Goa and the Art of Self-Discovery

I have has been to Goa a few number of times, thinking of each visit is like deep diving into memories of various phases in my life.


Of caves, impregnable forts and the poor man's Taj..


Of foggy woods, gurgling waterfalls and rains that painted the hill green..


Of ferry rides, seagulls and (almost) private beaches...

Andamans (Part 1)

Of Island hopping, underwater adventures and different shades of the sea...

Thursday, August 15, 2013

My most memorable Shatabdi journey

This is the unedited version of the story that won the 'Holidays by Shatabdi' contest by Lonely Planet in June 2013. You can read the published story here
It was 1997, I was all of ten years, travelling to the great Indian North for the very first time. After losing myself in the fascinating Mughal stories my Dad told us while travelling around Delhi, we were headed to Chandigarh.
Shatabdi was going to be our ride from Delhi to Chandigarh. I was excited about travelling in chair car for the very first time, but mostly it was because my mother had informed me that these tickets came with food included. Being an ardent lover of train food, I was happy about not having to throw a tantrum to get the parents to buy food on train. It was to be a short journey of around 3 hours and all of us boarded the train. Being the youngest in the family gave me the privilege to the window seat and there I happily sat looking out at the lands whizzing  by  while munching on my breakfast.
Around two and a half hours later, I informed my mother that I had to go to the toilet urgently and she dutifully escorted me to the train’s toilet. It was already occupied and there was a small occupied sign that appeared on the door when it was locked from inside. A door that could tell you the toilet’s occupancy, to my ten year old mind it was like magic! So when I got in, I had to lock it so that the door could inform the outside world that it was occupied. Of course, my mother who was waiting for me outside could do just the same.
After completing my business, I tried opening the door and soon found out that the door had gotten jammed. I asked my mother to open it from outside (nothing a mother cannot do when you are that age) and when she also could not, panic mode set in and loud bawling followed. Soon enough I could hear my entire family outside trying their luck at opening the door frantically since we were to reach our station in a few minutes. Finally thankfully someone from the pantry came and had to break the lock and bust the door open.
The brief moment of happiness when reunited with the family was followed by a lengthy scolding from the parents and to my amusement a few other passengers we did not know. We finally got down at Chandigarh and continued with the rest of our trip.
I have had a lot of Shatabdi journeys since then, but this definitely is the one I will be telling my grandkids about.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Andaman: Of Island hopping, underwater adventures and different shades of the sea - II

..continued from Part I

Havelock Island 

The next day we presented ourselves at the jetty at the earliest only to see a long queue of impatient folks waiting for the 8 am ferry to Havelock. The few policemen (and women) who were trying to control the crowd very often stopped to chit chat with the Islanders in the queue. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, evident in the way they were enquiring about family matters and kids’ studies, the kind of closeness in societies one doesn’t see in cities anymore with people caught up in their own busy worlds.

If there was any true test for Indian-ness of people there, the mad rush to get onto the ferry was it. Those who were patiently waiting in the queue till then turned into a mad frenzy once the ship arrived. After doing something similar to what one does to get onto a Virar fast from Dadar, and a small controversy with the captain throwing out people who were literally pushing the others out, later, we finally got in.

The rest of the 30 minutes journey was pretty uneventful except for the beautiful sea around us and the plan in my head to think of ways to move and settle down here.
Havelock is the most popular tourist destination amongst the islands of Andaman and after the peaceful stay at Neil Island, this felt like getting back to the city.

After dropping off our bags at a resort, we rushed to the famous Radhanagar Beach. Radhanagar Beach, which was once voted as ‘The most beautiful beach in Asia’ (in the year 2005 and still riding on that wave), is a quick 20 minutes ride from the area where most resorts are located at.

Radhanagar Beach
I fell in love with the beach the minute we got there. We could see the beach extending till both ends of the island, with the mangroves outlining the land and the sea trying to reclaim it. Wherever you looked, the sea seemed to don a different shade of blue. Soon after we jumped into the sea, dark clouds came threatening along. The minute it started raining almost everyone started running to the little bamboo huts for shelter, but hey, we were already drenched and proceeded to stay in the sea with much glee.

The next day we woke up, all excited to go Scuba diving. We had pre-booked with the well-acclaimed Barefoot group for this and by ten we presented our nervous selves to the instructors. After getting into the wetsuit and a quick boat ride later, there we were in the sea being given instructions. Now, I am an avid and confident (at times a bit too much) swimmer, but suddenly it hit me that we were going underwater and panic attack followed. I remember mumbling to my instructor about not being able to make myself do it and then I saw that the rest of the folks in our party were calm as cucumbers, all set for the dive. Sudden change to I-have-to-do-this-or-never-live-this-down happened, and a few minutes later we were swimming into the open sea to look at the best place to dive. Once we went under the water, I was slightly hyperventilating (surprise! surprise!).

