I didn’t realise until towards the end of my trip in the Maldives that this might be my first and last opportunity to see the country. I was touring some three-four islands out of the more than 90 that have been turned into paradisical tourist resorts. Of the remaining 1,250 islands, 358 are home to over three lakh Maldivians, while the rest remain mostly uninhabited.
There’s a conscious policy to keep hedonistic selfie-addicted tourists and old-fashioned locals on separate islands.
Hosting twice as many tourists annually as there are inhabitants — holiday-goers are a major source of tax revenue and forex, contributing a quarter of the GNP — has turned the Maldives from Asia’s poorest country four decades ago to one of its richest. So everything seemed good as I was ushered into my overwater bungalow (one of those on stilts in the ocean). Its seaview bathroom was bigger than my own home and the price for a night’s stay equals the monthly rent of the most luxurious apartments in Bengaluru where I live.
The super-luxury island (which I shall not name) is run by a staff of 250 (far outnumbering the handful of guests), who see to it that everything is perfect and the jungle so well-manicured that not a buzzing insect is spotted. It is extremely posh down to details such as customisable pillows with relaxing scents like bergamot; and the fridge is crammed with complimentary sparkling wine, which comes in handy as alcohol is not easily available in strictly Sunni Maldives.
During the days I snorkel in the coral reef under my villa and goof around with fish of all hues of the rainbow, including merry baby sharks, when I’m not eating Maldivian delicacies such as baraboa mashuni (pumpkin salad with shredded smoked tuna), garudhiya (fish broth), fathulin bai (coconut-stuffed fish fillets) and smoked fish sambol chutney, as well as Sri Lankan-influenced egg hoppers and curried jumbo prawns. Vegetarian food is rare since little farming happens on the tiny isles.
I’m reluctant to leave but can’t of course afford to stay after having completed the assignment (of writing about the Maldivian resort life for a fancy magazine), so after some island-hopping by hydroplane I get off in the petite capital Male, where not many tourists stay. To get to know the city better I check into its cheapest lodging house. Somebody on the floor above my room is unwell and undigested prawn curry rains on my windowsill.
Built on a rectangular island measuring one by two kilometres, it is possible to walk around all of Male in one hour, yet the town is home to a big chunk of the population, or 104,000 people to be precise, making it extremely crowded. Similar to the system that holds up the Marine Drive seawall in Mumbai, it is surrounded by a tetrapod defence to keep the land from flushing away into the ocean. The archipelago is a paradise with a use-by-date: the Maldivians who always looked to the Indian Ocean for business and survival, may, thanks to global warming, now consider the rising waters as a potential nemesis.
I discover all this as I sit and google in a cybercafé in Male. The highest mountain peak is roughly seven feet tall — earning the Maldives the unenviable honour of being the planet’s lowest country. Many of the smaller islands vanish at high tide and, according to estimates, the entire country will be mostly under water by 2100.
More drastic scenarios propose that this may happen earlier: maybe by 2070 or — with Donald Trump as an anti-environment president of the US — perhaps even as soon as 2020. The government plans to set aside part of its tourism income to buy land in Sri Lanka, Kerala, or Australia, and resettle the entire population when the end comes knocking.
Otherwise, Male is a miniature Manhattan of pastel-coloured high-rises that, instead of numbers, have names such as Mayflower next-door to Cauliflower. At the National Museum in the former sultan’s palace I see Buddhist relics from pre-Islamic days and, on another day, an underwater safari takes me to the bottom of the ocean.
However, there are no drinking dens, so at the end of the day one makes do with rough tea shops by the fishing harbour, where the rowdies hang out, and I sample plebeian snacks like fihunu mas (chilli-marinated barbequed fish), gulha (smoked fish balls), bajiya (fish pastries), keemia (fish rolls), kulhi borkiba (fish cakes), theluli kavaabu (fish croquets), and theluli mas (fried chilli-garlic fish). I share a table with a ruffian, Bilad, who groans, “In 50 years, this country will be gone.”
I say, “Yeah, I heard it’ll be submerged if global warming continues.”
“I mean corruption and drugs,” he says. Kids who don’t get well-paid jobs at the resorts end up using opium, LSD and brown sugar, and get pregnant in their teens, producing more junkies. Thinking people are thrown into jail, so youngsters turn to radical Islam. There’s been a number of attempted coups d’état that Bilad can recall. Listening to him, it feels like a revolution is around the corner.
So much for paradise, I think, as I shop at the STO People’s Choice, the state-run shopping complex. No souvenirs are locally produced, except smoked tuna pickle, which is what I fill my bags with, and I do suspect that there’s trouble in paradise.
Zac O’Yeahis a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist; firstname.lastname@example.org