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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Just 3cr tax-payers in a population of 100cr of which the working population is estimated to be at least 50%. An incredible statistic!
Top 10 temples in the country hold an “estimated” USD 60Bn in gold and other precious metals, with the largest accounting for USD 22Bn; enough to almost wipe out this year’s current account deficit, and generate a recurring annual income of USD 3Bn.
A greater proportion of an average Indian household net worth is in gold and property; most of it unaccounted. By a large consensus, we have a parallel economy at least as large as the reported. And a majority of our transactions are in cash.
Are we really a “poor” country? Numbers don't lie, but they at least need to be representative of the sample.
Monday, October 14, 2013
The size of this city I do not write here, because it cannot all be seen from any one spot, but I climbed a hill whence I could see a great part of it; I could not see it all because it lies between several ranges of hills. What I saw from thence seemed to me as large as Rome, and very beautiful to the sight; there are many groves of trees within it, in the gardens of the houses, and many conduits of water which flow into the midst of it, and in places there are lakes; and the king has close to his palace a palm-grove and other rich-bearing fruit-trees. This is the best provided city in the world, and is stocked with provisions such as rice, wheat, grains, Indian-corn, and a certain amount of barley and beans, pulses, horse-gram, and many other seeds which grow in this country which are the food of the people, and there is large store of these and very cheap - Domingo Paes’ who visited Hampi at its zenith in 1520.
UNESCO declared Hampi a World heritage site in 1986 – “As the final capital of the last of the great kingdom of South India, Hampi, enriched by the cotton and the spice trade was one of the most beautiful cities of the medieval world”. One of the world’s largest discovered archaeological spread till date, it has, at last count, over 500 monuments spread over 26 sq. km. Yours truly and AP drove/walked around most of it over two days, and came away with the feeling we missed a lot more than we saw. As futile an exercise as it was, it was far comprehensive than my first visit seven years ago, when a nagging girlfriend, who was more worried about her “beauty” than the natural, and a complete lack of preparation, left me convinced that I had seen the whole of the ruins in just three hours; neither the relationship nor the memories survived. And a couple of 20-yr old Brits we bumped into this time swore that after two whole months, they still couldn't get their minds around the scale of the ruins.
One can try and imagine, but seeing is believing. What one sees is the overflowing Tungabhadra (it had been the wettest monsoon in the last 20 years, and the heaviest the river had ever been for a long time, said the locals) snaking away in to the horizon, with the ruins next to it, surrounded by low-lying, yet far flung hills on the other three sides; the enormous boulders that mark the landscape ensure two basic needs for a flourishing capital are met – access to water, and adequate security from invaders.
The swiftness with which Hampi rose and fell from grace make it sound almost like a mirage. It starts as a myth, with references to Ramayana, where the area is known as Kishkinda, whose rulers helped Lord Ram build the bridge to SriLanka. In 1336, Harihara and Bukka founded the Vijayanagara dynasty, with Hampi as their capital, which over the next couple of centuries grew into one of the largest Hindu empires in history. By the 16th century, the greater metropolitan region of Vijayanagara, surrounded by seven lines of fortification, supposedly covered 650 sq. km and had a population of about 500,000. All this grandeur came to a sudden end in 1565 when the city was defeated and ransacked by a coalition of Deccan sultanates, after which Hampi went into a terminal decline. What are left are remnants which offer a glimpse in to what was truly one of the largest cities in the world at its peak; the ruins are well-preserved, far-flung and well-protected – probably why the invaders couldn't destroy them all, although there surely are signs they tried.
Independence day is of special significance to me; it so happens that invariably, I end up in one of these historical locations. Coorg, Jaipur and now Hampi, three of the last six years. We started on 15th Aug early morning, reached NH4, almost emptying our wallets on tolls (there is easily one every 50 kms) and continued till Chitradurga junction, where the very fork where I once almost killed a guy 4 years ago beckoned. 220 kms of excellent 6-lane highway and 4 hours of blissful driving, with a 30 min break for breakfast.
The road changes character here, and turns in to a 2-lane bumpy track till one nears Hospet; still very much drivable, although lack of a divider makes over-taking hazardous, especially with it being a heavy trucking route. The surroundings also turn much greener and pleasant, with low lying hills giving one the feeling of gradually rolling up and down. 100 kms and 2 hrs well spent admiring the scenery on a cloudy and windy day, and listening to Asha singing “tururutu, tururutu”. Oh what a genius RD was!
The nightmare begins 20 kms from Hospet, and it is mystifying why after 320 kms of excellent roads, someone felt the need to remind passers-by we were still in India. Hospet is a major industrial junction and one would assume roads would be better leading in to it! There are potholes and dirt tracks, and the road at times makes an appearance, as if to put the driver out of his misery, only to disappear shortly. This continues till one reaches the rim of the TB dam, where ongoing construction (I was later told it was a round-about for the existing road) and steep inclines, more than make up for the joy of seeing a dam bursting at its seams, at times the water threatening to rush through its meager banks. And one steep incline and a turn, and you find yourself at the heart of Hospet. It was pouring, and had been so the whole month apparently, roads were slush, traffic was terrible, we were hungry and tired, and only AP’s new Ipad managed to identify the roads from the canals and the ditches. But what it did was lead us to Hotel Hampi International, where we were to set-up camp for the next 3 days. (AP blogs here http://abhijitparkhe.wordpress.com/)
For the price of INR 1,800 for a double room, it is not exactly cheap; but the location is ideal for those visiting Hampi, it has car-parking, clean rooms and an excellent reception. Stay here, but find another place to eat, unless you have a family and no choice. Food is ordinary, service is not too great, and in general, not worth the money you end up shelling out, except for the breakfast which is a decent spread, if you can make it down early enough to the restaurant.The rest of the day was spent recovering from the long drive and praying to the rain gods to relent.
The City and other relics
A little bit of preparation would have helped –to understand the structure of the old city and to better appreciate its enormity. We relied on guide maps, my old but trusty car, and a lot of walking. About 15 kms a day. And that helped in appreciating how immense a metropolis Hampi must have been in yore. What we know now is that the city can be broadly divided in to five large units, of which we managed to do justice to four. My guess though, is that we had just scraped the tip, we ended up discovering more temples and structures than the map contained, and these were the ones that ASI maintains; we must have walked past far more that are neither named nor maintained. And I am sure, just as I was in Anuradhapura in SriLanka, that there is much more that is waiting to be discovered, under the grounds, or hidden away by those enormous boulders that stretch for miles and miles. The five units are:
- Temple City: The religious area, where the most famous temples and other religious structures are located, with the Tungabhadra forming the natural barrier to the north. It starts with the Krishna temple, Ganesh temple and the second most-famous Virupaksha temple, with its giant walk-ways and the enormous bazaars. The coupe-de-resistance though is the Vittala temple complex, with the stone chariot and the mystical musical pillars. As usual, one needs to suffer before reaching the lord. A rocky path that winds through relics of several temple complexes, parallel to the river threatens to hurt knees and ego alike. One would be forgiven for believing that was all Hampi was – such a magnificent view leaves one mesmerized and awe-struck. It is an excruciatingly long and tough walk – but worth every blister on your feet. We started at 9, and sometime between 11 and 12, I gave up trying to do justice to the snaps, there are so many and so diverse that it is humanely impossible to describe, and even more to capture through an artificial lens. A day is too little, a lifetime may probably suffice!
