Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Lakshadweep-I : Sea voyage from Cochin to Agatti

A ship journey – I had many questions on it. How a port looks like, how will I find my ship there, will there be any departure terminals or platform or something else! Questions were aplenty, but found no one who could answer. Therefore I decided to get these clarified at Cochin.

I completed the payment formalities in the Agatti Island Beach Resort (AIBER) Office at Cochin. I was handed over the ship tickets and entry permit for Lakshadweep. Then I put up my queries one by one. Siyad, the young lad in the office, told me that my ship, named MV Minicoy, will leave from the warf named North Coal Berth. I need to report there by 10 am. He added that there will be no problem in finding the ship as the autowallahs are familiar with port. Few more tourists were to accompany us for the trip and Siyad himself would be available at the port for our facilitation. Assured, but still with questions, I left for hotel. Lesson 1: I now at least know that a ship leaves from a warf in the port, like a train leaves from a platform in the station. The ticket charges were Rs.1250/- for adults and Rs.650/- for child. This is the fare for tourists. The fare was highly subsidized for locals. The fare for a local adult was just Rs.350/-. The AIBER people charged Rs.2000/- for adult and Rs.1250/- for child as ticket fare. According to them this includes cost of boat transfer from the ship to the resort and also some additional amount they pay to the ship cafeteria for special treatment to the tourists.

Finally, the morning of 18th October, 2006 had arrived. We hired an auto and headed first to the AIBER office. The fare is fixed at Rs.100/-. Autowallahs do not cheat in Cochin. So one need not bargain. In the office, Siyad instructed the driver in Malayalam as to where the ship will be. In half an hour’s time we were in the Cochin Port Trust area. There were containers and carriers everywhere. Maneuvering through these behemoths, we finally arrived at the gate of the designated warf. It appeared to be secluded spot without much activity. The gate was manned by CISF personnel. For formalities we had to open one bag for a superficial inspection. The ship was some 200 mtrs away from the gate. There is no coolie (poreters) available, neither vehicle is allowed inside. So one need to carry his luggage on his own. I thanked God for deciding to travel relatively light. We had one large bag for cloths, one small bag for food items and my camera backpack. It was not fun carrying them to the ship. We climbed up the ladder to the deck on first floor. A Lakshadweep Policemen was manning the gate. We showed him the tickets and handed over the copy of entry permit. He then told us to go downwards for our seat. Taking the luggage down the narrow and stiff ladder was still more difficult. Finally we reached the hall where we were to seat. This ship, MV Minicoy, is a small ship with a capacity of 155. It has only one class of accommodation – chair car or tourist class. There was no cabin class. It was like a tourist bus or shatabdi express coach with push back seats. All the seats are arranged in 3 columns in a 2-4-2 system in the big hall which is air-conditioned. There was enough leg space and open spaces to move around inside the hall. Seat numberings were however most unimaginative and created problems for other accompanying tourists. But fortunately, local people were considerate enough to adjust. Siyad from AIBER had also arrived by this time to help us out.

The ship started to get filled as time passed by. The ship is managed by the Lakshadweep Development Corporation Ltd. (LDCL). There were few television sets in the hall, all of which are synchronized to play together. Once the ship is filled with passengers, the LDCL started playing a information video, though in Malayalam. My brain cells started working hard to understand from the visuals. Fortunately I could pick up some like where will be our designated lifejackets and lifeboats. I expected that there would be an English version. But it never came, instead the malayali version was repeated a second time. This time it started to give headache. I decided to have a walk around and see the ship. One can move around freely inside the ship. Restricted areas are clearly marked. By this time I had picked up one more funda – Port Side and Starboard Side. Lesson 2 : If you stand facing the nose of the ship – then your left side is called the Port Side and the right hand side is called is the Star Board Side. This is a standard nomenclature used in ships. Thus my seat was on the port side. The ship will always dock on the port side.

The scheduled departure of 11 am was long over and yet there was no sign of the ship leaving. There use to be some inspections from several agencies before a ship is allowed to leave. Some went unnoticed like the one by food inspector that certifies that there is enough food for everybody on board. But the one by inspector from Marine Mercantile Deptt. (MMD) was noticeable to everyone. Everyone is required to remain seated when he arrives. He ensures that ship is not overloaded and no extra passenger is there. But few extra people are allowed in after the inspector leaves. The captain later admitted to us having allowed 3 extra passengers, but others say they carry about 10 extra people.

