Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Male, The Second Time Around (Maldives Diaries)



There was nothing worth recalling about my KL departure, except that the self-check in at the airport (via Malaysia Airlines) took faster than I expected. I was of course anxious about a non-human check-in process, but that's how things work these days. Those machines didn't fuss much, and the subsequent bag drop was similar. I did have an interesting chat with the check-in counter girl (let's not call her "baggage lady") who "educated me" about their baggage policies (I asked, she more than obliged and even expounded).


Malaysia Airlines allows 30 kilogram check-in baggage - and a provision of just two bags therein. Which means, that if you check-in 3 items, even if the cumulative weight is less than 30 kilogram, you've already exceeded your allowable baggage  and shall be charged accordingly for the 3rd bag - a hefty 100 ringgit every 5 kilogram weight.

That policy, of course, will probably be met with a lot of complaints from Filipinos known for taking half their domicile with them whenever they come home from overseas work or from where they've migrated.

MYSTERY 

There's another mystery involving my flight. Perhaps I overlooked a few things or was inattentive. Departure time was 21:55. That's 9:55 PM. We had to take the airport train to get to my KLIA boarding gate, C23. Upon arrival at this terminal (a virtual shopper's paradise), it didn't take 5 minutes to board. The plane left at 8:55 PM. Had we taken longer, we'd have missed the flight.

Jaw dropping design at KLIA1. Never fails every time.

Noodle dish at KLIA's "Old Town White Coffee" @ 12 RM ($3.70 / PhP165). The immediate area after immigration has shops but it has very limited restaurants, only 2 or 3.


ANXIOUS ABOUT THREES

I was earlier anxious about this flight. I've read a couple of Yahoo news articles saying that many Malaysia Air flights were flying on relatively empty seats, and that the airline is on the brink of bankruptcy due to the twin disaster they've recently experienced (one went missing; the second got bombed in Ukraine). Bad luck comes in threes? Thankfully, this wasn't the case. I lived to tell. Plane was almost full. Like many MH flights, they served good food, including tasty chicken curry, a garbanzos salad, and a sago-style dessert.

I was bothered by their occasional greeting, "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls..." They'd start their announcements like that. Boys and girls? Are we back in grade school? LOL. I perused through their available in-house movies and saw Vhong Navarro's "Da Possessed" in the selection. Their "Cine World" lists two Arabic-language movies that I wanted to watch, but weren't accessible. I settled with a Spanish-language film about a family besieged by an inveterate bully, until our protagonist (Daniel Candia) decides to take matters in his own hands after his daughter was abducted - in Alejandro Fernandez Almedras'  "To Kill A Man" (Matar a un Hombre), set in Tome, Chile.

Immigration Counters at Male International Airport.
The flight was bumpy and every time we shook, memories of the airline's recent disasters palpably crept in my mind. I couldn't help it. I was sure I wasn't alone thinking like that. The rest of the ride, I slept. I knew it would be beneficial if I arrive Male relaxed, despite the 3,000+ kilometer distance worth of travel from KL. It was a little past 10 when we touched down the tarmac.

I was given 30 days by the chatty immigration officer who didn't ask me about my trip. Last year, I was given 86 days, imagine that. I suspect it was a typo; my officer must have been woozy from stamping in a good number of tourists. This is what I love about the Maldivians, they're "chill people" and nothing seemed to faze them, so ultimately you're ushered into their capital with nonchalant welcome.

The KL-Male flight took 4 hours and 10 minutes, with 3-hour time difference between the two capitals (10PM in Male, 1AM in KL).

Male, the capital, geographically belongs to the North Male atoll specifically called "Kaafu Atoll", located right in the middle of the Maldivian archipelago (an almost remote speck of isles south of Sri Lanka spread across the Indian Ocean). The country, politically divided into 26 atolls, each with their own set of islands and sand banks totaling to 1,190. The islands are categorized into two: a "local island" and a "resort island" with Male as its administrative center. Of the 80 inhabited islands, 26 are "resort islands" leased and managed by varied resort conglomerates (some European, others Asian like the Thai-group running Anantara resorts).

