My flight from Bangladesh via Kolkata takes me over forbidden and hostile North Sentinel Island to Port Blair, the gateway to the Andaman Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an Indian archipelago, of nearly 600 islands, in the Bay of Bengal.
Indigenous Andaman Islanders inhabit the more remote islands, many of which are off limits to visitors. Residents of these islands mainly belong to the Jarwa tribe. They are less than 500 in number and do not interact with outsiders. North Sentinel Island is home to one of the most isolated and hostile human populations in the world.
The Indians don’t seem disposed to care much about safety rules. As the plane descends towards Port Blair Airport and several islands come into view the shrill voice of the flight attendants emanates repeatedly from the back. ‘Please sir, sit down, the seat belt sign is on’.
There’s another labyrinth of documentation to navigate before ‘foreigners’ are allowed entry to this ‘restricted area’. I’m staying in Port Blair for one night, in a hotel on the bay, before being transported over the water to Havelock Island. It’s disappointingly windy; although the thermometer says 28 degrees, it doesn’t feel warm enough to sit out. I’ve a shocking cold – presumably it was lurking, waiting for a lowering in my resistance. The bar (alcohol after two weeks deprivation) sells Jameson Whiskey, so I make a hot toddy and sleep the afternoon away.
My itinerary says I have a private ferry to Havelock Island today. I’m picked up at 7.30 am and taken to the dock two minutes down the road, where there is a scrimmage, more document checking, more luggage scanning and a huge public ferry waiting. And it’s delayed. I have two porters who refuse to wheel my bags, humping them on their backs instead, in case it looks as if they’re not doing any work for their hundred rupees. And I’m deposited in a waiting room, trying to work out what’s happening.
There are large signs on three walls that state Keep Silence, for some mysterious reason. Well naturally, no one is taking any notice of that. The opposite wall has photographs of all the local fauna. Saltwater crocodiles and two types of cobra are the highlights.
We finally get underway, an hour and a half late. The ship is delayed due to technical problems. They’ve done a survey. Technical problems? In a boat? The Indians cheer. It’s two hours packed like sardines in premium class and we’re not allowed on deck. I wonder what steerage is like. I’m fed Masala peanuts by, one group of passengers, and am subjected to several more selfies. There’s still no sign of any western tourists. I’ve also realised that it was inadvisable to wear three quarter length trousers on a bug ridden vessel.
It’s advertised as a two hour journey but it actually takes nearer three, so it’s lunch time by the time I arrive in Havelock. The porter I was assured would meet me and unload my bags has gone AWO, but I’m eventually all sorted and underway.
The island is lush, fairly flat, beautiful and very quiet for India. It’s mostly covered with tall bent coconut palms and there’s betel nut drying in heaps by the houses. The roads are increasingly terrible, deteriorating to a very bumpy, causeway like ramp. Nothing to stop you falling off each side, if you don’t concentrate. My hotel is on the opposite side of the island to most of the other resorts, which is probably a good thing.
It’s located just behind Rahdhanagar Beach, yet another of those beaches that is touted as best in Asia, or number three in the world, depending on which list you read. It‘s a really beautiful wide stretch of sand, unspoilt by litter or sunbeds. Or anything, in fact, except some leaves dropping from the trees. In the distance I can see a public section, the water teeming with bathers, (flashback to Waikiki), but my area is almost deserted. It’s a very pleasant place to be, but for me it doesn’t make top billing. The backdrop of tall trees and bushes, is impressive, but there are no coconut palms by the water here and so no bent trunks to soften the view. And the water is warm, but grey, lightly tinged with blue when the sun shines, and opaque.
The backdrop though, is definitely an A-lister; when you step off the beach the jungle is spectacular. Huge badok trees (think mahogany) framed by fragrant flowered creeper, butterflies and birds and the usual accompanying cacophony of sound. My cottage is located in the midst of this, at the furthest point from the restaurant and bar. They’ve given me a torch, though I deploy it with some trepidation, tip toeing down to dinner alone at night. They could use some flares or LEDs; I think this is taking economy to its limits. I’m sure I heard a hissing sound from beside the path. I’m still remembering the cobra poster. There isn’t any Wi-Fi, phone signal or indeed, in-room phone (all excused on the grounds that this is as an eco-resort). I really begrudge the missing in-room phone when I wriggle into bed and find the sheets are damp.
