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Bolifushi Island

Jarvis Smith visits the South Male Atoll in the Republic of Maldives.

This 1,000km-long archipelago is an extreme test case for the impact of global warming and the main reason for me wanting to visit this small Asian country with the tiniest of all Asian populations: 400,000 islanders whose impact on carbon output is negligible. So which island do I choose for my five-year-old daughter (and myself) to continue our search for an increased awareness, and hopefully to reduce my daughter’s complacency when it comes to our planet’s (and humanity’s) future?

maldives-4I truly believe that in the next 20 years (or less) we won’t recognise parts of our planet. Simple things like food, water and even air will be reduced by an increased population, rising sea levels and – worst of all – the impact of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and freak weather patterns. Not to mention the chaos of the people around us, who will have no idea how to cope and will probably just panic and become completely reliant on outside support. My feeling is that outside help won’t be there, so it will be down to each of us to be well prepared: we now need to gather the skills and knowledge that will allow us to live completely sufficiently in a natural environment. As a parent, I feel it’s my duty to educate my youngest until the time comes when she’s able to make these decisions for herself.

So which island to choose? The 120 resort islands are each unique and independent. One island = one resort. Well, one that required the least travelling would be good. I’m afraid this choice didn’t add up to much of a carbon reduction, but it did cut out two local flights.

We’d been in Dubai, visiting the turtle rehabilitation project at the Burg Al Arab – the Jumeirah group’s most prestigious hotel. The Jumeirah group seemed to be making some decent moves around sustainability and tourism, so it made good sense for us to visit the Jumeirah Vitaveli. A short 20-minute boat ride from Malé, and employing ‘passionate advocates’ of climate awareness, this seemed like the best choice. The island has 43 beach villas and suites, 46 lagoon villas and suites, three restaurants and a beachside cocktail bar. There’s a private swimming pool in every villa and a full range of watersports available, including deep-sea fishing, diving, kayaking and kitesurfing. Oh, and the Talise spa – with treatment rooms on the land and over the water.

I really don’t want to be too cliched about this feature – in some ways I’m squirming a little writing it. What seemed to be a good idea at the time actually with hindsight makes me feel a little uncomfortable. Nothing to do with the resort itself, more to do with my awareness concerning what this trip was really about. Here’s why…

How on earth could i explain the complexity of the climate challenges in the Maldives to a five-year-old without planting seeds of fear or anxiety for her future?

The Maldives is the lowest-lying country in the world and built on coral reefs which, as we all know, are dying off due to rising sea temperatures and acidity. Maldivian communities are completely reliant on diesel for generators, and a nation that’s nearly broke spends a quarter of its GDP on fuel and subsidies to keep its energy bills affordable. Tourism accounts for 29% of this GDP, and in 2013 it increased by 11%.

There are 1,200 islands in the Maldives and I later found out that tourist minister Ahmed Adeeb spoke of developing a further 400 in the north. It seemed a strange idea – particularly as only a few years back the president at the time was reaching out to the world for a new home and security for the atolls’ citizens. I made a mental note to meet with Adeeb and get to the bottom of this idea.

It has to be said that the Maldives recently won two prizes at this year’s Seven Star Global Luxury Awards, winning Best Destination as well as a special achievement honour for Adeeb: the Outstanding Achievement in Tourism Award for overseeing the arrival of one million tourists last year for the first time in the country’s history.

We were swiftly met at the airport by the beautiful smiles of the Vitaveli staff. The transit was a powered boat waiting just walking distance from the airport. We were handed cold towels and drinks and told to sit back and relax. A big fuss was made of Sophia and she sat like royalty at the back of the boat, feet up, singing and looking out for dolphins.

maldives-3The sparkly blue waters of the Indian Ocean were welcoming; I could see a few small islands in the distance and wondered which one we were heading to. What a magical part of the world, I thought, refreshingly similar to how I’d imagined it from pictures. The only thing that stood out was the thick black smoke ahead coming from a dump-like island; I was told it was the dumping ground for the area. I pointed this out to Sophia and she reminded me that it was similar to the place I’d lived for three weeks for the Channel 4 observational documentary, Dumped.

I told Sophia that it looked like they were burning the rubbish, which had a knock-on effect by polluting the air. I explained that if perhaps they invested in some cleaner technology this would change the way the rubbish was dealt with. Of course she asked why they didn’t, and I had to explain that they would have been doing it this way for a long time and that it would cost a lot of money to buy the new machinery, which of course would benefit them and everyone else in the long term. I asked what she would do if it were her decision; I’m sure you can guess what she said. Money to a five-year-old is no obstacle, which I find a beautiful thing. We, humanity, have created the commodity called money and it seems to me that it only serves those who want to hoard it.

I wonder if those hoarders realise they are killing their grandchildren by feeding their children?

OK, I know I keep rambling on about the state of how bad things are, but as I said, I wanted to keep this real…

Now just a short distance from the Vitaveli, I was immediately enchanted by the beautiful architectural design and the well thought out use of its natural landscape. Seductive building shapes with triangular thatched roofs sat on wooden jetties leading to white beaches cascading into blue lagoons, with an abundance of flowing palm trees. Do I still think of paradise looking like this? I know I used to – probably based on what advertising was telling me. But now, was this my idea of paradise? I’d have to wait and see.

