Saturday, December 18, 2010

Between a lake and the deep sea

The sea played peek-a-boo. It hid behind the thicket of trees just when you wanted to gaze at it. As the bus moved on, and you thought that the sea was never to be seen again, it revealed itself in all its beauty. Golden sands that stretched for ever, the greyish blue water that invited you to dive in on that sultry morning, and sounds of the waves breaking on the beach. A tiny moment to take it all in as the sea, once more, hid behind the trees. As the road passed a bend, paddy fields in all their greenery was a sight to behold. It was not like the fields I had seen before. Irregular patches of young shoots, unlike the orderly squares of elsewhere. Like a lush grassland that naturally grew there untouched by man. And in the middle of the field, a square stone lined pond. A tiny pond fringed by tall coconut trees with little steps leading to the shimmering water. Like a little gem set amid the bright green paddy. A sight to put you at complete peace. And while the bus sped its way along the road to Puri, the picture of the sea coyly hiding behind the trees remained in my mind.

The route to Satapada was set among lush paddy fields punctuated by little villages, where the bus stopped to let off the school kids returning home. It was a warm afternoon, a pleasant kind of warmth, with a gentle breeze that left you craving for more. One could spend whole lives in such afternoons and not desire for more. As we neared Satapada, a little bunch of shrimp farms began to be seen amid the paddy. The farms grew more frequent as the bus headed on. It was difficult to tell where the paddy fields ended and the shrimp farms began. They seemed to blend into each other. As the paddy completely disappeared, I knew we had arrived. At the northern shore of the Chilika lake. Satapada, where the room at the OTDC Panthanivas, opened onto an enormous balcony on the first floor. Where the vast expanse of the water lay in front of my eyes. It was time to feast on some shrimp.

The restaurant below was where I ate every possible prawn dish they prepared. And it was good. When I went to pay, I asked them if there was any place around to swim in. The fellow thought for a second and directed me to talk to the forest range officer whose office happened to be just across the street. The officer was a pleasant fellow, who offered me tea on the lawn outside. It was always a pleasure to welcome people from outside he said. A little chat about the local dolphins and birds later, he asked me how long I intended to stay. I told him I had no plans as such but my booking at the OTDC was for two days, and that I could stay for longer if I liked. He then presented a plan. I could head out to Bharampur island on the Cilika, where there were a few forest lodges with no electricity, stay there for the night and head the next day to Rajhans island, spend the morning there and head back to Satapada. And possibly sight a few dolphins along the way. I was in. I asked him about the ways to get there. He then informed me that one of the department guys was coming up to pick up fuel and that he was heading to Bharampur island. I could go along if I liked. Excellent. Also, there was one officer who was heading to Rajhans island from there the next day morning and I could tag along. From Rajhans island, I could find one of the many private vessels that ply to Satapada. This was turning out to be brilliant. I agreed and was told to expect to leave by eight in the evening. I went back to the room, packed a smaller bag for the day ahead and killed time staring at the sun set slowly over the lake.

Riding a boat in the complete darkness, with only faint and distant lights to tell you that land is not far off, with the rush of the water by the side of the boat being the only sounds, and the cold air chilling you in the warm evening. An experience that will not be soon forgotten. We reached Bharampur at about nine in the evening, and all the light that greeted me was a lonely bulb near the kitchen. Food was being prepared. On the menu was a local fish called a shorda. It tasted very similar to egg whites, and very addictive. When I took one bite, I couldn't stop. Four of those fish were cleaned to the bones before I looked up. What followed was rice and yet more fish. Stuffed to the throat, I decided to roam around the island a bit till I felt too sleepy to move. I would head out to Rajhans island early the next day. I couldn't wait.

We reached Rajhans island at about eight in the morning and I headed immediately to the sea. This island is like a sandbar, very long and very narrow. On its west lay the Chilika lake and on the east lay the expanse of the Bay of Bengal. I was all alone on this vast stretch of shining golden sand for the next four hours. As the sands slowly heated up, it was time to plunge into the inviting waters of the Bay. And return to bake on the sand when the water got too cold. And plunge into the water when the sand got too hot. And so on. I was feeling quite hungry at this point, and since I had no food with me, it was time to head back to Satapada to find something to eat. I headed to the jetty on the lake to spy out some boat willing to go to Satapada. As I was waiting, one of the locals, named Tapanjane, with whom I had become pally with told me that all the boats had been hired by the tourists and I would have to wait till three in the afternoon. My stomach was growling by then, and I had no other choice but to wait. But he came up with a plan. One of his cousins, who owned a boat was coming to Rajhans with some tourists and he would head back to Satapada in an hour taking the tourists with him. I could go along with them if I wished. My stomach stopped growling, and I said I could do that. A wait of an hour later, as the tourist boat was about to leave, Tapanjane talked to the cousin, and sent me on the boat. I had the feeling that the tourists thought I was working with the forest department, and hence did not object to me coming on board. Well, I was nobody to correct them.

At five in the morning the next day, it was time to catch the first bus to Puri. There was a train at ten to Lucknow, and I was headed there. The bus slowly made its way towards Puri giving me plenty of time to take in the green Orissa countryside. It was a sight that makes you return again and again. I'm happy to oblige. This visit to Orissa was brief, and there was much left to see, do and taste. I shall be back I told myself. And as I waited at the platform in the railway station at Puri, it was the last opportunity to eat dahi vada before I jumped into the general compartment for the 20 hour journey that lay ahead. It tasted good.

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