On my first morning in the Maldives I was chatting to the 21 yr old son of the family I was staying with:
Me: "I hear there's quite a big drug problem here?"
Him: "Yeah.... I actually used to be an addict. I also did quite a lot of dealing too and only got out quite recently".
Me: "Of prison?
Him: "Yeah, I had a 6yr sentence but got released after 1 year".
Me: "1 year! How?"
Him: "Well, when the government changed I used to deal for one of the new ministers that came in so he pulled some strings and got me released".
Justice in The Maldives- that's what happens when you bring in democracy you see...
But before that I first spent a few weeks in the island formerly known as Ceylon. I first went to the beaches on the south coast, though after having recently been in Goa I was not impressed. Sri Lanka had been slowly building up a European package industry until the deadly 2004 tsunami destroyed much of the tourist infrastructure.
Since then they've rebuilt but in a display of unforgivable greed and unbelievable stupidity on virtually every beach the hotel owners have had a competition to see who can rebuild closest to the sea. Some have made doubly sure by building literally in the surf and unsurprisingly the beaches are fast getting washed away so I wouldn't recommend the South coast for a beach holiday.
After leaving Colombo and the South I headed towards the more Tamil dominated areas in the North. I'm sure you're aware this was the main area of last years' war between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers revolutionary group who were fighting for a Tamil homeland in the North of the island. The roots of the conflict offer a slightly different view of Buddhism as always being peace and light. There's been a Hindu Tamil community on the island for a long time and the British increased their numbers by bringing them in from India to work the tea plantations here but they've never been accepted by the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and there have always been tensions.
Sri Lanka was on the Buddha's itinerary on his wanderings and became one of the first places in the world where Buddhism became entrenched as a national religion. They've always practiced the most conservative form of Theravada Buddhism and even today the Sri Lankan Sangha (group of elite monks) hold huge power both socially and politically within Sri Lanka while the rest of the Buddhist world still looks to them for theological guidance.
Most Sinhalese would never tolerate another state on the island where another religion was practiced and it's sadly ironic that the only leader who showed a friendlier approach to the Tamils SWRD Bandaranaike (husband of the more famous Mrs.) was assassinated by a Buddhist monk.
Tensions between the 2 communities increased until the civil war began about 30 years ago and the story of the Tigers is a fascinating one as they changed the face of world terrorism during their existence. For some years they were the de facto (border points, customs etc.) rulers of large areas of the North and led by the utterly ruthless Velupillai Prabhakaran they successfully pulled off a number of huge attacks including destroying almost the entire Sri Lankan airforce in one night and even assassinating Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 after they felt he meddled too much in the conflict. They became the first terrorist force to form naval and even air forces but their most memorable legacy was in being the first group to use suicide bombers anywhere in the world.
The 2 sides had been fighting for some time with no real breakthroughs but then the Tigers made a huge tactical mistake in forcing the Tamil community to boycott the presidential election in 2005 and allow Mahinda Rajapaksa to become president. He's a charismatic figure with an ego not much smaller than the island itself (his picture is up everywhere and he even put himself on the bank notes) and he instructed the army to go on an all out offensive to finally put an end to the conflict. This was very controversial as after kicking all foreign observers out of the area, various human rights abuses by the army are alleged to have taken place including over 7000 civilian deaths. The UN has launched an investigation into these allegations but the refusal by Sri Lanka to co-operate or give visas to UN officials, even at the expense of losing lucrative trading agreements with the EU/USA indicate that they have plenty to hide.
I tried to go the Tamil heartlands around Jaffna but was told I'd need to apply for a special permit from the Ministry of Defence which I probably wouldn't get because of my EU passport so had to go to another of the coastal areas nearby. Things were much quieter than I imagined with little visible war damage and absolutely everyone I spoke to about it thinks the alleged human rights stuff isn't that important, as after 30 years the country is now at peace. Unfortunately the President sees this as justification to slowly turn the island into his fiefdom. He has appointed his brother and even 23yr old son as ministers and is changing the constitution so he can lead indefinitely. Most Sri Lankans are not impressed after finally being at peace and he's so far done little to change the inequalities and lack of opportunities for the Tamils that were the cause of the conflict in the first place. Most people are very optimistic about the next few years but the lack of Tamil progress means a conflict may start up again in a few years.
Despite the relative peace, security is still very high and in Colombo especially it's not unusual to wander down a normal looking street only for a soldier to appear and say 'Sorry this is a high security area'. As in Myanmar however, unlike the moody glares you get from soldiers in most places in Sri Lanka they'd greet you with a smile and a chat as bored rigid in the middle of a 12hr watch shift any diversion was gratefully received.
