Growing up in a country known for having the finest white sand beaches in Southeast Asia, the bar has been set quite high. But that’s not always a good thing. With great expectations, I stepped out to the ferry’s bow and watched as islands passed by while still in utter disbelief of where I was. Everyone else in the boat were either drained from the heat or tired from the long flight that once we arrived in Maafushi Island after three more hours of slow travelling across the Indian Ocean, our group ignored the beach and headed straight to the guesthouse where I slept the rest of the day away.
The next morning, I reluctantly got out of bed and readied my stomach for a big breakfast. Based on the previous day’s first impressions, hitting the beach was not at the top of my to-do list. Nope, not even in the Maldives. It was expected of a proud islander to compare the shoreline to his home country. ”I’ve seen better”, I thought.
It was only after three trips back to the buffet table that I decided to catch up to my travel buddies at the beach, which was oddly barricaded from the rest of town by tall wooden fences to prevent the conservative locals from seeing images of barely clothed foreigners. See, aside from alcohol, the Maldivian law strictly prohibits any person from baring too much skin in public, but for tourism’s sake the locals were able to compromise. Ergo, the divider.
But that wasn’t the only obvious divide on Maafushi. Except for the small hub of humble hotels front-lining the coast, the rest of town seemed distant and less hospitable than their commercial counterparts. Adding to the fear factor is the fact that a huge prison compound occupies the island’s Eastern side and guards roaming the streets with their guns. The gap may be due to the cultural and language differences but they sure made no extra effort in making us feel welcome unless we were the ones to initiate a conversation. Maybe we didn’t look too approachable as well.
Local islands like Maafushi were not always open to international guests but since after being devastated by the 2004 tsunami that also destroyed Ko Phi Phi in Thailand, opening themselves up to more tourists became one of their solutions for immediate recovery. And with new guesthouses currently being built to accommodate more people, they may just be able to get back on their feet before their homes sink below the Indian Ocean.
That afternoon, our group’s head honcho had arranged an excursion to a floating sand bar marketed as the ‘Sexy Beach’ and from what I have gathered, any couple lucky enough to be left alone on this beach can get away with spending a good amount of time practicing any position from the Kama Sutra guidebook. If I was there by myself, my right hand would be very, very tired.
As four of our companions spent the next hour diving while the rest frolicked by the sand bank, I was left drifting across the shallow waters near a couple who have been suspiciously hugging each other since our boat docked. Snorkelling became a little awkward especially after accidentally swimming too close to see their underwater activity. They were literally putting the sex in ‘Sexy Beach’ and no one else seemed to notice.
I was beginning to believe that the Maldives was just another overrated tourist destination reserved for privileged people with deep pockets and not for some middle class man living in the third world. Islands filled with overpriced resorts on beaches that looked similar to what I have seen in the Philippines, with water bungalows on stilts by the shore for guests who prefer spending the night with ambient sounds of crashing waves on the background at a premium rate. But since I was able to spend only half of my monthly salary for a week’s stay on this country, I am not complaining. It was worth every centavo.
And then there was Maadhoo Finolhu.
On our third day, our party of thirteen rented a private speedboat that whisked us away to what they now refer to as Picnic Island. There, tourists are able to have grilled lunch under a canopy of palm trees, kite-surf by the coast, or spend the rest of the afternoon letting your body flow with each push and pull of the currents. Which is exactly what I did despite the sun’s warning signs of potentially scorching my skin. But with my low E.Q., it was impossible not to give in to nature’s invitation.
The sand was literally white as snow and the aquamarine water stretched for miles making the scene look like I was in the middle of a gigantic infinity pool. It felt like we were the only ones left in the world and right then and there I declared that those particular coordinates in the world map was better than anything I have seen back home. It didn’t have to take a luxurious resort and premium pampering for me to believe in the paradise that Maldives have been advertising all these years. It was all there to begin with.
I have never spent so many hours adrift on a beach as much as I did on Maadhoo Finolhu. My complexion was baked in a shade of golden brown that I will never be ashamed of that by the time I went back home and my colleagues teased me for being well done, I couldn’t help but brag that I got it from sun bathing in fucking Maldives.
We spent the first three nights at a newly opened guesthouse called Arena Lodge where we individually shelled out around $150 per room inclusive of full board meals and free internet. Not bad for a country notorious for breaking personal bank accounts (Good thing it was pay day when I returned home). The trick is to avoid the private resorts and instead opt to stay at a local island where a bottle of water does not cost more than $10 each and Wifi is paid per hour.
The food may be limited to undercooked fish, bland soup, pita bread and curry, eggs, and sausages, but there’s a convenient store down a few blocks with familiar junk food brands and instant noodles on the shelf. At least now, I know that I can return to Maldives without having to spend more than my month’s income.