Monday, March 8, 2010

Lakshadweep - true heaven on earth

My husband has been in between jobs and we were planning a trip. I had managed to get my leave approved but we were unable to finalize on the holiday location. We initially tried Uttaranchal and then the north-east. Failing both, my husband chose Lakshadweep - India's only coral destination. I was not very impressed initially. I had my own inhibitions but I obliged as life has been really different for me these last few months - have been travelling a lot, work has been a bit hectic and worst of all, I have been undergoing a lot of treatments. I really don't know why I go to those doctors and then fall for what they tell me. Anyways, I am done with that phase again :)
This package to Lakshadweep is a Government of India organized trip. There is a Government ship named Kavaratti, which sets sail from Cochin in Kerala. They have a fixed schedule. The ship is not intended only for tourism and has other agenda as well and hence it is requested that you stick to the schedules given.
We took a day train from Bengalooru to Ernakulam on the 3rd of March, 2010. Hubby and I planned to watch movies and pass time through the day and sadly, the laptop power charging socket had an erratic power supply. I did, however, manage to watch most of "Invictus". We had a hotel reservation at the "Hotel Abad Metro". We had eaten at this place on our earlier visit to Alleppey. The food was awesome and value for money. We checked into the hotel, took a bath and took a walk around the streets of Ernakulam.
The ship was to set sail on the 4th of March, 2010 from Matancherry Wharf, Willingdon Island. One word of advice here, eat your lunch and then head for the screening spot [ a few metres from the Wharf, where your luggage is checked and they ensure that you are not carrying any alcohol as alcohol is banned on the Lakshadweep islands]. The itinerary does mention that you will be served lunch aboard the ship but that is not the case. However, you can catch up on a kerala thali for 30 bucks at the second class canteen aboard the ship meant for the bunk class passengers. The food in the second class canteen is really better than the food served to first class cabin passengers a.k.a tourists. The ship sets sail around 4pm, around which time tea and tiger biscuits are also served to tourists. We noticed some pink nosed dolphins just off the coast of Cochin - was my first time seeing dolphins :)
The cabins are really cozy, if not luxurious. You are provided with a table, 2 chairs, a 2 seater sofa, 2 cupboards, life jackets and 2 comfortable bunk beds. The toilet is also very cute and comfortable. Drinking water, towels, blankets and soap is provided - I guess it is included in the package cost of 20.5k per head. Warm and not hot water is available for bath. Since the ship has other agenda and not just take tourists sight seeing, it is requested to keep your valuables under lock and key, whenever you are not available in the cabin - there is no lock provided for the cabin. The ship is a means of transporting people as well as other goods between the other islands. Lakshadweep consists of 36 islands out of which 10 are inhabited by humans. Kavaratti is the capital of Lakshadweep and is the largest amongst the islands. Minicoy is the second largest island. Coconut farming, livestock rearing and fishing are the major sources of income for people. All people are government employees and 99% of the population is Muslim. It is believed that there is 0% crime rate on these islands. Alcohol is prohibited and most of the islands are not open to foreigners. All the people living on the islands speak and understand Malayalam or one of its dialects. Minicoy has its own language called "Mahal" which is a dialect of the language spoken in Maldives, however, they do understand Malayalam.

