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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

It was my job to review $4,000 per night resorts...The good, the bad and the ugly sides of life in the Maldives

It’s been almost a year since I left my home and friends in the Maldives. Now there’s a sentence I could never have imagined writing 10 years ago, as I fought for my life at the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery in London. Perhaps it was my experience of being paralysed from head to toe by Guillain-Barre Syndrome and learning to walk again that inspired me to get out there and try to wring every last drop of excitement and adventure out of life. 

When you’re flooded with an overwhelming appreciation for simply wriggling your toes for the first time in months, or taking a tentative breath without a ventilator, the concept of ‘living in the moment’ isn’t too hard to get your head around. (Eckhart Tolle has this covered better than I do!) But I don’t like to linger on it too much, in fact I rarely even tell anyone about it. Mostly because I don’t want to think of myself as a victim. It changed me internally forever and I have taken some very positive lessons from it, the biggest one being to suck the marrow out of life.

I’m trying to seek out an extraordinary path and not fall into the trap of mediocrity or complacency. I hate how pompous that sounds when I read it back to myself (well, I suppose that’s always the danger with personal blogs…) but I know there’s so much more I want to achieve. And I know it requires continuing to push myself out of my comfort zone. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many amazing places (and because I know there are so many more out there still to see!) but I don’t feel completely settled anywhere yet.

At 16, the French Riviera - the bright, sunny home of the impressionist artists I admired so much - seemed like the ultimate destination for me, and I finally realised this dream last year. But since then I have explored more of the world, from Europe, to Asia, Australia and North America...And I’ve found that wanderlust is one condition you can never entirely rid yourself of! What’s more, now l’m looking at this region through adult eyes, I can safely say Somerset Maugham completely nailed it in one sentence: ‘The French Riviera – a sunny place, for shady people’. 

But back to the Maldives, and my somewhat neglected little blog. I was so busy writing articles, scuba diving, organising social events (OK, and being paid to write other people’s blogs) that I barely had time to touch my own personal blog. However, the past year in France has offered me the opportunity to reflect on my time in the Maldives. Right now, I’m based in Nice and it’s the breathing space I needed. A much-desired dose of the First World after living on an isolated island in the middle of the Indian Ocean for almost six years. Alright, where I was paid to review $4,000 per night resorts.

So of course all my new friends in France always ask me incredulously ‘And you left the Maldives – why?’. Well, of course I know how ridiculously fortunate I was to be able to do all the things I did there. Especially since I left the UK at the peak of the economic crisis, as friends and family were being made redundant, and being a freelance journalist in London was even harder than ever, with budgets being cut and publications going under left, right and centre.

Suddenly I found myself learning to scuba dive, swimming with whale sharks, booking private islands for parties with my friends, helping cover the 2012 coup d’etat, observing a fledgling democracy descend into chaos, spreading news about how to navigate 1,200 islands as an independent traveller in a country with only a basic public transport network…I had some of the most incredible experiences of my life in the Maldives. I also met some of the warmest, friendliest, most adventurous and fascinating people in the world amongst the Maldivians and 
expats I befriended there.

It was a massive learning curve, suddenly finding myself working in a country I had never visited before, adapting to the local customs and culture, trying to figure out the best way to dress in the city in order to avoid being stared at (it turns out there’s no simple answer to that!)…Bali, it is not. And perhaps unsurprisingly, a certain percentage of the population is actively hostile to decadent little expats setting up shop there.

There was little in the way of entertainment, save endless hours in coffee shops and watching DVDS, so we made our own fun...

And we REALLY had fun!

I did not ever live at a resort, I've just been lucky enough to have been able to review about 75 - 80% of them (so far). Everyone at home seems to think all the expats in the Maldives live in straw huts and sip cocktails on the beach all day. The reality could not be further from this. These are some
significant downsides to living in the Maldives, which people going on holiday to the perfectly-manicured resorts with all the comforts of home would never get to see. The overcrowded and polluted capital city (where most expats are based) is basically the opposite of what you picture the Maldives to look like: More than 100,000 people packed onto a 2.2 square kilometre island. Concrete high-rise blocks completely devoid of architectural inspiration. It makes Tower Hamlets look pleasant. Rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes. One cinema. One museum. Until recently, just one (artificial) beach where you can only swim fully clothed, due to cultural sensitivities in this 100% Muslim nation. (Most tourists aren’t even aware of the state-enforced religion, as the laws are different on resort islands to the island communities). 

