Chapter 01 of my work in progress book "Sinking Streets".
I am floating on my back with my eyes closed. The sun is beating down on my face from above. The rumbling monster of the city is silenced and for a moment I forget about the stress that brought me here. The fresh morning air is tainted with the smell of diesel. I exhale and sink further down under the water’s surface.
The smell disappears. The water feels cold on my face and I feel goosebumps rise along my arms. My heartbeat steadily quickens as my body craves oxygen. I rise from the illusion and the endless noise of the city once again swarms my consciousness.
“Pretty cold today huh,” I remark to my friend while feeling the bumps along my arm. She’s sitting in waist deep water on the shallow side towards the tripod rocks.
“I bet you’re gonna miss this once you’re gone,” she said laughing.
She was right. I haven’t been out for a proper swim ever since I’d moved to Tasmania. My heart aches for the ocean. It is so close, yet it is so cold and unforgiving that its existence might as well be a mirage. My brief forays have been anything but enjoyable. A shivering overtakes the body and you feel your core begin to tighten up. It becomes difficult to breath and an icy panic begins to set in. Things seem different for those that learnt how to swim here. I see them dive effortlessly off their private yachts from where they swim sometimes great distances to the shore. Perhaps one day I will get used to it as well.
When I tell people that I am Maldivian their first reaction is one of barely concealed envy. “Wow! What a beautiful place! You must be so lucky!”. I am quick to correct them that no, I am not from the Maldives as much as I am from Male’ City.
Male’ City is a very different place from the rest of the Maldives. It has no natural beaches, and when I was very young the Track was the only place that people went swimming regularly. I, like many other residents of Male’ city, learnt how to swim there. “Track ah’ hingaa dhaan! (let’s go to the Track!)”, is a phrase that is familiar to young and old alike.
By the time that I was a teenager the government had created what they called the “Artificial Beach” on the East side of the island, but the fact that it was crowded, incredibly shallow and usually smelled even worse than the Track made it a less popular option. You could also of course try your luck in the Raalhugandu area, but the chaotic surf makes this unpleasant, and the shallower side is far too shallow with too many rocks to actually go swimming.
The current Yameen administration has made a second artificial beach on the West side of the island that seems larger and a lot nicer, but I cannot speak about it as I have not been back to the Maldives since its creation a few years ago. All the photographs included in this essay are thus taken between 2006 and 2009. It was a time before GoPros and other action cams had become mainstream. Most of the photographs were therefore taken by using compact cameras in waterproof plastic cases and then later a hard case once I had purchased myself a Canon G10 in mid-2009. There are also a few photographs that were taken using an expired disposable underwater camera from Tropicolour.
The area you could swim in used to be much longer and when I was a child the boats were limited to the very edge. As a result the water used to be a lot clearer and less polluted. This also meant that the Track was a lot more accessible to the public and thus less crowded.
One of my earliest memories is going swimming there with my Father and some cousins. I was a child and barely knew how to swim so I clung to his back as he swam across the divide. Two thirds of the way there he spotted an abandoned suitcase on the bottom. He tells me to wait as he dives down below. I nervously tread water and open my eyes underwater to watch his descent. He glides down and picks it up off the bottom. A cloud of dust surrounds him. He resurfaces and shakes his head. I grab onto his shoulders and we continue our journey across to the tripod rocks. It is my first memory of swimming by myself.
Along the island facing side there used to be moored many barges, or “bandu” (literally: stomach or belly). Off these rusting Goliath's young people used to ride their bikes straight into the water. Sometimes they’d do a flourish in the air, sometimes they’d just tumble in, but they all remembered to kick the bikes away lest it hit them on the way down.
With great effort they would then pull up the sunken bikes so that they and their friends can have another go. Too young to have my own bike and too shy to talk to them, I used to just watch in awe. “One day I’m going to ride my bike off a bandu!” I’d think to myself, fantasising about all the cool aerial manoeuvres I’d pull off.
