1. The Maldives is the divorce capital of the world
Ironically, given that it’s so popular with honeymooners, the Maldives is the divorce capital of the world. The island nation has a divorce rate of 10.97 per 1,000 inhabitants per year, according to the United Nations, earning it recognition from the Guinness Book of Records.
Why is the rate so high in the Maldives? Various reasons have been cited. Perhaps the most compelling is that, as in other Muslim societies, where premarital sex is taboo, many marry young, but, under the country’s mixed Sharia and common law system, they can then secure a divorce relatively easily when things don’t work out. Others have blamed lack of childcare facilities combined with a rise in women entering the workforce.
Aruba, another tropical idyllic, has the third highest divorce rate, while the UK divorce rate is 2 per 1,000, putting it tied for 38th of the 104 destinations to feature in the UN’s figures. The lowest divorce rates are often found in countries with large Catholic populations, such as Chile, Colombia and Ireland, as well as Muslim countries like Libya, Uzbekistan and Bahrain.
The Maldives, incidentally, is also home to one of the biggest waste dumps on the Indian Ocean. Thilafushi might sound like a luxury resort, but it’s actually an artificial island created in 1992 to combat the growing problem of rubbish in the capital of the Maldives, Male. Around 350 tonnes of waste is brought to the island each day – or around 31,000 annual truckloads – meaning the island is growing by one square metre each day.
2. The Seychelles has the highest incarceration rate on Earth
According to 2014 figures, the Seychelles has an incarceration rate of 799 per 100,000 inhabitants – higher than any other nation (including the US, which is second on 693). With its tiny population of around 95,000, that equates to fewer than 800 people doing time (the prison population in the US is a remarkable 2.2m), but it’s remarkable nonetheless. A small portion (around five-10 per cent) of those detained in the Seychelles are Somali pirates.
Two more holiday paradises – St. Kitts and Nevis and the US Virgin Islands – also make the top five, according to the International Center for Prison Studies.
3. Nude Germans and a murder mystery: the secret history of the Galapagos
“The human story of the islands did not begin with Charles Darwin, though his visit in 1835 certainly helped put them on the map,” he explained. “By the time Darwin arrived Galapagos was already a hunting ground for US whalers. One fateful hunt in 1820 saw a vessel scuttled by a sperm whale, forcing the crew to abandon ship. For months the sailors drifted helplessly in lifeboats, sunburned and starving, before turning to cannibalism to survive.
“They drew straws to see who became food for the rest. Then they drew straws to decide who would kill that person. Of the 20 crew only eight survived. They were found off the coast of South America, insane and gnawing human bones. Their story inspired Herman Melville’s legendary novel, Moby-Dick.”
His surprising tale continues with the arrival in the Galapagos of an eccentric German professor, Dr Friedrich Ritter, and his lover, Dore Strauch, who lived on Floreana by strict, Nietzschean principles – “nudism, vegetarianism and mastication” – and attracted a wave of Teutonic followers. Among them was the self-styled Baroness Wager de Bosquet, a “flamboyant and ill-tempered woman”, who arrived with two lovers and announced plans to build a five-star hotel – much to Ritter’s chagrin. The “baroness” and one of her lovers mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again, before Ritter died, suddenly, after allegedly eating bad meat (despite the fact he was a vegetarian). Dore Strauch, meanwhile, returned to Germany and ended up in a mental institute.
4. Madagascar had a mad queen and was a haven for pirates
Fans of the Flashman series of novels may well have heard of Ranavalona. She thwarted European efforts to gain sway over Madagascar during her 33-year rule, but also focused her energies on brutally eradicating Christians, neighbouring kingdoms and political rivals. So widespread were the purges, and the use of slave labour to construct a vast palace and public works, that the island’s population fell from five million to 2.5 million between 1833 and 1839. One way Ranavalona maintained order was the tangena ordeal, by which the accused was poisoned, and then forced to eat three pieces of chicken skin. Death, or the failure to regurgitate all three pieces, indicated guilt. Others opponents were simply thrown into vast ravines.
The remains of her palace, the Rova of Antananarivo, can still be seen in the capital.
The island’s secluded coves, meanwhile, and the absence for centuries of European powers, meant Madagascar was once a safe haven for hundreds of pirates. One, Captain James Misson, supposedly founded an anarchist colony (Libertatia) there in the late 17th century, while Ile Sainte-Marie, four miles off Madagascar’s east coast, was simply referred to as “the island of pirates” on maps from the time. Countless brigands, including Captain Kidd, took shelter there when they weren’t looting booty. Some are buried in the island’s cemetery.
5. The US Virgin Islands has one of the world’s highest murder rates
Synonymous with white sand beaches, private isles and super yachts, the US Virgin Islands also has the fourth highest murder rate on the planet: 49.26 per 100,000 inhabitants (only El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela can beat it). A few other Caribbean destinations – Jamaica, in fifth, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (eighth) and St Kitts and Nevis, in ninth – make the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s top 10.