2. Kamalapura: A suburb located just outside Hampi, and accessible through a winding road past the Kamalapura lake, and then a narrow broken road, about 10 kms away from Hampi. There are a number of interesting monuments like the Pattabhirama temple, which is as large and brilliant as any of the Hampi temples except the well-known, but far lesser frequented by tourists, being off the circuit. We landed here the second day morning at 9 AM and we were the only two around. Also close-by is the beautiful bathing ghats and the domed gateway, which by appearance, looked to be some sort of a gateway between Hampi and Kamalapura, sadly, ill-maintained and with absolutely no records of any sort. Again, the area must extend all the way to the religious city, which is what the gateway suggested, but the path was blocked by imposing boulders. The highlight of the day though, was the Archaeological museum, which we had no intention of visiting and stumbled upon as we drove through the ramshackle town. Such a beautifully instructive little place, and so well-documented. I would go as far as to suggest that one makes a trip here first, and then to the rest. The birds-eye view one gets about Hampi and its history, and the spread of the metropolis, would surely help planning. Such a shame the museum is located not in the main city but here. An engrossing first half well-spent in Kamalapura.
3. The Citadel: The area dominated by the Royal Center and military structures, the nerve-center and residence of the king, queen and other royals. It would be easy to imagine that due to its importance, this part of the town would be the most plundered – but it is in surprisingly good condition, and a little imagination is enough to understand the grandeur. The Citadel is easily accessible from Kamalapura and it is advisable to spend your time wisely, there are so many structures worth visiting that in the end, we had to skip about half of them just to ensure we covered the main attractions. The Royal center with the king’s seat is in itself worth a whole day. Incredibly huge and towers above the landscape. Then there are others such as the Hazara Rama temple, Queen’s bath, Lotus mahal and the Elephant stables, all of which are within a 5 km spread. Incredibly, behind the elephant stables which again, is the most visited landmark in this part of the town, just 100 yards away, are several small and neglected temples which we kept looking for some history, but found none; too many and too widely spread for anyone to bother about. It speaks volumes of how large the city must have been, that from the elephant stables to the far-away hills, which must be at least 10 kms away, the naked eye can see several dilapidated structures, including the small dome constructions on the hills, which are neither reachable nor do any records exist. Half a day spent driving and walking, it is an enchanting experience to drive through structures that are centuries old, and one can drive all the way up to the stables which is the end-point for this part of the town.
4. Islamic Area: The Islamic area, consisting of several tombs, mosques, gateways and other religious structures, built or modified post the fall of the Vijayanagara empire.The difference in the construction styles is stark and looks like two eras fused together, although it is easy to detect the original construction from the encroached. These quarters are in the middle of the Citadel; they neither add nor take away its magnificence, and are not as elaborately spread as the others. We passed through most of them and debated whether their history (even these are at least 300 yrs old) over-rides the fact that they were built over the original structures. On second thoughts, maybe we should have spent some more time here, but the long walk and wobbly knees corrupted even the iron will of two time-trusted enthusiasts.
5. Anegondi: We missed this entirely; one needs to cross the river and the presence of motorboats gave me no confidence, Tungabhadra was so angry that I was sure anything in her path would be swept away. I saw one motorboat struggling to cross the 40 m or so from one bank to the other, and was convinced it would capsize any minute. The Hanuman temple on the hilltop is visible from afar and it is an extremely popular site, local lore has it as either the birth-place or a favorite praying location of Hanuman, depending on who one speaks to, although I have, by now, been to several temples that claim to be so; neither were we able to piece as to whether Anegondi was pre or post the rise of Hampi. Another trip maybe.
The town of Hospet has precious little to see; or maybe we did not look enough. Either ways, it is like the Tiger who has tasted human blood. Once you have seen an entire city 800 years old, it is extremely difficult to respect anything modern. Hampi does that to you, so we had neither the interest nor the time to look at anything in Hospet town, except TB dam. It is absolutely full to the brim, there were waves lashing against the dam walls and sending sprays of water several feet in to the air – what a thrill. What it also is, is a huge tourist scam, which is disheartening.
We were directed to a parking lot at the bottom of the dam, and then found one can drive all the way up and even on the dam. Imagine raging water on one side and fully open dam gates on the other, and you driving between them. This is no way to scam visitors, and I would have willingly paid any amount of money just for the experience, rather than the pittance of INR 20 that the scamsters extracted from me, maybe the Govt. should put up huge noticeboards at the parking lot, and start charging tickets to drive through; at least one would know it is possible. May those jerks who deprived me of this opportunity suffer the most unmentionable agony. That though, takes nothing away from the beautiful views from the top of the dam site which rounded off a wonderful trip. Hampi stays with you, and the images get imprinted in your memory. The past is always more beautiful than the future, and hopefully, ASI and other conservation authorities will ensure it stays that way. Our “Rome”has survived wars, plunderers and countless natural elements; it is too precious to lose now!
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Don’t take my word for it; Time rated Radhanagar or the strangely numbered Beach 7 “the best beach in Asia” in 2004. All such rankings tend to be biased, and my “best” could be starkly different from yours, but this bit is actually true.
The first time I heard of Havelock was in 2006 from a well-to-do friend who had spent a week there – something about an eco-friendly resort where one could swim with elephants and lounge on pristine white beaches with no one in sight for miles. He said it reminded him, both literally and in spirit, of the Agatha Christie novel “And then there were none”.
The consensus while me/AP were planning for Andaman was this: Havelock had choices ranging from the ultra-budget conscious to super-luxury, and while the latter was easy to manage, the former would be notoriously difficult. And we were told getting to Havelock would be an even bigger challenge, considering that there were limited Govt. ferries from Port Blair, which were usually over-crowded and pre-booked. We had two choices: ignore well-meaning advice from strangers on travel forums – which is what we tend to do most of the time – or pre-book a budget accommodation/ferry tickets. We did the latter, well out-of-character for both of us. After a lot of online scouting during which I must have written/called about 15 resorts suggested by “forum experts”, we found one that bothered to reply with astounding urgency, i.e., the same day – Emerald Gecko. The name sounded interesting enough, the pictures of the resort looked good, so that was that. And Makruzz provided the escape route to ferry tickets, albeit at a steep hike. But that is the price one is willing to pay for peace of mind. Old age must have crept up, surely.
