclusively counted. By the time we borrowed the title, the Maldives had long since been quantified, yet the true qualities of its far-flung island communities remained in the shadow of their luxurious neighbors. While married life had started with the supposed dream job—man and wife producing resort reviews—by the turn of the year we decided to relocate to the real raajje, intent on counting each and every island, from Addu upward.

Despite being home to just 20,000 people spread across five inhabited islands, Addu is the largest population center outside of Male. Four of the islands are connected by a 14-kilometer-long link road—it’s one of the longest paved causeways in the country— while the closest neighbors to the south are the American soldiers stationed on Diego Garcia, 800 kilometers away. This extreme isolation was considered a bonus by British forces during World War II (the Maldives had been a British protectorate since the 1880s), who liked it so much the Royal Air Force returned for another two decades in 1957, granting the islands full independence in 1965 as part of the deal.

By 1971, the “discovery” of the idyllic atolls by an Italian travel agent had given the country a vital alternative income to fishing (and British lease payments). Unlike Addu, however, the smaller and untouched communities elsewhere in the archipelago weren’t ready for a foreign invasion, and unauthorized travel to so-called “local” islands was soon prohibited. It wasn’t until 2010 that guesthouses situated within island villages were made legal once more, and the whole country was suddenly opened up to the world for the first time. With travel throughout the archipelago now theoretically possible for anyone, it was our hope that Two Thousand Isles might provide insight and context for travelers journeying into these unknown environs. But our plans weren’t only about tourism.

Those who don’t immediately think of luxury resorts when they hear the name Maldives will probably think about climate change. The country is famously one of the lowest-lying on the planet, at an average of just 2.4 meters above sea level, and with the threat of rising sea levels unlikely to abate, the environmental future of its island communities is clearly precarious. Even more rapid than the impact of a changing climate has been the pace of changing lifestyles since the introduction of tourism. The expanding resort economy, accompanied by a decline in fishing, has seen a third of all Maldivians crowd into Male, searching for greater access to jobs, higher education, and tertiary medical care, which are mostly unavailable in the atolls. With this powerful tide of environmental push and economic pull, even the introduction of mid-market guesthouses on local islands may not be enough to stop the erosion of island communities, the majority of which are inhabited by less than a thousand people. The overall aim with Two Thousand Isles, therefore, is to gather their stories while it’s still possible.

Left to right: Making thatch on the island of Kalaidhoo, Laamu Atoll; fishermen placing nets in the shallows of a lagoon.
A reed mat on Gaafu Dhaalu Gaddhoo.
Left to right: Painting the space between youngsters’ eyebrows is a now-outmoded beauty tradition in the Maldives; a boardwalk in the recently protected wetlands of Fuvahmulah Island.

The tagline for our blog—(Re)Discovering the Maldives—reflects the fact that much of what we see is familiar to Naj, but almost always new to me, combining an insider’s eye with an outsider’s curiosity. Traveling in these islands is a privilege few foreigners have ever had. In fact, until they were first accurately charted in the 1830s and cleared of the dreaded “Maldive fever” (malaria) in the 1960s, the islands’ inherent dangers were thought to far outweigh the scant economic opportunities. The legacy of this beautiful isolation today is a well-preserved local culture, about which very little has ever been written, and almost none of it photographed.

Our explorations began close to home, with Addu’s relatively rich history providing fertile ground amid the graves of banished sultans and ancient saints, the mythical remnants of an island fortress, and the secrets of the wartime years. With each story we uncovered, we felt ourselves drawn deeper into the atolls, like a pair of tropical detectives trying to piece together clues delicately deposited by ocean currents over more than two millennia. Layer upon layer had been added: a common folk tale here; an old custom there; and countless superstitions, the origins of which often precede living memory. As we headed up the map from our southern base, it had already become clear that the only limit on this journey would be our own curiosity.

