The Tamil Nadu Express is speeding through eastern Maharashtra on Wednesday afternoon when I get a call from office, telling me that I had to travel to the Maldives. It was to be a short visit — just 18 hours in all — to cover GMR’s handing over of Male airport to the Maldives government. By the time the train chugs into Delhi four hours late on Thursday, check-in is just hours away.
Initial research had showed that the country allowed visa on arrival, but one had to have hotel bookings and a return ticket. “All the hotels in your eligibility range are full. Shall I confirm the flights without hotel bookings?” asks the travel agent who calls to confirm the bookings. This is not done. “I am not leaving without hotel bookings,” I tell him. The agent books me at Kandooma resort, “a few minutes’ boat ride from airport”.
I didn’t know it then but I would repent the decision later.
I arrive at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport with a return ticket, resort bookings and the princely $100 in my pocket for shopping and dining. What could possibly go wrong?
For an Islamic country, there are a large number of women staff at the airport, including the immigration officer who checks my travel documents. The airport, which is in the eye of an international storm, is surprisingly small. But its location and landscape more than make up for its lack of size. Surrounded by turquoise blue waters teeming with cruising luxury yachts and speed boats, this is one airport where you will be happy if your flight gets delayed.
Maldives offers a range of thrills — all you need is time to kill and dollars to burn. But I have neither the time nor the dollars. So I go looking for ways to get to Kandooma. Most of my fellow passengers are honeymooning couples or Maldivians returning home with families. I am the odd one out, a realisation that makes me a little jittery.
I ask an elderly security guard. “Kandooma...err.” he searches the sea and says, “Sorry I don’t know.” No one else seems to either. Finally, hidden in the arrival area, I find a counter with the name of my resort on it. I run to the frail receptionist in orange shirt and khaki pants. “A boat is leaving in 10 minutes, sir, please take a seat.” Thank god. How far is Kandooma from here? “Forty-five minutes by speed boat.”
But I need to come back to the airport for the ceremony at night. What time does the boat leave from there? “There is a boat at 8 pm. But they will charge you.” “That’s ok,” I say feeling the five 20-dollar bills in my shirt pocket. I am a little worried as the only other passengers to Kandooma are an elderly white couple. As the boat arrives I am relieved to see some more men join the crew of three.
The monsoons are over and the sun is shining bright as we sail into the deep blue sea. The speedboat chugs along the pale blue and translucent water, clear enough to show a school of fish moving along corals, But soon the waters turn deep blue and unruly. The boat surges through waves, some large enough to overpower it. I try to divert myself with my camera, but it is difficult to click anything as I can neither stand nor sit still.
* * *
Kandooma is one of the 80-odd resort islands spread across the Maldives. Most of these resorts are self-sufficient and offer packages that include diving, cruising and night fishing, besides diving lessons and state-of-the-art diving equipment. There is big money in the resorts business — no wonder they have attracted foreign investment of over $100 million. Taj’s Exotica is one of the biggest and more popular resorts here. A few rich Indians are also said to own their own private islands.
Finally, to my relief, we sight Kandooma and pull ashore. A golf cart is waiting to take us to the check-in area. “You can make bookings for diving and snorkelling,” Maria, our golf cart driver, says. I check out the rates “$200, we start 8.30 in the morning sharp.” There goes my dream of snorkelling. There is a welcome drink at the reception and a big green leaf with my name painted on it.
The receptionist, a stockily built East Asian in brown shirt and dhoti, makes me fill an entry form with the disclaimer that the resort would not be responsible if I went into the water without a life vest. I want to go back to the airport, I tell the brown dhoti man. “I hear there is a boat at 8 pm.” He is surprised and says he will find out the charge.
And then he drops the bomb. “$600 advance, sir.”
For what? “Airport transfer $198 and the rest for dinner and breakfast. You also said you wanted an extra transfer.”
Listen, I tell him. All I’ve got is 100 bucks and I don’t want to give it to you. Drop me back at the airport, cancel my room, adjust the advance paid against the boat charges and give me the balance.
The receptionist senses trouble and brings the manager.
The manager is Indian and offers to call the agent who booked. Do I have a credit card, he asks. I insist that I have work at the airport and need to go back. And, please allow me to use the Wi-fi, I say, typing away on my laptop. “We won’t hold you hostage, sir,” he says apologising for the inconvenience. “We will drop you back by the 8 pm boat and you can use our bath and other facilities in the lobby,” he offers. Wow.
The return ride from Kandooma is even more scary as it is pitch dark and the sea is rougher with occasional lightning. The thrill of the ride gets too much for the young Chinese couple who start yelling, scaring others further.
