About traveling from Chennai to the Andaman Islands by boat
1. Getting on the boat – India and its ridiculous bureaucracy
We had booked our tickets one week in advance. On the 2nd of January, we traveled from Mahabalipuram to Chennai and got to the shipping company just in time, 3 hours before departure, as recommended. we were left there without any other information than “they would come for us”. So we waited. And waited. And waited. I counted 5 westerners apart from Matthew and myself, 4 young men and 1 young woman. But nobody said a word. Not yet. It wasn’t the time yet.
And we waited. In silence we waited. One of us would sometimes get up and go to the desk to ask what was happening. But we all got the same answer: “someone will come for us”. An immigration officer. And he finally came! We had been waiting for more than an hour. He rushed us out of the office, without our bags, to the immigration office. I didn’t get it really. Immigration office? I thought the Andaman islands belonged to India? They said yes, but I needed to go through immigration anyway, and hand over 3 copies of our passports and 3 others of our Indian visas. So we sat in the immigration office, and waited. The massive TV screen was playing an American movie, which we’d been able to follow for a little while (how were they able to work with a movie on and the volume turned up (very) loud remains a total mystery). We’d been called one by one to sign what would be the first of many notebooks with our details handwritten in it. We were then sent back to pick up our bags and then to wait for a bus outside.
Time for the presentations had come! I officially met Paul (UK) traveling with Oskar (S), Carl (UK), and Cern (UK) traveling with his girlfriend Leah (D). Once the bus arrived, we manage to sneak in between some other passengers and all their luggage. People transport a lot of stuff from the continent to the islands, from jewelry to sell to vegetables and big bags of sugar. We had to pay for the bus, which was unbelievable AND PAY A TAX FOR OUR LUGGAGE. Seriously?
A (very) short ride later, we were at the port. The boat is huge. I can’t stop thinking about Titanic, but Matt assured me that there were no icebergs in the Bay of Bengal.
The shore is packed with people, a lot of women wearing red saris, and hundreds of military men.
Time for security check! Once again, I realize Indians don’t know how to queue. And they have no idea about what personal space is – they will literally squash against each other! I’m in the middle of this huge amount of people and not feeling very happy. Luckily a man tells me I have to go to the end of the room to the women’s queue. Ah! Much better. Especially because there is hardly anybody here. It goes very quickly. But once the check is over I have to hand over my passport once again so they can write down my details (most of them wrong actually, the passport number they write down doesn’t match with the real one, and my nationality, as well as Oskars, the Swedish guy, had all of a sudden been changed from “Swiss” to “Shuish”, a new hybrid country between Switzerland and Sweden) and ask me to sign another notebook. I don’t understand, but I follow the orders. My philosophy is: save yourself a headache, don’t try to understand the Indian bureaucracy.
Once all the europeans have passed security check, we board the boat. And are sent directly to the information desk. Where they tell us we have to give them our passports for the time of the journey… They are seriously starting to get on my nerves.
After turning around for a while at the bottom of the ship, we finally find our beds. We quickly drop our bags and, in order to avoid the crowded-noisy dorm, climb up to the upper deck to see the boat departure.
Unfortunately, it is not happening. We heard there was a technical problem, so we might not be able to leave tonight, we will have to wait until tomorrow morning. Shit.
2. The captain is a coward
I went to bed that night praying to wake up the next morning being rocked by the waves. Cruel deception when I woke up and felt that… we hadn’t moved an inch. I went to the toilet for the second time since I boarded the ship (I avoid drinking in order not to have to go, I’m still not used to the very poor hygiene conditions). We were commenting with the other westerners that we would probably neither change nor shower for the duration of the trip… I actually slept fully dressed.
We met Paul, Oskar and Carl for a chai on the deck after breakfast, after that we returned to the dining room in order to charge our electronic devices.
Matthew and I were doing some writing while Paul was watching a movie and Oskar was listening to some tunes. Leah and Cern had disappeared since we boarded. We were a little worried (especially Paul who actually went looking for them around the ship but it is so huge that he came back the way he had left: alone). We thought they might have left the boat. Or their dead corpses might be lying somewhere around… No. Get out of my head, mental images!!!
