Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Revisiting the Local Island of Villingili (Maldives Diaries)

I decided to head back to Villingilli, a local island I visited last November. 

From the public square, I hailed a taxi (25 rufiyaa/$2) to the jetty, the same one that docks boats traveling to Maafushi. Tickets for Villingili costs 3.50 rufiyaa and takes less than 10 minutes to get there. There are trips every 15-20 minutes or so. 

Upon arrival, there was obvious rise in activity. There were battery operated carts that service locals, and there were taxis. Last November, at the start of the peak of tourist season, I walked around to deserted roads. Development? I walked through the park with giant trees until I found the new mosque, turned left until I saw “Gooseberry”. Time for lunch. It was chicken fried rice for me, 40 rufiyaas. It was then time to head to the beach, the one that faces Male.

Local commuters ride the ferry boat to Villingili which is 10 minutes away from Male.

Gooseberry  Restaurant

Villingili’s claim to fame should be this – the view of Male, which looks gloriously urban from that vantage point. Someone was getting married and tables were decked up by the coastline. The same jetties, with circular ends were there giving the shoreline its trademark. After this “reunion” of sorts, I headed t o the store beside the main port and bought myself coconut. They have some of the juiciest, sweetest natural coconut juice this side of earth. Twenty rufiyaa for a slice of delectable heaven.

Aside from the airport island of Hulhule and the newly reclaimed Hulhumale, the most obvious short trip from the capital is Villingili (also "Viligili"), which is a suburban local island 2 kilometera away from the western shores of Male. The atmosphere here is more laidback, with its rows of pastel colored building, mostly residential. There are small shops and restaurants in the vicinity and a couple of small mosques. Locals bathe fully clothed in its beaches and at certain times, the grounds seem deserted. It's easy to get here as there's a boat that leaves and returns every 5 minutes.

Villingili is in an administrative area called "Villimale" probably named as such due to its proximity to the capital. It is considered as the 5th district of Male. There are 3 more islands named "Villingili" all over the Maldives (one in Alif Dhaal atoll, another in Gaafu Alif atoll, and the resort island in Seenu Atoll which has a Shangrila resort) . This particular local island has a population of barely 7,000.  

Once back in Male, I took a taxi (25 rufiyaa) to Majeedhi Magu, the city’s main east-west thoroughfare (think Ayala or Recto, or Roxas Boulevard or Cebu’s Jones). Olympia Cinema had a throng of young performers and their “stage mothers”. I was told that a Maldivian movie was going to be screened at 9PM. But I had a sneaking suspicion that something was lost in translation. He even said it was worth 40 rufiyaa. The ride back to the hotel was not to be had. I finally decided to walk, after checking out my map, all the way to Chandanee Magu. I had a relaxing sleep for the next couple of hours.

Later that night, I learned that Olympia wasn't actually showing films. The idiot! He said there were 3 cinemas in Male. Wrong. There were just two. He recommended that we proceed to “Schweck”, a swanky movie house near the market place, costing 80 rufiyaa for its entrance. Climbing its narrow stairs was like scaling a hill. It seemed to go on and on. I waited at the 3rd floor, just outside the viewing hallway for 15 minutes only to learn that they were having “technical problems” and that screening had to be cancelled. There goes movie watching in Maldives. Oh well.


Just before calling it a night, I passed by a grocer, selling fruits. I bought persimmon, a “sugar banana” and jujube (as they're called in Thailand) aka “Stone Nepal” all priced at 9 rufiyaa per 100 kilogram. 

The banana didn't look quite ripe, but when you peeled it, the covering tears away like paper – and the flesh inside was actually ripe. Everything cost me 170 rufiyaa. Male is overly taxed. You get charged for sales tax plus a goods-and-services tax on top of the 10%. I wonder why the populace wouldn't even complain.

Is the answer to a "progressive" society over-taxation? Is Male one that you'd consider progressive? I guess the criteria of progress as we know it doesn't necessarily follow in atoll country.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Male, the capital, from the slumbering shores of Villingili.

