My Blue Heaven: Condenast Traveler July 2008

My Blue Heaven
by Shoba Narayan | Published July 2008 |
http://www.concierge.com/cntraveler/articles/12522?pageNumber=1

I don’t want to write about this place. Few people know of it; fewer still visit. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. In this rapidly shrinking world, there ought to be somewhere that remains remote, even obscure; set apart in space and time; offering the promise of mystery, the romance of discovery. Lakshadweep—the name comes out in a sigh. In Sanskrit, it means One Hundred Thousand Islands, although in fact there are just twenty-seven, ten of which are inhabited. Speckled across the Arabian Sea off the Malabar Coast of India, this archipelago of atolls, coral reefs, and islands was—before El Niño—the largest living ecosystem on the planet. Many maps, even Indian ones, don’t note it. Yet for a dedicated group of travelers who seek the world’s most far-flung spots, this is as close as it gets to paradise

Paradise is an overused word in conjunction with islands. The mere thought of some remote islet causes us harried city-dwellers to relax and exhale. The mind conjures images from travel ads—clear skies, swaying hammocks, turquoise seas, soft white sand, and slim cocktails—all of which are for the most part true. Time ebbs and flows with the tide.

Island lore is all about self-sufficiency, living off the land and the water, which is an alluringly simple proposition given the complicated circuitry that connects our everyday lives. Cell phones, e-mail, fax machines—none of these matter or even work in Lakshadweep. Hell, even getting to the place is a pain.

First, you take a intercontinental flight that most likely lands late at night in one of India’s crowded, chaotic metropolises. The next morning, you fly into Kochi (née Cochin), in the state of Kerala. Finally, you hop on a commuter flight to the islands.

By the time I arrive, I am jet-lagged, nauseous, and dehydrated. No place, I think, is worth a journey like this.

Like most visitors, I have come to Lakshadweep for a beach vacation. Unlike most visitors, I am also here to put my demons to rest. According to the Ayurveda, the five-thousand-year-old Indian system of medicine, everything in the universe—including the human body—is made up of five elements: earth, fire, water, wind, and ether (space). Pancha-bhootas, they are called—literally “five demons.” Each of us is influenced by these five demons to a greater or lesser degree. Some people are fiery, others are “earth mothers” or “water babies,” still others are “spaced out.”

These five elements are also the source of our fears, which is where I come in. I am mildly hydrophobic. I can rappel into a crevasse, bungee-jump off a cliff, walk through fire, and catch the wind with a parachute, but ask me to get into the water and something overcomes me. I start blinking rapidly, swallowing nervously, and feeling short of breath. It’s not that I can’t get in; it’s just that I don’t enjoy it. I’m hoping Lakshadweep will change all that—so long as its reputation for some of the gentlest diving (and dive instructors) in the world holds true.

From the air, Agatti is a sliver of an island, long and thin, like a knife cutting through the sea. The Agatti Island Resort, a short walk from the airport, is its only accommodation: twenty utilitarian bungalows with comfortable beds and clean bathrooms, some with air-conditioning. By the time I drop my bags and have a shower, my appetite—dormant for the last twenty-four hours—has returned.

One of the pleasures of traveling to remote places is the oddball people you meet there. In the resort’s airy dining room, over a lunch of seafood, Indian curries, and fresh pineapple juice, I chat desultorily with the other guests. There are a few honeymooning Indian couples—young techies who switch between native Hindi and fluent American English honed in their call-center workplaces. “I am Sam,” says one with a laugh, clearly relishing the Hollywood movie reference. His real name is Sahasranamam, and he is a Tamil Brahmin working in Bombay. There is a retired American couple who have been to places I’ve never heard of: Biskra, Samarinda. The man is funneling all his dollars into Australia. When I ask why, he says, “Trust me,” and winks. I am convinced that he is CIA. A few Europeans—English, Italian, Swiss—walk around in a heat-induced stupor, chortling at the idea of spending Christmas in the tropics. After lunch, bees buzz, trees sway, waves lap. The entire island naps.

In the evening, I rent a motorbike and take a tour of the island. The sea winks at me from beyond the coconut palms. I haven’t ridden a motorbike since college and don’t have a license. But the island’s roads are devoid of traffic. What could possibly happen? I think, as I wobble on.

