Monday, 20 December 2010

The Andamans – wow!

The chain of islands that make up the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are situated 1000km east of mainland India and rightly so feel very remote. Several areas within the island chain are still off-limits to tourists and are inhabited by various indigenous tribes living relatively untouched by modern development. Now cutting to the chase the Andamans, Havelock Island in particular, are truly stunning.

As the trip continues to draw to a close our transportation seems to be getting less and less reliable (much more to follow in another blog post) and late on the eve of our flight from Chennai Tom nipped out to the internet cafe to check emails, he returned with the words “We have a serious problem”. Kindly Kingfisher the airline we were due to fly with had sent a one line email notification along the lines of “Passenger please be aware your flight has been re-scheduled from 1040 to 0400”. Bearing in mind this was less than 12 hours prior to departure and the flight had been brought forward to the middle of the night we got onto the phone to Kingfisher to get to the bottom of it. After three phone calls of “absolute” reassurance Tom firmly asked the customer service officer to double check with his manager as we wanted to be 100% sure we weren’t going to miss our flight by arriving at 9am for check-in. True enough the flight time had changed. So a slightly stressful start to the final 10 days of the trip but once we arrived on Havelock and saw where we’d be spending our time all stress eased away...

Literally our first view of Havelock's beach no 5 situated right behind
where we were staying
I could say how we island-hopped to explore the archipelago, snorkelled everyday and trekked through the jungle to spot animals unique to the islands, but frankly we didn’t. Instead after 15 months on the road, we dug our toes into the sand and lay back to relax! That said we did manage to muster the energy one day to scuba dive around a couple of cool dive sites.

Whilst in India I’d come across an article online about the Andaman’s swimming elephants. One afternoon whilst sunbathing on what TIME magazine rates as Asia’s best beach (it was very nice) I spotted a large slow moving creature in the distance, Tom and I looked at each other, grabbed the camera and Flip and sprinted down the beach to catch Rajan (the local trunked celebrity) in action.

We went to the Andamans with the aim of a relaxing finish for the end of our world tour, we certainly achieved it. The islands really are a tropical paradise, largely untouched by commercialised tourism and populated with very friendly locals. We couldn’t help but think what a brilliant way to finish our travels!

The Portuguese pimple on the face of mother India

In India of course there are cows on the beach!

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Portuguese explorers definitely had an eye for gorgeous coasts and only ever seemed to arrive in paradise – Brazil is stunning, former colonies in South East Asia always come with picturesque beaches and fishing villages, Mumbai is set on the calm blue Arabian Sea and then there’s Goa which again definitely doesn’t fail to impress the sun, sea and sand loving kind.

Before heading straight to the beaches we spent a day or two in Goa’s little capital Panaji where the International Film Festival was in full flow bringing in big names of Bollywood from Mumbai. The town had a nice buzz about it as we strolled along the river front and admired the Portuguese architecture.

Apparently 14th century sailors from Lisbon would clamber up to the church on arrival
in Goa to say thanks for the safe crossing
Statue of an 18th century Goan priest, Abbe Faria, "the father of hypnotism"


To start winding down the trip we headed to Palolem beach for a few days (popular with Russians) as well as spending a day on both the quieter Agonda and Patnem beaches. Goa does feel very different from other parts of India and the most noticeable difference is the food. Tucking into fresh fish and coconut curry was delicious.

To continue our whistle stop of southern India we continued into Kerala, one of the most prosperous states in India and the first place in the world to freely elect a communist government (which for once seems to have worked!) Fort Cochin has a totally mixed history of Portuguese spice traders, Chinese fishermen, Jewish settlers, Syrian Christian and Muslim residents. Fort Cochin is still an important spice trading hub of India and wandering through the back streets there were huge sacks of spices ready to be exported.

Ancient Chinese fishing nets

A little further south Alleppey is the starting point for tours into the Keralan backwaters – a huge network of rivers and canals that feeds the rice paddies inland. We decided to skip the expensive and touristy house-boat option and stayed in a home-stay on the banks of the backwaters. Our hosts were Matthew and Beena, an extremely welcoming couple who have lived in the backwaters for most of their lives. We took a couple of bikes for a morning to explore the villages – it was so peaceful and for a change people were moving at a steady, relaxing pace. With Christianity being the main religion there were small churches dotted all along the river banks.

The government in Kerala has long been communist and most people within the state attribute Kerala's impressive stats (highest literacy rate in the developing world, lowest infant mortality rate and highest life expectancy in India) to the democratic-socialist blend of its politics 

Tom catching dinner with Matthew

Modern farming makes things a bit easier in this part of India. In other places around the country we've seen people doing this kind of work by hand (or with a water buffalo if lucky)

Feeling well and truly relaxed (and well fed thanks to Beena’s home-cooking) we headed a couple of hours south to Varkala, one of Kerala’s well-loved beach towns. A few days of yoga, time on the beach and good food in Varkala we embarked on our final mammoth train ride across the country to Chennai. Unfortunately a late in the season cyclone set in on the day we were travelling which resulted in a panicked scramble to catch our overnight train from its new departing station three hours away leaving in three hour’s time. We weren’t terribly optimistic that we’d make the train as the bus we were travelling on drove past totally submerged villages and temples with only the tops of the roofs poking up from under the burst rivers. Finally we did make our destination and with a rickshaw driving at full speed we reached the train a few minutes before it departed the platform. 16 hours later we arrived in Chennai, our final city before the Andaman Islands and home!
The sunset at Varkala

Mumbai and suspected malaria

As we were now very much on the home straight through southern India we opted for a cross-country flight from Kolkata in the east to Mumbai on the west coast rather than a not so brief 33 hour train ride. We’d contacted a guy via Couch Surfing and headed to his residential part of the city. Couch surfing always gives you a different take on a place compared to visiting as a true tourist in a hotel. We spent a couple of nights with Chan and as the Ashes had just started our cricket knowledge was put to shame (not for the first time).

