The Andaman Islands aren’t really India. In fact they are much closer to Thailand and Burma than the Indian mainland and the natives are not really Asian but are classified as Negritos and are part of an initial migration out of Africa which happened about 60,000 years ago. Many of the Islands in this group are off limits to tourists. The ones where tourists can go generally no longer have natives living on them. As the Islands exist now they are a cheap backpacker hangout and vacation spot for Indian people curious about the idea of being near the ocean and possibly walking on the beach or swimming.
The first day we arrive we are taken by auto rickshaw driver to beach number 5 which seems to be the place where most backpackers go. As the rickshaw buzzes noisily into the sand driveways of resort after resort we learn that it is high season and everywhere is full. Finally the driver finds us a room but it is across the street from the beach. We are quoted a price of 800 rupees by the small hard eyes of a man who doesn’t want to like me because he taking advantage of me. We swallow our frustration and take the room but plan to try and change in the morning. The room should have cost half that price according to what we had seen so far and was a small bamboo hut with nothing in it but a mattress covered in a sheet and a mosquito net.
We spend the next nine days at a “resort” called Coconut Grove which is a series of oddly situated bamboo huts. Again we have only a hut with a mattress and a mosquito net but this time it is only 400 rupees a night ($8). There is one public bathroom and inside the brown spattered toilet bowl is a growing pile of feces. The humidity is near a hundred percent and everything rots in this climate including our bed sheet which grows increasingly damp over the nine days we are there. There is no blanket for us to lie under and at night we either sleep naked or under some clothes. By the third night there, ants were crawling over us all night as we slept brought into the room by our tissues from which they harvested our phlegm, both still recovering from a sickness which left us a bronchial cough and a lot of mucus. On the third day I also notice that I have red spots covering my knees and the outer sides of my hands and arms. Rasham identifies it as heat rash. They don’t itch or hurt but apparently my pores are clogged as the air is so moist my body cant release heat by sweating. I feel lethargic every day. The white sand beach is nice in the mornings but then the tide goes out turning the water into literally miles of two foot deep ocean with some rock formations exposed here and there. You can walk forever out to sea and it never gets any deeper.
There are starving dogs everywhere inside our complex. The couple staying next to us like over half the people in our resort are Israelis traveling after their mandatory military service. He urges us to feed the dogs and bring food for them. Every time we return back he asks us if we got food for them. It begins to get annoying but I don’t feel like telling him what I really think about the starving animals, that ecosystems are best left to sort themselves out without human intervention. He asks where we are from and we tell him we are from the US, “Ah, it is good to hear people are proud to be from the US.” He said. “Well its gotten easier since Obama has become president.” I said. “It was more difficult when Bush was president.”
“Everyone in Israel thinks Bush was a good president.” He said. “Most people don’t like Obama.” He showed us a tee-shirt he had bought in Goa of Obama with a Hitler’s mustache. We nodded and he went back into his hut.
There was a skinny white dog that was on the verge of death and had just had puppies. One of her hind legs wasn’t working and in stark contrast to her skeletal frame, huge bulbous nipples hung down from her underside, some were red and sore and bleeding. Here puppies were all over the compound and ranged from looking generally healthy to a runt that wouldn’t eat and was half the size of the others. On our seventh day here this dog died on our porch.
When you got close to any of the dogs you could visibly see all the fleas and ticks crawling on their bodies. As time progressed I began to feel that the sick dogs were having a mild but unhealthy effect on my body and mind. Rasham decided to take her open water certification at a dive shop down the road and escaped in a way through having something to engage her but I continued to linger around our hut and becoming increasingly uncertain of why I was here and why I wasn’t feeling ok.
