We Went to India, Part 6: Udaipur

Okay. Now. You thought I’d forget to finish this, and I almost did, but I didn’t quite. We are almost done with this, bear with me while I continue to tell the seemingly interminable story about how we went to India. So we went from Jodhpur to Ranakpur and then from Ranakpur to Udaipur. Jodphur is off in the desert-y direction, but Ranakpur and Udaipur are not like that at all, and the scenery gets lusher and more hilly the closer you get to Udaipur. Udaipur is not very much like the other parts of India we have been to, mostly because it is a beautiful city. The foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh and Darjeeling are beautiful, but the towns themselves are not so nice. Parts of the Andamans are extremely beautiful, but that is because they are remote. Calcutta has a lot of beautiful things in it, but I don’t know that anyone would argue that it is a beautiful city. But Udaipur is a genuinely attractive city.

It is entirely due to accident (also generally poor planning) that we ended up visiting Udaipur after Jodhpur and Pushkar and Jaipur; if it had been the other way around, we probably would have been incredibly disappointed. Udaipur is built around an enormous artificial lake in the middle of the city which has been there for a long time. Weirdly, the lake is still beautiful. This was the view from our tiny balcony:


Without Harriet in the way it looks like this:


And looking the other way – the big island in the middle of the lake is a fancy hotel accessible only by boat:


Here is the view at dawn:


We stayed in a haveli on the lake which was full of pleasant little spaces:


Like other havelis we stayed in, it was full of stairs and courtyards, though it also had an extremely large German shepherd puppy that Harriet was very interested in:


Harriet about to have a scenic breakfast:


Because of the afore-mentioned poor planning, we were not actually in Udaipur as long as we could have been, and I suspect there are a lot of nice things that we missed because Harriet was dragging us off in search of chandeliers or audioguides. However, we did see some nice things, mostly by accident. One of the nice things to do in Udaipur is the car museum. We had intended to go to a dosa restaurant run by quarrelsome waiters, but when we arrived there the dosa restaurant was closed because it was not late enough for dinner. However, we were invited to go to the car museum, which is where the maharana of Udaipur keeps their collection of cars. They have a lot of cars there! The guy who looks after them is extremely excited about cars, and told us a great deal about them. Also he was very interested in posing us in front of the important cars in such a way that it would look like we were touching the cars even when we were not:


(It is possible that this is the only family portrait of us that exists?) I don’t know if that’s actually a car or a carriage. The important thing is that we are not actually touching it, it just looks like we are. Here you see the man’s technique:


He is a true master. I am not sure that I have ever been to a car museum before so I cannot tell you how it compares to the other car museums, but it was a fine experience. They certainly had a lot of cars in Udaipur! Eventually the dosa restaurant opened up and we had dosas and they were delicious.

Udaipur does have cows roaming the streets, like other Indian cities, but the cows somehow do not make a mess and they are also more decorated than is usual:


The big thing to do in Udaipur is to visit the City Palace, which is enormous and still belongs to the maharana. It is a lovely palace, though most of the exciting things were off-limits to photography, so I didn’t take many pictures. Here, however, is the maharajah’s horse, dressed up as an elephant to confuse the enemy:


Enemies back then were, one suspects, generally dumber than they are now. But also they might not have noticed the poor disguises of the horses because they were dead afraid, as in this astonishing(ly poorly photographed) painting:


You will notice, in the upper left, the horse’s elephant costume. What is not clear because I had to take this picture surreptitiously is that the enemy and his horse have just been chopped in half with a single blow:


We spent a long time in this museum, in part because we had to take Harriet to part of it called the Crystal Gallery which was said to have the second-largest chandelier in India; the Crystal Gallery also had an audioguide, which slowed our progress down to nothing. They were very strict about people not taking pictures in the Crystal Galley, which consists of the maharana’s seemingly endless collection of crystal things, as well as a selection of awards not unlike those you could see in the National Museum of Libya that Qaddafi had been awarded. The maharana has a lot of sets of crystals. That said, the views from the palace are still very beautiful.

The other thing we did in Udaipur was to go the Haveli Museum, which is an enormous old building on the water that’s been turned into a museum full of exhibits attempting to explain a lot of things. There were, for example, a lot a Rajasthani puppets:


As well as what was said to be the biggest turban in the world:


(it is unfortunate that this picture makes it look like ground beef) as well as a very systematic presentation of the different turban styles of India:


Who can imagine what this man’s whiskers are made of:


And there are a lot of balconies on the lake:


In conclusion, Udaipur is very nice and you should go there. Other things happened there too, but who can remember them.

