Friday, November 18, 2011

Andaman ramblings II - Port Blair

We reached Port Blair late in the evening, past 7.30 PM. K and I stood at a port hole at one end of the corridor outside our cabin, and watched the Nicobar dock at Haddo jetty, saw the scurrying of dock workers as they ran up to the ship, waited for a crane to come up with a couple of what looked like unsteady gangplanks, and then fixed them in place. Disembarking then began, and we retrieved our luggage from our cabin and trooped downstairs to join the queue, sorry to say goodbye to the big ship that had been our home the past three days. The dock, predictably enough, was chaotic beyond belief - WHY do Indians not understand the meaning of 'queues'? - but we squirmed our way along the sides of a seething mass of people, all talking and waving identification papers of some sort as irate policemen manning the gates yelled and shoved back. One of them caught sight of my peering face and took pity on me, letting us through after a quick look at our passports and a beady-eyed stare at K with his huge rucksack (everyone, but everyone, in the Andamans took him for a foreigner, for reasons best known to themselves, remaining unconvinced even after he spoke to them in Hindi or, as was most often the case, Bengali). We hurriedly made our way out, only to be greeted by another mass of people, this time mostly auto drivers, taxi drivers, and the ubiquitous touts. We found an auto, gave them the address of our hotel, haggled about five minutes, and then set off.

The first thing that struck me a couple of minutes into the journey was - it was cold. All over the Andamans, however hot and humid the days might be, the temperature plummets as soon as the sun sets, and the late evening air felt chilly. The marketplaces we went through seemed much like any marketplace in any Indian small town, with one possible exception - the traffic was very light. I put it down to it being past 8 PM, but later realised that that's the way it is, even in Port Blair - you might even drive a few minutes at a stretch without meeting any other vehicle! Very refreshing, that is, for a city dweller. As K chatted away with the auto driver, asking him all sorts of questions, I stared out trying to take in as much as I could; and soon enough, we left the town proper and made our way down a dark, winding road with no streetlights, no people, and no cars of any sort. We occasionally passed a house or three, lights glimmering through leafy trees - and Prabhu, the auto driver wanted to know why we were staying at a resort located so far away from the town proper. Because we didn't want to stay bang in the middle of the city, we said. Why? he asked in a tone of great bewilderment. Because we live in a city all the time, we said. He said nothing more, but we could see him mentally shaking his head, and going 'These tourists are crazy!' much like Obelix might have. He stopped to ask for directions a couple of times, and in about half an hour or so, we were there, at the Palm Grove Eco Resort.

Palm Grove

All one could make out of Palm Grove that late were a dimly lit path, fluttering moths, lots of trees, and little cottages situated on either side of the path. We were shown to our cottage by a young boy who happened to be Bengali, and after checking out the very cute and spacious bamboo cottage, complete with AC (which didn't work too well), attached bathroom (which was nice and large, although the tap was leaky, much like our tap at home, so we didn't mind), television set (which was promptly switched on) and telephone, we ordered a large pot of coffee (the staff soon learned what inveterate coffee drinkers we are; the little pot was soon replaced with large flasks), and soon thereafter, called it an early night. It is only when you're out of the city that you realise how unaccustomed you are to complete silence; there is always some sound or the other in a city, even in the dead of night, and total quiet, broken only by the relentless humming of cicadas, can be very unnerving. It took me a while to fall asleep that night.

When I woke up and opened the window, though, I was delighted. We seemed to have been transported into a quiet, rural suburb, almost a village - our window looked out onto a little pond, lots of trees flanking it, with hilly fields stretching beyond. As I gazed out happily, I spotted a huge gecko making its stately way down the path beside the pond, while some chickens fluttering around stood aside respectfully. After breakfast, we met the owner-manager Shibu Varghese, a very friendly, warm man, with a phenomenal knowledge of the flora and fauna inhabiting the Andaman Islands. He blamed his knowledge on the fact that his sister was a botanist and his brother-in-law a wildlife conservation officer; but his love for plants, trees and animals was all his own. Palm Grove is covered with trees, bushes and shrubs, all of which Shibu has planted himself, each of which he knows: cinnamon trees, pepper bushes, all-spice plants, bamboo trees, and his joy at our delight was apparent. We were soon firm friends, and our many conversations with him made our stay there all the more enjoyable.