Back then instead of the swimming practises being restricted to the floating constructions in the middle of the track, they used to be conducted perpendicular to the sea wall. Our laps would almost always consist of swimming from the road side to the tripod rocks and back. “Do 20 laps!”, our instructor would say, seemingly oblivious to the fact that a lack of proper markings meant that each consecutive lap would be shorter from the far side.
Despite it still being cleaner than what it is like now, it was still far from the pristine waters depicted in tourist propaganda. Everyone would always have some itch or rash that they were suffering from; probably in no small part due to a mysterious blue pipe that was constantly pumping out a warm toxic cloud of god knows what. Ironically that pipe was how most of us got out of the track. There were no ladders so it provided firm enough ground from which you could grab onto the edge and pull yourself up. You could try to grip and push off the side of the wall itself, but this usually resulted in cut feet from the barnacles or worse - breaking off the brittle spines of a sea urchin; which was almost impossible to remove from your feet.
Trying to edge it out with a needle, as you would do with a splinter, only makes the situation worse as the delicate spine begins to disintegrate. One local remedy, which I have been subjected to multiple times, is to lather the foot in rihaakuru (fish paste from tuna) and to then hover them over a burning fire. The rihaakru heats up, which in turn heats up the embedded spine which then allegedly begins to melt off. I am still suspicious about the efficacy of this treatment, and whether the intense pain was worth it, as it never seemed to remove all of the spines.
By far the best thing about those practices was the sense of community it fostered. Each parent would bring something different for the long weekend sessions; favourites being chilled Milo with sweetened condensed milk instead of sugar and oranges coated in pure glucose powder. Even though the energy drink craze was many decades away we were never lacking in a source of incredibly unhealthy energy.
A highlight for me was taking part in the 2-kilometre race which was swum parallel from one end of the harbour to the track and back again. I came in last, but at least I managed to finish it. I was also, if I recall correctly, about 12 years old at the time; and thus at a considerable size disadvantage compared to most of the other participants to say the least.
For a lot of people, the Track was the closest you could get to escaping the claustrophobic heat of the inner city short of leaving the island itself. Many people would sit around the shallow side in waist high water, submerged up to their necks, chatting about current events. Others would sit on or cling to the outer side of the swimming platform - the inner usually being occupied by the swimming practices of various schools.
Another favourite activity was to dive into the water from the road side. Some people would even start from the opposite pavement. They would wait patiently for traffic to cease, after which they would dash across; spring boarding into the water from the concrete at the last possible moment.
I loved the rush of that split second before contact when you are suspended in the air. People would really try to push their luck, sometimes coming within inches of scraping themselves on the rocks which were lined up against the wall of that area of the track. The most impressive jump I’ve ever seen was from this man who flew so far that he managed to land inside the floating swim area, his feet just barely making it past the buoys.
The swimming platforms themselves had gone through various iterations before finally settling on the ones made from seemingly indestructible orange and blue plastic buoys that are there today. If I remember correctly they used empty barrels to keep the old wooden platforms afloat. Swimming lanes would be created by ropes that would extend between buoys. As a result these older versions were much less rigid and were prone to drift around in the current.
One of the greatest pleasures in life is to go for a swim when its raining on a hot day. Oh how I miss that feeling. The rain pounds down from above, an onslaught of tepid fat drops that instantly soaks you to the bone. When you make your way into the water, the relative cool of the air makes the water feel extra warm; almost as if it is heated.
The sound of the rain against the water drowns out the noise of the city. The sound is hypnotic. Meditative. The complete opposite of what one is used to hearing. No more rumbling machinery. No more buzzing drills and slamming hammers. The roads, normally packed with motorcycles, clear out. The rain also creates the illusion of privacy. One feels safe within the storm, and emboldened by this torrential veil, couples hold each other closer than they would have in the sun.
Your Track experience really isn’t complete unless you’ve been smacked across the face with a used condom at least once. Conservative attitudes and cramped quarters means that people don’t have much room to breathe; and if you don’t have space to talk in private with a loved one, just imagine how little space there is to have sex. Couples embrace along the floating barriers and sometimes even inside the crevices formed by the tripod rocks.
