A vacation within a vacation
The influence of Sunni Islam in the Maldives is evident before our plane even touches down on the tarmac at Male’s Ibrahim Nasir International Airport. The Cathay Pacific flight attendants hands us custom forms where we read the rules against entering the country with pornography, alcohol, firearms, and pork products.
After disembarking and finding the driver for the transit hotel, we make our way to the counter for the Conrad Maldives to confirm our travel to the resort the following morning by seaplane. Due to our late flight from Hong Kong, we prearranged to stay at what’s known as a ‘transit’ hotel outside the capital of Male. A great number of visitors make use of the transit hotels for a night before heading to their intended resort destination.
The vast majority of the 8 million annual foreign visitors never make it beyond the airport or the transit hotels to the many islands scattered throughout the Indian Ocean. In total, about 1900 or more coral islands compose the island nation of the Maldives. The local population’s ethnic identity originates either from Southern India or Sri Lanka and represent a long history of maritime history and culture.
With a history of inhabitation stretching back thousands of years, this island destination has been known to a great many travelers who brought with them their commerce and new ideas of thought and religion in exchange for cowry shells(1). For a long period of time, the Maldives was a Buddhist stronghold before the introduction of Sunni Islam in the 12th century by Arab traders.
Even in an island paradise, the evidence that one is in an Islamic country is all around you. We notice the Maldiven women wearing hijabs or niqabs (headscarves) as a reflection of their faith and dedication to modesty. Local men also make efforts to dress with modesty in mind as they walk alongside each other in their long white shirts, pants, and caps. According to the constitution, it’s impossible for a non-Muslim to be considered a citizen of the Maldives. Having traveled through Indonesia and Malaysia earlier in the year, the local dress wasn’t anything we took notice of other than to sympathize with those having to deal with the equatorial sun in all that clothing.
Conrad Maldives Resort
One of the highlights at the Conrad is snorkeling with the marine life around the coral reefs on the far side of the main island. While swimming over the reefs you feel this great sense of discovery at the world opening up beneath the waves. The deafening sound of coral being eaten, with a snap and pop by schools of fish with such exquisite composites of color only a painter or poet could dream of, that permeates the silence of the sea.
There are moments where you feel entirely helpless as the ocean’s current slowly pulls you out by the force of an invisible hand beneath the waves. Each entry into the beguiling surf stiffens our confidence as we begin to swim farther afield from the safe, white sand beaches to the edge of the abyss where the coral drops into the dark deep.
It’s in these quiet and dense parts of the ocean, where even a few lone rays of the sun are seldom permitted, where we make a tacit bargain with the sea to witness its fragile beauty. Across the sharpened edges of orange, white, and brown coral we find ourselves swimming amidst a school of sapphire colored fish, catching sight of a solemn puffer fish or finding ourselves facing the benign grace of a shy reef shark the majestic nature of it all never stops; even after leaving the water.