Next morning we had to be up early to travel to Thulusdhoo, a populated island to the north east of Male. We crammed into a small taxi with our field kit and inched our way through the morning traffic, across the main shopping street and almost back to the wharf where I first embarked from the airport.
It was there that I got the first jolt against my presumptions of living on small Maldivian islands. Many of the people who work in Male do not live on Male. From several directions we could see bus like boats crammed full of commuters. They slipped into the harbour with ease and discharged their human cargoes on the already crowded streets of Male. There was no pushing, squabbling, hardly a noise save for the low whirr of the boats’ engines; but still hundreds of people at a time, dressed smartly in shirt and trousers, suits, dresses, saris and burqas, would stream off the gangplanks in a serene harmony.
We were waiting for our local project manager, Mohamed, to arrive, and also waiting for our own boat to Thulusdhoo. The boat was obvious; from the north a large white cruiser entered the harbour and made straight for us. They had clearly been told to expect three Brits and since we were the only (relatively) tall and white people on the hard the helmsman headed the boat straight for us.
Mohamed, a young, quiet but authoritative and knowledgeable man turned up soon after in light blue trousers and an open white shirt, cool shades and a fresh haircut. He had a satchel slung across his shoulder and he greeted each of us in turn. Within a few moments we were aboard our cruiser – four of us spread over three rows of seats at the rear of the boat, and we were being steered out to the open water.
The sun was starting to set – glistening on the golden dome of a large mosque on the other side of the square. So we ambled back to the hotel and observed the first of many rush hours in Male that I was to experience that week. The pavements are narrow and often obstructed by constructions, piles of waste, the odd vehicle parked up, or shop wares on display. So we had to zigzag from street to sidewalk and watch out for all the other traffic around. There were many small cars and trucks and the occasional bus, but mostly it was mopeds and motorcycles. We often walked single file , trying not to knock over the stack of bikes parked up on the roadside. As people left their places of work, they did what so many workers do – they hurry home, they pick up some last minute shopping items – either that key ingredient for the evening meal, or something for the house that will help them clean, entertain, relax, sleep. Others went to exercise before the night came on – frantic football matches on the small patches of sports fields around the southern part of the island.
While it was familiar, two things crossed my mind as we transected through the streets. One was the intensity of activity in these narrow streets. The second was that whatever the commuting was to be done, it would only be a small distance before people reached their destination, given the island was barely a mile across. I was to be proved wrong on that one later.
We ate at a small restaurant a couple of streets away. Being in an open courtyard it gave us some fresher air to sit in, but the height of the buildings around both was claustrophobic and allowed the noise of all the clients resound against the concrete. Maldives being a strictly Muslim country, alcohol was not on any menus; indeed only in secluded tourist resorts could you access as much as a beer. So I got used to teas, cordials and sharp acidic lemonades. All of which were remarkably refreshing in the humid heat in the city.
It was so good to see Jeremy – the last time was four years beforehand when I had to hurriedly leave Rodrigues. While he introduced me to Dave, a large cheerful Glaswegian, we quickly caught up on key important updates in our lives, and they gave me a run down in what they had achieved given the 24 hour advantage they had over me in terms of Maldives knowledge.
They had done all the introductory meetings with the government people we were to work with. We were to head off quickly tomorrow morning to one of the nearby islands to look at the real world implications of the guidelines we were to write. Then after a further day, Dave and Jeremy were going to head off to some of the more far flung islands while I was to be left in town to work on some database and have a few more meetings with officials. I was a bit disappointed that I was not to travel further but what I was already seeing was more exotic and enchanting it was bound to be a rich trip.
This small reception area with barely room for a small table and a few comfy chairs, was not conducive to a proper meeting so we decided we would head off to a cafe to allow them to update me on progress to date.
We headed west from the hotel and in no time at all we had emerged at an open square. On the far side was a harbour stacked with small coasters, their cargoes packed tightly but rather haphazardly across their decks. We crossed the road and entered one of several tiny bars – barely a canopy across plastic tables and a small garden area under the trees. There was little difference between any of them and we flopped around a table and ordered some mint teas. Jeremy and Dave filled me in on the details; it was a relatively simple operation. I was dumped with a load of reading materials and told to design a database for them that would catalogue all the sea protection schemes both hard and soft around all the islands. I was also given some past attempts. One document I was to read at my leisure told of a highly detailed and technical document about harbours across the archipelago, and the government was keen on something similar for coastal protection structures. I decided mine would be a lot more simple and manageable, and started to think about how I could make a map of the elements and how the detail could be logged easily on a database.
The other element of this was that we would do some sample surveys of a few islands. I was to help out with one the next day, but then Jeremy and Dave would fly around the islands filling in the gaps while I was to be left along in Male.
It too was pokey – enough room to walk around the bed but only just – the wardrobe and chest of drawers filled most of the rest of the space. A stand up shower integrated with the toilet (i.e. they were almost on top of each other) and a TV against the wall of the main room was about all I could expect. At best I could say they made optimum use of the space they had available. I thanked the guide and I started to unpack. As usual if I am in town for more than one night I like to spread my stuff around and put some sort of stamp on this anonymous space.
