The Andaman Islands lie far off the Eastern coast of India, closer to Myanmar and Malaysia than India, and are a remote paradise. I flew from Kolkata to Port Blair and it was meant to be a relaxing couple of weeks on the beach after three months in the mountains and a month in the grimy cities of the plains. But Nature had a final surprise in store for me – a cyclone. One local told me it was the worst he’d seen for 35 years.
The weather forecast was for some rain, but in fact it started raining on my second day there and didn’t let up for three solid days. I was staying on Neil Island at the charming Kalapani, a collection of huts right by the beach. Winds gusting over 100 kph shook the palm trees and rattled the roofs. Ferries were cancelled stranding many tourists who missed flights. There was nothing to do but sit it out in the restaurant area and play cards.
The second night was particularly bad and we all woke the next morning to a scene of devastation. The grounds were flooded on both sides. Getting to the beach or the road involved wading through waist-high flood waters. Several of the huts had lost their roofs. Luckily, they were not occupied. Several of us debated the meaning of a cyclone. Was it the same as a typhoon? What was a hurricane exactly? And when would it all end? Rumours began to circulate that food was running out.
By day four the cyclone had passed, but it was to hit the mainland some time later and cause even more misery. I wandered into the narrow road and walked with dazed locals out to survey the damage. The Andamans are famous for their reefs and marine life, but the sea was churned up for the next week and visibility was poor. After four attempts to snorkel, clambering across razor-sharp reefs, I gave up and decided to concentrate on eating the fish instead.
Eventually, the sun came out and I was able to explore the island. Nearby Havelock is the party island, but I was happy to stay the full two weeks on Neil. The beaches are not great for swimming, but they offer great walks past mangroves. The pace of life is laid back and islanders are friendly. At low tide you can see local fishermen harpooning fish left behind in the tidal pools, in the same way as they’ve probably done for centuries.
It was also fun to spend time wandering in the small market, watching vendors cleaning fish. And after an exhausting day lying in a hammock and feasting on prawns, lobster or red snapper, there were some pretty stupendous sunsets to admire.
It’s been a long journey from the mountains of Ladakh to these islands in the Andaman Sea, but my India trip ends here. I’ve had a wonderful time, seen some extraordinary sights and met some great fellow travellers along the way. Like previous trips to India, the country has provided awe as well as exasperation. I’ll definitely be back.