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Weekend Tripping: Cycling in Kerala

Cycling twenty to thirty kilometers in and around Hyderabad’s financial district on weekends was something I sorely missed when I broke camp and moved out of the city. But no sooner had I moved into my new home than the urge to indulge in some weekend pedaling arose once again. This time however, I wanted to do more than just an expressway ride, and signed on for a trip called ‘Cruise to the Coast” organized by a group called Cycling and More.

cruise to coast 1

The starting point was Bhagamandala in Madikeri district, about twenty kilometers from the Kerala state border. Most of us slept lightly during the nightlong bus journey there, but a few lucky souls managed to snore loudly and contentedly throughout. After some rest and a simple, but nice breakfast at a spartan state-run tourism resort, it was time to gear up for the long, hard day of riding that lay ahead.

The area outside the hotel became a hub of activity by seven in the morning. Thirty bicycles were scattered about, with their riders checking gears, brakes, tires and adjusting seat heights. Helmets were tightened, water and electrolyte supplies were double-checked, and after a pre-ride briefing, it was time to hit the road!

cruise to coast 2

The first few kilometers threw up a mix of gentle ascents and descents, but with the cool morning breeze in our faces, it really didn’t matter. Then abruptly, it was all downhill as we entered the Thalakaveri Wildlife Sanctuary. The winding, battered road hardly slowed us down as we coasted through the lush, green forest with wide grins on our faces. A light curtain of mist hung over the trees, and a few small waterfalls dotted our route. I just hoped my weathered Peugeot was up to the task as I bounced over the rough track at high speed. The brake pads were in constant use, and I had to brake rather judiciously to avoid flying into the thorny bushes that were teeming with leeches.

But the easy part of the ride was now coming to an end. The sun was out, and the air was no longer as cool as it had been when we started out. After a brief pit stop at Panathur, the pressure was off our brake pads, and it was time for the gears to kick in! It was here that the more experienced riders powered on with relative ease, while the rookies were strung out towards the rear. Most of us were anyway fit enough to keep good time and stay well ahead of the sweeper truck.

cruise to coast 3

While I knew what to expect, the actual experience of riding over rough terrain under increasingly tough conditions was quite something. The road, if one could call it that, was an endless string of steady ascents and smaller, but more welcome descents. I pedaled steadily on, wondering what insanity had come over me to choose mountain cycling on a Saturday over my nice, warm bed. But as Robin Williams said, “you’re given only one spark of madness, you mustn’t lose it.”. This was probably one of those times when that spark had kicked in.

I eventually fell in with Nishant, a fellow rookie rider, and together we made our way through several small towns including Panachady, Malakkallu and Rajapuram. By now the sweat was pouring down my face as freely as the little waterfalls we’d encountered in the sanctuary. I must have downed a bottle of water at every town we passed through along with the occasional chocolate bar.

cruise to coast 4

To say that the locals at each of these towns stared at us would be quite an understatement. We could feel their eyes on us from the moment we drifted into view. It wasn’t a rude sort of stare, but one that was brimming with curiosity. With our sleek helmets, dark riding glasses, bright sports clothes, and perched atop cycles that didn’t look like the regular ones they rode, we must have been quite a sight! A few ventured to ask us where we were from, and looked understandably perplexed when I said ‘Bangalore’, probably assuming we had cycled all the way from there.

The lunch stop at Odayanchal was a welcome break after more than fifty kilometers of riding. I pounced on the packed lunch with the enthusiasm of a wolf going after a fat lamb. Half an hour later, our group set out for Bekal Fort, our destination for the day. The afternoon heat was no less formidable and the road perhaps only slightly better. But with fifty-five kilometers of riding behind us and only about twenty six to go, it didn’t seem so daunting anymore.

It is that this stage that I felt the absence of one very essential cycling accessory. My riding goggles were adequate to keep out the sun and the gloves cushioned my hands, but not having cycling shorts proved to be a costly error. My track pants had absolutely no padding and my posterior had begun to feel very sore indeed after all that riding. I eventually coasted into Bekal Fort with a mixture of exhilaration and relief. Our group had covered eighty kilometers in a little under seven hours, which made for a pretty good debut ride!

Bekal Fort

We had a couple of hours to unwind and explore Bekal Fort and the adjoining beach. Built in 1650 by Shivappa Nayaka as a defense against seaborne marauders, the fort is fairly well-preserved and an impressive structure to behold. The battlements are relatively intact, and one can also see the ammunition magazine and an observation tower. Bekal Fort has a rather unconventional defensive feature in the form of a series of strategically placed holes in the outer walls. The topmost holes are meant to be used when the enemy is far away, the middle ones come into play when the attackers are nearer, and the lowest set are for when the enemy is very close to the fort.

