The Maldives. Yes, the water in the Maldives really is really blue (but we will get into that in the coming weeks).
Having just exited customs, which includes a cursory x-ray scan of your belongings (illegal items that this cursory check may or may not detect include alcohol, dogs, pork products, pornography, “materials contrary to Islam” and so forth), you find some ATM machines on your left.
“The ATM machine doesn’t work,” she warns you. You ignore her, slip your card in, punch some digits and soon thereafter find yourself stuffing some Maldivian Rufiyaa into your pocket. You then head back (as if you had exited customs and took an immediate right) and continue outside where you veer to the right until you come upon the airport ferry terminal.
You purchase a ticket at the wooden booth, give the ticket to the attendant on the boat and sit down. You stare at the water through the open windows, amazed by the colour, as the perfect amount of ocean breeze envelops you. In 15 minutes, the boat is docking in the capital city of Male.
Male is dirty. Male is too busy. Male is loud. Male is trashy. Don’t stay in Male. Male is awful. Get out of Male as soon as you can.
You’ve read it all before. You’ve read it many times. And now, here you are in the epicenter of the noted horror. Except, as is very many times the case, the conclusions you have read are mind-bogglingly hard to understand.
Stone-faced streets lined with small shops and tropical trees wind throughout the small, walkable island. Boats of varying sizes surround the island, dancing lightly in the harbors and docked at the ports. The walls are painted in vivid colours, some bearing street art, some stencil-painted election signs. You lift your camera to take a photo of a yellow wall; an oncoming car brakes and stops. You press the shutter, drop the camera from your face and look at the driver, who is looking intently at you. Convinced you got your shot, he resumes driving. This pattern (although typically involving pedestrians) repeats itself over and over.
Not dirty, not very busy, not loud, not trashy, not awful and home to some of the most respectful, conscientious people you’ve ever come across. Some of the locals give you looks that feel slightly unwelcoming, but it seems more out of awkward inexperience than anything else.
You consider going to a coffee shop overlooking the water’s edge, but it looks too well put together, too clean. You wander through the streets admiring the rich patinas and colours all around you. You head down a street and see the remnants of a multi-storied concrete building. It looks like it spent time with an earthquake or explosion, yet all the surrounding buildings show no such wear. There is a wide swath of netting blocking the entrance from the street. Just as you are about to continue on, a local passed you, dips under the netting and disappears into the rubble. Within seconds, he is up on the second floor climbing the debris. He pauses. He looks back towards you. His eyes grow wide. He waves and with a couple more hand gestures, you are invited along.
Not one to turn down special opportunities into random situations, and despite wearing flip-flops (which might have a hard time passing workplace safety codes in the west), you navigate past the netting and start your ascent through rubble, shelled out rooms, concrete stairs, ramps of debris and around giant holes until you are standing on the top of what remains of this building. The man is beaming with a smile, as if to show you his masterwork of art, as the other workers jackhammer pieces of concrete out from the rebar. You start to walk, and as you enter different parts of the roof, the jackhammers nearby cease.
“What is going on here,” you gesture.
“We are taking down the building,” his hands reply. “We do it piece by piece”
“Piece by piece?”. Your mind is blown.
“Yes, we take out all the concrete and everything else piece by piece, floor by floor until we reach the ground”. A multi-story building is disappearing chunk by chunk by hand. Serious puzzle work.
After roaming the quaint Male streets for another short while, you soon find yourself climbing the stairs to what looks like it might be a cafe. Nestled in the back left corner is a counter. At your immediate left, at the top of the stairs, is a table of locals drinking coffee. You head over to a table to sit down when you notice another set of stairs climbing further. At the top of those stairs is a large open-air deck with a decent enough view. Coffee (15MVR/$1USD). Shisha (50MVR/$3USD). Coca Cola. Half the day goes by in grand style.
After a burst of rain, you set off back on foot to return near to where the airport ferry docked. You are hungry and looking for something to eat before you set off. You spot one place that looks promising. As you enter the door, you note that it’s relatively quiet. It’s a large room, just a handful of people inside. The food looks okay, but not magical, so you continue on.
A little further along, you spot another place. Some of the signs are in English, which is a warning sign. You walk in to find a sandwich shop of sorts. Promotional signs, employee uniforms, colourful imagery—this isn’t going to work. And then you spot a small hole in the wall restaurant; no English, no evident signage. You walk in. The prepared food looks like it might be exactly for what you have been searching.
“What is this?”
“Feeesh…feeesh…feesh,” he repeats as he points to three different dishes such as tuna-fried rice and tuna curry.
You disappointingly notice there is no chair and not even really a place to eat even standing (it is a take-out spot). Not to mention, most people appear to be using their fingers to eat these foods and you have no place to wash. You can’t explain any of this to him due to the language barrier, and even though the food looks nice, you are going to have to leave, it just doesn’t work.
And then, remarkably, as you are just about to drop the axe on the idea, a chair appears out of nowhere, followed by spoons and forks. With excellent instinct, he meets all the needs—no gestures or language required. Your choice is now quite simple.
Not sure exactly what you are ordering, he provides you a small taste of one or two of the dishes. He wants to make the meal even better, so he adds on a couple other flavours that will marry well. He has someone run upstairs to the kitchen to give you another taste of something else; his excitement is palpable. This top-shelf service is coming from just a small, ratty, take-out spot which makes it all the more special.
It’s exactly what you were looking for, a solid taste of the Maldives with a giant amount of soul and caring embedded. And then, just as you finish, he runs around the counter and offers a taste of spiced rice pudding. Not only is the food well done but the service is impeccable.
And when people say that food in the Maldives is really expensive? A meal like that can be anywhere from 40-60MVR ($2.50USD-$4.00USD).
If you find yourself in Male and want a quick meal from wonderful people running a solid hole-in-the-wall restaurant, try to find the no-name (I guess it has a name but it isn’t readable in English) spot, or just wander about this fine island and you will surely find another fine place. (There were good looking spots near the public Villingi Ferry Terminal on Male’s southwest corner for instance).
To find the no-name restaurant in Male, Maldives, head south on Sosun Magu (street). Continue past the ADK Hospital (which will be on your left if walking south) and across Majeedhee Magu. The restaurant comes up on your left hand side (the side of the ADK Hospital) around the next intersection (which I believe is Raiyvilla Magu).
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