I always bring a few books to the Maldives in the perennial aspiration to sit a read for an extended period (on the long-haul flight at least), but my actual reading never quite meets my intentions. This past trip I brought along not only a book for the Maldives, but about the Maldives – “Misadventures in the Real Maldives” by Tom Chesshyre. And it was so engrossing that I actually finished it.
“The Maldives incorporates 26 atolls in what is described by geographers as a ‘double chain’ and the long, thin outline of the islands resembles a garland – ‘malodheep’ in Sanskrit – which is where the name of the country is believed to have originated. From ‘Money Islands’ to ‘Tempest Haunted Islands’ (as some ancient mariners knew them) via garlands and the ‘necklace islands’ (Maala Divaina) in Sinhalese.”
“The Maldivian connection with the sea is closer than anything an outsider can comprehend. Life on the flattest country on the planet requires mental adjustment…Standing on the beach facing inland to one of the long, straight roads on a little island was like looking along the surface of a spirit level. There are no budges, no hills.”
Chessyre tours the country from bottom to top, but in manner completely the opposite to how I and most visitors experience this tropical paradise. While we take an air-conditioned speed boat, he took a cargo ship. While we sleep on king sized beds with high thread count bedding, he sleeps on a mat. He specifically crafted his trip to explore the non-resort local islands and their daily routines in paradise. The account is a colourful and extensive perspective into local island life and guesthouses.
Despite him exploring such a non-commercial side of this luxury destination, I still identified reading his book with the sentiment he articulated about another travel book that he was reading: “His descriptions gave me that sense of déjà vu that sometimes hits you when you read about a place you’re visiting.”
Published in 2015, it is already a bit dated on some of its references, especially political, as the country is changing so very rapidly. In particular, he delves beyond the palm trees and pina coladas that are the staples of celebrity travelogues and explores such areas as:
Economic development in recent years
Logistics of local travel
Political perspectives among the population
His summary provides a captivating depiction of the Maldives and his distinctive glimpse behind the resort curtains:
“I was in one of the most established places of beauty on Earth (why else would all the 5-star resorts have been built?) and yet no one was about [on the local islands]. From the ground up, I could get a feel for the rich culture of an ancient maritime nation as well as a strong sense of a community of a people living in the middle of a mighty ocean…Other than Bangladeshi workers, few foreigners managed to gatecrash paradise…With the blazing sunsets on the South Equatorial Channel, gyrating currents in deserted lagoons, kaleidoscopes of coral, cascades of fish, crescents of perfect white sand, peaceful coral-stone villages, colourful birds, emerald jungle…there is no doubt about it, the Maldives has to be one of the most beautiful, colourful – and sometimes complicated – places on Earth.”
After reading the book, I reach out to Tom to see if he would do an interview reflecting on his adventures and he kindly obliged with some bonus gems:
What did you pack that you didn’t use? On my very first visit to the Maldives, a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, which was confiscated on arrival as I hadn’t known the rules (but should have).
What didn’t you pack that you wish you had? War and Peace by Tolstoy or Ulysses by James Joyce – a long book I’d always meant to read.
What did you pack that you used the most? My backpack, every day, hopping on and off ferries.
What did you break or lose? A pair of flip-flops, but easy to buy another.
What most exceeded your expectations? The calm on board the cargo ship from Male to Addu – and the camaraderie with fellow passengers and crew.
What most disappointed you? Getting ferry timetable information was sometimes tricky when I went, about a decade ago.
What food did you most enjoy? Garudiya tuna broth, served with chili, lime and rice.
What food did you least enjoy? A boring hamburger at a resort hotel.
When did you laugh the hardest? During a neighbourhood party on the remote island of Makunudhoo.
When were you the most nervous/anxious? When visiting certain politicians on Male.
What surprised you most about the destination? The great distance between north and south, 500 plus miles (and the rumbling political unrest).
