Two Thousand Isles: Seeing the Second City

The statue of two Dhondheeni (white tern) erected in Addu City for the SAARC Summit 2011. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

The statue of two Dhondheeni (white tern) erected in Addu City for the SAARC Summit 2011. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

By Daniel Bosley

Last week, in the first of these travelogue stories, I wrote about the almost imperceptible rhythm of island time as we set up our home base in Seenu Hithadhoo from which we will launch out into the atolls.

But what about Addu City itself? After a couple of months in any place, the things that stand out on arrival start to recede into the background, allowing more subtle ones to make an impression.

As shown last week, initial observations perhaps say as much about where you’ve been as where you are, so comparing the Maldives’ two ‘cities’ was perhaps inevitable. After so long in the chaotic fug of Male’, a breath of fresh southern air really seems like a breath of fresh air and, as if by some kind of Cinderella magic, that Milo packet blowing across the road has become a toad, or a shrew, or maybe a leaf (though my slippers are thankfully not made of glass).

Southern nature resists the urge to up sticks and follow its neighbours to Male’, and I’ve been repeatedly ambushed by creatures I didn’t even realised lived in the Maldives, though they’re probably saying the same about seeing me. Indeed, heading out from Gan International Airport, sightings of Bidheysee Sapiens become less the further you progress up the link road.

A small frog found in Addu. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

A small toad found in Addu. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Tourists from the Equator Village – Gan’s cuckoo-like resort nesting in the old RAF officer’s mess – can regularly be seen cycling across the causeway to Feydhoo, are often spotted in the lagoon-side cafe’s and restaurants of Maradhoo, but are rarely sighted as far as the popular local picnic spot on Hankede. This is a shame as the far extremities of ‘heart-shaped’ atoll (which I personally think looks more like a pelvis) offer some of the country’s cultural highlights.

Koattey’s environmental and cultural arsenal is holstered on Addu’s left hip, at the top of Hithadhoo, while the nation’s oldest cemetery, Koaggannu, rests on the right hip of Meedhoo. The latter also has pocketfuls of dhon dheeni – for those who miss the giant one beadily eying anyone who crosses the Gan causeway.

Shiny new guesthouses are appearing up and down the link road (and across the lagoon in Hulhumeedhoo) as entrepreneurs eagerly await the further development of the airport – a prospect that has tantalised the local economy since 1976, when the British left behind what was then the country’s best-equipped airport on Gan (much of which was subsequently shipped to the capital).

After a busy century hosting local villages, wartime bases, the RAF, garment factories and resorts, the island’s latest reincarnation as a seaplane hub is hard to miss. The airstrip that once ploughed through Buddhist remains has continued its journey out onto newly-reclaimed land and Gan in 2017 stretches out to almost meet the similarly virgin territory that has almost doubled the size of Feydhoo.

Aerial view of the island of Dhigihera in Addu atoll. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Aerial view of the island of Dhigihera in Addu atoll. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

The island of Digihera now presents a most peculiar sight, like a cartoon oasis in a sea of sand. Skeptical Adduans hope the latest developments are more than a mirage.

A lack of interested investors and the political hangover from the Suvadive revolt seem to have combined to leave the atoll waiting 30 years after the closure of RAF Gan before the resort boom migrated south. Even with the pound sterling saved from working in what was the country’s first real cash economy, this was too long a wait for many, resulting in an invisible legacy of absentee Adduans, forced to head north to work and to invest.

For today’s visitor looking for the remnants of Addu’s fleeting moment of rivalry with Male’, the most obvious are the prefabricated buildings of the British airbase (whose presence inflamed prefabricated political tensions). Neither seem to have changed much in the ensuing four decades.

More subtle signs can perhaps be seen in the large number of coral stone houses throughout the atoll – built in that brief moment when environmental awareness was yet to catch up with material prosperity. Steady income from the base allowed many to upgrade their traditional thatched homes to steadier structures, while the RAF’s cast-off furnishings were free (or available at a tax-free five-finger discount).

A coral stone house in Addu City. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

A coral stone house in Addu City. PHOTO/AISHATH NAJ

Many of these distinctive homes are still lived in and cared for, providing a nostalgia that can no longer be found in Male’, and on a scale that isn’t seen elsewhere in the archipelago. The sad sight of those whose owners have long since left for the capital are, however, a reminder of today’s economic realities.

In short, after a couple of months attempting to adduce Addu from a new perspective, it’s clear that whatever the atoll’s recent history, its relationship with Male’ will continue to determine its future. But even the most unobservant visitor can see that the so-called second city’s unique character will always set it apart from the first.


Editor’s Note: “Two Thousand Isles” is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands. Exclusive articles will be published biweekly on Mihaaru every Wednesday and Saturday.

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