After that, we flew back to Delhi, and after that we came back to Bangkok, and that’s where we are now. The end.

We Went to India, Part 5: Ranakpur

Okay, we’re getting to the end. We got another guy to drive us from Jodhpur to Udaipur, stopping along the way to see the Jain temples at Ranakpur and then have lunch. Ranakpur is a tiny town not that far outside of Udaipur, but it does have some very attractive temples in it which I did a basically terrible job of photographing. Here is what the main one looks like from the front if you are a little bit tilted:


The interior is incredibly intricately carved columns and domes:


There are a lot of little courtyards:


And this is up in the hills so there are trees all around. Off in the distance (this is from a balcony) you can see a smaller temple:


I was immediately grabbed when I went into the temple by a fellow who claimed to be the high priest of the temple. Probably he wasn’t! He claimed he was better than the audio guide (I missed out on these again) though I have my doubts on this and still cannot really explain the architecture of Jain temples whereas Harriet probably can. But he took me on a whirlwind tour of the place and pointed out a lot of things very quickly, possibly because he was trying to avoid the authorities. He did give an address for the Jain temple in New York that seemed reasonably accurate, and I was impressed with that. You would do better to go to Wikipedia, which describes the place in some detail and has pictures of the best parts. Evidently each of the temple’s 1444 columns is individually carved and you could spend a long time looking at them all if you were so inclined.


The grounds of the temple are kept up beautifully and it’s pleasant to wander around: there are a couple of smaller temples as well.


This is one of the smaller temples:


Also the place is infested with monkeys. Here you see how the monkeys here have long tails:


And here another monkey considers his options:


I don’t understand why every single picture I took in Ranakpur seems to be tilted:


Maybe I was coming down with something? It doesn’t make any sense. None of my other pictures are tilted like this.


At least you get a sense what it was like to lurch through Ranakpur. I don’t remember lurching that much, but can the pictures really lie? I don’t know.

After we went to Ranakpur our driver took us to lunch at some place nearby where they had an ox-driven irrigation system that seemed to exist for the entertainment of small girls:

It was a pretty good time. Then we went to Udaipur.

We Went to India, Part 4: Jodhpur

So! Continuing. We left Pushkar for Jodhpur. Pushkar is not that far from Jodhpur, but the roads between – or at least the roads our driver took – were far and away the worst we ran into on this trip, and it took a very long time. Looking at the map, it might just be the route we took – if we’d gone back through Ajmer (which would have brought us up to 2/7ths of a pilgrimage to Mecca) it looks like we would have been going on less bouncy roads. Who knows! But because of this we arrived in Jodhpur relatively late in the day.

Because of last-minute changes in our itinerary, we ended up in Jodhpur a day earlier than we had imagined we would; we had already booked a hotel for the night we were going to be staying, but then it turned out they only had the room for one night so we got a room at another hotel. A lot of Jodhpur turned out to be admiring the insane old hotels of Jodhpur, which is fine. Our first hotel was not the finest place we stayed at, but we did have an extraordinarily large room, which consisted of a bedroom, another bedroom, a bathroom larger than the bedroom with a bathtub larger than the bed, and an enormous living room which we were not entirely sure was part of our room, seeing as there were many doors and only one lock. I think it was? It was hard to tell. Also that hotel had a swimming pool, which is not something one sees very often in Rajasthan, and it was nice to go swimming after a morning of riding camels.

We basically failed to see anything of Jodhpur the city, though I’m not entirely sure that we wanted to see that much of it. We went out and a lot of bangles were bought and then we wandered around and the touts kept telling more and more elaborate stories about the qualities of the markets there as opposed to the qualities of the markets here (touts speaking English makes traveling in India much more complicated than traveling in Thailand, as the main focus is on starting conversations and becoming your best friend rather than shouting the few English words one knows) and we eventually just gave up and went back to our splendid hotel room and lazed about there. Eventually we went off and had a fine dinner at what would actually be our hotel the next night, which is meant to have the nicest restaurant in the city; it’s on top of the hotel and has a fine view, though my phone is terrible at taking pictures of things at night:


That’s the big fort, Mehrangarh, which is perched above the city. During the day it looks like this – this is from the top of our first hotel, I think, which did not have quite such a nice view but then it was the morning and you could actually see things. Constraints, constraints, constraints. Ki was feeling somewhat under the weather the next morning, so we took it slowly, but we did go up to the fort, which is enormous. Here is near the entrance:


And this is a little further in:


And shortly after this our progress basically came to a halt because when you buy a ticket to the fort you get an audioguide and it turns out that Harriet is enormously interested in audio guides – that of Mehrangarh is narrated by the current maharajah – and listening to them to the very end.


