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.
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.
That little disaster over, I sat back and let the driver take me to my colleagues. I was aware we were going to drive about 10 kilometres, but that it might take up to two hours. Haitian main roads are in bad repair, they are clogged with traffic made worse by people trying to be clever and gain advantage ending up clogging the road even further when they get stuck – for example by dropping into a storm drain, crashing into a market stall or just being wedged at a curious angle against the general direction of traffic. My driver was almost resigned to this, but he said he knew a few short cuts that would hopefully get us up the hill faster.
The first stage was not too bad – a wide dual carriageway leads from the airport along the valley bottom towards the city centre of Port Au Prince. But soon this became clogged with lunch time traffic. My driver veered off the main road on to some rough back streets – at best untarmacced, at worst a minefield of craters and piles of rubbish, stones, bricks, and rubble. Yes the rubble. It was two and a half years since the earthquake and yet on every street corner there were small hills of concrete, rebar, stones that had once been houses, shops, walls, people’s property. In many areas they had simply been bulldozed to one side of the street to allow access, and left there as no-one could pay to have it moved away, and maybe the sites where they could be dumped were already full. Some enterprising souls had scavenged in these piles and extracted materials to build again, but mostly the rubble was mixed with so much detritus, dust and dirt that it was futile to try and recycle.
We zigzagged up these steep side streets for several minutes, progress circuitous as we avoided the worst of the potholes. Occasionally we would have to slow to a crawl to work our way round another vehicle coming down the hill – neither wanting to give up the better road surface meaning wing mirrors would touch as you squeezed past.
The use of the backstreets did mean we appeared to make progress for a while, but we were heading to the town of Petionville perched on the side of the main valley. The limited options for getting up the slope meant at some stage we had to rejoin the main road. Not only was the road itself choked with traffic but few vehicles would give way to joining traffic, and when we got within 100m of the road, we had to sit patiently in a queue of our own.