The Triumph of Bureaucracy in the Andaman Islands.

We have been 2/3 round the world, the remaining 1/3 takes us through
countries that are a. hotter; and b. more unstable and violent than any
others we have encountered. Thailand has just had a coup, there were bombs
in Bangkok last week and rumours of a counter-coup, Sri Lanka is literally
tearing itself apart with civil war (2 bombs on buses claimed 100 casualties
last week including one in a tourist area), then we sail to Maldives where a
fundamentalist Islamic trend is emerging in the face of massive inequality
(despite its reputation for honeymoons), we pass south of the Gulf (Iraq and
Iran) to Oman; then Yemen, where civil war is receding gradually then past
Somalia and Sudan where it is red hot to Egypt and Israel....

 Is there a common thread that predicts why poor hot countries try so hard
to impoverish themselves by civil strife? Corruption is a major factor,
greed and lack of confidence another as the rich grab ever more of an
already small cake, and invest in a Swiss Bank rather than to provide jobs
in the country, separatist religions another. Jeffrey Sachs the UN Chief
Economist reckons each situation is different, but that if all countries
gave the 0.7% of GDP already pledged as aid, it would eliminate extreme
poverty in 20 years, and do a lot to reduce violence - certainly it would
make far fewer countries available to terrorist groups as a base. President
Bush has belatedly noticed that poverty and unemployment in Iraq of 60% + is
a major factor in stimulating violence along the lines of 'What else is
there to live for anyway?' However he may not get the troops needed to
protect the investment to create jobs in Iraq for Iraqis (new jobs up to now
have very often been for Americans on contract to Halliburton etc.). It is
noticeable that in Northern Ireland which is inching its way to stability
house prices rose 30% in 2006 and stability and economic prospects for all
people there look much brighter- the south have all but won the war by
succeeding economically so much so that people in the north now want to be
part of the South. I guess the US Civil War had its roots in the economics
of farming and slavery so it should be obvious...?

Bernard and Beryl last sailed with us in Intrepid across the Atlantic in
2003. When you sail oceans with people you get to know each other pretty
well - so it's encouraging that they are sailing with us again from Phuket
to Sri Lanka. They are from the black country - not Nigeria but the origins
of England's industrial revolution near Birmingham. Intrepid decided to stay
an extra day in Phuket (the fridge objected to the large amounts of food etc
and stopped cooling.). I diagnosed the problem (low gas pressure) but
finding  the leak takes longer, until finally like the Space Shuttle (but
less lethally) faulty O rings which had turned brittle in the cold/heat were
identified as the cause - but the Frigoboat agent didn't have the right sort
of O rings, so..I drove him around town at 6pm until we gave up. Next day
his boss found the right O rings and we found a 3rd join and eventually we
had cold again, (and were relieved we didn't have to lift Intrepid out of
the water to put on a new keel cooler which was the other possible cause and
would have taken weeks to come from Italy).

Car hire is about 13 pounds/day (OK not the classiest car but an aircon
saloon nonetheless), and we liked Nai Yong beach's yellow sand which had not
been discovered by tourists and was almost deserted. Over dinner at les
Anges Jocelyn (who lives in KL) described how she had to take a friend to
the A&E in Phuket Hospital:

"Sordid" she described it, drunken loutish tourist drunks injured in car or
motorcycle accidents, or in fights, or in one case shootings, throwing up
and abusing the staff. Such are the tourists attracted to Phuket -
admittedly an increasing number are from Japan Korea and China, but Europe
and America have little to be proud of their ambassadors here.

Americans have for some reason since the Vietnam War enjoyed massive tax
breaks in Thailand which extend to this day - for example the law requires
51% Thai ownership for all properties. The normal way round this is to form
a 51% owned Thai company and the Thai then transfers his 51% back to the
foreigner in a side deal for a fee. These deals have now been outlawed -
except for Americans. No idea why, no explanation is given. But the tax
breaks do attract Americans. Whereas Malaysia has 3 international schools,
Thailand has 20. They are now gated and security fenced thereby isolating
the children from the community because of concerns from American parents
('my insurance company won't pay up if my child is kidnapped or killed and
the school isn't completely secure...').

On a more positive note, we had a full boat awning made by Palm Awnings.
Rick Reynolds, the American owner, who took immense care to design it
properly, made it flawlessly on time on price and was a true professional.
We have a roll call of true professionals we have encountered on our
journey, and a longer one of wankers - people who promise much and mess it
up. Real professionals are unfortunately rare - but they can transform
people's days, just by the quiet execution of their work - the awning
reduces the temperature in the boat from 33C to 29C - a welcome difference,
and I have hung an orchid in a pot from the support, so we sail with an
orchid for a wind instrument!

