On board MV Chowra: A sea voyage (2/5)

In my last post, I described the beginning of our sea journey as we left from Port Blair on MV Chowra, headed to Hut Bay, and then proceeded to Car Nicobar. The year was 2017.

Hut Bay to Car Nicobar

This was going to be our first overnight journey on MV Chowra. We barely wanted to spend time in the sleeping area below the deck. For one, it was really hot below. But thankfully there were these huge gigantic fans near each row which gave some respite from the heat. Also, the space below the deck was dark and dingy and not to forget shaky! The rocking (on sea) was felt more below the deck. But while on deck, we do not get that “swaying” feeling that makes one sea sick.

Image: The bunk beds below the the deck were arranged in rows at the end of which there was this bright orange cupboard stocked with life jackets.

The steps leading in and out of these ‘below-deck’ compartments were extremely steep. In choppy waters, one would need to hang on to the hand railings tightly while climbing or getting down.

Video: Here is a glimpse of ‘below the deck compartments’ of MV Chowra

Next morning, at around 10am, we reached the amazing island of Car Nicobar, the northernmost of the Nicobar Islands. Indian citizens who are not local residents of Car Nicobar are not permitted to enter the islands, which was a decision supported by the older generation but not so much by the younger generation. Atleast that is what we gathered after talking to people on the ship.

The restricted access to all of the Nicobar islands (and a few of the Andamans) is primarily to protect the tribal communities, their health and ways of life**. In the nicobars, we have the Nicobarese and Shompen communities. The former have moved out of the islands for education, seeking jobs and are more connected to the rest of the country than the Shompens, who are restricted to few pockets of the Great Nicobar Island. In fact, among the many tribal communities that live in the A&N islands, Shompens are among the few who are least contacted (more on that in another post). In a bid to protect their traditional ways of living, entry is restricted on these islands.

Image: Friends and family at Car Nicobar wait for their relatives to alight the ship

We got down at Car Nicobar and were immediately directed to the head of the police. He checked our tickets and told us quite sternly that we could not leave the port area under any circumstance. There was a 7 hour halt at Car Nicobar! So we were permitted to walk till the end of the port, where the port-canteen was located (a distance of roughly 200 m). We could only hang out till there and eat there, but go no further. The police took our original identity cards and asked us to collect it when we boarded the ship again.

The next 7 hours went by like a breeze. We spent all of this time absorbing as much of Car Nicobar landscape as we could. I had never seen such blue waters.

Image: The shallow end of the sea mixed the turquoise blue waters with brown sand leading psychedelic patterns of vivid colours! The views from the jetty were enough to keep our eyes glued to the waters

We watched crabs that made their way up the sides of the jetty. They merged so well with the brown stone slabs that sometimes it would create an illusion. Barnacles had taken over most of the rocks below. We sighted some birds like White-bellied Sea Eagle, Pacific Reef Egret, Pacific Golden plover and were itching to go beyond the permitted boundaries to scout the greenery behind for some birds. But we did get lucky for we got to see the uncommon Ashy Minivet, a lifer for me. Though not endemic to the region, the bird is rare in peninsular India. The shallow waters revealed flashes of yellow and black, a school of fish that I had not seen before.

Image: Can you guess how many crabs are there?
Image: The abundance of trash near the shores did not escape my eye. It reminds me that the whole world is connected.

Much of our time went in walking the 200 meter jetty about a 100 times! We sipped on tea as we watched the sea inch its way in. Though 7 hours was a long time, we enjoyed each and every minute.

Image: After exhausting our avenues to search for more birds in the limited area, we rested ourselves in the shade of MV Chowra.

We boarded the ship back at 4pm after collecting our identity cards. MV Chowra now made its way to Chowra Islands, the place after which the ship was named! But before that, my next post talks about the only major complaint I had about the journey!

The story will continue in my next post: The only complaint of the ship journey.

**See this recent piece on the need to protect indigenous tribes from exploitation, disease outbreaks and more:
Ajay Saini, July 2020: As COVID-19 reaches the Andaman Islands, the story of the Great Andamanese tribe should be a wake-up call for administrators. The Hindu.

Other interesting reads:

Sudipto Sengupta: Madhumala Chattopadhyay: An Anthropologist’s Moment of Truth, Probashi Online.

Conservation of Particularly Vulnerable Tribes of Andaman and Nicobar Islands (National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), Government of India)

UNESCO. 2010. The Jarawa Tribal Reserve Dossier: Cultural & Biological Diversities in the Andaman Islands. Edited by Pankaj Sekhsaria and Vishvajit Pandya. 212pp. Paris: UNESCO.

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My name is Adithi Muralidhar. I am a nature enthusiast based in Mumbai, India.

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