Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Lakshadweep Diaries



When someone asks me why I chose to go to Lakshadweep, the only answer I have is “because no one ever goes there”. It really was on a whim. I’m not an adventurous traveller; I started off traveling for business, with a friendly secretary booking flights and nondescript hotels and I have pretty much stuck to the “nice hotel-good restaurants-catch a show-go to museums” theme for my leisure travel.

Lakshadweep is none of these. Set hundreds of miles off the Indian mainland, this tiny group of 36 islands doesn’t register on any tourist map. Almost no information is available on these coral islands online and because they are ecologically sensitive, visitors need a permit to enter. There are no hotels or restaurants on the islands, only government run cottages set right on the beach. I discovered during one of my internet searches that only one of the six islands offer ‘AC cottages’ so I booked myself into Kadmat Island, got a permit and set out to fly from Kochi to the airport at Agatti Island.

You will never forget the fight landing at Agatti. The island is a narrow strip of land, with beach and greenery on either side and just enough space to build a runway in the middle. It’s a four hour boat ride from Agatti to Kadmat but first, you get into a tiny dinghy that takes you to the bigger speedboat parked in the sea. As we lined up to get onto the boat, I looked askance at the lady standing next to me, looking equally scared at getting into something so fragile amidst such choppy waters. My hiking shoes held their ground, I didn’t slip on either of the boat transfers and landed safely on the jetty in Kadmat.

I spent the first four hours of boat ride and the next four days marvelling at how turquoise the waters were and how white and pristine the sands. The cottages are set right on the beach and by the time we landed, I’d figured that the friendly Scandinavian lady, the loud Australian family and the newly wed Gujarati couple were all headed the same way. You make friends quickly when you run into each other multiple times on your way to the boating jetty and meet the same folks thrice a day in the same dining hall.



But first things first, we landed onto a scattering of beach chairs and someone immediately started sending fresh coconuts our way. You will notice right away how friendly the entire resort staff is; a feeling that will keep reinforcing itself over the next few days. While we were sipping on refreshing coconut water, the general manager of the resort came out and started allotting cottages. It was almost like you’ve come to someone’s house as a guest; not as a tourist to a resort.

I’d been warned that there is limited phone connectivity on Kadmat but there was absolutely zero phone signal here. So even before I headed to my cottage, I asked where wifi was available. Alas, they had an outage and no internet was to be had during my entire stay at Kadmat. But the general manager very graciously offered the use of his landline so I could call home and give them an emergency number.

The cottage, when I finally got to it, was neat without being luxurious. With not much else to do, I headed out to figure out what the island had to offer. There are plenty of water sports – scuba diving, snorkelling, jet skiing, fishing – and the staff will expertly guide me into the water and to see beautiful corals and the sea life over the next three days. But on that first day, I didn’t quite want to go back into the sea. You will understand how non-touristy the place is when I tell you that at this point, one of the staffers offered me their bike to go explore the village. For a princely rental of 500 rupees (about $8), fuel included.



Kadmat is one of the larger islands and has a bustling village outside the resort (others, like Bangaram have resorts built on uninhabited islands). The 11 km drive to the other end of the island took me through a forgotten idyllic time – cottages by the sea, children back from school actually out playing and not glued in front of the TV, small shops with their limited selection and consumerism still far at bay. I saw a grand total of two cars on the entire island and they seem to be largely for show than have any practical utility. You don’t need any directions because there is only one road that stretches the length of the island.

It was getting to be early evening by the time we turned back towards the resort. Because Kadmat is so narrow an island, you see the beach at every point on the road. And there were moments so tranquil, like when I saw the sun getting low in the sky, lighting up a group of children playing football on the beach.



I got back to the resort just as the sun was about to set. For the next hour, the sky and the sea were painted in colours so vivid, it almost didn’t feel real. As I hung about in the hammock outside my cottage watching the dusk turn to night, the resort staff started setting up tables by the beach. Soon, the tiny lights were lit up and all the residents came out to eat dinner by the sea. No alcohol is permitted on Lakshadweep, so we bought cans of chilled coke from the tiny tuckshop in the resort and ate the meal of lentils and rice and vegetables like locals do. The menu remains pretty much the same for lunch and dinner each day, and there is always whatever fresh fish they caught that day.



The next three days at Kadmat were more of the same, with a smattering of water sports and another trip to the village. By day 3, I knew all the diving instructors by name and could even persuade the cook to make something other than dal and rice for lunch.

I couldn’t live the slow life forever and I missed the internet like crazy but for all that you lose at Lakshadweep, you gain the memories of pristine, untouched beaches and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s not the easiest place to get to but go now before it becomes yet another tourist trap. Go now because you will always remember that sunset, those fireflies dancing by the dinner table and yes, the frantic search for wifi amidst the tranquil island life.

Some Practical Tips:
1. You can choose to fly into Lakshdweep from either Bengaluru or Kochi or take a cruise ship.

2. Book directly through Sports. The prices are all on their website and they promptly reply to emails. They are also the ones who issue permits so it’s a one stop shop.

3. Your booking includes transfers to and from Agatti so don’t worry about boat bookings etc.

4. You have to pay extra for water sports but it’s way cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been.

5. Only a couple of islands – Kadmat and Minicoy - have the option of AC cottages. It’s a big deal in 40 degree heat.

6. On the other hand, Bangaram and Thinnakara have phone and internet. Choices, choices!

7. Book early. Each island has a limited number of cottages and they sell out quickly. I booked three months in advance and just about got in.

8. You will be tempted to visit more than one island. Don’t, especially if it’s a 3-4 day trip. You will spend a lot of time travelling between islands. The beaches are all pretty and there really isn’t much difference in the dive/snorkelling experience.

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