Havelock Island, Andaman Sea
"We've no tigers on these islands. No leopards. No cheetah. But we have 48 types of snakes, so please use this," they said.
Port Blair, Havelock Island, Ross Island, Aberdeen Jetty, Neil Island, Corbyn's Cove, Harriet's Mount, Chatham Saw Mill. The Andaman Islands evoked Singapore for me, that city that's littered with British names across the entire island.
I'm just saying. I'm okay with retaining a few names that serve to recall times past.
At Barefoot Resort on Havelock Island, they asked me to take off my sneakers before climbing up to the reception. A sign outside their restaurant demanded the same. "Is why we're called Barefoot," the folks clarified.
Leaving my footwear at the bottom of the steps was a good idea at my cottage. I took no sand in from the beach. (I stay on dry sand. I'm that category of Indian.) All cottages, the reception, and the restaurant are built of wood and thatch and set on stilts.
The resort gives to Radhanagar Beach—clean and quiet, offering a 30-minute brisk walk end to end. Sudden outcrops of black, pitted rocks mark each end. On the southern edge, a jungly headland juts out into the sea. I didn't make the effort to see what's on the other side of the rocks. The Barefoot stretch was enough beach for me, where there were never more than a half-dozen humans at a time. There were countless translucent crabs, ever hurrying into their half-inch-wide holes.
At five in the morning on the beach, it was just me and the early light. A half dozen appeared at sunset, and stayed on the edge of the water, wetting just the feet. The day begins and ends sooner here than at home, at Bangalore, although the two share the same timezone. These 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. Kindle in hand, reading The Jewel in the Crown, I let the heat and the wet and the courtesies of the Barefoot staff melt me. The folks 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. She was working in Bangalore just before this present job. Being a proper Kannadiga, I replied in (and kept up) the best English I could muster.
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 you cannot export unprocessed timber out the Andamans. We do a rare sensible thing such as this in India.
"We've no tigers on these islands. No leopards. No cheetah. But we have 48 types of snakes, so please use this." They said this to cheer me upon arrival and handed me a 4-inch torch with a translucent body. When lit, the body glowed white as well. With that, they assured me: "You won't come across a snake. If you see one, just stand. It'll go off."
Of course. The serpent might go; damn fear won't.
At night, the white torchlights continually approached the restaurant from along three walkways, making halting progress. When the torch-owners emerged from the pitch dark, they showed untroubled faces. I remember one guest. He stood outside and shone his light between the stilts below. "Saab hai? Saab hai?" a waiter called from the deck. The man didn't answer; he stared into his oval of light. "I don't think there's a snake there," the waiter said gently, after a long respectful pause. The guest came in eventually, thoughtful, not saying what he'd seen—a deliberate, thoughtful man, with a round hirsute face.
One afternoon, back in the room, the housekeeping boys had forgotten their logbook, open at the last entry. I couldn't help reading it. Most entries noted missing towels, and there was one of this:
Room 05: Romantic dinner was done and decration (sic).
Room 05: in bed sheet got blood stains. Also both towels.
The Andamans are a favoured destination for honeymooners. I felt respect for those who hold off until Havelock to consummate.
From anywhere in the archipelago you return to Port Blair to get out. Which is a town like any other in India, but this one was a lot cleaner.
"How is it so clean?"
"We have Central Government rule," the taxi driver said en route the airport. "They clean up. People respond. Chain reaction."
The driver's name was Netaji. After the patriot who planted the tricolour for the first time on these islands.
"How's it that Andaman people are so nice? Like you?"
I didn't ask him that. A tip is better, I decided. He was shy to take it.