By Daniel Bosley
In these weekly travelogue articles, I’ll be given the opportunity to present updates on the Two Thousand Isles project as we travel through the islands, as well as to reflect on the overall experience of an expat in the atolls.
As we spend a few weeks on Addu prior to the start of our journey, I realise that this is the longest time I have spent in the islands in the five years I have lived in the Maldives. An anticipated one month stay has quickly become two, and so my first lesson in island time is learned.
Travelling to Addu, even after numerous visits, always produces a longing in me to stay forever, but also an apprehension that to do so would shatter the illusion. Can a foreigner stay in the islands indefinitely and still experience the wide-eyed wonder of the visitor witnessing a pace of life so different from his home?
Spending these weeks buried in the history of RAF Gan gives some clue, and a strange sense of being half at home as an Englishman in Addu. Indeed, the sheer scale of ex-Gannite Peter Doling’s book - published 30 years after his tour - means I’ve spent much of the past few weeks acclimatising in 1971.
For the ‘lonely men of coral command’, the prospect of spending just 12 months on one of these isolated specks of land was a daunting prospect, despite the Gan complex hosting restaurants, three cinemas, golf courses, football pitches, a bowling alley and probably more bars than any other RAF base.
One airman’s countdown diary entry published by Doling highlights the hysteria: “310 [days to go]: Can’t believe how long I still have to do”; “167: Must be a plot so you can’t see the sun moving”; “105: I wonder if the sun ever moves”; “65: The sun has definitely stopped”; “55: Building aeroplane, must escape”; “1: Board aircraft, kiss pilot”.
The stubborn southern sun, refusing to acknowledge the passing of the months, is indicative of the way time takes its time in the islands, and why foreigners can find it hard to adapt. There are few signs it is passing at all until the sun drops through its amber spectrum into the ocean just after 6pm everyday, reminding anyone quick enough to notice that the earth is still spinning.
Even compared to Male’, time and space seem different in the Maldives’ second city. More of both for coffees, but less cafes to go to; less traffic and more tropics, meaning that going for a ride is now a relaxing (and essential) leisure activity once more - something it's not been in Male’ for a number of years now.
In contrast to the capital, the imam’s thousand-year routine seems to play a more vital role in lending definition to the otherwise-disorienting glare of each day. Other than the sun’s six o’clock blushes, only the clockwork calls to prayer - still uninterrupted here by the thrum of vehicles or the squawk of advertising - have provided a consistent framework for all.
Away from the dusty streets, the only thing nearing the reliability of the call to prayer, which lets itself in with the briefest Arabic nicety (just like all the neighbours), is the call to food. Bis gandhu appears as if by magic the moment you wake, and starts the regular rhythm of riha, rihaakaru, garudiya and ‘bai, bai, aasele, kaa etthah...come eat!!’
But island life is not all rustic cliches and the back-to-basics lifestyle fetishised back in Britain - and that's not what we want the Two Thousand Isles blog to be about. For every outsider who finds the paradise they were seeking in the isles, ten more are steadily worn down by the reality, and our collective inability to understand and adjust. Boredom is perhaps the best example of this, as sun sets on paradise and dawns on a deeper reality.
Just a small taste of island life brings a new understanding of the traits moulded by a different kind of time; a force of nature, rather than a convertible commodity, which bears down upon the newbie harder than the midday heat. As a Londoner is trained for the daily mental sprint, on the islands it seems that life is a marathon, requiring greater reserves of mental stamina and patience.
Hidden beneath the indifferent exterior of islanders are steely qualities of stoicism, determination and discipline that have made these communities withstand the test of time.
So, after a pleasant hiatus in Hithadhoo, we’re preparing to journey north into the atolls to see what really makes the islands tick, though I might need the guys at Mihaaru to remind me what day (and month) it is from time to time.
Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands. Exclusive articles will be published biweekly on Mihaaru every Wednesday and Saturday.