Kalipur Chonicle

As the offseason was about to begin, I decided to travel a little in the Andamans before leaving for home. Initially I wanted to go to Nicobar or Little Andamans. As I could not get permit for Nicobar and the ferry tickets to Little Andamans were unavailable, I decided to go to North Andamans. I stayed in Chidiyatapu for about 5-6 days after the season ended in order to wind up and waiting for the tickets. Once I knew that I was not getting the tickets I decided to leave Port Blair the day after, thus spending one night over there. I had about 40 kg of luggage so the first thing I did was go to the courier service and send about 15 kg home with them (I was allowed the rest in the flight). The day spent in Port Blair was one of the most relaxing I had had in weeks. I love Chidiyatapu but, after months of being with the same people, afternoons without electricity for days in a row and volunteers not getting along with each other, it felt like a breath of fresh air being just 40 minutes away from there. It was a day of indulgence – pampering myself with TV and gorging on good food.

I had booked myself a bus ticket to Diglipur early next morning with ‘Ananda’. I had trouble getting an auto early in the morning but shouldn’t have worried as the bus was going to start the journey late. The wait was atrocious as the day was starting to get hotter and a military guy was trying to be too friendly. I answered coldly to all his queries and, mainly to avoid him, started a chat with a girl also waiting for the bus. She was from Diglipur and quite amiable. As the bus arrived, I took my seat and discovered that the next seat had been allotted to the same girl. I will call her JB. We hit it off instantly after that. I discovered she was an undergrad studying classical music in Port Blair and literally had the most musical name one could ever come up with!

The ride was pleasant and uneventful until we reached the entry point of the Jarawa Reserve.  The Andaman Trunk Road that connects South Andamans to North Andamans cuts through prime Jarawa reserve. Jarawa tribe, one of the Stone Age tribes still residing in the Andaman Islands, is protected and any initiation of contact with members of the tribe is a punishable offence. Earlier it was not very strict but since some foreigners published naked pictures of the women of the tribe, of course without the poor females knowing anything about them turning into sensual exotic objects, the government has imposed strict rules.  Owing to this, entry and exit to the reserve is allowed only at certain times during the day and that too with a police escort at the front and the back of the entire convoy. So, as we reached the entry point, we had to wait for at least 45 minutes until the convoy could begin its sojourn through the forest. There were more than 20 big and small vehicles waiting in the queue. I had anticipated this journey for ever since I heard about the reserve and read about the young Jarawa boys sometimes passing by the road brandishing their bow and arrows at the passengers and was quite excited that I might finally see them, breathe the same air that they have been breathing since thousands of years. Though, I am ashamed to admit that I am no better than anyone else in wanting to see the tribals as if they are mere objects to be observed to satisfy my curiosity. But then I take satisfaction in thinking that probably it is them who take pleasure in seeing the passerbys. Jarawas, like the other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, have been given many opportunities to join the mainstream population but they have always declined. In fact, there have been cases where individuals from the tribe have stayed with the mainstream population for a considerable period of time, enjoyed the fruits of modernisation, but, at the end, have decided to go back to their way of living i.e. back in the jungle, gathering and hunting and not having a care about garments.

Without digressing further, the convoy started moving ahead in about 40-45 minutes. The journey in the forest is almost 2 hours. I was disappointed as neither did I see any Jarawas when in the forest nor were the trees showing any life, everything had turned brown in the hottest ever month of May ever experienced by the islanders. The only exciting bits of the journey were the two barge rides wherein all the vehicles in the convoy would get into the barge to get to the adjoining islands. Having started at 6:30 in the morning, I reached Diglipur at around 6 in the evening, having been invited profusely by JB to visit her while I was there. From there I had to take a bus to the nearby Kalipur village. I had talked to the owner of the resort before leaving from Chidiyatapu and he had assured me that I would get a room for sure but still I was nervous as it was already twilight and I did not know what I would do if stranded. Luckily, the small private bus I took had a really helpful conductor who answered all my questions and some more. I reached Kalipur in about an hour and was dropped right at the entrance of the resort. I quickly learnt there were only 2 other groups – 1 group of men and a hippie couple – apart from me and that I would be the only guest from the next day for the remaining days of my stay. I was quickly shown to my room which turned out to be a cosy little cottage with a not too bright light, a fan and a bed as its only amenities.