 However, as soon as I saw the school of bright yellow fishes swim by, a feeling of wonder overpowered every other sense of mine. Orange colored urchins, red and blue corals, the beautiful sea anemones and the fishes, the bright beautiful fishes - it is such a fascinating world, it suddenly becomes real how wide and diverse underwater life is!

We set off to Kalapathar beach the next morning. The ride to the beach has tall, thick and very green trees of the tropical rainforest on one side and the blue waters suddenly jumping at us at every other turn. Kalapathar is a pretty small stretch of bright blue waters and due to the fact that it is crocodile infested, we did not get into the sea. We sat there for some time, just looking at the beautiful sea, thoughts wandering.

The beautiful Kalapathar Beach
One of the things we were looking forward to most was the seaplane journey back to Port Blair. Now, for the past two to three days, the weather had been pretty rough with the skies pouring down every now and then. We had gone to the seaplane office to inquire the day before and we were told that the seaplane to Havelock had been cancelled for the past two days and when they said it was still uncertain if they will fly tomorrow, in my mind I saw an enraged Poseidon.

Much to our surprise, the weather that morning was fine and the trip was on. So we “checked in” at the cutest little airport which was more of a bamboo hut (mind you, our luggages were thoroughly checked with utmost seriousness), with the 4 other passengers who were from Havelock. A shy smile and a chocolate offering to the kids with them later, they asked us about our vacation and if we were having a good time. The father, who had been born and lived his whole life in Havelock, spoke to us about how it was one of the hidden gems of the Andamans until recently, when tourism suddenly boomed. He mentioned that his house was along the shorelines and it used to be similar to what the farther ends of Radhanagar beach is currently, lined with mangroves earlier and then the tsunami struck when the sea reclaimed a lot of their property. For him, ferries and seaplanes getting cancelled seemed like a regular ordeal.

We took a two minutes boat ride to a floating platform in the midst of the sea where we excitedly waited for the seaplane to show up. The minute we could see if from far, there followed a lot of excited finger-pointing and cries from us, which was the matter of much amusement for the Islanders. The plane landed on the sea and we pretty much hopped on. It seated nine people including the pilot and co-pilot, and with butterflies in our stomach we took off from the sea. We watched as we went higher and higher, the sea embracing the island from all sides, little white patches wherever the waves hit the rocks and them outlining Havelock Island and the other many small Islands we flew over. We saw the ferry in the middle of the sea, slowly making its way to Port Blair. This is one of my favorite memories of the whole trip. Of course, the Islander kids slept through the whole journey!

View from the seaplane that took my breath away
Flying over another Island, view from the Seaplane

We landed in Port Blair and made our way back to our hotel, dropped off our bags and wandered around the Island since we had already spent two days covering most of it earlier. The next day’s plan was to visit Ross Island, Coral Island and Viper Island. Ross Island’s proximity to Port Blair made it a smart choice of place to stay for the British guards of the Cellular Jail, and the remains of their settlements can still be seen. Ross Island which by virtue of acting as a cover from the sea on one side to Port Blair, we were told was one of the major reasons why Port Blair was not heavily hit during the Tsunami of 2007. Ross Island took most of the brunt of the Tsunami and a lot of the settlements were destroyed during this period.The sea was still very rough and all the trips to the various islands were cancelled. In fact, we heard that not only the seaplane, but the ferry itself from Havelock to Port Blair was cancelled due to rough seas leading to many people being trapped there. I remember thinking, we have the best technology to travel on land, sea and air but when nature wants us to stay where we are, we stay where we are. It just goes to show how our lives are decided by the different shades of the moody sea.

The ten days spent on the various Islands have been an eye opening experience for me. I went expecting a relaxing beach vacation, but came back with so much more. The sea has always been a favorite of mine, but being on a small island, watching the sunrise on one end and getting to the other end just in time for sunset, now that is the kind of experiences that makes Travelling what it is.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Andaman: Of Island hopping, underwater adventures and different shades of the sea - I

Andaman& Nicobar Islands, for a perennial beach lover like me, was like stepping into a dream – one made of white sandy beaches with the sea so clear and blue, it put the skies to shame.

Andaman and Nicobar Islands are a group of around 600 islands (out of which only 38 are inhabited by humans) in the Bay of Bengal, which even though is a part of India, is closer to Thailand and Indonesia. Port Blair is the only Island connected via air and it is reachable via flights from Chennai and Kolkata.

Taking off from Chennai, we flew over many tiny islands as we neared Port Blair and watched from above the blue waters and the green slices of land embedded within. After this tiny peep into what we were in for the next ten days, I was buzzing with excitement.

