I have been working for Fichtner for over 12 years. It has been an instructive experience because the wide variety of projects in the field of renewable energies and energy efficiency have given me ample opportunity to acquaint myself with new cultures. Some countries in Central and South America, such as Mexico and Uruguay, felt a bit like home for me. On the other hand, there were some countries that I knew very little about before going there to do a project, such as Moldova, Kosovo and Ethiopia. All the countries that my work for Fichtner has taken me to have one thing in common, namely that I have had great experiences and come away with fond memories both professionally and personally. In this blog post, I want to tell you about one very special country in particular: the Maldives. A place that many readers surely long to visit, presumably imagining themselves lying on white beach. I have to admit that up until seven years ago, I too had very much the same impression of this island state in the Indian Ocean. But let’s start at the beginning…
I remember the morning when my supervisor told me of our new project in the Maldives and revealed that I would be the one to manage it. My first reaction was to smile. Wow, I thought to myself, how great is that?
Working in a vacation paradise?
I associated the Maldives not only with an unknown country of great beauty, but – just as importantly – an interesting project. Our client was the Ministry of Environment and Energy. The project aimed at reducing the CO2 emissions of power generation by implementing energy efficiency measures and hybrid systems (Diesel-PV) in Thinadhoo, one of the main islands in the south of the Maldives.
But what I did not know at that time was that the Maldives is a Muslim country. I therefore first had to consult with our local partner to clarify what kinds of things we would need to consider in the course of our project. This related to general things like whether it was compulsory to wear a headscarf, but also to aspects like setting our appointments, given that we would probably be there during the fasting month of Ramadan.
I was in the Maldives three times during the year-long project from July 2013 to July 2014, twice during Ramadan. For me, it was a new experience from which I learnt that fasting never did anyone any harm! As part of the project, we visited Malé Island in the center of the Maldives, where the four original districts of the capital are located, as well as Thinadhoo, learning a lot about the country in the process. Did you know, for example, that Malé is one of the most densely populated islands in the world?
I was, of course, also looking forward to the fantastic beaches and huts so often advertised in holiday catalogs. But there were none of those in Malé. Our local partner explained why. The country was divided up along pretty strict lines: there were the “holiday islands” and the “native islands”. Guess which of those our project was taking place on!
What is not shown in glossy catalogs
To this day, I am actually yet to experience any of the holiday islands shown in German travel catalogs. I have, though, experienced another side of the country that no tourist will find in any catalog or on any tourist excursion. It is a country extremely threatened by climate change, yet trying nevertheless to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. It is also a country that is trying to slowly become more open. Until shortly before our project, it was not possible for tourists to stay the night on native islands. Then some of the islands began to build guesthouses to give tourists the opportunity to also visit islands that have very little to do with the luxury of the photogenic resorts.
Although I felt comfortable in the country, there were still cultural differences to contend with. For example, my colleague and I experienced the following on our very first visit: My colleague asked our local partner where we could go swimming, which led to us ending up in Hulhumale, the island that is home to the airport. We had not even been lying on the beach for five minutes when the police turned up and ordered us to leave. Well, tough luck … But months later, during our second visit and with the help of our local partner, we actually managed one day to rent a small boat after work and travel to an island ten minutes away from where we were. And there it was: a tiny uninhabited island just for us, with clear turquoise water, sunshine and ….. we were allowed to swim!
Many things about the Maldives have stuck in my mind: my first project in a Muslim country; my first flight in First Class; exploring Thinadhoo at sunset on a motorbike; having to weigh not only my suitcase at the airport, but also myself; riding round Malé at sunrise on a bicycle … But the most vivid memories are my impressions of the nice and very helpful people who seemed a bit reserved at first, but were then open and curious after a while.
I remember finding it depressing just how little – if not nothing – the natives know about or benefit from the prosperity of the “holiday islands”. So it was all the better that our project was aimed precisely at the native islands. I am sure that I would most probably have never seen that side of the Maldives, had my work not have taken me there. It is rare to gain such insight through tourism. And it is for precisely that reason that I look forward to the next project and the next destination.
 Just to clarify: The flights for our business trips are, of course, not normally taken in “First Class”, but on our first visit my colleague and I had the good fortune of being upgraded.