DAY 1 –
This is the trip that almost wasn’t. We’d been planning to go to the Andamans since before the tsunami. The first time we planned our trip was in 2004, we ended up cancelling our flight tickets because the travel agent was disagreeable. We would have landed in Port Blair the same morning that the tsunami hit. We thanked our stars, but still persisted in our attempts to visit these remote islands, cut off from the chaos of the mainland, floating little specks of green on the blue of the Bay Of Bengal on the political map of India. In 2009, we succeeded, and had a whirlwind 8-day trip that went on the Bhattacharya family’s list of Absolutely Epic Vacations of All-Time.
This time, we were prepared. We had tickets booked two months in advance. Our old travel agent in Port Blair (a friendly, baby-faced, enthusiastic bird-watcher called Vikram Shil and his trusty driver-cum-comrade, Gopal) had been contacted and warned that we were soon to descend upon the islands, this time, armed with 10 days of gleeful, travel-y intent. As Baba went to tele check-in 5 hours before the flight, he was informed his onward ticket had been cancelled. We were stunned. He was cutting short his trip because of work, so he’d gotten his return ticket shifted, but this was a thunderbolt delivered straight from the incompetent, unhelpful offices of MakeMyTrip.com.
Ma nearly had a panic attack. I paced around like a dyspeptic tiger, and after much threatening that neither of us would go if he didn’t buy alternative tickets right now, we left for the airport on a scant 0 minutes of sleep, and a lot of hope that the trip would defy the bad omens that heralded its beginning.
The journey to Andaman is either 3 days by ship (from Kolkata) or 7 hours by hopping flights. Ours went via Kolkata, and we had dressed to undress as we went further south and the temperatures rose. I stayed awake for the first leg of our journey, eating keema rolls that our travelling companions (Ma’s old school colleague and friend) had packed because budget airlines are basically a Dickensian poor workhouse in a flying metal tube. I was missing the New Year, the start of a college semester, and Sherlock Series 3 for this. It had better be good.
I was poked awake just as we were touching down at Veer Savarkar Int’l Airport. From 3 AM on a dark Delhi morning to 11 AM in the cheery, what-is-this-thing-called-winter-you-speak-of sunshine of Port Blair is a huge transition, and one we all made quite happily. Gopal bhaiyya was standing in the tiny parking lot, noticeably grown fatter after 4 years of marriage to his wife, Cecilia. A reunion like this, with our old driver on the same trip, was a first. When you come to a place as far away and alien as Andaman, your driver is your only friend, guide, and support. He knows where to go, when you should wake up to catch the ferry, where you should eat, what sights you should see. A good driver or a bad one can make or mar a trip. Last time we came, Gopal bhaiyya had a beaten-up Omni, and he steered us all with gentle good humour, and tons of patience. I speak for us all when I say we could have hugged him.
Port Blair looked the same to me; clean, very unhurried, with orderly traffic and a balmy breeze blowing through the window. This was certainly a homecoming. The population in Andaman is mixed. It comprises of mostly South and East Indians. Lots of Bengalis, refugees from the Bangladesh war (the most widely-spoken language there), Tamilians, Telegus, Andhraiites, and Jharkhandis, Indians of every caste and creed. Like in Canada, the government gave land to ‘settlers’ for farming. I remember being struck by the genuine co-existence, secularism and contentment of those who live here. The crime rate is low (‘Bhaag ke kahan jayege, madam?’ says G.B in answer to this question)
We made straight for Mount Harriet, which is about an hour and half away. To get there, one takes a ferry from Port Blair to Bambooflat. A neat line waits at the jetty. An ancient ferry docks skilfully and lowers a huge ramp. Trucks, buses, cars and scooters disembark and embark. There is no honking, no irritated faces, no yelling. Nobody stares at any of us girls. This is the first time an average traveller begins to feel that Andaman is alien to Delhi, or any big city. Mount Harriet is, technically, a mountain, but a very wee one. It’s a forest reserve, so it has no hotels, only a Forest Rest House.
