Travelogue: Andaman Islands 2000
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Andaman Islands Photo Itinerary: 4/12/00 - 4/14/00, Chennai (Madras) India and the Andaman Islands. The third stop on my second 2000 Round the World trip. by Andrew Sigal

Book List:

Lonely Planet India
Tim Cahill, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg. (has nothing to do with India, it was just what I was reading at the time.)

Prologue:

At great effort and even greater expense I am travelling to the Andaman Islands to spend 10 days on a sailboat scuba diving in virtually untouched waters. I had been planning this trip for months; arranging air travel to the Andamans (which are very hard to get to), buying and trying out new scuba equipment, getting visas, and communicating with the people arranging the trip. This entire round-the-world trip was basically set up around getting me to the Andaman Islands.

The Andaman Islands lie in the Andaman Sea. Geologically they are more related to Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) than to anywhere else. Geographically they are much closer to Myanmar than to India. Indeed, they are closer to Thailand than to India. It is largely an historical/political accident that they belong to India instead of Myanmar or Great Britain. Until recently, India did not let non-Indians travel to the Andaman Islands, and they still restrict travel, requiring a special permit which one gets at Port Blair, the only city in the Andamans. The Nicobar Islands, which lie to the south of the Andamans, are still closed to foreigners.

The diving is said to be spectacular so I was extremely enthusiastic about this trip when I originally signed up for it. Unfortunately, by the time I left for this trip I had been doing so much traveling that I was very homesick, making this trip loose a lot of its allure. Nonetheless, off I went.

Wednesday April 12, 2000

Flying from Singapore to Chennai (formerly known as Madras) on Singapore Airlines, business class upstairs in a Boeing 747-400 'Megatop'.

We were two hours delayed getting out; first the plane was late getting in from Sydney, then the air-conditioning was broken and we sat on the runway for an hour while they fixed it. Unfortunately, once they had it fixed they evidently felt that they had to use it, refrigerating us down to sub-arctic temperatures. I think I am coming down with a cold, which is a disaster since the whole point of this trip is to go Scuba diving, and you cant dive with a head cold. I spent most of the flight meditating on feelings of health flowing through my body. In spite of my eye mask being on, the overly helpful flight attendants insisted on continually waking me up to see if I wanted anything to drink (no), did I want my dinner (no), did I want the desert (no), is there anything else they can bring me (no, go away.) There was tons of turbulence, and the PA system's speaker was right over my head, turned up loud, with amazing high fidelity. The bulkhead row gave me plenty of room, but I got to hear every toilet flush. I didnít get as much sleep as I hoped for.

Arriving in Chennai airport, immediately you know this is the third world. It is hot, sticky, and incredibly confusing. Getting a taxi was a bizarre process that seemed to involve giving everyone in sight a tip. The drive from the airport to the Park Lane Sheraton, 17 kilometers away, was absolutely insane. I am only sure that two things on the taxi worked: the gas and the horn. Anything else was up for grabs. Sometimes the driver hit the horn for no apparent reason; perhaps he was testing to make sure that it still worked. The cab had no windshield wipers, and the pollution was so thick that it formed on the windscreen like driving through drizzle. The driver had a greasy rag on the seat next to him which he used to alternately wipe his nose and the windscreen, both inside and out, while driving. At one point we almost hit two pedestrians - I am pretty sure the driver was aiming for them. This is an experience that Disney will never recreate. The air was so thick it was hard to see, let alone breathe. I pulled the sleeve of my tee shirt out and attempted to hold it over my nose and mouth to grab a few breaths.

Though it was late at night, there were many people about. Most of them seemed to be burning piles of trash at the side of the road. If they weren't tending fires, they were just standing around or milling about, as if waiting for a bus to come by. Between the darkness, the pollution, the speed, and the state of the windows, it was basically impossible to see what the scenery looked like beyond the edges of the road.

When I got to the hotel, all the power was out. It came and went and came and went for the next 1/2 hour, then finally stabilized. I was put in a room on the 11th floor, which appeared to be one floor above the lobby. Perhaps the floor wasnít "11", but rather "1 plus 1". I could easily hear the hotel's disco, which stays open till 2am. One nice feature was that each pillow had a different texture and density, so you could mix and match at will. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not.

