A Different Side to the Maldives
You probably know of the Maldives as a tropical holiday destination where the lagoons are a glorious turquoise, the sand is soft and white, and the hotels are uber-luxurious.
But did you know that the national women’s sport combines tennis and dodgeball, and not infrequently leads to broken fingers? Or that, despite being a honeymoon mecca, the country’s divorce rate is by far the highest in the world? Or that the country has a history with black magic?
It’s likely that most visitors to the Maldives don’t get to learn much about the country’s fascinating history, customs and culture because the local population is segregated from resorts, making it harder to interact with locals than in other countries such as the Bahamas, Fiji or Thailand.
This chain of 26 atolls in the Indian Ocean is also so small and remote that it’s not well-known on the world stage. This is a country that never goes to war and can’t trade its currency (Rufiyaa) in the Foreign Exchange Market.
As a result, most discussion around the Maldives is limited to “wow, so pretty.” But to understand the country only through this lens is to barely understand it at all.
Let’s take a ride through some of the most surprising facts about this colorful, dynamic, culturally diverse country — because it’s so much more than meets the eye.
The Maldives is one of the planet's top honeymoon destinations — but has the highest divorce rate in the world.
At 10.97 divorces per 1,000 inhabitants per year, the country’s divorce rate is more than twice as high as that of Belarus and the United States — second and third place in the rankings, at 4.63 and 4.34 percent, respectively. According to statistics from the UN, the average Maldivian woman has been divorced three times by the time she’s 30.
Anthony Marcus, chair of the anthropology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said in his book “Reconsidering Talaq” that he thinks the main reason for the Maldives’ high divorce rate is its significant pre-marital sex stigma, which prompts a lot of pent-up 18-year-olds to hastily get married. Divorce is also not looked down upon, while singledom is; hence, many people marry even when their choice in suitor is less than ideal.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to avoid your exes when the average island is less than 1 square mile...
The most expensive accommodation in the Maldives is underwater and costs $50,000 per night.
“The Muraka” underwater suite at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island cost $15 million to build and is the region’s first underwater bungalow. It is an aquarium-like suite with 360-degree views of the reef through glass walls. At around 5 meters below sea level, it’s deep enough to submerge the entire suite, but shallow enough for guests to admire the marine life with natural filtered daylight.
So what does staying in one of the priciest hotel rooms in the world get you? To start, a private seaplane jetty, a piloted speedboat, jet-skis, 24-hour butler service, a personal trainer and daily 90-minute spa treatments.
The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island initially pioneered the world’s first underwater restaurant in 2005, with a $200 tasting menu. In then took so many requests from wealthy guests who wanted spend a night in it that “The Muraka” was born.
One of the most popular national sports is like tennis crossed with dodgeball, and named after an eggplant.
In the women's sport of bashi, a team designates a woman to stand on one side of the court facing backwards while the opposing team stands behind her on the opposite side of the net. The woman then raises the tennis racket above her head and bashes 12 balls backwards over the net in quick succession. She attempts to hit the women in the opposing team, while they attempt to catch the balls she volleyed before they hit the ground.
Originally, this sport wasn’t played with a tennis racket, but with a racket fashioned from coconut palm leaves. A hand-woven ball was also used.
Broken fingers are common in the sport, so bashi (eggplant) could refer to the color of the players’ fingers afterwards.
The Maldives has a history with black magic, known locally as 'fanditha.'
Politics is infused with paranoia around the world; in the Maldives, this has sometimes come in the form of “black magic” claims. In 2013, police were summoned to investigate a coconut and a doll presumed to be cursed. And in 2015, Maldives President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom ordered a clump of coconut trees in a street in the capital to be pulled up because he held them responsible for his poor health — local papers reported he believed the opposition party had tried to curse him by planting them.
Fanditha sorcery like this is actually legally permitted in the Maldives for licensed parties under a 1978 law, but there have been an increasing number of arrests lately for a darker branch named sihuru — enlisting demons to harm others. As recently as last year, ministers and lawmakers gathered to discuss tightening up the legal loopholes, since sihuru suspects are often released without charge.
The country's connection to Islam is explained by the myth of the 'rannamaari' sea monster.
The Maldivian population is nearly 100 percent Muslim — and as in most countries, there are compelling legends associated with the country's religious identity.
According to folklore, Maldivians used to sacrifice virgins to appease the rannamaari sea monster until a visiting Muslim traveler killed it. As the story goes, a girl used to be chosen from the local population and left in a temple on the seafront overnight; during the night, the sea monster would visit, and the next day the people would find the girl slain. The visiting scholar took the place of the virgin, and when the sea monster arrived, he recited verses from the Quran until it disappeared, never to return again.
As the story goes, to thank him, the entire country converted to Islam from Buddhism in 1153 and has remained Islamic ever since.
