Friday, February 18, 2005

My rendezvous with tsunami

I have been meaning to put up my experiences in Andaman for a long while now. Had everything on paper but finally got around converting it insto electronic mode.

The trip, as everyone might have assumed, was an eventful one for us. But leaves back a very solemn feeling that all the beauty, that we fathomed, is lost and it might take a long time for Andaman to regain its hard-earned glory. Unfortunately, for most people, the thought process is why on earth would any honeymoon couple want to spend time in island of “kalapani”. And now there is a tsunami to strengthen their argument.

But Andaman experience was incredible. It was a two hour-long flight to Port Blair. The flight from Chennai was at an insane hour at 6:30 in the morning. The getting-up-early bit was a bit of a pain. But I made up for it in the 2.5 hour flight.:-)

We landed at about 9:00 am at Port Blair on 15 Dec 2004. It was a cute airport in the middle of nowhere with no enclosures. One could actually stand on the road and watch the flights land and take off or probably walk up to the runway without a problem.:-)
We had one gentleman from New India Assurance, thanks to Muthu chitappa, who took care of our travel within Port Blair. We had a chauffeur driven car through our stay to take us around within Port Blair.

We got to our Eco Resort, Palm grove Hotel. We had a room at the treetop. A shack-like suite made of wood and bamboo. At that point of time, wooden room seemed cute and different. Later, it proved to be a savior.

We relaxed in the hotel for a bit and in the late afternoon, took off on a harbor cruise for about couple of hours from Water Sports complex (which, I am not sure, exists anymore after the tsunami). Covered a small island called Viper island. This island, contrary to its name, had no vipers. Was named after a, then, governor-general Viper. The island had nothing but a pathway, which led to the gallows constructed during the British Raj.

After the cruise which got over at 6, we made it just in time for a sound and light show in the cellular jail – the very famous KalaPani that all still remember and frown upon about Andaman. Was a good show actually giving a very graphic portrayal of the atrocities induced on the prisoners by the British as seen by a fig tree which overlooks the courtyard of the jail.

Day 2 seemed to be one of the best days in the island. We were taken to North Bay Island. The place was known for colorful coral reefs and marine life. Better still, there was lot of snorkeling to do. We were first dropped on the beach in a smaller dinghy that had a transparent base so that we could see the coral reefs. Upon reaching the shore, we changed into swimming gears and got into the sea with the snorkeling equipments.
We snorkeled for more than an hour deep into the sea. Of course, there was a lifeguard who accompanied us. It was the most beautiful, incredible experience. Aqua-shows in National Geographic came as poor second. We swam over coral reefs of various sizes and shapes and colors- finger corals, cup corals, tiger fishes, anemones and other colorful fishes. My most memorable experience thus far. We spent almost all day at North Bay swimming and snorkeling. In the evening, we made it to yet another beach called Chidiya Tapu, which was known for sunset. Ideal place for S and his penchant for “winged” birds. :-)
But unfortunately, it was too late to be doing any birding as it was nearing darkness. We decided to come back another day for that.

Days seemed to pass rather fast there.Daybreak happens at around 5:00 AM and by 5 - 5:30PM its pitch dark. Day 3 started early with Port Blair Darshan. Went to the zoo first. Astonishing fact about Andaman and Nicobar islands is that there are no terrestrial predators in the islands, only wide variety of birds and raptors. We explored the cellular jail again during the day this time. Only 3 of the 7 wings remain intact and open to visitors. The others were damaged during the Japanese attack during World War II.
We visited the anthropological museum, which depicted the habits and habitats of Mongoloid and Afro tribes in Andaman. Not sure how many are extinct and how many survived the tsunami disaster though.

After the city tour, we took a ferry to Jungle Ghat harbor to get to Mt. Harriet National Park. Jungle Ghat harbor pictures, in the tsunami edition of India Today magazine, was totally broken and submerged. Anyways, Harriet was full of birds. I was pretty much a novice and hardly noticed any bird unless S spotted them and showed them to me. But the trek into the jungle was awesome and the food in the jungle rest house in Mt Harriet was even more awesome. We then got to Corbyn’s Cove beach in the evening for sunset. It was the nearest beach to our hotel, about 2.5 km.

