Highs and lows of liv­ing in par­adise

For those who visit the Mal­dives, par­adise will be tran­sient, but that ap­plies to many of peo­ple who work there as well

China Daily European Weekly - - Front Page - By ZHAO XU zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

For Cui Yan­bing, the fruit plat­ter on the ta­ble of the guest room is an apt metaphor for the ex­is­tence of those who live on the is­land of Vom­muli, in the cen­tral western Mal­dives, in­clud­ing hers.

“The fruit you see here comes from all over the world,” she says, point­ing to the lemon, plum and pas­sion fruit, none na­tive to the is­land coun­try.

Cui, who goes by her English name Ice, first came to the Mal­dives in Oc­to­ber 2013.

“It was part my own choice, part des­tiny,” says the 24-year-old, who was first hired by a photo stu­dio in Dubai in 2012.

“My job was to try to per­suade cus­tomers to pay for touristy pic­tures taken of them with, and some­times with­out, their con­sent. I hated the fact I had to be pushy all the time and asked to leave af­ter a mere six months.”

But it was not as easy as she had thought. The com­pany, which had paid her re­lo­ca­tion ex­penses, wanted its money back. “There was a sec­ond choice — to go to the Mal­dives.”

So she went. And de­spite hav­ing no ex­pe­ri­ence with a cam­era, she found her­self be­hind the shut­ter, snap­ping pic­tures for tourists, many of them Chi­nese.

The work con­tin­ued for some time be­fore Cui landed an­other job as a re­cep­tion­ist at a lux­ury ho­tel. When the St. Regis an­nounced its pre-open­ing last Oc­to­ber, Cui joined the team as the ho­tel’s only Chi­nese but­ler.

“In a way, I feel that I’ve been car­ried to the shore of the Mal­dives, and to Vom­muli, by the cur­rent of fate.”

Yet it has also been an up­stream swim — the po­si­tion of but­ler is con­sid­ered much more chal­leng­ing and is, of course, high­er­paid than that of a re­cep­tion­ist. Peo­ple come to the Mal­dives to re­lax and be free of wor­ries. But for those who are here for a liv­ing, the daily prob­lems, from over­com­ing lan­guage bar­ri­ers to bat­tling lone­li­ness, of­ten teem be­low the sur­face.

“My English vo­cab­u­lary was very lim­ited when I first came,” Cui says. “Now I have ab­so­lutely no prob­lem com­mu­ni­cat­ing with my English-speak­ing clients and col­leagues. The se­cret? Be­fore, I learned by brain; now I learn by heart.”

Apart from Cui, the St. Regis Ho­tel at Vom­muli has a guest ex­pe­ri­ence man­ager and a dive cen­ter coach who are also Chi­nese. The ho­tel’s spa has one masseuse who is Chi­nese Malaysian, and when I was there in early De­cem­ber, the ho­tel had also in­vited a Chi­nese chef from the St. Regis Shen­zhen to work with lo­cal chefs on Chi­nese cui­sine with a twist.

Xue Rui, the as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of St. Regis Ho­tels & Re­sorts, Greater China, says the ho­tel man­age­ment clearly has its high-end Chi­nese cus­tomers in mind.

“It’s true that the Mal­dives, the coun­try of a thou­sand is­lands, has myr­iad choices, and the bulk of Chi­nese cus­tomers still head for mid­dle-priced des­ti­na­tions. How­ever, we be­lieve in the po­ten­tial the Chi­nese mar­ket holds for lux­ury travel.”

Fan Qianyi, 37, is the Chi­nese dive cen­ter coach. A for­mer mer­chan­diser bit­ten by the travel bug, she de­cided to be a coach not long af­ter she learned div­ing. Over the past few years, the job has taken her to some of the world’s most beau­ti­ful beaches, from Thai­land and Malaysia to the Mal­dives.

“The Mal­dives is dif­fer­ent from all the rest, in the sense that the is­lands are all very sep­a­rated. The re­sult is a rather en­cap­su­lated way of ex­is­tence that can in some ways wear you down.”

Fan reck­ons that th­ese days there are about 60 Chi­nese div­ing coaches in the Mal­dives, of whom she knows about 25. “Since we live on dif­fer­ent is­lands we don’t see each other very of­ten.”

In­deed, friend­ships made in this part of the world are sub­ject to change from the very be­gin­ning, as Cui has learned over the past year or so.

“In the Mal­dives, we usu­ally have one ho­tel for one is­land. So a change of job usu­ally in­volves is­land hop­ping,” says Cui, who shares one bed­room with three of her work­mates at the St. Regis.