In 2009, we’d stayed on for two nights despite being booked only for one, due to the almost surreal beauty of the place, and the excellent cooking of the man who presided over the entire property – Ramakrishnan. There is a massive, spreading peepul tree in the center of the FRH property, whose leaves swirl constantly in the wind, and it sounds like the sea. Under it, there is a British-era gunman point and watchpost, now half-buried under the soil. There are strategically placed benches, no more than thin slices of trees, spread around the baithak. Our entire party of six took to lying down on these and either falling asleep or being faintly hypnotised by the leaves overhead.
From the FRH, there is a hiking trail out to Kalapathar viewpoint, through a forest. FRH looks out onto an outlying spur of the island. On that spur there is a lighthouse. Its the very same island and lighthouse you find on the back of a 20 rupee note. Honest. Go look at one right now.
This time we were booked into two smaller rooms down the hill, because the Lieutenant Governor was visiting. The rooms had a bed, and a loo. And the forest all around with its sounds and silences.
We were provided with two LED emergency lights, because the FRH has no streetlights. We went out to the viewpoint in front of the FRH before dinner to watch the stars and sing tunelessly after a couple of beers. We sat in total darkness and looked at the lighthouse spin its light round and round.
Dinner that night was daal, bhindi and prawn masala with an infinite supply of papads. Ramakrishnan ji, shirted and lungi-d, likes to come to the dining hall to watch his guests eat, with a satisfied, maternal air. Its just him and 3 other staff at night.
He will occasionally urge you to take one more helping. And you will, inevitably, accept, because in Andaman, hunger is 100x.
DAY 2 –
The next morning, we went on a short excursion into the forest before breakfast. I saw an Asian Fairy Bluebird, an Andaman Bulbul (an endemic species) and two other unidentified birds in the thick foliage.
Thought we’d trek to the viewpoint at the end of the trail, but balked at the consideration that it would be 5 kms in total, and none of us had breakfasted yet.
So, back to the FRH we went, for puri-aloo (there will be a lot of food description in this blog post, be warned). After breakfast, Sneha and I went on another trip to the forest, where we ventured downhill to the abandoned house we’d all seen. In retrospect it was rather incautious of us to do so, there may have been snakes, and we didn’t tell anyone we were going, but the venture did yield a profile picture, a few bananas, and a banana flower. No snakes.
We went out to town for the day, drank tender coconuts, visited the Anthropological Museum , the Aquarium and Cellular Jail. Made a detour to the government emporium, Sagarika, which is the only place from where one is legally allowed to buy large shells, and shell products. The Aquarium was particularly nice, and Cellular Jail was eerie.
I went up to the central guard tower, thinking of the panopticon, and self-surveillance, and Foucault. I read the names of those incarcerated there. The gallows are extremely disquieting. We left, subdued, for the FRH.
DAY 3 –
The next day, we rose early and took the ferry to Port Blair, to wait for our boat to Havelock island. Havelock is to the north-east of the main island. On one side of Havelock island, the coat is lined with resorts. On the opposite side is Radhanagar beach, ranked No 1 in Asia by Times Magazine, and among the world’s 100 best beaches by CNN. On the narrow, rounded tip are the sites for snorkelling and scuba diving and other water sports. There two wonderful things about Havelock. One is the island itself, and the other is the journey to it. One must take a large passenger ship that takes about 2 hours to cross the channel. Our boat that morning was the MV Wandoor, and we soon deserted our AC compartment seats to go up on the muster station deck. Its basically like being allowed to sit out on the nose of an airplane, in front of the cockpit’s windshield.
Everyone falls silent when confronted with the mass of water ahead and behind, churned white by the speed. The wind hits you in the face like a well-intentioned slap. Makes you slightly deaf. A small pod of bottlenosed dolphins sped away ahead to us, and everyone squealed in delight. The captain honked, because we were blocking his view. The boat cut across shoal after shoal of flying fish, who actually surfed the waves rapidly to get away. They were unbelievably beautiful.
We reached Havelock by 3 in the afternoon. Our driver picked us up and took us to our resort (which I will not recommend if only because of the insipid food, and the staff’s condescending attitude to us, their only Indian guests) The view, though, was exactly as advertised on every beach holiday flyer in the world.
