The Maldives in happier times

The Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of 1,192 coral atolls (of which 200 are inhabited), is the smallest Asian nation. These islands, barely a few meters above sea level, are a magnet for wealthy tourists and scuba-divers: the former flock to their pristine beaches, the latter come to experience their wealth of stunningly beautiful coral reefs and marine wildlife. Over the last week, the Maldives, an Islamic nation, made international headlines for violent street protests culminating in a coup d’état that overthrew its elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who has held office since 2008. The political situation is worrying for the Maldives’ economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. Not long ago, the Maldives were the happy isles of the Indian Ocean. Reminiscing on a visit he made to the Maldives in 2010, Yahoo! India’s Travel Editor BIJOY VENUGOPAL presents a dramatic photo-essay of a happy-go-lucky yet strangely troubled island nation

An idyllic sunset at Club Faru, a resort island near Male, capital of the Maldives. Of the 1,192 islands, about 200 accommodate the approximately 3.95 million Maldivians, who are mostly Muslim (non-Muslims are denied citizenship, though they are not barred from visiting or working in the country). Only 185 islands are inhabited by local people; the remaining host around 90 resorts. Understandably, for this far-flung nation of coral atolls, tourism is the biggest industry, netting about $325 million a year.
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An idyllic sunset at Club Faru, a resort island near Male, capital of the Maldives. Of the 1,192 islands, about 200 accommodate the approximately 3.95 million Maldivians, who are mostly Muslim (non-Muslims are denied citizenship, though they are not barred from visiting or working in the country). Only 185 islands are inhabited by local people; the remaining host around 90 resorts. Understandably, for this far-flung nation of coral atolls, tourism is the biggest industry, netting about $325 million a year.
Crabs await the turn of the tide at an island resort. Maldives is the lowest nation in the world – the highest point is only about 7 feet. The islands are coral atolls topped by a thin layer of humus, which supports all the vegetation including avenue trees. Since agriculture is virtually impossible, the Maldivians import everything except for coconuts. Fish and a variety of seafood are always on the table. These crabs, being smaller and too plentiful, got lucky.
Maldives Travel
Crabs await the turn of the tide at an island resort. Maldives is the lowest nation in the world – the highest point is only about 7 feet. The islands are coral atolls topped by a thin layer of humus, which supports all the vegetation including avenue trees. Since agriculture is virtually impossible, the Maldivians import everything except for coconuts. Fish and a variety of seafood are always on the table. These crabs, being smaller and too plentiful, got lucky.
A storm departs after briefly drenching an island. Being oceanic, the Maldives enjoy a humid but pleasant climate year-round. The Indian Ocean absorbs heat quickly, rotating the air in convection currents and creating plentiful sea breeze, which maintains the temperature at a relatively constant range of between 24 and 33 degrees Celsius. The southwest monsoon brings rain from June through August, though storms may occur at any time.
Maldives Travel
A storm departs after briefly drenching an island. Being oceanic, the Maldives enjoy a humid but pleasant climate year-round. The Indian Ocean absorbs heat quickly, rotating the air in convection currents and creating plentiful sea breeze, which maintains the temperature at a relatively constant range of between 24 and 33 degrees Celsius. The southwest monsoon brings rain from June through August, though storms may occur at any time.
Resort islands are planted with a variety of trees including the national tree, the coconut palm, as well as jackfruit, curry leaf and banyan. Among the commonest trees is the Sea Hibiscus or Beach Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), a medium-sized tree with a spreading canopy. Its cup-shaped flowers are orange or lemon-yellow in color.
Maldives Travel
Resort islands are planted with a variety of trees including the national tree, the coconut palm, as well as jackfruit, curry leaf and banyan. Among the commonest trees is the Sea Hibiscus or Beach Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), a medium-sized tree with a spreading canopy. Its cup-shaped flowers are orange or lemon-yellow in color.