“When I went to Dubai, 10 girls from the same tourism school went with me. Three of us even­tu­ally came here. Now I’m the only one who’s still here.”

And Fan be­lieves that in the Mal­dives, the con­stant sense of flu­id­ity inevitably seeps into re­la­tion­ships that else­where would prob­a­bly have lasted longer.

“Ro­mance does blos­som here but is of­ten short-lived. I’ve seen as many mar­riages (of­ten in­volv­ing a for­eign woman and a Mal­di­vian man) end up as di­vorces. To be frank, the Mal­dives is prob­a­bly one of the most open Mus­lim coun­tries.”

Asked what she does in her spare time, Fan, whose con­tact with the wind and the sea is bur­nished on her face, smiles and says: “Gos­sip. This is a small place.”

Once ev­ery year she spends time with her hus­band, who in­tro­duced her to scuba div­ing, out­side the Mal­dives.

“He has only come here once, be­cause I need have to go some­where else.”

The cou­ple plans to mi­grate to Aus­tralia, where Fan can do scuba div­ing and more.

“For me, the Mal­dives is a free long hol­i­day; too long, I’m afraid.”

For Cui, who has an older brother, the pres­sure is mount­ing. “When I first left China, in April 2013, I promised my par­ents that I would re­turn within two years, a prom­ise that has been bro­ken.”

She went back to her home in He­nan prov­ince, cen­tral China, and stayed for about three months be­tween May and Au­gust last year. Her fa­ther un­der­went a minor op­er­a­tion.

“One thing that’s con­stantly on my mind is my par­ents’ med­i­cal ex­penses — they are OK now, but there may come a day when they need costly treat­ment. I’ve seen peo­ple left un­treated for fi­nan­cial rea­sons. And I de­cided that this is not go­ing to hap­pen to my par­ents.”

Al­most all the money she has earned in the Mal­dives has gone into her sav­ings ac­count, she says. The monthly in­come, in­clud­ing salaries and tips, is usu­ally be­tween 7,000 yuan ($1,022.7; 951.3 eu­ros; £822.7) and 10,000 yuan. “It’s eas­ier to save here be­cause you don’t have many places to spend on a tiny is­land.

“I’ve asked my par­ents to come, but they didn’t want to, wor­ry­ing about the cost. When they be­came aware that here we com­mute in boats and sea planes in­stead of buses, they be­came se­ri­ously wor­ried about me.”

With the full knowl­edge that in a few years she will be back in China — prob­a­bly her home­town, where a suit­able mar­riage and a sta­ble life awaits — Cui be­lieves that the Mal­dives has given her much more than bet­ter English and darker skin.

“My birth­day is in Oc­to­ber, so when my last birth­day came, I had just joined the St. Regis. I ex­pected noth­ing, but my work mates and friends gave me the big­gest sur­prise,” she says, beam­ing. “They hand­made a birth­day cake, sang Happy Birth­day to me in Chi­nese and, in a typ­i­cal Mal­di­vian way of cel­e­brat­ing a birth­day, threw me into the sea.

“This is go­ing to be my last stop in the Mal­dives.”

When Cui first left China, she was a sec­ondyear stu­dent at a Bei­jing oc­cu­pa­tional school for would-be tour guides.

“To be hon­est, at­tend­ing that school was more about pay­ing money for a cer­tifi­cate than about re­ceiv­ing a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion, so I quit as soon as the right op­por­tu­nity came up.”

What sounds like a nat­u­ral choice to­day must have been a bold move for a 21-year-old who had never been abroad be­fore.

The Mal­dives, de­spite its sooth­ing calm­ness, is in fact for dream­ers and risk-tak­ers, those who dare to live dif­fer­ently. Fan the div­ing coach knows all about that. “For the Mal­dives, each one of us is merely a pass­ing ship, but as we do so the ocean waves leave their mark. Un­der Mal­dives law you’re not al­lowed to take any­thing away from this coun­try, not even a tiny branch of dead coral. For me, a net full of mem­o­ries is more than enough.”

“We be­lieve in the po­ten­tial the Chi­nese mar­ket holds for lux­ury travel.” XUE RUI As­so­ciate di­rec­tor of St. Regis Ho­tel & Re­sorts, Greater China

ZHAO XU / CHINA DAILY

A TOURIST at the jun­gle villa of St. Regis Vom­muli.

PHOTOS BY ZHAO XU / CHINA DAILY; LIN XIAOL

LUX­URY HO­TEL ST. REGIS at Vom­muli Is­land in the cen­tral western Mal­dives.

FAN QIANYI, the dive cen­ter coach at Vom­muli.

BEA

WA

BREAK­FAST at Alba.

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