As usual chaos prevails. Deciding between Maharashtra and Andaman. Finally nailed down on Andaman after getting accommodation for the first two days at Andaman. Could have avoided the expensive flight tickets but I am a moron in making plans. Was checking available options to Chennai on a weekend and since everything were full as usual detoured to Pondicherry by the Lalu blessed Garibh Rath from Bangalore to Pondicherry. It was one of the cleanest train I have ever seen and we a group of five had the whole compartment to ourselves. If you do not mind the late arrival in Pondicherry this is the best mode of conveying from Bangalore to Pondicherry. The train leaves around 11:15 PM from Yeshwantpur railway station and reaches Pondicherry around 9 AM in the morning showing no sense of hurry.
Land in Pondicherry. I am amazed by the neatness of the railway station. This is a town I like not because I studied there but just because its simplicity amazes you. Force fitted us into an auto with me occupying half the driver seat. Checked into hotel Atithi (recommended by one of my friends) www.atithiatpondi.com. My son saw the hotel and remarked ‘I want to own a house like this’. I wanted to turn back and run but let that comment pass. While I was checking in the rest of the family went to enjoy the complimentary breakfast and had a good time there. The room was spotless and you can run a business and family from the room without stepping out if your pocket is deep enough!. While we were freshening, the kids had a go at the roof top pool. Since I did not have the breakfast I forced everyone onto a lousy lunch in a mess just opposite to the hotel for which I had to pay a severe price next two days !. I did not heed the time tested advice of ‘Akka poruthavan, Arra porrukunom’ ( If you have prepared the food wait for it to cool is an approximate translation). The noon was spent time shopping for my mother and my wife (whose birthday day incidentally was on the subsequent day) in Nehru Street to compensate for the hurried packing that we did (yet again attributed to the time that I did not give for packing!), and some roadside sunglasses for my son and daughter. The lousy lunch was somewhat compensated by a moderate evening tiffin, followed by a visit to the beach where time just flies. You can sit there, wonder at nature’s power and beauty and cannot just make yourself to leave until you are forced to. I just wonder if you begin to appreciate these things only as you grow older as I can remember that I lived 15 minutes from the beach for close to 18 months when I was a lot younger and I would have visited it only handful number of times. It is just ironical that in 15 years time you spend 15K to be in a beach and be amazed at its beauty when you could have that same experience at 15 Rs when you were 15 years younger!. We went back to the hotel and after collecting some scrap from the beach. The hotel had a DOSA festival going on and I closed my night with a ‘Mango Thokku’ Dosa while everyone else choose to crash with an understanding to begin the next day early. Before crashing I was in memory of a Man who was instrumental in bringing me here 17 years back and told me to take ‘LIFE’ head on. No words to describe how much I missed HIM.
Everyone kept their promises (including the kids for them it is the time tested way of early to bed, early in the morning) and we were ready for the day. Being my wife’s birthday we had to go the temple and we visited the famous Manakula Vinayagar temple. I am a believer of all gods but somewhat biased towards most Vinayagar. I think since his stomach and mine have a resemblance I think I like him a lot. This is a wonderful temple with you getting to see Vinayagar’s with heads ranging from one to seven. We followed this up with a visit to the famous Aurobindo Ashram whose environment can bring a moment of stillness to even the most restless mind. We rushed back to the hotel just in time for the complimentary breakfast. (the rule we generally follow is that if anything is complimentary we got to have it, it does not matter we need it or not!) To be honest to myself that breakfast was not worth missing!. It was sumptuous to say the least!. We negotiated a two way auto ride to Auroville (Incidentally despite being in Pondicherry for couple of years I have not visited this place). Auroville is one heaven of a place unique in its way to create a city of universal peace and harmony. I have incidentally visited several such places and my understanding of these places is as follows
The ‘means’ are different but the ‘end’ is the same. The ‘Mata Mandir’ is an interesting concept but a visit inside could not be done as it requires heavy duty prior formalities. As they say the ‘Seeker’ will be ‘tested’. Many people including us did return disappointed on not being able to get inside the ‘Mata Mandir’. We visited Hotel Surguru for lunch (a memory carried forward from my college days. In those days when we were literally out of cash on most days we used to skip breakfast on Sundays and wait for the sumptuous lunch at Surguru offered for Rs 19) and was pleased to find that time has not withered away its quality. We took a short nap and in the late evening ventured out to pack some fruits and medicines for the journey ahead. Since we had to take a midnight taxi we tried to catch some sleepsafter watching Sun TV’s tamil version of the classic ‘McKenna’s Gold’.
