My covenant with nature, a trip to the Andaman Islands

Pootle list #33: Snorkel off Andaman and Nicobar Islands

Pretend Interviewer (PI): Oh my Gawd! What happened?! Where have you been?! You look like you have been left in the oven too long and baked a burnt brown! *turns green with envy*

EP *absently rubs her peeling nose* Let me clarify. This chat is not meant to get you all worked up and jealous. Instead, I want you to be inspired. To do something you are scared of. To discover something new, something untried.  To find the time, money and motivation to travel to the Andamans, one of the last remaining frontiers of untouched beauty.

Radhanagar Beach, Havelock
An afternoon at Havelock

PI: You travelled to THE Andamans! Those little islands in the middle of nowhere? The ones you daydreamt about since you were two feet high?  Oh my Gawd! Oh my Gawd!

EP *totally zen look* Your excitement is entirely warranted. And I had my first experience of scuba diving! You will have to excuse me if my mind wanders during this conversation. It is too wondrous to put into words.

PI: We totally understand! Have heard that the islands give you a high. We will take it slow and gentle today. Let’s begin with some background.

EP: I went with my girlfriends. This school friend of mine conceptualized and planned the vacation. Let’s call her NR. I helped by providing moral support! My uni/college friend (YP) joined us last minute, after some complicated jugglery which involved depositing her children with grandparents half way across the world.

Travelling from different cities, we met up at the Port Blair airport. We then caught the ferry to Havelock the next day and spent three days on the island. Another day in Port Blair on the way back concluded the trip.

Radhanagar beach, on way to Neil's cove
Radhanagar beach, on way to Neil’s Cove

PI: Was six days enough?

EP: Depends on what you want to do. In hindsight, I would have planned the trip a bit differently. Contact me (pootle.list@gmail.com) if you want itinerary or other advice. Eg. Don’t land in Port Blair on a Monday as the jail is closed that day, and there isn’t enough on the island to keep you busy for two days. Check Neil island out. Plan your activities better.

Pretend Interviewer (PI): The #7 beach (Radhanagar beach, Havelock Island) is supposed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Asia. Did it live up to its reputation?

Me (EP): Absolutely. Open expanse of clear blue water tinted with shades of brilliant green, and miles of powdery beaches disturbed only by sand bubbler crabs busy creating patterned masterpieces in the sand. The best I have experienced in the Indian subcontinent.

PI: Describe the epiphany you had while floating in the waves there

YP was telling me about her vacation in Hawaii and the Road to Hana being a metaphor for the journey being more important than the destination. On our first afternoon on the Havelock island, as I bobbed along in the ocean, I had my Road to Hana moment. I was washed with the conviction that every small step in the days past was leading up to that moment; that every decision was so that I could spend the afternoon watching waves crest, the thunderclouds play with sun rays, while the sun slunk quietly away as the day drew to a close.

To rephrase from Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things: “I thought I was just another stop on the line. Looks like I was your destination
To rephrase from Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things:
“I thought I was just another stop on the line. Looks like I was your destination”

PI: Goodness, so much philosophizing! What was the funniest adventure you had? We heard a lot of cackling laughter in the mangroves of the Andaman Sea.

The morning spent learning to canoe through the salt water mangroves. YP and I were on the same canoe (a decision that our kayaking instructor came to deeply regret), and we were adequately matched in terms of our kayaking skill levels (3 on a scale of 0 to 10) and ability to communicate and understand instructions with the words ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘backward’ or ‘forward’ in them (-5 on the same scale).

PI: I thought you had both been kayaking before?

Yes. Separately, with our respective spouses. In lakes. All of which was a baby’s day out compared to navigating a choppy high tide while battling a strong current pushing us into the treacherous mangrove roots. What a (wonderfully misguided) high!

PI: Thank goodness we were not in that canoe! Now, because food is music to the soul, and no vacation is complete without its adequate mention, what’s your iconic food memory from the trip?