Before heading to bed I made a phone call to my hotel in Port Blair to make sure that they had my reservation. I had exchanged some email with the captain of my dive boat who said he would make a reservation for me, but it never hurts to be sure. I had a very confusing conversation with someone at the hotel who couldnít tell me whether or not they had a reservation for me, but simply said over and over again that he would get me at the airport tomorrow. I guess if they are going to get me at the airport, itís a safe bet that I have a reservation.

Thursday April 13, 2000

Last night I got to the hotel around 12:30am and made it to sleep by 1am. But then I had to get up at 4:30 am to go back to the airport for my 6:45am flight to Port Blair, Andamans. I am definitely sick. Even though I was completely blotto, I didnít actually sleep; I just lay there for 4 hours in a daze. Checking out I made an amazing discovery: there was a 35% tax on my room. But it works out to be more than just 35% because it is actually a 10% tax plus 25% luxury tax, where the luxury tax is based on the rack room rate, not on what you actually pay. My Sheraton stay was US$88 for the room, plus US$45 tax, making the actual tax rate 51%! Clearly the Indian government has learned how to soak foreign businessmen.

Along the way back to the airport, I learned that there is a Radisson 3km from the airport. Everything I researched in books and on the web indicated that the Sheraton was the closest hotel to the airport, 17km away. 17km didnít seem like a big deal when I made my booking, but it takes 1/2 an hour to go that distance in Chennai, even at the hell-for-bent speed that the taxis go.

The Chennai airport has the same weird system as in Florence, making you wait out in the main check-in hall, where there are a lot of people and few seats, until they call for your flight to go through security. Then there is a mad dash as everyone on your flight floods security all at once, and you are then allowed through to a huge, empty departures lounge with tons of comfortable seats. Why? God knows. Fortunately I noticed an electronic sign indicating which flights were allowed through. It included my flight long before the announcement for it, so I was able to go through security during a leisurely lull, and sit in relative comfort in the departures lounge.

It was a completely uneventful flight. The plane was 2/3 full in coach, almost empty in business class. Port Blair is the only place where one can enter the Andaman Islands, and there are only two airlines that fly to Port Blair: Indian Airlines and Jet Airways. They both charge exactly the same fare, but Indian Airlines only flies three times a week and has a reputation for canceling flights. Jet Airways flies every day and always goes. Unfortunately, both airlines only fly early in the morning. Needless to say, I was on the Jet Airways flight, with a ticket that I had gone to great lengths to purchase in Bangkok a couple months earlier.

The Port Blair airport has a runway capable of landing a 737, but the airport building is hardly more than a run-down ranch-style house. After landing, the occupants of the plane are ushered into a 15 foot by 15 foot room, where we milled about waiting for our luggage. When it arrived, a couple of attendants handed our bags to us over a makeshift counter. While waiting for the bags I filled out the form and got my special permit to stay in the Andaman Islands. I'm not sure why India bothers with this; it is clearly just a formality that involved very little. While waiting I met a very cool British guy named Charlie who was also here for the diving, but not involved with my diving boat.

When I got my bags and headed out the door of the arrivals room, it was instant insanity. To make matters more confusing, there were two different people holding up signs with my name on them. The first was from the Sinclairs Bay View Hotel, where I had my reservation. The second was from my dive boat. The dive boat guy told me that my friend PJ (whom I had met diving in Thailand) was waiting for me. Since I figured the dive boat people were more "official" than the hotel people, I went with the dive boat guy. To my surprise, they took me to the Megapode Nest Tourist Complex hotel, not the Sinclairs Bay View hotel that had been promised. The Lonely Planet Guide calls the Megapode Nest a "mid-range" hotel and "a good value at 550 rupees for a large air-con double." To me it looked like a very low-end guest house, with bare, unadorned rooms, working air conditioning, and padlocks on the doors. The rate they were charging me was 750 rupees (US$17.20). I've stayed in places that were worse, but being exhausted and sick I really wanted my high-end hotel. I found PJ, talked with him for a few minutes, then decided to check out the Sinclairs Bay View. It took a very long time for the shuttle car to return, during which time the hotel refunded me my 750 rupees.

