Travel: Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The sea, sand and the sun. This is the perfect recipe for my dream vacation. Okay, maybe not the sun, as the summer is getting the better of me now. But the feeling of my feet getting wet in the sea or just waiting on the shore, listening to the rumbling waves is what I will not trade anything for. And, that is exactly why I chose to go to the Andaman Islands this summer.

Initially inhabited by aboriginal tribes, the Andamans are now home to migrants from Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Some of them are the descendants of prisoners of the Indian Independence war who were brought to the Cellular Jail in Port Blair. The jail, which is now a tourism hotspot, conducts light and sound shows portraying a significant slice of our freedom struggle. But some others, like 45-year-old Shakeela Begum’s father, got here by chance. He was only 13 when he boarded a vessel from Calicut to Port Blair with the money his father had given him to fetch some sugar. He grew up here doing odd jobs, fell in love, and married the daughter of a migrant and settled down on the island.

Port Blair is like any other small Indian city, with nothing much to offer for an Indian tourist apart from some museums and aquariums. A two-hour ship journey from Port Blair will take you to Havelock Island, a quiet spot away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Havelock is full of surprises. The first being that there are no petrol bunks here. Instead, there are small shacks that sell petrol in plastic containers and bottles. You will also find shacks offering lessons in scuba-diving. If you have a day to spare, you can go back home armed with a certificate in scuba diving.

We halted for a tea break at the Havelock jetty and realised that there was one thing that outnumbered the tourists. The flies! It is impossible to get away from these little pests and we had to keep tapping our feet to the song that played from the radio at the tea shop to drive them away.

From the Havelock jetty, we took a short speedboat ride to the Elephant Beach. Famous for wild elephant spotting, this beach offers a variety of water sports to choose from. There are two ways to have a good look at the corals here. You can either take a glass-bottomed boat or go snorkelling. And, of course, there is no need to explain which is the more thrilling way to go about it. Even lesser mortals like me, who cannot swim, are allowed to snorkel, if accompanied by a guide. It is a one-of-a-kind experience to float on water and catch a glimpse of the beauty of the world underneath.

One thing you cannot afford to miss in Havelock is the Radhanagar Beach, which has been voted as one of the best beaches in the world by a survey conducted by Time magazine. Perhaps, the best season to enjoy the crystal clear water and the white sparkling sands here is summer. This being off-season, you can have the whole beach for yourself. Although there are many other beaches that are easily accessible from Port Blair like Corbyn’s Cove and Chidiya Tapu, Radhanagar stands out for its cleanliness and unmatched beauty.

Our next stop was Baratang Island, which can be reached by a one-and-a-half-hour drive through a protected forest area (see box), followed by a 10-minute boat ride. The island is famous for its mangrove forests, which, our guide claimed, saved the island and its residents from the tsunami that devastated the region in 2004. There is a unique canopy walk that offers a good look at the mangroves, but at every step, there are signboards reminding you that this is home to the world’s largest reptile, the saltwater crocodile. We moved with care and went on to have a look at the naturally-formed limestone cave. A sweaty, sticky 1.5km walk later, we were at the caves formed by natural deposits of limestone, the interiors of which were pitch dark. Our boatman guided us with a torch. “Three noses,” he said, pointing at three conical protrusions of limestone. “That is what the locals call it.” He helped us identify such shapes of elephants, lions and even Jesus Christ among the stalactites and stalagmites. The best thing was that it was cool inside the cave. Through the small openings high above, we could see thick forest cover on top of the caves.

But the best was yet to come. The sun sets early here, by about 5.30. We set out on a boat by five to watch a rare spectacle, the Parrot Island. It is a small patch of mangrove forest, but is distinct from the surrounding islands. The grass is neatly pruned as it had been cut with a garden implement and looked like freshly-cut tea bushes. Our boatman, Ali, told us that this was the work of the thousands of parrots that inhabited this island. Once the sun sets, they fly back home in groups, and this is a sight that should not be missed, he explained.

He anchored the boat about 500m away from the island and we waited in the middle of the sea for over half an hour. We could hear the noises of parrots far away but none of them were flying towards the island. Then a lone parrot flew around the island, as if surveying the conditions.  It came back with a small group which kept roosting and flew around the island and left. This kept happening for a while. Soon, a hundred, no, thousands of parrots were roosting and flying towards the island. The orange hue of the sky, the silent sea and the parrots, all together was a heady cocktail. Nature’s own cocktail! They kept flying over the island in circles, descending with every circle taken, finally landing on the mangroves.

The sea became silent again and the sky turned dark. The parrots were all home now and it was time for us, too, to head back home. In fact, we did not pick up even a single souvenir this time, because the waves, the corals, the sea and the parrots were all freshly etched in our minds. So, the next time you think of taking a beach break, do not think twice, fly down to the Andamans and enjoy nature at its best.

Clash of civilisations
“I don’t feel good,” said Enmai. “I don’t like it when they take photos from their vehicles.” Enmai is a young man belonging to the Jarawa tribe of Andaman Islands, believed to be among the “three most endangered tribes” in the world. He was speaking to volunteers from a London-based tribal rights group, Survival. The group had moved court to stop human safaris in the Jarawa forest reserve area, earlier this year.

The Jarawas were initially spread all over the Andaman Islands. Later, through a government initiative, they were displaced to a reserve area. However, the government soon built the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR), right through the middle of the reserve. And, the Jarawas lost their freedom forever.

Survival alleged that the Jarawas are now treated like animals locked up in zoos. To add to their woes, tourists who take the road, throw fruits and eatables at them and force them to sing and dance. 
Now, the government runs four convoy services a day through the ATR in which not more than 25 vehicles accompanied by police jeeps are allowed to pass at one time. We saw warnings against stopping our vehicles or pointing out in case we spotted the Jarawas. Throwing food at them or taking their photographs can get you a prison term of seven years.

Despite the clamour for its closure, locals see the ATR as a lifeline. “These people are uncivilised,” says one of them, when asked about the Jarawas. “It is easy for people who speak English to say that this is unfair and to shut down the road. But our life revolves around this.” So, what about the Jarawas, I wonder.

How to reach Port blair

By air: Flights to Port Blair are available from major airports in India
By sea: Passenger ship services are available from Chennai, Kolkata and Visakhapatnam

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