Located in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives captivates holiday-goers with crystal clear oceans and pristine white beaches, but there’s a side no one wants to talk about: behind all of the cleverly angled photos of scenery and happy-go-lucky guests holding pretty blue cocktails are exorbitant hidden costs and some of the world’s most fucking miserable people. The allure of privacy, and not doing much but sitting under blue skies with a coconut full of rum, are the strings I held onto as I became more jaded with each passing day.
Geography, Religion, and Language
The Maldives is undeniably paradise and despite being known for its resorts, it’s a geographic marvel made up of 1,192 tiny islands, only 200 of which are inhabited, and it stretches a length of 871 kilometers. Arriving on the local island off of the capital, everyone is riding around on scooters and fishing boats are docked in the marinas. Islam is the official religion and the race of the population is a result of settlements and interactions between peoples for thousands of years. The official native language, Dhivehi, originates from Sanskirt and if you know a little Arabic some similarities can be spotted in basic phrases such as in greetings and ‘thank you’. I.e., Assalaamu alaikum, Shukuriyaa/Shukran, Maruhabaa/Marhaba.
Cuisine (and links to recipes by Maldivian locals)
The cuisine is heavy on fish and fresh coconut, both tender and dried. The coconut is obviously so important, which I experienced as fluffy shavings of coconut got piled high onto my various curries. For two days, there was a man with a machete who seemingly could sense us sitting on the porch and would ask if wanted fresh juice from the trees as if there was an answer but yes.
Tuna is the choice protein – in salads (like Kopee Faiy Mashuni), fried doughs, on the grill, in soups, and even my favorite, the tuna sandwich. Breadfruit (in the form of curry or Theluli Banbukeyo, like a chip) and pumpkin were also commonly displayed, as well as sambal for topping or on the side, and fried, crispy doughs of various shapes, textures, and sizes. For dessert, Gabulhi Boakiba, a cake made from coconut and rose water. Unfortunately, it was hard to get a sense of what the locals really ate while staying at the resort until I could get home and start making connections from research, but I still begged for answers when someone had a moment to spare. I was brought a dish of rice, dampened with either a broth or liquid from the fish, combined with flaked tuna, spice, and herbs that they mixed up special and I was grateful for the time that was taken. There is certainly an influence from surrounding countries, but I can tell that Maldivian cuisine stands apart by always coming back to the bountiful ingredients of the island. A quick Google search led me to this Maldivian recipe database that explains how to make popular meals scattered across the islands and is available in English and Dhivehi: https://maldivescook.com/
Knowing that all this rich culture existed, scattered among a few of a thousand islands left us yearning to swim over to the local island and see what the natives were up to and if they could cook us up something good. It was not possible due to health precautions, but I’d urge future travelers to take advantage of any time that can be spent off their resort island.
Economy (And Consequences of the Pandemic)
During the pandemic, resorts naturally shut down across the island nation but opened up more quickly than other countries, making it an even more exclusive destination. Locals were still left hanging as excursions to inhabited islands were cut off, among the various reasons. We found out from a bit of digging that workers were stranded on their hotels’ islands, at least in our case, with some even being placed at other islands where they were forced to farm their own food and hunt for fish. Food shipments were only brought by boat about every two months. The situation was grim.
The Maldives tourism page says that fishing is still a large part of the industry, but we heard from staff that they did not believe it was so influential (or maybe as large as it could be if I misunderstood). My fish delivery service in Czech Republic actually imports tuna from the Maldives so I’m eager to reflect on the quality. Locals prefer to eat tuna, despite a wide array of sea life, and it made me wonder why other varieties were not eaten & exported. I couldn’t get an exact answer from anyone.
As for the positives about the stay itself, there were many. Any time spent relaxing under the sun is well spent. The resort was gorgeous and well-maintained, and what we liked best was that it is one of the few that are Maldivian-owned. Traveling, we prefer our money to go to the local economy and so we were happy to hear. My choice to not reveal the name of our hotel is because they themselves don’t deserve an ounce of negativity – I’d be happy to share privately.
So much of nature was preserved on the island despite obvious, mass construction, and the amount of wildlife that continued to live there was astonishing, including bats, hermit crabs, many varieties of birds, crabs, and naturally, the sea life. There’s a credit to be given to the resort for using up as little of the island as possible – though I can’t speak for the others out there. Some people complained that the reefs were ‘dead’, and there was a degree of truth that some areas closer to the shore were not as thriving, but I wondered if they had even bothered to swim out to the drop-off, or other areas of the island where wildlife was going nuts. (One couple seemed to see so little, due to only themselves, that they refused to believe my shark sightings or hilarious encounter with a triggerfish and seemed to mock me every time I walked by! This struck me as odd.)
The staff went above and beyond; we never wanted for anything and the highlight was our conversations with the bartenders. More often than not, we’d sit alone at the bar late into the evening and they’d tell us about their homes, families, and cultures. One of the bartenders explained to us that her grandfather is a huge figure in Nepal for his studies and sightings of the Yeti, and we could not have been more excited to hear all she could tell us on the subject. Others told us about their family farms and lushness of their cities back in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and the joys of living with their families, as is common in some of their communities. One man was excited to return home to his fiancee to get married; others couldn’t wait to catch a flight to see their parents. The entire island was vaccinated the week we arrived, so I hope they found the possibility since.
