Our arrival in the tiny island nation of
the Republic of the Maldives was something of a disaster. Unlike the rest of
the European tourists on package holidays, we had no idea where we were
going and no guidebook to help us out. The immigration men in green uniforms
wouldn't stamp our passports unless we identified where we would be staying
on our embarkation cards. "Just
go out there," said the pimply-faced twenty year old official,
"there is a tourist booth." No
one was in the tourist booth, but a young hustler named Abdul in reflective
sunglasses and Calvin Klein jeans accosted us and told us he'd give us a
really great deal. My rule of
never dealing with teenage hustlers was temporarily suspended, since the
scrawled name of the resort on the back of a sweat-logged business card gave
a temporary destination for the customs officials.
The Portuguese were pushed out of the
Maldives in 1563, Sultan Shamsuddeen III was deposed in 1936. But now this tiny country made up of tiny coral islands has
been recolonized by sunburned Europeans.
Abdul's giant book of resorts in the Maldives made it clear that our
desert island fantasy was just an illusion.
If it had ever existed, by now our fantasy island had certainly been
infested with sunburned Germans on package holiday jaunts.
Since no motorboats were available,
Abdul arranged a slow but reliable dhoni for us at an outrageous price. Stupid us. We
thought the Maldives were going to be cheap, but it turns out that this
atoll nation is the Switzerland of the Indian Ocean.
The coral island that we landed on, Thuligiri, looked like a Robinson
Curusoe set. The beaches were
pristine white and powdery, the coconut trees languorously leaning over the
surf, and the water turquoise blue. Club
Med relocated because it wasn’t big enough.
Oh, the shame to have touched foot on a property owned by Club Med!
The former Club Med island contained a swimming pool, air conditioned
huts, a Friday night disco and hundreds of German tourists on holiday-safari
booked through a travel company called Tui, which specializes in exotic
resort destinations for middle class sun-deprived Germans.
This was not what we had in mind.
Abdul, once we finally caught him on his
mobile phone, was nice enough to arrange a boat to take us to a more
"primitive" island. The
Maldives is composed of about 1000 islands, of which eighty are resorts and
another two hundred are inhabited by native Malidvians who fish and drink
Coca Cola all day under the shade of coconut palms. The
rest of the islands are inhabited by rabbits.
Although the government prohibits private ownership of land, the vast
majority of the resorts on the islands are owned by foreign capital; Asdu
Sun Island where we eventually landed is one of the few resorts actually
owned by Maldivians.
Contrary to the overall trend towards
adding as many amenities as possible, the owners of Asdu, Ahmed Ismail and
Abida Ibrahim, have decided not to develop the island.
"In the Maldives," says Michelle Ismail, the British
educated daughter of the owners, "there is always tension between the
desire to develop and the need for ecological and social preservation.
But we think that this is what people want.
In ten years, all the big resorts will go back to a more primitive
style. Europeans want to escape
civilization after all."
But they don't want to give it up
entirely. Asdu, like many of the Maldive resort islands has been colonized
by Italians, who spend all day lying in the sun like giant pink-skinned
lizards. At night they drink wine imported from Tuscany and listen to
opera over the loudspeaker as the tropical monsoon pours outside.
Charmingly, Italian tourists even bring their own olive oil with them
After about a week of scuba diving, ping
pong and squaking island birds, we were ready to leave.
Forget the fantasy island propaganda, it's really boring to live in a
tropical paradise. Especially
if it's a 100% Sunni Muslim tropical paradise.
"Okay, it's beautiful," says Abdul about life in Male, the
capital of the Maldives, "but there is no nightlife."
No discos, no drinking and no excitement.
If you're a young Maldivian and you want to party down, you've got to
take a water taxi out to one of the resort islands for about $100 round
trip. Urban fun is outside of
the price range of most Maldivians, which leaves fishing, card playing or
Islam as potential hobbies.
Lukas, the blue-eyed blonde haired
Polish dive master (a real poster boy for the masculine Slavic beauty ideal)
was another sufferer from severe boredom caused by island life.
In his case, though, it was compounded by a grim Slavic
there-is-only-suffering mentality. "After
about a week," he said lighting another unfiltered cigarette, "I
was ready to leave. It's not
like working in Egypt where you can go smoke hash with the Bedouin in the
desert when you get tired of scuba diving tourists.
Here you are stuck."