Family Magazine

Village Vibe in the Maldives

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem


Our days have a common flow here. Most morning are consumed with activities on board: reading, routine maintenance, writing, dishes, algebra, whatever seems to need doing.

The heat’s not oppressive at dawn, but it doesn’t take long. I really didn’t think it was possible to be hotter than we were during our summer in the Sea of Cortez, but I don’t remember sweating through clothes before 8am like I do here. I guess we can handle anything tropical now! Meanwhile, our raised-mostly-in-the-tropics youngest, Siobhan, wears long sleeve shirts and leggings and declares she’s perfectly comfortable. Hopefully we haven’t spoiled her forever for high latitudes.

Our Maldivian afternoons tend to be more leisurely. If we’re near a populated island, the afternoon might include a walk on shore- a freedom that cruisers entering before 2009 didn’t have. It’s typically quiet, since even “populated islands” often have few residents: most of the places we’ve stopped number around a thousand. But with islands as small as many of these are, a thousand or so people would be a crowd, yet they don’t feel that way- and never appear that way. Incredibly, you often can’t even tell an island is inhabited from the water as they’re ringed by coconut palms or mangroves. There may be nothing to see but a green fringe, a small harbor with a few fishing boats the only clue.


In the interior, tidy lanes have single story homes and small shops. The streets aren’t paved with concrete, but packed sand. It’s easy walking. You don’t actually end up with a bunch of sand in your shoes.

Older homes are built from coral brick. Thankfully, that reef-destroying practice has been replaced by more sustainable methods, and newer structures are concrete. But the old mortared limestone is lovely.

A row of seats like these, called a jolie, is the Maldivian equivalent of the park bench. They are everywhere, in private homes and public spaces, and are far more comfortable than they appear. Bonus if you get to hold a gorgeous baby!


Small shops dominate. This one is much better stocked than most (that’s about 20% of the shop in the photo), but it’s on Thinadhoo, which has the 5th largest population in the country- 7,108 people in 2012. In Maldives, that qualifies as a teeming metropolis! When the seas were too rough for boats to make deliveries from Male, they have an airstrip. It just makes the cabbages a little expensive when they’ve been air freighted.


Village vibe in the Maldives
Every village has political graffiti. A lot of political graffiti. The current imbroglio of Maldivian politics is getting global attention: their former president Mohammed Nasheed was forced out at gunpoint in 2012, and earlier this year sentenced and imprisoned for what the international community agrees are trumped up charges. It is a crying shame, because this environmentalist and human rights activist is exactly the kind of advocate the Maldivian people need. Watch the documentary The Island President for some of the political back story and a fascinating look at his fight to bring attention- and change- in the face of facts that this country is likely to be underwater before the next century, at the current pace of global warming (you can stream it on Amazon
 for a few bucks. Bonus: soundtrack by Radiohead).

Maldivians didn’t just benefit from his environmental bent, though: we hear first hand, over and over, about the positive changes he brought after becoming the first democratically elected president: to schools, health clinics, and things we take for granted. But this came at a financial cost to the entrenched, corrupt economic elite, who have manipulated their way back into power. Meanwhile, islands that didn’t vote for the “right” party are punished by the administration, which has returned to the same corrupt family that was in control prior to Nasheed. Instead, public works projects to build harbors are halted. Shops are closed because island electricity rates were suddenly doubled. But there’s hope, and everyone I spoke with about Anni, as he’d popularly known, believed he’d be released from his unjust imprisonment in time for the 2018 elections (he’s not due out until 2028).

Although in general Maldivians are a reserved bunch, in most islands we’ve visited it seems that there’s someone who becomes a friend, guide, keeper, or some combination of the above. We have met a very surprising number of council presidents (the most senior local government position): all interested, curious, and courteous. From simple introductions alongside the boat or on shore arise the personal interactions that I cherish the most, and leave favorite memories.


These introductions have evolved into walking tours, tea or coffee and snacks in a café, or conversation between jolies in the shade of coconut palms. They ease us into gentle learning about the place and the people. Like encountering a group of women sewing frond thatch for roofing, being welcomed into the circle. Palm thatch isn’t used in Maldivian homes any more, metal keeps the elements out (or in) much more effectively, but resorts snap it up for that ‘island look.’ I got the feeling the women who gather to do this once a week are motivated about as much by the social gathering as they are by a bit of cash in their pockets.

And then there are people like Ahmed, who came by our boat early one morning as he returned from a dawn fishing jaunt. An invitation to shore started in the shed where he’s building a large fishing boat, and was extended with a tour of town by his son. Later, he invited us- ALL of us (four boats, 18 people)- for dinner at his house. As dessert was served, we discovered it as actually his birthday, and we’d been the impromptu party.


It’s this graciousness and generosity we repeatedly encountered that leave us with indelible memories of two beautiful months in Maldives. When we sail away, Ahmed and Mashood are just two of many people I’ll never forget.

[We’re somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean! This post was scheduled before we left Maldives. We’ll be mostly offline until we reach Seychelles in late June, and look forward to reading and responding once we hit the land of high bandwidth again.]

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