Royal Phuket Marina is actually a real estate development - 2 bed apartments
cost about 300,000 pounds and are mainly bought by HK Chinese or Americans
who own power boats. It is reached by a narrow winding channel 3 miles long
it shares with Boat Lagoon another development/marina. The channel is so
shallow that at low water the depth is 0.5 metres, so it's only at high tide
that yachts can get in or out (power boats blast past at all states of the
tide). We had a pilot boat and even so stuck 3 times in the (soft) mud
before being pulled off. We sailed south getting our sea legs again after a
month off, and anchored off Ko Bon. Next day (Friday) I was up at 05.45 to
get us off towards the Andaman islands which are Indian territory. The NE
Monsoon which last week was sinking fishing boats in the Gulf of Bangkok,
has expired completely (the weather forecast for tomorrow shows 0 knots) so
we are bypassing the Semilan islands and going direct - about 400 miles to
the Andamans (3 nights) then a further 800 to Galle in Sri Lanka. Galle in
SE Sri Lanka is the main Sri Lankan Navy base as well as the best place for
yachts (no marina but berthing of sorts) so it has been the target for a few
Tamil Tiger bombs and they drop depth charges every night to deter frogmen,
but is also well protected, and there is a train to Colombo, 90 miles north.

Our first night was BLACK - clouds hid the stars, no moon, 100 miles from
shore, I couldn't see more than a few inches ahead, but had to keep
adjusting sails as the wind returned fitfully. Its very lonely. Radar
provides some comfort, but fishing boats don't show up well, and the waves
were big enough to mask them. Luckily we had just left the Thailand shelf,
and most fishing boats had turned back and next morning was sunny. Nicky's
birthday is today (14th January), we reach Andaman Islands on Monday so we
plan a fudge brownie cake at sea and celebration in port - if the
authorities allow us in.

We avoided Invisible Bank (I imagined the Captain of a vessel shipwrecked on
it: 'Well the bank was totally invisible...') overnight, then sailed into
Port Blair, capital of the Andamans at 11am. The Andamans and Nicobars are a
chain of islands south of Bangladesh some 300 miles long, North to South.
They are 400 miles West
of Thailand and 800 miles East of India. The Nicobars  were probably the
worst hit by
the Tsunami - they are low lying and have primitive animist
tribes, half the population of 100,000 died. The Andamans have a population
of 400,000, and were used by the British as a prison for Indian
Independence fighters.

Then started our world record for the time taken to check in to a country -
29 hours - and we still have to do the same to check out. Technically we
should have stayed on the boat at anchor for this time. It was all about
money - each authority had fought to get to their position and now used it
as a way to get money or whisky. There is an elaborate ritual: 1. Customs;
2. Immigration; 3, Coastguard; 4. Harbour Master; each demands to see the
papers and stamp of the previous authority, but usually says that people
downstream are not necessary.

The process included 15 forms, 35 photocopies. Some yachts use an agent who
is usually no more than a taxi driver or tour operator who will badger the
authorities to come out to the boat when asked, and try to smooth processes.
The downside of this is that the 'agent' is then badgered by all the
authorities for bribes. They don't like to ask foreigners because it can
backfire on the authorities if the foreigners  complain - but with an agent
the authorities can apply pressure, 'We know where you live' - and anyway
they can make life impossible for all subsequent clients. An Australian
yacht - Jubilaeum - had engaged Ravi an honest and likeable taxi driver for
Rs6,000 which included the necessary bribes for the authorities. Since we
anchored within 30 metres of Jubilaeum, the authorities came from them to
us, which was convenient for us, particularly since our outboard engine got
a slug of rusty petrol and failed to start - Jubilaeum helped out until
Bernard and I had cleaned the carburettor out twice and it now runs sweetly.
However this was awkward for Ravi since they all assumed he was our agent
also.

We did use Ravi for 2 tours and I asked him how the bribes worked:

"Big ships always provide whisky and money - if they don't the Authorities
will arrange for them to incur costly delays. It is just scaled down for
yachts. Everyone wants their share. A bottle of whisky is about 400 - 600
Rupees, and that is about 2 days pay.' (An official is paid about 8000
Rupees/month, 1 pound = 90 Rupees, so about 90 pounds/month - but a meal out
at a good Restaurant is about 100 Rupees for 2).

Intrepid arrived at 11am on Monday, Customs (5 officials) came out at about
2.30pm and stayed for 1 hour telling us what we had to put in their forms
(they didn't search the boat at all), Immigration (1 officer) at 4pm - he
stayed until 6pm dropping heavy hints that his wife didn't like him working
today, (he tagged along with us for 1 hour on shore after that), Coastguard
(6 officers) finally came at 11am on Tuesday (having missed 2 appointments).
They briefed us on their rescue abilities and asked to see our log book and
charts. Nicky had (perhaps with memories of the Empire) coloured the land in
the charts in pink but they seemed unfazed, and finally the Harbour Master
saw us at 3.30pm after a lunch break from 12-3.30pm, and we were free to go
at 4pm on Tuesday. I mentioned that 29 hours to clear in was excessive and
the Harbour Master declared that things must be getting better: 'Normally it
takes 48 hours'...

The money is not really the issue - if I had to pay a 60 pound licence to
come to Andamans or even to officially fast track the process I would pay it
without question. But because everyone wants a share the process assumes
Byzantine proportions, and becomes a tortuous game of veiled threats and
opaque promises, over-bearing bureaucrats and scared agents and underlings
and tonnes of meaningless paper. The only encouraging thought is that once
(?) India gets rid of this petty bureaucracy and corruption, its economy
will really take off.