The taxi ride to Chennai from Pondicherry was a breeze along the ECR and as many others have mentioned comes as one of the best roads to breeze through. I was keeping a close watch on the driver as I have had previous instances of drivers falling asleep in a night drive but this gentleman did not battle a wink. The distance of 140 KMS was covered in couple of hours including a brief halt for a cup of hot tea. We carried away very good memories of stay in Pondicherry with the hotel and its service living up to the Indian tourism adage of ‘Atithi Devo Bhava’.
The hot cool breeze of Chennai welcomes you. May be I am biased overtly but I can guarantee this. There is a bond between you and the place of your birth. I can be out of Chennai but Chennai cannot be out of me. We entered the Airport to board our flight to PortBlair. There were a lot of tourists. After a hassle free check in the packed kingfisher Red took on time. I was pleasantly surprised to see an early morning economy airline offering some snacks. I guess this is kind of a first from Kingfisher Red. Being an early morning flight, you cannot anyway see anything outside and I got to crash. That too with children with you your chances of getting a window seat is moot. I was too tired and crashed. We landed at the Veer Savarkar Airport in PortBlair pretty much on time. The Airport was reasonably sized and was pretty clean. A tourist counter welcomed the tourists and there was an immigration counter for the foreigners. While waiting for our baggage we went to check if our pick up taxi from the hotel has arrived. As usual it was not there but on calling them they sent a taxi within 5 minutes. The very first feeling of portblair was that of ooty twenty years back or like madikeri. You cannot call it as a hill station but it was similar to a hill station. Everything seemed to be pretty clean and neat probably attributed to the heavy presence of naval forces. The taxi guy seemed to be a Yesudas fan and was running a pleasant old tamil number. We reached Hotel megapode (http://aniidco.nic.in) in ten minutes. The travel agent with whom we had made contact when we were here welcomed us. The check in took slightly long and we were onto our cottage facing the ‘Bay of Bengal’. For a government maintained hotel the service and cleanliness was exemplary. We were overall happy with the ‘Value for money’ provided by megapode excepting the food. If you are highly particular vegetarians as we were then you cannot expect to eat at megapode. You need to take a 10 minute ride to a place called Annapoorni which offers very good vegetarian fair or a smaller one called Kattaboman which also offers pretty decent vegetarian fare. All our lunch and dinner at portblair were at Annapoorni. Since our innate nature as mentioned earlier is to consume anything that is offered free we managed to have the complimentary breakfast provided at megapode. The rooms/cottages are generally 5 to 10 minutes away from the reception and it is not easy to shuttle between the cottages, reception and restaurant especially for the elderly and heavy weights like me!
After checking in we came to the travel desk, decided on our itinerary for the week and lousily negotiated a sum where I was sure that the agent cleanly made a 30% margin. But this was benign compared to the margins that were made by the agents in my earlier trip to Delhi, Kashmir and Other places in India. I found people and especially auto rickshaws in Andaman in devoid of general greed that is prevalent in most tourist spots. My wife has this habit of extracting the pound of flesh for the money spent and she kept us on our toes. After freshening up, we were ready for the tour of the city.
We initially went to the chatam saw mill, followed by a visit to the anthropological museum. Both were kind of a museum the former showing the progression in sea-craft and the latter more a repository of the various life styles of the nicobarian tribe. Had a quick lunch at Annapoorni. Was surprised by the fact that courteous female staff was serving the lunch which I had thought was only done at the Pizza Huts and Macdonald’s in urban areas. Rushed to the boat to see a place called ‘Ross Island’ built by the Britishers. The boat ride took around 45 minutes and we took couple of hours in Ross Island. The British had a way of enjoying their life and Ross Island was one of them. I was given to understand later that the presence of ‘Ross Island’ was instrumental in stopping the Tsunami from hitting the main land of portblair. Some effects of the devastation caused by Tsunami could be seen in the Island. After returning from Ross Island we spent time in a children’s Park. Interestingly enough a large amount of bicycles was available for the kids and there was a cycling track. The kids thoroughly enjoyed the cycling. Being a Monday the famous Andaman jail where many of our freedom fighters spent and more recently where the priyadarshan movie starring Mohanlal,Prabhu and Tabu were shot was closed. However the sound and light show which depicts the history of the jail and very neatly conceived was on. We ended the day with that show which in a way said that we were enjoying the freedom at the cost of the sacrifices made by our ancestors. It also places a tremendous responsibility on my shoulders which I conveniently ignore.