We slowly pulled up to the jetty and were met by more smiley staff. One face stood out, an Edward Woodward-type character who introduced himself as the GM. His name was Graham and he had an extremely warm and endearing way about him. He was quietly confident, yet I felt a certain prowess as he spoke and introduced me to the team.

I’ll come back to Graham later as he has been absolutely instrumental in the way this island functions (to the best of its circumstance and ability) in terms of sustainability.
We headed off to our beach villa room, which was perfect for us as I didn’t fancy dangling over the sea in one of the huge villas. I would never have been able to rest in peace with Sophia playing outside!

The room was beautifully set: a gorgeous large bed in the centre of a room that opened up into a garden with a private pool and an outdoor four-poster lounger. Just a few steps further through a little hole in the surrounding hedges, those turquoise and brilliant white waves lapped onto a completely empty beach. We had our own sunbeds and shades on the beach area and our villa was protected from prying eyes, not that I had seen anyone else except our butler.

He showed us around the room and explained what the gadgets and gizmos did. I do like a good Apple home system, and it was great to get music in all of the rooms. At the opposite end to the beach was a walk-in closet that led through to a very large bathroom, with two sinks, a nice-sized bath and a separate shower. Of course Sophia wanted to jump straight into the pool; she wasn’t quite swimming on her own yet so I asked her to wait while I showered. Where did the butler go? He must have slipped away while we were chatting. I do remember him saying he would collect us in an hour as they were going tree planting and we’d been invited to join.

We planted coconut palms, the Maldivian national tree, right on the seafront – 20 meters from the waves. These trees would grow to 30 metres and the fruit could be used for eating and drinking, the oil for hair and the shells also for food or craft. Graham told me that they constantly plant trees to replenish the areas where building took place. I liked his views – he seemed to be thoughtful and visionary, driving change through the DNA of the organisation and the wider tourist industry by requesting what he felt were the best solutions. He’d done his research and knew what he was talking about. He told me about the water purification system that converts salt water to drinking water, which fills glass bottles that can be served to guests. This saves a vast number of food miles and plastic bottles from ending up on the dump island Thilafushi, which is already overflowing with more waste than it can handle.

Graham was pleased with the support the resort and guests gave to the local school, Maafusfi, and asked if we would like to visit. Of course, Sophia thought it was a great idea – more children to play with (I was sure she was getting bored of me by this point).

Once we’d finished the ceremonial tree planting, which ended with my prayer of gratitude to the Vitavelli team, the land and trees, we headed for the Kuli Kola Kids’ Club.
It was a lovely size, with a children’s swimming pool, two indoor playrooms full of things to do (including painting and crafts), a video room and an outside area with giant dolls’ houses, swings and slides, table tennis and pool tables and friendly staff I called ‘entertainers’. I asked Sophia if she wanted to stay; she was a little shy at first and wanted to continue looking around with me, which I was quite grateful for. I loved our quality time together, just the two of us playing in the sand and finding coral and angel-shaped shells, getting our hands dirty and our spirits shiny with fun and laughter.

It’s rare to be completely free like this – not having to think about, well, anything except being a little thirsty or being in the sun for too long. I cherish these moments and, if I had any regrets, this would be one: that I hadn’t taken enough time to be with my baby in this way. No iPad, no TV – just us and nature. Sophia always seems at her happiest in moments that combine play with nature; it brings out the child in me and we play and play and play some more.

maldives-2We eventually got thirsty and walked up to the bar and pool area. Within a minute we had water and fresh juices before us. We sat back on luxurious sunbeds looking out at the sea, and could see the exclusive Lagoon Villas – completely free-standing like regal wooden palaces, accessible only by boat. Romance and honeymooners crossed my mind. If these villas were the crème de la crème of villas here, I indulged for a moment on how different this trip would have been with my fiancée. Perhaps just a call every few days for the butler to bring more Champagne and goodies!

Right, back to reality. This was Daddy-daughter time and nothing would stop us from getting more joyful. ‘Daddy – can I go down to the kids’ club and see what’s going on?’ ‘Of course sweetheart, don’t forget to put your sun hat on.’

After the golden sunset had plunged gracefully into the sea, we strolled across to Mu Beach Bar and Grill. It was stunningly beautiful: candles and starlight jumped around like fireflies creating an ambience that seemed to dance to the rhythm of the nearby waves and the occasional laugh from other tables. It was bliss: a creative seafood menu and good veggie options with well paired wine. Not much is better than eating great food with sand between my toes. Sophia was calm and relaxed and sat watching the moon come up between the buildings on the jetty ahead. This was the largest and most spectacular orangey-red moon I had ever seen. What a privilege to witness such a beautiful cosmic sight rising like a phoenix from the ashes.

We slept really well; it was very quiet with only the occasional sound of splashing waves. We had to rise for a treasure hunt before the heat of the day marched in. This was an interactive and fun search for children designed by Graham (of course) so that the children could learn more about this atoll environment. Sophia enjoyed learning about the wildlife, fauna and flora and keeping a look out for pirates. With each correct answer, specific to the immediate environment, she collected treasure along the way. It was all very well thought out.