Having enjoyed the picturesque view of the surrounding area from the observation tower, we headed for the beach. Some of us chose to loll in the sand and stretch our tired legs, while another group spearheaded by an impatient Nishant plunged with enthusiasm into the water. He had never been to a beach before, and so running headlong into the water was a great way for him to bring the curtain down on a great day of riding.

Picture credits: the pictures in this post are all thanks to a fellow rider, Anil Nair.

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An Unplanned Trip to Morocco

The arrival of summer heralded the final phase of a memorable year at university. This was also the time when scores of students packed their bags and headed out to explore Europe before tackling their dissertations. Most of the people we knew made a beeline for the wonderful cities of western Europe. A few set out to explore the equally magnificent sights of Eastern Europe.

But our itch to go to someplace slightly off the beaten track led us to Morocco, nestling at the very tip of North Africa. There were eight people when we started planning, but only two of us eventually landed on Moroccan soil. Our first stop and ‘headquarters’ for the trip, was Marrakesh.

MARRAKESH

Marrakesh

While getting in and out of the city was planned, what we were going to do once we landed was not. Nevertheless, armed with a smattering of schoolroom French, we strode out to the taxi rank at Marrakesh airport. Our strange grasp of the language probably amused the cab driver, but it probably helped us get to the city center without being overcharged.

Our good run continued while searching for a hotel near the main square. The very first one we sauntered into had reasonably decent rooms, and we happily settled into one after a brief, but customary bout of haggling over the room rate. Having set up camp, we headed out to explore Djemaa El-Fna.

Djemaa El-Fna is without a doubt one of Marrakesh’s most prominent landmarks. One side of this huge square is taken up by a souk, a traditional North African market. A line of cafes cater to the endless stream of locals and tourists that throng the area. Narrow streets at the square’s edges lead into the quaint little alleys of the medina quarter.

Djemaa El-Fna

Djemaa El-Fna in the morning

We walked about, taking in the sights and sounds of the place. Shopkeepers accosted us at every turn, and their salesmanship made their counterparts on Bombay’s Fashion Street seem rather tame by comparison. One local character tried his best to sell us an antique Berber dagger, which was more likely a cheap replica. It was quite a task to tactfully shake him off, even after the asking price had been reduced to an astonishingly low figure, which only served to make me doubt the supposed antique’s authenticity still further!

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the Djemaa El-Fna by day. A few stalls brave the afternoon sun, snake charmers and youngsters with Barbary apes scout for tourists in search of an unusual photo-op. But as dusk falls, the area undergoes an unbelievable change.

A sea of humanity descends upon the square, filling it from end to end. Food stalls offering a mouthwatering assortment of Moroccan delicacies spring up, and the exuberant lot that run them go all out to get you to stuff yourself at their tables. Berber storytellers enthrall locals and tourists alike with their performances, and the bright lights of the place virtually turn night into day. The sheer vivacity of Djemaa El-Fna by night has to be seen to be believed! Small wonder that we were back here every evening to soak in the amazing atmosphere of the place,

Djemaa El-Fna

As evening approaches, the crowds gather!

Djemaa El-Fna

OUZOUD FALLS

We visited a small travel agency near our hotel on the following day to see what short trips they had to offer. There were two vacant slots for a day trip to the Ouzoud Falls, and we happily hopped on. Our travel companions were two Russians, a bubbly Swedish backpacker and a very quiet French couple.

The Ouzoud Falls are situated about 150 kilometers northeast of Marrakesh, near a little Berber village called Tanaghmeilt. A few small mills can be seen around the summit area, while a path lined with olive trees takes one to the bottom. The place doesn’t have the same glamour quotient as the Niagara Falls, but it its appeal lies in the fact that it isn’t terribly touristy (at least that’s how it was when we visited in 2009).

Ouzould Falls

Ouzoud Falls

Our Berber guide wanted 80 Moroccan Dirhams to show us around. We hammered it down to 40 after a customary bout of haggling, and down again to 30 when one of the Russians suddenly launched into a tirade about being hustled all the time. After a tour of the Berber village and a nice little hike, our group sat down for a Moroccan lunch at a restaurant near the falls. We capped a day well spent with a hearty dinner, where we gorged on tajine chicken, a superb local dish that derives its name from the earthenware pot in which it is prepared.

ESSAOUIRA

A day trip to the lovely coastal city of Essaouira was on the cards for day three. At first glance, Essaouira could be mistaken for a fortified European port, with its blue windows, battlements and old cannons that stand sentinel along the shore. However, that illusion rapidly melts away once you enter the walled Medina area. The city’s interesting mix of architecture and culture is a result of Essaouira’s location, which has over the centuries exposed it to Berber, Chiadma, Gnawa and European influences.

