Our latest guest blog is penned by traveler and blogger, Abhi from India. His love for checking out unexplored places has taken him across countries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa in a journey which started nearly a decade ago. However, his travels has also made him realize, – there are some places best explored and respected by sticking to the touristy trail.
Join Abhi as he shares the most responsible way of backpacking in one such destination, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
“Go off the beaten path. Wander into places that are not found on the map. Get lost and find yourselves”
These are all clichéd travel statements usually copy-pasted by hordes of ‘travel influencers’ that we find on instagram nowadays. And the same statements have inspired many to obey the engagement needs of a hashtag that many travellers – including me – are guilty of using copiously, #goingoffbeat
There is an undisputable truth in this as I have had most of my best travel experiences while steering clear of the touristy trail. It has been unknown villages and unexplored alleyways that made the best travel memories for me. But for all of it’s virtues, there are some places where it is simply best if you stuck to the touristy trail and the beaten path. Like the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
Understanding – and planning for – the Andamans
As an Indian, I have always been fascinated by the Andaman and Nicobar island group. Although they are geographically closer to Indonesia and Thailand, historical events led to these islands becoming a part of India. The British created a penal settlement there, and repopulated it with people from the Indian mainland. After independence, and over time, the Andamans and Nicobar islands became one of the most well-maintained places in India, thanks to the presence of the army and navy in these islands, and a unique penchant of the local people to actually follow laws. And they also became an exotic tourist destination, thanks to the many diving opportunities, white sandy beaches, and the tranquil island life.
The roads of Port Blair are maintained quite immaculately
In mainland India, Andaman islands are considered as one of the elite honeymoon spots of the country. I may not be married yet, but I had to find out how pristine these islands were. So, I booked a flight from Kolkata to Port Blair, with a plan of backpacking 2 weeks in the Andamans.
As mentioned before, I have always been one of those people who look for offbeat adventures during my travels. Send me to Taj Mahal, and I would come back with pictures of some shady alley next to it, which sells amazing street-snacks. Send me to Paris and I would skip the Eiffel tower and go straight for the Catacombs. So, when it came to Andamans, I started asking around and searching the internet for what were the things to do which avoided all the other tourists.
And especially, the honeymoon tourists.
I wanted to avoid sights like the Elephant beach in Havelock island, with all the tourists flocking to see the sight of a swimming elephant
Soon I came up with an initial list of items to do which were not on the tourist trail:
1) Go north of Port blair – the capital of Andaman and Nicobar – towards Baratang, Rangat and Diglipur, by taking the Andaman Trunk road that went through the whole of middle and north Andaman.
2) Visit the Strait islands, again via the Andaman Trunk Road.
3) Visit the Little Andaman island, which does not even have sufficient accommodation options but has unexplored surf beaches.
I was content with all these activities, and decided to do some reading before the trip.
And that’s when I started to see problems in my plan.
Why it’s PERFECTLY OK to stick to the tourist trail in Andaman
The more I read, the sooner I figured out that I was not the first one. The quest for ‘exotic’ travel experiences had already taken a toll on the Andaman islands.
To make a land-trip north of Port Blair is not a difficult task. There are plenty of tour companies in Port Blair who can set this up for you. But before you take one yourself, know that these trips also have another name.
The original people of the Andaman islands were various Negrito tribes, the majority of which were the Great Andamanese, the Onge, the Jarawa, and the Sentinelese. Before and after Indian independence, mainlanders were brought into the islands to tap on the vast timber reserves in Andaman. As both the timber industry and the outsider population of the Andamans grew, the original people of Andaman became marginalized and were reduced to forest reserves. Not only were they losing their home to the timber industry, but the external contact also meant that they were introduced to diseases like measles, pneumonia and venereal diseases, from which they had no immunity.
While the Sentinelese tribes were protected because of being in an entirely different and isolated island (the notorious North Sentinel islands, which is completely off access for anybody), the other tribal populations started rapidly dwindling. The Great Andamanese and the Onge tribes are currently less than 100 people, mostly in the Little Andaman Island.