WHAT MAKES THEM TICK - OR GETS THEM TICKING

The people have Indian features, though they're half way between Indian and Pakistani. If you blinked and got disoriented, you'd probably think of Jamaicans or some Caribbean population, curly hair, brown/light brown skin, laidback demeanor, and a comfortable, albeit impressive command of the English language. Majority of the population follows Islam. Thus it is important to understand that most local islands disallow bikinis; pornography (shhhh...); they don't drink alcohol; don't eat pork (so no pork dish is to be had anywhere in the country, even in "resort islands"); and there are no dogs - one of the few items on strict watch at the airport. Aren't they missing one of the most fulfilling experiences of human existence (i.e. owning a dog). Yes, Maldives don't like dogs which they consider "dirty", the way pigs are regarded by Muslims. This is, supposedly of "biblical" origin. Why then are Muslim countries like Malaysia or Indonesia rearing dogs. I have a Malaysian friend who's a dog lover, I asked a local. "They are not complete Muslims," was the reply I got. Huh?

BIBLES, MORMONS, ISRAELIS

Now here's another head scratcher: Religious articles (rosaries, bibles, anything that can be used to evangelize) are considered contraband. By saying this, we are underlining the fact that any form of religious propaganda outside Islam is prohibited. Mormons then, are not allowed - if they plan on doing their house-to-house. There isn't anything that protects freedom of worship or religion. Israelis, though not particularly "banned" from entering the country, are dealt with scorn in view of Israel's violent landgrabbing schemes at the Gaza. In the island of Himafushi, for example, the flag of Palestine is proudly raised on the shore, greeting everyone who arrives on ships. Sentiments against Israelis should be seriously considered, just to be on the safe side.

ISLAND ASSIGNMENTS

The country assigns islands for specific functions: Male is the capital. Hulhule is the airport island. Maafushi is the state penitentiary. Thilafushi is the main garbage disposal area (garbage ferries are transported from Male and other islands on a daily basis), thus you see an almost continuous incineration in that island. Is that even environmentally healthy? Maybe they've forgotten somehow that they have to help protect the environment because their country is being threatened by the effects of environmental abuse.

Local islands, which until recently, has never allowed foreigners (you'd need the permission of the village head or local police) have opened their doors to the world. Back then, tourists were essentially blocked from peeping into their lives. This was under the rule of a long-time despot. The common scenario - guests would arrive in the country then directly fly to their "resort islands" which are essentially autonomous - and not a reflection of real Maldivian living. In such luxurious islands, the administrative folks dictate the rules to be followed by their guests. Bikinis are thus allowed; so are gambling, partying into the wee hours, alcohol consumption, etc. But I digress.

Public ferry from Hulhule's airport to the capital Male.
After claiming my baggage and running them through X-ray (including my carry-on backpack), I leisurely walked out and started looking for someone bearing my name or the hotel name, Hotel Octave. A pleasant-looking guy shook my hand and walked with us to the jetty.

He bought each of our $2 ferry tickets from the jetty booth, just barely 20 steps from the exit, and we joined 3 dozens as we rode through the Laccadive Seas, heading towards Male ("muh-lei") which looked well lit this time around. Like my first arrival 10 months ago, the ride was relaxed - but dark inside the commuter boat! Male, which was 10 minutes away, beckoned. And I was ready to shake its hand - and embrace the open arms of its 300,000 nationals, a third of whom reside in the capital (considered the 5th most congested city in the world).

A typical narrow alley of the Maldivian capital. How do cars fit? They perform magic tricks!
Upon arrival in Male, we were met by the hotel's car. We drove way past the narrowest streets this side of the globe, through adequately illuminated shops and half-congested magus (streets), We reached the hotel which seemed smaller than I expected. Three people, including the front desk officer Shameen, was ready to check me in. I handed my Agoda voucher and my passport. They handed me a wet towel, a glass of orange juice, and a form to fill up. This airport pickup was complimentary and is part of the hotel's service, a perk similarly offered by other Male hotels. Shameen collected $2 (PhP90) each, the fare for our Maafushi ferry ride the next day. It was a relief I didn't have to do that myself - like last November. The process takes a chunk of  time. I'd rather spend it checking out the city which always seems like a netwrok of discordant maze cramped on little space and land mass.

