In their search for surf through India’s wave-rich Andaman Islands, a crew of Americans travel back “to the earliest beginnings of the world.”
Port Blair, Andaman Islands April 26, 1998
Mango trees outside my second story window; red-onion topped mosque with yellow flags drooping from stiff bamboo poles; cumulus clouds hanging motionless in the evening, tall ships with clean white sails anchored in a pale, inverted sea. The streets of Port Bair below, narrow streets: women, caramel skin and blue-black plaits, wrapped in gold and blue saris, walking on wide bare feet, balancing tin pails on their heads; skinny white cows peruse the gutters and trash heaps, insistent calves, pulling at their teats, blocking alleys; honking jeeps and buses. Motorcycles weave, full families aboard, mothers in bright shawls primly sitting side-saddle, big-eyed babies between; flat-bed trucks roar past like rampaging elephants, wide-eyed mahouts clinging to their dusty flanks.
Smells: biryani and burning tires, concrete and saffron, sewage and frangi-pangi, diesel fumes and the smell of the sea, a wet, salty tang, like the smell of a hand that’s been clutching coins. It’s the breeze off the sea, the Andaman Sea, that animates the yellow flags of the mosque next door and sends forked-tail swallows banking and wheeling off its currents. Madras hip-hop blaring from scratchy tape decks, and the first fluttering bats whispering by on silent wings.
In my room: a narrow bed, slat ribs poking up. A fan turns overhead, smoky mirror and batik fabric tacked to grimy walls.
I am alone in the Andamans, Ptolemy’s fabled “land of cannibals,” Sinbad’s “string of island pearls,” waiting for a boat. Me and my surfboards. They lie next to the bed, gleaming through green bubble-pack, mute but still eloquent even here, even this far off course, even this far from where I started.
“Find us some waves,” they say. “Prove that you love us.”
It’s been said that I the end it’s all about salt, but it’s not. It’s about water. The world’s, my own. Here in my little room at the hotel Dhanalakshmi on the Clocktower Square, It’s so hot. But it’s hotter outside and island capital broiling in the noonday sun. Port Blair, with its perfect deep-water harbor crystal ocean cupped in the green-backed hands of rolling headlands. I’m supposed to meet the yacht Crescent here, at a small islet connected to the mainland by a low tarmac bridge called Chatham Jetty.
Other members of the tribe are sailing here from the other side of the Andaman Sea. Chris Malloy and a crew of usual suspects— Jack Johnson, Tamayo Perry and Aaron Lambert from the North Shore, Josh Bradbury and Hans Hagen from California, and token Aussie grom James Catto from Margaret River— are on board, led by the intrepid photographer John Callahan, who had the dream and the British Admiralty charts. They are a day and a half overdue and I have no way to contact them. Theirs is the longer road, by far: by plane from Singapore to Bangkok to Phuket, Thailand, then an eight-hour bus ride through the coastal mountains, across the border in to Burma, and then to Myanyar, From there, it’s two days across to the Andaman Sea in the chartered Crescent.
“I’ll meet you in Port Blair,” I said in back in California, savoring the sound of the words even as I’d spoke them. So romantic. Now, here by myself in a forgotten archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, technically only a few days from home, I’d love to see some fellow surfers. Nobody here knows what I am. At the airport’s little white customs shack, I tried to explain my boards. “To ride the waves,” I said. “Thira mala”— big waves in Tamil A sweaty soldier in green khakis just shook his head. My taxi driver, face dark as licorice, wearing dusty black slacks and a long-sleeve cotton shirt with the cuffs unbuttoned, shook his small head, too.
“No wave in this sea,” he told me. “Must go to Ceylon.”
Nobody I know, and nobody I know knows anybody who has ever surfed in the Andamans. For good reason, maybe
So I have traveled all this way to the Aberdeen Bazaar to wait in this small room, sweat raising small boils on my legs beneath a blue sarong. My room cost 38 rupees— about US $3.50— because it has a fan, and here in Port Blair the fan is life, the way fire would be to somebody who is freezing. Yesterday, midday, I stretched out on the thin little mattress and fell asleep, flat on my back. Los Angeles-Taipei-Kuala Lumpur-Madras-Port Blair… I was beyond jet lag. More like in shock. So I pulled shut the awful brow curtains and to the hum of the fan and the roar of the generator outside in the courtyard, fell into a fitful sleep. Sometime during the next hour the generator coughed and quit, and in an instant my little box became a kiln. I started to sweat. And sweat. The moisture was being wrung out of me like a sponge. It dripped off my chest, outlining my torso in a pattern of small wet spots on the stained sheet. It ran down my arms, one of them hanging out off the bed, so that a small pool formed on the scuffed tile below. And, lying on my back the way I was, it filled my clenched eyes like twin wells.