EP: The islands have settlers from various parts of India (and some from Myanmar) and there is no unique ‘local’ cuisine that I could discover. The very first day in Port Blair, we made a trip to an island close by to catch the sunset. On the way back, we stopped for a snack at a roadside shop. Standing in the last of the rays of the dying sun, clutching the greasy newspaper, with the deep fried plantain popper straight from its wok of hot oil, in one hand, and a cup of ginger cardamom tea in the other, has to be the best food moment of the trip.

The sand bubbler crabs create patterned art
The sand bubbler crabs create patterned art

PI: Talking of discoveries – give us a few amazing ones you made:

  1. The sand bubbler crab is a tiny creature that pops up during low tide and creates mysterious bubble patterns in the sand (and hence its name). It scurries about with tremendous industry and is camera shy, quickly hiding in its little burrow when in the danger of being shot. There are a gazillion of them creating patterned carpets on the beach. Super, right?!
  2. NR was telling us about these crabs that swap shells/homes. As they grow, they discard their old shells and pick up new ones. Hence, do not disturb the shells on the beaches at all. It is some creature’s future home!
  3. Did you know that the mangrove filter salt water through their roots to result in fresh water? That their seeds, when dispersed, can survive for long periods and drift to far-away lands seeking new life. So hypothetically, mama mangrove can be rooted in the Andamans and have a baby growing in Thailand!
  4. The islands house several different tribes. The Andamans have 4 Negrito tribes – the Jarawa, Onge, Sentinelese and Great Andamanese, believed to have travelled from Africa several thousand years ago. The Nicobar islands have the Shompen and the Nicobarese, of Mongloid origin. Most tribes are still hunters and gatherers and by and large want to have little to do with the rest of the world. The Sentinelese in particular, violently rebuff all contact. They are believed to have not discovered the means to making fire, and capture lightning in amber rocks instead!

PI: The last is particularly startling. How was learning about the tribes in Andaman and Nicobar very different from your experience of the Maasai in Kenya?

EP: Chalk and cheese. Most tribes in the region shun contact from ‘civilization’, as I said. So what little I know, is based on conversations with islanders (our dive buddies), some limited reading on the internet and a visit to the anthropological museum in Port Blair. The anthro museum, though underwhelming, is still recommended.

Read more:http://www.andamantourism.in/tribals-andamans-india.htmlhttp://magazine.good.is/articles/isolated-sentinelese-people

An early morning beach walk, spending time with the crabby lovelies
An early morning beach walk, spending time with the crabby lovelies. Or swapping shells over brunch.

PI: On subject of Port Blair, which other visit there had you all pensive and reflective?

EP: The one to the Cellular Jail.The jail saw several Indian revolutionaries and freedom fighters incarcerated, tortured, and hanged. You have to visit to feel the terrible sorrow still palpable in the walls; to understand the terrible tortures a human can inflict on another soul; and how despite all the suffering, or perhaps because of it, the cry and desire for political freedom becomes stronger and more strident. I was deeply humbled, and cannot find words to express gratitude to those who gave up so much so that we, the future generation, can walk on a free land.

Yearning for freedom is but the music of the soul - (translated) Netaji Subash Chandra Bose
Yearning for freedom is but the music of the soul – (translated) Netaji Subash Chandra Bose

PI: Hmmm. From deep sorrow to deep joy, let’s talk about your scuba diving experience.

EP: First, let’s be clear. I never thought I would dive. Ever. Apart from ‘left’ and ‘right’, I have no sense of ‘up’ and ‘down’ and while I was brilliant academically at physics (in sharp contrast to biology and economics), I have no practical understanding of stuff like water and air pressure and multitasking (like looking after your mask, your breathing tube, managing the flippers, and looking after the big tank, and the other zillion things divers do) plain scares me. I also believe that the ocean abounds with dangerous creatures, and the deeper one goes, the more their numbers.  And for them, I am an interesting organism to eat, sting, maul, poison and peer at. To add insult to salt water injury, I am a very average swimmer and like to flap around in the shallow end of the swimming pool.

