Maldives is known for its picture-perfect islands and bungalows over the sea. What happens if a bungalow or fancy resort is out of your price range? Both were certainly out of mine, but there was so little information about staying with the locals that I wasn’t sure what to do. I always enjoy learning about different cultures, but I was nervous having never been to a Muslim country. Thankfully, a friend of mine agreed to meet me in Hulhumale, the airport island, which gave me the confidence to book a local Airbnb. I’m very glad I didn’t let my preconceived notions dissuade me from an amazing travel experience.
My Maldives Experience
I landed in Hulhumale at 9pm. The Airbnb host said I should take the bus downtown and call him when I arrived. My phone wasn’t working which resulted in me wandering around like a lost puppy. I asked three strangers to use their phones (both men and women), and all kindly said yes. After trying and failing to call my host three times, I went back to the bus stop and wondered what to do. Thirty minutes of mounted panic passed until a friendly face walked up to me and introduced himself as my host.
We hopped on a scooter and drove to his apartment. Though the complex was under construction it was overly messy inside and there was trash everywhere. When we entered the apartment I let out a sign of relief. It was clean and cozy, with a combination of men and women sitting on the couch, smoking a joint, and talking about Game of Thrones. Something my friends could be doing on a Friday night.
Everyone on the island was friendly and accommodating. I stuck out like a sore thumb but nobody bothered me as I wandered around. Besides walking the island and swimming at the beach there wasn’t much to do, so I spent the evenings socializing with my host. It was the ultimate relaxing holiday.
I stayed on Hulhumale three days before and after my dive trip (6 days total). During that time I became close with my host and his friends. They would come and go from the apartment to relax, smoke, and complain about work. On the weekend he treated me to a Maldivian breakfast and lunch at a delicious Indian restaurant. I certainly got a solid experience of being a local in Hulhumale.
Male is an entirely different beast. The day before I flew out I took the 30 minute ferry from Hulhumale to Male. I was warned that Male was busy compared to Hulhumale, but after 10 days of relaxing tropical paradise I was not prepared for the big city. There were people and cars everywhere. It was loud, hot, and busy. After seeing a few sights I was over it! I darted into some souvenir shops but the shop owners stalked me everywhere (I hate that!). I didn’t enjoy my half-day in Male at all. Thank goodness I chose to stay in Hulhumale instead of Male. That would have been a terrible mistake!
On the second day my friend met me in Hulhumale. We spent our days trying every Indian restaurant on the island, taking afternoon swims, and going for walks. I felt perfectly at home by the end of the trip. Although I was ready to leave Maldives out of boredom, I was sad to leave the many wonderful people.
If you’re staying at a resort someone will be waiting for you at the airport. Resorts and boats are privately owned and do not have the same rules as local islands. On the local islands alcohol is (very) illegal and women cannot wear bikinis or skimpy bathing suits. This is not the case on boats or resorts.
If you visit one of the local islands please be respectful. Although you may think the rules are silly, remember you are a visitor and this is not your home. It’s very easy to find clothing that covers your knees and shoulders. My favorite outfits were long maxi skirts or fisherman pants, and a loose tshirt. Also, skin-tight clothing is not the norm, even if it covers your knees and shoulders. Besides, I’d recommend baggy, long-sleeve clothing anyway because of the sun’s intensity. It’s a win-win.
What to Expect From Locals
Maldivians have a relaxed island personality. Everyone I met, from the residents in Hulhumale to the dive guides, just wanted to have a good time. Although Maldives is a Muslim country many people are lax about the customs. The large amount of tourists have impacted Maldivian culture, and their perception of rules have changed over time.
A few women wear burkas although most wear hijabs. Many women are super trendy and wear beautiful hijabs with skinny jeans and high heels. Men are supposed to wear tshirts like women but often go shirtless in the water. Older men and women are generally more shy, but younger generations are outgoing and social. Men are also supposed to have beards, but many do not. Again, Maldivians are very lax with the rules.
Maldivians are tiny people (Shout-out to the tall people trying to take a shower). Keep this in mind if you’re buying a Tshirt that you can’t try on. I bought a large tshirt, wasn’t allowed to take it out of the packaging, and it ended up being way too small.
On a cultural note, divorce is very common in Maldives. One man in the apartment had been married five times! The reason is because “courting” is culturally not allowed. A couple will get married, hope for the best, and usually divorce shortly thereafter. My host also noted that since everyone knows everyone, it’s hard to keep anything private.
The locals always stared at me. At first I thought it was how I dressed but when my Chinese-American friend walked with me, the locals gawked at him too. We realized that apart from a handful of other tourists, nobody else looked like us. We were rare, so don’t be offended if the locals stare at you. They’re just innocently intrigued.
Three times a day a bizarre chanting blasts over the city-wide intercom. I asked my Airbnb host what they were saying. “It’s an invitation for people to come pray,” he said. My host also told me the best time to swim was during midday prayer because people leave the beach to pray at the mosque. However, praying is not mandatory and many people don’t go.
The work week is Sunday-Thursday. Friday-Saturday is the weekend, and Saturday is like our traditional Sunday – a day to pray and relax. What do Maldivians do on the weekend? On Hulhumale everyone heads to the park for soccer and socializing. My host called it “the party” and many of his friends went because there was nothing else to do.
Tuna and coconut are the staples here but beware that everything is spicy. Maldivians love spicy food. Breakfast consists of a spicy tuna “pico de gallo” of sorts, eaten with disc bread (seriously, this stuff would make a great frisbee). I ordered a tuna melt for lunch and could barely eat half of it because of the heat. There are also a lot of Indian, Thai, and pizza restaurants. My favorite restaurant was Bombay Darbaar. Although I’ve never been to India it was the best Indian food I’d ever had. After all, Maldives is really close to India.
Fresh juices are also popular in Maldives. There is a great little juice stand in Hulhumale that makes smoothies, milkshakes, and juices. It’s a perfect treat in the Maldivian heat. You also may be tempted to get a lemonade but beware it’s all limeade (but still deliciously refreshing).
Every local island I visited was beautiful but filthy. There was garbage everywhere. According to locals the government doesn’t haul away the garbage, so they don’t care about bringing it to the dump in the first place. It’s sad to witness because Maldives is such a beautiful country. If you want to help, bring a refillable water bottle when you visit. Although harsh, the tap water is safe to drink and it will save plastic from buying bottled water.
As a single American woman I was timid about staying on a non-resort island. But like most international travel stories go, it was a success. I made many friends, learned about their history, and got to appreciate their culture. The lesson I continually learn while traveling is that the majority of people strive to be kind and happy.