The Megapode Nest and the Sinclairs Bay View turned out to be pretty far away from each other. When I finally got to the Sinclairs Bay View is was more than tired. The heat, travel, lack of sleep, and impending illness were conspiring to bring me to heretofore unknown levels of exhaustion. It reminded me of finals week freshman year at college. Thus, I was almost brought to tears when I found that the Sinclairs Bay View hotel is horrendous. I checked in without even asking to see a room, then made my way to my 6th floor walkup. Thankfully the porter carried my bags. The 2000 rupee (US$46) room was certainly no better than at the Megapode Nest, and in many ways it was far worse. The air-conditioning was broken, there were ants and insect droppings all over the bathroom, and the room was substantially smaller. At this point I did not care at all. It was a room with a bed, and I knew where my priorities lay. Sleep was the order of the day. I got my bags from the porter, asked him to find out about getting the air conditioning repaired, gave him a tip which was huge for India but tiny for America, and fell fast asleep.

I woke up some hours later feeling somewhat better. I decided to go out and have a look at the Aberdeen Bazaar to see what an India marketplace looked like, and to see if I could find a power adapter, since it turns out that India does not use the same power plugs as England or Europe. On the way out I asked at the front desk if someone could take a look at my air conditioner while I was gone.

The Bazaar was complete pandemonium. Cars and trucks flying by honking their horns and belching smoke, people everywhere, little row shops selling all kinds of crap. There was very little in the way of fresh food (fruits, veggies, etc.) What little fresh food there was did not look good. The apples appeared to be rotten, everything was covered with flies. There was very little variety either: apples, grapes, bananas, mangoes and coconut were everywhere, but that was just about it. Two places had jackfruit, a few had papaya, one had something I didnít recognize, but that was all. None of the fruit looked good. Why can't they grow good fruit here? I've seen papaya trees covered with fruit next to the road. Odd. Of course, everywhere there were cows, goats and dogs eating the omnipresent trash in the streets.

I was neither disgusted nor horrified, I simply kept thinking to myself "I donít want to be here. I donít want to be here. I donít want to be here." Not a good sign.

There were at least a couple dozen little stalls and shops selling electronic stuff, but I had to visit every one before I finally found a shop that had a power strip that would covert from Indian plugs to American ones. The shop owner didnít even realize that he had it; I noticed the dusty package hanging from the ceiling as I was leaving. With my prized possession safely ensconced in my backpack, I went back out into the heat, dust and mayhem to buy water and Coca-Cola and look around more of the marketplace.

It was all awful. Full of trash and vile smells, plagued by flies and the exhaust fumes from cars, trucks and buses - hot, dusty, and oppressive. After a half an hour searching for some redeeming feature I gave up. There were a lot of taxis available around the market, but none of ones that looked like sturdy, dependable vehicles had drivers. The ones that had drivers looked like deathtraps. Eventually I chose the least dreadful looking deathtrap to take me back to the hotel.

Before I went up to the room to take another nap, I checked with the people at the front desk about the air conditioning. No one could recall that I had mentioned a problem with it. The man at the front desk said he would call someone about it. I went back upstairs, turned the ceiling fan on full blast and passed out. When I woke up I decided that it was time to take the bull by the horns and deal with some of the problems with the room. There were no towels, the air conditioner wasnít working because it had no plug (just bare wires that at one time had been shoved into the wall socket), there was a candle (for power failures) but no matches, the television didn't work, and there wasnít even a phone to call down and complain. I went down the six flights to the front desk and asked to see the manager. After waiting five minutes the man who had checked me in came out. I listed my problems with the room. He nodded his head, smiled, and said "Oh yes sir, I will get the phone fixed right away sir." "Uh, the phone isn't broken, there is no phone." "I can fix the phone for you, no problem." "But there is no phone to fix." Arrghh.