The locals are as disgusted with the state of their roads as I am, so they are holding a four wheel strike today to pressurize the government into implementing their long term plan to improve them. (They only renovated the one route that the minister took on his last visit.) I’m even more disgusted with the information that the strike begins at 7 a.m. and they want me to leave at 6 a.m. for today’s snorkelling trip. This is so I can be driven to the dive resort, where the boats are moored, on the other side of the island.
Which makes it disgusted plus, when I arrive, to be told that the Local Boat Association have decided to support the strike. So, we can’t make our planned sortie to Elephant Beach and the Aquarium. They offer to take me out just off the beach here, for no charge. The visibility isn’t great and the coral is totally destroyed, but there are a reasonable assortment of fish, including a crocodile fish (better than a saltie) and an octopus. My very attentive snorkel guide, Roy, gives me a lift home on the back of his scooter. I can feel every bump – the accident in Bangladesh hasn’t improved the state of my coccyx, which met its first trial on the rocks in Palau.
Back to my woven mat on the beach. Maybe I will bring my pillows tomorrow...
Dinner is good, but pricey, prawns in every which way possible. Yesterday it was coconut curry, today it’s tempura. The staff, however, are definitely verging on the overly attentive. I’m interrupted ten times during my meal, to be asked if the food is good and if I have had a nice day.
The strike didn’t work, so today the two and three wheelers are joining in as well. I hope it’s over before I’m due to leave on Tuesday. It was problematic enough catching the ferry here. Anyway, back to today. The upshot is, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve staked out my patch on the empty beach and decide to explore in both directions. North, to Neil’s Cove, accompanied part way by Steve (Zimbabwean) and Susan from the Wirral. They look to be retirement age, are on their honeymoon and have been here 18 days. They’re toting purple bags, which turn out to be inflatable beach loungers. What an amazingly sensible idea, even if they do look incongruous in their tropical beach setting.
The cove is stunning. Driftwood artistically poised, some pretty rock formations jutting into the sea, horizontal leafy displays, sea eagles, kingfishers and turquoise clear water. Unfortunately, I’ve also been warned by the hotel staff not to go into the water here. A tourist was taken by a saltwater crocodile in this bay two years ago. I scurry along to the next point, savouring the views, but becoming increasingly twitchy every time I pass a log in the water or spot a curling brown tree root. There’s no-one around and several sets of dog footprints on the sand are the final straw. I make a strategic withdrawal. Steve and Susan are swimming quite happily; they’ve been told the story too, but have just dismissed it. I have too active an imagination.
There’s the usual heaps of plastic bottles washed up by the tide and disfiguring the margins between trees and sand. I follow a jungle path back to the main beach, thinking it will be interestingly different, but I’m now beginning to listen out for rustling sounds. Another English couple, Nick and Sally (there are, as you will have noted quite a few British tourists here-they mostly seem to have Raj or army connections) have already shown me photos of the tree snake they took. Apparently, there are several other types of serpent around. There’s a rumour that the cobras live up by the massage hut, but that’s been pooh poohed by the therapists. (Only green non-poisonous snakes here, they reassure me).
Poo is on my mind again though, as I have had to navigate several patches of elephant dung on the path. Depending on who you believe there are either wild elephants in this forest, or working elephants released by the loggers to forage for food. Much as I like elephants, I’m not keen to meet one on my own. It seems I’m not doing very well today, scary animal wise, and am pleased to escape and reach my beach mat. I would really like a swim, but the breakers here are large and I’ve been knocked over once. So, it’s not the most inviting of oceans either.
A trek to the bar, where the waiter contrives ice filled bags to transport my canned beverages to the beach and keep them cool. He tells me that Neil’s Cove has a very steep unexpected drop off and strong currents, and that these are a much bigger threat than the possible appearance of salties. I’m now very happy I didn’t go in. Now, time to relax and watch the crabs.
There are several different varieties, mostly tiny, with different methods of digging their holes, creating a variety of spotted designs around each of their holes, like spatter paintings. There’s a sideways cavalcade retreat, when they hear me coming. The ones near the water sink completely into oblivion, while the others scuttle into the centre of their artistic endeavours. The hermit crabs are also in pattern mode, leaving trails across the drier sand, a central line where they drag their shell, accompanied on each side by dotted lines, the imprints of their legs.
