If it wasn’t for the armed soldiers observing me and my companions as we step onto the jetty, I could be in paradise. The sky is a pure shimmering blue, the sand underfoot is soft and fine, the sea a crystal clear aquamarine teeming with life. A light breeze rustles through the palm trees, which offer shelter from the sweltering sky.
This is the military island of Girifushi and the soldiers looking at us, with a mix of slight disdain and bemusement, are likely ex-employees of the dictatorial regime who tortured the man we are all here to see. Later this week I will ask Mohamed Nasheed how he feels about being in charge of a military and a police force that used to oppress him – and his reply is typically surprising and positive.
Today the government of the Maldives will hold an underwater cabinet meeting in an attempt to draw the world’s attention to the perils of climate change – and position the Maldives as a front line state in the battle against global warming. I’m the odd one out. Everyone else here seems to be either a journalist (I meet cheery correspondents from Good Morning America and Al Jazeera) or an activist (like the fabulously named Susannah and Ya’acov Darling-Kahn who are behind sixbillionreasons.org – and who are also using their trip to the Maldives to take a 20 year overdue honeymoon). TV Maldives has turned a lagoon on the other side of the island into an underwater studio. Three metres underwater cameras are trained on a sub-surface arrangement of tables and national flags, carefully positioned around an outcrop of coral. In a tent on the shore TV executives hustle and bustle around banks of audio-visual equipment that feed them images and sound from the bottom of the lagoon. Their expressions betray excitement and national pride along with what I can only describe as the ‘I hope we don’t cock this up’ look.
Most people here will take in proceedings from the shore. After months of careful e-mailing with the president’s PR liaison (the impossibly youthful looking Paul Roberts) I’m lucky enough to be allowed to see the action from the water.
We’re briefed in the press area where everyone seems good natured except for a couple of press photographers who are demanding access to the water too. “Taking pictures of journalists is of no interest to me,” exclaims one grumpily, “so I must be allowed closer”. Later, as we bob about in the water while the president addresses the TV cameras amassed on the shore the same person will try and manhandle me out of his path saying, “if you’re not shooting can you just get out the way?” I’d say there are about 100 people on this island with one form of camera or another and only these two are being arsey. Paul later tells me these same photographers have turned up at the last minute and demanded to be allowed access to the event ‘because they had flown a long way’.
I’m kitted out with a mask, snorkel and fins while being briefed by the man who will be our escort in the water. Because none of the cabinet ministers will be able to talk during the event they are all following a printed ‘order of service’, which will guide them through their headline grabbing meeting.
1. President signals OK
2. Cabinet reply OK
3. President signals LOOK SLATE
4. Cabinet open manual page 3
5. President signals statement OK
6. Cabinet signal statement OK
7. President signs statement
8. Cabinet pass the slate one by one
9. President signals cabinet ascent
…and so on.
The statement in question, to be delivered taken to the Copenhagen Climate Summit in December, is printed on an underwater slate and calls for nations around the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions. I’m guessing everyone’s confident that the statement is OK. A late amendment motion could be tricky.
I’m taken to the waters edge and we dive in. It’s deliciously warm. As I come to the surface I’m struck by how incongruous and just brilliant my life at this moment is. I may be writing a book about the future, but right now I feel incredible. I know that when my time comes and my life flashes before me I will remember this. I’m grinning from ear to ear. Even the grumbling photographers who’ve managed to intimidate Paul into allowing them in the water make me smile. It’s strangely comic to observe them cajole and hassle our escort, demanding to be taken closer still to the meeting below us. It takes a special kind of skill to be fed up in these circumstances. It’s almost admirable. (In defence of the photographers I will later see their work and have to admit that being grumpy hasn’t affected either’s ability to take a fine picture).