Essaouira

Morocco essaouira

morocco essaouira

Exploring Essaouira

We strolled through the narrow alleyways, not with a map but with an eagerness to simply explore the place. Sellers of colorful rugs, spices, antiques (both suspect and genuine) and tourist souvenirs lined every available spot. They aren’t as pushy as their contemporaries in Marrakesh, but the necessity of bargaining is universal! The Medina is off-limits to vehicles, which lends an old world charm to the area, but we were brought back to the present time on more than one occasion by speeding mopeds for whom brakes seemed to be an optional accessory.

morocco essaouira

Bob Marley posters for sale in an Essaouira alley!

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the beach and the harbor, and savoring a few cups of mint tea while watching the world go by. We were approached every now and then by a ‘space cake’ seller, a product of Essaouira’s years as a hippie hangout. Interestingly, Morocco was once the largest producer of cannabis, a title now held by Afghanistan. Drugs may be illegal, but the sight of men lighting up a joint remains a fairly common one, given that Moroccans have smoked kif for generations.

ONE LAST ‘SQUARE’ MEAL

We brought down the curtain on our memorable Moroccan foray with a superb dinner in the Djemaa El-Fna. The competition between the food stalls in the square is rather fierce. Every tourist who ventures into the square is, short of being pounced upon, besieged by beckoning servers and loud calls to sample their shawarmas.

Marrakesh dinner

The food arrives…

marrakesh dinner

...and is gone in a trice!

As soon as he found out that we were from India, the jovial Moroccan at our chosen food stall suddenly exclaimed ‘Arey O Samba, kitne aadmi the?’‘ and other iconic dialogues from the Bollywood blockbuster Sholay! He switched in an instant to Spanish when he spotted a group of Spaniards wondering where to eat.

Doing this year in and year out gives these people an uncanny instinct for pinpointing their prospective customer’s nationalities, and quickly uttering a few choice phrases in that language along with their sales pitch works brilliantly for them. A sporting lot, they shuttle effortlessly all night between snagging new customers, cracking jokes while serving diners and posing for pictures with wide grins on their faces. People such as these are truly the life of the Djemaa El-Fna.

marrakesh food stalls

After dinner, I sat at a cafe till it was well past midnight and soaked in the atmosphere of the Djemaa El-Fna one last time. We speculated about how many countries were represented here tonight, and tried to guess where James Stewart may have heard the dying Frenchman’s last words in The Man Who Knew Too Much. A few hours later, we were on a plane and headed back to reality.

Over five years have passed since I visited Morocco. But I still look through the photos once in a while and relive the memories of visiting this lovely country. And finally, after lying in my drafts folder for an eternity, it is up on my blog for posterity!

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My First Full Marathon

I was a sprinter in my school days, but the thought of running a long distance event never entered my head till I was in my second year of college. I impulsively registered for the 7-kilometer event of the inaugural Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, and paid dearly for my lack of preparation. Although I was reasonably fit, I wasn’t exactly grinning when I crossed the finish line.

Lesson learned, I put the idea of endurance running out of my mind… or so I thought. When registrations for the following year’s Standard Chartered Marathon opened, I found myself inexplicably drawn to giving it another shot. My mind was swirling with questions and doubts, but there was also the burning desire to see how far I could go. That, and the lure of a medal for full marathon finishers, led me and three friends to throw our hats into the forty-two kilometer ring.

However, a marathon is not something that one simply decides to run, unless you’re Haile Gebrselassie! Unlike the 7-kilometer race, we were going to have to be in far better shape to stand a fighting chance of going the distance. Regular sessions of football after lectures and the spartan fare that is otherwise known as hostel food helped us maintain a fairly good level of fitness to begin with.

Still, kicking off our training was easier said than done. It took a superhuman level of willpower to wake up before sunrise and run, because life in a hostel begins only after the sun goes down! But gradually, we got into the groove, and I found myself enjoying these runs more and more. The early morning air was cooler and fresh, unlike the hot, smoky breeze that blew across the city for most of the day. The four-kilometer stretch of Marine Drive was a great place to run, and offered a grandstand view of the sunrise as I traversed the scenic route from Chowpatty Beach to Nariman Point and back.

Marine Drive (image courtesy wonderfulmumbai)

Marine Drive (image courtesy wonderfulmumbai)

The days rolled by, and soon it was time to line up at the starting point. The moment of truth was at hand! The full marathon route began at Bombay’s iconic Victoria Terminus and wound its way through Marine Drive, Babulnath, Haji Ali, Worli and Dadar to the halfway mark at Bandra Reclamation. Our little group started well, keeping a slow but steady pace. By the fifth kilometer, we began to pass what I call the ‘gung-ho runners’, who take off like sprinters and rashly deplete their energy reserves before realizing that they are in fact running a long-distance event.

