Blue Ocean Depths

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April 6th 2016
Published: April 26th 2016
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Yet again I found myself sleeping at the Bandaranayake International Airport in Colombo. This time, however, it was more than unexpected. I had been on a China Eastern aircraft for the past three hours, but we didn't actually move anywhere. Initially we didn't even know what the problem was, but I surmised that it had to do with the air conditioning system because we were all boiling on board. The passenger sitting next to me was named Nuzz. He was from south India and going on a small trip with his girlfriend. We chatted for quite a while and he asked me many questions about my home and my travels. He was particularly impressed that I was traveling alone, but I assured him that I do it all the time. The captain finally announced on the intercom that the flight would be ceremoniously cancelled. There was a malfunction with the ventilation system and they needed spare parts to fix it. Most of the passengers made sighs of frustration. This was the first time I experienced a flight being cancelled on me. It wasn't a great feeling. I had found a cheap flight to the island paradise of the Maldives. I wouldn't have had long there anyway, but this really threw a wrench into things. We all got off the plane and a young Sri Lankan man who was the charge manager of this airline was trying to piece together some information and figure out what to do. Some passengers were irate but Nuzz exclaimed that he was going to go full Indian and try to figure out what the next step would be. It seemed like hours passed by before we were told that the flight would be rescheduled for the following night, if the parts came in time from Shanghai. This was unacceptable and Nuzz, his girlfriend and myself approached the young man who was doing damage control, and expained our situations. Nuzz and his girlfriend only had a few days to spend as well. We sure as hell didn't want to be stuck in the airport. At first the plan was that they were going to place us in hotels. I wanted to stick around and figure out a better plan. We found out that there was a Sri Lankan Airlines flight that would be departing in the early morning and it still had seats available. We discussed this with the charge manager and at first he was unsure if we could just be booked on another airline. We kept persisting. Finally, the charge manager came over and discreetly asked us, and only a few of the other stranded passengers, for our passports. We handed them over and he quietly gave them to a Sri Lankan airlines representative. I'm not sure how he was able to swing it, but some of those available seats were being given to us. I guess persistence pays off. Of course we had to be quiet about it because only a few of us would be able to get on that early morning flight. Once I received my new boarding card, I was pretty ecstatic. And so, instead of going off to some random hotel, I would be passing out at this airport for the second time in the last few weeks. But at least I knew that in a few hours I would be arriving in the Maldives! As luck would have it, I got to know two other really cool passengers stranded here, and it turned out that they were both commercial divers and one of them, named Roney, gave me a contact for a dive center in Male.

The Maldives is situated a few hundred kilometers southwest of Sri Lanka. It's the smallest country in Asia and has the smallest population as well. There are 1192 islands comprising the country and they're spread over 90000 kilometers but they are all tiny, with only about 8 square kilometers of land total. You can pretty much walk across any of the islands in only minutes. The islands are linked together in 26 atolls and most are uninhabited. The rest are made up of expensive resorts that require very expensive boat or plane transfers. It wasn't too long ago that a tourist would only be allowed to go to one of these islands. This is still very much a honeymooner location and most backpackers would never even consider this destination. In my case I don't have the deep pockets to really explore the Maldives, but I found a cheap flight and would stay pretty close to the main islands. Plus this is a scuba diver's dream. Another fun fact is that the country's highest point is only 2.4 metres! The Maldives is also a strict Muslim nation, and apart from the resorts, alcohol is banned and women can't wear bikinis to swim. It would be an interesting contrast.

After a pretty poor night's sleep, I arrived in Hualumale island where the airport is situated and then, after being grilled by immigration for not having a hotel booking, caught a local ferry to Male, the capital. Male has most of the population of the Maldives (200 000 people compared to only 300 000 in the whole country) and the island is only about 2 kilometres across. You can imagine how densely populated it is for a city. Buildings and streets take up almost all the available space. Men with long beards and women with hijabs walked around. Many moderate looking people like men with dreadlocks and women wearing stylish clothing existed by their side. People seemed friendly and one guy helped me figure out where I needed to go. I ended up only about ten minutes walking distance from the airport ferry terminal. I rang the buzzer and walked in. For an Asian country things are really expensive here, so I didn't have very budget friendly accommodation. Instead I went on Air B & B (I don't think immigration understood what this was) and found a local named Ahmed who was renting out a room in his apartment. He had been waiting for me to arrive the previous night, but obviously I wasn't able to make it. His place was pretty nice and he gave me some info about his city.

I put down my backpack and then immediately contacted the number that Roney had given me. I guy named Stormy answered the phone and we arranged to meet at Dive Desk (the dive center) within the hour. It was only about a ten minute walk (pretty much everything is) and Stormy met up with me and then brought me over to the center. He was a slim guy with a giant smile and long black hair. He was one of the dive instructors and had dreams of traveling to far away lands. We connected immediately. Once at the dive center, I met the rest of the guys and decided that I was now hanging out with the coolest people in the entire country. Seriously, these guys were all awesome. The dive center was run by Ashraf, and I let him know that I hadn't dived in years, but that I had done my advanced certification back in Thailand so many moons ago. He said that was fine and that I would get a refresher. I was excited to have an opportunity to dive again. In the Maldives no less. The country has the word DIVE in it so that's got to stand for something. They sized me up for the equipment I needed, and I met another guy who was doing his open water course and would be joining us. While waiting for the oxygen tanks to be filled and the truck to arrive to load the equipment, I noodled on the dive center guitar and Stormy showed me some of his licks. I was getting really hungry by this point, and Stormy brought me to a local food place just a minute away. He got some food and sat with me while we ate. We connected pretty instantly, discussing heavy metal, guitar, travel, as well as our personal philosophies and even religious stance. Like myself, he considered himself an agnostic, and I really didn't expect to find someone like this so soon after arriving. It's pretty cool the people you meet when traveling. We are from opposite sides of the planet, living in very different countries, yet we are so similar. This is a true testament to how traveling will make you realize that we are all one people, brothers and sisters, and we have way more similarities than we could ever have differences.

