Lakshadweep Part 4: Minicoy

December 29, 2008

For the first time on this holiday, we had a slightly less hectic morning. After breakfast, we even got to go back to our cabin for a few minutes before the announcement to disembark. (The previous two days, I had not even had enough time to finish my cup of tea.) It had rained at night and the sky was heavy and grey. Someone said it had to do with a depression building over Maldives, a mere three-and-a-half hours’ boat ride away.

Lakshadweep

Getting on to the boat was an exciting experience. I was standing at the back of the room (or whatever it’s called) watching over a sea of heads. There was the open doorway through which passengers had to exit and step into the boat that should be waiting just outside. In the doorway stood, as always, at least three men with good balance and strong hands. They always wanted to grab Mrini from me (and Tara from Amit), but usually I was quite confident of taking the step while holding her in my arms.

As I watched, I could see a surreal sight: a number of heads would rise into view outside the doorway as the tiny boat outside was tossed up by the sea. The next minute, they would all sink out of sight again, carried below the level of the doorway by the whimsical waters. Up and down they went, a bunch of disembodied heads floating around in outer space, up and down, up and down…

Ahead of us, a middle-aged man was the first to step into a boat. His wife was right behind him, but she was terrified by the prospect of stepping into the small boat that was being thrown around by the sea. So terrified was she, that her husband had to come back to the ship. In the end I think they stayed on the ship that day.

Amit went next, then the two girls, then I. It wasn’t that difficult to cross, it was mainly a matter of waiting for the small boat to rise, and then taking a quick and confident step on to it. I’ve done far more difficult things i the Himalayas. Still, for once I handed Mrini over and crossed unencumbered.

It was still raining and the initial part of the journey was quite a roller-coaster ride. The 40-odd school-kids who were in the boat with us were unusually quiet and there were a lot of pale faces and downcast eyes. The twins were rather quiet too, but after engaging them in conversation for a bit, they began to perk up.

As the rain picked up, the crew first handed us a yellow jacket to cover the girls with, and then dug out a small blue plastic sheet which they somehow spread out and held over our heads to keep them dry. It was one of many, many small acts of kindness that we received from so many of the local people along the way. The girls, by far the youngest on this trip, obviously won us a lot of good will.

It took about 45 minutes to reach land. A short walk past a tuna canning factory brought us to the SPORTS facility. The rain continued sporadically, though it never turned into a serious downpour. First on the agenda (after the obligatory coconut water) was a visit to the lighthouse.

We were driven to the lighthouse and climbed the 215-odd steps to the top. The twins, much to our amazement, managed the entire climb on their own steam after a little fussing. At the very top, the tight spiral staircase gave way to what was practically a metal ladder, and here Amit and I decided to take it in turns to go up to the top while the other waited below with the kids. But the staff at the top were very helpful and carried the girls up one at a time, something neither Amit nor I could have managed. In fact, the ladder was of the type that, once upon a time in a long gone and forgotten era, would have scared me witless. Now I went up it without a second thought. It’s a testament to how far I’ve come in overcoming some of my many fears.

The view from the lighthouse made the effort well worth while. On one side, the sea and surf, untamed and infinite; on the other, the lagoon, as calm as could be. In between the two, a sea of green: coconut palms forming an unbroken canopy. And away to one side, surrounded by a perfectly semi-circular beach of pure white sand, stood the tourist resort.

Lakshadweep

A short walk brought us to the tourist resort. Scuba diving was on offer, but there were too many takers, so we didn’t get a turn. It began to rain again, and most of the people gathered under the thatched shelter where water dripped through the holes and spattered on the sand. I left the kids in Amit’s charge and went into the water. It was clear and cool and inviting, but too shallow for swimming. I waded out a long, long way, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling, but it never got any deeper than mid-thigh depth.

When I was out far enough to be barely visible from shore, one of the water sports instructors, Mohammed, caught up with me. He said that at high tide, the water would rise enough to be able to swim. He pointed to where the scuba diving boat was anchored,way far away and said that if I wanted to walk ot till there, I’d find a sudden drop in the sea floor and there I could swim. I was already very far from shore, so I decided against it. Mohammed told me that there were about 150 tourists at Minicoy now, which was few. If you stayed there for a few days, he said, you could go and swim in the sea on the other side of the island. But right now, the sea was too rough. He spoke good Hindi, and like all the other locals we had met, he was very nice. After chatting to him for a few minutes, I headed back.

