February 24, 2011

Travelogue: Andaman & Nicobar Islands

I usually stick to posting short stories on this blog. But I heard a story on the radio today about the threat to corals, and I was reminded of my trip to the islands. My trip was more than ten years ago, and I do not have my photos handy for reference, so forgive the hazy details on this trip to memory lane.

It was before 9/11, and the cockpit doors were not kept resolutely shut on the flight. My dad had heard somewhere that kids would be allowed to enter the cockpit and talk to the pilots if they ventured that far, so my brother and I were forced to try our luck. The view from the cockpit was everything you would imagine, with clouds dotting the sky, and the outline of islands appearing on the horizon. One of the pilots pointed to the Sentinel islands, the first group of islands that appear in the sea on the way to the Andamans, and said he would drop us off there. When I didn't understand the significance, he explained that the Sentinelese did not have any contact with the outside world and that they were a cannibalistic tribe. I suppose the shock on our faces was worth it.

The pilots offered us tips: to use plenty of mosquito repellent, and to check out the Sound & Light Show at Cellular Jail in Port Blair. The air strip used for landing in Port Blair is extremely short, so only skilled Air India pilots are allowed to land here. I heard that there was a new strip being built so this may have changed now. We were staying a week, and I am fairly certain there was some trouble with our tickets, as can be expected with Air India, but we didn't let that spoil our visit. I think the first thing I noticed was that the blur of activity was like in any other part of the country. The people looked the same as well, explained away by the fact that us 'mainlanders' had overrun the place and pushed the natives out. One of the museums we visited had the history of the Jarawa tribes amongst others, which according to Survivor International, is in danger of being wiped out after increasing contact with the outside world. These tribes are considered to have been among the successful migrants out of Africa and it would indeed be a shame if a curious and avaricious outside world destroys the tribal ecosystem.

If you ever visit Port Blair, make sure to find the schedule for the Sound & Light Show, and visit it. The Cellular Jail is an imposing structure, with seven wings and three floors of cells. Three of the wings survive to this day, and the show highlights the tortures these walls have seen. We understand our freedom was largely a non violent movement, but that there was always inhuman treatment meted out by the other side. Just how inhuman the conditions and punishments were and how much suffering our independence seekers endured, you will find out during the show. The prisoners from the 1857 struggle were sent here, and Vir Savarkar was one of the more famous prisoners. While walking/traveling around the cliffs of the island, you will see round hole outlets. These were tunnels that sent bodies directly to the sea after they had been hung.

I always pictured these cells while reading JKR-Harry Potter's Azkaban references, more real to me than the presumed inspiration, Alcatraz.

The differences with the 'mainland' start with dawn. The sun rises at 4.30 AM and it is completely dark by 5.30 PM. We took quite a few day trips to various gorgeous islands nearby, and there was plenty of swimming.

The Ross Island is a big draw, for the dilapidated ruins that conjure up images of British colonial life, from their capital in the islands. If I remember right, outside of the church we got to see deer that were quite friendly and posed for pictures. Today, the island is uninhabited, save for the daily visits of curious tourists. And yet, you see water bottles and other plastic paraphernalia strewn about where the land and the sea meet. There are bunkers reminiscent of the march of the Japanese during the Second World War, when they had reached as far as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, and built bunkers as they watched for enemies. The Allies did retake the island, but didn't stay.

I remember going to Viper Island, Jolly Buoy and Barren Islands. The last one, you cannot get on, but only go around. Its amazing to swim on the picturesque beaches, especially with all manner of fish unhurriedly going past you. My dad actually saw a gorgeous fish, a kind we had never seen before, and while one of the uncles took a video, he tried catching it with a towel, but failed. Just as well. When we returned to Port Blair that day, we went to an aquarium where we found out the yellow-with-brown-stripes multiple-finned fish was called Lion-fish, and that it was poisonous and could lead to fatal injuries. I think Jolly Buoy's the one around which you can take glass-floor boats that show you the coral reef in all its glory. I am not sure why the island got its name, but it may have something to do with the tide's effect on the coastline - think of the beach in Dead Man's Chest from the Pirates trilogy.

Havelock island has some of the best beaches in Asia, as per Time. We went snorkeling on the beach, and looked at corals up-close. The boats leave you in the morning and come back to fetch you later in the day. The beaches on Havelock are the best for swimming, and I remember trying but giving up snorkeling here. I tried standing on the sea floor, and felt a nip on my leg, assuming it was a clam I ignored it and went back to the beach. After a good many hours spent at the island, while on our way back to Port Blair, a Bengali family that had spent the day on a rock overlooking the beach informed us that they saw a croc sunbathing in the distance. I was completely flabbergasted at the nonchalant way in which they informed us after the fact. Now, having grown up listening to tales of careless arms, children and grown men being eaten by ever-watchful crocodiles, especially in rivers, I am still amazed at their uncaring comment.

Or maybe I am just scared of crocodiles.

The coral reef system extends from the Andaman & Nicobar islands, all the way to Australia, and is in danger of being wiped out. By raising temperatures, unsustainable harvesting and improper care. Unless a 'herculean' effort is made, nearly all the coral reefs will be in danger in just a few decades (from today's radio program). Man is the only being to change his environment to suit him, we can only hope that the rest of the planet survive the changes, or ultimately we won't, either. But the first step should probably be everyone acknowledging that we have a grave problem on our hands, and obtaining consensus on just that is in itself a monumental challenge, given current attitudes in some parts of the world.

Dangers to the corals aside, a trip to the islands is well worth the visit, and the tan!


Anand said...

You have a good memory with these details from a trip from 10 years ago(?)
Good one btw.

Rush said...

Ha ha, I remembered quite a bit, surprisingly, and of what I couldn't, I was able to google the description and find! :)
Thanks for reading, Anand.

mlg said...

It was like a flash back down the memory lane. Thanks for bringing that wonderful week back.
You forgot to write one more thing. In one of the Island there was a board " Do not stand on the corals". No one noticed or bothered about the notice board in our group. Every one went in to the sea as for as possible to have a better look at the 'thousand leagues under the sea'. We were standing on the corals. When I forced you to come in and see the marine life, you had pointed to the notice board and said I will not care what I miss but I will not stand on the corals. That's my Daughter !.
Love you.

Rush said...

Awww thank you! I actually don't remember that hehe, but it sounds like me.
Love you too

Robbie said...

:) that was exactly wat u told it wud b .. walk down the memory lanes .. thanks de .. njoy'd reading every single line ..
btw, heard the place has changed a lot after tsunami .. maybe v shud visit one of these days n find out .. wat say?!! ;)

Rush said...

Thanks Attu!! Absolutely, i would love to go back with you! It would be great to see how the place has changed.. heard the corals are already getting affected though ;(