We could see the beach from our room, only twenty or thirty meters away. The rooms were small and basic, and there were lines strung in the loo, in the room and in front of the room for hanging out wet clothes. There were small shacks for 400 rupees a night which only had a mattress and a mosquito-net. I was told a lot of foreigners (according to their budgets) crash here for months till their money runs low, smoking weed and drinking beer and enjoying life. Can’t say its a bad idea.
That evening, my friend Sneha and I went out to the beach. The sand was white, fine and non-sticky. The tide was out, so there was about 600 meters of ankle length water about. We went poking in the tide pools, determined to spot some sea snakes and crabs and things. Sea-snakes were a no-show, but we did spot some mysterious, many-armed, striped worm, three crabs and furry black slugs. The crabs were tiny, and vibrantly coloured: purple-tipped, Mad-eye Moody-like cautious and inadvertently cute.
On the beach there were these creatures in variously-shaped shells that dragged their shells about, instantly retreating into them at the sound of a footstep.
Sneha and I picked one up and brought it to Mum, who is the resident intrepid naturalist and fearless Bear Grylls. She came out with us to the tide pools, and the three of us corned a tiny black-and-white crab, whom we released in the ocean at night, out of sheer pity.
That day we deliberated about our choice of water-sport. Scuba, or snorkelling, or sea-walking? Sea walking, where they essentially put a giant goldfish bowl over your head and lead boots on your feet, seemed faintly ridiculous to me. Last time, I had snorkelled (Is that a verb?) and loved it. It conquered some of my fear about swimming, so much so that I had two gos at it.
Ma and uncle went to a nearby resort/diving center to ask about the probability of us non-swimmers drowning.
I have the buoyancy and swimming ability of a very large rock.
Going 24 feet underwater with a tank on my back and some breathing tube in my mouth has always been something of a nightmare. So naturally, I wanted to do it. Ma came back with good news – there seemed to be a scuba-diving excursion catering exclusively to mayfly tourists like us who weren’t going to do a certificate course in open-ocean diving. Apparently, all you needed to do was listen to their instructions. We also made friends with a one-eyed dog.
Very well, then. If I made it through this, I’d be mighty proud of myself.
I woke up and thought, ‘Oh dear god, scuba’.
Clutching our packed breakfast, we went two doors down to Gold’s Diving India, run by (really!) Mithun Chakrabarty. He sported an impressive handlebar moustache, and we were handed these half-sleeved, knee-length wetsuits we changed into.
Everyone told me my wetsuit was very ~smart, but I was too busy trying not to feel panicky. Would the water chuckle darkly when I dipped in a toe and decide to make me a statistic? From the beach, we took a speedboat, where a crew of fully-suited divers waited, with fins and little knives (very, very cool) and all sorts of equipment. We were going out to the lighthouse diving site. Would we have to plunge overboard? I had so many questions, but as we beached the boat, each of us was assigned a nanny-diver. Mine was Augustine bhaiyya. His parents are originally from Jharkhand, but he insisted he was ‘from here’. That’s what everyone in Andaman says, regardless of roots. ‘Aap kahan ke ho?’ ‘Hum? Yahan ke.’ It makes me feel petty for trying to force in boundaries on a population that wants to be fuzzy and dissolved.
As we circled around our instructor, we were strapped into our harnesses. We stood in waist-deep water.
Augustine bhaiyya ran me through some tips on how to cough, spit, swallow, get water out of my mask and unblock my ears underwater. His most insistent instruction to me was to not laugh underwater. Then, he gently but inexorably pushed my head under water. I went through many, many seconds of ‘Holy shit holy shit is this a joke how the hell can I breathe underwater’ before I exhaled, and all the bubbles flew up around my head. Soon, Augustine bhaiyya decided I’d had enough time to acclimatise, and grabbing onto my hand, pulled me out into deeper water. It was all sand and the occasional rock at first. But then we swam head on into a shoal of fish. I smiled in delight. Shit. I un-smiled and firmly bit into the mouthpiece before I got a lungful of Bay of Bengal. The coral grew like tall, boulder-y hedges, with fish loitering about on top or beside it. It towered over us once we went in deep. I saw anemone with clownfish in them. A lionfish below, spines resplendently poisonous, parrotfish, giant angel fish, fish I don’t have names or descriptions for.
