Janaki Lenin marvels at the navigational skills and instinct for survival of the Karen
We had lost sight of land when the full import of our enterprise hit me. Five of us from the Indian mainland and six Karen from North Andaman were in two dungis (dugout canoes) headed for the re- mote uninhabited island of South Sentinel. We were to make a film about the wildlife of the island.
None of us carried a compass, charts or sextant to navigate the seas because we didn’t know how to use them. Handy GPS devices were not yet in vogue in 1998, and we couldn’t afford flares, radios or satellite phones. There was no way to communicate with anyone should we run into trouble. Instead, we were dependent on two venerable Karen gentle- men, Uncle Paung and Uncle Pambwein, to get us there. Suddenly, our intrepid little expedition seemed foolhardy.
Before we ventured to South Sentinel, I had made many trips to other parts of the Andamans with Uncle Paung. But we had always been within sight of land, and I had no cause to wonder how he navigated. Now we were on the high seas headed for an island only 1.61 square kilometres in area, about 80 kilometres away. What if we missed it?
The kernel of panic had been sown the previous evening, when we discovered 66-year- old Uncle Paung believed the earth was flat. Neel Chattopadhyaya, my husband Romulus Whitaker’s brother, explained how we know the earth is round. We listened in silence to uncle’s softly spoken words of incredulity. Neel tried once again. I was exhausted from the long day of loading supplies and gear on the dungis for the journey. I hit the sack with no inkling of the quandary I’d find myself in the next day. At that time, Uncle Paung’s belief in a flat world had seemed merely amusing. The more I remembered this conversation on the dungi, the more ominous it became. I questioned the sanity of our enter- prise. I glanced at Uncle Paung, perched at the back, one hand on the rudder, a lit beedi in his mouth and a frayed straw hat wedged on his head. Shwethe, a young Karen, bailed out water pooling at the bottom of the boat. Other passengers were asleep. Perhaps there was nothing to worry about after all.
The sea was calm and the two 40-foot dungis raced neck and neck. I moved to the prow of the boat to quell my panic, enjoy the view and get away from the dungi’s exhaust. Suddenly, a pod of dolphins raced alongside and below my dangling bare feet. The delightful creatures burst out of the water and arched through the air, before diving into the sea. Their supple, smooth grey skin gleamed under the sparkling surface as their powerful tails pumped up and down to give them momentum. Even at full throttle, our dungis couldn’t keep up with them. Just as abruptly as they appeared, they vanished. I forgot my apprehensions and scanned the waters for more dolphins.
Shoals of fish leapt out of the water to escape what they thought were giant predators— our dungis. No other boat or ship marked the horizon. The monotony of the azure sky and the deep blue waters was soporific, and I made my way to the gunwale of the boat and dozed off.
When I woke up, there was still no sign of land nor was there any way of getting my bearings. The other dungi wasn’t next to us. I was taken aback when I realised our wake was a wide circle. Uncle Paung was fast asleep, with a relaxed hand on the rudder.
Probably Uncle Pambwein was also asleep, judging from the way that dungi was drifting some distance from us. I called out, “Uncle Paung?” He and Shwethe woke up with a start. Looking around, uncle corrected course while Shwethe yelled to Uncle Pambwein.
How does one get one’s bearings when the sun is perpendicular to the boat and no pole star or land is in sight? How did Uncle Paung know where southwest was and which degree southwest he had to head? If our trajectory was due south, we could even wash up on Madagascar’s shores, if we survived that long. If lucky, we would land on India’s east coast or Sri Lanka. If we arrived on the little speck of an island called South Sentinel, it would be a miracle.
A trailing fishing line behind our canoe caught a large barracuda. Shwethe pranced on deck as the fish with a mouthful of sharp teeth flopped violently. He chopped its head off and shoved it out of the way. He’d make it into a curry for dinner, he said. If we can find the island, I thought despondently.
Nine hours after we had set out and when the sun was on its westerly descent, we came within sight of South Sentinel. Unable to stop myself, I chattered with excitement and relief.
We set up camp on the soft, fluffy sands. Throughout the day we explored and filmed in the forested interior, and at night, we went to sleep to the waves’ rhythmic beat on the beach. The lives of many of the island’s animals were connected to the sea. Giant robber crabs made their way to the waves to lay eggs. From the air, sea eagles patrolled land and water for prey. At low tide, a large water monitor lizard furtively hunted marooned sea life in tidal pools.
Within a couple of days, we ran out of vegetables. Shwethe and another Karen set off in a dungi to fish. Had they not been success- ful, we would have had little to eat besides rice and dal for ten days. They would have gladly hunted any of the island’s fauna had Rom not forbidden them. Unlike Rom, the soft-hearted conservationist, they were survivors, living off the land if they had to. At sunset, Shwethe and I explored tidal pools, delighting in starfish, cone snails and anemones.
Every night, green turtles heavy with eggs crawled out of the sea to nest on the sandy beach. Two men sleeping on a large tarpaulin sheet spread on the sand thought the other was tugging more of the plastic than was his to enjoy. Each pulled it towards himself to avoid being rolled onto the damp sand. Finally, both sat up awake, annoyed with each other, only to discover a sea turtle between them. She didn’t realise she was digging through plastic.
