The Andaman Islands are a set of tiny islands sprinkled in the Indian Ocean. The islands are politically a part of India, but are geographically closer to Thailand and Myanmar (Burma). A hand full of indigenous tribes still reside within the jungles on secluded islands, mostly in the Nicobar islands. We spent two blissful weeks on Havelock Island, roaming around on a motorcycle, scuba diving, rolling down the sandy beaches, walking around the jungle looking for elephants, and enjoying fresh tropical fruits at the cost for pennies.
The Andaman Islands felt like the calm lull after the storm. After enjoying a little slice of home in Brian’s comfortable and stylish flat in Chennai, we were back on the journey. We got to the airport early in the morning, only to find that our flight had been delayed for several hours. Since the security guard wouldn’t even let us in to the baggage check, we curled up on the leather covered airport benches. The Chennai airport was the most modern airport we’d seen in India. Having only seen the roads in the dark, Brian’s flat and the airport, we had a pretty high opinion of Chennai. I rested comfortably in an Indian airport, for the first time.
In my drowsy state, I overheard a speaker with an indian accent announcing that breakfast was being served for passengers of Indian Airlines flight to Port Blair. Tina didn’t believe me at first, but we walked around and finally found the Taj restaurant. The lineup was long and slow, which is to be expected whenever you give anything free to India. We had a very filling meal of fresh fruit and other breakfast goodies. I couldn’t get enough of the real peanut butter. By the time we finished our breakfast, we were just in time to walk right onto the plane. As expected, the flight was nearly empty and we both got a chance to pass out again. As we approached the Andaman islands, the clouds were fleeting to uncover the green peaks emerging from the bright blue water. What a sight!
The airport in Port Blair looks like a small hotel, with the first slanted roof I’d seen on any building in India. I am certain that it was rebuilt after the tsunami in 2005. The guards at the small customs desk were very careful about picking out white people and segregating them. We knew about the required island permits ahead of time, but Tina still didn’t want to deal with surly and incoherent officials. I signed our papers and got our permits. Our bags were the only ones left on the baggage claim by the time we got there, and we simply walked out the door into the crowd of drivers.
Looking at Port Blair from our flight from Chennai.
I don’t think there’s anything more frustrating or humorous than trying to negotiate individually with a crowd of merchants. Tina masterfully fought off the encircling group of rickshaw drivers and negotiated one to a reasonable price to take us into town, then down to the dock. Laid in the overhead ledge of the rickshaw was a sparkly picture the blessed Amma, who built and gave away houses after the tsunami struck. We searched the bazaar for snorkels, but decided that at seven hundred rupees, the price was too much for our taste and limited need. After being dropped off at the ferry jetty, the driver angrily demanded more money than we agreed on. My experience in telling people off paid dividends, and we walked away at the agreed upon price. This man really believed that he deserved more than twice as much money as we agreed on, and was very loud and persistent in his pursuit. No matter; I have a policy of non-negotiation with irrational minds.
We barely make the ferry, but I didn’t blame myself for it. We arrived at the government-run public ferry ticket office, a nearly-western building with large glass windows and connected plastic chairs. Several queues of people defined the booth lines and a tv screen listed the ferry departure times. Tina went to line up while I changed out of warmer clothes into a cooler and cleaner set. After Tina was gone for more than 30 minutes, I started to get a little worried. I could no longer see her in the line that is no more than six people long. I get mixed answers from a group of Indian teenagers I’m chatting with, and most think that we can no longer buy ferry tickets for today. They had the impression that we could buy tickets on the boat. Tina had finally returned after being pushed between three different agents and we realized we need to take a different approach. I walked out to the ferry dock, and stroke up a conversation with some other foreigners. I found another Canadian couple who had similar problems trying to get ferry tickets, the day before, but had been able to purchase theirs at the terminal building earlier in the morning. Then I met a pair of British girls who were in the same predicament. Together, we were able to get some information out of a ferry captain leading passengers onto another ferry bound for Havelock. He sent us to a little hut on the edge of the jetty to buy tickets. With our papers in hand, both the British girls and I ran down the jetty, only to find a group of men sitting around a table, signing papers. Showing them our permits and six hundred rupees got us hand written tickets on a second boat to Havelock. We dragged our bags aboard not five minutes before the ferry leaves the dock.
Tina testing the water.
An excruciatingly hot afternoon, both Tina and I couldn’t stop sweating while sitting in the leather seats of the unventilated but air conditioned (ceiling fanned) lower galley of the 1930′s British ferry. We tried to read, and listen to music, but it was so hot that just sitting was horribly uncomfortable. Eventually, we went for a stroll on the open-air upper deck. A few breaths of the sweet sea-cooled air and bites of fresh fruit, lifted the salty dampness from our spirits. We landed in Havelock village number one, excited for the beginning of our next adventure. I nearly landed on my face trying to carry over a hundred pounds in large awkward bags down a narrow meant-for-skinny-people-only ramp off the boat, but was bounced back upright by the crowd at the end of the ramp eagerly waiting to get on.