What was your favourite day? It was an evening, night and morning when I joined a commercial tuna fishing boat on Hulhumeedhoo on Addu Atoll.
What was your favourite photo? Passengers clambering on and off the ferry by the beach at Utheemu on Haa Alif Atoll (see below)
What item (smaller than a bed) that you saw would you most want to take home with you? No item… just memories.
Name a word you learned in Dhivehi? In Dhivehi, ‘minivan’, which means ‘independent’. Each day I would read the then ‘Minivan News’ online bulletin.
Name a fun fact you learned about the place? The highest natural point in the Maldives is 2.4 metres above sea level (I went there and ‘climbed’ it).
What tip would you give someone about to embark on a trip like yours? Pack light.
What would you do (if money and logistics were no object), if you had an additional day to spend at the destination? Sit on a jolie – a simple string mesh seat – in the shade of a palm tree by the beach on Makunudhoo, sipping lime juice, watching the waves.
In this increasingly digital world, books are becoming rarer and rarer. Guide books are replaced by travel sites, identification guides are replaced by apps. Kuramathi’s own publication “Plants of the Maldives” exemplifies so many aspects of what makes a hard copy an especially enjoyable. It’s not just a source of information, but a superbly well-designed publication packed with gorgeously artistic drawing. The book format makes perusing the leaves about leaves leisurely and satisfying:
“The resort island served as an insightful base where most of the featured flora are found thriving in several nature appreciation sites such as the 300-year-old Banyan Tree, the Botanic Walk, a route where guests can observe diverse tropical vegetation, the Nature Trail, an untouched Maldivian forest in the heart of the island, and the Hydroponic Garden where most of the fresh produce served in the buffet restaurants are grown and harvested. ‘The publication is a credible knowledge tool added to the extensive activities of the resort. The book captures information on 65 plants, that constitute our biodiversity and are used in our food, culture, and traditions,’ said Dr Aminath.”
It is an aesthetically satisfying memento of this paradise where the land life often seems to get second billing to the legendary aquatic life around it, but the tropical lushness of its flora is just as much a part of this dreamlike destination (and perhaps long overdue, I have now added the tag of “Plants” to the blog).
International Book Day today. And no better place to be in the Maldives than the home of Maldives own resort bibliophile Malsa Maaz, overseer of Soneva Jani’s bookshop. Yes, the Soneva sister property, Soneva Fushi pioneered the bookseller concept, but Soneva Jani adds the extra distinction of being over water (like most of Soneva Jani) so you can browse with azure vistas around you. The other distinction is that the “Barefoot Bookseller” is a Maldivian herself. Maldives Complete was fortunate to catch up with her during its recent tour and she provided an exclusive interview with her own riveting story. For many of us, the pandemic lockdowns resulted in more reading than ever, and for Malsa it changed her life…
Where are you from in the Maldives? I am from Malé, the capital city of the Maldives. I grew up and finished high school there.
What was the first book you remember loving? The very first book series I remember falling in love with was the Magical Faraway Tree collection by Enid Blyton. The story revolved around three children who discover the Enchanted Woods with its magical folk. Enid Blyton’s books such as the Famous Five and Secret Seven were quite popular with Maldivian children and were readily available in the school library or bookshops.
What did you study? For my Bachelor of Arts, I studied Archaeology and Anthropology and I have just finished my Master of Research in Engaged Anthropology in the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I focused on documenting the Maldivian cultural heritage and learnt a few traditional arts & crafts such as coconut thatch weaving and lace embroidery weaving using traditional tools. It is a brilliant discipline that allows me to work just about anywhere.
How did you learn about the bookseller role? Over the first lockdown, I joined a lot of bookclub groups where I saw an article about a dream job selling books in paradise. I didn’t even realise it was the Maldives at first! But I was still studying at the point, so I couldn’t apply then. Few months later, as I was finishing my thesis, I saw the job role advertised again on a local news article and it said they were looking for a local candidate. It was perfect timing – so I applied as quickly as I could and now here I am!
