It took a moment for the clerk's words to sink in. Joanne was first to react. "You mean the boat is completely sold out? There are no tickets at all?” The ticket clerk waggled his head from side to side in the Indian gesture of assent. "But we HAVE to leave on this boat! Our permits are about to expire!” He had heard it all before. "You should come in two days when government quota is finished and maybe there will be tickets." And with a final waggle of the head we were dismissed.
Joanne and I were in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a string of tropical islands off the Burmese coast belonging, anomalously, to India. We had blown our budget flying there from Calcutta, and, after a month on the beach, we were trying to buy a cheaper boat ticket back. It was clearly not going to be straightforward. The main problem was that boats only sailed every week or so, and if we didn’t catch the next boat to Calcutta, our 30-day permits would expire. This would leave us in serious trouble with the Indian authorities, who take a dim view of anyone doing anything in the sensitive frontier area of the Andamans without jumping through the official hoops. In triplicate. In the office with us was a couple who had arrived from Calcutta for a second month-long visit to the Andamans on the same six-month Indian visa. Since this violated a little-known government regulation, they had been arrested and were now pleading to be sent back on the boat they had arrived on.
Of course, this being India, "sold out" means nothing of the sort. Joanne, a veteran of four years in Moscow, knows a thing or two about getting past official obstructionism. Looking around, she spotted a senior official of the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) disappearing into his office with a heavy padlocked briefcase, the sort of briefcase that could hold 1400 boat tickets. We asked if we might have a word with this Mr. Chand, and soon we were in his office, explaining our case. I let Joanne do all the talking; being blonde and beautiful counts for a lot in dealing with middle-aged bureaucrats.
Mr. Chand outlined the problem to us. On April 1st, as we had been happily snorkelling away on Middle Button Island, schools in the Andamans had let out for summer vacation. Hundreds of teachers, all sent from Calcutta and Chennai on two-year "hardship postings" to the Andamans, were hell-bent on returning to the mainland, with their families, for some "civilization". A whopping 80% of the available tickets are set aside for the civil servant ticket quota, and all of these had been reserved. Over the next two days, teachers and bureaucrats holding reservations had to appear in person to pay for them; otherwise the tickets would go back into the general public quota and would be available on the day before sailing. Mr. Chand thought the line-up for these last-minute tickets might start the night before they went on sale. We gloomily contemplated the prospect of sleeping out in an Indian ticket queue.
It was a stark change of pace after the most relaxed month I have ever spent anywhere. There are hundreds of islands in the Andamans, but only a few are open to foreign tourists. The rest are either homelands for dwindling indigenous tribes, bases for the Indian military (for what, we wondered – invading Burma or Sumatra?) or uninhabited and closed to everyone. The most popular tourist islands are Neil, Long and Havelock. Having heard great things about Havelock, we had gone straight there the weekend we arrived in Port Blair, imprudently not waiting for Monday to put our name on the tourist quota list for Calcutta boat tickets. "Do we need to reserve tickets in advance?" we had asked all and sundry. "There is no need; just come back one or two days before the boat sails and there will surely be tickets." Not.
But I digress. Havelock Island, two and a half hours northeast of Port Blair, wildly exceeded our expectations. Formerly uninhabited, it has been settled over the last 40 years by Hindus who left East Pakistan, and later Bangladesh, as refugees and were resettled by Indira Gandhi's government in the Andamans. This must be the best deal refugees have received anywhere in recent memory. Reflecting this lack of history, the villages and beaches are numbered, not named; we caught a rickshaw from the ferry dock to Beach No. 7, and barely left its friendly confines for the next month.
A lot of ink is spilled in travel magazines looking for the perfect tropical beach. I haven't seen all the contenders, but in my seven years of Asian ramblings, nothing has compared to Beach No. 7. Picture a gently-curving 4-km stretch of sand so white it dazzles the eyes, backed by a tropical rainforest straight out of The Hobbit. In the early morning the water is as calm as a swimming pool, beckoning blue-green under a cloudless tropical sky. At either end the sand finally runs into rock outcrops, outliers of the limestone cliffs that rise just inland; offshore the rocks support coral reefs tailor-made for snorkeling. In one 15-minute stretch out there one morning, I ran into a turtle, three different types of ray, a sea snake, several rock lobsters and an octopus. In the sandy centre of the bay, more rays glided gracefully over the grasses dotting the seafloor, clearly visible from the surface. A dugong, an endangered and endearingly ugly marine mammal, made an appearance most days; everybody except us seemed to see it at least once during their stay. From time to time turtles come in from the open ocean to lay eggs in the sand of Beach No. 7 and its neighbours. The only sounds disturbing the peace are the screeches of parakeets and kingfishers and the crash of the waves, perfect for bodysurfing, that kick up most afternoons.
Of course a beach is more than just idyllic nature. There are two small places to stay on the beach, and another nearby in the village. Joanne and I chose the Tent Resort, where 300 rupees ($10) a night got us a huge canvas tent with electricity, fan and a clean bathroom.
Life quickly settled into a routine: awoken by parakeets in the early morning, we would have a swim in the glassy ocean, then retire to the village for a delicious, cheap breakfast of fresh tropical fruit and banana pancakes with honey. A morning spent lounging on the beach or snorkelling would be followed by lunch in the huge elevated gazebo restaurant at the Tent Resort. More suntanning, swimming, reading, writing or beachcombing would follow, and soon Joanne would announce "Time to buy limes and tonics," and I would scurry off to the village. Mixed with enough ice-cold tonic water and lime, the local rotgut gin was quite palatable. Then it was time to watch the sun set over the ocean and wander down the beach to the nearby Jungle Resort for a seafood dinner and a few games of cards. As ways of life go, this wasn't bad.
