Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Little Boat That Couldn’t

Map picture

Our introduction to The Maldives was nothing short of comical! Having no docks that could accommodate passenger ships, we had to anchor off the capital city of Male, and from there be taken ashore. Since this was a turnaround day, people were going ashore with their carry-on baggage so using the ships zodiacs was not very practical. Instead we were greeted with a contraption right out of a cartoon. Oh, it was a good-sized little boat, but how it was handled was the story. There at the back of the little boat was an old man standing with one foot behind him resting on the rudder tiller, while he faced forward with a throttle in one hand held together with clamping pliers, and in the other hand he was turning a rod that went down below to the engine which apparently determined if we were going forward or backward. The huge wooden tiller was not attached to the boat with hinges, but instead was tied on with ropes. So, in order to move away from our ship, our driver had to work with one hand to get the engines reversed while with the other, he had to work the throttle, all the while guiding our direction with his foot stretching behind him. What a picture!

Now this arrangement seemed to work well enough when we were in open waters, but as we approached the shore, we found a very small harbor that was jammed with boats of all kinds and sizes trying to reach the jetty wall. If I had not seen this with my own eyes, I would not have believed it possible to jam so many moving boats into so small a space at the same time. No boats were at anchor in this little harbor, so it appeared that its sole purpose was to allow for the loading and unloading of small boats. At first, our driver simply drove straight into the jetty wall, and held us there by leaving the engine running. As we bobbed up and down sliding against the wall, the step up to the platform ranged anywhere from 3 to 4 feet. For almost everyone on board, that was an impossible situation, particularly for those who had to carry baggage. So, at this point, our driver attempted to back off, and see if he could bring us alongside a small loading structure that had stairs down to the water. This loading dock was a U-shaped structure which would allow our driver to pull along either side, or he could simply put the ship in the middle of the “U” where it would be most stable. It was obvious very quickly that within the little harbor, there were absolutely no courtesies extended between the various boat drivers. Everyone was scrambling to get to the jetty, and if that meant cutting off another boat, then so be it. Even something as simple as backing away from the jetty wall was a major undertaking, understanding that our driver had to turn around and at the same time move our tiller while working the forward controls. He finally managed to get out to where he could reposition to the loading dock, where he first attempted the simple maneuver of coming alongside. Other boats cut him off before he could get there, with slight wind compounding his problem and for all of his Herculean efforts, he simply could not pull to the side of the dock. And so, he once again had to back out into traffic. This time he decided to simply put his little ship right into the middle of the U-shaped dock. What could be simpler! I mean this open area is huge by comparison to the size of his little boat, but after 4 attempts it appeared as if we were going to spend all morning bobbing in the little harbor. Finally, on one of our attempts, a member of our shore party managed to get a rope to the front of our boat, and at this point, we finally made it safely ashore. The entire process had taken 30 minutes.

I guess I need to answer to explain exactly where we are and what it is we are going ashore to see. The country that we are visiting is known as the Maldives. The country itself is truly a “fly spec” on the world map since in total size it is slightly larger than the city of Washington, D.C. stuck in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Within its boundaries are 1,190 coral islands which are grouped into 26 atolls. Of these, there are 200 islands which are inhabited, and among those there are 80 islands that have tourist resorts. Most of the islands are at sea level, and the highest point in the entire country is only 12 feet. Our visit today is to the capital city of Male. The city must surely rank as one of the smallest capitals in the world, but it is, however, home to over 100,000 people. In the entire country, there are only 400,000 people. With the island/city of Male being so small you might wonder how people get to this country besides ship. Well on a nearby island in the late 60’s, the country built a large airport in an effort to attract tourist, and that it has done in large numbers. Today tourism ranks as the largest source of income for the island followed by fishing.

The Maldives were managed as a sultanate beginning in the 12th century, but became a British protectorate in 1887. In 1968, the country became a republic, which it remains today. The country’s official religion is Sunni Muslim, and Islamic law is in effect.

The city is so small and its streets so narrow that even a small car has difficulty traveling the streets. In less than one hour, we were able to basically drive around the entire city, although I must admit that the traffic is becoming so extreme that the city runs the risk in a few years of having total gridlock. Essentially, what has happened is that tourism has been so successful that it is literally choking this city to death. Many of the residents who once owned apartments in the city, have now left for nearby countries and are renting their apartments for outrageous rates which then support them in their new homes. During our tour, we stopped at a public square on the edge of which was a very small beach where the locals could go swimming. As we walked around, I could not help but notice that everyone in the water was fully clothed. In fact, there was even a sign posted at the beach that showed a traditional bathing suit with a slash mark across it indicating that it was not allowed on this beach. Our next visit was to the palace of the former Sultan. For a long time it was used as the president’s residence, but it has now been restored. It is closed to the public, and is only used for ceremonial occasions available to visiting dignitaries. Across the street was the oldest mosque in the country and along its side the tombs of many of its past sultans. We finally made a stop at the grand Friday mosque, which was completed in 1984, and is the largest in the country being able to accommodate 5000 worshipers.

The ship being freshly provisioned and refueled, not to mention that we have a large number of new passengers for the new voyage, we departed the city Male overnight and moved 90 miles to the Meemu Atoll. Here there is a population of roughly 6500 inhabitants scattered among 33 islands. Our plan for today was to offer snorkeling from a pristine beach, and also for those who were a little more adventuresome open water snorkeling from a zodiac. Because of Lisa’s asthma, she decided that snorkeling was not a very bright idea. Meantime, I was sorely tempted to go ashore and snorkel from the beach, but when our scouting party got there, they found that the beach was gone! How can a beach disappear? Well it seems that some nearby construction project needed sand and they picked this particular beach to use for their project so that left only open water snorkeling, and I did not feel confident enough about my ability to climb back into the zodiac that I was willing to undertake that. So, we have a morning at leisure and this afternoon will reposition for another adventure tomorrow in the Maldives.

I hope that everyone back home is enjoying the extreme cold, but I can tell you that here in the Indian Ocean the weather is absolutely gorgeous and the temperature is in the low 80s. So, all I can say is “eat your heart out!”


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