I had planned to complete my Indian adventure in style and indulge in a little snorkelling, just a mini-break to unwind after the intense teaching experience and to top up the tan before heading back to the UK in time for the whirlwind of Christmas. My initial idea to sample the exotic sounding Andaman and Nicobar islands had to be shelved courtesy of the endorsement on my employment visa that put ‘restricted areas’ out of bounds. ‘Disaster,’ I thought, ‘Where else to go and find Nemo?? That is, if there is such a fish as Nemo in the waters surrounding India..’
I cannot remember now how I learnt about the ‘Indian Maldives’ or Lakshadweep – a group of atolls just off the Keralan coast. Maybe Google pointed me in the right direction or it could have been that Dr. Anne mentioned them to me, but it sounded like the perfect solution. Several islands to choose from, some of them uninhabited, and certainly almost virgin territory for visitors, Lakshadweep is a carefully guarded secret destination that only recently has found its way onto the tourist map. And if discovering Lakshadweep had been a triumph, organising a four day stay on the islands was definitely a tour de force!! Being used to Western efficiency and the internet at my fingertips, I had not counted on the Indian bureaucracy and their slow pace of working. Or maybe, India is quite rightly trying to preserve the unspoilt islands from the onslaught and havoc that tourism usually brings in its wake. A visit to the islands requires a permit and lots of patience to deal with the one and only organisation issuing them. After four weeks of intense negotiations trying to squeeze the visit into my last few days and spending a whole day organising payment in the absence of an Indian bank account and no internet payment facilities, it got all sorted. Seemingly against the odds, I got my paperwork allowing me access to Bangaram, one of the uninhabited islands with tented accommodation and no electricity during the daytime, no internet or telephone at any time… Peace at last! All that was left to do was book my flight to the island of Agatti, and we had lift-off.
If sorting out the four day stay had been laborious, and the three hour delay for take-off in Cochin was just par for the course, once we touched down on the island of Agatti everything ran as clockwork. A fleet of taxis awaited us to take us to a motorised fishing boat for onward travel to the different islands. And what an extraordinary trip it was: the breathtaking beauty of the turquoise and cyan waters touching the Carolina and Columbia blues of the sky (I had to look at a colour chart for this…); crystal clear water barely shading the seabed of white sand; countless hues of blue shifting with the depth of the sea; dark blues betraying corals and rocks; the spray of salty sea water and the warm breeze giving relief from the heat of the sun; in the distance the palm fringed beaches embracing the islands: it was awesome, easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.
Accommodation on the island was provided in comfortable, spacious tents with en-suite shower facilities, and the water at nature’s temperature was perfectly refreshing after a dip in the sea… Breakfast, lunch and dinner were cooked by a little army of Indian men, under the supervision of Navas, whose job it was to ensure our every need was satisfied. As only thirty guests maximum were allowed on the island, it made for a rather intimate group of travellers, and the lack of electricity dependent entertainment meant after dinner conversation flowed easily. A great way to exchange travel experiences with a Polish couple scouting new locations for their travel agency; with a Japanese travel writer who had just discovered Lakshadweep; with a couple from Switzerland who spent all their winters travelling in South East Asia to escape the winter cold; with a group of Swedish fishing fanatics who were hoping to add fishing in the deserted waters of Lakshadweep to their portfolio of fishing experiences and were waiting for a seaworthy big vessel that never arrived… They eventually set off in two rather mingy boats, without shelter for rain or sun…
I spent three days luxuriating in the limpid waters surrounding the island of Bangaram. On the first day, I joined a snorkelling trip to a shipwreck which had rested on the sandy seabed for about 100 years. Close to the coral reefs, the rusting remains had forged a symbiotic bond with rich algae attracting an abundance of colourful fish. Blue and yellow angel fish, stripy fish, and indeed orange Nemo clown fish darted in and out of the decaying boat; corals opened and closed as they sensed our approach; brown corals turned a bright red or deep blue on our touch. The stunning spectacle kept us entranced for well over an hour before we climbed on board again.
We journeyed on to the island of Parali where sea turtles tried to evade our approaching speed boat, so we jumped off the boat and joined them in the crystalline water.
We stopped on a small uninhabited island for photo opportunities, stepping over boulders of dead corals, which time was unhurriedly grinding into fine, powdery sand.
The next day I kayaked to the uninhabited island of Thinnikara, a mere hour’s work made light by Navas, who graciously offered to accompany me. Halfway, we jumped out of the kayak to explore the corals in the middle of the lagoon. Getting out of the kayak was child’s play, but Navas had forgotten to explain the intricacies involved in getting back into the kayak with nothing to support my feet… There was no other option than me being man-handled into the boat, only for it to tilt and finding myself being flung back into the water… I eventually hauled myself aboard and managed to stay inside the boat. And Navas? After having made a right spectacle of myself, he graciously pulled himself up at the back of the boat, minimizing any chance of a wobble… Why had he not demonstrated to me how simple it was??
I circumnavigated the island of Bangaram at low tide, when narrow sandy strips surrounded the palm groves and lake in the middle. I surprised shy crabs scuttling into the nooks and crannies of rocks, or rushing to the safety of the waves. Sea cucumbers lounged lazily near the shore. I waded through the shallow waters and frightened fish into hiding. I found a most perfect shell and could not resist bringing it home with me as my one and only souvenir of India – well, I am not supposed to be collecting too many belongings whilst I am on my travels as I have nowhere to keep them…
And every evening I watched the sunset, and every evening I watched a different scene unfold: a deep red sun casting a red glowing column on the sea surface; soft pink tinged clouds riding across a pale blue sky; a dying sun’s yellow rays set the sky alight from behind darkening clouds. In the morning, the sun would slowly rise burning through the morning mist, brightening the grey sea and erasing the early clouds.
But I left my most exciting experience for the last day! I decided that although the snorkelling was indeed amazing, I wanted to try scuba diving. Not going too deep, mind you, just a dip of three meters to get a feel for it. All booted and suited, learning to breathe through the diving mouthpiece and having practised the trick with blowing through your nose to equalize pressure, I was ready to give it a go. And yes, it was fantastic to be so close to the corals and fishes, to be part of the landscape, to be right in between the fishes and stir up the sand at the bottom. Unfortunately, the water was cloudy that day and visibility was poor, but it did not detract from my enjoyment and I will have to put scuba diving on my list of ‘things to do more than once in a lifetime’…