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.
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.
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.
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.