The ship finally set sail around 12:45 pm. We were all thrilled as the ship slowly moved out of the Cochin port, went past other big ships, the Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi and finally into deep sea. The colour of water kept changing from muddy to dark green to deep blue. All of us were on the deck in the harsh midday sun, enjoying this first time experience of a sea voyage. It is something we will never forget. The ship majestically marched ahead tearing into the deep blue water creating ripples of bubbles around it. Soon flying fishes started flying out of water attempting to fly as far as they could.

A call over the load speaker system heralded the lunch time. The ship had a small cafeteria, which actually is a counter in the seating hall. It sells Mineral water bottles as well as soft drinks. All of us carried at least 2 bottles of water as none of knew that it can be bought inside the ship. Other eatables like snacks though with limited choice were also available in the counter. The cafeteria opens only during specified hours. Food was to be collected from the counter by producing tickets. Lunch, dinner and breakfast charges are included in the ticket price. Other things like cold drinks, tea, etc. are to be bought paying cash. Tourists are to collect food at last. We were told by AIBER office that food for us will be special. Well, it was nothing special than having been served in a tray and a bottle of mineral water. I was told by AIBER office that veg food is uneatable and so we should take non-veg only. The food is cooked for the local people who are Muslims and so 99.9% traveller on board were non-veg. One accompanying tourist was veg and so he asked what is there in veg. The reply was a curt ‘Dal’. I had doubt that even the dal is nothing but the soup of the non-veg curry. Anyway, the food had nothing to be boast about, but you need to eat what you get. To remain hungry is your choice!

It was all fine till lunch. Post lunch the first sign of problem cropped up. It is sea sickness. We all had taken Avomin tablets the night before as advised the AIBER people. Still the first to fell victims among the group of tourist was my wife Mono. Once the vomiting starts, it can not be stopped. So her fun fizzled out. (She however had a nice return journey while 4 others fell sick). The slow swaying of ship from one side to other makes everyone feels dizzy. But if you can survive the initial one hour or so, you can expect to be safe. The bigger, the ship more the problem is, as swaying action is much slower.

I was one of the fit to survive! So was my little daughter. May be kids has more resilience. I spent most of the time on deck enjoying the beauty and enjoying the cool sea breeze. We also got an opportunity to go to the captain’s cabin as he accepted our request to show us how the ship sails. Capt. P.N. Joseph, an ex-navy officer, was very courteous and offered us a very informative session. The captain told us that this 55 mtr long ship was built in 2000 at the Cochin Shipyard. Being a modern ship, it is equipped with most modern systems. This being a fairly small ship it can operate only during non-monsoon periods. The ship sails on an auto-pilot kind of system which is based on a gyroscopic compass. Mariner’s compass is used these days only in case of emergencies like power failure. The magnetic direction, relative to the North Pole, of the location the ship is heading is fed to the computer and the ship keeps moving automatically requiring very little intervention from the crew. We could also see the radar and the INMARSET communication system in the ship. We had many questions like rough sea, emergencies, etc. Capt. Joseph told that he had seen both births and deaths in the ship. Even though it has an emergency hospital cabin, here is no doctor on board and so nothing could be done in case some one is dying. Regarding rough sea, he simply told that all of us will know as there will be an abnormal increase in number of people falling sea sick. He added that if sea becomes rough becuase of some storm, it can be felt within a radious of 250 km.

After several hours of traveling, the eagerly waited sunset had arrived. All tourists were out with their cameras trying to capture this magical moment of sun setting in the distant horizon. It was not that majestic though as compared to some later sunsets we had in Agatti. Soon the ship was engulfed in pitch darkness of the surroundings. There is nothing to see around. Temperature also started to drop. We were forced back into the hall. By this time they had started playing a Malayalam movie. The locals probably enjoyed every bit of the movie. There are no cinema halls in Lakshadweep. The movies screening stopped with the call for dinner. We all had an early dinner by our standard. My wife was totally down by now after vomiting several times. She decided to skip the dinner.

The movie continued post dinner. When it ended, it was time to go to bed. But where is the bed! There were few benches outside the halls which had already been occupied by smart chaps. Though the seats were push back type, I knew that it would be difficult to travel 22 hours that way. So I had booked a seat even for my 4 year old kid so that she can sleep. Locals were experienced enough to carry pieces of bed sheets which were laid on the floor for sleeping. Almost everyone fell asleep, except me. I could not. I could hardly sleep for an hour that night.

