Lakshadweep, from Hindi meaning “100 islands” is actually a string of 36 palm covered islands, of which 10 are inhabited, 200 miles off the coast of Kerala in Southern India. Its inhabitants are mainly Sunni Muslim fisherman wherein fishing and coir production are the islands’ main sources of income. Life on the islands is very traditional and the Indian caste system divides the Islanders in ways that I have never seen in India.
Lakshadweep is as stunningly gorgeous as it is hard to get to. It involves planning at least a month ahead to get a permit which allows you to stay on one of two islands as a foreigner. The water is as nice as anywhere I have ever seen. It is crystal clear and visibility is up to 40 meters. The islands are great for diving and snorkeling. Unfortunately for me, I am here during the monsoon season which leads to choppy waters out by the dive sites. However, I was able to get a little sunshine and relax on the stunning beaches of Agatti Island.
Agatti Island is the biggest of the Lakshadweep Islands and contains the “airport”. The airport is at the southern tip of the island and literally the runway is the width of that portion of the island. There is only about 5 meters of grass and beach on either side of the runway as the water comes right up to the runway which is slightly unnerving yet also cool.
My Kingfisher Airlines flight in from Kochi on Thursday afternoon was actually the scariest flight I have ever been on. The monsoon was really bad as we approached Lakshadweep for landing and the clouds were only about 10 meters above sea level. The pilot decided to circle around for a while to let the rain finish and the clouds shift. There are no lights at the Agatti airport so visibility was virtually nothing. He made an announcement that there was poor visibility and that he would circle around one more time and if he couldn’t land then we would have to fly back to Kerala because we would run out of gas.
This did not please anyone and on the next approach I was finally able to see a little glimpse of one of the neighboring islands which made me think we were going for it. As we finally emerged from the clouds, we were literally flying at about 5 meters off the ground for a mile or so which led to major wind and turbulence. Plus, as a passenger, I didn’t know about the water being so close to the runway so I couldn’t see anything out the window and was a little nervous that we were landing on the water-I’m not gonna lie.
Eventually after some major turns along the approach we landed very hard on the ultra-short runway and emerged into the monsoon and got soaked. I was the last one off the plane and the captain walked up behind me and asked if I was scared. I replied, “Were you?” and he said “a little”. He said in 20 years of flying he had never had an approach that low and with that low a cloud cover. Anyway, we made it and just in time for our free coconuts at the Agatti Island Beach Resort.
As a foreigner visiting the Lakshadweep Islands, you are only allowed to stay in two places. One is on Bangaram Island, which is a small island, 2.5 hours away by small slow boat and the other is where I stayed at the Agatti Island Beach Resort. The place was fantastic. It was really a paradise. It is kind of like a backpacker resort for adults on one of the most stunning beaches around. The best part is of course, there was nobody on it.
The resort, although it’s hardly a fancy resort is a bunch of little basic bungalows situated just in front of the airport in a coconut palm forest. My little bungalow was right on the beach and was fine. The only thing is they charge you 70 Euros for a non air-conditioned room as they kind of have a monopoly on the accommodations for the island. However, that includes, food, drink (although there is no alcohol on the island) and use of their stuff. The only stuff I used was a beach chair and some of their 10 hammocks hanging around between the swaying palms. As the rain let up Friday and the sun beat down upon the island it was a true paradise and was really the stuff that those tropical island MS screensavers are made of.
I did manage to get away and check out the rest of the island with a little tuk tuk tour of Agatti Island. The whole island is only about 9km long and no wider than 2 at any time and it is shaped like a baseball bat, skinny at the handle where the airport and my resort is and then fatter as you move north where the people live and work.
The main road is more of a sidewalk that goes down the center of the island and divides the island. The center of town is little more than a collection of ramshackle single story buildings, which includes a police station (where you get your passport stamped and your permit validated-the police car is a tuk tuk by the way), a museum on the history of the island (not very interesting but free) and the coir factory (where local women make rope out of coconut shells-actually very cool to see). There are also several small mosques where the locals go to pray and several small houses. Along the side of the road they have raw materials that are used for the upkeep of the island such as rocks, sand, sandbags, gravel and bricks. Also, of note, is that the island is run on solar power and there was a fairly large solar power field on the side of the road which I thought was cool and makes a lot of sense if you think about it.
Meals at the resort are the big times of the day. There is tea time at 7am, followed by breakfast from 8-9:30am which includes toast with spreads and some weird Indian curry dips for your toast. Lunch is from 12:30 until 2pm and includes a buffet of curries, rice, na’an, and some filthy looking mutton doused in curry. Dinner is at 8pm and is basically the same thing just served differently but mainly curry, rice and unknown things which I’d like to remain unknown so I don’t get sick.
The thing that got me about mealtimes is the way the servers are so in your face. They just stand there and stare at you waiting to do things like fold your napkin if you simply put it down on the table or fill up your water glass if you have a sip. It was a little strange to me and it kind of made sense after watching the older wealthy Indian tourists who were there as well. It was only me and older Indians except for one of the couples brought their son who was about my age. Anyway, they would simply abuse these servers and make them do everything for them. For instance, for the buffet they would walk up to it and point to what they wanted the servants to get for them because they just couldn’t do it themselves. I found it strange.
Another example is the son I mentioned took the tuk tuk tour of the island with me and would constantly demand the driver to do things and explain things but seemed very rude about it to me but it never pissed the driver off and he always did what he was told, even by the kid. When I talk to a person who would be considered a common worker or whatever, I still always talk politely and with respect and to be honest I never even think about class differences so this struck me strangely.
I asked him about it later and he talked about the class differences and that’s just the way it is in India-even still to this day. My first time in India four years ago I never really noticed the class differences because I generally stayed in backpacker tourist ghettos in $1 a night dumps, where there was only one class and that was low! This time between the Le Meridien in Kochi where the service was spectacular and attentive and here, I can really see what they mean by the class and caste system.
As I find myself rambling, I am going to cut this short as the sun is about to rise (my favorite time of the day) and I want to jump in the Arabian Sea and get some tea before my flight back to Kochi later after lunch. Hopefully the weather allows the plane no problems. I will be spending tonight in Thiruvananthapuram (try saying that three times fast, or even once for that matter) where I get a flight tomorrow morning to the Maldives for three days with a ten hour stop in Sri Lanka, where I’ve already spent a lot of time so I am not sure how I will kill the time there, but I will think of something!
By the way, I have been unable to charge anything on the island as I do not have the converter for this type of plug which is strangely different than the rest of India. There is also no Internet connection on the island.