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.