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The ‘other’ Maldives

Go beyond the luxury resorts and glimpse the life of locals in Ukulhas, Maldives, suggests Kiran Mehta
Last Updated : 04 June 2023, 03:16 IST

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Graffiti outside a cafe in Ukulhas.
Graffiti outside a cafe in Ukulhas.
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‘There’s the postcard Maldives. And there’s the real one,” said my local acquaintance Abdulla. He punctuates his sentences, then adds with a grin, “they look exactly alike!” As I visit the many islands, I understand what Abdulla was talking about. In each of the islands, I catch pink sunsets, dig my toes into powder-soft sands, and am smitten by crystal-clear waters. The resort-run islands lure guests with aromatic massages in spas on stilts, floating breakfasts, dinner under a canopy of stars, etc. It’s the perfect escape, where the wildest of tourists’ dreams are magically manifested. The local islands (i.e Abdulla’s ‘real’ Maldives) are just as picture-perfect. But while they look alike, they offer a different experience. They come sans frills but offer unique perks: you’re immersed in local culture. You travel deeper. One such endearing island is Ukulhas (pronounced ooh-cool-as) which bears not a single resort; just small hotels or guest houses, many run by Ukulhas-ians as extensions of their own homes.

An untouched isle

A breezy speedboat ride from Male International Airport, Ukulhas, is located in western Maldives. Local legend has it that life began here a little over a century ago when a sole family found themselves stranded on the island as the result of a boat wreck. So gorgeous was the untouched isle that when rescuers eventually came by, the first family decided not to leave, and welcomed others too. The result: today, the population stands at just over a 1,000.

The island stretches about one km in length and 250 metres wide. The meandering streets drizzled with sand, come flanked by colourful houses — bright red, parrot green, canary yellow. Sea shells line the boundary walls of many houses. “It’s a given that these houses have kids,” says Abdulla. On cue I watch a little girl return from the beach, armed with a beach bucket. She places her shells on the boundary wall. Tomorrow, her parents will likely return them to the sea.

Of houses & joalis...

As we trod further, happy-coloured houses give way to hole-in-the-wall cafés that scream out with psychedelic graffiti. The messages range from, ‘Don’t worry. Be happy’, to ‘Liquid Therapy’’. The menu is eclectic — chai, mocha, coconut water, with a side of banbekeyo (local for breadfruit), etc. I haven’t carried my credit card. The owner puts it on my tab by asking where I’m staying, just as he would for locals. These endearing cafés — with seating consisting of hammocks on the beach — are a newer phenomenon, aimed at tourists. In the 90’s Italian tourists discovered Ukulhas. “They were looking to enjoy our pristine beaches, but didn’t want to pay for resorts.” While a starred resort will cost upwards of around 350 USD a night; in Ukulhas, you can find a room for 60 USD a night (off-season). Several operators offer water sports in Ukulhas — diving lessons, snorkelling sessions, boat rides at sunset, etc.

As I walk further, I find that most streets are flanked by coconut trees. It was the abundance of coconut wood that gave birth to the traditional Maldivian chair or joali. Trying to picture the joali? Think part hammock, part chair. The frame was made of coconut wood (today it’s unfortunately replaced by metal that’s sturdier). The seat is fashioned with coir rope, derived from fibres of coconut husk. Joalis sit pretty on pavements, creating a communal space. I sink into one, feel the sea breeze on my skin, and am instantly in an island state of mind. The abundance of wood also gave rise to a dhow-making unit on the island. Some historians believe that dhow-making craftsmanship came to the island nation from India. The Malabar coast is said to have invented the art. Centuries ago, it was aboard dhows that spices, shells and stories were exchanged between India and Maldives. The movement of people is why you’re likely to hear a smattering of Tamil and Malayalam words in the Divehi language. Today, all I see is the remains of that era as the dhow-making unit lies abandoned.

A magical shoreline

The island has a small hospital, a school, a handful of stores, cafés, and restaurants. I pass by the school and students wave out; a chatty seventh-grader greets me with ‘Namaste’, then asks if I’ve met Shah Rukh Khan. I learn that Bollywood accounts for their grasp of Hindi. I’ve gained the boy’s trust (since I’ve seen SRK in person), and before I proceed further, he warns of the school ghost. A few years ago, students suffered from sudden fainting spells. With no apparent cause, the people prayed for a solution. But a clever teacher soon found that the source was entirely human — a mischievous student! Presumably a botanist-in-the-making, this student experimented with a toxic plant that was the cause of fainting spells.

The botany boy’s reputation follows him around. The only escape is another isle. Turns out most islanders set out to other shores for jobs. In Maldives, most jobs lie in tourism. Those in other fields need to go abroad. As I chat with locals I learn that life in Maldives is expensive. Ukulhas’s dhow-making unit has shut; fishing remains a source of income. But the locals are grateful that tourism is on the rise.
Even as I write this, I know I’m giving away a little-known spot. Will it be as authentic if droves of tourists were to descend upon it? Only time will tell.
These thoughts are washed out of my mind as I walk the shores at night. (It’s safe for women to walk alone at night given the tight-knit community). Hermit crabs and geckos flit past my feet. I spot cowrie shells and bleached-out corals in the sands. There’s darkness until the water hits the shoreline. Then there’s magic. The shoreline is aglow. It’s hard to believe that algae — planktons — are responsible for this beauty. When disturbed by waves, the organisms light up to scare predators. It seems as though twinkling stars are magically afloat. This scene is the perfect way to close my trip to Ukulhas.

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Published 03 June 2023, 19:04 IST

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