That overwhelming feeling that changes you which you thought happened only in fiction, actually does happen when you are in Andaman Islands
Different people hold different views on the one’s who make travel their living. By that I do not mean they make a living by travelling but simply those who cannot fathom a life without exploring this bountiful, enchanting and a mysterious world in which we live. There was a comment I read on Facebook which said people who travel are escapists and that they fear facing the reality of every day life. I beg to differ on this. People who travel are the one’s who face the larger realities of life. They go out, experience a myriad cultures, traditions, way of life and make an effort to get up close and personal with nature and the people, some colourful, some warm, some bold, some beautiful and some outright snob. It’s this, that makes them more compassionate and adaptable. When they can face what’s alien to them, you think facing every day life would scare them away? Don’t think so. Travellers are the real people who’ve seen different sides of the world and are not afraid of venturing into the new. Even if it means entering into a dark or forbidden territory, it doesn’t matter to them. All they want is exploring the unknown apart from of course the known too. I do not want to sound like Ranbir Kapoor in Ye Jawani Hai Deewani, but people who travel have the courage to crack out of the routine, see what lays far and beyond other than just where you’ve been confined to all your lives and dare to live their dreams. I am one of them. A dreamer. An explorer. As cliche as it may sound but what to do it’s true!
But this blog isn’t being written with the intention of advocating travellers. That was just an outburst as a result of my most overwhelming travel experience ever and a prelude of what’s to come next. This blog is about the unbelievably enigmatic and alchemistic Andaman Islands, a cluster of over 500 islands along with Nicobar Islands (which is completely off limits for the outside world) thrown 100 km off the east coast of Bay of Bengal. Believe it or not, only over 30 out of these are inhabited.
Day 1: Rocky Welcome in the Ocean!
Being the biiiiigest fan of the sea and sea food, Andaman was going to be an absolute heaven for me. Last week of January 2013, I boarded the flight to Port Blair from New Delhi to join my close friend Ekta who was coming from Mumbai, a fellow travel freak and therefore an apt travel companion except for her constant poking to get her pictures clicked and occasionally that of the landscape. But I could do with that considering our common hunger for travel and great camaraderie. I reached Port Blair in the afternoon and took an auto to reach Phoenix Bay jetty twenty minutes from the airport to find Ekta already striking a deal with a tout for our ship ticket to Havelock island. Getting a ticket to Havelock by the way isn’t an easy task. One has to stand in queues right from early morning and still there’s no guarantee that you’d get it. To be on the safe side book it a day in advance. Online booking isn’t an option. For us we wanted to head straight to Havelock and not spend a day in Port Blair. Lucky we, the tout arranged us two tickets with 50 bucks extra for a 3 hours ride in the government ship to Havelock, the most popular island in Andaman among tourists. My ride up there was like no other I have experienced before. I dumped my back pack on my seat in the air conditioned passenger compartment below and ran up to the captain’s deck to enjoy the view Titanic style, though I had no Jack with me but never mind, the crazy fun you can have a with a friend is not what you’ll get with anyone else. I saw little green islands jutting up scattered sporadically over the ocean. We didn’t need rain to drench us as I held tight on to the railing, the rough sea with its waves reaching high up was enough. And guess what we spotted rainbows on the ocean as our ship sailed away rocking tremendously warning us ‘beware this ain’t a docile ocean like any you’ve made merry with before’. I shall bear that in mind. Woohoo what a start!
Once there in the evening, we haggled with the auto walas a bit and headed for El Dorado resort which we had booked on phone in advance on Vijaynagar Beach also called beach no. 5. On the way we did what was to be the highlight of the trip. We booked our scuba dive session for the day after next. Since we were strict backpack fancy free travellers, we opted for the cheapest cottage that cost us a modest 900 bucks a night. A very tiny bamboo cottage with nothing but a small double bed and an attached washroom. But who wanted luxury anyway. That we’ve reserved for our respective honeymoons whenever that happens. And after all who gets a room all of just 900 for a sea facing resort. The gargantuan Vijay Nagar Beach was a spectacular and awe inspiring sight. We, at least I, wanted nothing else but gaze endlessly into the water and this amazing slice of the world!
After having an early dinner where of course I attacked sea food, we decided to go out for a walk in search of a more happening lively place. Oh by the way there are no clubs or bars in all of Andaman. Everything dims out right after sunset and all you’re left with is the sound of the gigantic waves of the Bay of Bengal. So after a long futile walk in the dark minus any street lights narrow lane we thought it best to head back to safe haven but least did we expect that even the lights on the hotels’ sign boards aren’t left switched on so we got lost a bit but finally made it.
