I really like the reorientation that comes as a necessity upon arrival to another country. It can be particularly acute when you’re either unprepared, or hopping through a few different countries, or both. There are those inevitable questions, like:
What the heck is this scribbly manuscript everywhere that vaguely approximates written communication?
Oh, what language do they speak here again?
What time is it again? Wait, only a half hour time change??? That doesn’t even make sense!
What is the money called here? What’s the exchange rate?
Not to mention the realignment in behavior that comes with very different cultures…. For example, coming through customs in the Maldives and being confronted with a sign stating that alcohol, bibles, and any non-Islamic religious materials are forbidden from being brought into the country is a little different. Just a gentle reminder that we’re no longer in Colombo, where historic Catholic and Protestant churches, Mosques, Buddhist Temples, and Hindu Shrines all sit within city blocks of each other.
Yesterday we toured Colombo city in Sri Lanka before our evening flight to Male´. The national museum was a nice (and for Sri Lanka, cheap!) place to spend a few hours that tied together all of the sites and history of the country. We both agreed that it was affirming that everything made sense and we had really seen a lot of the highlights of Sri Lanka in a very short amount of time. Martha got an outfit (of course) in Colombo, district 7, which is apparently “the rich section”. You can tell it’s the rich section because they have a brand-new McDonald’s there, a true sign that you’ve arrived. And BTW, McDonald’s in Sri Lanka is remarkably boring compared to India. The only notable items on the menu are the “McChicken with Rice” (with a very spicy sauce), a veggie burger, and it would appear the Apple Pies may utilize true Ceylon cinnamon in enough quantity to be noticeable. Colombo airport is fairly small, so our check-in was hassle free. Our flight actually arrived early to the Maldives, and we were happy to find our bags first off the line.
Male´ airport sits across the water from Male´ city proper, so upon arrival we had to take a ten-minute water taxi and transfer to a car to our hotel. There were a couple of European girls on the boat that were clearly just a little too excited to be here…. It was nighttime, the sky clear and black, but the dim lights from the airport and the city across the water were still enough to show how clear the water was. It was very beautiful and, initially, tranquil. Nevertheless, while there wasn’t really anything to take pictures of, one of the girls felt compelled to break out her cell phone and shoot continuous video with the flash lamp on, shining it in passengers’ faces as she panned around giggling. Similar to the safety of being comfortably within a standard deviation of the mean on a curved test, there is some comfort in knowing our behavior as tourists won’t set us apart as the low hanging fruit. Having some bigger chuckleheads than us around provides a buffer if any predators await further along.
As it turns out though, Male´ has appeared to be a remarkably easy to navigate city. For starters, you can walk around the whole island in an hour or two. There is one street in the middle of the island with some souvenir shops with the usual hawkers trying to get your attention, but not nearly with the same vigor and desperation you can encounter in other places like India or Southeast Asia. Other than on that street of tourist shops, we walked the island without being bothered whatsoever. The strange thing was how even when, relatively speaking, there are very few tourists walking the streets here, we attracted very little attention. Not just very little attention, but basically zero attention. It was a remarkable change from Sri Lanka. People do not acknowledge your presence in any many whatsoever in most circumstances. The quiet on that front was frankly a little discomforting as some hours went by strolling and browsing shops with minimal, even skittish, interaction. I know that tourism is the main (maybe THE) driver of the economy here, so maybe everyone just understands that messing with tourists spells trouble for you. It was pretty nice to be able to roam the streets and not be quite as on guard. There was one other odd thing we noticed that I thought I’d mention. If it happened once, I might have thought nothing of it, but three times and it’s not an accident. Walking down the street and a lady in full Hijab passed by and burped very loudly. We’re talking guttural, and wet. A disgusting, manly burp. A belch, even. I thought nothing much of it and just commented on how feminine it was. A little later in a grocery store, a shopkeeper was stocking shelves an aisle over and did the same thing, very loudly. Hmmm. It happened another time on the street. This is a slice of culture that I didn’t quite expect, kind of like people in China hacking and spitting all over the place. Now that I think about it though, maybe the belching isn’t too bad comparatively. We went for a few of the non-alcoholic stand-ins on offer here (a pub full of Islamic guys drinking soda and fruit smoothies is just…. strange). Anyhow, “when in Rome” as they say…
So, visiting a couple grocery stores presented an obvious reality here: every single thing is imported. A grocery store here is like visiting a “World Market” in the USA: food and drink from Europe, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia & Indonesia, and many other countries. It was a totally random mix, with next to nothing from the Maldives itself. The same applied to restaurants we saw around, just a totally random mix. A lot of carryover from Sri Lanka and India, and very little that was discernibly Maldivian. This even applied to the tourist souvenirs. One of the repeating items for sale was carved and painted wooden elephants, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a single elephant on any of the islands here, and likely never have been. We visited the national museum here in Male´, which is the main thing to do here. After going through the multi-story, multi-building museum in Colombo just yesterday, it was quite striking just how little history there is in the Maldives. I mean, while Sri Lankans were building irrigation canals and elaborate man-made lagoons, giant towering temples, and performing small surgeries, the Maldivians were doing….. absolutely nothing. There were suggestions that the Maldives have been inhabited since the 6th century B.C., but there is next to no archeological evidence that predates the 1500s. Walking through the sparsely filled museum it was kind of like “wow, there really isn’t much history to talk about here.”
On that note, it didn’t seem at all inappropriate to have a non-Maldivian meal for dinner tonight, our only full day in Male´. We are staying at a place called the Sala Thai boutique hotel, which also houses the Sala Thai restaurant, one of the best rated restaurants in Male´. The Thai food here was as good or better than much of what we had in Thailand. The attention to detail at both the hotel and restaurant is remarkable and made for a very memorable stay. We fly to our resort island tomorrow morning on the first flight at 0600, which means check-out time is 0445. The seaplane transfers are arranged the night before, so there is some level of uncertainty with timing on the transfer from Male´ to the outlying resort islands. A hotel employee told us of guests in the past that arrived on late flights and after boat transfer and taxi, checked into the hotel at 0200 or 0300, only to have a seaplane out of the airport out at 0500. We planned to have a full day in Male´, but we could have conversely had a flight out late afternoon or evening tomorrow, which would be a real waste at this point. We’re pretty happy to be flying out first thing. And on that note, it’s good night for now!