Hordes of people thronged the sidelines and balconies of buildings overlooking the route, cheering the runners on. The weather was perfect, and we aimed to cover as much ground as we could before the late morning sun altered running conditions for the worse. The first signs of strain began to manifest themselves around the 15-kilometer mark, but we managed to reach the halfway point in under three hours. Two of our group dropped out shortly afterwards.

The sun was well and truly up by now, but the heat was the least of my problems. By the 25th kilometer, I felt nearly every leg muscle with each step. The first blisters in my feet had begun to make themselves more apparent, no doubt brought on by shoes that had clocked one mile too many and should have been replaced well before the race.

Aid stations were truly welcome sights. I needed all the hydration and electrolytes I could lay my hands on, while the relief sprays kept the ache in my calves at bay. As I plodded on however, my blisters got worse, and the prospect of dropping out began to seem rather strong. But having covered two-thirds of the way, it made little sense to have come so far and thrown in the towel. I steeled myself and kept going. I was determined to get to the finish no matter what. Along the way, I mentally picked a runner as a ‘pacing benchmark’ and kept up with them for as long as I could until one of us moved ahead or fell behind.

Mission accomplished!

Mission accomplished!

The cheering crowds had melted away as the day wore on, and we were pretty much on our own. The milestone markers seemed to appear after an eternity of running, and their effect was no less than that of the water at the aid stations. I steadily chipped away at the last ten kilometers that lay between me and the finish line. Nothing was going to stop me now.

Finally, after five and a half hours, I was firmly on the home stretch leading to Victoria Terminus. The pain in my legs seemed to melt away as the finish line came into view, and I brought down the curtains on my first full marathon with a mad hundred-meter sprint. The feeling of having completed a forty-two kilometer course was amazing. What started off as an exercise to see how far I could go became a quest to finish it no matter what, and the Finisher’s Medal was the icing on the cake.

Nearly ten years have passed since that day, and I sometimes look back and wonder what made me sign up for it in the first place. But then the answer doesn’t really matter. It’s just one of those things I’m glad I did!

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What Running Means to Me

I have often been asked why I run marathons. What is it that makes me get out of my nice, warm bed and go running in the local park at 6.30 in the morning? A complete answer to this question eludes me, but here are some of the reasons why my eyes often open well before the alarm clock rings.

The Thrill of Accomplishment

Once you have run a marathon and experienced the thrill that comes with crossing the finish line, you will want to do it again and again, and again. It took me five hours and fifty minutes to complete my first full marathon. I ran, I walked, I limped, I cursed, and then I ran some more. But the sight of the finish line was akin to finding a lush oasis in the midst of a barren wasteland. The blisters in my feet ceased to matter, a surge of energy coursed through me and the pain in my calves vanished as if it had never been there at all! The feeling of having completed a forty-two kilometer run was so awesome that I ended up running it again! I have since run four half-marathons and three 10-kilometer runs, and hope to continue to add to this modest tally over time.

The Ability to Endure

Life isn’t perfect. There are the welcome ups and the inevitable downs. I also enjoy cycling and do Krav Maga, but running has played no small part in helping me deal with life’s speed bumps, both great and small. From being a simple way to keep fit, it has become a form of active meditation that I simply cannot do without.

Long, slow runs help me tune out or think at an easy pace, subconsciously evaluating possible courses of action. Events that cause more agitation sometimes call for a more rigorous session of interval running. Six 30-second sprints later, with my heart pounding like a jungle drum, my lungs calling for all the oxygen they can get and my body all pumped up, I feel pretty invincible!

The Strength to Believe

Running events aren’t just a test of physical endurance, but mental strength as well. Running a ten, twenty-one or forty-two kilometer course is no joke. Being physically fit is just half the battle. Believing that I can go all the way no matter what is key to making it past the finish line. This belief is tested thoroughly in every marathon I run, and reinforced every time I finish it. That confidence spills over into the other areas of my life as well, and one can never have too much of it!

Dessert Demon

cake

Bring it on!

There are very few sweets that you can leave me alone with and hope they will remain intact when you check back. No matter how full I am, I’m always game for a good dessert. My friends have quipped that the quantity of sugar I imbibe in a single sitting would induce diabetes in most other people.

Being a runner is the reason why I can regularly relish a large slice of chocolate cake (or two) and not feel the slightest twinge of guilt. That being said, I’m not someone who has thrown dietary caution to the winds. I am just as conscious of keeping fit as I am willing to reach out for another helping of that awesome chocolate cake! All of this, in a fair-sized nutshell, is what running means to me. And then there’s this lovely quote that I recall every time someone asks me “But isn’t just running so boring?”

running quotes

(image courtesy wordsonimages.com)

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The Angrez Diary – Hyderabad Heritage Walk 3

The Hyderabad Heritage Walks are a wonderful way to explore a labyrinthine and fascinating part of Hyderabad that is locally known as the Old City. The capital of Andhra Pradesh is home to a rich treasure trove of monuments and this is certainly a great way to go about discovering them.

