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Walking the Maldives’ superfine line between breathtaking ocean and glorious sand, it’s hard to imagine the end of the world
Story by Amanda Jones Photos by R. Ian Lloyd
he sunlight hits the gin-clear ocean and dances geometrically on the sandy floor around my feet. I’m standing in the world’s most beautiful water, the exact color of rare blue topaz. Behind me, a graceful, palm-lined arc of blindingly white sand stretches to a thin peninsula, not a footprint on it. I’m alone here, but this remote paradise is under siege. The peril that threatens the Maldives reads like a Vonnegut plot: An island chain in the middle of nowhere defines the stuff of human dreams — sugar sand, crystal water, caressing breezes, fruit-laden trees and exotic fish. The peaceful locals do their best to live in harmony with nature. But average elevation on the islands is four feet above sea level. You can stand on a chair and summit the entire nation. Meanwhile, the multitudes go on burning fossil fuels worldwide. Air and water temperatures go up; ice begins to melt. And the oceans, which cover most of this midsize planet, rise. If current trends continue, millimeter by millimeter over the next hundred years or so, the tide will swallow the island nation, leaving only legends. A small minority of pundits claim climate change is a myth, but we can’t bank on them being right. And now that I’m here, knee-deep in the amazing blue, it seems outrageous that we’d even risk letting this and the planet’s other remaining jewels disappear due to our own behavior. Yet I come knowing full well that my old friend Sally Tagg and I jetting halfway around the world to stand here adds to the problem. So can we justify visiting a place if traveling there contributes to the problem that threatens it? Perhaps we can if seeing it helps us save it. Conscious of the paradox, I check into the Soneva Gili by Six Senses, the first of three resorts we’ll be staying at. Six Senses walks the walk when it comes to green hospitality. And they buy carbon credits to offset guests’ flights. But I admit, looking out from the upper-floor deck of our overwater villa — the scene before me like a Wim Wenders dream sequence, all blue and shimmery, hot and slow — I do find it challenging to remain focused on carbon footprints. It’s easier to listen to Waheed, our handsome, sarong-wearing villa host, explain how to operate the cappuccino machine. Waheed doesn’t seem too concerned about global warming. “But aren’t you worried that all this might wash away one day if we go on polluting the world?” Sally confronts him in her unvarnished way, snapping me back to reality. “I don’t know, madam,” he says earnestly. “I do not think you need to worry about it right now. We are taking measures.” Soneva Gili epitomizes eco-chic, built entirely of sustainable materials like bamboo and palm wood. The resort employs solar energy and waste-to-methane power, grows its
With breathtaking seas everywhere, seaplanes fly guests to remote resorts in the archipelago, including Banyan Tree Madivaru (left and preceding page) and Soneva Gili by Six Senses (opposite).
own organic vegetables and supplies drinking water in reusable glass bottles. The hip new Maldivian president, Mohamed Nasheed, who appears more concerned about global warming than Waheed, would give a thumbs-up to Six Senses. Nasheed believes the threat to his country is potentially dire, so he’s investigating the purchase of sovereign territory in India, Sri Lanka or Australia. If the worst comes to pass, his people will at least have somewhere to go. Meanwhile in 2008, Nasheed unveiled a plan to make the Maldives the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2020. What 400,000 Maldivians do for carbon neutrality may have negligible impact on the melting icecaps, but as Nasheed says, “We can only hope the world follows suit.” Similarly, the disappearance of the Maldives might not influence life for most of the world’s people, but rising sea levels will. Parts of New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, London and other seaside cities, plus populous coastal areas of India, China, Brazil — parts of everywhere — could go underwater, displacing millions of people and affecting quality of life for billions. The Maldives’ peril could be our peril. Back in our over-water villa, Waheed is explaining to us how we can make reservations at the resort’s all-organic, over-water spa. Waheed’s soothing nonchalance in the face of what are potentially earth-shaking changes has me thinking about another twist in the plot. | double-edged tide >>
I admit, looking out from our over-water villa, I do find it challenging to remain focused on carbon footprints.
The resorts in the Maldives orchestrate their accommodations, amenities and cuisine to impact guests rather than the nature that surrounds them.