Bright-eyed children run out of a high school hailing me in En-glish: “Hello! What is your name?!” I stare straight ahead, concentrating on my driving. They yell what seems like a profanity: “Chaknjillwenduptheill!” It takes me a moment to figure out that it’s the rapid-fire recitation of an English nursery rhyme. Lakshadweep has the third-highest literacy rate in all of India, after Kerala and Mizoram.

There are as many pigtailed schoolgirls as there are boys. Thanks to the vestiges of Kerala’s matriarchal society, women enjoy a lofty status on these islands. Property is passed from mother to daughter; men can only be karanavans, or caretakers. Husbands are supposed to pay an annual stipend to their wives; failing to do so means the woman can ask for a divorce—and they do. They remarry, have babies, manage small businesses, and run for office. On Minicoy, many of the top administrative jobs have been held by women for centuries, and husbands take the wife’s name when they marry; Marco Polo called it the “island of females.”

I chat with a woman who works at Agatti’s coir factory. Processing coir (the husk of a coconut) is, along with fishing and canning tuna, a principal industry. Women twist the husk into rough twine and export it to the mainland, where it is turned into carpets, doormats, and mattresses. Each woman earns about twenty dollars a month, plus a share of the profits—enough, it seems, to cause them to smile proudly as they confide the numbers.

Certainly it was enough to lure the Portuguese, who arrived in the sixteenth century to plunder and loot the finely spun coconut coir, which was perfect for shipbuilding. Fed up, the islanders poisoned the Portuguese invaders. Subsequently, Lakshadweep was governed by both Muslim and Hindu kings, until the British acquired the islands and renamed them the Laccadives. Only in 1956 did Lakshadweep revert to India and reclaim its original name.

Agatti islanders are striking, with limpid black eyes and clear, latte-colored skin. The women wear blouses and sarongs, or long, loose caftans and Islamic head scarves called makanna. Older women sport elaborate tribal earrings that almost entirely obscure their ears. Island youths zip by on motorbikes, flashing curious looks at me as I plod on self-consciously.

Just as I am congratulating myself on having gotten the hang of it, I round a bend and ram into a coconut tree, causing a surprised toddy tapper to fall right on top of me. Toddy tappers collect palm sap, which is fermented to produce a potent liqueur, and the man is clearly drunk (in defiance of Islamic law). A crowd gathers, but they are not as worried about the man, the motorbike, or me as they are about the tree.

Coconut trees are the island’s lifeblood. Every one belongs to someone—a fact that island administrators rue. When they want to cut down trees to develop land—build a solar-power plant, for instance—they have to buy each one separately from sometimes warring families. Negotiations often stall, given the number of people involved, and while the trees thrive, progress does not.

The tree is damaged, says the toddy tapper worriedly. I say I am sorry about two thousand times, and we reach a settlement. I am to pay him about forty-five dollars. I hand him the cash, and he hands me a plastic bag filled with raw toddy as a goodwill gesture. That night, I fall asleep listening to fat waves crash against the shore. I dream of gliding fish—thousands of them, all around me, closing in—and wake up with a start.

The next morning, I take the hour-long boat ride to Bangaram Island. The water is clear, and I spot at least fifty giant turtles swimming lazily away from us.

WELCOME BACK! screams the billboard held on either end by grinning locals. The French couple on the boat smile in recognition. It is their third trip to Bangaram Island Resort. Men with soothing voices converge on us. They whisk away our bags, hand us the ubiquitous coconut-water welcome drink, and lead us to the bar hut in the middle of the beach. A tall, slim man with a teasing expression explains the island. There are no TVs, no phones, no newspapers, no business center, and no air-conditioning. The only electricity is solar, the only water is from the ground, and detergents are discouraged. I gaze around sourly. But for the free-flowing drinks—Bangaram is exempt from the Islamic prohibition against alcohol that’s in effect on Lakshadweep’s other islands—this could be boot camp.

I walk to my room with a Hollywood film producer and an English stage actress—both single women who are here on the recommendation of colleagues. The thatched rooms are tidy and clean but bare-bones. A poster of a fish on the wall is about as decorative as it gets. But the sheets are crisp, the toiletries fragrant, and the fan efficient.

Over lunch, I meet the rest of the resort community—and a community it is. Most guests are repeat visitors and stay here for weeks, even months. Dr. Sylvia Grillanda has been coming to Bangaram from Venice for twelve years. Last year she stayed three months; this year it’s only two, she says with regret, adding, “In Italy, I work. But here I come to live.”

