Saturday, February 24, 2007

Amazing Andamans

Sunset over the AndamansIt was by chance that I decided to make a trip to the Andamans - a long weekend, total ennui and wanderlust making a fortunate combination.

The flight from Chennai to Port Blair was serene - the clear ocean below dotted with periodic boats & ships, a cirrus sky and bright sunshine. The Andaman Islands, when they appeared out the blue (literally), looked like a small patch of green land amidst a huge area of blue ocean. The weather, as we landed felt hot and sultry, even in comparison to Chennai.

Given my last-minute plans, I had booked myself into a "resort" (at least that's what it claimed to be) - the only available room in the whole acco scene of the islands. Interestingly, the "resort" consisted a few run-down rooms in the most god-forsaken area of the islands, complete with tarantula-sized spiders to share my bed.

Culturally, the Andamans feels like a part of Tamilnadu that drifted away - everyone speaks Tamil, every shop has a Tamil name and the auto-drivers seem like they've been plucked out of Chennai - the same fleecing and argument, anywhere you go.

Aberdeen clock tower The Aberdeen Bazaar and the adjoining Aberdeen jetty are the most prominent places in Port Blair. The tsunami seems to have destroyed all water sport facilities along the jetty - but as I understand, the facilities are getting rebuilt. From the jetty run periodic ferry services to all the other islands, including day-long boating trips to the popular tourist spots.

Overlooking the jetty is the beautiful Ross Island. A remnant of the British rule of the islands - the British had their administrative base here - the island is now a well preserved museum. The most beautiful aspect of the island is the breathtakingly clear waters that surround it. It is, by far, the most picturesque beach location I have been to till date - the pebble ridden waterfront, palm trees drooping in from the coast, the crystal clear waters and the matching skies - it was just a sight to behold. Ross Island

Another must-visit place is 'Corbyn's Cove' - an islet in main island of Port Blair. The approach road is a delight, running along the sea from Aberdeen Jetty for a few kilometres with wonderful sights all along. The beach is a great place for a dip in the sea, with the underlying surface remaining a plateau for quite a distance, and with calm clear waters. They also have pretty neat changing rooms.

Cellular Jail AndamansThe Cellular Jail adjoins and overlooks the Aberdeen jetty - and is an imposing structure. The sound and light show run in the evenings here is a well conducted piece, highlighting the ugly history of "kalapani" in colorful detail.

There are quite a lot of islands that comprise the Andaman and Nicobar belt, but the most well known and well visited ones are Ross Island, North Bay, Viper's Island and Havelock, apart from the main island. North Bay is primarily a place for snorkeling - I had a fun time seeing the underwater corals of different shapes, sizes and colors; but one needs to be careful of getting fleeced, the pricing is arbitrary and one can negotiate almost any figure based on one's skill. Viper's Island has nothing on it but a hangman's noose - so do not bother visiting. Havelock is the farthest - and I didn't have the time to make a visit - but I hear it's probably the best and has wonderful beaches - will probably try to make it some other time.

For others intending to follow my trail: The flights need to be booked well in advance, since most of the time they are fully booked. Arranging accommodation is a pain, with most places booked months in advance ; and even amongst the ones that exist, almost all are run down shacks. So if you want a great experience, do not hesitate shelling out more for the premium ones. If possible, book ones on M.G.Road, near the centre of town. Most tourist facilities in Port Blair are closed on Sundays and Government Holidays, so you'll be sorely disappointed if you land there on a weekend - so include a weekday in your itinerary. Try and hire a tourist cab for traversing the town - Port Blair, despite its deceptive size on the map, is well spread out and ambulating about, like I did, may leave you exhausted at the end. And finally, December to March is the best time to visit the islands.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Rambles of an exhausted air-farer

Its 6AM - Chennai airport. The line at the security counter stretches for almost a mile, almost till the second entrance to the airport - thats ~100 people per queue, and 3 such queues; of sleep-deprived, bleary eyed people trying to catch a flight. It’s the same everywhere - Bangalore, New Delhi, Hyderabad, you name it. And the bottleneck lies at the security check process. Wonder why it can't be made faster. Maybe they should just open more counters, or put in place some faster checking process. Why should every individual be manually scanned ? I bet any automated scanning technology will payback in a few days given the amount of business time lost in waiting in these queues.

And what crowds! My auto driver in Chennai commented that he ferries more people to the airport these days, than to the railway station. A newspaper report today in the Mumbai Times says that record numbers of people flew in Q3, and the numbers are expected to increase going ahead. Unfortunately, infrastructure cannot keep pace unless growth is anticipated and planned ahead, given the lead times involved. Any decent construction project has a lifetime running in years. So unless we start investing now for 2010, clogged airports are going to be in vogue.

Any city, particularly the metros, when viewed from air after dark, is a sight to behold. From the glittering golden narrow patch of land called Mumbai to the shining white diamond coastline of Chennai, each city has its own "night-light-character". I bet that there is tourism potential in this - maybe we should have a low altitude "see-the-city-at-night" tour :-)