Traveling the Andamans

The Andamans are a tremendously popular beach destination for Indian tourists, though they remain sparsely visited by international tourists. Let me speculate as to why there are relatively few non-Indian tourists on this gorgeous archipelago, given its vast coral reefs and pristine sandy beaches. I hope to offer a clearer picture of the pros and cons of these islands as a vacation destination.

First, if one looks into the Andamans as a travel destination, one is likely to come across two news stories that went global, and that could give the false impression that these Islands are a pit of hazards. The first story involves an American tourist being killed in April of 2010 by a salt water crocodile in Neil’s Cove of Havelock Island [newly, Swaraj Dweep] (i.e. at the north-eastern end of Radhanagar beach, which is one of the most popular beaches in the Andamans.) While it cannot be denied that there is some risk of crocodile attack, it seems to have been a freak occurrence. At the time, the attack was deemed so implausible that few believed the boyfriend who claimed to have witnessed the American woman’s death until authorities found a camera on the seafloor that had captured some of the gruesome spectacle (and shortly, thereafter, they found her remains.) That said, there has been another attack at Wandoor Beach (near the Mahatma Gandhi Marine Sanctuary on South Andaman — a popular day trip from Port Blair) more recently –so it’s not completely impossible for lightning to strike twice.

A far more probable (though also far less devastating) risk to your vacation results from the fact that anytime anyone sees (or thinks they smell, or has a tingle of Spidey sense about) a salt water crocodile, beaches may get shut down. This may sound like a minor inconvenience, but a beach vacation in which one can’t get in the water is like going to the mountains and not being allowed to leave one’s hotel room. Nice views are nice, but one doesn’t undergo the pains of traveling for a view — views can be had on the Discovery Channel. One travels for an immersive experience — literally or figuratively. We spent most of a day at Corbyn’s Cove (Port Blair’s only beach) and weren’t allowed to go into the water until they put out nets a couple of hours before sundown.

Havelock and Neil Island (newly, Shaheed Dweep) seem to have a better sense that shutting down the beach is not a decision one should make lightly — whereas, in and around Port Blair it’s done at the drop of a hat. The same is true of “swim jails,” which is what I call the small netted areas one is restricted to when swimming. I saw no such confines on Neil or Havelock, but they were everywhere on South Andaman (i.e. the MG Marine Sanctuary, North Bay Island, Wandoor Beach, Corbyn’s Cove.)

While the salt water crocodiles do represent an actual (but tiny) risk — probably no more than sharks present elsewhere — the second, and more recent, story only represents a risk if you, like John Allen Chau, are a perfect storm of stupid, arrogant, and lawless. Chau repeatedly trespassed on Sentinel island in the face of warning shots, despite the fact that there’s no way to get there without knowingly breaking the law (Chau bribed fishermen to get him in the vicinity so he could kayak ashore.) I repeat, hostile natives are only a risk if you are so confident that your god is so much better than everyone else’s god that you are certain that: a.) said god wants you to force your way into other people’s homes even if it kills every last member of their tribe (they have no immunity to the diseases that have afflicted the rest of humanity over the last 30,000 years because they’ve lived in isolation,) and b.) said god will protect you from arrows and spears even after the tribesmen have tired of offering you warning shots and have concluded that you will never yield to common sense. It’s all very clear where one is allowed to go, and where one is prohibited from traveling. If one doesn’t act like a moron, there’s no risk from tribal people.

Of course, overreaction to sensational, but improbable, news stories is not the only cause of a lack of takers. Another factor is that, until now, the only way to get to these islands is through mainland India. While the Port Blair airport (Veer Savarkar International Airport) is technically an international airport, the only way to get there as a tourist has been via layovers in Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore and a few other major Indian cities. There is talk of that changing, and direct international flights may be underway by the time this is read. Why should the lack of direct flights hurt the Andamans? For one thing, it’s geographically closer to Southeast Asia than it is India, and so going through India can make for a needlessly tiresome route for many travelers — especially considering one will probably want to get on a boat after getting off the plane.

