As a keen and experienced SCUBA diver, learner surfer and all round lover of the ocean, it’s been a dream to visit the Maldives. All the travel brochures flashing the same cliches and photos of Tropical Island Paradise. Sparkling warm oceans, great visibility, teeming with abundant marine life, clean white beaches, colourful coral and bountiful pelagics. Snorkel, dive, fish and surf till the sun sets for cocktail hour. It’s packaged and shrink wrapped bliss. Honeymooners mingle with the Rich and/or Famous, beautiful people all round, the holiday of your lifetime. Some wise old codger once said – “If it sounds too good to be true – it probably is”.
Stretching across 820 kilometers north to south and 120 kilometers east to west at its greatest width, this collection of 1,190 coral reef islands in the Indian Ocean, known as the Maldives, lies to the south west of Sri Lanka. Of these islands, only 200 are inhabited and 105 are “resort” islands. Approximately one third of the 350,000 citizens and 65,000 migrant workers live in the crowded capital of Male.
Marco Polo called the Maldives’ 26 atoll clusters “the flower of the Indies” – and he saw them only from sea level. I bet he had barrels of Rum on board as our experience seemed far from a blooming paradise, more like a paradox paradise.
Beneath the glossy veneer lies a part of Maldives that most sun worshipping demi gods on their Island style sojourn prefer not to be bothered with. Especially not when you’ve paid a hefty fee for the pleasure of a few nights in a glammed up condominium-styled bungalow, perched on stilts in the water, cheek by jowl with your Russian neighbour whose vodka driven bowel movements are bound to wake you in the middle of the night. Lets not even begin to contemplate where that all goes to.
For the near 1 million foreign tourists who visit the islands each year, their transition from airport arrivals to sea plane transfer, to pool lounger is so smooth that it could be a dream.
While resort life glides along according to the glossy brochure – eat, drink, dive and be pampered, most guests will meet very few of the 350,000 inhabitants other than staff at their resorts, who often are not Maldivian, but Indian, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and any other number of “European” origin.
Should you care to look beyond your empty cocktail tumbler and you may find that it’s far from the idyllic island lifestyle most people imagine. Many fail to notice a complex country with uncertain roots and a deep 900-year-old Muslim culture with fascinating, if uncertain historical origins, many of which are mostly lost in ancient history. However, archeological evidence suggests the existence of Hinduism and Buddhism before the country embraced Islam in 1153 A.D. There have also been deliberate attempts to destroy invaluable historical remains. On 12 February, 2012, the National Museum was stormed by a handful of men who then destroyed priceless Buddhist statues from the nation’s pre-Islamic era of over eight centuries ago, which “effectively erased all evidence of our Buddhist past” according to a senior museum official. Authorities banned footage of the aftermath, to prevent harm to the nation’s image.
Records indicate the islands to have been inhabited for over 5,000 years. Maldives being on an important trade route, has long been a melting pot for African, Arab and South East Asian mariners and was settled by people from all over the world, leaving the precise origins of the people enshrined in mystery.
Today the country seems to find itself in a conflict between embracing the impact and lifestyles of the modern world, while still striving to uphold their cultural identity, traditions and beliefs.
A country relying heavily on a global tourism market with a vastly different set of values, providing zones where wealthy locals and foreigners can splurge on their usual decadent lifestyle habits, whilst setting a different set of standards for locals living in non-tourist islands. Maldivian men working in resorts can ogle at the bikini clad foreigners sipping cocktails, freely sample the forbidden fruits from the cocktail menu, while a stone’s throw away their sister’s will be potentially lashed for daring to bare a bit of flesh on a public beach for fear of leading the men astray.
As it currently stands, the Maldives is a conservative Islamic state with stringent regulations on religion, social custom and found to be lacking in many “freedoms” taken for granted by it’s foreign visitors. The 2013 elections currently under way, seem to have the nation divided between a younger set, keen for change and social reform, including equal rights, freedom of religion, and decriminalization of same-sex relationships and others who resent modernization. The other half, prefer the conservative governance reluctant to change.
It is the only nation which legally prescribes and enforces homogeneity in religion.The 1997 Constitution designates Islam as the official state religion. Government interpretation is to impose a requirement that all citizens must be Muslim and must practice not only Islam, but a specific government version of Sunni Islam.
Non-Muslims are precluded from voting, obtaining citizenship, and holding public positions. The president is required to be a Sunni Muslim. Government regulations are based on Islamic law (Shari’a), in such a way that civil law is subordinate to Shari’a. Non-Muslim foreigners are prohibited from worshiping publicly, or from encouraging local citizens to participate in any religion other than Islam.
Foreigners are not allowed to import any items deemed “contrary to Islam,” including alcohol, pork products, or idols for worship, only resorts can supply alcohol. Devastating news for us at ChillieAndRum as all our efforts to bring along some Sri Lankan Arrack were shattered as we were staying on a local island as opposed to mingling with the “larnies” on the resorts neighbouring our little island. We could smell the cocktails being mixed at sundowner time and it took a lot of courage to set aside the temptation of risking a little “paddle” across. We debated the risky return swim after a Margharita or 6 and decided swimming in circles for a few hours in the dark would probably not be wise.
Yet, despite these stringent laws, juvenile delinquency and drug abuse are growing concerns for authorities.
Recently a shocking case against a 15 year girl charged with “fornication” and sentenced to 100 lashes, was highlighted in the foreign media, drawing attention to the lack of woman’s rights in the Maldives. She had been repeatedly abused by her step father, who had buried her baby that he had fathered. Yet she was the one charged. Only after Avaaz.org became involved in a petition gathering 2million signatures was this sentence revoked. Read more here.
Pollution has also long since been a growing problem, with the simplest solution for Maldivians to burn the rubbish. The inhabitants of the local island we were staying on, Thulusdhoo, seemed unconcerned about the issue. Rubbish is collected and taken to the “back end” of the island and burnt. A constant, smouldering heap of trash. I was hugely disappointed to see that the pathway leading across from the “surf camp” lodgings to the main surf break, “Cokes” was littered with rubbish. Plastics, polystyrene and tin cans paved the way for surfers walking past every day to get to their perfect wave. Nobody seemed to be too fussed. A general attitude existed of “Why collect it if there will be more washing up tomorrow anyway?” This from people who earn a living from the ocean and are meant to be lovers of this vital resource.
I wondered how the resorts went about doing their bit for the environment. Surely they would have some “green” plan in mind in dealing with the massive amount of plastics and other waste generated by their high flying guests? After all, if it’s paradise you’re selling then you’d want to ensure it remains that way for a few generations. Turns out that the garbage disposal is not an issue the paying customers should concern themselves with, so while you peacefully slumber in your stilted water suite, the barges are loading up the packaging remnants of your imported buffet dinner spread and cocktail excesses. The waste is then taken to Thilafushi island, also more commonly known as Rubbish Island, where mostly migrant workers labour away non stop at burning the trash. There seem to be a few half hearted government attempts at sending some of the trash to India where they have a better waste disposal management system in place and proper facilities for recycling tin and plastic.
A sad state of affairs for this island paradise. For a country whose main industries are tourism and fishing, there seems to be inadequate efforts from the government and the fat cat corporates to deal with the ever increasing pollution issue. They say the Maldives are “sinking”, I suspect they’ll be drowning in all their own trash before the water levels get high enough.
All these issues set aside though, lets hope the new Government to be elected soon will be more proactive and open minded to the needs of their people and their environment which is ultimately their livelihood, instead of only catering for the selfish needs of those wealthy enough to be buying anything money can.
Lets get back to a paradise for all not only a select few, at a cost to everyone else.