On this particular occasion, we went for Heritage Walk 3, which took us from the Charminar to Purani Haveli.

osmania biscuits hyderabad

Kick off your walk with a cup of tea and a plate of salty sweet Osmania biscuits

The four of us arrived well before the walk was to start to enjoy a steaming cup of Irani chai and a plate of salty-sweet Osmania biscuits at Nimrah Cafe. These delicious and crispy biscuits are named after the seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan.

He is believed to have liked the biscuits made at Vicaji Hotel so much that a car was often sent out every evening to pick up a fresh batch for him. Eager to please their exalted patron, the hotel named the biscuit ‘Osmania’ and even fine-tuned the recipe to make it more to the Nizam’s liking. The era of the Nizams has long since passed, but the Osmania biscuit remains an integral part of every hardcore Hyderabadi’s tea break.

Having fuelled up, it was time to head off and explore a slice of Hyderabad’s incredible heritage. Here’s what the third Heritage Walk served up…

UNANI HOSPITAL

Located right next to the Charminar, the Unani Hospital is a lovely example of Indo-Sarcenic architecture. It was built in 1938 by the last Nizam, Asaf Jah VII. The tiny balcony over the doorway was used to shower people with flowers. Now that is a truly unusual thing to think of when planning a hospital!

hyderabad unani hospital

RATH KHANA

This is an old dilapidated gateway through which carriages once passed to get to a parking area. The picture here speaks more about the sorry state it is in today than words ever could.

hyderabad rath khana
SARDAR MAHAL

Sardar Mahal was built in 1900 by the sixth Nizam for one of his consorts, Sardar Begum. However, its European style architecture failed to impress Her Highness, and she chose to stay elsewhere instead. Despite not being occupied by the person for whom it was intended, the palace continued to be referred to as Sardar Mahal anyway.

Today, the city’s municipal corporation uses it as an office building. It was requisitioned by them in 1965 for non-payment of property tax.

sardar mahal hyderabad

sardar mahal hyderabad

MANSOOR KHAN MOSQUE AND BARGAH PANJ-E-SHAH-E-VILAYAT

These are two small religious sites with some interesting architecture. The latter is so called because it is believed to possess the footprints of the Prophet Mohammed and a few other Shia relics.

Mansoor Khan mosque hyderabad

Mansoor Khan Mosque

A closer look at the picture above reveals the sorry state that the Mansoor Khan mosque is in. With plants growing out of cracks that will only widen over time, this is yet another monument that may eventually fall victim to the ravages of time and neglect.

MIR ALAM MANDI KAMAN

This ‘kaman’ (entrance gateway) towers over a large vegetable market. It is in very bad shape as well and has definitely seen better days.

Mir Alam Mandi Kaman

PURANI HAVELI

This sprawling estate was once the residence of the sixth Nizam, and we spent a great deal of time looking around. This is also where Heritage Walk Three ends.

Purani Haveli

The Haveli is ‘u-shaped’, with two oblong wings running parallel to each other, while the main residence is located in the middle. The architecture of Purani Haveli draws inspiration from the style in which European palaces of the 18th century were built.

Purani Haveli

A large part of one of the wings is occupied by what is probably the world’s longest wardrobe (pictured below). The scale of this room has to be seen to be believed. Of course, the question of whether a woman with this many clothes would still say “I haven’t a thing to wear.” remains an interesting one!

Nizams wardrobe

Purani Haveli is also home to the Nizam’s Museum, which has an extraordinary collection of artefacts that showcase the splendour and immense wealth that Hyderabad’s erstwhile rulers once possessed.

Silver petition caskets, ceremonial swords, silver models of planned buildings, elegant tea sets, gold curiosities and more adorn the glass shelves of the museum. Heritage Walk participants get a 50% discount on the admission charge.

Purani Haveli gold lighter

The object shown above is a golden cigarette lighter. If you thought that looks opulent, take a good look at the tiffin box in the next picture!

Gold tiffin Purani Haveli

There is so much more of Hyderabad that I have yet to discover. I aim to do Heritage Walks one, two and four sometime in the future, so watch this space!

USEFUL INFORMATION

Do remember that you are visiting the ‘Old City’, where people are far more conservative. so dress accordingly. You may be visiting places of religious importance on some routes as well.