Poor nutrition - due to most decent produce being redirected to resorts, and lack of space for large-scale agriculture. All the veg needs to be flown/shipped in from other countries before languishing in some kind of fruit and vegetable graveyard in the shops. (I got used to cutting about a third off anything I bought because it was rotten). Poor health: Dengue fever, fungal foot infections due to humidity, UTIs from dehydration, ‘tropical flu’ (I don’t know the real name but you lie in bed sweating for about 3 days and feel like you’ve been hit by a bus). 

Desalinated shower water which makes you hair slowly fall out. Too much tuna in everything you eat in the cafes which I swear makes everyone eventually go a bit bonkers due to the mercury and plastic particles. Fully-grown expat guys who don’t seem to realise it’s not Ibiza and they’re not 18. Wrestling with trying to convey the sights and colours of the islands without despising yourself for using clichés, but eventually being forced to type the words ‘azure’ and ‘turquoise’ in reference to the water a thousand times more than you would ever have wanted to…(I’m still haunted by ‘sparkling lagoons’ and ‘powder-soft sand’, although those day-dreaming of the Maldives from somewhere grey lap it up, and let's face it, they do sparkle, and yes it is that soft!). And then the little things you take for granted at home like being able to cook a spaghetti bolognese in your kitchen whilst drinking a glass of wine – which is totally illegal in the capital city. The wine I mean, obviously. And let’s not even speak about bacon smuggling.

Admittedly, some of those things I mentioned are weightier than others. And I have to reiterate how grateful I am to have experienced everything I did there, good and bad. I tell anyone who asks me that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say was the best of times and the worst of times. The euphoria of jumping off the roof of a boat into the sea with your friends; bouncing on a bed with a bottle of champagne at Four Seasons (in a villa that would have cost the equivalent of my monthly salary if it weren’t a work freebie); and the feeling of absolute isolation and blackness whenever things went wrong so far from the usual support network I have at home. I am not Maldivian but my life there and the people I met became part of who I am now.  

However, ultimately, as a foreigner, I am not allowed to purchase property in the Maldives (the only exception is certain ‘timeshares’ at designated resorts - and sadly my name isn’t Roman Abramovich!). I cannot ever become Maldivian unless I convert to Islam (with the law as it stands) and that’s not about to happen. And to be honest, having lived in London for 10 years and experiencing all the effervescence of its theatres, live comedy, art galleries, museums, bars, nightclubs and fashion (oh God I missed shopping!), I could never see the Maldives as somewhere to stay forever. 

The same goes for most of the expats: A significant proportion arrive in the Maldives and stay for only somewhere between 1 week and 3 months before bailing (having realised it’s not exactly Koh Pha Ngan, and yes it is a lot tougher than they had bargained for). The majority tend to stay for an average of a year; sometimes up to two. Then
there are a tiny percentage who are in it for the long-haul, but they are mostly the ones who marry Maldivians. The numbers tend to fluctuate from year to year - sometimes a heap of expats arrive, other years just a slow trickle. So after one of the most recent mass exoduses, I found just myself and a handful of friends remaining in the Maldives, such as the brilliant journalist JJ Robinson (who has recently been speaking at the Hay Festival about his book on political turmoil in the Maldives; less well-known for stealing my Milo chocolate powder and eating it raw with a spoon when we were flatmates).

But eventually even JJ departed to become editor of Himal Southasian journal in Kathmandu (after 5 years); my Thai best friend headed off for a new life with her fiancée in Australia (after 7 or 8 years off and on), my Californian best friend found a yoga instructor course in Costa Rica beckoning (after 4 years)…And by 2015 there were very few ‘long-service medal expats’ left in the Maldives. My remaining close friends were some Maldivians (who ended up relocating to some far-flung resort islands to be butlers and guest relations officers), and a rag-tag assortment of foreign seaplane and wheel plane pilots who were for the most part A) Extremely kind and welcoming and B) Largely batshit crazy. I’ll never forget persuading them to dance on the wings of the seaplane for my YouTube tribute to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ song. 

I rarely write about about personal things, not even on Facebook, but this post will be one of the very few occasions. Partly to explain my shameful lack of activity on my blog, and also to explain my backstory. One thing I know for sure, the Maldives is still part of my life. I’m genuinely honoured to be flown back to the Maldives to be ‘writer in residence’ for the Kurumba blog, to write magazine articles on diving, and hopefully to soon work on a travel documentary, amongst the other things I have on the go.

So I will be there again from time to time to update people on what’s going on, and continue to write about the things I know and love. My Maldivian friends very rarely ever say goodbye to each other, because everyone knows they will eventually run into each-other again on the island. And as the world seems to get smaller every year, I think that’s really apt.

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