Then a reconnaissance down the beach, where there’s public access. The water still teems with bathers,who have more courage than me, and there’s a small fruit and beach goods market. Further on, an attractive river estuary and two small temples. Looking back I’m wondering if I’ve been a little harsh in my beach grading. It’s an amazingly awesome stretch of sand, both wide and long (maybe a mile in all). However, I’d still rate Neil’s Cove higher, if it wasn’t for the salties.
I’m now soothed and rested, until it transpires that the hotel has checked in a very large party of secondary age school children. Suddenly, my tranquil stretch of sand is teeming, just like the public one in the distance. No-one has made any effort to site the students away from us poor keep-it-peaceful-so-no-Wi-Fi tourists. And they have footballs. I decide to go for a massage.
It wasn’t a great night. The noise from the students travels in the night air. I’m told that they are all on a sponsored break. ‘Don’t worry, they leave on Tuesday.’ So do I. Breakfast here is exceptionally tasty. Most of the options are Indian and fried, so probably not hugely healthy. Today, I’ve had masala dhosa and aloo paranthia. The good news - the strike is over. The bad news - all the dive boats are now banned from operating because of some licensing dispute. (Don’t they want tourists here?) So, I’m not going anywhere today unless I use local transport. Anyway, it’s my last full day, before I finally head for home and relaxation is probably a good idea.
Rob and Gillian, from Wiltshire, tell me that the snorkelling close to Neil’s Cove is really good. They haven’t had any problems (or experienced any currents) and I’m welcome to join them and Nick and Sally there today. I’m thinking about it. I can’t get the Jaws theme tune out of my head (substitute crocodile for shark).
My safe has refused to open for the second time, so I’m getting very fit trekking backwards and forwards to reception, not to mention through the jungle to the beach, and back to the resort. I’m pondering my invitation as I gather up my gear. I’ve had clothes hanging on the veranda rail for two days and they are now damper than when I put them out. It hasn’t rained.
Well I’ve been brave and taken to the water, but it’s not so easy to scan the (dead) coral with one eye and check the surface with the other, so I don’t stay out as long as I would have wished. (Steve hasn’t helped by explaining how silently crocodiles attack in the water, when I meet him in reception, as he checks out.) As I set a course back to the beach, Rob is setting off for the horizon quite happily. Back on the sand, the sky is clear today and I’m finding it uncomfortable to walk without shoes. There’s no shade, unless you withdraw right into the jungle. I’m getting roasted to the point where I’m praying for some clouds. In the end, I rig up a little canopy with my sarong and four branches. Maybe not quite Bear Grylls, but it does the job.
They’ve already started to repair the roads. There are heaps of sand and gravel standing waiting and some of the holes have been plugged. They clearly know how to conduct a meaningful strike here. I’m booked in to deluxe class on my return voyage to Port Blair. (It was premium on the way out, which turns out to equate with economy). I’m upstairs with some leg room and the steward smiles, ’First class’ at me, as he shows me to my front row, window seat. But I’ve noticed there’s a small room at the back with tables and plush swivel chairs; the VIP room - I reckon that’s first class. There’s a great deal more standing in queues (I use the word loosely) and having pieces of paper stamped of course, before I get this far.
As has been the pattern throughout the Andamans the passengers are mostly Indian tourists, many of them clad in western garb. I find this sad, the saris and salwars are so colourful and flattering, the women so graceful in them. Shorts may be cooler (and on some of the youngsters they are very short indeed) but I can’t believe that jeans are more comfortable. Downstairs is almost totally taken over by the students who were at the resort. Deluxe comes with a free vegetable puff and a mango drink. This time I can hear the Andamans video, but someone has quickly changed channel to Indian music.
Port Blair is more frenetically (and normally) Indian and I feel I should take a short stroll before I leave. It's arduous walking (because of the steep roads, it’s very hilly) and stroll isn’t really the correct word. The dhobi (laundry) ghats for the hotel are just round the corner, flapping white towels and pillowcases reflecting in the man-made ponds. There’s just time to reach the Cellular Jail Memorial. The Andamans is where the British kept many of their prisoners and there are a line of bronze statues celebrating the most famous martyrs.
