Dispatch #139 - The giggles of Mulaku Atoll
Gan Island, Addu Atoll, Maldives
Next we sailed to Mulaku Atoll and anchored in front of a tidy little village. It seemed to be a merry place, for the shoreline was peppered with playing children, the air full of their laughing voices.
For some reason it is Maldivian government policy to discourage tourists from visiting villages, and so we were a little nervous about whether our presence would be welcome. To be truthful, our unhappy experience being put under house arrest in the Nicobars had spooked us a little against intruding where we may not be wanted. But several fishermen waved to us, indicating we should come ashore, so we decided to see what a Maldivian village was like.
We need not have worried about our welcome. We are quite used to being the object of friendly curiosity wherever we go, but we still weren't quite prepared for the enthusiastic reception we received in a village that rarely sees a white face. Every head turned curiously in our direction, and a glance from us was more than enough to provoke a beaming smile in return.
It was in the faces of the children that the most surprising reaction took place-for they skittered and laughed and made way for us exactly as if we were furry creatures from space: funny and cute, but different enough to be just a little scary. The schoolboys laughed openly, while the girls giggled with their hands hiding their mouths, looking away shyly and peeking over their shoulders when they thought you weren't looking-then collapsing in convulsions of self-conscious laughter when they saw that you were.
Younger children ducked behind houses when you looked their way, and then, when your back was safely turned, came bravely rushing up behind you. All it would take is a quick swivel of your head to make them run away, shaking with laughter, and eventually we began playing a game in which we would duck around a corner and spring out with a roar, making them scatter to the wind in gales of giggles.
The very smallest children didn't feel the same way: tiny tots who saw these strange white alien creatures invariably cried, to the merriment of their older siblings, who held them and pressed their chubby little faces to their chests to spare them having to look at us. Herbert in particular was greatly feared by the littlest tikes.
Most of the men in the village were at the waterfront, some hauling the day's catch of tuna, while others floated construction timber from an anchored boat to the shore. Some walked in chest-deep water half way around the island, floating lumber to their homes one board at a time.
The houses and the fences which enclosed them were made from chunks of coral stone held together by mortar. The roads of the village were made of coral dust, and the women's colourful dresses and bright umbrellas, held to protect them from the equatorial sun, made a beautiful contrast with the glaringly white streets and buildings. We saw women carefully tending the patch of road in front of their homes, sweeping it with a palm frond and carefully picking out any leaves or bits of litter, and realized we have never seen a neater or more delightful village.
We left our three boys playing 'capture the sock' on the beach while Herbert and I walked around, finding it amusing to be the objects of such hilarity wherever we went. Finally we rejoined the boys and rested under the trees while Michael and Jon played in the water.
Christopher went off exploring. We didn't stop him; the island is so small there was no way of getting lost, and the water off the beach is protected by a reef, and only a few feet deep.
I did, however, get a little nervous when he didn't return after ten or fifteen minutes. Herbert pooh-poohed me as a mother hen, but finally we collected the other two boys and went off after him, expecting to find him around every bend. But Christopher was nowhere to be found.
Even father rooster was starting to get a bit worried as we retraced our path to the village and there was still no sign of our eight-year-old. Finally we entered the clearing at the edge of the village, and in the distance I could see a great assemblage of people-three or four men and a flock of 20 or so young boys, all marching our way. One of the men was carrying a small person on his shoulders, and to my relief I could soon see that it was Christopher.
My first reaction was that he must have hurt himself or panicked when he found himself alone, and that he must be in tears. But as we came closer I could see that he had a big smile on his face, and was holding up a beautiful tiger cowrie shell his new friends had given him. He didn't look like a lost kid at all, but more like a young sultan with his faithful entourage.
"Where have you been?" I demanded in a mixture of anger and relief as he jumped down.
"I went back to the dinghy and got bored waiting for you," he answered cheerfully, "and the people there asked me if I wanted to sit on one of their hammocks, so I did. Then my friend asked me if I wanted to see the village, so we went walking together and a whole bunch of kids came and walked with us. Everybody likes me here!"
