The relative smallness of the world in which we lived was a truism oft brought home to me even as a veteran traveller. Shaheem, the manager of the Kaafu Huraa guest house I booked into for the duration of my visit to the Maldives, met me upon my arrival at the airport in Male and was quick to point out his family’s close connection to Australia.
Raheema, his wife, who accompanied him that evening, had obtained her doctorate qualification there, having studied first at the University of Adelaide and then Curtin University in Western Australia. She had lived down under for a total of eleven years, she said. Now that the family were well ensconced back in their homeland she made a living, or at least helped support the family, in her chosen field of preventive medicine.
Shaheem had resided with her in Australia for several of those eleven years. They had two sons. The eldest, Mohammed, spent the greater part of his upbringing in the family’s home away from home. He told me he was just four months old when they upped and left the sunny Maldives for the equally sun-kissed nation far to the south-east. In keeping with his parents’ spirit, he now lived and studied in Sri Lanka. His younger sibling’s connection with the distant land was in a sense stronger. He was born there. Just ten-years-old or thereabouts by birthright he would be entitled to live in Australia were he to elect to do so at any point in the future.
After seeing me on to the Huraa speedboat, Shaheem and Raheema bid me goodnight. As a rule they stayed in Male through the week, journeying to Huraa to check on how things were proceeding at the guest house on the weekends – Fridays and Saturdays in the Sunni Muslim republic.
The rest of the time they entrusted the running of the three-room establishment to a young Bangladeshi by the name of Zaket. He looked a lot like many of the lads I saw waiting in a special line – a prospective workers line – in the Immigration hall at the airport. The Maldives were a popular choice for young Bangladeshis in search of gainful employ outside their borders. A cousin of his was presently working at a resort on one of the more distant atolls.
After breakfast the next morning, with Zaket leading the way, I went on my first reconnoitre of Huraa. Over the phone Shaheem had made a point of asking him to show me the location of the ‘bikini beach’. It was standard practice with their Western guests, who could at the nation’s ‘bikini beaches’ wear what they were normally inclined to wear while swimming, snorkelling and sunbathing. Huraa was small but an inhabited island and on the inhabited islands it was important to adhere to the Muslim norms, in particular those pertaining to alcohol (none), dress (modest) and behaviour (respectable).
The ‘burkini beach’, as Raheema termed it, was elsewhere, a strip of white sand roughly the same length and breadth as the other beach. It faced the Four Seasons Resort, which occupied a plot of its own on neighbouring Kuda Huraa. The ‘burkini beach’ was laden with sun lounges though I never beheld anyone taking the sun there as such and only once did I sight a swimmer making dogged headway with freestyle strokes in the strong current.
On day two of my stay, after providing me a sim card and adding a table and chair to my room, to facilitate any writing I had it in mind to do, Shaheem took me on a complete circumnavigation of the village, pointing out shops where supplies were available, a couple of restaurants, the cream-coloured, pale blue-roofed Huraa mosque, as well as other notables among the buildings, variously coloured light green, pale blue, mauve, orange, yellow and pink. The colours upon window frames, gates, doors and guttering frequently contrasted with those applied to the rest of the houses but never in an outlandish way.
The day before, on my stroll with Zaket, I had noticed an instructive piece of graffiti daubed on the orange wall the guest house side of the E-cafe, another sound employment option for Bangladeshi youths, as I would go on to discover. Blazoned in red it read: 2 + 3 = 5 √ Someone, clearly, believed it appropriate to bring sound arithmetic to the attention of passers-by.
On the circuit with Shaheem and daily afterwards when I set off alone, I came across the same equation in other places. 2 + 3 = 5 but minus the tick loomed before once in methodically daubed red, white and green, elsewhere completely in red but again without the tick of approval. A big black ‘4’ and beneath it an enormous black tick of approbation provided variety on another walk. There were other parts to this particular picture but in local symbols impenetrable to me. 2 + 2 = 4, perhaps?
Nowhere in the world that I had been could I recall having encountered informative graffiti the likes of this. In fact it was an arithmetical shot in the arm that stood me in good stead on my final day in the country. When it came time for me to settle my account with Shaheem, close scrutiny of the bill he handed over brought up a discrepancy quickly rectified. 2 + 3 = 5 √ indeed.