Pristine white beaches, crystal blue seas, luscious jungle, vibrant marine life, colourful coral; a list of sights you might expect to see when you visit a collection of tropical islands like the Maldives. But very few people will picture the vast wetlands that occupy some of the smaller, lesser populated islands. Goidhoo is one of these islands, and a few weeks ago I was invited by some of my colleagues to visit their family homes there.
It’s only a twenty-minute boat ride to the southernmost edge of the Baa atoll, where Goidhoo sits, isolated from the rest of the coral islands. Goidhoo is home to fewer than six hundred people, so the sense of community is extraordinary and as we arrive we are greeted by islanders, who offer a refreshing coconut, before we are encouraged to hop on the back of a truck. It’s the first car I’ve seen in the three months since I arrived in the Maldives and it feels particularly strange to be climbing up into the open trailer.
As we leave the small harbour behind us, I find myself smiling at how far removed this experience feels from my life back home in London. Bumping along dusty paths, perched on the edge of the truck I think about the changes in my life since arriving in the Maldives, as I sit and chat with new friends and enjoy the local scenery. Like most of the thousand islands that make up the Maldives, Goidhoo isn’t at all large, so it’s not long before the winding paths lined with screw pines and palm trees turn towards our destination and we hop out of the vehicle together.
At our destination, a vast expanse of water stands before us. This water is worlds away from the clear, crisp, moving force that is the Indian Ocean. Instead, in front of us are mangroves – vast wetland areas that occupy tropical parts of the planet. It’s a beautiful sight, and a swampy oasis is surrounded by the lush trees which are thick with twisting branches. The water isn’t clear here, but it is so still that when I go to step into it I create a ripple that undulates across the the water’s expanse. Once my toes descend in, the water is warmer than I expected, having soaked in the sun all day, and it’s a strange sensation on my skin. As I press downwards, my feet squelch into the swamp and dig down into the soft, muddy floor. I’m in past my ankles before the soles of my feet finally touch the firm bottom.
The mud here is supposed to be restorative for your skin, and some locals use it as a mud bath. Our guide tells us that it also attracts local children and when the water is a little shallower the wetlands become a playground for mud fights and frolicking during the day. Most importantly of all, the mangroves are a critical part of the Maldivian ecosystem. Their splayed roots protect the shores from erosion, creating a barrier against the land. Mangrove trees also absorb more than four times the amount of carbon dioxide than their upland counterparts, and they act as excellent filtration systems for the water in which they are immersed. As a result, these wetland areas are the home to some truly diverse wildlife, including the huge mud crabs whose holes are crater-like in the sand around the lagoon. We learn about the eco-systems and wade around, applying the oozy mud to our skin, hoping to see the benefits of the minerals later.
After soaking ourselves for a while in the restorative water, it’s time for some lunch and we hop back into the truck to be taken off for a home-cooked Maldivian meal. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a family home and the welcome is as wonderfully warm as I had hoped. As we are introduced to my colleagues’ families, we are offered local fruit and encouraged to dip it into Rihaakuru – a paste made from fish and spices that compliments the sourness perfectly. Due to their abundance on the Maldivian islands, fish and coconut form the basis of most traditional dishes. Tuna is the Maldives’ largest export and so features in most meals. Plates of fish soup, mashuni – a traditional tuna, coconut, lime and chilli salad, and various types of fresh fish and rice appear on the table, along with roshi – a soft floury flatbread. We eat together, making appreciative noises as we chew and chat around the table.
The afternoon passes all too quickly. Before we leave the island, we stop for a refreshing iced coffee at a local café overlooking the small harbour, where we indulge in some gulha and masroshi, both traditional snacks made with tuna, coconut and spices. As we board the boat which will take us back to Soneva, we look into the clear ocean beneath us and spot a fever of stingrays playing in the water. Spanning several metres each, they glide around us for some time before drifting away towards the horizon. It’s a magical end to a perfect day and as we bump over the gentle waves, I smile to myself, thinking of all the things I’ve learnt on these islands.