The Delights of A Day on Puri Beach, Orissa

Lifeguards  ready for Action

Puri immediately reminds me of my hometown of Blackpool. I drive through it late at night to the blare of music, flashing lights, amusements and crowds of people who are having a great time. Big difference this is not alcohol fuelled.

Daylight shows me the town in glorious depth and I love it….. Sand, sea, Kiss Me Quick sun hats (without the slogans) sideshows and amusements galore. Camels replace donkeys for beach riding. Vendors sell everything from complete meals on Palm leaves to fresh coconuts sliced open to order. A snip at 50p. Should you wish to buy an exotic shell or two or a ‘freshly dived pearl’ it’s all on offer on the beach.P1020781-001

The day is sultry, the grey sea throws up curtains of menacing breakers and hordes of fully dressed Indians, mainly from West Bengal, venture in. Enormous waves immediately knock them down like ninepins and they roll around with the undertow grabbing their saris. Vivid snatches of clothes swirl around. Those friends who are left standing, frantically grab at the drowning bodies as they emerge from the surf gasping and laughing, their long black wet hair in disarray and their colourful saris somehow still clinging to their fragile bodies. I realise that most of these women can’t swim. But boy are they having a day of liberation, free from the shackles of their everyday lives. The adrenaline rush is phenomenal. They are in heaven.

Lifeguards with comical, conical hats parade around advertising safety. You can hire these men by the day to look after you. Mr. Adonis eat your heart out! Why do they remind me of latter day circus clowns? Perhaps it’s the conical hat sporting the big letters LIFE GUARD.

All Puri lifeguards appear to be small and wiry and seem to have left their 6 packs at home, But what they lack in ‘Bay Watch’ charisma they make up for in smiles and bon homie. Should they need to go into action, they have an added USP at the ready: Rubber rings with numbers painted on the sides are piled ready for action. Vijaya, my Indian friend, guide and ‘travel fixer extraordinaire’ tells me they are the discarded, inflated, inner wheels of trucks. Recycling is the name of the game here in down town Puri.

I find myself surrounded by the lifeguards all wanting to have a group picture. Meanwhile Indian women are being sucked under the waves and shrieking with joy.

Suddenly the day is filled with an everyday Indian activity. As we step off the pavement to cross the road I almost crash into a small procession. They are carrying a stretcher over their heads and I realise with shock that the white shroud contains a body. They are on their way to the local Crematorium which is almost immediately opposite us on the sidewalk: the Swargadwar (this means gateway to heaven). Here on a wood fire the body is cremated in full public view. Vijaya tells me that in the Kerala Tradition where she comes from it is usual to add one log of sandalwood and mango chips of wood taken from a tree on the south side of building where the deceased lived. (Later that night a doctor friend confirms this, talks about the ritual and adds that burning is considered the best and most hygienic practice.)
This is so much a part of normal everyday life and death here. It’s reassuringly comfortable to be able to engage in conversations where people are so at ease with death.

As the smoke blows along the promenade and into our faces I reflect that this is more than a thousand miles away from the Golden Mile promenade at Blackpool.

Vijaya and I leave the life guards, the sand sculptors, the camels and head for ice cold Kingfisher beers with our other Indian friends at the Hans Coco Palms hotel. We are all exploring this far flung part of India for the first time. We have a lot to tell them about our adventures on Puri beach.

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