The Maldives is truly an iconic beach destination. Not usually the kind of place we choose to travel to. In fact it was only going to be a side trip to our month long trip to Sri Lanka, which unfortunately we had to cancel because of civil unrest. But that is another story.
We spent 3 weeks in the Maldives loosely following a route suggested in Lonely Planet for independent travellers. Our flights from Canada were booked to Colombo, Sri Lanka with the same return. From Colombo, we flew directly to the island of Gan in the far south without overnighting. We then transited Malé (the capital) to the island of Hanimadhoo north. Our goal was to spend as little time in Malè as possible. And our eventual delay, confirmed that this was a good decision. In total we stayed on 7 different islands, including Male, 5 "local" islands and one resort island.
We arrived in the Maldives in early March 2022. There were still remnants of the pandemic. We had to download an app and upload our vaccination records and some details of our travels before we arrived. And there were extremely few tourists, even though we were still in high season (December to April). We stayed in at least 3 guest houses where we were the only guests.
Most of our accommodations were at guest houses which were uniformly delightful and the hosts very eager to meet our every wish.
A journey well shared is a journey well enjoyed ~unknown.
"You guys have a really good vibe!" the young woman said as the four of us stood at the counter to pay for our Albania beach towels, laughing and making jokes. And it was true, we did have a really good vibe going. Undoubtedly some of it came from the sense of freedom that we all experienced being able to finally travel again, even though the pandemic, it turns out, was no where near over.
My husband and I, and another couple had decided that Greece was going to be our first post-pandemic trip. So in May 2021 we optimistically booked the flights, when vaccines gave hope that the pandemic was winding down. Little did we know it would get worse before it got better. So quite by accident we hit the travel sweet spot; in the middle of September when the Delta variant was waning and before the omicron variant started to wreak havoc. But the pandemic was not the only factor in determining how this trip (or any trip) would go. There were still all of the usual factors that can make or break a trip. Starting with the weather…
The middle of September, is the beginning of the low season in Greece, when the rains begin but temperatures are still pleasant. Luckily, we had decided to travel west to east, keeping one step ahead of the rain. We heard stories of other travellers, a few days behind us that weren't so lucky.
Your choice of travel companions can have a huge impact on how enjoyable a trip is. Although we had known Elton and Elise for decades, enjoyed many camping trips with them as well as time together in a friend's AirBnB in Jamaica, this trip together would be very different. Especially the logistics. We had decided to visit as many Greek Islands as possible, starting our trip on Corfu, but after that we had only a loose itinerary so we were arranging accommodations and transportation as we went. Could four strong headed people, cooperate on these decisions for weeks at a time?
In hindsight, it's sort of interesting how we didn't attempt to manage expections a little more, or even talk about things like: what kind of restaurants did we want to eat in? How much did we want to spend an accommodation? What kind of things did we want to see? What kind of pace did we want to set? How much walking did we want to do? Was everyone going to contribute to the planning in a fair way? Was everyone willing to be flexible? How much time did we want to spend together? The only thing we agreed on was a rough budget for the entire trip. There was just inherently a trust between us that everything would work out and so many things just fell into place without too much effort.
Family style meals
One of the first things that we settled into, was a pattern for meals. We are all flexible eaters who like to try different things, so the first few meals we spent eating off of each other's plates. Until finally we decided that it was just easier to order a few plates and share everything. Some servers commented on how we ate like Greeks - family style. Our standard restaurant meal included two salads (which were always huge) and a number of other dishes that we often ordered from the starters. If we really liked something we would re-order it. Eating like this gave each of us a chance to try a greater variety of things, without the full commitment of ordering an entrée.
Not all of us would have ordered the snails that we had in a cute little restaurant in Heraklion, but after we all tried them, we ordered a second serving as well as ordering the snails every other time we saw them on the menu. My husband, Dave, being a retired biology teacher, explained that we were eating land snails, not escargot.
Finding shared humour...
Any trip will have its challenges and a sense of humour really helps to get through those. Like a family we developed our own "in" jokes.
Early in the trip, I mentioned that my friend Charlene had a technique for making sure that everybody was looking their best for pictures. She said you have to show your " tits and teeth".
On one of our hikes a young couple asked Elise to take a picture of them. They put on huge grins when Elise yelled out "tits and teeth!"
It always worked. Look at Elton's great posture in the photo below!
Getting in the groove ...
Car rentals made the trip particularly enjoyable because we had the flexibility to go wherever we wanted on our own schedule and never needed to skip our coveted morning coffees. And of course splitting the cost of a rental car between two couples made it very economical.
We rented a car for a single day on the island of Keffalonia. Although it was a very memorable day, it was to become a typical day.
We grabbed a latte from our favourite coffee shop around the corner from our Airbnb, before picking up the car at 9 AM. We decided to start our day by driving to the town of Asos in order to hike up to a Venetian castle located on a hill on a peninsula.
We ate lunch in Asos at a cute little restaurant by the bay. By now we had come to expect even the smallest restaurant to provide a good meal and we were not disappointed.
Our next stop would be one of the most renown beaches in Greece. After we braved the hairpin curves to get down the cliff, we decided unanimously that it had been worth risking our lives to get there.
