It’s been a few days, dear reader, but I’ve been wandering in Paradise lately and it’s been difficult to find the time and the words to describe such a place, as I’m sure Milton would agree. The ocean is bluer than lapis, the lagoons more turquoise than a turquoise, clouds puff by as unashamedly pink and fluffy as a schoolgirl’s dreams, the sand as clean and white as artificial sweetener, the coconut palms as green as… well, you get the picture. Most people visiting the country probably don’t notice such things because their gaze is too full of their lover’s gaze, which is too full of theirs, and so on like perfectly opposite mirrors. But Nick and I had work to do. And besides, I’ve seen his eyes before. Anyway Nick took plenty of pictures of the beautiful place, so I’ll stop littering words, suffice to say that it epitomises the honeymoon brochure idyll.
The Maldivian people are not on a permanent honeymoon, however. For them, the country is the place that they were born, live, work and will die. It’s a country of low-lying, mostly uninhabited islands, clustered in 26 atolls in the heart of the Indian Ocean.
Change is in the air, in the waters and in the people.
In November, the people held their first democratic elections and elected a man they call Anni, (Mohammed Nasheed). He is a former Amnesty Prisoner of Conscience. A man tortured in jail by his presidential predecessor, the dictator Maumoon Gayoom. A few weeks ago I met up with Gayoom and he spoke at length. This week, I visited Nasheed at his home and we talked late into the night. I confess that I was utterly charmed by Anni, and I am not the only one. Hope skips across these waters – silver, like an exuberant flying fish. Some older Maldivians aren’t so sure – they don’t want change – Gayoom ruled for 30 years. One “old” fisherman I spoke to (he was actually 57, but looked 77), said that Anni was bad for the country. When I probed him for specifics, he said that it was Anni who had introduced the terrible heroin problem, which had only existed since November. (The Maldives has very high heroin dependency – in some areas as many as 1 in 5 people uses the drug. It is a complex tragedy and there is some evidence for Gayoom’s personal involvement in the problem – using addiction as a method of social control.)
Most of the younger people I have spoken to talk about Anni with almost evangelical zeal. This worries me. If Anni doesn’t deliver, doesn’t meet the hopes and expectations of these fervent supporters, in a few months, will their love turn to hate? There are almost daily protests of one sort or another. Nothing like the pre-election riots, but people want change right now and there is a big hole in the budget.
Tourism is the country’s biggest earner. Anni is planning to change the demographic of this moneyspinner to include options for families and budget travellers. But it will take time. And it’s not just the people who won’t wait. The islands themselves are on a climate schedule that will wait for no one. I talked to many people, from fishermen to repeat holidaymakers (trying not to spit with green jealousy), to marine biologists to resort workers about the changes that they have seen in the climate and in the islands. It was worrying news.
We visited one island, Dhuvaafaru, in the north of the country, on Raa Atoll, which was previously uninhabited but which had been completely cleared of vegetation and in its place a brand spanking new village built. It was a Red Cross initiative for the victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami. We were there to see the opening of the new village, complete with houses, schools, shops, community centre, a mosque, a power plant, and so on. All of the people living there were from one island that had been completely flattened by the tsunami, killing some. The people I spoke to had lost everything. They had been housed in tents and refugee shacks on four neighbouring islands that had shared their scarce water and food with them for three years. The new island ceremony was an emotional affair. I spoke to people whose children had grown from babyhood to primary school in refugee accommodation, and who were now living an clean, spacious three-bed houses with a fan and well.
The island that these people all came from was affected so badly by the tsunami because the people had destroyed what little defence these low-lying strips of sand have: there was no vegetation left to hold the land in place; they built out onto the reef and destroyed what reef there was, meaning that the wave was unslowed. The tsunami was not caused by climate change, it was sparked by plate tectonics. But as the sea levels rise due to ocean expansion and glacial melt, storm surges will become more devastating and erosion more severe. Will the Red Cross be able to build new villages for all those victims?
It’s getting late and this post is getting long again – oops, trying to keep them short. We have seen and done so much more above and below the water. Nick hand-fed a stingray, I hand-fed a baby turtle… but enough now.