“With an improvement in the situation, daytime commercial flights began with the first Air India flight to Port Blair taking off on Sunday morning.” (Livemint, 9 December 2015).
Of all the news flowing from flood-hit Chennai, this one (very selfishly) brought much cheer. Eight months ago we had booked flight tickets for a long planned trip to the Andaman Islands.
A road less travelled? Not quite
Port Blair to Webi on the Andaman Trunk Road
We landed under blue sunny skies in Port Blair for a 10-day visit, intending to stay at the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team’s (www.anetindia.org) research base in North Wandoor (South Andaman Island) for two weekends. But the centrepiece of our trip was a visit to the village of Webi, 260 km from Port Blair.
Webi, situated in Mayabunder tehsil on Middle Andaman Island, is home to the Karen, a Burmese community. Originally brought to the islands by the British with the aid of missionaries to work in the forests, several of them stayed on after independence, making Webi and a few other small settlements their home. One can get to Webi either by road or ferry; and, since the latter can be unpredictable owing to the weather, we chose the former.
The road of choice is the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) or NH223, which has been controversial since its construction commenced in the 1970s. Covering a length of 360 km, the ATR connects the four islands of South Andaman, Baratang, Middle Andaman and North Andaman, beginning in Port Blair in the south and extending to the town of Diglipur in the north. It is the road’s impact on the Jarawas that has perhaps generated the most controversy over the years. The Jarawas are one of the four vulnerable tribal groups (the others being the Great Andamanese, the Onge and the Sentinalese) that live in the Andaman group of islands. A hunter-gatherer community, the Jarawas had lived in isolation for thousands of years, relying on the abundance of the surrounding forest and the sea for their needs. The road has been a major intrusion into their lives, destroying their habitat and resulting in clashes with outsiders.
By designating an area as the Jarawa Tribal Reserve, a 765 sq km forest in South Andaman Island that restricted entry to non-tribals, the Indian government made an effort to protect the 350-strong tribal community. But this has done little to prevent continued contact between the Jarawa and settlers around the Tribal Reserve or along the ATR that is a preferred route for getting across the islands. Appallingly, the reserve and the ATR are sometimes used as human safaris for ‘sighting’ Jarawas. Thus, amidst opposing views about the utility of the ATR, the road remains open and continues to be a harbinger of violence, voyeurism and disease.
The Jarawa Tribal Reserve harbours one of the last stands of the giant Andaman evergreen forests. It hosts a diversity of flora and fauna, most of them endemic to the Andaman Islands. During the drive through the forest, we saw beautiful, tall trees supported by spreading buttress roots. The no-honking, no over-taking rule ensures a quiet ride — however, on our return journey the bus was blasting 1990s Bollywood music! The segments between the islands of South Andaman and Baratang (Middle Strait), and between Baratang and Middle Andaman are done by a ferry into which passengers and vehicles are loaded.
Pic: The ferry with vehicles loaded for the crossing between islands
The ferry rides provide another view of the forest ecosystem: the mangroves with the layers of tropical forest rising behind it.
Pic: The mangroves and the forest behind
We dozed or watched the landscape go by for the remainder of the bus journey, with a brief stop in Rangat (Middle Andaman) for lunch. The last stretch from Rangat to Webi is all winding road along the coast, providing breathtaking sights of the sea with its shades of blue and green.
A homestay, just like home
Koh Hee (Island Home) in Webi
Disembarking a bit unsteadily from our 8 hr bus ride at Webi chowk, we were whisked by cab to the Koh Hee (Island Home) about 2 km away, where we were welcomed by Saw John Aung Thong, a Karen resident of Webi with a long association with ANET, along with his wife Doris. He has converted the first floor of their largely wooden house into a welcoming and comfortable homestay. The homestay includes three airy rooms of different sizes with large windows, separated by wooden partitions and a floor also made of wood.
Pic: The airy rooms of the homestay surrounded by greenery
There is a balcony with chairs and a hammock to lounge in, whose wall is decorated with miniature models of a dungi (wooden boat), and bamboo baskets for catching shrimp and fish.
Pic: The balcony with the highly recommended hammock
Two bathrooms, tiled and roomy, are located on the ground floor, where hot water and a washing machine are available. The ground floor is also where Saw John and his family live. Squawking and clucking in the courtyard around are a number of chickens and ducks. The house is nestled amidst a garden with flowering plants, and a bageecha (fruit, spice and vegetable orchard). The entry to the house is along a path between paddy fields. The view from any of the rooms is of green trees and fields. Lying on the hammock, we could catch glimpses of the Andaman Day Gecko (Phelsuma andamanense) sunning itself on the coconut trunks, and we expected to see fairies, or more interestingly, a hobbit emerging at any moment from the thicket.
FOOD—This was a primary focus of our visit. All three meals every day involved a delicious spread. Doris is the most brilliant cook, and she gave us a taste of several Karen delicacies. Breakfast one day was pee-ee-thu (sticky black Burmese rice) and mokveto (black rice flour, mixed with coconut and jaggery and steamed in a banana leaf).
