Havelock Island: In the company of Divers and Loners
by Kshaunish Jaini
Embedded in the Andaman Sea like an emerald jewel, Havelock Island (a part of the larger Andaman Island group in India) remains a hidden treasure, because it is not for everyone. Brought up with third-world sensibilities, I’ve learnt to live by the mantra of controlled expectations, especially when it comes to going somewhere new. Planning and guidebooks are not my cuppa, so sometimes when everything falls into place, it is usually when I find something that I didn’t even know I was looking for.
When I got off the ferry on Havelock in the Andaman Islands, I realized I was outside the confines of mainstream India. While mobile phones proverbially outnumber toilets on the mainland, connectivity on the island is virtually non-existent. Internet cafes are slow and expensive, and even the most lavish resorts don’t offer Wi-Fi. There are only two ATMs on the entire island and if anything goes wrong with them, ferries to Port Blair take 2.5 hours on a good day and run only four times a day. For all its exotification, island life feels like a vulnerable, isolated experience. That’s why I loved every minute of it.
Don’t go to Havelock Island for luxury. For all-inclusive, all-night lifestyle of massages and beach parties, head instead to the islands of Thailand on the other side of the Andaman Sea. But if you are willing to forsake creature comforts and experience an authentic, nearly unadulterated contemporary culture, Havelock Island is unbeatable.
Sunsets and Sexy Divemasters
Beautiful people strolling against a picturesque backdrop, in an almost satirical recreation of a travel brochure; because Havelock is both is and isn’t the romanticized tourist destination advertised in the pages of a magazine. Yes, the diving is spectacular, but it also often isn’t. Yes, the food is excellent, but it also isn’t. Just like real life.
Havelock attracts a certain kind of traveler of a certain, ineffable persuasion, who wind up in the bamboo bungalows that line the island’s pristine coastline. Impossibly gorgeous, with their sculpted beach bodies, Havelock is an inadvertent and marginally inappropriate destination for people-watching.
My early interactions with Havelock’s diving community began when a beautiful couple walked into our sunset social in a beachside dive resort. They were both divemasters who’d first met on a dive boat in Honduras in a hilarious encounter which involved a hangover, followed by a projectile of vomit over the side of the boat in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. Their adventures set off a stream of night long conversations about the world of divers and lives they lead. A strapping Irish divemaster, to whom I was secretly hoping to chat to, spoke about his affinity to the underwater world, to the extent that he couldn’t stand to eat fish anymore. An Israeli couple spoke about the time they witnessed an Indian diver getting attacked by a venomous sea snake. They all discussed their fears and aspirations, sharing with me a piece of their colorful world. I was drawn into their aquamarine lifestyles, which had literally taken them into the depths of some of the world’s least explored places. Their love for the sea was almost physically palpable, and soon after I took my first plunge, I understood why.
The underwater space
The Andaman Sea is endowed with some of the richest aquatic ecosystems in the world with one of the world’s best preserved coral reefs that bustle with some of the most peculiar and stunning creatures that live on this planet. The surreal embrace of space-like silence, with silhouettes of masked people visibly flying through the surrounding ether, feels remarkably like entering an alien world. I have always maintained that creatures of the sea are some of the most bizarre beings, straight out of a sci-fi artist’s sketchbook for a Martian comic-book series. Undeniably gorgeous and splendid, but also utterly bizarre. The first time I saw an octopus move through the underwater terrain, defying laws of Physics as it glided through solid matter, I almost became a believer. But soon afterwards, I saw a Dugong, a magnificent mammal that unfortunately, resembles a half hippo, half whale hybrid. Clearly, an omniscient creator would have a much better sense of aesthetics. From the vivid spectacle of colorful critters to the deceptive dullness of venomous stonefish, the underwater world is both a fabulous dream and a terrible nightmare.
In the continuum of nautical space, time behaves in apparent non-conformity. An hour slips by in the seconds spent observing shoals of clownfish fluttering around anemones. One of the most remarkable feelings of a near out-of-body experience surfaces in the moments after emerging above the water. Known in diving circles as a “diver’s breakthrough”, it is a moment of profound epiphany of a deep connection with the elements that support human life. For those of us who have an affinity for silence and solitude, Havelock provides a unique haven, both underwater in the deep sea and on land in secluded beaches. As I sat one afternoon, watching the seaside recede back into the horizon, I realised that I was in the company of fellow loners. What a paradox, but such is life.