|Lets chase those island screensavers, enter the world of the paradise wall calendar, taste the soft milk of the tropical coconut. At university, I had once torn the photo pages of an old calendar and plastered the images over my desk. Images of crystal white seas mirrored by deep blue skies, coconut trees flirting with silky white beaches. There might be a hammock, a yacht, or a sunset, but whatever the variation, the symbol remained the same. This is freedom. This is warmth. This is success. Sitting at my desk, weighted by the pressure of an assignment, I couldn't feel the intense heat of the sun, the life-draining humidity, the mosquitoes, or sand between my toes. Instead I could simply gaze up every few seconds and embrace paradise, the Garden of Eden, a longing to find myself at home on a tropical beach, even though I grew up in a city surrounded by mine dumps. The title of the calendar was "Islands of the Maldives," and 14 years later I'm still working on an assignment. Only this time, I get to leave the desk, rip apart the fabric of my cosmic dream wall, and finally put myself in the picture.
The Republic of Maldives consists of 1200 coral islands, the smallest country in Asia, the flattest country on the planet. With only 200 of the islands actually inhabited, and with the highest land point being just 2.3m, word on the Indian Ocean is that rising sea levels will result in Maldivians being the first environmental refugees. One People, Under Water. In the meantime, it's a strictly conservative Islamic country that bans tourists from bringing in any other form of non-Muslim religious worship, dogs (deemed unclean), pornography, or alcohol. All major credit cards are however accepted. Since hotels are known to mark-up liquor up to 2000%, I bought some rum at the duty free in Manila only to find it confiscated by Maldivian customs at the airport. I could retrieve the bottle before my return flight, a small consolation knowing that Maldivian custom officials are not getting loaded the way female US airport security guards only wear expensive perfume. If you come to paradise, you play by its rules. Foreigners in the capital of Male are only permitted to buy alcohol with a special permit, and limited to 60 cans of beer a month. But catch a sea taxi or powerful speedboat to one of the luxury resorts, and anything goes. Fortunately, that's exactly where I would be going, leaving Male minutes on arrival, and bee-lining it from the airport to the Soneva Gili, one of the world's most luxurious villa resorts.
Oh yes, there are perks to this job. Jetting around the world, one exotic adventure after another, endless gourmet meals, a wealth of experience (says a fellow travel writer I met in Costa Rica: "experience never paid my rent." No doubt this was a dream assignment, the chance to sample life within a $2000 a night ocean villa, happily attended to by an army of resort staff in its immaculate surroundings. After the beaches of the Philippines and the service of the Grand Hotel in Taipei, you can bet I would not be easily seduced. This would not be a case of a teenage girl hanging around with a college grad on a motorbike (or more accurately, a backpacking travel bum hanging around a 5 star luxury resort). See I pay attention to detail, notice the quirks, the funny things about the other side of the coin, the surface that shines with wealth and privilege. Well, it's a few minutes after our late night arrival, and you can call me Tiffany, and watch me giggle on the back of the older boy's Kawasaki. Oh my! There are 44 villas, built over water, crammed with every luxury, yet full of space. Total privacy, embraced by a seemingly rustic aesthetic that only comes from spending wad-loads of money. Hear the gentle lapping of the transparent sea against a beach as fine as stardust. Listen to the warm breeze blowing notes through flute holes in the palm leaves above your head. The over-water bar is glowing with candles as wooden jetties tentacle into the ocean, lit up like runways to land every romantic dream still up in the air.
Using the high speed wifi somehow available in every villa, I Skype up to give anyone who's online a tour. It's about 1am, and my producer Deb in Vancouver can't see much, but that doesn't matter. I waltz around the 250 square metre residence illuminated by the glow of my Macbook. "And here's the bathroom, look at the size of it!... and check out the glass bottom, and the walkway to the glass walled shower... and the ladders into your own private sea pool...you can snorkel inches from brushing your teeth!... and the Bose surround system with an iPod adaptor...nice touch... and look at the upstairs deck with a bed you can roll out and sleep under the stars with overstuffed pillows..how could you not?... and the air conditioned master bedroom with the Arabian Palace mosquito net...love it... and the living room with the backgammon and chess tables and waiting bottle of chilled champagne and fresh tropical fruit and couches and pillows and abundant big soft towels.. check this private deck where you can dive right into the sea and there's stingrays and tropical fish and even cute reef shark pups and.." "Robin, is that you, I can't hear you, you're breaking up...something about a bathroom?"
I sleep outside on my upper deck, beneath the shooting stars, the sound of the wind gusting through feverish dreams of red-haired aliens, blowing away any troublesome night bugs. It is off-season here at the Soneva Gili on Lankanfushi Island, but all I need is a thin sheet to keep me warm in the night. I fall asleep smiling, but in the most romantic place on earth, on the upper level of an open-roof, over-water honeymoon villa, I fall asleep alone.
Continue reading Robin's thoughts on the Maldives at http://www.moderngonzo.com/reports/maldives.html
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