The hours spread for what seemed an eternity until lunch time. After the meal, we tried to get some information about the current situation, but the information desk was obviously closed, and the rumors went stronger than ever among the passengers: we will be sailing within an hour/ two hours/ the trip is canceled/ we will be sailing by dusk/ just half an hour more to wait/ etc.
We started watching 12 Monkeys until the heat made us escape the dining room: there was no fan working and no air con, so we fled to the deck seeking out some air. That’s when Matthew decided to climb up to the captains’, all at the top of the ship, while I walked down with Paul and Oscar to the information desk, which was, unbelievably, open. The first officer assured us: we are going to sail tonight. This was happening! We were going to sail!! The guys were very skeptical but I am a very positive person by nature so I was already giggling around. Leah and Cern appeared shortly after that, which made us feel much better too.
After dinner, I rushed the guys to the upper deck, or at least the only one who would believe a tiny tiny bit in my positive attitude – Matthew. I told him we had to hurry, not to miss the view of the port getting smaller and smaller. He was very cynical all along, but he tried to believe, maybe not as strongly as I was believing, but somehow he got affected by my eternal positivity. The deck was quite crowded. There were people everywhere, and you could feel that the energy had changed – it was like a tension of hope, so real you could almost touch it.
Suddenly, members of the crew where checking the life boats. We were told that the surveyor had to complete his checking of the boat’s condition and deliver the authorization to sail, and then we would go. I started jumping around, shouting that it was happening, that we were going to sail, and rushed Matthew to go for a walk around the boat, on the lower deck. We walked around the boat, made jokes, laughed, climbed back up and waited. And waited. And waited. And all of a sudden, it hit me: we were not going to sail. Not tonight.
I was feeling exhausted, because all at once my positivity, which was keeping me up and happy and excited had abandoned me. We were not going to leave tonight, I knew it in my bones. I felt sad, and very angry at the same time: we have had no official information. There had been no announcement since we boarded the ship. We had been kept in the dark all this time. They wouldn’t let us leave the ship. Nobody was allowed to. We were trapped on this boat in the port of Chennai without moving at all. Trapped like rats. They didn’t really care about us. The hygiene conditions were getting worse. We (Matt and I, winners of the Nobel Price for Organization 2017), had no drinking water, no snacks, and very little cash, that we would mostly spend on chai and bottled water. I actually had only 40 rupees left at that point. But there were people that were much worse: families with small kids, old folks, people with no money. And the captain had made no official announcement. Not one. He’s a coward, hiding in his tower above us. Saruman the traitor.
We went to bed, with the hope to wake up on the next morning in the middle of the Bay of Bengal.
3. Woman sisterhood power
I had just got into my sleeping bag when it happened: I heard shouting, female voices arguing, and a few seconds later my neighbor, two beds away, shouted at me:
“We no sail! Canceled!”
Whaaaat?! I tried to ask him for some more details but he didn’t speak English. I looked at Matthew who sneaked his head out from the top bunk and we jumped onto our feet: let’s go!
We climbed to the upper deck and from there spotted the origin of the noise: something was happening in the area of the ramp. We climbed one deck down and bumped into Paul, Oskar and Carl. They were speaking with a member of the cleaning crew. He said that although he was a member of the crew he had no idea what was happening, he had not heard anything about a cancelation, but had no idea if we were going to sail or not. Matthew asked him if he knew where the captain was : he said yes, that he could show him. Oscar and Paul wanted to go too so they left. I didn’t want to speak to the captain, I was too interested by what was happening amongst the “common people”. I leaned against the barrier, and saw dozens and dozens of women, in their red saris for the majority of them, on the shore, waving to the passengers still aboard the ship, inviting them to join them outside. My blood was boiling: I asked the men around me what were they doing. The only answer I could get was: “doing a strike”. ?? OK. I’ll find out myself. I ran inside and climbed down the stairs as quickly as I could and hurried to the main entrance. It was packed with people, or precisely, packed with men. The only women that were around were walking straight down the ramp to join the others. Fascinated, I made a few videos, of the women on the shore and the men just observing without moving from the main entrance, and I thought for a second that I ought to remain on the boat, they’ve got my passport, things can get complicated. I spotted some policemen with guns on the shore – what am I going to do if things turn sour?