So there was a lot of listening to audioguides. I did not have an audioguide so I cannot tell you anything about Mehrangarh except that the current maharajah is said to be very good at describing things. But the palace is pretty splendid.


It’s possible that I didn’t take pictures of some of the most exciting things because we weren’t allowed to? That was certainly the case in Udaipur and it might have been here. Mostly I didn’t know what was going on and whether to take pictures of things because no one would tell me anything. There were a lot of howdahs and some swords. Oh, also a lot of Rajput miniatures, which wouldn’t really photograph well. That was what they had.


The fort is very high and when you look out the window there are all sorts of birds of prey circling. I think these are kites, though maybe they’re eagles. Probably the audio guide would have explained this.


Here are some more kites flying over a courtyard:


I think at about this point we were accosted by the official palmist of Mehrangarh who gave us a brochure about reading palms with a lot of testimonials at how good he was and Harriet immediately became interested in palmistry and her life line and for most of the rest of the fort I had to explain that to her and thus could not take pictures of things. Here is a room with some nice colored glass light:


(I am not the first to notice how this is reminiscent of what Luis Barragán did in Mexico.) Somewhere around here we ended up in a performance of music for meditation where we were offered two hours of Indian hammer-dulcimer (I know, I know) music though I wasn’t sure that Harriet was up for that though we did make it through five minutes of it and it was restful if not exactly meditative because Harriet kept trying to use the audio guide to make it more interesting.

On the way out we met these Rajasthani musicians.


Everyone was having a fine time and there was dancing and we had some tea with them and it began to look like they would adopt Harriet into their troop but then Kim was feeling like she was about to die so we went back to our new hotel and that was the end of that. Our new hotel was not so much of a surprise because we had had dinner there the previous night but it was a lovely old building and we had a very grand room though the bathroom and bathtub were normal-sized and it did not have a swimming pool.


Then we went to bed. The next night we drove off to Udaipur by way of Ranakpur but that will have to wait for later.

We Went to India, Part 3: Pushkar

So after we went to Jaipur we got a guy to drive us to Pushkar. Initially we had been planning on taking trains all over Rajasthan but poor preparation meant that we ended up taking only one train. But: because we didn’t take any trains we got to go to Pushkar, which you can’t really get to by train. It is, however, between Jaipur and Jodhpur and it seemed like it would break up that drive nicely. So we went.

Pushkar is a town of 15,000 people, except for the first week of November when there’s the Pushkar Camel Fair and 100,000 people and their camels descend on the town to buy and sell camels. We missed that, which was convenient, though we did see a bunch of tents they were setting up to house the camel fair visitors. Pushkar is near Ajmer, which is a much bigger city. Visiting Ajmer evidently counts as 1/7th of the way to visiting Mecca; I don’t know if it counts if you drive through, but we did spend a lot of time driving around Ajmer while our driver tried to find the way to Pushkar, the normal road having been closed down by the police for reasons that never became clear. I am sure there are nice things about Ajmer, but we mostly saw goats.

Pushkar is a Hindu pilgrimage site; it is most notable because of its temple to Brahma. Brahma had some trouble with his wife in Pushkar and because of this he doesn’t get a lot of temples in India; he does, however, get a large number of shrines in Thailand (notably the Erawan Shrine). But Pushkar is full of temples; it also gets a lot of foreign tourists, some of whom seem to be there for a while. It’s a small town encircled by hills:


In the center of town is a lake:


There are a lot of cows wandering around Pushkar, of course. But there are also a lot of feral looking pigs who fight the cows for the most delicious trash:


Maybe there are so many pigs because Vishnu appeared here in the shape of a wild boar? I don’t know. We had a man take us around and tell us about the town though I missed a lot of what he was saying. Later he took us to his house and his wife and daughter-in-law gave Harriet some very complicated mendhi:


Pushkar is on the western edge of the Thar Desert, which stretches east into Pakistan. This was not immediately obvious when we were there, as we arrived just after the rainy season had ended and everything was pretty lush and green. But you can’t throw a stick in Pushkar without hitting a camel, and the hotel we were staying at offered overnight camel safaris, so we decided to to take an overnight camel safari. We were sent to the camel parking lot across the street and got two camels, who were named Jimmy and Krishna, as well as two camel-minders. They took us out of town; along the way, we got into this ridiculous traffic jam:


It is really hard to take phone pictures from the top of a camel, so these pictures are not so good. If you were taking an advanced sort of camel safari, you could have a little cart. We did not have any carts, we just had camels.