PI: In short, you are the very last person on land who would willingly strap on a bag of oxygen, say ‘au revoir’ and jump into the sea. Then, what happened?

EP: You see, SG and I went snorkeling (strictly shallow waters) in the Maldives a few years back. We rented equipment, looked up the technique on Google (while in the Indian Ocean) and dove in. There was instant imaginary playback of Armstrong’s ‘And I think to myself what a wonderful world’. There were sergeant fish and Picasso fish and, and and, multicoloured what-nots. There was love and a whole new world. I was hooked! So when NR rang and proposed the Andamans trip, all I could think of was strapping on the snorkeling mask. But she wanted to do a dive vacation.

PI: Go on

EP: NR could not dive (eventually) due to medical reasons, but by then I had read up a bit about how diving can be life changing and had drummed up enough courage to do a test dive – or Discover Scuba Dive as Barefoot calls it. I received instructions on how to equalize, manage my breathing and some of the equipment – and before I could clearly think about the giant butterflies in the tummy, I was underwater. Armstrong started singing with a vengeance and Nemo and Dory teamed up with him.

Alice slipped through the hole and did not want to return. Ever. It was Zen, it was yoga, it was religious, it was spiritual. It was magic. I cannot explain. You have either done it, loved it, and understand how I feel.  Or you are yet to do it.

PI: So will you get your PADI certification?

EP: Am still making up my mind up about that one. Do definitely want to dive more and all over the world now. The Pootle List will have to be revisited in light of new data.  And SG has to be introduced to diving. NR plans to return to do hers and dive near the Barren Island (the only active volcano in India). So yes, many next steps. We’ll see how it shapes up.

The two-hour boat trip, returning from the dives at South Button and Tamarind Camp
The two-hour boat trip, returning from the dives at South Button and Tamarind Camp

PI: So to summarize the highlights- kayaking, diving, eating ginormous meals, having hot brandy (as medicine only) in the evenings, long walks on the beach, a session at the spa (a full body massage after the kayaking). Have I missed anything?

EP: The people. The dive instructors and buddies – understanding what inspires them to move to the islands for ten months every year and stay in the ocean full time. For many of them, diving is a second career. For all of them, without exception, the sea is their first love, their occupation, their work place and their life.

I had to convince my very enthusiastic dive buddy not to very energetically teach me the underwater signs for the dirty words. He was quite determined. Most of the signs are the same as that on land, but you will be surprised that there is occasion for a few special ones several meters underwater *smiles fondly and really misses him*

The second set of people, are the fellow passengers we met on the trip. We spent many a merry moment swapping travel and other tales while sunbathing, or over drinks in the evening.

And of course, NR and YP – sharing conversations, stories of past adventures, drinks (the brandy was all NR’s idea), laughter, random tales, philosophies, dreams, future travel plans. Creating memories together. *gets mushy eyed*

PI: As your flight left the islands, what were your final thoughts?

EP: I was just finishing Maeve Binchy’s Firefly Summer. Was struck by how ‘Firefly’ is the word to describe the fragility, magic and wonder of this trip…

And then I had a mini nosebleed. Delayed after-effects from the diving. No worries, except that it was all over the library book I was carrying *groans at the thought of explaining all this to the library people*

PI: L-O-L. What did you do then?

EP: I had a moment of severe hypochondria imagining brain implosion. And then reached for the latest travel magazine I picked up at the airport. Road trip through Rajasthan! Walking tours in Goa! Let the wanderlust resume.

Other useful links:

Barefoot ScubaBarefoot at Havelock, Dive India

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5 thoughts on “My covenant with nature, a trip to the Andaman Islands

  1. Nothing is more nerve wrecking and hugely gratifying than facing your fear or challenging yourself to do the impossible “whatever that impossible is in your mind”.

    Love reading your posts. It’s always laced with wit, and packed with beautiful pearls of reflective thoughts.

    Like

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