I was extremely tired and fell asleep soon after completing formalities, taking note of a few things about the place and a quick dinner. I got up early, as usual, but was still not decided about what to do for the day until at breakfast after a small conversation with the owner, I will call him Uncle, about places to visit, apart from the usual ones, in the area. I quickly decided to visit Ross and Smith Islands, twin islands joined by a bar of sand during low tide and surrounded by turquoise blue water. I reached there in about 25 minutes, all the while having a pleasant conversation with a well-educated Marathi woman sat next to me on the bus about her. She was from Nagpur and married to a Bengali man from a village near Kalipur whom she met when he went to study in Nagpur. It was an interesting conversation as it is inconceivable for me that a woman would leave a good career, her family and everything else behind to come and stay forever in a remote place with no attractions at all just for a man. All judgement aside, I think it is quite brave to do so, not everyone can take that leap of faith – surely not me. On reaching the jetty I came to know that, being a Sunday, there were not many ferries leaving for the islands and that I will have to wait for maybe a couple of hours to be able to hire one and that it would be really expensive to hire one all on my own. Thankfully, there was a group of two Bengali families leaving for the islands just then who agreed to let me join them if I was OK to go dutch. Soon we were on our way. The water on the way was murky and dark blue and I was afraid that I would not get to see the islands in their full glory. But as we approached the twins, the colour of the water changed turning to a beautiful hue of turquoise blue. The view of Saddle Peak, the highest point in the Andamans Islands, made it all the more alluring, although I have to admit the Cinque islands in South Andamans are equally good, if not better, even though they have all the garbage getting deposited on them and no view of Saddle Peak. I swam in the crystal clear water there, which was quite warm. I felt a little awkward though as I was the only one who entered the water out of the group with the rest of them watching me. At the end, finally, the men took a dip while the women waited outside. All of us had a nice little walk on the sand bar and into the forest for a while and then it was time to get back. The ferries that take you to the islands wait for 2-3 hours at the islands and then it is time to get back. Though there is no written rule about the timing spent there and ideally you can spend more time there, there is nothing much to do and this has become the norm.

On reaching the jetty, I waited for the bus to arrive to return to the resort. Even after waiting for a considerable time period as no bus arrived, I decided to hitch a ride. Having read horror stories about it and with no experience in it either, I was quite apprehensive about it but took my chance as soon as I saw a car with a female driver approaching. The lady was intimidating at first and suspicious on hearing my story but then she eased into it and said she would drop me a little further as, being a Sunday, there was no public transport till evening. On asking about her, I learnt she was a contractor. Now, it was my turn to be surprised. I was caught completely off guard on hearing this. In all my experience and my limited travels I have seen women do many really difficult things, and I have always thought that a woman can do everything she puts her mind to, but never in my life have I heard, let alone seen, a female contractor. Making uneducated men from a patriarchal society work under you as labour, day in and day out, and deliver is one of the most difficult jobs a woman can ever undertake. I was in awe. She asked me if I would like to see the landing site for fish in the area. Of course I was interested. She said we will have to visit one of her sites and then we could go to the landing centre. I agreed. It was a pleasure seeing her being in charge of the construction at the site. After finishing that, she showed me around and invited me to her place where she was alone with her son that day. As I had nothing to do, and the idea of women who are badass at their work being domestic at home has always fascinated me, it was a win-win situation and I happily agreed. She needed to have a look at another of her sites before going home so we went there where she finished her work while I explored a little, drank some sweet coconut water (courtesy her) and clicked pictures. We had a talk about my family and mangoes (It was Mango season at the time.) and she told me her husband’s colleague was from the place where I belong to and always got mangoes for them from there as they are famous worldwide. We reached home and I was introduced to her son, a sweet boy of 8-9 years, who was playing with a crab whom he had taken as pet. I was served mangoes from my hometown and from Diglipur, which was very interesting, while we talked. After spending a good amount of time at her place, she arranged transport for me all the way to the resort as the bus came a little early than usual and I missed it!