Day 4 was an early day. Had to leave for Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park at 7-7:30. By now, I was getting used to getting up early and sleeping early. Temporary phase I told myself.:-)
The island was called Jollybuoy. The corals and marine life was as good but unfortunately there was no snorkeling, which was a slight letdown. Apparently, there used to be lot of snorkeling happening before but now stalled because tourists ended up stepping on the reefs and killing them. Evening, met up a friend Ashok from Delhi for dinner.

Day 5 and 6 were dedicated to Havelock Island. Was a slight unplanned trip but was good all the same. We assumed that we were booked to travel by the 7:30 ship to Havelock, which was a 4-hour sail. But that was not the case. We ended up taking the next ship at 2:00.
So we made another trip to Chidiya Tapu in the morning and did a lot of birding. Rather S did and I merely tagged along.:-)
Even saw a rare coucal, which was never spotted in Andaman before. We managed to board the 2:00 ship and reached Havelock after 4 hours and it was pitch dark by the time we found accommodation. The sail through the sea was most enchanting towards sunset. The changing colors of the twilight sky from blue to shades of red and orange were most breathtaking. Near our resort, there was a Goan style, shack-like, hep hotel nearby called “Wild orchid” , where we stopped for a beer. Decided to come back there for a continental breakfast the next day. Much of day 5 was wasted in traveling. Went to sleep hoping day 6 was much better. Havelock is a total Bong (Bengali) settlement.
Day 6 started with an exquisite, king-size continental breakfast with eggs, fruit salad, coconut water, fried potatoes (in mustard oil!!, thanks to the bong legacy) and tea. That made my day nonetheless.:-)

Coconut water is something I must talk about in Andaman. It is a meal in itself. One tender coconut can serve up to 4 full glasses of coconut water easily and you get them in abundance at amazingly cheap prices. Made it a mandate to have at least one everyday as long as I was there.:-)
We set out for Elephant Bay beach soon after. It was a 2 km trek to the beach through a dense forest. Needless to say, birding happened despite my attempts to stifle squeals on spotting lizards and chameleons running past along the trail in the dense forest. The beach was total bliss. Absolutely isolated with just a handful of 'firangs' sunbathing and snorkeling. S did a bit of snorkeling while I decided to relax at the shore. The corals were at shallow levels and one did not really need equipments to see them. We had already checked out of the resort before hitting elephant bay not knowing where we’d stay the following night. Was slightly troubled by the ‘on-the-streets’ situation we were in because we got accommodation in a tent resort only around 6 in the evening. In retrospect, I think it was a good time after all. The tent was on the shores of RadhaNagar Beach, which was apparently one of the best hidden-beaches of Asia. Clear blue water and white sand made us forget our ‘homelessness’ for a while. :-)
I was a little concerned about mosquitoes in the tent but did not have too much trouble. We tried some exotic Israeli food for dinner. I don’t even know if it was authentic Israeli food. It was called "Sabiq". Consisted of boiled eggs, fried brinjals (!), fried potatoes, humus and pita bread. Brinjal was a put-off so ordered the ever-dependable pasta for myself. Was not bad at all actually.:-)
I don’t know how the island survived the tsunami. But some day I would like to go back to Havelock, hire a two-wheeler and explore the island again.

Day 7 was again a heavy continental breakfast day at Jungle resort. And by 9:30, we checked out and sailed to Rangat. Was a 3-hour ship journey. The plan was to get to Mayabunder from there. Rangat is like a junction to all the important places by road in Andaman Islands. Mayabunder was in the northern tip of Middle Andaman and promised some deserted islands and beaches. It was a bumpy 3-4 hour bus ride from Rangat to Mayabunder. But it was a fascinating route through creeks and dense tropical rain forest. Here onwards, we were, in true sense, on a backpack trip. Everything from places to visit to accommodation to food was to be investigated and checked out on the spot. We, surprisingly, got accommodation in an APWD guesthouse, which had the most awesome view of the sea. It was total bliss to spend evenings watching the sea from the balcony of our room. Food was great, very home-like. Next morning on Day 8 we decided to check Avis Island, which was known to be an isolated island, was about 30 min in a dinghy from Mayabunder. It was just S and I and another couple with a child and the whole island to us. :-)
Avis Island was beautiful with corals all washed away at the shore. Even at waist deep water level, we could see the reefs. There was absolutely no need for snorkeling equipments. We walked along the shore collecting dead corals, swam about in the blue waters careful enough not to step on the corals below. Spent nearly until late afternoon in the island and got back for a nice, piping hot lunch. Spent the evening exploring the market of Mayabunder.