It's believed that in this lifetime, the whole Maldivian archipelago, with its 1,190 islands divided politically into 26 atolls, would eventually disappear into the sea, bearing in mind that most of their atolls (coral island formations) are just 1 meter above sea level. No amount of tripods, sandbagging or human intervention can counter what nature allows. It is a sad fate for such a gorgeous archipelago. What becomes of the future generations of Maldivians?

One of the rooms of the mini-suite.

A standard room with separate single beds.

MINI-SUITE

We were taken to our rooms at the 6th floor (well, 7th actually), Mini-suite 602. The family room has 2 adjoining rooms, a queen and a regular bed; it even has a kitchen, a big refrigerator, a kitchen with an oven and a good sized bathroom. Nothing particularly Maldivian about this vertical dwelling, except the hospitality of the people running it. Typical warm and servile. Meanwhile, I could hear hallway conversations by Germans tourists a floor below.

Hotel Octave has 8 floors and 14 rooms so service is mostly the pampering kind. Breakfast costs $7 if this isn't included in your booking, although most offers in Agoda is inclusive. The front desk offers a "drawn" map and this is offered for free if you ask for one. They will help orient you and suggest where to take your "walking tour", though mostly they'd point you to a familiar set of sites (due to their proximity from each other) - the Presidential Jetty, the fish market, the souvenir shops, mosques, Sultan Park and the museum. I asked them to point me to the direction of the artificial beach and the Tsunami Monument which goes opposite the first set of sites.

Tip: Buying drinks like soda or bottled water and other toiletries is cheaper in convenience stores than in hotels. But who doesn't know that?





I freshened up in a breeze and made my way to the next-door shop to buy myself a Coke at 8 rufiyaa ($0.55/PhP24), plus 8% TGST tax (tourism goods and services tax). This was equivalent to a typical Pinoy sari-sari store, albeit well lighted and has fresh fruits and vegetables hanging down the shelves. I handed them my left-over rufiyaa (from last November), then the store closed once I stepped out.

Male shuts down at 11PM, like clock work. They may not have gargantuan shopping malls (or any mall for that matter), but the city bustles in its own mercantile activity until late in the night. I remember roaming Luxembourg at 6:30PM and finding most shops closed for the night. Malls in Manila close at 9PM (week day) or 10PM (week end).

Male isn't the posh capital that most people associate it with. In fact, it is like an Indian city minus the touts, but is nonetheless congested and tight with very limited sites for an eager tourist. Ironically, the country famed for exquisitely beautiful beaches don't even have a beach resort within Male until the local government thought of making one, inspiringly called (hold your breath!) "Artificial Beach"! No malls, a small park called "Sultan Park", a two-level museum, a fish market, some mosques and one operational movie house with limited screenings.

AIR ASIA REASON

Hotels are relatively small and indecently expensive - so it's no place for those with tight budget. This was, in fact, one of Air Asia's "reasons" when it wrote to us (i,e, that many of their passengers complain of the dearth of accommodation in Male) when they cancelled all their flights to Maldives in February early this year - and you wonder how that exactly concerns their flying business. Most visitors breeze through the capital if they don't make their sea taxi transfers to their resort islands. Most sea planes stop operation after 5PM. Understandably, sea planes cost an arm and a leg - usually $200-300 per person - just to get to your "resort island". And that's just one way. This makes travel in Maldives (the term literally translates to "The islands of Male") quite unique and expensive.

I was glad that phone roaming was seamless, but I noticed a new phone service operating in the country, aside from Dhiragu and Wataniya - Ooredoo blinked on my phone. I was connected to the world, and to home - so that was a minor source of comfort.

I wanted to re-read my journal from my first visit. I knew that I didn't read as much as I should for this second visit, but things were "fresher". Regardless, I felt that there was much to do. My mind was once again a bustle of activity and a thicket of synapses working on overdrive. I am pumped and excited, and there's electricity shooting through my lower extremities and up through my spine. You can't mistake the adrenaline rushing around my circulation. That's always a good thing.

This is the Eye in the Sky.

Hotel Octave is accessible through a narrow street called Kaaminee Magu and is a block or two away from Majeedi Magu, Male's main commercial thoroughfare. 

The view from my room.

2 comments:

Ramakrishnan Ramanathan said...

Maldives is captivating and fascinating ! Have a nice holiday there !

eye in the sky said...

Thanks, Ram. :)