As our time in India is short, we have been packing a lot into the weekends in the hope of seeing at least a small portion of this vast country. Although most people in India only get Sundays off (people don’t ask you how your weekend was, they ask you how your Sunday was) and even school children attend for a half day on Saturdays, our CEO has been kind enough to grant us full weekends, a necessary permission if you want to see anything, as even the closest of trips are at least 7-8 hours away!
Last weekend we went to Chilika lake, a beautiful lagoon situated along the coast South of Puri and North of Vishakapatnam. This lake is home to hundreds of bird species, including many brightly coloured kingfishers, as well as the extremely rare Irawaddy doplhin. This dolphin is nearing extinction and is found in only one location in India, one being the very lake that we were heading to.
We took a bus on Friday evening from Koraput and arrived in the early hours to Balugaon, a small town on the edge of the lagoon. We caught an auto (motor rickshaw) to the lakeside where many small wooden boats with outboard motors were moored. Only one boat leaves each morning at 7am to Satapada, and one boat back, and luckily we arrived around 10 minutes before the boat was set to sail. After the boat was loaded up with people and goods (as with most forms of Indian transport, there seems to be no limit to numbers other than the point when people are falling off/the boat is sinking) we set off on a three hour journey across the lake. It was a truly amazing journey, setting off into the morning mist across water that was completely calm. All that we encountered along the way were fishing boats with makeshift tarpaulin sails and birds that swooped overhead.
When we arrived at our destination we walked the short distance from the jetty to our government run hotel, seemingly the only hotel in Satapada. Needless to say that the photos on the tourism website did not match up to the reality in front of us. Terms like ‘faded charm’ would be the poetic way of describing things, more appropriate perhaps would be ‘could do with a lick of paint’.
After signing our names in triplicate and giving information such as the name of our first pet, our favourite colour and the number of times we have attempted to fart the theme tune to Eastenders (Indian bureaucracy is actually almost as bad as this) we were finally sent to our room where we could sit and look out the window onto the gardens of the hotel including the large tree full of fighting monkeys.
After a quick scrub we headed out in search of dolphins. Luckily there is a fixed price cooperative of boat owners that take you out on excursions. This saved the hastle of the usual haggle that is necessary to avoid being completely ripped off, although in a way I almost felt a bit put out that I didn’t get the chance to enter into the usual role play. On the other hand at least if you are paying above the odds, then so is everyone else!
On the water we almost immediately saw a shape in the water in the distance. The back or tail of a dolphin was often seen some way off, and they definitely seemed to be playing hard to get, but just as we were heading back home a dolphin appeared right in front of our boat so that we could almost reach out and touch it. Pretty special!
Irawaddy dolphins are similar to the ‘normal’ type of dolphin that we are all familiar with, the main differences however are that the Irawaddy dolphin has a much more snubbed nose, and actually relate a lot more closely to the orca, or killer wale, and traditionally have been found in brackish waters. These dolphins are known for their cooperative existence with humans with reports from various locations of their work driving fish towards fishing nets that has resulted in them being rewarded with by catch. This symbiotic relationship has also been their downfall with many dolphins getting caught up in gillnets and dragnets. leading to a sharp decline in numbers.
Tourism is hopefully helping locals understand the value of these mammals and there have been moves to protect them at Chilika lake, but more still needs to be done to ensure that they don’t become extinct.
Satapada itself is a pretty sleepy little place with little else to do there. The place seemed to be made up of the hotel we were staying in, a couple of dhabas (cheap eating places) and a few shops selling thumbs up cola (look in to this) and crisps.
We took a walk along the only road there was and passed by the village that was a little further out. These places look so nice and seem so clean in comparison to the towns. Although there is still plastic detritous littering the ground, everywhere is swept clean and all the houses, most of which are made from locally fired mud bricks and then covered in a muddy kind of render topped off with thick thatch, seemed really quaint.
I am sure that the reality is a little less pretty though. The harsh elements and combinations of searing heat and then torrential monsoons means that buildings take a pretty hard bashing. Thatch and the like attracts insects and other pests and often there is poor ventilation.
