MY ISLAND STORY
BY TONI THE MALDIVE LADY
WRITING almost a century ago at his youthful adventures in Africa, Churchill described his journey from the coast. up through the highland interior to Uganda in the flowing. exotic terms, “You climb not a Beanstalk but a railway and at its top you find a wonderful new world”. The Maldives are like that . . . a wonderful new world, reached not by climbing up an escarpment railway but by descending down the airlines of the skies, a joyful journey l have made on more occasions than there are Cowrie shells on the beach ....and in the Maldives the sense of wonder starts even before you land on its coral shores indeed. Hulhule International Airport, which gives the appearance from above of an Aircraft Carrier anchored in the blue vastness of the Indian Ocean, is the only one in the entire world which both begins and ends in water. In actual fact it is, in the simplest terms. two islands joined together by the ingenuity of man. As the plane lands and whistles down the runway your very first Island thrill is hoping that the brakes will hold! They always do, of course and you are safely in your very own 'wonderful new world', to quote yet another English writer of renown, "Far from the Madding Crowd' and the strain and stress of 21st century life.... Welcome to the Maldives. that greatest gift of God and the nature and the greatest little country under the Sun! From now on until the time of your sad departure. Forget the world beyond the island shores and let their warm embrace work its magic as you fulfill your long-held dream of being on your very own castaway island, one with all the conveniences and sophistication in ready attendance.
ls this Paradise on earth! that much abused noun again... but in the Maldives, one is as about as close to that state of mind so long longed for by so much of humanity than you are ever likely to get. For imagine... a remote group of islands, strung out like a broken rope of pearls, like Pearls in fact, only smaller... protected from the high seas by nature’s greatest barrier, Coral reefs, encircled by beaches of the purest caster-sugar, beyond which play waters of the deepest, turquoise, translucent blue, with the temperature of warm milk it is a canvas completed on shore by arching, graceful palm trees, clipping in the warm air while beneath the riotous purple Bougainville sprays forth. Forget the demands of the ever- whining telephone, the depression cast by the barking at daily newspapers, castaway your style crippling shoes and lie and surrender yourself to an experience that is a Pearl beyond price.
Does all of this read like the very fabric of Paradise?... if so, well, that is because for the world-weary visitor in search for a quality of peace the wider world cannot give it is, welcome to my islands... my family and my second home for the past quarter of a century. Welcome to the Maldives! When in 1979, I first set foot upon these Island shores they were, in truth, a secret few knew of their existence and their role as a tourism destination was not even a twinkle in the eye of an industry which many today, perceive to be all seeing. But no secret remains as such for long and most certainly not one as good as the Maldives! Has tourism changed the islands? Yes of course it has but the magic they cast remains as strong as it ever did. From the moment I wake in the morning I know I’m where I belong. Indeed, back in England not a day goes by when the Maldives is not on my mind. I miss the lively bustle of Male, the diminutive capital. I wonder just what the fishermen are about on their remote islands, yet here I have a confession to make. During my early Maldives days, I was so enamoured of its physical attributes, particularly the world of Coral wonder beneath the waves. that the people did not initially, feature that much in the equation. How could I have missed such wonderful, smiling people around me.... surely some of the friendliest on the face of the earth. How could I have failed from the very moment of my arrival to notice the dignity, so sadly lacking in Western society. Now, I love every aspect of their way of life, including the lyrical sound at the Dhivehi language of which, I am ashamed to record, I speak very little.
