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The Andamans are a beautiful holiday destination. The writer of this piece re-visits a year from her childhood when her family had stayed there as her father was posted there, and wishes she could re-visit the place.
This month, we had sent out a call for posts on #MyTravelBucketList. Here is a trip down memory lane, full of nostalgia, to the Andamans. A place that the writer has placed on her travel bucket list.
I love traveling as it not just gives me a chance to see a new country or a place but to also explore and experience – the history, different cultures and people, taste exotic food and so much more! I have a very long list of places I want to visit. I also have a ‘short’ list of places I want to re-visit. Re-visiting some places has always been on my travel bucket list or wish list. Here is one such place I want to go to again. A place to visit if you love the sun, sand, and the sea. A place to re-visit for the unforgettable memories. Here is a journey back in time.
The Andaman & Nicobar Islands which appear as tiny secluded specks on the map of India, were not always a favored travel destination. In the British colonial past, these islands were known as ‘Kala Pani ‘(Black water) and going there was called ‘Kale pani ki saza'(punishment of black water).
The remote islands were considered the right place to punish India’s freedom fighters as it isolated them from the mainland and escape was impossible as they were surrounded by shark infested waters and unexplored dense forests. They led a harsh life and were meant to have a dark future.
So in the 80s, when my father was transferred to Andaman Islands our family had mixed emotions- a sense of foreboding as to what to expect there, a tinge of sadness of moving to a far flung place and plenty of excitement as well because we as children, had never been to an island but only read about one in books. After busy weeks of packing trunks and wooden boxes, animated conversations of what life would be on an island and an emotional goodbye to family and friends, we began our journey from Mumbai.
After an overnight train trip, we reached Chennai where we stayed in a transit accommodation, awaiting our ship. Once on board, we explored the ship, settled in our cabins, went on the deck, watched the seas, made some friends, played in our cabins, read comics, listened to songs on the cassette recorder, had delicious food, and got seasick too! We were surrounded by high seas for four days.
As the ship neared land, we were pleasantly surprised and thrilled as we saw spectacular views of marine life and rare corals in the clear waters, which were aquamarine and not ‘black’, as we had imagined. As the ship made its way through the many breathtaking islands, the natural beauty stunned us. All our apprehensions were gone in an instant and we fell in love with this place. We had finally reached Port Blair the capital of the A & N Islands.
We expected to see the famous Andaman tribes as we disembarked, but instead there were Indian locals who stared at us and said we had arrived from the ‘mainland’ as the islands were located far away from the mainland of India. The weather was warm and humid with a lovely sea breeze.
After staying in a mess for a couple of days, we moved to a big rickety wooden house, which was fun and unique, as we had never stayed in one. Some of the houses there had tin roofs and when the rain fell, it made a sweet drumming noise on the tin roof in the silence of the night. Snails would be seen crawling just about anywhere and everywhere -outside the front door and even on the roads. It would be difficult to avoid stepping on them especially when it was dark. It was also very common to see insects like centipedes and flying cockroaches in all homes.
After a month, we moved to a concrete house on the airport road. The land around the house was barren and empty, except for an aerodrome. We had a view of the airstrip from our rear balcony and could see the planes take off and land. The daylight was short because we followed Indian Standard Time whereas the islands were 2 1/2 hours ahead of IST- so after school and homework, it was bedtime.
There was no television at that time on the islands, so we listened to the All India Radio to get the latest news from the ‘mainland.’ As there was no women to work as domestic help there, male house cleaners had to employed to do housework. Food items were available only when the supplies reached the islands by sea. Vegetables like onions and potatoes would be in ample supply to the local markets while tomatoes and other vegetables were infrequent.
Sometimes at school, many classmates would have the same vegetable in their lunch boxes, since those supplies had been received. Seafood such as jumbo prawns, eggs, bread and tender coconut (gigantic ones) were available locally and in plenty. Whenever visitors arrived, a meal had to be made from available supplies. It would typically be prawn pickle and rice or egg curry with the thinly sliced local bread, which made a perfect combination.
There was no dairy farming then in Andaman’s, so there was no supply of fresh milk and everyone had to use milk powder. It had a strange taste and one had to get used to it. To mask the taste of milk powder, many people including my mother made sweets like coconut burfi, kheer or gulab jamuns, which tasted delicious. Not everyone could adjust to powdered milk and one of the families we knew there had shipped their own buffalo to the islands!
We looked forward to the weekends, when along with family and friends we would visit numerous pristine, palm-lined beaches like Corbyn’s Cove, Wandoor beach and Chidiya Tapu. There were fewer visitors back then, so we would have these clean beaches all to ourselves. Once when picnicking on one of the beaches, we made bhel. There was a strong sea breeze, which blew the sand into the bhel and everyone actually had the ‘sand bhel’!
One day, while we were outdoors, having a picnic at a beautiful spot, we heard there was a shooting of the Hindi movie “Ek Jaan Hai Hum”. We forgot all about our picnic and we rushed to see the film stars and the shooting of the film song, which has been filmed entirely on Andaman Island.
We would take a dip in the sea, which was a treasure trove. Each wave would deposit heaps of seashells of different shapes, sizes and astounding colors not just on the beach but also at our feet. We would collect an assortment of shells and the driftwood of various shapes and sizes, which would be washed onto the shore. There would be even more snails on the beaches and they walked in large numbers everywhere. I would be terrified of these snails, would not budge from my place, and would find my way through them after dodging them somehow.
A boat ride would take us to the other picturesque islands which would be uninhabited and waiting to be explored and discovered. In the dense forest of these islands, we once came across an exceptional tree trunk, which was shaped like an elephants head! While wandering in a big group in the dense forests on Ross Island, we were split into two groups and lost our way. After what seemed like hours of walking and frantic shouting to each other, we somehow managed to find our way out and regroup.
On a visit to a hotel, we saw a replica of a Nicobari Hut (a tribal hut). It looked like a tribal hut from the outside but its interiors had modern amenities. We also visited the famous Cellular Jail, which was a colonial prison. It was an emotional moment, standing in the passageway outside the prison cell of Veer Savarkar (India’s freedom fighter).
A year went by and it was time to go back to the mainland. With a heavy heart, we went to the handicrafts emporium and got beautiful souvenirs and gifts for ourselves and loved ones- shell necklaces and earrings, a shell wall hanging, picture frames of tribal’s, cane and teak wood furniture, driftwood and conches.
Today, when I pick up one of the shells and hold it to my ear, the sound reminds me of Andaman Islands and makes me nostalgic. It also reminds me that we often tend to ignore some of the most beautiful places in India in our quest to only travel to exotic places overseas and miss the diverse culture, the charm and the mystique of our own country. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands is one place that has made a lasting impression on my mind and it truly remains the best destination I have visited in India.
Image source: beautiful landscape at Andaman and Nicobar islands by Shutterstock.
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