Away from the fancy resorts, where alcohol flows and honeymooners dine in swanky restaurants, are the inhabited islands of the Maldives.
The pace of life is much slower and noticeably simpler on these islands, especially north of Male’ in places like the Vaavu Atoll.
You can’t just hop on a boat and walk around these village islands either. You need the permission of the island chief, which makes sense as these are not tourist attractions. These are working, living communities where children go to school and families make their homes.
There is no alcohol allowed on these islands either, as the Maldives is a Muslim nation. It is quite a contrast to the $1000 a day luxury vacations most people think of about the Maldives.
As peaceful as it seems, this island life is under threat. The need to support families and make more money puts pressure on people who migrate to Malé, the capital, or seek employment at resorts on tourist islands. Many families become fragmented, with siblings scattered across different islands as they seek better jobs or a higher education.
Fishing and boat building have always sustained the island lifestyle in the Maldives, but traditional boat-building skills are quickly fading away as well. Bye-bye dhoni, hello modern motorboat. Even homes are built differently now. Houses on these islands have traditionally been made from coral, but that is no longer allowed either. The island culture is slowly being washed away.
The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami helped expedite the exodus to the capital as well, as nearly 100 people were killed and entire islands were wiped out. Walking the streets of some of the remaining village islands, you see brightly coloured buildings beside homes that were abandoned after the tsunami.
It’s a very odd sensation to be in such a beautiful, yet fragile place. Even without global warming and the threat of rising sea levels, it seems that the small island way of living is destined to end in the Maldives. More opportunity, more money and more resorts mean less interest in island traditions.
When you see this flip side to the Maldives, you’re happy that youngsters are given more opportunity and choice. Change is good, right? Hopefully, but if the recent political changes in the Maldives are a sign of things to come, there could be dark days ahead.
Tourists, however, don’t want to hear about politics. Knowing that their sustainable dream resorts are potentially built on an unsustainable and unstable nation would put a damper on things. Combine that with a crack down by the government on guest houses and people being able to stay with local families and the sustainable tourism industry in the Maldives looks a little shaky.
Perhaps it’s just a temporary setback. Time for another Mai Tai and a massage; life is good in paradise, right?