On a nice sunny day, we landed up at Phoenix Bay Jetty (referred to as Phoenix by localites), only to be told one has to board a private bus to get in. You see, the jetty is also used by the navy, so security is tight. And Makruzz, being a relatively new concern has decided to go the whole hog and adopt the airline concept to a ferry. All well-meaning I agree, but this means you get there an hour in advance, wait in a long queue for boarding passes, then a bit more to get in the ferry, search for your seat, secure your luggage and then finally hope you are not next to a protective mother with a wailing kid! Or a bunch of lovely dovey honeymooners, of which there were tons of them in the queue. We were lucky though, the ferry is amazingly well-maintained, there is a small café which serves some basic snacks, they even do a 10-min safety orientation before the ferry starts, and we got the corner seats. I like it, it is worth the money for a 2 hr leisurely ride. The ferry goes along the shore for about half an hour and then crosses in to the open sea, where it can get a bit rocky at times for about an hour, till it reaches the cute jetty of Havelock.
It gets mightily interesting now. Everyone is in a mad rush to run out, just as on a flight. This is surely an Indian cultural phenomenon. There were several foreigners on the ferry, who were happy to wait patiently. If you have taken a 2 hr ferry to reach a supposedly exotic island, you can surely wait 10 mins more? But not so, the newly-weds are the first to dash to the exit, followed by the family groups, then follow the guide-led excursion parties, and then come the losers like us and the foreigners, who can barely understand the fuss. It doesn't stop here. 200 cameras are suddenly flashing on the deck, people are awkwardly posing, kids are running around, grandmothers are breathless with excitement. You can imagine the mayhem.
And wading through this, we were confronted with a crowd of autos, with one holding my name on a banner. A 15 min rickety drive and we were at “Emerald Gecko”. (http://emerald-gecko.com/). And Manoj, the estate manager, regarded us with a crooked eye when he said we were the only “non-couple” pair around!
It is a fairly spacious budget resort off Beach No.5, about 10 kms from Havelock jetty, 10 m off the road. The cabanas are about 10 m from the beach, a bit too closely spaced for comfort maybe, but we didn't mind. Anyone who has traveled wide and far would tell you the two basic needs of a budget traveler. Clean bed and a hot bath. The cottage is well maintained, the attached bathroom (there are huts with a shared bathroom, they come a lot cheaper) is clean, and at INR 1500 a day, it is a decent choice. One has a choice of hut/cottage/one storied cottage with a view at various distances from the beach, all located around a central bistro. People tend to overpay and fantasize about staying on the beach, when one can get there in a couple of minutes, to me, it seems a mere technicality whether you stay on it or off it. But the honeymooners were furiously arguing over who got the cabin nearest to the beach, which had the best view, and so on. Couples need something to talk I suppose. And one of them turned out to be a colleague from the same company and campus, who also knew a couple of people i work with. Yeah, you travel 1300 kms to get away from work and you run in to someone who wants to discuss pitfalls of being in your organization. We IT crowd are everywhere, must do something about that!
The bistro is named “Blackbeard” and has some amazing selections of sea-food and Italian, albeit a bit on the expensive side. The breakfast spread is sumptuous, and the main courses for lunch/dinner are about 10 varieties of sea-food, almost Bengali style but without the overpowering spices, vegetarians have some limited choices though, and the desserts are a treat. Truly value for money. We hardly found the need to search around in the three days we spent here, the restaurant is located a few metres away from the beach and is clearly the chief attraction, we must have spent more time reading in the bistro than in our cabin. Free tender coconuts to boot, although one has to exercise one’s shoulders. Not to climb, but to chop. Worth the effort.
The beach must be a she. It is beautifully white, almost golden yellow at sunset, and is a clear 2 kms stretch, and is wonderfully inviting at first sight. I went for a jog one early morning and took some amazing snaps of one of the earliest sunrises in the country. 5:22 AM said my watch. It was so serene that you wouldn't want to share it with any of the other resorts that dot the road.
And then it turned character. We were immersed in our books, I was lost in “1984” and the machinations of big brother, when I noticed with a start it was low-tide. And the sea had gone back almost 100 m to reveal the true nature of the beach. It was extremely rocky, and at low-tide, one can walk in almost 200 m in to the sea. Which is exactly what yours truly did, while the rest lounged on hammocks and frolicked in the water. And found out that one need not be a swimmer to observe marine life, it was crawling all around my feet and across the sensational corals that jut out like rocks. Sun on my back, a stomach full of barracuda, women in strings all around, the memory of a book, some irresistible photographs, and walking in the sea so far away that I couldn't make out the shore in the burning sun. Getting a tan is one of the obvious benefits here.
That afternoon, we hired an auto to Radhanagar. Beach No.7 (and I still can’t connect the logic, must have had something to do with the British) is about 20 kms away from Beach.5 and takes a narrow twisty single lane road through some wild growth and pretty villages and fields. We should have hired a bike! And discovered why “Time” was captivated enough to rate it so highly.
This is picture perfect. The beach is sheltered by jutting low hills on both sides, which ensures waters all along the 2 kms stretch are calm. The contrasts are mystifying. The water is emerald green, the hills are brown and at times chalk, the forests on the shore are blazingly green, and at 430 PM, the suns blasts rays of red on the water. Divine. I have been to several beach paradises around South Asia. This beats them hollow. And wondered why anyone would travel all the way to Phuket (which is a straight line across the ocean as the crow flies) or any of the overseas beaches when you can be here? Well, that is why it is India’s best kept secret, I concur. It must have been far more pristine when TIME was here in 2004.
With fame comes the crowd! And crowded it was, but that is the price we pay for our “discoveries”. Luckily, we Indians tend to leave our filthy habits behind when we travel, we flout all rules at home but when we travel, we are as disciplined as they come, why is that? Radhanagar is all spic and span. The downside is that finding a good camera angle without the crowd is a challenge. But I have come across very few “must-see’s” that actually live up to their reputation. This is one of the special ones! The man in the safari suit agreed, so did the woman in a Kancheepuram sari. Seriously, safari suit in 2012, and on a beach? No wonder Indians are caricatured when we travel! And kids with Gandhi topis?
The couple of days following this were spent lazing on the beach at the Gecko and in the bistro, reading, walking around the resort, exhausting the memory card in the camera, and a lot of ogling around. A mind at peace and a full stomach. Exactly what two mid-thirty IT professionals in non-IT roles sought when they stepped out on a much needed vacation. And discovered it in a tiny speck 1300 kms away from the mainland.