I found Lankans to be incredibly friendly and easily talkative all the time, after spending most of the last 4 months in Bangladesh and India I didn't realize how much I'd appreciate the gentler, almost village pace of Sri Lanka. Even in Colombo things are much more relaxed than the clogging crowds of India and conversations were noticeably less invasive than across the Gulf of Mannar. In a relatively small area there's a fantastic variety of things to do with beaches, colonial cities, some ancient culture and the wonderful hill country it's a great place for a 2-3 week holiday. The only real criticism I'd have of the island was that it's hard to escape the feeling that you're viewed as something of a cash cow by the government.
Whilst local products (food, transport etc) are very cheap, as a foreigner you have to pay spurious taxes and surcharges on things like hotel rooms but the decision a couple of years ago to put up the price of tourist attractions 400% means you mainly just don't do them. Whilst I drank the Kool-Aid in paying the $50 entry for the ancient cities they did at least occupy a few days but I balked at the price of nearly everything else with the $20-30 entry fees for any of the national parks feeling particularly excessive as you're only allowed in for 2hrs anyway.
I took 3 of the best train journeys I've ever taken in Sri Lanka, one down the West coast with constant views of the ocean, one across the tea plantations in the mountains and one through the jungle to the 2nd city of Kandy. Here I had a fantastic experience staying with a Sri Lankan family- whilst it was great staying in the jungle and speaking to them etc I'll most fondly remember it for the Mum's cooking. Sri Lankan cuisine must be one of the most underrated in the world- trust me, dig out a Sri Lankan restaurant and you won't regret it. At times it felt like I was walking round in an epicurean wonderland as I found myself constantly gorging on the cinnamon and coconut heavy curries and some of the best fruits in the world (soursops, durians etc) which are just impossibly expensive to get in Europe.
The food in the hill country is regarded as probably the best in Sri Lanka and I think it was my favourite part of the country. Sri Lanka is the world's 3rd largest producer of tea and pretty much anywhere the Brits could build a railway and grow tea, they did so. Tea cultivation is one of the most aesthetically pleasing forms of agriculture and the hiking in and around the plantations was phenomenal. Amidst the bushes looking down on the 'toytown settlements' below they felt almost like Northern mining villages. Despite their poor wages and terrible work burdens they have an incredibly strong sense of community and the almost exclusively female pickers were uber-friendly and helpful as I frequently got lost on the hillsides.
The island also plays a significant geographical role in various religions legends; Adam's Bridge, the group of islands that connects India to Sri Lanka plays a big role in the Ramyana (the most important Hindu story) but probably my favourite thing I did on the island was climbing Adam's Peak. It's one of the most holy mountains in the world as Buddhists believe it's where Lord Buddha stopped and mediated before spreading the word in Sri Lanka but it's also long played a role in Christian mythology and Marco Polo wrote about it extensively in his travels. The story goes that when God ejected Adam out of heaven into the Garden of Eden this is where he dropped him; after a pre-dawn ascent I found it easy to put myself in Adams shoes (well he didn't have shoes actually but you get the idea) at the beginning of the world 6,000 years ago. With my ribs starting to itch as Eve was forming, looking out over the beautiful green landscape below I couldn't help but think "Nice one God, you picked a great spot". And it's the lush, fecund landscapes of the island that I'll definitely remember most positively about Sri Lanka.
When you read 'The Maldives' in the subject I can imagine most people thinking 'how the blazes can he afford to go there?' well the answer is The Maldives are pretty close to Sri Lanka and India so easy to get to and if you stay with a local family rather than in a 5 star resort it actually came out OK in terms of costs. As you can probably predict, the Maldivian image that is most vivid to me is of the sharpness of the blues and the whites i.e. the sea and the sand. The Maldives are made up of a series of atolls (ring shaped series of coral islands enclosing a lagoon) so the sand is of a coral white that isn't found in big quantities in many other places and as the water's so shallow, the warm sea is always a glorious shade of aquamarine. If you want to 'relax' on a beach there are few better, more aesthetically pleasing places in the world and the tourist board markets the place as 'the holiday of a lifetime' which is unusual in that there's a great deal of truth to it.
I certainly did a lot of sunbathing, swimming in the cobalt blue and snorkeling at night (incredibly exciting but definitely a bit scary too) but the place is actually a lot more culturally interesting than most resort visitors have any idea of.
Before the first resorts started opening up in the early 1970's by all accounts life in The Maldives was pretty tough, being a loosely connected group of island fishing communities with few prospects beyond a week to week existence. However, in the space of little more than a generation the country has been transformed through tourism to the richest country in South Asia and even the remotest islands now have 24hr water and electricity and through cable TV and the internet are relatively well connected to the world.
