Hinnavaru

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Main street. The flags indicate political allegiance.

I’m back from holidays, and for the second half of my Maldives assignment I’m based on a different island – Hinnavaru, in the northern atoll of Lhaviyani.

From Male’ it’s a 20 minute plane flight followed by a bumpy 50 min speed boat ride. Alternately you could take a 4-5 hour speed boat ride, or 12 hours on an overnight ‘slow boat’. I arrived in the middle of the day with my in-country manager, checked out the two available houses and selected the least-worst option.

There's a posh resort just across the channel with no similarity to my accommodation!

There’s a posh resort just across the channel, with no similarity to my accommodation!

This was my first experience of Ramazan (‘Ramadan’ elsewhere), a month of fasting when Muslims have no food or drink between sunrise and sunset. The locals had booked us in to a café for the ‘Break Fast Special’ at sunset. We arrived at 6:15pm, the food was brought out at 6:20, but we had to wait for the sunset call to prayer at exactly 6:24 before we could start eating. It was a big feed of traditional foods: chicken curry, roshi, omelette, tuna curry, dahl, mas huni, melon juice and fruit salad. We had also been invited to have something to eat with my manager’s friend at 9pm. Before we got there, we received an invitation to another home at 9:30 where there was a big spread of food waiting, and then another local invited us to her place at 1am where we found an even bigger array of delicious dishes.

I thought Ramazan was a fast, but it’s a feast! As we were bloatedly heading towards our guest house at 2am, the whole island seemed alive – people out chatting, preparing foods, playing cards, kids playing soccer in the street.

Spider conch shells

Spider conch shells

Some time in the early hours I was woken by the sound of crockery smashing. In the morning I found the cause at the end of the harbour wall – not cups and plates but a pile of demolished spider conch shells. Their inhabitants had been evicted and barbecued. I haven’t tried these myself but locals have told me they’re ‘very tasty’.

The next day was very quiet. People seem to become nocturnal for this month – work hours are reduced, school only goes for half a day, and nothing much happens until sunset. The exception is soccer – 4.30 every afternoon is kick-off for the island’s Ramazan Cup. The standard of play is surprisingly good, and they have a brand new artificial turf playing field. Two of the numerous local teams play each evening, despite having had their last food and drink before dawn – these guys are tough.

Cricket pitch

Cricket pitch

You need to be pretty tough to play cricket too, as indicated by the number of blown-out thongs scattered around the pitch. As well as the hazards of cracks, holes, chunks of coral and tussocky grass, you have to look out for motorbikes because the pitch is part of a road that goes around the island – the only bit that’s paved.

The road around the island is relatively new. This island was originally much smaller and very densely populated – so dense that it has some of the narrowest streets I’ve ever seen. Even sizable shops and the Council offices are in streets not much more than a metre wide and there’s a few I couldn’t ride a bike down.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After the 2004 tsunami a sea wall was built (with rocks imported from India because Maldives is 100% coral) and the area of the island was doubled by dredging up coral. Now there’s a densely populated town in the middle surrounded by acres of bare open space.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are lots of little shops and each has an apparently random mix of products, e.g. food plus plumbing fittings, or clothing and fabric with a few shelves of groceries, but none has a comprehensive range of anything so I’ve had to go to nearly all of them. There’s a stylish new supermarket which I was excited to find has cheese and olives and a good selection of fresh fruit. The fit-out is all in red and it’s staffed by girls in trendy black outfits with red headscarfs. I had to buy a lot of things the day I moved into my house. I was running low on cash (there’s no ATM here – the bank is a boat that comes on Wednesdays) so I was pleased to see they had card machines. I didn’t know I was the first person ever to try paying by Visa card. The transaction seemed to go OK and a receipt was printed out, but it took the whole staff of six red and black girls, and a manager on the phone, and the advice of a few boyfriends who were waiting for closing time, to reach a consensus that the money had actually been transferred and I could take my groceries home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne morning I saw a lot of people around a boat loaded with coconuts and veges, so I joined the queue. I asked a man how much they were charging for coconuts. He told me they were 15/- (~$1.00) He also told me that he kept a shop nearby and had some very good coconuts there and I wouldn’t have to wait. He’s a very effective salesman because within two minutes I’d been led down a tiny laneway to his shop where I was paying 18/- each for similar coconuts, and had bought tomatoes and bananas as well. It wasn’t such a bad deal in the end because every other shop was out of tomatoes and his bananas were cheap.

Reclaimed land

Reclaimed land

There are lots of friendly people here, not only the ones who stand to make money from me. I was having an early morning swim (unlike Villingili, this island has a waste strategy so the beaches are relatively clean) when a man walked down the beach to introduce himself, then waited for me to finishing swimming so he could invite me to his home. We sat and talked in a delightful garden that he said functions as a youth centre for one of the political parties.

