Saturday, 14 April 2007

are you sitting comfortably? Andaman Islands revisited

Saturday 14 April
Well, sitting back in Port Blair, again with my idyllic view, the sounds of mynah birds singing, the fan whirring and the foghorns of the boat traffic coming in and out of the harbour, it is time to reflect on the past two days………………….

……………..We left Port Blair mid morning Thursday 12 April after a very thorough and helpful briefing about travelling through the tribal areas and meeting up with the others I would be travelling with.

Tribal briefing

§ Strictly no photography in the tribal territories
§ If you see Jarawa people do not attempt to take or exchange any items with them
§ Keep inside the vehicle at all times
§ Jarawa people and their behaviour are unpredictable – do not enter into discussions
§ If you do pass Jarawa people, please be aware that they are usually naked, children, adults, male and female.
§ Travel is through 2 restricted areas, bounded by checkposts
§ Travel is only permitted through the tribal territory in convoy with police at head and tail of the convoy

We left the main town and travelled past the airport to the Junglighat area of Port Blair. Within a few minutes a shocking sight was unfolding before my eyes. Flooded land with houses sitting in the water and a sinister forest landscape of dead trees jutting out of the water.

This land was highly affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The earthquake had caused the island to tilt and this area was now below sea level and very near to the sea inlet. Thus, when the tsunami came, these areas were flooded by the saline sea water which had killed the trees and destroyed the land.

This was soon a memory as we drove through winding jungle with anticipation rising until we reached the check post which marks the start of the tribal area. We had left Port Blair with the intention of connecting with the 12.30 convoy and reached in nice time before the scheduled departure time. My passport was produced and papers checked for passing through the territory. At 12.30 the barrier was lifted and the vehicles started up, directed into position by the young lad in charge of telling cars which order to move in.

One colleague was particularly well informed about the Jarawa and another had never passed through the area before so was very excited. Our colleague told me cryptically “luckily we may see Jarawa”. I never worked out exactly what this meant, but it seemed to mean that if we were lucky we might see them. However, apparently tourists sometimes hire a jeep to travel up to Bharatang and back and do not see a single Jarawa. It felt very like setting out on a jungle safari in Chitwan National Park (Nepal) knowing that if we were very lucky we might perhaps see a tiger, but far more likely would be a drive with eyes constantly peeled, through stunning scenery only to approach the end of the drive with a feeling of last ditch desperation mingling with heightened anticipation just in case a last minute sighting would materialise - (a bit like watching a Scotland football match with the minutes approaching full time and we still need a goal to win!) I never did spot a tiger in Chitwan, so would I be any luckier in Jarawa territory?

At the checkpost we joined the other ten or so vehicles which would form the convoy. The front of the convoy is a government vehicle showing a red flag (apparently a sign that we are travelling in peace – interesting symbol) and two armed police from the special Jarawa Protection Forces. The same at the rear without the flag. Quite what the guns are for, I wasn’t really sure – apparently the Jarawa are so isolated have so little interaction with people outside their tribe their behaviour is unpredictable and although they are apparently not hostile, not enough is known to be certain that any encounter would be peaceful.

The road which leads north from Port Blair, through South Andaman, Middle Andaman and up to north Andaman is called the Great Andaman Trunk road – and is the source of controversy because it travels right through the Jarawa territory. That is another whole discussion – which is not one I am going to explore now. From the name of the road it sounds as if it would be a wide sweeping road – in my mind something like the A9 (the main northern road artery in Scotland). The trunk road however, is a narrow, albeit hard topped, trail which twists and turns through the jungle, and the convoy snakes slowly through it at a maximum speed of 40 kilometres an hour. Stopping and overtaking are strictly prohibited, as is any photography – now maybe that is what the guns are for! Despite my constant urge to capture these sights to share, the camera stayed safely unopened throughout the prohibited areas. Travel through the major part of the tribal territory takes around one and a half hours and throughout my colleague was telling me about the Jarawa.