This is “If” by “Bread”. I must take my guitar along…. A different context, yes, but the emotions are the same…
If a picture paints a thousand words Then why can't I paint you?
The words will never show, the you I've come to know
If a face could launch a thousand ships Then where am I to go?
There's no one home but you, you're all that's left me too
And when my love for life is running dry You come and pour yourself on me
If a man could be two places at one time I'd be with you
Tomorrow and today, beside you all the way
If the world should stop revolving spinning slowly down to die
I'd spend the end with you And when the world was through
Then one by one the stars would all go out
Then you and I would simply fly away
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Mt. Harriett is not a mountain.
However at barely 1200 ft (365 m), Harriett is still the highest peak in the lower Andaman region, while Saddle point (2400 ft) in North Andaman is the tallest in the archipelago. Speaks volumes about how flat the islands are. Dinaz was adamant we should take the walking trail up the “mountain”, and she had three irrefutable logic. The first comment she had gotten out of us on landing up at her B&B was how disappointed we were that Barren Island and Indira point were beyond our reach – and so was Saddle Peak, being so way out from Port Blair. That was the first, and she probably saw Harriett as a way of making up for that disappointment. The second reason was that she had sent us on an incredibly backbreaking but totally enriching all-day expedition to Baratang the previous day – having taken over the responsibility of drawing up a schedule for two numb-skulls that had turned up in Port Blair without a plan – and we were in no mood to do any more heavy-duty exploring. Harriett fitted the general plan, it was “just” 55 kms by road, but apparently Mohan knew a shorter way by ferry! And the clincher was that from Harriett, one could supposedly glimpse the entire island archipelago on a clear day, including Havelock which was a good 60 kms away, and the “island national park” which boasted saltwater crocodiles, robber crabs and wild pigs amongst others – which appealed to the intrepid photographer in yours truly.
Me and AP had two queries: Who the hell was Harriet and how did one get there? The second more practical, but the first stoked our little grey cells. And Mohan provided a little bit of both, and a little asking around helped. Trust the locals, they never get tired of dumb questions and have a lot of patience in these parts!
Mt. Harriett is apparently named after Harriett Tytler, wife of Robert Tytler, a British soldier, naturalist and photographer, who headed the Convict Settlement at Port Blair b/n 1862-84. I guess it must have also had something to do with the immaculate notes she kept while her husband was posted in Delhi during the 1857 Sepoy revolt. One mystery solved.
Mohan and Meera (how appropriately named) are the caretakers for Dinaz’s B&B and the sweetest couple one can ever imagine. While Meera’s egg-curry and surmai fry are to die for, and were the primary reason why we street-food lovers unfailingly returned to our room every night before 8 PM, Mohan has a bundle of stories and directions about the island which one can blindly follow. Second mystery solved.
And it was with this inside information, and blind confidence that one need not suffer 55 kms over twisty roads that we set out for Harriett. Haddo junction to Haddo dock is a 10 min walk or INR 15 by auto. And it is one of the largest docks in the islands, we counted some large very large containers and it made sense why one could hear the low rumbling of the ships and the their blasts the previous night from Dinaz’s B&B.
A hole in the wall acts as a ticket counter to the junta ferry, INR 5 said the ticket-master; for inflation accustomed city folk like us who cannot imagine what one could buy for 5 bucks except in our childhood, this was an incredibly joyous moment, dwarfed only by the experience in Kolkata when I received change for 25 ps on a tram! The ferry looks old and somewhat unstable – but most locals bounded on it with such enthusiasm that we did what we had to.
Chatham itself is a very small island bang in between Haddo and Bambooflat, roughly 10 mins away on serene waters but sounds large with a relatively huge number of ships berthed. There is something very soothing about being on a ferry on calm waters - the ferry chugs along at a nice pace, the water sprays around but doesn't wet or scare wary non-swimmers, the wind gently blows your hair (or whatever is left of it!), the sun peers through the clouds and you start building a nice tan. And the journey repeats at Chatham. One changes a ferry to Bambooflat and goes through the same emotions all over again for another 15 mins. You never want it to end – but sadly it does. The whole journey takes 30 mins. Lessons learnt? When on an island, hop on to a ferry! It performs the same function as automobiles do – simple commonsense but worth reiterating!
So on a Monday morning at 9 AM, when we would ordinarily be extremely productive in our 9-5 jobs and neck-deep in meetings and mails, we wound up being the only two non-locals at Bambooflat jetty. And since Mohan had said we would have no trouble hiring a drive to Harriett, we did the smart thing. Stood at the exit of the jetty and stared at the crowd of autos/jeeps till one of the drivers mustered the courage to ask us “kahan jaana hai?” The cabbies here, they don’t hound you, they state their price and wait. No negotiation, no hassles, and so very sweet. And in exactly 2 min, we were on one of those old jeeps up the winding narrow single lane to Harriett, it costs anything b/n INR 300-500 to hire a jeep for a round-trip and a jeep you must take!
It is a leisurely 20 min drive which churns your insides, it is that twisty. Hanging on in an open- jeep on mountain roads has an incredibly old-world charm, the mist floats in to the jeep, the fresh air gives you goose bumps, and one feels a sense of belonging with the forest that keeps closing in. At the sentry post where you pay a fee, we inquired with the guard – we were going to be the only ones around, no other tourists for miles! The driver had a perfectly sane reason for this – who wants to climb a small hill or hike 16 km on dirt tracks when the alternative is lazing around on a beautiful beach? Only deranged tourists apparently visit Harriett - only on weekends and even MMT and other arranged tours do not recommend it – which is exactly why Harriett is a must-see if you have even a little sense of adventure.
The day was misty and the sun, although high on the horizon (it rises much earlier in the islands than the mainland) was not yet strong enough for a clear view. So no sighting of Havelock and other islands! But what compensates is a pretty amazing view of the entire town of Port Blair, surrounding islands and the beautiful bays. And ah the contrasts! The island is green, the water is blue, the sky is red, the air is moist and your lungs, not accustomed to such freshness get greedy and drown in gulps of purity. So does the eye, but here is where the camera helps. Some of the best snaps of the archipelago are from the still observatory on the very top; water on one side and the national park on the other, with thick specks of forests separating the two.
The jungle track, nearly 16 km long looks very inviting, which tracks all the way down to the jetty and looked like an easy climb the little we ventured. If only we had planned it better, we could have hiked up the hill early morning and be back in time in for breakfast at Haddo. The track is almost fully covered with vegetation, we heard many birds but did not see any, and other than the leeches that the driver warned us about, looked eminently doable. But why walk when you can be driven around? So it was with a heavy heart that we back-tracked to Haddo by the exact route we had gotten there – passing Chatham saw mill at the jetty which was closed – on a Monday – which happens to be a public holiday on the islands. How I would love to live here!
