The Andamans (photos)
India and the Andamans with Benen
Around India and the Andaman Islands
I think it was the ‘Bunch of Grapes’ pub in Galway in which Cyril spread out his map of south east Asia, pointed at a spot in the middle of the vast Indian ocean and looked at me expectantly. I peered down at the map, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago of some 200 islands, most of them uninhabited, lay under Cyril’s finger. ‘That’s where we’re goin’, he announced, before taking a sip of his Guinness. ‘Isn’t that where there’s tribes which have never had contact with modern man’?, I enquired hesitantly. ‘That’s the one’, says Cyril. ‘Those hostile tribes’?, I pressed anxiously. ‘Yep’, says himself with a gleam in his eyes. ‘Right so’, I said, and we spent a couple of hours poring over the map of the vast Indian subcontinent which Cyril planned us to travel around. On motorcycles.
Cyril was in Galway to see ‘Nanna Duncan’ whom he spoke of with great love. It was characteristic of Cyril to candidly state his affection or love for a person. I always admired the way he spoke of the special relationship he had with his Mother, even in a group of peers where others may have been wary of being called a mammy’s boy – not Cyril, he spoke proudly and earnestly of his Mother, her gentle nature, her splendid cooking and skills in creating a beautiful garden. He never held back in his praise of others, a defining characteristic of a person who could be mature beyond his years. Not long after Cyril departed for Egypt after extracting a promise from me to meet him in Madras on a fixed date, at a fixed place and at a fixed time and to have no contact at all over the intervening months. This was old-school travel stuff, like arrangements from the 19th century and Cyril was in his element.
Several months later I flew over and met up with the (now seasoned) traveller Cyril in Madras and we went out to the Andaman Islands. It was all we had imagined and more. The sheer unspoilt beauty of the place, the tropical reefs, the people and the vibe, we loved it. One of my favourite memories of the Islands were setting up the impromptu and wildly successful cocktail bar under coconut palms on the beach on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve’s in return for free drinks and the occasional scuba dive. One evening; Cyril, bottle of Kingfisher in hand, carefully laid out his detailed plans for motorcycling around India. As I recall they consisted of the following: Step One - “We’re buying motorcycles when we get back to India” and Step Two “then we’ll go wherever the wind takes us”. Cyril and I share the same wanderlust and sense of adventure and of course I readily agreed, but… there was just one small catch - I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life and from what I knew, Cyril was hardly an expert himself. “No worries”, says Cyril, and in a line I will always remember says; “let’s go for a few beers and then I’ll teach you how to ride a motorcycle”. Luckily for us the Havelock Island roads are deserted because I caused us to fall off a few times – mainly because we were laughing so much. But in the end he taught me how to ride a motorcycle and I got in as much practise as possible before we returned to Madras, the third biggest city in India.
Cyril and I stayed in the Andaman Islands for the maximum amount of time permitted, its one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to, a beauty only outweighed by the genuine friendliness of the people who live there. It was here that I observed some of Cyril in his element. Leaving the Islands we faced a 12 hour delay due to a lack of ferries. Knocking around the port in Havelock Island with nothing to do Cyril suddenly invited me to go to meet ‘one of his friends’. He led me to a small rundown tea stall on the beachfront where he and an old man exchanged warm greetings. The man poured us all tea, waved our money away and sat with us for a while. Himself and Cyril chatted and laughed away and it was clear that they shared a connection. The man was quite a character, and looking into his eyes it was clear, (it’s hard to explain), that he was a wise and a special character. We left after a while bowing, and with smiles on our faces. That incident brought home to me how special a person Cyril was – you see - they couldn’t speak each others languages – neither had a clue what the other was saying. That didn’t matter, Cyril had gone down to that tea stall several times a week during our stay because he recognised something in that man that others would never see, an openness, friendliness, a transcendence of culture and language not to mention race, religion, colour, in other words, a kindred spirit. It was something I was to witness with Cyril over and over again on our travels together.
Back in the big city we scoured second hand bike shop and examined several rust-buckets while pretending to know what we were looking for. After weighing up our options we decided to buy new motorcycles to travel on as they would be more reliable than some of the crocks which we looked at. The Royal Enfield, made there in the city was to be our choice; ‘our eyes’, as Cyril often said, ‘were bigger than our bellies’. We waited more than a week for the cycles to come from the factory, which we visited in the meantime. During that time Cyril managed to track down the best chicken curry in town in a bar which served extra cold Kingfisher beers and it was there he was to be found every evening chatting to the barmen. I think he must have eaten chicken curry every night for eight days. Finally we got a call from the Enfield dealer and after signing out papers and purchasing saddle bags and spare parts we rode two gleaming motorcycles out of the showroom and into the most chaotic traffic I have ever experienced. That was the beginning of what for the two of us was the adventure of a lifetime.
One memorable day began with Cyril locking himself out of room before we went paragliding. His next mishap was to stall and drop his motorcycle on the way up a steep hill – he was carrying a parachute and instructor on the back. He was a little rattled when we got to the paragliding site but not so much as after after his first, and last, wildly unsuccessful solo paraglide in which he got his left and his right mixed up and crashed back into the hillside from which he took off. A lesser person may have been swearing, glum or pissed off at this stage but not Cyril. He remained cheerful and courteous to all until we got back into town, after which he retired to his room for the rest of the day ‘just in case something else happens’.
There are so many other memories of Cyril which I will treasure forever. Often, while travelling on the bikes, I would go off to look for directions or find a hotel only to return to find Cyril surrounded by a large group of locals which he would be chatting to and generally entertaining. The satisfaction of sharing a cold beer with him at the end of a long hot dusty day on the road, the reverence and respect through which he revealed his surprisingly deep spiritual side in visits to temples but above all, it is the laughs; the so many laughs we had together. India, its people, culture and traditions struck a chord with Cyril and travelling with him I got to see the country through him in a way I would never have otherwise. Cyril was the best person I have ever travelled with, we never fought or even disagreed which is quite unusual for friends on the road together for a time. He befriended so many people with such ease, it is a measure of his personality and character that people he knew for just a short time mourn his loss from Canada to Bombay, and from Auckland to Aberdeen. I am proud to have had the honour of knowing Cyril Duncan. He was my best friend, a very rare and genuine person and he will be an inspiration to me forever. I will miss him for the rest of my life.
© Cyril Duncan
Siam Children's Foundation