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opposite top left:
inside Soneva’s observatory.
opposite bottom left: the beauty of the Maldives’ night sky. left: sunset dining on the sandbanks at Soneva. below: Soneva’s open-air jungle cinema
Shameem turned to a Maldivian schoolteacher who knew the basics of astronomy. But it was not enough – Shameem’s knowledge had already out- stripped that of his tutor. Motivated, he immersed himself in learning to read the ever-changing patterns in the night sky above him.
One summer, his fortunes changed. He landed a job as a waiter at Soneva Fushi, an island in the country’s only UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It is a remarkably beautiful spot, made all the more special by the resort’s owners Sonu and Eva Shivdasani’s creativity and attention to detail. They were the pioneers of the Maldives’ now common- place ‘no news, no shoes’ barefoot-luxury ethos. And Soneva also had a number of other firsts: an open-air jungle cinema, chocolate room, treetop restaurant and ice cream parlour, all hidden down looping, sandy lanes. But the Shivdasanis wanted to go one better: to build the first astronomical observatory in the Maldives.
‘Sonu always wanted to do something differ- ent in the hotel industry and he and Eva are strong believers in astrology,’ says Shameem. ‘Because the island does not have a nightclub, DJ or karaoke in the evening, we were inspired by looking at the night sky.’
It was the inspiration Shameem needed. He joined the resort’s first visiting astronomer, Dr
Parag Mahajani from India, and began studying nightly from 11pm to 4am using the observatory’s telescope, cataloguing the constellations. During Dr Mahajani’s visit, Shameem was introduced to award-winning expert Professor Massimo Tarenghi. A 35-year veteran of the European Southern Observatory in Chile, ‘there is little about the night sky he doesn’t know, and I’m now his disciple,’ says Shameem. More recently he has struck up an unlikely friendship with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the Moon.
‘Buzz has been a regular guest at Soneva for the last three years,’ says Shameem. ‘He first came here when we hosted a special astronomical din- ner for him. We got chatting and he compli- mented me about my knowledge, it was such a remarkable thing for me. During his first trip, the last words he said to me were, “just keep looking”. And I still do, every day.’
Shameem and Soneva Fushi’s next project is their most ambitious yet. At this stage it’s all a little hush-hush, but the team are working closely with some of the world’s leading astron- omers and are in the midst of installing a pow- erful Meade LX600 telescope as part of an out-of-this-world luxury observatory on the new resort island of Soneva Jani, in the Noonu
Atoll. Unlike Soneva Fushi’s, the new observa- tory will not have a dome. Instead, it will have a dining platform with a telescope centred in the middle, with each table inlaid with a digi- tal screen where images of the night sky will be displayed via camera.
But that’s not all for Shameem. In April 2016, he will head off on a long-planned visit to the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, home to the world’s largest dark-sky reserve and the renowned ALMA observatory. It is a chance for him to get closer than ever before to his beloved stars, to experience how the best observatories in the world work, and to learn more about the bigger ques- tions of the universe.
All these new discoveries, fascinating as they are, will simply make Shameem’s job harder. He must keep learning, continuing to move obstacles near and far out of the way, doing what he has always done. As we return to the boat that night, making our way back to the resort, Shameem whispers, ‘It doesn’t get much better than this. Directly on the Equator you can see the North Star hanging low, the entire southern sky, and my favourite cluster, Omega Centauri. It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see.’

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