The privacy of a beach villa, to sit on the front porch and have direct access to the beach was totally one-of-a-kind; as someone who’s not keen on resorts, this was the ultimate experience to feel so at ease, always close to home base, and being surrounded by nothing but sand and the clean air. Waking up to the palms and colorful trees around us was time-stopping and listening to the call to prayer in the evenings, watching a lonesome crane walk along the lapping waves, gave me that euphoric sensation I feel when the distance is so apparent. Showering under the stars every night made us feel like the only people in the world, alone on an island. Just us, the coconuts, and wild bats flying overhead. Shoes didn’t touch my feet until it was time to head back home.
Many of our days were spent hovering above the coral reefs to observe the fish – skinny, spotted, large or small – our backs were so burnt after the first couple of days. Chances to see one of the gentle sharks swimming in the warm shallows have been etched into my memory. Getting bit by a triggerfish in the thigh has been burned into my muscle. In the evenings as the sun would set, things would get bloody sitting on the stairs of the dock, stingrays would lap up on my toes and the sharks would nudge around for grub. Something about fish guts brought me back to childhood – no hesitation there, right into hungry mouths the fish heads would go.
How do I admit that this wasn’t exactly a dream vacation? It wasn’t.
I want to believe this was because it just ultimately isn’t our style of travel – we like to be on the road with no destination in sight, pounding shots with locals we meet on the way, and running ourselves ragged until it’s time to drag ourselves back home – but it would be a lie. This trip did hit the spontaneous checkmark – we booked it (with still a crazy amount of research), packed, dropped off the dog, got tested, and hopped on the plane within 48 hours – and it was an incredible privilege to be able to travel in general, but there were so many factors we could not let go of and that was mostly watching how hard people strained to create added layers of fantasy when bliss was all around them, no filter needed.
There are technical reasons, too, that I have against returning which include expenses and what we got in return. Talking to others after our trip leads us to believe the experience from all fronts might not be unique, but who’s going to come home and openly shit on paradise? Me, I guess. Many places in the world have equally beautiful beaches, reefs, and wildlife at a very small fraction of the cost and the added bonus of getting to experience local culture and cuisine. I’ve swum in comparably waters filled with wildlife in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and crisp, blue oceans in Croatia if that’s all you are looking for. There is spending money and receiving something equal or greater in value, knowing you got a stellar deal, and then there is spending money and feeling a punch in the gut. The sentiment was the latter. We noticed was that the resort put very little information on its website – as did many others we reviewed – and so much that we thought to be included was actually exorbitant in cost. Thirty-five euros for a cocktail after 10 pm? Hundreds for dining at a restaurant we were led to believe was part of our stay at the resort? No, thank you! Once you get to the island you’re essentially stuck there, so fees are added to this and that and it can easily become a money pit with no escape.
And then there was this was rude, “I’m better than you” attitude that that was emitted from more guests than not. We talked to another couple that felt the same stink in the air. It all started in Malé, where travelers seemed to have ignored the fact they were arriving in a Muslim country and crop tops and booty shorts weren’t exactly appropriate to make their transitions to the resorts. Sure, it happens, but at the hotel itself, things took a wrong turn and guests behaved barbarically. A grown woman demanding a grandmother and child leave the vicinity so she could take Instagram photos (not exactly an isolated incident of people doing what it takes for social), families constantly berating employees, even forcing a waiter to pour out a perfectly good drink to pour it “their” way. The drink was supposed to be mine, anyway – I didn’t care! Poor behavior happens everywhere, but here it reached unprecedented heights.
It was hard to believe that another side of the Maldives could exist when not only influencers but travel sites, bloggers, and photographers are all pushing the same narrative of unadulterated bliss and so it’s my own fault falling for it, thinking that everyone arrived with the same elatedness and eagerness. Nowhere else in the world do you arrive in a country, having nothing to do but marvel for the last 30 minutes of your plane ride over hundreds of dotted, islands and sandbars surrounded by a turquoise ocean, so nowhere else in the world did I expect to find so many angry people.
Mind my own business, I know. Minding my own business became impossible when a two-year-old was literally almost drowning in the pool because the parents were off skipping – posing for photos – into the sunset. Take photos, show off – everyone does it – but at the expense of children? This was a theme over two weeks, in which we quickly realized that most were there for the “#views”, not that actual views. Happy couples were spotted holding hands nowhere, not a single-family splashing in the waves. Just elaborate, long photo sessions in which staff was ordered to make drinks to model and even bring a chair into the ocean. One of the aids for an Instagram influencer clothing line sat in the purest form of misery we ever saw – for a second she cheered up and smiled, we realized to only take a selfie. Do your thing, girl.
In these moments I was happy to be there with my love, happy to swim with turtles, and happy to simply be drinking a cold beer outside of my own apartment, but damn, these were scenes where a trainwreck – nearly impossible to turn away from unless we hid away in our hut.
Fighting for a level of perfection in a nation that already elicits wonder and beauty is an impossible task. If you do travel to the Maldives, moments are fleeting. The oddly ginormous crab will quickly climb back into its hole, the stingray will swim like lightning under your legs, and if you hide in your room, you’ll miss the man with the telescope who’ll show you the moon. Maybe having made these observations at all stole some of my own joy but with only one pool bar opened and a pension for day drinks (some guests actually demanded the second bar close) it was hard not to see what was going on in close quarters. Either way, it wouldn’t be honest to talk about a visit without addressing the full experience and what one might also expect to witness upon arrival.
A unique experience, at times it was like the whole island was just for us and those are the memories I hold onto. Beers in bed, sunset walks, celebrating recent successes, and simply our togetherness, are all reasons that a venture to the Maldives can provide a prime location for both tranquility and festivity. In the future, we’ll still continue to travel far and wide and also explore close to home, but the Maldives will be kept just as a fond memory.