That evening, I stand at the water’s edge. The Arabian Sea stretches to the horizon and, beyond, branches into the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Behind me, an American family (Mom, Dad, and four blond teenage boys from Wilton, Connecticut) walk back to their hut. A stork flies into the sunset. Coconut palms lean into the breeze. The white sand beneath my feet is clean and gritty, like a pricey exfoliant. And the water is a mesmerizing blue. Or is it?

As I planned my complicated itinerary to Lakshadweep, I became engrossed by one question: Are large bodies of water similarly blue and beautiful? My reasoning was simple: If all seas look the same, why would an American family bother visiting the distant Arabian Sea when the Gulf of Mexico would do just as nicely?

As it turns out, not all waters are created equal. The Red Sea is red because of an algae called Trichodesmium erythraeum. The waters of the Great Barrier Reef appear green because of the abundance of plant life beneath the surface. Oregon’s Crater Lake is a vivid turquoise because of the pulverized rock called glacial flour. The South China Sea appears gray because frequent storms stir up sediment. As for the Arabian Sea, well, it’s a startlingly different ecosystem. Hemmed in by land on three sides and struck by frequent monsoons, the Arabian Sea has a scrim of clouds that help diffuse the sunlight, contributing to elevated levels of phytoplankton and nutrient-rich bacteria. NASA images reveal an exquisitely marbled surface with distinct patches of blue, green, and red. In other words, the Arabian Sea is not just another expanse of blue. It is a complicated creature worthy of a transatlantic flight—even from Wilton, Connecticut.

T he dive hut at Bangaram Island Resort is a compact, innocuous place—with dozens of wet suits, flippers, masks, tanks, and other paraphernalia—and the instructors who man it are as varied as the surrounding sea. Sumer, the lithe young man from Bombay who runs the show, has faraway eyes and the devil-may-care attitude of a superlative athlete. (He has never certified a diver who wasn’t up to snuff, he tells me, and isn’t about to start now.) His assistant, Subin, a Christian from Kerala, is hugely popular with children because of his ready laugh and patient manner. Mohammed, short and tanned, is an islander who has inspired awe and affection among legions of beginners like me (gauging from their gushing remarks in the resort’s guest book).

Mohammed walks me through the equipment. His English isn’t perfect, but he gets the message across. “If you feel discomfortable at any time, just shake your hands like this and I will bring you out,” he says. I prattle on about how I am nervous, having never dived before and being predisposed to claustrophobia and a fear of the water. Mohammed looks perplexed as he takes in my distress. Clearly, he doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. “Don’t worry,” he says finally. “Take it easy.”

With that all-encompassing reassurance, we wade in. I grip Mohammed’s hand and breathe hard—so hard that a tank that should last forty minutes lasts ten. As we return to the hut, Mohammed watches me, understanding through my actions what my words had been trying to convey.

“Don’t worry,” he says again. “Tomorrow better diving.”

It isn’t. And neither is the following day.

World mythologies are full of sea creatures. The Greeks had Poseidon, and the Sirens who lured sailors to their deaths. The Japanese have Owatatsumi and his messenger, the sea monster Wani. And the Indians have the Ketea Indikoi, creatures with the foreparts of lions and rams and wolves and the tails of fish. The trick when you dive is to forget about these myths—and above all to avoid the movie Jaws.

There is no time for movies at Bangaram. Come sunset, most everyone makes his way to the beach bar. Shirtless teenage boys play volleyball, and younger kids sit around drinking fresh lime soda and playing Jenga with the bartender, who wins their enduring affection by letting them mix their own “mocktails.” Most of the die-hard divers sip beer and compare stories of the fish, manta rays, sharks, and turtles they saw that day.

Dinner is a sumptuous affair. Tables are set up on the beach, the grill is fired up, and the buffet is laid out. The menu depends on what the ships bring in. The chef says that he’s benefitted from the repeat visitors who come into the kitchen to teach him: clam chowder from the honeymooning Bostonians, herbed chicken from the French schoolteacher, roasts from the gay German couple, pasta from the Italian family, and, yes, freedom fries on demand.

A couple of days later, the resort manager takes me aside. About half the guests never dive, he says. Sylvia Grillanda, for instance, only swims; the French couple snorkel; the American family fish. There are glass-bottom boat rides, sunset cruises, island expeditions, day-trips to the nearby uninhabited islands of Parali and Tinakara, bird-watching at the lake in Bangaram’s interior. Many women choose to spend their time in the Ayurvedic center. In other words, there are many other activities besides diving. He looks at me meaningfully.