Despite a sinfully early morning flight from Delhi and a connecting overnight one in Chennai in case of Ekta who came from Mumbai, sleep wasn’t really on our minds, how could it when you’ve just stepped foot on an unbelievably crafted land surrounded by nothing but ocean far far away from the real world where we belong. So we found ourselves sitting on an extended branch of a tree which was hardly 2 feet over the strong muscular waves making a powerful dash on our resort’s beach threatening to swallow us all up. The loud angry sound of the waves with the massive ocean before us and the moon serving as the sole source of light, the scene was admittedly spooky resembling the set of a Ram Gopal Varma horror flick.
But being the slightly psyched out adventurers that we are, we didn’t mind spending time there in the middle of the night. To add to our temptation, we saw two young foreign women climb our tree branch and walk away in the pitch of dark into oblivion. We gaped with our jaw dropped specially since the tides were getting higher with the moon directly over head and moving dangerously forward. But but but…like I said the psyched out adventurers that we are, we decided to tail them, though they had long vanished into the thick black. We did make an attempt, trudged a little further down fighting the enormous waves from eating us up in one sweep which came almost till our knees and the thorn filled bushes but we couldn’t really see where the beach led us. Was there a secret society indulging in witchcraft or a whole bunch of blood thirsty monsters? Don’t blame us for conjuring up such images in the dark, after all both of us belong to television delivering spicy bollywood news every single day. Well I used to once upon a time before I quit news, Ekta still does but bad habits die hard. Don’t already declare us weak hearted, we would’ve unraveled the strange mystery of where those women disappeared but we didn’t really want to turn into zombies or something on our first day of the trip itself and make an unwanted sequel to Go Goa Gone. Next time probably we shall discover it for the world to see. Alright enough drama for the night!
Day 2: Lost in the Jungle!
Being the restless foodie that I am, I ran straight to Coco Anju, little further down from El dorado, a nice pleasant shack restaurant I had spotted the previous night while we walked and had a sumptuous and delightful breakfast while Ekta clicked pictures of the landscape and of course herself back at Vijay Nagar Beach on our resort to join me later. Next on our list was Elephant beach. There are two ways of reaching there, for the lazy or the high heeled ones, the boat way or for us, yes the adventurers, the jungle way. No prizes for guessing which one we took! The auto dropped us to the point where we had to trek all the way through the jungle following a very narrow inch long pathway for an hour to reach the beach. The forest was dense and as we walked we found a kid selling coconut water with her mother. We sipped on some of that and the kid offered to be our guide till the beach, of course with an agenda which was of convincing us to take the water rides his father offered at the beach. Anyway the jungle trek was quite fun.
We also got to know that Elephant beach isn’t so called because there are or were elephants there but because an elephant was killed there. True or not we aren’t really sure. Once there, we were reminded of tsunami that hit the island by the ruins of humongous trees strewn around which I must say served as quite ideal props for our first real photo session!
After hanging out there for a bit and taking the glass bottom boat ride which was more or less an eye wash, we fought over something which I don’t exactly remember and I marched back alone in a huff but thankfully Ekta joined me quickly for what was next in store for us would have given anyone a stroke had either of us attempted to venture back alone. The kid was back to offer us his service on our way back to the jungle but we dismissed him telling ourselves ‘oh it’s a simple way, just follow the narrow pathway and we’ll be out where we came from’ only to realise there were multiple of those narrow pathways just ten minutes of our entering the jungle. Which path to follow? We were dumb struck at the situation all alone in the middle of a thick forest. Above all no network in our mobiles. We kept walking by mere guesses and boy, we were actually lost! Thank god it was day light else we could’ve probably become a wild animal’s dinner. Chances were we could still become their lunch. But real adventurers do not fear. We kept a brave front and I decided to take charge. After aimlessly roaming around till I don’t know how many hours, I followed my gut instinct and we at last came out victorious on the main road but not where we started from but funnily through the gates of a garbage dump yard!
Once out, god bless the kind inhabitants of Andamans, a young scrawny local guy riding on a scooty agreed to give us lift to where we intended to be next, Radhanagar beach or beach no. 7 (for some reason all the beaches on Havelock are numbered), considered one of the best beach in the world. As the 3 of us adjusted ourselves on his tiny scooty, we were in for a ride on a super sonic jet as he rode past blurring everything out of vision at that speed. If the jungle didn’t kill us, this certainly would! But luck was with us and we reached hail and hearty. Pheww!
After grabbing a quick basic lunch at a tiny restaurant lined outside Radhanagar beach we headed for our first glimpse of this hyped up beach. We wondered what so much frenzy about the Radhanagar beach was all about. How different could a beach get after all. But I have admit, the first sight of the beach was a dream. Breathtaking would be too small a word to describe it.
