Category Archives: Other lands

24 hours in the Maldives

It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog. Since the last entry we have been to the UK a couple of times, spent a couple of months in Bangkok, a couple of weeks in Japan, and another couple of months in Yangon before moving back to Sri Lanka, where we’ve been for nearly eight months now. Part of the arrangement at the moment is a visa run every 30 days. And until this last one I have avoided the Maldives, despite being a short flight at around one hour from Colombo. I suppose I felt that nearby cities such as KL, Bangkok, Chennai, would be better for such fleeting visits. Yet I was wrong – and had a thoroughly enjoyable 24 hours in the Maldives.

From the first time I came to Sri Lanka five and a half years ago I’ve been curious to visit Male’, the tiny Maldivian capital. I remember Male’ rising from the Indian Ocean across the strait from the airport, hazy in the evening dusk, as we waiting on the tarmac to pick up passengers. I didn’t stay in the city but in one of the small guesthouses on reclaimed Hulhumale’, linked by road to the airport island. It was built just over a decade ago to ease housing issues and provide more space, with wide streets, a beautiful beach, an obvious plan, but with little discernable soul.

The ferry to Male’ took about 15 minutes, skirting around the airport on its way to the capital. Intense blue, everywhere. And flat: the perpendicular of sea and sky broken by small atolls of green, enormous boats, then Male’ with its low to medium-height buildings of banks and corporate head-quarters, clad in glass reflecting the sun or painted in different pastel colours, squeezing onto the little available land. It really does look like it grows out of the sea.

It’s a lovely thing, having several hours with nothing to do in a new place. I wandered from the Hulhumale’ ferry terminal at the northeast to Villimale’ ferry terminal at the southwest. From one corner of the capital to the other; just over a mile. Male’ is compact, frenetic, made up of thin streets that crisscross the island. Moving from northeast to southwest the buildings become lower rise, with fewer shops, fewer mopeds. There is a surprising amount of greenery. And you’re never far from a glimpse of that perpendicular. All of Male’’s roads are brick not tarmac which gives an unusual, appealing, streetscape.

Villimale’, two miles from the capital on the nearest atoll, yet a world away. Motorised vehicles are banned and the locals get around on foot, bicycle, electric moped or golf buggy. So it is quite, amazingly quiet. Along the promenade from the terminal the beach begins and, true to the Maldives, it is palm-fronded, azure and golden. From the palms hang individual hammock chairs that sway in the breeze. From what I can gather the locals spend their days asleep in these, not a bad way to spend a day. I join them, conscious, however, that I must return to the airport in a few hours.



18 months through a smartphone lens

Concrete labyrinths in the clouds

Maskeliya town, Sri Lanka

I’m fascinated by the ramshackle, non-plan concrete dwellings that you can find in the Hill Country. These are the houses of very poor people, most likely Tamil workers in the tea plantations. Often they are single rooms, with a corrugated iron or blue tarpaulin roof. But what strikes me so much is the way they relate to and exist with their neighbours: they join together, side by side or on top of each other, squashed into tiny spaces or into the sides of steep hills, with facades of different pastel shades. The result I find strangely uplifting and fascinating. A bric-a-brac community of dwellings.

I was struck, too, by the tea workers’ housing in Tamil Nadu’s Western Ghats range, around Ooty.

There are obvious reasons for their appearance, such as community, topography, and economy. But there are more, non-quantifiable aspects that give these settlements charm.

One day I’d like to research the architecture and identity of South Asian tea plantations.

Torrents of Arabia

At first there was endless yellow which, from far above, seemed to ebb and flow in waves. Slowly the landscape turned grey; not dull grey, but grey-blue, grey-brown, and all manner of different tones. It was just possible to make out tiny caravans with elongated shadows, what seemed like small enclosures of tents, and tracks that navigated the desert like creases in old leather. Over jagged mountains of ash-coloured rock we made our final descent into Muscat.

The sky was dark and thick with haze. In the following days we experienced Oman’s first rainfall for two years; storms that quickly flooded the pristine streets, poured from the flat rooftops, and put a fresh chill in the air.