And Ross island is not an island.
It is just 2 km away from the main jetty; it is probably a couple of kms across and wide, and is a nice mid-day trek. So why would two adventure-loving tourists like me and AP venture here? Inspiration came via a Gujarati family who we bumped in to while leaving Harriett that morning. A typical family of three, with a well-adorned teenage girl. The father asked “Rose island jaavu chu?” “Na papa” said the daughter and the wife nodded. And our cabbie said “they will spend lakhs on coming all the way to Port Blair, and more on a luxury beach hotel, but will not travel 2 km to a historic place!” We made a mental note. Also reinforcing our initial thoughts was SS who messaged me “Go to Ross if you want to see what happened to the British” – pun not intended by me but probably by her.
And historic it is. The British governed the Andaman islands from here, 1857-1942 till the Japanese drove them out, and were in turn bundled out by the Japanese in 1945. A 90 yr old town now in absolute decay, with nature recapturing most of what man stole from her – is this how humanity ends up, with only our structures as remnants while nature mocks us with her longevity? That is exactly what Ross is – a time-frame frozen for 60 yrs and counting. The ballroom is in ruins, the Govt. house is crumbling, the hospital and cemetery are so close that one fails to distinguish where one begins and the other ends, only the Church walls stand tall, pointing to the heavens in defiance. The Japanese also left their mark – their bunkers on the sea-facing corners must have given them a huge strategic advantage, and make for brilliant views.
I always wondered why the British set-up shop here and not on the mainland; locals explain it away as a morbid fear of a native attack and local diseases. I have a different theory – exclusivity and safety while being in touching distance of the mainland, and the ability to live the English life in a tropical bliss. And mould the island they did. The relatively large number of structures on such a small area is mind-boggling. It must have been a good life - a self-contained luxurious pad in pristine surroundings and a cute little beach down some steep steps at the back. The most amazing part of the island are the massive tree-hugged dilapidated structures, which make for some unbelievable photographs. “Easy come, easy go” they say. Nowhere is it truer. The church, the hospital and the nearby cemetery are the other highlights. One can spend an entire day just glancing at the tombstones and the year and the disease the poor guy succumbed to. So many youngsters and such silly reasons to die so far away from home. What is worth such a fate?
The second fascinating aspect is the innumerable deer that behave, more or less like domesticated dogs. Evolution is in action right here. The deer do not scamper away when approached; they pose for snaps and even approach you for food if they smell it on you – pestering despite being shooed away. Wonderful, in just over half a century, we have domesticated deer and peacocks; luckily we have spared the crabs that are plentiful here, or we would have to redefine much. Carry plenty of water, it seems a short walk, but by the time we were done pausing at each structure – and there are many – and walked the entire island, it was a good three hours. Sadly we had company; we were followed all the way by a bunch of honeymooners dumped by one of those tourist boats offering Ross-Viper-Chatham all day packages. Beware of these – unless you are a honeymooner yourself and do not mind the company of a boat-full of skimpily clad (both sexes) 24 year olds cootchie-cooing the whole day. And carry a sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat in any case.
So, with two hours at our disposal once we landed back at the Water sports jetty, there was enough time to walk around the bazaar, bus stand, and the beautifully maintained park – which is a dream on sunny evenings. Munching on peanuts and sips of watery tea sounds blissful when one has nothing to do but kill a few hours, it was. Building up a huge appetite on the long walk for the fare Meera was sure to dish out – inspiring enough.
The best part of being on an island is you get to exercise – which is never enough; you get a lot of sun and hence drink a lot of fluids which keep you hydrated and hungry; and since you eat well, a good night’s sleep is never an issue. Or did I just describe the perfect getaway?
Friday, February 8, 2013
“Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus”
Agent Smith to Neo – The Matrix
Try a mental picture of the “Grand Andaman Trunk Road” or NH223, the sole motorable road that connects Port Blair in South Andaman to Diglipur in North Andaman, a distance of 360 kms. Certainly “Grand” or “Trunk Road” are easy giveaways! And so does the code, NH (National Highway). And considering that it goes right through Jarawa territory and is frequented by almost every tourist who lands in Andaman, along with countless tourist buses and other private vehicles, the least one would expect is a paved road. It isn’t! And the primary reason that will ensure the survival of one of the last indigenous tribes on the Indian subcontinent.
Me and AP had the pleasure of engaging Dinaz the previous night for an all-encompassing discussion on everything “Andaman”. Lovely B&B and an even lovelier lady, Dinaz’s homestay is clean, compact, welcoming and the food by both Meera and Dinaz, along with the engaging chatter makes the home-stay value for money. She doesn't charge for drawing up a schedule of local sights, or for educating the ignorant mainlander on local issues; would surely be a millionaire by now, but I guess the joy one gets in the act is reward enough. She insisted that we endure the longest and toughest part of the trip as early as possible – and that was how we ended up booking a one-day excursion to Baratang with a local tourist company. And what a ride it turned out to be!
Monica Travels – the name was appetizing enough for me to make a down-payment without too many questions – turned out to be a large rickety bus that picked us up from Lillypur, Haddo at 615 AM the next morning. Breakfast was promised, and so was lunch, but not drinking water, said the grumpy driver-cum-guide. By the time the other specimens were rounded up, it was already 645 AM, and the grump was in a tearing hurry, and with good reason, as we were to discover in a short while. The assortment of characters resembled a movie – yours truly, AP, and as if we weren't characters enough, a family of nine pan chewing Maharashtrians from Nagpur (so guesses AP), a clan from Tamilnadu in leather shoes and neatly ironed full shirts, a group of loud Bengalis, and a smattering of seven other tongues. I always wondered why Indian tourists are portrayed as such stereotypes in movies – that is because we are!
When one comes across villages named Lillypur, Tilligunj, Bathu basti, Garacharma, Sippighat, Ferrargunj and Tushnabad in quick succession, that can mean only one thing – lots of Bengalis, in this case a mix of Bengalis and Bangladeshis. Majority of local population on the Andaman Islands is from the erstwhile undivided Bengal, the names follow, and so do the culture, food, and the general feel of the villages that dot the highway from Port Blair. Most of the 6 lakh population of Andaman islands derives in some form or other from these first settlers – Port Blair too has a fair smattering of them – but thankfully, Hindi works.
