The answers were all around me. The true Maldives is a bustling, proud and possibly unique nation. Although Male was a heavily urbanised capital on a tiny space, it had an amazing life force inside it; from the busy businesses to the intense social networks. And here on the eastern edge you could see the population enjoying themselves in the small parks and entertainment areas.
And of course they are a marine nation. Even those who hide away in the streets of Male for most of their lives, cannot escape that if they walk a kilometre in any direction they are likely to be at the seaside. And what I had seen was that they were not claustrophobic at all, in fact the sea was a great opening for them as the commuted on, recreated on, drew their nutrition from and were at one with that sea around them.
It certainly seemed to me that it needed to be protected. And the project I was involved with was forming one small set of rules that could help. It was essential that Maldives had a whole set of tools to both ameliorate the worst of the effects and find ways for people to cope with the changing way to their lives. It sounds awful to suggest that people have to live in a totally different way, but Maldivians have always had to live with this; their country has always been changing and morphing as we had seen on Thulusdhoo. It just might have to be more adaptive, and adapt faster, in future.
They celebrate the work done on the amelioration too – In one little park I saw one of the tetrapods perched on three of its legs and painted white. On the fourth leg, which stuck up in the air, a sign gave details of when the defences were created, with support from the Japanese, in 1990.
I walked on past more parkland to another sheltered beach area watered from another breach in the sea defences. This part of the island must get the full force of the Indian Ocean – there are no other islands to the east, just the open sea. And I saw how even with 2m high walls, the spray was routinely coming over, and large open sewers were intended to stop it ponding behind the walls. I wondered where those sewers went to and how you got the water to drain naturally back into the sea that was at the same level as the ground.
I’d now walked the entire circumference of Male. On my final evening alone, I realised there was another transect in the north that would show me more of the city. I started on the main shopping street again, but this time near the national sports stadium (where, even though I could not see over the stands, I could hear that some big event was going on). I then headed north but rather than get drawn magnetically once more to the coast, I turned left again and headed through some leafier, quieter streets. This area looked like it was older and more established than the southern part of Male. In amongst old villas still with gardens or courtyards were old churches, graveyards, or minaret. After some time I reached the Islamic Centre with its large golden dome. I had almost got back to Republican Square. It was then I saw the riot police.
It was Friday. Most work had stopped at midday and people had answered the call to prayer. I decided not to carry on in the government offices and, soon after noon, I had headed back to my hotel room to tidy up and complete the last pieces of work for this consultancy. As I made my way through the streets I found it blocked several times. Like so many things in the Maldives, most of the mosques are small and the number of people trying to pray far exceeded their capacity. So in Male, it was not uncommon to find whole streets shut off , a pile of shoes at one side, and hundreds of men on their mats praying towards the mosque door and Mecca.
In many Muslim countries, there can be demonstrations and protests after prayers about whatever is upsetting the populous, possibly egged on by some imams. I’ve been warned about this in other countries and I suppose I should have thought more carefully about my amblings that afternoon. To go to the main ceremonial square, the Republic Square, at this time was probably unwise.
It turned out that the number of riot police outnumbered the protestors, and I expect it was more a regular routine that the police come prepared in case something boils over. But in a country where I was used people dressed smartly but comfortably for the heat, to see police in full body armour – blue bullet proof jackets, hard helmets with visors, and all kind of devices strapped around their waists was a disjuncture from the idyll of the sleepy Maldives tourist image. In fact there is a lot of political tension in the Maldives. The political elite do not like to be criticised and have imprisoned some who speak out against them. Some aspects of the Internet are closed to Maldives and the media are controlled carefully.
So maybe it was not surprising that the situation that Friday was revealed to me as I walked around the city. But to me, it showed that while most of the world just sees the Maldives as a place to escape from the world with the tropical island clichés and top level cuisine and service, I could see a rich and complicated country. Maldivians had solutions for modern living in this curious archipelago, while maintaining that vital traditional connection with the reef and the sea. Maybe the sea will drown out the country in a few generations time, and control for stopping that lies well outside Maldives’ waters, but that’s no reason to try hard to adapt to the climate change effects and conserve an amazing, diverse and beautiful country.
The little area of grass I was on was inundated with sea water. It was not from the earlier rain; this had all dried up. The little swell there was allowed waves to cross the low footpath and saturate the grass. I spotted more and more of these damp patches as I walked up this side of the island. Sea level rise is happening right now. The Maldivians in their planning have tried not to close off the whole island from the sea, but at this gap in the defences the land was suffering the consequences. No storm, no high wind, the waves easily intruded into the city.