Muscat is divided by a craggy ridge, an outcrop from the mountains that give a dramatic backdrop to the city and spread in fingers across the plains to the Arabian Sea. It forms a physical barrier between old and new where, to the west, business and pleasure districts expand gleaming and unchecked, and, to the east, the old harbour and merchant’s houses nestle together in a maze of small alleys, streets and covered Arab souks.

Oman is barren through the surrounding mountains and along the coast out of Muscat. From the raised expressway that curls around the plateaux, towns pass by in haze: small blocks of low rise, flat roofed tenements separated by narrow alleyways and punctuated by minarets of green, gold and white.

We hike up a desert wadi. An azure stream shows us the way through a rocky ravine to submerged caves, as the rain clouds form overhead.


Peruvudaiyar Koyil

In Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, is an ancient Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. It is over 1000 years old and the biggest in India. Inside, the complex is an oasis of calm from the noise and chaos of the surrounding city streets. The giant walls, temple tower and other shrines are decorated with sculptures of dancing deities. In the centre is mighty Nandi, the sacred bull, carved from a single rock.

We arrived early morning following a night train from Fort Kochin in Kerela. The day was breathless and the sky a deep blue. The sandy stone underfoot was already burning hot as we passed the temple’s elephant, standing tall with decorated ears and trunk, by the main gate.

Inside the main temple it was dark and cool. Light from candles left as offerings flickered around the granite walls and the smell of incense smoke hung in the shadows. A priest marked our foreheads with a tilak of pure white ash.


A short walk in the Western Ghats

In a bus in Mettupalayam on our way to the Western Ghats

Two thousand metres above the scorched plains of Tamil Nadu is Ooty, a hill station of the Western Ghats range.

Ooty is a charming town. It has a bustling centre of shops selling essentials and trinkets, a botanical garden with manicured lawns, and brightly coloured, energetic shanty housing that spreads out into the surrounding hills. Locals wearing fleeces and beanies potter around in trishaws and on rusty bicycles. The fresh air and cooler climate is a welcome relief from the busy heat of Chennai.

We stay in the YWCA, once a brewery but now a budget hostel for travellers. The interior is from colonial times, with wood panelled rooms, polished brass finishing, and comfy, worn armchairs around open fireplaces. For the first time in many months there are sheets and thick blankets on the bed, and the night is oddly quiet without the endless droning of a ceiling fan.

A guide accompanies us on a trek to Kodanad viewpoint. On the way we pass through rolling tea plantations and small villages. Groups of children play football and cricket in the road, herds of goats wander about, and older residents stand and chat. Small and brightly coloured huts are built into the hillsides in neat rows, separated by alleyways of stairs.

From the viewpoint the Western Ghats unfold in beautiful greys, greens and browns. In the distance below we see a small, contained settlement of fifty or so houses. It is a tantalising glimpse of the vastness of India, just out of reach off the tourist track. I resolve to return with more time and to visit this small and intriguing village, linked to who knows where by a single unpaved road and winding river.


Chennai in a hurry

I remember the stench from the tracks. That and the crowds of people flooding the carriage entrances, walkways and open spaces, made Chennai station an overwhelming experience.

We had bunks in the non-AC 2nd class section of the Nilgiri Sleeper Express. After the exertion of negotiating our way to the correct berth with heavy, impractical bags, we sat in silence, sweating in the closeness of the heat.

In the gloom the décor was a tired and dirty plastic blue, like a run-down hospital. The bunks were stacked in three tiers and there were bars on the windows. A secure and fading asylum. But it was all oddly practical and well planned; someone had put a lot of thought into this once upon a time.

The train set off, creaking and swaying through the Chennai suburbs. Only a few hours before we’d hurtled through the city from the airport to the station. It had been chaos as a complex overhead metro system being built had turned all the main arteries into building sites.

The Indians around us all seemed to know the score: when the ticket collector had passed through the carriage it was time for lights out. During the next several hours I slipped in and out of restless sleep; with vivid dreams of surreal chases and journeys, punctuated by garish neon, Tamil jingles, and figures from my past.