Sharp nails on her flippers snagged the tarpaulin and gathered up the sheet around her. The men untangled her and, leaving the turtle to lay her eggs in the middle of camp, moved their plastic sheet some distance away. On a single night, we witnessed as many as six turtles nesting on that 500-metre beach.
When our drinking water ran low, Uncle Paung and Shwethe set out for Little Andaman’s Bumila Creek, about 30 kilometres away. They were to return in a day, but there was no sign of them 24 hours later. We went through the water rapidly until only half a bucket remained for the nine of us. If the faint-hearted among us felt the pinch when we ran out of vegetables, we panicked when we ran out of fresh water. I suggested we start distilling seawater, but Rom was confident the Karen would return. They did two days later, hazarding rough seas and almost capsizing the canoe.
The expedition ended with no further challenges. To me, the trip to South Sentinel was a real test of the Karen’s survival and navi- gational skills. But to them, it was just a cruise in a pond. Given that the Karen were actually transplanted from Burma in the 20th century, and are not originally a nautical people, this is really interesting.
One Karen in particular came to epitomise his race’s resilience and instinct for survival. Six years after our expedition, the 2004 tsunami hit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. A team of five researchers, two forest guards and Agu, a Karen field assistant, were camped on a beach near Galathea Creek in Great Nicobar Island, a mere 125 kilometres from the epicentre of the devastating earthquake.
We waited for news of the team’s fate, even as television news showed images of destruction elsewhere in the area. We comforted each other: “Agu is with them; they’ll be fine.” In hindsight, considering the extraordinary level of death and devastation, I’m amazed by our trust in the superhuman abilities of the Karen to save lives. Nearly a fortnight later, we heard Agu had been rescued, but there was no sign of the others. Communication systems in the islands were down and information trickled in. It was many months before we heard the full story.
When the earthquake had struck, the beach trembled violently and the men at the camp fell down. They couldn’t stand up until the tremors had passed. Then, when the sea receded, Agu urged the researchers to run for their lives. But they ignored his warnings, and instead, walked down to the water’s edge to take photographs of fish flopping on the wet sands. Agu didn’t know anything about tsunamis. He knew something was terribly wrong, and instinctively, wanted to flee away from the sea. However, he felt responsible for the researchers and waited for them, risking his own life. As the sea began encroaching inland, the researchers finally paid heed. But it was too late.
They ran inland but couldn’t outrun the sea. Agu helped them climb the nearest stur- dy trees. He was the last to clamber up when the first wave of the tsunami, which Agu estimated to be 15 metres high, crashed ashore. The trees went down like bowling pins. The sea shook him like a rag doll, tossing him against fallen trees, letting him float and, just as he drew a breath, sucking him under again.
When it had spent its fury, Agu found himself floating on a gigantic raft of uprooted trees. The coast was unrecognisable. The trees surrounding Agu had once been a forest along Galathea Creek. He called out to the others and was met by an eerie silence. He had lost his clothes and watch. He climbed atop the debris and waited for days, drinking seawater and drifting in and out of consciousness. Badly bruised, he had broken collarbones and ribs. He waved at passing helicopters, but none saw him. Agu burnt in the sun, drank rain as it fell and froze at night. He continued to wait, hopeful of being rescued.
When a circling saltwater crocodile and a scavenging water monitor lizard came by, he grew desperate. The hope that sustained him vanished. He had become weak, and he feared he’d die if he waited any longer. Thirteen days after the tsunami, he dragged his emaciated, broken body over floating logs and across crocodile-frequented waters in a painful effort that took hours.
He hobbled for three days to get to a village, a mere seven kilometres away. Providentially, a rescue helicopter had just arrived looking for survivors of the research camp. It flew him to the naval hospital in Port Blair. The researchers and guards perished in the tsunami; their bodies were not recovered.
Despite the trauma he suffered, Agu narrated his tale simply and quietly, as if it were someone else’s story. After he regained his health, he was back to driving a dungi through the waters of the Andamans and assisting re- searchers. I wondered how he hadn’t become averse to the sea. Agu understood my words but didn’t comprehend the question. Rom replied, “An earthquake doesn’t put people off the land. Why should the tsunami put him off the sea?”
While celebrities make a career out of being television survivalists, the Karen are survivors for real. Agu’s fortitude has become my personal touchstone, bringing perspective when the everyday stresses of life feel overwhelming.
Shwethe was made of the same steely fabric as Agu, but he lost his battle to a scourge that kills many more in these parts than any tsunami—cerebral malaria. Now more than 80 years old, Uncle Pao doesn’t venture out to sea anymore.
I still don’t know how the Karen navigate by dead reckoning in the high seas. I asked Agu, “How do you find your way to South Sentinel?”
He pointed in the general direction and replied simply, “It’s there.”
Whenever I posed the question to Uncle Paung, he smiled impishly.
I may know the earth is round, but he knows how to get there.
Janaki Lenin, author of My Husband and Other Animals, delights in discovering history, culture, cuisine and adventure, and then bringing the exotic and unfamiliar to the page. When she’s not writing, she entertains travellers at her homestay, watches animals from her back porch and pretends to be a bipedal mutt with her confused four-legged humans.