On a chilly October morning, one that announced the arrival of winter in Delhi, I shouldered my backpack and left for the tropical setting of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I wanted to escape the din; Andamans in Bay of Bengal promised flawless beaches, spectacular diving and a dash of history to soothe my frayed nerves.
The plains of central India soon gave way to an all-encompassing blue sheet of water. John Robert, a young politician, welcomed me to Port Blair, the capital and the entry point to the Andaman Islands.
Unlike Goa, Andamans hasn't yet entered the collective consciousness of the Indian tourism industry. Thus, it has managed to preserve its rustic qualities and dynamic wildlife. It is only in the previous decade the knowledge of this tropical paradise has left its white sand shores resulting in the construction of a few luxury resorts and diving schools.
The Indian government, too, keeps a tight control over access to the strategically important frontier. Only 36 of the 572 islands are inhabited and ninety five percent of the land is protected as a national reserve. One such island called North Sentinel is home to the Sentinelese tribe, one of the most isolated groups of hunter gatherers with no contact or interest in the outside world.
The previous occasion Andaman made headlines was in 2004 when a tsunami raked havoc. “I was working as a computer engineer in those days, but my setup was destroyed by the storm. There was nothing left behind and no going back. I started work in the social sector paving the way to a political career,” recalled John.
A Sacred Prison
The old colonial capital, Port Blair, preserves fragments of India's Independence struggle as well as the four indigenous tribes -- The Great Andamanese, Onge, the Jarawa, and the Sentinelese -- that preceded the modernising forces.
The Cellular Jail, built by the British in 1986, is a sobering reminder of India’s colonial past and a pilgrimage site for patriots. Our foremost freedom fighters like Veer Savarkar and Batukeshwar Dutta were lodged here in isolated prisons.
The Jail's notoriety led Andamans to be known as Kala Pani (Black Water). Today, however, an Indian flag flutters on the prison's roof and an eternal fire burns in homage to the martyrs. The jail has been transformed into a national monument which showcases the valour and patriotism of the freedom fighters through pictures, excerpts and tours. The light and sound show, held inside the premises, is beautiful in its conception and gut wrenching in its description.
Beach in Andaman Islands
The Island of Dreams & Romance
A three-hour ferry ride on which Honey Singh was played at full blast, much to the delight of the dancing Punjabi audience, took me to the Havelock Island. I warmed at the sight of lush greenery and azure water at the arrival jetty.
Havelock is brimming with tourists, adventure seekers, and couples making the most of their honeymoon. This popularity is in complete contrast with the low profile of the rest of the island. Locals ascribe it to do the Time publication naming Radhanagar Beach as the best in Asia in 2004. All of a sudden travellers started looking for the coordinates of the Andaman Islands.
Havelock is best explored on a moped available for a measly sum of 300 rupees per day. My first destination was, of course, Radhanagar beach. I crossed banana groves and paddy fields en route to this site. From a mile away, I could hear the roar of the sea. It was an invitation as well as a challenge.
At the very first sight, I was bowled over by the sheer beauty of Radhanagar. The soft powder like sand was perfect for a barefoot walk, and the water was even more alluring. I left my belongings in the care of a German family and approached the sea with vigour. I had the entire ocean to myself.
Soon enough, I had left the shoreline far behind. For the very first time I experienced the might of the sea. Just as I was getting over-confident of my swimming prowess, I saw a wicked wave headed in my direction. "No sweat, I can handle it," I thought. However, it grew in size and by the time it reached me it had taken monstrous proportions. When it finally hit me I was pushed back as if in an explosion. I went under water and the whirlpool sucked me down.
It was strong, unyielding and pulled me down to the very bed of the water. All my frantic attempts to rise were futile. There was little hope of a rescue or even an alarm. I had to wait it out.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the current subsided and I hurriedly made my way to the surface, a more modest individual. Within a few minutes the character of the sea had changed. It was calm and inviting a few minutes earlier and now it was furious and aggressive. Even as I walked back to safety, I felt wave after wave hit me with a vengeance.
I collected my belongings, lay down on the sand and looked at the picturesque sky. Clouds formed stunning patterns; the Sun was orange and the sea adventurous; it came straight from the imagination of a painter. Or perhaps the imagination of painters comes from such panoramas.
Scuba Diving in Andaman Islands
Dive into the Deep End
Scuba is arguably the pick of the activities on offer at the Havelock Island. The first timers are taken six to ten meters inside the water, depending on their comfort level. An oxygen cylinder was placed on my back and stones weighing eight kilograms were tied to my waist, with the intent that I sink (not a comforting thought).
As I started to venture deep into the water, there was a searing pain in my earlobes. The change in the air pressure was uncomfortable, and made it impossible to continue. The thought of giving up crept in my head.
There came a moment when I signalled to the instructor that I won’t be able to continue and we should head back to the surface. He stopped and signalled me to take deep breaths. I remember all my discomforts vanishing, almost miraculously, with one such deep breath.
It is difficult to describe the charm of scuba diving; it is such other-worldly experience. You have no control or hold over anything, even gravity goes for a toss.
Colourful corals (orange, yellow, green, red) and different fishes – effortlessly moving across water were a sight to behold. One charming fish stood still till I came within touching distance and almost vanished in front of my sight as I placed my hand on it. I smiled in absolute wonderment.
Dessert at Fat Martin, Andaman Island
Hello to the Queen
Havelock is full of shacks cum cafes that have some shade of orange lighting, bamboo chairs, and soft instrumental music playing in the background. My pick amongst the lot is Fat Martin cafe.
It is run by a stout man called Martin who took great pleasure in telling me the how he weighed more than 100 kg and derived the name of the restaurant from his condition. His evil design was to add a few kilos to every waistline through Cheese & Tomato dosas (Fat Martin specialty).
During the course of the meal, I interacted with a number of customers including an Israeli couple celebrating their honeymoon. They shared their love for Andamans as they gorged on “Queen of the Night”, the dessert on offer. The mountain of vanilla ice-cream perched on the base of bread crumbs and topped by banana pieces looked sinful. On Martin's urging, I ordered one and then a second helping. This dessert is an absolute must on a visit to Havelock.
The Soul of Andaman
I can go on talking about snorkelling, swimming, water scooting, and a zillion other enterprises. However, there is something else that is beguiling about the Andamans. That makes it unique and visit worthy.
Andamans takes you far away from the world. The locals are as simple minded as they come: polite, non-intrusive and trustworthy. There is no jostle for the extra buck or tip. People are content in the space and resources allotted to them. Perhaps that is why Andaman is one of the few places in India without any land conflict. It is always expecting visitors and with their arrival the carnival takes off.
I came here with no expectations or pre-conceived notions. My whim was my driver, Sherpa and squire. In two weeks at the Andamans, I lost and found myself.