BandI asked if he knew any musicians and he said, “Yes, we have a band practice room too – come back after nine tonight.” It was the day I moved into my house and had spent hours cleaning and unpacking so I really didn’t want a late night, but I went anyway. The room is well kitted out with instruments and a big PA, and the walls acoustically treated with layer upon layer of campaign posters and cardboard polling booths left over from the last election. Most importantly, there was functional bass guitar. The band and I had a few Hendrix & Clapton songs in common but the most fun was their local Dhivehi rock. I hadn’t touched a bass since I left Australia so it was excellent therapy but I went home with badly blistered fingers.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dhaandhoo

When I was a kid I found a little flying fish on the beach. Mum helped me preserve it in a jar of metho so I could take it to Show & Tell after the holidays. Consequently I always thought flying fish were quite small, but on the way to Dhaandhoo I saw some grown-up ones – beautiful glistening creatures with fifty-centimetre wingspan flying gracefully for hundreds of metres. You wouldn’t fit one of these in a Vegemite jar.??????????????????????

Dhaandhoo is five islands to the south of Villingili, about a 30-minute speedboat ride. The sea was choppy and I’d have preferred the driver make it a 45-minute run by not slamming so hard into the waves, but he had more padding in his seat than I did and seemed keen to show off the power of his boat. On the way we passed ‘The Residence’. It’s one of the cheaper resorts at about US$1500 a night and, judging by the people I see at the airport, seems to attract only Chinese honeymooners. Maldives resorts can be $5000 a night or more.??????????????????????

This was my first trip to another inhabited island in this atoll. I was interested to see what the local culture was like and I wasn’t disappointed. After we’d finished formalities and I got my room organised, I went exploring. It’s quite a different atmosphere to Villingili, with more people out on the street chatting, children playing, lots more trees and gardens. A local explained the difference this way: “This is a traditional island and Villingili is a developed island. On developed islands people build walls around their houses, buy air conditioners, and stay inside watching Hindi TV.”

Sea wall and road where the sandy beach used to be.

Sea wall and road where the sandy beach used to be.

Before I’d walked fifty metres a man came out of his house, introduced himself as Rasheed, and asked if he could join me on the walk. He took me on a guided tour around the island, which took about twenty minutes. The shoreline is not very attractive. Rasheed explained that this island was hit very hard by the 2004 tsunami. On the ocean side the houses were built beside a palm-fringed sandy beach. The tsunami arrived as a shoulder-high wave but when it hit the beach it rose up over the houses and there was widespread destruction. Since then, coral has been dredged up to make a sea wall and now there’s a road where the beach used to be. They kept on with the dredging to expand the island on all sides, so rough coral rocks have replaced all the sandy beaches.

'Tsunami house'

‘Tsunami house’

There are shells of incomplete new houses all over the island; I’d seen a few like this in Villingili but there are many more here. Rasheed explained that these are ‘tsunami houses’ – built by an aid program, but too much of the budget has been siphoned off by government or corrupt contractors and there’s no money left to complete them. He said work would start on them again “after September”.

Rasheed wasn’t the first person to confidently tell me how things will improve after the September elections. Politics here is much more volatile than in Australia and has more immediate impact on people’s lives. I’ll give a little background (treading carefully because I’m not allowed to take sides): a thirty-year dictatorship ended in 2008 when a new President won the nation’s first-ever democratic election. However the parliament, judiciary and police were still controlled by the dictator’s side of politics so in February last year the elected President was ousted in a coup. The next election is coming up, and I’ve heard many people, when bemoaning the current state of the country, say “After September 7…”

Rasheed showed me the frame of a three-storey guest-house he’s building, a piece at a time as funds become available. He’d already demonstrated his skills as a host so I wish him well in the venture. One side of politics is only interested in extreme high-end tourism (and most government ministers seem to be resort tycoons), but the ousted ‘elected President’ had been supporting the introduction of smaller local operations and home-stays – another reason for Rasheed to be concerned about the outcome of the next election.???????????????????????????????

We arrived at the boat harbour, a large rectangle hacked out of the coral and bordered with massive concrete walls. I commented that the harbours seem the same on all the islands I’d flown over. Rasheed said, “Yes, they were a gift from the Dutch. Before the tsunami we only had a jetty.” Near the harbour was a blue two-story building, unused. It’s identical to a derelict one in Villingili so I asked about it. “It was a present from the Chinese. It’s supposed to be a fish market downstairs and a restaurant upstairs but we don’t need a fish market.” At the AusAid briefing I’d heard about the Chinese reputation for providing aid projects to secure UN votes without assessing what was appropriate. At least the Dutch built something useful, and built it well.Dhaandhoo

In the middle of the island I found a cross-roads where you can see the ocean in all four directions. A past president of the Maldives had decreed that every island build a straight road for its entire length, and another one across it, so the four-way ocean view is quite common on the smaller islands.

