From my seat on the beach on Mahibadhoo, I saw a man’s head come out of the water in the reef area at the edge of the lagoon, his hair dark and curly, falling to his shoulders. He motioned to a tourist couple just getting in, and soon the three of them were standing together, eyeing something below.
A few minutes later one of the Israeli tourists emerged, water dripping from the T-shirt and shorts women must wear on local beaches in Maldives. “It was beautiful and terrible,” she said. The local man soon stepped out of the lagoon too, a long, thin spear in one hand and an octopus in the other.
I had been sitting on the beach for much of the morning, staring at the water that started clear at the shore and then alternated shades of aquamarine and a deep blue. My plan had been to snorkel every day on Mahibadhoo, but the currents were strong in the lagoon and the water too choppy for swimming outside of it. Plus, I was nursing a concussion after smacking my head on the side of a boat the week before.
In my three days on the island I had already taken several walks through the narrow streets to see the houses, their blue, green, and lavender paints worn from wind and humidity. And as I wandered, I attempted—not so successfully—to make connections with locals. A few smiled in return but never tried for conversation, and even the kids stared at me with open mouths. People on Mahibadhoo seemed particularly reserved, but maybe it was me who was the shy one, new again to open-ended travels and never sure if I was dressed modestly enough in a place where some women covered all but their eyes.
The man with the octopus, Rosso, appeared just as I began to wonder what to do with myself next. At the shoreline, he yanked out the innards and tossed them in the water. “The fish will eat it,” he said.
He told me he could sell octopus for $10 USD/kilogram. First, though, he needed to clean it. He sat on the beach and coated the octopus with sand. It would give him a better grip to peel off its outer skin, including the suction cups that I had always eaten other places.
Rosso said the octopus hid under coral and used their tentacles to place small rocks in front of the openings. If you pulled away the rocks one by one, there was the octopus, which he snared with a hand spear. Sometimes they were out hunting, he said, and then it was easier to catch them. I met a man the next day who snatched one from the reef with his bare hand, the water filling with a cloud of blood as he ripped out the guts. He would share it with his friends for dinner.
When Rosso finished skinning the first octopus, he retrieved a bag with two others he had speared that day, laying out the biggest one on the sand, its tentacles extended like the rays of the sun. Under its whitish skin a reddish brown movement flushed the surface of the skin and then retreated. He called it a “camouflage.” Octopus use the camouflage to dodge predators, but the skin can react this way to light even when the octopus is dead.
As you’d expect in a country made up of 1,200 islands, fishing is among the biggest industries in the country. Over the days on Mahibadhoo–the capital of the South Ari Atoll with a population of about 2,000–it seemed that if I couldn’t spend all day in the sea, I could still feel the reach of it throughout the island.
A woman named Maryam first served me the fish curry with a side dish of drumstick leaves deliciously fried with garlic, onion, and chili. She was the primary cook at the guesthouse. I watched her joke with a man who worked there and later sit on a bench with her young boy leaned against her legs, her arms wrapped around his chest.
One afternoon I helped her set the table for lunch. She told me her husband worked as a dive instructor at one of the resort islands and visited once a week. I noticed light perspiration on her face, her head and body fully covered in heat that left most sheltered inside until the late afternoon. I asked her how women decided how much to cover. Personal choice, she said, with some women fully covering the face. “It’s too much,” she said. She served the meal, chicken curry and a cooling salad made from chopped cucumber and another leaf, and then fruits for dessert, placing her hand on my back and smiling at me as she put the plate down.
The water stayed rough—a period of changing winds that comes twice a year—but I made two snorkeling trips, spotting a sleeping nurse shark and a sea snake on one day trip and watching the bioluminescent plankton sparkle underwater on a night snorkel in the lagoon. Mostly, though, I sat on the beach—a dirtier sand that made it so-so by Maldives standards—covered head to toe to keep the searing sun from scorching my skin. At dusk I looked for the flying foxes—among the largest bats in the world—that slept hanging by their feet in the trees during the day and opened their wings to soar from tree to tree in the evening.
On my last day Maryam offered to make my favorite meal for lunch: fish curry and drumstick leaves. She smiled as she told me her husband would be visiting that night.
As she put down the food she told me in limited English that she had searched all over the island for more drumstick leaves. She had enough for lunch but had wanted to give me more to take with me. I brought my hand to my heart as I thanked her, touched by the lengths she had gone to and her genuine warmth. She smiled, reached out, and touched my arm.
Getting to Mahibadhoo:
Public ferries go from Male (Villingili Ferry Terminal) to Mahibadhoo Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday and take 4.5 hours ($10 USD one way). The public ferries return to Male on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Buy your tickets at the ferry terminal counter ideally one hour in advance. If you are coming from other islands along the public ferry route 304 (e.g., Dhigurah, Dhangethi) you may also be able to take a ferry north from those islands to Mahibadhoo.
Public speedboats run every day from jetty 5 or 6 in Male and take 1.5 hours ($25 USD one way), though the day I came to Mahibadhoo the ride was 2-2.5 hours because of the rougher seas. If you are booking your guesthouse in advance, they can help with reserving a seat for the public speedboat.
Last, you can also book a private speedboat. Travel time is estimated at one hour. I don’t have exact cost information, but an estimate I saw said $750 USD one way (gulp).
Where I Stayed: Noovilu Suites (I booked through booking.com for a better rate). The staff was friendly, the bed was the best I slept on in Maldives, and it had an open air bathroom that I loved. They also have free snorkeling equipment for guests and can take you on various excursions for an extra cost.
Other Notes: There are several restaurants to choose from on the island, so if you don’t want to eat all of your meals at your guesthouse, you have many options. And unlike some other local islands, Mahibadhoo has an ATM, so you do not need to get cash out in advance. You can also get a SIM card on the island. Last, there is a bikini beach (where women can sunbathe/swim in a bikini or one-piece bathing suit) on Mahibadhoo, but it is windy and rocky. I recommend using the local beach instead, though women will need to wear a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts on the local beach.