The Dark Side of Paradise
2017, Middle School, Prose
The Maldives. You’ve probably heard of the luxurious cluster of islands in the Indian Ocean known for its beautiful beaches and clear waters. Tom Masters, a writer for Lonely Planet’s “Introducing Maldives” tells us, “While some beaches may boast softer granules than others, the basic fact remains: you’ll find consistently whiter-than-white powder sand and luminous cyan-blue water like this almost nowhere else on earth” (Planet, Lonely. “Maldives.” Lonely Planet . 11 June 2017). Scroll through millions of travel reviews on the Maldives, and words like “paradise,” “perfect,” and “pristine” will jump out at you. To many, Maldives is often a dream vacation site that conjures up clean, untouched ocean waters. My experience at the Maldives certainly was different from the majority of other tourists, but I learned more about myself and my surroundings, and it has impacted my life in such a huge way, I think it’s well worth sharing.
A beep echoes through the narrow aircraft, “Welcome to the Royal Hydroplane. This is your captain speaking. We will arrive at the Ruby Vista Resort in approximately 30 minutes. Please buckle up for take-off and landing. We hope you have a wonderful ride!” The plane jerks up, sailing through the lucid water before elevating up. My beating heart elevates, and I can’t stop smiling.
I glance around. Families of all sorts surround us, each chatting in their own dialect. I watch two toddlers fight over the flimsy tourist map, screaming out insults at each other while their mom silently hushes them, sighing.
My dad nudges me, “Check out these cool activities we can do here!” He scrolls through his phone, showing me his illuminated screen. I take it and sift through dozens of images. Kids riding dolphins. A family riding a deluxe cruise ship. Massive five-course meals. My insides feel light and I have great, great hope and excitement. My mom nods, twisting her ironed-straight auburn hair into a massive bun. She rambles about the uniqueness and beauty of the Maldives, and I actually pay attention to her. The Maldives is just perfect. There’s nothing more than that.
I’m staring through the window, watching as different islands appear, almost blending in with the sea. I drift off into a half-sleep, watching the islands through my blurred eyes. It almost seems like we’re visiting the same islands over and over again. When another beep projects through the speakers. The same voice sounds, “Hello, this is your captain speaking again. Unfortunately, we have to make an emergency stop at Thilafushi, as the waves are dangerously rough at this moment. Please get ready for landing. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.” I groan, trying to keep a positive outlook.
As soon as I step out of the aircraft, a waft hits my nose and sends my lungs into great pain, causing me to cough and cough and cough. My mom wrinkles her nose and winces. The smell of smoke settles on the whole island. I glance around the dirt-paved roads and small houses, looking for signs of an open fire. None. This place definitely isn’t a resort, and it was never featured in the thick tourist guide we purchased a few weeks before.
My dad pulls my mom and me away, running to the direction of the hotel. I stiffen and solemnly follow him, observing my surroundings. Piles of trash are scattered around the island, hidden in obscure clumps. We watch as a rusty pick-up truck dumps trash into the massive landfill. Plastic bags and wrappers and electronic waste spill out, joining the larger mass. Workers yell in a foreign language, their voices raspy from the smoke. They strike a match and throw it in the pile, and a sizzle sounds before the flame grows and devours every single piece of trash, consuming it. The ocean tides are rough, reaching onto the island and pulling in debris and dirt into the intoxicated water. I can practically see mercury seeping through the ocean, suffocating little bits of algae and causing the whole food web to go up in flames. Death. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a heap of half-burned plastic cups that read, “RUBY VISTA RESORT.”
My dad calls out with his booming voice, and it takes a while before a worker turns to us and glares. He signals him to come over, and the worker slowly makes his way over to us.
“Yes?” His American is embroidered with an accent, and it’s raspy from all the smoke. His eyes are red and his hands are dirty and scarred.
“What is this place! What are you guys doing?” His voice is still loud and firm, but I catch an unfamiliar quiver in his voice. Uncertainty. Trouble.
“This?” He laughs, “This is the aftermath of tourism. This is the Maldives. This is Thilafushi. This is us.”