I decided to rest the next day and just relaxed in the resort, exploring the beach, exercising, clicking pictures of the birds therein and playing with the cat. The beach of Kalipur, just adjoining the resort, is one of the major sites of the world famous for the ‘arribada’ of Olive Ridley turtles. People world over come to this beach to behold the phenomenon every year; although, I was late by a few months and did not have any hope of being able to see a single turtle or the hatchlings. They have a small hatchery on the beach itself where they keep the eggs of turtles which have not hatched after their general hatching time period and incubate them. Once they hatch they are released into the sea. When I learnt there were eggs in the hatchery, I got very excited. I went to the beach every day of my stay to try my luck at observing the emergence of a hatchling from the egg or it going into the sea but to no avail.

I planned to go to Saddle Peak on the third day. I was unsure of climbing the peak but I definitely wanted to see the National Park. I got up early in the morning and decided to walk to the NP until I get a bus. I have to say, it is one of the best walks I have ever had in my life. Walking through a forest of fruit trees dotted by small cottages here and there sounds perfect but makes you feel even better. Mangoes at a height where I could easily pick them, pears fallen from trees, flower peckers feeding on fruits, hanging parrots just hanging around – it was peaceful, serene, in perfect harmony with nature all around itself with humans nowhere in sight for at least an hour of the walk on the main road. The bus arrived and we reached the NP is 10 minutes. I was offered coffee and biscuits by the bus conductor and driver at the only chai shop in the area. Even though I did not want, I complied because it just makes things easier when you agree to hospitality. Once that was done, I went inside the park and it was beautiful. Tall trees, with abundance of fruits and birds everywhere, filled the park. Strangler figs with their giant buttresses made beautiful patterns on and off the forest floor. Minivets, robins, sunbirds and hill mynas filled the forest with their chirrups. A crystal clear stream with potable water gurgled through the hedges, making its way along the sides of the buttressed trees. I made myself a breakfast with some snacks, plucked fruits and the cool water of the stream while observing the chameleons and geckos basking on the rocks on the stream bed. Turned out to be the best breakfast I have ever had. I never realised the hours that went by walking through the forest, without any human-induced sound. By the time I realised time, it was almost noon and I decided to walk back to the bus station. I took the route along the beach which gave a spectacular view of the forest as well as the sea. Nothing in the world can describe the feeling of being all alone, away from civilisation, with no one knowing where to find you and the privilege of experiencing nature in its purest form. It is exhilarating beyond reason.

It was raining by the time I got back and I rested for the rest of the day. The next day was my last in Kalipur. The phones had not been working since the day before. I had planned to go to see the caves where the edible-nest swiftlets nest and then visit JB. It had been a childhood dream to see these caves and I was thrilled at having this opportunity. I had been trying to call JB since the day before but was unable to reach her and also sent her a text. I decided to go and see the swiftlets and go to her place if I get a call or text from her by the time I return to Diglipur. It was a long journey. I would have to take a bus to Diglipur, from there a bus to another village nearly one and a half hours far and then walk a few kilometres in mud to reach the caves.  I was willing to do all that and even went to Chalis-Ek, which has 28 caves. From there on I had to walk. But I had attracted too much attention on my way even before I asked about the caves, I was a single Indian girl travelling alone and wanting to go to a very remote place. I started getting a foreboding feeling which became so strong by the time I reached the village that I decided to not go. As cowardly as it sounds, I returned to Diglipur in the same bus. It was weird because Andamans is extremely safe and I could not explain the feeling even to myself but I have learned over the years to always respect this feeling, as I have always faced difficulties on ignoring it. Anyway, as I reached Diglipur, I received a call from JB and soon she directed me towards her home. Her family gave me a beautiful welcome and I had a lovely time with them over lunch and siesta. Then it was time to head back. I was disappointed with myself but I believe travel teaches you when to let go even if it is not what you want to do at the time.

On reaching, I had my final chat with Uncle, who had made a habit of sitting and talking to me during breakfast and dinner. His was a most interesting tale of arriving in the Andamans just because he had taken a fancy to the islands while reading a book on them when he was barely in primary school and then, once here, having never gone back. On that night I said my goodbye to him as I was going to leave by the first bus in the morning. It was a strange night. I was going to Port Blair and then home after 6 months and not coming back for at least 4. As much as I wanted to go home, I was really unhappy about not being here for so long a time. I barely slept and was up before sunrise. I had decided to sit on the beach and experience my last sunrise before I leave the place. But more than that, I had to get some sand for a dear friend who collects sand from all over the world. I was just plain upset. I collected the sand and decided to have one last look at the turtle hatchery. I was prepared to be disappointed. But, I was in for the most wonderful surprise. Inside the hatchery, I saw some marks in the sand and, as I looked closely and the light began to spread, I realised they were the markings of baby turtles. And then I saw a baby turtle and then one more and then 3 more! There were total 24 of them moving around the hatchery slowly. Such adorable things and what an incredible sunrise . I knew that I am never going to forget that day. I was happy.

