The air is clean, the sun is strong and the city of Male is humming with activity. Colours are splashed all about; you walk the stone-laid streets towards the harbor. There are several methods of getting around the Maldives—a country comprised of many atolls, or circular-shaped island chains: by boat (which is typically a ferry or motorboat) and by plane (generally seaplane).
You are headed to Guraidhoo, located to the south of Male. By ferry it takes between two and two-and-a-half hours. The cost, $1.50, and the experience, hanging out with a bunch of locals perched on the roof of the ship or on the bow, slowly progressing in the breeze, are well worth it.
On the internet, you notice the schedule for the MTCC (or governmental ferry) shows the ferry leaving at 3pm. All your planning was based on this schedule as the ferries only run certain days to certain islands. On Fridays, there are no ferries, and thus, if you are flying out on a Friday, you either need to return to Male on a Thursday, or hire a motorboat.
“Where do I find the ferry to Guraidhoo,” you ask the office worker in the shade of the building outside which he stands.
“You better hurry,” he responds “it leaves at 2pm.” He advises to get there 30 minutes early in order to get a seat.
“Not 3pm?” you question, assured that you had looked at the online schedule many times over.
“No, no, 2pm to Guraidhoo,” he remarks. He guides you to Jetty #1, located in the center of Male’s northern coastline. You are slightly uncertain about this, but he is absolutely certain and you have no great reason to doubt him at the moment; perhaps the internet schedule is out of date. If no ferry comes at 2pm, then you will hope to see one at 3pm. You make off for Jetty 1.
Located by a large tree, ringed by a perimeter used for seating, sits Jetty 1. You have raced there under the intense sun yet no ferry is docked there and no ferry is in sight—you have 20 minutes before it presumably departs. A boat is pulling in as you walk along the water.
The dockhands quickly tie it up. The crew hustles about.
Pretty soon a large, fresh line-caught Bluefin tuna is hoisted by two men up to the dock, followed by several more. They are weighed and a small group forms around the catch. Money exchanges hands as a ferry pulls up into Jetty 1, with a sign on it clearly noting “Guraidhoo”.
You are out in the Indian Ocean. There are no other non-locals onboard. The inside of the mechanized wooden ferry, or dhoni, consists of bow-facing benches on either side, with a space in the middle and back for cargo. With a southerly journey to Guraidhoo in the afternoon, the port side (which will face east), with its open windows, filled first, followed by the starboard side which is a wall of stretched sun-blocking curtains. A staircase on the stern brings you to the open deck of the roof. You choose to sit on the weather-beaten floor of the bow, peeling blue paint and all, while a nice breeze offsets some of the heat coming from the sun. Ever since leaving the airport, you have noticed the intensely blue water, and it is no different off the sides of the ferry.
The first stop, according to the internet schedule is Gulhi (75 minutes), followed by Maafushi (105 minutes) and finally Guraidhoo (145 minutes). Yet, it appears per glancing at a map that you have passed Gulhi, and Maafushi. You start to wonder if you are on the right boat. What are the chances the whole online itinerary is wrong?
You pass a large metal platform anchored offshore on your left. Ahead of you lies the Guraidhoo coastline. In the foreground, a fair number of colourful dhonis rock gently in the water. Behind them, an apparent shipyard sits to the right. Dusty roads peak out under palm trees to the left. Straight away is a small gathering of islanders awaiting the ferry’s arrival.
You step off and are greeted by a man with a wagon from the guesthouse you reserved, one of the only ones on the island. You turn to take a photo of the ferry. “No, this way,” he quickly calls out. The scenery on the island is very rustic. There is no build-up of amenities or other tourist infrastructure excluding the odd empty souvenir shop. Generally, the island is quite raw—in a state required for local living and not much else. The sun is setting. You follow him and he points out the shipyard, the tall concrete structure of the mental hospital (serving the region), the dry, dirt soccer field and finally the guesthouse.
The room in the Islandway Etos GuestHouse is quite well done. The structure looks brand new, with newly painted walls, nice looking flooring, comfortable-looking beds and a well-appointed bathroom. The room looks like it could have come out of a boutique hotel anywhere, a surprising juxtaposition from the island’s look. You drop your bags off, put on a bathing suit and head out.
“Where is the nice beach,” you ask the owner of the guest house.
“We can take you on an off-island excursion for nice beach. Would you like to see our tour packages?”
“Well how about on Guraidhoo? Where is the nice beach on this island?” you ask interested in exploring on foot.
“No nice beaches.”
“None? A nice beach, I look for a nice beach,” you exclaim breaking English down a bit for his comprehension. He waves his hand and points in a general direction. “Maybe okay there.”
Looking at your map, it seems there are nice beaches in several places. After a minute or two of walking, you walk down to the water’s edge. The nearby rocks and sand are covered in quick-walking crabs. Trash floats in the water and is wedged in the sand, easily visible through the crystal clear water. The water level remains shallow for a good distance out. This doesn’t appear to be the good beach. You walk back out and head north along the area on the map marked “Beach Area”. The shoreline is littered with sharp rocks, rusted out steel and more trash. There is hardly any clear sand to be found. Rounding the north of the island, marked Naanu Beach, you find more of the same. After perhaps 20 minutes of walking, you are back where the ferry docks.
Just past the ferry, in front of the shipyard, a girl fully dressed in Muslim garb is shoulder deep in the water with two boys. You walk past them just a slight bit and enter the water. The sun has slipped under the horizon; its waning light hinders your visibility. You feel the sharpness of the many rocks and you fortuitously make out the vague shape of a rusted tuna fish can half-submerged in the sand. This seems a bit foolish to try to swim now given the circumstances and you head back to the guest house dejected.
