Dr Qayum Hamid Changal
I landed in Maldives on January 10, 2014. With dreams in my heart and vision wide and clear, it was a challenge for me. After completion of my bachelors in Medicine, it was my first posting that too outside my own heaven, Kashmir. But undoubtedly, I landed into another heaven on earth, alluring and scenic. As soon as the plane landed at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport in Malé, I could literally see the blue waters all around me.
The airport is located on an Island just 15 minutes drive by ferry from main capital city Malé. First impression is the last impression. The custom officers, as well as other airport authorities were very polite and helpful. I could see foreigners checking in-and-out as Maldives is the favourite tourist destination for the West. Airport is not that big, but it is beautiful. One has to get into a ferry to reach Malé – one of the best developed cities in the Subcontinent. You literally fall in love with Malé at first sight.
The city is technically organised with strict traffic rules, roads are neat and clean, while shops have lovely ambience. The mode of transportation is air-conditioned and comfortable cabs or taxis. Out of all the cities I have travelled around, I love Malé the most.
Maldives is located in the Indian Ocean, South West of India and Sri Lanka in the Laccadive Sea. Jan S Hogendorn, Grossman Professor of Economics, theorises that the name Maldives derives from the Sanskrit ‘Maladvipa’, meaning “garland of islands”.
Ibn Batuta, the famous medieval traveller, called it as ‘Mahal Dibiyat’ meaning palace. But, the citizens of Maldives call this beautiful country as ‘the sunny side of life’. I too agree with it, the place is so attractive and full of life. If you have a camera in your hand, you won’t stop clicking till the battery is dead. Itself some process starts within our grey matter, and we turn into a photographer. And, the clicks are amazingly superb.
Actually, Maldives is a country with group or chain of islands scattered, encompassing a territory spread over roughly 90,000 sq kms, more than 1100 islands. It is the planet’s lowest country with an average ground level elevation of 1.5 metres above sea level. The official language is Divehi (Maldivian), and it is a hundred percent Muslim populated country. As per the census of 2014, the total population is 341,356. The currency is Rufiya, stronger than INR. One Maldivian Rufiya equals to almost 4 Indian Rupees. Maldives got freedom from the United Kingdom on 26 July 1965. Recently they celebrated their 50th Independence Day with great fervour and enthusiasm.
All the government offices were illuminated, and functions continued for 10 days. Even I joined the flag hoisting ceremony. For the first time in my life I attended any flag hoisting ceremony, and people were literally very passionate about it.
As I said earlier, it is a chain of islands. And, these islands are far away from each other. The 26 natural atolls are categorised into 20 atolls for administrative purposes. These 20 administrative atolls have different names, exactly like we have different districts in Kashmir. And then, each atoll comprises of many islands, inhabited as well as uninhabited. I live in ‘Tha’ atoll, and the Island’s name, where I work and reside is ‘Veymandoo’. Veymandoo has a population of around 2500, and mostly people deal with fishing business. Actually the whole country is dependent on two main sources of income, tourism and fishing. The people mostly are good and greet you with smiling faces. But the literacy rate is quite poor, and very unfortunate to say that the highest rate of divorce in whole world is found in Maldives. The reasons could be many, but personally I find people have least respect for the relationships. It is mainly because dwelling on these smaller islands, they are cut off from the rest of the world, and no religious organisation travels to these smaller islands and spread the word of truth. But, people are very helpful and have immense respect for the foreigners who are working here, especially for Kashmiri people. Actually, we are two Kashmiri doctors on this Island, me and Dr Mushtaq. And, the people are ready to help most of the times.
The food is entirely different as they mostly consume sea food. Traditional Maldivian cuisine is based on three main items and their derivatives: coconuts, fish and starches. Coconut milk called as ‘kaashi kiru’ is used in most of the dishes. Grated coconut is used in dishes such as ‘mas huni’. The favourite fish people mostly consume is Tuna. It is very tasty and fleshy. But, they consume it differently. They just boil the fish and eat. They call it ‘Garadiya’. The tuna-based thick brown paste known as ‘Rihaakuru’ is also an essential item in Maldivian cuisine. Almost all the short eats like ‘Samosa’ or ‘Bajiya’ contains fish. In starch they mostly are rice-eaters, and ‘roti’ made up of wheat. The most important curry in the cuisine of the Maldives is cooked with diced fresh tuna and is known as ‘Mas riha’. They do cook chicken curry as well, but mutton and beef is not in their menu. Thank God! Mutton and beef is available in the market places on the demand of foreign workers. But in restaurants, you will get everything in Malé. From Mughalai to Greek, Thai to Spanish, every food is available to nourish your taste buds.
The culture of Maldives too is entirely different and unique. They usually marry with both bride and bridegroom from the same island only. Thus, most of them are relatives of each other. I have noticed one strange thing on both the Eids here. More than visiting each other’s families on Eid day, they prefer playing various games and performing cultural or folk dance. Maldives is not admired for its beauty only, but their distinctive dance as well. Where I dwell, ‘Bodu-Beru’ is very famous. Though gradually, western music and dance is drawing the roots down, but the traditional dance has its own charm and magnetism. There are other traditional dances as well, but ‘Bodu-Beru’ is more famous and loved among the locals.
Maldives art and crafts is as charming as the place itself. Wooden lacquer ware is a very valuable part of Maldivian history and is quite popular. Simply a piece of local wood that has been hollowed and transformed into bowls, baskets and boxes, lacquer ware are just as beautiful as they are functional. These beautiful artifacts are famous with tourists keeping the local economy ticking.
Boats, locally known as ‘Dhoanis’, narrate the tale of thousands of years of art and engineering that go into their making. Alongside transport and tourist attraction, these boats are used for fishing as well.
The best thing about Maldivians is that they do not discrimination between citizens on the basis of their designation or qualification. In our hospital, from a manager to a sweeper, doctor to a lab assistant, all are called by their names. Everybody is equally treated, in functions all eat and enjoy together. That keeps an atmosphere within the working places friendly. The people display unbreakable unity, be it the moment of happiness or grief. I have been here for two years now. I could not notice any sign of corruption or waywardness in the offices. The banks run smoothly and their government schools are far better than most of our private ones. But, their health facility is little bit weaker as compared to other nations. I think it is because of the transport problem they face, the islands are interconnected by ferries and motor boats. It hampers not only the medical facilities, but also the day-to-day needs of a person, especially when the sea is rough.
How can one forget the breathtaking resorts of Maldives? After every FIFA World Cup, most of the players travel to their favourite destination in Maldives and enjoy the hospitality of world class restaurants. A couple of years ago Lionel Messi visited the place. The resorts in Maldives are counted among one of the most enchanting destinations in the world. The white sand beaches and blue lagoons, tall coconut trees and world class modern facilities, it is the mixture of nature and technology amazingly staged together.
The place is peaceful, crime rate is very low, and police also is very active in its procedures. There are no iron shutters in the shops, only glass screens that show open or close sign. It shows the level of safety people feel, also the faith in system. Like any other place in the world, there are good people and then there are bad people. I am not promoting Maldives, but it is my advice to all that you must visit this place. It pleases our senses and mind, delightful and naturally artistic. The ambience created by God is exquisite, a beautiful view and nature irresistible. This country is verily the ‘Sunny side of life’. Travel and explore, as says Saint Augustine: The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.
The author is a doctor and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on his blog at: drqayum.wordpress.com