from a Sri Lankan "Sunday Leader" article

Portly George sighed deeply as we walked under the palm trees on his 1 1/2 mile-long coral island. "It was more fun in the old days," he said. "It's very quiet now."
He told me important visitors, of the queen and Prince Philip, Heath and Wilson; of the time that Prince Charles landed for a couple of hours but never made it on to the red carpet - no one on his plane dared wake him.
George, a.k.a. Hussein Mohammed Didi, had been a 14 year old when he started working on the remote RAF base of Gan, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, as an assistant barman. "Every afternoon something was happening - football, running competitions. I miss all of that." George told me how he had become an RAF grade - II football referee, and how, with airmen dropping in from hot spots all over the world, he had felt he was at one of the world's great crossroads.
Now the old base is called the Ocean Reef Resort, a lone hotel, 350 miles south of Maldives' capital Male and all the other tourist islands. George is the manager. The resort, he said, had been popular for some years with ex-servicemen and their families, and refurbishment in 1994 plus the introduction of more reliable flights on twin-prop 37-seater planes from Male have made it a more viable holiday option. This winter it appears in a mainstream British holiday brochure for the first time.
But what makes this place special is the opportunity, unique in this traditional Muslim country, to explore villages and mingle with the locals. For here you can do something you can't on the tourist-only resort island in the north: visit neighbouring inhabited islands by bike, thanks to a series of causeways built by the RAF that have created the country's longest road (10 miles).
I set off on the back of George's motorbike for a tour of Gan, following a road along the coral shore. The Astra cinema was showing an Asian film; posted in the foyer were dozens of cuttings in Sinhalese about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and on top were pinned the latest Sri Lankan cricket scores. A few yards away George pointed out the garment factories and the huts nearby where the Sri Lankan employees live. The whole island had an eerie feel; odd to think that a once top-secret RAF base was now shared between a holiday resort and factories churning out women's underwear.
Many of the base's old plywood buildings have gone, but the Ocean Reef's rooms are built on the original floors of the NCO's quarters, in barrack-like rows. British three-pin sockets still rule, and the rooms have en suit bathrooms, wicker furniture and a mini-bar, but no phone or TV - just the sound of the waves. The servicemen never had the luxury of the spacious swimming pool, and the pinks and whites of the decor seem distinctly unmilitary; but the magnificent billiards table (rules framed on the walls for both billiards and snooker, 3s 6d each) hints at a ghostly past life. George pointed out the old officer's quarters, now a guest house for government officials.
Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the British is the cuisine. Not that the staff can't cook: there was a delicious Maldivian buffet one evening, with fish curries, barbecued fish and meat, vegetable and rice. But many of the fixed-menu meals smacked of school lunches, with alarmingly ambiguous names such as Beef Bouger and French Frice.
To be fair, nearly all the ingredients have to be shipped in, for little grows here: but what with stew-style meat, mashed potatoes and tinned vegetables, I managed to lose weight during my stay.
Meal staff included Edin, a Bosnian from Sarajevo who had escaped two years manacled in a POW cell to become a windsurfing instructor here, marry a local girl and together produce a one-month-old baby whom he proudly showed me. As he put it: "I came straight from hell to heaven." Each day the divers among us set off in a dhoni motor launch for a different site. On the outer, steeply sloping ocean side of the atoll, brightly coloured fish were dashing purposefully over the coral, while a few yards away in the deep blue chunkier fish with big teeth floated menacingly. Among the corals lurked giant clams, gaping wide, fat brown sea cucumbers and stingray that must have been nearly six feet long. Fan corals, intricate in tracery, breathtakingly delicate, grew up to several feet across.
On a different day we dived 65 feet to the British Loyalty, a tanker sunk by a Japanese torpedo in 1944, now encrusted with corals, the hull teeming with life. Perhaps most impressive of all was a dive in one of the channels linking the lagoon to the outside ocean. Here the incoming tide swept us over the domed brain corals and billowing anemones through schools of fish swimming frantically to keep still.
Back on Gan, the beach in front of the hotel was less spectacular. Non-divers joined boat trips to uninhabited islands, or went snorkelling and night fishing. But the most unusual pleasure was to hop on a bike and explore.
Just outside the walls of the resort is the former Naafi canteen, now a cafe called Four Seasons, serving fish curry and Maldivian `short eats' -Êfish balls and other fishy samosa-like snacks.
Mohammed Abdulla, the lessee, who began his RAF pastry chef training on sticky buns, showed me his souvenir invitation to the royal visit in 1972 (roast loin of English lamb, new potatoes, garden peas; lemon soufflé) and his collection of references: ".... methods suited to a bachelor's taste... soon learns the habits of a new master... even produces drinkable tea, a remarkable achievement for a Maldivian." Echoes of empire, rather than the seventies.
Across the causeway under a thick covering of palms, Feydhoo was the first of several villages, with wide dusty streets almost empty of cars, the single-storey houses surrounded by gardens of banana trees. The villages were not so much sleepy as comatose, though in the late afternoon the coral shores came alive with football and volleyball games.
The occasional cafes were patronised entirely by subdued men, with small children outside jumping up and down squealing, "Hello! Hello!" like crazed Teletubbies. Outside the coral houses, women and children sat dozily in joli chairs, metal frames hung with string netting. When I lingered, the grown-ups shyly chatted.
One softly spoken man buttonholed me to talk about the glorious days in the early sixties, when the southern atolls were an independent republic; how for four years bankrolled by Britain, they had shopped in sterling, had their own passport and enjoyed direct flights to Sri Lanka and India. Like many people, he wished for an independent south once again.
More tales brought more surprises. Although popular with European honeymooners, the islands of the Addu Atoll claim the highest divorce rate in the world. I heard sinister stories of local djinni or spirits; of a jilted RAF officer who hanged himself from a radar beacon; and of the transvestite serviceman who regularly spoke to his late wife through a medium.
One day I took a taxi to the atoll's secondary school on Hithadoo. I'd been invited by a couple of young teachers recruited by Voluntary Service Overseas, whom I had met in the resort. Andrew, from Watford, teaching biology, and Deno, a computer expert from Southend, dragged me round the school to meet teachers and pupils, and even had me answering questions from a classroom of giggling girls.
Astonishing to think this is the only secondary school south of Male. Yet before it opened five years ago children had to travel to Male to study for O-levels - now GCSEs here. The volunteers assured me that readers would be welcome to visit, and even to give talks to the students.
Outside, on the coral shore, the school's brass band was practising under the palm trees. The beaming music teacher, delighted to hear I lived in London, told me proudly that his pupils were studying for the associated board exams.
I tried to imagine a music professor in an office opposite the Albert Hall setting their tests; surreal, but then so was just about everything else on this tiny island.
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