Finally, I basically dragged him up to my room and showed him the lack of a phone. While I was there I also showed him the bare wires dangling from the air conditioner and the state of the television reception. Once they got in motion, I must say things really started to move. Towels and soap showed up in my room, the manager came back with a telephone, a new television (and then another and another as the replacements failed to work), a new cable-TV wire for the television, and an electrician to fix the air conditioning. It was quite a scene, but eventually everything was working. Along the way the electrician showed me how to pull out and reinsert the fuses in the fuse box to make the air conditioning restart when it mysteriously shut off. Of course right after everyone had left I discovered that the toilet wasnít working, and half an hour after we got the air conditioning going, the power went out. Oh well.

I took the opportunity of the power being out to go off and see the Colona II, the boat that will be my home for the next 10 days. Wow, is this a small boat. Apparently it will be quite full too, with 7 guests (one not diving) and 3 help. I rarely get claustrophobic, but I could barely stand to be in my bedroom. I will be bunking with Freddy, the captain of the boat and divemaster. He gleefully told me that he snores loudly. There are common areas to spend time in, but the outside deck is pretty well covered with stuff, providing very little top space. The dive ladder is really long, and looks like it would be a painful haul up out of the water. All the equipment looks worn. I had been lead to believe that they had been diving these waters for a couple of years now, and their descriptions on the web had me drooling to dive here. But in talking with Freddy he told me that he had just gotten there 5 days earlier. They had only done a little diving during the last two days to check it out. I'm liking this less and less. On the one hand this is true adventure tourism. On the other hand, this relatively small boat was rocking while anchored in the completely sheltered harbor. The last three sets of dives I have done were less than pleasant for me due to the waves. I never actually got seasick, but nonetheless I felt uncomfortable, which made the dives less than comfortable. All the while I'm thinking "I donít want to be here, I donít want to do this."

Back at my hotel room I had some very serious thinking to do. I had spent considerable effort getting here, and a substantial amount of money. I had been looking forward to this and planning it for months and months. New wet suit. New masks. Fancy custom regulator mouthpiece. On and on. Planning, researching, booking hotels, arranging flights, getting visas. Simply getting here has been a major undertaking. But here I am with a head cold coming on, looking at a boat that is making me uncomfortable, in a situation that is not what I had been sold. I donít want to be here, I donít want to do this. Perhaps caution is the better part of valor. Or perhaps I am being a complete and total wimp. I'm really not a boat person. Five days on a boat twice that size and I wanted to be on land. I'm sure 10 days will be torture. I can't believe this will be the second time I've pulled the "rip cord" on a vacation this year. I donít like what that says about me. However, I donít like the looks of that boat, or its equipment either.

In the evening I went downstairs to see if the restaurant was serving dinner yet, which it was not. "Maybe 8 o'clock." Maybe?!? Good grief. I'd like to be asleep at 8:00. So I sat down on the concrete steps of the hotel and laughed. To my surprise, Charlie King, the guy I had met at the airport that morning, showed up and sat down. Lighting up a cigarette he asked me how my day had gone here in Port Blair. I told him about my impressions of insane pandemonium at the Aberdeen Bazaar, and about my quandary over the dive trip. He laughed and with a clear sigh of relief said, "This place is just awful isn't it. I walked around all day and it is just miserable here. I'm getting out of here as soon as I can!" He told me that he had been planning on spending several days in Port Blair doing some day-dives, but not any more. He had learned that Havelock Island was really nice and there was a boat leaving at 6:30am the next morning. Apparently there is a dive operation on Havelock that is run by two Swedes. Coincidentally Freddy had mentioned the Havelock operation earlier in the day, saying that their compressor was broken and had been for weeks because this place was "so damned remote" that it took forever to get parts. "Can you imagine, you've got to spend half an hour to get to the only telephone on the damned island (Havelock). How're you going to run an operation in a place like that?" I warned Charlie about what Freddy had said, but he said he had been told that the dive operation was running. I hope he's right. I gave him my card and he promised to tell me how it is. I considered going too, but I still donít feel well, and I'm not in the mood to get cranial malaria right now.