Cricket at the Oval Maiden in central Mumbai

Mumbai wasn’t the huge modern metropolis I had in mind. The city centre is reasonably compact and there are plenty of historical sites to check out and according to statistics more than half of India’s most populous city live in slums.
The Gateway to India overlooking the Mumbai Harbour

"The Victoria Terminus is to the British Raj what the Taj Mahal is to the Mughal empire"
The roof of the Victoria Terminus, Asia's busiest train station 
Bombay University had the same designer as St Pancras Station
By our second day we decided Tom ought to see a doctor as he’d starting feeling dreadful in Kolkata and still wasn’t feeling any better. The doctor immediately advised he have a Deng-Mal blood test as India seems to be suffering from Dengue Fever quite severely at the moment and of course Malaria is always on people’s minds as they travel. All results were negative so we breathed a sigh of relief and put it down to some dodgy beef momos (steamed dumplings) that he’d eaten in Sikkim a week or so earlier (the blood tests did show that his intestine was working overtime).

Kolkata aka Calcutta aka London on the Hooghly

To be frank we didn’t have high expectations for the “Black Hole” - with Delhi as our only reference as a major Indian city, along with the understanding that poverty is a serious and inescapable problem, we were both pleasantly surprised and ended up spending more than a week in Kolkata. There is of course severe poverty, as we started to realise it seems there isn’t a town or city in northern India that doesn’t suffer from hardship, and Kolkata still has men pulling rickshaws (a common sight was a bare-footed impoverished man running exhausted with two large wealthy women sat in the carriage behind) but compared with Delhi it is a far more orderly city. For a start there is a definite lack of free roaming cows and for a change it is an Asian city that actually has pavements!

Laundry on the banks of the Hooghly

There is of course still a lot of hardship in the city
Our first few days were spent sight-seeing which included a visit to the most bizarre Indian Museum. Never have I seen before a pickled “fully grown abnormal human baby” or a three-headed goat floating in a jar. The Victoria Memorial along with the BBD Bagh area of the city are both clear reminders of the British rule.

The Victoria Memorial

The rather odd Indian Museum
 The second part of our stay in Kolkata was a true highlight and eye-opener. After more than a year of gallivanting we were keen to volunteer and I suppose try to give something back to the world. India had always been the place we envisioned volunteering so when we arrived in Kolkata we contacted a couple of NGOs and were lucky enough to help over a weekend with an Indian-run NGO called CRAWL

As a relatively new organisation it operates on a very local level with just a handful of full-time women dedicating their time to the projects. We joined Bobby and Gita, two extremely accommodating women, who literally held our hands as they involved us in a project they carry out at Sealdah railway station – one of the two busiest stations in Kolkata and home to a large number of destitute families. Arriving at the station shortly after 6am and already in full flow for the day, we sat with a group of homeless children colouring and playing with them for an hour or so. It might not sound overly valuable but as these children have long since lost their childhoods it was clear to see that just by playing and showing them affection they were hugely thrilled. On day two as we approached the meeting point some of the children from the previous morning sprinted through the station towards us and gave us tight bear-hugs. After an hour’s play we helped to give the kids a wash at the station’s drinking taps and handed out toothpaste. Finally we took the children around the side of the station (bureaucracy means very little help can actually be offered on the station’s premises) and handed out breakfast (a banana and a couple of slices of bread along with a cup of milk) to each of them. As this could well be their only proper meal of the day they queued up patiently before waving goodbye to us. Tom and I both fell in love with the children, for all the adversity they are faced with they were such lovely innocent kids who just wanted a bit of love. I’ll never forget the absolute delight on one little boy’s face when I sat next to him and put my hand on his back as I looked at his drawing.

During the afternoon sessions we jumped on the local train to the north of the city to CRAWL’s “informal school” – basically a rented room where they offer a basic education to children from the local slum. We were both apprehensive prior to our Arts and Crafts lesson with the class but once we explained our idea of making collages with pictures of India and England, the children immediately got to work and by the end of the lesson had produced really impressive displays. Again these children were great to teach and really welcomed us by calling us “aunty” and “uncle”. As we were leaving the school, Bobby in true big-hearted Indian style declared “I love you!” and hoped to see us again one day soon.

The children were extremely studious

Before we left Kolkata we had time to visit another NGO’s projects. Hope ( is a well-established Irish charity that has been operating in the city for the last 13 years and provided us with some good ideas for CRAWL to try to replicate. The extent to which Hope is helping turn around former street children’s lives and offer opportunities to the poorest parts of the community is seriously commendable.

The insight we gained from volunteering definitely gave us a better understanding of the overwhelming poverty that India still must tackle as it continues to develop its bourgeoning economy.