Augustine bhaiyya showed me how a forceful wave of my hand, sending pressure through the water, would cause clams and feathery flowers to instantly close up. I could go on and on. The hardest thing for me was to not giggle in sheer joy. The photographer of our group took several shots of me clutching on to table coral, and it felt like a passport photo, because I had to remember not to smile for a picture. I also felt rather silly doing it, with bubbles all around me, my legs bent behind me, out of the way of any stingy coral. I also look rather silly, as a look at the photographs will tell you.
We were all of us triumphant after diving, except for a few of us, because they’d had to come up for air once, due to a minor misunderstanding. I find that it may be a bit of a problem for experienced swimmers like them, because unlike me, who was placidly led along like a girl-shaped balloon, a swimmer’s first instinct is to move around, be agential. Everyone was full of stories of what they saw and how they felt and we all felt damn good.
In the afternoon, we returned to our resort, and frolicked in the ocean, as much as is possible for a group of noisily enthusiastic Delhiites to frolic. Ma swam a few lengths, and tried not to laugh at my feeble attempts. We jumped with the waves, doggy-paddled around each other. I opened my eyes in the clear blue underwater and saw nothing but all our legs. On the beach, there was a swing someone had made out of a bit of bamboo and nylon rope. And a windchime. And a hammock.
The foreigners swanned about (no, I’m not envious) with their toned bodies and wee little bikinis and shorts. They rose and dove into the sea like movie stars, or watched us impassively. After the parents left, Sneha and I messed about in the shallows, getting our bums scraped on the sandy floor with the push-pull of the waves and maro-ing lots of impromptu film dialogues. I kept calling her Parvati. I found a mangrove stalk that was my run-away husband. We had fun.
Later that evening, we drove to Radhanagar beach, which I found far more crowded (and thus displeasing) than the last time I came. But Ma talked me around to noticing the gentle gradient of the beach, the rock-less, shell-less, smooth sand, and the slight bluegreen breakers which had earned Radhanagar beach such fame.
Plus she introduced me to Vincent. Vincent was a crab the size of my thumbnail that Ma picked up from the sand. He was so tiny that his claws were translucent. As she put him on my palm, I had something of a transformative moment.
This was the first time I had allowed a creepy-crawlie to sit on my palm. I changed, ok. I changed. Yes, Vincent, you were adorable.
DAY 5 –
During the one last frolic in the ocean before we checked out, I learnt properly how to float in open water. Laugh all you want, competent swimmers. You cannot rain on my beautiful, spread-eagled, hypnotic parade. Even though it earned me a case of the most spectacular sunburn. I walked on the beach, tried to befriend those mysteriously busy shelled creatures which were not crabs , climbed a low-lying tree branch, and took several wannabe photographs of my own toes. I felt like Gerald Durrell.
Leaving Havelock was sad, because on our boat-ride back, we were not allowed out on the front deck. I sat by a suspiciously warm boiler-like thing and stared out at the sunset while chewing my 2nd paan. (did I mention that the paan in the Andamans is the best meetha paan I have ever eaten? Well, it is. And they don’t put any sugary nonsense in it either) No dolphins this time. The lighthouse below Mount Harriet flashed every seven seconds as we sailed towards it.
DAY 6 –
Left Port Blair early in the morning: Gopal bhaiyya said we had to catch the 9.30 convoy. We were going to Middle and North Andaman – Baratang and Diglipur. The drive is along the Andaman Trunk Road, a single lane highway that passes through small villages, fields and forests, and, most significantly – the Jarawa protected areas. The Jarawas are a primitive Negroid tribe, along with a few others, that have survived cut off from the mainland, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, since prehistoric times. The government, in my opinion, practices a strange neither-here-nor-there policy of non-interference with these tribes.