My training sessions at the school were a real pleasure. The twenty-five teachers were a happy, cohesive group and much more skilled than I expected. I was presenting challenging ideas about teaching and assessment and we had two days of lively debate. I used the school’s brand new data projector that had a big sticker saying “A gift from the people of Japan.”

???????????????????????????????

After work, I was invited to join the badminton game at the school. I happened to mention that I couldn’t buy fresh fish on Villingili so one of the Indian teachers said, “We were given some nice reef fish today – come for dinner.”

This was the first time I’d had dinner in someone else’s home since I arrived in this atoll. Jayan and John rent rooms in the same large house. John took half the fish, marinated it for a while in spices and vinegar and then fried it, while Jayan took the other half to his kitchen and showed me how to make a curry. He left out the chilli on my account (“Just a little for colour”) but there was about half a kilo of ginger and a few other spices so it was still about as hot as I could handle. Then, back to John’s room for a lesson on making chapattis. Soon there was a generous array of foods on the table – curry, fried fish, rice and a stack of hot chapattis, but then John started producing more of his dishes from the fridge for me to sample – his chutney, some dahl, a vegetable and coconut dish, another kind of chutney… and finally a banana to soothe my palate. It was the finest Indian meal I’ve ever had.

?????????????????????? ??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????

The place I stayed was a very traditional Maldivian home. The small back yard was crowded with trees – coconut, breadfruit, mango, banana and other fruits I didn’t recognise. In a tin shed there was a row of ‘jolis’ (fish-net seats) – nothing else lets the breeze cool your behind like these. There’s also a swing seat for when there’s no breeze and you need to make your own. A cauldron of tuna soup was being boiled down into the thick red sauce that’s the local equivalent of Vegemite. Before I left, the owner insisted on climbing a tree and giving me a couple of coconuts to take home. Finally, there was another bone-jarring speedboat ride back to Villingili with a few flying fish keeping us company.

???????????????????????????????

Jayan’s Fish Curry:

Black mustard seed, onion, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, turmeric, coriander, curry leaves, chili, fish, salt (fish could be replaced by chicken or vegetables)

Heat some oil in a pan until very hot, then throw in half a teaspoon of mustard seeds and wait for them to crack.
Add a large diced onion and some turmeric, then finely chopped garlic (half a dozen cloves) and ginger (a large thumb).
Fry for a bit, then add a couple of chopped tomatoes, coriander (a bunch of chopped leaves or 2 teaspoon of powder), a few curry leaves and some chili (one fresh bean chili, split in half, or some chili powder to taste).
Fry this off for a while, then add the fish. Once fish is slightly browned, add enough water to cover the mixture. Add salt to taste. Reduce the heat and let it simmer for a while.

John’s Chapatti

See recipe for Maldivian Roshi in my first post.
Convert to Indian Chapatti by using “good wheat flour from India, not the cheap milo flour they use here” and don’t roll them quite so thin.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Farewells at the boat harbour – low tide.

Random 2

A few more disconnected pieces from my notebook:

Monsoon

The monsoon arrived at exactly 3.30 am on May 4. I know the time because that’s when I was woken by a train smash outside my window and elephants trampling on my roof. Closer inspection revealed that violent winds had demolished my neighbour’s shed, flinging sheets of iron up and down the street, and were attempting to do the same to my roof.

 

My street after rain

My street after rain

Later that morning I rode to work in blinding wind and rain, trying hard to copy the Indian teachers who negotiate ditches and rocks on their bikes while holding an umbrella, but the umbrella just ended up wrapped around my head like a dead bat.

The monsoon season lasts for six months. I thought I’d be a bit over it by October if it was all like this, but by 9.30 am they had closed the school and sent the kids home so I guessed this weather was wild even by local standards.

We had two weeks that felt like a cyclone, but since then things have settled down – it rains pretty often but there’s been welcome relief from the extreme heat that was constant for my first couple of months here.

Keys

7.30am: I’m about to leave for work when the bedroom door slams behind me. It’s locked, and my keys are on the inside. I try various implements to force the lock (my tools are on the inside too) but one of the reasons I moved to this house is that it has better security.

7.40: I go around the corner and knock on the landlord’s door. No response. After a few minutes of knocking and calling out, a neighbour goes in and bangs on a few more doors for me. No response.

7.50: I send a text to the landlord’s daughter (the only contact I have, but I don’t know if she can read English) and try to call my work associate (but her phone is switched off).