What was a question that they asked you in the interview? I was asked about my previous work experiences and how I would utilise them in the Barefoot Bookseller role. My answer: I was working whilst in university to support myself and have experience in research, retail, hospitality and F&B. All of that work experience and studying a humanities degree has allowed me to improve my people skills especially when it comes to communication and engagement which the Barefoot Bookseller would require.
What is your favourite non-fiction book about the Maldives? The Maldives Islanders and Folk Tales of the Maldives by Spanish anthropologist Xavier Romero-Frias. He has lived and done fieldwork in the Maldives for a number of years and has contributed to documenting our unique cultural heritage and history.
What book have you re-read (the most)? Probably Pride and Prejudice! Elizabeth Bennett is one of my favourite literary characters of all time and I somehow always associate with her as she is not scared of breaking barriers. That inspires me – so I always end up re-reading it whenever I feel like I need a little motivation boost.
What book are you reading now? I am currently reading The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – recommended to me by a lot of guests. I am also reading The Apollo Murders which is a space mystery thriller by my favourite astronaut Chris Hadfield.
What is the most popular book requested recently? I have had a lot of requests for the new Bill Gates book – How to Avoid a Climate Disaster and we should hopefully have it in stock soon.
The Maldives’ shallow atolls might make for spectacular lagoons and particularly accessible snorkelling, but they were nightmarish obstacle courses for the seafaring trading ships of plying the East-West trade centuries ago. While the wooden vessels have long since rotted away, more modern ones have hit these lurking reefs plenty of times in recent years. In fact, enough to fill a book, “Shipwrecks of the Maldives” by Peter Collings. Not only is it full of dozens of wrecks that I wasn’t aware of (despite having nearly 2000 site in the Dive Site database), but most of them are meticulously researched about their history and background.
I was fortunate to catch up with author Peter Collings who provided a bit more background on his work for Maldives Complete:
What got you into wreck diving? – During the early expeditions in southern Egypt (1995), I brought together divers from all agencies-with a common goal to explore new locations looking for shipwrecks and unearthing their stories. Endorsed by the Red Sea Association, it soon became an international club which included divers from all walks of life with very useful skill sets, and non divers within the archival services of the world. It became the leading body of wreck research, and still is, in Egypt. To date the team have located, identified and surveyed 34 of the wrecks dived in Egyptian waters.
When did you first visit the Maldives? – 1995.
How long did the book take to write? – Three weeks.
Are there any aspects of wrecks in the Maldives that are a bit different to wrecks in other parts of the world? – Most wrecks there are deliberately sunk for tourists.
When Soneva Fushi announced their recruitment for a “Barefoot Bookseller” it was one of those fantasy jobs right up there with “Professional Cuddler” and “Ben & Jerry’s Flavour Guru” as one of the best jobs on the planet. The lucky bibliomerchant is Aimée Johnston. Her bio reads…
She studied History and English Literature at Trinity College Dublin and was part of the University of Tokyo’s AIKOM programme. Since graduating she has worked in the publicity department of Penguin Random House Ireland, managing campaigns for Irish and international authors including Tara Westover, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Aoife Abbey and most recently, TwistedDoodles. She loves open water swimming, travelling and factor 50 sunscreen.”
Maldives Complete was able to catch up with Aimee for an interview about her life as a Laccadive lady of leisure literature…
What prompted Soneva Fushi to open a bookstore on their resort? Soneva has always been a great innovator in the field of luxury travel, always pre-empting the needs and desires of guests and always willing to test an unchartered terrain, like their very own bookshop! For a lot of people leading busy lives, the only time they can sit back, relax and read for pleasure is when they are on holidays, so how brilliant to have a carefully curated bookshop on the island.
Where are you from? I’m from Antrim in Ireland but I moved to Dublin for college and fell in love with the city. I had been living there for seven years before moving to the Maldives.
What is your previous experience with books?