I decided Christopher and I needed to have a little talk about strangers. Then I reflected on how often he has seen us be befriended in just this fashion, and realized that in the years he has spent on Northern Magic, he really never experienced anything but unquestioning friendship and hospitality from strangers. Rules that are safe and sensible back home in a city have hardly any relevance on a tiny unspoiled island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
I asked Christopher if he wanted to share some candies with the children, and pulled out a little bag of hard sweets, the kind that would have summoned up a throng of eager hands in Indonesia. He started to hand them out, but to my surprise, about half the children politely refused the treats, and of those who did accept, not a single one tried them.
Christopher's principal buddy, a young man of 24 named Ahmed, offered to show us around. There wasn't much to see, really, just a wooden fishing boat under construction and a little school, a brand new generator and many small coral houses. As we walked around, our cluster of hangers-on followed, making us feel like the Pied Piper.
Ahmed owns a fishing boat and also works at a resort, which is why he spoke English. We found out, however, that his command of the language wasn't quite as good as it first sounded. He answered many of our questions, such as "How long has your village had electricity?" or "Where does your water supply come from?" with a polite and smiling "Yes."
Ahmed led us to a group of people gathered around an old woman grating a coconut. He slipped the woman a coin, and she put aside the coconut and began to sing, a vaguely Arabic-sounding chant. She had no teeth, and her wrinkled brown chin jutted out like a witch's, but she sang beautifully and bravely while the rest of the group continued to chatter and inspect us.
"What is the meaning of her song?" I asked Ahmed.
"Yes," he answered.
When the old lady finished, we asked Ahmed if we could take a photograph of her, and he answered, "Yes." But the minute Herbert pulled out the camera she jumped up with a look of rage and unleashed a torrent of words, gesturing angrily at the camera. Herbert hastily put it away.
"Don't worry" said Ahmed, smiling, "She is a little bit crazy."
Some women came forward with dried pumpkin chips and drinking coconuts. The kids liked the crunchy chips, so the ladies put some in a bag for us to take home. After handing out balloons we continued our tour, with Ahmed allowing us to sample some local fruits and vegetables, none of which we had ever seen before.
From a vine he plucked something that looked like a tiny green pepper but which tasted like a pickle. One tree was full of hanging plastic bottles, and inside each of these was a cluster of three or four pale green globular fruits. Everyone watched eagerly to see how we would like them, but although they were juicy, they weren't sweet, and we continued nibbling on them out of politeness only.
"Do you like it?" Ahmed asked eagerly, for this was clearly a special treat.
"Yes," we answered, nodding our heads vigourously.
Another tree contained nubbly green fruits that smelled like sewage-they weren't the dreaded durian, but surely some kind of relation. The pink fruit inside was full of seeds and tasted better than it smelled, but it wasn't a big hit with us either.
Then a lady passed by with a plastic bag full of small green apple-like fruits, and Ahmed asked her for two. Herbert and I each took a tiny nibble at the same instant, and a split second later our faces contorted into identical grimaces, much to the merriment of our watching friends. The fruits were sour, far worse than any crab-apple you have ever tried.
"Here, honey, would you like mine?" I asked my fruit-loving husband, generously offering him the remainder of my snack.
"Yes," he answered, but when I handed it over, an identical one, right down to the bite marks, somehow ended up in my palm. Later, when nobody was looking, we each quietly dropped them under a tree. And that ended our tour of the native fruits of the Maldives.
We thought Ahmed and one of his friends might like to see Northern Magic,so we invited them aboard, an offer they accepted eagerly. The two men looked proud as punch when, in front of the whole beachfront of assembled fishermen, they climbed into our dinghy and were escorted on board. When we later brought them back to the beach, they swaggered over to their waiting friends, who no doubt were dying with curiosity about what they had seen. Our young friends were definitely going to be Big Men on Campus that night.
Later in the evening, after Christopher and I had had our little talk about going off with strangers, he asked me: "Aren't you glad I made friends in this village?"
"Yes," I answered. But I meant it.