I finally went back to my cottage and took off with my luggage. The journey back to Port Bair was a pleasant one with a picturesque view. The heavy clouds were giving the sea a mysterious purplish-turquoise hue which made for beautiful pictures. The whole journey overall was uneventful but I had the best time just being able to revel, and take it all in, in the last few hours on the islands.

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Andamans and its tribes

Now that a lot of people are interested to know about the Andamans, because of the stupid & selfish foreigner who got killed while trying to proselytize the Sentinelese, I would like to talk a little about the Andamans and the tribes living there, a subject close to my heart.

While most Indians know about the archipelago because of Veer Savarkar and Cellular Jail, the Andaman Islands are home to India’s only active volcano, Barren Island & the lowermost point of India, Indira Point in the Nicobar group of islands.

The islands are closer to Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia & Indonesia than to India. There are stories of traders during Chola dynasty landing on these islands. Marco Polo is said to have visited the islands. Traders were afraid to land as the natives were thought to be cannibals.

The first colonisation of the islands was done by Archibald Blair at Ross Island near Port Blair (named after him). The Japanese took over the archipelago for nearly 3 years during WW2 but then the British took over again before India got Independence. The islands were not considered to be a part of India and Australia was a serious bidder for obtaining the territory. But, for some reason, it was decided to join the island with the Indian territory. The first Indian settlers were the prisoners of the Cellular Jail. Many having lost too many years locked up in the jail decided not to return to mainland India. The prisoners were from all parts of India and from different religions and social strata. There were many inter-caste, inter-religious and inter-regional marriages that took place during that time & hence the islands became very cosmopolitan. Later, the government settled people from Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and present-day Jharkhand to make a sizeable population. Today, the main population of the archipelago is mainly Bengalis, Tamils and Ranchis. Out of more than 500 islands in the Andaman group of islands, only 28 are inhabited with even less so in the Nicobar group.

Coming back to the tribes of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, there are 4 (Great Andamanese, Jarawa, Onge & Sentinelese) in the Andaman group whereas 2 (Shompens & Nicobarese) in the Nicobar group.

The Andaman tribes are negrito in appearance & avoid clothing, hence the islands are also called ‘The Land of the Naked People’. They are mostly hunter-gatherers, feeding on wild boar, fish, birds and natural products such as honey & tubers. The Great Andamanese, before colonisation, formed the largest tribe on the islands. They were first to be colonised and suffered most severely for that. Today, their population is in 2-figured number & it is the most assimilated tribe in the Andamans. They were settled on Strait Island. Onge, considered to be the most ferocious by the British, are today a diminished population living on the Little Andaman Island. Jarawas live in the Middle Andamans, on the main island, and are the most visible due to the Andaman Trunk Road going through the heart of the forest that is their home. The Sentinelese live on the North Sentinel Island. They are considered to be the most isolated people in the world. It is said that when the government sent helicopters to see if they are ok after the tsunami, they shot arrows at the helicopters. But they have a nicer side. They are stories of them providing food to people who have suffered boat wrecks. But they do not interact and the visitors have to leave their island once someone comes to rescue.

The most interesting thing about these tribes is, in case of the Great Andamanese & Jarawas, there have been records of individuals who had been forcefully taken into civilisation, some even sent to England, to live a civilised life for a few years but, when given a choice, they chose to return to their so-called uncivilised or, how the current civilised Indian population in the Andamans calls it, jungli life. Never to be seen again by the people who knew them in the civilised world.

The Great Andamanese and Onge are greatly assimilated to the modern way of life, but live a sorry existence being considered the lowest in the hierarchy of the local population. Jarawas have succeeded in maintaining their way of life to a great extent but their existence comes under threat every now and then as the local population grows in size and the needs for forest land and economic opportunities rise. It is a constant struggle with no immediate solution in sight.

