We wake up in the middle of the night and trudge our way to Delhi’s Airport. A short scuffle at the check-in counter regarding seat allotment was followed by an embarassing interlude at security, with the CISF staff bending forward and telling me that my fly was open. That taken care of, I focused my energies on dragging mom out of airport shopping and towards the boarding gates, where matronly Air India air hostesses ushered us into the flight to Coimbatore via Mumbai. We stand out as the only holidaying bunch among a crowd of brief case toting businessmen heading down to clinch spectacular deals. The flight takes off, rising through a hazy sky, only to break through and emerge above a fluffy cloud bank. Meanwhile, we get served our first breakfast (I love hopping flights solely because of the multiple meals). An hour or so later, the aircraft starts circling above Mumbai, where we are at the receiving end of the city’s infamous air congestion. A rainy but uneventful layover later, the flight moves on to Coimbatore (with a second breakfast in the offing), leaving Mumbai with views of the Worli Sea Link.
Coimbatore arrives rather suddenly, when the Airbus dips below a cloud bank to emerge over green folds that abruptly end with an expanse of flat brown. Factories begin to appear and eventually the whole sprawl of ‘The Manchester of Tamil Nadu’ comes into view. We land, exit, take our baggage, find our taxi and head on to the final phase of the day’s travel scheme. The taxi snakes through traffic and villages, and quite suddenly enters the Nilgiri district with its lush forests and irreverent macaques. The road eventually hairpins up a valley, turns a bend, and tumbles into Coonoor, a ramshackle collection of terra cotta roofed cottages clustered around an electric blue railway station. We leave the mess behind and pull into the 155 year old Gateway Hotel, on the far side of the town, with its quiet cottages and manicured lawns. A quick nap later, we take a quiet walk through the winding mountain roads, stopping at a shack to have some brilliant Malabar Porottas (Lachhas, beware) and handmade Nilgiri chocolates. The latter is consumed while sitting on a rock overlooking a quiet tea estate as dusk falls over the hill town, and the air turns nippy.
The holiday has begun.
I wake up and wish mom and dad a happy twenty fifth. Thats why we travelled so far, to celebrate the ‘joy of their marital union’. That taken care of , they both decide to argue it out on who’s going to use the bathroom first. So much for romantic bliss. Morning rituals and a million congratulatory phone calls later, we finally head out for some ‘sight-seeing’. It begins nicely, with the car winding its way through the lush hills, through Wellington and Ketti, with panoramic views and rejuvenating breezes. It all ends dramatically when you pull into the mountain-top-horror that is Ooty. A concrete slum plonked onto beautiful hills, the town has little of appeal. A lacklustre Rose Garden and dirty-beyond-measure Ooty Lake later, we scold our driver into submission and he ferries us out towards Pykara.
Our efforts yield immediate rewards. As soon as we leave behind Ooty, the woods become more dense and traffic sparse. A drizzle follows and the forests glisten in the freshest, deepest shades of green. En route, we stop at the ‘Shooting Point’, which turns out to be a grassy knoll that marks the beginning of the Mukurthi National Park. A lone dead tree marks the top of the hill, from where the Nilgiris stretch out in all directions, with its undulating terrain and beautiful Shola forests. Compared to the geological drama of the Himalayas, the Nilgiris are affectionate and cosy. It doesnt shock and awe, but gently wraps you in that feeling of being-so-happy-that-your’e-there.
Back into the car, we are driven further on, literally into the rainy mist. A while later, we stop by a stream of nondescript dhabas, with the mist wafting through in a style that Sherlock would appreciate. A hike follows, through a small patch of forest, by a beautifully overgrown Rest House (now used as a Tickets Counter by a rather grumpy Tamil female). This is followed by a short spurt downhill, to the banks of a muddy river and the sounds of churning water. You turn a bend and stand at the head of the pretty Pykara Waterfalls. Not that they’re particularly grand, but they’re nice all the same. Worth the long drive, and the dramatic tumble down the slippery slopes.
Hiking back, we pick up more chocolates, and head on to the destination of the day. The road winds deeper into Mukurthi National Park, takes a broken slip road through the lushest, densest Sholas and ends at a bland parking and brightly painted boat house. That, however, is the maximum damage mankind inflicted on the place. In front of us lay the vast expanse of the dramatic Pykara Lake, with its many rounded corners and forested banks. The drizzle intensifies, as does the breeze, but we still begin a spectacular boat ride. I begin to see why my friend Uzair described the place as an ideal location to hide a horcrux.
Eventually we resurface and head back to Ooty. Thankfully, its a short stay, and we soon pack ourselves into the ‘toy train’ that pulls into Ooty station. The four coach narrow gauge train steams its way out of the garish town and into verdant hills, winding its way through tunnels and meadows and stations named ‘Lovedale’ and ‘Fern Hill’, apart from a spectacular ride along a ridge at Ketti. An hour later, we pull into Coonoor. We walk out, tired and happy, only to reach our hotel rooms where our staff waits with a bouquet of purple wild flowers and small anniversary cakes. We sing, clap and eat, and then fall asleep, content at a day well spent.
