Andaman Chapter 1 – A day at Port Blair
My heart sank as I looked out of the flight window towards the land that we were descending at slowly. It was a gloomy day with a shade of grey across every other colour. The morning sky was full of darkened clouds and the ocean below reflected the same dull mood. Where was the deep blue sea and the bright green lands bordered with white sand? Where was the sunny day that inspired tinted glasses and airy summer dress? Where was the magical land that I had been looking forward to for so long? Four months of anticipation, rigorous planning and this is where we ended! Talk about bad luck!
We landed at 7:30 AM, right on time. The sky remained rigidly cloudy and we even felt a few drops of rain as we stepped outside. The small ground stretched around us with no other aircrafts in view. We could see the airport building just ahead of us at a walkable distance, but adhering to the process we got in a bus and reached there in the way we were supposed to. Inside the building, the place looked as per expectation, like any small town airport. It wasn’t too crowded despite its small size. As we passed the baggage belt I heard it start off with a low growl, but we didn’t have to worry about that. With our rucksacks on our back we made our way towards the exit.
There were quite a few flights from Kolkata and Chennai to Port Blair keeping the airport operating from morning to afternoon. However we had taken the sole direct flight from Mumbai to Port Blair, making our travel time to 3.5 hours and the starting time for this journey sometime around 2 am. So we felt reasonably tired and sleepy. Fortunately our hotel was just a stone’s throw away. We walked out of the airport, took a left at the street outside, walked a few steps and came upon the yellow three-storied building of the hotel Diviyum Manor. It wasn’t a great hotel, in fact it was quite basic. But so were most hotels in Port Blair. Andaman being an expensive place (and quite reasonably too), most services offered here either have to compromise on the quality or increase the rate extravagantly. Most places do a bit of both.
At the lobby we were greeted by the receptionist. It was a small reception desk at one corner of the lobby, which in turn comprise of most of the ground floor of the building. The lobby was better part of the hotel and it looked quite neat. The staff at reception desk was also very professional. Afterwards we were taken to our floor in a grumpy little lift and there we were deposited in our room which looked like an old time house converted into a hotel room. The window was small which overlooked the main road and the airport beyond that. The furniture were crammed into the room as best as it could fit and the room gave a slight dank smell. So all in all it was exactly as per my expectation. The bed was comfy enough to help us catch up on some lost sleep. So that’s what we did.
By 9:30 we were up again and ready to venture out. All our scheduled plans kicked off from the next day. So this day was free for us to whatever we pleased. And we thought we could take a tour of Port Blair. Apart from being the capital and main hub for the island, Port Blair also served as a major tourist attraction. For a long time it had featured in the travel itinerary of any tourist traveling to Andaman. With time and development, other places have opened up for tourism and the focus on Port Blair faded a bit. But still the attractions remained and there were many options if a tourist wanted to explore this place. With our limited time in the city, we took more of a wondering around approach rather than focusing on any destination. We dedicated our day to get a general idea about the place, which meant people, food and lifestyle. And in the process we also paid a visit to the infamous cellular jail.
We started with Breakfast – The Aberdeen Bazar area was only 10 minutes auto ride (for Rs. 60) from our hotel. We felt that would be a good place to hunt down some food. It was indeed a market area, but the street wasn’t lined with restaurants as we expected. There were a very few options and we chose the one called Kottabomban. As the name suggests, it was a south Indian restaurant and the food served was quite satisfactory.
Little bit about food at Port Blair – Food and many other aspects of Port Blair showcase a merry mix of tradition and culture from different parts of India. The original population of Andamans, the tribes, have either moved inland living inside deep forests now or have gone extinct or in some rare cases have become part of our society. So the current population of Port Blair and other urban areas of the Island consists of people who moved from mainland in last fifty years or so. This movement also happened more from East and South-east part of India. And this impact is quite evident in the food available in Port Blair. Most of the restaurants are either South Indian or Bengali cuisine and that too of quite authentic taste.
Walking down the streets after a heavy shower – The sky finally gave in while we were at our breakfast. It poured heavily. But it subsided by the time we were finished and so we walked out into the rain-washed roads as it drizzled slightly on us. The roads through market was narrow with frequent branches and intersections. The shops looked very local with normal small town items. It wasn’t a long walk before the road met the sea and started to run parallel to it with a slight elevation. The day could be considered beautiful with dark clouds hanging over the vast wild sea. But my mismatched expectations stopped me from appreciating it.