Lakshadweep

Efforts were already underway to get our group back to the beach near the jetty for lunch, and it was still raining. Lunch was the standard affair, and was followed by a sightseeing trip to the village and yet more folk dances. The rain seemed to have cleared up and a wonderful post-rain, still-hidden-by-clouds, soft sunlight played on the water to fabulous effect.

For a change, we went along on the village sightseeing tour. We were driven a short distance, then led along in a group through the village. It was quite well developed, as villages go. Many of the houses were nicely designed and constructed, there was a fair-sized school with a proper building, and the mosque was in mint condition. It seemed quietly prosperous, not rich, but not poverty-stricken either.

Afterwards, we got a tour of the tuna canning factory as well. This was especially arranged for us; Amit had expressed an interest to the manager in the morning when we reached, and the manager remembered and set it up for us.

It was an interesting visit. The type of tuna processed here weighs from 20 to 100 kg, but after discarding head, internals, and red meat, they get only about 25% of its weight in white meat. This is steamed in huge steamers, cooled overnight, cut into inch-cubes manually (by women – does that make it womanually?) weighed, placed in cans with 3 grams of salt, vacuumed, sealed, sterilised for an hour, and labeled. The factory had an installed capacity of 1500 cans a day, each can containing 185 grams of tuna.

Having nibbled on bits of unsalted tuna, we thanked the people in charge and returned to the rest of the group. The girls slept while a particularly lively song-and-dance routine was on. Within a few minutes, tea was served and it was time to return to the ship.

We spent part of the evening on the rear deck-cum-helipad, dodging diesel fumes and trying to ensure the girls remained onboard the ship. The rest of the evening passed in tidying up, getting all four of us fed and watered in three shifts as usual, and getting the girls to bed. I spent a few minutes on the swimming pool deck, and then it was time for bed.

The next morning, I was up at 7 by force of habit. After bathing, dressing and packing, we went up on the deck to watch our arrival. At 9.30, there was still no sign of land on the horizon, but by 10.30 we had reached. It was close to 12 by the time the crowds had subsided enough so that we could easily leave. One of the ship’s crew members made arrangements for an auto to be waiting for us when we reached the gate. Soon we were back in Kochi, at a hotel close to the train station, waiting to catch our train back to Bangalore.

It had been a good trip; the ship was comfortable enough and the islands in the sun (we had joy, we had fun, do you know that song?) were really lovely. But it goes without saying that traveling with kids is not easy (more on that in another post).

It’s also a pity that it’s difficult to experience Lakshadweep in isolation. The only tourism is government sponsored, and that translates to package tours of the extremely mundane variety. Meals were all buffet with a small number of items and very mediocre quality; what’s worse, you got about a 45 minute-window to grab your grub or go hungry. Embarkation and disembarkation was mostly a mela. It is never an easy thing to hop into a swaying boat in the open sea, but vast numbers of people jostling, laughing and panicking at either end does not make it any easier. And, saddest of all, you never could find yourself a quiet spot of beach, far away from everything else, you never could find a moment to make your own, a place, a meal, even a photograph, because there were always approximately 150 other people hanging around in the same space.

But these were minor irritations. The islands were beautiful and the people in charge were as considerate and polite as anyone could be. And scuba diving was an eye-opening experience in every way.

Yes, this is a place that maybe, maybe, hopefully, we will be finding our way back to sometime in the future.


Lakshadweep Part 3: Kalpeni

December 27, 2008

After the late night at Kavaratti the previous day, we almost didn’t want to go ashore on Friday, but after the usual mad rush in the morning, we found ourselves on the boat out by 8 a.m. It was a long and wonderful ride. We headed straight for a long strip of land, then veered to the right, passed another strip of land, and kept on going, passed a sweet-looking house on the edge of the sea, passed a land bridge between what would have been two separate islands, passed a jetty, passed a lighthouse, and finally drew up at another jetty. From here, a series of small vehicles transported us to the furthest tip of the island, where another small fleet of boats took us to yet another island. This island was tiny, and obviously uninhabited. Bathrooms and lunch were available back at the main island. On this appendage island, there was snorkeling equipment, more kayaks, and, later, a couple of drums of lemon juice.

