The chessmen proved a much greater challenge than I had expected. I was persistent, if only because, as every traveller knows, a quest makes any adventure more vivid, heightening the perceptions and leading one into places and situations one would never otherwise explore. Had I not, after failing to find one in Fathaha Sunbuli, or Fathaha Star, or in Hakatha, another fascinating shop where someone sent me on a wild goose chase across town, or in the local market, or the National Handicrafts Centre, or in any of the overpriced tourist shops on Chandanee Magu, or the ordinary games shops and junk shops, or to glean any useful intelligence on where one might be had from assorted other sources (such as the men who sit about playing chess on Fishermen's Wharf), or to hear of one through the various people who took my number and promised to get back to me because they thought a friend of a friend might have one, still had it in mind that somewhere in Male' there must be one to be had, I should never have found myself sitting drinking coffee in a carpentry workshop on a backstreet somewhere, playing chess with the father of a friend of the owner.
We played with a set which was, of course, of traditional hand-made pieces in the Maldivian style. But Moosa, the carpenter, had none for sale. (I had stopped outside the workshop because it occurred to me that a carpenter might in his spare time make chessmen; on hearing my quest, he assumed I had come because I had some knowledge that he harboured chess enthusiasts under his roof.) Had I had an extra week or so, he could have found someone out in one of the islands who had made a spare set to sell, and had it brought on a local boat. He didn't know who would have a set for sale in Male', but like others before him he would take my number and ask around.
(Cheap imported plastic sets can be bought very easily, but I rarely or never saw them in use. There is obviously a preference for the traditional pieces, despite the fact that, being hand-made, they are more expensive and harder to find - at least if you are in a hurry.)
This felt like the last throw of the dice, and I had really given up hope at last of finding my quarry, when I went back next day through the rain to the local market to finish buying Christmas presents; and there at some stall - selling betel leaves or something - were the stallholder and a small crowd of his friends watching two among their number battle it out over a game of chess. I stayed and watched for a few minutes, and asked my usual question - 'where can I get pieces like this' - and lo and behold, one of the players made them, and happened to have a set under the counter that he could sell me. A beautifully proportioned, unfussy set of pieces in scarlet and sky-blue for MRf 800.
But I didn't escape without playing a couple of games against the local expert, who trounced me soundly.
Most of the foodstuffs that I gave at Christmas to assembled family members had become familiar to me while living here; a few were new to me when I saw them in the local market. In no particular order, they were:
Foah (with foah-valhi)
Gaily-coloured rice crackers - whose name I never discovered
Fried drumstick leaves
Mas mirus is a seasoning consisting of flakes of dried fish and chilli; it's great for spicing up a plate of rice or noodles. Mas means 'fish', mirus 'chilli'.
Dhiyaa hakuru literally means something like 'viscous sugar'; it's like honey and is collected from coconut flowers. You shin up the coconut palm, tap a coconut flower and leave the sap dripping into your collecting vessel. Next day up you go again, attach the vessel to another flower, and so forth. I had occasionally heard of dhiyaa hakuru as being used in the preparation of various traditional but now rare sweet foods, but had never seen either them or it. Not many people can be bothered to make it any more, it seems, and most of the oldish men who know the skill have never passed it on. But you can still get small jars of it in the local market in Male'.
Foah is simply areca nut. (When speaking English, Maldivians call it 'nuts'.) It is chewed throughout South Asia, cut into thin slices (using the foah-valhi, a special tool, like a giant pair of wire-strippers) and wrapped in betel leaf with a little dab of lime paste. Because of this association the nut is also confusingly called 'betel nut'. In India these 'betel quids' contain not only the leaf and nut but often complicated and elegant arrangements of other ingredients, including tobacco; since tobacco was introduced to betel quids, the rate of mouth cancers in India has soared. Maldivians eschew these fancy confections: but no meal, or coffee, whether in a house or a restaurant or cafe, is complete until a tray has been brought out with the 'dhufun'. There will be the leaves, the nut slices, possibly a little crucible of lime paste, with (usually) a few cloves and (sometimes) some of the sweet spice mix called 'heerapanna' of which a little can be sprinkled on, though even this is viewed by some as an unnecessary Indian import. The leaf tastes fresh and astringent; the nut, though slightly bitter, has little taste, but supposedly has a mild stimulant effect. The whole takes a little getting used to but is an excellent palette-cleanser after a meal. The only really essential element is the areca nut, which can be chewed on its own. There is a skill in slicing the nut thinly, otherwise it is hard and woody and unrewarding to chew.
