Saturday, March 14, 2009

March 12, 2009 - Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India

On Thursday morning we busied ourselves with projects on the boat while we waited for the Coast Guard to come aboard and do their inspection. Around 10, they called us and advised that they were coming alongside. We watched as they pulled up to the motorboat in front of us. Perhaps word had gotten out that that's where the gifts were coming from. So we waited. An hour later, Coast Guard called us again, and said they were coming. Three officers boarded us and sat in the cockpit to collect paperwork from us, fill out documents and ask us questions. They seemed particularly interested in whether we had sonar. We don't have forward-looking sonar or even a fish-finder. All we have is a depth-sounder. They returned to the topic of sonar a few times during the interview, which only lead us to wonder what was on the bottom of the ocean around here that they don't want us looking at.

Once Coast Guard was done, we were cleared to go ashore and meet the Harbor Master. Unfortunately, it was now lunchtime, so we couldn't meet the Harbor Master until mid-afternoon. While we waited, Ravi, the taxi driver who is deservedly popular with cruisers who visit these islands, took us to lunch at the New India Cafe. Over lunch, we reviewed with Ravi our proposed itinerary, which listed the islands we intended to visit during our 30 day trip to the Andamans.

When applying for an India Visa overseas, many Indian embassies will offer to affix a special Andamans Islands endorsement to your visa. Unfortunately, that endorsement is only for 15 days. It is much better to get the visa without the endorsement. You should be issued a 30 day permit upon arrival as we were. Luckily for us (although unfortunate for them), some cruisers arrived this season with the 15 day limitation. After spending 5 of those 15 days in Port Blair dealing with officialdom, that only left them 10 days to cruise. They wanted to visit some islands on the west side of the Andamans, but didn't have enough time to sail around Middle and North Andaman to reach them. There is a shortcut: the Humphrey Strait, a narrow channel bordered by lands occupied by indigenous hunter-gathers who prefer to live in isolation. However, the Strait had been off limits to yachts due to the actions of a yachty who trespassed upon tribal lands. Sympathizing with the 15 day visa holders, the Harbor Master prevailed upon the police to allow yachts to traverse the Humphrey Strait to reach the west coast.

When Ravi told us that we could go through the Strait, we were thrilled. We immediately revised our proposed itinerary to include an island on the west coast. Unfortunately, this made us subject to the jurisdiction of the Forestry Department. Our dealings with Customs, Immigration, and the Coast Guard were all straightforward and fairly painless. The Forestry Department would be another kettle of fish entirely.

After lunch we did some fresh provisioning and visited a fishing store so that Sten could buy some hooks. Ravi has definite opinions about where to buy the freshest eggs, onions, limes, chicken, curd (yogurt), etc. He drove us all over town while we waited for the Harbor Master to return from lunch. As we zipped around Port Blair in the back of a 30 year old Ambassador, we saw women wearing saris of every color imaginable: yellow, orange, bright pink, lime green, turquoise, purple, etc. They were all wearing their wealth on their fingers and wrists, around their necks, and in their ears. I felt underdressed wearing my best skirt, a cotton shirt, wedding ring and a pair of small earrings. The young men of Port Blair seem to favor a hairstyle that would have made Elvis proud. I could only wonder how they kept their poofs from getting crushed by their motorcycle helmets.

There were two sights in Port Blair that repeatedly made us crack up. The first was the cows that wander freely through town. They rest at street corners, or along the edge of the road. Occasionally we would be stopped at an intersection, only to look over and see a cow standing in a crosswalk, judging the traffic, trying to decide when to cross the road. The other sight that I couldn't get enough of was the uniquely Indian head movement that is a half shake, half nod, executed on the diagonal. It seems to be used as everything from a greeting to a tentative acceptance of some suggestion or offer. I pointed it out to Ravi and said that I hadn't seen that anywhere else. Ravi just laughed. A moment later he claimed that some old cows will start doing the gesture, imitating their owners. I couldn't tell if he was pulling my leg or not.

Mid-afternoon on Thursday we met with the Harbor Master to review our proposed itinerary. In his large, well air conditioned office, we discussed our plans. He advised us that we couldn't anchor at one of the islands that we had chosen, as it was tribal land. He took us over to his chart table and with his help, we were able to pick out some alternative anchorages. As we were looking at the charts, Sten pointed to North Sentinel Island and asked if we could stop there (this is where the breakdown of the division of labor on board s/v Mata'irea breaks down - when I fail to fully share what I've discovered while researching destinations). The Harbor Master just laughed and shook his head at us, saying, "Oh no, you can not anchor there, the tribal people who live there are very fierce." That was an understatement. The Sentinelese have consistently rebuffed all attempts by outsiders to contact them. They respond to gifts of coconuts, bananas and pigs with hailstorms of spears and arrows. There is an amazing picture taken from a relief agency helicopter just after the tsunami of a Sentinelese aiming a spear at the chopper. These fierce people want to be left alone. They would prefer to deal with whatever nature throws at them rather than assimilate with modern man. That these stone age people continue to exist, living the same way they have for eons, is simply remarkable. We won't be making any attempts to contact them. We had a pleasant visit with the Harbor Master, who is, as Ravi says, a good man. I'd call him a class act.

As soon as the Harbor Master gave us his permission to depart Port Blair and cruise the islands, we headed over to Forestry to get the appropriate permit. We didn't arrive at their office until around 3:30 on Thursday afternoon. We were led to a large, crowded office lined with desks piled with ledgers. There must have been 20 people working in that office. We were brought to the official who had the only clear desk in the room. I handed him a full complement of our documentation (ships papers, crew list, passport copies, proposed itinerary, 30 Day Permit from Immigration, Customs clearance, and Coast Guard Clearance) topped with a cover letter requesting that we be granted a permit to visit North Cinque and Interview Islands. He flipped through the papers and then started to mock up a sample request letter for us to write. Okay, clearly we weren't communicating well. I showed him the request letter that I'd already prepared, addressed as he was instructing. He accepted it and told us to come back at 4:00 tomorrow to receive our permit. As it was already so late in the day, we didn't feel that we could argue that the permit be produced that day. Picking up some curry puffs and samosas at the locally famous Anumod Bakery for our dinner, we headed back to the boat.

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