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Birth, Wind and Fire

We are back from maybe the best vacation ever : six glorious days on Havelock Island, one of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, located in the Indian Ocean between India and Myanmar; the Bay of Bengal is to the west, and the Andaman Sea is to the east.
We stayed at a picture postcard perfect cluster of Gilligan’s Island-style thatched huts, collectively called the Andaman Eco-Villa. Each hut was perfectly self contained; two of them were two-storied, and one of those was just meters from the beach. That was the one we stayed in, thanks to Nina and Andrew for setting it up :) The sand was white, the food was great and always available (if a little slow in arriving) and the wild dogs were adorable:
They sniped at each other mercilessly; played relentlessly; barked frantically if they spotted a snake or a pig; and slept contentedly, each on a chosen doorstep, the thereshold to a permanent home with a series of temporary masters.

It seemed like there were only two people running the place: Ram, the soft-spoken and always helpful innkeeper; and Rav, the younger, devilishly long-haired, equally helpful deliverer of food and other necessentials. The owner was rarely there, and when he was, he seemed a bit of a dipsomaniac; but his lovely, young, and very pregnant wife lived there in a small shack behind our thatched mansions.

Our time was spent frolicking on white sand beaches, zipping through jungle and farmland on scooters and motorcycles, stalking elephants, spying on fishes, eating amazing food, enjoying the company of a stellar cast of seven, drinking nasty Indian whiskey, and staring blissfully at the topaz blue ocean and mangrove trees from the window of our bamboo and palm frond hut. Here’s the view:
This is the place Hawaii wishes it was, and perhaps used to be, before it was overrun with tourists and high-rises during the era of tiki culture madness. This was a tropical vacation straight out of central casting:

Okay, places everybody! NOW, when the scooter passes the thatched hut and swerves around the small cow, send out the chicken, and make sure he runs right in front of the scooter this time. And you, over there in the loincloth thing, can you please whack the top off the coconut with your machete like you mean it? Mango tree guy, this time I’d like you to try not to walk in front of the beautiful pregnant woman, we need her smile to sell this thing. OK, now the extras! Line up and let me get a good look at you: baggy cotton pants – check; dreadlocks – check; inappropriate amount of flesh revealed – check; nebulously ethnic jewelry – check. Whoever is in charge of the stray dogs, for God’s sake, can you get them to sleep somewhere besides the middle of the road for a change? Okay, elephants…? Can somebody find the goddamned elephants!!!

Elephants? They’re always in the last place you look…
Anyway, as our week came to an end, it all careened deliciously off script. Cue flashback sequence…!

Around midnight, on our last night at the EcoVillas, exhausted from hours of bodysurfing followed by dinner at the magical Full Moon Café, Ram the innkeeper nervously asked Phil if he could borrow a scooter. To take his boss’s wife to the hospital. Because she was having her baby. Yeah.

Keep in mind, the boss’s wife was the same lovely, young, pregnant woman who, earlier in the week, had chased an Israeli couple across the compound brandishing a pointed stick, while burning through a list of perfectly pronounced English expletives at a frightening pitch. The Israelis were diving instructors employed by the woman’s Indian husband, owner of the Villas. The couples had been drinking together, and some insults were traded, and somehow it got physical and the expectant mama’s belly got bumped. Then it was all rocks, pointed sticks, screaming, shouting, and threats. After being awakened by this, a handful of us stood between the two warring factions until they had no choice but to calm down. Each then went to the police station and filed a complaint against the other. For the rest of the week, the expectant mom glided around eating coconuts and mangos and looking ethereally beautiful, while her husband and the two Israeli dive instructors were nowhere to be seen.

Instead of handing over the keys for what would likely be the baby’s first and last midnight scooter ride, Phil called Nina, who is a nurse, to look in on the woman. They found her lying on the floor of her small hut, legs akimbo, with an older woman trying to push the crown of the baby’s head back inside her. Nina, wisely, ruled out any scooter rides immediately; instead, someone shouted for the innkeeper to call a tuk-tuk.

Ram handed Nina a phone: the woman’s husband, Ram’s boss, was on the line. News: mama is three weeks early, maybe more.

Nina summoned our other traveling companion, Jo, who is also a nurse; together, they hoisted the laboring woman from the floor and walked her out of hut. By now Pam had joined, picking up mama’s legs and slipping her own hands under mama’s hips so the baby wouldn’t slide out and drop to the ground. And so it was that our own three white women carried the laboring Indian mama to the waiting tuk-tuk, slid her across Nina and Jo’s laps in the tiny back seat, and held her there through two more contractions on the bumpy but mercifully short drive to the hospital.

