Next stop: Havelock Island

The class topper in school, the ‘all-rounder’ in college or the boss’s blue-eyed wonder. Everybody gets upstaged at some point by the bigger, better deal. This is what happened when the gleaming MV Makruzz glided into the Phoenix Bay jetty at Port Blair harbour. It immediately snatched all the attention away from the hapless ‘Katchal’ the government ferry service to Havelock Island, located 57 km away. Judging by the throngs of passengers taking photographs in front of the Makruzz, the Rs. 1500 fare (two-way) is hardly a deterrent. Before the MV Makruzz, the government ferry was one of the few options to get to Havelock. You could also zip over the waves on a Pawan Hans helicopter, provided it takes off from Port Blair (apparently services are sporadic). A seaplane service has also been launched recently. A much faster and obviously, expensive option.

We (my brother, mother and yours truly) were ushered inside the Makruzz by smartly attired staff. It was like stepping inside a plane. Big plush seats with panoramic windows. Much like the business class seats I pass by on the way to economy. And with enough leg space to play a more advanced form of footsie. The excitement was palpable. Everybody was grinning at everybody. The only discordant note was four decidedly chunky moustachioed characters straight out of an 80’s summer blockbuster. For some strange reason, they were all dressed alike. In Hawaiian shirts and bush shorts. Thankfully, their wives and kids showed better sartorial sense. I immediately nicknamed this quartet ‘The Flab Four’. The Flab Four and their entourage settled in the seats behind us. They tried to outdo each other with humorous asides, which only they found hilarious. The entourage maintained a stoic silence lest they might be seen as travelling with the Flab Four. Suddenly, the 90-minute duration to Havelock looked a bit longer.   

The Makruzz glided out of Port Blair harbour leaving in its wake local intra-island ferries, a couple of gleaming yachts, and many rusting heaps of floating scrap metal – boats that were damaged beyond repair. A chilling remainder of the 2004 Tsunami. The passengers settled down to watch a promotional film on the islands. Everybody was absorbed in the film except for the Flab Four who were chattering away like a bunch of monkeys with a serious case of ADD. I amused myself with fantasies of the four of them being made to walk the plank by the captain. And everybody cheers as each one of them jump clumsily into the sea. The entourage cheers the loudest.

I tore myself away from these cheerful fantasies and started concentrating on the film. I learnt that Havelock is the largest island in the Ritchie’s Archipelago, a chain of islands lying east of the Great Andaman, the main Andaman archipelago. I also learnt that whenever footage of indigenous Andamanese and Nicobari tribes were shown, people start sniggering and the word 'savage' was liberally sprinkled. It was more than a bit disturbing. A man in a recording studio located thousands of miles away tried to describe the charm of these islands in his best baritone. I must admit, he tried his damnedest. But it was a no contest from the very beginning. What would you look at? Images of beautiful islands on a TV screen. Or just glance out and see the same islands floating serenely past your window.

A brilliant expanse of green rainforest encircled by achingly white sand that flowed gently into a cerulean sea came into view. It wasn’t hard to fathom why Havelock Island has been earmarked for tourism. My soul skipped out and did a merry dance on the glistening sand.

As the Havelock jetty came into view, the slightly comatose crowd roared into action. In time-honoured fashion, everybody rushed to the exit. After a few minutes of confusion, in which announcements were made that nobody would be kept behind on the boat to work as unpaid deckhands, we managed to disembark. I was just happy not to breathe the same air as that of the Flab Four.

Havelock’s beaches were named with great imagination. The jetty was at Beach No. 1. Our resort was at Beach No. 3, there was Beach No. 5 and one of Asia’s best beaches is Beach No. 7. Thankfully, better sense prevailed and the beaches soon came to be known by names that had decidedly more character than numbers.