By 9pm they still haven't opened up the restaurant for dinner. Showing my anger, they tell me that though the restaurant isn't serving, they can send room service up to my room. I implore them to send something, anything, up. The curried chicken and mutton is horrendous, so I eat mostly rice and hit the hay. An hour later they wake me up to collect the plates from my meal... they need the silverware back at the restaurant. I guess maybe they finally decided to serve dinner down there.

Friday April 14, 2000

I woke up with the dawn as an army of local roosters took up non-stop crowing. It is a picture perfect island-paradise day outside my window. Bright sun, a few puffy clouds, clear blue surf lapping at the shore, wind blowing the palm trees growing out of a pile of rubbish on the ground below. Strings of tattered clothing flap about merrily from lines strung between collapsing concrete pillbox shacks. At 6am it is about 35 degrees Celsius outside. Truly idyllic. Having slept on it, there's no way I'm going out on a tiny little boat for 10 days. The most time I've ever spent at sea was 5 days (twice) and each time I've done that has been on boats 2 to 3 times bigger than the Colona II. I feel substantially better. My cold feels better, and my mood is better that I am not going on this trip. I really donít want to go.

I called Jet Airways to make sure I could fly out this morning. I assumed it wouldn't be a problem as the plane coming in had tons of space. Guess what. The flight is not just sold out, they say it is oversold. I can come down to the airport and try to get on, but there is very little chance. Oh crap. Well, I sure ain't staying another night at the Sinclairs Bay View. I grab the Lonely Planet and call Bay Island Hotel (the phone number in Lonely Planet is wrong, the correct number is 34101.) Lonely Planet calls Bay Island "the top hotel in Port Blair." Of course, they are booked solid for tonight. Grrrrr. Next up is Peerless Resort, which LP calls "small and overpriced." They do have room, so I have a place to go if I cant get on the flight.

Down in the restaurant I am unable to find anyone. At the front desk they tell me I can get breakfast at the restaurant. Uh, but there's no one there. "Just go up to the restaurant, sir." I go back up to the restaurant and call out. The combination porter, waiter, desk clerk shows up and asks me what I want for breakfast. I order toast (dry) and tea. There is no way I'm going to touch the butter here. Breakfast is terrible, but what else is new.

My belly full, I resolved to do what it took to get out of here today. I've never bribed anyone in my life, but I couldnít think of a better time or place to start. I took two nice crisp 500 rupee notes (about US$23), slipped them into my ticket, got a taxi, and headed to the airport.

The scene at the airport was absolutely amazing. Throngs of people milling about and crushing in great groups at one spot or another for reasons that were unfathomable to me. I had no idea what to do. After a couple of minutes of study it became clear that there was a door with the word "departures" over it, and that this was one of the few places that were relatively unoccupied. With some effort I made my way around the various groups of people to the door, where someone took my luggage from me and loaded it into a window before I was allowed to walk in the door. It turns out that the window leads into a luggage x-ray device and was then deposited in the middle of another throng of people on the other side. When I entered a stern looking guard pointed at my bags and asked if they were mine. When I said "yes", I was taken around to the side of the x-ray machine and quizzed at length about the wide variety of electronics I was carrying. The guard had a seriously incredulous look on his face as I matter-of-factly described my camera, travel clock, flashlight, dive computer, etc. Eventually he gave up his questioning and slapped stickers on my bags indicating that they had cleared security.

Now I faced what was either a mob, or four commingled lines. I could see the ticket agents, but wasnít sure how to get to them. A Jet Airways clad man walked by and I stopped him, asking if any of these were lines to check in. He indicated yes and pointed me at what might have been a line. Over the next 10 or 15 minutes my "line" hardly moved at all, but the rest of the mad world inside the departures area cleared up, resolving that there were in fact something like two lines leading up to two ticket counters. However, Indians seem to think nothing of lines. The reason my line basically wasnít moving while the rest of the room cleared was that people from all over were jumping in at the front of the line, throwing their bags on the check-in scale, and waving their tickets in the agent's face. After about 1/2 hour I was finally within 2 people of the front and started using my body to block people cutting in front. I was not prepared to jump in front myself, but I was prepared to defend my line. A little self-righteous indignation can go a long way in that kind of situation.

