As of this year, it’s possible for Americans to get visa-on-arrival in India, theoretically circumventing the seven circles of bureaucratic hell that was the Indian Visa Centre in Bangkok. It is true that I did not have to camp out at the visa office on Asoke to get permission for us to go to the Andaman Islands; however I spend an inordinate amount of time filling out online forms so that we could get visas on arrivals. It is nice to imagine quick weekend jaunts to Calcutta; however, and such weekend would involve at least one and a half days of paperwork. And even more in the Andamans, which are logistically complicated beyond all reason.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are part of India in roughly the same way that Hawaii is part of the United States; on a map, they are clearly much closer to Burma, but that’s the way the Empire crumbles. How one gets to them from Bangkok is to fly through Calcutta, which is not dissimilar to flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco by way of Denver. Here is a map that might explain things: though weirdly Google seems to misname what’s generally called Middle Andaman as Smith Island, so maybe that won’t help. This Wikipedia map is maybe better, though that labels Long Island, soon to figure prominently in this narrative, as North Island. Anyway, there are two major sets of islands, the Andamans and the Nicomars, but the Nicobars seem to be off limits to almost everyone and how you would even begin to get there I can’t imagine. Steamer maybe, so you could bring along the trunks full of permits you’d undoubtedly need.
But we decided to go to the Andamans because we had wanted to go there for a while, and the flights there were surprisingly cheaper than they would have been to Luang Prabang – one of these days we will make it to the Plain of Jars, but not yet. And we always like the idea of spending time in India, if not always the practice. Also we wanted to go somewhere simple where we could just relax on the beach, but not have the beach overrun with people in elephant trousers. And the Andamans seemed to fit that: you still have to fly through Kolkatta or Chennai to get there, so they didn’t seem likely to be overrun.
So we took a flight from Bangkok to Kolkatta to Port Blair, which is the capital of the Andamans and the only major city. This was where our troubles began. We hadn’t really thought about flight times until the day before, when we realized a six o’clock flight meant leaving home at three in the morning. So we did that, thinking it was a fine trade off, we’d be in Port Blair before noon, we could nap there. This was not to be the case. First there was a great deal of bureaucracy. One fills out forms on the plane before landing in Kolkatta; then you get in the visa-on-arrival line; then you fill out more forms; then you are fingerprinted with a machine that is clearly too new to have seen better days, though you wish it might have had that pleasure. Eventually we were all fingerprinted to the visa-on-arrival people’s satisfaction and we were waved through customs into the wonder that is the Kolkatta airport. International arrivals is clearly the dingiest part of the airport; so we attempted to make our way over to domestic departures, which was a process a little bit like Kafka’s “Before the Law,” though I won’t go into that. Eventually we got through and the domestic departures terminal is a wonderland full of books and paneer and golub jamun. Also they have captured Santa Claus and put him in an educational display:
Then we flew to Port Blair. The Port Blair airport is tiny. Our passports were stamped again; we filled out a number of new forms, had our pictures taken, and were given an Andamans permit. The importance of the Andamans permit can’t be overstressed: it’s basically impossible to do anything in the Andamans without producing a copy of it — or, in our case, three separate copies, even three-year-olds not being exempt from the need for parents. The smart thing to do after arriving in the Andamans would be to get a mountain of photocopies of it. We should have done this, but of course we did not. Here is what a permit looks like:
At this point, we took a rickshaw to our hotel in Port Blair. Port Blair is a town that might be described as being slightly more charming than Siliguri, despite being a port on an island; the British decided that the best use for it was as the headquarters for a penal colony. Our hotel had a name that was mostly composed of the letter “A” in various locations. The fellow at the front desk had not heard of us; there followed a long discussion about why he had not heard of us which is too boring to recount but went on for a very long time. Eventually it became clear that there were plenty of rooms in the hotel, at which point there followed a long discussion of whether we would want breakfast tomorrow morning, what the breakfast would consist of, whether we wanted tea or coffee, how many teas, and finally the question of whether there should be sugar in the tea. This ground to a halt when we explained that we didn’t yet know when we would be leaving in the morning.
