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.
Flooding has nowhere to drain
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.
That night, I told Jeremy about the phone. I tried to take it apart and let it dry out, but I never got another response out of it. I think the combination of the water and its salt content had shorted out any sensitive components. I could not even get the damn thing to charge again. At least, I thought, that was the disaster of the trip. Fate had other ideas for me. That evening I was working away at the tiny desk squeezed in between my bed and wardrobe. I leant back on my chair and felt the back leg wobble. I looked down and saw all my weight was pushed onto the leg, which was now merrily slicing through my adaptor cable for my laptop. I jolted forwards and reached down to grab the cable, but it was too late. all the exposed metal had been sliced through and mashed together, and the only reason the unit stayed in one piece was because the plastic on the underside of the cable was still joined by one or two tenuous threads.
I had about two hours battery life left to do any more work on Male. Or so I first thought. What were the chances that there was a shop which sold the right sort of cable for my laptop? I went and explained to Jeremy who looked at me sympathetically but also was probably thinking – this guy always screws up when I meet him.
It was late in the day now and shops were already shut, but a search on line revealed there was a small computer shop about 6 blocks away from the hotel. Early next morning after breakfast I stole through the streets alone trying to find the shop. It was more obvious than I expected once I was in the right street; it had a large window display of computer parts showing. I went indoors and was greeted by a very enthusiastic manager and his sheepish assistant. I got the laptop and cable out and explained the problem. He sucked through his teeth for a microsecond then waved for his assistant to go searching in a bunch of drawers below the display cabinets. Eventually they found a multi plug adaptor and the manager eagerly tested each plug. I was relieved; one fitted. The cost was not as horrendous as I had expected either, although it was still a dumb amount of money to have to be paying out if I had been more careful with my cable in the first place.
I thanked them profusely and went to the office to catch up with Jeremy and Dave. We had one more day together, which was spent at a preliminary debrief meeting with the minister, but then Jeremy and Dave were heading off on their island hopping tour for several days and I would pretty much be on my own apart from the meetings in the government buildings. I worked mostly in the office in the Government complex and would head back to the hotel around 4pm, once the civil servants had finished work. This then gave me a couple of hours of daylight each night for about four days to walk the streets of Male. We’d spent most of our time in the south western quadrant of the island; the government office being on the south coast, our hotel towards the top right corner almost in the centre of the island and all the restaurants we had been to in between. Otherwise it had been the ferry dock to the airport and that was it. I needed to tromp the streets and find out more. I started heading out the east, not really having a plan but a general direction. I would zigzag through the narrow side streets observing the home commute and families getting back together at the end of the day for their main meal, or splitting off into groups to play in the street, court on the promenade or have a good old natter on a corner.
We said our farewells and sat back in our cruiser. It headed back out and we watched the procession of resort, uninhabited, settled and functional islands. Of the last two I noticed there was an island that was used as the fuel storage depot – nice idea keeping it separate from the heaving metropolis of Male. We passed by one of the resorts you see in all the brochures. A long line of chalets on a pier, everything on stilts so you can sleep above the ocean. Two things would concern me staying there – I’ve never found ocean noises that soothing. I can put up with lap lap lap of gentle waves; it is quite sleep inducing, but everything else, the bird flapping on their roosts, the fish gurgling at the surface and the hiss and froth noises with anything beyond the gentlest of swells have never been calming. I was OK in Tortola where my apartment was 900 ft above the waves, but to be sleeping right on top of it? And second, if you dropped anything down the cracks or over the side of the chalet it would be so much more of a fag going hunting for it amongst the coral than just rootling in the undergrowth. I wondered if they had chalet maids with snorkels for just that possibility.
The boat traffic increased again as we drew closer to Male and we could see the urban skyline grow in front of us. We were earlier than expected as we drew in between the small beacons marking the entrance and once Mohammed had said farewell and headed back to his office, we decided we needed a drink. On the top floor of a nearby building was a large cafe and we headed up there; the air being cooler up there than in the packed streets. Once the menu was put in front of us we realised we were also very hungry, not having eaten at all on Thulusdhoo so we ordered some sandwiches and looked around. I found it bizarre to stare across the channel to the next island and see the huge tailfin of an Emirates Airbus poking up from behind the palm trees as it sat waiting at the airport.
The Airport from the mainland
The more I saw, the more I worked out how you could live on a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the ocean. Each island seemed to have a function, whether it be nature reserve or fuel depot or airport. The people did not see each coastline as a limit, the shallow seas in between were as much their gardens, their recreation areas, their farmers fields, even their living space, as any piece of dirt.
I cursed myself for not checking that pocket. I had been so meticulous with every other item; the one thing I was carrying that was worth a lot I had forgotten. Well there was nothing to be done. I caught up with the rest of the walkers but for the time being did not mention anything about the phone to them. We had work to do and there was not time to think about my stupidity.
The south coast was a nice stable sandy beach and as we headed westwards the house plots diminished – some were not even built on. And there were open communal spaces here with pathways down to the coast. The vegetation was lush and thick and held the land together.