Rather than dissuading me, his words have the opposite effect. The next morning, I am up at dawn. I march to the dive hut and announce, “I am going for my certification.” There is complete silence, then a doubtful clearing of throats. The three instructors look at one another with a “Now what?” expression on their faces.

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that Subin hypnotizes me with his green eyes; every time I panic he grabs hold of my arm, stares into my eyes, and gestures for me to breathe normally. I do fine until he asks me to remove my mask and then put it back on (practice, he says, in case my mask slips on its own). I panic and begin swimming toward the surface with complete disregard for the need to ascend slowly. Were it not for Subin forcefully yanking me back down, I probably would have gotten the bends.

Most people endure agony in hopes of a payoff. Mine comes during my first open-water dive, when I see a group of spotted eagle rays flying gracefully through the water. It is breathtaking—actually, the opposite. For once, I forget to hold my breath and begin breathing normally. I forget where I am; I forget myself. After so many missteps, false alarms, and panic attacks, I force myself to stop fighting the water and instead become one with it. I won’t go so far as to say that I learn to enjoy myself, but there comes a moment when I am exploring a dive site called Little Canyon when I am perfectly still, neither ascending nor descending but simply being. In that moment, I achieve diver nirvana: neutral buoyancy.

As any diver will tell you, life underwater unfolds in slow motion and kaleidoscopic color. The coral reefs near Bangaram are a miraculous sight, particularly when you consider that they are regenerating after El Niño left them for dead. The range of underwater life they have spawned is astonishing: every type of fish in Finding Nemo, and then some.

On my last night at the resort, I head for the bar to revel in my newly acquired certification and to trade dive stories. In England, there is a Friends of Bangaram Club, one of whose members is writing a book on the birds of the island. All the club members return to Bangaram, just like the birds, says one of the divers. I will too, she predicts.

It is late when I walk back. The stars emblazon the sky like stationary fireflies. The waves break the silence. Someone laughs in the distance. A just-arrived Canadian couple walk back to their hut. Again I ask, Why come so far for a beach vacation? Is Lakshadweep worth the trip? After all, the Caribbean is much closer and has plenty of resorts where the communal feel of Bangaram can be attained (albeit at a much steeper price). Nicer dive destinations can be had in Mexico. If it is exoticism you seek, you’d do better in Central America. Why, then, come to Lakshadweep?

Islands have personalities. Some are bustling and friendly like Crete, others are glamorous like St. Barts. Lakshadweep is none of these things. Rather, it is like a song that sticks in your head. For reasons you can’t quite fathom, it inspires devotion. It keeps people coming back, time and time again.

END MAIN STORY

By limiting the number of visitors to just under 4,000 annually, the Indian government is able to deliver on its goal of environmental conservation in Lakshadweep. Unless you’ve booked a year in advance, don’t even consider visiting over Christmas and New Year’s. (Other good times to visit are February through May, and September through November.) For more information, log on to lakshadweeptourism.nic.in.
The country code for India is 91. Prices quoted are for July 2008.

Lodging

There are two resorts in Lakshadweep, both all-inclusive and both good. The Agatti Island Resort has comfortable if utilitarian cottages on the beach, some with AC and TV, as well as water sports like diving, kayaking, sailing, snorkeling, and waterskiing (484-2362232; agattislandresorts.com; doubles, $85–$140). With its great service and picturesque environs, the Bangaram Island Resort has many repeat guests, although it is pricey: $350 a night for a standard room in high season and $580 for a cottage. Diving instruction costs $400 for the five-day certification course (484-2668221; cghearth.com/bangaram_island; doubles, $210).

Activities

There are Ayurvedic treatments and yoga lessons, but beyond that you have to engage with the sea. Lakshadweep has some of the world’s best (and cheapest) dive instruction. Lacadives, an outfit based in Mumbai, operates schools on both Bangaram and Kadmat islands (22-6662738; lacadives.com; four-day courses from $450). I didn’t visit Kadmat but was told that it has one of the most beautiful lagoons in all of Lakshadweep.

Reading

Pick up the comprehensive Outlook Traveller Getaways: Kerala with Lakshadweep at the airport ($5). Maps of the archipelago are available at airport shops within India.

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