The picture above I know does no justice to the majestic beauty of the beach but take my word for it that you’d want to just forever entrench yourself in its splendour. That’s exactly what we did, just stared blankly at the marvel before us till it was time for the most beautiful sunset I have ever witnessed.
Finally it was time to head back and upon a little probing og the locals on the best way to travel back to Vijay Nagar beach (an hour away approx), we found ourselves hitch hiking on a bus for ‘makemytrip’ guests which was sweetly offered to us by an agent free of cost till a convenient point from where we got an auto and reached back to our resort.
Day 3: The Underwater World!
Rise and shine early in the morning! Today was THE day of the trip for today was when we were going to scuba dive! A ten minute walk from our resort was where we were supposed to report to our instructors. With butterflies in our stomach and a raging excitement inside we donned our scuba suits and sped off in speed boats to shallow water for our 20 minute training.
We were now ready to take the plunge (quite literally). Slowly and gradually we floated further into the ocean and finally deep inside the ocean’s belly, well 10 – 15 meters to be precise. What I saw was almost life changing. A world below the ocean. Calm, serene and wonderful. I am struggling to find words to describe my experience for it was something else. Simply put it was divine. A parallel world that exists under water.
Being a fairytale fanatic, I wished I was a mermaid and could spend my life in the ocean with my aquatic friends. Oh and we even spotted Nemo!
Now this scuba hang over is definitely going to last a lifetime. Try what you may it wont fade away so easily. Just out of the world it was! So much so that Ekta decided to go in for second dive while I preferred to chill on the hammock.
After a laborious dive it was time for lunch which was notable affair because I didn’t eat sea food! How could I after I floated around with such pretty and gentle fish happy leading their lives in their world under water. I just couldn’t!
Post lunch, we hired a scooty not wanting to be adventurous this time hitch hiking on super sonic jet scooty or a travel agent’s bus! Radhanagar was where we were back. Another surreal sunset.
We explored the luxurious barefoot resort ensconced within the trees off the beach. While we relaxed at the beach, we looked for easy preys who could click our pictures and we spotted just the right person for it, a young photographer considering he wielded a large camera and a tripod and asked him to the do the needful. In no time we became friends with Viraaj, a college student who was visiting his brother, a naval base officer in Port Blair from Pune. Turned out he was staying at a resort just minutes away from ours and we fixed our meeting at dinner at Anju Coco.
Post dinner, the 3 of us retired to our favourite Ram Gopal Varma horror flick location at our resort and spent time soaking in the eerie atmosphere. But what got our antennas up was news from Viraat that there’s a party happening at a nearby resort so without much ado we landed at the right place albeit in our night pyjamas later regretting for we least expected we would bump into a happening crowd! We did. A couple of guys from Delhi who were in Havelock for a 7 day scuba course. Well, they had to be fun. And we weren’t wrong at claiming that!
Day 4: Haathi Mera Saathi!
Having already extended by our Havelock visit by two days, this was supposed to be the elephant day. No no, we weren’t going back to the elephant beach but to an actual elephant! All credit to Ekta who thanks to her active journalistic skills managed to catch hold of a mahout who was willing to let us bathe his pet elephant at blue lagoon.
Now blue lagoon has a different story. Its a divine corner at the far right end of Radhanagar beach. Its one those ‘khopchas’ where only hippies stretch and bathe under the sun. We, the desi hippies, how could we miss this spot. So there we were!
On our way to our appointment with the mahout, we bumped into two guys, from the same gang we met a night before and so we tagged them along. We met the mahout and he led us uphill through the forest and she was there! Boy was she massive! Sure she was. Sitting comfortably amid the mayhem of bushes and trees, gulabkali was, none the less quite cute.
We followed gulabkali back to the beach and had a whale of a time bathing her and even riding on her. Fun would be an understated word for this!
And so after an awesome day, we were back in our resort and for dinner we went to the quaint Moon cafe on the same road where we met Viraaj, all spruced up after his scuba dive and were later joined by the party gang.
Day 5: The Bluest Blue: Neil Island
It was high time now that we headed to another island. So after an early south indian breakfast close to the dock, off we were along with Viraaj to Neil island, close to two hours away by boat. As usual we didn’t shy away from taking pictures while on our way!
Once there, we hopped on to a rickshaw who took us to Pearl beach resort, an ocean facing one! At a modest 900 per day, we booked a room for a night. We had our lunch, quickly got ready and went to chill a bit at the nearby Laxmanpur beach.
We then headed to the natural bridge. Must say it was quite a spectacle. A breath taking view! warn you but the walk is quite a bit through the cobbled path. Tourists sight see from a distance and turn back but we have curiosity bug that has bit us so we went all the way to the end where beyond was the ocean.
We soaked in the out of the world view and quite literally the feeling was indeed out of the world as if we were disconnected from where we’ve come from, the regular world I mean.