Finally I was up at the front. I handed my bribe-laced tickets to the agent. He opened it up and my bills fell out (I guess I should have practiced how this would work.) He picked them up and handed them to me saying "your money, sir", without any indication that he thought it might be for him. I said I wanted to change my ticket for today, and he basically repeated what I had been told on the phone. They plane was oversold, but I could wait and see if I wanted to. Wait where? For how long? When should I come back? Basically, wait somewhere for a while and come back later. I stepped back a couple paces and waited. At one point I caught the eye of a well dressed agent behind the counter who seemed to be "in charge." To my surprise he stepped forward and asked me what I needed. I said, "I need to change my ticket to this flight. I'll pay to upgrade to business class or first class... I'll pay to join your frequent flyer club... whatever I need to do to get on this flight." He took my ticket from me and handed it to the same gate agent who had earlier told me to wait. A minute later he handed me a boarding pass for a business class seat. I have no idea why. No upgrade fees, no issues. It took the ticket and ran!

The next mess was getting past Port Blair immigration where they wanted to know why I was leaving after one day when I had an entrance permission for 14 days. I lied and I told them I had developed a stomach sickness and had to leave. Then security scanned my carry on bag and thoroughly frisked me (which they did to everyone.) After my rub-down I was called over to explain the contents of my bag; specifically my walkman and computer. I pulled out my walkman (it was on top) and the guard asked me to show him the battery. I noticed that there was a table full of batteries to my right. I pulled out the battery and went to hand it to him, but he didnít seem to want it so I put it back in. I said, "do you want to see the computer?" Smiling broadly he replied, "that is OK sir, we trust you." I must say I was completely taken aback. Here they have all this security to get through and they actually find something kind of out-of-the-ordinary and decide that I am trustworthy so they donít need to see it. Go figure.

My seat 3A in business class was very nice. Business class was completely full, and from what I could see coach was full as well. I have no idea why I got a seat. Perhaps there was some confirmed ticket holder left fuming on the ground. Maybe I got lucky and got in "off the waiting list" ahead of some other hopeful waiter. Maybe there really was one open seat and they gave it to me. Regardless, I was on my way. When breakfast was served I pulled my tray table out of my seat arm. The Indian man in the seat next to me fumbled and pushed and pulled on various parts of his seat, finally looking at me and saying something unintelligible. This surprised me as I had noticed that he was reading a financial newspaper in English. Anyway, I figured out that he wanted to know how to get his tray table out. I tried to point, but he just didnít get it, so finally I put my table away and made a slow, careful show of taking it back out again. He successfully followed my lead, and I noticed that he watched me carefully as I opened the Ziplock baggie containing my silverware and pried the top off of the water container. Clearly a case of the surprised leading the uninformed.

At Chennai airport I made my way to the international wing and went searching for Singapore Airlines. There was no one at the check in counter (they donít have any flights in the morning) but I finally found their offices upstairs in the building. Of course, the flight to Singapore is completely sold out in all classes. They said they would try to see if I can get on in some class. That done I went over to the Radisson, conveniently located just 3km from the airport. They told me it would be $85 US to stay for the day, or $200 US if I wanted to stay for the night as well. I was shocked. The reception woman looked at me and asked if that was too much. I said "Yes, that is a lot." She said "OK, how about $85 for the day and $95 if I stay all night." A substantial drop in price which I readily accepted.

I went off to a pleasant room and prepared to wait out the day. The flight from Port Blair had gotten me in at 11:30am, but the flight out to Singapore wasnít until 11:20pm at night. In my original travel plans I had intended to sightsee in Chennai during my layover, but I was not up for it. I just wanted to hide out until I was able to get out of India. Of course, if I didnít make it onto the plane tonight, that would mean waiting until tomorrow night. Sigh. In any case, I settled in, took a really long shower, and then headed down to the hotel's restaurant for some lunch.

As it turns out, two of the hotel's three restaurants were closed for renovations. Only the lobby "café" was open, serving a buffet lunch. Most of it looked toxic, much of it I didnít want to touch let alone eat. I managed to put together a plate of palatable sustenance then retreated to the safety of my room. The day was spent napping, writing, and watching unimaginably bad Indian movies on TV. When it was dinnertime I headed back down to the restaurant for another meal that does not bear description, then again back to my room.

