November 2015: The Andaman Islands, an Indian administered island Archipelago in the Bay of Bengal with some of the world’s last isolated and traditional tribes, feels more closely related to Africa or Myanmar than India. The islands are some of the last in the region to still be heavily covered in primary rainforest and home to tribes that have little to no contact with the outside world. Two of these tribes are the Jarawa, who live in the southern Andaman Island and the Northern Sentilese, who live on Northern Sentilese island. Both tribes are protected and resistant to the outside world, but the Sentilese are overtly hostile and have even killed the last few foreigners who have attempted to visit them including a young missionary who was impaled in the chest with an arrow by them.

India is quickly colonizing the Andaman Islands and using them to relieve the pressures of its enormous population by allowing Indian settlers to move to the Andamans and deforest and farm the land. Logging, development and roads threaten the forests and the tribes, and the islands are transforming rapidly. We came with not much of a plan with the exception of seeing as much of the islands as possible before it changed any more than it already had, so my wife and I visited the Andaman Islands for 5 days as part of a larger two-week trip that includes South India and the Maldives.

 

 

Location of Andaman Islands

Port Blair

Paula and I started our trip in the islands at Port Blair. Our flight from Chennai, India barely departed in a severe monsoonal thunderstorm that we later found out flooded the airport stranding passengers for days. Once in Port Blair, we were processed via a separate visa process and received a stamp of permission to explore the islands minus the tribal areas. We started out by staying one night in the old British capital of the islands, Port Blair.  We stayed one night in a nice hotel with a view overlooking the ocean from our room.  Port Blair was a laidback tropical town with a definite Indian feel to it, but the city was far less crowded and impoverished as most Indian cities comparable to its size on the mainland. Paula and I visited the old British era prison where Indian separatists were imprisoned and executed by the British. The prison is now a museum. On the way to the prison, our taxi driver, an Indian man explained to us that his father was a separatist who fought the British for Indian independence, and he was imprisoned in the prison. The prison was fascinating and many of the old cell blocks haven’t been touched since they were in use and the old hanging gallows for executed prisoners was still in place where many a prisoner took their last breath.

 

 

Fort Blair British Prison

Fort Blair British Prison

Jarawa Tribe

The Jarawa a tribe of dark-skinned people only number about 200 people and they live in the southern Andaman Island. They have resisted outside influence and they somehow managed to survive despite disease, a road built through their island and by attempts by outside occupiers such as the British, Japanese and Indians to eradicate or assimilate them. They had very little contact with the outside world until the early 2000’s, and now the Indian government provides them with financial assistance, and they are protected by the Indian government and their homeland is a reserve set aside for them. The Jarawa still live hunter and gatherer lives and mostly wear loin clothes and live a lifestyle that hasnt changed in centuries. Some do not want to be bothered and our hostile while others see the outside world as a means to beg for free hand outs.

The main road that was built in the 70s crossing directly through the Jarawa Forest and provides foreigners unfettered access to the Jarawa. In the past there were tourist trips provided to bring tourists inside Jarawa territory to see them and the Jarawa were lured with food in exchange for photos and dancing. The Indian government when videos went viral of this put an end to the practice and increased the penalties for breaking the rules. The Jarawa aso have bows and arrows and to protect them and anyone crossing through their territory, since it was only a few decades ago that Jarawa were hostile to outsiders, there are strict rules in place. All vehicles traveling through the trunk road must be in a convoy led by a military jeep in front and at the end and there are set times for the convoy. No stopping is allowed, no photos of the Jarawa and no food can be given, or litter thrown out the window. These rules are displayed on a sign at the entrance of the Jarawa territory. Paula and I hired a taxi in Port Blair, and we traveled the Trunk Road to Baratang Island. The experience was a little bit like a cultural Jurassic Park. I admit I was excited to see the Jarawa and I love tribes and indigenous groups, but I am also respectful of them and when I visit them, I want to spend time with them and not do drive by photo clicks. I was curious to see where they lived, and I hoped to see some Jarawa. The trunk road is paved but in poor condition and resembles more of a bicycle path than a riad for vehicles. The towering primary forest canopy enveloped the road in many parts, and I was fascinated by the idea of exploring the deep jungle and staying with the Jarawa. We didn’t see any Jarawa except for one time when a group of young boys ran out of the forest towards us with their traditional palm front head bans chasing our vehicles begging for gifts. I took a few photos, but we didn’t come to a complete stop to avoid getting into trouble.

Sign stating rules at the beginning of the trunk road where we waited for our military jeep to lead our convoy

Trunk Road

Jarawa Boy

Jarawa Boy

Outside of the Jarawa Reserve, we encountered logging camps on the side of the road where Indian elephants were used to remove and haul logs. This is still a common practice in the Andamans and in other areas of Southeast Asia.

