Capturing the zeitgeist of Male’ life

Mornings in Male’ begin with the sound of minarets, then fleeting moments of calm, before this pulsing commercial centre heats up into its everyday schizophrenic state of controlled cacophony, writes Donna Richardson.

From my fifth floor balcony I watch as mopeds zip across the winding streets as locals flit to the mosque. On the roof of the cement-block apartment building next door, a local woman hangs laundry on clothes lines stretched between rusty metal trellises.

Skinny jean wearing moped riders with poodle perms weave their way past pedestrians shuffling through a narrow web of alleyways and side streets that connect Majeedi Magu, Ameni Magu and Chandaree Magu. Hives of construction workers dressed in faded jeans, long-sleeve blue shirts, and yellow hard hats are stirring across the street; tall construction cranes speckle the skyline like necks of giraffes.

Down at the fish market, the hub of commercial activities, fishermen offload fresh catch and early bird bargain-hunters come to browse the small shops over here are stocked with a wide variety of unbranded products. Muscle-men fishermen gut fish in a matter of seconds. Here in the fish market of Maldives that dhonis from different parts of the country unload the fresh fish and dry fish which is somewhat of a specialty here. Fresh fruits and vegetables collected from the various atolls and Sri Lanka and India –even farther afield are loaded onto the jetty. It is a busy and bustling place. The fruit and vegetable market is a colourful and interesting place to people watch and haggle for a bargain. Poverty abounds. Beggars on sidewalks, run down shops – but this is the real life of Male’.

The pace of activities picks up during the mid-afternoon, when fishing dhonis come back with their day’s catch. Fish catch, mainly consisting of the tuna fish, is taken across the road to the open-sided market, where they are laid out on the tiled floors. Yet, fresh tuna fish is so precious and expensive that it is frozen for many days until it is displayed on the floor. The fish market is kept very clean and washed each day, still if you walk by in the evening, you can smell the pungent smell of fish.

The Island of Malé is the second most densely populated island worldwide, after Ap Lei Chau of Hong Kong and it is the 168th most populous island in the world. Since there is no surrounding countryside, all infrastructure has to be located in the city itself. Water is provided from desalinated ground water; the water works pumps brackish water from 50-60m deep wells in the city and desalinates that using reverse osmosis. Electric power is generated in the city using diesel generators.Sewage is pumped unprocessed into the sea. Solid waste is transported to nearby islands, where it is used to fill in lagoons. The airport was built in this way, and currently the Thilafushi lagoon is being filled in. Many government buildings and agencies are located on the waterfront. Malé International Airport is on adjacent Hulhule’ Island which includes a seaplane base for internal transportation. Several land reclamation projects have expanded the harbour.

These pictures of relative tranquility are skewed, distorted, a mirage. In reality, I know the city is already swirling with fevered activity down on its pockmarked sidewalks, which heave, day and night, with the relentless beat of foot traffic.

Vendors, beginning their long work days chain smoking, are holding court and monopolizing crowded walking space with clothes racks, cigarette stands, old-fashioned sewing machines, and rolled-out blankets.

Others are hawking street food from behind propane-fueled woks, smoking charcoal grills, and wooden cutting boards on two-wheeled metal carts.

I’ve been away months, thousands of miles away. The intoxication of these streets became little more than a bittersweet picture book of memories to flip through from the sanitised comfort of my flat in the UK.

That invigorating sense of time, of place, and of being far, far away that I’d grown so accustomed to during the 8 months I lived and worked in Male’ may now have gone. Days bleed into weeks into months and I still yearn for those streets even though I couldn’t stand the streets before

Now, I’m settled back in the UK but I still feel the city pulling me out into the streets as I’m chained to my laptop during weekday mornings and afternoons in cold blighty.

Though quarantined indoors, I never feel too far removed from the place.  I turn the computer off for awhile, and all seems calm again, but, of course, I know that on those streets it’s not.

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