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Cargo-boat cruise round the Maldives

Nervously popping her unscarfed head above deck, a shy girl called Leufa is eager to join in the fun. Her younger brothers and she have lived in a small area above the luggage compartment for the past 24 hours she shows me. Barely 15, she is a quiet intelligent character with warm soft doe eyes which glisten wistfully as she looks over the waves and speaks about her wish to study in Singapore. She becomes animated describing her ambition to study. Suddenly she is stopped mid-flow when an older male relative throws a hijab out of her cabin and mutters something angrily in Dhivehi.

Quietly and dutifully she obeys and shrouds her head, lowering it. I prompt her to continue her story. Oddly she deflects and asks if I am married, of course I say no and she seems surprised, given my age which is double hers.

She explains that in the islands’ girls can expect to be married as young as 13, even though it is illegal by law. She says she does not want to marry until she has finished studying.

Her fears are very real. As unemployment plagues the middle islands many men will move to Male after formal education to work, while many of the women who are not emancipated by education will be forced marry before they have even reached puberty.

The isolation of these islands makes them prime breeding grounds for fundamentalism. The curse of the middle islands, as with the rest of rural Maldives is lack of education, no internet facilities and limited transportation. Being so cut off from the world makes it easier for fundamentalism and distorted values to grow. It is not uncommon for men to have concubines in the islands.

Leufa’s brother Shami is an animated fellow and is very inquisitive. He points out the flying fish in the distance and tells me that in his spare time he enjoys riding his bike and fishing. He also has a collection of sea turtles in a paddling pool in his yard.

In a way one of the advantages of the isolation of the islands is it helps children to enjoy fuller lives at one with nature. In the absence of video games children have a chance of having a real childhood exploring and having fun outdoors. Well male children at least.

It dawns on me that these children are the future of the Maldives and their enthusiasm is infectious. We talk and laugh as the sun lowers over the islands and dances on the waves. Despite their young ages, I already feel a strong bond with these kids. Their infectious enthusiasm has shown me that there is some hope in the Maldives. However, I am haunted by Leufa’s story and I watch her really open up and become virtually unrecognisable from the quiet, shy girl I met before as she play-fights with her brothers and they all teach me how to play a Maldivian card game. We continue playing and chatting until the sun disappears into the ocean.

As the sun sets, this is the unofficial call to prayer. It is time for the children say goodbye. They have to pray, eat their supper and then prepare for bed as it is an early start for them tomorrow, when they will reach their island.

As I watch them disappear I remain on deck and make a silent wish that they can enjoy childhood for as long as possible and avoid the pressures of the wahabees, poverty and globalisation. I stay like this, thinking and watching the stars and the rising moon until I am called for my supper.

Below deck a supper of fish curry awaits. In the absence of shower facilities, I make do with the rudimentary facilities on offer. Brushing my teeth with a toothbrush and mineral water, the sea is a wash basin. As the canopy is lifted and the simple act of brushing my teeth as I have done thousands of times before is like the first as I am dumbstruck watching the thousands of stars twinkle in the sky above as the waves crash against the bottom of the boat below.

My appetite for the star gazing has been ignited, so rather than go directly to bed, I decide to return to deck and try to sleep under the stars, offering the cabin to the weary captain who kindly gave it up. Lying on the deck watching the millions of stars twinkle in the cosmos above in the black velvet sky has to be by far one of the most amazing experiences of my life to date.

With the night so clear and nothing save the occasional blinking lights of faraway vessels ahead on the horizon, Orion’s belt is luminous as we cross the equatorial channel. Someone once told me that if you stare long enough at one star a thousand more will appear in that constellation. Sure enough the glittering sky shone like millions of diamonds and with each twinkle representing a galaxy and life and infinite possibilities to our existence. One could stay for hours making out all the constellations, as I did lying on deck.

Back in the days before GPS old seadogs navigated using the brightest star in the southern hemisphere and also used the positions of the constellations to navigate their vessels. The starry, starry sky forms a striking contrast against the inky black sea as the boat tips back and forth to the rhythm of the ocean.

