The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are India’s best kept secret. A chain of islands, sunken peaks of oceanic mountains, located on the east coast of India, but geographically closer to Thailand. A few of the islands are home to indigenous tribes, some friendlier than others, and are protected from the rest of the world. The other half a dozen islands are for tourists. The Andamans are only accessible from two airports and one ferry port in India, and no where else in the world, making them incredibly clean, remote and heavenly. The people here are of Indian or Bangladeshi origin, but are unlike their mainland counterparts. They’re relaxed, friendly and generous. There were rumours that by 2011, Bangkok airport would open flights to the Andamans, which would inundate it with the debauchery of Thai tourist culture and ultimately destroying this peaceful island paradise.
I arrived at Neil Island, one of the smaller tourist destinations, from a quick hour journey by ferry from Havelock Island. I hopped off the cramped and sweltering ferry and said goodbye and good luck to a pair of Canadian newlyweds I had befriended, whose honeymoon was a journey around India. Tuktuks were waiting for us at the jetty, the drivers offering us free rides to the hostels they worked for; each one advertising identical prices and facilities. I chose one at random, with the condition the hostel was beach side. The tuktuk driver, a stout man dressed in beige with a moustache that would put many Indians to shame, drove fast through five minutes of thick dry forest with tree branches jutting out like bony fingers. He turned a sharp corner, swaying myself and my luggage; before the trees bowed down to reveal the clearest sparkling sea and the whitest glittering sand.
I thanked the driver, and met the owner of the resort, who welcomed me with a shy smile and dumped my stuff in a bamboo shack of my choice. The haven was simply composed of different sized bamboo huts, and a shaded veranda in the centre was its restaurant.
“Is there anything you would like, Ma’am?’
The menu was limited, but I ordered an egg sandwich, a mango lassi, and a bottle of water. I sat with a group of twenty somethings, the only guests there, all talking collectively about the days news- a porn star staying in the resort that had been filming on the shore was leaving today; the tragic death of a girl who had been eaten by a crocodile on Havelock, and the recent sighting of a dugong at this beach. I relaxed and socialized well with them while I ate with a pack of stray dogs led under my table, panting to keep cool and begging at me every so often for any food I would offer. Once content with my eating, I stripped down and walked the forested downhill path which led to the sea. The sand seared the soles of my feet, so I skipped there, with half a dozen stray dogs following me.
The sea was warm and calming like a luxurious bath. It lapped up against my skin and cooled me as I floated there for a while, the sun beat down scorching my skin and the surrounding islands could be seen, blanketed in a lush jungle green. The group at the resort told me of a great place to discover tropical fish and coral about 50m from the shore, so I ventured further out and set off to snorkel. In the shallows, remnants of rocky dead grey coral peeped out from under the sand, a marine graveyard; a shift which occurred after the 2001 tsunami. It all seemed bleak and lifeless, when suddenly, there was a huge underwater drop in the contour of the land and I seemed to be looking over a huge cliff. Spread afore me was the most alien, beautiful landscape I have ever seen. A thick thriving, moving, psychedelic coral garden, teeming with bustling crowds of colourful aquatic creatures! Colours fell like a mantle, glowing bright yellow, violet, white and blue in different shapes and textures, like a patchwork blanket. Ripples of light that reflected from the surface moved across the garden, adding underwater magic. I swam down towards it, where the water instantly felt cooler. Butterfly fish in striped yellow and black swam in synchronisation, clown fish fed on purple coral, lonesome green parrot fish rummaged in the undergrowth. Some coral glowed like white orbs, like spaceships and were as tall as myself, some grew even taller. I was careful not to touch the coral, as touching it can kill them, but I was afraid to swim to close to the orbed ones as to me, they almost looked electric.
I looked across, seeing movement. A man from the hostel group had come to join me, an Austrian stone worker named Gus. His arms waved at me frantically when he came into sight and bubbles streamed from his snorkel. He pointed downward beneath him to what looked like a huge part of a tree trunk. I got closer, only to see it recoil from my presence- an enormous sea slug slowly rippled its body, eyes protruding from stalks within its head. It was at least three foot across- an absolute beastly living thing. I have always thought they would be no bigger than the commoner garden slugs and snails, but I guess there is space for them to grow in this aquatic expanse. I was amazed. I watched it for a time, not doing much before I turned to my friend who then pointed out a pair of giant king fish. They swam together, their heads moving one way then the other as though in a swift hunt for food. They were wide and intimidating, their teeth jutted out at all angles like that of a pirhana, their eyes did not blink.
I panicked a little and swam to the surface. My friend rose up with me, where we both ripped the snorkels out of our mouths and began jabbering, “Oh my days! Did you see that? That was huge!”, “Their teeth are massive!”. We swam ashore after feeling rather cold and vulnerable in the depths of the ocean. There was no sighting of the dugong this time around.
Back at the hostel, we chilled out with the same people as the morning with bottles of water, beer and funny chat. It was mid afternoon and much too hot to do anything else. The owner of the hostel joined us and asked us for our orders for dinner.
“What do you have for dinner?”
“We have rice with fish curry, grilled snapper, kingfish…”
“Yes, the giant silver fish, very wide, very tasty!”
He showed me a picture of a live kingfish from the resort’s diving folder. It was the fish I saw earlier.
“I’ll have a kingfish please!”
“Haha, you are very lucky! Next month we will not have kingfish. We wait for two months while they breed and refill the sea before we fish for them again. Boiled rice or naan bread?”
He took everyone else’s order,
“Very well, we will go out and go fishing now and your dinner should be ready for around 7pm.”
I laughed, amazed at the remoteness.
My fondest memory of the Neil Island was watching those men cast out a net and lie back to smoke tobacco from the shade of the veranda. How resourceful and relaxed it is here! A paradise like this will be even harder to come by soon, and I count myself incredibly lucky. This is my ultimate desert island experience.