*This was written getting on for 20 years ago. At the time, India was emerging rapidly and public shows of conspicuous consumption were growing fast. As people became richer, etiquette in public was being learned, and in some cases severely tested. Please take the observations about some of these interactions in the spirit intended, written in the moment at the time.
The man in the queue in front of me for the flight was carrying a crash helmet, which I thought was a bit over the top even for an Indian airline. Destination: Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Islands, about 1000 miles to the east, past Sri Lanka and before you hit Thailand. Embarking provided a further reminder, if one were needed, of your average Indian’s total lack of spatial awareness. Put simply, they have difficulty avoiding fixed objects let alone other people. They won’t let you go first and they stampede as though it were a national pastime. In the aisle before take off, another passenger nigh on assaulted Sarah with a knee in the groin and a stamp on the toes. Once seated, it is traditional to be kneed comprehensively in the back until you catapult forward and crack your chin on the seat in front. Then just sit back, relax, and enjoy the safety briefing to the dulcet tones of the theme tune to Reggie Perrin. Ah yes, this is the life for me.
I was seated above the wing where there is an emergency exit and more than the usual number of instructions. “In the event of an emergency pull this red handle sir, but only when I say.” Righty ho. “Do not place bags here.” That explains why they put the old crone in the seat behind. “Table deactivated – use table available in the armrest of seat.” I pulled out my activated table and surveyed my breakfast. There was a crescent-shaped yellow blob, a small brown ball and an orangey biscuit-shaped item, approximately masquerading as an omelette, hash brown and, well, a small brown ball. I tried the omelette. It tasted like a rubber mat. I tried the hash brown. It tasted like a smaller rubber mat. I tried the small brown ball. It tasted like a circular rubber mat. I quit whilst I was behind, sipped some water and watched the sun rise over the Bay of Bengal.
There are over 300 Andaman and Nicobar Islands, only a few of them inhabited. They are actually the tops of a significant underwater mountain range, and most are uninhabited and prohibited to foreigners. Quite right too. There is plenty of the paradise island feel here that one needs and the more they protect the environment the better. With an early morning start, we were in our hotel overlooking the Andaman Sea by 9am, and sitting on a palm-fringed beach by ten, courtesy of a lift from a young local call Simpson. It was time to shake off the dust of Rajasthan and the grime of Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai, and get some sand between the toes and sea air in the lungs. This was Corbyn’s Cove, a short crescent of sand a couple of miles south of Port Blair. There’s no better antidote to sitting on the South Circular or travelling on the tube than sitting on a tropical island beach looking out to sea.
That evening at dinner, we were nearly knocked over by another fat Indian who was having trouble walking around our table despite have a five-foot gap at his disposal. Further Indo-nouveau-riche examples of poor behaviour came thick and fast: shouting at waiters from long distances, ringing bells and queue barging to name a few. We got to chatting about people shouting, and Sarah produced her favourite story from Vietnam, where a common early morning call in Hanoi is “Bang me!” “Bang me numb Sunday!” Loosely translated, this means buy my lovely fresh bread. Somehow this led on to recalling how her grandmother had once told me she had met Che Guevara.
The conversation went something like this:
KD: Of course a lot of the kids these days have images on their t-shirts and they don’t even know what they are, like Che Guevara for example.
Grandmother: Oh I met him once,
KD: Really, when?
G: Two years ago, in the Brompton Oratory
KD: Right, I thought he died violently in a gunfight in Bolivia sometime in the seventies.
G: No, no, there he was large as life. He started his own religion you know.
KD: Well, a movement, but it wasn’t strictly a religion.
G: Oh yes, it was the Christian Scientists.