The Maldives are coral atolls – islands that encircle a lagoon. The word has its roots in atholu in Dhivehi (the language of the Maldivians). It was first used extensively by the English naturalist Charles Darwin in his published work, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. In the Indian Ocean, atolls are found in the Maldives, Laccadives (Lakshadweep) and Seychelles. Maldives has the world’s tenth largest atoll, Huvadhu, which has a total land area of 38.5 square kilometers.
Maldives Travel
The Maldives are coral atolls – islands that encircle a lagoon. The word has its roots in atholu in Dhivehi (the language of the Maldivians). It was first used extensively by the English naturalist Charles Darwin in his published work, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. In the Indian Ocean, atolls are found in the Maldives, Laccadives (Lakshadweep) and Seychelles. Maldives has the world’s tenth largest atoll, Huvadhu, which has a total land area of 38.5 square kilometers.
View from the resort island of Club Faru. While the Maldives abides by Islamic Sharia law (among other things, women found guilty of premarital sex are flogged), the laws appear to be relaxed at the resorts, which cater primarily to Western tourists. The government restricts tourist access to the resort islands, the capital Male and the airport island of Hulhule. Resort islands, therefore, may serve pork or pork products but they are subject to a restrictive import duty of 35%.<br><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br><strong>Enjoy more <a href="http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/travelphotoarchive/" data-ylk="slk:travel slideshows" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">travel slideshows </a><span>>></span></strong><br>
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View from the resort island of Club Faru. While the Maldives abides by Islamic Sharia law (among other things, women found guilty of premarital sex are flogged), the laws appear to be relaxed at the resorts, which cater primarily to Western tourists. The government restricts tourist access to the resort islands, the capital Male and the airport island of Hulhule. Resort islands, therefore, may serve pork or pork products but they are subject to a restrictive import duty of 35%.

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A two-masted yacht drops anchor at sunset in the high sea off a resort island. A variety of water-craft can be seen in the Maldives, which relies heavily on them for transportation between islands.
Maldives Travel
A two-masted yacht drops anchor at sunset in the high sea off a resort island. A variety of water-craft can be seen in the Maldives, which relies heavily on them for transportation between islands.
Our boat approaches the northern pier at Male, the capital of the nation and its administrative headquarters.
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Our boat approaches the northern pier at Male, the capital of the nation and its administrative headquarters.
A Toyota RAV4 2-door passenger vehicle is seen outside an outdoor concert venue in Male. There are 23 motor vehicles per thousand people in the Maldives, most of them concentrated in the capital. The high import duty on passenger motor vehicles is intended as a deterrent but the streets are crowded with cars and two-wheelers, while the ocean is studded with boats.
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A Toyota RAV4 2-door passenger vehicle is seen outside an outdoor concert venue in Male. There are 23 motor vehicles per thousand people in the Maldives, most of them concentrated in the capital. The high import duty on passenger motor vehicles is intended as a deterrent but the streets are crowded with cars and two-wheelers, while the ocean is studded with boats.
The Presidential Palace in Male is the official residence of the head of state of the Republic of Maldives. Though, unlike many other presidential governments, the building is not the president’s office, His Excellency is known to host special functions for visiting heads of state here. Reconstructed on the site of the erstwhile presidential palace, the building was occupied by President Mohamed Nasheed when this picture was taken in 2010. He was ousted in an alleged coup d’état in February 2012. His Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan was sworn in as President in his place.
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The Presidential Palace in Male is the official residence of the head of state of the Republic of Maldives. Though, unlike many other presidential governments, the building is not the president’s office, His Excellency is known to host special functions for visiting heads of state here. Reconstructed on the site of the erstwhile presidential palace, the building was occupied by President Mohamed Nasheed when this picture was taken in 2010. He was ousted in an alleged coup d’état in February 2012. His Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan was sworn in as President in his place.