We passed paddy fields with somnolent cows and lush banana plantations on our short drive to our resort. Located on Govindnagar Beach (Beach No. 3), the resort had cosy wooden cottages set amongst swaying palm trees. It was an inviting sight. Ranjan Biswas, a hospitality veteran who wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Satyajit Ray masterpiece, escorted us to our cottage. In an attempt to make small talk, I asked him about Havelock’s numero uno island status. And in a manner befitting a Satyajit Ray masterpiece, Ranjan spoke with great feeling. “Before the tsunami, forget the firangs, even Indians didn’t know much about these islands. Now, everybody is heading here.” I murmured something to the effect that doesn’t necessarily sound too bad. I just managed to stoke the flames higher. "Who says, it’s bad? It’s not bad at all! But you should come only if you can appreciate the beauty of this place. It’s frustrating when people come here and list out one complaint after another – the internet connection is too slow, there’s no Wi-Fi, why there’s no butter chicken on the menu and my personal best, a family complained that it’s too quiet! The only people who enjoy coming here are the divers and the few who genuinely enjoy peace and solitude. I am afraid a few years from now, this will become another Goa or Phuket."

Ranjan’s worries are not unfounded. But then that’s the curse of tourism. I just hope good sense would  keep these islands maintain their idyllic status.

“Very good lobster...try some?” The young man held out a massive claw of a lobster which could have persuaded a New York mugger to hand over his wallet. I declined politely but couldn’t help wonder what it would have tasted like. Especially the way it was cooked on a bed of glowing coals right on the beach. My brother had no such reservations and immediately got busy coaxing the juicy flesh out of the claw. He gave me a look of pity. I turned my attention to the young man, Shubho, a third generation ‘local’. Shubho’s grandfather had escaped to India from East Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. He along with other refugees were given the opportunity to settle in the Andaman Islands. A choice they were not really happy with in the beginning. After escaping the wrath of the Pakistani army, they had harboured hopes of settling in Calcutta, but instead they were sent to a remote area. Shubho’s grandfather landed up in Havelock and immediately realised that they could not have got a better deal. The fertile land yielded them good harvests of paddy, betel nut and coconuts. And with tourism taking off, most of the locals are now being employed by various resorts and tourist agencies. Shubho himself runs a home stay (right next to our resort) where divers come and park themselves for months on end. Shubho likes divers. No Wi-Fi. No 50” TV. No room service. All they need is a basic bed raised some inches off the ground (the slithery denizens of Havelock have right of way), good home-cooked food and the sea, a soft whisper away.

Simple and uncomplicated. Just like life should be.

From the time we landed at Havelock, I have been asked at least half a dozen times whether I have been to Radhanagar Beach a.k.a Beach No. 7. One lazy afternoon, we trained our sights on this beach which was ranked by TIME in 2004 as one of the best beaches in Asia. Radhanagar Beach effortlessly lives up to all the hype. The beach stretches for a good 2 km from one end to another. A thick forest of tall mahua trees stand firm as sentinels guarding it. As we ambled around, we came upon a creek flowing languidly into the sea. A little raft made of empty plastic bottles was bobbing nearby. I waded knee-deep into the creek to get to the raft and do a spot of creek-rafting. My brother gently reminded me that this was the beach where an American tourist caught the fancy of a heavyweight saltwater crocodile while snorkelling in the clear waters. I reined in my inner Indiana Jones and waded out as fast. Crocodile attacks are rare. There have been about 25 attacks in the last 24 years. But somehow I didn’t feel like challenging the odds.

 We watched the sun sink gently into a bed of melting copper. A lone seagull cried plaintively as it flew across a sky awash with crimson and gold. I made myself comfortable on the soft powdery sand and tried to eavesdrop on the furtive murmurings of the waves.

It's a routine I wouldn't have any qualms getting used to.

Andamans Ahoy!

The naked man stared at me unblinkingly. I tried to stare back but was slightly disconcerted by the fact that he was holding a spear which was pointed straight at my heart. A deep breath later, I took a step back and started reading the inscription at the bottom of the grainy black and white photograph. It simply stated - A man from the Jarawa tribe. Location South Andaman.

