I was deep in my slumber when a loud stroke of thunder punched me awake. I switched on lamp by the bed and picked the cold steel clock placed on the table. I lifted my head lazily and tried to see the time unable to keep my open. A soft voice interrupted my sleep. It was my sister. I mumbled something to her and before I could snooze again she snatched my blanket away from me. It was like taking a candy bar away from a child. I woke up irritated and angry. While she went inside the hotel bathroom I made my way to the balcony. As I opened the door, a gush of freezing cold wind smacked me back to my senses. It was raining outside, the fiery sea waves violently hit the coast, the palm trees jerked with the angry winds. I quickly went inside the room and closed the door shut! How on earth would we would make it there in this weather I muttered to myself vigorously rubbing my frozen arms. On the contrary, my sister was not even slightly bothered by the storm. She smirked and said "Its just drizzling" and went to the hotel bathroom to take a shower. Taking a bath at 2:30 in the morning in this weather was the last thing I could think of doing. The Andamans has weird affect on her I thought. Having no choice left I tiptoed to the wardrobe barefooted and swiftly slipped into a black pair of trousers and my over-sized tee shirt. I tucked myself inside my red wind cheater and woolen socks. I could still hear the sea roaring outside. I opened the balcony door again, picked up a fallen,wet chair and swept it dry with a hotel towel and sat on it facing the sea.Within a few seconds I found myself lost deep in thoughts as though the rhythm of the sea waves had cast a spell on me. My reverie was splintered by a familiar sound. My sister was dressed up and ready to go. I quickly tied my shoelaces and grabbed my backpack.
The driver was already waiting inside the car, rubbing and blowing his cold hands. He regrettably informed us that the other hotel driver has refused to go, so a couple would be joining us assuring that the hotel would give us some concession for the inconvenience with a humble smile across his face. We knew there was no point in arguing so we occupied the backseats of the car. From the window I saw outlines of two faint figures, of a man and a woman emerging from the hotel entrance, under an umbrella. The lady opened the door of my sister's side gesturing her to scoot inside with a smile, and the man sat beside the driver. I inquired about the distance to the driver and he estimated that it should take around 3 hours to reach Jirkatang given the weather conditions. With our eyes widened we exchanged looks and hence our journey began from Port Blair to Baratang islands. The driver seemed quite experienced. He kept driving smoothly across the dark streets dodging the fallen palm trees in the storm along side the sea coast. The couple introduced themselves and greeted us with a steaming hot cup of chai and butter biscuits. When the first sip entered my cold and dry throat it was like spring. The couple were from Assam and were honeymooning in the Andamans. Three long hours of our journey briskly flew by chatting, laughing and eating. Its amazing how one often meets strangers on a journey and finds oneself instantly connected to them.
By 6:30 we reached the gates of Jikaratang islands. The driver said it would be another 48 km journey to reach Bratang islands. We had to pass through the dense Jarava forest and we were lucky enough, we might spot the tribal Jarava folks. As our journey began towards the Baratang Islands we witnessed lush green forests with trees soaring as high as the eyes could reach, the beauty of the dense mystical Jarava forest was breathtaking. The driver recited stories about the life of the indegenious tribes, the cultures, how they detached themselves from the rest of the world, away from the cacophony of automobiles,technology and even formal education. Hunting and fishing was their primary source of food. The government had made its efforts for reaching out and helping them tribes but they seem to be of adamant about practicing their own ways and living by their own rules. The mainland Andamanians have sort of an unspoken agreement with the tribes and they don't get in each others way. The driver had insisted on keeping our windows shut under all circumstances while passing through the forest as there were some infamous incidents where tourists have been hurled by their arrows when they tried to make contact with them. Just when I was indulging in his stories, the driver expeditiously pointed to some distant sight. We nearly jumped out of our skins for a brief moment and hurriedly shifted our heads towards the road. There they were, the people of the ancient Jarava tribe, standing along the roadside, with arrow quivers tied across their chests, and a feathered attire on their heads. We saw a plump woman, a tall and well built man and a spindly boy standing leering at our car as it drove past them. For a brief moment my eyes met with the tribal woman. Her skin was charcoal black and shining, a basket like thing was hanging from her head to her back, her breasts were bare and she wore a dry frond like skirt. Her hands were resting on the shoulder of the boy and they had an insolent look on their faces. The forest was sacred from them and they were its guardians.This very moment engraved in my memory forever.
After driving for another 45 minutes, we reached Baratang. We all took a sigh of relief. The driver stopped at a point from where we had to continue our journey by foot for another 10 minutes. The land was covered with soft mud as it had rained earlier and after walking for another 500 m, all our joy turned into ashes. There was no limestone cave! There was nothing in sight apart from the mangroves drowned in water. We concluded that we had walked in the wrong direction. Just when we decided to turn around and go back to the car, a speed boat emerged out of nowhere. The boat driver asked us if we were heading for the limestone caves. Our eyes lit with joy and we quickly hopped on to the boats. He swiftly navigated over the salty, crocodile infested waters cutting across the mangroves. He seemed to be familiar with the route like the back of his hand. After hovering 2-3 km inside the forest, he stopped the engine at what it appeared to be an old wooden jetty.
We got off the boat and saw a narrow foot trail surrounded by dense leafy tress and the way it was leading was not visible. As we entered the route it was suddenly all dark, the entire route was guarded by the bountiful tress and it made sunlight almost impossible to penetrate through them. We followed the trail and by now each one of us had lost track of time. The forest was magnificent. The sound of birds chirping, monkeys throwing berry's at us, strong tall trees that were at least hundred years old, untouched, uncouthed by civilization, pure and godly in its every form was just an amazing sight to witness. We were so dumbstruck by the sheer beauty of the trail that we didn't even find the need to talking.
Finally the trail ended at the mouth of a humongous cave. To our surprise, there were quite a few people, tourists, even researchers enjoying the pleasant day, murmuring in hushed voices. A tall man in muddy shoes and khaki pants smiled at us and gave a nod as we entered the cave. The first view inside the cave was nothing that words could describe. It was almost like entering a parallel universe, an other world all together. There was a divine calm inside. A sunbeam entering from the canopy of the cave made the limestone deposits gleam in sheer brilliance. The path was covered in grey cold rocks and small puddles of water. There was a dark narrow passage ahead.I switched on my flash light and lead everyone through. At the end of the cave there was a colossal chamber that gleamed with the whitish yellow sparkling deposits of limestone, some of them molded in the ground like miniature hills, some hanging from the ceiling like saber tooth and some with smooth surfaces with water dripping from the tips. We speechlessly stood there gazing at marvelous creation of mother earth.
We stayed there for a while and then headed towards the Mud Volcano. It was not very far from the caves and was at a walking distance. When we reached at the foot of the volcano, none of us had anticipated that it would be so huge and little did we know, that one more astonishing surprise was awaiting us at the top of it. After climbing a never ending flight of wooden stairs we finally reached the top. The mouth of the volcano was surrounded by a wooden barrigate. The gooey ,soft and mushy mud was tirelessly bubbling and settling. We didn't have a slightest idea that we were standing on the top of a live volcano.
On our way back, leaning on the car window a kaleidoscope of memories played in my head. I kept thinking about the time when my eyes met with that of the tribal woman. How her life must be, how she was spending her life in the warm embrace of nature with no regrets, no greed, no struggle for money or power; simple yet ethereal.