By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
It grew dark as we whiz past the jetty in Sanju’s car and as we were passing by the harbour front road with the sea on one side and a hill slope on the other, I wished if we could stay nearby and the wish came true! The Shelter Hotel is on the base of the hill slope which houses the Cellular Jail. The ‘honeymoon suit’ as they call it is just another double bedded room with a clean attached bathroom; but the balcony is a love affair for sure. It has a moderately good sit out option facing the sea, right across the road.
We freshened up and went out, heading for the ‘sound and light’ show at the cellular jail at 9pm. We needed to grab our dinner before that somewhere on the way. The road by the sea is both delightful and a bit scary for first timers like me, though the railings bracing the footpath were mostly present, the once that were broken did pose a danger. The breeze from the sea was strong and we felt the chill. There weren’t too many pedestrians or vehicles at this hour. At a junction the road bifurcated, one branched up the hill and we followed.
A short way up was the Cellular Jail, all lighted up. We got the tickets.
Our road went on bypassing the Cellular Jail and going down to meet that road which had continued straight on from the bifurcation. We went down that way and found a road side arena decorated with lights and umbrellas with many fast food stalls and sitting arrangement, we got some of it for dinner. The waterfront has many options for dinning. This is an interesting place, and is just a walk away from Aberdeen Bazaar. We explored this area after coming back from North Andamans.
The sound and light show brings alive the sufferings of the prisoners, the cruelty of the Jailer with dramatic narration and inspiring songs.
We came out with a heavy heart but the breeze and the distant lights in the dark, the huge Indian flag hoisted at the tip of the waterfront brought back the lively mood as we walked back to the hotel. Rajib and I sat in the balcony late into the night watching the ships anchored in the harbour. Some had dim lights, few had bright, and we could even see small boats sailing in the light of the stars. It was beautiful, mystic.
We almost started the day on the balcony again, we means me and Rajib, Anoushrayan as I have said earlier has eyes for only kindle; he came, he saw and said a brief nice before rushing back to his beloved.
Luckily to our left was the fresh catch fish market, so we got a glimpse of a lively merchandise exchange. A boat was anchored at the opening of the wall / railing on the footpath. It had many varieties of fishes which had been caught fresh. The boatmen, two of them were busy segregating them and they didn’t finish until we left for our day tour, which would be about an hour. The retail sellers were mostly women in their brightly coloured sarees. People came in small and big cars, all residents of Port Blair. Some bought directly from the boat man as the ladies were busy setting up their shops. Some were waiting patiently and slowly the place that had a quite sleepy start was bustling with activity.
The plan was to see the museums and enjoy some water sports. We didn’t go for water sports in Havelock, which was definitely a mistake we realised later. I was particularly interested about the sea walk which didn’t need any swimming or diving experience. But we came to know only after reaching North Bay Island that it has been stopped after some unfortunate incidents.
Sanju, who by now had almost become a chauffeur, was ready at the gate. We drove off to the island of Chatham, which is connected by a land bridge over the sea. Chatham is where the felled trees are cut into sizes as is in demand and sent out to far far away lands on ships. Chatham is where the first and the second penal settlements were established. Chatham is where the 200 prisoners first landed on 10th March 1858. The date is still celebrated as the foundation day of Port Blair and those prisoners are considered the ancestors of modern residents of Andaman.
At Chatham one needs to buy tickets to enter through the gate, there is a nice little museum stuffed with photographs with information on various important things and places and people of Andaman and Nicobar. It has many beautiful articles on display, majority being things made of the famous ‘Padouk’ wood that is indigenous to the Andamans. At a time only 20 people are allowed inside.
//——–We saw many Padouk trees on our journey to Baratang and further north to Rangat and Diglipur, but could not identify even one on my own, however hard Sanju tried to educate me.—–//
Then there is the bunker to hide from the Japanese bombing, the huge ditch created by the Japanese bomb that fell on Chatham and mostly destroyed it and last but not the least one gets a walkthrough of the saw mill. Huge bundles of logs, huge machines to cut and polish them, it is a fascinating place and definitely not that one gets to see on a day to day basis. It is not a tourist destination by definition, but an amazing experience.
The curio shop has items made of the Padouk wood, it has the cheapest and the best collection in town. We bid farewell to this historic island with loads of souvenir to visit another, Ross Island. The motor boats take 6 / 7 passengers, first to Ross then to North Bay and back to Port Blair. While Ross is where the Brits had their headquarters, living quarters, entertainment arena which is all in ruins now, having been captured by the Japanese for a brief period and then finally abandoned; North Bay is for water sports ranging from scuba diving to visiting the marine life in submarines.
Ross Island has many things for the ones like us who are interested in ruins. It has a haunted feeling about it. It also has peacocks and deer roaming about. Beware the coconut is way too expensive in Ross. From Ross we went to North Bay.
Since underwater sea walking was not possible, we wanted to opt for Scuba. The norms don’t allow diabetics and hypertensive to go scuba diving thus we sat on the shores as Anoushrayan took the dip. It is expensive at 3500INR per person. The experience was not so great for my child as his braces hurt against the mouthpiece. We found many oldies with sugar and pressure taking the plunge not withstanding any warnings and coming out clean. We also saw many young girls and boys failing the test that is mandatory (to be able to follow basic instructions) before diving in.
One can go snorkelling, which is open to all as it doesn’t take one deep down but once again Havelock would be a better place to try all these.
Lunch was a quick affair on North Bay in one of the make shift shacks but it was good to taste.
We were transferred to a submarine parked a little way into the sea by a motor boat; though there is a great deal of marine life to be enjoyed and the boat belly where we were seated was taken very close to the bottom of the sea exposing a multitude of corals and fishes and plants; the sapiens inside the belly were too noisy and unsettling in contrast to the vibrant calm outside. I puked and realised that land, plain land not mountains not on fast moving vehicles – is where I belong, neither the sky nor the oceans.
The moment the submarine ride ended we were almost snatched off and ushered into our motor boat, our co-passengers were a tolerant lot muttering the grudges only under their breath, in the morning they had to wait for us for a whole 2 hrs, while we took our time at the Chatham saw mill, in the afternoon another two as they didn’t engage in any sports. That is how they gather the passengers; 2 here 2 there to make 6 or 7 in all, our co-passengers where a family of 4 so they had to wait for us 3.
Once back on the island of Port Blair we rushed to the Anthropological Museum, as all museums close by 5pm and we had just about an hour to spare. It is a fine building which houses many artefacts that the different tribes of Andaman and Nicobar have been using since time immemorial. We also saw the models / photographs of the men women and children, belonging to different tribes that were and are residents of the Andamans. But the most interesting was the model of the boat called the outrigger canoes. It helped these people to brave the seas, then and even today. Photography is strictly prohibited inside the museum.
By now we were hungry as a hippo. We had only grabbed a cucumber at the waterfront after de-boarding the boat; the most expensive cucumber I have had in my life. All through Andamans cucumbers are extensively expensive, most other food items raw or cooked are not. The auto dropped us at Aberdeen Bazaar and we walked through the busy streets lined with shops on both sides. We found a good looking restaurant, had our fill, bought some cheap tshirts written Andaman and Nicobar on it of varying sizes and colours for ourselves.
The next day we were supposed to head on to Baratang, so we picked up some cash and bakery stuff. In Andaman we had to fish out cash everywhere except The Taj. We picked a few souvenirs on the way back to the hotel and skipped dinner. Once again we enjoyed sitting in the balcony and gazing out at the lights from the ships and the stars and the dark waters and the light house that stood at the edge of the island opposite to us, for the last time.