Updated: Feb 13, 2020
I do not know this man’s name. I know him only as Seeing Eyes. I met him under a tree on a local island in Shaviyaani Atoll in the far north of the Republic of Maldives in the mid '90s.
It was a breathlessly hot day. Blindingly bright, the heat and light reflecting off the white coral walls of the houses and the rough crushed coral that covered the paths. No movement in the air; the sun had sent the wind to sleep. The wind and most of the inhabitants of the island.
Taking my post-lunch amble I found myself seeking shade. A single tree on the edge of the beach. Not a palm; more like a giant fig tree. Rare on the islands, its big leaves casting an enticing dappled shade that lured me into its embrace without a second thought. No one else around. All indoors sheltering from the sun. Just me.
Around the base of the tree was a coral concrete base extending about 5 feet out from the trunk; maybe 3 ft high. Warm to the touch. I climbed up, stretched out and fell quickly asleep, lulled into dreamtime by the languid heat of the day.
I had closed my eyes with the sun high in the sky; I awoke with it half way to the horizon, slanting under the canopy of leaves and touching my face with its burning fingers. Time to move. Sitting up I found myself in the company of several men. Cross-legged and chewing dried cloves, chattering softly, their eyes discretely cast in my direction. As only the second Caucasian to visit the island I was an object of scrutiny and curiosity for all, no holds barred.
I stretched and sat. Waiting. For sure one them would come and talk to me, usual social and religious mores forgotten in the face of inquisitiveness. It took just a few moments and sure enough, one of them did. Nut brown with a deeply lined face, home to crooked teeth and a friendly smile. A smile that started in his wise, dark eyes that squinted at me closely ... the man I christened Seeing Eyes.
I returned his smile. He greeted me and looked surprised when I replied in Divehi … his language. However, my linguistic competency did not stretch much further at that stage and so we resorted drawing in the sand and to using a whole lot of 3-dimensional language of the body, heart and soul.
I learnt that Seeing Eyes was just 15 years older than me, in his early fifties, the harshness of life in his ‘tropical paradise’ making him look much older. He fished - nothing new there. He had six children - par for the course. And he had never been south of the Kaashdhu Kaandhu, the deep channel that separates the northern atolls from the south and the only place in Maldivian waters, as seafarer’s legend would have it, where you cannot sight land. I also discovered that he was fascinated by my glasses. I offered them to him. With them perched on the end of his nose he looked somewhat scholarly, I thought, befitting his wisdom. With much sign language and a lot of translation help from a young man who had joined us who worked on a resort island and spoke good English, he revealed that with my glasses on the world looked all very different to how he normally saw it. When asked why, he replied,
“Shiny, sharp…edges to things...like the edge on a good fish knife.”
An interesting and apt analogy from a fisherman who had apparently been very short-sighted since birth.
I offered him my specs to keep; I always travel with two pairs. He took them off, twirled them in his fingers, considered my offer, smiled sagely and handed them back,
“Thank you. No. I like my world just the way it is.”
How many of us can say the same?