“Oh no, you’re going to visit Maafushi? You’ll have to be very careful there.”

The taxi driver glanced over at me and I pretended to look concerned. It was 6am and we were on the way to Colombo airport, due to be arriving in Male within a few hours. I prepared myself to hear about how visiting a local island in the Maldives was far too dangerous for foreigners. Independent travel has only been around in the country for four years, so very little is known about it — most people still believe the only way to visit is via $500 a night luxury resorts.

I’d managed to find a few local islands with guesthouses — Maafushi, Fulidhoo and Guraidhoo — but with so little information online I had no idea what they were actually going to be like. I did, however, know that our driver was probably going to warn us about crime and advise us to visit a resort instead. A resort would be much better suited for foreign visitors. Somewhere where the beaches would be cleaned and the bugs would be exterminated and the water would be $10 a bottle.

“Why do we have to be careful?” I asked.

“Maafushi, it is not a good place to visit. I used to work on Maafushi Island in the 1980s. Before you were born!” He chuckled. “Back then, we called it Leprosy Island.”

“Erm, Leprosy Island?”

“Yes, Leprosy Island! There you will find a very big leper colony taking up half the island. That’s why it is called Leprosy Island. You need to be very, very careful there. Lots of leprosy there.”

I turned in my seat to stare at Dave with horrified eyes. Like always, he’d left me in charge with researching our new destination and I’d assured him I’d found some wonderful islands to stay on. I mean, it’s the Maldives! It couldn’t not be wonderful! Even with the lack of information about anywhere we were visiting.

Dave stared back at me in silence but I couldn’t tell what he was thinking. Not wanting to hear the taxi driver tell us that Fulidhoo was actually Smallpox Sanctuary and Guraidhoo was otherwise known as Syphilis Cove, I didn’t ask for any more details.

I made a note on my phone to Google the symptoms of leprosy and pondered my imminent demise for the rest of the drive.

Maafushi Island palm trees

Maafushi Island: lepers abound!

“So, Leprosy, huh?” Dave said as we made our way through Colombo airport.

“Seriously, Dave! I have never come across it being referred to as that. I mean, there were only, like, three websites with any kind of useful information about Maafushi, but still! You’d think they’d warn against visiting if it was all about the leprosy, wouldn’t you?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. You did the research.”

It was true. I’d happily taken on all the research and failed in so many ways. I’d even forgotten to buy our flights to the Maldives.

Yes, two days before we were due to arrive, Dave asked me to email him the flight details and… I couldn’t find them. An hour of searching my inbox led me to nothing.

I had booked every single guesthouse for the next three weeks, I’d figured out what ferry transfers we’d need to take, and I’d even booked our flights out of the Maldives and into Thailand. And yet, somehow, I’d managed to forget our actual flights to the Maldives.

Hi, I’m Lauren. I’ve been travelling for three years. I’m a travel expert.

One day.

Leprosy everywhere

Leprosy everywhere

We landed at Male airport, and passing through immigration was surprisingly simple and low-key. We collected our backpacks and were greeted with an arrivals hall like no other. Rows upon rows of resort kiosks. I’d have to guess there were at least 100 of them. Probably more. I’d never seen anything like it.

I stopped for a moment to soak it all in. We were the only people in the airport with backpacks and were attracting quite a few stares, from locals and tourists alike. We were given even more puzzled looks when we passed the kiosks and stepped outside the airport. Unlike most visitors, we were going to be travelling in the Maldives on the cheap.

We walked to the nearby ferry terminal. Male airport is on an island outside of Male itself, so we had to take a quick trip across the water. It cost $2 for the ride across, and we were the only tourists on board.

Stepping off the ferry in Male, I was surprised to see no cluster of taxi drivers like there usually is outside of an airport. There was nobody there.

After wandering aimlessly down a few streets, we eventually found a driver and negotiated with him to take us to Male’s main ferry terminal.

Who knows what lurks behind a door like this? Hint: leprosy

Who knows what lurks behind a door like this? Hint: it’s probably leprosy

Transport in the Maldives had been an endless source of frustration while I was making plans. First, there are the horribly expensive options:

Speedboats: expect to pay at least $200 for a single speedboat journey in the Maldives. I was quoted a price of $130 for a 6 kilometre trip by one hotel.

Seaplanes: You’ll be looking at around $500 each way for these.

For budget travellers, the only option left is the local ferries. And the timetables are kind of complicated if you’re trying to plan an island hopping adventure.

There are 26 atolls in the Maldives and over 1000 islands to choose from. As I mentioned above, there’s barely any information about these islands online. No articles, no photos. There’ll maybe be a couple of sentences on Wikipedia if you’re lucky. I therefore planned my trip around which islands had guesthouses listed on Airbnb. I narrowed it down to three islands at random. Now I just had to work out how to get to them.

In the Maldives, the weekend runs from Friday to Saturday, and no ferries run on Friday.

I decided on Maafushi as our first island to visit. The ferry timetable showed that the ferry from Male to Maafushi runs “every week day”. We were arriving in the Maldives on a Saturday. Does “week day” mean the Maldivian week days, so Sunday to Thursday? Does it mean the Western week days, so Monday to Thursday? Or did it mean every day of the week but Friday? Fortunately, it was the last of those, but it took a few emails to a guesthouse owner to find out.

Next, we were going to Fulidhoo, on a different atoll. To Fulidhoo, the ferries run every other day. We’d planned to stay on Fulidhoo until Thursday but Thursday was one of the days when the ferry didn’t run. They didn’t run at all on Friday, so we’d have to leave on Saturday — as long as Saturday counted as a week day on this timetable, too.

And so on.

Itineraries were shifted around. Days on every island were extended. My head almost exploded countless times. And this was just a three week trip to three islands. I’d hate to plan anything more convoluted.

Maldivian ocean

Travel days in the Maldives always involve several hours of this.

Back to Male.

Our guesthouse owner on Maafushi had claimed that there might be a ferry at 10am, an hour after we landed. There was no record of this ferry online and, when we got to the ferry terminal, we discovered it wasn’t running that day.

With the next ferry not running for another five hours, we wandered aimlessly around Male in a sleep-deprived state.

Was this why nobody travelled independently in the Maldives? Was there no information online because there was nothing to discover but leprosy?

Had we made a huge mistake in coming here?

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