Ramblings & ephemera

How to travel to the most isolated human settlement on earth

From Adam Goodheart’s “The Last Island of the Savages” (The American Scholar, Autumn 2000, 69(4):13-44):

This is how you get to the most isolated human settlement on earth [North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Islands]: You board an evening flight at JFK for Heathrow, Air India 112, a plane full of elegant sari-clad women, London-bound businessmen, hippie backpackers. You settle in to watch a movie (a romantic comedy in which Harrison Ford and Anne Heche get stranded on a desert island) and after a quick nap you are in London.

Then you catch another plane. You read yesterday’s Times while flying above the corrugated gullies of eastern Turkey, watch a Hindi musical somewhere over Iran. That night, and for the week that follows, you are in New Delhi, where the smog lies on the ground like mustard gas, and where one day you see an elephant – an elephant! – in the midst of downtown traffic.

From New Delhi you go by train to Calcutta, where you must wait for a ship. And you must wait for a ticket. There are endless lines at the shipping company office, and jostling, and passing back and forth of black-and-white photographs in triplicate and hundred-rupee notes and stacks of documents interleaved with Sapphire brand carbon paper. Next you are on the ship, a big Polish-built steamer crawling with cockroaches. The steamer passes all manner of scenery: slim and fragile riverboats like craft from a pharaoh’s tomb; broad-beamed, lateen-rigged Homeric merchantmen. You watch the sun set into the Bay of Bengal, play cards with some Swedish backpackers, and take in the shipboard video programming, which consists of the complete works of Macaulay Culkin, subtitled in Arabic. On the morning of the sixth day your ship sails into a wide, sheltered bay – steaming jungles off the port bow, a taxi-crowded jetty to starboard – and you have arrived in the Andamans, at Port Blair.

In Port Blair you board a bus, finding a seat beneath a wall-mounted loudspeaker blaring a Hindi cover of “The Macarena Song.” The bus rumbles through the bustling market town, past barefoot men peddling betel nut, past a billboard for the local computer-training school (“I want to become the 21st century’s computer professional”). On the western outskirts you see a sawmill that is turning the Andaman forests into pencils on behalf of a company in Madras, and you see the airport, where workmen are busy extending the runway – out into a field where water buffalo graze – so that in a few years, big jetliners will be able to land here, bringing tour groups direct from Bangkok and Singapore A little farther on, you pass rice paddies, and patches of jungle, and the Water Sports Training Centre, and thatched huts, and family-planning posters, and satellite dishes craning skyward.

And then, within an hour’s time, you are at the ocean again, and on a very clear day you will see [North Sentinel] island in the distance, a slight disturbance of the horizon.

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