In Paradise, The Honeymoon Is Over
Public lashings, Islamic fundamentalists seizing power, a secular gay blogger getting his throat slashed – few of the million annual visitors to the beautiful Maldives island see the mainland. Instead they’re fed a tropical dream that has nothing to do with the terrible state the Maldives now finds itself in.
Islamic hardliners, many trained in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have become a shadowy but powerful presence in Mali. They’re blamed for a raid on the national museum last year in which a priceless collection of ancient Buddhist artefacts was destroyed. They are also thought to be behind the killing in October of a member of parliament who had spoken out against extremism. Recently a 15-year-old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her stepfather was sentenced to 100 lashes for ‘fornication’.
Finally, it seems the world has started to notice and is calling for a tourist boycott. Honeymooners get taken from Mali to the islands by boat and never step outside of their hotel resorts. After I went there, I wrote a fairly lightweight piece about my trip, hoping to sell it to the Sunday Times, who were asking for travel pieces. It was rejected, and I was told ‘this is not what our readers want to hear’. Here’s a section from it.
The Maldives: Total Immersion
If it’s true that Avatar’s fans are suffering withdrawal symptoms when they leave their immersive 3D world behind in cinemas, they should head for the Maldives right now. Here is an eerie, dreamlike environment that looks and feels real but is plainly impossible. A chain of over a thousand desert islands, many with hotels that cater to a James Cameron fantasy of all that nature can be; aquamarine seas, white coral sands, whispering palms, colourful wildlife – but nothing is quite as it seems.
Just as Avatar’s scenario has been craftily constructed to fulfill your sensory desires, the Maldives has been shaped for maximum immersion in the tropical dream. The wireframe technology is hidden away, but it’s there all the same. For a start the islands operate on their own private time-zone, apparently arranged to allow tourists to reach the mainland for flights. Then there’s the electricity, its generators discreetly tucked behind screens of foliage. Connectivity too, and imported foodstuffs that feel as wrong as Tesco strawberries in January. On some islands the Disneyland analogy (cutesy fantasy out front, terror and panic backstage) has been pushed further, so that the effort of running a tropical resort shows through the cracks.
The island I visited offered an organic, natural-seeming experience; the designers know that you know there’s no such thing as a perfect unspoiled natural paradise, but the wow factor they’ve built in ensures that you don’t mind. Most of the islands have been reshaped, and require constant maintenance to prevent erosion. On the side away from my beach chair, a pump discreetly pours sand back into place, and grass is rearranged. Global warming will soon ensure that the battle against the rising sea is lost – the sea-level islands are vanishing.
Wood, stone, sand and water are crafted to create open, airy spaces in the same way that Second Life or The Sims sucks in bedroom-dwelling geeks. An elegant arrangement of Dedans furniture (looks wicker, actually plastic) sits on sand that’s swept before you wake, surrounded by neutral concrete pillars and inset trays of pebbles overflowing with clear water. A beach-sloped horizon pool has had its tiles matched to the exact hue of the Indian Ocean beyond, and is wide enough to form wavelets that trick the eye into seeing only sea.
Oddly, it’s the natural phenomena that make you wonder if you’ve fallen into Avatar’s world. Gigantic fruit bats with blonde chest-hair swoop overhead and can clearly be seen clawing their way through the undergrowth in broad daylight – surely that’s a design mistake? Aren’t they only supposed to appear at dusk?
And a late night walk along the beach reveals an even odder Cameron moment; my footprints expose tiny bright blue LEDs in the wet sand. Closer examination reveals creatures no bigger than a match-head that glow with a natural phosphorescence. And now the tiny nightlights in the pool make sense – they’re merely imitating nature. The herons and hermit crabs are animatronic, perhaps. They move too perfectly. The rays are fed every afternoon at the same time, and swim to the shore with Pavlovian regularity. There’s one shop on the island. It sells very expensive jewellery. That’s all.
The islands are designed to be experienced in six-day bites. At the end of this time, just like a movie, the beginning of the experience comes around again, only with a change of audience.
After roughing it in the desert and in Oman’s ghost towns, I was ready for the luxury of hot water. But here’s the interesting thing; I much preferred the Middle East to this fantasy island. I got food poisoning at the exclusive Maldives retreat, and was surrounded by bored, morose honeymooners and their ever-smiling minders.