Pic: Pee-ee-thu and mokveto
The black rice is one of the 10 indigenous Burmese varieties of rice that are grown in Webi, all of which are organic. The white rice we had for lunch and dinner is called pee-ee-vy. For carnivores, the meals are a treat — they include delicious pork, fish, crab and duck. Then there was tapopa, a soup with cane shoots, garlic and smoked meat or fish, served piping hot. Nappi, which is sundried shrimp paste mixed with garlic, Burmese chilli and salt was a favourite of M’s. We also sampled some paddy honey—honey harvested from a beehive adjacent to John’s paddy fields. Pomelos and bananas from the bageecha were consumed during and between meals, while Doris plied us with tea at regular intervals.
While eating and sleeping were our chief interests, we also had dungi rides into mangrove creeks, along with some river fishing.
Overall, our time in Webi was well spent just eating and snoozing! We left Webi on an early morning bus, taking with us memories of a wonderful time, spent with people whose warmth and hospitality made the homestay feel like home.
Hereabout and thereabout
Walks and sights around North Wandoor, Port Blair and Ross Island
The weekends between which we made the trip to Webi were spent at the ANET base in North Wandoor, and in two day-long trips to Port Blair and Ross Island.
The walks around Wandoor were mainly to the ghumai, an intersection with a cluster of shops where we investigated different types of local biscuits to take back home. Another was to the Lohabarrack Crocodile Sanctuary, where the sea looked spectacular, and we spent time on the shore soaking in the view and listening to the waves lapping on the white sand.
Pic 2: The beautiful sea and sands of Lohabarrack
I settled on the shore with a book, but was mainly eavesdropping on conversations of holidaying groups who had come for a picnic and a swim. Our first trip to Port Blair was to visit the ASI (Anthropological Survey of India) museum near Bengali Club and the Samudrika Marine Museum run by the Indian Navy at Haddoo. The ASI museum was short on information about the displays. We had gone more for amusement than for edification, though, and that we managed to have!
Museum displays in India are notorious for their political incorrectness and are always fun to comment on — some of the displays did not fail to amuse. One of them displayed carapaces of three hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) containing a rather dramatically worded and ecologically incorrect information board regarding the turtle remains displayed with the paragraph “We were on our way from Philippines to our nesting sites in these islands when we fell prey to one such greedy poacher. At the time of my death I was about 85 kg and my wife was about 50 kg and our lovely child was just stepping into adulthood and was about 30 kg”. Cringe-worthy! But a good lunch of Burmese khow suey, pre-ordered a day in advance at the Golden Dragon (situated in Golghar), helped us recover from the two visits.
Walking around Port Blair itself was quite entertaining, and we saw several interesting signs as varied as a philosophy on safety (Pic 3), the finality of death (Pic 4) and a ‘tricky’ astrologer cum magician (Pic 5).
Pic 3: Philosophy on safety
Pic 4: The finality of death
Pic 5: The ‘tricky’ astrologer
Our second sojourn on another day was to Ross Island, a 2 km ferry ride east of Port Blair. Ross Island was the administrative headquarters of the British until 1941 when an earthquake damaged parts of the island, forcing the British to abandon it. Today the island is maintained by the Indian Navy, and is an important site on the tourist circuit. Tickets for the ferry ride to and fro from Port Blair can be bought from the Water Sports Complex at Aberdeen Jetty with ferry services at specified intervals.
One of the first sights on entering the island is a bunker built by the Japanese during the occupation of the islands during World War II. There are a set of information boards tracing the history of the islands, but this historical account is silent about the treatment of the Great Andamanese who originally inhabited the islands before the arrival of the British.
The old British buildings on Ross Island that include the Chief Commissioners house, a bakery, church, press and barracks for soldiers among others are today mostly in ruins. Trees with their spreading roots have claimed these structures, and the white of the spreading roots looks like a shroud covering the buildings.
Pic: Ruins of Ross Island
It was rather hot, so we did a quick round and settled ourselves on a bench to wait the ferry’s return eyeing the deer, rabbits and peacocks wandering around: all introduced species that had now turned feral on Ross Island.
Port Blair and its surroundings have several interesting sights. Those interested can pack in much more into their visit to the islands. For our part, we were happy that we had not over-exerted ourselves during our visit: a little here and a little there is all we aspired for.
- Thanks to M (Madhuri Ramesh) for company, conversations and photographs, and most importantly for keeping notes! Thank you Manish Chandi, whose experiences on the islands could fill several volumes, for your company as well: you are a good man. And Jo from ANET, thank you for all the help with logistics.
- Much has been written about the ATR and the Jarawas, but one of the recent sources I have referred to in writing this article is the UNESCO publication “The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & biological diversities in the Andaman Islands” (eds. P Sekhsaria and V Pandya) available at http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001876/187690e.pdf.)
- Address of the Home stay at Webi: The Koh Hee homestay (government approved Andaman and Nicobar Bed and Breakfast), Webi village, Mayabunder Teshil (Middle Andaman Island) Contact: 9474215682/03192276708 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Madhuri Ramesh