I’ve been told I’ll get picked up at 6.30 a.m. (I checked four times) but my phone is ringing at six to tell me that my car has arrived. I’m in the bathroom - I ate too much curry from the buffet on offer last night. The drive is another rally excursion. I have a sense of déjà vu, as he cuts up a white van and is subsequently (rightly) abused by both the van driver and a motor cyclist.
And time for a rant about unnecessary bureaucracy, ridiculous rules and airport behaviour. I have to queue to show my boarding pass before I can be allowed into the arrivals hall. Then, I have to put just my carry-on bag (not my handbag) through the scanner and sign a book to say I’ve done that. Then I have to go to another scanner to get my main case checked. A piece of sticky paper that I will find it almost impossible to remove is stuck over the lock and my name is entered into yet another volume. Then I am allowed to queue for check in.
An Indian family have covered all their bases by placing someone in each column and feel they can push in when my line moves the fastest (for once). I’m not in the mood and tell them politely it’s not very fair. The rest of the queue agrees with me. ‘You have to take your chance like everyone else’ they say. Even a porter tells them to wait.
So I go ahead and check in and am charged 400 rupees per kilogram for each of the six I’m over the 15 kilo limit. It’s a rule introduced purely for money making when international limits are 23 kilos. And even more ridiculous, when I consider that the difference between my weight and many of the passengers is considerably more. So I have to follow the little porter around the airport and outside again to the ticketing desk to get a receipt and back once more. The check in clerk stamps my receipt and then kindly consents to dispatch my bags, having reissued my boarding pass and luggage tag.
As a foreigner, I have to have my passport stamped again at immigration (this is a domestic flight) and then it’s security. There are a list of 71 items one may not take with you posted on the wall. These include ice axes and meat cleavers. Liquids are not included on this board; there’s a separate sign for them. Despite this, no-one picks up on the little carton of fruit juice in my breakfast bag, or the aerosol in my sunglass case (not one scanner has detected that yet - all round the world.)
As always, in India, there is a separate queue for men and women, and as always the women’s line moves much more slowly, as there is only one female on duty, in the little tented enclosure where the inspecting officer waves a detector around. Meanwhile, my laptop and handbag are sitting in full view of the crowds, out of my reach, as they went through the machine ages ago. The officer stamps my pass when she’s done waving and I move on. There’s another line for the bus to the plane. This involves two more boarding pass checks and two more stamps. Aaaaargh…
Finally, on the plane it’s a five hour journey (via Calcutta) to Delhi. The man next to me is attempting to take half my seat as well as his own. And he’s talking constantly in a shrill loud voice to his companion, right through all the announcements. The flight is so bumpy that the attendants have to sit down for much of the time. I hate this and start to go green. I’ve lost my Rescue Remedy. The woman next door but one tells me I have no need to worry, they are doctors. That’s not quite the reassurance I need.
After days like this I always swear I’m not going to travel again. But I’m pretty sure I will. It’s been another fabulous, if turbulent adventure. And I’ve just been sent an email with a suggested programme for my next trip. Home tomorrow.
From being a comparatively poor country at Independence in 1947, India has become a fast-growing major economy. It's a hub for worldwide information technology services, and plenty of call centres. Labour is cheap.India has a space programme which includes several planned or completed extra-terrestrial missions and is a nuclear weapons state, ranking high in military expenditure. It has ongoing and long term disputes over Kashmir with its neighbours, Pakistan and China.
Indian movies, music, and spiritual teachings play an increasing role in global culture. India has therefore substantially reduced its rate of poverty. However, it still faces the challenges of gender inequality, child malnutrition, and rising levels of air pollution. The extreme poverty rate in India is now down to 3%. but that is still nearly 50 million people.
There are more road deaths in India than any other country in the world. Officially, about 115,000 people die on Indian roads each year - though a recent British Medical Journal study suggests that the true number of fatalities is closer to 200,000.
I have a love- hate relationship with India. It is an endlessly fascinating assault on the senses: colourful, vibrant, and wonderfully spiritual. The festivals are joyful and amazing. the landscapes temples and architecture are astonishing
The crowds and disregard for personal space are wearing, the poverty is difficult to deal with, (though numbers of people living on the streets appear to have diminished dramatically over recent years). The treatment of women as second class citizens is still a huge challenge in many places.
I have visited ten times and have still only seen a small part of India’s incredible diversity.
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