Things are pretty bloody basic in rural villages too, and for the people living there, and for many it can be quite boring. No books, no tv or computers, little stimulation of any kind. There is plenty of work for people to be getting on with a lot of the time though, fetching water from the pump (if there is one) collecting fire wood, tending to crops if you are an agriculturalist. Indeed many kids don’t go to school because they need to help their parents with work. Often, even if they do go to school their teachers aren’t there because there are few checks made on attendance of either teachers or students in rural areas, and most local people don’t know how to complain, or who to complain to.
In Koraput, where we are working, these are some of the issues that SOVA tries to address. Currently they are setting up an automated system where locals can phone using STD call stations (basically a dude with a phone that you pay to make a call, a bit like a manned payphone) or text using your mobile phone, both for free. There are also weekend grievance surgeries that have been set up in local villages so that people can come and talk to someone about any issues they are facing, e.g. a water pump is broken, a portion of road is being continually flooded, they are not receiving their benefits, a teacher is continually not turning up to work etc. Hopefully this will help empower people and give people, that are often ignored or forgotten, a voice.
After our jaunt around the town we retired to our hotel, planning to go and sit in the garden, but only made it as far as our beds before passing out for several hours. On awakening we discovered that it gets pretty dark outside and the front gates of the hotel seemed to have been closed. Virtually imprisoned we settled down to an evening of room service and monopoly. Obviously I am too much of an anti-capitalist, because Shri whipped my ass!
In the morning we discovered that there is only one boat back across the lake at 2pm, and as we hadn’t organised our return bus and didn’t know if they would be booked, we made the obvious decision of heading in the opposite direction that we needed to go by taking a two and a half hour bus to Puri (a seaside town that is home to one of the biggest pigrimage sites in India, the Jagganarth temple).
The journey was really beautiful, taking us through rural backwaters with lush paddy fields, full of herons, kingfishers and water buffaloes and past haystacks and brick making kilns and other scenes of rural life.
On arriving in Puri we discovered that of course the Jagganarth temple is closed to non-Hindus, but also that the viewing platform (the top of a local library) where non-Hindus are normally able to get a glimpse of the inside activities, was also closed as it was a Sunday. We also discovered that there were no direct buses back to Koraput but that we would have to go to Bhubaneswar (1.5 hours away) first. Needless to say we decided to worry about these mere details later and instead made our way to the beach.
When we arrived at the beach it was quite exciting to see some other foreigners. Living in Koraput, where you are the only westerners for a couple of hundred miles radius, it is almost surreal going to a place where you don’t stand out like a shining white beacon. Don’t get me wrong, Puri is no centre of tourism by any means, but it isn’t such a novelty for local the local people to see you, and you don’t get quite so many stares or over excited children running up to tell you their two words of English (normally ‘chocolate’ given as a command word, or ‘hello’).
Despite the fact that we had just taken 2.5 hours to get here and were probably only going to get about 2.5 hours in Puri before we had to leave, this was bliss.
Sun, sea, sand, chips, ice coffee(!), bleedin Norah, we had arrived! Swimming did not take place on this occasion, as swimming in India where there are lots of Indian tourists, male or female, means that showing any flesh whatsoever is a definite no no. All along the beach there were whole families getting into the water, men, women and children, but they were doing so in full saris etc. Indians don’t generally swim either. People like to splash about but but hardly anyone learns to swim. Try and imagine swimming classes for girls, it just couldn’t really happen, they would all sink under the weight of their clothes!
I have seen many a naked small boy swimming about in rivers as I have passed by on buses or trains, but I am not sure how many of those children can possibly have made it through to adulthood due to the general look and consistency of the water!
Public swimming pools don’t really exist in India either, generally water is at a premium, so pools are the preserve of hotels and the homes of the mega rich.
At the restaurant where we had lunch we consulted the owner about the best way to get back to Koraput. He came up with the great idea that we get a train from the station nearby to a junction about an hour away that would meet the train going to Koraput that were travelling from Bhubaneswar. This was all great in theory, but things are nearly never as simple as they seem