Another factor that hurts the Andamans is lack of communications, which might be a plus for a few who want to be off-grid, but I fear the global internet addiction doesn’t bode well for the Andamans. My wife and I have phone service from a major service provider in India but only had flickers of data throughout  the trip. Furthermore, even the best wi-fi we found was reminiscent of the days of dial-up modems. It should be pointed out that this could change rapidly. Living in Bangalore for more than five years now, I’ve witnessed some astronomic changes. 

While I’ve spent quite a bit of space on why international tourists avoid the Andamans, it’s not like there aren’t many great reasons to visit them. They have beaches and coral reefs as beautiful as any I’ve seen in the Caribbean, Thailand, or the Philippines. (Which is not to deny that where the trash washes ashore it’s trashier than anywhere I’ve ever been.) It’s also an inexpensive place to travel, though — admittedly — so are many of its competitors, e.g. in Southeast Asia. It’s certainly a bargain compared to the Maldives. Also, as I hinted at, the Andaman’s offer an interesting mix of history and culture in addition to beach relaxation. The Islands have been occupied for tens of thousands of years by tribes who are ethnically closest to African pygmies. They’ve been controlled by the British and the Japanese (briefly during WWII) as well as the Indians. They were known to the Chinese and Burmese.

It should also be pointed out that not only are many of the beaches beautiful, they are often surprisingly vacant. When we headed to Neil Island early in our trip, I was a little dismayed by the crowed Port terminal and the thronged ferry, and I thought for sure it wasn’t going to be a peace and quiet kind of visit. And yet, by the time we got to the far side of the island (i.e. the eastern, or sunrise, beach area) people were few and far between. I don’t know where they disappeared to (we would later see some of them at the Natural Bridge and at dusk at the sunset beach), but we regularly had vast stretches of beach to ourselves.

Beyond suggesting that one give the Andamans a try, the major piece of advice that I’d give travelers is that you probably don’t need as much time in the Port Blair area as you might think from the available information. A day or two is sufficient — maybe three if you are a history buff. I’m not saying that there’s nothing to do in Port Blair. Cellular Jail and the Samudrika Naval Marine Museum are both interesting and well-maintained sites, and the Chatham Island Saw Mill is worthwhile if one is interested in seeing a slice of the past. However, I think one will have much better experience of the sea on the smaller Islands (e.g. Neil, Havelock, Little Andaman, etc.) than one does at North Bay Island or the MG Marine Sanctuary. I appreciate what they are trying to do with MG Marine Sanctuary and it is the only place we didn’t see a massive build up of trash somewhere, but it’s crowded, relatively expensive, and you can’t experience the water except for an Olympic pool size piece of roped off water that may well have sixty to 100 people in it. North Bay Island was just depressing. One is confined to a little barbed wire enclosed tourist prison, and the only thing that one can’t experience better for less money elsewhere is the lighthouse on top of the hill (but that hardly justifies spending hours there.)

[Another ding against the Port Blair / South Andaman tourist sites (re: international travelers) is that one will likely find that no one on the boat crews speak any English, and so no one will be able to answer questions or provide clarification to non-Indian tourists. If you’re lucky you can get the gist of a translation from one of the friendly Indian tourists. This wasn’t the case on Neil or Havelock — there we had no language issues whatsoever.]

I would NOT recommend that one does the popular three island (Viper, North Bay, and Ross [newly, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Dweep]) ferry. Viper Island was scenic and historic, but we only had ten or fifteen minutes to see it. North Bay Island, as I said was crowded, overpriced, and generally depressing. Ross Island was picturesque and interesting, but one also doesn’t  get much time there because the deal seems to be to keep one on North Bay Island with the woeful and over-priced activities for as long as possible.