And so the lullaby of the ocean rocks me to sleep as my body becomes one with the deck. I wake at 2.30am I wake up and I am handed a coffee. It is so peaceful and the stars are so bright. I’m told at this point we are 188 degrees latitude from the equator. I stare for hours and through the eyes of the telescope I clock the firey orange Mars in the east and cool green Venus in the west. Around 4.45am the magnificent Southern Cross appeared amongst cosmic clouds, adding to the magical experience.

I made my way back to the cabin and slept through until we moored into Dhaandoo in the Huvadhoo atoll – our first port drop. The pink sky above the island illuminates the gleaming presidential yacht which is moored right next to us, flanked by two MNDF Coast Guard boats.

After a light breakfast of eggs and bread, and observing the crew unloading supplies to the island, I venture off the boat and head east away from the presidential yacht and the hive of activity surrounding the cargo ship. I want to wake up and appreciate the natural beauty of this island. In the early morning light, I pass barren beaches populated by crows and herons. As the sun rises out the sea, among the dark clouds, a wild bird flies across the dramatic reclaimed beach. I pause to capture on film.

Waste disposal - the easy way

Evidence of reclamation is evident on the sea front in this island which is in desperate need of housing. The interior betrays a curious mix of coral houses glimpsed through the jutting palm trees. It is clear that this island is quite poor in comparison with its neighbours. Women rise early to collect rain and sea water to boil and condensate so they can wash and cook during the day, while their men prepare for their days work on the fishing boats. Small dhonis lap in the waves and in the distance is an uninhabited picnic island in the distance.

It is almost perfect. Except one thing – unfortunately locals here have not realised the damage of littering. A little old woman with a wheelbarrow drops a pile of rubbish into the sea. I continue past a building site and dredging site, passing a beautiful grey Siamese looking cat with piercing green eyes who has just fished for his breakfast.

Before long I arrive back at my departure point and see the presidential yacht in its full glory. A hive of activity surrounds it and I am lucky to glimpse the president as he and his entourage makes his way back to the boat. He stayed at the home of the local Kateeb (island chief) and spoke to islanders about the local elections. Unfortunately our ship has to sail on to the next island, so I miss the opportunity to interview the president, but we watch the procession and I get some action shots as the island disappears into the distance. And so we make our way to the next island of Germanafushi.

We set sail for another hour or so, it was soon time for lunch. No sooner had we had cleared our plates than we docked into our next port drop. In the bright sunshine, this idyllic island covered in trees and with a bright lagoon appears split into two parts by a wide cove and there is a natural man-made harbour.

Hopping off the boat, I meet a fellow journalist collecting supplies for his grandmother’s shop. Mohammed Nasih works for MNBC in Male but is spending his annual leave visiting family. The island has a kind of resort feeling but it is home to more than 1800 inhabitants.

Fishing is the main income of the island, yet there are only three fishing vessels – so not everyone can be a fisherman. With limited agriculture and infrastructure there are only a few key jobs in the public sector for teachers and doctors and island councillors. There is a small school, a satellite hospital, which is more like a general practice and an island council office.

Despite it being a Wednesday men are hanging around and doing nothing (known as holhuashi) swinging in undolis (giant handwoven swings) beneath the shady trees lining the island. Surprisingly these are not layabouts but a mix of learned men including teachers and politicians as they sit in silent protest to the presidential visit on the nearby islands, being an opposition island.

Nasih’s grandmother runs a local shop. We stop for a sprite and she invites us into her home. This is a rare privilege to see the inside of a Maldivian home. The island is very beautiful with traditional with coral cottages and wide open sandy streets. At weekends, locals go to a nearby uninhabited island for picnics.

Neighbouring Kandahulhudho (roughly translated as the bones of the tongue of the sea) is flanked by two uninhabited picnic islands. On approach it appears that the island is the jewel in the crown amongst this cluster. .It has one school and a hospital. It is a small island and circled by a lagoon it has a good house reef for diving. Like many of these islands, Kandahulhudo relies on fishing as its main source of income.