This western end of the island, away from most of the settlement, was also where their refuse dump was. The system was easy – each household would truck or walk down with their rubbish and leave it. There was a modicum of sorting going on, areas where metals and tyres were stacked, but for the most part everything from household waste to paints, builders rubble, and so much paper and plastic, was dumped in a mixture either side of a pathway. And small smouldering fires rose from these piles to try and reduce it down. The councillors were aware of all the problems of poisonous pollutants entering the air and the precious fresh water lens below their feet, but they shrugged their shoulders and said “where else can we put it”.
We ended up at the western tip of the island, and here the whole island dynamic came to its unexpected conclusion. We traipsed through a very pleasant nature reserve – some slacks where water came to the surface and had produced a haven for frogs, dragonflies and marsh loving plants. The community had set up a couple of walkways through, a picnic area and signage to explain what you were finding. Like a park anywhere in the world but beautifully laid out in miniature here on this tiny island. The slacks were behind the highest point on the island – a small series of sand dunes that towered above us to the height of about…. six metres.
On the far side of these was a wide sandy beach, which was more of a triangular shape than running parallel to the coast. This was the answer to what happened to the material scraped off by the waves on the east end of the island. It gradually washed in the longshore currents to this end of the island and since the water was less active was actually accumulating here, hence the sand building up to its triangular apex.
We held our meeting and heard the views from the local council members. There was a lot of detail but one thing that was drawn to our attention was that one side of the island was being affected much worse than the other. We had agreed that we wanted to survey the whole coastline of the island and we thought that seeing the issues was better than talking about them. The chiefs of the village council came along with us and we first targeted the coastline that was most under threat.
As soon as we stepped onto the rocks on the eastern side, the problem became apparent to us. This was the most exposed part of the coast; beyond the reef was the open Indian Ocean – this island was on the outside of the atoll, and on the eastern fringe of the ridge on which the Maldives sits. Weather often approaches from the east and this is where storm surges and wind can do the most damage. The water was choppy here and the land had been steadily chomped away by the wave action. The roots of palm trees were exposed and in some cases had been completely undermined and the trees toppled into the water. There was hardly any sand here, lots of pebbles and loose bits of bricks and rubble and coral.
Only about 50m from us was the reef edge – a slim line of coral that was just about above the level of the current waves. They smashed against this wall, constantly chipping off bits. It would be a miracle if the coral were able to regenerate at the same rate as it was being eroded. About twenty years beforehand money was spent on building up the coral reef with concrete, but no maintenance had been done since, and much of the rubble we could see on the beach was what had been pounded out from this old defence. The rest came from recycled building material that the villages had used to fill in the gaps in the natural coastline – stopping up breaches, replacing the net of roots that had been lost. This exposed coastline was not far from the sheltered northern harbour which we had arrived at, and this end of the island was almost completely covered in housing plots – all built on. The coastline was gradually retreating and in some places had dislodged the blocks making up perimeter walls. In a couple of places houses had been abandoned where the land had been eaten away too close to their foundations.
Rubble shows where the sand has been scraped away
and the trees fall in the ocean when undercut
Soon we were passing less urbanised islands. We passed the first of many resorts; the secluded high class villas and restaurants peeping out between the trees, and little jetties with yachts and dinghies gleaming with their chrome and shiny white hulls. On the right another island seemed to float on the ocean – a perfectly flat piece of land barely above sea level – I could see the waves on the other side through the palm trees.
These resort islands were tiny, but ahead was a more substantial piece of land. It was covered with trees and a red and white faraday cage covered with microwave transmitters and receivers poked up five times the height of the canopy. But we could only see a few buildings on our approach. We passed a couple of cruisers and turned the eastern corner of the island and now the “metropolis” of Thulusdhoo was revealed. Behind a number of small boats and one tall ship were a cluster of low roofed warehouses. And at last we could see some activity on the beach. The engines on our cruiser were cut down and we drifted gently into a small jetty at the end of one of the streets. I glanced down into the water – inside the reef it was so glassy, and so shallow that I felt I could put my finger tips through the surface and be already touching the white sand beneath
We disembarked and ambled along a short covered jetty to the main street. Apart from the odd child and dog, there was no-one around to greet us so we rested in a shelter on the beach. Around us fishnets were hanging out to dry from trees dotted around the sand. A gentle breeze made the leaves rustle but there were no other nearby noises. We sat and chatted about the needs for the project with Mohammed, sitting on cool tiled seats while we waited for our hosts.
It was about fifteen minutes later that a few serious looking gentlemen approached in suits or shirts and ties. They greeted Mohammed and we were introduced. They led us off into the settlement behind the beach. The houses were arranged in a regular grid of streets. I call them streets but really they were just formed from hardened sand. But the houses themselves were all substantial concrete buildings, mostly single storey and with airy verandas and neat gardens enclosed with high walls. We were led through a few streets, picking up people en route, and finally entered a more imposing building. It still was not huge, but appeared to be the council offices for the local district, of which Thulusdhoo was the capital. Several more men were seated around a table that stretched the entire length of the room. We set up our laptops next to a projector and squoze into any of the spare plastic patio chairs.
On the sleepy streets