10 kms out of Port Blair is when the tropical jungle takes over – one minute the bus is on a two lane “highway” sailing along plain-looking villages with open fields dominated by rice and interspersed with coconut trees - and in a blink the terrain changes dramatically. The road reduces to a single undulating lane, most of it potholes and mercifully at times a paved road, snaking through thicket with less than a metre’s visibility. The single biggest change is however in the mood; one feels hemmed in, claustrophobic and almost threatened by the wild growth that suddenly engulfs you, dense enough to block out the sun and thick enough to spur imagination. There are no large predators on the islands – as there is no large prey – but one almost expects a tiger or a leopard to dart across the road any moment. And it is at this moment that the grump announces - we are almost in Jarawa territory. The city dweller recognizes some shades of vegetation – coconut, arecanut, palm, and plantain, but they look different from the species one finds around. And it is with this growing trepidation and the sick feeling in the stomach – brought about by a combination of the environment and the unimaginably snaky and hilly road – that one reaches Jirkatang 40 kms from Port Blair, and 20 minutes before 8 AM.
An insult of a breakfast followed; apparently this was the only place where one has to wait in a queue for 10 mins and still be subjected to a torture of an oily vada and stinky idlies – and we had already paid. Biscuits and loads of water did the trick. And water one should load up here – there is none ahead till lunch.
The grump was right, he had to hurry. Jirkatang is where the Jarawa reserve forest starts – an enormous police check-post dominates the landscape, a detailed route map through the territory bears down on you, crystal clear instructions in large lettering on “Do-Not” in three languages leave nothing to imagination, and a temple gong rings somewhere nearby, as if to appease the heavens and guarantee a safe journey. All vehicles have to line-up in a convoy with fixed departure times – ours was 8 AM - large buses at the beginning and end, small cars and private vehicles in the middle, and an armed police bike leading and following the pile; Jostling for the choicest slots in the convoy (obviously at the head) starts the minute the crowds queue up for breakfast at the shanties. The grump did a great job, we were at the head of the convoy and there was palpable excitement – where are the tribals?
The stretch through Jarawa territory is 49 kms, and a speed limit of 40 kmph means it takes a leisurely hour to cross through. One cannot stop or slow-down – the police scouts do a great job of maintaining a steady pace. The grump informed us in a grave tone before departure: please take a leak immediately, women and old are you listening? Do not take snaps, do not throw stuff out, do not sit near the windows, do not lean out under any circumstances, do not use mobile phones, do not engage the tribals – all these are causes for a non-bailable warrant. I suspect though these are recent developments; several videos of tourists dancing with Jarawas date as recent as late 2012, and enforcement in these hinterlands must have been almost impossible before the motorcade. And so started the “Human Safari” – in search of the Jarawas – there was palpable excitement in the bus, people were fidgety and eyes darted around in keen anticipation.
Our fascination with anything deviating from our definition of “normal” is shocking, no wonder a visit to Jarawa territory ranks as a must-see among tourists. The first contact with these reserved tribes was in the late 90’s when a male was found wounded and was restored to health by local authorities, who attempted to gain their confidence. Whether this was in God's plan is questionable – the impact of the Trunk road which was built in late 70’s was already visible by then – but what ensued is was a tentative arrangement between the local authorities and Jarawas. The Jarawas wouldn’t attack the tourist buses, as they were earlier prone to do; while the authorities would allow the Jarawas to live in peace in their reserved territory. Thus started the practice of attracting tourists with the promise of a Human safari, and its abuse – which ended with the Supreme court banning any movement in the reserved territory on 21 Jan 2013.
The grump would call out once in a while – there goes a Jarawa on the right side of the road behind the dense tree, and the entire bus would tilt to one side with the jostling for a sighting; if we were a boat, we would have capsized about a hundred times. Fortunately or unfortunately, we did get a good luck at a Jarawa as the bus slowed down at a fork; they are as all tribals are pictured – dark, naked and look starkly different from any Indian race. It is a shame that those who have inhabited the islands for at least several thousand years and have largely shunned interactions with outsiders, are a subject matter of such fascination among tourists – I am sure the same would be the case of other indigenous tribes across the world. The least we can do is to leave them as they chose to be.
And after such excitement did we arrive at Baratang, which separates South and Middle Andaman, an inland stream opening out to the sea, extending from about 100 meters wide at Baratang to several kms elsewhere. Two large barges ferry passengers and vehicles across the sea, and it is an event when the barge loads up on Govt. buses, private vehicles and passengers alike and dumps them on the other side, where the grump told us we were now “Murugan group”. And loaded us, twelve one by one, on small diesel boats for a trip to the famed limestone caves.
The sea is wide enough for the boats to have a violent rock and leave behind a long wake; the banks are populated with mangroves with impossibly upturned roots (our obsession with destroying nature has meant mangroves are now an endangered species) and thick vegetation inland. These islands are thinly populated and it is evident – the air is clean and crisp, the birds and small animals wander casually about on the banks, the water is salty but doesn't smell of the sea, and one gets the impression of being in the middle of nowhere. It is a long straight drive for about 30 mins, sometimes the banks were so far away that we couldn't even see them and were wondering what on earth had motivated us to undertake something so obviously foolish. The saving grace were the life-vests and the wonderfully captivating scenery; every imaginable direction the eye could stretch out had flashes of brilliant blue, deep red, and vivacious green. Out of the blue (literally) the boat took a left turn up a small rivulet for a couple of minutes and we were staring at a sign that said “beware of crocodiles”, no one had told us about crocodiles! We were offloaded and told we were now “Roshan group” and marched by a young man of about 15, with the accompanying warning – it is a 3 km trek through difficult terrain. Well, being in the perfectly conditioned shape that me and AP were, and excited at being finally on terra firma and salivating at the opportunity to load up on some snaps, we marched ahead chanting “Roshan group”.
It is not too difficult a terrain for the able, but it snakes through a thick jungle and a rocky climb through some blissful looking villages, and a small stream that must have been a large river at some time in the past. At times, the path led through and around huge trees and some immense rocks, till the path kept getting narrower and the visibility dropped to near zero, the sun being blocked by the tall branches. And the guide switched on a CFL lamp and announced – we have reached the limestone caves. Huge stalactites and stalagmites stare at you, forming intricate and imaginative shapes, here a Ganesha, there a fish, and then a Nataraja. The guide said “use your imagination; the shapes can be what you want them to be”. May be the old did – but the young like me were busy clicking. The caves by themselves are an absolute waste of time – they are hardly 10 m in length and do not justify the arduous journey we undertook – but the surroundings and the experience of the incredible drive, the almost stealthy boat ride and the wonderful trek through virgin forest more than made up for the disappointment.