The tripod rocks themselves could be the basis of its own essay. In a similar manner to how the Track forms a barrier against the bustle of the city, the tripod rocks form a refuge from the Track itself. When I was in primary school I’d listen wide eyed to the tall tales of my cool friend who’d tell me all about his older brother who would go there to smoke cigars in secret. When I was older my friends who smoked cigarettes would continue the tradition by carrying their packs and lighters wrapped up in plastic bags. They would climb to the top of the rocks, unpack their bounty, light up and breathe deeply while staring off into the expanse of the ocean beyond the horizon.
When you are looking away from the island in that direction for a few brief moments it is as if the city behind you doesn’t exist. The ocean breeze feels fresh and untainted and the sound of the waves constantly crashing down on the rocks drowns out all but the most obnoxious of motorists. Many lovers have sat there, holding hands and staring off into the distance, wondering what the future holds.
Unlike a regular swimming pool, sterile and barren, the Track is full of marine life. In many ways it is its own ecosystem, with new arrivals constantly swimming in through the gaps of the tripod rocks. A dead dolphin even made an appearance at one of the practice sessions and caused quite the commotion.
It is a common sight to see small specimens of different kinds of filolhu (a type of fish from the Lethrinidae family - commonly known as emperors) cruising along the sandy bottom. Sometimes this bottom is covered with a certain jellyfish that has the appearance of a cake covered in many little candles.
A lot of young people, myself included, would sometimes try to catch a type of pipefish (a relative of the seahorse) with our hands as it often rested along the rocky shallows. Chasing them around provided a fun challenge; although it does seem cruel and unnecessary in retrospect.
The tripod rocks are always covered with several types of sea snails and a type of crab. The crabs would sit around in groups picking off bits of moss with their claws. When it was time for them to moult, they would climb up onto higher ground and discard their shells. People would often collect these perfectly preserved carapaces as souvenirs.
The state of life in the Track seems to be on the decline. When I was young I’d go with my mother and hunt for raakani, a kind of shellfish that is delicious when barbecued. We’d find them along the bottom and along the shallower parts of the ocean facing side. We kept it up for a few months until we stopped finding them. Perhaps others were doing the same and we were all actively hurting the ecosystem.
Similarly, when I was a teenager I used to accompany some friends who would go hunting in the track for lion fish and other exotic species for their marine tank. These adventures followed a similar pattern. A time of abundance followed by a slow decline until eventually we were barely catching anything at all.
One thing that was never in short supply is trash. All kinds of trash. You name it, it’s there. Bottles, cooking utensils, chairs, entire beds, all manner of plastic and food wrappers, cigarette butts, pens, pencils, cans, clothing, national flags, motor parts; if it was something that someone in Male’ city had used it at some point, then it was almost a certainty that you'd find it at the track.
Other than various sporadic efforts to clean up the place by youths and various other organisations, there isn’t really a system in place to manage the trash.
Maldivian’s have an extremely nonchalant attitude towards waste disposal. A clue is in our word for beach - “gondudhoh”; which literally translates to by the (dhoh) trash dump (gondu). In islands that still have beaches, the tradition is maintained by turning one side of the island into a complete ecological disaster. Many islands I’ve visited have had this side completely inaccessible as the bottom is covered with dangerous trash such as broken glass and hundreds of little cans of tomato paste. Another historical use of the beach was to defecate - the method being to dig a small hole in the sand which one would cover afterwards. This was even the case in Male’ for when my parents’ generation was young as back then the island still had some of its beaches intact. They would tell us stories to gross us out, about how bad the place smelled, and how they would occasionally step on someone else’s business accidentally.
The current residents of Male’ City are no longer so lucky, so perhaps in a strange way, dumping endless amounts of trash into one of the few places they can still go for a swim is their way of having a gondudhoh of their own.