Scuba diving was my activity for the day; I was pleased as Sophia wanted to head back to the kids’ club to see her new friends. I had dived before but was still a novice so I re-sat the beginner’s course, ‘Discover Scuba Diving’, to gain enough skills to dive under the direct supervision of a PADI Professional. It was a beach dive with lots of coral to see, but this drove home the fine balance of nature and how the slightest upset affects the largest and most powerful oceans on Earth. Being under water is so peaceful, with only the sound of the breathing apparatus to listen to. My other senses were allowed to expand and connect with what I could see – a montage of colours and shapes broken with the movement and fluidity of the fish that came to check us out.

Sophia and I decided we would like a sunset boat trip later that evening, but first we fed the stingrays – at least 10 had come for their daily feed.

We sat on the top deck of a beautiful and quite large fishing boat, ready for our Dhoni Cruise. We had the boat to ourselves – it was quite indulgent but something I wanted Sophia to experience. The fact that I had Champagne and strawberries helped and Sophia was more interested in chatting to the smiley crew, who kept her well entertained until she fell asleep, right at the moment when the sun was saying its final goodbyes and showing its full bloom. I said my prayers, thanking the sun for blessing and nourishing our survival, then leaned back sipping bubbles and gazing at the island we were heading slowly back towards. Sophia’s head was resting on my legs, and I noticed that this depth of stillness in me was rare; even though I often sit quietly and contemplate life, the surrounding tranquility allowed my mind to drift off into a dreamlike space. I considered living somewhere like this – the romantic thought of taking a 20-minute boat ride to the mainland for a tall latte, and Sophia having to travel by boat to school each day. Would the world’s seas eventually rise so high that we all (or at least those left) had to travel around like this? Something clicked for me in this moment and I shifted into ‘I must be prepared for this’ mode. The state of bliss was lost as I looked at Sophia, thinking that I really don’t care about myself: it’s the children on the Earth who require the knowledge and wisdom to survive what’s to come. I may sound a bit doom and gloom but actually the feelings I get are more, ‘Right, what can I do today to help prepare Sophia for what could happen?’ I thought I must learn to sail and teach Sophia how to navigate the seas by reading the stars, just like our ancestors did.

Visiting the local school the next day was quite a surprise. We arrived to the whole school – over 300 children – cheering with big smiles, and teams playing football with equipment donated through the Vivaveli initiative. The children created art which was printed on postcards and sold to guests, the proceeds of which paid for sports equipment for the school. ‘It has worked well’, said the headteacher over lunch. He felt that, without the support of Vitaveli, these activities would not happen. I explained to Sophia that in some countries, the basic needs that she may take for granted like gym equipment and iPads were not so common. ‘Why?’, she asked, and I explained that each country has its own way of doing things and that each place has something different to sell. The poorer countries had less to sell than the richer ones. ‘Which are the rich ones?’, she asked. I told her the countries that had lots of oil and other important things that other countries would buy for lots of money. I explained that some became rich and some became poor as a result. I also explained that oil came from the Earth, and actually should belong to all of us – but greedy countries and big global companies try to control the Earth’s natural resources by taking it for themselves and selling it to make huge profits. It’s this very process that has created the big mess in our world. But it’s OK, I told her, because lots of people are making sure things change and that we become less dependent on oil, because we know that we can use other energy sources like the sun, sea and wind – resources that are free and all around us. We won’t have to dig up the Earth and continue to damage it, so when you grow up and you have children the world will still be a beautiful place.

Although I hoped this to be true, I didn’t fully believe it. I ended by telling her that the only way we could help things change is by changing the way we live on the Earth, and by not buying things that we don’t really need. We must care for the Earth like it cares for us; everything we have and eat all comes from the Earth and, because there are so many people now, the Earth can’t replenish itself as quickly as we are using things. She understood this I’m absolutely sure, because since that conversation she has often questioned whether she needs something or whether she would just like to have it, which to me shows she has expanded her awareness and consciousness enough to question things within her own heart.

The following day I went to Malé to interview the tourism minister; the only question I wanted an answer to was why he intended to develop a further 400 islands while the globe’s warming. He said these islands would be in the north of the Maldives, where the land mass is more elevated and would be protected against rising sea levels. I wasn’t so sure. I guess we will just have to wait and see.

The day ended for me with a Swedish massage in the Talise spa and dinner in the Fenesse, the finest of the three restaurants. The treatment and the dinner were just perfect – and all in beautiful surroundings. I pondered over how anything in life is possible and whether one day we would choose to live somewhere like this. If I had to weigh up living in such beauty against the climatic shifts predicted, I decided that, whatever the planet decides to do, I would make sure to enjoy every possible moment in celebration of life. Celebrating on Bolfishi Island would be far easier than in the busy streets of central London – in fact, these worlds are so far apart that as an experience in itself, everyone should go to the Maldives at least once and live in a paradise that will enrich memories to draw from in case the world changes so dramatically that these places can no longer be reached.

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