We were up early to ensure we derive the maximum returns out of the day. We had to drive thirty kilometers passing through tsunami affected areas. All I could realize was that nature could render you irrelevant in nano seconds. That is the power of her fury. We took a boat to reach a beach where we spent half of our day having fun. The beaches in Andaman are clean and the water is amazingly clean as well. We also took a glass boat ride to see the coral reefs and they were just awesome. My mother was kind of security for all our belongings and we the body guards for our kids. The kids were enjoying it thoroughly and we had to threaten them to ensure they stepped out of the waters to catch the boat back in time to the land. We had to skip our lunch to ensure we catch the harbor ride and the visit to the viper island. The harbor ride was pretty ok but there was nothing much in the Viper Island. Our kids were getting sick of these continuous boat rides by now but they and even were not prepared for what was in store the next day. We crashed early as we had to get up pretty early to catch a ship that was leaving for Havelock Island the next day.
We reached the harbor and MV Ramanujam was standing in its majesty to take us to Havelock. None of us had any idea on what a ship ride would mean and we got the taste of it. The sea would keep you captivated with its beauty and the irony is that is the only way you can stay captivated in the ship. There is no room for any ventilation inside and the only way you can manage to get some fresh air is the deck. Since the ship was crowded people were taking spots where you can get fresh air in a round robin fashion. The inside of that passenger ship and I think I can say that of any passenger ship is extremely suffocating. We survived the four and half our journey without any incidents!. I was worried if I was putting my kids and mother to hardship but they took the journey more sportingly than me and my wife. We landed at Havelock and were welcomed by our tour agent who left us stranded and confused for couple of minutes as he left us after asking us to take coconut water. Havelock is an interesting island with a population of around 10000 people and the economy runs on tourism, coconuts and beetlenuts. It is cut from rest of the world when the sea is rough. The vehicle came to take us to the hotel (http://www.linkedin.com/in/seashellhavelock) and the driver gave us couple of hours to get ready. The hotel once again was a nice place but the die-hard vegetarians would have an issue. Go easy on the usage of water and electricity as they are hard to find resources here and the entire system runs on DG. After taking some rest we went to Radhanagar Beach and spent the rest of our afternoon here. Well this easily was the finest hours of our trip and the memories of this beach shall stay forever. This is one of the finest beaches in the world and one could attain nirvana just by looking at its beauty. I would possibly term it as one of the needed visits in a lifetime. The only regret we had is that we could not spend more time as the beach is very strict on its closing hours. All my internal hidden agony that I was burning cash was gone in the time that I spent here. We went back to the hotel after buying some fruits for our dinner. Well the fruits were extremely expensive as they had to be transported from mainland. We wanted to rest the next day but our tour operator insisted that our visit to Havelock would not be complete without a visit to Elephant Island.
By this time the kids were getting sick of the continuous boat and ship journeys so much so that they were on the verge of going on strike if we just said we had to make a boat journey. But somehow we cajoled them to this. We reached Elephant Island and spent most of our day here doing all things like Glass boat ride, snorkeling. The thing about Andaman and its beaches are each one is different. The sand color, water color, the coral reefs and clarity and intensity of the water are extremely different. The image I get of myself into water and get out is that of a Buffalo getting into a pond and getting out. So I am extremely conscious of this when getting into any kind of water in a beach!. The tour operator was right. This was a place which was worth a visit. If you are a person who wished to stay connected on mobile twenty four hours then please be warned that Havelock has only two operators BSNL and Airtel and as we understood the BSNL lines were down for one week or so. We crashed early as we were tired and there was nothing much to do anyway expect admiring nature.