Cellular jail – The Cellular jail was only about a km from Aberdeen Bazar. The jail was established by the British before independence of India and many of the ruthless political criminals were sent here for lifetime services. This of course majorly meant the freedom fighters. Apart from the tall impenetrable walls, the ocean served as the final barricade which a prisoner could never be able to cross. This must be the reason why it was also referred to as Kalapani – the dark water.
The prison is not functional anymore and it only serves now as a tourist attraction. The external walls painted in bright yellow stands contradiction to the grimness of this place. The building was designed in a fashion of a star fish with seven arms extended from a tower and placed in a circular manner. The tower was used by the guards to keep watch on inmates and the arms or the spokes housed the cells for the prisoners. The most famous inmate of this prison was Veer Savarkar, whose cell is still marked and open for tourists. Not that it is any different from the rest of the 15 by 10 ft cells that lines all three floors of the seven arms. In the courtyard between two spokes of the building there is a museum with paintings and artefacts from the time when this prison was active. There are also rows of chairs placed in the courtyard, which is used by audiences during the light and sound show every evening.
Aberdeen Jetty – The Aberdeen Jetty was at the foot of the hill on top of which Cellular jail was located. It was one of the many jetties of Port Blair and it probably didn’t stand out in any aspect. But having been walking purposelessly, we soon ended up here. The entrance to the jetty looked slightly crowded, but once we made our way through we were greeted by a pleasant sea breeze and a long concrete walk towards the water. A little ahead on the left there was proper dock and a shade for passengers where we could see a few people waiting. We were stopped a few times by people offering to take us till Ross island in boat, which was a popular activity. But we didn’t have that kind of time to spare. The path we were walking on extended ahead on the water and after a brief walk ended abruptly. A small bridge connected this to a perpendicular path, which ran a long distance on the water before meeting the land somewhere far away. In the corner of this path and the bridge, there was a small pavement with a big statue of Rajiv Gandhi on it. We stood near this corner and enjoyed the sea breeze which blew so pleasantly. Afterwards we walked away in the perpendicular path towards the land somewhere in the distance.
Interior of Port Blair – Our wondering had led us to the interiors of Port Blair. The roads were hilly with slight ups and downs quite so often. But the houses resembled any small town house. Sometime there were more trees on the route and sometimes it was densely crowded with houses. Many of the homes were decorated with lights and ornaments in anticipation of Christmas which was still a month away. There weren’t much variations in the sizes of the houses, indicating similar status of people living in those parts. We didn’t see many people walking about except for a few people at a small grocery shop and plying autos or infrequent bikes. In general the place seemed quiet and peaceful.
Finding Lunch where we least expected – We thought it would be best to get some local’s opinion on food. So we asked our auto driver who was taking us back to the market. He didn’t seem annoyed. Neither was he too concerned about what we might like. He earnestly told us about the place that he enjoyed. That worked perfectly well for us. Five minutes later we were dropped in front of an office building. The building was or rather had one part of it used for Syndicate Bank. And next to this building at a small ground resembling a junkyard stood a small shack with no sign board. This was called Syndicate Mess, which can only mean one thing given the circumstances. With a sceptical mind, we walked inside and found ourselves in a small room with benches on two sides and only one man sitting in one of them and having meal. A middle aged man was sitting at the corner who enquired about our food preference and hearing that we were non-vegetarian directed us to another room inside. The crowd was all there. There were two rows of similar benches and all of them were full. We joined the crowd and devoured extremely authentic south-indian non-vegetarian meal. It was absolutely delicious and we were quite thankful to our local help for finding this place.
Bus ride back to hotel – On our way back we took a local bus just for fun. It had just stopped at the bus stop when we were passing by. So we asked a passenger if it was going to pass the airport and it was, so we just hopped in. It wasn’t too crowded, we even got to sit at a bench near the driver. There was young guy sitting nearby and I decided to chat up with him to get more information. He was a local guy, by which I mean he was born and brought up in the island even though his parents were from Maharashtra. He told us about how the weather had been unpredictable during November/December for last few years and the tourism growth in Havelock Island and how we should visit Dhani Nallah near Rangat in Middle Andaman (which we did by the way). He shared that it could quite boring in the island with nothing much do and he did enjoy occasional visit to the cities of the mainland. The bus ride was short and much cheaper and at the end of it we were dropped almost at the doorstep of our hotel.
Next in the series : Journey Across the Island
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