WORLD REPORT: DEEP WATER
The Maldives has long set the bar as the ultimate honeymoon destination, but little is known about the people who belong to this salt water paradise. We take a look behind the glittering veil of this Islamic nation, and dive deep into the lives of two wom
Maldives: Behind the facade of this fantasy playground, paradise is never far from hell
There is never a moment of silence in Male’, the capital island of the Maldives. The constant hammering and buzzing from construction sites can be heard round the clock. Residents skilfully manoeuvre through and around the waves of motorbikes zooming in and out the narrow roads. Small children are transported to school strapped front and centre on to vigilant parents on roaring scooters, faces shielded by glittering mirrored sunglasses, fingers dancing on the newest iPhone without a minute to spare. Unlike the smaller local islands, Male’ is a melting pot of mismatched ideologies. Women in crimson lipstick and power stilettos, teenagers in skintight jeans and colourful hijabs walk along the same thin pavements as women in silky waves of black abayas and niqab. The diversity in style ranges from New York to Saudi Arabia. Every face is etched with the deeply personal politics of this small nation. Everyone knows something about everyone—from extended family gossip and love affairs to health problems, everyone in Male’ is a familiar stranger. More than 150,000 people live cramped together in small apartments on less than six square kilometres of land on this floating microcosm in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
From the air, the islands glisten like jewels spilled onto blue silk, but for the people who belong to this saltwater paradise— there is a growing anxiety for what the future holds
A stark contrast from what the estimated 1.5 million people who visit the island nation each year experience. Tourists are rushed from the airport island to their respective hotels, each on a self-contained island. Butlers standby to cater to their whims while they enjoy the perfectly manicured powder white beaches and pristine blue waters in the proud Maldivian tradition of creating bespoke luxury escapes. Sitting on the back patio of a safari boat, I talk to Sarah, a 25-year-old dive instructor. She left her island in the northern tip of the archipelago at the age of 18 to work as a hostess in a resort. “You meet all kinds of people; the world is so much bigger than what we see here.” She smiles, as she ties her curly long hair back revealing her face to the salty breeze, her deep bronze skin glistens in the hard sunlight. It’s not hard to see how her playful nature made it impossible for her to remain indoors behind a desk. She tells me how when she started diving she was seen as a novelty and often challenged to prove her ability in the heavily male dominated environment. My heart skips a beat as the words roll out of her with the force of a monsoon wave. In many ways she is shattering the glass ceiling in Maldivian culture. Not only is she thriving in a typically masculine profession, but she is also the primary breadwinner in her family. Sarah’s mother passed away from breast cancer two years ago. “We took her to India for treatment, but it was already too late. I wish we could have known sooner; maybe she would still be here today or at least suffered less than she did. We are from the inner islands and we have to work twice as hard just for basics like health care. We had to bring her to Male’ and rent an apartment where my sister Mariyam stayed with her for several months before we even knew what was wrong with her. We took her to India eventually and she was diagnosed there. My father is old and can’t work anymore. He stays on the island with Mariyam, who works as a primary school teacher. I have to take care of them because they depend on me.”
I ask her what she is working towards now. “I want to travel and see the world, I want to get a degree in hospitality, so many things!” Her smile fades as she recomposes her face to a more serious expression. “For all these things, I need more money than I have right now. My family means everything to me and I want to be able to take care of them first.” Most islands in the Maldives still do not have adequate medical facilities, and although most atolls have a central hospital which people on nearby islands commute to, 99 percent of the nation is sea and the cost of transportation is high and critically dependent on the weather. These health centres typically lack basic necessities and are staffed with general doctors from India. Medical tourism is the norm for holiday seasons and those who can afford it go to neighbouring countries. In peak season Sarah leads the dive centre at a seven-star resort, travelling through every shade of blue with millionaires and celebrities. In low season she returns to her island taking occasional stints with local guesthouses catering to budget holiday makers. “I can do many things.” She confidently sits up and looks me in the eye. “Some days I’m a waitress, some days I run the whole place but I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make a better life for myself.” The contrast of her two worlds seems surreal but she is cool and collected. She embodies all the qualities of a free woman standing strong in her own conviction. Her charisma and ease in conversation give no indication of her troubles. With the notion of danger and rawness still bleeding through her words, she flashes a big smile and offers to show me around the massive vessel. Looking at Male’ on the horizon my heart sinks in the realisation that behind the facade of this fantasy playground; paradise is never far from hell.
The high demand for property has created a sharp crease in the social fabric of the country. Years of centralised development focused on Male’ has led to the influx of people migrating from inner islands in search of higher education for their children and better-than-nothing healthcare. For the youth there is little to do in Male’ and coffee culture reigns supreme with trendy cafes attracting hipster teens and the working class alike. Drug dealers and Islamic fundamentalists lurk in the narrow roads and especially around schools ever ready to open the gates to their specific utopias for anyone in enough despair to try. Two artificially constructed beaches for local use with a strict dress code leave little outside a casual dip in the water with insufficient circulation and waste pipes on the rim of the recreation areas.