“Why are you doing this?” He demands, “This is so stupid!”
“Because of you. You are aware that tourism causes massive loads of trash, but guess what? You’re blinded by the ‘beauty’ of our country that you don’t care. You don’t care at all. This is where you hide away from all your problems and create more pain. For us. We have no choice. This is our life, and it’s made by you. Of course, the government is delighted that this island has been hidden for over 20 years. This is reality. The mirage. The dark side of paradise. You guys just don’t get it,” He sighs, but he speaks in a fluid tone that tells me he’s recited this speech many times before. Too many times.
The smell overwhelms me, digging into my soul and every crevice of my body and I bolt. I see the blinking sign of our hotel and use my key to get in. I collapse onto the bed and dream of our actual resort and all the fun activities, but then all I see is pain. The pain of the workers, the pain of the marine animals that had to leave their intoxicated homes. All because of us. I shake in bed and clutch my pillow, sleeping a sleep like no other.
I hear my name being called. I feel sweat on my face, and it feels like I just fell asleep. My parents don’t look at me when saying that the waves had settled and we would finally be going to the deluxe Ruby Vista Resort. I groan and turn around, and yesterday’s events flash at me. I’m not sure if I still want to go, but I have to. We’d been preparing for this moment for forever.
We board the same hydroplane but the atmosphere has shifted. The captain’s voice sounds cheery and excited, but a small hint of uneasiness lingers in his tone. Some passengers are still happily chatting, smiling to themselves, while others hang their heads in misery. I just silently close my eyes and think. My parents turn away and sigh, not bothering to lighten up the mood. I guess we just all felt ashamed.
After a couple minutes, we are informed that we have arrived. As soon as I step out, I can’t help but admire the beauty around me. Palm trees and tropical flowers are scattered around the island, butterflies and birds fluttering near them. The beach is spotless and the soft white sand is glowing from moonlight. A wispy haze settles on the ocean, and the cerulean liquid pulsates in a steady beat. The resort villa is a massive dome with a illuminating flowers.
My mom turns to me, a smile plastered on her face. Plastered. “This is beautiful. We’re gonna have so much fun!” My dad eagerly nods, but their smiles don’t reach their eyes. And then the hotel worker hands me a plastic cup. One that reads, “RUBY VISTA RESORT.” I turn away and avoid eye contact. I have to do something. This is my chance. Start small.
Then a thought rushes through my body and I stand up straight, “You know that this isn’t beautiful. This is a mirage. The cover up to hide the truth because the truth hurts. Because people these days are doing bad things, and they don’t know better. But we got past that. Us. We can’t continue living like this, hurting the environment. The ocean! The beaches! I can’t continue living like this. We can’t push this away. We have to reveal the truth to everyone.” I pause and keep going, “We need to let people know about this. We can make the Maldives lovely and beautiful. And then we can enjoy our vacation, but still being mindful. Keeping our eyes wide open. Not being blinded by beauty like we were before.”
Now, I work with the hundreds of volunteers to help manage the waste in Thilafushi. It’s been three years since my first visit on the “trash island,” and since then, I’ve successfully started an organization based in Thilafushi, met with the Maldivian government, saved multiple sea creatures, and raised awareness to many youth just like me. Thilafushi is a real island, but it is not known to the majority of society. Every day, 330 tons of trash is dumped on the island. Over 150 Bangladeshi labourers work seven days a week, for long hours. Even though my experience at Thilafushi was heartbreaking and I know the truth hurts, once you fight through that pain … it gives you unimaginable strength to do things you truly care about.
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When I learned about Thilafushi, a hidden island located in a country renowned for its luxurious resort islands and pristine waters, I wanted to know more. So I started researching more and more, and it almost felt as if a big secret was revealed to me. That’s what impacted me the most. When you’re aware, when you know, you feel. I chose to write a creative writing piece in first person instead of an essay because by doing so, others can relate to the main character and almost feel as if they’re in Thilafushi. I want my writing to open the reader’s eyes, to spread the message, to raise awareness.