The walks start at 7.30 a.m and end at about 9.00 a.m, giving you enough time to enjoy the rest of your Sunday. You can get more information about these Heritage Walks from the Andhra Pradesh Tourism website.

* * * *

Image credits: all the pictures in this post, with the exception of that of the Mansoor Khan Mosque, have been clicked by Ajit Nathaniel.

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Hostel Life – An Alarm Clock Speaks

This article appeared in the Mumbai edition of Daily News & Analysis on February 19, 2006.

My day begins at exactly seven in the morning when my internal mechanism triggers the alarm. This action of mine has an absolutely unequal and very violent reaction. I am either bashed on the head or a heavy object within the reach of my rudely awakened master is hurled at me. Having muttered a few choice expletives, he falls asleep again; vowing to be up and about in two more minutes, but usually ends up in dreamland for two more hours.

Image courtesy: Sun ladder

 When he finally does wake up, a state of pandemonium erupts. As I’ve observed, bunking classes, which he always does, can land one in hot water. He does get a few letters regarding his irregular attendance, which he signs and returns. But I don’t think those letters were meant for him to sign in the first place.

On this particular day however, he is not hurrying because he has to go to class. He is hurrying because he has to meet someone whose photographs evoke sighs of admiration from the other hostellers. How can I say this with such unflinching confidence? Firstly, he has had a bath, with water and soap, not with a can of deodorant. Secondly, he has worn a fresh set of decent clothes, instead of the shabby ones he tends to wear for weeks altogether. Thirdly, he is making sure that his hairstyle makes him look human and not like the deranged monster that he usually resembles on other days. And lastly, he is revising a speech.

He might be preparing for a test, you argue. True, but “Your eyes are like sapphires” and “You are the most beautiful girl in the world” are as far from examination answers as you can get. He has finally left, and the quietest phase of my day begins. I usually spend my day looking around the messy room, especially at the many posters on the walls. Some of the people on those posters look exactly like the ones in the magazines that my master spends hours gaping at, for reasons I still cannot fathom. I also like to converse with the CD player and the electric kettle. But they are either under a pile of dirty clothes or are borrowed by the other hostellers, in which case they return to the room only after several weeks, or even months.

My master finally returns late at night. The other hostellers crowd around him, wanting to know everything. Soon the topic drifts from there to sports, movies and politics. Somebody strums a guitar and everybody sings a few songs, adding their own lyrics in the process. The last of them finally drift off by five in the morning. I’m sure their alarm clocks have a lot of stories too!

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Scuba Diving in the Andamans

Havelock beach - Andamans

‘Carpe diem’, whispers professor Keating in that well-known scene from Dead Poet’s Society, where he makes his students look at old photographs of those who once roamed the school’s halls as they do now, full of dreams and hopes.

This little scene came to mind when I drew a big red circle over the last week of January 2013, determined that this time I would not let anything stop me from scuba diving in the Andamans. Not my fragile bank balance. Not my work schedule. Not the fact that no one else was sure if they’d be able to come along. I was going, and that was it! Three weeks later, I was on a plane headed for Port Blair, about 1,300 miles from the mainland.

The first rush of greenery filled my airplane window as we flew over Sentinel Island, home to the reclusive Sentinelese. Very little is known about this tribe, but they are known to greet outsiders with a hail of arrows. A reputation of this sort ensures that they are left alone, safe from the ravages of irresponsible tourism (that has decimated the region’s Jarawas) and well-intentioned but badly implemented government welfare schemes.

DAY 1 – PORT BLAIR

I landed well after the last ferry for Havelock Island had departed, and spent the night at Port Blair. All places of tourist interest were shut on account of Republic Day, with the result that I could not visit Cellular Jail, one of Port Blair’s top attractions. I had a few hours to spare anyway, and hopped onto a bus to catch the sunset at Wandoor beach.

Wandoor beach port blair  - Andamans

Sunset at Wandoor Beach

DAY 2 – HAVELOCK-BOUND

After a leisurely breakfast, I caught a government ferry to Havelock. The greater part of the three hour journey was spent on the sun-baked forward deck marveling at the endless expanse of blue water and keeping an eye out for flying fish.

En route to HAvelock - Andamans

En route to Havelock

I disembarked at Havelock and headed for Island Vinnie’s Tropical Beach Cabanas, which is quite a mouthful! Island Vinnie’s is a lovely resort on Beach Number 3.

I was on a budget, and therefore chose to stay in a no-frills standard hut. At INR 550 per day, it’s a pretty sweet deal. The hut is small, but not cramped. It’s perfect for people who plan to spend most of their time outside (like I did) and return only to sleep after a great day of diving.

You can check out a more detailed review of the resort on Tripadvisor here.