On the telephone, the representatives of Singapore Airlines couldnít tell me if I would make it on the plane or not, but suggested that if I wanted to have any chance at all, I'd better come to the airport, and I should arrive very early. With that in mind I packed up and took the hotel shuttle back to the airport at about 8pm - more than three hours early for my 11:20 flight. The hotel told me that if I couldnít get on the plane and came back to stay for the night, they would treat it as though I hadn't left.

At the airport Singapore Airlines still had no idea whether or not I would make it onto the flight. Of course, since I was not actually on a flight, I wasnít allowed to go through security, and I therefore wasnít allowed to use the Singapore Airlines lounge, even though I was the proud owner of a business class ticket that I hoped would get me on a plane. As a result, I ended up spending the next three hours sitting in the check-in area at the airport, reading, sweating, and talking with the few Indians that seemed willing to speak with me. It was in one of these conversations that I learned that today was a major holiday in Chennai, which accounted for the fullness of the flights in and out of the city. Every hour or so I would get up, go over to the Singapore Airlines counter, queue up, wait while people cut in line in front of me, and then find out that they couldnít tell me if I would make the plane or not. Fortunately, I had a pretty good book with me, Tim Cahill's, A Wolverine is Eating My Leg, a book of adventure travel stories, most of which were far more harrowing than mine.

At 10:40 I was in line at the Singapore Airlines counter again as they were closing up shop. I got to the front of the line as they were taking down the "Singapore Airlines" sign, rolling up the carpet, and shutting off the lights. 10:40pm was the official "last call" time for the 11:20 flight, which was their last flight out for the night. They still did not know if there would be room on the plane, but this time they told me to wait here while an agent went into the back room. At a couple minutes before 11pm they handed me my ticket for a seat in business class - the last seat in any class anywhere on the plane! The only question now was if 20 minutes was enough time to make it through customs and security and actually get to the plane before the door closed. Needless to say there was a huge line at customs, though here people were behaved and didnít cut in line (much.) Every person in the line in front of me had something wrong with their paperwork requiring multiple officers to get it worked out. Mercifully, when it was my turn the process took mere seconds. Security was dutifully thorough, making sure I didnít have anything inappropriate anywhere on my body, but ignoring my computer and Walkman. I donít know if I was the last person to board the plane or not, but it sure felt that way.

The relief I felt as I sank into that wonderful Singapore Airlines business class seat was indescribable. I turned to the American businessman sitting next to me and said "I've never wanted to leave a country so badly." Laughing, he asked, "First time, eh?" "Yeah", I replied. "I felt the same way the first time I went to India," he said, "You get used to it after a few years."

 

Postscript:

I got an email from Charlie King about his experiences on Havelock Island. Here is what he had to say:

Havelock island was idyllic on a Ďsun drenched paradiseí level. The diving, however, was only average. I did 3 dives and quite a bit of snorkelling. The snorkelling was better than the diving. Most of the time the visibility was poor, and a lot of the coral was dead. I am certain that I was just unlucky, however, as some of the other divers reported schools of sharks, turtles and rays. The most exciting things I saw were a couple of small stingrays. One guy saw 12 small sharks in a school. He told me Papau New Guinea is the place to go!

On the plus side the diving school on No.7 beach was an excellent set-up. The Swiss blokes who run it were hard drinking/smoking maniacs - very entertaining - I thoroughly recommend the Ďresortí if you donít mind lots of mosquitoes and very basic accommodation. ( www.andamanscubaclub.com - donít bother e-mailing them, they have to borrow someoneís computer and they deleted the contents of their inbox while I was there. Apparently they do respond to faxes occasionally.) The whole place had a very good feeling about it, beautiful, quiet, and without question the best part of my trip. Particularly after the disappointment of that shithole Port Blair. Some people said the diving around Port Blair was as good as on Havelock. Rumours abound that Havelock is going to be taken over by the navy next year, and one of the other islands is going to be turned into a Maldives-like megacomplex for the Ďqualityí tourist market.

© 2000, Andrew Sigal



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