But what do those who visit the islands really know of the people? Not much I fear, as, particularly on the more remote island which now constitute tourist resorts, few Maldivians are to be seen. save a few who work at the Reception Desk, the Waiters and an equally small number of ancillary workers. Their wives, husbands and families live on their home islands. Which, more often than not live many hours away by boat, with the result that many visit their own native islands on an annual basis only, islands which as a general rule, are ‘off limits’ to visitors although ‘island hopping’ visits to other resorts are easily arranged in actual fact, visitors are pretty much locked into their own resort although. of course. an excursion to Male can make for a particularly interesting and unusual experience. The capital, a magnet for so many young Maldivians from the out islands. However, vastly overcrowded but with the Mosques and its markets. has an atmosphere all of its own. A unique place in fact. The Maldives is of course, a State of the Muslim world. Indeed, it would be inconceivable for a Maldivian not to be Islamic. A visit to the Fish and Fruit Market is most worthwhile. Around 4 o'clock every afternoon the small fishing boats arrive at Port, weighed down with their harvest of the Ocean. The excitement of the auction quickly follows with the enthusiastic participation of the local people affording the visitor a most appealing insight into the island life! A little gentle bargaining in the small souvenir shops, for shark jaws, locally emblazoned T-shirt, handcrafted lacquer boxes (a Maldivian specialty) and measures of silk, is an education in itself and an experience to remember once back, in the soulless antiseptic 'Superstores' and shopping malls at home.
During my early days I used to pedal my way round Male's send-surfaced roads and lanes. Often top of a man’s bicycle sans brakes with cars being few and far between. Today, the roads are paved, fringed by high-rise blocks and smart Government Offices, traffic lights. and that curse of contemporary, urban living, traffic jams! The golden rule to always observe however, irrespective of whether one is visiting the capital or should one be so fortunate. an inhabited island. is to dress with due decorum. Again. the Maldives is not a secular state. it is a part of the Muslim world and that has to be respected at all times. Indeed, Maldivians are by nature a conservative people, an observation given a particular dimension when it is realised that Maldivians who have not ventured beyond the shores of their island home. Will never have seen a river or a mountain. No island in the archipelago is more than 3 metres above sea-level, which means that, with global warming (note; not of the Islanders making but of the industrialised world beyond their far horizons) and with it ever higher tides, this small Island nation is under the dark and menacing could of becoming a people under the threat of eventual extinction. An endangered nation no less.
The country was initially known as Dhivehi Raj, island kingdom. an Ocean girthed Kingdom at some 1,192 islands, of which only 202 are inhabited. For administrative purposes they are broken down into 26 Atolls (the term ‘Atoll' being the word given to the human race by this Dhivehi speaking nation). with Male making the 27th centre of this Independent Island State. the Republic of the Maldives. Up to 1932 the Islands were a Sultanate. with an absolute ruler, Sultan Shamsuddin. He was far sighted and in that same year instituted a Constitutional Sultanate. In 1952. in a referendum. the people were asked to choose between a Sultanate and a Republic they chose the latter and on January the 1st. Amin Didi forfeited the title of Sultan and became the country’s very first elected President. This first Republic was however, short- lived for before 1953 was done another referendum reinstated Sultanic rule. In 1968 a third referendum returned the country to Republican status, where to this day it remains.
The islands cover. from top to bottom. a distance of some 500 miles, with Gan formerly a base for Britain's Royal Air Force. A stepping-stone to the country’s Empire in the Far East and a vital refuelling stop during the Second World War. Now boasts a unique resort destination, Equator Village, a place with an atmosphere all of its very own! While being, in geographical term, about the same size of Portugal, 99% Maldives territory is made up of rolling Indian Ocean, water in fact, yet another unique feature of this really quite extraordinary land! Its total population is put at about 250000 but with Tourism, at the time of writing, numbering, each year double that figure. But the indigenous population is rapidly rising and the Maldives is now one of the most densely packed in the whole wide world. In order to earn a living, the islanders are obliged to work hard. long hours and more often than not in the most dangerous conditions. Fishing on the Ocean waves for example put the nations fleet, comprised Principally of small wooden crafts, at constant risk, at the all too often spiteful mercy of the wild elements. And as l have already observed here. families are so often obliged to endure separation when one. or more of its number leave to work on the tourist Islands. Paradise? I think not.