Dinner is served at sharp 8pm and consists of dal, roti, rice, fish fry, chicken curry and some vegetable dishes too - the vegetable side dishes depend on the vegetables that are being transported, I guess - we had brinjal on all 4 days - even on the islands.
Morning tea is served at 6am and breakfast is served at 7am. Breakfast consists of bread, butter, jam, a local delicacy - such as dosa/upma/idli, coconut chutney and sambar.
At 7:40 am, all tourists need to assemble for disembarking to proceed to the island.
We visited Kalpeni first. Kalpeni is the smallest of the 3 islands on the agenda and I feel had the warmest and friendliest people. We are taken by means of a boat between the islands and the ship. We are then taken to the government run resort by means of some vehicle. The beaches are very clean, the sand is very fine. The water is crystal clear - with two shades - a lighter blue where the water is shallow and the dark deep blue of the sea.The first activity was water sports - kayaking and snorkeling. I got into my swimsuit only to be stared upon by the aunties and uncles from Bengal and Ajmer :) Sadly , hubby and I were the only "YOUNG" couple in the tourist crowd. We first went kayaking from the island to another smaller island close by. From there, we were given snorkeling equipment. The water was about 3feet high[low tide] and the corals in Kalpeni are really sharp so wear your footwear when in water too. You need to float and look into the water and get a good look at the fish and corals. I am really really scared of water and especially of it getting into my ear - by the time I got comfortable of putting my head into the water, it was time to head back for lunch. I did however see something.. We also saw sea cucumbers - which shrink when taken out of the water. There was one which was like a snake and was moving. We have to stick to the schedule as the ship has to stick to its schedule ;) Post lunch, we were taken around the island.Kalpeni has a hosiery factory and a khadi bhavan. We bought tees for 63 bucks from the hosiery factory. We were shown how the weaving is done. However,the raw material comes from the mainland and that may add to the cost that we eventually will pay. I loafed around while people took their time at the hosiery. I made friends with Saifudeen who wanted his picture to be taken. His mom offered me some coconut fruit - this grows inside a coconut. After tea and some cultural programmes, we are taken back to the jetty to embark back onto the ship.
The next day we visited Kavaratti - the capital. Kavaratti is more commercial and has a population of 10k. We were taken on a glass bottom boat ride where we could get a good view of the corals and fish. We got to see the colourful sea anemone and many other corals. On payment of 200 bucks, you can get to go snorkeling for 30 minutes. I was a bit sea sick after the boat ride and decided to stay back. I did change my mind at the last minute but my hubby said that he would not take care of me - there are guys who come to help and take care of people but my hubby insisted I save my energy for the scuba diving the next day. I am told that the snorkeling at Kavaratti is a must-do. Post lunch, we had some cultural entertainment. We also went to the desalination plant which is the source of drinking water across the Kavaratti island. This plant was installed for an initial cost of 4 crores and one litre of water costs 15 paise. People are however not charged this amount. The technology for this plant is all Indian coming from the National Institute of Ocean Technology, Chennai. We also visited an aquarium and museum of preserved varieties of fish. I loafed around while people took their time and made friends with the villagers. After tea, we got back to the ship to proceed to the next destination - Minicoy.
Minicoy was very beautiful - had 3 different colours to the beach - a white, crystal blue and the deep blue of the sea. This was because of low tide. By afternoon, this had changed. The landscape of Minicoy was very different from the first two islands - there were a variety of trees that could be seen. In Kalpeni and Kavaratti, it was hard to find a tree other than a coconut tree. We first went to the lighthouse. We climbed all the way to the top - from which we could see a small island with 12 coconut trees, named Wringley island - after Lord Wringley who was buried there. It was a beautiful sight. Back at the resort, we registered for scuba diving. I mustered all my courage to go scuba diving. However, with an impatient, discouraging helper and my non-supportive hubby, I did not make it. I was very depressed post this - felt like a failure - could not overcome my fear for the water and deep blue sea. My hubby and the others kept talking about the beauty and of a big fish hiding inside a small cave. I was given back the 750 rupees as I had cancelled the scuba diving - I did however get over most of my fear for water. Post lunch, we had a cultural programme. We were informed that in Minicoy, the husband moves to the wife's house post marriage and the entire expense of the wedding is borne by the husband's side. Minicoy has 10 villages with each village having a central village home. The people in Minicoy were least friendly when compared to the other two islands. Minicoy was also more hep in terms of resort look and feel, etc.. The boat ride back to the ship from Minicoy was what I enjoyed the most. The sea was rough and we were completely drenched once we got back to the ship.
The next morning we were back in Cochin. Hubby and I visited the Jewish synagogue in Jew Town. I met the beautiful Amelia, who works as a nurse in London but is from New Zealand. We bumped into each other again at the Dutch Palace museum.Hubby and her partner Rowan, who is from NZ but works as a carpenter in London, got acquainted with each other and we had some nice chit chat after which we bid each other adieu. It was nice to meet them as hubby and I plan to migrate to NZ for a while. We had tea at the Ginger House Restaurant and lunch at Caza Maria restaurant. We then took a local boat to head to the railway station - we did bump into one of the crew members of Kavaratti who was heading home until the 10th of March, 2010 when the M.V.Kavaratti would again set sail.

I am really amazed at what the Government of India can really accomplish. The islands are so clean and people so friendly. It is hard to believe that they don't have any crimes reported there. Alcohol being a no-no, makes it all the more appealing to me - though I really wanted to get drunk on a cocktail or two ;) More important is that they have preserved the beauty and culture of the people. Kudos to the Government for this. I recommend this trip to everyone - even if you are not a water person.
The government has other packages where one can opt to stay on an island. People say that it is better to stay on one island for 2-3 days so that you can get a better feel of the island and visit the places that may be of interest to you. Our package was called the Samudram package aboard M.V.Kavaratti. Aboard the ship we did not really feel sea sick - mostly cause the sea was calm. However, in case you do feel sea sick, the best way to feel better is to look at the horizon.