I adore reading and always have. I loved literature so much that I decided to study it in college and when I left, I knew I wanted to get a job in the publishing industry. I’ve been lucky enough to work in the publicity department of Penguin Random House Ireland for three years. It’s a brilliant job. You get to work with fantastically talented authors, promoting their writing as far and as wide as possible.
Do people come into browse or are they more looking for recommendations?
Both! Sometimes people come in with a blank slate, willing to be inspired by what they see on our shelves. Other times people can be unsure about what to read and I love nothing more than chatting to them, establishing their reading tastes and interests and finding the perfect book for them. It’s an amazing feeling, to know someone is walking away with a book that they’ll love.
What is the most popular genre? It really varies. Soneva Fushi guests have such a wonderful range of interests that every visitor to the bookshop is different. Generally though, our non-fiction piques a lot of interest. Guests want to feel informed, whether that’s by Peter Frankopan’s The New Silk Roads or Rudie Kuiter’s Fishes of the Maldives. Often our visitors are thrilled to see such an impressive collection of books on wildlife and sea-life that speak to their immediate environment.
What are you doing more of than you expected on the island? I’m doing a lot more eating than I imagined! Our staff canteen is simply amazing, and our chefs are brilliant. They can whip up a mean omelette that’s worth waking up early for!
What are you doing less of than you expected on the island? I’ll admit that there is a little less sunbathing than I naively fantasized about! There is so much to do on the island that I find I’m a lot busier than I was expecting, trying to do as much as I possibly can. It has been a lot of fun.
What book are you reading now? I’ve just finished reading Not Working by Lisa Owens. It follows Claire Flannery just as she’s quit her job in the hope that by taking some time out she’ll figure out what the ‘perfect’ job for her really looks like. I loved it. It has all the heart and humour of Bridget Jones but so totally original in its story. Claire’s quest for her ‘dream’ job was the ‘will they won’t they’ romance I didn’t know I needed! Next up on my reading list is The Woman in the Window by controversial author A.J. Finn, which is our first reading choice in the Barefoot Book Club.
Historically, when it came to the rest of the world first visiting the Maldives, Gan was the centre of the map, in fact the very heart of navigation and in the whole Indian Ocean area. The Addu Island has a proud aeronautical legacy that goes back decades and continues to this very day. And for a cargo plane full of fun facts that I picked up during my stay there this summer as well as some follow up research, check out Maldivian Holidays’ latest issue features a piece on Gan by yours truly. You can read their online version, and (appropriately enough) it is also distributed as an in-flight magazine in the Maldives.
As it happens, Equator Village welcomed the latest resort manager, Mohamed Waheed, this past week. May this resort fly high for many years to come.
Most dive books (Godfrey, Harwood & Bryning, Lonely Planet) try to cover a range of atolls. While this breadth approach is useful when trying to plan your next resort destination, it’s less useful when you’ve actually decided on your base where you are likely to stay mostly within your atoll. And increasingly, if you are a keen diver, that atoll is likely to be “Huvadhoo (Gaafu Alifu and Gaafu Dhallu).
Alexander von Mende’s book, “Diving in the Maldives – Huvadhoo, the forgotten atoll” is the ideal one for diver planning a trip to this unsung gem. He takes a different tack by focusing entirely on this one location in depth.
Huvadhoo is one of the furtherst atolls from the Male hub which may have served as a deterrent. But that unspoiled nature is now becoming one of its top allures. Von Mende also claims that it is one of the best locations for spotting large marine life like Silver Tip and Grey Reef Sharks, Dolphins, but especially Whale Sharks. South Ari has long been renowned as the pre-eminent diving atoll especially with its quite prominent whale shark marine protected area. But the more visitors get to know Huvadhoo, it could rival South Ari for that crown.
I know that when we dove and snorkelled Huvadhoo, it was some of the most impressive we had done in our years of Maldive visits. An open-water close encounter with a juvenile dolphin was one of the lifetime high points of diving for us. And we spotted dolphins every single time we got into a boat at Huvadhoo even for a simple, short transfer.