As you walk, you notice giant “birds” swooping through the sky. You stop, and wait. You look up into the trees and see some movement. But in the darkness it is too difficult to make out.
Walking along the dusty dirt roads that cut in grid-like fashion amongst the colourful buildings, you look for a place to eat. Everything, outside of a few convenience shops, is dark or closed. Restaurants do not appear to be a popular thing here. To wander from one end of the island to the other takes no time at all, but you spot a kid in a Bob Marley shirt and ask if he knows of a place to eat. He gives directions that seem quite complex and soon thereafter you are following him through town. You again notice the flying activity in the air, but this time you make out the specific silhouette of a giant flying fox bat, and then you see another.
The distant sound of music grows louder as you follow behind your new acquaintance, finally stopping at a concrete building with a drip-painted facade that looks like it could have had a prior life in the Modern Museum of Art. Inside, two guitars in varying condition hang on the wall. A drummer sits behind a set with a guitarist and keyboardist playing along. You take a seat and watch the performance. The name of the band is The Island Beat. Once the reggae-infused chemistry gets going here in their practice space, it is the most entertaining thing going—a special real life moment.
“Come play,” they urge you and you shrug back and give a half-convincing veto. Soon thereafter, you get up, remove a guitar from the wall mount and throw the strap over your shoulder. They want to play reggae but you have not the slightest clue on how to do such. You ring out some power chords harkening back to 90’s alternative rock. They look just as confused back, but then start playing along. The birthplace and resting place of Reggae-Grunge.
Later on, you ask about the best place for a beach or to snorkel. They tell you to meet them at their band space at noon tomorrow as they are heading out surfing.
“You have the wrong menu,” exclaims Mustafa, a lean, long-haired local peering over you in the very dimly-lit confines of the Peach Grill, the only restaurant you could find operating on Guraidhoo. “This is tourist menu, you should have local menu.” As the waiter walks by, Mustafa flags him down and demands the local menu for you. The waiter is not very pleased, but under the aggressive demands, wilts and returns with what looks to be the same menu, but with lower pricing. You had assumed you were being given an inflated menu, but had no evidence to prove it. You are very thankful for the help.
“See, this is the menu. They try to charge foreigners more,” he notes. He sits down, orders a coffee and starts asking a litany of questions.
“I used to fish,” he notes, “but I was in an accident with a motorboat. I was out near sundown and a motorboat crashed into my fishing boat; he tried to kill me. I lost the use of my hand and it never healed properly. My friend died. Now I do not fish, I help visitors and they give me donations.”
You understand his approach. Nevertheless, after finishing the subpar food, and paying (without choice) for his coffee along with your now appropriately-priced food, you have set up a snorkeling trip with him for tomorrow afternoon at 330pm.
Breakfast at the Islandway Etos is a wonderful spread made from tuna fish and coconut, along with low-quality white bread and single-serve coffee. Understanding that you are on an isolated, undeveloped island, these things do not come as a surprise. The amount of trash being produced however is somewhat disheartening, given what you see along the beaches.
You tell them how much you enjoy the tuna salad and they seem proud of the fact noting they eat it every day in the Maldives. After being prodded unsuccessfully to buy excursions, trips and tours, you set off at noon to go surfing with the Island Beat members. You arrive at noon and lean against the concrete building in the shadows. After waiting a bit, you realize no one is going to come, and you set off for that small area where you saw the fully-garbed girl swimming, to go swimming on your own.
The water is spectacularly—warm, clear and refreshing, but the amount of refuse and dangerous items submerged in the sand is quite unsettling. You realize that there really is no good place to swim on Guraidhoo, just as you had first been advised. You are located on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean but have no place to swim. It is a trying thought.
You arrive by the ferry terminal again at 330pm to meet with Mustafa, all ready to snorkel. By now you understand that there is a (Saturday through Thursday) private ferry that runs direct from Male to Guraidhoo (the one you took), along with a Monday through Thursday government ferry. You watch the private ferry unloading and wait in the hammocks nearby. No sign of Mustafa.
“The first wave was up to here,” he motions around his knee. This is what woke us up. I remember screaming. My father told me we must leave immediately. My grandmother helped me, as I was so small, get inside the walls of the mental hospital. We saw the second wave coming, and that was up to here,” he motions at shoulder level. “At this point, we make it inside the hospital walls. Then the third wave came, and it was very high. Everyone in the hospital was okay. Some outside the hospital climbed up trees and were okay, but some have never returned.”
You are sitting near concrete debris by the water, under a golden light emanating from a nearby building. “So a lot of this concrete and debris is from the tsunami then,” you ask. He affirmatively nods.
You gather your belongings and sit down for breakfast. It is drizzling from the dark clouds overhead. The government ferry leaves at 7:00am. There is no tuna fish this morning, just cheap white bread, and when you ask, they sheepishly point to the bread and individually plastic-packed jelly container. Perhaps you are being punished for not buying tours, or perhaps there is some other reason, but it is unfortunate and odd given their declaration of tuna being served every morning.
You head out to the ferry port and sit down, noting that it is not possible to go to the roof on the government ferry. If it weren’t for the Island Beat, Guraidhoo would have been a complete bust. Luckily, human relationships were able to somewhat patch over the lack of a usable beach on the island, but the amount of time there was more than enough. On the upside, the lack of tourists really allowed a good feel of what regular life is on Guraidhoo.
The dock ropes are pulled from the moorings and soon, the shipyard and mental hospital slip into the distance. Motoring forward through the rain, Maafushi comes into focus.
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