National Geographic : 1957 Jun
The Marvelous Maldive Islands 829 Sun-drenched Atolls in the Indian Ocean Hold a Seagirt Sultanate Where Phones Rarely Ring and Kites Fly from Office Windows BY ALAN VILLIERS With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author " OME stamps, please," I said, "for a letter to the United States." The clerk looked up and grinned. "Ah, stamps. Yes, yes," he said, not mak ing much effort to produce any. He had only one hand to work with, which seemed a little strange. Even stranger was the fact that with the other hand he was slowly manipulating a piece of twine, which led mysteriously upward out of the barred and glassless window beside him. Through this the twine seemed to disappear into thin air. What was this? The Indian rope trick at last-the trick all travelers have heard about, where a fakir flings up a rope and a boy climbs it and disappears-could this be it? If so, where was the boy? All Maldive Men Like Kites I turned inquiringly to my guide, Mr. Ibra him Didi, the all-knowledgeable one, who also was a customs and postal clerk when there was nobody about to guide, which was often. "He likes kites," answered Mr. Didi. "All men in the Maldive Islands like kites. Look!" I followed the sweep of his eyes into the clear blue sky of the monsoon morning out side. There, sure enough, a kite was per forming skillful aerobatics, five or six hundred feet up. It was a very special kind of kite, all blue and shining gold, and a sheen of flickering white led away from it like a gos samer thread-right to the window where the clerk was sitting. He was cheerfully flying a kite while carrying on his job. I had known earlier that I had come to a most unusual group of happy islands. But, after a lifetime of wandering the face of the earth, I was astonished to find at last a clerk who had time and inclination to play with kites out of his office window. Flung on the map of the Indian Ocean like a double line of blots from some old chart maker's pen, the Maldives are off the main steamer tracks and, at present, off commercial air routes. This little-known and seldom visited group of atolls, lying south of the great Indian peninsula, numbers at least 2,000 islands and islets. Two hundred and fifteen of these islands support some 93,000 people, virtually all Moslems. The land area they occupy is about 115 square miles, but the zone of sea around and between the islands is immense (map, page 834). The capital is the island city of Male, the only port of entry. The 8,000 inhabitants of Male live in good homes built beside straight streets and wide sandy roads. The whole island is only a mile long and half a mile or so wide. Though the Maldives are a democ racy under British protection, no Britishers live there; in fact, no Europeans of any kind are resident anywhere in the islands-not so much as a consular official or a merchant. During World War II, Gan Island in Addu Atoll, southernmost of the Maldive group, held an RAF airfield. It was later abandoned, but this year Britain obtained Maldivian con sent to re-establish facilities on Gan to fuel and repair aircraft. Sailing by Baggala to Male I had long wanted to visit the Maldives, but it was not easy to arrange. No steamship, no airplane would take me there. The chief means of communication was an old sailing ship from the port of Colombo in Ceylon. She was a baggala, or buggalow, a type common in the western Indian Ocean for cen turies. I had sailed in such ships before when I was with the Arabs.* She had a lateen rig and a hull like a galleon of old. The only accommodation the baggala of fered was a "great cabin," which took up the afterpart of the big teak hull and contained eight shelflike bunks, a writing table, an old hurricane lamp, and miscellaneous goods the Maldivian crew were taking home. Promi nent among these were umbrellas. The beautiful carved stern of this venerable craft reminded me of the models of Portu guese caravels I had seen in Lisbon. Her melodious name was the Glory of Mercy. The captain, Mohammed Maniku, spoke * See "Sailing with Sindbad's Sons," by Alan Villiers, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1948.