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
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
A TOURIST at the jungle villa of St. Regis Vommuli.
LUXURY HOTEL ST. REGIS at Vommuli Island in the central western Maldives.
FAN QIANYI, the dive center coach at Vommuli.
BREAKFAST at Alba.