The main problem with the Andamans is saltwater crocodiles; an American tourist was eaten in 2010. The second-biggest problem in the Andamans is ferries. One needs to take ferries to get from island to island; however, tickets can only be booked if you have a permit and you can only get a permit if you’ve already arrived on the islands. Obviously what we should have done was go straight from the airport to the ferry terminal, but we didn’t know checking in to the hotel would take a good hour. So after all the talk about breakfast I ran down the hill to the ferry terminal – our hotel’s one virtue was that it was just uphill from the ferry terminal – to get us tickets to Long Island for the next morning, at, we thought, 9:15.
The ferry terminal, ominously empty when I arrived there, was clearly meant for enormous masses of people; the lines to the counter had been divided into Ladies and Gents like a fancy bathroom. I went to the empty Gents counter and asked if we could get tickets to Long Island the next day. The woman behind the counter laughed at my presumption and said that it was entirely sold out. What if I arrived early tomorrow morning, I queried. No, she said, it was sold out and the next ferry to Long Island – in two days – was also sold out. Was there any other way to get to Long Island, I wondered. She had heard of a bus but didn’t really know anything about that. So I went back to the hotel, full of bad news.
Here maybe it is worth interjecting something about the basics of Andamans geography and where people go. The majority of visitors to the Andamans just go to an island called Havelock, which is full of beaches. Living in Thailand, we thought we knew something about beach islands, which was that they are overrun by drunken Russians and people in elephant-print trousers. This is true as far as it goes in Thailand, but it is not quite the case in the Andamans because the sheer amount of paperwork to be filled out to travel there keeps out the amateurs. But: we didn’t know this. So: we had decided that the first few days we should stay at somewhere called Long Island, which is about halfway up the main archipelago; after getting in remote island time, we planned to come down to Havelock to see how that was.
I went back to the hotel and explained that we could not take a government ferry to Long Island the next day. It was assumed that I was incompetent and we all went back to the ferry terminal where Kim went through the Ladies line and ended up with exactly the same result as me, with the added information that we might try the private ferries though they didn’t know anything about them at the government ferry office. So we took a rickshaw to the private ferry company. They had nothing, existing mainly to get people back and forth from Port Blair to Havelock. We went back to the hotel feeling defeated. The fellow at the hotel still wanted to know at what time we wanted breakfast. We still did not know. We looked at the maps we had; it looked like there was a daily ferry at 4 from somewhere called Yeratta to Long Island. Could we get someone to take us to Yeratta, we wondered. The guy at the hotel said he would make some calls. We went up to our room and felt sad. Also tired. The room was terrible, the bathroom in particular an entomologist’s dream. I went out to find some snacks because we had not had any lunch. The guy at the front desk said he thought we could drive up to Yeratta tomorrow. Great, I said. I imagined we would have breakfast at seven and leave at eight; we wouldn’t have a lazy day on the beaches of Long Island, but we’d have an interesting drive. I went off to find snacks, promptly got lost and came back an hour later, having procured enough snacks for a car ride to Yeratta. The guy at the front desk stopped me on the way in. Everything was all set, he said. We would leave at three-thirty the next morning.
This was obviously ridiculous. But two points: first, the Andamans are on the same time as the rest of India despite being very far to the east, so the sun rises early. Second, we’d woken up at two-thirty the night before, so we’d stay on the same schedule and even get to sleep in an extra hour. Could we still gave our breakfast, I wondered. He sadly shook his head. No. You can’t have breakfast at three in the morning, even in Port Blair.
We went out and found some dinner and went to bed. Here is what is on television in the Andaman Islands: two guys impressionistically dancing to Kraftwerk. Then we woke up at 3:30 and went downstairs to find a car. The hotel guy was the driver; he’d brought along a friend as well, primarily, it appeared, to serve as a DJ. Bollywood music appears to be going through a rave-y phase, though Harriet is still able to sleep through it. So we drove north.
We were on, once we left Port Blair, the Andaman Trunk Road, which is the major north-south road through the islands. (You can kind of see this if you zoom in the Google Map of the Andamans; you will note that north of Port Blair, it is basically the only road on the islands.) The reason we had to leave so early soon became apparent: usage of the road is strictly controlled. A good chunk of the Andamans belongs to tribal people who resist outside contact; the part we were going through belonged to the Jarawas. The government only allows convoys through at particular times; we had left so early in the hopes of making the six o’clock convoy. At about four-thirty we stopped at a checkpoint; a number of cars and trucks were already lined up waiting to get through. The driver and his friend took our permits and went to discuss them with someone, saying we’d be waiting awhile. At a food stand we had idli and tea for breakfast. Everyone was hanging around waiting for the go-ahead; we read the signs explaining that we were not to feed the Jarawas:
Our driver repeatedly implored us not to take any pictures of anything once we started moving, so we did not. What happened when we finally made it through the checkpoint was slightly anti-climactic: there was no sign at all of the Jarawas. It was nice to be driving on a single-lane road through jungle undisturbed except by our car’s incessant soundtrack of Bollywood hits, which probably frightened away any possible Jarawas.