Children, watched by their mothers and nannies, play on the lush lawn in Republic Square, Male’s most popular place for public gatherings. The Square is within sight of several major buildings, foremost among them the Islamic Center, Male's most recognizable building and the nation's preeminent religious monument.
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Children, watched by their mothers and nannies, play on the lush lawn in Republic Square, Male’s most popular place for public gatherings. The Square is within sight of several major buildings, foremost among them the Islamic Center, Male's most recognizable building and the nation's preeminent religious monument.
With the continuous presence of foreign tourists, tradition coexists uneasily with modernity in Male. The Maldivians are amiable, cheerful and most of them appear well-to-do. While many women wear the hijab, I saw far fewer of them in burquas. The hijab, incidentally, was freely combined with tight tops, t-shirts and slacks. That said, the rule didn’t seem to apply to foreigners though women and men were instructed to wear clothes that covered their legs and arms (men were told that their shorts should extend below the knee).
Maldives Travel
With the continuous presence of foreign tourists, tradition coexists uneasily with modernity in Male. The Maldivians are amiable, cheerful and most of them appear well-to-do. While many women wear the hijab, I saw far fewer of them in burquas. The hijab, incidentally, was freely combined with tight tops, t-shirts and slacks. That said, the rule didn’t seem to apply to foreigners though women and men were instructed to wear clothes that covered their legs and arms (men were told that their shorts should extend below the knee).
The Gelateria adjoining the Seagull Café in Male is the hangout of the city’s hip youngsters (in the background is the gold dome of the Islamic Center). Located in Fareedhee Magu, the cafe is open from 9 am to 12 am on weekdays and from 4 pm to 12 am on Fridays, the weekly holiday. <br><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br><strong>Enjoy more <a href="http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/travelphotoarchive/" data-ylk="slk:travel slideshows" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">travel slideshows </a><span>>></span></strong><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br><br>The homemade ice-cream at the outdoor café (which serves excellent, if somewhat astronomically priced, seafood platters and continental and Thai cuisine with a local twist) is surprisingly delightful. The servings are enormous! We were told street food was cheaper but late one night my friends and I got ripped off by a smiling coconut vendor at 30 Maldivian Rufiya apiece (one Rufiya is equivalent to about three Indian Rupees).
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The Gelateria adjoining the Seagull Café in Male is the hangout of the city’s hip youngsters (in the background is the gold dome of the Islamic Center). Located in Fareedhee Magu, the cafe is open from 9 am to 12 am on weekdays and from 4 pm to 12 am on Fridays, the weekly holiday.

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The homemade ice-cream at the outdoor café (which serves excellent, if somewhat astronomically priced, seafood platters and continental and Thai cuisine with a local twist) is surprisingly delightful. The servings are enormous! We were told street food was cheaper but late one night my friends and I got ripped off by a smiling coconut vendor at 30 Maldivian Rufiya apiece (one Rufiya is equivalent to about three Indian Rupees).
Coast Guard vessels are seen from the pier. Over 99 percent of the Maldives is open ocean. Besides its obvious military role, the Maldivian Coast Guard is also entrusted with addressing drug trafficking, maritime terrorism, smuggling and piracy.
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Coast Guard vessels are seen from the pier. Over 99 percent of the Maldives is open ocean. Besides its obvious military role, the Maldivian Coast Guard is also entrusted with addressing drug trafficking, maritime terrorism, smuggling and piracy.
Square-shaped wooden cargo boats known as Vedis (in Dhivehi) are docked in the waterfront beside the market. Smaller vessels known as dhonis, both sail-powered and motor-powered, are more common around islands. Vedis are used for transport on the open ocean.
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Square-shaped wooden cargo boats known as Vedis (in Dhivehi) are docked in the waterfront beside the market. Smaller vessels known as dhonis, both sail-powered and motor-powered, are more common around islands. Vedis are used for transport on the open ocean.
