If paradise were half as nice ...

The aquatic beauty of the Maldives has managed to tame the most savage beasts, from sharks to troupes of Italian tourists. But how do local people cope in this idyllic world? Cleo Paskal finds out.
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The Independent Online
The first thing I saw after putting on my mask and snorkel and diving into the warm, calm, postcard-blue waters was a shark: an enormous one, less than 10 metres away, and swimming towards me.

The grey tinge of underwater light, the bland colourings of the shark and the oval frame of my mask made it all seem like a scene from an old black-and-white nature film, the sort with lots of teeth and pieces of ripped flesh. The pounding of my heart supplied the quickening da-DA, da-DA, da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA soundtrack.

I was out of the water and collapsed in a panting heap before I'd a chance to get fully wet. Fiuza, a Maldivian friend, looked up lazily from her hammock, strung under a tree at the edge of the beach. "Forget something?"

I should have said: "yes, my sanity", or, "my place in the food chain". Instead, I just blabbered: "Sh-sh-shark".

She looked faintly curious but not particularly concerned. It was only later that I learned that the unofficial tag line of the country is: "the Maldives, where even the sharks are friendly".

The country is made up of a string of atolls in the Indian Ocean, off the west coast of India. An atoll is one of the most stunning geological formations on the planet, created when an extinct volcano collapses in on itself, creating a white sand and green palm necklace of low-lying islands around a turquoise central lagoon. The whole is protected from big waves by an encircling coral reef.

What that means for swimmers is clear, shallow (therefore warm) waters with easy, protected access to spectacular reefs rife with a dense rainbow of tropical fish. And yes, the sharks are "friendly". The Maldives have some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world. Even better, the entire experience is relatively guilt-free. The Maldivian government, under the guidance of the award-winning environmentalist and president of the nation, His Excellency Mr Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, keeps a tight control over the environmental and social impact of tourism.

The main way this miracle has been accomplished is by restricting tourists to resort islands. These have to comply with strict environmental controls, which can include asking visitors to take dead batteries home with them.

For the Maldives, environmental awareness is a matter of immediate survival. Few of its islands are more than 2.5 metres above sea level. Any rise in sea level would sink the country. This isn't doom and gloom science fiction. Storm surges in 1987 and 1991 washed over a central atoll, at one point inundating the international airport and one-third of the capital, Male.

Since then, a massive breakwater has been built around Male. Not only has the breakwater protected the capital from untoward surges, it has also created a rather different sort of place to swim from the brochure perfection of the less developed islands.

When my pal Fiuza sensed my gibbering, irrational reluctance to get back into the shark- and tourist-infested waters at the resort, she brought me to where the Maldivians go for a dip.

Most of the 200 or so islands of the Maldives are off limits to tourists without special government dispensation. But, as of 1995, one quarter of the country's population of 244,640 live on the highly accessible Male. Roughly: the northern part of the island, where the jetties are, is for tourists. The farther south you go, the more "local" it becomes. The south coast of the island is about as untouristy as the Maldives get. There's a wide, paved road, bordered by a concrete pavement that drops abruptly down to the sea. About 25 metres out is the towering sea wall.

No soft sand beaches, no private coves, no glittering tropical fish. But there are, especially when school and work finish, hordes of bobbing, diving and happily squealing Maldivians.

The water between the breakwater and the pavement wall is calm and shallow, more like a municipal swimming pool than the ocean. And that's the attraction; many Maldivians, especially the women, can't swim.

The Maldives is an Islamic country. Bikinis and booze are allowed on the resort islands, but "inhabited" islands, including the capital, insist on a bit more decorum. Women swimmers must wear at least T-shirts and knee-length shorts. Some women go into the water wearing long pants and burkas. That alone would make learning harder, but, also, you can't have male swimming instructors teaching (and possibly touching) female students.

Schools are now starting to teach young girls to swim, but the older ones, including 21-year-old Fiuza, have missed the boat. So my trip to swim by the breakwater turned into an impromptu swimming lesson. Fiuza brought along her two sisters-in-law and the daughter and niece of a colleague.

As the six of us descended the concrete steps. the women were tentative but excited. Once we were all submerged in the chest-high water, we stood in a row, holding hands for stability. We ranged in age from 15 to 40, but within minutes we were giggling and splashing like children.

They took turns learning to float, and looking through my mask. Other swimmers, amused at the sight of a tourist escaped from a resort, waved and smiled. Teenagers flipped over each other's shoulders and dived for rocks. Jokesters dived underwater and pinched their friends' ankles. Boys raced each other from the wall to the breakwater. It had been years since I'd been surrounded and swept away by the sheer exuberance of playing in the water.

There were no picture-perfect angel fish or gracefully arcing dolphins, but I learned a new technique for flipping over somebody's shoulder. And there wasn't a shark in sight.

Making for the Maldives

Most visitors travel to the Maldives on an inclusive package holiday, with operators such as Kuoni (brochure line 07000 458664), Hayes & Jarvis (0181-222 7811) and Airtours (0541 500479). Independent travel is possible, but tricky. Cleo Paskal bought a scheduled Indian Airlines flight from Trivandrum in India to the capital, Male, for around pounds 100 return. There are numerous scheduled flights between the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, and Male.

Accommodation

If you have no pre-booked accommodation, immigration officials may require you to book some upon arrival at the airport before they will formally allow you into the country. The least expensive options at the airport are likely to be in Male.

More information

Maldives Today magazine is available free by calling 0181-502 9747. The Ministry of Tourism is at Boduthakurufaanu Magu, Male, Republic of Maldives (00 960 323224, or www.visitmaldives.com).

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