I first scratched Little Andaman from my travel list. The Great Andamanese and Onge had been done enough wrong through external contact.
Then there were the Jarawas, whose population now ranges between 250 to 500, all of them staying in the Jarawa reserve forest which is located in the heart of the Andaman island. At the time of Indian independence, the Jarawas were already under threat from the timber loggers and the poachers, who entered their forest and killed animals that the Jarawas rely on for survival. But their situation became even more precarious as the government of India built the 330 Km long Great Andaman Trunk road in the 1970’s. Soon after the road was built, the Jarawas started coming out to nearby settlements and making contact with the outsiders, leading to an outbreak of measles. In addition, the Grand Trunk road made it also easy for encroachment, poaching and other commercial exploitation of the jarawas.
And then, tourism started flourishing. And it started the ‘human safaris’.
Tourism operators in Port Blair would take tourists – a couple of decades ago, it was nearly 500 a day – on the Andaman grand trunk road for them to ‘view’ the Jarawas. Kind of like a safari, but with humans instead of animals on display. There were also tourists who took this route to get to Diglipur, for the famous Ross and Smith islands. There are ship services from Port Blair to Diglipur, but the ships take 24 hours. The Andaman trunk road reduces nearly 10 hours from this travel time. Even if it was passing through the forests of the endangered Jarawas, and destroying their Eco structure.
The issue reached a critical point in 2012, when a tourist released videos of a Jarawa tribal woman dancing naked on the road in the hope of getting some food from the tourists. Tourism had spread alcohol, sexual exploitation and even junk food habits among the Jarawas, which was slowly pushing them to the brink of extinction.
Soon, the supreme court of India banned the usage of the Andaman Grand trunk road, but allowed nominal passage through the road for a daily maximum of 4 convoys. And the rules were laid out strictly too – no stopping anywhere along the way, no contact with the jarawas, no photographing them, or offering rides to Jarawas.
But the damage had been already done. Jarawas came waiting on the Trunk road for passing convoys, with hands held out begging for junk food.
And hence, I also scratched out any travel along the Andaman Trunk road.
So, how to backpack in the Andamans
The most responsible way of backpacking in the Andamans is to follow the touristy trail, and not fall for the temptation of going offbeat towards sensitive tribal areas. There are already well-laid tourist options in the famous beaches of Andaman, which pose no danger for any of the endangered tribes. Radhanagar beach in Havelock Island, and Laxmanpur beach in Neil Island may be packed with tourists. But they were beautiful! And moreover, I wasn’t going to impact the lives of any Jarawas or Onges by visiting here.
And hence, I rearranged my original plan. It became:
Spend more time in Port Blair. It may not be exotic as Baratang or Diglipur, but it did have a lot of colonial era charm to it. Including the famous Cellular jail of the British, and the Corbyn’s cove beach.
Visit Diglipur and Ross island by ferry instead of road. It takes 10 hours more than the land route, but does not go through any Jarawa territories.
Visit Havelock island and Neil island. Join the countless honeymooners in the beaches, and be content that I am still single. Also be content that I did not do my part to disrupt the Jarawa life.
The Cellular jail of Port Blair is a memory of the colonial times, as the British set up a penal settlement here
Corbyn cove beach itself is a beautiful beach, just a few kilometres from Port Blair
Ok, it may be a little touristy. But the Radhanagar beach actually made me feel good, that I wasn’t being an irresponsible tourist
And if you plan to visit the Andaman islands, I have the same request for you. Do not disrupt the tribal life in your pursuit of ‘exotic, offbeat experiences’. Let them be as they are. And do not support the tourist industry which reduces these tribal folks to ‘objects of wonder’ for tourists to stare at and/or exploit.
About the author: Abhi is a long-term traveller who challenges the strength of his Indian passport. He has been to 80 countries so far, and hopes to visit all the countries of the world one day. A traveller, photographer and blogger who dreams of completely abstaining from a corporate life, he immerses himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity.
Be a responsible traveler.
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