The window was covered in a thick net curtain. I drew it back and gazed upon a most unusual view of the Maldives. I could not see the sea. In fact I could not see much apart from the backs of all the houses and tower blocks around me. At least I could see beyond the other side of the street as there were a cluster of low rise buildings with tin roofs nestled in amongst the more modern apartment buildings. Unfortunately the owners of these seemed to consider these roofs as both extra storage space or dumping ground. The roof opposite was strewn with an old sink, several planks of wood, tubing, a box for some electrical equipment, pots of paint, spare tin roofing, and bits of vegetation that had somehow been left up there. Let’s say it was not a pretty sight.
Not your typical view of the Maldives
I drew the net curtain back, took off my travelling clothes and took a quick forty winks – after all I had been travelling for the best part of the last 24 hours, and with spending the wee hours traipsing round Dubai airport, I could do with a bit of catch up sleep.
It did not last very long. The phone rang and I heard Jeremy’s cheery voice inviting me to join him and our engineer, Dave, in reception. I quickly mustered together a new outfit (shorts and t-shirt) and headed down the steep steps.
Immediately the car dived into the interior of the island. The traffic was busy – not just cars but hundreds of mopeds and small lorries and vans. We inched down narrow streets for about five minutes before turning on to a wider road. I could see in front of us that the road stretched off in a straight line right across the island – the gap of blue sky at the end denoting the western coast. Behind me, slightly closer, was another gap marking the eastern end of the island. Over a hundred thousand people packed into this tiny island and even on this first transect I could start to see how it managed to pack these people in. They built high – every block was crammed with houses heading several storeys high. Next to the narrow roads were narrow sidewalks, all the vehicles were smaller and all the sidewalks were crammed with people, and Maldivians were small so more could pack into the limited space.
In the narrow streets
Eventually we turned off this main thoroughfare and headed down a couple more streets before eventually stopping in the middle of the street – it was barely two lanes wide – and I was escorted into a tall narrow building on a corner. The front was wide enough to take a thin door and a slim window and no more. From the entrance hall – smaller than most houses’, I came into a cosy reception area, a couple of comfy seats set around a coffee table and at the back a high desk. I was checked in and then a hotel porter helped me with my case. He squeezed it in alongside me in a narrow lift, then walked up the two flights of stairs to meet me as I alighted. The landing was tiny with only three doors off – barely enough space for 3 rooms on each floor – and I was welcomed in through the door of my room at the back of the hotel.
It was here that I spent a week helping the Maldivian government look at one of the most critical issues for their nation, how to engineer the islands to resist the relentless onslaught of sea level rise. I’d been invited to join a consortium of consultants by Jeremy Hills, with whom I had walked the Mauritian coast a couple of years beforehand.
A flight to Dubai and then on to Male brought me there overnight. The capital is both small and packed with buildings, so the main International Airport for the Maldives is on the nearby Hulhule Island, which itself is largely reclaimed to make the runway large enough for long haul aircraft. And most bizarrely, as we landed in one direction on the tarmac runway, a small seaplane coming from one of the other islands was dropping into the sea next to the airport.
After the formalities in the airport I was collected by someone from the ministry I was working for. But instead of heading to a car, we walked across a quiet road and on to a wooden jetty. In a small protected harbour there were a series of small docks. Ferries were coming in and out at all angles and at frequent intervals. We only had to wait a short time for our ferry to fill up, many passengers’ suitcases, including mine , piled up at the front end of the boat.
Our trip to Male was barely 15 minutes. Once out in the open water we wove our way between a mixture of different vessels – more ferries like ours, yachts and cruisers, cargo boats, fishing boats, boats carrying oil supplies, even one naval ship complete with helicopter on the aft deck..
We were heading south westwards to a dramatic skyline of tall office blocks, apartments and hotels that fronted Male’ northern coast. As we drew closer, the detail of the front became clearer. the buildings were set back and it appeared the whole coast was protected by a high concrete wall. With a few breaks in these defences, boats were able to access the city itself. Ferries were congregating to a gap at the eastern end. Behind the wall was extensive sheltered water running the length of the coast. We came ashore and I waited for my suitcase to be offloaded, then we clambered into a small taxi on the main tree lined thoroughfare beside the sea wall.
When I lived on Tortola for two years, there was much to love. But one aspect that drove me crazy was that if I had no big plans for the weekend, I would climb in my jeep, drive round the island slowly just to check up on what was happening at all the beaches, and I would end up back at the apartment after 2 hours, max, and would have driven along every metalled road on the island. A few islands I worked on had more room that a day trip did not mean seeing the whole island in one day. But others were so small a quick trip in a boat over, and unless you found a beach bar or a hot sandy spot to sit in all day, you ran out of things to do fairly quickly. For someone who enjoys driving over the horizon and beyond, to spend so much time on islands where the first horizon is often the end of any more landward travel, it could be limiting. In fact it could drive you up the wall.
So the idea of travelling to the Maldives where even the largest and most populated islands are barely a mile across, did leave me wondering whether I would be suffering from acute claustrophobia by the time I boarded my plane home.
How do people live on islands that barely rise from the ocean waves? Nowhere in the Maldives is more than two and a half metres above mean sea level. You can walk across most islands in ten to twenty minutes.
The archipelago is a long chain of islands, reef, sandy banks formed into twenty six atolls. These atolls are themselves in a necklace like shape draping 500 miles across the Indian Ocean. On the eastern side in the centre of this chain are the two Male atolls, north and south, and the capital, Male itself, sits on an island at the southern end of the northern atoll.
Can you live on an island this small?