Very little is known about the Sentinelese but, if they do come in contact with outsiders, there are high chances of their existence to come in danger as they have lived such an isolated life for probably more than 60,000 years & hence have developed no resistence against the germs we carry.

The tribes of Nicobar islands (Shompens and Nicobarese) are Mongoloid in appearance and live mostly on Great Nicobar island. They are mostly proselytized to Christianity andare greatly assimilated to the modern world. Many come to the main island for government jobs.

There is another population (tribe would be a wrong word here) that lives in Middle Andamans – Karens. They are basically from Myanmar, brought to India by the British as labour. They are well-known for their boat-making and sea-faring skills. Karens are properly assimilated with the local population and are the backbones of the diving industry as many are employed as boat masters.

The archipelago is important in more ways than 1. It houses 3 great ecosystems – tropical rainforest, littoral and coral. It is a testament to the human history and, now, a place of tactical importance to India. One of the biggest threats to the tribes, biota and the population is plastic. I have personally seen islands where no one lives, covered in plastic & not just plastic used by the people living there but, plastic from Thiland and Malaysia which reaches there with currents.

The least one could do as a tourist is further reduce the use of plastic – e.g. carry reusable cutlery everywhere, try drinking beverages without straw wherever possible etc. Many tourists are keen to break law to see the tribals. What difference would it make? They are humans like us. We do not like intruders, so do they. Very little of their homes is left, might as well let them be. Contact is illegal anyway. Government has got that completely right. Also, the sand is vital to the existence of the ecosystem as it is. Do not collect shells. The empty shells form the sand on the beaches. It is just going to lie in your house without any use anyway. Imagine very person taking 10 shells. Lakhs of tourists visit the islands. It might seem only 10, but it becomes a very large number when calculated with every person visiting. It is simply not sustainable. Another issue is sunscreen lotion. Most are harmful to the corals. And honestly, Indian skin is blessed. Sunscreen does not make a significant difference when visiting for a week. What is a few days of tan compared to the damage caused by sunscreen to an entire ecosystem?! The archipelago is beautiful in so many ways and it really depends on how we take care of it.

I can go on & on about it but I have made my main point here. If someone wants to know more about the place, history, biota, ecosystem etc., you are very welcome. For more on tribes of the archipelago, ‘The Land of Naked People’ by Madhusree Mukerjee is excellent. Also, I have an article published on the same topic ( I am  a published writer now, YAAY 😀 :D): https://www.cntraveller.in/story/andaman-tribes-that-have-survived-for-60000-years-are-now-under-threat-from-us/

and a reproduction of this blog post here: https://www.rediff.com/news/special/the-struggling-tribes-of-a-changing-andamans/20181123.htm

 

Education and Sexism

I have been conducting a tourist survey for a while for work to understand the expectations of people coming to the Andamans, their experience while being here and their understanding of and outlook on coral ecosystem and cleanliness. This is being done in order to determine the kind of educational material and videos that need to be developed to bring about more awareness as well as to bring the Tourism Department and Municipality of the Andamans on board in developing tourist-friendly sustainable policies.

I get to interact with people from all over the country, which is generally quite interesting. The answers to certain questions differ depending on the place the interviewee is from. But the two things that almost everyone finds interesting is the kind of work we do and that women take part in such activities. In a country where most people opt for safe career options – ones with secure jobs and guaranteed financial security – (although the trend has been changing at least for the past few years), it is surprising for people from more conservative and/or poorer regions that people, especially women, opt for alternative careers. Most of the times the conversation is friendly or, at the most, interrogative as people want to know more about me. That is why I was taken aback when the father of one of the persons I surveyed 2 days back was  rude to me. I was explaining the girl about corals after her having echoed what her father (a Science guy, I was told) must have told her once on the same subject. Maybe I did not say the same thing as he must have told her but he took offence and started berating me in the middle of the jetty for not knowing enough and me being a young girl out there when I should concentrate on learning more.

Now I do not take offence on being told I am wrong. It is quite possible I am wrong about something or the other. But I felt outright insulted, not because he said I was wrong but, because his tone and the way he said it reeked of sexism. The girl was embarrassed and asked her father to stop but he wouldn’t. I realised that it was not just me; he was speaking earlier that way even with his daughter and his female companion. In the end, in order to not make a scene, I had to walk away.