As if to reinforce the reminder that the Maldives are constantly guarded against the ocean’s might, I saw a tall funnel shaped statue on the south east corner of the island. The inscription told me it was the memorial to the 2004 tsunami. It was over 2500km from the epicentre of the earthquake that triggered the huge wave, but with little in the way, the islands were hit badly. Eighty-eight people died as a result of the tsunami. I looked again at the pools in the park; if that was what could happen from small sprays of waves, how much damage could happen if another tsunami hit. I started to ask myself whether it was all worth it. The inevitability is that sea level will continue to rise for the next few generations and it may mean that most of the Maldives is uninhabitable. Salt water intrusion onto the land would kill off all the vegetation, it would turn the freshwater lenses saline, it would erode away the land and everything on it. Even if it were tolerable when the weather was kind, the storms and heavy seas that always happen could seriously impede normal lives, and each time make more too worn out to fight back, and erode the capacity of the nation to bounce back. Why bother?
The next evening I explored the south east quadrant. Again I weaved through the tight streets to start with, and found that the buildings rapidly changed from the usual mix of apartments, offices and shops and were high walled industrial units. All the functional parts of a city were packed in here; the electricity generating station, various storage units, the odd factory. And I found what could possibly be the highest point in the whole Maldives. Behind a high concrete wall, a mountain of refuse towered above me, at least 10m high. I suppose like anywhere else, 100,000 people had to find a place to put their waste.
I emerged on the coast once more and crossed the busy road. But instead of the usual harbour crammed with boats I found an open area of water surrounded by flags. About twenty men were stripped down to shorts or trunks and were messing around in Male’s open air swimming pool. In a breach in the tetrapods the sea was sploshing in recycling the water in the pool. Even though it was starting to go dark, it was obviously a popular pastime. As I walked east along the promenade I realised I had come across the main recreation area of the city set around a series of squares, gardens and open spaces. In one square seats were laid out in the open facing a large cinema screen. When I reached the corner to head north again, I found a patch of open beach; the first time I had seen anything approaching natural coastline in Male. A few people were on the beach sitting talking, a scattering of eager surfers were riding a narrow set of waves in a small bay biting into the island. It was so strange after days of seeing the coast as a long concrete esplanade protected by high walls or tetrapods to see a bit of exposed coast. Then I stepped in something wet.
In the low sunlight of late afternoon, I marvelled at the colour in the scene. Not just the produce on the roadside or the colourful outfits of the Maleans, but the array of paint used on the boats, the crew’s clothes hanging out to dry next to the bric-a-brac of sea life; the fenders, the emergency boxes, the cargoes themselves. I saw the sun was starting to set and I promised myself I would see one sunset while I was here. The previous evenings I had been in the amid the high rise blocks and only knew it had gone down because the light levels had dimmed. I hurried on, pausing only to watch a guy gut a huge yellow fin tuna on board his vessel.
I hurried past the next section which was just a wall of warehouses shielding the main port of Male from the city. This area was a little run down, like so many ports, but I was soon at the western end of the island and there were many more office blocks, and more exclusive apartment buildings.
I passed a small restaurant ideally located with a shady garden looking out over the water. Behind it I noticed a high promenade, up a flight of steps from the street. It was littered with angling gear but there was still plenty of room up there so I decided to position myself on it for the show to come.
I watched the fishermen calmly putting worms or bits of flesh on their hooks and casting them out into the sea some 5m below us. I could see others fishing off the tetrapods to my left. In the distance beyond these was another one of the suburban islands covered in houses. And to my right were the roads of Male. I mean roads in the sense of a sheltered area of water, not the dense network of streets behind me. Moored across this area were about 30 ships of different shapes and sizes. Why they were there I was not certain; most likely the port is so small it can only deal with a couple of ships at a time, so the others have to wait their turn out in the deeper water. Or maybe they are being repaired or awaiting their next job.
Some ships were moving around in the channel in front of me, and interlacing them the ferries heading to the nearby islands. Most of the ferries heading out this way came not from the terminals I knew from the north side of the island but from another harbour in the south west corner of Male.
As a fuel boat chugged in front of us I realised the sun was nearly setting and was to fall behind the next island along. Between that island and the ships in the roads, the sea just extended out and fell off the edge of the earth and I could see the curvature of our planet clearly as I could make out billowing cumulus clouds that were right on the horizon. No doubt they were high in the sky but appeared to touch the water in front of me.