Lakshadweep

As before, the lagoon water was clear, shallow, and still. After getting the girls into the water for a bit, I got hold of a snorkeling set and went off on a long circuit. Snorkeling was easy once I had figured out how to keep the air pipe upright. The goggles were wonderful, again, though here there wasn’t as much to see. In places, the water was too shallow to swim, but I hated walking through it because the floor was full of poky, squishy, icky things that I didn’t want to touch. Sea cucumbers littered the area and they look like cucumbers that have gone rotten and squishy, or alternatively, like big, dark, sticky lumps of turd. I actually stepped on one and it was… Ewwwwwww… Gross!

Our time on the little island ended all too quickly and we had to traipse back over what looked like volcanic rock and pebbles, get into horribly overcrowded boats that scraped along the bottom of the sea, with the water literally lapping at the edge of the boat, until we had covered almost half the distance back to Kalpeni, where the water was deep enough to risk starting the engine. Nobody was afraid of drowning if the boat capsized: the chap pushing the boat was not even in up to his waist. Still, if the girls and/or the camera had fallen in, it would have been a nuisance (or a disaster).

Lunch followed, and so did another folk dance and another sightseeing trip. We had seen a little more of Kalpeni than we did of Kavaratti, because of the long, winding drive from the jetty to the beach. We had caught sight of a police station, a post office, a government press, some houses and yards, some chickens and hens. Again, there was not much activity catering to tourists. Perhaps we should have gone on the sightseeing tour, but the twins were tired and cranky. So we took them and sat down under a palm tree in a breezy, shady spot, and in a few minutes they were both sound asleep.

The ship had promised to return by 5.30, and by 4, it was just visible, an indistinct white blur on the horizon. Apparently, the sea was quite rough and winds were high, so the ship had sent word to get people back on board in double quick time. We heard that normally the ship would come around to a wharf on the other side of the island, just 5 minutes’ boat ride away, but that it had been forced to come around to this gate — which was usually used only during the monsoon — due to the rough seas and high winds.

The girls awoke just as it was time to get going. The ride back was a little rough, but not anything spectacular and we were home and dry by a little after 5. We spent the evening getting clean and keeping the girls entertained. The ship was rolling quite dramatically now, making it difficult to walk straight. The kids were still trying their usual antics, with results that were sometimes hilarious, sometimes almost tragic. We went out on to the deck (with a great deal of reluctance on Amit’s part) and found that the swaying wasn’t half as noticeable in the open air. In addition, we were treated to occasional bolts of lightning.

It had been a tiring day, and by 9.30 we were all tucked up and out like so many lights.


Lakshadweep Part 2: Kavaratti

December 24, 2008

We set sail around 12 noon on Wednesday, and the next morning, we were rudely awakened by the loudspeaker telling us we were at Kavaratti. We were to get to breakfast by 7.30 and to disembark by 7.45. I looked lazily at my watch, saw that it was already 7 and leapt out of bed. It was a mad rush, but we made it to the disembarkation door by about 8, and then had to wait for 20 minutes before we got on to a boat to take us to shore.

At Kavaratti, our beach was adjacent to the jetty, and was littered with small boats. The beach was pure white sand, amazingly clean, and the water was light green and almost transparent. After a welcome drink of tender coconut, which the kids guzzled lustily, we shed all our clothes (barring swimsuits: no nude beaches here!). At last, we could get in to the sea!

Lakshadweep

All four of us went in, though the kids were quite wary at first. The water was warm and shallow and completely quiet. Tara found that she could even walk in it quite easily.

After only a few minutes, a boat drew up to take us hordes on a boat-ride to the deeper areas where the coral was worth seeing. It was a glass-bottomed boat and the coral was really very nice in places. We saw a sea anemone, and lots of pretty fishes, which had the kids enthralled. We found out later that we didn’t even get to see the best parts, because the sea was too rough, but whatever we did see was quite pleasing enough.

After the boat ride, Amit and I queued up in turns for the scuba diving session. We were each given a 5 minute introductory session with the gear. The instructor was very nice, very patient and good-humoured and explained what to do. Whatever we saw of scuba-diving (very little, I’d say) was easy. The goggles completely cover the nose, forcing you to breathe through the mouth, which has a tube sticking into it (everyone sharing the same tube, highly unsanitary). If you don’t panic at not being able to breathe the nose, it’s easy.