Sweet coconut juice at a store beside the port.

A year after I first visited Villingili, there are signs of mobility like this "vehicle" and the taxi behind it.

Villingili port

Commuters from Male

We queue amidst this crowd.

Ferry ride back to Male

Schweck Cinema

I was going to watch "24:00 Gadi Iru". Posters of this movie are seen pasted on walls all over the capital.

Why is a naked Indian actor standing on a rail track?

Schweck Cinema, a hit-and-miss affair, is Male's one and only movie house.

Jujube or stone nepal

Jujube aka "red date" is said to treat anemia or purpura. It's also called "pomme surette" in France, "ber" in Hindi, and "tao tau" in Vietnam. I am thus wondering why this fruit is never seen in the Philippines which is a haven of fruits.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Returning Back to Male: At the Somerset Hotel (Maldives Diaries)

Back in Male

Maafushi, Maldives - By the time my body touched my bed at Room 201, I was in dreamland. It must have been 9:30 PM or thereabouts. Record time. Why I was particularly tired was a bit of a mystery to me, but there are days such as that. An excellent day, but tiresome nonetheless. Ho-hum.

Call for prayer came again at 4:45AM, drowning the early morning drizzle. And I couldn't sleep right back to REM. At 6:20, I was all packed and ready for check out. The kitchen staff prepared breakfast 15 minutes earlier than their 7AM time. It was as filling as the previous buffet set. Mashuni was again served. The stir fried mushroom was particularly tasty, obviously worth several returns. At 7:10AM, I was walking towards the jetty for its 7:30 ride back to Male. The weather promised a sunny day. Imagine if this were the weather in Anantara; it would have been perfect.

Ferry boat to Male
Red painted this return boat to Male, not the one that clunked out on our way to Maafushi. One way blue, and return was red. That’s some color-coding scheme. Exactly as it was during my November trip. An hour into the smooth glide into the waters, a very polite gentleman started collecting fees. $2 (PhP90) or 30 rufiyaa per person. I handed my Maldivian legal tender. “Thank you,” said the ticket man. Despite full house patronage, the trip back to the big city was fast, I could see Male 20 minutes before 9AM. On a good day, it only takes 1 ½ hours from Maafushi to Male. On average, it's 2 hours.

I was keeping my fingers crossed someone would pick us up from the jetty. On my previous arrival last year, “The Boutique Inn” didn't bother to pick me up so I had to hail a cab. Easy, except that many taxis didn't have the foggiest where Boutique Inn was. The advantage of fixed rate taxis is that you don’t have to haggle. If they give you the run around, it’s their petrol they’ll be wasting. That, or there must be something nefarious in the works.

Yup, a couple of guys holding “Somerset” cards were waiting at the port, just two steps straight out of the boat. How convenient. We had a chat and one of the guys offered island hopping excursion for the next day. I was thrilled! I was willing to vomit dollars to see a little more “local”. The ride to Somerset was a breeze. I was in the same street 4 days ago, trying to find Somerset Hotel and Keneree Magu. From the National Museum, I crossed the street and asked around. The little alleys didn't have names so I had to ask. No one knew. Now I am here hitting my forehead with disbelief. Had I walked a block further, I’d have found Somerset, which is quite central.

Somerset Hotel is a new name in Male, with quite posh and modern interiors. If there was a boutique hotel that justified this category, Somerset would qualify. I was given my deluxe room. I also booked for a smaller one.

Spacious, bright, with a symphony of three-tiered pillows and the smoothest fabrics for bed sheets. The walls were either beige or white. The wall leading to the balcony had wall-to-wall beige curtains. Four bas-relief artworks hang just above what should be a dining table; a huge abstract painting of what looked like yellow skies and blue waves was on display just before turning to the main bedroom. There’s a sofa bed facing the LCD cable television; a mini-ref; coffee and tea; an oblong shaped lamp shade; another modern bench covered with satiny red cushions. There’s a digital clock and a telephone beside the bed. Two 5-foot wall mirrors adorn the bedroom and bathroom respectively. In short, this was a step above most hotels in Male.