8.10: My associate finally answers my calls and says she will investigate. She calls back to tell me that the landlord is on an uninhabited island for two days, and that that his daughter doesn’t know where the spare keys are hidden.

Kids8.30: Landlord’s son-in-law arrives with one large screwdriver and two small children, looks at the lock and goes away again, leaving the children with me. They speak no English; I speak no Dhivehi. I initiate play-based learning activities involving an electric guitar and a distortion pedal.

9.00: My associate sends the school caretaker to investigate. He says he thinks he can break in but will wait to see what the son-in-law thinks. The children leave, and I teach the caretaker how to play the riff from ‘Smoke on the Water’.

9.30: No sign of the son-in-law. Caretaker decides he won’t ever be a rock star and probably should go back to work. I can’t go anywhere because I can’t lock my front door.

10.15: Son-in-law arrives with spare keys and unlocks the door. I find a rock to use as a doorstop in my bedroom.

Tank

I’m no longer surprised by the things I find on beaches. This morning it was the skeleton of a sewing machine and body parts of dismembered dolls among the usual batch of tuna cans and Huggies. However it was a little unusual to find a massive oil storage tank bobbing against the shore. I don’t know whether it turned up by accident or design, but someone had moored it to a rock.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA few days later I came across a team of men trying to bring it ashore. They were pushing planks and steel poles under it to make a ramp and rollers; a vast quantity of rope was looped around its base, back and forth through a collection of pulleys and finally tied to a tree about 100 metres away. Before I arrived a tractor had tried to tow the tank but had obviously not had sufficient traction on the coral sand. Now the men were attempting to haul it, reasoning that twenty-five pairs of thongs have more grip than one pair of tractor tyres. I was skeptical that they’d move it up the steep bank, and asked a local what he thought: “Of course they’ll haul it out. Look at the size of the tuna boats they move.”

With the rope going through the block and tackle several times, there was massive mechanical advantage. I stood well clear until, predictably, the rope snapped and flailed about violently. One young guy got in the way of the flying pulley block and retired hurt. The rest made adjustments to the pulley system and managed to haul the tank about 30cm up the ramp. There was no apparent leadership… no, actually there was a great excess of leadership, with virtually everyone yelling “Pull!” or “Stop!” at the same time. Every so often the tank would groan and move a few centimetres, then the guys on the rope would have a break and others would rearrange the planks and poles or dig out a bit more of the bank.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPayment for the crew was a couple of cartons on Holsten ‘brewed non-alcoholic beverage’ – the nearest thing to beer you’re allowed in this country. One old man in traditional dress was given a can, took one sip and sprayed it out, berating the young bloke who’d offered it for making him drink alcohol. Others tried to show him the fine print on the can that said it was ‘halal’ but he wasn’t convinced.

After an hour’s entertainment I went home for dinner and returned a few hours later to check on progress – they were still working. The guy who’d been hit by the pulley was back. He pulled up his shirt to show me a poultice over his ribs: “Traditional medicine – my mother squeezed the juice out of some kind of local herbs.”

The tank had only moved a couple of metres up the shoreline but they’d developed a new technique, combining the tractor and the pulleys. With a lot more yelling, frantic manipulation of planks and poles, and thunderous rumblings from the tank, it rolled triumphantly over the crest onto level ground.

Keys #2

I had organised a program for teachers in the Teacher Resource Centre (TRC) at 11am on Saturday. I arrived at 9.30 to get the room set up and finish my preparation, but the TRC key was not on its hook in the office. I asked around (it’s surprising how many people are at the school on weekends) but no one had any idea where it might be. I could have used any other schoolroom, but I needed a data projector and the only one belongs to the TRC.

TRCAfter a few phone calls I was told that one of teachers had the key and was on her way. I waited impatiently for an hour or so until she arrived at 10.55, along with the first couple of workshop participants. I asked about the key but she knew nothing about it.

I was standing in the office looking desperate, so one of the admin people said, “Maybe you could use the spare key.” I resisted a strong urge to ask why no-one had mentioned ‘spare key’ at about, say, 9.31am. I said, as calmly as I could manage, “Yes, that would be a good idea, can I borrow it for a minute?” It took about ten minutes to open the store-room and find the right key, while my participants milled around outside.

I thought the end was in sight and I was about to be given the key but no, there was paperwork: the key had to be signed out on the correct form. They found a form but it was in Dhivehi. One of the admin girls was pretty sure there was an English version somewhere on her computer. I suggested that perhaps she could just stroll across to the TRC, open the door, and then put the key away again without bothering to waste time on paperwork, but apparently that would be an act of official malpractice.

Finally the computer file was located, the printer was unjammed, there was a form with my signature on it and at 11.30 I had a key. I raced over to open the TRC and immediately saw that the data projector, which was my sole reason for needing to use this room, was not there. Back to the office to ask if anyone knew where it might be. The caretaker said, “Yes, I used it last night. I’ll go and get it right away.”