For a tribe who has inhabited the islands for thousands of years, I thought that the information was a bit inadequate. But also quite telling of the way they are perceived by the modern world. I spent some time looking at other photographs representing various other tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands– the Onges, the Shompens, the Andamanese and the Sentinelese. Each of them followed a pattern similar to ‘The man from the Jarawa tribe’. A group in one. A couple in another. With a terse line describing their antecedents. There was no worry of information overload.

My mother always wanted to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands but somehow a trip had never materialized. So, my brother and I planned a vacation. After a flurry of emails flying back and forth between my brother, various hotels, tour operators, we finally landed at Port Blair on a sunny afternoon. We were received warmly by Appa Rao, our travel associate who promptly whisked us away to our hotel. Where I came face to face with ‘The man from the Jarawa tribe’ at the hotel lobby.
This densely forested island archipelago floating in the Indian Ocean, more than 1000km away from mainland India has always fascinated me. I think it was in a 7th grade geography text book when I came across a photo of a group of men standing at a beach. Armed with bows and arrows, everybody in the group was scowling at the photographer who was also quite obviously armed with a telephoto lens. I remember reading about the hunter-gatherer tribes of these far-flung islands who haven’t yet been ‘civilised’. It so happened around that time, I had read the Sherlock Holmes adventure ‘The Sign of Four’, where one of the pivotal characters, 'an Andamanese savage' made quite an impression on Dr. Watson.

‘‘Never have I seen features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty - his thick lips were writhed back from his teeth, which grinned and chattered at us with half animal fury."
Looking at the fine-boned Negrito features of the Jarawa man, I could only laud Mr. Doyle’s eloquent imagination that could turn man into beast so easily.
Port Blair, the administrative capital of the Andaman andNicobar islands is a pretty little town without any pretensions.

A town where palm trees sway flirtatiously with every passing breeze and winding roads indulge in playful banter with the sea at every opportunity. A few centuries ago, it wasn't this peaceful though. 15th century sailors, 17th century pirates and 19th century convicts approached these islands with a sense of dread and trepidation. They knew fatal bouts of malaria or aboriginal arrows would welcome them.

As I looked out from the bay windows of the hotel room into landscaped gardens that sloped down gently to a beach, I couldn't help think; 21st century travellers to these islands sure have nothing much to worry other than whether they will get that much coveted sea-view room.

A former penal settlement, Port Blair is more than a footnote in India’s tumultuous period in which daring souls armed with nothing more than unconditional love for their nation took on the might of the British Empire. The 1857 Mutiny saw the first batch of political prisoners transported to the Andamans or kaala pani. Heavily shackled prisoners were made to clear roads through dense forests and marshy lands. The tales of immense atrocities still rebound from the walls of the most famous jail in Indian history, the Cellular Jail. The son-et-lumiere recreates the heartrending events in the jail - the daily floggings, torture methods designed for the systemic breaking down of spirits and above all, the prisoners who always walked with heads held high. We walked out of the jail premises and encountered a man who stood with a placard held high above his head. ‘Fight corruption’ it said in stark bold letters. Everybody gently skirted around him. I guess fighting an Empire that assumed the sun will never set on it was easier.

‘Sir, Corbyn’s Cove is a must-do.’ Appa Rao insisted (he had picked up ‘must-do’ from an American tourist and never missed an opportunity to use it – Cellular Jail - must-do. Dinner at Lighthouse Restaurant – must-do.) I looked up at an overcast sky and then asked the wholly unnecessary question about whether it might rain.

Appa Rao quickly shrugged off the question with the ease of a seasoned weather forecaster.
‘Sometimes with clouds like these , it rains...but sometimes, it doesn't.’ We drove a short distance away from Port Blair on a picturesque coastal road to reach Corbyn’s Cove - a pretty beach liberally dotted with palm trees and the occasional bunker, a not-so-pleasant memory of Emperor Hirohito’s presence during WWII. We barely walked a dozen paces when turgid drops of rain started pelting down. Thankfully, there was a shelter nearby. A little hut on stilts, open on all sides and with some chairs thoughtfully thrown in. It was almost like somebody waved a magic wand. We spent an hour in companionable silence listening to the symphony of a tropical thunderstorm with the sea as a backdrop.

