Stretching over 800 kilometres of the Indian Ocean is one of the world's tiniest independent nations. The Maldives - once famous for only for corie shells and white coral sands - is now visited by a third-of-a-million tourists a year. But the Maldives the holidaymakers find so enchanting is only one part of the story - as Andrew Whitehead discovered when he spent a few days in the Maldivian capital, Male:
It would be difficult to find anywhere more remote. Male, the only settlement in the Maldives which could comfortably be called a town, lies in the middle of a chain of nineteen far-flung atolls, an hour's flying time west of Sri Lanka. As you approach by air, the tiny islands - altogether there are almost two-thousand of them - shimmer like specks of turquoise in the deep blue Indian Ocean. Beckoning from afar are the coral reefs which have made the Maldives one of the world's most up-market tourist destinations.
Male is the only capital in the world, it's said, which takes up an entire island. Albeit an island you can circumnavigate on foot in well under an hour. But don't get carried away by the idea that this is a sleepy tropical paradise, untouched by the modern world, where the locals while away their time snoozing under palm trees.
There's another side to this remarkable and paradoxical country. The Maldives has no political parties, no direct Presidential elections, no free press, no alcohol outside the tourist islands, no churches, no temples, no places of worship at all apart from mosques. It has no animals apart from cats, rats and bats - no dogs, no cows, and not many hens. And if any of the locals are allergic to tuna, well, they'd better emigrate - apart from coconuts, there's precious little else in the way of locally produced food.
But tuna and tourism have made the Maldives prosperous. The quarter-of-a-million Maldivians are a curious mix - part Sri Lankan, part Indian, part Arabic, with a dash of African and Indonesian. That heady brew has been left to ferment undisturbed for several centuries. The result: one of the most uniform cultures in the world, even though the islands stretch for hundreds of miles across the ocean. Every Maldivian, according to the government, is a Sunni Muslim. All speak Dhivehi, a little like Sri Lanka's main language, but written in a script akin to Arabic, from right to left.
The islands have always been an important trading post. But Male is now a boomtown. The island is concrete from one coast to another. Seventy-thousand people are crammed in to less than two square kilometres. Male's schools operate in shifts, and in some homes, people sleep in shifts. Ten storey office blocks are coming upon an island of compressed coral so flat that - buildings and palm trees apart - nowhere is more than a man's height above sea level.
Maldivians, some of them at least, are in the money. The shops are full of expensive foodstuffs imported from the Gulf or Singapore, computers, compact disc players, top brand cosmetics, and beautifully tailored children's clothes.
A puritanical censor board protects Maldivians from anything as shocking as an on-screen kiss. But it's not a sexually repressive society. Both men and women in Male dress well. A few women cover their heads in approved Islamic style. But the full Islamic veil is banned - the story goes that the President considers it a security week.
The President is elected not by the people, but by the assembly, the Majlis, which then puts one name forward for approval by referendum. Last time round, in 1993, the President's brother-in-law made clear that he coveted the top job. He was banished. A local journalist who criticised the conduct of the election is still said to be locked up in the Dhoonidhoo detention centre, on a microscopic island ten minutes by boat from Male.
Most people, however, believe that the government is doing its best: trying to make sure that the outlying atolls don't fall too far behind as Male lifestyles become increasingly lavish; seeking to ensure that educated but underemployed youngsters don't dabble in drugs; and endeavouring to absorb the thousands of Sri Lankans, Indians and Bangladeshis who fill the jobs the rather fastidious Maldivians can't or won't do.