And then came the ultimate endurance test of my life. Of perseverance. It was like agni pariksha or rather patthar pariksha. My chappal ditched me, it broke.
The way back was a wonderfully laid path of stones, sharp needle like pointed stones. Yes! And I had to walk all the way up till I finally find sand under my feet.
It was then time to go night fishing!! Thanks to Ekta, who wanted to change from her ball dance attire into her fishing one, we got really late and finally we found 3 foreigners waiting for us in the little fishing boat along with two fishermen. The foreigners thankfully didn’t give us a hard time.
Night fishing was intimidating on the boat as the sun set and we were in the midst of the dark ferocious ocean. Nothing but dark and the ocean. As for catching fish, after several thousand attempts we did catch one each!
There was something that we noticed on our way to the shore. Fireflies! Yes, fireflies or whatever they are called, the ones inside water. We could see hundreds of them glowing under the surface of the water travelling with us. Dreamy!
Back to our resort, we had our dinner. While Ekta retired, I decided to sit on the ocean shore in the company of Viraaj. Im falling short of words and adjectives to describe every sight. We sat on sitting arrangement made out of a log of tree with tall tress on either side, the massive dark ocean in front and the moon above. I just cant describe what it looked like. I wanted time to just stand still. It was magic. The sight is imprinted on my mind. Couldn’t capture the beauty on camera. Wish I could show you!
Day 6: Flashback into Freedom Struggle
We bid good bye to the gorgeous Neil island and headed back to Port Blair in the afternoon. Once there, it was time to say good bye to Viraaj too. We went our separate ways. We checked into a hotel called Dhanlaxmi, not far from the dock and went to see the sound and light show at Cellular Jail. Not so much for the technology but for the feeling it gave of patriotism, hats off.
Still not over the sight of the ocean, we decided to fine dine at a place overlooking the sea and so we landed up at the Fortune hotel at their roof top to have a sumptuous meal.
Day 7: An Overwhelming Cellular Jail
Next morning, it was time to see cellular jail in day time. We hired a guide and I was blown over completely by the the sheer experience. I was transported at once to the era when our freedom fighters cared nothing for their own life but the freedom and dignity of their country. A thought crossed my mind, we’ve become slaves of our own petty, trivial demands and luxuries when at that time all that they ever cared and fought for was for others, for us, for our freedom. An eye opener indeed to not be a little selfish and work for others.
An emotional overwhelming feeling that grips your being.
Day 8: Long Long Way to Go into the Sea!
We caught a ship from Port Blair jetty to Hutbay island paying the cost of the ticket of the locals and not the hiked tourists’ one because as we hear, this particular island isn’t a touristy one and explored only by a handful of foreigners. Therefore there are hardly any Indians who visit. But the main thing here to tell is that this journey requires tons of patience and perseverance. One way journey on the ship to Hutbay is 10 hours! Yes 10 hours! While it was claustrophobic for us to sit where the passengers are supposed, we chose the back of the ship deck, no fancy one mind you. Burnt with heat with the sea wind as the only respite we passed our time somehow with some chatter and lot of cargo for company.
On finally reaching Hutbay, famished and exhausted, we hunted for a modest stayover to spend the night.
Day 9: A Strange Planet: Hutbay Island
Hutbay is pretty virgin in the sense you will see only locals and a foreigner tourists just a few here and there. It’s like a time machine, which has taken wrong commands and involuntarily transported you to a bygone era or may be a different planet where water is found. A strange terrain. If you have the will to travel this far, jump on it!
Time to take the ferry back!Another 10 hours!! On reaching Port Blair, the rickshaw walas were trying to catch our attention calling out at us repeating..,’you want tuk tuk, tuk tuk…’ I knew foreigners call auto rickshaws tuk tuk, but why exactly were they auto drivers saying tuk tuk to us, we didn’t know. We were Indians after all. We soon realised, two young girls in short clothes, tanned bronze, one could only think of us foreigners. Only when I said, ‘bhaiya Dhanlaxmi hotel chaloge kya’, did they realise we were Indian! Haha! It isn’t a typical sight for two Indian girls to travel lone. Did I mention, on our way to Neil even the ship captain refused to be convinced we were Indians despite us talking to him in Hindi. He thought we were Iranians and told us they pick up Hindi very easily with a few months stay in India. But anyway a fun experience. The bronze tan took months to go away. And we were desi Indians again! hehe.
Day 10: Goodbye Heaven!
It was time to go pack our bags and head back to where we belong, Delhi and Bombay respectively. I have travelled to many places, many countries, but one thing I can say for sure, Andaman islands has been the most overwhelming experience to date. Does this really exist is the question you will ask yourself.