After a bit, a boat came to take us out to where the diving would happen. The kids came with us, as the instructor had suggested. All of us were deposited into another boat farther out and here’s where the fun started. Turn by turn we got into the water, were strapped into the gear and taken down by a guide. The goggles really let you see everything that’s going on under water, and I have to say there’s a lot to see.

I can’t say that the coral itself was very pretty – I’ve seen more colourful and exciting coral on TV and in photographs (admittedly in National Geographic magazine); but the fish! Wow! They were all right there, clinging to the coral, swarming around, coming in to take a nibble of your fist (yikes! I didn’t like that!)… The colours, the conglomerations, it was wonderful, way better than it looks on TV. When it comes to coral, I’m keeping an open mind till I find something more spectacular, but when it comes to scuba diving, I’m hooked. Just those goggles dramatically change the way things look under the surface. I don’t think I can think of the sea as just a body of salt water any more, I’ll always think of those colourful little fishes swimming around just under the surface.

The entire diving experience occupied a couple of hours, and by the time we got back, it was time for lunch. Lunch was followed by a folk dance by a group of men, which we didn’t watch (I’ve always found fold dances boring). There were 3 cottages reserved for the use of our group (about 150 people), so we retired to one of these. The girls spent the afternoon playing with sand and with a blue kayak they found on the beach. Some kind of sightseeing was on offer (a hosiery factory), which we skipped.

Tea was served and consumed. Then we went inland for a little stroll. Everything was very rustic (rural, and poor might be better words) and there were no obvious tourist spots like shops, restaurants, or even streetside vendors. There must have been a town or village somewhere, but right there around the beach there was nothing to attract the tourist. Five minutes from the beach, I felt that walking around in shorts was not really appropriate.

It was past 5.30 when we got back to the beach and I was getting eager to get back to the ship. Amit and I had bathed during the afternoon, but the girls were indescribably filthy and soon would be hungry and tired too.

By the time the ship finally appeared on the horizon, it was past 8.30. The girls had had a slow meltdown, first Mrini, then Tara. After feeding them a couple of packets of biscuits, we scrounged some food off the organisers, who managed to scrape together some leftovers from lunch. It was a lousy dinner, but the kids were past caring. By 8, both were asleep in our laps as we sat on the beach watching the other tourists enjoy the unexpected gift of an evening on the sand. (Usually, and on the other days of this cruise as well, everyone is back on the ship by 5.30 p.m.)

After the ship had been sighted, it took a long time to get everybody on to boats and ferry them out to the ship. As it happened, we were on the last boat to reach. The journey seemed endless, the sea was quite rough, the girls were unable to sleep properly, and we were completely exhausted by the time we reached our cabin. And then, dinner was served. We were almost too tired to eat, but we managed a few mouthfuls each, by turn, as usual, and then collapsed.


Lakshadweep Part 1: The Ship

December 23, 2008

Wow. Lakshadweep is beautiful, just beautiful. Words can’t express it and photographs can’t convey it. You have to be there.

We boarded an overnight train to Kochi on Monday afternoon, which, happily, arrived a couple of hours late, so that we had a good night’s sleep and got up only around 6 a.m. Our hotel, Bharath Tourist Home, was only a short distance from the South Station. After baths and breakfast, we found our way to the SPORTS office in Kochi on Tuesday, and got our tickets and boarding passes made, a painless but excruciatingly slow process.

The next day, we reached the harbour, close to the SPORTS office on Wellingdon Island, by 9.30 a.m., and despite a long queue at the entry point, we were in our cabin before 10.30.

MV Kavaratti

The ship? Well, it was quite small, I think, as ships go, but quite pleasant on the whole. We were on the top deck, the fifth. Our cabin was small, but nice. We had two bunks, a desk, two chairs, two small cupboards, and of course, an attached bathroom, which was tiny but complete. And a speaker, which sprang to life in an alarming fashion from time to time, and which there was no escaping; every nook and cranny of the vessel had one.

There was a swimming pool on the deck a few doors away from our cabin, but it had no water. The bridge, just above and beyond the swimming pool deck, was out of bounds to passengers, but we managed a short stroll around it before the ship was completely loaded. It was lovely up there. There was a large, bare deck at the back which served as a helipad, and a noisy one in between where a lot of big red barrels were kept.