However. the development of tourism has brought many financial advantages to the people of the Maldives and it is an industry which, from its advert in 1972. has made its very own astonishing progress. Indeed, at the start it was all very basic no air-conditioning at all and to be candid, a very limited. very basic choice of food. The islanders knew very little of foreigner’s diet. Their staples of fish and rice. with a tow vegetables and. of course, an abundance of scalding chillies, had little appeal for the greater majority who visited the islands! Very few were proficient in any language other than their own. the cooking of Western food was another mystery and while feckless generators provided an electricity supply at sorts. there was no hot water (not that this mattered very much. in temperatures well into the 80's tor most of the year) and overhead fans often went on strike! Transport from the, then basic Airport to one’s resort was by traditional craft, the Dhoni. So, unlike the speedboats of today which will speed you to your final Maldives destination could take several hours. This did, however, have an advantage. There was time in which to fish for your supper on the way! On one of my early solo trips I had the line round my big toe, was happily reading a book as we made a slow. Majestic pace towards my chosen Island. Suddenly a hefty pull on the line sent me sprawling across the deck! The crew came promptly to my rescue and we landed the most enormous Barracuda which was then expertly cooked and served at supper time! Oh yes. the early days really were the most enormous fun!.
Whilst learning to dive I met with the Internationally celebrated denizens of the deep. Hans and Lottie Hass, who told me that the Maldives had no rival in its abundance of fish and total beauty, both above and beneath the waves it was, and indeed remains, Neptune’s untouched world. The Maldives. In actual fact. got it right from the very start. No spearing of Fish, no removal of corals or sea-shells, no diving below 30 metres. Conservation practices of their very best. I spent 3 years learning about the Maldives and its people, travelling to the remotest of non-tourist Islands, fishing and living with the local people. It was at such times that I saw the quite desperate need for books and witness. too, the widespread affliction Thalassaemia, a very serious blood condition. Help was needed, now, it was at such realisations that I pledged my life and loyalty to the people of the Islands. His Excellency President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom then awarded me the honour of representing the country in the United Kingdom as their Honorary Representative for Tourism and by virtue of such an appointment became the very first woman in the Western world to represent an Islamic country. An honour indeed. My essential brief was ‘To tell the United Kingdom about us’. To date l have given talks at over 400 schools. and given quite literally, countless press and radio television interviews.
The Maldives, despite their limited experiences of the world beyond their Island shores, should never ever be underestimated. They learn fast and developed the tourism industry with such astonishing speed and professionalism that in no time at all the industry's “Big Boys” descended on the archipelago. India's internationally renowned Tai Group was the first to arrive but were quickly followed by Hilton. Four Seasons. The Banyan Tree, the list is as impressive as its comprehension. The hard work of so many has, indeed. produced the most amazing results but truth to tell, I observed such rapid progress with mixed emotions... pride, yes but pride tinged with fear as in came the Spa concept. Massage facilities and the rest now so automatically expected of high-class resorts would. I wondered with increasing fear, would the Maldivian resort operators be left behind? My tears have. thank God, proved to be quite unfounded! for in they came with a resounding response... Luxury Houseboats with one’s very own Butler to hand. Super de Luxe Beach Bungalows' with private pools thrown in for good measure! And more the first Underwater Spa in the entire world. A static fully air-conditioned cruise ship, with Nitrox diving, the very best of any diving facility worldwide! So, as we enter 2004, I feel with quiet justification, that l has contributed to such success as my beloved Maldives now enjoy, internationally, mad mother hen, one so very proud of her brood no less! It is a love affair without an end... but one with very practical dimension... 28,000 books over the years. which now sit on the shelves of some 15 island libraries which one has made possible. a total so far of 97,000 Rufiyas from the sales of my autobiography and my very latest effort. a UK Government grant for Medical books. Oh yes and to my Island known appellation, ‘Toni, the Maldive Lady’. can be added! Universal aunt given that I see so many Maldivian children through school here in the UK. The Maldive Lady, a Universal Aunt... whatever.... my island story goes on and just gets better all the while.