Top: 2-level bamboo hut at Emerald Gecko. Havelock, Andaman Islands, India.
Bottom: Inside view of the hut
We found a driver looking for guests of the Wild Orchid, the sister resort to ours, and followed our ticket past the haggling rickshaw drivers back to his taxi. We arrived at the Emerald Gecko in the middle of the afternoon to find it nearly deserted. There was no sign of a reception desk, nor any staff members or resort-goers. We walked around a couple of buildings surrounding the entrance yelling “hello” until someone in a green t-shirt finally appeared. He showed us the available split level and single level bamboo huts, and Tina instantly fell in love with the split level hut. It was a two floor hut made completely from bamboo drifted from Burma. The living space had lots of lighting, with a connected bathroom on the ground floor, which really sold the extra couple hundred rupees per night.
We showered and went for a walk down the beach. We were both instantly captivated by the warm sunlight and beautiful sandy beaches with encroaching palm trees. We ate dinner in the bustling covered patio restaurant, while overhearing many recommendations that this was the best on the island. The restaurant was served by a full bar, and kitchen consisting of a grill and a chef, and all the tables, chairs and benches were all made of tree trunks. I found out later, that the resort was creatively designed by a fellow Canadian, who had moved there with her Bangalorian husband. We compared our resort to all the others on the island, and found that the Emerald Gecko was an unbeatable value in quality and semi-competent service.
The relaxing two weeks we spent on Havelock Island are a blur of stories in my memory, so the stories to follow may not be in chronological order.
Before coming to the Andamans, I had my heart set on doing two specific activities; learning to scuba dive and riding an elephant. I managed to accomplish both, and so did Tina, though the scuba diving proved easier (and more expensive!) than the elephant ride.
Upon arrival in Havelock, we went to check out the two dive shops; Dive India and Barefoot Scuba. Both were associated with resorts and prices were nearly identical, though the service from one was significantly more trust-worthy than the other. Dive India is run by locals and their lack of focus or ability to answer any probing questions really worried us. Barefoot Scuba is mostly operated by English speaking foreigners, a combination of Brits and Canadians, and had no problems resting our fears. We returned the next day and signed up for a four day introductory PADI certification course.
We spent four full days learning about the equipment and safety procedures of scuba diving, taught by our kind and efficient instructor, Vicky. Tina absolutely reveled in the studious part of the course, where she would be quick to point out that she beat me on every test, except the exam (she blames me because I told her a wrong answer before the test).
A Brit and an Indian joined us on the course, and both were a delight to dive with. The Brit, Ian, was taking the course to catch up to his girlfriend, Lisette, who was an advanced diver and had already been there diving for months. The Indian, Devi, had also been in the Andamans for months, though she had been doing biological research as part of her masters degree from a college in Chennai. Devi warned us that midway through her stay, she had contracted malaria and had to be rushed back to Chennai for treatment. After recovering, she hopped right back on a plane to continue studying the leatherback turtles native to the islands. We spent a fifth day diving off South Button Island in the final days of stay, which was the best dive of our package and a wonderful way to cap off our stay. We were promised by all the dive masters that we had been thoroughly spoiled by our dive experience in the Andamans and there are few other places in the world that compare to the quality of underwater life found there. I believed them, as I was never bored looking for an interesting sight; devil rays, cuttlefish, anemonefish, moorish idols, camouflaged octopus, glass fish, garden eels, puffer fish, and the list could go on. Tina can’t wait to go diving, again.
Top: Adam, Tina & Viki scuba diving by the Ship Wreck.
Middle: Diving by the Ship Wreck. Havelock, Andaman Islands, India.
Bottom: Umeed the underwater photographer. Getting the camera ready.
The elephant ride was more difficult to secure, and ended up requiring some luck. There is a well marked elephant training ground on Havelock Island, that holds a family of elephants who are trained for logging and construction. The ground is run by locals and has become more of an elephant petting zoo than a serious facility. The elephants are brought from the forest to the grounds every morning, chained to trees, and the trainer walks them around a path dragging logs while he whacks them with a pointed stick. Watching this circus, I couldn’t help but feel that the elephants were more intelligent than the trainer, yet were under the tyranny of the stick and chain.
After the show, the tourists would be allowed to feed purchased bananas to the elephants. We were told that tourists were able to ride the elephants, however after the third time we were turned down, we decided it wasn’t going to happen.
