“Do you have any medical issues? I need to know”
“I do have some anxiety issues.”
“So, will you get mental, in the water?”
Anxiety is a legit concern for the contemporary traveller. I’m not talking about fear or phobias, but that very invisible shroud of cumulative stress — relationship and work demons coupled with an existential angst — that we can’t seem to shake off at the swishest of hotel suites, through the doughtiest of cross-country treks and the dreamiest of beach shacks.
Cutting to the chase, I didn’t get mental in the water. Au contraire, as a non-swimmer and first-time diver, the experience was immensely relaxing and regrettably short-lived. It was a vast improvement on my last underwater experience, when they took us en masse in a boat off Cape Town and chucked inside a steel cage to meet a shark. Here, on Beach 3 of Havelock Island in Andaman, lolling at the Barefoot Scuba Resort centre with a honeymooning couple, a cat and a blasé PADI-certified instructor, things were significantly more laidback and my Nemo dive — starring electric blue clownfish and flitting shoals of damselfish — off a pretty mangrove beach where dungis (local motor boats) lounged around out like bored crocodiles.
Make mine civil and wifi-free, please
“See her? She’s fully civilised.”
My driver-cum-guide from the very capable, young and local staff at Barefoot Holidays pointed at a lady traffic controller at Aberdeen Bazaar in Port Blair. I was staying at the capital of Andaman & Nicobar for a day before heading to Havelock Island, and Aditya was showing me around town. The petite, spiffily uniformed woman he was pointing to was from Nicobar, the tribal zone of the archipelago, off limits for tourists. Youth from some of the lesser isolated tribes — like Jarawa and Shompen — have been brought into the mainstream by the government. Andaman itself, I was told by everyone, basks in an almost zero-crime rate; Aditya left our SUV unlocked and sauntered across the road for a light while I shopped for shell souvenirs, and lined up for a rousing sound and light show at the Cellular ‘kaalapani’ Jail, rounding off the night with prawn-chicken-pork hakka noodles that hit the spot. But the highlight of my brief stay remained the delightfully moody mobile network. I gave up chasing WiFi through The Nest, my no-frills B&B, and settled into the kind of coastal languor that one often dreams about while fantasising about a mid-life crisis; or even up close, living one out.
Keep calm and take off your footwear
A two-hour ferry ride away from Port Blair, Havelock lulled me deeper into the anxiety-fuelled fantasy, despite the off-season tourist heft on the ferry. As soon as we docked on the jetty, after a flurry of selfies against the charter, the merry crowds — mostly Indian honeymooners and families who are discovering the archipelago long after outsiders have — magically vaporised, leaving me alone with another Barefoot driver. The locals are gabby and plenty of them are Bangla, which probably explained the gabbiness. This one emphasized that Andaman & Nicobar was like Goa was 10 years ago, and proceeded to rattle off places I should visit next, his hometown Diglipur, Chidiyataapu (Parrot Island) and Ross Island, in that order. We chatted incessantly, passing by the new Taj hotel site, before entering Barefoot at Havelock, the eco-resort that was to become my sanctuary for the next few days.
Every luxury hotel perched upon on every virgin beach across the world trumpeting its eco-credentials has become a bit of a snooze fest. But Barefoot has its toes embedded deep in the island’s history and geography; from three decades ago when it was a backpacker’s lodge frequented by globe-trotting hippies in the know, to a few years ago when it was taken over by Bengaluru-based Cafe Coffee Day Hotels & Resorts which is fast snapping up properties outside Karnataka where its brand, The Serai, has established itself in the eco-luxury space.
Lizard on beach, gecko in mangrove
Barefoot at Havelock gets its sustainable, eco-sustainable essentials down pat — no television, no WiFi, no room service, indigenous material used to build the residences, a reverse osmosis plant, 75 percent local staff and locally-grown produce from free-range chicken to their own piggery where in-house waste is channelled. There’s also no VIP, or any other sort of beer-and-sunbed pampering at Beach No 7 — Radhanagar — on which the resort is built. Crowned Asia’s best beach by TIMEW magazine a decade ago, Radhanagar is valiantly hanging on that glory. I spent a couple of wonderful pre-lunch hours leaving my footprints on the sand and ran into a foreign gent deeply engrossed in his book and an Israeli couple quietly walking hand in hand near the immensely Instagram-my Neil’s Cove, which is at the other end of the public area. Upon hopping back to the resort in dreamy state, I was asked by the wry, resourceful, in-house guide Karthik, if I’d met the monitor lizards — a pair of shy, 5-feet lovelies who were given to burrowing in the sand when they weren’t slithering into the resort where the adoring staff fed them raw eggs. That story signalled the end of my Radhanagar romance.
But there’s always more to explore at Havelock. I walked to the remote and secluded Kala Patthar where the wrecks of the tsunami still paint a remarkable landscape, and trekked — through slushy jumbo footprints — to the mangrove-fringed Elephant Beach (tip: get there on a Sunday when the banana boats and snorkelers take a weekly off) , where a considerably smaller lizard, a blue-eyed gecko, posed flamboyantly against the mixed palette of cerulean, turquoise and aquamarine.
On my last night on the island, over a smashing meal of daab chingri and meen bemisaal at B3, the new brasserie strategically located at the jetty and owned by Barefoot at Havelock. Sublime batter-fried pork belly (courtesy the piggery) was rustled up in 10 minutes on request. I chatted with the chef on his local finds, like desi chicken curry cooked in pork fat, meant to be devoured with rice and cold beer (or a Vesper, if you want to be part-time sophisticate) while the world sauntered by, neither of us in any hurry to get anywhere in particular.
All images courtesy the author