Looking at Male’ on the horizon my heart sinks in the realization that behind the facade of this fantasy playground; paradise is never far from hell.
Raalhugandu, a popular surf spot has been wiped clean to make way for a Chinese funded bridge between Male’ and Hulhule Airport Island that connects to the suburb of Hulhumale’; an artificial island modelled on Singapore. A place that is slowly becoming a well-groomed favela in disguise, for those seeking relief from the weight of Male’.
The psychological toll is hard and heavy and social tolerances have had to expand to accommodate the fury of people’s frustration and depression. Unlike the previous generations of islanders who grew up playing in the ocean and collecting shells by the beaches, children today have no space to play outside; their parents are busy working and are usually left in the care of maids from Nepal or the Philippines. Ipads and Nintendo switches keep them occupied between their busy schedule of school and tuition classes.
Those who inherited land on Male’ before the influx have leased their homes long-term, and migrated for a better life to neighbouring countries in Asia and elsewhere in the world. The generation of intellectuals who set sail for a western education in the ‘90s declined to return, and in similar fashion the younger generation who get any opportunity to escape choose not to return to a nation rocked by political instability, climate change, religious fundamentalism and economic hardships. Unemployment is high and doors only open with the right connections and pedigree. Survival in Male’ comes down to pure grit and sheer determination to do whatever it takes to milk the hustle.
Of the many ironies that polarise people’s private and public lives, the most painful one is how much they invest in their public image. With an ‘everything’s alright’ attitude being seen as doing well and able to afford small luxuries like new gadgets, beautiful clothing and Instagrammable holidays take precedence over the complexities of housing. Suffering is a very private affair.
In a small apartment in central Male’ I speak to Khadheeja, 27 and a divorced mother of three small children. We sit under a turbulent ceiling fan in the thick humid air laced with dust from the neighbour’s construction site. Wiping away sweat from her face with her hijab she tells me she cannot afford to make rent on her own where she is or go back to live with her family as there is simply no room in their rented apartment. She married her childhood sweetheart from the small island of Uligan in the north and moved to Male’ where he promised a better life for their young family. He left soon after the birth of their third child when she did not agree to him taking on a second wife. Khadheeja’s mother supports her by taking care of the children for now while she goes to work but it is not enough, and she will need to find a way to get a second income to support her household. With the average national salary at a mere US$350, living independently is a dream for most. The average one-bedroom apartment costs over US$900 per month excluding utilities and is usually shared by up to four to five people, sometimes as many as 10 people within the extended family may live in the micro-apartments sleeping in shifts and splitting the costs. Few are lucky to afford the means to live independently after marriage.
Almost all food is imported, as there is no such agricultural industry, and with new franchises like Burger King and Pizza Hut creeping up on the shores, people choose western junk food as a sign of affluence despite the heavy tax it has on the health of the younger generation. Close living quarters has led to a complex social dynamic within families and among neighbours. Sexual abuse of children is prevalent though still taboo and rarely talked about in public; zero privacy, domestic disputes and divorce are a way of life here. People grow up with a heavy emphasis on land as a path to a better life, sometimes going as far as strategically picking a partner with land inheritance in Male’. Land ownership or education are the only paths to a secure future with little option to new gateways for the youth. A culture of getting married before learning to manage finances, emotions and social pressures add to the many reasons that contribute to the high divorce rate. Although the Maldives has one of the
highest divorce rates in the world, if you are a woman it is not easy to get a divorce under the Shariah law. It is a long, costly and painful process that leaves many women emotionally and financially vulnerable and stigmatized by incredibly close-knit communities with little or no choice but to re-marry as soon as they can. It has also become common for men to take up to three wives at once, a fairly new custom that migrated to the historically liberal isles with the golden hand of Middle Eastern investment and influence in the past decade.
From the air, the islands glisten like jewels spilled onto blue silk, but for the people who belong to this saltwater paradise— there is a growing anxiety for what the future holds. What was once a charismatic Lego land of buildings is now a miniature slum with sun-bleached paint and fatigued buildings. As money gets tighter cosmetic repairs are the least of people’s worries. It will take a long time if ever to fix the housing crisis in the Maldives within the complex web of education, healthcare and a decent quality of life. On the horizon, cranes move about as scaffolding is put up and taken down like a real-life hyper-lapse. Taller, bigger buildings emerge every few months, the ground shakes as old homes are pulverised to make way for new developments. Land reclamation continues so far out on to the edge of the reef that Male’ looks like it could sink into the deep blue that creeps up closer to it with every wave. Women like Khadheeja and Sarah bear the brute force of endless politically motivated policies that linger in the shadows of one of the world’s most opulent luxury honeymoon destinations.
A early morning women’s water aerobics class by the artificially constructed beach of Ransfanu in Male’.
Saleema, mother of twelve stands outside her closet-kitchen door in her bedroom. She lives with all her grown children who have sectioned out the property and made self-contained apartments within the main house. Each micro studio apartment houses a couple and three to four children. Sometimes, relatives from their islands who come to see the doctors in Male’ will stay here for a few weeks.