14th May 2000
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Where time stands still

Text and pic by Dilrukshi Handunnetti
The dhoniThe Twin Otter, a sturdy little sea plane took off swiftly from Hulhule, the island airport of the Maldives. Spurred by curiosity I peep out of the tiny window and am greeted by a spray of salty water.

Then I see a string of pearls on turquoise waters. The islands appear serene palm-fringed, sun-drenched, each with a spectacular crust of corals. Here in the resplendent Maldives it's a combination of sun, sand, foam and solitude, where time stands still.

Situated at the tip of south India and west of Sri Lanka, 1190 islands form the Maldives, home to 250,000 people. An average island is about 1/2 square km. 

We were a group of journalists visiting the Maldives Hilton on Rangali Island, not only eager to savour the luxury of the hotel but also experience the Maldivian lifestyle.

It was amiable Jesper Hougaard, Managing Director of the Maldivian Air Taxi Service who provided the geography lessons. Of the 1190 islands, only about 200 are inhabited with 80 being transformed into resorts.

An 'atoll' in Maldivian means a cluster of tiny isles protected by an outer reef, surrounded by a lagoon. "These low-lying arable tracts of land face the vagaries of the Indian Ocean which is gradually eroding them," explains Jesper.

We arrive at Rangali Hilton on the south Ari atoll, soaked after getting caught in a shower, shivering and exhausted, yet eager. My bare feet dig into the powdery white sand-layered floor of the 'Ari Lobby'.

Explorations start next morning. I amuse myself with snorkelling, something that's as natural as breathing to any Maldivian! Awhile later, I shed all pretence of becoming a master diver or exploring the mysteries of the coral-laden seabed with over 700 species of multi-coloured fish.

With the temperature at 30 Celsius, a million sea baths wouldn't beat the sweltering heat. 

The schedule is tight, so there is little time to savour Rangali's tranquillity. There are tours to the 28 water villas on stilts, but it is the visit to Hurueli, the desert island which generates fever-pitch excitement. 

Transport is by sea plane or dhoni, the local boat, more popular because it's cheaper but time consuming. The dhoni rocks and sways. Screams escape.

The islands have been affected by El Nino experienced in 1998 which has caused widespread bleaching.With 40% of the corals affected the islands' ecological balance is under threat.

The day at Hurueli is action packed snorkelling, game fishing, scuba diving, canoeing, wind surfing, catamaran sailing and more. The evening is balmy and the hammocks sway gently in the breeze. But the quietude is short-lived. After dinner, the night begins to pulsate with life and rhythm. Young men in white T-shirts and dark sarongs sit upon a dais - beating bodu berus, traditional African drums. The drum looks like our 'magul bera' though the beat is decidedly Afro!

Our fatigue forgotten, we hit the floor (not certain whether women in skimpy evening-wear are permitted to indulge in hip-gyrating dances with Maldivian men). 

The bodu beru ritual has an interesting story. It is associated with the first known settlers of the Maldives, the Giraavuru. Folklore has it that the Giraavurus were of African descent and to date they retain their cultural identity which is more African than Moslem. They favour sombre, less elaborate clothes. Women wear their traditional hair-knot (hulhi) and their skirts (kandiki) to the left in contrast to other Maldivians. The island of Giraavuru is another tourist resort.

For the Maldives, transformation came with tourism. The sleepy, backward islands stirred and tourism replaced the traditional sources of income- Maldive fish and dhoni-making. The benefits are visible. Clean streets, a functional sewerage system and a flourishing economy.

Male, the centre of government and business is our next stop. Home to 65,000 people, it is the economic hub, yet it retains its old world charm. Only the exorbitant prices shock you. 

With Mohomed, an eager tourist guide who is keen on sightseeing than assisting us in our shopping, our demands to show 'Maldive fish kades' are greeted with contemptuous stares. The fish stores smelled a mile away, and I couldn't comprehend the logic of wanting to carry home stinking fish all the way from Male!

Compared to other Islamic nations, the Maldives is more liberal. Only Male insists on conservative clothing. No purdah-clad women anywhere. Instead they wear bright clothes with fashionable wraps. The 18th Century burugaa (the headpiece), long forgotten.

Yet a lone woman on the sidewalk earned a few stares and some smiles. My nationality is questioned by men who looked so similar in feature and skin colour. "Sri Lankan," I respond and am touched by the warmth displayed.

Mohomed enthusiastically shows me the Grand Friday Mosque. He's annoyed when I ask him to cut short the description and show the shops. Bargaining with battle-hardened vendors is tough. Each item fetches a couple of dollars. Torn between a silver pendant and an onyx box, I begin a mental calculation. The shopkeeper wants me to buy the whole shop. In this rush, the onyx lands at my feet.

I need more time to savour these isles, I think, while making my way on the dirtless road. I search for my colleagues at the fish market, pausing to read public notices, which state: 'No liquor, narcotics, idol worship'.

A driver screeches to a halt as I cross. Mohomed shows me the Presidential Palace. I like its simple elegance. Quite a contrast to the barricaded one at home. 

I take pictures enthusiastically, happy that Abdul Gayoom's political fortunes spare me the rigours of imprisonment for adventurous photography. The guards ignore me.

Visits to the Museum and Fenfushi, a traditional fishing village remain unaccomplished. Maybe next time. 

The rain pelts down. At Hulhule, a home-bound flight awaits me!

Spare a thought for her

A defeated slouch, did it signal a loser? Her bent back against the wall, her bony buttocks on the hard cement pavement. An undeniable sadness in the half closed eyes - a sadness perhaps of being cut off - a destitute. 

A cultural atrophy, where the traditional assurances of old age with children, grandchildren around it have flickered out. 

Today one of life's unconsolable facts. Their life's work done, they are destitute.

A telephone call to Mother Theresa, a destitute woman is seen on 'heartbreak' street. She is picked up and soon at the 'home', breathing quietly the fresh air. Hearing unfamiliar voices, she comes to terms with a world of gentle contradiction - love and care and loneliness.

The Lasallian Community Education Services working in the slums, shanties and densely-populated low-income areas in Colombo North pay tribute to the hundreds, thousands of Aachchis (grandmothers) who struggle to earn, to discipline, to educate and keep home for the mothers who have gone abroad as housemaids.

Today the nuclear family and the extended family are no more. Parents are left behind while children live abroad.

The notion of happiness rested not with the family but the 'discovery of personhood'. The fundamental assumption was that the good order of society depended on the good order of family. 

It had the ability to instill discipline and regularity among its members, but it's not so today. 

The women's role, children's rights, ever loosening legal bonds of marriage, state welfare intervention in the lives of the poor bring into question the"legitimacy of family".

Says a sociologist, "The challenges facing the family of the next decades are awesome. There is little reason to be confident about the future."

Sri Lanka has the fastest ageing population in the world.

Lorna Wright

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