My facebook friends have all seen me like this. Posing underwater in a wetsuit, swimming with whalesharks and mantas in the Maldives. And they all sigh with envy and think, she’s living the dream! I want to be where she is!
Living the dream, what it’s really like
It would be hard to find another place that people have so many misconceptions about. And it bugs me. Real bad. So here is my long overdue post to share with you what my expat life in the Maldives is really like.
I came here on a 5 months assignment as an Australian Volunteer for International Development to write a 4-year curriculum in Visual Arts for The Maldives National University. It was a huge job for such a short assignment and it gave me many sleepless nights and endless frustrations. At times I just wanted to butt my head against the walls of my windowless office inside a crumbling building that had been earmarked for demolition long ago. But I got it done, just in time as the Faculty of Arts was handed its final eviction notice by the police.
The immense sense of satisfaction of having contributed something of real value to a developing country, makes it one of the best experiences of my life.
But that sense of satisfaction comes at a price. It means stepping outside of your comfort zone every day. In Male’ there are many things that push my buttons. Sometimes there is an immense reward, like becoming an accidental diver or being evacuated to an island with a perfect surf break.
Here are just some of the things that will help put my dream life into perspective.
I share 5.8 km2 with 160.000 people
Impossible to imagine. You’ve got to see it to believe it. It takes 50 minutes to do the loop of the world’s most populated capital city on foot at sunrise. It’s the only way you can go for a jog or a power walk. Because walking around Male’ at any other time of the day is akin to a form of torture. Every trip to the shop is a small ordeal.
Ongoing development makes Male’ a permanent construction site as old buildings are torn down to make way for ever higher buildings. 25 storey buildings got recently approved to allow this concrete jungle to expand in the only direction it can, skywards. The air-pollution from the construction sites and thousands of scooters made me loose my voice in the first week here.
Male’ has me in a permanent hot flush
My vocal chords have adjusted to the pollution, but every day remains a challenge. Negotiating the narrow, traffic chocked streets without sidewalks, wearing my version of Muslim dress in sweltering heat – the temperature never drops below 28 degrees here – means I usually arrive in the office as if I’ve just stepped out of the shower. Forget about make-up or hair styling.
I’ve never sweated this much in my life. And I know about tropical heat, living as I do in the wet tropics of Australia. But here I am permanently hotflushed, as if I am living menopause all over.
I traded my beautiful home for a cave
Well not literally, but my apartment in Vilingili felt like one. In Male’, where space is at a premium, with real estate prices that match Sydney’s, people live like tightly packed sardines. I was lucky to find an apartment on the traffic-free suburb island of Vilingili, 8 minutes by boat from Male’ (you can read about Vilingili here). I shared it with another volunteer, the formidable Carly. But not even her cheerful twenty-something energy could brighten up the dark and spartan rooms. Our non-airconditioned living room was not a place to spend too much time, unless we felt like a sauna treatment. The barred window of my bedroom was at street level and for privacy I had to keep the curtains permanently drawn.
At the start of my assignment, I spent many weekends inside my cave-like bedroom, recovering from Male. What a ridiculous way to spend your free time in the Maldives. But my colleagues from Japan and China continue to do just that, because there is nothing much to do in Male’ outside of work.
There is nothing to do in Male’ on the weekends
There is no esplanade for a leisurely stroll, there are no parks, there is only a handkerchief-sized patch of artificial beach, there is no retail therapy worth the effort, the yoga classes are pitched to senior citizens, in short, there is only more traffic and pollution. And there isn’t even anywhere to take the edge off with a chilled G&T.
Most people find it hard to believe that the Maldives is a dry country. Outside of a resort, the only way to get your hands on a cold glass of beer is to take the ferry across to the airport hotel on ‘beer island’ as we affectionately call it. I do it on occasion, but it’s hugely expensive, just a little inconvenient and frankly it feels a little too desperate. Giving my liver a break, is actually a really good feeling!
The local beaches are rubbish-strewn
This came as a total surprise, but perhaps it shouldn’t have considering that it’s not even two generations ago that Maldivians began using plastic. Traditionally the beach was the place where you went to the toilet and where rubbish was disposed, back when storage containers were made from coconut shells and palm fronds. Now the beaches are littered with plastic bottles, dirty nappies and plastic bags. It is so disheartening to sit next to a mother on the local ferry and watch her instruct her kid toss an empty milo drink tetra pack into the ocean.
