Sun, sand, and decline: A Nepali worker’s perspective on the Maldives
Many Nepalis have never seen the ocean. What are their thoughts when they see the sea for the first time? A Nepali worker recently spoke to me about the sun, sand, and sea, and what she really thought of the Maldives.
I first met Ramita in a cafe in Male, overlooking the Indian Ocean, and I noticed that she chose the seat with the best view of the sea. The young Nepali woman worked in a five-star resort, and a common friend had introduced us. I had just come back after trekking and filming in the Nepal Himalaya, and she was keen to see the footage and to hear what I thought of her country. Today, things are a bit different. I’m meeting her in Nepal, in her home-town of Bhaktapur, a UNESCO world heritage site, and I want to know what she thinks of the Maldives.
Ramita had never seen the sea before she went to the Maldives. She arrived in the night in somewhat stormy weather. It was raining as she got on a boat for a bumpy ride to her workplace. But next morning, she saw the sea in all it’s glory.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” she tells me. “But I was surprised to see that the island was only a few feet above the sea. Having heard of the tsunami, I wondered what would happen if a wave came over the island.”
Ramita needn’t have worried. The sea was perfectly calm, the sun was shining, and her first morning in the Maldives was nothing short of heavenly. She fell in love with the sea at once.
“I love everything about the sea, the waves, the sea-breeze,” she declares. “Whenever I’m having a coffee or a meal I always sit as close as possible to the sea. I want to savor my closeness to the sea because I never know when I may have to leave the Maldives.”
As it happened, Ramita spent five years in the Maldives. In that time, she made many friends among her Maldivian colleagues, who introduced her to things she never dreamed she would do: snorkeling and swimming in the ocean. She also sampled Maldivian culture. At the resort, she was able to practice the bodu-beru, or Maldivian drumming, with the in-house band. Her friends also took her to see some of the old mosques in Male, and she was struck by the similarity to temples in Nepal.
“They even have mandalas in the ceilings,” she recalls. “The wooden beam and carvings are just like those you see in Bhaktapur temples. I heard Maldives was a buddhist country before, maybe that’s why.”
Nepalis are predominantly Hindu, but the population has sizeable Buddhist and Muslim minorities. Under its interim constitution, Nepal has been a secular state since 2007, and tourists, trekkers and diplomats have described it as the most tolerant country in South Asia.
In contrast, the Maldives appears to be experiencing rising intolerance. Last year, monuments donated by member countries to the Maldives SAARC summit, some of which depicted other religions of the region, were destroyed by unknown vandals. Earlier this year, similarly unidentified assailants destroyed important Buddhist relics collected from across the country and displayed in the national museum. Ramita was shocked to hear of these acts.
“In Nepal it’s fine for us to see monuments from other cultures, we respect them,” she explains. She suspects political motives behind these incidents: “I think whoever supports Anni supports the monuments and whoever doesn’t support Anni calls for their destruction.”
Another growing concern in the Maldives is how the foreign workforce is treated. With an estimated 80,000 to 110,000 foreign workers, about a third of the Maldivian population, the country is currently on the US state department’s human trafficking watch list. According to the agency, up to half of foreign workers are without legal status, and an unknown number of them are vulnerable to “fraudulent recruitment, confiscation of identity and travel documents, withholding or non-payment of wages, or debt bondage”. But Ramita says she herself has never experienced any of this.
“I’ve heard of the ill-treatment of Bangladeshis on the news,” she admits. “But compared to stories I’ve heard about Nepalis in Malaysia, India and Saudi Arabia, Maldives is much better.”
Ramita is aware, however, that she is luckier than many other foreigners working in the Maldives. Working and living in a reputable and self-contained five star island resort gives her a certain security and advantages she may not have enjoyed if she worked in Male.
The Maldives capital has seen many changes in Ramita’s five years in the country, including rising violence, muggings, and high rates of youth unemployment and drug abuse.
“When I first came here I could walk around without fear even at 1am,” Ramita recalls. “But everything is spoilt now, and people hate each other. I’m scared to walk on the streets after 8pm. It’s very sad.” According to her, a foreign colleague had had her necklace stolen recently by thieves on a motorbike, and a Maldivian co-worker was surrounded at an ATM and robbed of his phone and credit card.
Ramita is very concerned about the deterioration of the situation in the country that she loves so much. Maldivians must find solutions to the problems urgently, she tells me. And, the political bickering and stand-offs must also be resolved.
“These issues are already affecting tourism,” she says. “Although I like working in the resort, I cannot survive as a Maldivian in Male. The living style in Nepal is different to Maldives, I’m freer in Nepal.”
Ramita thinks more cultural exchange between the Maldives and Nepal could help to foster mutual respect and tolerance.
“There should be direct flights between the two countries,” she suggests. “And more tourism should take place between our own people.”
Before our coffee, Ramita had taken me to see something she was immensely proud of: her own four-storey house, built entirely with the money she earned from the Maldives. It is a pleasant building surrounded by green fields and she has already rented the ground floor. She told me that she was now saving to buy furniture and looking forward to moving in with her husband and daughter. To have built a house is a big deal in Nepal, and for a woman to have done this is an even greater achievement.
“I’m grateful to my parents for giving me the plot,” she had told me as she showed me around the house. “And I will always think of the Maldives when I live here.”
Post-script: Since the interview took place, Ramita has moved to Sri Lanka for a job with better prospects. But when I recently spoke to her and asked how life was treating her in her new position, she just had one thing to say: “I miss Maldives.”
Written by Ali Rasheed
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