The other side of Maldives
We notice the mountain of garbage first. Then, the smoke spiralling from the top of it. A small woman clad in all black, from her headscarf to her long tunic, is sweeping. Her short coconut midribs broomstick scratches the ground, making not an inch of difference to the muddy street. Behind her stands a mosque with white walls and triangular teal roofs. Across the street lies the Indian Ocean. Gentle waves lap gently against the long sandy shore, its rhythm hypnotic. It’s only 6.00 am and not a tourist in sight. Nearing the beach, we see something tucked between the bushes. It’s a sign in English: ‘ATTENTION! Bikini wear not allowed along the public beach area!’.
Wait a minute-are we not in Maldives?
When Christian and I talked about doing Maldives on a budget, we didn’t quite know what to expect. We only know that little trip could just be as romantic, even without a stay at a luxurious resort on one of the many private islands. Who needs jacuzzis and plush lounge chairs when you can just enjoy natural beauty without the frills, at a fraction of the price? The Republic of Maldives was opening her jeweled islands up to the rest of the world, and that included friends and families, tour groups and people like us–backpackers who are not willing to shell out a fortune just to enjoy a place.
After doing our research, we found a list of budget accommodation options on Maafushi island, an inhabited island that’s small enough for one to walk from one end to another in 20 minutes. We saw a cosy guesthouse and booked it immediately.We were thrilled that we didn’t have to wait for our honeymoon to visit Maldives.
But our first impressions of the island have been marred with disbelief and disappointment. Where are the white sand beaches, swaying palms and luminous blue that everyone’s been talking about? Surely they aren’t exclusive to just private islands with five-star resorts? The beach that we’re looking at looks painfully ordinary. Plus, not too far away is an open landfill. We weren’t expecting perfection but a paradise nonetheless.
We turn and head back to our guesthouse for breakfast. The saving grace of the trip so far has been our guesthouse. Picnic Inn is small but affordable and clean. Its cheerful orange and yellow painted walls make it a welcoming sight. The breakfast spread is ready in warm trays, waiting for early birds to come to feed.
The usual tourist breakfast suspects–white toast, butter and jam packets, frankfurters, boiled eggs and watermelon slices–are all there but on closer inspection, I notice two other dishes. One looks like curried vegetables, yellow and pungent in aroma, while the other is shredded tuna. My stomach growls in anticipation. I load my plate with generous helpings of the novelty dishes.
“Is there a way to eat this?” Christian asks, pointing to the pile of tuna on my plate. I shrug and scoop a little of the shredded tuna and spread it liberally over my white toast.
“Like this maybe?” As a Malaysian, spicy or savoury breakfasts excite me. I can eat anything in the morning so long as they’re not sweet. Christian, my German husband, is slowly learning to adapt his palate to mine.
The strange combination of shredded tuna, freshly grated coconut, green chillies, red onions and lime juice is absolutely delicious and it gets better with every bite. It has just the right amount of moist, flavor and heat, making my regular white toast almost divine. This dish, I will later learn, is a Maldivian staple breakfast called Mas Huni.
I could eat this every day, I think in amazement. If it’s paradise we’re looking for in Maldives, then this is it.