The Maldives almost became part of Sri Lanka in 1988.
In 1988, a Maldivian businessman and political dissident living in Sri Lanka, Abdullah Lufthi, instigated a coup to overthrow the country’s president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Lufthi recruited a Sri Linkan secessionist organization that sent over several mercenaries on a fleet of speedboats, who infiltrated the city posing as visitors. The mercenaries quickly took control of government buildings, the airport, the port, and TV and radio stations.
Indian paratroopers quickly flew in to liberate the country as part of a special mission named “Operation Cactus.” They were assisted by a young Maldivian soldier who disguised himself as a cub scout to sneak into the Defense Minister’s house unchallenged to get the key to the armory. He was later made Maldives Chief of Defense.
Rent in the capital city, Malé, is nearly as high as rent in Los Angeles.
The Maldives archipelago is comprised of about 1,190 islands across 115 square miles, of which only 200 are inhabited. This lack of land, combined with abundant appeal, makes the country one of the most densely populated in the world.
The capital city of Malé, located on a 2.2-square-mile island, has a staggering 133,000 residents crammed into it — accounting for about a third of the country’s population.
This overcrowding pushes up prices, with a basic room in the city costing an L.A.-worthy $800-1,000 per month. It also ensures that many people have to squeeze into one bedroom with their family or co-workers at night.
There are no car dealerships in the entire Maldives.
And if you want to bring a vehicle into the country, the import tax is 100%, so you basically pay for your car or motorbike twice.
On the plus side, the Maldives Transport Authority also insists that the usage period of the vehicle has to be five years or less, which now means that cleaner and greener vehicles are being imported to the Maldives. Due to the compact size of Male’ and the high cost of vehicles, one in six Male’ residents own a motorcycle (although nobody wears a hat or protective jacket, and the majority ride in flip-flops).
A handful of the country’s richest and most powerful residents like to flaunt their cash by driving around Malé in a Porsche or Audi TT – just think about paying for one of those twice.
Malé is built on a cracking reef.
Scuba divers have reported seeing massive cracks in the reef on which Malé, with its 133,000 residents, is built. The city has already reclaimed as much land from the sea as possible by filling in the lagoon and building out over the outer edge of the reef. Officials have banned construction work in what is thought to be the riskiest area, but seismic activity or too much development could see the city become a real-life Atlantis (if rising sea levels don’t claim it first).
In the meantime, in the ongoing battle for more space in the overcrowded city, construction continues, with an ever-increasing number of concrete towers being built. The city is one of the flattest in the world, but is protected from large waves on two sides by multi-million-dollar concrete sea defenses.
iPhones are outrageously expensive in the Maldives — and wildly popular.
Because of import duties, the geographical isolation of the country, and the absence of an Apple store or big cell phone retailers, the price of a brand-new iPhone such as an iPhone X can cost as much as $1,600 in the Maldives. This is $600 more than an iPhone X can cost in the U.S.
Still, a huge number of Maldivians are willing to pay for it — and to upgrade as soon as the next one comes out. One thing that helps make buying them achievable is that many Maldivians continue living with their parents even after marriage. Free from having to pay for living expenses like food and rent, many Maldivians are happy to spend months of their wages (they make $250 per month, on average) on luxury consumer goods.
The most popular condiment consumed every day is a sticky dark brown goop made from tuna.
Despite Maldivians’ love of fast food — the day the first Burger King opened, crowds lined up for hours to get in — their favorite condiment isn’t ketchup, but rihaakuru paste. Resembling British Marmite or Australian Vegemite, this is made via a laborious process that involves boiling whole tuna (head and all) with salt, while carefully removing the scum that keeps forming on top of the water. When the tuna is cooked, it’s removed to be used with other dishes, and the remaining gunk in the pan is kept boiling on a low heat until most of the water has evaporated. This ultimately creates a brown tar-like substance with a powerful fishy flavor.
Maldivians love to eat rihaakuru pure with rice, taro, breadfruit or roshi (bread), but they also mix it up with other ingredients.
Goats often make the news in the Maldives.
Some goats are kept in people’s backyards, as there are no pastures and many of them are imported to be sacrificed at festivals such as Eid.
In 2010, one wayward baby goat was arrested by no fewer than seven police officers in the Maldives. The little goat was spotted roaming the streets of Malé one morning after escaping from a yard, and a video of it running amok in the capital, named “Black Goat Dawn,” went viral. The goat was seen trying to break into shops, jumping up at windows and bleating. He accumulated a crowd of onlookers and scared quite a few unsuspecting shoppers before police were dispatched.
It then took a team of officers with motorcycles and a riot van to catch the goat, which escaped their clutches several times, much to the amusement of onlookers.