At the elephant training camp. Feeding them bananas.
There was one other known elephant on the island, also being kept in custody. Rajan, the fifty six year old elephant is famous for being the only elephant in eastern asia who can (and does!) swim. Rajan has a special meaning to the island; he was owned by a private party who wanted to sell him to a temple in Kerala to be made a captive attraction. The Barefoot group couldn’t bare to part with him and made a financial settlement with his owner, through a combination of donations and a loan, to the tune of a hundred thousand US dollars. To this day, Rajan remains on Havelock and earns his freedom by swimming with guests for a thousand rupees per half hour. Every day, Rajan’s trainers walk him down the beach from the forest to a forested area of the resort, while feeding and bathing him.
Tina and I just happened to be strolling down the beach along the forest in his direction when he came lumbering up. His trainer agreed that for two hundred rupees, we could ride him down the beach. We did, and happily paid five hundred. I made the most of my twenty minutes of fame by trying to balance myself from falling off his bouncing slender dirt-covered neck. Tina had her short turn after Rajan’s bath and was left with a wet behind.
Havelock Island covers enough distance that transportation is necessary and options are surprisingly plentiful. Rickshaws regularly patrol the main road, taxi jeeps offer service and motorcycle and scooter rentals are easy to find. Tina and I started with a scooter after my initial attempt to clutch a motorcycle ended in a rock. After understanding the difference in fuel efficiency, I was convinced by a competing bike dealer to give it another try. After a few false starts, I got a sense for the hand clutch and we stuck with the bike for the remaining two weeks, at a total cost of about fifty dollars.
Rajan, the famous 56 year old elephant, know as the only elephant in eastern Asian who swims.
We met him on Beach #7 during his daily walks.
After a few days, I was loving the freedom and feeling of our well-used Honda Hero bike and already eyeing a more powerful Suzuki from another dealer. We got pulled over once by the police for riding without a helmet or a drivers license. :) We talked our way out of the drivers license fine (I hadn’t even brought my license to India!) and returned to our resort to fetch the plastic (construction site) hard-hat I had been given with the bike. The law in India states that the person at the front of the bike must be wearing head protection, but gives no safety standards or specific description of the protection.
The most memorable people we met in India would definitely be Bob Dillon (pronounced Dylan) and his wife, Fannie. A hilarious Irish-British couple living in France, the companions have set foot in many of the world’s most unusual places. Bob is a wonderful adventurer in every aspect of his life. He has taken all sorts of different positions in his career, from investment banker to organic farmer to paintball field owner. He and Fannie have covered nearly every corner of the world in their travels, and have no interest in slowing down in their passing age. Bob would spend hours recounting stories of unimaginable adventures in their historical travels. Even his daily activities were always exciting to listen to, especially in his clever Irish style. One night, he and a twenty one year old Dutchman got lost in the jungle and fought off snakes, birds, crabs, lizards, bugs and all sorts of wildlife in their quest for survival. Our resort manager picked them up at 5am, in a bar on the side of the road, while Fannie was having a fit.
Bob and Fannie’s best memories were of their two-year trek through Africa in a Land Rover, accompanied by their daughter. For days, Bob would talk about Africa, each story more absurd and lung-shatteringly funny than the last. “If thars one place ya have ta go before ya pass, it’s got ta be Ethiopia. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Things go on there that ya wouldn’t even believe.”
Ethiopia became the topic we frequently came back to, and those stories would always end with the same advice, “Adam and Tina, go to Ethiopia.”
Our time on the Andamans flew by. We considered that two weeks on the islands might be a long stretch, but there was so much to experience and so much natural beauty to enjoy that we completely lost track of time. In our last couple days, we woke up early, around 4:45 am, to fully absorb the sky-flaring sunrise. We enjoyed a hearty seafood meal with our friends before saying goodbyes and planning our journey back to Delhi, and on to Seattle. We waited in tightly packed lines with warm bodies for hours before purchasing our tickets for our ferry ride back to Port Blair. We graciously shared the ride and dinner with Dylan, the same Dutch adventurer who was lost in the jungle with Bob just a few nights prior.
A short rest and a full day of flights landed us in Delhi for a day before the long haul back home. We spent the last day of our trip with Puneet’s family, sharing stories and learning about their lives. We searched the malls of East Delhi for clothes, presents and an extra piece of luggage to carry it all. We shared a final amazing dinner with Puneet and his family, said our goodbyes and landed a couple hours sleep before our early morning flight.
One journey ends, and another begins.
Sunrise. Havelock, Andaman Islands, India. April, 2008
In the end, we couldn’t wait to get back to work and feel productive again. For a full report of what we learned, read Tina’s The Mini-Retirement Misconception