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India: Puri

The Bay View Hotel
The exquisite Bay View Hotel in Puri, where I spent days exploring the depths of my soul while the giardia kicked in

Eric and I rolled into Puri on the Calcutta train on Thursday morning. The train journey was surprisingly tame; the Calcutta-Puri line is pretty efficient – we only arrived three hours late, not a bad trip – and the berths in the second-class sleeper were comfortable. Indian trains can be a real experience, but my first exposure to the system was easy and considerably less hassle than the train in Java. One girl had her pack stolen, but we'd been warned of a racket on the Puri Express, so I held tightly onto my bags until we were well into the journey, when I had time to chain them down. Theft isn't rife in India – not compared to more touristy places like Thailand – but it happens, especially on the more popular tourist routes.

The main street in Puri
The main street in Puri, heading towards the fishing village

Life is good when it's sunny; Life is good when it's raining.
Life is good when it's hot; Life is good when it's cold.
Life is good when it's day; Life is good when it's night.
Life is good when it's black; Life is good when it's white.
Life is good when it's easy; Life is good when it's hard.

...and so on. When we asked him what was so good about life when it was raining, he replied, 'I sleep when it's raining.' Monsoon time is obviously a difficult time for poets.

Non-local Locals

The beach road through Puri
The beach road through Puri

The traveller crowd in Puri were fun, too. Take John the Mancunian, whose wonderfully characterful accent proved the perfect tool for describing his visit to the bank. 'So I goes into the bank, right, and hands over me fookin' twenty pound note, like, and the bloke studies it and says, "I cannot change this, it's mutilated". And I says it's not fookin' mutilated, mate, it's just a rip, it's how they check for counterfeits, you know, by seeing if you can rip through the watermark, it's standard procedure that is, you ask anybody who works for a bank in England. So I says to 'im, get the phone and I'll ring the fookin' Bank of England and prove it, go on, they'll tell you it's standard procedure, like, but he bloody wouldn't. Fookin' bastard.' John turned out to be a wonderful person who loved India, despite this outburst; everyone goes through this exact same problem with money at some point in their Indian trip, and everyone reacts in the same way. It's practically a rite of passage.

Trying to Leave Puri

Pilgrims bathing on the beach in Puri
Pilgrims bathing on the beach in Puri

The downside to Indian life hit me on the Sunday. Both Eric and I woke up during the night and threw up copiously, before spending almost all of the next day in bed, making endless hurried trips to our en suite. Obviously we'd eaten or drunk something suspect, but of course it was impossible to tell exactly what. India is a particularly unpleasant place to get gastric complications, because wherever you go people are spitting their pan in the street2, pissing on the pavement, cooking goodness knows what in smoky barbecues, and generally not helping the situation as you stumble down the street, clutching your guts. However, by this stage in my travels I've become pretty philosophical about illness, so when I woke up on the Monday, feeling much better, I decided to make my plans for the next few days.

A cow on the platform at Khurda Road train station, Puri
A cow on the platform at Khurda Road train station, as I finally left Puri

1 A wonderful establishment where the food is good, and the menu is an entertainment in itself. In true Indian style, spelling is an optional extra, and at Raju's you can dine in true dyslexic decadence. Why not try the freshly squeezed Grage Juice while you munch on your Butter Huney Toast? A bowl of Museli in the morning is good for the soul, and the soup range is extensive: Espinach Cheese Soup, Massrum Soup and that old favourite Hot & Soup are all available. Under the heading Our Cripspy Teat you can sample the Spinch Pokara, and staying on the spinach theme there's Spinch with Cheese and Spinch with Coconut Fry. Fish lovers adore the Tunna Stack and Lobstar by Order, and for people who like their food cold, you can check out the Chilly Chicken. And if that isn't enough to get the taste buds rolling, you can spend hours trying to decide between the Macaroni Tomato with Cheese Sauce and the Tomato Cheese Macaroni. What a glorious place!

2 A true Indian obsession, pan, pronounced 'parn', is possibly the most revolting thing I've ever tasted. The equivalent of the betel nut in Indonesia, pan is a combination of tobacco, betel nut, lime paste (that's lime as in lime ash, not the fruit) and various strange spices and condiments. It's chewed, and results in huge numbers of red-coloured stains on the pavement as people spit out their accumulated saliva and, eventually, the pan itself. It sounds foul, and indeed it is; I tried pan in Puri, and the experience lasted about five seconds before I realised it's definitely an acquired taste. God knows who first decided to chew betel nuts, but whoever did started off an Asian craze, 'craze' being the operative word.