Corbyn’s Cove. A must-do. Just ensure that it’s raining.
One of my last minute purchases before leaving Dubai was a tripod for my camera. A reason for which I almost missed my flight. Having noticed an interesting house on a hill near our hotel, I took out my camera gear and set out for a post-dinner walk to shed off the omnipresent extra calories and hoping to have a session of night photography. A brisk 20-minute walk later, I found myself on a desolate stretch of road looking up at the house.
A stiff sea breeze resulted in miffed waves crashing impatiently on the shore, just below the road which I couldn’t see but could definitely feel. Add to this the silent house on the hill staring ominously across the dark sea and suddenly everything started feeling a bit eerie. I fixed the camera on my tripod and started experimenting with various exposures. As I trained my lens on the house for the umpteenth time, I suddenly felt a soft tap on my shoulder. I literally froze. And then I felt it again. Unmistakably. A gentle one, but nonetheless, a tap. A thousand visions skittered through my mind – a long-dead pirate curious to know what I doing in his territory, maybe an angry East India Company officer who just couldn’t come to terms with the loss of the empire. I took a deep breath, calmed my jangling nerves, turned around and came face to face with a man, who having at last got my attention beamed and uttered a cheerful ‘Good evening, myself Yesudas, what’s your name please?’
In a country where petrol prices go up every second week, one takes advantage of roads that slope up and down. And the reason why Yesudas spooked me out of my skin was this.

He had switched off the engine of his bike and was silently cruising down the road when he saw me hunched over something. Thinking I was in need of some help, he had cut short his petrol-less cruising and stopped right behind me.
Yesudas looked after the upkeep of a couple of churches in Port Blair. His grandfather had come from Tamil Nadu as part of a road building team and had stayed on. Talking to a second generation local was quite insightful. Like many regions in the world, tourism-induced development in the Andamans was also a double-edged sword.
More hotels meant more employment avenues but at the same less supply of water for the local communities. More tourists meant more waste. More tourists also meant big hotel chains with the ‘greasing’ ability to get permissions to build fancy resorts in places where they are not supposed to be built.
Thankfully, there are some strong local watchdogs who are quite vigilant and don’t let things go out of hand. But there are serious concerns as to how long they can hold out against the might of mass tourism. I asked him how the indigenous tribes are perceived by the ‘locals’. Prompt came back the reply. ‘They live in the jungles, eat whatever they find and keep to themselves. They don’t want to do anything with us.’ Which I thought was the smartest thing to do since the numbers of these tribes had greatly dwindled when they came in touch with the outsiders and were exposed to various ‘imported’ diseases that proved fatal to them.
Yesudas insisted on dropping me back to the hotel on his bike. As he stopped outside the hotel gates, I asked him whether he ever considered moving to ‘mainland’ India, apparently a strong attraction for many islanders. Not for Yesudas though. He had been to Chennai once. ‘Too many people. Too many cars.’
I just nodded my silent acquiescence.
Appa Rao was a bit disappointed at our decision to give most of the attractions in and around Port Blair a miss. We did make it to Mount Harriet, the highest point in Port Blair (365m). The views are worth the somewhat long drive by Port Blair standards. There are a couple of museums, Samudrika Marine Museum and Anthropological Museum that provide a lot of information on the amazing geographical, geological and cultural aspects of these islands. I really wanted to visit Jolly Buoy Island, Red Skin Island and Ross Island. The last mentioned is an abandoned propah British settlement with a bakery, a ball room, swimming pools, tennis courts, etc. The only thing missing probably was the 6:40 to Paddington. It now has a haunted look as thick forests have completely claimed back their territory. Quite fascinating. And it was just a short ferry ride away.

However, time constraints made it impossible. The reason behind this perplexing decision to miss out on these stellar attractions was that Port Blair for all intents and purposes was actually a stopover on our way to Havelock Island, located 57 km away.
As we headed to the jetty to board the ferry to Havelock, I couldn’t help but say. ‘Port Blair. It is definitely a must-do.’