Life from the other side of paradise certainly looked different, and the conversations we had with islanders were both inspiring and humbling. During our first long ocean voyage—eleven hours on a cargo boat between Addu and the giant atoll of Huvadhu—an elderly passenger eyed me suspiciously before asking “Kon rasheh?”, which is Dhivehi for “what island are you from?” When I answered that my island was the U.K., he seemed satisfied and shuffled off, only for Naj to overhear him later asking the captain, “What is the U.K.?” Questions such as this revealed more than most answers ever could: following a conversation with a toddy tapper (someone who collects sap from palm trees for people to drink), the man’s wife asked me if there were any toddy tappers where I came from. By far the most common query, however, was why Naj and I were so interested in their tiny island villages in the first place.

It is probably the rarity of outsiders in these isolated communities that has made hospitality (and some healthy suspicion) such an important feature of Dhivehi culture, and one upon which the billion-dollar tourism industry now rests. Besides this friendliness, the resort staples of turquoise oceans and swaying palms have always been generous hosts. While the Dhivehi diet consists largely of imaginatively spiced tuna recipes, the Maldives’ national tree, the coconut palm (Dhivehi ruh), has long provided material for everything from boats, houses, rope, and traditional drums (bodu beru) to food and drink. Modern commodities are now sporadically available in the islands, but we were still able to find skilled craftsmen (more often women) who continue to make the most of these limited but plentiful island supplies, weaving thatch and making reed mats despite the falling demand.

Coconuts are put to multiple uses in the islands.
A haul of skipjack tuna.

As tuna and palm trees continue to support the communities physically, the comparatively recent arrival of Islam (in 1153) supplies spiritual sustenance to the nation, with the lilting call to prayer 
providing the only competition for the lapping waves and rustling palms. The Maldives’ architecturally unique coral-stone mosques, with their delicate carvings and lacquered interiors, are perhaps the country’s best-kept secret. As for what came before Islam, numerous crumbling Buddhist stupas testify to the faith of earlier settlers, while curious stone idols unearthed just a few years ago by amateur archaeologists offer rare glimpses into the lives of the mysterious first inhabitants. Having visited islands now reduced to just a few dozen people, islands abandoned in recent years, and even islands that have disappeared altogether, I find it impossible to shake the feeling that the stories we dig up may feature some of the atolls’ last inhabitants.

After returning to our home base beneath the equator following our first fruitful voyage, it would be more than a year before we would resume our journey, finally returning to Laamu—the next link up the island chain—late last year. After touring the eastern and western isles of this pear-shaped atoll, known locally as Hadhdhunmathi, we had already seen historic mosques, an almost-forgotten natural peat bath, and even visited the set of the recent Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, when the ferry brought us back past the resort island of Olhuveli—now better known as Six Senses Laamu. Finally, we would get to meet the neighbors who’d first planted the seed of wanderlust from which our passion project had bloomed. The islands of Hithadhoo and Maamendhoo were certainly worth the wait.

Hithadhoo and its inhabitants provided more rich stories of banishment to faraway atolls, sea monsters, castaways, and black magic (fanditha), while the sleepy island’s ziyaaraiy—a shrine believed to be linked to the country’s Sufi Muslim past—was perhaps the most impressive we’d seen so far. Nearby, a flawless stretch of mangroves perfectly exemplified the precious Maldivian environment, upon whose preservation society depends. Across the water on Maamendhoo, we found a tightly packed fishing village whose rutted streets were ringed with racks of sunbathing kandu mas (skipjack tuna) and local ladies producing fantastic tuna-coconut feasts. As the women cooked and the fish dried, young boys swam across to an uninhabited isle opposite, performing somersaults from its crumbling jetty into the enticing azure of the calm channel.

As Naj snapped pictures of another cook stirring spices over an open wood fire, I spotted the Six Senses’ overwater villas once again through the smoke drifting up past the shading palms. My eyes didn’t linger there for long. I couldn’t check my biomarkers on Maamendhoo, but I didn’t feel the need to; nor could I complain about the local hospitality, which was as warm and gracious as at any five-star hotel. There can be no doubt that the Maldives’ luxury resorts have transformed the economic fortunes of a little fishing nation, but the country’s real luxuries remain elsewhere.

Naj and I are now just a few leagues into our island odyssey, and our plan is to continue sailing through the atolls, counting every island and every story as we go. We can only hope that it’s many, many years before we stop asking ourselves: “What’s on the next island?”

A traditional sailing dhoni in the northern Noonu Atoll.

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2019 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Next Island”).

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