Thursday, December 31, 2009
Green. With Envy. Andaman -3.
Meeting people in new places in exciting. Particularly in a place like the Andaman Islands, about which you have no clue.
True to its character, Mumbai had reasonable traffic, cars honking and overtaking, desperate to reach somewhere , even at 4 am. En route to the domestic airport. The subsidized white elephant airlines have access to the posher terminal, with aerobridges and stuff. While those who fly the other successful airlines, traipse around in buses and stuff to reach planes parked far away from the departure gate. Our flight to Chennai spent more time standing in line, for takeoff than , maybe flying to Chennai. Maybe I am exaggerating, but that's how it felt. The onward flight to Port Blair , consequently, had to be caught on the run, and we were ably helped by a wonderful staff chap of Kingfisher Airlines, who was moving around with a portable , belt clipped , boarding card generator, which he utilised for us , once he confirmed we were genuine tourist types. This ability to avoid the queues was an inspiring beginning , for someone, whose life is inextricably liked with standing in queues.
Our hotel in Port Blair was actually the only one that had vacancies when I was researching the places. And its location in the city proper, yet not in the thick of the things, was what was nice. I have a basic distrust of resort types, 'n' miles out of town, where you are forced to order coffee in a bone china cup for Rs 50/-, and rickshaws are considered heavily inferior to private taxis that fleece you. Our hotel was on a sort of ring road that went around the city, undulating with the hilly terrain, and there was a mom-and-pop seafood restaurant near by , with some decent utility shops of the medical and kirana types. There was a high school and church a bit further up, and it being Christmas eve, things were in a state of excitement.
In all the days, I did not see a single issue of Times of India, and the main paper of Port Blair seemed to be a 2 page thing called "the Telegram", the name a misfit, for a place with a nice comfortable pace of life. Only the first page had news, the inner pages filled with Tender notices, schedules of ship sailings between islands, and obituaries and stuff.
A typical rickshaw ride here was almost always Rs 15/-. Occasionally the driver would quote more, but didn't realize he was tangling with veterans of rickshaw haggling from the country's rickshaw capital. We met a rickshaw driver the first evening, returning from the Cellular Jail at night. He , without any prodding whatsoever, pointed out various places to us on the way back, and even guided us to decent places for meals. We got talking, and asked him if he would show us the city sights two days later, after our return from the harbor trip. He quoted a price eminently acceptable for us, and promised to turn up at 9 am. Just like that. Because he had given his word. No cell phone numbers. No confirmations.
And we had a great day trip, zooming up and down, stopping at various museums, beaches, emporiums, special parks, old saw mills and stuff. Zooming down from a high point above the runway, (in a rickshaw), folks urgently felt a need for a cuppa. And wondered if he knew a place we could stop. He kept shaking his head thinking we were looking for a proper sit down restaurant. When he heard cries of delight on seeing one of those small chai tapris by the roadside, he knew these were different folk. Many such tapris in Port Blair seemed to be managed and operated by women. And so the tea was extra nice.
He had the names of his sisters written at the back of his rickshaw; I knew that because it was in English and I asked. Then there was something written on the front windscreen, in what I thought was Tamil.
He mentioned a name that sounded like Mariamma, and I asked if that was the mother of Jesus, thinking that he was a Christian.
"No, No,", he said ,"its a Goddess"...... Things were getting curiouser and curiouser.
"Is it the fighting Goddess, the knowledge Goddess, or the wealth Goddess ? " I asked, referring to the Goddesses Kali, Saraswati and Lakshmi respectively. The rest of the family rolled their eyes and gave each other glances, listening to these classifications.
The rickshawallah suddenly smiled. He knew I understood.
"Knowledge, amma. You know. Saraswati . " He was earning to send his sisters to school. And so he dedicated his rickshaw work to the Goddess of Knowledge , Saraswati. I felt good about contributing to his sisters' education. We rode back to our hotel, his sisters' names shining brightly at the back of his rickshaw.
The harbour day trip was another meeting point. This was a two tier boat , with benches and seats below, tables and chairs on the terrace above, and a swarthy, mustachioed , stout individual was the driver. He had a bunch of very well trained assistants, who would appropriately throw ropes across giant iron poles, anchors into the sea, and at certain points, draw buckets of water from the sea and pour it into something in a room. The fellows would also shout at people who threw plastic into the sea, and those who blocked windows and leaned out dangerously.