Upon check in, there was a lot of confusion involving a non-functioning wifi (a requirement when I book a hotel room), some forms that I had to handcarry from my room at the 3rd level and back to the front desk, and a passport that they photocopied earlier but forgot to return (and they weren't even aware that they actually misplaced it - which is a big "mortal sin" among the traveling kind - the staff doesn't seem to realize the serious  implications of a missing passport), but I'll get to that separately.

At 9:30AM, I was allowed early entry. But where else would I ago after a very early morning? I needed time to recuperate and gather my strength before I resume my activities. The island hopping trip would set me back by $89.10 without the meal. This already includes 10% service tax and TGST (tourism goods and services tax) of 8%. Had it been a hotel, there would have been another percentage for bed tax. That’s a whopping 20% or more for mere taxes. Ouch. Indeed. Regardless, new places light my sensibility. I have never heard of Himmafushi and Huraa before, and I was set to "hop" onto them.

But I was getting ahead of myself. I've somewhere else to revisit.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

The deluxe room's living room leads to the main bedroom.



From the Somerset, you can walk to the Friday Mosque and other sites.

The Presidential Palace looks like a doll house and unlike many sovereign establishments, it isn't manned by  a lot of guards.

This area in Male has the country's tallest buildings (not a lot actually). From this building is the main square and the Presidential Jetty.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Maafushi: A Glimpse of the Island Life (Maldives Diaries)

Maafushi. It's the biggest island in the remote South Male Atoll (one of the country's 26 atolls) with a population of barely 1,200. It is also a "local island", governed by traditional local laws and Muslim discipline. This is why wearing bikinis isn't allowed in much of the island except at the designated "Bikini Beach". I like taking leisurely walks at the town center, far from the beach-front promenade where most hotels and guest houses are.

But the next several years will change the "face" of the island. During my walk, I saw 4 two-story hotels/guest houses being constructed. There's a football field - called Football Grand - in the center of town, as well as a mosque. The map shows another mosque at the northern end of the island near the prison which is the biggest in the country. At night, the center of town takes in the "noise" from the power plant. Otherwise, the island sleeps early. There are 2-3 convenience stores easily accessible from most hotels. Internet or wifi signal is mostly good, except at the Kaani (which has 3 branches). There's a hospital just across the football field. Water has good pressure, but is believed to be non-potable. Where do they get their water? I asked and was told, "the sea". They have a desalinating plant. I've never seen an internet cafe so far.

Maafushi doesn't have public motorized vehicles although several hotels have vans. Otherwise, most arriving guests from the jetty simply walk to their hotels alongside their official welcome party. Near the hotels are a number of souvenir shops which peddle local products rather inexpensively. You wouldn't believe how cheap they are compared to the shops in Male. A mask, for example, would cost $80 to $200 in the capital. the same product would cost $15-30 in Maafushi. the same is true in other local islands. It is thus important to remember this when you're thinking of buying lots of souvenirs for family and friends. I was, of course, too late to realize this, but "gifts" are never about prices, right?

This is the Eye in the Sky!  

Entrance of the more central mosque.

Iuma is a convenience store which opens until 9 PM.

A local restaurant with relatively affordable food. I'd get my rice meals here for my dinner. I've never seen a foreigner dine here - so when you enter, people gaze at you. They're very friendly.

Inside the souvenir shop has so many local products on display.

The "dark and scary old man" is a traditional figure commonly seen around the Maldives (check the bigger version from the first photo above).

Sampaguita in Maafushi. If it looks and smells like one, it must be one. :)

Football Grand

Manta rays in the center of town

Kilometer Zero. The green fence (left) leads to the hospital.

I've never seen canals in Maafushi. Thus when it rains, there are milky puddles everywhere.

Island Map of Maafushi - This is quite a rare find and probably the first to be posted online. I saw this pasted on a souvenir shop's wall and is quite messy, I had to clean it up a bit.