To change it up, we decided to visit a cenotë after the beach but not before stopping for ice cream. The cenotë, was followed by a visit to (you guessed it), a winery. The second winery, that we wanted to visit was closed for the season but they told us that the restaurant down the road served their wine. The restaurant was set back from a beautiful little beach, that only the locals knew about. And we tried some Kefallonia meat pie for something local.
Because distances are short, you can pack a lot into a day. We did and we still made it back to drop the car off by 9 PM.
Changing plans ...
The Greek Islands are scattered with both dignified byzantine churches and lovely local wineries. Invariably we would start the day off looking for a monastery or a church but come across the sign for a winery. At this point Elise would yell out "abort, abort!" And despite earlier intentions we would end up at a winery. Sometimes we would notice a church or monastery from the winery, and that would help us feel a little bit better about ourselves. (Photo below).
One thing we were absolutely religious about, was not drinking and driving. Elton and I shared the driving duties, with me taking over when the roads were too windy for my motion sickness.
Since Elton wasn't drinking, he was our designated driver. This worked really well, as often I would drive in the morning or prior to the first drink of the day and Elton would drive back. So each couple had a navigator and a driver, which allowed us to share each of those duties. It also minimized the spousal criticism of the driver, or the navigator. Hence there was little fighting and lots of laughing.
All of us were open to detours. And to making the most of the fact that we weren't going to be able to see everything. Even when we felt like we had missed a thing, something even better would pop up. Elise yelling "Abort, abort" just added a little humour to it when we changed directions in midstream, which was in fact a regular occurrence.
While on Corfu, which was our first stop, we quite spontaneously decided to hop a ferry over to Albania, since we could see it from across the strait. This added a whole new dimension to our appreciation of the cultural differences between the two countries. Dave bought a shirt in Albania, but was warned not to wear it in Greece for fear of getting beaten up. Towards the end of the trip when he was feeling brave enough to wear the shirt, he discovered how many Albanians live and work in Greece, and he received several offers of free wine if he would come to a their restaurant.
The bottom line is that a great trip can be made even better when its shared. Good friends make good vibes!
We struggled with the decision to travel to Myanmar. It was at the height of the world coming to know about the human rights abuses of the Rohingya people by the Myanmar government. Should we be boycotting Myanmar? Would we be in physical danger by going there? Could we get caught in a cross fire? We decided that tourism would likely be down and so it might be a good time. Also we were not really convinced that our personal boycott would improve the situation in anyway and decided to go.
We had no idea at the time, that a little more than a year later, in early 2020, the pandemic would strike and all travel would be restricted. Or to make it worse, that in early 2021, the military that shared power with the democratically elected government would over throw it and that Myanmar would be plunged into a civil war.
In hindsight we are extremely grateful that we took the chance and visited Myanmar when we did. Myanmar still contained the romantic exoticism that has long been lost in places like Vietnam that have become overrun with tourists. With the lack of other tourists we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It is both exciting to see a country in this way, but also a little sad to see empty restaurants and hotels with only a few rooms occupied.
We travelled for about 3 weeks in Myanmar. After landing in Yangon our first stop was Mandalay. We then took a boat to Bagan, flew to Inle Lake, then enjoyed a few days on the beaches of Ngapali before wrapping up with a few days in Yangon. We had hoped to travel down the panhandle of Myanmar for a few days, but the travel is by bus and we did not have enough time.
Having travelled extensively in SE Asia we expected Mandalay to be a bit touristy but it was not. On our first day there we were followed to lunch by a young man who desperately wanted to be our driver. He told us he had not worked for several days due because of a lack of tourists. We agreed to go with him that afternoon. We took a chance and had a wonderful day. So nice in fact that we hired him to drive us the next day and to the boat launch on the day we left.
From Mandalay we took a river boat excursion from Mandalay to Bagan. This trip can also be done in reverse. It was a perfect day. But the lack of tourists was sadly evident. The boat staff (7) outnumbered the tourists on the boat.
Boat Trip from Mandalay to Bagan
Bagan is known for its thousands of temples. And there are two decidedly wonderful ways to see them: by e-bike or by hot air balloon. The e-bikes allow you to see the temples on your own schedule and it is absolutely delightful to feel the wind on your face as you cruise the country in silence. Being completely unrestricted in schedule you can make a day of it (or 3). We would do a loop of temples, go back to town for a coffee, see a few more temples and stop for lunch. Then a few more temples and a nap or foot massage. We loved not being on a tour!
The second amazing way to see the temples is from the air in a hot air balloon. I wasn't sure I wanted to do the hot air balloon ride, since I suffer from motion sickness and we had to get up extra early to do it. I also had safety concerns. But the evening before our flight, we met some hot air balloon pilots at the restaurant where we had supper. It was interesting to hear how the pilots of hot air balloons have to have the same training as commercial airline pilots. Since there are no pilot schools in Myanmar they are all from abroad. The pilot of our balloon was Canadian. All my safety concerns were put to rest.
Even after seeing the temples from the ground for a couple of days, the view from above was completely magical! It gave a different perspective and showed the vastness of the area where the temples were. When the basket of the ballon landed in the sand on the river bank, I decided I had found a new favourite travel activity!
David and Laverne
No Ordinary Journey