yes, I am a tourist

In Puri, on the Orissan coast, we met a British writer by the name of Mark Engineer.  Among so many things we talked about with him, he responded to an off-hand remark of mine, that “Andy, you’re a tourist, too”.  It lodged into my head.

Most of us like to think we’re travellers or some such, but that’s a euphemism – tourist it says on the passport, tourist I am.  It is, I feel, impossible to just waltz (or classical dance) into India and become part of it, or even to engage in instant cultural and social exchange.  And, in Puri, that gap is really obvious.

Puri was a hangout for the India-seeking hippies in the 70s, and a lot of them have either returned, or have just stayed on.  In the backpacker suburb, there are lots of little shops and stalls, selling what the locals believe the tourists will want, in a kind of echo chamber of mass-produced authenticity and spiritual consumerism.

Orissa is intensely religious, visibly and audibly so.  Driving through Puri and surrounding towns, there is always a public ceremony, a procession of devotees and musicians, raucous singing and trumpets, clouds of incense (alongside the fumes and traffic and cows and rubbish of course!).  Much more so than West Bengal, it seems religion is mingled in with everyday life, as well as the cultural (architecture, craft, music…) – Orissans are deeply connected with their heritage.  Of course, in many ways, in the tourist areas, they’re trying to sell it to us, but it persists with its own manic and irrepressible energy.

Puri beach - sari swimwear, icon dunking, fishing boats...
Puri beach - sari swimwear, icon dunking, fishing boats...

We stayed at the Hotel Derby, near the beach (which, by the way, is pretty polluted, rubbished and full of people wanting to sell you camel rides or “pearls”, but such a relief for Australian bodies to feel waves!).  It’s run by a kind of extended family, all a little bit misfit, genuine, calm, friendly people.  One night, we sat around in the evening heat, swatting mosquitoes, while one of the young men who worked there played us his favourite tunes on his mobile phone; and a man in his 40-s who walked the breadth of the town selling samosas and sweets for about 40 rupees a day to feed his family sat with us quietly, trying to communicate with Orissan, broken English and gestures.  Two Australians, a Brit, and two French, and two locals, meeting and yet not.

They don’t mention it in the Lonely Planet, but Xanadu, a great little restaurant in Puri, has the most astounding waiters.  Boys who are ten at the oldest greet you as you come in, lead you by the hand to your table, “another beer, sir?”, “you come in for breakfast tomorrow?”, all with more swagger and confidence than most adults.  At one point, one of them came out with a huge block of ice on his hand.  Bemused, we eventually worked out he just wanted to show it to us.  Yes, childhood is almost bypassed in India.  Almost, not quite.  I’ve seen so much world-weariness and stoic strength in the deep faces of children here, it’s unnerving.  Then, you also see kids giggling and playing in the dust or in the gutter.

The dogs, too, here stunned us.  On our first night, one approached straight away, wagging her tail, asking for food, nudging the backs of our legs in anticipation.  Normally in India, the human and dog cultures are separate, parallels.  Here, we suspect due to tourism, the dogs expect interaction and feeding, the kind of symbiosis they don’t get elsewhere, relationships which seem almost ancient.  They still live such marginal, starving, precarious lives.  After a few days, on the road the leads to our hotel, we saw a scrawny pup lying motionless, dead.  The flies started to gather.  A day and a half later he was gone, taken (we were told) by a government truck.

When I get my next chance, I’ll tell you about the Sun Temple at Konark, and the complexity of Hyderabad…

gods and money

Bhubaneswar is the capital of Orissa, and is known as the city of temples – there were once thousands; now only a fraction remain, but that’s still a lot.  After a 7 hour train trip from Kolkata, arriving in Bhubaneswar was pretty much what I expected – hectic knots of traffic, noise, fumes, that melange of industry and poverty I’ve become almost used to.  So, after one night, Rachael and I decided to just spend one good day there, then move on.

So, of course, we had to see a few temples.  From our hotel to the closest group of temples was about 2 kms, but a long long way, swerving and ducking and ignoring touts and dust.  Every second man has a cycle rickshaw and wants to take you around.  We rejected quite a few, until we stopped for a breather, looking lost, and a gentle, scrawny, bespectacled, middle-aged man pulled over.  He kept insisting he’d show us where to go, no charge, no money, he knew Bhubaneswar.  So, we turned to each other with the same thought in mind – he seems like a genuine soul, let’s give him a few rupees, let his wiry undernourished body carry our able bodies around.  Yes, that strange combination of feeling guilty and supportive at the same time.

Orissan temple architecture is astoundingly complex, dense, detailed work.  The two buildings we saw are sandstone structures from the 7th and 11th century (correct me…); quite small, pyramid-like in shape, each square inch adorned with figures, scenes, animals, gods, and so on.  Astonishing.  We were shown around the first by a young man, who seemed quite devout, knew quite a bit about it’s history and significance.  He was also quite a fan of Ricky Ponting, and really wanted Australian coins (seems to be a phenomenon here…).

The second temple was our encounter with the other religion here.  Our self-appointed guide, I could probably sum up, was a sweaty man.  He spent most of his time pointing out the kama sutra scenes, asking if we knew what a lingum was, directing all his energy and talk towards Rachael, ignoring me.  He just kept talking and talking, sweating and leering.  Eek.  After quite a while, our rickshaw guy waiting patiently, we decided to go, and our guide kept wanting money, more money, no that’s each not for both of us, oh but I’m giving you a discoutn, etc.  We were tired, just wanted to go back to our hotel and take a shower, so gave him the 1,000 rupees he asked for, regretting it almost instantly.  The religion of ancient India, and the religion of money…

Don't take a tour with this man
Don't take a tour with this man

Our rickshaw man (wish I knew his name) asked what we paid, so we told him, and he said “he doesn’t work, I work!”, kept proudly cycling us along with the sweat of his brow.  We asked if he’d been doing it a long time, and from what I could make out, he’d only started recently – he used to work in the public service for the government, but got laid off.  We watched his sweaty back, his cracked and dusty sandalled feet, his straining limbs.  Heartbreaking.  We offered him water, he wouldn’t take it.  At one stage, as the road was getting harder, the sun hotter, he stopped, got off the bike, and pulled us along.  We wanted to get out, but kept feeling it was better to just pay him well.  In the end, we got out a block before our hotel, while he protested he could take us all the way.

We paid him the same as our guide.  Placing two large notes in his thin hands, we looked into his eyes, and he seemed really grateful, not just for the money, I think, but that there’d been some genuine human encounter.  I could almost weep now, remembering him.  Rachael and I just hope he used the money to take a day off, yet somehow I doubt it.

You encounter so much poverty and subsistence in India, you can almost get used to it.  You become hard.  I become hard, that is.  You have to.  But when it’s a real person, with a story, a life, struggling, who gazes into your eyes and is generous and proud, it puts a little crack in your armour.