Day 9 was a bright sunny morning again. We decided to check out the Karmatang Beach/Eco Park in the morning before we left for Diglipur in the afternoon. It was a fascinating beach. Totally isolated and full of endemic birds and lush greenery. S spent most of the time birding while I tagged along very watchfully wary of the snake holes on the ground. I wanted to get out of there as soon as I figured that they were that. So I got back into the beach while S continued his birding undeterred.
Getting to Diglipur, situated in North Andaman, was again a 4-hour rickety bus ride along the winding Andaman trunk road through the lush rain forest. It was near darkness by the time we got there. Got accommodation again, just for a night though, at the APWD guest house of Diglipur.

Day 10, we checked out of the guesthouse. With our backpacks, we headed towards Ross and Smith Island. Visit to this isolated island required a permit from the Forest Range officer. Did not seem very difficult to get it though. Ross and Smith was the best beach I had seen in the whole of my trip and in my lifetime thus far. Ross and Smith are two different islands, which separate during high tide and join during low tide. When we got there, the tide was low, so we could walk up and back from one island to the other. White sand with palm trees along the shore and sea with different shades of blue, I had not seen anywhere else. The farthest end was navy blue, then turquoise, near the shore it was greenish blue and on the shore it was white. All colors blended like a dream. There were hammocks and tree houses amongst the palm trees so it was fun to relax and read a book. But the pleasure moments did not last too long. S spotted a viper in a small, unused boat trying to attack a small bird trapped in the boat. So had to move from that spot. We then walked along the beach on the other side of the island and were surprised the water had receded beyond the rocks totally exposing live corals along the beach. We also saw turtle footprints on the sand. December to Feb is the turtle nesting period. They all come in large numbers at night, lay eggs deep into the sand and swim off in the mornings. We got back to Diglipur at about 4:00 pm and had yet another problem to tackle, accommodation for the night. We had no choice but to stay in a lodge close to the bus stand, since we had a bus to catch at 5:00 am the next day to get to Baratang.

Day10 started early as expected to start a long ride back to Middle Andaman to get to Baratang Island. We had planned to stay a night here since there were some interesting things to do there. First being the mud volcano. Other places of interest were limestone caves about ½ hour from Baratang and Parrot hill in an island close to Baratang. To get to Baratang, we needed to cross the sea and we were just about discussing that Andaman had no bridges across islands. Suddenly we found answers to our questions. Our bus was comfortably packed into a huge boat and taken across to the island. :-)
On reaching Baratang, we figured that there was no accommodation available at all. The only mode of transport was the bus and the last bus to Port Blair was at 3:00PM. But we at least managed to see the Mud Volcano. Seen only in two other places in the world- Wyoming, US and Baku, Russia, a mud volcano is a cone of mud and clay and there is bubbling up to a few centimeters due to rise of volcanic gases. After the tsunami, the volcano, apparently, erupted up to 3 meters and there was generation of lot of heat though there was not too much cause of concern.
Was fretting towards return as to why should a 2 hour journey to Port Blair be done by 3PM. Later we figured that this was because we had to pass through the Jarawa habitat to get to Port Blair. Jarawas are one of the afro-tribes inhabiting the western coast of Middle Andaman. They are generally considered a hostile tribe. We, in fact, had an armed guard who traveled in our bus until the Jarawa stretch ended. Unfortunately, we did not get to see any tribal through the stretch. However, the Palm grove hotel owner, in one of the conversations, was saying that some junior Jarawa tribals are more friendly and spoilt. Many officials, vehicle drivers etc, along the Andaman Trunk Road, have made them addicted to chewing paan, tobacco etc, so much that the tribes agree fetch bottles of rich pure honey, resin worth 100’s of rupees in exchange for a paan.
Anyways it was Christmas day and we reached our hotel in Port Blair on time at about 7:30-8 and relaxed without any inkling on what was in store the next day.

Thus ended our backpack trip. Was reminiscing our days thus far and couldnt help reflecting the variety of things that we managed to do. Staying in treetop to lodges and tents, traveling in chauffeur driven cars to hitching rickety bus rides, eating in five star hotels to surviving on Krackjack biscuits, we had done it all. In retrospect, it was not just a relaxing honeymoon trip but enough of an adventure trip as well. And the main adventure was yet to come!!

