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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One 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.
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.
I 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.