The islands of privilege

Everything smells of coconut. The fresh towels they give us on the boat, the air I breathe in as I step onto the island, and the ice cream we are greeted with at reception. I close my eyes and smile. This trip was the result of a unanimous family decision that we all needed a relaxing break. And while I usually look in disdain at those who feel the need to travel thousands of miles to relax, or worse, “find themselves,” there is something to be said about the sandy white beaches and the rolling green-blue waters.

So here we are: the Maldives, 1,192 islands surrounded by the warm, inviting Indian Ocean. We will only be staying on one of the islands for the next few days, but I can’t imagine that the others are too different.

The first few days go by much as you imagine they would on a tropical island resort. Whenever I felt energetic, I would go to the game room. After a few rather intense games of billiards, I relax in the pool. When that got tiresome, I would laze on the beach for a few hours, and finally, when the humidity gets to me, I retire to the room.

One of the days we went jet skiing. I felt as if I were in some thrilling action movie, although thankfully, bullets were not whizzing past my head. Afterwards there were papers to be signed and pictures to be uploaded. During these mundane acts, I let my attention wander to the water, the hot breeze, the sand under my toes. I saw a mosquito hovering near my leg, and I tried to swat it away, but in vain, for it had already left a large unsightly splotch of red just above my knee.

I looked up and saw the light reflecting off our instructor’s sunglasses. He was short, with dark skin and a small goatee.

“Where are you from?” I asked him, making small talk to pass the time.

“I’m from here,” he replied. “I’m a Maldivian.”

This surprised me. Until this moment, all the employees on the island I had met were foreigners — I had heard British, Swedish and Chinese accents. This was my first time meeting a local.

It must be nice, I thought, to always be somewhere that’s surrounded by water, with warm weather all year and an endless supply of coconuts. I do love coconut water. Everything was so clean and idyllic, that at first glance, it would be just about as close as you could get to living in paradise. But what would it really be like to live in a country where everything from the food to the employees is imported?

Curious to find out, I ask around and manage to find someone willing to show me what goes on behind the scenes on the island. Glenn, a Philippines native and the recreation manager at Kurumba resort, is willing to enlighten me. He has a stocky build and a tight-fitted uniform with his name embroidered above the pocket. His bald head is glistening with sweat, but his smile stays put.

Taking my first step past the gate that reads “Staff area,” I notice immediately the change in atmosphere; it is a completely different world back here. The roads are just paved dirt, weeds grow unchecked at the bases of buildings, and huts are scattered around rather haphazardly. In fact, it reminds me of the more rural parts of India. To my left I see an open air canteen where some of the staff members are eating food from metal trays — a far cry from the upscale restaurants we had been eating at, where one piece of naan cost more than a full meal back in Berkeley.

Most people working here stay for around ten years — one administrator has been on the island since the resort’s first year, 43 years ago. I am intrigued. What would persuade someone to relocate to a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and once they are there, what keeps them from leaving?

“Well, I came here for the experience. And the money is good,” Glenn adds. “The work experience here is really valued, because we interact with people of many different nationalities. They all have different perspectives, and as clients they are all very different, so it is good experience for us.”

But as clients, we all do have one thing in common: the money we pay. And though the prices seem exorbitant to me at first, I am starting to understand why they are so high. It takes a lot of money to run an island. One of the biggest problems is that there is no fresh water source. All the water we drink is obtained from seawater, using reverse osmosis (which would be a good solution for California’s drought if it weren’t so costly). And yet, despite these extensive measures to conserve resources, the guests produce a lot of waste, not thinking about their impact. I squirm a little and promise myself I will lick my plate clean tomorrow at breakfast.

As we walk around, people look up at us and watch us pass by, possibly confused at the sight of a guest out of bounds. I feel awkward, intruding on their space.

Then, from behind a wall of greenery I hear loud cries. We come to a clearing, and I see men wearing sports uniforms, all standing some distance away from a few stumps. They are playing cricket.

“Sometimes, we even have interresort tournaments,” says Glenn, “They can become very competitive.”

When the tour concludes, I thank him and return to the guest area, which is exactly as I left it — the same palm trees, beautiful vistas and accommodating employees.

Our last night on the island, we go to the performance hall to see a traditional Maldivian dance, just one of the cultural programs put on regularly by the staff. The dancers come in, carrying large wooden drums, and ask us to join in, if we so please. When the music begins, everyone whips out their phones to record the performance — but to me, it doesn’t seem so much a performance as a group of boys just dancing and enjoying themselves. Somehow it feels wrong to attempt to capture it on camera and pass it off as witnessing an authentic Maldivian ritual. After all, there’s nothing much authentic about staying in a place like this — as I’ve learned, there is always more than meets the eye.

Image source: Mac Qin

Contact Shruti Koti at [email protected].