Monday, March 30, 2009

March 25, 2009 - Homfray Strait, Andamans, India

After several idyllic days among the Button Islands, it was time to turn west for an inland adventure. From North Button we had a quick hop to Long Island, a destination known for its plywood factory rather than its iced tea. As soon as we dropped anchor and turned off the engine, we could hear the loud hum of a power plant. Only a few miles from deserted paradise, and how different things were! Ashore, we were confronted with old, unpainted wooden clapboard buildings lining either side of the road. We felt like we had stepped back in time into the wild west. But the plastic litter coating the ground assured us that we were still in 2009.

Near the Forestry Office (Forestry seems to run the show around here), men were gathered by a tea stand where a woman in a bright blue sari and lots of gold jewelry was making cha. We were welcomed by the men and joined them for a cup of tea before continuing our hunt for some fresh fruit, veg and eggs. After completing our shopping we were on the way back to the boat when a Forestry officer stopped us and asked to see our paperwork. We hadn't brought any ashore with us and we weren't excited about making a trip back ashore just to present papers. Luckily, our passport numbers and boat details are permanently emblazoned upon my brain after filling out countless clearance forms, so we supplied those instead. The funniest thing about this encounter was the way the Forestry officer kept calling Sten "boss." Was this some vestige of British Colonialism?

This morning we left Long Island just after dawn to head for the entrance of the Homfray Strait, a narrow lane of water that separates South Andaman from Middle Andaman and which provides access to the islands to the west of Middle and North Andaman. The strait is uncharted. To navigate the strait we relied upon the GPS waypoints provided in Tui Tai's Andaman Cruising Notes (which is available on s/v Crystal Blues' website) and the mudmap in the Andaman Sea Pilot. Perhaps without one or the other, transiting the strait would have been a challenge, but with both at hand, it was a fairly straightforward exercise. Our adventure wouldn't begin until we were nearly out of the strait.

Navigating the strait only caused us a few moments of anxiety. The first was when we found ourselves too close to the edge of the channel with less than 2 feet of water under the keel. The second was when we were just about to pass under the power lines, which, contrary to what the Andaman Sea Pilot says, are very much in existence. Mata'irea has a fairly tall rig, so passing under anything makes us anxious. But luckily for us, Tui Tai is also a Tayana 48. If they could make it under the power lines, well, then we should be able to as well. At least that is what we were telling ourselves as we stared up at the power lines passing overhead. But from our vantage point in the cockpit, they looked like they were only inches from the top of the mast.

Just west of the power lines is a pier. As we passed by, one of the men standing on the pier called out to us to ask if we had a permit. We called back that we had permission from the Harbor Master in Port Blair. He pointed down at the ground in a gesture that seemed to indicate that he wanted us to stop and show him our papers, but the current was sweeping us by so quickly that pulling up to a concrete pier hung about with old tires simply wasn't an option. We just waved and called back that we were passing through without stopping.

After the pier, we had a few miles to go to the exit of the strait. Along this stretch, we kept company with several small fishing boats, some powered by the ubiquitous single cylinder diesel, but many were powered by men, standing up to row with a single oar resting in a chest-high Y-shaped oarlock. After a few miles, the fishing boats all turned south into the Andaman Strait and we continued west into tribal territory.

At the Anthropology Museum in Port Blair we learned that the six indigenous tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are classified as either Asiatic or Negroid. It is easily understandable how the ancestors of the Asiatic tribes, such as the Shompen and Nicobarese, might have migrated up from Sumatra, Malaysia or Burma (Myanmar) by canoe. The distances are not that far and the currents and winds are favorable for such a migration (at least during some of the year). But anthropologists (and we) are completely puzzled as to how the black tribes of the Andamans, including the Sentinelese, Andamanese, Onge, and Jarawa came to arrive in the islands. Africa is simply a very long ways away.

Of all the tribes, only the Nicobarese (30,000 strong), who have adopted western ways and converted to Christianity, are thriving. The populations of the other five tribes have been decimated by their contact with westerners over the past two centuries. There are currently approximately 380 Shompen, 270 Jarawa, 250 Sentinelese and 100 Onge. And sadly, from a population of 7,000 in the 1800's, there are now fewer than 40 Andamanese left. The surviving Andmanese have been forcibly resettled on an island designated as a breeding center in an effort to keep them from becoming extinct. Loss of territory and access to hunting grounds and freshwater due to forest clearance and settlement programs continue to have a detrimental effect on the ability of each of these tribes to thrive.

The remaining members of the Jarawa tribe live along the wild west coasts of South and Middle Andaman and the land surrounding the western terminus of the Homfray Strait. A history of threats from outsiders have made them hostile. In the 1950's, the local commissioner requested that Jarawa settlements be bombed. In the 1970's, the main road connecting the central islands cut them off from hunting grounds and access to freshwater. In the 1980's and 1990's loggers, road builders, settlers and poachers encroached on Jarawa land, only to be met with fierce resistance. In an incident involving 11 Burmese poachers, six limped out of the jungle with horrible injuries, two bodies were recovered, and the remaining three were never found. Jarawa raids on nearby settlements during the 19990's culminated in an attack on a police outpost in March of 1998. Since then, the local government has implemented policies to minimize contact between the Jarawa and outsiders. Nobody is permitted inside tribal areas. When traveling roads that boarder tribal land, buses are usually escorted by armed guards. Knowing all of this, we were humbled that the Harbor Master trusted us to pass through tribal territory without bothering the Jarawa.

As we approached the exit of the Homfray Strait, the first indication that we were in tribal territory was a large thatched roof among the trees along the northern bank. Then, we noticed a group of men walking along the shore. Some were carrying baskets. Others had bows and arrows slung over their shoulders. The first Jarawa to notice us motoring past his village was a naked young black boy standing on a rocky outcrop. He notched an arrow into his bow, lifted it towards us, and simultaneously raised a cry to alert other members of his tribe. A trio of men, dressed in a variety of colorful shirts (including one anachronistic Mets jersey) and shorts, two of which were wearing thick white headbands, and one of whom was sporting a pair of electric blue sunglasses, ran out onto the next rock ledge carrying bows and arrows. They hooted and hollered. They waved. They demonstrated their accuracy with their weapons by shooting at fish with their bows and arrows. One stripped off his clothing and jumped in place. Several marked our passing by taking a leak. Perhaps as members of a tribe that has been deprived of so much of its former territory, they were marking it. Their behavior was alternately welcoming and threatening. We couldn't decide if they wanted us to stop and visit or if they were making sure we moved on. However, if our promises to the Harbor Master hadn't been enough to deter us from stopping, their reputation and obvious skill with their weapons was. So we continued past them, headed out of the strait and turned north towards Interview Island, completely thrilled at having had a brief glimpse of such a mysterious people.

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