Viper Island

Our first day in Port Blair, we decided to take a boat ride down to Viper Island, which was home to one of the first prisons built by the British for troublesome Indian political prisoners. The name comes from the boat that carried the British officer who actually built the prison - it was called The Viper. While the ride there and back was lovely - clear sky, emerald seas (which changed colour every minute), islands of varying sizes dotting the sea, a few inhabited, most not, covered with dense foliage - Viper Island itself isn't much to write home about. It didn't help that the boat man/guide threatened to leave us behind if we weren't back on the boat in 15 minutes, which is just enough time to race up steep steps to a crumbly red building, stare at a blackened beam which was where prisoners were hanged from, take a quick peek into another room which didn't seem to have much purpose, and race down again. Half an hour later we were back at Aberdeen Jetty, just as the lights were coming on in Port Blair. The next couple of hours were spent rambling around Aberdeen Bazaar, and having a very satisfying dinner at Gagan Restaurant, which was once owned by Bengalis, but now serves the ubiquitous north Indian fare. The food was good though, the place clean, the service quick, so I'd recommend it.

Cellular Jail

Easily the most popular and well-known tourist spot in Port Blair. However, if a love of history, and a desire to see one of the most horrifying monuments to colonial brutality is what calls you there, you'd return disappointed. The Indian government's idea of preserving historical monuments - when they do preserve them, that is - is effacing every bit of history from the bricks and the structures themselves; well-manicured lawns, topiaries, pretty flowering shrubs, and brick structures that had been painted white greeted us. This was definitely not the sight that had greeted political prisoners in the early twentieth century, some of them jailed for offences as minor as 'breaking a police cordon'. It was hard to imagine the horror of it all in the face of such determined white-washing; although little could be done to mitigate the darkness of the claustrophobic cells, the terror you could imagine the prisoners locked in feeling. As we wandered around with cheerful, loud tourists, we tried to find spots that retained their original grimness; and parts of the building, difficult to reach because of the dense shrubbery, gave us just that. I realised I'm getting older when a bunch of loudly laughing - braying, rather - young men by one of the cells filled me with sudden fury - people had died here so you lot could have the freedom to laugh at the site of their misery one day, I wanted to yell. Do people laugh at the things they see in Auschwitz? If they don't, does their respect stem from the fact that the place has been left exactly as it was, and not prettified, thereby leaching it of all horror and shame? Or is it just us Indians who have no sense of history, no respect for the past?

A couple of interesting things about Port Blair: there are no beggars in the city. Not one.
Everyone's uniformly polite and friendly, even the cops. And the traffic police are all women.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Andaman ramblings I - M.V. Nicobar

While planning a much-needed, much-awaited vacation early in September this year, we narrowed down the choice of places to either Sri Lanka, or the Andaman Islands. While embarking on the next step, figuring out dates and modes of travel, we came across something interesting during our research on the net - ships (cargo-cum-passenger ones) leave Calcutta twice a month for Port Blair. That led us to call the offices of the Shipping Corporation of India, where, miraculously, someone answered the phone and told us that yes, ships do travel between Cal and Port Blair, and that the journey takes a full four days. And call after the 20th for more details.

Four days on a ship! Sri Lanka didn't stand a chance after that.

Much headache and anxious moments later (the SCI is, after all, a government office, and as such cannot possibly do anything on time, or smoothly; a phone call on the 21st told us they still did not have the October schedule for ships, and to call a couple of days later. Which we did, to be told that the ship would leave on 7 October, and call a couple more days later to find out about tickets. And then one day went by listening to the phone ring away at the other end; the next day someone did pick up, and the day after K went and got us tickets for a deluxe cabin.) we finally had the tickets; but since it was already so late, we got into a tizzy making hotel reservations in Port Blair, doing some (very) last moment shopping, finishing up our Pujo shopping, trying to snatch some moments with family during the Pujo days, all the while finishing up as much office work as I could before leaving. Finally, the 7th arrived, and I phoned the SCI that morning to find out when the ship would sail (everyone K had spoken to out there had been blissfully vague), to be told that sailing time was 4 PM, and we were to be at the Kidderpore docks at 2.30 PM. Panic promptly ensued as there was still a lot to be done to get ourselves ready; K was remarkably calm throughout while I hyper-ventilated - he said the people at the SCI offices had apparently told him 'Eta to ar hawai jahaj noi, lokera shobai to ar thik shomoy ashte pare na, jahaj dariye thake' ('This isn't an aeroplane; not everyone can come on time, but the ship waits for every passenger!'). Somewhat reassured by this, we left around 2 PM - the roads were empty, this being the day after Dashami, and we made it by 3 PM, to be greeted by the longest, serpentine queue I have ever seen, in the largest, most cavernous hangar I'll probably ever be in, at the docks.

