I spent the past few days visiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a Union Territory of India located about 800 miles away from Kolkata. Straddling the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, the islands are famous for their world-class beaches, lush scenery, and water activities–specifically scuba diving! Rachna and I spent a total of five nights on the islands: three nights in Port Blair, the capital city, and two nights on Havelock Island. I was particularly taken by the diversity of the islands. While metropolitan cities of India are known for being regionally diverse, I did not expect that the Andamans would be home to so many different groups of Indians! Over the course of our time there, we met Bengalis, Tamils, Telugu people, Malayalis, Northerners and of course, tribals. On the same street, you might find a Guru Nanak grocery, Sai Baba gym, and Murugan Medical shop sprinkled with several signboards in Telugu, Hindi, Bangla, and Tamil as well! Almost everyone speaks Bangla so I was excited to continue practicing the language and especially happy when people asked me whether I was Bengali.
Many of the internal immigrants in the Andamans are either first or second-generation islanders. However, some of them are the descendants of the many freedom fighters who were jailed at Port Blair during the war of independence. Cellular Jail, in Port Blair, is a must-visit but sobering site. Hundreds of Indian nationalists were imprisoned in solitary confinement in the massive bicycle-wheel shaped prison. The architecture of the prison is such that no prisoner can see or contact any other prisoner. Day in and day out, the men were subjected to cruel punishments, starved into submission, and tortured to death. The prison stands now as a symbol of British rule in India and the light and sound show played every evening is a homage to the brave nationalists who fought for India’s freedom.
Besides Cellular Jail, there is little to see or do in Port Blair itself. Outside the city, however, there are quite a number of lovely beaches and hikes all over South Andaman Island. Port Blair is well connected to all parts of the island by government bus–the bus service is both reliable and affordable and we were glad to forgo the hassle of renting a car/driver.
The best beach we visited on South Andaman Island was Wandoor Beach. We took the 6 AM bus there and had the coast all to ourselves until late in the morning. The beach lies close to a crocodile preserve but luckily, we had no run-ins! Rachna and I could hardly believe that the beach was even in India–incredibly clean, well maintained, and no crowds? It seemed too good to be true.
Other than Wandoor Beach, we enjoyed visiting Chidiyatapu, a picturesque spot to watch the sunset. The Marina Walk, a 3 mile hike right by the harbor is worth a wander as well.
While South Andaman Island was lovely, it could in no way compare to the beauty of Havelock. We took an early morning ferry over to Havelock and spent the better part of 3 days hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and even scuba diving! (In the U.S., you can’t scuba dive without certification; In India, a 30-minute training course is more than enough to get underwater). We stayed at the Emerald Gecko, a backpacker’s haven and were able to sleep in little cottages on the edge of the sand. Because Havelock Island is internationally renowned for its reefs and beaches, we met tons of foreigners and the restaurants too catered to foreign palates (falafel, margarita pizza, garlic pastas, etc.). Havelock’s most famous beach, Radhanagar, was voted the best beach in Asia by TIME magazine in 2004–the waves, sand, and scenery definitely made it a heavenly spot.
While our time in the Andamans was adventure-heavy, I also had some time to reflect on the infrastructure of the islands–specifically the importance of regular public transit. For many of the marginal island communities, buses are the only way to get to the cities and ports and get in touch with the wider world. Many places are cut off from 6 PM (last bus) to 7 AM (first bus) every single day which is a lengthy amount of time were an emergency to occur! Buses also function as a unofficial carrier service–many people drop off goods with the conductor to pass off at a later stop. When there’s barriers to other modes of transit (uber, private car, scooter, etc.), public buses really are a lifeline. [Of course, in an ideal scenario, even those who can afford more costly options also vie to lessen their environmental impact through taking mass transit.] I am a huge fan of mass transit in India (not always convenient–but always a cheap and readily available option) and the Andamans reflected the mainland on this front.
All in all–a beautiful location and a unique part of India. Were I to go back, I would cut down on time spent in Port Blair and maybe even toss another island into the mix (Neil Island is supposed to be beautiful as well). For foreigners traveling on research visas, know that the Andamans are open to you! (I had a lot of trouble figuring out whether or not I would be allowed entry into the islands–luckily everything worked out in time). As they say, all’s well that ends well!