Residents flock to the Male fish market in the evenings, when the catch has just been brought in. For centuries fishing has been the life-blood of the Maldivian economy though in recent years tourism has accounted for one-third of it. Deep-ocean fish (such as tuna and shark), reef fish (snapper and grouper) and large schooling fish are caught and traded at the market every day. The Maldives also exports tuna processed at a large canning plant on the island of Felivaru.
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Residents flock to the Male fish market in the evenings, when the catch has just been brought in. For centuries fishing has been the life-blood of the Maldivian economy though in recent years tourism has accounted for one-third of it. Deep-ocean fish (such as tuna and shark), reef fish (snapper and grouper) and large schooling fish are caught and traded at the market every day. The Maldives also exports tuna processed at a large canning plant on the island of Felivaru.
Skipjack Tuna (pictured) and Yellow-fin tuna are the most commonly fished species. Tons of tuna are brought into the market every day.
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Skipjack Tuna (pictured) and Yellow-fin tuna are the most commonly fished species. Tons of tuna are brought into the market every day.
The fish market is a dramatic place, full of rapid movements, sounds and, inevitably, smells. Fishmongers in plastic aprons work at astonishing speed gutting and filleting tuna, barracuda, snapper and a raft of other fish whose names elude me.
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The fish market is a dramatic place, full of rapid movements, sounds and, inevitably, smells. Fishmongers in plastic aprons work at astonishing speed gutting and filleting tuna, barracuda, snapper and a raft of other fish whose names elude me.
-----------------------------------------------------------<br><strong>Enjoy more <a href="http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/travelphotoarchive/" data-ylk="slk:travel slideshows" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">travel slideshows </a><span>>></span></strong><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br>Fishermen of all stripes hawk their wares at the market. This strapping, copper-haired fisherman, rugged and reeking of sea-salt like Hemingway’s Santiago, asked me in a quick smattering of Dhivehi (which sounds uncannily similar to Sinhala intoned in Malayalam or Tamil with flecks of Urdu and Arabic) if I wanted to take home his freshly caught Red Snapper. Tempting. Alas, I settled for canned tuna back at the resort. In fact, after the trip, I had eaten so much tuna in so many forms that I went off it for a year.
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Fishermen of all stripes hawk their wares at the market. This strapping, copper-haired fisherman, rugged and reeking of sea-salt like Hemingway’s Santiago, asked me in a quick smattering of Dhivehi (which sounds uncannily similar to Sinhala intoned in Malayalam or Tamil with flecks of Urdu and Arabic) if I wanted to take home his freshly caught Red Snapper. Tempting. Alas, I settled for canned tuna back at the resort. In fact, after the trip, I had eaten so much tuna in so many forms that I went off it for a year.
Alcohol is not served anywhere on Male, so we slaked our thirst with fresh juice and soft drinks. Back at the resort, however, the bar beckoned urgently. Here, time was an infinite, elastic rubber band. The hours went by slowly, and the drinks went down fast. But it was like living in a bubble, cushioned and insulated from the simmering political cauldron that is this country.
Maldives Travel
Alcohol is not served anywhere on Male, so we slaked our thirst with fresh juice and soft drinks. Back at the resort, however, the bar beckoned urgently. Here, time was an infinite, elastic rubber band. The hours went by slowly, and the drinks went down fast. But it was like living in a bubble, cushioned and insulated from the simmering political cauldron that is this country.
I witnessed some of the most dramatic sunsets in the Maldives. This one required no exposure compensation whatsoever. Yes, the sky was that color. But who would believe me in the age of photo-editing?
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I witnessed some of the most dramatic sunsets in the Maldives. This one required no exposure compensation whatsoever. Yes, the sky was that color. But who would believe me in the age of photo-editing?