Cowrie

??????????????????????I found a money cowrie on the beach. I used to teach school kids how these seashells were one of the first forms of international currency; I’d been looking out for one since I learnt that the Maldives was their main source. An ancient Maldivian queen, who liked to ride around on an elephant, had warehouses full of them; 2000-year-old cowries from here have been found in China; they were the main currency of the African slave trade for centuries.

Cowries are not so common these days, at least not on this island, but they’re an interesting symbol of the Maldivian people’s history as traders. Ever since boats started to sail around the south of India they’ve been stopping in at these islands to trade for cowries, dried tuna and ropes made from coconut fibre. Nowadays cowries have been relegated to the souvenir shops, boats use synthetic ropes and tourism is the country’s biggest earner, but down south where I am tuna is still king. Most of the catch gets offloaded at a canning factory on the next island but some comes ashore here.

Tuna ready for smokingLast Friday I met my friend Adil as he was stepping off a boat. He told me he’d just paid for 400kg of tuna. Even in Maldives I couldn’t imagine a family eating that much tuna so I asked him what he was going to do with it, and he said, “Follow me.” I did as I was told, pedaling behind his motorbike through narrow lanes until we pulled in to a shady, walled garden where he introduced me to his mother.

Three generations of his family were busy cleaning a pile of fish, boiling the fillets in a cauldron over a wood fire, then laying them on a rack over the same fire to smoke. Adil's MammaThey had paid 75c/kg and will sell the smoked product in Male’ for $2.50/kg. The sample they gave me, about the size of a small carrot, was hard enough to break your teeth but had a rich smoky flavor – much tastier than I expected. One piece finely sliced is enough for a curry (which I tried the next night). Maldivians have been preserving tuna this way and selling it to passing ships for over 1000 years.

There’s a downside to the trading culture: every product that comes here stays here, along with its packaging, and eventually has to be disposed of. ??????????????????????The island has no waste disposal system that I’m aware of – people take their plastic bag or wheelbarrow of rubbish to the shoreline. I’m not being critical – there’s no alternative. The same thing happens with my rubbish. A landfill site on the island is probably not feasible because, apart from space being so limited, it would pollute the groundwater. So the beaches are covered with the decaying product of Huggies, Coke, Hitachi…??????????????????????

At the south-east corner of the island there’s a little sandy beach that’s comparatively clean (but too close to the sewerage outflow for swimming to be an option). Mixed with the sand, coral and seashells is a bizarre collection of decaying ‘product’. These photos are from a 50 metre stretch of beach which contained more than half a dozen dead washing machines and countless bottles, cans and pieces of clothing (click on the pics to enlarge).

?????????????????????? ?????????????????????? ?????????????????????? ?????????????????????? ?????????????????????? ??????????????????????

Tonight I had a Coke while I was out for a walk. I thought about what to do with the plastic bottle. There’s no recycling program; no bins on the streets; if I take it home and put it in my bin, the Bangladeshi who takes my rubbish will dump it on a beach. I decided, reluctantly, that my best option (apart from not buying Coke in the first place) was to drop it in the street, squash it so it can’t float, and leave it there. It will eventually get picked up by a council worker and might, possibly, end up under barrow-load of rubbish somewhere other than the Indian Ocean.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA ???????????????????????????????

Random

There’s no particular theme this time, just a collection of jottings from my notebook:

  • Blood pressure bloke: I was watching the boats at the harbour when an old man walked up to me and strapped a velcro band around my arm. I had a closer look and realised it was an electronic blood-pressure device so I waited for it to inflate, deflate and beep a few times (I was too surprised to do anything else). The man said something in Dhivehi that I guess meant I was OK, then continued his walk. I still have no idea who he was or why he was concerned for my health!
Peak hour in the boat harbour

