A local Maldivian wedding is different to the flower be-decked church and marquee knees-up enjoyed in the UK. And it’s nothing like the ‘romantic’ beach nuptials favoured by C-list celebrities. Here, the loving couple sign documents to legalise the proceedings, then entertain the entire community in the lane outside their house.
Sweat rests in a film along the bride’s upper lip. The groom stands, feet apart, back stiff, looking straight ahead. They are posed on a dais, arc lights illuminate them from the front and sides.
An enthusiastic photographer records each guest who files past. He positions them either side of the couple, men on the left, women on the right. As the guests move off, they leave a present with waiting family members who salt away bags and boxes at the back of the house.
Earlier in the week, we sailed through gliding manta rays into Uligamu, the northernmost port in the Maldives. After three years in India, where we were embraced by a tourist-loving population, we did not imagine anywhere else could be more welcoming.
As soon as we dropped the anchor, a group of officials motored out to our yacht in an old fishing boat. Representatives from Customs, Immigration and the Harbour Master came on board — all dark shades, pressed uniforms and polished shoes — and crammed themselves round the table in our small cockpit. They accepted our offer of tea, lit their cigarettes and shook our hands.
With flashing white teeth and gold jewellery, they flapped bits of paper at us in the offshore breeze. Used to the secondary status of wives in India, I asked if I should pass the documents to Jamie.
“It is your boat too?” said the man from Customs.
“Yes,” I replied, “but I thought you would prefer the captain’s signature?”
“Yours is good.” He stroked my cat who had fallen in love with him and was rubbing herself against his white shirt.
Jamie and I shared the form-filling, a process which took less than twenty minutes. The officials sniggered at our stories of the time-consuming bureaucracy sailors go through in India where checking a yacht in or out can last for days.
Asad, our shipping agent, leant across the table to hand me a violet envelope.
“How long will you be staying in Uligamu?” he asked.
“A few days,” I replied.
He beamed. “Then you will come to my wedding.”
The Customs official gave us a list of rules for foreign vessels:
i. Local peoples are not allowed come on board without Customs’ permission and also don’t do any business with locals and local vessels;
ii. If you are coming to shore or town, please dress properly;
iii. If you want to give anything (presents etc.) to anybody from island, please inform the Customs and take the permission to do it.
The list went on for two pages. Before I’d finished reading it, the official said, “You must also leave the islands and go back to your boat by 6pm.”
I asked Asad what time he wanted us at his wedding. “Six,” he said.
“In the evening?” I said.
As the group stepped back into the fishing boat, they said they were looking forward to seeing us again at the wedding. With still-gleaming uniforms and shoes, they chugged back to land.
“Come,” says the photographer, indicating we should climb on stage.
But we don’t feel we have earned such attention, pretend we haven’t heard him and scuttle away to a covered area further along the lane.
Two long tables are spread with curry, rice and pasta dishes, as well as over-sugared cakes. Covered in floor-length black, women buzz around the spread, eyeing my colourful loose trousers and long sleeve tunic with deadpan expressions.
The form is to load your plate, shovel it in without talking much in the adjacent open dining area, then leave. Soft muzak plays on a loop.
We chat to people we have met earlier in the week, including Hamid the long-bearded electrician who has worked magic on our boat charging system. He is a smiley man.
“When does the disco start, then?” says Jamie.
“Oh no. No,” says a now serious Hamid. He patiently explains that there is no dancing here. Neither is there singing, or alcohol. Although a progressive man, with experience of working in the west, he hasn’t registered Jamie’s attempt at humour. Jamie shuffles around trying not to look foolish.
Apart from the bars and restaurants on private resort islands, alcohol is prohibited in the predominantly Muslim Maldives. One of the other commandments on our list is ‘Don’t take any alcoholic beverages on shore, and it is strictly prohibited to give any alcohol to locals’. We subsequently realise this instruction should be augmented to include ‘despite how movingly they may plead with you’.
We finish eating and begin to wilt in the heat. It’s time to go.
On the way out, we offer our gift (nothing stronger than some scrumptious dates and nuts from Cochin) and try to say goodbye. But we are caught by the photographer again. As we stand under the lights, sweat dribbles down our faces and seeps through our clothes. The bride’s elaborate dress in violet satin polyester betrays no sign of the discomfort she must be feeling under the layers.
The next guests arrive and we leave the inferno of the stage, thanking everyone for their hospitality.
We arrive back on Esper where the sea breeze and a glass of wine revive us. It is 9pm.
By the end of our first fortnight in the Maldives we had broken most of the elastic rules on our Do and Don’t list: Jamie made a trip on the back of a motorbike wearing nothing but his swimming shorts; we traded with local fishermen; and we entertained Abusy, a local contractor for one of the new resort islands, on board the boat.
No-one seemed to mind.