We carried on twisting and turning through the jungle as the minutes ticked on and over half way through the journey I had seen no more than a very shiny blue bird with a funny appearance of a peaked cap. The jungle was clearly suffering from a longer dry period than normal, and although still green and lush there were areas of parched bamboo and dusty creepers. My concentration was broken by my colleague’s call of “look, look – Jarawa hut!”. Where?? I looked right and left – in front and behind – and had missed it! I wasn’t just disappointed – I was cross with myself too. If this was our only sighting then I hadn’t even managed to see it. At least in Chitwan I saw prints of the elusive tiger (nothing special – everyone saw the prints, hardly anyone saw the tiger). A few moments later, on my side I caught sight of a small hut – rounded and on a small platform and shrouded with palm branches. Was that a Jarawa hut? – apparently yes! I could live with myself again. Before I could sit back and let the image sink in another call – “look, look – Jarawa!” At the side of the road were three children – one on my side and two on the other side. Only one had any covering – no clothes but what looked like a scanty, red coloured grass skirt. They all had some markings on their arms. Now my questions started in earnest. The covering was apparently made of a kind of twine and dyed red with flowers. The markings on their skin were a mud covering possible to protect from the harsh sun and again coloured with the red flower dye. Apparently red is the Jarawa’s favourite colour and tales tell of Jarawa taking items of red clothing when there has been limited interaction with non Jarawas. I was reminded how lucky I was – many see no glimpse of Jarawa and I had most definitely been very fortunate, when another call came – another two young Jarawa girls one on either side of the road. Again we were unable to slow down so had to capture the image in my own memory. The girl on my side had a smile and open expression which remains in my mind even now.

Discussion with my colleague filled in many details and insights into the little that is known about the Jarawa.

They are a fascinating people – separate from any development and hunter gatherers living totally off the land and sea. They hunt with bows and arrows and eat pig and fish. The spear-like arrows are used for fishing as well as hunting. Despite a wealth of deer in the forests they do not eat deer. Their social customs and systems remain a mystery and their language seems unconnected with any of the region. However, little is known and even this knowledge is fairly shallow and little documented. Their marriage systems, social organisation and leadership is a mystery. My colleague also told me that the men have no facial hair – he suggested that there is a minor DNA difference with other races. The appearance of the Jarawa is decidedly African - short, tightly curled hair and round structured faces. The Jarawa use plants and herbs for their medical needs and treatments and their isolation and pure diet has protected them from many diseases, although mortality rates are apparently high. Until around 4 years ago there was virtually no contact and Jarawa were still hostile. Now with the building of the road, some limited interaction and curiosity in their tribe brings an apparent uncertainty about the dilemman of how to support the Jarawa while preserving their culture and identity and maintaining their isolation.

There are a number of tribal groups on the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and without digressing too far, it is interesting to note the total isolation of the Sentinelese specifically. They occupy an island to the western part of the island chain and are completely hostile to outsiders. Any attempts at contact are met with lethal arrows!

We soon approached the jetty where we would cross to Bharatang island, and the end of the convoy for this portion of the journey and got out of the jeep for the ferry crossing. As we waited in the bamboo hut waiting room perched a couple of feet above the water and reached by a shaky walkway, conversation was animated and focused on our good fortune, miles better than spotting the tiger and scoring the needed goal!

The journey continued north, firstly by the short ferry crossing to Bharatang island and the start of Middle Andaman..................................................
.................. and passing through villages settled by the Ranchi people, before coming to another ferry and crossing to the next part of the island chain. The Ranchi are originally from Jharkhand state of the Indian mainland and had been re-located as forestry workers. The Ranchi are marginalised particularly as they were tribal in their original place, but having been moved to the Andamans they are not classed as tribal as they are not indigenous to the islands. Within the space of a few kilometres this demonstrated the rich and complex diversity of the islands. We crossed again by small ferry and continued the road northwards through another Jarawa protected area, a shorter journey this time. This area is reachable by boat from a promontory which bypasses Bharatang.

Our main encounter this time was with a heavy and welcomed rainstorm, bringing an instant infusion of life and vitality to the vegetation, as well as a complete rainbow arc. In Buddhist belief the rainbow is a blessing from Guru Ringpoche so I felt particularly blessed and protected as we continued our journey north.

We arrived safely in Rangat where our work awaited us and after a long and full day we finally rested for the night.

The next morning saw a dawn start for our journey and as the sun was rising above the hillside we set off again. Our timing for the first convoy at the northern part of Jarawa territory meant a half hour wait at the checkpoint for the seven o clock convoy. In this part of the territory, we were treated to morning jungle chorus of birds, crickets and the rich sound of the heavy damp atmosphere and the dew dripping from the vegetation.

We crossed on the first ferry to Bharatang island, as the heat was steadily rising. We stopped for fresh coconut at the other side. Our coconut trader sliced the top of four coconuts and inserted a straw for us to drink down the fresh, sweet juice of the fruit. Then when this was finished, we handed back the shell, which he then chopped in half, slicing through one side seemingly for good measure. Good measure was actually a natural spoon which enabled us to scoop out the flesh – delicious! With a chin sticky from the juice our journey continued across Bharatang island for our work on the southern part of the island.

