A monsoon cloud moving menacingly towards Kavaratti, the capital of Lakshadweep Island.
Many people who think "vacation" go to the sea. Most of them don't immediately think of the Lakshadweep Islands, an archipelago of 36 islands about 300 kilometres off India's southwestern coast. Fewer think of going there during the monsoon rains that lash the islands as they sweep by on their way over the mainland toward the Himalayas.
This is what my wife Aashima and I chose to do, disregarding our friends and colleagues who imagined us restricted to our cottage on Bangaram and Kavaratti and surviving on biscuits. They did not need to worry. The rains came, but lasted just short of a half hour at a time. They would come as suddenly as they would disappear, blown away by the winds - the kind that one loves watching from a window sill over a cup of tea or go for a walk on a beach.
Their absence revealed turquoise seas melting into an azure sky, sandy beaches of almost platinum blonde, and emerald green interiors lush with coconut trees, shrubs and mangroves.
The Lakshadweep is a congregation of coral islands, and is one of India's Union Territories. (The name is from Sanskrit and means "one hundred thousand islands"). They are part of a long chain that extends close to the Maldives, a nation of atolls stretching well below India's southwest tip. The islands have changed hands since their first known mention nearly 2,000 years ago. Now, more than 60,000 people live over 10 islands, and all of them follow one religion, Islam.
And the reason why alcohol doesn't flow as easily. Only Bangaram, uninhabited by natives and meant only for tourists, allows alcohol.
Bangaram is where we spent two days on this trip. That's a feat in itself, given that the island is a little more than half a square mile in area - a visitor can walk the length of the beach in 20 minutes. On our trip, there was plenty of space to share. There were only two other couples on the island, one from Italy and one from Switzerland.
Around noon, when the temperature was 29 Celsius - remember it's a tropical island - we decided to walk to the southern tip of the eastern shore, and spend time wetting our feet in the tides and watching as the white surf along the coral reef, which encloses the lagoon 4 kilometres out, divided the water into turquoise within and electric blue on the open sea.
We also walked to the middle of the island, where a brackish pond cuts a crescent through the trees, and to a sandbar near the island's western shore that appears during the day in low tides and disappears during the evening with the onset of high tides.
Anne Vuilleumier, one of the Swiss tourists, said she appreciated the island's natural beauty, which she said was "still intact", as opposed to other island vacation destinations which are built up and lose something of what made them attractive to begin with. She also appreciated opportunities to canoe and fish in the lagoon area.
Anne, who has a masters in human geography, pointed out another feature of some islands that have maintained their pristine nature instead of becoming modern tourist traps - sometimes the amenities are not what many travelers might expect. In this case, that meant no hot water for a shower, and the water at times, she said, was "blackish". In our case, there was a tinge of sulfuric yellow. Nor were there beach towels and umbrellas for tourists, or enough deck chairs.
But rustic and spare are qualities that some people want in a vacation. The beauty of the place is what they seek. And there is plenty. One option is to take a 15-minute speedboat ride to the nearby tiny islands of Thinnakara and Parali 1 and 2, where hawk-billed turtles come to hatch their young.
We also stayed on Kavaratti island, the island’s capital, a 15-minute helicopter ride from Bangaram. Kavaratti is the most populous island with 11,210 inhabitants as per the 2011 census. We stayed at the 26-bed hotel, Paradise Island Hut, a Lakshadweep tourism department property located barely 10 metres from the beach.
There, Abdul Samad, a water-sport instructor with the tourism department, took us to the southwestern tip of the island for snorkelling. The shallow corals lie only 25 metres offshore. While snorkelling, we saw close to 30 species of fish, including rainbow, surgeon, porcupine, lion and butterfly fish, giant clams and sea cucumber. We also saw a young hawksbill turtle lurking under a giant coral boulder. Samad held its flippers gently and brought it to us to hold for a few seconds.
Live corals of bright yellow, pink, green and white colour provided a perfect background to the schools of fishes and shell molluscs. If you take this trip, be advised - snorkelling is good for building up your appetite. Take fruit juice and energy bars or granola bars with you.
Also note that the monsoon is not the best time for speed-boating, parasailing, yachting or scuba diving. October to January typically offer calmer seas and better weather as temperatures vary between 17 and 19 Celsius. We were disappointed not to get the opportunity to strap on any gear and disappear beneath the surface for scuba diving, but we cured this by eating. The freshly caught tuna and local chicken dishes are delicious.
What's bad for diving is good for surfing, however. A handful of young boys who run the island's only surfing club lent me a board. It was difficult to get the hang of it, but it was worth the fleeting moments of gliding over the waves before losing balance and wiping out. The boys also recommended that surfers try Minicoy, the southernmost Lakshadweep island.
A day before our return journey, we went back to Agatti, a 7.6-kilometre-long island with the territory's only air strip. Agatti has a small museum that has preserved a few relics of the eighth and ninth centuries, which chronicle how Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam influenced the people of Lakshadweep. Though devoted to maintaining the island's history, it's in poor shape and desperately requires upkeep.
The food was in better shape. During a boat ride along the eastern shore of the island, a local who was accompanying us caught a metre-long Needle fish and simply gave it to us. This kind of hospitality is what made Agatti and, indeed, the Lakshadweep generally, special for us. How to get there
It's important to get permission from the Lakshadweep Administration to visit the island. Call: + 91 04842666789 or +91 9495984001.Flights take a little more than three hours from Bangalore to Agatti, with a stopover in Kochi. Direct flights from Kochi take 80 minutes.
Peak season is October to May. Monsoon season is June to July.
The SPORTS (Society for Promotion Of Nature Tourism and Sports), a nodal agency of Lakshadweep administration, offers tour packages on ship from Kochi, Kerala. You can see them on their website here
'Lakshadweep Samudram' is a five-day cruise to visit the islands of Kavaratti, Kalpeni and Minicoy.
'Swaying Palm' is a week-long tour to Minicoy. Tourists are hosted in cottages on the beach front.'Weekend Package' is a one-day trip to the Kalpeni Island.