After much encouragement, I took the plunge and left Australia for the first time since my return eighteen months ago. My husband was giving a series of workshops at a college on the island of Male, the capital of The Maldives, and knowing what the island was like, I really wasn’t interested in joining him. However, images of clear turquoise tropical waters, and a free weekend on the Paradise Island resort eventually won me over and I agreed to go.
The resort lived up to, and beyond expectations. Tourism was a late comer to The Maldives, and as a result, they’ve done it well. There are no high-rise beach front properties, and only the uninhabited islands were developed, which ensured existing island villages were not destroyed in the process.
After one night in a beach villa which was nestled among the natural tropical plants of the island, and a short stroll to the beach, we were upgraded to a water villa, situated along a boardwalk above the lagoon, with a private balcony and stairway to the pristine water below us.
Our weekend retreat was pure relaxation and indulgence. I reclined on the private outdoor cushioned lounge, napped, read, and swam or snorkeled in the warm sea. Then, I’d rinse the salt water off with a plunge in the outdoor bath, and begin the cycle all over again, interrupted only by meals and an occasional walk.
Male was very different, but unexpectedly fascinating. It’s a city of approximately 150,000 people, crammed onto a small island with a perimeter of roughly 5.7 km.
The lagoon that once surrounded the island has been filled in to make room for more buildings, roads, and people, and the reclaimed land is held in place by concrete walls and water breaks reinforced with concrete bollards.
There are two swimming areas for the locals, one a small artificial beach, created for the purpose, and the other is a protected area, the same as those provided for the boats that bring essential supplies to the island.
The country’s airport is on a nearby island, and transfers from the airport to the city, or between any of the 1,190 other islands is by ferry or speed boat.
I spent an hour or so each day walking around the island. On my first day, all I saw was concrete and bitumen, but with each new day, I began noticing the trees growing out of nothing, providing snatches of green, shade, and occasionally flowers.
The city has one small park called Sultan Park, a small oasis of green, but apart from the few cemeteries, there really isn’t much room for trees.
The people, like the people in other Muslim countries we’ve visited, are lovely — hospitable, friendly, and generous.
Two times I was approached on my walks, each time by a different man, but both times they greeted me with the same line, “Where are you going?”
As a white woman walking alone, I’m wary of such approaches. I didn’t feel afraid for a moment, but I’ve been caught out before by men in strange countries coercing me into accepting help I didn’t want, which resulted in me then having to deal with the uncomfortable expectation of payment, so with both these men, I simply smiled and truthfully stated I was exploring the island, declined their offers of water, or a tour on their motorbike, and kept walking.
April was a frantically busy month for me, and that’s my excuse for failing to learn the basics of Dhivehi, the Maldivian language before I arrived in Male. However, while we were there, I learnt that Maldivians don’t have words for those we consider essential to politeness. In Dhivehi, there is no word for ‘thank you’, or ‘please’, or ‘hello’, or ‘goodbye.’
Can you imagine living without those words?
How does a culture do without politeness?
I’ve given it some thought and come to the conclusion that it probably began because the people once lived in small communities on each of the tiny islands. In places where everyone knows everyone else, maybe appreciation and gratitude were a given.
In most cultures, a person would feel unappreciated if they were not thanked for anything he or she did for someone else. I like the notion of not having that expectation, of assuming that whatever we did was truly appreciated and acknowledged at all times.
And perhaps, just like I don’t greet my husband with a hello each time he emerges from his office, that is how it used to be for the islanders. If I leave my husband in the living room watching television, I don’t say goodbye. Maybe living in a small community on an island is similar to living in a family home, leaving no need for such words.
Still, Male is not a small community, and I struggled to see how a city of that size could manage without a hello or a goodbye, until I was told that when greeting someone, a Maldivian will ask, ‘Where are you going?’
I assume they part with phrases such as ‘I’m going home,’ or I’m going to school’ but my lessons in their language didn’t get that far.
Those men who I suspected were asking me where I was going, so they could offer to take me there and then demand payment from me, were simply saying, ‘Hello.’ I feel I owe them an apology. They did ask me where I was from, and other idle chatter, so it’s likely they were simply being friendly.
All up, I’m very glad I agreed to visit this interesting country.