“My name is Iqbal Mohamed, and I am from Noomaraa, Shaviyani Atoll”
A rather shy and soft-spoken Iqbal, the resident boat captain, has since migrated from his native island to Funadhoo, also in Shaviyani Atoll. These days, however, he spends the majority of his days over 200 kilometres away in Kaafu Atoll, working in Summer Island Maldives.
Sitting at a hut near the resort’s ‘Baraveli Bar’, Iqbal recollected his humble beginnings into the tourism industry. The now 40-year-old veteran sailor had his first job working at then-Twin Island Resort, at the tender age of 18. Eventually, he moved on to working at well-known resorts Kuramathi Island Resort and Paradise Island Resort.
Having been employed at Summer Island since February 2008, Iqbal has invested over 11 years of his career to the pristine island destination. Safe to say, Summer wouldn't be the same without this crafty team player.
“From the moment I opened my eyes”, said Iqbal with a twinkle in his eyes. “My dad had sailboats. I learned what I did chasing in his footsteps.”
Waking up to first light at dawn, Iqbal's day begins with tapping toddy", which by his own admission is, "definitely outside the job" and the 'real' work begins, "after breakfast, when I head out to the boats". This enterprising spirit, however, wouldn't have it any other way.
“I like to keep busy, and I find things to do in that regard,'' he shrugs, chuckling a little conspiratorially, and I feel honoured to have an insight into what drives this hardworking Maldivian.
As the resort’s boat captain, Iqbal is tasked with conducting daily excursions to the nearby sandbank, offering sunset cruises and snorkelling trips. With the added possibility of seeing Sharks and other megafauna, the daily life of Iqbal is inspiring as it is enviable.
“My schedule differs, depending on the day. If snorkelling sessions are booked, then work ends pretty early around 3:30 in the afternoon, but if I have multiple sandbank excursions then I wrap up after sunset.”
He shifts, nervously, as though his sedulous philosophy was not something he enjoyed talking about, “As I said, there are many things I take on outside of my duty and typically, there is no leisure time. Some days I might be on duty until midnight!”
“Unless I have more work that day, I partake in various craftwork”. Iqbal smiled humbly, but his statement only piqued my curiosity further.
“Well, I have done a lot of ‘projects’ during my time here in Summer Island Maldives. The collection is fairly diverse, ranging from building small boats, creating Undhoali (traditional Maldivian swings), ‘Joali’ (traditional woven chairs) and even a ‘Holhuashi’ (a traditional ‘gazebo’ like structure, used for communal gatherings).
“You might have also seen the chessboard (at the Nevi Bar). However, I had some help carving out those!” He beams with certain pride.
The now-familiar chuckle returns.
He began explaining, “The first time I ventured into professional work, it involved going out to sea.”
“ I started my journey as a navigator on a little sailboat,. Presently, I am ‘Niyami’ (Skipper) certified”. Iqbal straightens up and his stance becomes more confident.
“Today, there is not a region I have not travelled across in the Maldives”.
Well, Iqbal of many skills, what are YOU most interested in pursuing?
The answer came as as fast as the question was asked.
“Being a boat captain”.
Iqbal, not a man of many words however, delivered his short and certain answer and gazed backed at me with determination. “That’s what I have always wanted to do”.
But, as I prodded on, wondering what singular activity he would choose, he finally relented with an amused if slightly exasperated smile.
“If I were able to do only a single thing, I would stay in my home island collecting toddy each day. That’s my heart’s wish”.
“Generally I never have free time, I always manage to find something that needs to be done”, said Iqbal hurriedly.
But the rest of the resort were only too happy to sing his praises when he fell silent, chiming in with their versions of Iqbal’s apparently numerous initiatives.
One such description was of Iqbal’s tendency to pursue and revive ‘lost’ ancient Maldivian arts, including organizing traditional dance performances like ‘Dhafi negun’ on the island.
“He constantly finds activities that require a collective team effort. The communal spirit he has echoes the way in which traditional islanders do such things”, offered Mariya Shareef, Summer Island Maldives’ Resort Manager.
“More or less everyone is inclined to lend a hand whenever I ask.” asserts Iqbal.
However, one of the most exciting moments on the island is during Eid , with all that we organize and implement, the atmosphere of the resort becomes akin to that of a local island during festive times”.
“Of course, my standing dream is to leave this resort and well, the hospitality industry as a whole,'' he says, and two decades of service weighs heavy on the timbre of his voice. For a brief moment, the youth that still shines brightly from his entire demeanor, dims faintly.
“I wish to retire and settle down on my island and earn a living there”, he says. “But we shall see”.
“I already do!” responded an excited Iqbal, diving into a passionate narration of the times he spent teaching young folk his skills and expertise.
Iqbal’s response is far shade from how our conversation started, having slowly warmed up to this stranger interviewing him.
“Though I have not done much, in my point of view for the resort staff, I did teach some people to drive small marine vessels.” he declared.
“Outside of the resort, I have students that I trained continously till they became captains themselves”, said the seaman in a proud but kind expression on his face.
“It’s really important. Young people should get educated and expose themselves to life on the sea”, he nods, a bit more seriously than before.
As he tilts his head, the sun catches his eyes and I see that the deep blue of the ocean is reflected in them - it brings to mind the phrase, the eyes are the window to the soul. It rings true, at this moment as it is clear that Iqbal's heart is too aligned with the sea, and crossing them till the end of his days.
“Should you be attentive and vigilant, seafaring is neither difficult or scary”.
And then, eyes crinkling at the corners, with that classic islander humour he adds, “If you’re a true Maldivian, you can do it!”