Heaven Never Comes From Nowhere

It is 6:30 am; the sun turns the dawn sky a faint pink as light slowly returns to the island. The waves washing away footprints on the beach provide a rhythm to the beginning of the day; the melody comes from a middle-aged couple and their three kids beginning an ocean adventure on a yellow banana boat. This is how people start their new day on Sun Island a small island in Maldives.

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"I think this place is a heaven," says visitor Bowen Zhu. And a lot of people agree. When people talk about the Maldives, many use the word "heaven", to describe the breath-taking and magnificent nature of its more than one thousand islands. More than 100 of those islands now have luxury hotels that attract hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world. They spend expensive holidays in the cozy bungalows along the shining white beach or the villas that are built above the sea.

If you rent a bicycle and travel around the island, you will see all kinds of tropical flowers and trees everywhere – it's like being in a real forest, except cleaner and neater. The aroma in the air and the twittering of birds wake your body up and remind you to enjoy life in this heaven, however temporary your stay is.

But most of the tourists with tan skins and cute smiles have no idea where this heaven they love so much comes from.

The hotel resort and spa on Sun Island can hold more than 1,000 tourists. And it employs 1,000 people to take care of them. In other words, the number of people who enjoy this heaven is the same as the people who keep it running.

Many of the uniformed housekeepers, gardeners, receptionists, cashiers, and restaurant staff are Maldivians. But many come from elsewhere in Asia India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Long before the day's first tourist family heads to the beach for an early-morning swim, a group of older Muslim women arrives by truck to sweep away the dead leaves on the main road. Some of the male staff are arranging coconuts alongside the road, or placing some outside the front doors of the villas, to make the island look like it's full of natural bounty.

Listen carefully in the moments before dawn, and you don't just hear the sound of birds and waves, but the sound of water gushing from hoses as gardeners make sure the green grass and colorful flowers will never disappoint any visitors.

                                                                        A gardener is working in the early morning. Photo: Fangliang XU 

                                                                        A gardener is working in the early morning. Photo: Fangliang XU 

And unlike the tourists who go to Sun Island for a quiet holiday, some of the workers have to deal with almost unbearable noise inside the hotel's laundry building. Nearly a dozen huge washing machines are all going at the same time – so loud that you cannot even hear your own voice inside the room. Next door in the dryer center, the workers have to deal with very high temperatures as they dry and iron the newly-cleaned sheets from the resort's 350 hotel rooms.

The 70 "room boys" who take care of the guest rooms themselves are all Maldivian; authorities believe it's safer for the tourists.

"I only have four days break every month, from the first to the fourth of every month," says Gasim Moosa, the man who takes care of my room. Gasim is 36 and has been working for Sun Island Resort for the past 10 years. When I invited him to sit and talk with me in my room, he was a little bit worried. "Inside the room is okay," he said, "but we are not allowed to go to the beach."

When he looked through my French window at the beautiful views outside, I noticed some disappointment in his eyes – and perhaps a longing for the sea and the pretty young ladies who were having fun in the bright sunshine. He seemed to comfort himself by saying "Well, it is not that bad. If I want to go swimming and enjoy the beach, I can do that back in my hometown during my break."

Another worker at the front desk told me "If we staff went on to the beach, we would get warned for the first time, but we would have to leave if we did that again."

Gasim told me that room boys can make 300 US dollars in salary from the hotel every month. He said he also gets around 200 dollars a month in tips. "The pay is okay, it is okay, you know, because everything in Maldives is so expensive."

The hotel offers accommodation for its staff so that people like Gasim can save almost all of their pay. There is even a "family town" on this island for the workers, but it is built in the middle of the island neither near the beach nor with any scenic views. The staff rooms are only about 12 square meters and hold six to ten people. The average tourist's room is almost four times bigger, although the total number of tourists on this island is almost the same as the staff.

The backyard of their rooms is the place where staffers like to hang out. There are hammocks hanging from the trees for people who want to take a nap and breathe some fresh air. There is a big tent with benches and a television set for friends who want to sit and chat in a cool place.

Besides the staff housing, the "family town" also has some factories and workshops. Inside one, workers make the beach benches that sit in the tourists' backyards.

Another factory is for bicycle repairs. Mr. Lao, who comes from India, has worked there ever since the hotel was built 15 years ago. "I have to repair at least 15 broken bicycles every day," he says. "Sometimes I even have to deal with 40!"

Of course Lao is not the only person who stands ready to help tourists in this heaven: the lights in the medical center never go out, because a doctor is ready for any patient who needs him; workers who help tourists carry their luggage are always driving around in the sunshine; cooks are usually sweating over a hot stove preparing fresh and tasty dishes whenever the visitors want them.

    Mr.Lao is repairing all the broken bicycles on Sun Island, this is his factory and all the broken ties. Photo: Fangliang XU

    Mr.Lao is repairing all the broken bicycles on Sun Island, this is his factory and all the broken ties. Photo: Fangliang XU

Of course Lao is not the only person who stands ready to help tourists in this heaven: the lights in the medical center never go out, because a doctor is ready for any patient who needs him; workers who help tourists carry their luggage are always driving around in the sunshine; cooks are usually sweating over a hot stove preparing fresh and tasty dishes whenever the visitors want them.

As I walked through the "family town" taking pictures, more than one worker tells me, "Madam, this is not the right place for you to come, you are supposed to enjoy yourself on the beach."

But when I did that, everything from the "random" coconuts on the ground to the decorative flowers, every impressive detail reminded me that it was all created by the hardworking people whose lives most visitors never see. They are the ones who build this place.

And heaven never comes from nowhere.