A DRAB 5×11-ft non-ac room with an open cupboard and an attached toilet. A colourful calendar with images that he shot in the islands. Pleasant memories of the man who always stayed in Room No. 121. And a sense of lingering gloom. At the Lalaji Bay View hotel in Port Blair, that’s all what’s left of John Allen Chau, the American tourist who is believed to have been killed by the protected Sentinelese tribe on the North Sentinel Islands in Andaman and Nicobar seven days ago.
Police are yet to recover Chau’s body — the fishermen who allegedly took him to the island, in violation of law, claim that they spotted a body being buried on the shore by a group of Sentinelese on the morning of November 17. Back in Balaji Lake View, Chau’s “favourite room” is still vacant, where he used to stay for Rs 800 a day since he started visiting the islands in 2016.
“He always asked for the same room, he told me he liked this place. We used to talk but he never told us that he was going to do something like this… meet the Sentinelese. On November 19, I got a call from police, they asked about him. The next day, while I was out on a morning walk, a local official told me that he was dead. I could not believe it,” says Nirman Lal, 34, the hotel owner.
According to hotel staff, Chau first came to the hotel on September 14, 2016, for a two-day stay. He visited again on October 29 that year, spent a day and left after telling staff that he was going to Havelock Island. This year, he reached the hotel on January 13 and stayed for five days. “This time, he arrived on October 16 and checked out two days later. That was the last time we saw him,” says Lal. Painted in fading white, Lalaji Bay View has a bar on the ground floor, 12 rooms on the first and second, and a lounge-style restaurant on the third that is built in the shape of a tribal hut. Staff say that the hotel, which was opened in 2008, is frequented mainly by backpackers from France, Israel and Germany.
There’s even an image of the hotel on Chau’s calendar that he gifted to Lal. “Generally, our guests stay for a short period of time and never gift us anything,” says Lal. The 2017-2018 calendar’s first picture is that of Chau standing at the North Cascades National Park in Washington, US. The other pictures are from different locations on the Andamans, including Mayabunder and Havelock. “He was different from the rest of our guests. He never used to frequent the bar but mingled with the local residents, eating local food like idli and dosa. He used to talk always about the places he has visited and show us pictures. He told me he is an adventure travel guide in US. He carried a notebook, a small digital camera and a cellphone all the time. I have seen him at the restaurant, writing on his book,” says Lal.
According to Lal, he would have alerted the authorities if he had known that Chau was planning to visit the North Sentinel Islands. “In 2012, one of our foreign guests tried to go to a restricted area. We were not aware of it, he had made other arrangements. Since then, I have been very cautious,” he says.
“Chau was a late riser and a soft-spoken man. He never raised his voice, kept mostly to himself,” says a hotel employee. “We could not believe that he would try something like this,” says N Saha, the manager. Following the news of Chau’s death, staff say, they have been questioned by police and CID. “They police asked us if he left something here. I told them he took everything when he left,” says Lal.