Leaving Paradise Can Be Hell (3 of 3) – Nicobar Islands, India

Leaving Paradise Can Be Hell Part 3 of 3

Nicobar Islands, India

Sunset over Beach No. 7 at the end of another perfect day in paradise.

Were there any downsides to paradise? There were, it must be admitted, sandflies on the beach, at times making it impossible to sunbathe, although lying in a hammock seemed to bring some protection. We were told, although this is only hearsay, that between October and Christmas there are no sandflies, so if that’s the case, these would be the ideal months to visit.

As well, diving being hard to arrange, we did go for a diving daytrip with a Punjabi ex-Indian-Navy divemaster who was technically a very competent diver, but who, despite his affinity for whiskey, could not have organized a piss-up in a brewery. We found out when we got to the dive site that we had insufficient equipment, that some of the tanks and BCDs leaked, that there weren’t enough fins and masks for the snorkellers who had come along, and that our divemaster didn’t know the dive sites.

It was the least-satisfying diving I have ever done in my life, not to mention dangerous; on both dives I had to surface almost immediately with malfunctioning equipment. Our divemaster disappeared a few days later, to be replaced by a far more competent one, a young Indian from Mauritius, but diving in the Andamans seems still, unfortunately, to be the preserve of fly-by-night cowboy operations. However, if one or two reputable dive shops were to comply with the labyrinthine Indian regulations and laws that govern diving in the Andamans, it could truly be one of the best dive areas in the world.

Havelock has acquired a reputation among Indian tourists as a must-see destination and, every Sunday, for a few hours around noon, busloads of Indians come on brief daytrips from Port Blair to admire the view, drink beer, run around shouting loudly at their children and, in the case of the men, ogle the Western women. Luckily, however, they don’t stray too far from the Tent Resort, and Beach Number 7 is long enough to find a quiet area far away from any distraction.

Lastly, the SS Minnow needed some serious engine work, as we were stranded for an hour or two on the way back from Long Island with engine trouble, and a few days later a party of tourists, along with the boss of the Jungle Resort, spent two days bobbing around at sea without a functioning engine in what could have been a dangerous situation. But these are all minor quibbles compared with the overall experience of the Andamans, one of the great tropical island paradises of the world.

It was in this relaxed, happy frame of mind that we returned to Port Blair four days before the scheduled departure of the MV Akbar to Calcutta, hoping to get our tickets quickly and then head south to explore the islands and beaches of Wandoor. Instead we found ourselves in the mad maelstrom of chasing scarce tickets.

India is said to have a love for cricket, the law and bureaucracy – all three full of niggling rules and exceptions and statistics, because Indians are exposed from birth to the mind-boggling intricacies of the caste system, with hundreds of sub-castes, scheduled castes, backward castes and tribal peoples woven together into a complex web of hierarchy. The same sort of intricacy applies to train and boat tickets; in addition to the general public quota, there are quotas of tickets for soldiers, civil servants, state corporations, VIPs, foreign tourists and even freedom fighters, the dwindling band of men and women who led opposition to the British before independence in 1947. If one quota is sold out, the key is to find out how to get a ticket from another quota. With general quota full and the prospect of an all-night vigil awaiting us, Joanne planned out a campaign to get a ticket.

We were not alone, of course, in our quest for a ticket. In addition to hundreds of Indian bureaucrats, there were dozens of backpackers like us about to pour into Port Blair from the idyllic outlying islands to compete with us for scarce tickets. It was time for decisive action. The next two days saw us on a never-ending loop, from SCI offices to the Immigration Department (where we begged for a letter ordering the SCI to provide us with tickets; we got the letter but it got us nowhere with SCI) to the Tourist Information Office (where we were told the tourist quota tickets were sold out for the next month) and back again to SCI, repeated ad nauseum. It didn’t seem to get us anywhere, but Joanne was optimistic. “The key is to impress Mr. Chand, and to stay friendly and cheerful with him. He’s the man with the magic briefcase.” And so we sympathized with Mr. Chand’s plight, stuck in an impossible situation, besieged by legions of would-be passengers, and on every visit, he became friendlier.

And, of course, Joanne was right. After two full days of running in circles in the intense tropical heat, grinning sheepishly at other backpackers tramping the same weary circuit, the decisive moment came. Mr. Chand ushered us into his office, carefully locked the door to keep out the constant stream of ticketless supplicants, and made a phone call to Mr. Das, the director. He spoke in Bengali, but we caught the English word “freedom fighter”. Then he turned, looked at us and said “We can get you two first-class tickets.”

We were effusively thankful, produced the two copies of our passports and our permits, along with three photos, handed over our 2900 rupees each (about US$60) and saw the magic briefcase open. We walked out of the office with tickets in our hand, elated that two days of pointless bureaucracy and being nice to the authorities (what the Indians call “doing the needful and necessary”) had finally paid off. Reading upside-down on the form that Mr. Chand filled out, we saw that our cabin was from the FF quota. We sailed out of Port Blair, the site of the notorious Circular Jail for anti-British protestors, as Freedom Fighters.

Of course, in the end all the anxious backpackers ended up getting boat tickets. A British couple got their tickets on medical grounds almost immediately after an auto-rickshaw ran over one of their young children. Most of the rest got bunk class tickets, a steal at only 980 rupees (US$20). On the last day the police were called in to quell riots in the ticket queue, and the SCI stopped selling tickets to the general public. And, speaking of riots, there was very nearly another one as we were waiting to board the boat as the crowd surged forward to be first in line for the “medical examination” stamp on our ticket. The hefty policemen in charge of crowd control resorted to generous use of their nightsticks to control the situation; none of the Indians appeared surprised by this development.

The cruise back to Calcutta, after all this, was a quiet anti-climax; we missed a huge school of dolphins (again) and spent much of the trip snoozing, playing ping pong or reading in our cabin, trying to ignore the noise from the next cabin where a hyperactive 5-year-old spent the journey bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball on speed. Less than 3 days after embarking, we were in Calcutta, watching another scene of mass hysteria as people fought to be the first off the boat. So many people were crowded onto the shore side of the ship that it heeled over and banged into a dock crane, mangling the railing of the top deck. We were surprisingly glad to step back into the urban furnace of Calcutta and reach solid ground.

The moral of the story? If you find yourself on a long visit to India, outside the monsoon months of June to September, make room in your schedule for the Andaman Islands. Spend time out on Havelock or Long Islands, but, whatever you do, if you are hoping to travel back to the mainland by boat, remember to make your reservations for the return journey as soon as you arrive, before you leave Port Blair. Otherwise, your departure from paradise will be more hellish than you might have expected.

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