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?