First sight of the Islands
After months of planning and pouring over travel blogs and sites, we had chosen a hotel which is at a walking distance from the airport. The entire experience at that hotel was pretty much what we saw throughout the Islands – everyone we met were extremely helpful (Bengalis and Malayalis form a majority of the Islanders and being a Malayali myself did help) and more importantly, genuine. We met a few locals along the journey and when they asked us if we liked the Islands, it seemed like it was important to them that we liked their place and had a good time. The kind of trust and friendliness shown by the people there is unnerving for us mainlanders (Ripos Das, a travel agent we reached out to book tickets on the seaplane, went ahead and booked it for us before we even made the payment!). I guess this attitude comes from being part of an Island community where you have to rely on each other to get through daily life and this sense of community has sort of become a way of life for the natives, a friend who hails from there once told me.

Port Blair

Port Blair was the base for our visits to other places in the Islands, as it was the only place with connectivity to the Indian mainland in the island archipelago.

We enquired at the hotel lobby about places to visit and were given the directions to Cellular Jail and a few museums nearby.

We proceeded to the Aqua museum and ooh aah-ed at the marine life captured there and made mental notes so that we could identify them when we went Scuba Diving. There also might have been an unhealthy obsession with a fish which seemed to be fascinated by what the bubble maker in the tank did to its posterior area.

The museums there were a good way to get to know the Island in depth. Legend says that the name Andaman is derived from the hindu monkey deity ‘Hanuman’ who is believed to have used these islands as stepping stones on his journey across the sea to Sri Lanka to deliver Rama’s message to Sita.
It has such an interesting history with the various indigenous tribes some going as back as the hunter gatherer times and the Sentinelese, the last tribe in the world to be living in complete isolation. Most of the other tribes have more or less become assimilated with the rest of the population even though tourist visits to most of the Nicobar Islands are still not allowed. In the 1900s, it became important in Indian history due to the part it played in the Indian freedom struggle, when it became the location of a jail where the freedom fighters were exiled, and later during WW II, it became a Japanese colony.

On the first day, by around 5 pm it was pitch dark, and we were scratching our heads wondering “Where did the sun go?!?”. Then we found out that the sun rises at 4-4:30 am and sets by 4:30 – 5 pm in the Islands. Needless to say our bodies remained confused about the whole deal and by the time we got used to sleeping at 9 pm (there is not much to do post sunset since nightlife is almost nil around there), it was time for us to get back to the mainland. For weeks post getting back, 9 pm sleepy time was followed, much to the amusement of many.

We then proceeded to the Light & Sound show at the Cellular Jail. Seated in the midst of the common area, the show spoke about how the Cellular Jail was constructed in the most deviously creative manner. It has 7 wings arranged like the spokes of a cycle wheel, each of which had tiny cells, each containing one prisoner. Extreme lengths were taken to ensure that the prisoners could not mingle with or speak to each other such as the front of each wing faced the back of another. It is one thing to study and read about the freedom struggle and the atrocities forced on the freedom fighters but seeing the cell of Veer Savarkar where he spent 10 years, 10 of the most important years of one’s life, from 26 till 36, or seeing the museum with the endless photographs of people who passed away during their struggle here and seeing the small room in which they used to hang prisoners, is a whole different experience which hits you hard.

Entrance to the Cellular Jail
It made me think of how much these people sacrificed for the country, what vision they must have had for the nation and how they let down they would be  if they saw the current state of the country which is divided by religion and driven by corruption?

Neil Island

The first island hop from Port Blair was to Neil Island. We were glad to have booked the ferry tickets early on, since the ferry was pretty much packed. It was very easy to identify the tourists, who were busy running around the ship, most of them trying to get the best possible shots of the sea and the Lighthouse, and the bored Islanders, yawning and sleeping off in the seats. There was also one old man selling I:heart:Andaman T shirts to the happy-to-buy tourists.

Riding the waves 
Neil Island is a small Island, only 14 km across, and is yet to reach the level of tourist madness seen at Havelock, the most popular island in the Andamans. We checked into our place in Hotel Tango, one of 2 or 3 places to stay at Neil Island, a bamboo hut right infront of the Laxmanpur Beach.

Beautiful sea near the Natural Bridge, Neil Island
There are only a handful of roads throughout the Island and we quickly arranged for a scooty to help us hop from one beach to another. The folks at the resort were very helpful in planning an itinerary and our first stop was the Natural Bridge at one end of the island. It was a pretty cool natural structure which is reachable only during low tide.

Post lunch and siesta, by 4 it was almost sunset and we proceeded to Laxmanpur Beach. After an adventurous two wheeler ride through the wilderness with hardly any roads, we finally got there. The white sand was so soft, it would put Persian rugs to shame, thick mangrove forests lined the shore till the eyes could see and the orange rays of the setting sun glazed across the blue waters. There were a handful of others scattered across the beach, but everyone seemed to be lost in their own world, possibly enchanted by the beach as much as I was. 

Blue, White & Green  and a sunet I will never forget at Laxmanpur Beach

..to be continued