After returning home from living in the Maldives, Donna Richardson reveals what she misses most about the timeless Maldivian capital
Mornings in Male begin with the sound of minarets, then fleeting moments of calm, before this pulsing commercial centre heats up into its everyday schizophrenic state of controlled cacophony.
From my fifth floor balcony I watch as mopeds zip across the winding streets as locals flit to the mosque. On the roof of the cement-block apartment building next door, a local woman hangs laundry on clothes-lines stretched between rusty metal trellises.
Skinny jean wearing moped riders with poodle-perms weave their way past pedestrians shuffling through a narrow web of alleyways and side streets that connect Majeedi Magu, Ameni Magu and Chandaree Magu. Hives of construction workers dressed in faded jeans, long-sleeve blue shirts, and yellow hard hats are stirring across the street; tall construction cranes speckle the skyline like necks of giraffes.
Down at the fish market – the hub of commercial activities – fishermen offload their fresh catch and early bird bargain-hunters come to browse. The small shops over here are stocked with a wide variety of unbranded products. Muscle-men fishermen gut fish in a matter of seconds. It is here, in the fish market of the Maldives, that dhonis from different parts of the country unload the fresh fish and dry fish which is a local specialty. Fresh fruits and vegetables collected from the various atolls and Sri Lanka and India – even farther afield – are loaded onto the jetty. It is a busy and bustling place. The fruit and vegetable market is a colourful and interesting place to people-watch and haggle for a bargain. Poverty abounds. There are beggars on sidewalks and run-down shops – but this is the real life of Male.
The Island of Malé is the second-most densely populated island worldwide, after Ap Lei Chau in Hong Kong. Since there is no surrounding countryside, all infrastructure has to be located in the city itself. Water is provided from desalinated ground water; the water works pumps brackish water from 50-60m deep wells in the city and desalinates that using reverse osmosis. Electric power is generated in the city using diesel generators. Sewage is pumped unprocessed into the sea. Solid waste is transported to nearby islands, where it is used to fill in lagoons.
The airport was built in this way, and currently the Thilafushi lagoon is being filled in. Many government buildings and agencies are located on the waterfront. Malé International Airport is on adjacent Hulhule’ Island which includes a seaplane base for internal transportation. Several land reclamation projects have expanded the harbour.
These pictures of relative tranquility are skewed, distorted, a mirage. In reality, I know the city is already swirling with fevered activity down on its pockmarked sidewalks, which heave, day and night, with the relentless beat of foot traffic.
Vendors, beginning their long work-days chain smoking, are holding court and monopolising crowded walking space with clothes racks, cigarette stands, old-fashioned sewing machines, and rolled-out blankets. Others are hawking street food from behind propane-fueled woks, smoking charcoal grills, and wooden cutting boards on two-wheeled metal carts.
I’ve been away months, thousands of miles away. The intoxication of these streets became little more than a bittersweet picture book of memories to flip through from the sanitised comfort of my flat in the UK.
That invigorating sense of time, of place, and of being far, far away that I’d grown so accustomed to during the eight months I lived and worked in Male may now have gone. As days bleed into weeks and into months, I still yearn for those streets even though I couldn’t stand them before.
Now I’m settled back in the UK I still feel the city pulling me out into the streets as I’m chained to my laptop during cold weekday mornings and afternoons.
Though quarantined indoors, I never feel too far removed from the place. I turn the computer off for a while, and all seems calm again, but, of course, I know that on those streets it’s not.
"They say the Maldives is only for the well-heeled but I aim to prove that it is possible to experience the Maldives on the cheap. I arrived with a backpack and I intended to use it! My blog is about showing you what the Maldives is about from a backpacking perspective. I hope to bring you many tales from the Maldives, its resorts, its inhabited islands and politics, along my adventures, unabridged."