Welcome to Malé, my New York
Says Shehe our local host as we approach the skyline of Malé, capital of the Maldives. It’s a 5 minute speedboat ride from the airport to one of the world’s most congested islands. It’s everything you don’t expect from the Maldives.
We’ve all seen the postcard perfect images of paper white sands, ultra luxury resorts built right over turquoise oceans so translucent you can see reef fish in all colours of the rainbow before you even get your snorkel out.
But that is not Malé. The Maldivian capital is one of the most built up cities in the world. It’s loud, it’s busy, it’s polluted, it’s a city that never sleeps, but it has much to offer and allows you to see a side of the Maldives rarely seen.
I’ve come with 3 other Australian volunteers to work for 5 months at the Maldives National University. In our first week Shehe, self-confessed mother-hen and in-country manager, provides an introduction to her country and culture. This includes a lot of eating, including a chocolate cake on Australia Day, but also a lot of useful and mind-blowing information.
Malé is as hot as my quiet home town of Mission Beach, the coconut palm trees are the same, even the ocean looks like the Coral Sea does on calm days, but everything else is not.
For a start, the Maldives is a Muslim country ruled by Sharia law and these days most women wear the veil. “It’s too hot to wear a veil,” says Shehe, who is now a distinct minority. Over the last few years an increasing number of women has opted to wear the veil. That includes, of course, when jogging and swimming.
When Shehe was growing up in the 70s, Malé had no paved roads and the tallest building was the Friday mosque. It’s hard to imagine what the place would have looked like back then, but it’s even harder to comprehend that the island of Malé, roughly 1.952 square kilometers in size, supports a population of over 100,000 people. The government apparently has lost count of the number of Bangladeshis working on the island doing anything Maldivians will no longer do, from cleaning to construction work, to loading and unloading ships.
That is a population density of over 53,000 people per square kilometer. Impossible to get your head around, I know, but once you step into the streets of Malé or look out from your hotel window, you’ll have no doubt that this city is worthy of a Guinness World Record.
Our orientation also included a few words of Dhivehi or , an Indo-Ayrian language related to Sinhalese and influced mostly by Arabic but also Hindi-Urdu, Persian, Portugese and English. It bears no resemblance to anything I’ve ever heard and my attempts at mastery make even the shyest of shop keepers break out in giggles.
Thankfully in Malé English is spoken widely, and my Dhivehi will be nothing more than a handy ice breaker and conversation starter.
But here’s the thing, you and I both know two words in Dhivehi: Atoll from atolleh (a ring of coral islands or reefs) and Dhoni (the boat that will take you from atoll to atoll).
Interesting Facts about the capital of the Maldives
With Malé itself being barely 2 square kilometers in size, there are islands for everything in this atoll. There’s Fuel Island, Airport Island, Prison Island, an Island for the Disabled, and Garbage Island. Shehe can’t see why I would want to visit Garbage Island, but she’s agreed to show me how to get there. After seeing this dhoni on my morning stroll, I thought it might make for some nice photo opportunities.
There are also two islands that serve as suburb islands. Hulhumalé is an artifical island, 20 minutes away by ferry, created between 1997 and 2004 from an existing lagoon to accommodate up to 60,000 people. To date it has a population of over 30,000. When we visited on the weekend, everybody we spoke to agreed that it is a better alternative to the congested capital of Malé.
Hulhumalé has all essential infrastructure, only more modern, and a long, pristine beach. It also attracts tourists, mostly independent travellers, who don’t want to spend an arm and a leg for a resort.
To the North lies Villingili, officially called Vilimalé and considered the fifth district of Malé. This is our preferred suburb island. It may only be 5 minutes away by ferry, but it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of Malé. There are no cars here, only silent, pollution free buggies and scooters and a handful of taxis. Total bliss! It will be our home for the next 5 months.
The idea of the car as a status symbol takes on a whole new meaning in Malé, where you can walk anywhere from anywhere in about 15 minutes. I’ve seen this fancy car tailgate a bunch of female joggers on their early morning run. I’ve also seen a brand spanking Mercedes, two Jaguars covered in dust and a Peugeot Convertible driving just a little faster than a kid riding a bike with training wheels.
But when you are covered from head to toe, it sure can get very hot and sometimes it’s best to take a taxi. There are said to be 500 taxis on Malé, and I believe it! It costs a flat rate of 25 ruffiah to go anywhere, which makes it nice and hassle free.
What would you wear if you lived in a Muslim country where the temperature never drops below 24°C (74°F)?
Stay tuned for more interesting facts about Malé AND THE Maldives.
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