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Friday 25 Mar 2011
Havelock Island, India

Paradise Lost (or Found)

Pretty tired after the brief sleep, so today was never going to be activity-filled (or so I thought).

My flight left Kolkata for Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. I assumed that the Andaman Islands, being geographically closer to Thailand than India (over 1,200km away), would retain a culture distinct from the mainland but I was quickly proved wrong. On stepping off the plane in Port Blair I got a rickshaw and we sped off to the jetty: it was like a microcosm of India (albeit a slightly less stressed version), with gas-guzzling monsters beeping each other on tiny single lane roads and noone willing to give right of way. Even litter was strewn conspicuously, and people urinating at random places. It was safe to say I was still in good ol' India.

I managed to get to the jetty just in time to catch the morning catamaran "Makruzz" to my intended destination: Havelock Island. I opted for a 2nd class ticket (a less crowded floor). I was surprised at the number of Indian visitors there, clearly all were tourists as there would hardly have been many over on business. Even the flight was packed - as have all the flights I've been on in India. In India the one thing you can't escape are other people.

The weather was fine and sunny. All going well so far...

During the 2 hour ride over to Havelock Island we were treated to an "Engrish" promotional video (the owner of Makruzz is from Singapore y'see) blaring in the overhead speakers which gave a little bit of info about the various islands and their history. Up until Indian independance, the islands were variously used as a pirate hideaway, for tree-logging, or after the 1857 Indian Mutiny, a British prison - which was housed in Port Blair. More recently the islands were affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and I was to see evidence of this fairly quickly.

My reason for visiting the Andaman Islands was two-fold:

1. I wanted a beach holiday, and I assumed it would be a paradise compared to the more contempory "partying" destinations like Goa, with empty stretches of lovely white sand. Scuba diving was also supposed to be among the best in the world.

2. The islands have their own indigenous tribes, some of which have YET to have contact with outsiders (in the case of the Sentinelese they fire arrows at whomever tries to approach them, even helicopters). I find it fascinating that there are still islands like this, and I thought I might get a chance to see some of them, although there wouldn't be many, if any, on Havelock Island.

The first thing that struck me as we headed for Havelock Island was how green all the islands were. It looked as if sections of thick Amazon forest were transplanted here and let run down to the shore. As a result, the majority of islands have mangroves rather than beaches. Where there WERE white sand beaches, a lot of them were washed away in the 2004 tsunami.

I hadn't decided on where I was going to stay. On the flight over I thought to try out a mid-range place called "Wild Orchid", and if I didn't like that then there was another one called "Emerald Gecko" nearby. Both were on "Beach 5". On arrival at the Havelock Island port the island looked promising enough, plus it was a pleasant balmy sort of day. Getting a rickshaw, I knew he was going to try to get commission off me, so I wasn't the least surprised when he dropped me off at the front door of some random lodge on beach 5. I paid the 20 Rs we had agreed on originally, but the guy looked astonished when I headed back onto the road to walk to the next lodge. I admired his honesty when he admitted that he wanted to get comission so we argued for a bit and I threw in an extra 5 Rs "tip", but to be honest if the minimum fare to Beach 5 was 50 Rs, he should have just said that. Yell

A bit miffed at the fact that you can't escape rickshaw driver scams even on the Andaman Islands I resolved to WALK the rest of the way to Wild Orchid. In the 80% humidity and 30C heat it was probably not a good idea as I was still dressed in my airport clothes (jeans and shoes) while lugging 30kg. So much for having "no more stress" on this holiday.

My luxury cabin
My luxury cabin

As I passed cheaper-looking lodges with spartan bamboo huts I noticed a lot of backpacker types there, especially from Israel, which is unusual as I haven't seen so many concentrated in one area while in India. I also noticed that, despite the catamaran being packed solid with Indian tourists, I didn't see a single Indian tourist staying in this area, and wouldn't see any of them until I got the catamaran back to Port Blair a few days later. Perhaps the huts here were pricier than others closer to the port?

Finally getting to Wild Orchid I discovered they were booked up, but to be honest they were rather pricey, so I went onto Emerald Gecko about 5 mins walk further on and got a lush hut with "open air" shower and separated toilet for 1,800 Rs a night (about 30 euro). Literally on the beach too. Nice!

My Emerald Gecko cabin
My Emerald Gecko cabin

I couldn't wait to get unpacked and into the sea. I seriously needed some R & R as my trip to India so far had been pretty non-stop. I got on my swimming shorts, wandered down to the shoreline and then it all started to go horribly wrong...

An ominous dark cloud filled the horizon. It was moving fast. It was moving toward us!

Before I could get a single toe in the ocean, it burst open and let loose in all it's tropical-rainstorm glory! "Great!"

I still needed a swim, so as the rain thundered down I swam in the lovely warm water. It was quite blissful, but it looked like I wasn't going to get a tan anytime soon.

Some other problems began to surface. The sand in the shallow water off the beach was dotted with bits of dead coral that made it pretty impossible to stand up, and also meant that any waves in the water would push your feet against them. It also looked rather unsightly when the tide was out. The water also wasn't crystal clear although I put that down to the weather (apparently it had been raining for 4 days prior to my arrival!). So much for my plan to laze on a quiet white-sandy beach.

The hotel manager told me that in 40 years he had never seen such weather in March. Lucky me.

A little downtrodden, I went for lunch at the nearby restaurant/scuba club. I enquired about dives the next day, but they said the weather had made visibility pretty crap, so I decided against diving and would instead just go over to Elephant Beach the next day to see if the coral was up to much over there. After lunch I played a game of Carrom, an Indian form of cue-less billiards where you flick plastic discs over a chalky surface. It was fun, and I beat my opponent on first take. There wasn't much else to do with the bad weather.

I crashed early with a bowl of rice as I was too tired to order anything more extravagant. As the Andaman islands shares the same timezone as the Indian mainland it gets dark early and people rise early.

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    Havelock Island


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