Days 3 and 4
We wake up to clear skies and a warm sun. An ideal morning for the hills, that we spend wandering around Sim’s Park. Rather brilliant botanical gardens, they were laid out in the late 19th century by an Englishman (named Sim), and features an impressive collection of trees, many over a century old. That dealt with, we head back to the taxi and speed down the hills into the bustle of Coimbatore and the gaudy facade of its railway station. Market hopping and some eating later, we give ourselves to a Chennai bound train, spending our time sleeping, gazing out to paddy fields and chatting away with an elderly couple from Palakkad. We reach Chennai just as the day ends, and walk out of Chennai Central to rain and a horde of persistent taxi drivers.
The taxi drivers and us haggle, and eventually we head to Chennai Airport. We’ve been told its been ‘modernized’. It does look like that from the distance. Shimmering glass and steel and bright white lights. Reality, however, came with a rude shock.
We pull up by the terminal and see a mass of people squatting outside the entry gates, which have been padlocked. Women in polyester saris sleep by dreadlocked backpackers while businessmen in suits twiddle away on their tablets. The lone Cafe Coffee Day outlet is manned by a grumpy guy who has ‘nothing in stock’ and an empty display fridge to prove it. The lone CISF guard awake (the three others were asleep) told us that the terminal would open in an hour’s time. When it does open, its a mad rush, as the entire crowd races in to check in for the ten flights that leave in the first hour. Our’s being the first, we proceed for an antiquated baggage screening process (thank god for Delhi’s in-line screening system). Security hassles taken care of, we lounge by the boarding gates only to realize that the airport is very short on ground staff. The gate is unmanned, the cabin crew stands bewildered. None of the electric points are working, all shops are shut and there is no food on offer. The toilets are even worse, with spit stains being the most graceful of decorations. The so-called design highlight of the new terminal, the gardens in-terminal gardens, were beyond eye-view thanks to an inch of dust on the glass curtain walls. Finally, with the call for boarding, we queued up at the gate, only to see a hare-brained co-passenger walk by, enter the wrong gate, walk right to the end of the jet bridge, only to realize that there was no aircraft docked there. No security personnel ever witnessed the whole scene.
Once boarded, however, we were free of the horrors of MAA, and on course for a red-eye flight over the Bay of Bengal. Take off was followed by views of Chennai’s glittering lights and a peek of red, morning-lit clouds through a gap in the otherwise deep blue night sky. Soon enough, morning tumbles through, along with the breakfast cart. As the flight dips below the clouds once again, we can see patches of black in the otherwise silvery waters below. Further descent turns silver to deep blue and black to deep green. Soon enough, the flight lands at Port Blair’s tiny airport, greeted by fresh tropical rain. But the journey does not end here still.
Our taxi picks us up and takes us to Annapurna, Port Blair’s premiere ‘Vegetarian Cafetaria’. After a quick breakfast of Vadas and Idlis in a dingy room, we head on to the Phoenix Bay Jetty to board a rusty ferry. We leave our seats in the air conditioned cabin to lounge around the much cooler open-air deck, enjoying views of the open sea, and marvelling at our encounter with this tropical paradise. Soon enough, we pull up to dock at Neil Island, where we have our first views of white sands and clear blue waters. An hour later, we offload ourselves at Havelock Island’s jetty. The scene is akin to rural Bengal with Kali Baris, fish shops and even a Maitri store. In ten minutes, we are at our resort where we immediately drop into a deep sleep after twenty four hours of travel over road, train, air and sea.
We wake up in the evening, before sunset, and head on to the Kala Pathar Beach, down a lonely forest road that skirts the edge of the island. We cross farms, creeks and groves before finally emerging by a strip of clear sand laced with blue water and spooky dead trees, remnants of the Tsunami. The sky turns a brilliant pink with sunset, and remains so all the way back to the resort. Our first Andamanese sunset, and we love it.
Days 5 and 6
Havelock’s a small island, settled with ex-Bangladeshi refugees. They’ve turned it into a utopian paradise of sorts, living in tin roofed cottages in the middle of paddy fields and lily pools, without any modern day irritations to plague their peaceful, oblivious existence. The feeling takes you over as well, and you feel relaxed and unhurried. Everything can wait, except the laziness. Our days begin at one beach, and end at another.
The first of these was Elephant. It involves a twenty minute speedboat ride, driven by the Bangla version of James Bond. He loops and jumps through lapping waves, around the tip of the island, to deposit us at a strip of sand backed by dense forests and broken with the shells of old trees. The water is clear, the skies gradually turn sunny, and he hands us our snorkelling gear, beckoning us further out into the seas. We see a veritable paradise of corals and fishes, with colours ranging from electric blue to neon yellow. We lap around in the waves. And then we head back to the resort, smiling from ear to ear while James Bond pirouettes through the waters.
