Port Blair … Havelock Island … Ross Island … Aberdeen Jetty … Neil Island … Corbyn’s Cove … Harriet’s Mount … Chatham Saw Mill. The Andamans didn’t sound Indian to me, nor even British. I rather remembered Singapore, where almost every stretch has an English name.
But I’m just saying. I’ve no quarrel with names and nationalities.
At Barefoot Resort on Havelock Island they asked me to take off my sneakers before climbing up to reception. A sign outside their restaurant asked the same. “Is why we’re called Barefoot,” they said.
Leaving my footwear at the steps was a good idea at my cottage. I took in no sand from the beach. (I only walk on dry sand. Go sneer.)
The resort leads out to Radhanagar Beach number 7. It’s a wide beach in a smooth arc and it’s a 30-minute brisk walk end to end. The ends are marked by a smattering of black pitted rocks. I didn’t climb over the rocks to see what’s on the other side. The Barefoot stretch was enough beach for me, where there were never more than six humans at a time. There were countless translucent crabs, though, but they were ever hurrying into their half-inch-wide holes, letting me be in my shell.
At five in the morning on the beach, it was just me and very early light. At five in the evening, there were more than one person on the sands. The day begins and ends sooner here than at home, even if the two share the same timezone. The islands are some sixteen-hundred kilometres east from the meridian on the mainland that marks Indian Standard Time.
I abandoned the beach during the length of the day. An Amazon Kindle in hand, reading The Jewel in the Crown, I let the heat and the wet and the unfailing courtesies of the Barefoot staff melt me. They never turned down a request: Can you cut the two-day lead-time for laundry to one? Yes, sir. Can you move me to that other cottage? Sure, sir. Can you give me a check-out at 2:00? I can manage 1:00, sir.
Rakhee, the senior staff at reception, came over and spoke Kannada with me. But I’m a proper Kannadiga, so I answered her in my best English.
Tall trees overhang the length of the shoreline and their canopies glow green and golden all the way. A good number of them are the Andaman Redwoods (padauk), broad and round and grainy, high and straight and robust. Precious, but, thank god, you cannot export unprocessed timber out the Andamans.
“We’ve no tigers on these islands. No leopards. No cheetah. But we have 48 types of snakes. So you can use this.”
A 4-inch torch with translucent body. When lit, the body glows white as well. It was the welcome-gift they gave at check-in, with an assurance:
“You won’t come across a snake. But if you see it, just stand there. It’ll go off.”
At night, the white torchlights continually approached the restaurant from three sides, making slow studious progress on tame jungle tracks. But when their owners emerged from the pitch dark they revealed untroubled faces. I remember one guest. He stood outside and shone his light on the stilt below. “Saab hai? Saab hai?” a waiter urged to know from the deck. The man didn’t answer; he looked on into the light he’d made. “I don’t think there’s a snake there,” the waiter said gently, after a long respectful pause. The guest came in eventually, still not saying what he’d seen. A deliberate, thoughtful man, with rotund face covered in plentiful hair.
Back in the room the housekeeping boys had forgotten their logbook. I couldn’t help reading the open pages, where several entries noted missing towels, and:
Room #05: Romantic dinner was done and decration.
Room #05: in bed sheet got blood stains. also both towels.
The Andamans are a favoured destination for honeymooners. I felt respect for people who wait until Havelock to consummate.
From anywhere in the archipelago you return to Port Blair to get out. It’s a town like any other in India.
“But why is it so much cleaner?”
“Central government rule,” the Barefoot Taxi driver said en route the airport. “They clean up. People respond. Chain reaction.”
Neat. The driver’s name was Netaji. After the patriot who planted the tricolour for the first time (it is said) on Indian soil.
“How’s it so that all Andaman people are so sweet like you?”
I didn’t ask him that. A nice tip seemed better. He was shy to take it.