A note of caution – one can go further up the sea to the mud-volcano, but that would probably add a couple of hours and another round of disappointment to the trip – and most gave it a miss. We were again rounded up and brought back to Baratang, and dumped in an inglorious roadside hotel for lunch, which considering the isolation, was simple but wholesome, and was run by a Telugu speaking couple. Rice, greens, dal and poppadum. And the same route back to Port Blair with several more viewings of Jarawas – at some point, both me and AP must have dozed off, the novelty wears off quickly. The trip back is an absolute bore and has nothing worth noting – except the fact that 430 PM in Jarawa territory is scary, the sun sets really early and one feels a sharp chill on the neck, but the grump stood true to his reputation and drove furiously, till we reached Port Blair at 6 PM.
Baratang takes a whole day and ravages your body – hence only the truly adventurous should attempt it. At INR 900 for the trip, it is a steal – as this post and attached photographs demonstrate. Suffice to consider that Rangat is just 71 kms away, while the farthest one can travel by road (with several ferry crossings along the way) is Diglipur about 200 kms away, which must be quite a visit for the extreme minded back-packers. Well, another trip sometime and I have become particularly good at racking up these; but the day was exceptionally satisfying – it pays to keep your expectations low.
As Agent Smith said – “I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it.” – Is this what the Jarawa would say?
Friday, February 1, 2013
The greatest joy in life is often in the simplest things …..
Sunday mornings would see the entire village in our living room. Because Sunday was Ramayana time, 9-10 AM. The whole neighborhood would gather in front of the only TV in the village, ours. Kids would start lining up at our gate by 8 AM, then the old, finally the adults. My mother would avoid opening the gate till the howling of the dog made it impossible to ignore the crowd anymore. The kids would sweep in and occupy the first couple of lines and jostle to get the best spot, the one right in front of the TV. We had an Oscar those days in the late 80’s, my father had bought it from his savings and was as proud of it as he was of us; it was one of the first color models, bulky and with an antenna. The old would take the next line behind the kids and start debating the happenings of the previous episode, along with some choicest tit-bits from their lives. The adults would file in next and stand with their necks craned in the direction of the TV, as many as the living room allowed, and the rest would occupy some of the vantage points near the windows in the courtyard.
My mother hated Sunday mornings; my father loved them. He would curl-up with a Hindu on his favorite recliner and a steaming cup of filter coffee till the show began, then he would occupy the large black couch in the middle of the living room under the fan; I suppose it made him feel like a king – although being the manager of the only bank for 100 kms in any direction meant he was the undisputed head of the village. My mother would join on the couch and then the whole village would watch Ramayana in pin-drop silence, till the commercial break - when all hell would break loose, with 100 voices in animated discussion. Even the dog would join in!
These Sunday morning sessions, in that obscure village in the middle of nowhere, are the most vivid memories of my wandering childhood – and also the happiest. Life was simple at so many levels – school through the day, playing cricket and kabaddi with my friends in the evening, an early dinner and a sound nap. The TV with the only available channel “Doordarshan (DD)”, and my father’s gramophone records were the only source of entertainment, apart from the once a month Hindi movie in the street cinema house.
Doordarshan shaped several generations of entertainment. The historicals (Ramayana & Mahabharata were followed by the socially relevant sagas, post which came the Shyam Benegal era. Then came the most successful detective series of them all – Byomkesh Bakshi, followed by incessant re-runs of these shows, in the same order over and over again. One would know the killer and the story-line in all of Byomkesh’s 34 episodes, as popular as they were, but we would all wait in anticipation at the anointed time anyway – and discuss the motivations of the killer and Byomkesh's brilliance the next day in college. Those were the glory days of Doordarshan before it dissipated into glorious obscurity. And Byomkesh and the re-runs became a sort of a time-wrap, the last remembrance of childhood for us small-time boys in a big city. Green fields, dusty village roads, the small stream, mangoes in summer, cycling around and around ...
But DD is back again. In one of those serendipitous movements that manifest when one is either randomly switching channels or on the pot, I stumbled onto Byomkesh Bakshi on DD National yesterday. 930 PM on a Wednesday & Thursday evening. And discovered those lost childhood joys of watching a re-run with my family – followed by a long debate at the dinner table on how the past was in so many ways better than the present. Surely, it is worth a debate … and Byomkesh, in spite of the thousands of re-runs is still the best detective series Indian television has ever produced. The long wait was worth it.
And now, Byomkesh will appear on the big screen in Dec 2014. Yash Raj films is rolling out the first film "Detective Byomkesh" in which a young Byomkesh, fresh out of college, pits himself against a mega villain. Who will play Byomkesh? Kay Kay Menon or Irfan Khan can probably carry off the greatest ever Indian detective!
And now, Byomkesh will appear on the big screen in Dec 2014. Yash Raj films is rolling out the first film "Detective Byomkesh" in which a young Byomkesh, fresh out of college, pits himself against a mega villain. Who will play Byomkesh? Kay Kay Menon or Irfan Khan can probably carry off the greatest ever Indian detective!
Thursday, January 17, 2013
Let me take you far away, You'd like a holiday
Exchange the cold days for the sun, A good time and fun
Let me take you far away, You'd like a holiday
Exchange your troubles for some love, Wherever you are
Let me take you far away, You'd like a holiday
Longing for the sun you will come, To the island without name
Longing for the sun be welcome, On the island many miles away from home
This is Scorpions and “Holiday” – late 1970’s and I can’t think of a better way to describe Andaman & Nicobar islands.
- Turquoise green water – clear enough to peek right down to the depths of reefs
- Clear blue sky – a delirious shade of blue that turns a flashy red and white at sunrise & sunset
- Intricately shaped islands - An octopus, a star-fish, a horse, and many more
- Lush forest cover - Multiple shades of green punctuated by flashes of brilliant red and magenta, a stark contrast to the mighty blue engulfing it
- Pristine golden yellow beaches – where you don’t mind the sand in your hair, your clothes and in your spirit
Do you get the picture? Maybe I should end with the song. Mere words can never describe the canvas the iris captures in a flash, is that why the most expensive cameras are starkly inferior to the vivid pictures the mind can conjure up? Or is it that they do not have the context and the depth? I am not prone to exaggeration, nor do I get taken in by romance; but this was the perfect oh! moment, and love at first sight!
Andaman has been described variously as India’s best-kept secret, the lost island, a former penal colony, honeymooner’s paradise, and in recent times as the best dive site in the country. It is all this and much more. If you thought the closest to a perfect beach getaway was Thailand/Malaysia, Andaman & Nicobar islands will stun you in to submission. They are breathtaking, far less polluted, and much less frequented than any of the above, and must rank as a must-see for any beach-loving, sea-food gorging specimen such as me. If AP (and those faithful who have suspected him to be a figment of my imagination, he exists. Check out his blog here! http://abhijitparkhe.wordpress.com) can be driven to childlike glee by these tranquil waters, what chance do mere mortals stand?
