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 moe touristy places like Thailand – but it happens, especially on the more popular tourist routes.
Puri was where I rediscovered my joie de vivre, a little something that I managed to mislay halfway through Indonesia and have only found occasionally since. Sitting in Raju's Restaurant1, a little roadside café frequented by the travelling community, I began to feel an unfamiliar ache round the eyes; I thought I might be getting ill, I hadn't felt it for so long. Then I realised... my eyes were smiling again. For the first time in ages, I was thrilled to be on the trail. 'This is India!' I thought.
As the skin formed on my super-sweet milky tea, I simply sat there, taking in the sights of rural India. Puri, some 500km south of Calcutta down the eastern coast of the mainland, is a pilgrim town, one of the holiest spots in India for Hindus. As a result it's full of weird and wonderful characters as well as hundreds of Indian tourists, and as the cows wander along the road, eating everything and crapping in the gutter, and the children play cricket in the backstreets, stoned pilgrims meander along the road, struggling through a haze of bhang.
For Puri is one of those unique spots where the use of marijuana and opium is not only legal, it's supported by the government; there are quite a few government bhang shops dotted around the town where you can buy grass and opium, as well as bhang, an edible form of marijuana which you just swill down and enjoy. This is a major draw card for western tourists, of course, but I didn't come across any downside to this availability; Puri is simply relaxed, and everyone seems to be silently satisfied, for some reason...
Puri is not just popular because it's a drug-friendly pilgrim town; it also has a beach. The beach doesn't win any prizes though; the inhabitants of the local fishing village use it as a toilet, and go for their daily squat as the sun's coming up, leaving a lovely smell to waft down onto anyone brave enough to sunbathe. However, for the casual tourist the beach holds some wonderful conversations; the salesmen of India know their targets are captive when they're soaking up the rays, and the sales pitches come in all shapes and sizes. There's the man selling carvings of positions from the Kama Sutra; the massage man; the dropout selling dope, despite government regulations; the salesman for the restaurant up the road; and, of course, the stoned pilgrims. One of the latter approached us as we watched the world go by, and among the inane chatter he spouted for over twenty minutes (with no prompting from us, I might add) was this wonderful poem, which sums up India quite well, I think:
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.
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.
And then there was Peter, the old English electronic engineer who had been coming to Puri regularly for his holidays and proved a mine of information about the town and how to catch the local buses and trains. Add in a mix of hippies, spiritual explorers and people who defied categorisation, and staring at the travellers turned out to be just as much fun as staring at the locals.
Well, almost. There are few sights more distressing, and few sights that draw the eyes more, than beggars. The beggars in India are deformed, dirty, and really pitiful; stumps are held out for a few rupees, scabby bodies shuffle themselves through the dirt, mumbling for change, and women with flesh sagging from their bones stand around, toothlessly asking for money while you suck on another mouthful of cripspy teats. And every evening the night watchman walks along the road, blowing his policeman's whistle and making sure the beggars don't stray into the wrong areas; regular whistles mean there's no problem, lots of short, sharp whistles mean something's going on, and no whistles demonstrate exactly why the night watchman gets paid danger money. I only saw one bit of hassle while I was in Puri; an explosive Italian caused a scene in Raju's Restaurant by insulting Raju's brother and generally being a drunken idiot. Not surprisingly the night watchman was nowhere to be seen.
Humans aren't the only entertainment in Puri. Along with the wandering cows are hundreds of dogs; in common with other Asian countries, dogs run wild, spreading rabies and turds, but in India the numbers go off the scale. They normally don't bother humans – unless you're carrying food, in which case they begin to take interest, a scary transition from studied apathy to vaguely menacing stalking – but they sure bother each other, chasing after unwelcome strays and arguing over food scraps and territorial rights. At night the noisy whining of the mosquitoes is only matched by the choruses of whooping and yelping dogs; it's a concentrated effort that makes it sound like the dogs of Puri are auditioning for the next Disney flick as the pack of unsavoury characters that always get their comeuppance. Between the canine wailing, the crickets' shrill chirping, the bats screaming and the early morning nattering of the locals, my earplugs have been earning their keep.
Trying to Leave 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.
Those plans involved moving somewhere, so I strutted down to the railway station to make a booking. Indian railway booking offices are an education in chaos, and it's a minor miracle that the bookings, once made, are reliable. I wanted to go from Puri to Warangal, and then on to Hyderabad; when you buy a ticket for a journey over 500km you are entitled to a two-day break wherever you want, and I wanted my break at Warangal. I queued at the information window, and after about ten minutes I managed to find out that, yes, this was possible, and I should fill in a reservation form and queue at the other window. This queue took only 45 minutes to evaporate – a very short wait by normal standards – but the ticket guy said I couldn't have the ticket I wanted, and I ended up buying a ticket just to Warangal. With Indian Railways, this is par for the course; as if to rub in the almost slapstick vibe of the railways, when the phone rang in the ticket booth, the man picked up one phone and said, 'Hello,' but the phone kept ringing, so he picked up another phone and said, 'Hello,' and the phone kept ringing, and then he picked up a third phone and said, 'Hello,' and the phone kept ringing... and it was only when he pushed a button on the third phone that he finally got the call. If it hadn't been for real, it would have been a comedy sketch.
That night I settled down for my last night in Puri, pleased to be making a move in the morning. The move I actually made in the morning was not quite as expected; sometime during the early hours of the morning I began to feel a little nauseous, and come 6am I was back in the bathroom, shooting copious quantities of variously digested foodstuffs from both ends of my body. Stomach cramps set in, I felt dizzy and weak, and I realised that there was no way I was going to be boarding a train that morning. Once again, sickness scuppered my plans.
By mid-morning things were no better, so I limped out into the morning light to find the manager, who was distressed to find that I had relapsed and rushed off to get me some medicine as I dashed back into the bathroom for another shot at goal. The medicine he brought looked dubious; one sachet was of oral rehydration salts, and I was pleased to note that ORS is readily available in India, after the fiasco in Rantepao; the other sachet, however, contained some unmarked pills with just a brand name on the packet, and the manager said they would work wonders. I took the salts, but figured I'd avoid the pills until I knew a bit more about my condition.
I could afford this luxury because our neighbour in the hotel, a very kind Swiss girl called Ruth, said it sounded as if I had giardia, a nasty little parasite that she'd managed to pick up some six months before. Earning canonization in the process, she offered to take one of my still-warm stool samples up to the testing station, and after I'd found a use for an empty film canister that I'm sure Kodak didn't have in mind when they invented it, off she went, tepid package in hand. The results confirmed it: I did indeed have giardia.
Eric saved the day for the second time by going into town to collect some Secnil to kill the parasite, and at the same time he cancelled my train reservation. Meanwhile I sat in bed cursing my luck and altering my plans. Luckily my plans are specifically designed to be alterable, and instead I spent a profitable convalescence studying maps of India, weather patterns, railway timetables and my guidebook. Truth be told, I rather enjoyed it; sometimes organising a large trip is almost as fun as the trip itself. The extra days that I spent recuperating in Puri slowed me down, made me simplify my itinerary, and reminded me of my mortality, as if I needed more hints. In retrospect, this wasn't a bad thing; I got better, very slowly, I got some letters written, and I met a fellow music lover, Danny from Israel, with whom I whiled away the hours talking music. Things could have been much, much worse, and I still managed to get to Hyderabad in the end.
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.