Silver-grey dolphins race the ferry I’m cruising on. I drink in the dazzling colours of the corals in the sea. Then, I laze around on golden beaches, feast on prawn curry and rice and order a coffee or cocktail. I’m in the Andaman Islands.
Landing at the little airport in Port Blair, I feel like talking in whispers and walking around on tiptoe for fear of disturbing the close-to-reverential silence. An apt preview, perhaps, of what lies ahead.
As I check into the hotel, I notice the cellphone network fluctuating crazily. I flit from the city-slicker’s paranoia of being completely unreachable to the drunken euphoria of one who has realized this means no office calls. I break into an impromptu jig, undoubtedly leaving the hotel staff wondering if they should have had a mental-health professional at hand.
Port Blair is small and sunny, like a hundred other small towns scattered around India. The effect of the December 2004 tsunami is still visible in places. The water sports complex is littered with the debris of damaged boats, nets and water skis lying forlornly like beached whales. The aquarium is closed. The small restaurants are severely understaffed, and in response to our queries, a harried waiter says tiredly, “Tsunami ke baad sab chaley gaye” (everyone left after the tsunami). Nothing in its sleepy appearance prepares me for the unbelievable beauty of its surrounding islands. By day two, I exhaust all avenues of activity/entertainment in Port Blair: the sound and light show at the Cellular Jail, well worth it for actor Om Puri’s sonorous voice-over; the essential touristy trip to North Bay; a visit to Ross Island and the pretty little beach of Corbyn’s Cove.
I prepare to leave for Havelock—the island with the prettiest beaches, crystal-clear water, dazzling coral formations and kaleidoscopic marine life. To get there, I have to endure a four-hour long, hot and tedious ferry ride. The ferry leaves Phoenix Bay jetty early in the morning and by the time the sun is high up in the sky, the child in me has started drumming her heels into the back of her seat and wondering, “Are we there yet?” The tedium is alleviated by a cheerful old Greek couple—Pavlos and Sophia—who, as I discover to my embarrassment, have travelled India much more extensively than me. Pavlos flirts shamelessly with all the women—a remarkable achievement since he speaks very little English—while Sophia laughs as she translates the more complicated Greek words into English, for her husband to repeat to his growing crowd of female admirers. A dolphin sighting two hours into the trip excites all the passengers into rushing madly for their cameras.
Coconut trees sway gently in the breeze; the robin’s egg blue of the sky is reflected in the water and the crystal-clear wavelets lap sweetly against the pale-gold sand. And this is true of all the beaches I visit from here on. I’m staying at the Dolphin Resort, and even its little beachfront looks like it climbed out of a postcard and pasted itself across the real scenery. The resort looks like the result of a complicated blend of a Greek village, English country cottages and Burmese stilt houses. The slightly dingy, hexagonal rooms are all sea-blue and sand-white, as if they have over the years, chameleon-like, taken on the colours that surround them. Dawn comes early to these islands and I’m up before six, watching the darkness fade from the sky like a wet watercolour painting. I munch through slices of cold toast, sip hot tea and savour the boiled eggs brought to my table, warm and unshelled. I have about an hour till my snorkelling instructor turns up, so I wander down to the beachfront and watch the tiny sand-coloured crabs industriously dig out their little hideaways, fashioning the sand into perfect little balls and rolling them out of the tunnels. I feel strangely humbled—I don’t think I have ever worked this hard.
At 10 o’ clock sharp, my instructor turns up. With floppy hair, a gangling walk and a seemingly endless repertoire of Himesh Reshammiya songs. Kumar helps me aboard the Jungli Rani, the long wooden motorboat, which looks like it was painted by someone with a palette of primary colours, and veins full of banned substances.
In the half-hour it takes to get to Elephant beach, Kumar has run through most of the popular Himesh songs. After I disembark unsteadily from the boat, I find, to my horror, that I am humming a tortured rendition of “Aap ki kashish! Sarfarosh hai!” I curse the day that nasal wail was unleashed on the world.
Paddling into deeper waters, my senses seem to be heightened. Through the soft enveloping silence, I can hear the gentle swooshing of my arms as they push through the water and my breath as it rushes in and out of the mouthpiece.
Shoals of silver-blue fish stream past as I stretch out my hand to touch them. Shy rainbow-coloured ones tentatively come close to outstretched fingers, while their saucy blue-and-yellow cousins observe from a foot away.
“Yes madam, that is the doctor fish. Because when it bites, it feels like an injection,” says Kumar after I surface, spluttering and indignant at being attacked by a fish no larger than my hand. Fine, so “attacked” isn’t the right word (nibbled at, maybe), but I’m entitled to be a little disgruntled at the sheer cheek of it. And I’m a little impressed too, with this colourful, translucent-finned, underwater David.
The corals are a whole different story. There is none of the frantic activity of the fish, just a calm contentedness. I see the sponges, the blue-lipped clams and the vivid orange branch-like corals, looking for all the world like some exotic Eden set in stone. The gentle fronds of seaweed comb the currents and the anemones move with the waves as I stare, almost hypnotized, at this underwater world.
Kumar suddenly interrupts my engrossed snorkelling with a gesture that we ought to be getting back ashore. It is only now, when we have to swim back to shore, that I realize how tired I am. Kumar, on the other hand, looks as infuriatingly fresh as a daisy bathed in morning dew, and I am tempted to check behind his ears for fully developed gills.
Once I get back on dry land, I find that all the colours look so washed out, so pale. I mull over the wisdom of the old animated lobster who sang in time to a kicky samba beat: “Under the sea, under the sea, darling it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me!”
Best season to travel:
November-end to May.
Flights: Indian, Jet Airways and Air Deccan fly from Chennai to Port Blair; airfare costs approximately Rs13,000 return.
Where to stay:
Port Blair: Fortune Bay Resort (Tel: (03192) 234101; www.fortuneparkhotels.com; Rs3,500 to Rs5,000), and the Peerless Resort (Tel: (03192) 233463; www.peerlesshotels.com; Rs3,650 to Rs4,500) at Corbyn’s Cove, are satisfactory. The average Andaman Teal House (Tel: (03192) 232642; Rs800) must be booked through the tourist office (Tel: (03192) 232747).
Havelock Island: Barefoot at Havelock (Tel: (03192) 236008; www.barefootindia.com, Rs3,100 and up for double room) is an eco-friendly jungle resort with diving. Wild Orchid Resort (Tel: (03192) 82472; www.wildorchidandaman.com; Rs2,200) has pleasant cottages and a restaurant that serves good seafood (Tel: (03192) 82472; www.wildorchidandaman.com; Rs1,200 to Rs2,500). We stayed at Dolphin Beach Resort (Tel: (03192) 282411; Rs2,000), where the service is somnambulistic, but the view makes up for it.
Where to eat:
Port Blair: The food is mostly average—nothing that would have you begging the chef for a recipe. Seafood is always a good bet.
Havelock: Wild Orchid’s chef conjures up magnificent prawn curries—spicy, with a touch of sweetness from the coconut milk, served with steaming fragrant rice. Wash it down with a well-mixed cocktail. Small shacks at Radha Nagar beach serve good fries, pancakes and other items catering to western tastes.
What to do:
Visit The Cellular Jail, Havelock Island (snorkelling and scuba), Ross Island, Corbyn’s Cove (keep transportation standby)
Note: Foreigners need a permit to travel to the Andamans; obtainable at embassies overseas or from the Foreigners Registration Office in the metros.
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