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 be continued


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