Heerapanna nuts, as the name suggests, are packaged dried slices of areca nut flavoured with heerapanna. Numerous variants also exist. Little granules of the dried flavoured nuts, called 'supari', are available in small sachets and are popular with children. 'Khilli' is a wad of slightly sticky sweet stuff consisting of grated areca, coconut, betel leaf, spice and sugar.
Addu bondi is a speciality of Addu atoll, though despite having visited Addu, I got it in Male'. It's a salami-shaped bar made of sugar and coconut, sold packaged in a piece of banana leaf. More than one person I spoke to referred to it as 'Maldivian chocolate'.
The rice crackers looked like small versions of the ones you see in Chinese restaurants, though I think they were sweet, and each one had a bold red and a green stripe. I thought them rather jolly.
Telulikeyo are deep-fried slices of breadfruit. Luckily they are not very widely available, or I would have eaten far too many of them, since they're delicious. Because breadfruit has an open texture in the middle, they have a curious reticulated appearance. People make them at home when the breadfruit is in season, which is twice a year, in about June and December.
The drumstick tree is better known for its long thin seed pods, which if picked young can be cooked as a vegetable, for example in curry. It grows widely in Maldives and was traditionally widely eaten, though it doesn't seem so popular nowadays. The leaves can also be eaten. This packet of fried leaves was a bit like the fried 'seaweed' in Chinese restaurants.
Kannamadu, or tropical almond, has a taste and texture similar to almond, and looks vaguely similar, though long and thin rather than broad and flat. It grows on a large tree in a huge seed-pod, the size of a walnut shell. People collect them in hundreds and leave big trays of them out drying, and old men and women can quite often be seen sitting outside, placidly chopping the pods open with a kathi-valhi, a heavy local type of knife like a machete. If you want to get the nut out whole, there is a bit of a knack to this. Kannamadu are considered a bit of a delicacy, I suppose because of the effort involved in harvesting them. They are sometimes, as in the bag that I bought, glazed or mixed with sugar.
The strangest looking item I saw for sale in the market was banana flower. I'd have liked to get one for someone, but it would have been impractical, as they wilt quickly. Apparently they can be used in salads and the like.
The morning of my departure I took a taxi through the rain to the jetty, my bags stuffed with all my improbable purchases, and hurried awkwardly onto the airport ferry. Throwing together the last items in a hurry, I had suddenly wondered whether a jam-jar type twist-off metal lid is safe in the unpressurised hold of an aeroplane. Uncertain and short of time, I put the dhiyaa hakuru, and a jar of rihaakuru, in my hand luggage. Rihaakuru is the thick brown fish by-product somewhat like Marmite, and very much the last thing on earth you would want leaking all over your clothes and other possessions.
But in my hurry I forgot that, modern airport security being what it is, my bag would go through a machine at the airport designed to ensure that I don't have any 'liquids'. Both of these jars are 'liquids' within the meaning of the act, and the machine did not fail. 'You have some liquids in your bag,' said the polite but efficient security officer, and my heart sank as I suddenly realised what they were. But when I rooted around in my bag and found the rihaakuru and the dhiyaa hakuru, to say nothing of telulikeyo and bondi peeping out at every orifice, she could hardly help laughing. 'Are they presents?' she asked, sympathetically. She consulted briefly with a colleague, and told me that though I was not really allowed the jars, they would let me keep them this time.
Sitting in the plane as it started taxiing towards the runway, the rain still falling, I heard my Maldivian mobile phone ring for the last time. I didn't recognise the number. 'Hello? Who is this?' It was Moosa, the carpenter. 'Hello Moosa! I found a set of pieces!' Click! He had hung up. I suppose he was ringing with news of some other set - perhaps real or perhaps another wild goose chase. Hanging up abruptly was not a sign of pique, but of Maldivian phlegm. There are no formal niceties - no native words for hello or goodbye, or please or thank you. When there is nothing else that needs to be communicated they get up and leave, or hang up. It is a little unsettling at first, but it has its attractive side. I switched off the phone, and the plane edged out onto the runway.