Sprouts, rudders and pygmies

11 degrees 41.1’N 092 degrees 42.5’E Port Blair, South Andaman Islands, India

How was your Christmas? Cold? Snowy? Full of booze, TV, knitted jumpers and too many Cadbury’s selection packs?
This was my first Christmas away from the UK and my first Yuletide at sea but we didn’t let that stop us celebrating in style – complete with crackers that failed to bang when pulled. Two days west of Thailand, in the middle of the Andaman Sea, I cooked (wearing a festive outfit of red bikini, white shorts and a Santa hat) a roast chicken, spuds, two types of stuffing, veg, Brussels sprouts, gravy and pigs in blankets. Being a calm day and on a catamaran made the task much easier but with only a tiny oven and three rings on the hob, it was still a bit of a juggling act. Just like home. There was the traditional post-prandial snooze but it wasn’t due to alcohol (although the skipper did allow us a glass of wine each – special occasion and all that); I had to be on watch from 10pm to 2am and so wanted to grab some shut-eye while I could.
Boxing Day we had a visit from about 20 dolphins who raced alongside us for half an hour, one jumping clean out of the deep blue water and doing a backwards somersault to show off. Then on the 27th the Roo and her crew (Tyrone, me, Libertad and Pablo from Spain and Ben and Vicky from the UK via Malta) dropped anchor in Port Blair in the Andaman islands.

We’d been warned that we’d be quarantined to the boat while all the checking in paperwork was completed and that this could take up to 48 hours. We were done within 36 – perhaps something of a record? – after visits from customs, immigration, the coastguard and port control. There was an unbelievable amount of paperwork to complete. We had to list every food item on the boat and each piece of equipment and at one point I was seriously contemplating having to itemise each loose screw and nut in the tool box but – lo and behold! – a “gift” of a bottle of wine was requested by one of our visitors and after that the paperwork all went smoothly.

Bureaucracy was something we got used to during our month-long stay in the Andamans. We had to carry our passports ashore and also a copy of a permit which listed which handful of the 300+ islands we were allowed onto. We had to submit in advance an itinerary of every place we planned to anchor and were told that not only could we not deviate from it, we also had to radio in to port control daily to give our co-ordinates. Helicopters and planes circled us occasionally, seeking our boat name, presumably double-checking. When we wanted to go for a walk to a beach on one island we had to fill in ledgers with our passport number, visa expiry date, name, age and gender at the forestry department and the police station. To buy a pay-as-you-go sim card took an hour and a half and required passport copies, head and shoulders photographs, copies of the permit and three forms. Granted, it did take slightly longer because the shopkeeper left in the middle of serving us to walk his twin daughters to school but it was still tiresome enough to put off any would-be drug dealers from trying to establish The Wire-style corners in India. We got used to standing around and waiting.

We stocked up on a month’s worth of fruit and veg and drinking water in Aberdeen, the capital of South Andaman Island. I haven’t been to the British version but I imagine the Scots Aberdeen is nothing like the Indian one. First thing I noticed was the beeping horns. Cars, tuktuks, motorbikes. They beep to say they are overtaking, to say they are about to run you over if you don’t hurry up and get out of the way, to tell you they are accelerating, decelerating, turning a corner, speeding up, slowing down, and sometimes, I think, just for the sheer hell of it. It was unbelieveably, headache-inducing noisy and we could definitely tell we were in India. There was a gold statue of Mahatma in the centre of the main roundabout and monuments and shrines to various other Ghandis all over the place. The taxis are all 1950s-style Ambassadors, last bastion of the British Empire. Shop signs are painted rather than neon or plastic, with modern brand logos painstakingly copied by hand. There are cows in the road, gaping holes in the pavement that would eat Dr Foster from Gloucester for breakfast and piles and piles of brightly-coloured plastic goods piled high in the doorways of the shops, enticing the customers in. Not many people seemed to be buying very often but the streets – there are about three of them – were teeming with women in saris and gold jewellery and men in black trousers, shirts and leather sandals spitting onto the tarmac. There are “Spitting strictly prohibited” signs everywhere but no one seems to take any notice. Questions are invariably answered with a sideways rocking motion of the head, a bit like a nodding dog stuck to the parcel shelf of a Ford Fiesta parked on a slant. The same gesture means yes, maybe, I don’t know and no, so it gets a bit confusing.

The New Year was celebrated on Havelock island, the main tourist destination. Beach #7, where we anchored (the villages and beaches are known by numbers to tourists but by name to locals; neither knows what the other is referring to), was home to a beautiful stretch of soft white sand, gently breaking surf, Indian holidaymakers wading chest-deep in full saris, a swimming elephant – and a crocodile that polished off an American girl last May.

