When Travel is like an Epic Poem you’re in the Andaman Islands

By Laura Ann Klein

We stumble down the stairs of our inn, vain attempts at quiet with our lumbering backpacks on the tile stairs. It is deep dark on the front patio and I jump a bit when I come upon a man sitting in a chair just outside the gate. I didn’t realize we have a guard on our building.  Of course we have a guard on the building. All of the buildings are buttoned up tight, guarded against thieves. Early November mornings in north India are almost crisp reminding me winter is around the corner.  I am happy for my long-sleeved salwar and sweater.  The sleeping streets gave us a different perspective of a predawn Delhi as we make our way to the airport for our first leg on a journey to the Andaman Islands.

The cab travels towards the airport without the stuttering stop and start against a soundtrack of blaring horns that marked every other trip we’ve made out of our comfortable enclave.  The driver is a young Sikh of some means. The icon set upon his dashboard is decorated with inlaid gemstones and gold trim. He must be a man of great faith to have such prized possessions in his cab. The absence of tuk-tuks clogging the streets is eerie. They are parked along the road and each is covered over by a tarp. Instinctively, I realize these plastic sheets were a flimsy effort to protect the drivers from the encroaching chill. It seems unimaginable to me. Sleeping curled into a wad of rags on the dirty floors. I hope this arrangement is the exception rather than the rule. Of everything I’ve seen this first week in India, the image of people sleeping almost exposed in a tiny vehicle threatens to overwhelm me. Dead cows, begging children, heaps of rubbish, the smell of human waste disturbs me, but the idea of these young men scrapping by on a living on 40 rupee trips with the reward of sleeping in their tuk-tuks breaks my heart.  I wonder if the Andamans will be like this: teeming with poverty and garbage, the smell of funeral fires permeating everything.

The airport seems to be the only place awake in Delhi that morning; it is crowded with people coming and going. People pour out to the sidewalk as we enter; the international fights arrived just an hour or so earlier.  Foreign tourists look sleepy but stunned; Indians relieved to be home greeted those waiting for them with hugs and whoops of joy.  I expect music and dance to break out any minute. It is everything I love about an airport. I anticipate that by the day’s end I will be arriving to a place featured in a dream.  I should have known this journey would be akin to an epic poem given it started in the wee hours.  

We make our way outside to the tarmac as the sky turns orange. The sun does’'t  really rise in Delhi but you know it’s dawn because the sky is no longer black but a murky dirty orange.  Almost as murky and flat as the officials standing next to the portable steps.  They are our first brush with the self-important bureaucrats; strapping middle-aged men in brown shirts, aviator mirrored sunglasses, and neatly trimmed mustaches, their look patterned after Bollywood action heroes.  They watch each of us carefully as we make our way up the steps of the plane, checking our carry-ons for proper identification and turning people away who don’t have their bags marked clearly, their manner punitive and serious with the “offending” passengers.

The flight is on a small, regional carrier, like a “Chicken Bus” but with wings. I immediately regret not asking for a sack breakfast at our guesthouse. The food iss abysmal. Breakfast on the train to Agra was far better. But we make it to Port Blair safely despite the stench and the cramped quarters. At least we are  entertained by the Koi islands creating whimsical designs in the planet’s surface as we fly over the Bay of Bengal and on to the Andaman Sea. I discover it’s illegal to snap pictures from above India. The flight attendant is firm but friendly when she tells me to put my camera away. Another sad reminder this country is even more beleaguered by fear of attack than my home. And for good reason: daily there are reports of threats to markets, cinemas and train stations in Delhi.

Whenever I exit a plane on a tarmac via open-air steps I feel like I’m walking into an old news film of Nixon or Johnson arriving somewhere on official business.  But it is good to breathe in the outdoors after our stuffy little jet ride. It is  immediately apparent the pace in this little island city has come to a grinding halt. The airport—more airfield than airport--is a quaint affair (again, no pictures), open air to allow fresh sea breezes to wash over us.   It’s necessary to check into customs despite not leaving India. A special visa is mandatory for the Andamans.  I’m glad we knew this before we arrived in India. The beaurocracy is cumbersome in India. How could it not be? A young developing, and huge country, is naturally wound up tight in red tape.  Despite having our visas in our passports it is necessary to queue up and fill out more paperwork. But the Indian officials are pleasant and the process doesn’t take any longer than customs and luggage retrieval in a large first-world airport.

