MALDIVE ISLANDS 1977 – First came the telegram from UNESCO in Paris then the letter from a Mrs Stevens concerning the vexed subject of toilet paper.
I was sitting on the verandah of our house on the Bundarra Road 20 kilometres from Armidale when I spotted the Australia Post motorbike slowly skid off the main road below and grumble up our long dusty drive.
The telegram said that if I wanted the job of UNESCO’s broadcasting adviser in the Maldives, it was mine. I'd been selected from 50 applicants for a UNESCO post and this was the one that was offering. The Maldivians liked Australians.
I headed for an encyclopaedia and there I found the Maldives. Fly specks in the blue. A necklace of atolls stretched 900 kilometres north to south across the Indian Ocean south-west of India, the bottom-most of them spanning across the equator.
I was also to discover that the word ‘atoll’ came from the Dhivehi ‘atolu’, and was the Maldives’ unique contribution to the English language.
Next came the letter from Mrs Stevens, an English language teachers in Malé, the Maldivian capital, which began by informing me that she was spokeswoman for the small expatriate community in the country.
“Bring a portable oven,” Mrs Stevens urged. “Bring an electric kettle, a low wattage iron, disinfectant, dysentery tablets, masks and snorkels. And bring boxes of toilet rolls.”
It sounded like UNESCO had a project going in Atlantis and that diarrhoea was the national pastime.
I broke the news to Sue, who was understandably a bit apprehensive, and to the folks at 2ARM-FM, who tried to talk me out of it.
But the spirit was with me again. Giving a month’s notice, I began to wrap my involvement with the station. A new manager, Martin Hadlow, was recruited. Like me Martin had served with the NBC in Papua New Guinea and had followed me as manager of Radio Bougainville. He later had a brilliant career in UNESCO, where he became a senior official.
In that last month at 2ARM, I also complete an announcers’ manual and a monograph, ‘Community Radio in Armidale’, before flying to Paris for UNESCO’s briefing. The organisation’s team in Malé would number three when I arrived. The ‘country team’ in Paris numbered 12.
The two week-long briefing was fun. I was shopped around from office to office to learn all there was to be known about the Maldives and UNESCO’s involvement with the country. I was given shots to protect me against everything and a visit to the dentist to ensure the choppers would go the distance.
I signed papers to receive my tax free salary and a contract for two years’ service. Then, along with 15 other designated ‘experts’ about to be deployed across the world, I was driven to a chateau near Paris with its own wood to stroll through intellectualising and get immersed in the philosophy and culture of UNESCO.
From Paris, I repaired to New Delhi to be briefed by the United Nations south Asia boss. “You won’t like the Maldives, it’s a miserable goddam place,” he said, adding for emphasis, “I hope you have the decency not to subject your wife and children to this.”
And then I flew south to Colombo and to the Australian High Commission. “Wouldn’t travel there in the monsoon, sport,” warned the first secretary. “We never fly there this time of year.”
However, apart from one of Avro HS748’s engines running rough and the overhead air blower coming adrift in my hand, my first flight to Malé was uneventful.
I was to learn later that, when there was a combination of low cloud and a breakdown in Radio Maldives’ transmitter, aircraft would entirely miss the low lying islands (maximum elevation above sea level, two meters).
Radio Maldives shortwave signal stood in for the absence of any other aviation beacon.
In Malé, when there was bad weather, we’d hear the Avro pass overhead to the empty ocean beyond, returning 10 minutes later when the pilots realised they’d overflown.
Malé was a city of 40,000 people (20% of the country's population) on little more than a square mile of sand and coral. In the two years we lived there, 25 expatriates were resident, half of them UN personnel.
One of my two Unesco compatriots, Gordon Duncan, a morose Scot, met me at Hylule A irport upon my arrival. After a perfunctory greeting- “Duncan” – he stared at me through red-rimmed eyes and said, “I suppose you’re sorry you came.”
The Maldives was and remains an Islamic stronghold. There were no dogs in the country – and no pigs of course. You couldn’t buy booze except on the few designated tourist islands. There was no Christian penetration at all and Islamic law was applied severely.
A typist in my office was sentenced to indefinite house arrest for the heinous offence of ‘dancing in private’. And people caught kissing on the street were banished to remote islands for some months.
There was only one food the Maldives wasn’t short of – tuna. There was no meat to be had, no greens except a local edible grass and few other vegetables, Rice of poor quality was imported, kept too long in store and sold swollen and smelly.
The only land foods we never ran out of were bananas, pawpaws and breadfruit. On the occasions when our colleagues visited India or Sri Lanka – both of which banned the export of meat at that time – we would encourage them to smuggle some back.
I quickly settled into work. The official working hours was eight to one, six days a week. Maldivian public servants were poorly paid and would use the balance of the day to top up their income with other pursuits.
A week or so after my arrival, I was told my new abode was ready: a two-storey house built of coral and cement and located on the edge of the island adjacent to the Radio Maldives studios and aerial farm.
I was pleased for two reasons: it was a far from shabby residence and now the family could join me from Armidale.
Next: Journeys by sea
In case you missed them.....
Earlier episodes of Broadcasting in Tongues:
1 – In the beginning
2 – Welcome to the ABC
3 – Into management
4 - Blood on the streets
5 – Brink of secession
6 – Komunisi and korupsi
7 – Building a corporation
8 – Fights between whitemen
9 – An Australian foothold