Mini-Manhattan in the Maldives

If you come across one of those Tropical Island Paradises calendars at a mall kiosk, the chances are good that the cover photo is a tiny green island surrounded by a ring of white sand and impossibly blue water. And that island will be in the country of the Maldives, a string of atolls between the Seychelles and India.

An island in Baa Atoll, tantalizingly out of reach for us because high winds prevented us from visiting it.

That is why we’ve been eager to come to the Maldives and experience some of that trademarked Tropical Island Paradise but our first stop in the country was the capital Malé, which proved to be an unexpected highlight. Its unexpectedness was the highlight. The Maldives economy is tourism-based but they have not encouraged tourism in Malé where about a third of the population lives, instead directing it to isolated high-end resorts on remote islands. The taxes, leases and salaries that these resorts pay flow mostly back to Malé, which has grown into a surprising metropolis of highrises and swarming motorcycles on a tiny island with about the same population density as Manhattan (albeit with only 110,000 inhabitants).

Malé island, that’s the whole thing, packed coast to coast

It was unlike anything we had seen before. Though the island is a very walkable mile square, everyone buzzes around on motorcycles which meet at uncontrolled intersections but somehow the streams of cycles pass through each other without a honk or traffic jam (video). The shops were well stocked with everything a modern city dweller could need and absolutely nothing geared to tourists. Some fellow travelers we talked to were disappointed that there “wasn’t anything to see or do” but that contributed to its unexpected allure to us. We enjoyed being the only obvious outsiders on the street but encountered no frowns or touts. We just walked around and soaked in life in a place that was at once both completely different and completely familiar. One of those familiar/unfamiliar sights in the city (which is short on both land and fresh water) was a small park where the grass and most of the trees were plastic and festooned with lights, now apparently in disrepair. Even the birds in the trees were artificial. It was a whimsical, colorful and absurd respite among the densely packed buildings.

AstroTurf and giant plastic birds of prey fill this city oasis

The Maldives is a Muslim country and until recently practiced a very relaxed form of the religion that didn’t emphasize public displays of piety such as headscarves and frequent prayers. But in the past decade, a more conservative vibe has grown in Malé, apparently as a tool by one of the local political parties and with the usual money and encouragement from Saudi Arabia. Now headscarves are almost universal on the street and every shop closes for 20 minutes during the calls to prayer. But this piety appears to be at least partly superficial. For example, we were wandering in a large shop when prayer time came. The staff apparently didn’t know we were there and turned off the lights, locked the doors and retreated into a back room. When we peeked in on them, they weren’t on their mats praying but instead sharing YouTube videos on their phones. We were able to escape the shop and noticed similar scenes when we peered into the darkened windows of other “closed” shops. The more liberal political party has recently returned to power so perhaps the pendulum will swing back.

So we had a good time in Malé but one day was enough. Now we wanted to see those calendar-cover islands and the colorful life below the water. But the windy weather that has followed us through the Indian Ocean continued during our visit and kept us out of the water for the next two days. Finally on our last day in the country, off South Ari Atoll, we had the great snorkel we had been waiting for. The fish were plentiful, of many varieties, good sized and not scared of us. All of those are positive signs that they are well protected from overfishing.

Healthy fish, dying reef

We also had a chance to see the fish while eating lunch in the world’s first underwater restaurant, at a resort on the same island. You descend from a dock down an enclosed spiral staircase into a glass dome. Inside is seating for maybe 20 diners. Someone periodically feeds the fish from above which encourages a constant parade of colorful visitors and even some small sharks. It was an amazing experience despite merely OK food at an extravagant price.

Fish for lunch

On a more depressing note, the coral was mostly dead, probably from a combination of warming seas and runoff from the resort. The fish are having a good time now, living in the skeleton of the dead coral and eating the algae that is fertilized by the nutrient-rich runoff. But the party won’t last long. The reef is visibly breaking down, eventually leaving the fish and the islands exposed to the wrath of the open ocean. The highest point of land in the Maldives is only 6 feet, so the entire country may disappear beneath rising seas within a few generations.

Here are some additional videos:

And as always, plenty of other photos:

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