Wow three awesome weeks have gone by so fast! I’ve had a few downs but so many ups and I’ve learnt a lot about myself yet even more about the Maldives.
When you picture the Maldives you vision beautiful beaches, hot weather and 5* resorts over crystal clear water, but all that luxury is in stark contrast in comparison to the local islands such as Naifaru where I stayed.
It’s been a big culture shock in many ways but these are the most surprising:
1. Religion – most people don’t realise it but the Maldives is a very Muslim country. Before I left I was told to bring a pair of 3/4 length trousers and tops that cover your chest and shoulders but I hadn’t realised we would have to cover up everywhere, including going to the beach and snorkelling. The resorts in the Maldives are exempt from that rule and others such as drinking alcohol and smoking so not to deter tourists. The call to prayer is 5 times a day starting at 4:30am so all the shops and cafes open for just a few hours at a time to work around the prayer schedule. Because of the secluded style of the resorts most people who visit the Maldives would leave without noticing its religious background.
2. No toilet paper – yup, the plumbing here on Naifaru can’t handle tissue paper. There is none on the island so we have to get some delivered to the volunteer house for us to use and then we have to put it all in the bin.
3. Everything looks the same – all the streets and houses follow a similar pattern with no road signs or names. Unless you know where you’re going you can get pretty lost here which I did on my second night when I attempted to walk home alone! Fortunately it’s a pretty small island and the locals are happy to help.
4. Monsoon season – When I think of rainy season I think of it pouring for a couple hours then stopping. In my first week it was dry season, baking hot sun which burnt you in a flash and very humid. But at the beginning of the second week it thunder stormed for most of the day and night for at least 5 days and it’s still raining a couple times a day now. Because of the storms causing choppy seas, leaving the islands is near impossible because the only way off is by boat. But I did like the cooler temperature the season brought which made walking about and working at the turtle sanctuary a lot more comfortable, although the sun was still strong through the clouds and can catch you off guard.
5. Turtles – volunteering with the turtles has been incredibly rewarding and I’ve grown attached to a few favourites! I had no idea before I came here how much ignorance there is towards turtle well being. It is illegal for people to keep turtles as pets, eat or hunt turtles, and take eggs from nests. Unfortunately these laws aren’t taken as seriously as they should be especially by big resorts who take eggs from the nest and keep the hatchlings in poor conditions then often charge tourists a small fortune to “release” them. Handling the soft eggs also causes a lot of damage to the embryo inside which results in some severe deformities (see below video of Donatello who’s shell is folded so he cannot swim or balance properly). But with the work of Atoll Volunteers (who run the turtle sanctuary) there has been a lot of improvement regarding all turtles’ wellbeing especially with educating the locals who have really taken the project to heart. Keeping the babies as pets is now seriously frowned upon and the locals often bring us injured and unwell turtles they have found.
6. The big blue sea – so clear and so beautiful! We snorkelled on most days and you always see something new despite the corals being bleached due to sea temperatures rising. I’ve seen dolphins, flying fish, baby sharks, wild turtles and a whopping great big cowtail sting ray! The Maldives is in the India ocean so the water is lovely and warm and turquoise. I had no idea how much stunning wildlife the Maldives is home to.
7. The locals – are the most laid back people I’ve ever come across! For example, If a boat is due to leave at 8am sharp I guarantee it no one will turn up till 8:30am earliest and the boat probably won’t even leave until 11am and is often cancelled last minute because of the weather. Everything about life on the local islands is extra relaxed, everyone is so friendly and wanting to chat, especially the children.
8. Waste management – there is none. All rubbish gets burnt on the islands or shipped to the capital, Male, where it’s buried under the sea. So there’s a lot of litter around and most of which ends up being washed away into the sea. All the waste from the big fancy resorts end up in the ocean too which is really sad and terrible for the environment. Fishing nets are banned in the Maldives, however due to its location, nets from other countries such as India and Sri Lanka drift to the Maldives trapping turtles and other wildlife along the way. Most of our turtles with amputations are found stuck in nets.
9. The government – is unfortunately quite corrupt, even volunteering is banned in the Maldives! I wouldn’t have realised it if I was just on a resort holiday but being so close to the locals you can see how it’s effects people’s lives, especially when running a non-profit organisation. It’s very frustrating to see.
I’m really sad to go and say goodbye to the turtles! If you want to go backpacking alone but are a bit nervous about it I would 100% recommend doing some volunteering for a few weeks to get you started. It’s given me the confidence I need when adjusting to different cultures, I’ve made good friends with the other volunteers so I’ll find it easier to talk to all the new people I’ll meet and has just generally relaxed me into travelling solo. If I had the opportunity to go back to the Maldives, I would do it this way all over again. Besides, I think I would get bored on a resort for two weeks.
I’m now heading to Bangkok, Thailand. The thought of adventuring solo now is really exciting and I don’t feel panicky at all! I’ll be in Bangkok for two nights before getting an overnight train, coach, then ferry to Koh Tao.
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