Sad as it is but I have got used to the fact that a woman out in the field has to be prepared to fend off physical and sexual aggression. I have had such experiences myself and heard many more from female friends who are in similar fields and also from various articles written by female rangers, field scientists etc. from all over the world. It is when I experience such aggression from educated city-bred people that I get unnerved. Some 3 years back I had an even worse experience. At the time I was managing a camp site where people stayed for about 3 days in an austere campsite learning about elements of nature and the marine ecosystem. It was advertised as such although, from time to time, there would be guests who demanded more facilities. One such group arrived to the campsite, of which all the members were doctors. The minute they set foot on the campsite, they started demanding things/facilities that were not provided at the campsite. I would be polite but refuse every time they demanded something which was impossible to provide, us being on a secluded island. I started hearing mutterings of dissatisfaction. The tents at that campsite are made from jute and can catch fire in seconds so it was a rule at the campsite to light bonfire only at certain places from where wind would not carry sparks towards the tents. So, in the evening, when I asked them to stop piling the wood at the place they had chosen and instead take it to the other place the situation turned ugly. The group started arguing that they were not happy with the way the place was handled. I explained that there were rules which had been explained to them beforehand, it was no surprise for them. While the argument was going on, one man in the group got a scythe from somewhere and turned to attack me. I was quick and he was also held by someone so nothing happened to me except that I was completely stunned by the sudden physical attack. When I complained to my supervisor on the phone and he talked to them, they turned physically abusive with even the women getting involved in the spat and calling me names and actually making allegations on my character – their argument being a girl who stays out alone, with too many men around her, in the wild cannot have a good character – and then started calling my mother names. By the end of it all, when my organisation did not take a stand against it, I left the job altogether.

All my life, I have empathised with a lot of women who have experienced sexism but never have I felt so scared or helpless for being a woman as on that night. And it was not just because of the physical attack. I was shaken by the verbal abuses flung at me by other well-educated women for just trying to do my job well.

I want to make it clear though, I have met many women who feel very proud of me just because I have the conviction to do what I do. I have come across many older women who have told me how they wish they had such courage when they were younger or would treat me as a daughter for the same reason. I myself do not see it that way nor do I think that I am courageous but I understand where that thinking stems from.

The real point here is that none of these incidents would have happened if it were a man who had asked them something or forbidden them from doing something. You hear frequent arguments that women in power try to act like men or that women are stricter when in power. But is it really true? Being sadistic or strict just for the sake of it might not be as productive, but being strict to be taken seriously is another thing. Personal experience says that if a woman is soft, people take her for granted whereas one who is decisive is named a tyrant. And this is not just in field, as many of the female scientists on the blog ‘Tenure, She Wrote’ would agree to. Scientists, which most people tend to think of as highly qualified, forward-thinking and intellectual are some of the worst specimens exercising sexism.

I wish I could have been rude to that man while doing the survey but, like my mother puts it, do I have to stoop down because someone else has such a mind-set. It’s a dilemma many women go through. It is especially difficult in India where the culture is that elders be talked to in a certain manner only. Although I meet many youngsters who are perfectly comfortable calling people older than them by their first names or without any respect, I have never been able to do that. There are older people who appreciate this but then there are others who believe that they can talk any way they want to someone younger, especially so if it is a woman. I understand that such people should not be given an iota of respect, but how do you suddenly let go of all your lifetime worth’s manners and culture?

Note: In no way am I trolling Indian culture or Indian men in this post. Although we hear all the time about rapes and beatings of young women, it is also the country where women are respected more. There is nowhere else I know of where an old man would make space for a young woman to sit in a public bus or a pregnant woman treated with such care by the elderly as in India and I have heard more pejoratives used for independent women by Western men than Indian men. All the views expressed in this post are my own.

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Dolphin Valentine

Celebrator or not, it is hard to miss Valentine’s Day owing to the hoopla that surrounds it; either the big companies or the conservatives will definitely remind you of the Day, irrespective of your enthusiasm for the same.