The main north-south road goes through their territory, so the government has arranged for vehicles to go in strict convoy formations. No honking, no overtaking, no overspeeding, no halting. Tourists are banned from touching, speaking to, or taking photographs of them. Yet, despite all these measures, a lot of tourists drive to Baratang just to see the Jarawas on their way. Sneaky photographs and videos have been clicked, as happens whenever something is forbidden. PWD and Forest Dept workers maintain the roads and bridges in that area, and they too, interact with them. When the Jarawas fall sick. they are taken to hospital. To conclude, the whole situation is extremely, extremely conflicted, and I’m doing a poor job of summing up.
But the whole convoy business makes everyone nervous, and obedient. We were on time, and drank too many cups of tea and ate too many vadas at Jirkatang (the starting point) while we filled up identification papers.
Baratang is a small island, from where tourists visit the limestone caves, Parrot Island, and the mud volcanoes by speedboat. We came on a Monday, which is when the caves were closed, but we remembered how thrilling the ride to the caves was last time, through an inlet into the mangrove forest, with roots and branches overhead, on perfectly still water. Its creepy, and wonderful.
So we persuaded a boatman to take us there. We also visited Parrot Island, which is a little-known island, which sports a perfectly even thatch of mangrove vegetation on it. Why? Because three different species of parakeets come to roost there in the evening, and they all eat the tenderest leaves, thus keeping the tops of the trees level. Its a sight to see. The boat anchors a few metres away from the island, and, as the sun sets, swarms of parakeets materialize from nowhere, circling round the island, settling with raucous cries.
But the best part about it all was the speedboat ride – the water was mirrorlike, and the prow of the boat was lifted from sheer speed, and Ma jokingly commented, ‘I feel like James Bond.’
We stayed overnight at the PWD guesthouse (accomodation in Baratang is slightly difficult to acquire)
DAY 7 –
Baba left our little group that day, catching a bus in the convoy, back to Port Blair, and then Delhi. The rest of us carried on further up north, to Diglipur, where we were booked at the Turtle Resort, near Kalipur beach. In 2009, it had rained heavily while we were in Diglipur, so we couldn’t visit either Ross and Smith Island, or watch turtles nesting on the beach.
When we finally arrived, after a long, 7-hour drive (having bought crabs along the way), we were exhausted, but not unhappily.
Along the way, I’d plugged in my MP4 player, and enjoyed an eclectic playlist (if I may say so myself, and I do) ranging from Mora Gora Ang Laile to Lady GaGa as the forest, always the forest, flashed by. Ma demanded that we stop, suddenly, at a small Bengali homestead in Kadamtala. We went in, brazenly, uninvited, and found the warmest welcome.
The house was made of mud, neat as a pin, with clean cowdung-swept courtyards (made by mixing together cowdung and water, and sweeping in large, C-shaped swathes to make the floor smooth and slightly patterned). The two sons of the house immediately knocked down three tender coconuts for us to drink. They had a glossy-haired black dog. Hens roosted in the hibiscus shrubs.
At the Resort, Ma gave me another surprise when she drew the curtain to the balcony to reveal a sandy cat sunning himself. I had a kitty for two short days, I shall say no more. He scratched me aplenty, but was adorable otherwise. I could hardly tear myself away from the local hotel stray to go the the beach at midnight that day, with Gopal bhaiyya, Sneha and Uncle, to see the turtles.
The torches we had bought in the market below were as ineffective as candles. G. B laughed at their puny light and told us that the torch he was carrying (whose beam went up to a distance of a good 10 metres) was borrowed from a friend, and worth 2500 rupees. But it was most definitely worth it, because we owled! Being with Vikram da, an avid birder, for all these years, G.B had picked up a thing or two. Whipping out his mobile phone, he played a recording of the call of the Oriental Scops Owl. We found ourselves in an overgrown clearing, and waited. When the owl hooted back at us, we lit him up and cooed over him to our heart’s delight. Look at that cutie.
We also saw two Hawk Owls, silent and imperious.
The beach, unfortunately, was a no-show, though I did learn that those mysterious little balls of mud around each crab-hole were the excavated bits of sand that the crab packed into a sphere and efficiently deposited near the mouth of the tunnel.
