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Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Kalinga Diaries – Part X: Rocking our way to peace

En route to Chilka Lake, because it’s lunch time, S stops at a restaurant called ‘Narayani.’ Nice, saatvik tone to the name, no? We ask for what’s on the menu, and order the North Indian meal. Just a little after the order is taken, something registers….there’s a peculiar odor all around, and a cursory glance at adjacent tables tells us something.

S, who has gone to wash his hands, comes back, and one question to him confirms our suspicion – that this is a place that serves non-vegetarian food, too. We say we’re not comfortable eating here, inform the server, and leave, deciding to push lunch till we can find the right place.

We’re sorry that we’ve deprived S of his lunch. He brushes it off saying he wasn’t anyway likely to eat while we went hungry!

While on the topic of food and drivers, there’s another arrangement that local restaurants have. S has told us about it yesterday. When a taxi driver takes his customers to an eatery, the driver’s food comes as a complimentary gift – out of goodwill for having brought the customers there! Like the toll fee being lesser for a ‘local,’ I feel this too is a good example of the camaraderie of a supportive ecosystem.

Of course the system can work against you, too. Like when we stopped for lunch at Puri, there were 2 eateries next to each other. A guy standing guard outside one indicated our driver should park in front of his hotel, and S began to do so. When it looked like we were ignoring this guy’s sales pitch and heading towards the second place, he immediately indicated to S to remove the taxi from there and move on!

As we drive on, it strikes me that ever since we came to Odisha, I’m yet to see any defense-related buildings, unlike our visit to Delhi in 2015 where it seemed like we passed some or the other such entity very often. Almost as if in answer to my thought, we speed past a board pointing to a diversion in the road that leads to INS Chilka which is a sailor training unit of the Indian Navy.

We reach Chilka lake, and S comes along to help us get the tickets for the boat ride. There are several options of islands to visit, and places like the Sea Mouth (a channel that connects the lake to the Bay of Bengal) boast the sightings of dolphins. It’s already 2.45 pm, and S is probably worried that we shouldn’t choose a boat ride that takes us too far away.

We took a boat like this
After some discussion with the guy in the boating booth, S gets us tickets to go to the closest island called Kaalijai, after the temple of Maa Kaali located here. We’ll be able to see the migratory birds too, we’re told. A one-way ride to this place will itself take about 45 minutes.

It turns out that a trip takes off only when there are at least 8 to 10 people. Someone has booked 8 tickets, and we’re supposed to go with this group, but they’re nowhere to be seen. The boatmen around the booth fiddle with a mike and loudspeaker which I guess is to make an announcement, calling the passengers; but guess what? Right – the system is not working, so all we can do is wait.

Luckily, in about 5 minutes, the group (with gutkha-chewing men, brightly dressed women, an old lady and a few excited kids) troops in and our two boatmen are quite vocal expressing their displeasure at the delay.

We’re made to sit in such a way that the load gets balanced out…me, hubby and son get ringside views – we’re right at the front of the boat. Only flip side is the noise of the motor, but after a while, I kind of get used to it. I notice that they don’t give us any life jackets and for a moment, my mind drifts to what will happen if there’s a mishap…..a tiny voice from within pips up, “Isn't it the jacket of the Lord’s grace that you need….??”

There’s a little tension off and on during the ride because our co-passengers are not listening to the boatmen’s instructions about how to sit and the kids too are sometimes trying to lean over the boat edge. How selfish we are, I think…we want to have our way, not listening to these guys who are the experts here and who know the risks better than us and who will face a bigger backlash should there be an accident.

One of the boatmen sits right at the front tip; one tiny miscalculated move, and he’ll be inside the lake. The other guy stands at the left edge, one leg propped up at a 90-degree angle, providing support on his thigh to a rudder he’s holding, guiding the boat for the entire journey back and forth. Somehow, watching these hardy men toiling silently for what must be their fourth ride of the day in an endless saga of days, I feel embarrassed about my fears of not having a life jacket….

All in a day's work for this boatman 
Once we’ve left our bank in the distance, there’s no land showing on the horizon towards which we’re headed. Without any instruments to guide them, our boatmen cut expertly through the waters as we drink in the sights – the waves lapping against the sides of the boat, dangerously close….the graceful flight, the dipping and rising of the migratory birds that fly past and around our boat. 

Birds circling a nearby boat

One bird gets close to us

Finally, after what seems like an endless time but is about 45 minutes after we’ve left, we finally set foot on the island.

Literally, we set our naked feet on land because we’ve been told to leave our slippers back in the boat. Hubby surmises that this is the boatmen’s counting tool to ensure that all who came on their boat get back on for the return ride and no one gets left behind.

A little walk from the pier leads us to an area where the Kaalijai temple is located, surrounded by tightly packed stalls selling a wide variety of articles right from food to trinkets. We walk around, visit the temple, finally find something to fill our growling stomachs, watch the birds circling the island and almost too soon, our boatmen appear in the crowd, identifying their group out of the hundreds of tourists around, and tell us to head back to the boat, for our 30 minutes are up, and it’s time to go back.

And out there, in the middle of water all around, with no sign of land on any side, my phone suddenly rings. The signal that was occasionally patchy on solid land is surprisingly strong on water. It’s hubby’s assistant from back home, with a query about some elevator project, and we laugh about how the guy won’t leave him alone even on a holiday…no picking the call though, because the boat’s motor is making too much of a racket for anyone to be audible over the phone.

The sun sets as we’re halfway through. 

By the time we reach back, the moon has risen.

Moved by the obvious efforts of the boatmen to earn an honest living, hubby hands over a small tip to each of them, and they’re visibly happy.
After that long boat ride, I feel a rocking to-and-fro sensation even after getting back to firm land. But the moving sensation is of the body alone – that ride over the waters of Chilka lake seems to have cast a kind of calm over my mind.

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