So then, I thought, why not a post about it, although it’s 2 days late. After all, Valentine’s Day, 3 years back, has been one of my happiest memories. At the time I was an intern at an NGO whose one of the activities was taking people for camping. Having studied Marine Biology, I was interning at their Marine Camp site situated on one of the many islands in the Gulf of Kutch. Although the conditions on the islands have changed much with a lot of politics involved in obtaining permits to camp there, it still remains one of my most favourite places ever since I first set foot there in the year 2000. The island as such is quite ordinary, with a religious vibe to it, but the camp site is beautiful. Jute huts are constructed for each season of camping, which lasts 3 months, for campers on a sandbar from where the sea can be seen in 3 directions. Sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, shifting tides, abundant marine flora and fauna – all this and more in less than 3 days, it’s a marvellous experience. The camp site is fairly basic with no electricity available and no fresh water other than that for drinking and cooking purposes. It is the kind of place that puts life in to perspective, makes you realise the miniscule size of your being in the grand scheme of things. But even such a place can at times make you want to pull out your hair due to sheer frustration.

As it happens, on that day I was in charge of the entire camp site. I had a volunteer (a dear friend now, I will call her P) to assist me, a couple of people to help manage the camp site and some kitchen staff. The participant group consisted of about 30-35 orphaned and/or abused girls of a minority community along with their caretakers. The group had arrived the previous day and was not exactly what I would call an interested group. Without getting into much details, the religious fanaticism of the group took precedence over any other thing and the atmosphere created by the adults was quite bothersome – the girls were always reminded how privileged they were to get alms from others and, in turn, they took upon themselves to be as servile as possible in order to curry favours with whoever is in charge. All in all, it was not an atmosphere conducive to learning. The weather also turned hostile before night as it started to rain. Eventually the rain stopped but the entire night on the first day of their visit I slept fretfully because I was worried the wind might pick up or it might start pouring. In both cases, the tents, as they were, would be of no use – the wind would rattle them, the rain would simply wet everything underneath. Moreover, the girls were a frightened bunch – not the athletic or adventurous type, quite understandable given their predicament.

On the morning of the 14th, the wind had subsided although there was fog. I took everyone out for a walk to learn about the intertidal flora and fauna. It was a pleasant walk – we reached the end point with P and I talking about marine life, intertidal zone, significance of marine life for human beings etc., had some snacks that the girls had carried in their daypacks and then basked in the morning sun. Just as we started our return, the weather changed for the worse. Winds and rains are anticipated 2-3 times during the season, sand storms are not. The wind started howling, rain pattering and the sand blowing into us. The sand particles were scathing on the bare skin and the wind so strong that P and I worried that the tents will be blown away. The sand storm made visibility impossible even beyond 2 ft, although we could not keep our eyes continuously open owing to sand getting into the eyes, and we just hoped that everyone was fine; all we could hear were the screams of the girls in between the howls of the wind. There was no way of reaching the camp site and enquiring about the people there or the situation of the tents as the phone signals had died. 30-40 minutes of panic and helplessness later the wind subsided and the sky cleared up. After ensuring everyone’s wellbeing, we quickly trotted up to the camp site and saw to our relief that the camp site was almost as we left it, only wetter from the morning.

As the girls settled in for a quiet breakfast and P and I made sure that everything was as supposed to be, we started noticing the changes around us. The sky had turned pinkish blue with a beautiful glow to it. The sea was a different story altogether. Adele might sing about ‘Many Shades of Black’ but the shades of blue I saw that day were mind-boggling. I never knew so many hues of blue could be seen in the water. P and I started talking about poems and literature that appreciated nature – her being very knowledgeable about Gujarati literature. As if this was not enough, we started observing marine life along the shore, more active than usual. And then, came a pod of dolphins! At least 30-40 of them! And so near to the shore, barely 5 feet away from the shoreline. We could have easily swam up to them but we were mesmerised by the show they were putting up. It is not unusual to sight dolphins in the area. But these were a happy pod, out to showcase their talents of jumping and spinning, frolicking in the crystal clear azure water that had become calm after the storm. The 4-5 hours that this show lasted are still vivid in my mind’s eye.

After that the day was just a blur because, as silly as it sounds, I was feeling high on nature. No matter where I am, and I am in as beautiful a location as Andamans today, I always remember that Valentine’s Day with a smile on my lips.

It’s the experience and memories of days such as this that make the overall ascetic aspect of a career in awareness and conservation worth it.