However even beach bums do not live by food, suntanning and gin-and-tonics alone. Occasionally we would develop itchy feet. We rented motor scooters to explore the island, but as they frequently lacked important components like brakes and starters, we gave up after a couple of crashes. We did manage to reach Elephant Beach, several coves to the north, to snorkel and to explore its mangrove swamps teeming with crabs.
An excursion further afield was a boat trip to uninhabited Middle Button Island in the Jungle Resort's version of the SS Minnow. We had heard about Middle Button from a yachtie who had moored off Number 7 and come ashore for supplies and a few beers. He was a retired Mountie from Vancouver and he said that, having spent 7 years sailing around the world, visiting the Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, Tahiti, Fiji and most points in-between, Middle Button was the best snorkelling he'd ever done. We were skeptical, but when we went to see for ourselves, we were captivated. The water was preternaturally clear, with every detail of the fish and seashells perfectly visible from the boat through 15 metres of water. The hours we spent swimming around the pristine reefs sped past unnoticed; never had we seen such a variety of coral and, especially, of conch, cowrie and helmet shells. A pile of empty shells signalled a hungry octopus somewhere in the neighbourhood, but search as we might under coral ledges, we couldn't find him, although we did encounter a few morays. We followed lion and scorpion fish, and floated above clouds of brightly-coloured parrotfish, fusiliers, Moorish idols and clown anemonefish. The only downer was returning to the boat to discover that, while we had been snorkelling, a school of 60 dolphins had passed by and the people on the boat had been unable to get our attention.
We also dropped by Long Island, another favourite tourist spot. Here the attraction is not the beach, long and white though it may be. Backpackers, particularly Israelis, come here to live out Robinson Crusoe castaway fantasies. Being able to pitch a tent in a small, sheltered alcove in the forest edge established by previous groups of campers, string a hammock between two trees and laze away a week or three playing guitar, barbecuing fresh fish or doing absolutely nothing appeals to many backpackers. On the other hand the amount of time spent gathering firewood, collecting water, cooking and generally surviving is large, and so lazy travellers, such as Joanne and I, choose to spend our time on Havelock, paying others to do these tasks for us.
Were there any downsides to paradise? There were, it must be admitted, sandflies on the beach, sometimes making sunbathing impossible, although lying in a hammock seemed to bring some protection. SCUBA diving in the Andamans seems still, unfortunately, to be the preserve of fly-by-night cowboy operations. We had a bad experience and gave up on it in favour of snorkelling. Lastly, the SS Minnow was far from reliable; we were left adrift for an hour or two on the way back from Long Island with engine trouble, and a few days later a party of tourists spent two entire days bobbing around at sea without a functioning engine. But these are minor quibbles compared with the overall experience of the Andamans, one of the world’s great tropical island paradises.
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, hoping to purchase tickets quickly before heading south to the islands and beaches of Wandoor. Instead we were sucked into a mad maelstrom of bureaucracy.
Indians are said to have a love for cricket, the law and bureaucracy – all full of niggling rules and exceptions and statistics—through being exposed from birth to the intricacies of the caste system, with hundreds of sub-castes, scheduled castes, backward classes and tribes woven together into a tangled web of hierarchy. The same complexity applies to train and boat tickets; in addition to the general public quota, there are ticket quotas 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.
We were not alone in our quest. In addition to hundreds of Bengali bureaucrats, there were dozens of backpackers flooding into Port Blair from outlying islands to compete with us for scarce tickets. Decisive action was called for. 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; the letter got us nowhere with SCI) to the Tourist Information Office (where we were told the tourist quota was booked solid for the next month) and back again to SCI, repeated ad nauseum. We didn't seem to be making progress, but Joanne remained optimistic. "The key is Mr. Chand. We have to win him over. He's the man with the magic briefcase." And so we commiserated with his plight, stuck in an impossible situation, besieged by legions of would-be passengers, and on every visit he became friendlier.
Joanne was right. After two days of running in circles in the tropical heat, grinning sheepishly at other backpackers doing the same thing, the decisive moment came. Mr. Chand ushered us into his office, locked the door to keep out the hordes of ticketless supplicants, and phoned his boss. After a brief conversation in Bengali, he turned to us and said "We can give you two first-class tickets."
We were effusively thankful, handed over photocopies of our passports and our permits, three photos and 2900 rupees ($100) each and saw the magic briefcase open. We walked out, tickets in hand, elated that two days of pointless bureaucracy and being nice to the authorities, what Indians call "doing the needful and necessary", had paid off. Reading the form Mr. Chand filled out, we saw that our cabin was from the FF quota. We sailed out of Port Blair as Freedom Fighters.
In the end all the backpackers got boat tickets. A British couple got theirs on medical grounds after an auto-rickshaw ran over one of their children. Most of the rest got bunk class tickets, a steal at only 980 rupees ($30). How did these tickets magically appear? On the last day the police were called in to quell riots in the ticket queue, and the SCI stopped selling to the general public; that afternoon Mr. Chand sold them to the backpackers instead.
The cruise back to Calcutta was a quiet anti-climax. Joanne and I missed a huge school of dolphins (again) and spent much of the trip snoozing or reading in our cabin, trying to ignore the noise from next door where a hyperactive 5-year-old was bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball on speed. Three days later we stood on the upper deck watching a scene of mass hysteria as people fought to be the first ashore. We were surprisingly glad to disembark into the urban furnace of Calcutta.
The moral of the story? If you’re in India, make room in your schedule for the Andaman Islands. By all means spend time out on Havelock or Long Island, but remember to make your reservations for the return journey before you leave Port Blair. Otherwise, your departure from paradise will be more hellish than you might like.