Logging Camp

Our destination was Baratang Island where we would stay our 2nd night in the Andamans at the small town that felt very Indian on Baratang island. To get there we had to take a vehicle ferry in our taxi. At the ferry port, we organized a side trip to visit the baratang Cave, that we and a few other Indian tourists visited via a small boat and quick jungle hike.

Baratang Island Cave

Ferry from baratang Island

I found out from some of the Indian workers on the ferry that there was a Jarawa camp in the forest only a few hours by boat and that these Jarawa were very traditional. I asked if they could be visited, and they laughed and said it wasn’t possible. But I couldn’t help but wonder if I was alone and nt with my Paula, if I would be inclined to hike into the forest on my own or with a local guide to find them and stay a few nights with them.

Ferry to Baratang Island

Mangroves

Baratang was nothing to write home about. it was small, dusty and run down. In Baratang, we stayed in a cheap wooden shack hotel, one of the only ones in town, with a dark and smokey bar in the basement with a group of Indian men listening to screaming Hindi music while drinking beers.

Baratang Town where we stayed one night

Long Island

From baratang, we took our taxi a few hours down a rough dirt forested road to a ferry port that was a gateway to some of the outer islands and back to port Blair. We took the ferry to Long Island, which is natural mostly covered in pristine rainforest with one small village on it where we could stay in rustic bungalows. We were joined on the ferry by other Indians that lived in the small villages of the outer islands. The ferry meandered through remote islands, and we passed few other settlements. When we arrived at long island, we were greeted by a large sign warning new arrivals not to swim because of the presence of large saltwater crocodiles. Crocodiles are a huge threat in the Andamans and occasionally do eat people sadly including one young American tourist a few years before my visit.

Ferry to Long Island

Villages from the ferry to Long Island

Entrance to village on Long Island

The village was too small to have any restaurants or eateries and aside from our hotel, the only food stale cookies and warm sodas sold in a little hut. We arrived early enough in the day to have enough time to explore the island, which wasn’t very large but large enough to get lost in the interior rain forested hills. For Paula and I to hike in the forest, we needed to get a permit in the forest reserve office, a small wooden house that looked like it was built 100 years ago. The permit process consisted of Paula and I showing our passports and signing a dozen different ledger books on old yellowing paper that looked like it was on the verge of disintegration. Once signed the ledger books were stacked on shelves of hundreds of other even more ancient looking ledger books. Once we had our permit, we were assigned a local village boy as our guide to takeus across the forest.

Village on Long Island

Forest Service permit office

Trekking through the forest

The walk started in banana and other fruit plantations and then plantations soon gave way tp primary rainforest that towered above us. The fair weather faded into rain and thunderstorms, but we were determined to keep walking to get to the remote beach on the other side of the island, where we could swim, of course while always remaining vigilant of the saltwater crocodiles. But the rain brought out the leeches and the leeches were starving, and I was only walking in hiking sandals. I gave up trying to pluck the leeches off of my feet so i just surrendered my feet to them and soon I was covered in the blood thirty bastards. The hike was a couple hours long and the last portion was steep and muddy as we steeply hiked down to a long pristine stretch of white sand beach that on a sunny day must look spectacular. Coral reef came right up to the beach and i quickly walked into the saltwater to sterilize my bites and rinse the leeches off of my feet. The saltwater instantly killed the leeches and they all fell off my feet leaving my feet covered in blood.

Paula and I decided that a second round of leeches was too much, so we walked back to the village along the beach and mangrove encrusted coastline against a rising tide and a setting sun, which in itself was longer and challenging and we ended up returning to our hut in the darkness.

My feet bloodied and battered from the leeches

Paula walking the long desolate beach on the other side of Long island after we finished walking the trail of a million leeches in the forest. 

Crab

Walking back along the coastline

Jolly Bouy Island

 

The public ferry to Port Blair didn’t work out in our favor, so we ended up returning the same way we came. The next morning, we took the ferry back to Baratang and then a taxi all the way back to port Blair via the trunk road. We spent two nights in port Blair and took a day trip via a boat of Indian honeymooner tourists from the mainland to Jolly Bouy island, a national park with great reef to snorkel and more rainforest and white sand beaches. I was a little annoyed when the rangers tried to corral everyone together into a small area on the beach and reef when there was a massive area to spread out. I eventually managed to sneak off with Paula to a remote beach when the rangers weren’t looking. of course, there were crocodiles and sharks to be aware of and we didn’t swim too deeply away from the rangers. I looked off into the distance in awe that there was nothing in between Jolly Bouy Island and North Sentinel Island only 20miles away, where one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes still lives.

Paula on Jolly Bouy island

Paula and I on Jolly Bouy island

Paula on Jolly Bouy island

From port Blair, Paula and I flew to Calcutta, where we spent a long day exploring before returning home via China.

12 + 9 =