Ship to Lakshadweep

MV Kavaratti: Ship to Lakshadweep

The dining room was one deck below ours, and had long tables in rows like a canteen. There was a recreation room that had a couple of TVs and lots of chairs arranged in rows, a shop and a kiosk (which were both closed when I passed them), and a doctor’s office, which, thankfully, we didn’t have the occasion to visit. There were not, of course, any tennis courts, gyms, saunas, beauty saloons, bars or other such luxuries that I could find.

The other passengers on the ship were almost all Indians, and consisted partly of locals commuting between mainland and various islands, and partly of the tourist crowd, which included a disproportionate number of school children, a bunch of 40 teenagers from a school in Hyderabad. The twins shamelessly set about wooing the passengers and crew and had won themselves a number of admirers and a good deal of notoriety by the end of the trip. So much so, that they – and, occasionally, we also – had to pose for innumerable photo sessions before we finally left the ship.

Apart from our First Class 2-berth cabins, there were 4-berth cabins and dorms. The locals, who must be paying a much lower fare, got to travel sitting down, got their meals earlier, and mostly embarked and disembarked before the tourists.

A funny thing about the ship was that cabins could not be locked. You kept your valuables in the drawers and cupboards, which you locked, and left the room unlocked even when you left the ship for the entire day. I never got used to getting back to our room and not having to fish out a key and unlock the door, but nothing went missing.

I have only ever been on a proper ship once before in my entire life. That time, we went from Brindisi to Patras (Italy to Greece) and back, traveling deck class. Literally. We slept on the deck. And, man, was it cold! And so windy that at night, our flimsy cotton sheet almost flew off and landed in the sea. Well, this cruise was definitely a step up with the first class cabin and all… but with the air-conditioning that couldn’t be turned down or turned off, guess what? It was just as cold!


Lakshadweep, here we come

December 16, 2008

All this time I’ve been thinking of Lakshadweep in terms of islands and beaches; what I’ve only just begun to realise is that it is not just islands and beaches, it is also a cruise.

Of course, when I say cruise, I immediately think of the movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Now that was a cruise. This? I don’t know. We get to spend four nights on the ship, so it’s a floating home to us, but I don’t know whether it’s so hot in terms of luxuries, or, for that matter, facilities. I don’t expect a swimming pool, tennis courts, ballroom and stuff like that, but a large double bed, attached luxury bath with fancy-schmanzy shower attachment, and a private sundeck wouldn’t be asking too much, would it?

After all, we are going Diamond class. Ooooooooooooh my, that sounds so luxurious.

The reality, no doubt will be quite mundane. So far, my understanding is only that you get a 2-berth cabin instead of 4-berth (which you’d have to share) or dorm. Put like that, it doesn’t sound very luxurious at all. It’ll probably be a tight squeeze with the four of us and all our luggage. As long as I don’t have to sleep with my feet in the bathroom, I suppose it’ll be ok.

Meanwhile, we left home on Monday afternoon and caught a train to Kochi. This train doesn’t have AC First, so we had to slum it in AC 2-tier. We didn’t realise that you don’t get any food at all on this train, not even vendors and hawkers passing by. Luckily I had packed masala dosa (!!) for the kids and we all wolfed them along with a packet of biscuits and called it dinner.

The masala dosa was a first, by the way. Homemade, I mean. I’ve been practising my idli and dosa making skills diligently ever since our neighbour-friends invited us for dinner-cum-demo-cum-crash-course. My dosas have improved by leaps and bounds (they were at a level where they could hardly get any worse), but my idlis are unpredictable, which is surprising because I always thought they’d be the easier of the two. Anyway, I’m becoming a mish-mash South Indian, much to my amusement; I’ll be making bisi bele bath next. And inviting people home for idli-dosa breakfasts. Oh wait, I already tried that on my sister.

Anyway, I said fond farewells to the Christmas cake, which was looking rather lonely as we left. The last time I left home leaving behind uneaten cake was after our wedding, when, apart from bidding goodbye to my parents, sister, dogs, cats etc, I also bade a tearful farewell to a wedding cake in my honour that I had hardly tasted. Oh, I hate sweet goodbyes.

And now we’re in Cochin, eating appams and stew for breakfast and wondering what’s with the steamed bananas. There’s constant banging going on around here (literally, I mean; I don’t know about the other kind) so we’re wondering if it’s a belated celebration for our test match victory, or another Taj-Mumbai like situation. I’ll keep you posted, whenever Internet access is available.


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