Maldives Travel
The beach is littered with coral and shells. Collecting them is prohibited by law and there’s a reason why. A certain kind of shell – the Cowry (Cypraea moneta) – used to be highly coveted by travelers and traders of yore. In fact, cowries were so prized that they were used as currency in the 13th century. The writings of the African traveler Ibn Batuta reveal that in one year the Maldives exported 40 ships loaded with cowries. In modern times, cowries are still hunted by collectors. As for corals, they are illegally collected and the Maldives is party to a global moratorium on the illegal collection of red corals.
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The beach is littered with coral and shells. Collecting them is prohibited by law and there’s a reason why. A certain kind of shell – the Cowry (Cypraea moneta) – used to be highly coveted by travelers and traders of yore. In fact, cowries were so prized that they were used as currency in the 13th century. The writings of the African traveler Ibn Batuta reveal that in one year the Maldives exported 40 ships loaded with cowries. In modern times, cowries are still hunted by collectors. As for corals, they are illegally collected and the Maldives is party to a global moratorium on the illegal collection of red corals.
All shells are created by soft-bodied creatures called mollusks (a group of animals that includes snails, slugs and – hold your breath – octopuses). But what do you say of shells that have legs? Look closely, these are hermit crabs. Hermit crabs are distant relatives of true crabs and their bodies are so soft that as soon as their larvae become adults, they go about hunting for abandoned mollusk shells in which they can tuck their abdomens. In due course, the crabs outgrow their protective “clothes” and must look for new ones. One wildlife biologist told me how she had seen hermit crabs quarrel with each other for a shell that was a perfect fit!
Maldives Travel
All shells are created by soft-bodied creatures called mollusks (a group of animals that includes snails, slugs and – hold your breath – octopuses). But what do you say of shells that have legs? Look closely, these are hermit crabs. Hermit crabs are distant relatives of true crabs and their bodies are so soft that as soon as their larvae become adults, they go about hunting for abandoned mollusk shells in which they can tuck their abdomens. In due course, the crabs outgrow their protective “clothes” and must look for new ones. One wildlife biologist told me how she had seen hermit crabs quarrel with each other for a shell that was a perfect fit!
A closer look at a hermit crab. These even-tempered, trusting creatures don’t pinch. When approached a hermit crab tucks itself into a shell and won’t budge until it thinks you have gone away.<br><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br><strong>Enjoy more <a href="http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/travelphotoarchive/" data-ylk="slk:travel slideshows" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">travel slideshows </a><span>>></span></strong><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br>
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A closer look at a hermit crab. These even-tempered, trusting creatures don’t pinch. When approached a hermit crab tucks itself into a shell and won’t budge until it thinks you have gone away.

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The islands are so far-flung that they have no large natural predators. But if you’re fascinated by dragons, there is this chap – the Calotes lizard. Wearing his bright yellow and orange suit, he looked around for a female to impress. Trust me, he wasn’t interested in the ones in bikinis.
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The islands are so far-flung that they have no large natural predators. But if you’re fascinated by dragons, there is this chap – the Calotes lizard. Wearing his bright yellow and orange suit, he looked around for a female to impress. Trust me, he wasn’t interested in the ones in bikinis.
This Grey Heron was the most distinguished-looking bird in the Maldives, which is a great place for watching seabirds such as noddies, terns and shearwaters. This bird would stand in stately silence, eye on the water. Occasionally, it would stab the surface, pick out a wrasse or some such fish, and then go back to its monk-like attitude.
Maldives Travel
This Grey Heron was the most distinguished-looking bird in the Maldives, which is a great place for watching seabirds such as noddies, terns and shearwaters. This bird would stand in stately silence, eye on the water. Occasionally, it would stab the surface, pick out a wrasse or some such fish, and then go back to its monk-like attitude.
It wasn’t just the wild birds that made for interesting watching. I was walking around the back of the resort when this colorful chap squawked amiably from a casuarina tree in what sounded like Dutch or German, swooped down and perched on my shoulder. He nibbled gently at my ear, then not so gently at my finger, and scolded me for carrying no tidbits for him. I couldn’t help feeling like Long John Silver.