* * *
Back at the airport, a group of journalists have gathered. Melina, a chatty 20-something who works with the state-owned television TVM, asks me if we have banned the channel in India after the controversy. “Don’t believe the rumours. I don’t think so,” I assure her. She speaks perfect English and her head is covered with a scarf, the Islamic way. What do the Maldivian people think of GMR, I ask her. “It depends on the party they belong to,” she tells me.
Aqua is the only restaurant in the airport area. It has both men and women waiters wearing the peculiar Maldivian uniform — white vests and a red-and-white checked dhoti/lungi, with a white cap/scarf to cover the head.
The restaurant menu is in three languages — English, Dhivehi and Chinese. I order French fries, the cheapest and probably the only pure vegetarian item on the menu. Five dollars and 83 cents, after taxes. I give one of my 20 dollar bills and take Rufiyaas in change, suddenly feeling richer.
Waheed Mohammed, a photographer with a local daily, virtually adopts me that night. He gives me a quick lesson on Maldivian culture, politics and sports —more importantly, he promises to find me a place for the night. “A cheap one,” I insist.
The most conspicuous vehicle in Male is the step-through motorcycle. The Maldivians seem to have really taken to it. Where do these come from? “Mostly from Thailand. Maldivians want it to be stylish. That’s all they need,” Waheed tells me as he takes me around in one of a stylish one well past 2 am in the morning in search of a $50-60-a-night hotel. The tourism minister, Adheeb, whom we’d met earlier at the handing-over ceremony, also drives around in one of these scooterettes, he tells me.
* * *
We find a hotel near the jetty, which charges $144 plus taxes — out of my budget. We find another in the inner lanes — $80 plus 6 per cent tax, totalling $84.80. Waheed offers to chip in if I fall short — he isn’t sure we would find anything cheaper. It’s quarter to three. I decide to take it. Waheed insists on coming to pick me up in the morning.
At around eight, I decide to take a tour, since people had told me that I could walk around any island in Maldives in half an hour. Male, the biggest of them, has an area of about 2 square kilometre. Football is very popular, I realise, as I cross a regular-sized football field and a mini one for five-a-team games within a few minutes of stepping out. On the road facing the sea is a small auditorium with national flag waving around. Last evening, there was a “huge rally” by GMR protesters, locals had told me. Some banners saying “GMR must go” still wave in the breeze.
A few women, children in tow, are bathing, fully-clothed in an artificial beach. Swimsuits are banned in Male, but there are no such restrictions in the resorts, at least for foreigners.
Everything about Maldives is tiny. There are tetrapods lining the Male coastline, much smaller than those along Mumbai’s Marine Drive. A tetrapod-shaped statue on a pedestal acknowledges Japanese support in putting up these to prevent erosion by the sea. Maldives is among the lowest countries in the world — its highest point is said to be some 2 metre above sea level. Even the buildings in Male are not very tall. The roads, called Magu, are just wide enough to allow a car to pass. Cars are rare — I don’t see too many on roads, but Waheed tells me there lots of taxis.
I walk past the civil court, which had passed an order striking down airport development charges in February, triggering the GMR issue. Being Saturday, there is not much activity. Maldivians work from Sunday to Thursday. Senhayia, the military hospital built with Indian assistance and opened by Indian Defence Minister A K Antony, also wears a deserted look. Maldivians are dependent on India for all their medical needs. “Locals do not have much money. But when it comes to medical expenses, they somehow gather enough and travel to India,” says Moosa Latheef, editor of Haveeru, a daily. Latheef says he himself has spent about $20,000 on his wife’s treatment in India. “A procedure that costs Rs 75,000 for Indians will cost Maldivians Rs 1.5 lakh. But we still go,” he says. Waheed also took his son to the Arvind Eye Hospital in Madurai, for treatment of a cancer in the eye.
I find one more Tamil connection — as I take shelter under the Ameer Ahmad Madrassa in a sudden downpour, a young man with an umbrella asks in Tamil, “Do you want to come?” At first I think he is Sri Lankan but he turns out to be from Marthandam, a town in Tamil Nadu’s Kaniyakumari district. There are a lot of people from Marthandam in Male, he says.
As I board my third Air India flight in two days, with the same Priyadarshan masterpiece Kamaal, Dhamal, Malaaamal playing, the steward asks, “Did you come alone?” “Yeah, do you have a problem?” I want to hit back but desist it in the interest of my stomach, which has long since digested the French fries and is craving the rice and curry he will serve, however bad they may be.