Sunday, May 21, 2017

Lost In The Andamans: Welcome to Port Blair (Ch 3/8)

The cabin crew of our Indigo flight 6E 188 from Chennai had just closed the food and beverage service, when we caught the first glimpse of the Andaman islands rising from the Bay of Bengal. Pristine, relatively unscathed by the scourge of civilization, almost 90 percent of the 8249 square kilometers of the Andaman and Nicobar islands is covered by dense green forests, lined by beautiful stretches of beaches with ivory white sands and sparkling, emerald green waters. A few minutes later, touch down!

Port Blair, the capital of the Union Territory and the port of entry to the islands, whether by ship or by plane, is a delightful city that reminded us of Panaji, the tiny capital of Goa. With a nice, small town feel to it, Port Blair’s citizens and administration have done a fantastic job keeping the city free from litter and garbage. Traffic is light, and disciplined. The town recently got a second 3 screen multiplex. And the tiny store, Blue Ink, is where you go to for shopping, if you forgot to pack those extra Tshirts!

But what it lacks in the trappings of a large city, Port Blair makes up for with some interesting tourist attractions, steeped in history and natural beauty.  

The Chatham Saw Mill, set up in 1883, is the largest and oldest saw mill in Asia, and is still operational, having survived intense bombing by the Japanese during WWII. A massive bomb pit, and a Japanese bunker greet you on the island. A tiny museum and a walk through the mill allow you a glimpse into how gigantic trees from the islands are sliced and diced by massive blades into the raw material for your ships, homes and furniture! The mill closes by 230 pm, so if you really want to visit it, it’s probably best to squeeze it in before lunch on the day you arrive, and are still getting warmed up!

Massive logs of Padauk wood at the Chatham Saw Mill
Processed wood awaiting shipping

Next up on our list was Cellular Jail (aka Kaala Paani), a nondescript star-shaped building built between 1896 and 1906, that served as the detention center for many of India’s freedom fighters, most notable of whom was Veer Savarkar. A star shaped building with seven radiating arms, three stories tall, and a central tower, each of the cells was designed such that the prisoners had no way of interacting with any other inmate, pushing them into solitary confinement. Only three of the arms remain today, the rest were considered too expensive to restore and were demolished to build a hospital. In 1942, the Japanese invaded the islands and took the British prisoners in the same jail, until the end of WWII in 1945. During this period, Subhash Chandra Bose paid a visit to the Jail.

A visitor’s gallery provides a glimpse into the history of the jail and its role in the Indian freedom struggle. The commentary by the local guide may tickle your spine, and the hangman’s noose may give you the creeps, but there is very little about the jail itself for me to recommend it as a must-visit.

Out of seven such arms of the Cellular Jail, only three remain today
Port Blair also has a few museums that are worth a visit if you have a little time to spare between your jaunts on the beaches! 30 min at the Anthropology Museum satiated our appetite for more information about the life and times of the local tribes, of which the Jarawas (we meet them in a later chapter), the Sentinelese (you better not mess with them!) and the Shompens are the most interesting. 

Staircase at the visitor's gallery in Cellular Jail
It was afternoon by now, and the perfect time to head out to Chidiya Tapu, for the first sunset of our trip. It’s a lovely 45 min drive, but the narrow road full of twists and turns demands your complete attention! We enjoyed the gorgeous sunset over piping hot tea and some kanda bhaji (onion fritters). And if you are lucky, you can watch the fishermen bring in the catch of the day – gigantic Tuna fishes headed straight for the export crates!

The sunset at Chidiya Tapu Beach
Traveler Pro Tip: Situated more than a thousand kms from the East Coast of the Indian peninsula, the islands could very well have been in a different time zone. But it’s not. No wonder, sunrise in the islands in summer is around 500 am, and sunsets could be as early as 515 pm. You might not need to reset your watch, but your body clock and your travel plans definitely need the adjustment!

Chidiya Tapu also offers scuba diving facilities, and may be worth a longer visit!

With a few extra mins to spare before the sunset, we also paid a quick visit to Munda Pahad nearby, a small beach with a beautiful park, where wooden benches carved out of huge tree trunks beckon you to rest a while.

Corbyn’s Cove, a few minutes drive from Port Blair, is another nice beach to hang out and partake in water sports. Well regulated water scooters and motor boats will excite the adults as much as the kids, although the rocky shore makes the beach not the best bet for swimming. The road to Corbyn’s Cove is very well maintained, with a lovely broad footpath, and is ideal for really long jogs along the coast.

Port Blair might just be a stepping stone on your trip to the Andamans, but offers just enough for the traveler – whether you are just getting warmed up, or spending your last night in the islands, winding down an amazing vacation.

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