By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
Aalu paratha is one of my favourite dishes and to my excessive pleasure whether in Kashmir (had the unforgettable experience of having them on a shikara) or in Andaman I had the fortune to savour them; it almost always comes as a complimentary breakfast. Following the tradition, breakfast was on the house in shelter hotel at Port Blair too.
Happily fed, to the ‘North’ we headed. This was to be an interesting journey. Andaman is a conglomeration of islands. South Andaman is one big mass with a few small islands scattered around, like Ross and NorthBay that I had earlier mentioned. Baratang can be considered to be the last considerably big island in South Andaman.
To reach Baratang, one has to cross the much romanticised ‘Jarwa’ territory. Imagine a dense forest, tall trees that can be seen in tropical rain forests – reaching the sky, shrubs overburdened with wildly fragrant flowers, a slightly hilly terrain sloping down to the shores of the pristine waters. That is where they live, the Jarwa tribe.
From the city of Port Blair one needs to go past the airport towards further south and then take almost an u-turn to go northward on the Andaman Trunk Road, which runs from the north to the south and is the only arterial road for commerce and commuters. Earlier when the ATR was not completed or those times when the reserve was off limits for common use people and goods used to travel by small launches and boats to Mayabunder Jetty from Chatham or Port Blair Jetty.
As we left the city behind, the landscape started changing. First came a few houses amidst fields and then the road started getting lined by woods. The road condition was pathetic and Sanju was driving very slowly to avoid damage to the car and rolls in our stomachs. Anoushrayan and I are motion sensitive creatures.
We reached a place called Jirkatang which is where all the vehicles line up who need to go North. There is a gate here operated by the government officials. It opens four times throughout the day – 6.30am, 9.30am, 12.30 afternoon and at 15.00 hrs. An escort vehicle leads the way and all the vehicles must follow it all through the Jarwa Reserve till the Jetty where one needs to cross over on a ferry to the island of Baratang.
There is a beautiful south Indian style temple at Jirkatang on an elevation beside the road. The roadside is also lined up with Tea stalls which have a range of snacks to cater to the passengers. Toilets/washrooms are present for our convenience. A small curio shop has an interesting collection priced reasonably.
We got the 9.30am gate. For a first timer it is nothing less than an adventure, passing through a land inhabited by the dreaded Jarwa tribe. We envisioned them as an aboriginal race that hunt with bow and arrows and are fiercely hostile towards civilization.
The first 5kms are buffer zone and actually have a few settlements, mostly village homes that have been there for many decades. We were given strict instructions to not take photographs all through the reserve, it is a punishable act to the extent that we could be jailed and fined. On top of it the driver would lose his license for 10 years. The windows were to be kept rolled up.
The reserve is indeed a serene terrain to traverse through. We were going in a convoy and then it seemed to slow down. Sanju said in a hushed voice, “See see Jarwa.” We started peeping but could not see any one for some time. Then we saw a guy in sunglasses, wearing a green shirt and khaki trousers walking down the road towards our car in style. His facial structure and skin colour were the only things that made him look any different from an average Indian. He had Negroid features and a very shiny black skin.
As we moved on we saw many more Jarwas sitting by the road side, mostly women and children. Most of the adults were clothed with a very few exceptions. They were accompanied by a man from the our world. We came to know that the government has tried to post personnel along the whole length of the road that cuts through the reserve to prevent any possible contact with the Jarwas.
Many indigenous tribes have perished from coming in touch with us as their body is not immune to a couple of diseases that we can spread. Also ‘civilized’ people have the unique tendency to exploit the trusting and somewhat naive people.
Our journey through the reserve was peaceful and pleasant and also quick – the road being well maintained. We reached the jetty where a channel separates the island of Baratang from the mainland of South Andaman. The cars and buses need to queue up and buy a ticket. We got out of the car as Sanju lined it up and then went off to get the tickets.
The channel is quite wide and the flow is fast. As we were waiting at a sit out we saw the birds diving for fishes which were a plenty.
After a short while we saw a big launch coming afloat and positioning it in such a way that its rear aligns with the slope of the jetty. The launch had a huge belly where the cars and a bus rolled in. The people then percolated in – the scene was akin to salt trickling in a jar filled with pebbles. The ride was short but exciting. At the jetty on the Baratang side, the salts, I mean the people went out first then the vehicles. The whole affair is very well organised by personnel on both sides.
Food was at the top of our minds with the stomach growling. Sanju took us to a nice joint, one of its kind in Baratang. It was a bustling place with two front rooms of a two storey house converted into dining halls complete with sitting arrangements – a batch of people were eating and another batch waiting at the porch beside the road. This was a north Indian household with origins from Delhi, who had made Baratang their home decades ago. As I went to the washroom that was a clean affair at the back of the house accessible by a passage by the side of the dining hall, I got talking to the lady of the house. She got married more than 25 years ago and settled amongst these transparent people – as she calls them, on this small island amidst the pristine waters.
Her husband takes care of the front-desk while she runs the kitchen. Almost all the people who visit Baratang either for a day trip or as passerby to further north dine here and there is hardly anybody who stops over for a night and thus there aren’t very many places to put up for the night.
We quickly got our seats and the plates were laid. The menu was fixed as the footfall was too high to cater to different choices for an optimal task force. Rice ‘daal’ vegetable curries and ‘papadum’ kept coming in a sequence. One could ask for as much as the stomach would agree with, but I went beyond my capacity as it was delicious to say the least – All this for just a 120INR per plate.
We went off to check in to Dew Dale Resorts, half an hour’s drive owning to the precariously bad road condition. Dew Dale, tucked in a village by the roadside with its aesthetically designed huts to match the ambiance complete with all the modern amenities is worth an experience by itself.
Join me as we go on to explore Baratang and beyond… So long…