After settling in, I strolled over to the dive center and was given a thick tome on the fundamentals of scuba diving, which I would have to go through for the written test. I did manage to read most of it, but there is no surer sleeping pill than a book that one is supposed to study!

Havlock crab - Andamans

I noticed this little fellow while trying to read my book on scuba diving

DAY 3 – PREPARATION

The morning was spent watching an instructional video followed by a session where I learned how to inspect, assemble, test and disassemble my scuba gear. The boats returned around lunchtime, and I envied the look of satisfaction on the divers’ faces as they trooped back to the dive center. I wouldn’t be envious for long though!

After a hearty lunch, I strolled over to the beach to try and do my ‘homework’. I worked my way through two chapters, but soon found myself staring at the clear blue water and nodding off to the soothing sound of the waves rolling gently onto the beach.

I rounded off a lazy afternoon by getting to know my canine hosts better. The owner of Island Vinnie’s has two adorable dogs that pretty much have a free run of the place. Sam is a big, quiet labrador who rolls over for a belly rub (even if he is half-asleep) as soon as one bends down to pet him.

Sam and Frodo

Life’s a beach for Sam and Frodo (Image courtesy VH)

Frodo is a retriever who also seems to know that he can get attention and belly rubs on tap. He walks around the Full Moon Cafe at dinnertime and stops by at each table in the hope that someone will fuss over him. Most guests oblige Frodo, who uses his expressive eyes and wagging tail to good effect. As you can see in the picture below, he is also quite a sporting poser!

Frodo Havelock

Frodo pays us some attention

DAY 4 – D-DAY!

I woke up early and walked to the beach to catch what I hoped would be a spectacular Andamans sunrise. It happened to be a cloudy morning, but watching the first rays of the sun break through the gloom was a stunning sight nevertheless.

I simply sat there for nearly an hour, relishing the feeling of being disconnected from reality, and utterly lost in the serenity of my surroundings. The quiet was broken only by the birds wheeling overhead. The dive boats floated lazily in the calm water. A light breeze made the tree branches sway gently. Scores of little crabs scurried about with their shells, and occasionally ran into each other as well. The only flurry of movement came from Frodo, who was busy tossing and turning in the sand.

Sunrise havelock - Andamans

A cloudy sunrise at Havelock. The sun usually rises at about 0540, so remember to set your alarm clocks accordingly!

Time to Dive!

I had a light breakfast and reported to the dive center at 0700 to meet my fellow Open Water Divers. I was grouped with Corey, an affable Canadian, and Ben, an equally amiable Englishman. The three of us would be learning the ropes under the watchful eye of Melissa, a very capable instructor with four years of diving under her weight belt.

The first boats started roaring out towards their assigned dive sites by 0745, and we followed suit in the Bullshark soon afterwards. Our dive site for the day was called Nemo Reef. As you may have guessed, the site derives its name from the distinctive clownfish of Finding Nemo fame that inhabit these waters.

bullshark

My ride (image courtesy VH)

“Air. Check. Buoyancy. Check. Clips. Check. Aaand down we go!”

Holding our deflator tubes aloft, we descended into another world. As the water closed over us, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my breathing, and of the bubbles streaming out of my regulator as I exhaled.

The feeling of being underwater was absolutely fabulous! it can perhaps be described as an eclectic mix of peace, wonder and ecstasy. It wasn’t long before we found Nemo, and the sight of small schools of fish swimming about was no less mesmerizing.

Today was training day, and so we practiced a variety of regular and emergency diving skills. These included clearing our masks underwater, retrieving and clearing our second stage regulator if it slipped out, helping a dive buddy who was ‘out of air’. removing and refitting our equipment while submerged, emergency ascents and more.

We didn’t go deeper than 9 meters during our training dives, but they were like a couple of superb previews for the incredible films that we were going to watch over the next few days.

“So how long do you guys think you were underwater? “, Melissa asked with a knowing grin as we clambered back onto the Bullshark after our second dive.

We took a wild guess, “Maybe twenty-five… thirty minutes?”

“Nope. We’ve been down for an hour!”, she replied as we looked at her in disbelief.

Einstein’s explanation of the theory of relativity sprang to mind here – “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour.”

Havelock evening - Andamans

A lovely evening walk at Havelock beach

DAY 5 – THE SLOPE AND THE WALL

Our first dive site derived its name from the gentle gradient of the seabed in that area. I started off on a mildly disastrous note, when too many deep inhalations coupled with fewer long exhalations increased my buoyancy and caused me to shoot back up to the surface. But the rest of the dive after that little hiccup was fantastic.

We spotted several blue sea stars as we glided though the clear blue water. Brightly colored angelfish flitted about near the corals. Schools of smaller fish swam unhurriedly overhead, making way briefly for larger trevallies and parrotfish. A sea cucumber lying on the gravel below best represented the leisurely pace of life here.