Von Mende’s book is also sort of an all purpose diving (and even snorkelling) book for anyone visiting the Huvadhoo atoll. It features in depth description 34 dive sites with dive chart illustrations for half. It also has 136 pages of “Identification Guide” provide pictures and other information on the fish, coral and other marine life found in that area.
One of the first things that I do when I arrive at a hotel room is to gather all of the marketing literature sprinkled liberally around the room and move it to some out of the way place. Lots of glossy material with pictures of palm trees and pina coladas that are not that interesting to me.
But Gangehi has created a booklet that was so good I brought it home. It is a guide to the plants and animals found on the resort. Fish guides are quite popular in the gift shops, but this is more land focused. The tropical life on the land has its own intriguing variety, colour and distinction. It’s great to have such a handy guide. You can buy natural guide books, but most cover the entire Indian Ocean and therefore are quite heavy (taking up precious luggage weight). Also, they tend to be so comprehensive it is often hard to find the particular creature you are seeking. Gangehi’s guide is limited to those critters found on the island itself so it is quite concise.
World Book Day! An apropos time to showcase the top books on snorkelling (and diving) in the Maldives. There are 3 main books on snorkelling (and diving) in the Maldives…
Dive Maldives by Tim Godfrey – The original. More focused on scuba diving, but it does highlight which sites are great for snorkelling too.
Complete Guide to Diving and Snorkeling the Maldives by Sam Harwood and Rob Bryning – No dive charts like Godfrey features, but Harwood and Bryning do have more information specifically on snorkelling. For example, for every site they indicate not just a star-rating for diving, but also one for snorkelling.
Diving & Snorkeling Maldives by Lonely Planet – A relatively recent find, though also out of print. Thinner and less comprehensive that the other two, but a handy guide for the most prominent sites.
All three cover the atolls with the most resorts…
North and South Male
Lonely Planet and Harwood/Bryning also both cover…
But only Harwood/Bryning cover the following atolls…
“The captain surely imagined it all a little differently. The French adventurer Francois Pyrard intended on sailing to India in 1602. But when his ship Corbin gave out on the open seas, he had to seek refuge in the Maldives. Unfortunately, the king there wouldn’t let the shipwrecked party leave for five years. When Pyrard and his crew were finally able to flee, they took the tale of the strange fruit with them back to Europe. It had been found frequently on the beaches of the islands. It wasn’t just that they were gigantic, the fruit’s shape was also reminiscent of a woman’s pelvic region. The king demanded that these alluring finds be delivered directly to him, and threatened that those who didn’t comply would lose a hand, or even be put to death. What Pyrard saw was the nut of the Coco de Mer palm, one of the rarest palm trees on the planet, also known as the Lodoicea maldivica. It is three to four times as large as an average coconut. They are also heavier than anything comparable that biologists can find, weighing up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds).”
It actually grows in the Seychelles, but makes its way to its namesake islands (“maldivica”) floating on the Indian Ocean waters which may account for its colloquial name, ‘Coco de Mer’. Der Spiegel describes this intriguing species in some detail on the occasion of the Botanical Garden in Berlin succeeding in germinating it. Despite its rather fertility-suggstive appearance, it is actually dubbed the ‘Panda of the Plant World’ for its difficulty in growing.
I researched the beguiling nut talking to Verena Wiesbauer Ali who not only helped with the previous QI pieces, but also co-authored the first definitive picture guide to the flora of the Maldives ‘Maldives: Trees and Flowers of a Tropical Pardise’. There are dozens of various guide books to the underwater delights of the islands, but this is the first that provides a comprehensive catalogue with dazzling colour photos for land lubbers. You can get a copy by writing to the co-authour Peter Dittrich (25 Euros) to find out what coconut palms and every other type of colourful and curious tree and plants that do grow there.