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Dawn in the Andamans

As I amble along the intertidal rocky shore, observing the fauna of that zone, no one but a few dragonflies are my companions. They buzz around me, probably wondering what am I doing early in the morning amidst them. The only sounds I hear are the melodious breaking of small waves of  the incoming tide, the throaty call of a kingfisher and the high-pitched call of a curlew. Intermittently, these natural sounds are punctuated by a lone bike passing by or an aeroplane cutting across the clear sky. It is 6:30 and the sun is shining like it would do in my city in mainland India at 9:00 but then I am much closer to the equator and to the far east and maybe I should have started earlier, or maybe not. Pondering over this and I realise that today is my 28th day here in the Andamans and how life has changed in barely a month.

The past year, working at a place and on a project in which everything was defined and new learning was not exactly encouraged, was a task every single day. All my time was used up in doing things that I did not morally approve (nothing illegal was happening) or enjoy. The lack of personal time, as there was always something to be finished – personally or professionally, was making me claustrophobic. Also, I was craving the sea. Resignation followed without any immediate job prospects in view.

Call it serendipity or that nature has its way of doing things but 5 months since then, with 2 weeks in the breathtaking Eastern Himalayas, 2 strained ankle ligaments leading to a month of bed rest and  2 beautiful and adventurous months in Indonesia in between, I am here living a life that is nearly everything I have wanted it to be. As they say, taking the plunge is all that matters. Situated in the southern part of the Greater Andamans, next to a reserve forest, Chidiyatapu is a tiny village which houses a small population of fishermen of Tamil, Bengali and Ranchi origins and a fairly recent Biological Park. True to its name, birds abound here. Greens of all hues create an atmosphere that tugs at your heart while walking through the village roads, especially when the sky is cast with dark clouds giving a romantic touch to the meadows. And then there is of course the sea, which makes the place beyond perfect.

Waking up to the chirping of birds, exercising, having breakfast, working, listening to music – my life has taken a turn for the good. And the reading! Icing on the top.  The number of books I have read in the past few days exceeds the number of books I have read in the past couple of years. Not that I did not read during that time; I used to read a lot of contemporary stuff – blogs, news, articles, political opinions etc. But this is reading books along with all the other things.

As I detect some movement next to the rock I am standing on, I see a Redeye Crab peering at me with its red-orange orbish eyes. He sits perfectly still, keeping an eye on me, in case I try to do him some harm. I hold him for a while trying to feel his body texture and then let him go. He is a hardy fellow and does not make too much of an attempt to scramble away and sits exactly where I place him once I have had a proper look at him. As I go further, I observe mudskippers skitting around, some fries and juvenile fish swimming in the rock pools and hermit crabs trudging along in telescope shells leaving a trail. I chance upon a teeny-weeny Hairy Crab carrying her brown eggs having difficulty hiding between the rocks just as I am about to cross over to the sandy patch. The splish-splash of the crystal clear sea water washing over my feet is the only sound I am aware of for a while when I hear a loud splash and turn around to look at the open sea and I cannot help but gawk at the school of flying fish leaping out of the water rhythmically for a few seconds and disappear. I decide to wait for a while if they come out again and observe small schools of transparent fish swimming around my feet in glass-like water and then a monster approaches from the bottom of the sand, from a burrow, and a battle entails between, presumably, a crab (it was too quick for me to figure out, what with sand being pushed around) and one of the fish with the fish being on the losing side and being taken down the burrow like the small dragons being taken down in the nest by the rogue dragon in How To Train Your Dragon. My wait is rewarded and the flying fish come out again, with me catching myself smiling possibly the 100th time on encountering them. The gay abandon with which they jump out makes me not only happy but reminds me why I dive. That risk of getting out of your comfort zone because you want to express your joy of being alive and want a peek into the world that is not really yours. It makes me think of my mother and how she would enjoy being here with me. That I am able to dream of things I dream about because of her support.

I enter the dense Mangroves and linger about for a while watching Fiddler Crabs doing what they do the best, flexing their muscles (in their case, their one chela or claw) and then decide to head back. I am again joined back by some dragon flies and a kingfisher but then I need to reach home for work. As I start my routine for the day, I get glimpses of the robber crabs who live in their burrows just outside my room.