After a day of sitting with the family, the husband felt a need to go and walk in some fresh air, and went up into the terrace area , on the return trip to Port Blair. He likes to observe the engines and technologies used , and got talking with the boss, who he called Captain. His name was Raja, and he was thrilled to bits to be called Captain Raja. I guess no one really thought about the boat driver amidst all that island swimming and snorkeling and sightseeing hoopla. These two got talking, and the husband got to ride back to Port Blair in the driver's enclosure, where the big wheel and the horn was.
"How old are you, Sir?" he asks, sighting the snow white silver hair. "And what do you do ?"
"64. And I teach. Engineering. In Mumbai. I admire the way you control this boat, with so many distractions and tourist boat traffic close to the city quay. How many years have you done this ?"
"Ah, You don't look 64. There is handsomeness . (!) As for me, I am 55, have been in this profession since 30, but i have had this diabetes for the last 5 years, and I don't like it at all. All those pills to take. And I run this boat 6 days a week. 50 litres of diesel consumed every 8 hour day trip. "
"Where do you keep the boat?"
"No one ever asked me that." he said . "Funny you ask. But you teach about machines. See, I understand. It all depends upon the season of the wind. Easterly or Westerly. When its an East wind, parking at Ross island across from Port Blair gives a great shelter. Other times , I park right here in Port Blair jetty. Having a drink late in the evening with my boat people used to be fun, but this diabetes is a big pain. Restricts everything ", and he pulled out a towel from the recesses of his driver's cubicle, and wiped his tired face.
The Jetty was approaching and we climbed up to the upper base to disembark. Captain Raja, had already skipped out on to the jetty, trying to get his land legs, as his assistants did the helping of passengers, and tying of ropes here and there, and loosening of various things.
He saw us disembark. Sailor or not, he maintained his distance from the ladies. Before we left, the husband looked for him, went and shook hands with him, introduced us, and we thanked him for the trip. I saw his face glow when he was introduced to us as Captain Raja. It probably made his day, the troublesome diabetes notwithstanding.
Soon it was time to return, and the last day was dedicated to packing, checking timings and communicating with the hotel desk. This was a family run hotel Started by the father, now attended to by the son, Biju, in his twenties.
I always enjoy reading the newspapers of new places, regardless of the importance of the news. Who decides what is important anyway ? One of the Obituary entries mentioned a memorial service for a lady , 100 years of age, who had died a few days before Chiristmas. That was Biju's grandmother. ( I saw his name below, and knew it in full from his email communications).
The hotel business was in its busiest season now, and nothing could shut down. The work must go on, and so Biju attended the hotel work every single day, as his family coped with the various formalities, condolences, and church services. I offered my condolences to him quietly at the desk, and complimented him on the way he went about his work. He was surprised how I knew, till I pointed at the newspapers. He very formally thanked me on his family's behalf.
The hotel had said they would drop as at the airport. We got our stuff together and arrived at the front door. The young man asked if we were ready to leave, and asked an assistant to take the bags.
It wasn't a taxi, or a minibus. It was a brand new model Maruti car, parked to the side, the plastic still on the seats, Biju himself came and opened the doors. He had bought a new car this Christmas, his first. His grandma was thrilled when he decided to buy one. Unfortunately, she didn't live to see it and take a ride in it. He himself would be driving us to the airport in his brand new car.
We couldn't be more honored. This was such a wonderful end to an even more wonderful trip. We talked about his city, how we liked the hotel, and the Andamans, where his family hailed from (Andhra), and soon we were at the airport.
A few handshakes, a few namaskars, and he drove off with a flourish, his car having done its first customer related trip. We turned , lugging our bags, to enter the departure formalities area.
The Andamans are fairly far away from the Indian Mainland. Vegetables and fruits are very expensive here. Always. Almost double the price of Mumbai. Everything is shipped in. Fish in plenty, however, of the choicest kind. Had this been the mainland there would have been massive migration. But leaving the Andamans costs. Forbidden travel costs. So the young men become tour guides, boat assistants, drivers of tourist cars, that zip around at alarming speeds, but magically stop when needed. I didn't see a single slum, or a beggar. Even outside places of worship. Villages that we passed on our island trips, had well organized schools and agricultural stations for farmers. Every house had coconut and supari plantations.
The overriding sense was a sense of green. The Emerald Islands.
The Captain of the plane announced descent into Mumbai, in an accent that would have made the British in Port Blair proud.
I shut my eyes as we approached Mumbai. I didn't feel like seeing anything.
It was time to be green myself.
For a wonderful land.