Mar 12-20, 2017
Part 3: Malé
We took one final walk to Bikini Beach before catching our speedboat back to Malé.
Within 40 minutes, we were back in Malé and ready to explore. We had booked an Airbnb room located in the middle of the island and made our way there by taxi.
When we arrived we were greeted by Hussain and his family who offered us lunch because they were celebrating his birthday that day.
After showing us our room, we decided to check out the town. Malé is an island of only 1.7×1.0km and as a consequence is pretty easy to explore on foot.
With a 10-minute walk we were already at our first historic site, the Mulee-Aage or Presidential Palace.
Right across the street from this was the Friday Mosque or Hukuru Miskiyy. This mosque was built in 1656 during the reign of Iskandar I. Once again, because I was wearing shorts, we couldn’t tour the grounds.
We continued walking until we reached the Islamic Centre, which is the largest mosque in the country and actually permits non-Muslims to enter, but we couldn’t because it was during prayer time.
This mosque is right next to the November 3rd Memorial, commemorating the 1988 thwarting of a coup d’état by a Maldivian businessman and Tamil mercenaries, resulting in the death of 19 Maldivian soldiers.
From here we walked to the local fish market and while not as bustling as it would have been in the morning, it was still a feast for the eyes and foul for the nose.
Since it was located right next to the harbour, we took some time admiring the fishing boats and watched as some local guys tried to catch colourful reef fish in the crystal clear water of the harbour.
Also located on the harbour road was the local produce market which we also took a brief tour of.
It may sound like we walked forever to see all these sights, but because of the small size of the island we could easily see everything in around an hour or two.
We walked down the waterfront and took a break at the Alimas Carnival area, which is known as a popular hangout spot for locals looking to grab a coffee or some food. Tracy and I went to Dolphin View Cafe and enjoyed the shade (it was HOT!) and cool coastal breeze.
From there it was only a short walk to the artificial beach which was just bursting at the seams with people playing soccer and volleyball, skateboarding and just enjoying the warm waters.
What was particularly refreshing was that even women were enjoying the water and taking part in the activities, albeit in full hijabs.
We made our way back to Hussain’s place and took cold showers before heading out for dinner.
When we left the flat, the level of activity was incredible: there were people everywhere and the city took on a whole new life. There was an energy that was palpable. I guess people let loose after the evening prayers.
We went to Cave Cafe, a cool albeit shady locals spot which had good food and even better sheisha, the only real vice allowed on the island (besides cigarettes).
Upon our return to Hussain’s, we asked him why we had noticed so many people out in the streets with medical masks and he casually said there was an outbreak of H1N1 on Malé. When Tracy checked Canada’s travel advisory website, they said to avoid visiting the island except if absolutely necessary. With all the schools closed and 6 confirmed deaths on a tiny, isolated island of 100,000, we were a little more cautious with our hygiene and the inner hypochondriacs in us were starting to rear their ugly heads.
Fingers crossed. Fingers crossed.
The swine flu actually delayed the arrival of the Saudi Arabian King who was due to have talks in the country while we were there. It is rumoured that the Saudis are looking to buy several islands, or even complete atolls, in exchange for resources and the establishment of a military base to secure trade routes.
Speaking of trade routes, the Chinese are also constructing the “Everlasting Friendship Bridge” ( that’s the actual name of it) between Malé and Hulhumalé. I spoke to a few people and no one is exactly sure why the Chinese are getting so close to the Maldivian government but many assume it is also to purchase islands or atolls to further their territory around the entirety of Asia.
The following day we went back to the Friday Mosque, and this time I wore pants. While we could walk around the grounds a little, we still couldn’t go inside the mosque because of our infidel status.
Across the street was the Medhu Zitaarai, or burial site of the Moroccan scholar Abul Barakat Yousef Al-Berberi, said to have brought Islam to the island nation in 1153. Don’t ask me how he found these islands all the way from Morocco, but that’s what we were told.
We ventured up to the waterfront and sauntered past the Republic Square and its non-functioning musical fountain and had a light breakfast at Salt, a restaurant located at the top of a waterfront property giving nice views on the harbour and avenues below.
We got back and chatted to Hussain one final time before heading back to the airport. We discussed housing prices and I was floored when he said that his small 2-bedroom apartment cost 1600 USD/month and that despite his professional salary, owning a guesthouse near the harbour and taking in Airbnb guests, he still slipped further and further into debt with each passing month.
He is not alone. Many Maldivians cannot afford to live in Malé and this is pushing the expansion of other reclaimed islands or forcing residents to move to India or Sri Lanka where the cost of living is much more affordable. The fact that all people seeking higher education, or citizens needing advanced medical care, are also forced to relocate to Malé just further drives up the costs of accommodation and decreases the amount of available space.
Pretty complex story for such a small country. Visiting the three islands we did gave us completely different views of the same nation.
So now when we think of the Maldives, we won’t just think of the turquoise waters and white-sand beaches. We’ll also think of a country with a lot of promise, but also a slew of impending problems, both regional and environmental, that we really hope will not come to light during our, or future, generations’ lifetimes.