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.

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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.

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As far as you can go – the problems of growing veg.

Vegetables were grown on the island, but you tended to have certain people who were more savvy about making produce in quite a harsh climate.  Cathy and her husband had a lovely house perched half way up Side Path overlooking James town and James Bay.  They were distinctly  based in the dry part of the Mediterranean zone.  Not only was the rain water supply not sufficient for the vegetables to grow in , but the salty winds desiccated leaves with disastrous effects.  They had all sorts of canny tricks to trap the moisture in and shelter the delicate plants from the harshness of this hillside environment.  And every drop of water was conserved and reused.

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Cathy Hopkin’s veg plot – coping with salt, wind and lack of water

On the Sandy Bay side of the island, perched almost in the clouds, people had other problems, an excess of water and humidity which allowed fungus and invertebrates to thrive in amongst their produce.  The other predicament they tended to have here was that one crop would prodigiously crop for a couple of weeks but then not be available for the rest of the year.  So there were weeks when you were eating pumpkin till it came out of your ears and yearned for a dish of it the rest of the time.

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Sandy Bay

Seeing the number of microclimates and niches in the valleys and on the hillsides, I naturally assumed that you could grow anything anywhere, as I had been used to on several of the windward islands of the Caribbean but fruit especially was a problem on St Helena.  Having imported goods brought in on the RMS meant that diseases could easily be introduced and decimate local fruit bearing trees.  While procedures at the Customs department had been improved over the years, major infestations of several diseases in the past had destroyed many fruit trees and people were reluctant to put in the long term effort of re-establishing orchards with the overhanging possibility that all their hard work could be wiped out in one season.