After six months in Maldives, I finally had my first visit to a resort. Too bad it was only for a couple of hours in the company of 55 Travel & Tourism students.
Kuredu is about 40 minutes by launch from our island, but a world away in every other sense – literally eye-opening for many of these students from a conservative Islamic community, with their first impression being how little clothing some guests wear (especially the ones with bodies you’d prefer to be covered up a bit more – yes, large German couple, I’m talking about you).
When I was down south in Gaafu Alifu I never met a local who’d been to a resort, even though there were a couple nearby, because they source all their labour and supplies directly from overseas. Here the business model has much more benefit to the local community. They prefer continuity of employment and several of their managers are locals who started as cleaners 20 years ago. Their presentation to students focused on employment options and encouraging students to work towards a career in the resort – very refreshing to hear, as young adults I met down south told me how they feel trapped on an island with no future.
I found out why my island has a rubbish dump when many others don’t. The Dive Centre manager explained to the kids: “People from all over the world spend thousands of dollars to come here and swim in your beautiful oceans and dive on your amazing reefs. They don’t want to swim with your garbage. That’s why our resort manages the dump on your island and our barge comes to take the rubbish away. We need you to help by not dumping stuff in the sea, because keeping the beaches and reefs clean and beautiful will secure your community’s future.”
The dive guy offered to come to our island and give the kids free snorkelling lessons. He asked who had ever been snorkelling and seen live coral: no-one except me, not even teachers or parents. He asked who could swim a bit, because that was a prerequisite for the snorkelling lessons: six hands, boys only. It’s so sad that in the few weeks I’ve been here, I’ve seen more of the amazing environment that surrounds this island than most of the people who’ve lived here all their lives.
On the launch ride home, kids tossed their empty bottles into the sea.
The local musos I have been playing with got an audition gig at the staff club on the same resort island. They’re great players, especially the front man who sings like Bob Marley and channels Clapton guitar solos. The middle of every song is very good, but they’ve never bothered with intros or endings or having a set list. I pushed them to prepare for the audition by planning the sets and working out some arrangements but it was hard work.
The gig started with resort staff arriving at the practice room to carry all our gear to their launch. While they stowed it on board, the band headed for the top deck and reclined royally on couches. At the resort, the gear was delivered to a nice little stage they’d set up beside the pool. We got the ancient PA going without too much drama, but during sound-check I broke one of the equally ancient bass strings. Major problem. The nearest spare is in Male’.
The locals don’t carry spares of anything. Preventative maintenance is unheard of; risk management is based on the principle of “Insha’ Allah” – “God willing.”
A brief detour: My colleague Peter’s ferry commute to Male’ passes a submarine that takes tourists down to the reef. I asked if he was going to try it. His response: “Are you kidding? You’ve seen how they do maintenance in this country!”
Back to the gig: I’ve tried to resurrect broken bass strings before but never succeeded. However this time, because I had a pair of pliers and a local guy had dexterity, we got the bass going again. No such luck when the lead guitar broke a string in the first song of our set, but Ibbe’ played on convincingly and the resort has offered the band some work.
We were given dinner while staff lugged our gear and then we relaxed under the stars for a launch cruise through the islands back to Hinnavaru. I tried to tell the guys that rock-star treatment like this is not typical in the music scene – that my trip home from a gig usually involves junk food and bad coffee to keep myself awake as I drive down the motorway soaked in sweat in a car overloaded with gear that I lugged myself… but they don’t believe me.
One Thursday afternoon, some of the Indian teachers said they’d been planning to spend a night on a resort, and invited me to join them. I said, “Sure, which weekend?” and they said, “We’ll see you at the boat harbour at six o’clock.” I thought it was only Maldivians that had that sort of long-term planning.
We took a speed boat to Kuredu. As we arrived, damp and bedraggled after a rough crossing, I got the impression we weren’t expected. I asked who had made the booking: no-one had, it wasn’t necessary. Then they delegated me to negotiate our accommodation. Thanks guys. Fortunately the security guy at the jetty remembered me from the band gig, so at least we got ashore.
I waited a long time for various levels of staff to phone each other a few times. Then I was taken to reception where I spoke to more people until finally the accommodation manager came out and introduced himself. He was very nice and told me that he’d love to have us all stay any time that we give him 24 hours notice. However there was no way he could give us rooms tonight and we should leave. Right now.
So we sat on the jetty, watching fabulous big fish chasing little fish that had come to the light, until we could hitch a lift home on the staff dhoni. I could have felt annoyed, but I really didn’t have any other plans for the evening and I guess you could classify this as an adventure.
And when we got back to Hinnavaru they bought me dinner, so all is forgiven.
There was a risk of violence during the Presidential election. We had an Australian volunteers’ team gathering coming up so our bosses decided to manage the risk by bringing it forward and holding it in a ‘secure location’ over the weekend. Finally, I was at a resort as a guest!
As I said earlier, these places are a different world – so different that the government classifies them as ‘uninhabited’ islands. This is a convenient way to get around the nation’s Islamic law and allow tourists the beer/bacon/bikinis that are illegal for locals. Dogs are illegal too. I wondered whether the resort might have a friendly one to share my morning walk like I found in Thailand but no such luck.
Another brief detour: There were two dogs in the Maldives for while. They were employed as drug-sniffers at the airport, but they had the misfortune to sniff drugs in the luggage of a senior politician so they were immediately diagnosed with rabies and had to be put down.
The resort had many of the things that I’ve been missing all year – every kind of fruit & vegetable; real coffee; other beverages that helped when the Australian election result came through; a bed that didn’t smell of mildew; beautiful clean beaches and undamaged coral reef. But the thing I enjoyed most was long conversations with people who shared the same first language. Everyone I work with in the schools has English to some extent, but none are native speakers and communicating is such hard work. Conversations tend to be at a superficial level because there is not enough shared language to deal with complex issues.
It was great to catch up with the other AusAid volunteers. You meet interesting people in this role. All our projects are in some aspect of education – currently there are four of us working in the atolls as teacher trainers. The rest are at the new university in Male’:
- a Professor of education developing HR programs, grappling with issues of ethics and accountability;
- a surgeon/public health expert creating a Masters in Public Health course in a country where hospitals and clinics often have no trained nurse or doctor;
- a political scientist developing programs in – you guessed it – at a time when the first democratically-elected President has recently been toppled in a coup and an earlier corrupt dictator still holds sway in the parliament and courts;
- a counsellor/mental health professional creating courses in a field where virtually nothing exists;
- finally, the new guy designing open learning programs that are so necessary in this scattered collection of islands.
The Presidential election went well, generally free and fair and without violence. The previous President (the one forced out in last year’s coup) was clear leader with 45% of the vote but not the 50% required for a first-round win, so the top two candidates will have a second round vote in three weeks. The potential for trouble is deferred until then ( the governing party have said they won’t hand over power, even if they lose), but we’re not likely to get another resort weekend out of it. Especially after seeing the new Australian government’s plan to hack the AusAid budget.
We were relaxing by the resort pool on election day, having a few beverages and dissecting the Australian results. Someone said, “If the Murdoch press got a photo of us here, imagine the headline! The rest of the AusAid budget would be gone by Monday.”