We boarded the MV Bambooka from Havelock to Portblair. This was in contrast to MV Ramajunam and it was a speed boat, had A/C and was expected to cover the distance in 2.30 hours as compared to the 4:30 hours that MV Ramanujam took. In contrast this was a more horrible journey as we were closeted in a dungeon like environment. I understood what ‘sea sickness’ meant and expecting my daughter and mother everyone were victims to it. We just managed to find a hole where we could get some fresh air and managed to hold out there for the rest of the journey. We reached portblair, rechecked into Megapode. It was raining out there and the place looked more beautiful in the rains. We had only couple of hours left. We visited the Corbyn’s cove, yet again a different kind of beach. We were so familiar with the place now that we took a fine stroll along the sea to reach the Annapoorni hotel for the Dinner, came back and prepared ourselves for our return to Chennai early next day.
Due to bad planning we did miss out on some places where we could have some seen tribes living, limestone caves and mangrove forests. If you are planning any day for a visit let me know and I will do my best to plan a itinerary but there is so much fun in just landing and figuring out what to do like us!. A piece of advice is that probably a day less in Havelock would do the trick for you. Also note that Nicobar is out of bounds for any of us and requires a special permit
I left with good feelings about Andaman, the stay there and its people. It has been difficult to see contented, hard working, good natured and non interfering people. It is probably because people have experienced that they are anyway under the mercy of a bigger force and there is no point in the meaningless clutter of other things surrounding life.
On a personal note I have never spent so much time with my family in the recent past. I would have loved my father to be around as he is a better interpreter of nature than me but I have started to accept destiny as anything else would be pure torture on your mind. I guess the kids had fun (I also realize they can have fun anywhere and all they need is your undivided attention). I think it relieved my mother of her monotony a bit though I could see that she was missing her MAN. As far my wife I cannot say anything as I have never figured out what is on her mind till today. She was busy ensuring that we get the value for every paisa we spent, packing, unpacking and ensuring the kid’s demands were met.
The flight to Chennai was no different. It was crowded, took off and landed in time. Welcome back to a world where the auto rickshaw folks would put the author of ‘You can negotiate anything’ to shame in seconds. We checked into a hotel (though in Chennai we do have umpteen options) as per the wishes of my mother. “Just do it’ is my way of doing when my parents say something, My wife and mother went for shopping while I went with kids for my favorite hangout in Chennai which in essence is the ‘Landmark’ at spencer’s plaza. The movie halls (Multiplexes) in Chennai are a class apart from what is available in Bangalore. We went to a movie (AnandaThandavam) at Sathyam complex. The reason for choosing the movie was that the story came from an author (Sujatha) for whom I have a lot of respect. Translating a good story onto screen is a difficult art and the director had messed up. However the songs were good and the leading ladies were watchable!. (I remembered my Father’s comment couple of years back. He said that in his days the director’s cheated them by putting the same old faces again and again. These days it was different and refreshing was his view!)
Went for a haircut and was surprised to find that it was more expensive than Bangalore. Negotiated a deal where I would get some time for myself with myself. I went to my friend’s house. It was his birthday as well that day. I get the feeling of ‘mine’ only in some houses and this house is definitely one of them. My friend’s mother was on her toes pampering me with all kinds of stuff. I have been blessed with very good friends and this is a friendship that has weathered all storms, stood the test of time and will stand as well. Went to some of our favorite hangout and eat outs. Went for one more movie with everyone. This was definitely a better movie(13B or Yavarum Nalam) but in a lousy theatre compensated by the previous day’s experience of bad movie in a good theatre. It’s time to get back to Bangalore and we are on our taxi. The taxi guy assumed that since we had come in Air we should go by Air and he was surprised when we asked him to go to the Railway Station.
We landed in ‘Namma Bengalaru’ the next day and I was struck by the ‘cognitive dissonance’ within me. From a city I loved to a city that I probably cannot relate to but that which shaped my lifestyle, livelihood, forged many significant meaningful relationships. Whatever differences I have with this city I cannot just go back to ‘what I loved’ and as like many others probably ‘did not realize’ that I loved it in the first place. As in many things you know the importance of someone/something when you miss it. If only we could spin back the ‘wheels of time’ but life is as someone said ‘going with the flow’ and you never know what ‘tomorrow has in store’ for you!. The train reached late and I had to rush to the office but not before my son asked ‘Appa – where are we going next ?’! .
If you have gotten this far, congratulations on your patience to read through the ramblings!. One important lesson from this trip is that not to take myself too seriously and the world will move forward irrespective of my presence. .