Sadly, Nicobar islands are off-limits to tourists, and need a Govt. permit; other than the natives, only the official machinery has access to the islands beyond Little Andaman, or so I am told. A shame - for a couple of narratives I heard from the locals painted a wind-swept almost flat terrain, exotic forests with undiscovered species of fruits, fiery natives who still refuse human contact, and that much adored Indira Point, the Southern-most location in India. Sadly, that would mean another trip and the monstrous task of securing a permit. Maybe the next trip can cover Barren island, India’s only active volcano and Indira Point, now that would be the real deal! Almost 600kms and absolutely in the middle of nowhere.
I have and will continue to watch Padosan a thousand times. Saira Banu’s father has a favorite line in the movie “Bindu ki maa, jab jab jo jo hona hai, tab tab so so hota hai”. Exactly my thoughts when I look back at when me & AP first starting planning a visit to Andaman. Part of the lure was the fact that this tropical archipelago of 572 islands is so isolated in the Indian ocean and at 1200-1300kms, the farthest from the Indian mainland (depending on where you measure from) one can get in the country. The farther the lord is removed from the masses, the more devotion he inspires. And in that context, Andaman and Nicobar islands are heaven indeed. And going by how little I could find about it while doing my research, they seemed exotic enough to thrill our wander-lust.
If only fate did not have other ideas, we would have landed in Port Blair in the winter of 2010 (which we ended up spending in Srilanka), but we were determined; so determined that we almost booked a MMT honeymoon package, such was the paucity of information on Andaman that we almost decided to do a “safe” fully guided package tour, for an obnoxious amount of money. Better sense prevailed in the end, our sense of adventure kicked in, tickets were booked, bags were packed, and we took a Shatabdi from Bangalore to Chennai, and a 2-1/2hr expensive and turbulent flight to land at Port Blair on a beautiful Saturday. The date - 8th Dec 2012.
I am tempted to fill reams and reams with my first impressions of the islands from air, but will resist the temptation, suffice to say all the eye could see were little green tinges popping up from a vast blueness. Ah the contrast! After a couple of hours staring at a vast expanse of blue that is both blissful and intimidating, one flies over several intriguingly shaped islands before landing at Port Blair. Port Blair’s charm starts with the airport, small is beautiful, and it is a quaint little airport. You walk down the flight and keep walking through the exit, so much so that you realize it only when you are accosted by the cab drivers. No fancy bus, no elaborate security checks. Flying was easy when it first made an appearance.
We were booked at a B&B "Noble Homestay" (www.andamanhomestay.com), self-acclaimed as the only Parsi family in the islands, and which I came upon quite by accident. The “touristy” hotels in Port Blair were way too expensive for our budget, and we make it a point to stay at the most "local” of hotels, they tend to be cheaper and down-to-earth, unlike your expensive resorts, which after years of business travel I have come to detest. And while the owner Dinaz (more about her later) had insisted that one can trust the autos/cabs in the islands, a true Indian, accustomed to years of hard-bargaining, and distrust cultivated by multiple accounts of being taken for a ride, refuses to heed sane advice. But when a saintly-looking auto-wallah in an Aiyyappan outfit and smeared with the holy ash says Rs.100 to Haddo, one drops his defenses and takes a ride, literally. And comes across one of the first learning’s in Port Blair. Trust the auto-wallahs, they are simple and happy souls, all rates are fixed and will only be rounded off. A 10 minute drive through the small town with crisp air, and neat roads surrounded by lots of greenery brings one to Haddo and to Captain Noble’s bungalow, which is a well-known landmark in town.
An expensive lunch at a MMT hotel (and you will hear me use this acronym a lot) led to the second learning of the day. Never walk around an island without a cap, sunglasses and sunscreen, in that order. But walking around and discovering a small town has its own charm, which we were to discover later that evening. A short walk in intense heat brought us to the Samudrika museum, a well-organized joint that describes the history, marine life, customs and tribals, all that can be neatly packed in an hour. Unfortunately, with popular places such as these comes the biggest irritant any well-meaning, wonder-eyed, adventurous, independent tourist would encounter. Packaged tours! And of the worst kind, filled with honeymooners – who talk incessantly and cannot keep their hands off each other. Another curious fact, most of them were Bengali/Tamil/Marathi, and were to follow us all through over travels across the islands.
The afternoon was spent with a visit to Cellular jail, which is more far more depressing and soul-crushing than it looks in any of the pictures. Imagine being sent 1300kms away from the mainland to a half-deserted island, and imprisoned in a monstrous structure surrounded on three sides by the sea. That is the well-known history of Kaala-Pani. I went trigger happy with my camera and would have still been wandering around those high walls but for the 5PM closing gong. The desolateness of the structure and the imposing walls would have surely crushed any spirit left in the prisoners, but it made them stronger, broken only by the noose that is still displayed at one corner, a living symbol of the lives it took.
If the walls of the jail could tell a tale, they would wail out the tortures inflicted on the prisoners, and the indefatigable spirit that kept them going, all of which is narrated with gusto by Om Puri and others in the "Sound and light" show. It could bring tears to your eyes! All it did is spur a wave of patriotism in two of the most centrist figures in me and AP. Beware the serpentine queues though: getting a ticket to the show is a massive effort, and one must turn up at least a one hour ahead, and jostle with the cab drivers in unruly queues. We are probably the only nation whose citizens can afford to employ a perfect stranger to stand in queues and buy you tickets, while you wander around the town with your loved-ones munching delicacies. And we are a poor nation! Me and AP refused to submit to this temptation, and managed to get a ticket for the second show, which surprisingly was deserted. Where were the crowds?
Abredeen jetty is the prettiest evening haunt in Port Blair. The sea is never more than 5m away, and smells wonderful, the water sports junction and the park are well maintained and offer massive lung space (as if the place needs one), the air is zero pollution and crisp, and motivates one to walk. And so we did. Unfortunately, we ended up on the absolute wrong side of Haddo, miles away from our home-stay in a deserted part of a small hill that looked so similar to the one we had seen in the morning that we were convinced we were on the right track.
And on a beautiful inviting night on roads that glistened and snaked under the moonlight at just 7.30PM in the evening, we were to discover with a fright that it gets dark really early in Port Blair, and, all through the islands. But all is well that ends well, we discovered the joy of getting lost in a small town with nothing but a piece of paper for an address. And a friendly auto-wallah who not only dropped us at the right place, but did not charge a cent above the normal rate. What would I give to live in a place like this, a thought that would keep cropping up through the week. A wonderful start to a holiday, and the song kept playing.
Longing for the sun you will come, To the island without name