Day 11- 26th Dec 2004- I woke up in the morning to see the whole room rocking away. Though it was milder at first, I was able to figure that this was an earthquake. I woke S and started to tell him and suddenly the rocking took a more violent shape. It shook really badly for nearly 90 sec. There was total chaos in the hotel as well. There was a fishpond outside our room where I had seen only dormant, stagnant water. When I stepped out of the room, the water in the pond was jolting up and down in waves. I guess this, on a mass scale, is what tsunami was all about. Almost immediately after the quake, electricity was cut off. At that point of time, we had not anticipated the intensity of the quake though we had a few locals abandoning their homes and taking refuge in our earthquake friendly hotel. Some guests who were scheduled to visit Havelock Island returned back because ships were cancelled.

We all got along with our regular chores, planning for the day whether to relax or visit Mt. Harriet for a longer trek. But the whole day there were some or other threats and tremors so we decided to give it a slip and go birding alongside Corbyn’s cove beach. We started walking towards the beach when some people along the road warned us of another earthquake about to happen in some time. So we headed back disappointed and were on forced arrest. With no electricity or telephone we were cut off. Only in the afternoon when S’s uncle called from Chennai, we figured this was a major quake and there is a likelihood of many casualties. Then appa called. Though there were lots of reports on Chennai’s devastation and other places around the Tamil Nadu coast, there were no reports from Andaman. The islands were totally cut off from the mainland for more than 24 hours. We heard from local people about water flooding the entire main market area of Andaman (Aberdeen Bazaar) and some people being reported injured or missing. And by late afternoon, all the water had receded from the bazaar and life seemed normal. Even in the evening news on radio, we only kept hearing about the damages in Chennai and adjoining areas. But casualties in Andaman/Nicobar were reported to be only about 15. All we did the whole day was relax and read a book or listen to the radio for more news. In the evening, we went to Corbyn’s Cove beach but the tide seemed regular. We could see at the farthest end, the ships sailing to Chennai and Calcutta. We saw a Japanese bunker at the beach and took a few photographs.

It was Day 12 when we actually got to know the intensity of the damage. Number of deaths in Andaman leapt into thousands and causing alarm for everyone there. We did not feel any different except that there were very slight tremors every now and then and life without electricity, telephone and water was turning out to be slightly difficult. We, nonetheless, checked out of Palm Grove Hotel and made our way to the airport to see if we are able to leave for Chennai in any of the rescue planes, which were supposed to run from that day. Airport was a total mess. Looked like Churchgate Station at rush hour. Women pacifying their wailing children, some men screaming at the airport officials for not running more flights. Most people refused to return to their hotels for fear of another quake or tidal wave. They were all standing at the terminal waiting for their turn to leave. Runway of Port Blair was damaged and so only smaller flights were running. Some Jet airways pilots refused to land in Port Blair because they feared that tremors could de-stabilize the landing flights so one of the flights got cancelled and that was enough to get the the whole juntato go on Dharna. There was total pandemonium.
The government was doing their best by supplying food, biscuits, water etc periodically to the tourists. Also, the neighboring hotels and restaurants supplied food stuff like khichdi etc. And still there was mad rush with people pouncing on one another to get one bottle of Bisleri water, which was anyways available in shops outside the premises of the airport. Strange is the human psychology. Perhaps, crisis and helplessness makes the sanest person irrational. Maybe I did not experience as much devastation as much as they did to reason out their behavior. I don’t know. But, there was no danger per se other than wait for your turn to get into the plane. There were 2 flights of Jet Airways and 2 IA flights to Chennai and at least double that to Calcutta. There were also rescue planes landing with bodies from Nicobar. There was a school near the airport and all the bodies were being burnt there in the playground. Air base at Nicobar was washed out. Nicobar must have lost nearly 75% of its population. But life in Port Blair was getting back to normal. One of the taxi guys had his entire family in Nicobar. When we asked him if he was able to establish contact with his people, he just gave a shrug and said, “ Hum kya kar sakte hain, sahib? Agar zinda honge tho aa jayenge”. I was dismayed as well as intrigued at the driver’s attitude. Whatever he said or didn’t say did leave a profound awakening. Calamity has struck, lives have gone, and nearest and dearest are dead. But then, life moves on…

We did not make it that day. And after 8 hours of wait at the airport the next day, we finally made it into the 4:00PM flight back to mainland with a feeling of remorse of being one of the last to perceive the beauty of Andaman suffering under the fury of Mother nature and also with a hope of visiting Andaman sometime again in future. Hopefully soon…