Andamans Again: Gap Year Week 25

This time when I landed in Port Blair, the crowds didn’t come as a surprise. I was prepared for the crush around the luggage belt, the humid chaos of the taxi stand, and knew to relish the distance as we left the city behind us, the paddy fields rolling out further and further. My room, open-windowed to green around, felt on the verge of tumbling into forest, and taking me with it.

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If the last time in the Andamans was for the sea, this time was for the land, and its inhabitants. Islands in the middle of nowhere turn strange in their isolation, and the things living there become strange, too. (The same thing tends to happen to people in the middle of nowhere.) In evolutionary terms, animals and plants diversify, and you get endemic species, specialized for the particular conditions of that land.

I joined two friends from Singapore for a week exploring—what else—Andamanese birds. It was, I realized, as we reached with binoculars out, my first time on a dedicated birding trip, as opposed to a family holiday co-opted into a birding trip. And as wonderful as my long-suffering parents and brother are, there’s something different about unbridled excitement over abandoning dinner to go snake hunting. A sense of community grows from that shared passion (or insanity), but more than that is a shared wonder, the electric possibility and excitement sparking through each moment.

The wonder is heightened in hotbeds of endemism like the Andamans. On the first day alone, we found an Andaman keelback (endemic reptile numero uno), twisting its sleek scales out of its hole. On the thin saplings short-crested Bay Island lizards clung with closed eyes, their impossibly slender tails tight against the stems. We saw the furtive movements of an Andaman brown coucal in a bush and the yellow of an Andaman bulbul flashing overhead.

Nowhere else in the world. That’s what endemism means. In this place, these colors are made for this ground. And this bird is the story of this land: how it struggled across ocean, how the plates convulsed distance between the masses, how the relic populations reinvented themselves to this slightly weird diversity. The animals illustrate evolution: millennia in a feather.

***

A far more abrupt but similarly brutal process is also illustrated in the Andamans. For me, the Boxing Day tsunami happened at age 4, when I was living in Hong Kong. It’s a near-historical event, 15 years old: the swelling ocean, shivering land was half a continent away. Water long since evaporated from beneath the proverbial bridge. But it’s not. In the Andamans, tsunami is a legacy lived daily. It fingerprints the land.

Sometimes you need to know what to look for. For example, many stretches of mangroves are where forest used to stretch to beach, only the water muddied with salt. And the large placid lakes lining rural roads—where we found Andaman teal, moorhen, bitterns, crakes—hide the long-desiccated rice paddies the water cloaked and never uncovered again. And sometimes the tsunami is obvious. Along the beaches—a little further away from the tourists—you can find the bleached carcasses of massive trees. Their roots contort into the air. It’s the contours left by perhaps centuries-old growth, writhing furiously for nutrients, air. When you face that exposed, it’s humbling—both in the intricacy of what sends trees soaring, but also the force of the water needed to wrench that wholly out and scatter it like pebbles along the beach. And despite the sun, the white beach, the elongated afternoon, the world reveals itself for a visceral and violent place.

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***

Over the week, I learned to associate a slight disorientation, a vague unease with the Andamans. The density of endemism contributes: wild there has become curious, discomfiting, compared to the mainland. Here the white-bellied woodpecker of Indian forests turned pure ebony—here the olive-backed sunbird of Singapore paler—half India, half South-east Asia, mutating into novelty through distance. The birds are always far up in the trees, dancing maybe a hundred meters up in the canopy; my neck craned and left me always slightly off-balance, not sure where to ground myself.

One morning we went to a mostly zoological park, looking for Andaman wood pigeon. It was an overcast day and we waited for calls, movement, anything next to the green imperial-pigeon cage. The sounds of their coos, and eventually the sounds of a distant wood pigeon echoed. The trees there were huge, each swooping buttress as tall as us. The mournful calls hummed insistently back and forth. In the half-morning light everything was suddenly ancient and cavernous. I was dizzy with the vertigo of old things.

At night the place shifted yet again. In the moonlight forests varied from shadow to shadow, the trees abyssal in scope, granular in texture. As if you touched them they would crumble. We searched for owls, following the strands of their calls, beaming each branch till the bird flew into view and stared angrily at us. When it left we turned off the torches. I tried to fix its bright eyes in our mind and not let them dissolve. I wanted to hold the hard certainty of its body within me.

***

Birding is odd. You move slowly, and quietly, with the intent of an espionage agent and little of the importance (or funding), but with all of suspicion. At random intervals a call rings out and everyone jerks to an abrupt halt: a leaf moved, a shadow looks strange. And everyone stares intently at that place, as if it will reveal a state secret, and maybe it does and there’s a brief glimpse of an eye, a wing, and then books are pulled out and frantic comparisons happen (I just feel like it had a red spot, you know?). And at the end of it you have nothing but a bird some long ago scientist found and named.

This bird is everything. A trophy on a shelf, an item on a list. But we obsess over the identification because we want it as fact. We want it as proof. That we saw it, for one, but also that it is there to see. Birding is an act of witness. The world does house such things. The world can house such things. And we were there to see them true.

***

We hiked once to the southernmost point of South Andaman. A couple day’s boat ride further takes you into the Nicobars. On the bluff the wind calmed the tropical heat and I looked out, following the green coastlines into horizon and back around to us. I tried to understand where we were and the stories that had brought us there. The islands accreting from ocean. The birds struggling into species. And this place itself, halfway India, brimming with a pot-pourri of language, cuisine, holding the history of my country within it—the hosting of the first Indian tricolor, for example, by Subash Chandra Bose, and the incarceration of the hundreds who fought for Indian freedom. But that mainland was so far away, and alone this was something sun-warmed, something green, something foaming away every time I tried to grasp it. When I walked in the forest I felt every tree could subsume me. When I emerged I thought the sky would swallow me.

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