Our next stop in the Andamans, from Port Blair, was Havelock, a promise of a lot of water activities, snorkeling, coral and colorful fish. Also, the day my mom needed her anti-rabies booster, after being bitten by a feral dog three days before our trip began. Siddharth, our tour manager, had said we would have no complains at the place we stayed in Havelock, and he was right about that.
The nature lodge in Havelock was just pure goldly!! It was TSG Blue Resort, with cabins nesting in tropical flora close to woods, lovely wooden interior. Good food, a little slow in service for snacks or coffee, but hey, its an island. In the island between hotel to port we had a vehicle at our disposal again. Within Havelock you can hire two-wheelers, if you have any license to show, and drive around the island. There is little public transport in the form of buses and I think if you have a week or so in the island, they can be used, but not in a time crunch.
To get to Havelock island, we took a spiffy big ferry called the Makruzz that takes the shortest time to get there, is air conditioned and was built in Japan, I think. Their repeating video will inform you if it wasn’t made in Japan as it tells you about its features. An impressive boat, but it took us more than an hour of waiting in various places to get on it. It’s a good ride once you are on. They provide you with a seat number and actually check reservation before you board, so make sure you get the seat numbers in a printed form.
Swimming gear that is not a pain to change into or out of. A coverall, or kaftan if you don’t want to stand out too much. Most beaches have a changing room including the Elephant beach, but it is wise to be prepared to not having them available. A lot of sunscreen. Not many bugs that I can remember on or around the beaches, if planning a forest hike bug spray would be needed. A daybag- that can fit water, wet clothes, towel, sunscreen and if needed whatever optics you are carrying. A MUST for people with sensitive feet , or who don’t want to have bleeding feet: water shoes.. They are not too expensive, especially in the US, I am not sure how available they are in India, but anything like the Vibrams that are close fitting with good grips will do you wonders. Bring your own snorkeling gear if you have it!!
Through the nearly two hours on the Makruzz, we had something else on our minds: I had talked to our tour managers and they had taken her prescription to get her the vaccine, and promised they would get it for her. All we could do was hope they came through..
After the ferry ride and transfer to the TSG Blue eco-resort I rested a while in our neat cottage and decided to try and get some birding done. But alas, because of shortage of gas and the absence of a license (or the ability to drive a two-wheeler), I could not make good on the suggestions Nikhil (from Enchanted India.com) had made to go to beach no. 5 to see kingfishers (the beaches there are called by their numbers). I hope someone, some day, does read this and go there or get a tour through them. I did walk around the fields close to the hotel, on the narrow street edges looking for sparrows: white rumped munia, he had said the fields have them and they did, albeit, quite far, so no photos worth anything. I saw swallows swerving pretty close and fast and olive-backed sunbirds. A shrike on the telephone wires. And finally, a rose-breasted parakeet! I think the hiking path to the Elephant beach (instead of taking the boat) is highly recommended for birding as well.
The next morning at Havelock started out great, we went on a short boat ride to a small beach called Elephant beach, where they used to train elephants. We had met other members of the tour group by then, and my mom had been chatting with some of them, another family visiting with their son from Andhra Pradesh. Then there were two women with a young girl, one of their daughters visiting from Coorg. On the trip to the Elephant beach it was limit 6 people in a boat and a five minute trial for snorkeling, included in package. So if people liked it, they could go on a longer paid deeper into the ocean, but still quite close to the beach.Andaman and Nicobar islands are of volcanic origin and the corals are fringe corals (as opposed to reef corals, like in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef). So, they start pretty much right of the shore. I was set on doing it, even if their equipment, I must say, was not the best. However, they held your hand the entire time if you chose the longer 30 min snorkeling, and made a video and took photos, burnt a CD and gave you for 600 rupees. I did keep getting water in my mouth and needed to take the mask off to tip it. But what I saw in the waters, so clear made it all worth it. Beautiful, and a variety of, live coral and wonderful fish, they guy took quite a decent video of the fish and coral, I will upload that at some point (with a premium plan). But HIGHLY recommended.
We went on a glass bottom boat ride too, which I would pass the next time, but since my parents can’t swim (and if the equipment had been ok, they wouldn’t have needed to, as the guides literally take you into the ocean) this was a way to take them to see some coral and fish through the glass bottom. We were back early evening and the trip had begun taking its toll on my mom. It is hot and humid and mom spent a long time in the ocean! Despite the sharp coral in the ocean bed.. She always makes the most of what she has. Always.
On the other hand, there was a communication breakdown somewhere, the vaccine never made it to Havelock and the island hadn’t had a case of rabies for decades. They didn’t have the vaccine at all in stock! After all the time, and emails and phone calls I had made, I had known all along that the exact day ( I forget if it was the 7th day or what) all the doctors said it should be given, my mom won’t be able to get the shot. We were in the middle of nowhere. She is made of strong stuff in general, but no one can conquer stress and high blood pressure and she was a little worried about missing the shot. I asked her to sleep and rest for the rest of the day.
