Travel Tips for Maafushi, Maldives

After spending 11 days on Maafushi, we learned a few things that I think will help others traveling to this little, local island. There are less expensive places in the world to visit with beautiful beaches where you’ll feel detached from the rest of the world, but the Maldives is a special place. If we had the money to spend on the beautiful resort islands with the exotic bungalows over the water, we would’ve spent a few days there, but I’d still want a few days on Maafushi.

I love getting a glimpse into everyday life of locals. Seeing kids going to and from school, Hearing the call to prayer…even if it wakes me at 6 a.m. Seeing locals jumping on the back of motor scooters to get around the 1.8km island. Going into Suzy’s little Fine Bake Bakery for the best banana bread. Those little things aren’t available to someone staying purely at the resort islands.

Sand and palm trees everywhere makes me happy and relaxed. Granted we were not there during rainy season, and saw only a couple hours of rain the entire time. But having everything covered by sand, and nothing paved by cement or asphalt is relaxing. At first I was annoyed that I dragged sand everywhere, but then I got used to it and realized how much more peaceful it is to have nothing paved.

The all-you-can-eat BBQs (not in the Texas sense) of fish and chicken are fun, but after a few days we grew tired of them. So, we started asking the restaurants if we could order off the menus. Every time the answer was yes, and we ended up with better meals for less cost. We never ate enough to really cover the cost of the buffets, and quite honestly they were stressful to my in-grained American ways. Being shoved in a buffet where other nationalities’ customs are to take as much food as one can pile on a plate, cutting line, and being demanding to staff was stressful to me. There was one time where a brand-new platter of spring rolls was placed on the buffet in front of my daughter, she was excited to get a couple when a woman shoved her way in front of her and took all but 2. My daughter frowned at me, and I so wanted to yell at that woman…not the way I want to feel on a vacation! Our meals off the menu were so much better, freshly made, exactly what we wanted, and we just had to sit at our table and wait to be served while others battled it out in the buffet lines.

The Maldives is super customer-service oriented…but that doesn’t mean fast. They’re on island time, and the faster you fall into living on island time, the more relaxing your vacation will be. They’re super trusting, probably because you will go to jail and have no way off the island if you don’t pay, but no one ever asked for payment upfront. The dollar is the preferred currency, but you better get it before you land in the Maldives because ATMs will only give you Maldives Rupee. (And your dollars better not have a rip in them either, because they will not be accepted. My $20 bills from the U.S. had the smallest little tear in them, and it was as if I had Monopoly money.)

There are no hawkers chasing you down or hassling you on the beach. We’ve been on beautiful beaches in Thailand, Mexico, Bali and my daughter would want to leave because of the hawkers. The girls went scuba diving with Passions and have never been so spoiled on their dives. The Passions guys would load all of their equipment and tanks in their little truck in the morning and then setup everything on the boat. The girls literally just had to show up, put the equipment on, and dive. They even changed out the tanks for them between dives while the girls drank the tea they gave them. Then after every dive, they didn’t even have to take their gear off the boat. The Passions guys took everything back to the dive shop, washed it all, and hung it up to dry. It was all fun and no work!

Then, our ode to watermelon juice! I think we drank it with every meal, and it’s sooooo good. We drink it a lot in China, but there was something about the watermelon juice in the Maldives that just tasted so much better and refreshing. I’ve only been back in China a few days and I really miss our watermelon juice. We also appreciated the alcohol ban because that meant annoying, loud drunk people didn’t exist on the island. (Although, the resort islands do allow alcohol. So, if you want to drink you can head over there or onto the Kaani yacht that is anchored just off-shore and serves alcohol.) But we liked the family atmosphere on Maafushi. My teenage daughters appreciated not being hit on by much older drunk guys at night, and this momma also liked that she didn’t have to become momma bear on those men–an increasing problem in recent years.

You know it’s a good vacation when your daughter has tears flowing down her face because she doesn’t want to leave! Tears at the end of a vacation because it was such a great break from reality and stressful every day life means it was exactly what the soul needed.

11 days in Maldives

After a busy Christmas break followed by numerous cold, bad air-quality days in China, family visits, and a return to the U.S. for chemo and tests that ended taking me around the world (literally) due to snowstorms in Chicago rerouting me to Newark and then across the Atlantic, I needed a Chinese New Year break that had:

1.) Clean air and very warm temperatures.
2.) Lots of relaxation and rest.
3.) Adventure for my daughters (usually scuba diving).
4.) Wouldn’t take us too far off our China time zone.
5.) Safe place for a single mom with two teenage daughters to feel comfortable traveling.

Those criteria actually leave a lot of options, but then cost becomes the defining factor. One place that had been on our bucket list since we moved to China 2.5 years ago has been the Maldives. Cost continually knocked it out of the running. But I learned that planning in advance actually opened it up. While it still doesn’t fall into the budget travel category like Vietnam, it can land in the doable category if we don’t stay at a resort island with the cool cabanas over the water.