It is home to an ancient mosque and I am told there is a wahabee presence. There are also no cars. Most islanders live in coral cottages handed down through generations. Like most islands there is an island chief and a local councillor. 16-year old Nashfa explains that many of the elders on the island can speak very little English, since English Language courses only started three years ago. Growing up in Male, she was fortunate to receive a good standard of education until six years old, but when her parents split up, she moved to Kandahulhudo with her father. In this tiny island the standard of education is inferior to Male. Until recently all classes were taught in Dhivehi. Indian English speaking teachers arrived last year to teach the Cambridge curriculum and improvements appear to be being made. Nashfa comes from a family of teachers. Her father is a teacher and her mother teaches Koran verse. She herself wants to continue studying and to go on to University to specialise in fishing science and commerce.

Luckily she has an enquiring mind and reads books and newspapers on the internet to improve her English.

For Nashfa marriage is also not a priority. Having seen her parents divorce after marrying too early, now she spends her time between the two, on holidays taking the long journey from Kandahulhudu to Male, where her mother works and lives. She says she is not in a hurry to get hitched. Her parents support her decision. She is adamant to return to Male after her formal education and continue learning.

As we near her home island, perhaps the most beautiful out of the trio we have visited so far, the quaint coral houses appear out of the lush vegetation and the beach and harbour is lined by yellow flags signalling this is a pro MDP island.

Children run to greet the boat and people mill as their supplies are unloaded. There is a wooden lookout point and lighthouse in the far right hand side of the island and a small local shop in the left hand side of the curved concave bay. It is peaceful without the sound of motor cars in the street and there appears little evidence of construction. I marvel in the natural beauty of this island set in the gleaming still azure lagoon.

After saying my goodbyes to Nashfa, I step off the boat and find a spot on the dock of the bay to dangle my legs off and write about my impressions of the island. I splash water from the lagoon onto my chargrilled skin and I enviously watch the children playing in the sea. I long to join them but I know the ship is about to dock off again soon. The locals have built sea defences out of coral which they swim back and forth to. In the distance is a picnic island which rests against the gleaming lagoon in the afternoon light. All is peaceful and serene as a few old dhoni’s drift past to complete the picture postcard scene.

Just 30 minutes later we are back on the open sea again. As we leave the Gaaf Dhaal islands behind, the Bangladeshi chefs prepare long line fishing lines strung from the back of the boat to catch our supper for this evening. I ask to join them and we wait for our first catch. They have around four lines going and away from the lagoon as we reach the drop off point fish is plentiful. The ship’s chef Ekbal explains. Soon sure enough we catch a small grouper and a tuna and as the sun sets, we prepare to cross the Equatorial Channel and the Equator (zero degrees) beyond which lies our destination of Addu.

The Equatorial Channel was perhaps the worst part of this three day journey. I am grouchy and severely sun burned from two days on deck and exploring the islands, and sea sick so I decide to go have a catnap and ask the captain to wake me when we reach the equator but I sleep right through until 11.30pm when we reach the equator. It is still another couple of hours to our destination and I have missed supper but the chef has saved me some fish. Steadying myself on the deck, I try to eat as boat and chairs crash from one side of the boat to the other. Oh dear there goes my stomach again. The horizon tips from side to side and I try to settle for the remainder of the journey.

Donna Richardson

We reach the west side at 1am, two hours earlier than expected. First we set down in Feydoo on the Gan (West) side and unload the last of the supplies. Even in the dark, I can see this is is unlike anywhere else in the Maldives. I can glimpse the cars on the road and see the hustle and bustle of the harbour as we unload the last of the cargo onto the island, yet it is calm and peaceful, unlike the chaos of Male.

The captain has kindly offered me the chance to stay on the uninhabited island of Meedhoo for a few days so I can save money, explore a new area and then come over to Gan in a few days time. So we make our way across the lagoon to Meedhoo, a cluster of islands in the north east of the Addu atoll.

It takes about half an hour to unload so I kill the time speaking to a young recently married couple who have travelled from Gaaf Alif to Meedhu to visit her family. The husband is 22 and she is just 19, they appear very much in love and they met naturally and fell in love after meeting in the local shop. They married within six months. We make small talk during the final hour long journey across the lagoon. We finally moor up in Meedhoo at 3am and in the moonlight I can see the wide open sandy roads and quaint coral cottages with beautiful gardens. One thing I marvel at is the many species of trees – surely a legacy from the Brits.

Here is where my cargo adventure ends and my backpacking adventure begins…

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