Peak hour in the boat harbour

  • Harbour: Another afternoon, same place, watching boats: it was windy and a big tuna boat was on its fourth attempt to do a straight reverse park. Tempers were fraying between skipper and crew. Eventually they got one side of the stern moored and the skipper gunned the motor to swing the bow around. With a sound like a gunshot, the boat’s big steel mooring ring broke off. Ropes lashed about the deck, knocking a crewman over, and the ring bounced off a man beside me before flying across the street and hitting a motorbike (actually it would be difficult to fling something across this street without hitting a motorbike – there’s only about half a dozen cars on the island but many hundreds of 125cc Hondas). The guy who’d been hit had reason to believe his arm might be broken but when he complained, everyone on the boat pretended he wasn’t there. I no longer stand near boats that are mooring. I’ve also learnt not to stand behind men who are fishing – they use simple poles with a few metres of line tied to the end and barb-less hooks so when a fish bites they just flick it over their shoulder onto land – or into the face of a surprised bystander.
  • Fuel #1: I took my regular late night stroll to the harbour to read in the breeze. Near my usual seat, a tanker-truck was pumping fuel into a tuna boat. The tank had the fuel company name painted in 20cm high letters and in 30cm letters it said “NO SMOKING”. The man working the pump was smoking. I kept walking – a little more briskly.
  • Fuel #2: Last week a local told me he couldn’t buy petrol for his motorbike because the fuel ship was late and the whole island was running out. A new teacher who arrived this week can’t use his stove because there are no gas bottles until the next boat comes. It makes me realise how fragile this community is when the only energy sources are imported fossil-fuels – diesel, petrol, bottled gas. Our electricity comes from diesel generators so if the fuel supply-chain fails everything shuts down, including all communication with the outside world…
  • Solar: On this island of endless summer I have seen just one solar cell – it recharges the battery on a small fishing boat (the one on the left in the photo above).
  • DIY: None of the shops could sell me an electrical extension cord. I found out that there’s no market for them because everyone makes their own – you just get a wall socket and connect a pair of wires. If you’re safety-conscious you could put a plug on the other end but most people just strip the wires bare and poke them into the power point.
  • Mango boy: Sitting at my table having lunch, I heard my gate to the street open. A small boy I’d never seen before walked through my front door and said, “I came for a mango.” He saw the remaining half of the one I was eating, took it from my plate, and left without another word.
  • Winners: The athletics meet was won by Yellow House, so they invited everyone in the school community to a free celebration dinner. They put on plenty of tuna curry with noodles, fresh coconut drink and a big yellow cake. The weekend before the athletics, school children had gone around town asking for donations to fund the event (team T-shirts, bottled water, trophies – lots of trophies). The principal told me that they had collected 91 000/- (~$6000) from a community of less than 3000 people, most of them far from wealthy.
  • Sticks & stones: One day I came home from work and found a whole lot of big sticks, old chair legs and stones lying in my front courtyard, along with a lot of foliage from my mango tree and a scattering of junk-food wrappers. I had a fair idea what had been happening, which was confirmed at 3.30 the next morning when I was woken by more lumps of wood landing on my roof – a bunch of young guys were trying to knock mangoes off my tree. I turned the outside light on and stood inside the door wondering what to do or say and whether to change out my pyjamas before doing or saying it. Throwing lumps of wood back over the wall in the direction of their motorbikes seemed like a good idea at the time (3.30am is not my best time for sensible ideas). Fortunately the light was enough of a hint for them get on their bikes and leave before I got around to doing anything. There are plenty of mangoes for everyone – I just wish they would climb the tree and take them without waking me up!
  • Writing: At the Fishermen Cafe after work, I was writing one of these stories in my notebook. Waiter #1 stood behind me to read over my shoulder. When he’d finished, Waiter #2 came and asked me to read out what I’d written. It’s likely I’m the first person ever to sit and write a journal in this particular cafe.

IMG_2591 ???????????????????????????????

Reef

??????????????????????This morning I was able to explore the edge of the reef for the first time. Friday mornings here remind me of Sunday mornings when I was a kid in a country town. The shops are all closed and there’s no-one on the street until the call to prayer, when devout folk head to the mosque and the rest have a quiet morning at home. ??????????????????????

So there was no one else in sight when I went out early to the eastern shore. I found a calm sea and a very low tide so was able to cross the lagoon out to the fringing reef where the edge of the atoll drops vertically into deep ocean. I was tempted to jump off the edge for a swim but I felt vulnerable – currents, sharks, and the next land in that direction is Australia (or Christmas Island, and we know what happens to unscheduled arrivals there). The tourist info sites state that there’s no record of a shark attack in the Maldives. They say it’s because the sharks have so much tuna to eat, but I can think of a couple of other reasons: 1. The locals are always fishing and messing around in boats but I rarely see any of them in the water; 2. The terms ‘resort tycoon’ and ‘government minister’ tend to go hand-in-hand, so even if a whole boatload of snorkelling tourists was taken in a shark massacre, I’m pretty sure it could be kept out of the official statistics. ???????????????????????????????