Our original plan was to spend a night in Port Blair and take the first ferry to Havelock. Ferry tickets are a roll of the dice as foreigners and foreign nationals cannot buy tickets in advance. We assumed the process of arriving would take too long and we would miss the last ferry. So happy to be wrong about this.  The timetable is tight but it can be done in single long day if your flight leaves Delhi on time and you’re not hung up at the stop in Bhubaneshwar. We purposely were trying to be gentle on ourselves knowing travel within India can be fraught with disappointment. But we realized we could squeeze on to the last ferry of the day not missing much in Port Blair at a nominal charge to change our plans.  Naturally, we reached this conclusion just as we pulled most of our belongings out of the packs in a toom resembling my 18-year-old’s bedroom.  Shattered, operating on about 2 hours sleep and very little food, I couldn’t pass up this chance to have an extra day in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It was the fastest “should I stay or should I go” decision I’ve ever made.

Once we were on the ferry, we were shown seats in the sweltering underbelly of the boat.  I guess our age, sex, and tourist status gives us leverage to be seated. It’s like most of India: cramped, hot, loud, and filthy. I’m not one to get seasick, but I know if we stay below, the heat and fatigue will sicken me. Thankfully, the staff at the Nest gave us sack lunches.

We move topside and sit with an array of Indians on wedding trips and European backpackers. We are the only middle-aged white women on this ferry. I’m getting used to being in the minority.  We are a source of curiosity for the Indian women. A few of them blatantly snicker and point, pantomiming my statuesque height. Most compliment us on our salwar suits, motioning that we look pretty in “their” clothes.  Just 10 days in Delhi made me immune to the weird reactions to my height.  The men and their rude surreptitious picture taking just led me to put my scarf on my head and turn the other way. It’s one of the things white people traveling in India have to put up with. Getting angry and out of sorts only makes things worse.  India is a difficult country to travel and is known to have broken even experienced world travelers.

We arrive at Havelock’s main village to unspeakable heat and mugginess. We board a van to the resort after yet another visa check. This time we wait in a queue of foreigners in a rickety open air office. A young and intimidating official calls out our names, one by one. I refer to these pointless lines and checks as the Indian Metal Detector Factor.  I’m not sure how many metal detectors we pass through that even worked.  But when in India…just go along with it all and mind your belongings. 

The road out of Village #7 is narrow and surrounded by verdant fields dotted with little houses. The trees are tall and the grass is lush, the horizon wide enough that we catch glimpses of the last bits of sun. The air smells of sea and grass. The cacophonous honking and car noise is deliciously replaced by random tuk-tuk horns and birdcalls. We remark that this must be what the road to Hana was like 50 years ago: narrow and marginally paved. I want to walk this road some day. I might even take a chance on a bicycle so I can better see the little houses and the details of the impeccable and idyllic landscape.  Closer to Bangkok than New Delhi, It feels like South East Asia.  The hills in the distance remind me of the Elephant Mountains in southern Cambodia.

At Barefoot, we’re immediately swept up into the hospitality and genuine care extended by the staff at the resort. The breeze promises there is a sea just on the other side of a stand of giant tree. Barefoot is a series of buildings, having once been a banana plantation. The public buildings are lit low with candles at night. The ambiance is an otherworldly jungle experience. The grounds are dark but fortunately, flashlights and—on request--escorts are provided to your villa or bungalow after dark. The only wildlife to watch for  are the frogs and dogs.

We splurged on an air conditioned villa. Within an hour, I’m no longer shattered by the 18-hour travel day.  Yes, getting to the Andamans is an epic journey, but it holds such a happy ending.  This isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I will return to Andaman. India, you didn’t break me, but you made me stronger.



 

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