After a lot of honking, we made it out of town. The landscape quickly becomes beautiful:


Here are Krishna and Jimmy taking a break in a sandy patch:


Krishna was the more spirited camel; Jimmy was more relaxed. Getting on camels can be a community affair:


Maybe two miles out of town we came to a sandy area and our camel drivers explained that we would camp for the night there. They started making an extremely elaborate dinner that was only finished well after it was dark and Harriet had fallen asleep. In the interim, Harriet did some digging:


Krishna was not impressed:


Later we went to sleep:


Then in the morning we woke up and went back to our hotel where we had breakfast and also showers to get rid of all the sand. Eventually we drove off to Jodhpur, but that’s for next time.

We Went to India, Part 2: Jaipur

From Delhi we took a train to Jaipur. Originally we were going to take trains all over the place, and end up sleeping on them I think three nights, but we were too slow about this and didn’t have a fixer to procure the right tickets for us, so this was actually the only train we took. This was kind of a disappointment but probably actually a good thing because sleeping in trains for three nights would probably have made everyone but Harriet crazy and also we would not have been able to visit Pushkar. The train from Delhi to Jaipur is six hours and we were traveling first class AC starting at six in the morning, so it was not a very exciting journey, but it did get us there and also no one went crazy.

The first thing we did in Jaipur was to leave it – we went out to the Amber Fort, which is in a town now called Amer. There’s a museum devoted to the block printing tradition there and we went to look at that. There are a lot of enormous old houses in Rajasthan called havelis; some of them have been turned into hotels, some people still live in, and some, like this one, have been turned into museums:


The courtyards can be very pretty. Also it turns out that not a lot of people turn up at museums devoted to block printing. But upstairs they were happy to show Harriet how to do it:


She is enthusiastic but probably not the most helpful worker. After we did that, we went to go look at the Amber Fort, on a nearby hill:


The fort is pretty enormous:


And it has nice views; many of the nearby hills have smaller forts on the top of them.


Inside there are courtyards and a huge number of rooms. A lot of people wanted to take pictures so we took pictures with them:


The next day we went to see the palace in town, where the Maharaja lived. (Maybe still lives? I don’t remember.) This palace is grand, though it seems like I mostly took pictures of the chandeliers, under Harriet’s direction. They were pretty grand:


Here is another chandelier and a decoration made out of guns and spears:


And here is a picture that does not have a chandelier though it does have an ornate doorway:


The whole thing was pretty grand and I probably should have taken pictures of things that were not chandeliers but I did not. There were a couple of enormous silver urns used to transport water from the Ganges to London at some point. You can imagine what those looked like.

After that, we went to see the Jaipur Jantar Mantar, which is even grander than the Delhi Jantar Mantar:






It might have been nice to visit at a time that wasn’t high noon? But that’s what happened. I don’t know if you can go at night.

After that we wandered around and did some shopping. This seemed to upset our driver because he was very excited to go to Pushkar – he seemed to think Pushkar was much nicer than anything we would find in Jaipur – but we told him to hold on, we needed to go look at things. Here is the Palace of the Winds:


I would have had better pictures of this but I was accosted by a young man who wanted to talk about wrestling, so there you go. After that, Harriet met some goats:


Also we had some extremely good lassis:


And we bought some shoes and bangles, and then went back to find our driver and told him that we could finally go to Pushkar. But that’s for next time.

We Went to India, Part 1

So we went back to India again. Thus time we flew to Delhi – not Calcutta as we’ve been doing – and then wandered around Rajasthan for a week before coming back to Delhi and flying back to Bangkok where everyone is wearing black and being mournful.