I tried to reason with myself. Is it the weather, the primitive conditions, my lasting cold, the fact I wasn’t biking, not meditating enough, didn’t have a project, wasn’t exercising, wasn’t eating enough healthy food? How much longer can I take this waiting? I am waiting to sit in meditation on the 20th. I tried to meditate and do yoga every day but it didn’t seem to help. Sometimes I would feel moments of clarity. As I lay in bed in the morning I began thinking about all the decisions I’ve made. Decisions that I like this or that. Decisions about where I should be and what I should be doing. Decisions about how I should be living my life. It seemed as if the white bed sheet I lay on, slightly damp and warm from the humidity, was a nest where I could reposition myself. I dreamt for long moments and then lay in bed with my eyes closed and thought about my dreams. I felt the skin of my legs. The warm tingling of inertia. But what are we doing over here. After cycling it seemed like the whole concept of backpacking was only pleasurable to the frequent drug or alcohol user. It was a way to divide time into segments while constantly escaping the monotonous reality that becomes the life of an addict. Having cigarettes at bus stops and waiting for ferries. Having beers with new people in new places, sitting in a hammock under a palm tree and smoking a joint. This is what backpackers do! But can I really not have fun in this beautiful island just because I’m sober? Have I just been backpacking too many times and its grown old? I took solace that this wasn’t the case from the fact that this was Rasham’s first trip and she was feeling the same way. There must be more to it! I need a purpose! I need my bike. I want the inquisitive and smiling faces that greeted me at every stop. The feeling of exhausting my body every day, the in between places, not the huge hubs that all these busses and trains kept taking me to.
After Rasham had finished her certification we resolved to do something about the way we felt and began a three day fruit and vegetable cleanse. At the end of the day we decided we could go one step farther and went to the local market and bought two bags of fresh fruits and vegetables along with some seasonings and two plastic tubs for washing the vegetables. It felt empowering to be making our own food again and we happily prepared a vege-fruit mix, wrapped them in cabbage leaves and ate them like burritos out of two coconut halves we had turned in bowls from a coconut we had bought. We were providing for ourselves again!
It was around two in the morning when I heard Rasham mention that her stomach hurt. Until that point I had been vaguely aware that something wasn’t right but had put my finger on the fact that my stomach also hurt. Over the next two hours we became violently ill and I had to get up five or six times to engage in some combination of vomiting and diarrhea. By the next morning we both had high fevers and lay in bed all day in a slightly delusional state. Somehow in our extreme sickness we managed to laugh at what some might consider the all too obvious conclusion of a raw food diet in India. But it was also puzzling as we were suffering from full blown food poisoning, which seemed difficult to get from vegetables. He had eaten such menagerie of vegetables it seemed unlikely that any one vegetable had had enough bacteria to make us both so sick. It took four or five days to fully recover although our fever subsided after two. The idea of eating any vegetables made us both sick to our stomachs.
It was during the last days of our latest sickness that we began to have more talks about the fact that things just didn’t feel right about this journey. The initial reason that brought us to Asia, Rasham’s Kumbh Mela tour, she had left on the fourth day. We had been in Asia for over a month and still hadn’t made it to a meditation. Seeing the places we had been just to see them didn’t have meaning behind it for us. There needed to be something more, a project, an adventure, an education.
For what seemed like the tenth time in this journey, a dynamic was once again brought to life. The relationship between the psychosomatic experience of the individual and his or her environment: to what degree is an environment constricting or counterproductive to personal growth. Conversely, shouldn’t an ultimate mental state be capable of thriving in any environment, and if so, from where is progress towards this ultimate state built if not from environment. Our answer was that it was built from meditation but I didn’t feel like meditating. So what am I lost in? depression, how do I escape? Thus are the mental traps that I am capable of falling into. In the back of my mind I know so much of it is dependent on the exercise that I am not getting. How to escape this confusion. In the past I escape these confusions by changing my physical location. But engaging and believe in meditation has convinced me that my environment shouldn’t matter as much. Leaving makes me weak, reveals me as someone who walks away from personal development, but is this development or is this scarring mental torture?
In the end we decide to leave. We buy tickets home to the states. Suddenly the Islands don’t seem so bad. We find a new restaurant that we like and begin eating fish, the first time we have eaten meat together. Rasham gets her Advanced scuba certification and we begin diving together. Being out on the water is cooling. The diving world is familiar and we fantasize about getting our instructor’s license together and teaching diving throughout the world. We see white tipped sharks, tuna, barracuda and thousands of smaller colorful fish.
As we prepare to leave the Island I realize that I have completely stopped taking pictures. I have to apologize to readers for this but I lost my enthusiasm.
After 48 hours, four flights and two boat rides Rasham and I are back on Bainbridge Island. I am feeling better already, excited about returning to our bicycles and planning how we are going to bike across the US. We are planning to fly back from wherever we are and get married in August on Bainbridge Island.
Our trip to India was interesting. We also do not believe in mistakes and our trying to learn from this experience. It was difficult in a whole different way than bicycling is. It was confining, restrictive, draining and yet, educational and adventurous all the same. Perhaps we will post more when we figure out what happened… until then, ON WITH THE BIKE TRIP!