12th Feb 2009
Adu Atoll, Maldives (Duncan)
Little Adu Atoll, a tiny necklace of coral and islands, adrift at the bottom of the Maldives – themselves dribbled down, like an afterthought, below India – is a pleasant place. It wraps its arms around 25,000 people who live on a half dozen of the larger islands that surround the central lagoon. The notion of lagoon gives the wrong impression though; it’s no languid affair. The lagoon is around five miles in diameter and on average 150 ft. deep; it can become boisterous. Imagine a soup bowl submerged in a kitchen sink until only the thin rim is dry; the people live precariously on that edge – but they are very relaxed.
A smooth modern road runs the length of each of the western islands. Causeways link these and provide breezy places of social meeting and productive spots to fish where the tidal stream pours out of various openings. Girls promenade here wearing tight slacks and tossing their hair. Boys groomed like Bollywood stars sit astride 125 cc motorbikes chatting to friends that are fishing. Two middle aged ladies, out for some exercise, march by at an accelerated pace, white sneakers flashing beneath black robes and headscarves.
From where Moose lies off the causeway between Gan and Feydhoo islands, the view is a continual parade of society: a man on a bicycle with two great skipjack tuna dangling from the handle bar, another in a white skull cap hurrying toward the mosque, late again. But you don’t see everything from the new road.
Off behind the coconut trees and clumps of sea grape and manzanilla that line the road lie the quiet towns that run back until they meet the seaward reef. The streets are a dusty sort of sand, with frequent shade trees down the center. Along the major throughfares newly constructed shops abound, but half are them are sitting unstocked and not operational. It gives a sense of a people taken by aliens immediately after a building boom. It is very odd, and the fact that most of the other shops have white shrouds protecting, and totally obscuring, their showcase windows adds to the sense of “taken”.
The people – man, woman and child – ride motorbikes, and at a leisurely pace; often abreast of friends so as to maintain a conversation. The people are shy, but will happily smile and say hello if you make the first move. They’re physically like Indians in appearance, and the men do that indescribable “shake – nod” with their heads when they speak. The buildings that house the people are little compounds made of broken blocks of coral mortared together. These collections of buildings, walls and courtyards are swept spotlessly clean and are shady; they do though have a medieval air… in a quaint way. This, and perhaps the schoolgirls in white robes and headscarves, gives a Saharan look to the towns; I’m almost waiting for a camel.
The people here are very much waiting for something too. Mohammed, who took us in tow and showed us around his hometown, explained that for the past 30 years, the government had been run by “the dictator” from the main Maldivian island of Male. I gathered that that administration had been full of heavy-handed cronyism and that wealth stayed close to those appointed to distribute it. Our guide indicated that people died in prison as a result of this regime. There was massive dissatisfaction.
However, “the dictator” was ousted by ballet box last November and the new man is young, clean and enlightened – my friend Mohammed said, “like Obama”. Everywhere people seem so hopeful that a long list of grievances will be addressed, that we dared to hope along with them.
We rode, on two child-sized bicycles, the length of the new road. Up on the administrative island, where government buildings and the electrical generating plant can be found, we saw a 20 ft. high wall… on the outskirts of town, and surrounding absolutely nothing. A signboard said that it would soon enclose a narcotics rehabilitation center. There is something wrong in River City and that something is heroin.
It just seems so incongruous; these quiet, shy, clean, Islamic people have a heroin problem in their community. I could imagine a bootlegger doling out Jack Daniels on the sly, but junkies epitomize, in my mind, the far shore of mood alteration. I was told that high-level police officers in the old regime had played both sides of the street: the serpent in the garden. When we got back that day, to our provincial little island of tourists and fishermen, we locked the bicycles. This “Obama,” like the American one, will start out with a long laundry list.
The next day Irene & I stood under a spreading tree where old men played chess and nine-man’s morris (!) We were waiting for a fishing boat to come in, and one soon did. The four men on the 40 ft. wooden launch offloaded 20 lb. skipjack and yellowfin tuna like cordwood. Two professional fish cleaners plunked down wooden stools and started cutting into the fish. The hard dorsal ridge with the fins went in a single stroke, a second cut went from spine to throat behind the pectoral fin and then the skin was simply pulled off – very slick. On Moose I could spend a queasy hour dismembering a fish. This guy took exactly 3 minutes and charged me 60 cents. He went on to the next one, perceptibly shaking his head at the pretention of infidels buying yellowfin when everyone took skipjack. I took the dripping bag of fish and we headed home again.
We passed a chattering group of girls sitting on the sand in the clear shallow water; down the way, boys jumped off the bridge into the tidal race and thrashed back to shore, howling to draw attention to themselves. Three laughing ladies straightened up from sweeping the road and said, “Hello, I’m fine, how are you?” and the old man in the white skull cap was almost across the causeway; early for mosque this time.
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