6. A sex scandal rocked Pitcairn
In 2004, charges of sexual assault (including some against minors) were brought against seven men on Pitcairn Island, meaning nearly one third of the island’s male population was in the dock. Six of the men were found guilty of 32 sex crimes over a period of 40 years and were given prison sentences. In 2016, the former mayor of Pitcairn Island, Michael Warren, was found guilty of possessing indecent images of children.
7. The South Pacific has a serious weight problem
More than 603 million adults and 107 million children (out of a global population of around 7.5 billion) are obese, according to a report from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, based at the University of Washington in Seattle. That represents around five per cent of all children and 12 per cent of all adults. But which nations have the highest levels of obesity?
According to the CIA’s World Factbook and, contrary to what some may believe, it is not the US that tops the chart, but rather American Samoa – an unincorporated territory of the United States in the South Pacific – where a whopping 74.6 per cent are considered to be obese.
A slew of other South Pacific nations follow, including Nauru, Tonga, Samoa, Palau and Kiribati. In fact, Kuwait is the only non-Pacific island to feature in the top 10. There is a clear obesity problem in the South Pacific; the weight of adults in the region is increasing at four times the global average. Some have claimed the islanders are genetically predisposed to putting on weight, while a 2014 report suggested that colonial settlers, who taught them Western ways of eating – frying fish, for example, rather than eating it raw – are to blame.
8. The Bikini Atoll is a tainted paradise
This Unesco World Heritage Site is dangerous for two reasons: nuclear radiation and sharks. It was the site of more than 20 nuclear weapons tests between 1946 and 1958, and – although the islands were declared safe by US boffins in 1997 – their original inhabitants have refused to return, and eating locally-grown produce is not advised. So no chomping on fallen coconuts. Furthermore, the lack of fishing in the area during the last 65 years means that sea life – including sharks – has flourished, which, along with the numerous shipwrecks in the region, attracts hundreds of divers each year.
Also among the otherwise idyllic Marshall Islands, of which the Bikini Atoll is part, is Ebeye – one of the most overcrowded places on the planet. Ebeye is just 0.360 square km in size but is home to 15,000 residents, more than half of which are under the age of 18. Some are refugees or descendants of refugees that were forced from Bikini.
“More than 10,000 people are crammed into a tenth of a square mile of livable space on Ebeye,” wrote Dan Zak in a report for the Washington Post in 2015. “The island is crawling with children. A third of its residents are unemployed and over half are under 20 years old. Government buildings stand on crumbling stilts with exposed rebar, the concrete spelled away by a constant salty wind off the ocean. Raw sewage pools in the streets. There are occasional outbreaks of cholera and dengue fever. The hospital has an on-again-off-again insect problem.”
9. Bali still has the death penalty
This holiday island, along with the rest of Indonesia, still enforces the death penalty – by firing squad. In 2015 it executed eight drug traffickers, including two Australians, in a case that triggered an international outcry, while Lindsay Sandiford, a British woman, is currently on death row after being found guilty of smuggling cocaine into Bali in 2012. Her case is particularly baffling: she claims she was coerced into carrying the drugs by a criminal gang, and helped police with a sting operation to catch her accomplices. She was then sentenced to death while others involved were only given jail time.
Indonesia is by no means alone. Around 50 countries still have the death penalty, including Vietnam, one of the world’s biggest executioners, according to Amnesty International (429 prisoners were killed there between August 2013 and June 2016), Thailand, Barbados, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago.
10. Cannibalism was practiced in Vanuatu until 1969
Nick Squires explains: “The islanders developed a reputation as fearsome cannibals. In 1839 the first two British missionaries to be dispatched from the London Missionary Society were promptly killed and eaten on Martyrs’ Island, now known as Erromango.”
After a visit in 2008 our writer was even offered a lesson in how best to cook a human.
“First, our ancestors would dig a hole in the ground,” a villager, Berna Kambai, told him. “They’d put hot stones in the hole, then cut up the person into pieces and put those on top. They’d add in some yams and taro, put in some more hot rocks, and cover it all over with banana leaves to keep the steam in.”
Standard baking time was three to five hours, apparently, and the chief of the village always got to eat the victim’s head.
Most anthropologists agree that Vanuatu’s last recorded cannibal killing took place as recently as 1969.
Vanuatu is also the world’s most dangerous country when it comes to natural disasters. The 2015 World Risk Report, compiled by the United Nations University for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), assigned a risk percentage to a total of 173 countries, based on the chances of experiencing earthquakes, storms, floods, droughts and sea level rises. Number one, with 36.43 per cent, was Vanuatu, ahead of Tonga, Philippines, Guatemala and Bangladesh.