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It wasn’t just the wild birds that made for interesting watching. I was walking around the back of the resort when this colorful chap squawked amiably from a casuarina tree in what sounded like Dutch or German, swooped down and perched on my shoulder. He nibbled gently at my ear, then not so gently at my finger, and scolded me for carrying no tidbits for him. I couldn’t help feeling like Long John Silver.
More than the island, the ocean was fascinating. I’d wade fearlessly into the water at dawn, walking as far as I could (for one who cannot swim). Then I’d stay put, allowing the gentle waves to rock me in their rhythmic caress. Often, the water was so clear that I could see the seaweed meadows at the bottom. One morning, I had company. A squadron of seven Black-tipped Reef Sharks swam with me. They were each not more than two feet long but I froze -- in amazement, tinged with a smidgen of fear. I couldn’t help thinking they were extraordinarily beautiful, and I envied my scuba-diving friend for the treasures that had been revealed to her 20 meters underwater just the previous afternoon.
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More than the island, the ocean was fascinating. I’d wade fearlessly into the water at dawn, walking as far as I could (for one who cannot swim). Then I’d stay put, allowing the gentle waves to rock me in their rhythmic caress. Often, the water was so clear that I could see the seaweed meadows at the bottom. One morning, I had company. A squadron of seven Black-tipped Reef Sharks swam with me. They were each not more than two feet long but I froze -- in amazement, tinged with a smidgen of fear. I couldn’t help thinking they were extraordinarily beautiful, and I envied my scuba-diving friend for the treasures that had been revealed to her 20 meters underwater just the previous afternoon.
Equally fascinating but slightly more suspect were Stingrays. Like underwater bats, these relatives of sharks with their flat, fan-shaped bodies, slithered silently and gracefully on the ocean floor. Stingrays, true to their name, have venomous Y-shaped barbs at the end of their whip-like tails, and I couldn’t help remembering that the TV presenter Steve Irwin had met his end at the wrong end of one. Yet, from a distance, I felt safe watching them. A scuba-diver later reassured me that these fascinating creatures are quite harmless if left alone.
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Equally fascinating but slightly more suspect were Stingrays. Like underwater bats, these relatives of sharks with their flat, fan-shaped bodies, slithered silently and gracefully on the ocean floor. Stingrays, true to their name, have venomous Y-shaped barbs at the end of their whip-like tails, and I couldn’t help remembering that the TV presenter Steve Irwin had met his end at the wrong end of one. Yet, from a distance, I felt safe watching them. A scuba-diver later reassured me that these fascinating creatures are quite harmless if left alone.
<strong>Enjoy more <a href="http://in.lifestyle.yahoo.com/travelphotoarchive/" data-ylk="slk:travel slideshows" class="link rapid-noclick-resp">travel slideshows </a><span>>></span></strong><br>-----------------------------------------------------------<br>After seven days and nights of sun, sand and seafood, I bade farewell to the Maldives. We headed for the island of Hulhule, adjoining Male, where the airport is located. Today, my thoughts go back to the islanders, those proud and hospitable Maldivian people dependent on their tourism and their fish, now troubled at the uncertainty of their country’s political future. My thoughts also went to a book I'd read long ago, Paul Theroux’s travelogue of the South Pacific islands, which he aptly titled The Happy Isles of Oceania. I wish the people of the Maldives a quick and peaceful return to happiness.<br><br>Liked this slideshow
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After seven days and nights of sun, sand and seafood, I bade farewell to the Maldives. We headed for the island of Hulhule, adjoining Male, where the airport is located. Today, my thoughts go back to the islanders, those proud and hospitable Maldivian people dependent on their tourism and their fish, now troubled at the uncertainty of their country’s political future. My thoughts also went to a book I'd read long ago, Paul Theroux’s travelogue of the South Pacific islands, which he aptly titled The Happy Isles of Oceania. I wish the people of the Maldives a quick and peaceful return to happiness.

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