This side of Villingili has a massive rock wall, built after the 2004 tsunami swept over the island. I asked a local, “Where did they get rocks from in a nation made entirely of coral?” Local bloke: “On a barge from India. A really big barge.” The rock wall encloses land reclaimed from the lagoon by dredging coral from the other side of the island (on the satellite map it’s the big white patch on the east, and you can see a dark blue patch in the northwest lagoon where the coral was dredged from). The plan is to build a business hub and accommodation for 20 000 people, in a community that currently has less than 3000. http://maps.google.mv/maps?rlz=1C1CHMO_enMV527MV527&q=gaafu+alifu&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=0x3b4a5f9e402e7a87:0xf2d8b111a9554ee7,Gaafu+Alifu+Atoll&gl=mv&sa=X&ei=_QVpUZHGKIGQrQer-IH4CQ&ved=0CKEBELYD Yesterday there was a commotion in the street outside my house (which is near the council office). About fifty men were having a noisy, animated debate. I didn’t understand a word but it was fun to watch the body language from a safe distance. I found out later it was between winners and losers in the council’s allocation of that reclaimed land. The people here love an argument. It often sounds like an all-in brawl is about to start (even in school staff meetings) but there is never any violence and everyone goes away with a bemused smile on their face. Its times like these I can see the benefit of a country that has no alcohol. ???????????????????????????????

Back to the reef: I’ve always loved poking about in rock pools at the Sunshine Coast, but the pools I found this morning are full of live coral, sea urchins, fish, sea slugs – although, like the Sunshine Coast, most of the interesting seashells have long ago been taken off to souvenir shops.  I found a shiny live cowrie shell for the first time ever but did the right thing and left it there. When we took a group of kids snorkelling on a Marine Science excursion a couple of weeks ago, I was surprised how many Grade 10s had never seen living coral before, and also surprised that they were allowed to take away big chunks of live coral and seashells. ??????????????????????

In the larger rock pools this morning, flashes of brilliant green turned out to be parrot fish darting about, so I wasn’t surprised when three guys came out to collect some. They had a simple, effective technique: one would throw a net over a pool that had some fish; the other two would jump in and catch them by hand. Once they had a fish in each hand they would smack their heads together to kill them and then loop them onto a string.

It’s likely some of the catch will end up on tonight’s menu at the Fishermen Cafe. Actually there isn’t a menu – everyone just seems to know what’s available. I often go there after work for ‘short eats’. This Maldivian specialty is up to a dozen varieties of savoury bites that they cook each afternoon – fried samosas, tuna balls, fritters, cakes etc that have varying ratios of tuna, coconut and palm sugar. There’s a couple of more respectable cafes on the island (where the floors get swept and the customers are better behaved) but at the Fishermen Cafe  10/- (~60c) buys me three or four short eats, a sweet little banana and a cup of tea. It took me a while to work up the courage to go there for dinner, but a few nights back I sat with the tuna-boat men and tried the reef-fish curry. For 30/- (~$1.80) I got a delicious curry with big chunks of fish; rice; papadams; a plate of sliced lime, onion and chili  and a watermelon juice to cool me down. I might try it again tonight and see if I recognise any of the fish I met this morning.

Crab

Crab

Footnote: I haven’t mentioned work yet, which after all is why AusAid sent me here. It’s started slowly and I’m still in the ‘needs assessment’ stage, observing lessons and talking to teachers. I’ve begun planning a couple of training modules and will start informal teacher workshops next week. This week is exam week, and assessment is one of the key issues I’ve identified. My challenge for the week is to convince a few people that, even if a student gets 100% on a test, they might not deserve an ‘A’ if the questions only needed recall of simple facts at a ‘C’ standard.

Update:  A couple of days after I wrote this post, I was reading ‘Voyage of the Beagle’ by Charles Darwin and found this:
“Cocos Island – April 5, 1836.
The water being unusually smooth, I waded over the outer flat of dead rock as far as the living mounds of coral, on which the swell of the open sea breaks. In some of the gullies and  hollows there were beautiful green and other coloured fishes, and the form and tints of many of the zoophytes were admirable. It is excusable to grow enthusiastic over the infinite numbers of organic beings with which the sea of the tropics teems.”

??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????

BBQ

A school group from Fuvahmulah atoll down south were visiting Villingili for a few days. I had spent a day helping with their marine science project so they invited me to the farewell barbecue. It was to be at the school from 8.30 – 11 pm.

Later in the day a couple of local teachers mentioned that they were going fishing in the evening and invited me to join them. I wasn’t sure if I could fit in both events, until it dawned on me that the two were connected.

Adil said we’d leave from the boat harbour at 4.00; Ali said 4.30; I split the difference and arrived at 4.15. In the first boat harbour were just the usual tuna boats getting ready to go out for the evening, but no-one that I knew. The only activity in the other harbour was a dhoni unloading bags of sand. I pedalled up & down between the school and the two harbours for most of an hour until I caught sight of Ali leaving the hardware store with a spool of fishing line over his shoulder. I followed his motorbike to the school, where we rolled the fishing line onto a plastic bottle and attached an enormous hook. He picked up a few chunks of coral for sinkers. Then we went down to the harbour and found a group of men standing around, including some that I recognised from the school.

