I had been dreaming (which turned out to be quite an accurate description of the experience) of the houseboats in Srinagar since I first saw photos at the beginning of the year, so mum and I took a day off from the sightseeing agenda to fulfil this desire.
The moment we stepped onto the shikara (the small wooden boat used transport people to the houseboat) adorned with lace cushions and flowery curtains, it was as if the whole place had been transformed and reality dissipated like the ripple from the heart shaped paddle of our oarsman as we glided soundlessly through the dusky waters. The sparkle and glow from the nearby houseboats reflected from the painted wood between hand woven curtains of passing shikaras which our driver deftly manoeuvred us between, until the only thing left to manoeuvre were patches of dark green lily pads in the ripple-less lake. It was intensely romantic.
Arriving at Jammu train station (after a 20hour train journey) you would not have recognised it for a war zone. The platform was as crowded as any in India, with the usual family groups sprawled on mats on the floor sleeping, eating, waiting. Arriving in the north west of the country I noticed a change in the faces again (similarly to Darjeeling – the north east – where they had appeared more circular), only this time they were more oblong, with prominent ears, noses and beards.
And so concludes my first 6 months living in the east. My second visit to Kolkata was drawing to a close, I had learnt to program, embraced the hair loss (by employing new hairstyles), and made new friends in and outside of work. I’d spent weekends racing through the city on motorbikes and spent nights sharing a bed with pregnant friends and their grandmothers (it is believed to be good luck for pregnant women to share the bed with the oldest family member).
During this stay in Kolkata, I decided to spend every other weekend exploring the surrounding area. This mainly involved beach hopping along the south coast (Bay of Bengal), as it was too hot to do much else.
My first two trips were to the neighbouring state of Orissa, firstly to a popular beach town called Puri, where I arrived in the early morning after a difficult overnight trip on a sleeper coach, trying to control my stomach after eating (what I found the next morning was) raw chicken. I had been in a rush to get the coach the night before and had clearly made an error asking for super fast preparation of this meat for my takeaway dinner.
The beach scene which greeted my weary eyes at this early hour felt surreal. Half the population of India appeared to be crowded together between lifeguard huts, with brightly decorated donkeys and camels prowling the periphery saddled with flowery bed sheets, tinsel and glittery pom-poms dangling in front of their eyes. It was absolute chaos, with big family groups splashing about fully clothed in the surprisingly large waves, taking selfies, praying and squealing. The sari (in my humble opinion) is not well designed for swimming, but instead works excellently as a trip hazard, and drenched grandmas were being rescued by laughing family members left right and centre. And at the back, chilling under the shade of chai and coffee stands, lay the holy cow, winking at the camels and philosophically surveying the madness.