Bridging the unknown
The image I had always held of the Maldives was one of an archipelago of predominantly deserted islands populated by luxury resorts.
My limited perception needed to widen, but until I met Kokko and Secret Paradise my lack of knowledge did not have the chance to be challenged.
There are indeed many deserted islands in the Maldives, but of the 1,190 islands that form the country, only 154 are luxury resorts. Interestingly, there are actually more islands where only local people live. Exactly 183, to be precise.
This new universe of almost 200 islands magically appeared in front of my eyes, brought to life by the words of my first Maldivian tour guide during our virtual chat.
The white sand slowly emerged from the shades of blue of the Indian Ocean while Kokko’s stories were unfolding. The old image of the archipelago that had formed and stuck in my mind started vanishing, leaving space for a fresh but still unknown image. A vacuum had been created that needed to be filled with faces and stories. This was Kokko’s job.
OUR PERSONAL GUIDE
Kokko was born in the country’s capital city, Malé. The more restless of five brothers, he never wanted to risk getting bored. Defining himself as “unstoppable”, he adds – with his young, captivating smile – that he was also curious “about everything”.
His bubbling personality and positive attitude, together with his exceptional people skills, created the perfect staff profile for Ruth – the co-founder of Secret Paradise – who had the dream of unveiling the unexplored part of the Maldives islands: the local islands and their inhabitants.
Since 2016, Kokko has worked at Secret Paradise, guiding tourists to fully immerse themselves in the local communities. This is done through tours and activities created with the residents and the many local partners the company collaborates with, to support both the local economy and conservation of the islands’ unique biodiversity, educating tourists and locals about the importance of this.
SWIMMING WITH THE SHARK
The natural environment and the conservation programmes were not something Kokko was interested in while he was growing up, he admits, ashamed of himself. He regrets this attitude of his youth, and confesses, “I wish I had been taught about these things when I was young, like they do in the local schools today.”
But it was the day he swam with a whale shark that he had his “realisation moment”, as he told me.
While he was diving a few inches from a 9m-long shark, he decided that he wanted to protect these animals.
It was a happy coincidence that that day near the reef, he met a massive shark who carried his same name. The sharks are given names by the NGO Maldives Whale Shark Research Program to monitor their behaviour and wellbeing. They use dots on the bodies of the sharks to identify them, and that day our snorkelling tour guide met the only one named “Kokko”!
Something changed in Kokko at a visceral level when he took a deep dive with Kokko-the-Shark in those same waters that he has since turned into his second habitat.
Although he had been learning a lot about the natural environment and the conservation programs of the indigenous flora and fauna – through his training at Secret Paradise, as well as with all the local NGOs – it is not surprising that all that knowledge only made sense completely once in the water with one of its inhabitants.
The chain that connects the small fishes, the giant shark and the plastic bottles thrown into the sea by unconcerned individuals became metaphorical dots that our Kokko was now able to join, one stroke at the time.
Tourists do not need to swim with sharks to come to their own realisations, of course! However, I believe that having tangible and direct proof of our impacts helps the theory to sink into our souls. We can only hope that when that happens, everyone can have the same kind of life-changing experience as Kokko.
And there are many opportunities in the Maldives for visitors to create that space. They could, for example, take a tour with Secret Paradise to Vilimale and meet Hassan Beybe, president of Save the Beach, the Villingili-based NGO, to learn about the environmental work they do on the beaches and reefs, and even take a trip to their coral nursery.
Kokko shared with me another transformational story that changed perceptions in an irreversible way. The protagonist was a local shop-owner in Maafushi island who, having witnessed a group of strangers cleaning and looking after the beach of his own island, decided to offer them a thankful discount. A mixture of self-shame and gratitude was showing on the man’s face while the surprised and proud tourists went to pay the cheaper bill.
Kokko is a bridge to the unknown for his tourists in many ways, but particularly in terms of culture.
This is a very essential job, since many cultural misunderstandings can happen if a guide is not there to help.
A lack of response to a friendly greeting made by a tourist, for example, could be interpreted as impolite or even rude, when, in the case of the Maldivians – especially the women – usually it is extreme shyness. Different concepts of respect and social manners are often confronted, and it is well known that, if not explained in advance, this could create immediate misconceptions or at least prevent interesting dialogues.
However, there is a point that could be reached when the guide becomes superfluous, and even detrimental for the flow of communication.
Kokko seems to understand his crucial role as facilitator in building those bridges, and it is part of his purpose at Secret Paradise to encourage mutual engagement, but also disappear when appropriate. He knows that if he stays close enough to hear the conversation, locals will not talk to the tourists, for fear of being judged for speaking what they think is broken English.
Without the tour guide’s initial encouragement, a casual conversation would not have turned into an invitation for Robbin and James to join Shimu to the wedding that day, or to follow Jaleelbe for a tea at his place to carry on their amusing chat. Those would have been lost opportunities to dive into the local culture in an unplanned and spontaneous way.
THE TOURIST ATTITUDE
Kokko has unveiled many islands to me; he offers several concrete reasons to protect marine life for many tourists, translates cultures and allows encounters, dispelling misconceptions before they arise.
Kokko is a great guide, and I was curious to know what his ideal tourist would be. I asked the question and he started laughing. He sounded somewhat nervous, but seriously amused.
Was he surprised because he was never asked that specific question, or was he just reacting to the nature of it? Well, I will never know what his reaction really meant. He did not tell me, and I did not ask.
However, what he did give me as a reply, was an incredibly detailed description of his “ideal”:
“ They must leave their mobile phone at home, take off their shoes – especially if it is a pair of high heels – and, very importantly, they should empty their pockets.”
To this I asked, “Why are the empty pockets so important?”
“Because they have to be ready to jump off the boat, if I ask them to!” he laughed. Always ready for the next unknown adventure.
Kokko would love to be the tour guide of someone who is interested in the coral reefs and wants to look at the native plants and observe the birds and marine life in their natural environment.
Not satisfied, I asked Kokko to further clarify his reasons, and he responded in a way that sounded like a poem:
Someone who wants to be barefoot and does not think about their emails.
Someone who asks questions about local culture and is interested in learning something new.
Someone who thinks about nature Someone who sits on the beach to listen to the sounds of nature and enjoys the soft breeze on their face.
PREPARING YOUR NEXT ADVENTURE
Kokko loves to spend time just watching aircrafts taking off and landing at Velana International Airport.
When he was a boy, he wanted to work there.
He always arrives at the airport at least an hour prior to the arrival of his next guests to have the time to enjoy the view of the dream job of his childhood.
And even though he is not directing the aircraft up and down the airstrip today, I am convinced that, while he is sipping his coffee looking towards the runaway, he is already enjoying imagining his guests’ next adventure.
Kokko and Secret Paradise are waiting for you in the Maldives.
Be ready to jump!