Green Sea Turtles, Olive Ridleys and Leatherbacks come here to lay eggs in the winter, which are assiduously protected by the Forest Dept. In the shack near the beach, two men from the Forest Dept keep watch. When turtles lay eggs, they record the site, dig the eggs up, count them, and then rebury them inside a special turtle hatchery, where each batch of eggs is carefully labelled and monitored.
This protects the eggs from being dug up or eaten by people, dogs, or other creatures. We waited on the beach, in near pitch darkness, the sound of waves near our feet. Despite hanging around till 3 AM, our luck was no good. Still, I heard the next morning that one turtle came ashore after we left.
DAY 8 –
Went to the Diglipur Market first thing in the morning. Bought fresh, LIVE shrimp, admired the colossal fish in the fishmarket. They were even selling stingrays. No squid, though. Ma went to a smithy, where she purchased a Dao (a large, curved knife, generally used to cut open coconuts), and some gardening tools. Diglipur is a predominantly Bengali settlement, so naturally, we fell into easy conversation with the smith and admired his smithy. He offered Ma paan. He told us to look him up next time we came (he says his brother owns a resort nearby)
After lunch, we set out for the famous Ross and Smith Island, which are two islands connected by a sandbar, which is only exposed during low tide. The speedboat ride was far wetter this time, out on the open ocean, we got a lot of salt water in our eyes. The sandbar is a nearly perfect beach.
Ma and I scavenged, and found some wonderful things. I tried an experiment with one of those little shelled creatures. I put it in a plastic box that had washed up ashore, half-filled with water, and watched it climb out using a ladder I made for it, with pieces of coral. I also found a glass bottle with some mussels growing on it. I spotted a Eurasian Curlew.
On the mud flats on the leeward side of the island, I saw these strange, earthworm-like tubes, which, I learned after observing them for a while were nothing but sand secreted by a creature which was burrowing away underneath. It retreated at the sound of my voice. I really enjoyed that island.
DAY 9 –
A long, long journey back to Port Blair. South from Diglipur, through Baratang and its jetty (this time crowded with tourists), through the Jarawa areas and Middle Andaman. Almost had a heart attack when we discovered (while in the convoy) that the boot door was loose. Gopal bhaiyya stopped the car and bolted out, hands outstretched, silently pleading with the other drivers not to honk. All our stuff fell out on the road when he opened the door. Tossing it to Ma in the back seat, he worked quickly, while all of us sat silently with beating hearts and dry mouths. Jarawas still do attack cars, sometimes with small rocks, or even arrows.
Saw a pair of Chestnut-headed Bee Eaters at Ograbraj.
One of the most abiding sights I will remember will be that of schoolchildren, walking along by misty fields, under dark forests, along tea-shops, serious and neat in their blue and white uniforms, but confident and friendly when asked to pose for pictures. There are a lot of schools in the jungle. We passed by at least two separate Sports Day celebrations.
Stopped so Ma could do some vegetable shopping – you may laugh, but vegetables anywhere are better than Delhi vegetables.
DAY 10 –
When Vikramda came to settle the bill, he suggested that we could go birding early morning the day of our flight if we were interested. Everyone declined, but I was all agog. So he took me along to Chidiyatapu, a reserve forest 30 kms from Port Blair, on his Scooty, for free. I woke up at 5, and got on a scooter for the first time since Class 2 (that’s 15 years, if anyone’s counting). I wore the extra pink helmet he had in the carrier.
He summarily stowed my ancient Russian binoculars, and gave me one of his own. With the help of his excellent eye, and his telescope, I saw some wonderful birds.
Racket-tailed drongoes, a Great Black woodpecker, parakeets, cuckoo shrikes and, most wonderfully, the first glossy starling of the season. Breakfasted at a roadside shack on my way back: malabar paranthas, chatpati (made of matar daal), sambar, chutni, and fish fry. Slept soundly before lunch. Dawdled about packing.
None of us really wanted to leave. Often after a long trip, I’ll wistfully think of home – my bed, my loo. This time, I didn’t want to go back to Delhi, to the cold, the Metro and my classes. I can see myself settling down here when I retire, an old lady with several cats, and a damn good pair of binoculars.