Kolkata, India – 29th December to 1st January
Everybody told us not to hire a car.
We’d planned to see in the New Year in Kolkata, then take a road trip somewhere south. We still had a week to wait for our train up to Bhutan, and had to fill the time somehow.
So, after New Year celebrations with pizza and prosecco, we found ourselves waiting at Kolkata airport to pick up our car. On the road, we were surprised to discover that driving in India is a bit like driving in London. So long as you kept your cool, avoided the cows, and kept looking around all the time you’d be fine.
Herding on the highway…
Odisha, India – 1st to 6th January
We made quick work of the roads down to Haldipada for an overnight stop a few kilometers into Odisha. The roads were generally ok, and mostly empty; we thought largely because there were toll booths every 20-40km.
Lunching the next day in Bhubaneswar, we made it to Puri in the early afternoon. We were staying in the optimistically-named Honey Fall Guesthouse for £13.35 a night. The district we were in was a welcome world away from Kolkata. Small dusty streets, just moments away from the lively beach.
The life of Puri all comes from the Sea. That evening we wandered down to the shore to watch the sun set before finding food. We were amazed to see so much activity. Hawkers and tea sellers filled the beach. Young bulls played and locked horns. Hannah spotted some camels, being offered up for rides. A huddle of a hundred or more men broke up as we approached – we later learned they were fishermen deciding on their different patches for the next day’s catch. There were well over a hundred boats moored in the shallows – waiting to head out to sea early the next morning.
As the sun set were were approached by a couple of guys who wanted to say hello and see what we were about. Initially thinking they were trying to sell us something, we were initially apprehensive. But it soon transpired that they really did just want to chat. Native to Odisha, Apana and Sankar were both fishermen; Apana of fish and Sankar of pearls – relatively common in the local waters.
After tea on the beach, Apana took us into the fishing village to see his house. In the western world this would be just a shanty. Open fires the only light on the narrow mud-walled streets; a shallow open sewer washing down toward the sea; barefoot people in threadbare clothes. Yet seeing it as an invited guest it took on a totally different character. Our host was greeted by all as he passed; evening meals were being prepared; and life just went about its everyday routine. Apana’s house was basic, and his whole extended family seemed to live here, yet it was warm and open and we were welcome.
Apana (left) and Sankar (right) were the perfect hosts in Puri
The villagers were cash poor, yes. Undoubtedly. Yet there was a social connection in that village that seems so lost in the wealthy western world. And while Puri may seem a million miles away from Aldeburgh – perhaps Aldeburgh would have been more like this just a hundred years ago. A small town reliant on the sea, with a strong sense of community and a shared purpose. Making do with what they had. And feeling blessed that they had the bounty of the sea to provide for them and their children.
Before saying our goodbyes, Apana even went so far as to invite us back for dinner the next evening. An amazing gesture which we were only too happy to accept.
The next morning we drove the few miles north to the UNESCO protected Konark Sun Temple. A thirteenth-century Hindu temple that once stood 60m tall; now Indian tourists flock to see the still impressive 30m temple in the form of a giant chariot. The Konark Sun Temple paints a vivid picture of thirteenth sentury life in what is now Odisha. The walls are crammed with intricate (and often intimate) scultures. These depict life, war, and sex – often in graphic detail (much to Hannah’s embarrassment)! Mathematical forms and formulae permeate the design, and the whole structure also forms one giant timepiece. The orientation of the main and sub complexes line up as a sun calendar (think stone henge); while the wheels are all accurate sun dials.
Konark Sun Temple – replete with crowds, scaffolding, and sex
Our guide, Sankar Biswal, was entertaining and incredibly knowledgable. Once again we were reminded that it is well worth the investment when visiting these ancient monuments. Though sometimes of questionable veracity, the stories we were told gave life to what would otherwise have just been an interesting building.
Our guide was also useful as a minder – Hannah’s celebrity apparently knows no bounds – as he fended off aspiring selfie seekers. Indeed, once we finished our tour and he left us to explore, we only lasted about ten minutes before we escaped the site, and the crowds of people around us taking photos. Hannah’s cheeks were hurting from all of those perfect smiles!
We lunched and relaxed at the peaceful Lotus Eco Resort, just up the road, before heading back to Puri in the mid-afternoon.
Wisdom and beauty on the way to lunch
We were due to meet Apana at 5:30pm on the beach, and for a few minutes we thought we’d been stood up. To our relief, we were soon met, and taken to Apana’s house for a delicious meal of king prawns and cauliflower curry. Sankar was keen to show us his house, too, so we nipped across town in an auto-rickshaw, while he lead the way on his motorbike.
Sankar, his sister, mother, and grandmother, all lived together in just a couple of rooms. The women all shared a bed; the kitchen just an alcove in the same space; and up some narrow steps in a small corrugated iron-roofed extension, open to the elements, was Sankar’s room. There was just enough room for a single mattress on the floor, but Sankar was incredibly proud that he actually had his own room. In a tiny addition to the front of the house, they even had their own toilet and shower.
Sankar with his mother, sister, and grandmother, who all took a shining to Hannah!
Sankar’s mother showed us incredible hospitality, and his grandmother had a wicked glint in her eye – hiding a wonderful sense of humour bubbling under the surface. His mother also gave Hannah and Sanker her blessing to marry! Phil had other ideas, so the next day it was time to escape Puri.
Rising early, we drove north to the Ratnagiri Buddhist Monastery. In beautiful empty countryside, we were treated to wonderful old ruins and numerous stupa to explore, as well as a diverting, if not hugely interesting museum.
The view from Ratnagiri
It had taken longer than we had expected to get to Ratnagiri, so were all set for a long trip north to Baripada, our gateway to the Similipal National Park, which we wanted to explore for the next couple of days.
After a couple of hours of driving, disater struck. Phil had crashed our car!
Stuck in a stationary queue at a toll booth for a few minutes, he started to maneuver into a just-opened lane, and crunched the front of the car directly into a concrete block which had been hiding beneath the bonnet. Thankfully, nobody was hurt (apart from Phil’s pride); but it left our plans in tatters. The shove had cracked our radiator – so we were going nowhere fast.
The damage, and the offending road furniture
Avis managed to arrange a tow for us, but it took us backwards to the town of Cuttack. And, to add insult to injury, while we were sat in the back of the car while it was being towed, we were crashed into by a turning lorry at the next toll booth!
Cuttack was a bit of a dive, and not somewhere we would recommend. But, it was also the home of the most delicious biryanis that we had in India. It’s apparently famous for them. The next day we got the news that we wouldn’t be getting our car back; but we still had to somehow get back to Kolkata before our train north to Bhutan just a few days away. Eventually we settled on the night bus as the best option of a bad bunch, seeing out the week back in Kolkata at the Middleton Inn.
Our alternate transport back to Kolkata
We still managed to cram in a visit to a sanitary towel factory; made it to an Irish pub; and Phil saw some baroque music in the South Park Street Cemetery. However, with our train to Bhutan looming, our minds were very firmly set on heading north and the end of our trip!
Next week, Bhutan! And the penultimate week of our ten month overland adventure!
Until then… Hannah and Phil x