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This feature was commissioned and published by Sri Lankan Airlines Magazine, Serendib.
Maldives – A Year in Paradise
© www.thomaspickard.com | No reproduction without permission
A year in the Maldives would seem like paradise to many. As writer and photographer Thomas Pickard explains, a year in the nation’s capital Male’ can be an unusual experience.
It seemed too good to be a true – a year in the Maldives. As a surfer, the name conjured up images of waves reeling for hundreds of metres off tropical islands complete with swaying palm trees and deserted beaches. It was a place of the imagination and a place I thought I would probably never get to. But as fate would have it, that was all about to change.
My wife Jane had been offered a position with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for a yearlong stint as a Water Sanitation Project Manager. It was the sort of offer that is hard to say no to. But before we said yes, we turned to Google for some answers.
It took a while to find an online photo of the nation’s capital, Male’ (it helps to know the nation’s capital to start with). The photo showed an island barely 2 square kilometres in size bulging at the seams with a mishmash of apartment buildings, most unfinished. It looked…ugly. The fact that over 100,000 people called it home did not help matters. But it was not all bad news. There were plenty of islands – 1,192 to be exact, divided into 26 atolls and strung out in an 800 km long line running north to south. Leaving Google, we figured there would be plenty of opportunity for some weekend island hopping and we had always wanted to get into diving. Six weeks later, we boarded a plane bound for paradise.
Your Time Starts Now
November the 28th at just after 11.00pm we landed at Male’ International Airport, a thin long strip of tarmac surrounded by water. Stepping off the plane was like being wrapped in a warm, moist blanket. The humidity was awesome and it was hot even at this late hour. After going through Customs and Immigration we found our local contact and boarded a dhoni for the 15-minute ride to Male’. With the rain coming down, Jane and I peered through the water-streaked windows at the glowing skyline - our new home for the year. It felt daunting.
A Needle in a Haystack
On our first day, Jane went off to work – just like that. As if it was the most normal thing in the world to do. I was left with the job of finding an apartment for us to live in. Didn’t seem like too bad a job – after all, it was a small place and there were apartments everywhere. How hard could it be?
With no real estate agents, I decided that some first-day networking was needed. I went for a walk and met a friendly man near the President’s Jetty, a block away from the souvenir shops. I should have known better, but I was trying to keep an open mind. As it so happened, my man could help me find a place to live, for a mere $350 US dollars. Leaving the shop I figured he would be a last resort.
Luck was on our side. Within 4 weeks we moved into a colleague’s recently vacated two-bedroom apartment. It was secure, close to the surf break and overlooked an industrial tip.
Dive, Dive, Dive
As we were living in one of the world’s most famous diving destinations, we signed up with a local diving outfitter for our PADI Open Water certification. We spent evenings learning about the effects of pressure on the body and charting dive profiles. On the weekends, we donned scuba equipment and learnt to control our buoyancy in the tepid, tea coloured water of the local waterhole, with locals splashing all around us.
The day of our first open water dive was classic Maldives. Not a cloud in the sky, barely a ripple on the water and the sun was blazing. Underwater visibility was as good as it gets and the variety of marine life was overwhelming. With all the excitement, I sucked the air out of my tank in 30-minutes flat. We were hooked though and would go on to dive most weekends, completing 40 dives in quick succession. We had indeed found paradise.
The Way Of The Road
Male’ is home to some 26,000 Honda scooters, the Maldivian steed of choice. The road rules are fluid with scooters jostling for position on narrow streets and zipping past cars when they can. Scooter drivers are known for cutting blind corners and not looking in their mirrors when pulling out. How there are not more accidents I will never know. Somehow, it all seems to work. Equilibrium exists - it is as if everyone keeps moving, albeit slowly, things will just sort themselves out.
As a pedestrian, you quickly learn two rules. One, no one will stop for you on a pedestrian crossing, unless a police officer is standing there and two, when you cross the road, never, ever stop. Stopping just confuses everyone. The expectation amongst all drivers is that you will keep moving in a direction and they will just weave their vehicle around you. So whatever you do, keep on truckin’!
Hanging With The Locals
The first locals I really met were surfers at the local surf break. They were friendly, keen to find out where I came from, how long I was staying and what I was doing in the Maldives. They were generous too.
Surfing alone one day, I snapped my surfboard’s leg rope. Separated from my board, I watched as it headed for the concrete pylons and certain destruction – 500 dollars of fibreglass about to be pulped. A local surfer driving by on his scooter spotted me, and then my board. Screeching to a stop, he clambered over the slippery pylons and fully clothed leapt into the ocean to save my board from certain ruin. If alcohol were culturally permitted, I would have bought him a case of beer.
Not long afterwards, a colleague of Jane’s invited us to an evening of Maldivian drumming. The evening would turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sitting on the floor, the drummers mesmerised us with their hypnotic sounds and beautiful words. Around us, friends danced and swayed in the amber light, celebrating the beauty of the Maldivian culture. It was a night to remember.
Into The Dragon’s Lair
Tea shops can be found all around the capital. They usually have non-descript facades and a steady flow of Maldivian men coming and going. Serving a mix of tasty short eats and long eats, tea shops are an all-male domain. According to our Lonely Planet Guide, a foreign woman accompanied by a male should be acceptable in such places.
Walking home one day, Jane and I decided to stop in at our local teahouse to pick up some hedhikaa (finger food snacks) and Roshi (unleavened bread). As we entered the teahouse, the gentle hum of conversation and the clatter of plates and cutlery came to an abrupt stop. You could hear a pin drop. All eyes were firmly set on us. Acting as if it was the most normal thing in the world, we quietly went up to the counter and pointed out the snacks we would like. In the background, the hum of conversation filled the air once again. Leaving the shop we sighed a collective sigh of relief and decided that next time, maybe Jane should stay outside.
With no other religion permitted in the Maldives, Maldivians are Muslims of the Sunni sect. Representing the fourth pillar of Islam, Ramadan occurs in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is a month of fasting, with eating and drinking during the day strictly taboo. All local eateries are closed until evening and normal shops seem to open and close on a whim. As a non-Muslim and a Westerner, Ramazan is not without its challenges.
Having just spent an hour picking up some groceries from the local supermarket, I decided to grab a cold drink for the hot walk home. Stepping out onto the main road that splits the island, I opened my drink and started drinking it as I made my way through the crowds, totally oblivious to what I was doing. Rounding a corner I received some very hard looks from a group of Maldivians and then it hit me. What was I thinking? Drinking in public during Ramazan. I hung my head in shame, embarrassed by my thoughtlessness.
Let’s Stay A Little Longer
The year passed quickly – too quickly in fact. Living in Male’ day-to-day became our normal life. During the week we both worked and on the weekends we visited resorts and went diving. In between, we squeezed trips into places like Sri Lanka and India. Each time we returned to Male’ it felt like we were returning home. It felt good. It felt like we belonged. With the end in sight, we baulked. Suddenly we did not want to leave our crowded city with expansive views over the Indian Ocean. Presented with the option to stay for another 12 months, we thought, why not?
This is paradise after all.