>> tourism is the largest, most lucrative industry
in the Maldives. The Maldivians need us to feel so stressed out by our busy lives that we will fly to their remote homeland to decompress. The islands remain a playground for the wellheeled, some of whom made their fortunes on the same fossil fuels whose consumption now threatens the nation. In a way, the Maldives relies on the very source of its own destruction. If I become so green that I forgo my travel plans, people like villa host Waheed won’t be able to eat. And for that matter, it’s my tourist dollars that will buy that higher-ground sanctuary should rising water force the population to flee. So do I expect the islanders to lose sleep about the millimeters the Indian Ocean rose last year or the storm surges predicted for the future? No. Like most humans, the Maldivians I’ve met nod at doom and carry on with their daily lives. But at the very least, in light of the environmental cost, I feel a responsibility to get as much as I can from every moment I have here. This isn’t always easy. Lovely as the resorts are, there’s not much opportunity to leave them once you’ve arrived. You can’t just wander out of resort bounds and get down with the locals. The Maldivians, for their part, seem fine with this separation. Other than as part of their jobs, they are not terribly interested in mixing with tourists. They’re predominantly Sunni Muslim; seeing women in bikinis isn’t really their thing. Approximately a fifth of all Maldivians live on the capital island of Male, about a mile square and one of the world’s most densely populated cities. The rest live scattered in small, traditional villages on 200 of the 1,190 islands. From Banyan Tree Madivaru, our second resort, we can’t even see another island. Built on a tiny four-acre atoll of smooth sand and mangrove trees, the resort features six extremely luxurious safari-style villas, each a cluster of canvas tents on an elevated deck with a plunge pool and massage tables. We never see another person other than our villa host and the spa staff. We step from the deck through a wall of foliage onto a private beach. We swim, snorkel and stare out to where blue-topaz water meets peacock-blue sky. “We are forced to have daily massages,” Sally declares. Nizam, our dignified villa host, summons spa therapists who dispatch us into bliss using fresh herb bundles and hot oil. Banyan Tree and the other resorts impart a sense of true welcome and deep indulgence, but we’re still missing something. The resort is not the island. We need to see what lies beyond the walls, or in this case across the waves. We need to meet the people whose lives are at stake. | single village >>
The resorts impart a sense of true welcome and deep indulgence. But we’re still missing something. The resort is not the island.
Shades of indulgence define the Maldives, from the sand and spa at Manafaru Maldives to (opposite page) the tent villas at Banyan Tree Madivaru and impeccable service at Soneva Gili by Six Senses.
>> fishermen are mooring their boats for the
night as we arrive at the island of Muladu, 20 minutes by boat from the Beach House at Manafaru Maldives. Women wearing headscarves and long robes gossip as they sweep the paths with twig brooms. Boys play soccer on a dirt field while girls in colorful tunics stand on the sidelines and giggle behind raised hands. Trees line wide sand roads free of cars. Ibrahim Shareef meets us on the dock. “A-her-angie nam-kee Sally,” Sally says, gamely testing her Dhivehi, the Maldives’ official language. Ibrahim pauses. “Hello,” he says in English, looking amused. He parades us proudly past the school, the generator, the well and two cement-block mosques, one for men and one for women. The pace in the small village seems slow and content. Bare-chested men carrying machetes saunter from the jungle with mangoes, taro or coconuts slung over their shoulders. Toddlers play with toys fashioned from sticks and bottle caps. Older houses built of coral blocks with thatched roofing give way to utilitarian concrete structures built since the government conscientiously banned coral harvesting. “When the resort opened in 2007, I was working in Male,” says Ibrahim, “and I hated it. I came running back here to my village to work at the resort. I am so happy to be away from the crowds and competition of the capital.” He throws out his arms as if to demonstrate his newfound space. “Foreign tourists are very important to us here in the Maldives.” Ibrahim seems surprised when, true to form, Sally inquires about the odds of his nation disappearing. “Yes, I have seen the president on TV,” he says, “but I have seen no proof.” “What about the sandbags on all the beaches?” I ask. “I don’t think the water is rising. We just have problems with erosion.” Clearly, Ibrahim hasn’t read the articles in The New York Times and elsewhere. “None of this talk has changed the way we live,” he replies. Mind you, his village runs off one generator; residents get water from a community well and eat locally produced food; they fish from sailboats, and they don’t drive. There’s not much carbon to neutralize on Muladu. So, perhaps justifiably, book now Ibrahim seems more concerned with keeping p. 92 his job, sustained by solace-seeking travelers. That night at the Beach House, I watch the moon cross the ocean. Here lies tangible motivation to give up bottled water, eat less beef, carpool, etc. The Maldives shouldn’t have to suffer from the industrialized world’s negligence. Yet we can’t stop coming to places like this, for their sake — and for ours. When you come, choose resorts that act sustainably, then act the same way at home. But do come see what beauty the world stands to lose. Come see a paradise worth saving. | islands.com/maldives
The people of the Maldives live on islands such as Muladu, a short boat ride from the Beach House resort (top). The way they live includes bright hopes for the Maldives’ future.
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