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.

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