With a flash of yellow at the heart of a red sky, the sun plunged into a set of clouds, briefly shot intensive rays at me when it appeared below these, then set behind some small fluffy clouds hovering just above the island. At that moment a seaplane slowly passed us at low level, its odd bulky silhouette dark against the colour show behind. I watched the sun bounce off the clouds from beneath the horizon, making the nearby island look like a massive inferno from which no-one could survive. I moved off my perch and along the small promenade and noticed how many others had come to watch the show. Three young guys posed like statues for photographs in front of the fiery sky. With darkness approaching, and my stomach rumbling, I headed back along the main shopping thoroughfare to find a restaurant for the night.
I walked the whole north coast that evening. From the bustle of the ferry terminals with shuttles heading out to other islands every couple of minutes, I passed the relative calm of the Male coastguard boats, and close to the most ceremonial of locations in the city. Under a huge Maldivian flag was a series of small squares and gardens. Children were playing amongst the pigeons while parents looked on adoring their every move. I saw several grand buildings behind the trees including the Islamic Centre with its massive gold dome. I wandered through the area, the Republic Square, for several minutes and then rejoined the harbour wall and headed west once more. The scenery changed almost immediately as I was aware of a massive street market selling all the fresh fruit and vegetables for Male. Where this produce came from I did not ask, but assume it came from far and wide through the North and South Male Atolls to feed these hungry citizens. There must be few places to grow fresh produce in Male – the odd rooftop garden, a windowbox here and there maybe. Maybe a corner of a few of the wealthiest people’s garden plots, but what was on display in front of me was on a massive scale. Orange coconuts, bananas, root crops, vegetables. On the other side of the harbour wall here the water was crammed with an array of fishing craft, small to large with different gears to harvest the myriad of environments around the Maldives from the shallowest coral shelf to the deepest ocean trench.
I sat for a while on the breakwater and watched the activity. Not only were the boats used for fishing, but many served as small cargo vessels. I saw several packed with crates and bags of all shapes and sizes, often with several people perched on top to give the impression it would sink if someone aboard sneezed. Again I was seeing how the average Maldivian never saw the coastline as the limit of their realm; they accessed and used the sea without batting an eyelid. But it made these harbours essential nodes in everyone’s lives. Whether commuting, migrating, travelling to sell your produce or wares or just enjoying yourself, the coast was a vital location, and attracted others to catch the ever passing trade.
The next morning I awoke to a rainstorm, and I saw for real what happens when water has nowhere to drain. Most of the roads were flooded and in places the water was rising across the small pavements and were lapping at the steps of the buildings. As I cautiously negotiated my way to work, I realised the district around my office had been worst affected. Here it was not just the rainwater collecting, it was coming up from under the ground and water from other areas was streaming in here. This was the lowest point of a very low island. One of my colleagues at the Department of Environment explained to me that where we were sitting was on one of the earlier reclamation sites in Male, and the sediment used to fill up was not only lower than the coral island, but also more porous and the water table easily rose above the surface and flooded the area.
Every pedestrian trod carefully that day and avoided the wake of fast moving vehicles, but it was tough in some areas. The heat of the day did let it dry out quite quickly, though, and that evening I was able to go walkabout in the streets of Male once more. This time I headed north from the hotel to the great long central thoroughfare which I had driven along on the first morning, the Majheedee Magu Road. Much of the central area of this road was the larger stores and small shopping malls which at 5pm were crazy busy. Above the long line of vehicles inching each way along this thoroughfare, I could see a small round circle of sky at the far end. If I looked the other way, I could see another circle of light. From this one point I could see both ends of Male Island, and I was walking along the longest axis.
As I got to the eastern end the traffic and the hecticness of the shopping district calmed and I found myself in a small park. At the end of the road I turned northwards and passed the ferry dock we had used earlier in the week to head to Thulusdhoo. It was now busy with commuters – this dock tended to serve people to the nearby islands to the north; both the airport and a couple of residential islands. Many of these islands had been recently expanded with artificial reclamation schemes. Hopefully they would not continue to be infilled with high rise apartment blocks like Male, but the pressure on the biggest city on the country meant that to suburbanise the population would take more reclamation and island space than was available in the environs. The population of Male is over 100,000 in an area of a little over 5km2 puts it in the top 50 of densely populated cities.