The serenity of The Slope contrasted greatly with the sheer vivacity of The Wall. This lovely dive site, although relatively small, is home to an astounding array of fish. We spotted a huge Napoleon Maori wrasse, paddle tail snappers, fusiliers, bannerfish, highly venomous lionfish, and a number of angelfish. The Wall was like an art canvas bursting with color, and it was with a twinge of reluctance that we kicked our way back up to the Bullshark after an incredible fifty-minute dive.

DAY 6 – DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!

The kind of people one encounters while traveling adds an interesting dimension to the whole experience, and this trip was no exception. The group aboard the exotically named Pink Cadillac was an interesting mix of nationalities and diving experience.

There were three fairly quiet Germans, a poker-faced Argentinian who was all smiles once the ice was broken, a French couple,   an outdoorsy German who was working alongside his Spanish wife in Kazakhstan, a middle-aged Ukrainian woman who had done over seventy-five dives, and of course, Ben and Corey.

All set to head out for yet another great day of diving

All set to head out for yet another great day of diving (image courtesy: VH)

The current at Two Fathom Rock gave some of the rookie divers, including me, a tough time. While I had gotten the hang of maintaining neutral buoyancy and managed to keep myself from shooting back up, the current made things that much more difficult. Every dive served up something new, and that’s what made my trip truly interesting and memorable.

But the best of the eight dives that I logged was dive number six, and I have no idea why I feel this way! It wasn’t very different from our other dives. We saw a good number of fish here as well during the course of the fifty minutes that we spent underwater.

But when the four of us finally surfaced, we all reacted in pretty much the same way. Instead of the usual “woooo!” that one of the group usually let out, we just bobbed there as if we had achieved nirvana after a long spell of meditation.

“This had to be our most chilled out dive. ” Ben said.

“Definitely our best one, and very relaxing too.”  Corey and I agreed as we inflated our buoyancy compensators. The feeling of being suspended remained long after we reached the dive center.

I rounded off yet another fantastic day by catching the sunset at Radhanagar beach with a fellow diver from Bangalore. Ben and Corey were done with the Open Water Course, and so we celebrated at the Wild Orchid with a couple of other people we’d met on the Pink Cadillac.

Sunset Radhanagar Havelock - Andamans

Sunset at Radhanagar beach (Beach no. 7) – Havelock

DAY 7 – ANOTHER DIVE IN THE WALL

My eyes opened well before the alarm clock went off. I could hardly wait to suit up and jump into the clear blue water once again. It was also my last day on the island, and I hoped to bring the curtain down on a superb trip with a couple of great dives.

The water was very calm at the Aquarium, and I kept my eyes peeled in the hope of sighting a turtle or a manta ray. Sadly, I saw neither, but the clownfish here seemed to be way more curious than the ones we saw elsewhere. One of them came very close to my outstretched arm and swam about before darting away, while another nibbled on a fellow diver’s mask.

Choppy conditions at the second dive site forced us to change course and head for The Wall instead. It was one of my favorite  sites, and so the sudden alteration to our program wasn’t such a bad thing after all. My eighth dive was quite literally, the last but not the least, considering that we descended to a depth of nearly 17.5 meters!

I relished the indescribable sense of peace and drank in the sights of this amazing world one last time – the magnificent fish swimming leisurely about, the carpet of plankton that glowed when one swept the water near it, and the lovely coral formations that dotted the seabed. Time flew by quickly as always, and before long, it was time to swim back up to the Pink Cadillac.

Havelock crab - Andamans

Sadly, there are no pictures of me in my scuba gear. So here’s yet another picture of a crab moving house on the beach – at Havelock

With eight dives under my weight belt, the only thing standing between me and the Open Water certification was the SSI theory test. I parked myself at a corner table in the cafe, ordered a steaming glass of tea, and ran through the test fairly easily. Open Water Diver. Check! My dinner that night was a fabulous (and well-deserved) slice of freshly baked chocolate-orange cake. If you ever visit the Full Moon Cafe at Havelock, you must try this simple, yet incredibly delicious dessert.

DAY 8 – RETURN TO REALITY

After seven packed days, my vacation had finally come to an end and it was time to return to the mainland, and reality. I woke up early as usual to catch the Andamans sunrise and yes, I did get a nice picture this time around. Sam and Frodo were in a playful mood, and vied for my attention in order to get yet another belly rub.

I must admit that I envied my companions from Bangalore, who were staying on for a little while longer to do the Advanced Open Water course. But then there’s always next January, and I’m very sure that I shall return to the Andamans someday!

Frodo Havelock

Frodo insists that it is his turn now! (image courtesy: VH)

Beach bum at Havelock

The beach bum will return to Havelock!

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