After standing in the queue for an hour (it began moving, oh so slowly, about 20 minutes after we joined it), we finally found ourselves at the baggage X-ray, and soon after that climbed a rickety wooden gangplank and found ourselves inside the ship, the M.V. Nicobar (I had only managed a fleeting look at it while coming on board and it seemed massive - although, as ships went, it was a fairly small one, apparently); and several confusing twists and turns took us to the Information counter, where a friendly pursar (whose name we later learnt was Suresh Kumar) asked someone to show us to our cabin.

The cabin was lovely, neat and clean and comfortable, with two bunks and a large sofa; and a tiny TV set, a little fridge, a writing table and an adorable, very small bathroom. And two huge portholes, which we promptly stationed ourselves at. And all the day's panic could have been avoided - the ship moved only at 6 PM, and stopped soon after, finally sailing past 8 PM. Exhausted with the turmoil and activity of the last few days - weeks, rather - we had an early dinner and fell into our bunks (which were super comfortable) and were fast asleep in no time at all. Waking up the next morning was a delightful experience - waking up on a ship!! - we were woken at 6.30 AM by a friendly attendant bearing cups of tea, an unearthly hour where I'm concerned, but who wants to waste time sleeping on the first day on board a ship? We soon realised that the ship's routine was to be our own for the next three days: bed tea at 6.30 AM, breakfast at 8.30 AM, lunch at 12.30 PM, tea again at 3.30 PM, and dinner at 6.30 PM. We had to present ourselves at the dining saloon as soon as the announcement was made; and those in charge clearly believed in stuffing us so full of food that we could barely move afterwards. Slow, lazy, sleepy days those were; all we had to do was eat, sleep, take an occasional stroll on deck, stare at the ceaseless, restless, ever-changing waves in the middle of the Indian Ocean, read, talk - and, of course, K was all over the Nicobar with his camera, taking endless shots.

We learnt during one of our explorations that the Nicobar was 20 years old, originally a Polish ship; it was, as Suresh Kumar told us, a cargo ship which was meant to carry passengers and be a cruise ship of sorts. However, it had over the years turned into a ship that ferried mostly the 'labour class'; 'they make it so difficult to maintain any discpline,' he lamented. Signs exhorting one to not spit or smoke went merrily unheeded, as did signs (which would have shocked the politically correct) asking 'bunk passengers' to not move beyond the third deck. We were supposed to have the 'sun deck' to ourselves, but found it full of the bunk people; which would have been fine, had they not been smoking, taking up all the space, and leching incessantly, desperately. I kept to our cabin for the most part, and went on deck just a couple of times - in any case, it was too hot during the day to sit outside.

On our tour of the ship on the last day, we discovered that the ship had a well-stocked dispensary, and mini hospital wards for men and women, of which the ship's doctor, Dr Mani, was very proud. During that private tour, made possible because of K's journalistic credentials, and the fact that he'd become friendly with everyone on board by the end of day 1, Suresh Kumar told us mournfully, 'My ship has been made according to international standards. Unfortunately, our passengers are not up to those standards', while we giggled helplessly. We were also taken (along with passengers from the first and second-class cabins) to the communications and navigation rooms, where we stared solemnly at various gadgets and thoughts of Captain Haddock went through my mind. We had reached the Andaman seas by then, and watched Suresh Kumar show us just where we were on the chart; I studied a very interesting chart about waves and wind speed, and thereafter spoke very knowledgeably about the wind speed being 'at least a Force 5-6 - look at the white horses!' on a couple of our many boat rides!

And I made a delightful discovery - I do not get sea-sick. Not even remotely. In fact, the choppier the boat, the more fun it is. I would think it difficult to get sea sick on a ship as large as the Nicobar - besides, its maximum speed goes only up to 16 knots. Also, the sea was calm all through, the sky a brilliant blue, the sunshine blinding; I daresay it would have been a different experience had we encountered rough weather. 'The Nicobar is built to withstand wind speeds up to Force 20,' Suresh Kumar informed us, but I'm rather glad she wasn't put to the test.

For people wishing to travel to the Andamans, do consider taking a ship - but only if you like quiet, lazy days, if you love the sea, if watching the restless waves and catching sight of leaping silvery fish fill you with joy. The Nicobar - or any of the SCI ships - isn't a cruise ship; there's no on-board entertainment, the television, if it works, shows one Hindi film and one English, depending on the DVDs the ship has - if you're not travelling with congenial companions and are not readers, you'd probably die of boredom. We loved it, though - loved looking out of the portholes, wandering along twisty, narrow passages lined with green baize, reading all the signs, even the ancient, 20-year plans of the ship, curling up on the bunks to read, laughing at an old tyre which I think was meant to serve as a life belt, feeling the dip and swell of the sea beneath our feet as we walked. I hated saying goodbye to the ship - it had become home for us. And it took days - literally - for the ground to stop rolling beneath my feet.