Then there was Govindnagar Beach, right in front of our rooms. At low tide, its a rocky beach with algae covered stones and driftwood, and the odd forgotten mangrove tree. Its infested with white crabs and the odd sea snake. The beach stretches far out, with fisherman skirting the horizon, walking along, scavenging for bigger crabs. At high tide, the water pulls right up to the sea wall and reveals a pleasing blue tinge that reflects the colours of the sky. The lonely mangrove remains the only object visible above the water.
Then there’s the pride of the island, the Radhanagar Beach. Half an hour’s drive from the main settlements, Radhanagar occupies a wide arc of soft silvery sand backed with Mohwa and Padauk forests. To one side, a creek pumps in a stream of cool, fresh water, to the other, a sign warns you of stray crocodiles in the jungles. The water is as clear as everywhere else, and beckons you to frolic in it. Not for long though, because the sun sets and it leaves behind a brilliant trail of red in the sky. You walk along, introspecting, accompanied only by stray dogs that jump over pieces of moss covered driftwood and crab mounds.
Days 7 and 8
We head back to Port Blair in another ferry through windswept seas, and check into another room, just as I finish the mammoth Tilism-E-Hoshruba. Some more rest, and we’re out, sightseeing, yet again.
Our first stop is the Cellular Jail. Once the horror of all Nationalists, the British run jail defined the very identity of these islands as a penal colony (the vibrant tribal peoples all but forgotten). We walk through its forlorn corridors feeling a tad pooked out. This is followed by a surprisingly good Son et Lumiere show (Om Puri voices a Peepal Tree), slightly marred by the use of tackily produced patriotic songs.
Then theres the day trip out to Ross Island. The former British headquarters is now a windswept island, full of overgrown ruins that could very well qualify as the Indian version of Angkor’s Ta Prohm. You amble around moss covered masonry and shells of buildings engulfed with tree roots, while spotted deer and peafowls peacefully amble around you. Its an unearthly experience, and a view to Colonial India like none other.
Come morning, we head out to Wandoor, driving through forested roads broken by small hamlets and signs warning us of saltwater crocdiles. At Wandoor, we offload ourselves at the entrance to the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park and visit a well-maintained interpretation centre, gaining an introduction to the marine ecosystems of these islands. Then we’re ushered into a boat that ferries us to Red Skin island, a dense patch of forest at the edge of the park’s backwaters.
Here, we’re treated to glass bottom boat rides, where our guides alternately jumped into the water, scooping out samples of coral, star fish and sea cucumbers for our viewing (and touching) pleasure. Things duly placed back into the water, we began another round of snorkelling. Where Havelock excelled in fishes, Red Skin overwhelmed in the variety of corals (and the oh-so-pretty sea lilies and their electric colours). In due course, we chum up with our Tamil co-visitors, who entice us with tales of their road trip up the islands to Diglipur, through tribal reserves, and our heads leave Wandoor with schemes of travelling. Meanwhile, we’re ferried back to the Wandoor jetty, skirting through mangroves and tiny islands.
Our plans to go up the tribal areas, however, do not materialize as we land ourselves a dinner with one of dad’s friends. The last day, as a result, is spent in traversing around Port Blair and its quirky localities. You can hail an auto from Haddo Point, shop at Aberdeen Bazaar, check out the state emporium at Middle Point and board a ferry from Phoenix Bay. As if to temper this piece of anglophilia, we have equally comic names like Dollygunj and Junglighat fighting for space with Sippyghat.
City sight seeing, however, is a topsy turvy affair. The average fisheries museum pales in comparison to the amount of marine life we saw in the open waters (its collection of preserved fish corpses is somewhat commendable though). Even worse is Corbyn’s Cove, a travesty of a beach, the drive to which is far prettier than the place itself. It seems to be more of a sewage outlet than a leisure spot.
Things, however, improve by the time we visit the Anthropological Museum, where we shock ourselves by actually enjoying the galleries. The museum made up for our inability to go up the tribal reserves and actually induced a conversation regarding archaeogenetics with my otherwise true-blue Marwari father.
Food, however, remained a sore point throughout, as the islands simply aren’t meant for us vegetarian souls. We, however, survive. The dinner invite came as a godsend as we finally supped on fare that was not south Indian after a good week of traipsing about the country.
And the trip ends. We head out to the tiny airport, the taxi nearly driving up to the check-in counter. Luggage is screened, passengers are searched and flights are boarded. I pin my head against the window to see the last patches of idyll, as the two hour stretch to Calcutta proceeds bumpily through monsoon clouds and ends with a sudden spurt of sunshine over the Sundarbans. Calcutta is descended into and its new terminal admired (especially after the fiasco that was Chennai Airport).
Soon enough, we take off again, and are treated to brilliant views of the city, before we enter another cloud bank. By the time we’re out, its dusk and we’re circling over Delhi. The skies outside are a spectacular fireball of sorts, and the city shines below. We reach half an hour early, breeze through luggage collection, and get into our car.
Weaving through Delhi traffic, phone calls come in, and we respond with ‘Yeah, we had a brilliant holiday!’
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