Friday, April 17, 2009

April 9, 2009 - Port Blair, Andamans, India

After three weeks of fending for ourselves, our first order of business upon arrival back in Port Blair on Monday was to go find somebody else to make us a meal. We wound up at the Lighthouse, whose reputation is much better than its food, for a late lunch of westernized versions of some of our Indian favorites. After we stuffed ourselves, the next order of business was to get online.

For the past three weeks, as we have analyzed GRIB files (weather files that we download over our HF radio), we have been growing increasingly concerned about the potential for tropical storm activity in the Bay of Bengal on our upcoming run to the Maldives. We tried and failed to find decent tropical forecasts for the Indian Ocean in Saildocs (publications that we can download in text format over the HF radio). So finding a good tropical forecast that we can receive in text format was at the top of our pre-departure checklist. After several hours of internet research, Sten found a good resource, which Sailmail users can download in text format by sending a Saildocs Query with the request "send".

The rest of that first afternoon back in Port Blair was filled with what would be the first of three runs to the gas station to fill jerry cans with diesel and a stop at the bakery to load up on more bujah mix, one of our favorite happy hour snack foods.

The next morning, Ravi (the best agent who isn't an agent) brought us a treat for breakfast when he stopped by to drop off a battered looking FedEx package containing the world's most outrageously marked up set of watermaker brushes. Thin, flaky roti was dipped in a mild tomato and roasted pepper curry. It sounds like an odd thing to eat in the morning, but I was so into it that I managed to get it all over my shirt and skirt and had to change before we headed into town to search for more reasonably priced backup carbon brushes just in case the OEM replacements wear out again. After finding some brushes that Sten can modify to use if he needs to, Ravi took him back to the boat so that he could install the OEM replacements. Meanwhile, I was hanging out at an internet cafe loading pictures to the blog. When I finished, we picked up Sten and headed back to ASM Hotel for a tasty lunch with Ravi and a crowd of local men. I'm not sure where all the women who work in Port Blair eat lunch, but we haven't seen any women in any of the restaurants unless they are with their families.

On Wednesday morning, Ravi took Sten off to get his bad Thai haircut, which had not improved with age, modified into something less bushy and startling. Meanwhile, I was at the hospital, restocking our medical kit at third world prices. An appointment with a generalist, consult with a specialist, and getting three prescriptions filled cost a grand total of $12. Once again, skipping the international health insurance has turned out to be the right call.

Sten, who has a reverence for wood, has been admiring the local hardwood. It is beautifully figured stuff and could be turned into heirloom quality furniture. When the guys picked me up, there had clearly been some decisions made in the absence of my womanly influence ("and just where do you think you are going to store that?"). And with that, I suddenly found myself once again among piles of wood with sawdust at my feet as we searched at local cabinetmakers' shops for a suitable piece to take home.

Now, the boat does not have an infinite amount of space. And we keep acquiring things like big pieces of PVC pipe (don't ask) and the occasional souvenir. For months now we've had a running joke whenever we bring something new onboard in need of a place to be stored. "Oh, I'm planning to put it on your side of the bed," as where we sleep seems to be the only unoccupied space. As we were trying to figure out how to wedge this six foot long, 18 inch wide board into Ravi's cab, Sten preempted the obvious question by saying, "I'll put it on my side."

Rush hour at the local package store - Ravi is peeking through the low, barred windows trying to determine whether there is any beer available.

We are only planning to make a quick stop in the Maldives before pushing on to Chagos, where we will spend two months. The fresh fruit and vegetables in Port Blair are so inexpensive that they are practically being given away. So over the past few days we have loaded up on several kilos each of onions, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, limes, bananas and apples. The only thing that cost anything at all were the apples, but they are imported from Washington State, so I can understand why they cost 50 cents a piece. We'll top up in the Maldives, an arid place where the veggies are likely to be much more expensive. We also found walnuts at the local "supermarket" (a one room store with three short aisles stocked with basic dry goods and cleaning products) for about 1/3 the price I paid in Singapore. Between pancakes and oatmeal, we use walnuts in our breakfast most days of the week, so we can never have too many on board.

Our last full day in Port Blair was filled with clearance formalities. First, I spent a sociable two hours at the Harbor Master's building in a corner office, equipped with two desks and six chairs, that seems to always have at least two occupants, but more often six. Over several short, sweet cups of coffee, our fees were tallied. For thirty days of cruising the Andamans, our Harbor Fees totalled $44. The officers were almost apologetic about how much it came to, but then they did say that we had covered a lot of ground. "You've seen more of these islands than any of us."

With a piece of paper from the Harbor Master in hand, it was time to visit the Customs office. But silly me, a megayacht had arrived that morning. With so much potential booty to be had, why would any of the officers stay at the office? So we picked up Sten and had lunch while we waited for them to return. The day before we all gorged ourselves at the buffet at the Megapode Resthouse, a charming government-run (isn't that an oxymoron?) guesthouse. We managed to show a little more restraint during our last restaurant meal for a while, but only because we were planning to take anything leftover with us as passage eats. We would also make one last stop at the bakery at the end of the afternoon to stock up on curry puffs, cookies, cake and chips for passage.

After lunch we returned to the Customs office, but the officers were still out, so we did a few more errands before finally catching them back at the roost. After Customs, it was a quick stop at Immigration to drop off a letter requesting outwards clearance and a copy of the paperwork that I received from Customs. I made an appointment for the officers to come down to the dock the next morning to stamp our passports. All in all, outwards clearance was straightforward and easy (with Ravi taking me around and telling me what to do), but then Forestry wasn't part of the equation.

When we were done with the paperwork, Ravi insisted that we visit the Cellular Jail. The jail was built between 1896 and 1906 and was in use until 1945. During the struggle for independence from British colonial rule, the Cellular Jail housed revolutionaries, many of whom had been given life sentences of hard labor. Exhibits depicted the uniforms that prisoners and guards wore, the backbreaking work that was performed by prisoners and the punishments that were meted out. Some of the dioramas were pretty gruesome. One block contained a gallery of pictures of freedom fighters who were incarcerated in the jail and told the history of some of their deeds and how they came to "court martyrdom" within the walls of the prison, often as a result of force feedings during hunger strikes. The compound had the hushed atmosphere of a temple or cathedral. We saw several Indian families taking pictures in the doorways to jail cells. At first the practice seemed a bit macabre, but once we began to understand what the place meant to the history of the people of this nation, we realized that it was just like any American family taking a group photo in front of the Liberty Bell.

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