The government pretty smartly aimed only at top end tourism but have found it difficult to manage the high rolling tourists alongside the local population. The Maldives is a fiercely devout Muslim country, indeed it's impossible under the constitution to be both Maldivian and a non-Muslim and tourism has created a slightly schizophrenic feel to the country. Whilst on the resort islands most things are allowed (booze, swimwear, unmarried couples and even Israelis!) for the locals life is much stricter with the smaller islands in particular having a cultural and legal conservatism a world away from martinis and bikinis. In order to maintain this strict you might say hypocritical stance the dictatorship that ran the country for 30yrs effectively banned foreigners from leaving their resorts and visiting other islands. In order to actually see the country you needed invitation letters and permits which were unlikely to be granted as they were determined not to interfere with the traditional Islamic culture.
Whilst the arrival of democracy a couple of years has removed much of this system, over time the influence of the tourists has been felt and the islands have definitely developed social problems.
The rapid change in the wealth of the people has now created a somewhat disaffected generation compared to their parents and grandparents. Like many countries which have rapidly acquired wealth most Maldivian youths all but refuse to do menial jobs anymore; whilst 'front' jobs like resort barmen and receptionists will be taken by locals almost all the cleaning, cooking jobs etc are done by Bangladeshi immigrants (many illegal) who now make up a staggering 30% of the population. So whilst the impoverished Bangladeshis are breaking their backs sending money home the young Maldivian population now just look and act bored much of the time. Whilst a country like the Maldives looks incredible and is extremely luxurious etc for a few weeks, living here as a young person would be much harder. There are few professional level jobs and since they're wealthy enough to avoid doing lower level jobs many people turn to drugs for something to do. The Maldives are believed to have one of the biggest drug problems in the world per head of population as unfortunately the drug of choice here is a cheap and nasty version of heroin called 'brown sugar'. With my St Francis of Assisi build and insistence on wearing sunglasses during all daylight hours I fitted in pretty well with the packs of youths which haunt even the smallest islands and whilst they omit to mention it in the tourist brochures it's a huge problem the country faces.
Another strong feeling about the country I had was how precarious life there felt and how their destiny is largely out of their own hands, both metaphorically in how the country survives financially but literally in regard to their environment.
The economy is now almost totally reliant on tourism with 90% of tax revenues coming through it, a workforce entirely dependent on it and few other long term options to generate income. They've focused exclusively on top end tourism with virtually 0 accommodation options below 4* and a stay in a resort will cost a bare minimum of $100 per day, but if you want to you can easily spend $5000 per day in The Maldives. This is probably a shrewd decision bearing in mind how reliant the tax system is on tourism revenues but this also makes the economy and therefore national quality of life extremely susceptible to downturns in the market. The global economic downturn cost the economy an estimated 5% in 2009 and the Icelandic volcanic ash incident of earlier this year looks set to cost the economy 2% in cancelled holidays etc.
In a country this strictly Muslim the government are absolutely paranoid about the threat of Islamic extremism as just 1 bomb or killing of a tourist here could seriously destabilize the economy and consequently the country for many years.
Probably the more serious long-term threat though is the survival of life in the islands at all. The highest point in the Maldives is a laughable 2.4m but the atolls support nearly 400,000 people. Through the use of tetrapods and other ingenious land reclamation schemes islands have been expanded and put to specific uses (e.g. the airport island or my favorite 'rubbish island') but on staying on a smaller island I got a view of how peoples homes here are quite fragile. Most atolls have a small reef offshore which acts as a breaker to the waves but one morning I woke up to find a few stronger waves were flowing over the reef... and they kept on coming. They flowed right into the low lying island swamping the streets and carrying various bits of debris with them. These didn't look or feel at all like big waves but the sheer lack of relief in the islands means if the reef is broken there's little they can do to stop the waves ie you can't get to or build on higher ground. The 2004 tsunami led to the abandonment of 13 islands and the President made headlines round the world in 2008 when he announced the creation of a 'rainy day fund'. The idea is that if sea levels continue to rise and life eventually gets untenable on the Maldives then they would buy a new homeland in probably India or Sri Lanka and give themselves a new start. It's pretty smart thinking as probably no other country on the planet is most at risk from sea level change.
I really enjoyed staying with locals and outside from the hectic capital Male which has over 100,000 people in just a few square km, life is wonderfully tranquil and just feels very easy. There are string easy chairs everywhere on the islands and sitting out by moonlight smoking endless cigarettes and listening to the enjoyably vague philosophies of someone who's lost half their brain cells I definitely realized how lucky I am to be able to come to places like The Maldives and see how other people live. In my last couple of days the son of the family went missing as apparently the police ordered him to go to detox, (well he only weighed about 90lbs) but I was lucky enough to see the Independence Day celebrations. Seeing the street dancing and flags everywhere was a wonderful way to end my time in these beautiful islands and as I flew over the great big holes in the sea that pass for islands I felt darn upset to be leaving.
So after Buddhist Sri Lanka and the Muslim Maldives I'm now back in the land of the Hindus, Hindustan which over time became shortened to India. I'm off to Mumbai tomorrow from where I'll head to the West of the country.