There is surprisingly little evidence of the Tsunami, Andamans are hilly and
I think the Port Blair was protected by the outlying islands to the East.
Port Blair is a busy bustling chaotic dirty large town, with small repair
workshops recycling everything, (the west could learn a lot from India),
ancient buses and taxis roaring, tuk-tuks (3 wheeler motorized rickshaws)
dodging in between, cows wandering the streets with flower garlands around
their necks, and in the midst of all this elegant ladies in saris delicately
picking their way between piles of rubbish to buy some fruit from the market
or gold from the goldsmiths.

Monday we went to a 'Festival cum Exhibition' where school kids performed
dances that were a mix of rap and Indian culture, and Ministries exhibited
their success in reducing leprosy ('at the first signs use MDT'), laid out
plans for tourism, and reminded the people that it is illegal to determine
the sex of your baby before birth and that abortion because the baby is
female is illegal. Ravi explained that Indian weddings are very costly and
the price is paid by the parents of the daughter..  Everyone was well
dressed and cheerful, eating and drinking (there is very little alcohol) and
then leaving the paper cups and plates on the ground to be collected and
re-cycled.

Tuesday we went to the Tourist Office. It's a large 3 storey building with a
reception area but no receptionist, (although advertisements proclaimed it
an 'open window reception to encourage tourist bookings'), so we wandered up
and down looking. Eventually we discovered 8 staff crammed into the
Directors office on the 3rd floor. His desk was swamped by 50 large files
tied in string, and he was talking on 2 phones at once. As tourists I
thought perhaps that we might have some role in their life - but no.
Eventually I interrupted and someone found me 4 tourist brochures with an
expression of 'Bloody Tourists', our requests for a map fell on deaf ears,
and finally we just gave up and left them to it. Unsurprisingly 98% + of
tourists come from India itself - they have learned to put up with this sort
of thing.

Next morning we up-anchored, (request permission from Port Control, provide
Coastguard with intended destination etc), and motored into a stiff NE
breeze to Havelock Island. We snorkelled round the rock ledge and saw a good
variety of fish and some coral - it may have been tsunami damaged. We could
not see any other boat, and as night fell (at 4.30pm - India is 5.5 hours
ahead of GMT) there were no lights anywhere - just brilliant stars.

You might imagine that 'The best beach in Asia - Time Magazine' would be
crowded. But Radhanagar Beach Number 7 further north on Havelock Island was
deserted when we sailed into the bay. We dinghied into the sandy beach, and
found about 10 tents which we were told was a 'Squatter Camp'. However a van
arrived and Kuldip explained that the tents were in fact a luxury tented
resort. I guess the first person thought the few tourists were squatters. In
fact there are about 5,000 Bengali refugees on Havelock Island from the 1962
war in Bangladesh. They had fled to India who had relocated them to the
Andamans. The remaining 5,000 inhabitants are Indian. The few (500)
Aboriginal people in the Andamans are settled on remote islands or remote
bays. There is a story that after the Tsunami, a military helicopter landed
on Sentinel Island, home to the aboriginal Sentilenese to see what help was
needed and was greeted by a shower of arrows and spears. Reckoning that the
inhabitants could clearly cope, the helicopter took off and left them to it.

Number 7 Beach is indeed delightful - 2 miles of white sand, a few market
stalls on the road about 200 yards inland the only development. Trees for
shade, sheltered from the NE wind, squadrons of flying
fish evading bigger predators. We walked 4 kilometres through jungle and
VERY sticky muddy mangrove swamps to Elephant Beach where the coral was
extensive but uninviting in the stiff Northerly wind, so returned disturbing
a 2 metre long snake on the way. We hired the van for 5 hours (7 pounds),
and went into the main market (Village Number 3) then onto Village Number 1
(all
villages have numbers as well as names) which has the main jetty for the
island. The van cost 3000 pounds when it was already 4 years old, and Kuldip
is paying the loan off at 60 pounds/month. Petrol comes from Port Blair but
only 500 litres/month because of official controls, so he has to buy more on
the black market at 80 Rupees/litre (about 90 pence), rather than 60 Rupees
(the official price) or 40 Rupees (the price in Port Blair).

Dolphin Resort is on the east side of Havelock - super de-luxe bungalows
right by the beach about 10 metres x 10 metres with aircon, clean ensuite
bathroom, , TV etc are 22 pounds/room. I tried to book one for Saturday,
(the location and ambience are wonderful), but the receptionist said I would
have to go to Port Blair to book. Since I was already at his hotel even he
seemed to recognise the absurdity of it, so we all agreed to try again on
Saturday. We'll see.

If ever you get the chance to come to the Andamans do come - be prepared for
an insight into the workings of Indian Bureaucracy, but the islands are
beautiful, the people friendly, the bureaucrats in a perverse way good
enough for a soap opera, and the climate benign. Its so good that Bernard
and Beryl declared it Paradise, and want to settle here.

However, on 24th January we sail off to Galle in Sri Lanka provided we can
manage our way through the check out procedure.

With best wishes from the crew of Intrepid, Bernard and Beryl, Nicky and
Andy.

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