D H I T I

To the edge of the world!

In India, Travel on December 23, 2012 at 11:49 am

A&N

Maybe because it has been raining for weeks now and the sun seems to have disappeared completely from our lives, maybe because the autumnal colours are long gone and winter is finally setting in and spreading its greyness around or maybe just because those holidays had been amazing, but I have been feeling nostalgic about the Andamans for some time now.

Andaman and Nicobar islands, off the coast of India, are situated in the middle of nowhere really and our time there reminded us constantly of its isolation from the rest of India.

Andaman Islands

Andaman Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you look at the map, it is much closer to Thailand rather than to India. If it has been assimilated into India, it is more for historical reasons rather than distance or cultural reasons. Although, the islands had been used infrequently by some kings on the Indian mainland as a strategic naval base before the English colonisation, it was however, the English who really made use of it and marked the presence of these islands.

The islands, like most tropical islands, have the reputation of offering an idyllic holidays with lots of lazing around on white sand beaches, snorkelling, diving etc. However, C and I found that there was much more to these islands than meets the eye and ultimately our 10 days at the islands seemed to us not only barely sufficient but quite hectic.

We arrived at the capital Port Blair from Chennai (Tamil Nadu). We had taken the flight mostly to save on time but a lot of backpackers prefer the sea, either from Chennai (Tamil Nadu) or from Calcutta ( West Bengal). Port Blair is a bustling city and gives absolutely no sign of idyllic beaches anywhere. But it is the one place in India where there is no dominant language or culture. Tamils and Bengalis co-exist (ahem) in almost equal numbers followed by the Telegus and other regional groups. Newspapers are easily available in both Tamil and Bengali but most people still speak Hindi as well.

Port Blair is a good place from where to start, to take the boat either to other islands or to take the bus to the north. We spent a day in the city just walking around visiting the Anthropological Museum etc. before taking a boat to the Ross Island nearby which houses the ruins of the colonial administrative buildings.

The islands were used by various European powers before the English finally claimed it and used it as a port as well as prison for Indians (mostly political dissenters and freedom fighters), useful because of its distance from India. Too far away for prisoners  to escape and close enough to make a halt on the way to and from India.The establishment of a prison for dissident Indians (The Cellular Jail of Port Blair)  gave it a place close to the heart of Indians fighting for independence and it was only logical that it would be brought in within the Indian Union at the time of independence.

The Ross Island is quite spectacular, if for nothing else, the assault of vegetation on the ruins of old administrative buildings. Unfortunately, our camera decided to die on us while we were on the island and we have only one photo that survived 😦

Ross Island

Instead of making a beeline to the most touristic island in the archipelago, Havelok Island, C and I decided to go up north to Diglipur.

Getting there was an experience in itself. We wanted to take the boat but it was full so we took the bus instead and finally we were glad we did because it gave us a very different view of the islands i.e. the jungle instead of the sea. This was the only time we had a 290 kms stretch of jungle, broken only by small lagoons and rivers.

Our journey started in the wee hours of the morning, around 4am. We reached our bus completely groggy from lack of sleep and realised there was no hope of catching a wink in the bus either. As most public buses, it seemed in dire need of repairs, had the most uncomfortable seats imaginable and under the paternal guidance of the man at the ticket counter the day before, we had seats situated perpendicular to the driver, which meant an amazing view ( as our self-adopted father had promised) but it also meant we had nothing to hold on to whatsoever. Anyone who has taken public transport in India will tell you that you absolutely need something to hold on to during the ride, apart from to your own dear life! And our driver seemed to take maniacal pleasure in watching us swaying and rolling in all directions like a pair of golf balls on turbulent sea waters. We reached Diglipur in record time and well ahead of schedule!

I have often wondered why there aren’t more Indians in Formula One. Surely, that is one thing we must be exceptional at!

PB to Diglipur

Our journey took us through the heart of Jarawa-land: basically the jungles are still inhabited by tribes called the Jarawas who are struggling to maintain their way of life faced with the incessant influx of people from the mainland and growing industrialisation on the islands.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands were and to a certain measure still are inhabited by indigenous people like the Nicobarese, the Jarawas and the Sentineleses. The onslaught of immigration from various parts of the Indian mainland, has given these islands its distinctive cultural hetreo-genity but has also pushed back the indigenous population deeper into the forest. It was recently that the Indian government barred entry into the Nicobar islands even for Indians. To go there, one now has to show a legitimate reason like anthropological studies etc. The tribes living on the Nicobar islands shun any contact from outsiders and prefer to stay among themselves.

Although the measures of protection in the Nicobar islands may be effective to some extent, I am sceptical of the efforts being made on the Andaman Islands itself.

sign post at the entrance to Jarawa inhabited area

Here are some pictures of our journey to Diglipur , which in spite of everything was a spectacular route and well worth the effort! As you will notice, there are no pictures of the jungle but only what we could manage when we were not moving 😉

We crossed a number of small islands and each time we had to get down from the bus and take the ferry.

to diglipur

ferry

on the ferry

On the way to Diglipur.

to diglipur 3

Once at Diglipur, initially all we wanted to do was rest our tired bones and we couldn’t help wondering what madness had taken over us when we decided to make the journey. As it happens, Diglipur was exactly what the doctor ordered. Although the largest town on the North Andaman Island, it is far from teeming with tourists. In fact, we were only a handful and even as far as accommodation is concerned, there were not more than 3 choices available. We chose a resort which had recently opened its doors to customers and were quite pleased with the location as it has access by way of some dense vegetation to a part of the island where apparently the sea turtles came in to nest. It was peaceful and calm and not another soul to be seen. After 8 hours on the bus/ferry etc., we felt like we had arrived at the end of the world. If we took a boat and kept going, we would surely fall over the edge!

Diglipur

Diglipur 2

Diglipur 3

For the days we spent at Diglipur,we had fresh fish from the sea for our meals, strolls on completely deserted beaches and a visit to Ross and Smith Islands, two secluded and uninhabited islands joined by a thin sandbar. You can spend time snorkelling and admiring the coral reefs or just enjoy the sea, or if you prefer take a trek on the islands through thick vegetation and imposing trees. Still, it is the sea which dominates the atmosphere on these islands.

DSC01572

DSC01572 (Photo credit: anuradhac)

From Diglipur, we took a boat back to Port Blair (we had had enough of buses!) which landed us back to the capital in the morning. And then we had just enough time to make our way to Havelock, which of course is unmissable on a trip to A&N even if it is the most tourist infested island in the archipelago.

We were surprised to find however that there weren’t many tourists and most of the hotels were empty. We were told the island was facing an exceptionally low number of tourists that year, which was devastating for local commerce but for us it meant not having to compete with others for our space on the island which suited us well. Havelock was a good end to our holidays on the islands. It gave us enough sand, sea, corals and good food.

Still, we ended up leaving the islands knowing that there were so many things left to do and explore and that we can easily go back and not repeat what we had done before!

A&N

A&N2

A&N 3

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