Normally the Maldives is out of bounds to the everyday Sri Lankan traveler; purse-strings are too tight, and the place is known as a haven for the rich and famous. The prices are high, we reason.
However, it is possible to do the Maldives not necessarily on the cheap, but cheaper than you'd expect. You just need to be willing to exchange the manufactured island resort feel for a proper experience of the locality.
We landed in Gan airport, which is right in the South of the Maldives. This is clear across the equator. So that's a nice little thing to check off your bucket list if you've never been south of it. The Sri Lankan Airlines flight we took (there is one each day) cost less than Rs. 10,000. The flight back from Male was a little higher, about 22k plus. Also keep in mind that flights from anywhere in the surrounding atolls to Male can be expensive, anything between 150-200 dollars. But flying to Gan and back is actually quite affordable.
A mosque built on the site of a British Church in Gan Island
The Maldives is under lockdown at the moment because politics. Well, not full lockdown, but they're going to be anal about potential journalists, activists trying to creep in. If you look anything other than a rich tourist, expect some friendly grilling at the airport. I dumped the full contents of my one backpack all over the customs officer's desk and started explaining the benefits of the herbal oil my cousin cooks up, offering some in case all the daily tedium of going through people's luggage gave any of them a severe migraine. They let me go after some jokes about how Maldivian beaches leave Sri Lankan beaches in the dust. Har har, at least we can run 2km without having to wade through water, i shot back. Actually no I didn't, I fake-laughed heartily and left with relief.
Gan Island is quite remarkable, until 1967 it was entirely dedicated to a British air force base. In customary British style, they set it up in 1941 and simply evicted all the inhabitants to neighboring islands to make room. WW2 and Post-WW2 buildings pock the landscape in a charming Brutalist fashion, and the empty spaces have been curated into vast lawns full of local fauna. You can also find the odd army relic scattered around as well, such as this tribute to RAF personnel who were stationed there. Now Gan Island is still mainly used for the airport, save for one resort, Equator Village, where I stayed and which I will write about in another post, watch this space.
Gan is located in the Addu atoll, the Southernmost atoll in the Maldives, of which Gan is the Southernmost island. After the British left, Addu briefly claimed independence, and the area has been a hotbed of alternative politics ever since. The currently exiled ex-president, Mohammed Nasheed, said to split his time between Sri Lanka and the UK, has a huge support base here. His short lived reign left some marks on the landscape as well, like this huge white elephant project which was meant to be an international convention center, now being re-built into a much needed hospital.
The atoll is pretty much the only place is in the Dives where you can get the resort experience coupled with a heavy dose of actually mingling with the locals and experiencing a slice of authentic Maldivian life. I don't know about you but this beats accidentally bumping into Will Smith at the buffet any day, especially if the day in question costs an arm and a leg.
The islands in the atoll are connected by road, and being just 18km long, you can conceivably cycle up and down in a day with ease along the dead straight roads. The extreme humidity and the insistence of our host soon destroyed such hardcore ambitions however, and we took up the offer of an AC van, much to our internal shame.
There are some epic wetlands scattered throughout the islands, soon to be converted into an organized wildlife park. This might reduce the wildness of the place but will probably also help conservation work so we can't complain. Ride (or drive) through little pathways through the mangroves to explore hidden beaches, streams and copses of trees, see some beautiful wildlife (mostly birds) and enjoy some epic sunsets.
The locals mostly live in old houses built by the British, which incorporate a funny mix of modern construction and traditional materials. Most of the kitchens are located on the outside, to ward away the danger of fire we're told. And the humidity (which can make Colombo feel like Nuwara Eliya) means that a maximum of air and open spaces are built into the design. In one of them we met a lady who showed us some traditional Adduan dresses she was making, involving some complex lacecraft the process of which seemed a little like the beeralu work you find in Sri Lanka.
In the evenings, most people have nothing to do but to make their own entertainment, the entire atoll goes quiet after dark. We met some fishermen playing cards in a shack by the beach. They do this every day for hours on end, chatting, smoking and possibly sneaking in some banned substances like alcohol when no one's looking.
Close by there was street food on sale. And machang, what street food! Maldivian street food is amazing. My favorite was called gul(d)a, a little ball shaped thing, which has spiced fish on the inside. The fish is fried in rice flour, creating a hard exterior, it's like seeni bola for vadey fanatics.
There was also the addu bendi which I’m told is only found here. The closest it comes to a familiar taste is thala guli, and is made of coconut, toddy and sugar. It's not too sweet and has a slightly sticky texture, it soon grows on you and we kept gobbling them down with gusto. Accharu is also popular here, though they tend to use a lot of fish based sauce. Note: fish is pretty much found in everything. Fried moringa or drumstick leaves are a welcome crunchy addition that people even eat with rice, like papadum.
You don't necessarily need to stay at a resort to experience Addu, try couchsurfing and/or AirBNB if you feel like it, there is a small but growing segment that caters to backpackers here. But if you can afford it, a resort will definitely give you a nice environment to relax, and also will organize activities like fishing, snorkeling and guided tours that might help you see more things, faster. Just don't get comfortable in your AC room, head outside and meet the locals.
After a couple of days in Addu we headed to the crowded capital city/Island of Male, which was a whole new scene. Expect an update soon.