We were lucky that we had our own boat, because it meant we could visit islands that other tourists in the Andamans don’t get a chance to see. There were some that we were told were completely out of bounds, either because they were under the control of the forestry department or they had tribal reserves on them.

The islands are the peaks of an underwater mountain range that includes India’s only two volcanoes, Narcondam (dormant) and Barren (active). The British established a penal colony at Aberdeen in the 19th century, run under a brutal regime until the 1930s, where freedom fighters who had called for Indian independence from Britain were shackled in chains and fetters, fed two cups of rice gruel a day and made to turn a giant wheel to press oil from coconuts to produce a daily quota that not even a water buffalo was capable of meeting.

The Andamans were originally populated by Negroid hunter-gatherer tribes that migrated out of Africa and through Asia thousands of years ago. Some tribes still exist today, living in a primitive way in the jungle and avoiding contact with civilisation. Some tribes that did mix with foreigners who emigrated from the Indian mainland, Burma, Thailand or Malaya died out when they were exposed to germs their bodies couldn’t cope with. The tribes that do remain – the Onge, Jarawas, Sentinelese – keep to themselves and live in the jungle in the same way they have done for centuries: they build communal thatched huts, weave baskets, hunt for fish with spears or bow and arrow, wear no clothes apart from headdresses or a thin string belt around the waist and biceps.

At a backpacker resort in Long Island we read some material put together by the NGO Survivor which explained the threat to the tribes, particularly the Jarawas. The government built a main road through the middle of their reserve and some unscrupulous tourist firms were, according to Survivor, offering illegal Jarawa-spotting trips to holidaymakers. The idea that people, in 2011, actually lived like these tribes do absolutely fascinated me and I really wanted to catch a glimpse of a local, but I wasn’t so desperate that I was willing to pay money to some dodgy company in order to put the lives of other in jeopardy just so that I had something to write home about.

Over the month we visited South Andaman, Havelock, North Button – half a mile long and deserted – Long Island, Homfray Strait, and Interview. We sailed for a day and a half in atrocious weather to Narcondam to see the volcano, only to find there was no way we could anchor there, so we had to turn around and head straight back again. That peak, with its flat top wreathed in cloud, probably qualifies as the remotest place I have ever been to, at 100 miles offshore from a bunch of barely-populated islands that sit in the middle of the Indian Ocean. There were a few people living there, God knows how; they came out in the pouring rain to stand in a line on the beach and wave at us as we turned away. All five of them.

We saw no other yachts for more than two weeks and for a long time the only outsiders we came across were a couple of fishermen who shared their catch with us for our supper. We sailed past mile after mile of jungle, beach and rock and passed not one house, one road, one electricity pylon or telecommunications mast. Even in the South Pacific islands Tyrone was able to visit villages and barter for fish or buy meat preserved in freezers powered by electricity generated in some kind of civilisation. Here was nothing.

We would have visited more far-flung corners except for a minor hiccup – we lost a rudder. When I say lost, I don’t mean it was a bit damaged and we were unable to use it. I mean totally lost. Gone. Vanished. Big gaping hole where the port rudder used to be.

We sighed, shrugged our shoulders and set off back for Port Blair, hoping we’d be able to get a replacement. The good thing about catamarans is they have two rudders, so we could still steer in good conditions, but the prospect of sailing 800 miles across the Bay of Bengal to Sri Lanka, where we might encounter storms or big seas on the way, was more than a little offputting. Once in Port Blair, within a day Tyrone had found some one to weld a new rudder frame for us, then some helpful gents at the local fibreglass workshop-cum-shack, who hadn’t had any work for three months, coated the blade for us. Four days of labour and materials all for about 6,000 rupees, or 90 quid. Bargain.

As we negotiated Homfray Strait on our way back to Port Blair we came through a narrow section where we had to pass within 100m or so of the shore. Ahead and to the left were a few rocks jutting out of the sea, then a short beach that was quickly swallowed up by thick, tall jungle. “Is that a boat over there?” Vicky asked. “With a man in it?” We moved closer and I looked through the binoculars. Not a boat but a rock, with someone standing on it. And another person just behind them. We got closer still, expecting a couple of Indian fishermen casting hand lines into the coral. But we were wrong. Vicky took the binoculars. “They’re black.” And so they were – three Jarawa youths, crouching on the edge of the rocks, one in orange shorts, another naked except for a narrow black band around his waist. They had dark, dark skin, short, curly black hair and were definitely not Indians. I waved; after a pause, one waved back, slowly. A second man hurled a stone in our direction and a third just watched us pass by. I don’t know who was the more surprised – them, at seeing a bit white shiny box drive past on the water with six gurning pinky-white men and women on top of it or us at being so easily and quietly able to catch a glimpse of some of the most elusive people in the world.