Because of Prime Minister Modi’s visit, we had to go to Ross separately. The one thing I can suggest about that is to not go with the first “ferry” salesman who comes along, even if one is in a rush. We had a very disreputable boat owner with a single boat who made all sorts of promises that he had no intention of keeping (telling us what we wanted to hear about when we’d be back only to discover that the boat was all the way over on North Bay Island when it was supposed to be picking us up. [If a kind tourist official hadn’t gotten us on one of the big ferries for our return, we would have missed our return flight, though we should have had plenty of time if the one who sold us tickets had been even remotely honest.]) Furthermore, the little speedboats weren’t built for sea state we experienced and our boat (and everyone on it) got swamp by waves. I’d recommend going past such guys and straight out to the jetty to get a regular ferry. If not, don’t put any money in anyone’s hand until your foot is getting ready to enter the boat. [Full disclosure: I couldn’t tell you how much of our foul experience had to do with the fact that Ross Island had been closed to tourists for several days because of PM Modi’s trip. i.e.  there may have been both a backlog of tourists and an unusual willingness among boat operators to screw customers in an attempt to make up for lost income. Or maybe it was par for the course.]

One last piece of advice, you may want to arrange ferries through one’s hotel as we found it to be impossible on-line, and during peak times they are said to fill up. There is a government ferry in addition to the Makruzz and Green Ocean lines, but it’s even harder to arrange at a distance, is likely to be crowded and standing room only.

Navel Marine Museum Courtyard Whale skeleton on display

BOOK REVIEW: Here Is Real Magic by Nate Staniforth

Here Is Real Magic: A Magician's Search for Wonder in the Modern WorldHere Is Real Magic: A Magician’s Search for Wonder in the Modern World by Nate Staniforth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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When stage magician, Nate Staniforth, becomes disillusioned with traveling around America performing magic tricks on college campuses — and the distinct lack of wonder that it entails, he packs his bags and flies to India to explore the centuries old magic traditions of the subcontinent. Part memoir and part travelogue, the first part explores how Staniforth got into magic and his struggle to achieve everything he always wanted, i.e. the ability to make a living performing magic – a desire far more would-be magicians have than the market will support. However, he finds a disjoint between the feeling of wonder and surprise that made him love magic and what he witnesses in the audience night after night – which include a heaping mix of indifference, skepticism, hostility, and even the occasional pious fear that he is dabbling in dark arts.

In India, he finds a mix of some of the same but also some very different perspectives on magic. One the one hand, he learns that magic tricks aren’t just a good way to break the ice with strangers, but also a means to bridge cultural divides. Sleight of hand doesn’t require perfect communication to build bonds between people. As he travels from Kolkata to Varanasi to Rishikesh to Hardiwar to Delhi to Jodhpur, he shares magic tricks with young and old alike, as well as getting to witness some of India’s magic. The highlight of the trip is when he meets with a family of street magicians from Shadipur Depot slum in Delhi, and can at last exchange ideas and learn about their long lineage as illusionists.

However, Staniforth also finds many Indians who are hostile toward the practice of illusions and magic tricks. To understand this hostility, one must know that historically “godmen” who used illusion and sleight of hand to convince individuals of their divinity were more common than those who practiced it as entertainers. This resulted in a couple different types of hostile witness to magic in India. On the one hand, there is the scientifically-minded individual who is distraught by the image of India as a land of superstition and naively pious followers. (A war on superstition in India probably made it harder to research this book because doing street magic is largely prohibited because of the history of duping people for personal gain.) On the other hand, there are those who are ardent believers who dislike magicians who do magic tricks because it contributes to a general skepticism about their gurus — who such individuals believe can actually do magic. It should be said that variations of those two types of individual could be found almost anywhere, including his home nation of America. What is more uniquely Indian is the individual who fits into a third category of simultaneously believing both of the aforementioned criticisms. That is, said individual believes that any illusion someone like Staniforth performs can be scientifically explained and is merely a deceit against the gullible, but at the same time this person believes that there are spiritual masters who can do “real magic.”

The title, “Here Is Real Magic,” could be received in many ways. However, taking it literally, as though the author believes that there are those in India with supernatural powers, isn’t consistent with the book’s message. In one sense, the title is meant to be controversial, but Staniforth is also indicating that he rediscovered wonder in India — not through the supernatural, but through surrender to the experiences he had there.

As an American who has lived in India for many years now, I found this book to be fascinating in places. I believe that it’s useful both as a call to rediscover the wonder that we usually lose somewhere before adulthood, as well as a primer into the similarities and differences between the Indian and Western mindsets on magic in the modern world. I’d recommend this book, particularly for anyone who has interest in magic.

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