I thought about it a whole minute. Maybe even more. And I looked at all those women standing together on the shore, and I knew my place was amongst them. You could feel the power of their sisterhood bond filling up the place like a shield. I walked down the ramp, and the shield let me in. As I stepped on the shore, I felt part of it. I had no idea what they were doing, but at that moment I already knew I was their sister, and that I was going to stand with them, no matter what. The crew members could throw my passport overboard, I couldn’t care less.
I put a big smile on my lips and approached the first group of women:
“Excuse me, do you speak English?”
No luck. They didn’t. Next group neither, they were looking at me with big smiles and sorry faces. But when I reached the 3rd group and asked my same question once again, they all started giggling and speaking in Hindi as they surrounded me. My Hindi is, after 2 weeks spent in India, in a Tamil speaking province, almost inexistent. I memorized a few words, a couple of sentences and that’s it! So we started the strangest conversation ever, using the few words of English they knew and the few words of Hindi I knew, plus a lot of body language, of signs and imitations, and we managed to understand one another (luckily a couple of them were almost fluent).
At first, they wanted to know who I am? Where am I from? How long have I been in India for? Do I have babies? Am I married? Where am I going? What do I do? I answered all their questions with a smile, half broken English half broken Hindi, we laughed, a lot. And I tried to get to know their situation, their stories.
They told me their frustration, their feeling of impotence in this situation. A big group of them are from the Andaman islands, they came to Chennai to visit the Golden Temple for some Hindu celebration, and now they are stuck here, separated from their husbands. The hygiene conditions are getting worse. Sometimes there is no water in the toilets and the bathrooms. Or there is too much, they get flooded. There are no fans, no air conditioning. All the vegetables that they are transporting to the islands are rotting. Flies are taking over the place. It is starting to smell. Some of their children and their mothers are getting sick, with fever. They are fed up. They need answers. That’s why they are standing on the shore, that’s why they got off the ship although it is prohibited. They had had enough.
They asked me to tell the world.
Suddenly, they decided it was time to sit. So they all sat down at the same time. Me too. I sat on the dirty shore, wrapped in my pashmina to protect me from the cold, just like them. They thanked me for my support. I am the only foreigner who has left the boat at that point. I can see Matthew, Oskar, Paul, Carl, Cern and Leah on the deck. I wave to them, for them to join us. I don’t think they’ve seen me, or maybe they are being a bit shy/scared/impressed by the power of this sisterhood bond. Maybe they just need a bit of time.
I stay there, on the ground, receiving the blessings of some elder women, the laughter and snuggles of the teenagers, pressing hands into mine all the time, listening to their stories, answering their questions, laughing with them, waiting for something to happen. Something is definitely going to happen, no one can ignore such a powerful energy.
4. The captain remains a coward.
Matthew joined me on the shore. He had been able to talk to the captain, but the only answer he got was that “there were some technical problems and that he was going to make an announcement in one hour”. I informed the women about it. And decided to stay with them. I was feeling at the right place, so I left Matthew chatting with some men further away.
10 minutes later Oskar and Paul walked down the ramp. We were now 4 foreigners on the shore, and I could see on the women’s faces that they really appreciated it.
All of a sudden, something was happening: there was some agitation. The captain and the first officer were walking down the ramp. They stood at the end of the ramp, two old folks with as much charisma as a teaspoon, and began to make the announcement. It was all in Hindi, of course, or maybe in Tamil, I’m not sure.
What I am sure about is that I didn’t catch a single word. When they were done I ran after the guys to see if they had any idea of what was going on. Luckily, they had managed to find a guy who was fluent in both Hindi and English, and that could summarize the captain’s speech. Which was not much. Technical problems, we will have to wait until tomorrow morning and see.
We didn’t learn much, but at least we got a confrontation face to face. Time to go to bed and try to find some rest.
5. But anyway, thank you captain!
On the next morning, we woke up because of some shouting before 7 am: the boat would not be able to sail before 6 or 7 days from now on! We were feeling very confused at breakfast, and everybody was making plans. We were going to ask for a refund of course, and the other guys were already looking for flights. Personally, I cannot afford to fly, and I don’t want to neither. After the bond and solidarity I felt for these Indian ladies last night, I cannot abandon the ship. I look at Matthew. Our paths might split earlier than we thought…
“Matt, I’m staying. I’m not leaving this boat.”
