Late on a Sunday afternoon, hardly a day of rest in this part of the world, the small island of Maalhos is quiet. The men, most of who go to sea each day to fish or work at one of six nearby tourist resorts, are absent. School is out for a week’s holiday so kids of various ages scamper up and down the short, dusty streets. The women of the island of 600 are mostly in doorways or small backyards or sitting in laid-back sling chairs made of strong twine strung from metal frames lining the streets.
On the beach, the late afternoon sun in the shade, a gaggle of boys swordfight with palm fronds. A woman in brown headscarf sits cross legged playing a sophisticated game of jacks with small round stones. Three women sit together knitting palm fronds into roofing material. A trio of girls in their early 20s follow us as we walk the streets, painfully shy, peeking out from beneath headscarves, smiling.
Like all Maldivian towns this is laid out in squares. From the start of any street you can stare down it and see blue ocean at the other end. As I walk the streets, obviously an outsider, accompanied by a translator — one of the many islanders who works at one of the six tourist resorts in the Baa Atoll — I stop to chat people up and the responses are friendly, smiling. Everyone I meet – man, woman, child – gives me a good, hard handshake as a hello. Though poor, this is not an impoverished place.
Despite the booming tourist business that exists on islands all around, most of these people have little contact with outsiders. Tourists in the Maldives are confined largely by geography to the resort islands. Water surrounds and there aren’t shuttles or ferries or water taxis to take people easily from island to island. During the recently ended thirty-year dictatorship, locals were strongly discouraged from mingling with visitors, concerned that negative influences from the west might rub off. Tourists drink alcohol, run around mostly naked and come to party, after all. By comparison, the local populace does not imbibe and is called to prayer several times a day (though there is reportedly a sizable heroin habit and growing drinking problem among many of the Maldive’s young people).
Concrete-block-and-cement walls lining the streets are painted in bright orange and purple and faded blue; older walls are made from pieces of coral, a construction now forbidden due to efforts to preserve the fragile reefs. Many of the walls bear stenciled black-and-red “Vote for Saleem” signs, which rather than feel defacing are actually a reminder of a positive thing that’s come to the Maldives in the last few years: Democracy.
I visit with a woman dressed in purple from head to toe; she is bundling reeds for roofs, explaining she is the breadwinner since her husband is sick. Fifty-two, she came here thirty years ago from a nearby, smaller island. In that time, she says, everything has gotten better. The economy. Politics. The way of life, including fifty channels of satellite television. And yes, she worries about rising sea levels, but primarily for her kids. “The seas are climbing … but what can I do?” is the plaint I hear from most here.
While the impacts of global warming are being hotly debated at the SLOWLIFE Symposium at the nearby Soneva Fushi resort, the reality of it and the inevitable impact on local life seems very far off. Talk to locals and they will admit they have to go further to sea to find the fish that used to swim just offshore. They will tell you that there seem to be more storms these days, more powerful storms. They admit that erosion is eating away at the beaches they have played on all their lives. But to ask them to connect those changes to carbon emissions and international laws of the sea is a stretch.
Yet they remain the best “reporters” of how a changing climate is — slowly — having a real impact on their daily lives.
On the far side of the island a Woman’s Collective has turned out for a late-afternoon communal sweeping of a corner of the island. Bent at the waist, wearing headscarves and long dresses, they whisk brooms over the sand/dirt ground along the edge of the sea. Paid a small salary by the local government, the clean up is a good thing. But a bad side of island life here is evident just behind where they sweep: Piles of plastic garbage bags, which apparently did not make the once-a-month barge that carries garbage away to a nationwide rubbish-island near Male.
“You ask where the tsunami hit,” responds a 70-year-old man in green polo shirt, faded madras skirt and red Nike flip-flops. “Everywhere. That wave came from every direction at once.” He lucked out when the wave hit, since he was twenty feet up a coconut tree knocking off cocos.
Deeply tanned, his shaved head boasting a thin veneer of graying stubble, he tells me he still fishes when there’s a bit of wind, necessary because his boat has only a sail, no motor. A jack of all island trades, he’s fished, collected coconuts, worked construction and, not so long ago, was paralyzed over half his body due to some unexplained (to him) malady. Today he shows off his good health with the strongest handshake yet.