Puri Beach was a mass of bodies slamming into the most turbulent sea I have ever seen on a clear day. Waves were crashing in every direction with no discernible pattern, there was an intense sideways current, and the tide was so strong you could barely stay on your feet if you went in past your knees. The water was full of young men shouting, fighting the waves, getting knocked over or carried down the beach by the current. Occasionally a woman fully dressed in a sari would be escorted into the waves by her male companions, usually screaming in mock-terror. I managed to get out past the first set of waves a few times, but it was brutal. There were camels on the beach, and hustlers of all varieties. As we left, someone suggested we might like a beach nicknamed “foreign beach” more. We checked it out. The waves were slightly more manageable, and the crowd was about 1/4 the size of what I started referring to as “Murder Beach, home of the Death Waves.” I guess it wasn’t exciting enough. A few days later we drove twenty minutes north and stopped at a beautiful, serene beach, wide and flat, with perfect waves. It was virtually empty.
I got a foot massage on the beach, which turned into a full body massage, by the most enthusiastic, friendly guy I have ever met. I knew I was getting hustled, but he just seemed so HAPPY to be giving me this massage, it was hard to believe it was fake. We had arranged for rs 100, but it ended up being rs 200 for the full treatment. When we paid him, he put on a shocked expression, as if I was cruelly insulting him. “Sir, you didn’t like?” He held up the notes, his eyes getting moist. My friend firmly told him that we were already paying him double what we agreed to. He turned and wandered a few steps towards the beach, staring out at the ocean in mock despair. It was a masterful performance. The next day I saw him again, and we were again old friends. He ran up to me, his state of excitement kicked back up into high gear. “Sir! It’s me! You remember?” Giant smile. I passed this time, but I almost didn’t want to. There’s a certain type of hustler I really love, who puts so much into the performance. This guy was the best. You wanted to let him take you, he was just so God-damned likable.
The second day we drove 90 minutes to a lake which promised boat rides with several sights to see, including dolphins. After an hour-and-a-half of boring motoring through the huge lake, we reached the place where dolphins congregate. Things immediately kicked back in to “emergency mode.” Suddenly out of nowhere I counted nine boats speeding in circles through the water. Whenever a dolphin would surface, the lake would echo with screams of “DOLPHIN” in Bangla, Hindi, and Oriya. Boats were trying to cut each other off, desperate to get their occupants close enough to catch sight of a dolphin’s fin or back. I was watching the small propellers, terrified I’d see a sudden spurt of dolphin blood. It was a bad scene, chaotic and predatory. We did see a dolphin. I don’t think it was happy to see us, though.
Our last day traveling around Odisha we visited temples, ancient caves, and the zoo, at which we paid extra for the “safari tour,” which turned out to be the zoo version of the Great Odisha Dolphin Hunt: Pack a bus full of tourists. Secure the bus door from tigers and bears by putting a screwdriver through a hole in the door. Enter tiger enclosure at breakneck speed. Locate tiger. Ten seconds of photos. Wild U-turn. Ten seconds of photos for opposite side of the bus. Speed out of enclosure. Repeat for lion and bear enclosures. Get tourists off the bus ASAP. Next group.
It sounds like I’m complaining about the trip, but I loved it. I was worried about the dolphins, that is true. But for all the madness of the beach, I don’t think I’ve ever seen people having that much fun. One thing that I love about India is that you never feel any sense of people being self-conscious. If the project at hand is fun at the beach, go at it 110%. If you want to dance in the street during puja, go bat-shit crazy and make up wild new moves. The crowd will cheer you on. Ask the white stranger if you can take a selfie with him. Why the hell not? WhatsApp it to all your friends. Go back to the sea and try to fight your way past the Murder Waves.