Beating of the waves – Rush for the sunset

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.


Beating off the waves – The tapestry of the harbour

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.


One of the many fishing and cargo boats

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.

Beating off the waves – Exploring Male

At first Male does not seem to change as you walk through, it is a relentless sequence of streets full of small businesses; offices, shops, workshops or restaurants and cafes, but gradually you see the different things and the subtle differences.  I started coming across small squares in amongst the high rises, maybe with a banana plant or a palm tree.  There might be a playground set in some trees, or a temple set back from the pavement.

It never took long , though to reach the coast again.  On the south side of the island, the wave action was stronger and most of the coastline was protected by huge concrete structures, tetrapods, that reminded me of the jacks in the game of the same name.  Their angular protrusions broke up the wave energy more effectively than a solid wall, but it really makes Male look like a fortress.  They rise higher than the level of the promenade and you can barely see the ocean beyond.  However, if I stood on one of the concrete benches along the harbourside, I could see the next set of islands in the distance, the Male South Atoll, and the little pinprick of streetlights showed me they were inhabited.

I wondered where the boats got out of this harbour; these tetrapods right along this coast.  Looking later on Google Earth I realised the nearest breach was nearly a mile to the west near where my office was.  Any boats at this end would have to weave between countless other vessels before even reaching the open sea.


Tetrapods beating off the waves

Beating off the waves – Manhattan in the ocean

I sprawled in the back and looked around me.  I now got to see the interface between water and land from another angle.  As we gently pulled out and turned to head north, I could see the modern office blocks backing the harbour and a long row of these bus boats along the harbour.  I keep saying harbour, but in fact all this was a long pool protected from the open sea by sea defences.  and I could see how boats of various types occupied different parts of it.



Once out in the open water, our captain opened up the throttle and the cruiser tilted to about 30 degrees and pushed hard against the sea.  As we accelerated, I kept glancing back and saw the bizarreness of Male further and further revealed.  It was like Manhattan in the ocean – every inch crammed with tall apartment and office blocks.  Its inshore waters were divided up into the different activities to keep such a maritime city running – I could see a larger container ship on the north west corner of the island.

As we pulled out I could see both ends of the main island and the obviousness of its limited landmass.  Nearby I could see several other islands, the one holding the airport of course, but also several others which seemed to have larger populations too.  Not just were there evidence of rooftops and the occasional higher rise flats, but also the various masts for communication and entertainment.




Beating off the waves – A different sort of commuting

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.


All sorts of commuters

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.

Beating off the Waves – Getting down to business

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.


Finding a cafe to talk

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.

Beating off the waves – Forty winks

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.