He’s the best. I couldn’t have dreamt of a better travel buddy! We inform the others about our decision. A little while later, as we are wandering around the ship, we are told that everybody must get off. It hurts me a lot, but I am somewhat relieved. I am not committing treason, but I don’t have to stay on this filthy ship without cash for the next week. While we wait (a few hours) for the immigration officer on board, we get to talk to some other passengers and discover some interesting stories and facts:
Carl was asking Charan, a 27 year-old military guy, if such an incident had already happened in the past. He came up with a very interesting anecdote of what happened to a boat a member of his crew was on a bit more than a year ago:
“While sailing in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, they suffered a major electricity problem. They had absolutely no way to get in touch with the ports, so they floated in the middle of nowhere for more than a week. Obviously they ran out of food and out of bottled water, then they ran out of drinking water, after which they had to drink the toilet water, which eventually came to an end too. Everybody was sick and there was no water left on board. They were literally on the floor, crying when they finally reached Port Blair!”
We’ve also been aware, somehow, that our captain (the coward) was the only one to blame for not sailing. Because survey authorized the ship to sail, but with only one engine working instead of two. Which means, we’d rely only on one engine. If it breaks down… Well, we might have ended up drinking toilet water then!
The captain refused to take the risk. So even though I am still a bit angry for the lack of communication: Thank you captain, oh my captain!
It takes guts to stand against your company’s pressure.
6. What is the government doing?
The shipping company belongs to the government. That is what the women are telling me on the shore. Because of the lack of maintenance this situation happened.
Later on, I discovered via Carl that the government takes 70% of the profits of the shipping company, and leaves only 30% to the company. Only 30% for the maintenance of the ships, the fuel, the crews salaries, running the ships, everything. That is way not enough. This boat, the “Nicobar”, was built in Poland in 1991. It will turn 26 years old this year, but it looks 50.
Once again, the main responsible of this kind of situation is money. Money, money, money. It is beyond my understanding why the government leaves only 30% of the profits to the shipping company? Where does the rest of the money go? The money that should be used for having a fleet in good condition and, that way, take care of the passengers’ lives. Because, after all, THAT is really what it is all about: there are lives at stake. Around 900 souls per voyage, and God knows none of them wants to end up drinking toilet water.
7. And now what?
After a few days spent north of Chennai where we failed at breaking into the Satish Dhawan Space Center, we went back to the port on the 7th of January, ready to give this trip another try. It didn’t have such a promising start: the boat was delayed for several hours. It was supposed to leave at 14:00, but we’d been told to come back at 17:00 so we went wandering around in town for a while. After what it took ages to actually get on the boat, but we were surrounded by the paramilitary crew and some red saris ladies, and that gave us a very nice feeling: it was like we were meeting some old friends again!
We finally boarded the ship and went for a walk around. Matthew had his second dinner of the evening (I sincerely wonder where does he manage to put so much food), after what he decided he wanted to go and talk to information, because, once again… We were not moving an inch. And there we went. Bad idea: Matt asked 2 simple questions: When are we leaving? and Where is the captain?, and the officer exploded: I could almost see some smoke coming out of his nostrils and ears while he was shouting at us and threatening to kick us off the ship. We kept quiet and disappeared in a blink of an eye. We had managed to smuggle some whisky on board in my water bottle, so we went to get it and climb on the upper deck in order to enjoy it and to have a good laugh about the exploding-dragon-first-officer. Around midnight we started moving, and finally could admire the port of Chennai slowly disappearing behind us.
Long story short: we spent approx. 80 hours on this ship (we suffered an engine problem (of course we did…) in the middle of the Bay of Bengal that let us float around for at least 6 hours) but time went by quite quickly. We both did some writing, watched some movies, read a lot, chatted with the other passengers, posed for selfies (I think 3/4 of the passengers have a selfie with us on their cellphones!),
drank a lot of chai, ate very well (the food was unbelievably good!!) and we eventually got there.
If I had to summarize this trip, I would say it was fun. It really was.