The timing gods were again playing with us and we learned that we had over two hours to wait for the convoy on the other side of the island once the work was finished. So we began the great Indian skill of “timepass”. This involves all sorts of activities or lack of activity to while away time. It can include changing the ring tones on your phone, drinking tea, eating samosas and crisps, and drinking more tea. For foreigners – of which I was the only I had spotted throughout the whole trip, it also includes finding spots of shade as you realise the sun has crept through to your skin again.

After our excitement of the previous day, I was pretty relaxed starting our journey back through the Jarawa territory – no pressure to try and spot the tribal people, though I soon realised that it didn’t stop me travelling with eyes searching. My two travelling companions soon succumbed to the early start and were quickly lolling around in their seats oblivious to our surroundings. We passed the places where we had seen the Jarawa the previous day and I felt the prickly sensation of disappointment despite myself. Within ten minutes however, I saw two young Jarawa girls, one on either side of the road, waiting patiently while the convoy passed through. One companion had wakened and asked our expert if he had seen them – no he had slept through the excitement! Not much further through the jungle and we came to a river crossing where a bridge had been built, and I noticed two figures sitting on the bridge – two young Jarawa men, their spears or arrows resting on their knees, smiling and laughing together. They gestured us to stop, and for the first time I felt a tremor, a mix of fear and of excitement. Our driver is totally professional and although he slowed, he did not attempt to stop, and the boys smiled as we passed them. My sense of wonder at our good fortune was now at a peak and I relaxed into the journey to let these images sink into my mind. However, again I had no time to process these pictures as we approached a strange sight. Spread across the road were palm fronds and leaves which made me shiver – in Nepal this had signified landmine or bomb and I felt myself tense involuntarily as we drew near. Then my eyes were drawn to the side of the road where a group of around 12 – 15 Jarawa women, babies and young children were standing at the side of the road as we passed. Why were they there? What were the leaves for? Why such a large group? The view of my local colleague is that due to the heat the women and children had come out of the forest and were resting on the road. The palm fronds were to make a more comfortable resting place, and they were less vulnerable to the mosquitoes at that time of day out of the full jungle cover. Nearing the checkpost we passed a final group of three children, all in the red twine strands and this time with little head coverings also made of the red twine. When we arrived at the checkpost I realised that we had been incredibly fortunate to have such a special experience.

On return to Port Blair, I repeated our experience to colleagues and it became clear that it was unusual for there to be so many Jarawa people at the roadside as we travelled through. The colleague who had been due to travel with me but who was prevented by ill health, said that during her many journeys on this route she had never seen more than one or two Jarawa people. It would be na├»ve to credit our experience to good fortune alone – it is also likely that the late rains this year are bringing food and water shortages for the hunter gatherer tribe and with it perhaps increased vulnerability to illness. Contact and access to health care brings with it risks. There are reports of Jarawa people being given alcohol, trading arrows for paan, eating foods with oil and spices which are alien to their digestive systems, and of contact bringing diseases which had previously been unknown to the tribe.

Ethical questions aside, I had returned to Port Blair with an undoubted sense of privilege – I had been fortunate to see many of the Jarawa people in their own territory, a rare and special experience in our modern world. This is enriched by the particular image preserved in my mind of the young Jarawa girl, smiling at the roadside as we passed through her land.

As I was unable to take my own photos, here are a couple of website sources of Jarawa people just like those I saw.


Wednesday, 11 April 2007


Wednesday 11 April

Just now I am facing up to my demons – I returned to the Andaman islands yesterday - it was more emotional than I expected but very healthy I think. In typical style though there was a small earthquake last night (they are fairly frequent I have to say) - just to welcome me back I guess! It certainly my my desk wobble and me shake! It was nothing like the biggie on 26th December 04 - only 5.5, but enough to really make me face up to those demons, particularly given the coincidence of timing – on the day I departed and the day I finally returned to the islands.

Sent: Tuesday, April 10, 2007 8:25:58 PM
Magnitude: 5.5 Mb
Time near the Epicentre: 10 Apr 2007 19:26:53
Location with respect to nearby cities:
149 km (92 miles) N (354 degrees) of Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India

It is just as well I have an idyllic view from my room and an exciting trip through tribal territory tomorrow.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

be gentle!

Finally, finally I have taken this huge step and with great trepidation ventured into the world of the blog.

It will take me some getting used to - so please bear with me while I try and learn how to share news, musings and reflections in this space. Oh and thousands and thousands of photos of course..............