I swim around the perimeter of the meeting avoiding scuba-clad cameramen and the wires that trail into the lagoon from the shore. It’s a bizarre experience, precisely because it is in many ways so, well, ordinary. Cabinet ministers pass the statement to each other in an orderly procession of aquatic cordiality, occasionally handing an waterproof marker to the person next to them who has just spend the last second or two looking around for theirs in the underwater equivalent of fumbling in your jacket. The familiarity of the exercise, I realise, is the thing that will make the event great TV. It is both ordinary and extraordinary simultaneously. Who isn’t intrigued by a government meeting taking place underwater? More people will tune in to watch this than they would to see someone battling a huge shark. Battling huge sharks is within the parameters of what we expect from the underwater world. Having a sit down to sign a governmental accord is not. It’s a brilliant piece of PR. (Hill and Knowlton take note). I warrant it’s the only time you’ll see an entire cabinet dressed in rubber and it’s not something to do with the Tory’s.
The fish seem largely unimpressed, darting around the coral as if having a bunch of cabinet ministers, a president, a brace of support divers, underwater camerapeople and some office furniture in the water is an everyday occurrence.
Everyone sticks to the order of service and there are no new motions, or dissent from the assembled rubber-clad dignitaries. Given that most of them had to take diving lessons to be here I suspect that the majority are keen just to get through the thing without drowning or making a tit of themselves.
The meeting lasts about 20 minutes. The ministers raise from their seats and begin to swim back to the lagoon’s edge. I find myself swimming just to the right and slightly above the president. He gazes my way and I must look startled because he makes the underwater signal for ‘Are you OK?’ I respond to assure him I am. I’m more than OK, but there isn’t a hand signal for ‘Bloody hell! I’m at an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives! How cool is that?!’
The party reaches the shore and I look up. A myriad of microphones and camera lenses stare back. The world’s press is clamouring for the best vantage point and is launching into a barrage of questions which Nasheed answers from the water, being careful to link the threat he sees to the Maldives with that faced by the rest of the world. There’s also some good-natured banter about the benefit of having a cabinet meeting where none of your ministers can talk, and whether underwater meetings might become a regular feature of the Nasheed administration. “The whole idea is that this doesn’t become a regular feature,” he replies.
It’s odd to be in the middle of international news event. I feel out of place bobbing around behind the president as the sun sparkles off the water, with possibly the biggest smile I’ve had on my face since I started this trip. It’s a delicious mix of politics, paradise and the thought ‘how the hell did I end up here?’ Subsequently my mug finds it way into the newspapers and websites of the world. There’s the president, patiently answering questions, and just behind him a grinning loon from New Cross, South East London who probably couldn’t answer the question ‘what is your name?’ at this moment.
As we climb out of the lagoon I conclude that not nearly enough cabinet meetings are held underwater. On the short walk to lunch the president is waylaid numerous times by journalists eager to grab some face time with him. I’m relaxed because my interview, scheduled for tomorrow, has been in the diary for months. Or so I thought.
Over lunch Paul, the PR liaison starts to use worryingly vague and expectation-limiting language. I’ll ‘probably’ get my interview ‘in the next two days’, it’s ‘usually’ not a problem, although the president ‘has a very full diary’. My confidence is not bolstered when Paul suggests it might be ‘helpful’ to say hello to president now ‘just so he knows who you are.’ Paul introduces me in a way that gives the strong impression this is the first time he’s told the Nasheed anything about me. I compliment the president on the day’s success and say I am looking forward to our interview tomorrow. He looks confused. ‘Are we having an interview?’ he asks.
In Paul’s defence, today has been a huge media exercise, perhaps the biggest international coverage in the news media the Maldives has ever had. The man from New Cross is no doubt way down the agenda, but nonetheless, I’ve flown over 5,000 miles for the single purpose of interviewing a man who it seems I may not get to talk to beyond 30 seconds of presidential bemusement and one underwater hand signal each. I express my concerns to Paul who assures me my interview will take place. ‘Call me tomorrow morning,’ he says. ‘We’ll see how things are looking then.’ None of this has a ring of certainty about it. A local journalist informs me that ‘this kind of thing isn’t uncommon out here. You’ve kind of got to roll with it.’ It seems like good counsel, not that I have much option, but if the situation prevails I may find myself having to adopt techniques recently showcased by arsey photographers… For now however, the sun in shining, lunch is good, people are smiling. There are worse places to be.