Another thing that surprises most visitors is the fact that on local beaches bikinis are not allowed. It’s a strict Muslim country where until very recently the local population lived in strict segregation from visiting tourists. The first guesthouse opened in 2010 on Maafushi island, 1.5 hours by local ferry from Male’. There you will find a small Bikini Beach where foreigners in minimal attire are screened from view. I’ve been covering up at the beach for years to shield myself from the cancer giving sun, and my trusty rashie and boardshorts are just fine here.
Getting away on weekends is not as easy as one would expect and in a country where nothing is cheap, even the independent guesthouse sector is not pitched at backpackers, or at Australian volunteers on a small allowance. The resorts, which start just under USD $200 a night at expat rates, were definitely out of our reach.
It was sheer desperation that made me grab my snorkel one day and knock on the door of my local dive centre. All I wanted was to tag along on the boat and snorkel somewhere away from Male’. There was no way I was going to go diving. The few times I had tried diving before, it had made me feel extremely claustrophobic. And only a month before arriving in Male’ I had accompanied a dear friend to take her husband’s ashes back to Egypt where he had tragically died in the Red Sea whilst on a diving holiday. Diving was definitely not on my agenda.
But here I am, with a new passion, a new hobby and a new community of expats from Sri Lanka, India and China, all of whom started diving for the same reason I did. Best of all, I pay local rates. A boat dive from my local dive centre costs the price of a half bottle of wine at the airport hotel, or $USD 24. In 6 months I have logged 46 dives, that’s 23 full bottles of wine I didn’t drink. It’s a no brainer!
Every paradise has its dark side
The garbage problem is not on the government’s priority list; it’s mired in far bigger political problems. As an Australian Volunteer for International Development it’s not my place to comment on this here. What I can say is that during our assignment, the country experienced several major political upheavals, including the controversial arrest and conviction of former president, Nasheed, or Anni as he is affectionately called (Amal Clooney is here right now to fight for his release). This resulted in widespread protests and the arrest of all opposition leaders during the largest of the protests on the first of May.
For the Australian volunteers this meant several weekends of ‘house arrest’. We were asked to stay indoors and be on stand-by, ready to evacuate at short notice. In such a tightly packed city, things can get out of control very quickly and our in-country manager had strict orders to be conservative in her risk and safety assessment. To my Maldivian friends and colleagues these seemed exaggerated measures, to us they were inconvenient interruptions. We were never in any danger, of course, and we did rather enjoy our actual evacuation to a guesthouse on nearby Thulusdhoo island in order to avoid the May Day protests (though we had hoped for a resort, as had happened to a previous batch of volunteers).
Living the dream means stepping outside of your comfort zone
Of course I’ve only ever posted happy shots from my occasional weekend breaks, which makes it look as if I am on one long vacation in paradise. And in a way I am on a very long vacation. I am on a break from my regular life, from my partner, my friends, my home, all the things I am familiar with.
Living the dream is about being open to the new and unexpected. It’s about taking the bad with the good to find something in life that you didn’t expect to find. I nearly didn’t come to the Maldives. I had successfully applied for the exact same position 18 months earlier. But I had allowed well-meaning friends and my inner critic to talk myself out of it. Why would I want to work my ass off in exchange for a measly volunteer wage and a distinct downgrade in lifestyle?
One day last year, phantasising about a new direction for my life, I remembered the Maldives assignment. It had always stayed at the back of my mind, because deep down I had regretted not taking the plunge into the unknown. I searched the AVID database for any new assignments in the Maldives, but nothing matched my skill set. I tried again, searching for the assignment I had passed up a year before and, unbelievably, it was still there, at the bottom of their database. It had never been filled. The deadline was that afternoon. Without a moment’s hesitation I sent off my application. I was finally ready.
Despite all of the things that make my expat life in the Maldives challenging, I am not ready to come home yet. There are still too many travel articles to be written about this bizarre and beautiful place. When my assignment finished and all the other Australian volunteers left, I moved out of my cave and into the lightfilled top-floor apartment of my building. Working as a freelance travelwriter, I am able to avoid Male as much as possible. I get to visit and review the world’s most expensive resorts, including their quality wines, and my friends all say “She’s living the dream, I want to be where she is.”
Where would you rather be to live that dreamlife?
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