After ransacking Jo’s unlocked hut looking for scooter keys, Pam followed to the hospital with one of the EcoVilla boys. The other girls had already arrived at the bleak building and carried the laboring mama over 20 yards of rubble and climbed a cinder block stair to a row of rooms with sheets for doors, while the tuk-tuk driver woke the staff of white sareed women to help deliver the baby.

A nurse rifled though a bag of old clothes on the floor and tore strips of fabric off a man’s shirt, then disappeared back behind the curtain where the Andaman woman was giving birth quickly and quietly. There were no theatrical howls of pain, none of the expletives we knew were tucked away in her vocabulary; she moved through the moments in what seemed like an otherworldly trance, with a calm dignity.

Nina, Jo and I all looked around the room amazed at the ancient equipment and threadbare sheets, the poster of leprosy indications and treatment, rows and rows of immunization cards for the local children. There was a tiny cry, and seconds later the nurse brought the baby into the room, wiped him down with more clean rags, then wrapped him in a frayed tablecloth.

Tears broke through at the simple beauty of the event we had all just witnessed. This was nothing like the 36 hour medically manipulated labor I’d experienced; this was a labor and delivery that made perfect sense, and was as natural as breathing.

The people who’d stayed behind had been experiencing their own drama: after everybody left for the hospital, Phil was walking back to our hut when he smelled smoke, and followed it from cabin to cabin, to its origin, billowing from the kitchen doorway. He woke Luke and Phillipa shouting something like, “The innkeeper’s wife is having her baby and the kitchen is on FIRE!!”

While Phillipa ran to her bathroom to fill a bucket with water, and Luke ran to the kitchen to take a look, Phil ransacked the hotel refrigerator finding only Sprite and Coke and tried to decide which would be best to kill the flames. He found five bottles of water in another fridge, grabbed them and headed back to the kitchen. By then, a loincloth-clad Villa employee we had never seen before had materialized; with a sheepish grin on his face, he somehow put out the fire without looking like he ever fully woke up.

After it was all over, with new baby and new mama safely tucked at the hospital, we all sat looking at the moon over the water and toasted with the last of our terrible Indian whiskey, to the new baby, and the gallantry of the impromptu fire fighters. It was the perfect finale to the perfect vacation…

…OR WAS IT ???

The next day, a procession of villagers arrived from central casting to bless their newest resident. Flowers, drums, beads, ash dabbed on foreheads, money collected in a tin, the new mother smiling radiantly with the child in her arms.
Amazing. But now it was really time for us to leave. Our bags were packed, the car was waiting, and the ferry would depart from Havelock for Port Blair very soon.
Later that evening, as we were arriving at our sweaty hotel in Port Blair, a small, beat up car with tinted windows pulled up to the curb; the passenger side window rolled down, and like an impish Soprano, Sajan, the new babydaddy, grinned out at us from the dark, air-conditioned interior. Apparently, owing to legal difficulties involving Israelis and rocks, he had been temporarily exiled from the island, and had not yet been able to see his wife or newborn; we showed him fresh pictures of his new son and he burst into tears.

In the driver’s seat was Nipun, the charming, 26-year-old son of the Port Blair Police Commissioner, clearly enamored with playing second fiddle to the rogue island kingpin who had just seen the face of his new child. They had been hopping from bar to bar, drowning daddy’s sorrows and commiserating, but now it turned into a party! We rode through the back streets of Port Blair, music pounding and A/C blasting, in the police chief’s car, until we got to the “best bar in town.”

The best bar in town turned out to be a place we’d passed some time a week earlier, and we still owed them 3000 rupees for our guerrilla swim in their pool; we hoped they wouldn’t recognize us.

For the next three hours, we sat with Sajan and Nipun, trading stories of Delhi diplomats, and why women are treated the way they are, and the history of the islands, and the sexual needs of elephants, drinking vodka we kept claiming not to want. We reviewed the play-by-play details of the previous night’s events while Sajan glowed with newfatherly pride and overflowed with gratitude for the small roles that we and our friends had had the privilege of playing. We even got to listen while Sajan spoke with his wife on the phone, telling her we had found each other here and he had seen pictures:

“What his name going to be?” I asked.

“Surya” he said. “Surya, it mean Sun.”

Around midnight we were delivered to our hotel, with hugs all around, exchanges of phone numbers and gracious good-byes. Neither Sajan nor Nipun would hear of us taking a cab the next morning; instead, Nipun assured us that he would pick us up for the airport at 5:15 AM the next morning. Of course, it was the liquor doing the thinking here. We did not believe him for a second, nor did we expect him to show up, the night behind us was truly enough for anyone. The next morning, we carted our bags down the four flights of cement stairs to the street, and peeked out front…

Nipun was right there in his car waiting for us, all smiles and A/C blasting ! Bless you, Nipun :)

Now that’s a finale :)