The following day we chartered our own boat from Wandoor on the west coast to visit a couple of islands in the Wandoor Marine National Park: Jolly Buoy and Redskin. After fending off an approach to muscle in on our craft, we motored through a classic mangrove lagoon out to a paradise island for some snorkelling and R & R. We waded towards the most promising looking reef, dodging the forest of sea cucumbers on the way. The snorkelling was not a success – the water was too shallow and the rocks too sharp. Round the bay, a Butlins trip of Indians had invaded, many of whom appeared not to have seen water before. The women go swimming fully-clothed (apparently they will only be seen in a swimming costume in private, all-female, swimming baths), and the men take endless photographs, often asking you or your partner to be in them so that they can pretend they have ‘good Inglish friend’.
It’s an odd thing to see a crowded tropical beach where the majority of people are fully clothed. We ran the gauntlet of the Butlins screaming hordes to find a quiet spot on the other side of Jolly Buoy Island. It was only when I sat down on an appealing fallen tree that I noticed a pair of old yellow underpants by my feet. You’re never really that far from anything in this world. I was just watching the hermit crabs pottering about on the sand when another trio wanting their picture taken with me approached me.
“Meester we take picture with you.”
“No I don’t want to.”
They stand there for a couple of minutes.
“Look I’ve come here for some peace and if you don’t go away I’m going to walk away.”
They traipse off looking disconsolate.
The fish on the reef were more plentiful on this side, but the best was over on Redskin Island a couple of miles away. Here were the bright orange clownfish jealously guarding their anemones, the purple and green parrot fish biting chunks off the coral, and a grisly stone fish who looks just like a piece of the reef until you notice his eyes. But the best thing about the place is that there was nobody there except a couple of hippies sitting in the trees. How they got there is a bit of a mystery since ours was the only boat. Still, we hauled anchor and left them to it. Come to think of it, they are probably still sitting there now.
By now this side of the island was in the shade so we curtailed our desert island adventure and headed home. The following morning I woke up with a stiff onshore breeze, strong enough at breakfast to blow the cornflakes off your spoon before you could get them into your mouth. I tried some jam on toast instead but it was bright pink and tasted like a child’s lollipop. After a morning by the pool, anchoring our possessions lest they disappear into the bay, we headed off to the aquarium at the Fisheries Museum en route to the beach at Chiriya Tapu (Bird Island).
At least that’s what we thought we were doing. The local Arthur Daley-cum-Dennis Waterman, who we think was called Mr Magoo, so far had handled all our arrangements. His track record to date had been exemplary – taxis on time, boats on demand, pack lunches, beach towels, the lot. As we got in I said aquarium, he nodded and then said something to the driver, who promptly took us to the beach. We worked out what was going on and asked if we could go on the way back. He stared vacantly through pink rheumy eyes, which suggested he might have overshot on the hallucinogenic betel nut.
In fact, that made perfect sense in relation to his driving which was a classic no-holds-barred Indian approach: take all blind corners on the outside, keep the horn blaring at all times, disregard any variations in the road surface, and skirt any water buffalo by a maximum clearance level of three millimetres. Chiriya Tapu was beautiful and completely deserted apart from the standard lone hippy slouched under a palm tree and two dogs, one with only three legs. They came and kipped in the shade next to us, happy for the company. The hippy stayed where he was.
We were stationed by an idyllic mangrove lagoon just on the border of the beach and all was peaceful until a minibus full of Indians disembarked and stampeded into the sea, fully clothed and brandishing cameras in the normal way. We did indeed visit the Fisheries Museum Aquarium on the way back, whose prime attractions were a dead Giant Robber Crab (a couple of feet square, it can break into coconuts with ease and haul 30 kg of weight in its claws), a few trigger fish and a rather revolting live act of cannibalism in which a poor tiger fish was being eaten alive by his supposed mates in his tank. I should probably have dived in myself because when I took a shower shortly afterwards I found that I had misjudged the sun somewhat and looked not unlike a radioactive tandoori prawn. Sitting in a brisk offshore breeze for a few hours did a little to cool me down, but I still had to sleep with the fan on full blast. This was the end of the relaxing beach part of the trip: in the morning we would fly to Kolkata for a one-day stopover before returning to London, the final leg of a trip that had covered nearly 20,000 miles, and more than 20 places.