“I think it’s blood.”
It’s just the latest affront to our senses. No sheets on the bed in our ridiculously priced first-class cabin. Flies caked on the nonfunctioning air conditioning unit. Inchthick dust in the corners of the cabin. Orange sputters of foul-smelling water from the inberth head and shower.
And now this, outside the cabin in the corridor: A pool of what looks like blood has appeared overnight.
I’m trying to console my wife, the only other nonTamil on this groaning wreck of a ship destined for Port Blair, capital of the Andaman Islands.
I’m trying to assure her that there must be a good reason why a pool of blood would appear on the floor outside our door. But she’s unconvinced, ducking back under her sleeping bag, shutting out the world. Shutting out India.
We’re travelling by ship down the subcontinent’s carotid artery, the Ganges, out of Kolkata. In a few hours we will hit the open ocean and cross this broad, humid expanse at the height of typhoon season.
We’re destined for paradise, but we don’t know that yet.
We’re destined for sand so fine it squeaks. We’re destined for tuna so fresh its firm flesh forms blocks of sashimi that are almost crunchy. Bamboo huts on the beach and fresh coconuts. Beaches so remote they’re known only by numbers. (Our favorite will be Beach #7.)
And we’re destined for an unplanned rendezvous with a French-Algerian gypsy surfer, and his coffin bag full of boards, for the best waves of our lives on a tsunami-wrecked island—just the three of us. Our new friend, clad in a helmet, and I on a borrowed 6'2": under-gunned, pulling into ridiculous barrels a long way from anything and anyone. We don’t know that yet either, as we lurch and sputter our way toward the Bay of Bengal.
Yes, we had to bribe an old, grumpy boatswain for bed sheets, but the concept behind this voyage was a sound one.
I had traveled the Indonesian archipelago a few years earlier by ferry. Those ships had been shipshape. Second-class meant polished, clean bathrooms, fresh sheets every day and fresh coffee delivered to the cabin.
I wanted the same experience in India: a chance to rub shoulders with the people of this extraordinary nation; a chance to breathe the salt-laced air of the open Indian Ocean instead of the germ-laced atmosphere of an airplane.
But our ship had seen much better days.
The incoming ferry from Port Blair had spent 16 days at sea, skirting no fewer than three typhoons before limping into Kolkata. That was a week ago.
“Ship broken,” had been the official explanation, when we found that our tickets were now for a new, far smaller vessel.
So we had boarded, itching with that thin tickle of dread that underlines every true adventure. It was 800 miles to the next land.
Eight hundred miles of nothing but blue and sharks and the ferocious storms that periodically bombard their way up to Bangladesh and Kolkata, flooding and thrashing their way through anything in their path.
Each day, I pace around the ship, stepping over sleeping forms on deck, navigating the bloodshot, curious gazes of the migrant workers traveling home to Port Blair. I constantly scan the horizon for the darkness portending doom.
But five days later we chug into Port Blair harbor, and I gaze down into the impossible turquoise of the water fringing the island.
As we feel the tropical zing of the air envelop us and hear the brand of laughter that only exists on islands in the Indian Ocean, my wife and I hold hands on deck and smile.
No matter how fetid, we have now become just a little attached to our listing wreck of rivets and steel. And as we disembark onto a half-rotten pier onto land that will sway for two more days, there’s an odd sense of anticlimax.
We made it. No typhoons, not even violent seas. Just five days of what the rag-dressed workers disembarking around us experience several times a year, and what our crew will turn to face again after a few drunken hours in Port Blair.