Eventually the convoy reached the northern tip of the island that Port Blair is on, South Andaman. There we waited around for a ferry, which carried us and the car across to the next island up, Middle Andaman. Or maybe that was Rangat? I don’t know, I should look at a map. Here is what one of the ferry terminals looked like from a ferry:
The driver explained that we would be waiting for a while and would have time to go see the local limestone caves and mud volcanoes. Great, we said. Also, we were introduced to the driver’s friend, a man the driver called This Person. This Person took us to a nearby speedboat, which went through a mangrove swamp – where we were disappointed, not for the last time, not to see the salt-water crocodiles we had been promised – to a wooden landing from which we marched about a mile to see some caves. They were impressive mainly for how crowded with people they were.
If you are ever given the chance to visit these caves, you can safely give them a miss if you have ever been in a cave of any size before.
The speedboat eventually took us back to the ferry landing – with all the walking, this excursion had taken quite a while – and Harriet managed to fall asleep:
Then we were loaded into a truck with an even louder sound system than our own to go see the mud volcanoes. We were not expecting very much, especially given that the mud volcanoes turned out to be at the end of an uphill footpath. But the mud volcanoes were fantastic. There are about six of them and they are all pretty tiny: little puddles of bubbling gray mud.
Most of them were fenced off but one had escaped and Harriet happily poked it with a stick. If you get a chance to go see mud volcanoes, you should take it.
By this point it was maybe noon and we were tired of the ferry landing. Our driver seemed disappointed we did not want to linger for lunch. But we wanted to go to or beachside paradise. So we all piled back into the truck and drove north until we reached the top of that island, and there we stopped for a while to wait for a ferry. There were still no crocodiles. The ferry eventually arrived, and we crossed to the penultimate island. I have forgotten to note that at every stage in this – every ferry crossing, every excursion – our permits were taken out and scrutinized, to what purpose I do not know. Maybe we could have somehow arrived by raft from Bangladesh? That seems like it would be complicated. At any rate, everyone was quite sure we had not.
We drove and drove some more and eventually we arrived at Yeratta, which is the name of both a tiny village and a creek. There was very little going on at the tiny ferry stop there, and we worried that the ferry wouldn’t arrive and we’d be stranded at Yeratta:
But just after four, a ferry came around a bend in the river; we got on (permits having been carefully inspected again) and finally we were on our way to Long Island.
It was at this point we decided to look in the guidebook to see what it had to say about Long Island. And then we came to the horrifying realization that our hotel was not actually on the beach, as we’d imagined (and the hotel’s website had led us to believe). There was a beach on the island, we learned, but it was an hour-and-a-half’s walk through leach-infested jungle. Perhaps, we thought, we had made a mistake.
But the ferry landed and we got off and finally we were on Long Island. The second thing one sees on Long Islad, after the sign that says Welcome to Long Island, is a notice explaining that there is no swimming because of the salt-water crocodiles:
That was a disappointment. Also, it turned out that our hotel was not right next to the jetty, as we’d somehow imagined. Faded blue arrows on the island’s pathway – you could call it a road, though there’s only one working vehicle with more than two wheels on the island as far as we could tell – pointed the way to our hotel. We followed these arrows for a very long time. After about a mile, well into the interior of the island, we found our hotel. One noticed, before going in, a notice from the government informing the owners that they were in trouble for illegally running a hotel on land that was meant to be a private residence.
It’s possible that this notice was the reason that the staff, when we arrived, seemed notably surly; maybe this was just one of those hotels that disapproves of guests on principle. Though I’d conducted a lively email correspondence with someone representing the hotel, no one there had any idea who we were; they were utterly unimpressed that we’d taken the ferry from Yeratta, which we’d thought was at least clever, if possibly dumb. They pointed us to a room; when I wondered if there might be a lock for the door they shrugged and said that everything was fine. They were unhappy that we hadn’t had the foresight to arrive with photocopies of our permits and passports, which meant that they’d have to go to the village the next day to photocopy them.