By very early next morning, the ship started approaching its first halt -- Kavarathi, the capital of Lakshadweep. People who were to get down became busy. I picked my cameras and was on the dock again. It was unearthly hours and I do not remember the last time I got up at such hours. All that I could see was few lights in distant horizon. The first lights of dawn broke around 5:45 in the morning. This gave me opportunity to shoot some memorable bluish shots. By 7 am, the ship had come to a halt off the coast of Kavarathi. The ship can not move close to the islands as water is shallow and so it remains parked in the deep sea, about a kilometer or so off the coast. A big bellow type tank anchored to the sea bed was floating to which the ship was tied to keep it relatively stationary. The ship become abuzz with activities. Crews preparing for the anchoring, people taking their items out of the cargo hold, etc. etc. In about 20 minutes time, the first boat carrying outbound passengers from Kavaratti had arrived. It soon got filled with inbound travelers and left. Several such small boats arrived, some left with cargo and some with passengers. This entire embarkation – disembarkation process took almost 1 ½ hours. In the horizon, dark ominous clouds started to gather. Heavy rain lashed us sooner than expected and we had to run inside for cover. The waves and swaying of the ship became more vigourous as wind speed increased. Fortunately, it was just a passing heavy rain, not a sea storm. The ship started off again amidst the heavy rain for its second stop – Agatti.

Weather cleared as fast as it worsened. By 11 am we had the first sight of Agatti and other islands in that group such as Bangaram and Kalpitti. As the crew prepared for anchoring, I took my final shots before packing. The ship halted in the deep sea on the eastern side of the island. The AIBER resort is located on the western side. Many people came to the ship and an equal number left by those small machine boats. We had to wait for about half an hour before the boat from AIBER arrived. The boat deck was some 5 feet below the gate of the ship. Both were swaying unsteadily, hitting each other many times. We were required to get down to the boat deck using a rope ladder. That too hanging in the air using two ropes. It was quite an adventure trying to get into the boat. The entire 15 tourist managed to come safely to the boat after some effort. I was surprised as to how the locals did that so easily, including ladies. Anyway, we were the odd man out there. The entire crowd in the dock was advising us trying to help us getting down to the boat. They all knew we are tourist and not used this adventure. The boat started off maneuvering deep sea waves. We bade get goodbye to the waiving crowd in the MV Minicoy.

The boatman used great skill and common sense to ride the waves to get into the calm lagoon. Once in the clear green water of the lagoon, we all forgot a tiresome journey. I forget that I had only one hours of sleep in last 30 hours. Honestly we were all left dumbstruck, mesmerized the beauty of the lagoon. Turtles started going past us beneath the crystal clear water. We all had seen such water only in movies till now. Now we are actually traveling through it. The delight in everyone's face was quite apparent.

On the way we past waving crowd at the main jetty of the island. The jetty becomes active on arrival of a ship from the mainland. There were autos waiting there for transporting people from the jetty. It seems tourists are most welcomed here. It took about half an hour to reach the private jetty of the resort. The AIBER staff were waiting there to receive us. On landing we were offered coconut waters as welcome drink. Then we all retired into our designated rooms to get fresh.

(To be continued with return ship journey)


Anonymous said...

A ver good account indeed.

Ezee123 said...

I read the account of your journey from cochin to Agatti with great interest. Vry well narrated. I was surprised by the fact that the ship "minicoy" had only seating arrangement. I have travelled on another ship called " Tipu Sultan" from cochin to Laccadives and it had cabins, so pardon me for thinking that all ships had cabins.

When is your next instalment due. ?

Anirudh said...

hey man........i was really impressed with the way u described the sea voyage....am plannin a trip next weekend.....ok lemme read the other articles!!!

Rejina Prashanth said...

Nice post.. its really nice to hear about your sea voyage. In Bangaram island, you have one wonderful option to stay. Bangaram Island Resort is a beautiful resort in the island of Bangaram which is a part of the Lakshadweep Archipelago.Planning honey moon here is a best option as Bangaram Island Resort is not crowded and not known much.

shahbaz said...

Really enjoyed every bit of it.

Dr . said...

can u let me know the total cost for 3 ppl and where to stay ?

Rups said...

Hi Doc,

Cost hv certainly gone up since I visited. Go through all my posts and comments. You will find details / phone no etc of hotels / resorts. Talk directly to them to get the best possible rates. each island hv only one resort or hotel. U hv 3 or 4 island to choose from.

vrajesh said...

nice work..

Anonymous said...

Hi I need information about at what dates passengers ships are available from cochin to lackshadeews?.Kindly mention dates