??????????????????????

Our boat was the one unloading sand, and the skipper wasn’t interested in letting us near it until the last bag was unloaded and every grain of sand was washed overboard. Eventually he signalled us on and an animated discussion began. It was in Divehi so I didn’t understand a word, but it was fairly obvious from the body language that it went something like this:

School bloke: “Where’s the fishing gear?”
Skipper: “What fishing gear?”
School bloke: “We hired your boat to go fishing – you’re supposed to provide the lines.”
Skipper (thinking this is very amusing): “I’m just a simple boat owner, not a tourist operation. Go and get your own lines.”

(That’s a very brief summary – it actually went on for much longer.)

Ali had his plastic bottle rig, one or two others had something similar, but there were fifteen of us. Several men got on their motorbikes and went home or to the hardware store in search of lines and hooks. After they left, the skipper unlocked a cupboard and pulled out some fishing reels.

By about 6pm the whole group was on board and we headed out of the harbour. I wondered about bait but didn’t like to display any more ignorance than was necessary. A few days earlier I’d watched a crowd of fishermen working a swirling school of small fish in the harbour. They were using short bamboo poles to drop in a hook and immediately flick a fish out over their shoulder for a mate to collect while they went after the next one. I asked a colleague whether they were using bait or lures and he said, “Our fish are very generous – you just offer them a hook and they accept your invitation to come aboard.” I wasn’t so sure this would work for reef fish.

After we’d been heading out towards the channel for about ten minutes, we saw a small boat speeding behind us, with a couple of guys waving frantically. Again I don’t know the detail of the conversation that went on but the skipper idled the motor, the small boat caught up, handed over a couple of slimy tubs of tuna guts & scraps, and went away again.

??????????????????????

We motored out through the channel, along the edge of the reef, and anchored just outside the line of the breakers. Hooks were loaded with huge chunks of tuna and dropped overboard. Nothing happened for a while but eventually a bright red reef fish came aboard, followed immediately by a metre-long barracuda with enormous teeth. Everyone stepped well back from the sharp end until it was rendered unconscious by the tiller-handle.

??????????????????????

The barbecue was due to start at 8.30. By 8.00 we had a collection of large fish so we pulled in the lines and headed back to the harbour. Ali stayed to clean the fish; Adil suggested I go home for a shower (I was already well aware of the need to wash off the tuna-guts) and said he’d see me at the uninhabited island for the barbecue.

I rode out along the rocky causeway to the uninhabited island. The full moon disappeared behind a storm cloud and the battery went flat in my headlight. I couldn’t see firelight or hear any sound, but the island is densely wooded so I guessed everyone was on the far side. They weren’t.  I rode back to the harbour and met Ali, who had just finished preparing the fish. He said I should take no notice of Adil and that the BBQ was at the school. It wasn’t there either, but I found someone there who said it was at Love Point, on the other side of the island.

I arrived about 9.30, assuming that there had been a bit of slippage in the schedule and I was just about in time for dinner. There was a candle-lit tent set up on the beach and a bunch of kids and teachers sitting around but no sign of food or anything to cook it with. The school’s pickup truck arrived but it only contained the rest of the kids. After a while, it returned with some barbecues made of oil drums and big bags of coconut shells, but no food.

??????????????????????

??????????????????????The barbecues were set up and eventually each had a raging fire of coconut shells. Finally the pickup came back with our fish, as well as big tubs of sausages, chicken legs and roshi. The ladies lay the fish down on piles of fresh leaves and started rubbing in a paste of spices (similar to the Spicy Fried Fish recipe in my first post), but said they couldn’t cook until the fires burned down to coals.

Meanwhile, the kids had formed themselves in a circle and individuals were taking turns at stepping into the centre and doing something entertaining. I’d love to say it was a fine display of traditional culture, but the girls all sang American pop songs and the boys mainly performed dance moves inspired by Michael Jackson.

???????????????????????????????By about 11pm the fires had died down to glowing coals and the fish, chicken and sausages were put on to roast. There was no formal ‘meal time’ announced – people just started cruising past the BBQs and picking up a chicken leg or breaking off a chunk of fish as it became ready. The way the fish had been gashed all over made it easy to do this.

I don’t know whether anyone else had been tracking the time like I was or if they were all just on ‘island time’. I suspect the lead teacher of the visiting school was anxious about getting kids back to their billets but too polite to mention it. The whole evening seemed to me as an outsider to have an air of chaos about it, but in the end a large group of people had a very fine meal and a relaxing evening on the beach – and the kids left for home not too long after midnight.

Next day, the 10am boat to Fuvahmulah arrived at 3.30pm and was already full. The school group squeezed in anyway and headed off for an 8-hour trip home – but it will probably take considerably longer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA