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Slipping the sandals in the Maldives page 5

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant

An enjoyable aspect of Maldives flying was the “shutdown”, when the Mayfly showed a resort stop as long as four hours. With the last passenger waiting on the dhoni, the crew secured the airplane, inserted control locks and stepped aboard the dhoni with their inbound load. If not booked heavily, resorts assigned a room to each crew member. At mealtimes, they enjoyed tropical cuisine prepared by experienced chefs. After an afternoon nap in an air-conditioned room, they returned to the aircraft with their outbound passengers. On overnight shutdowns, pilots could appreciate the warmth of lounge entertainment by local celebrities like Island Voice, a talented group that likely arrived in a Hummingbird Twin Otter.

Most pilots do not rate living in the city of Male (population 62,973) as the high point of their Maldives duty. Many foods preferred by expatriates must be imported, but local fruit and an abundance of fish can be purchased cheaply. No nightclubs exist on the island, and anyone providing alcoholic beverages to Maldivian citizens becomes subject to deportation. Beer and liquor may be obtained with special permits, and, in a republic dominated by Sunni Muslims, visitors require authorization to purchase pork.

Unlike in countries severely restricted by religious customs, such as Sudan, dress for pilots and resort guests in the Maldives has become much more practical. In fact, all three seaplane airlines provided pilots and cabin attendants with shorts as part of their uniforms. Locals commonly wear wraparound, sari-like garments, but younger Maldivians have no problem wearing shorts, short-sleeved blouses and T-shirts–quite a contrast to some Muslim women, who must appear in public with face veils and full body robes.

During my contract with Hummingbird, clear skies prevailed nearly every day in the relatively dry season of December to March. Temperatures average 28°C year-round, although in February and March often soar to 40°C. Lifetime resident and ground hostess Aminath Waheedha said she had never exper­ienced less than 20°C. The southwest monsoon wet season lasts from April to November and brings incredible thunderstorms with heavy rain and high winds.

Few expatriates settle permanently in the Republic of Maldives, although life in a city with a 35-mph speed limit may not sound unpleasant. Trips eventually become repetitive no matter how attractive the resort accommodation or tour guides. Although enjoyable on quieter days, busy times mean pilots barely step from their airplanes before the next flight. Striving to land before the “instant dark” and dealing with disgruntled passengers or occasional managers who have little knowledge of seaplane operations can be stressful. Coupled with this, sunburn and sunstroke on and off the job become genuine hazards, and as hours build, opportunities to maintain a well-balanced diet diminish.

On January 30, Hummingbird officially became Trans Maldivian Airways. After flying their white airplanes and riding innumerable dhonis, I left with a positive impression of the company and the country. Maldivian people were friendly and, although abruptly introduced to Western lifestyles and business models, they will continue prospering. From a pilot’s perspective, experiencing the camaraderie of aviation with a small group who rarely bemoaned their decision to select such a career proved refreshing. |

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