Back at the center, I met a Maldovian girl (not Maldivian) who knew all the guys and had been working the last few months in the tourism industry here in Male. She had done some diving certifications and knew everyone there well. She was going to India in a few days so I gave her loads of suggestions. She decided to join us for the dive. Adam, who also worked at the center, would be joining as well. Then Manal arrived and would be coming too. It went from just me and Stormy to a big group of awesome people. All this was happening and I was only in the Maldives for about three hours by this point. The small truck came and we loaded it up with oxygen tanks and diving equipment and then drove for about two minutes to a marina where the dive boat was located. Once loaded, the boat pulled out and went into the choppy waters. Male island got smaller and smaller. We left the Male atoll and where heading about 45 minutes south. Parts of the water were shades of blue I had never seen before. In between the atolls the currents can get pretty strong. We got to our spot and not far I could see a resort island with beach huts strewn about. Stormy helped me suit up and then we jumped into the water. It took me a few minutes to get comfortable and to try to remember how to breath underwater without panicking. Stormy was pretty patient though and once I was more comfortable, we went through with some skills, like clearing water from the mask and clearing the regulator. Then we descended into the blue depths of the Indian ocean and I got to look upon the glorious coral and plethora of colourful fish. I had never experienced visibility like this while diving ever! My breathing was now slowing down and I was really enjoying the views. There were six of us doing a group dive, divided into pairs. We descended down to about 30 metres, equalizing every few metres. I had to adjust my BCB to get the proper buoyancy. We swam along coral that descended deep below, and Stormy was making sure I was alright. Diving really is like riding a bike, it was all coming back so fast. We then reached an area, with some shallow caves that we were able to enter and explore. I had to make sure to really watch my buoyancy because if you inadvertently kick or even touch coral, it will die and you would be destroying the environment. Adam had a Go Pro and was recording us. We continued along and I saw schools of sun fish and many other fish that I couldn't even begin to identify. We saw a large turtle and followed along for a bit. The coral really is alive here. We were slowly rising to shallower depths throughout the dive to avoid any decompression sickness. The dive lasted about 40 minutes (I probably used up more oxygen those first few minutes, than I'd like to admit) and I was thrilled with how much fun it was. I decided that I want to eventually move to a place where I can do this more regularly. I wouldn't have the opportunity to do anymore here, but I relished the dive I did get to have, a dive that was almost tarnished by my cancelled flight. Back on the boat, we took all our gear off and then braved the choppy waters back to Male. Back at the dive center I hung around with everyone for a bit and then, feeling the lack of sleep really take hold, decided to go back to Ahmed's and catch some sleep. Stormy took off and thanked me for meeting him. I told him the pleasure was all mine. The rest of the group gave me their contact information, and I was told to come by later and we could go eat and hang out. Some random guy that just wanted to be nice gave me a ride on his motorbike back to the apartment. Ahmed was out so I went to my room to lie down. I woke up and when I looked at the time, couldn't believe that it was 2300h! I had missed the potential dinner with everyone but I realized that I had obviously needed to catch up on my sleep. Tomorrow would be another day. I went out for a walk and found some cheap food to eat.

I woke up realizing that tomorrow was today. I had tea with Ahmed and then he gave me a short (obviously) ride near one of the main roads. From there I walked to the western part of the city, passing little shops and loads of motorbikes. Maldivians don't seem like they like walking much. Even a one kilometer walk is considered excessive for most. I guess they have a way more different perspective about land distances. There seemed to be a mosque every 500 metres or so. I got to the end and sat for a bit on one of the two artificial beaches on the island. Then I walked over to the ferry terminal and took a ferry to the island of Vilingili. This island was way smaller than Male and you could circumnavigate the island in about ten minutes, which I did. Then I found another dive shop. I couldn't dive today because it was way too close to my flight time. I could get develop serious issues with the nitrogen in my tissues that wouldn't have enough time to clear. So instead I rented some snorkeling equipment and went out a few metres from the beach and still got incredible views and saw loads of fish. I had to make sure a seadoo wouldn't run my over while I did this. I then went to grab some lunch on a beachfront eatery. It would have been nice to be able to have a beer. Women went into the waters for a swim, fully dressed of course. I was skipping some meals I realized because I was trying to save money and I didn't have much local currency (Maldivian Rufiahs), only American dollars. It was painful spending so many American dollars. Still, apart from the diving, which was still cheap by Maldivian standards, I was doing backpacking proud with my shoestring tactics.

I returned to Male and walked around for a bit. I passed by Dive Desk but the door was locked and it appeared closed sadly. It was the late afternoon when I got back to Ahmed's place. I took a shower and then grabbed my backpack. I locked the door and then slid the key underneath. I was on my way back towards the ferry terminal. I somehow took the wrong ferry though. The airport is on Hualumale island, which is mostly reclaimed land. I should have taken the airport ferry. Instead I went to the other end of this island and had to take two buses to the airport. Despite this being the Maldives biggest island, each bus took five and ten minutes. I was back at the airport, and had managed to see the Maldives on a quick budget stop. I saw but the tiniest fraction of the country, but I think I made my time here count, and forged some friendships and cemented some experiences. If I ever do return, it'll be for a bigger diving trip.

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