The room we were given might best be described as a rustic shack with most to the negative connotations of both of those words. It was constructed from a mixture of woven bamboo and plywood; the roots of local trees made the floor list wildly. The bathroom was superior to the one in Port Blair both in that it came with toilet paper and that it would make an bathroom-haunting entomologist even happier. But we had a bed and that was something. Dinner, when ordered, took an exceedingly long time to arrive; Harriet did not mind as the hotel had some fresh kittens. Then we went to bed.
We awoke the next morning deeply pleased not to have to wake up for a three o’clock departure. After a leisurely breakfast we went to inquire about getting a boat to take to a nearby bay, one of the services offered by the hotel. That, we were told, was impossible: it was Sunday, and thus a holiday. Well, we said, in that case we will just walk through the leech-infested jungle to the bay. To do that, we were told, you need to first take your permits to the Land Office. Where is the Land Office, I asked. Back by the jetty. I took our permits and our passports and marched back to the jetty, looking everywhere for a Land Office, which eventually turned out not to be a Land Office at all but a Forest Office, and also closed because it was a Sunday, and thus a holiday. So I went back having accomplished nothing. Meanwhile, Kim and Harriet had gone to the beach that was a fifteen-minute walk from the hotel; it seemed like a reasonable beach, though we assumed it was infested with saltwater crocodiles because no one had told us otherwise. A sign saying THIS IS A CROCODILE-FREE BEACH would have gone a long way: remember that if you’re ever running an island in the Andamans.
But we decided that permits be damned, we would march through the leach-infested jungle to go see the beautiful bay, where we knew that other people had swum in the past, presumably without being eaten by crocodiles. So we set off, going rather slower than a one-and-a-half hour pace because we had a three-year-old with us and also an old man who moved even more slowly than her decided that he wanted to walk with us. The path was not so much through jungle as it was through farm land until about halfway through, when the farms stopped (and the old man left us) and the jungle began. But it was the end of the dry season, so there weren’t any leaches. We walked and walked through the jungle, and finally arrived at the beautiful bay:
There was very nice swimming there, and if we’d brought a machete, we could have eaten some coconuts and stayed there forever. Unfortunately, there was nothing else there aside from some bathrooms and trash cans, and eventually we started to wonder what would happen if we ran out of water on the three-hour-walk back, or what would happen if it got dark while we were still in the jungle. So after a few hours we decided to head home.
We made it through the jungle while it was still light, and then went through the farm land, and had almost made it back to the hotel when our path was crossed by a cow. Or rather: Kim’s path was crossed by a cow, as I was behind, trying to coax Harriet to move forward. And actually Kim didn’t so much have her path crossed by a cow so much as she was gored by a cow, which had taken a dislike to her for reasons that are unclear. But a farmer chased the cow off and eventually I arrived on the scene with Harriet, and then we went back to the hotel where we waited approximately eight hours for dinner.
The next day we were very excited that it was not a holiday and we suggested to the proprietor of the hotel that we might take a boat to see an interesting nearby bay. We could not, it turned out, take a boat to see the nearby bay. There might be too many waves: the weather had been turning rainy. We did not want to march back to see the bay we’d went to the day before because the cow might still be on the loose and might want revenge. Who knows what goes through a cow’s head? Having few other options, we decided to wander through the island’s village; we were overjoyed to find a grocery store, having supposed that there was only our morose hotel, and we bought cold drinks. We went to the island’s scenic overlooks, which were pretty. We saw the island’s doctor’s office, which had several prominent GOT LEPROSY? posters, the meaning of which we tried not to think too hard about. Then we gave up and went back to the crocodile beach for the rest of the day. No one was eaten by a crocodile.
That night it stormed ferociously, and we were tormented with fears that the ferry wouldn’t be running and we’d be stuck on Long Island for another two days, or that, if the ferry was running, we wouldn’t actually be able to get tickets. But it turned out that the ferry was running and we could get tickets and in the early morning the island was beautiful enough that you thought about staying even if there was basically nothing to do there except be attacked by cows and worry about crocodiles and leprosy:
So we got on the ferry and went off to Havelock and things were much better for the rest of our time. But more on that later.