Shyamala Sathiaseelan visits the Andaman Islands after her parents dispel her sinister images of haunted, bleak and scary islands. She recalls her visit to these ‘serene islands’.
Travel, is a bug that was in me when I was born, probably inherited from my father. In 24 years of travelling widely through India, I have been most fascinated by the islands on the Bay of Bengal off the East Coast of India. Yes, I am talking about the Andaman Islands.
The Andaman islands are a group of several islands so most of our sightseeing was by boats. There are a total of more than 356 islands there. Even the oldest boatman, Rathnam, had seen only 200 of them. I figured that 10 days was surely not enough to get a full picture of this place, so I started to store every sight, every sound and every smell. The sound and light show at the Cellular Jail sent a shiver down my spine. The realisation that those who fought for our Independence had lived, struggled, suffered and even died here made a huge impact.
Andaman Islands had always seemed sinister. I had envisioned haunted, bleak and scary, remote uninhabited places. Until my parents actually returned from a trip to Port Blair and told us about these serene islands. Then we awaited the first opportunity to take a break and check them out. Six months later we managed to organise ourselves for the holiday.
Travelling there can be difficult. There are flights from Chennai and Kolkata. And the ship service is unreliable.
Finally the D-Day came and we were all ready. It was a surprise to find that there were several empty seats. On enquiry, we learnt that all supplies to the Andamans, including newspaper and meat, goes from the mainland. So there is always more cargo and less people. The two-hour journey to Port Blair was uneventful. But there were many surprises awaiting us.
The airport is a small, old airport that was constructed in 1947. On my way to the hotel I noticed that there are none of the usual autorickshaws that noisily wend their way through most Indian towns. There was only one traffic signal in the entire town and the roads were more ups-and-downs than level. This was all surprising for a person like me who has lived in the coastal towns of Chennai and Mumbai. We stayed at the Bay Island – a Welcome Group hotel, which was itself quite a delight, as it faced the sea.
The colour of the sea was an unpolluted blue, a colour that I had not seen at the beaches near Mumbai, Chennai, Goa. It was calm and beautiful. I was thrilled with the fact that we were going to spend 10 entire days there. All we had to do was sit in the open restaurant, look at the sea, enjoy the cool breeze and feel good.
Port Blair also has a beautiful aquarium, a museum and other places of interest. There is also a water sports centre for those interested in water sports. Tourists keen on mementos collect shell jewellery and decorative show pieces made of podak wood.
The next day we went to Jollybouy Island, a beautiful island just a kilometre long. There we could swim underwater and see all the beautiful corals and fishes we had seen only on TV till then. For those who cannot swim, the glass-bottomed boat in which they take you around is a great alternative. I appreciated the fact that nobody is permitted to throw rubbish on that island nor take any corals from there. It is creditable that they have managed to keep it so clean and beautiful with the constant inflow of tourists. Why can’t we do this in all tourist spots in India?
I was thrilled with the fact that we were going to spend 10 entire days here. All we had to do was look at the sea, enjoy the cool breeze and feel good.
Thereafter, we went to Ross Island which was where the British used to live. Now all that remains are the time-worn remnants of old structures. A swimming pool, tennis court, bakery and cemetery are mute testimony to the lifestyle of the ruling class, in sharp contrast to the jail where Independence fighters were incarcerated.
The hours passed by and added up to days. Days of doing nothing but visiting different islands, swimming, lazing around and devouring each and every sight to retain them in memory, keenly aware that this was an idyllic vacation. No camera can capture the beauty of this place; no video could do justice to it. You have to be there to enjoy it.
And finally the day dawned when I had to leave. I did not know how ten full days passed so quickly, when each day had unfolded so slowly. Standing at the airport again, I promised myself that some time I would return here. I also decided that I would tell as many people about e Andaman Islands. So that others could enjoy it as much as I did. It might have been the end of a journey. Yet for me it was the beginning of discovering other secluded and peaceful places. This was a journey to remember and cherish all my life. Because it was the start of a discovery of what travel means.