Eventually, one of the managers did indeed buy the vaccine for her when we were back in Port Blair and mom and I walked the roads, looking like desperate urchins, to beg any open clinic to give my mom the shot. We found a small hospital, the doctor was in surgery or somewhere, the nurse reluctant at first, went to check with the doctor after I showed her the picture of the prescription (which at least should have back with me but somehow our manager had got left behind in Havelock and had the actual one in his bag!). But we had the picture and the nurse was actually nice. She said it would be fine and not to worry. Didn’t charge even. We thanked her heartily, I was close to tears.
Havelock, despite the constant stress about the anti-rabies shot, was still wonderful.
Before sunset on that first whole day as mom rested, dad and I decided to walk the 10 min to the Radhanagar beach, the 7th ranked beach in southeast Asia, ranked by TIME magazine. I am not a beach person, but in late evenings, I do like the breeze and the moon, clouds and stars. The beach has white sand and in terms of India, not that many people. And literally all of them leave after sunset. There was a gargantuan Indian Navy ship right by the shore! It was in all my sunset shots and it took me a moment to realize that this, this was the complete shot of an Andaman beach. Gorgeous sunset, an army presence linking the past to the present and lovely waves.. We hung around when everyone had left and sat on a beach log. We had started walking back when I saw mom heading towards the beach. She looked recovered and then, the three of us decided to hang around in the peaceful beach and went back to sit on that log. There was no one else in the world for me, the waves, ma and baba and I. The sand held our shadows, together in a huddle.
Next day, we spent most of the time getting back to Port Blair. And adventure and luck played its due part, there was a strike due to looming fuel/ gasoline shortage in the island. Being an island with a lot of cars, the Andamans depend on the mainland for gasoline, and there was something to do with costs and who (which ships) could bring the gasoline to the island and government intervention, that had led to serious shortage in fuel. Our boat drivers had fuel left for only one more ride and that’s their livelihood. People were afraid of some kind of a block on the streets as all the taxi drivers, driving us to the port from the hotel, had been told by the union to stop service. They still drove us as we needed to get to the ferry to head back. We had a superbly professional driver who kept talking on the phone dealing with the crisis as he drove, calming people or leading them as needed. Dad was worried about small riots breaking out. But the Makruzz left normally, the ocean was rough, but we made it back in one piece.
Our final outing was on a boat to the North Bay island, where we were to do some undersea walking: one of those activities that are only there in few parts of the world and for which you wear a heavy helmet attached to a long able bringing you the oxygen to the 10 m depth you go down to. My mom was very excited to walk on the sea bed, but when dad found out that people with high blood pressure are advised not to do this, he didn’t want to take a chance. He was excited for me. Mom has high BP too, but only when we got on the stationary float like thing, their “station” from where we would get in, they said that they do not allow people older than 55 yrs of age doing this. It was a new regulation and mom usually undeterred by such things, reluctantly decided to listen. People other than us were disappointed and wanted to know why the tour managers had not informed us of the fact and not offered an alternative since we had paid for this excursion in the package. My parents decided to go on a Dolphin boat ride with magnifying glass in the bottom, similar but improved tech from the glass bottom. Way more expensive and not worth it if the water is not clear. One advice: Just don’t do it! North bay is not even close to being as clear as the Elephant beach(just like the guides there had told us) and it is not worth the boat ride. The undersea walking was pretty cool, the drivers literally take you down, and I had been a fool to think I wouldn’t be able to clear by ear pressure. I thought something happens to you under that much pressure and you can’t use your own hands to hold your nose and expel air out the ears. But nothing did, brains work under water when there is an experience diver right next to you and with practice even without, I am sure. I am going to scuba dive in normal depths whenever I can. Yay.. We fed the colorful fish and they take tiny nips on the skin, that may have fazed the others, because one of the divers gave me the entire food pack (presumably no one else wanted it) and I was swarmed by those fish, I think it was surgeonfish. He caught a fish and handed it over to me, probably sensing my excitement right through the helmet! I held a live (f)wish in the ocean in my hands! Pretty cool.
I also did another round of snorkeling, this time, with a guide who pointed out the fish and the sea urchins (that I found out later, are venomous if they sting) and the types of coral. We saw other surgeonfish, sweetlips, and finger coral, soft coral. I touched a soft coral and a clownfish attacked me with a nip! Here is where the water shoes would have come in handy. The walk in the sea till the point I could float in the tube was full of spiky coral. It was wonderful, I wish I remembered the names of all the fish I saw, but that takes repeat viewing. Soon.
Our flight back was not pleasant, note my tip about Indian flights in part 1. Mom was totally out on her feet had serious blood circulation issues once we got back, staying in airplanes for many hours with such poor oxygen levels really did a number on her heart. She has said such long trips are not for her anymore. We will see. That day on the beach, with us and the waves and the moon, I was sure no one else lived in our world. We can’t hold sand in our hands, but sand has a strong hold on us….