When I planned this trip in September, I got the last room at a beachfront guest house (hotel) on Maafushi that would accommodate 3 people (I’ll write another post about traveling as a party of 3 in Asia, just know it’s often problematic). At that time, my health was such that I thought I’d at least be snorkeling, which I may try tomorrow, but as of yet I haven’t felt well enough to do. But being able to do nothing for a week, breathing in fresh, hot, humid air and wading in beautiful turquoise waters has been more healing and needed than I ever imagined back in the Fall.

The girls have gone out scuba diving every day with a very nice dive shop (Passions Maldives) that is connected to our hotel (Kaani Beach). They’ve been disappointed by the coral life (the warmer waters have caused bleaching lately), but have been excited by the abundant, large animal life! Surrounded by 30 white-tip reef sharks one dive, a dozen moral eels another, flocks of eagle rays, curious sea turtles, playful clown fish, and even an elusive frog fish. They’ve even found octopus during the day dives hiding in their little coral caves. It’s different from their other dive experiences, and so they’ve adjusted their expectations and are having fun with the dives.

As has been a theme this year, we’ve faced turmoil at most of the locations we’ve planned to visit. Maldives was looking good, or so I thought. Everyone wrote about how little crime there is in the Maldives, and how safe it is. It is a strict Muslim country so alcohol, drugs, inappropriate dress, being amorous in public is actually not allowed and could end you up in jail. Luckily, we’re on the island of the Maldives with the only jail in the country. Since none of those things are part of our vacation plans, it actually makes the Maldives a great family destination! Being that Maafushi is a local island (an island where the locals live), there are quite a few families here and not the honeymoon destination my oldest feared we’d be walking into.

Then, just days before we were to get on our plane, the country was thrown into a 15-day state of emergency due to a constitutional crisis between the President and the Maldives Supreme Court. There were a few riots in the capital island of Male, and China recommended cancelling vacations to the Maldives. Everyone questioned my daughters as to why their mom was still planning to go to the Maldives. The country is still in a state of emergency. The political prisoners at the center of the crisis are just at the other end of our small island, but we’ve seen no rioting or demonstrations. In fact, there’s been little discussion as to the situation anywhere on the island.

Even in the middle of the country’s biggest turmoil in modern-day history, this is still a relaxing, laid-back, friendly little island. My daughters and I wonder what life is like on the resort islands…they look really cool! But for now, we are happy with our budget Maldives vacation.

Life on a local island allows us to try out different restaurants each meal. The food is a lot of rice, curries, bbq of chicken and fish (tuna), but we’ve also had good pasta and pizza here. For the three of us I’m spending about $40 every lunch, $60 on every dinner and we’re eating breakfast at the hotel (included with our room). We also have ton of water sport options available to us like jet skis, parasailing, kayaks, SUPs, wake boarding, etc. Our hotel is nice, but nothing luxurious.

The people of Maafushi are extremely friendly and helpful! Another aspect we’ve enjoyed is no hawkers. Even when we go in the souvenir stores, no one is annoying us to buy something. No one is selling on the beach, so you can rest in peace and not have someone nag you to let them braid your hair or buy a necklace.

I had no idea how needed a do-nothing but relax vacation was going to be needed…but I’m glad that’s what I got! And the girls are glad there’s still a little splash of adventure.

Traveling with Cancer

Cancer is not my god! That phrase continually travels through my head when I think about what I can and cannot do with Stage IV Lung Cancer. I am a single mom with two teenage girls in high school, and I cannot stand the idea that they will go through life’s ups and downs without me, so while I have breath in my lungs I am taking them on adventures.

By the time my oldest graduates high school on June 1, she will have visited at least 20 countries. I’ve made the decision that in lieu of gifts that most American teenagers receive, we will make memories. Plus, having a car is useless while she is living in China. I’m sure that if we lived in the U.S., she would love to have a car but as a family we have chosen a different route.

Traveling to Japan for her 16th birthday, Maldives for her last Chinese New Year in high school, the Austrian Alps to learn snowboarding will hopefully have a far greater impact on her than the proms, parties and cars that most American high school students experience. But I don’t know. She may one day realize how much of the traditional high school experience she missed and wish she had those memories.

I literally go from chemo treatments back to work or on a trip with my daughters. Sometimes I spend more time in a hotel room than I’d like, or ever imagine I would do. But while God has given me the energy to be able to handle this schedule, I’m realizing that I have new limitations. Laying in bed at my parents’ home was killing me because I was bored and hated the way people would look at me. When I was first diagnosed in China, the doctors looked at me as if I was a dead woman walking.

I’ve been putting off chronicling these adventures, but since I cannot scuba dive any longer I have a lot of time on my hands in the Maldives and decided to finally start sharing my journey of journeying with cancer. My doctor at MD Anderson continually looks at me with a quizzical expression. But he hasn’t told me to stop, and so my daughters and I are off to see the world, make memories and take advantage of every opportunity that comes our way!