We went to Delhi eight years ago but that was an odd trip and for one reason and another we didn’t actually see much of the city, mostly because I was having a fine time being mildly sick in a house with a lot of servants. Also I got a haircut. Delhi is kind of like D.C. if D.C. were ten times as large which means that you are constantly taking cars down long avenues to get anywhere. I am not sure we managed to see much more of Delhi this time (we have still failed to go to the Red Fort and the Gandhi museums, and I did not get a haircut) though certain things looked familiar and we felt like we could pick and choose what we wanted to do. I think I would say that Delhi seems pleasant enough but Bombay is more exciting and Calcutta is more interesting? Though maybe Delhi is less complicated to get around than either of those places.

But let me see what we did before I forget entirely. We got into Delhi very late Friday night and left extremely early Sunday morning, so we had one day there. In the evening was the Canadian Ball, which I don’t know anything about. In the morning, we went to see the Delhi Jantar Mantar. The Jantar Mantars are observatories built in the eighteenth century by Jai Singh to calculate important dates; there’s one in Delhi, a bigger one in Jaipur, and a couple others elsewhere in India that we didn’t see. They are full of immense curved structures with steps. A guide could probably explain what exactly each thing did, but they’re nice to ignorantly wander around:




There’s a very nice book about these (and also the lifecycle of eels) by Julio Cortázar if you are interested. After that, we went to the Agrasen ki Baoli, an old step well that is now inhabited by bats:


This is looking up from inside:


There are a lot of bats:

We had lunch, which was delicious, and I don’t remember what else we did. There was the Canadian ball. Then we went off to Jaipur the next morning, but I am going to post this now because otherwise it will take me eight years to post everything.

We Are in India

So Elvis finally left the building, and we are in India. These two things are not actually connected. We won’t say a lot about the former here because who knows what might happen; and the internet here is pretty slow, so we might have to wait until we get back to Bangkok (should Bangkok still exist) to fill you in on that. Right now we are in Pushkar, which has a lake, a lot of camels, and an extraordinary number of wild pigs. We are having a fine time.  


Sorrows in the Andamans Part II: Now with Less Sorrow & More Trepanging

Okay. So where were we? I need to write things down before I forget them. After a couple of near misses, we managed to get on a boat that left Long Island for Havelock, which is where all the tourists go. Again: this is pretty clearly what we should have done from the start. But: that’s not what happened. And honestly, Long Island is pretty nice: it’s just rather remote. Once we discovered, on our last day there, that there was a small store it seemed to open up.

But the boat to Havelock takes about four hours, and while it rained a little – we arrived in the Andamans at about the start of the rainy season – there were dolphins following the boat, which we failed to take a picture of. Just imagine it. Dolphins! And eventually we landed in Havelock and presented our permits and everything was stamped all over again and we were met by a rickshaw from our hotel and it seemed like we were moving up in the world: it was a little disorienting to be in a place so full of three- and four-wheeled vehicles. Our little shack was made of bamboo which looked a little familiar: in the Chin villages in Myanmar, we had actually seen bamboo being harvested to make rafts which then floated rocks down from the river that goes through Mrauk U to Sittwe to make the new harbor, at which point, presumably, the rafts were abandoned and they floated down to the Andamans (we saw some of them on the beach in Long Island) where they were turned into shacks for tourists. And that’s the story of how bamboo rafts work.

The beaches on Havelock are beautiful:


Our hotel was on a beach that was maybe not the best beach for swimming because it was extremely shallow for a very long way out. But this makes it basically an ideal beach for a three-year old:


As did the extremely large number of sea cucumbers that could be found in it:


So Harriet went trepanging:


I’m not sure what type of sea cucumbers these were – maybe these? – but there were a huge number of them in the water, and Harriet could make large piles of them. When you pick them up, they spit out water – this is technically known as evisceration. Also the beaches were full of hermit crabs.

So we went to the beach and had a good time. Kim and I went diving in shifts, which was extremely nice. It was relaxing. Eventually we caught the ferry back to Port Blair, where we spent the night in a very strange hotel patronized by the Rotary Club; then we caught a flight back to Kolkata, and spent a nice day wandering around there before taking a midnight flight back to Bangkok. And that was the end of that.

Special Update

Despite how it might have come across in that last post, Kim was not gored to death by a cow and in fact her bruises have mostly gone away. Also the rest of our time in the Andamans was very nice and we would like to go back, but I’ll write that up later. In the mean time, here is a real horror that Harriet dug up under the water in Havelock:

There are two things in there: one of them is a sea slug, which is trying to escape the other one, a cone snail, which you can learn about here. Special note for people who read that link: no one is dead, except for the cone snail, whose shell is now on our balcony.

Various Sorrows in the Andamans: a Chronicle

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.