The monsoon is upon us and all I can think of is the sea. And whenever I think about the sea, it takes me back to the first vacation I remember. I remember it in snatches. I remember collecting sea shells. I remember drawing stick figures in the sand. I remember the noise on the beach. I remember a blue tap where I washed my feet after walking on the beach. Puri, in Odisha, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in eastern India. I remembered it in snatches, until I visited Puri again after a long, long gap. We stayed in a different hotel (there are plenty to choose from, but I'll recommend the BNR just for their food, which I hope, is still as good as I remember it). No blue tap. No stick figures in the sand. But I recognized the smell of the sea. The smell of sand. I can almost smell it now as I write this. A salty, wet, slippery-fish kind of smell. The air of Puri hangs heavy with that smell. It's the smell of the sea.
They say that those who live near the sea do not turn their head at its sight. I'm so glad I don't love next to the sea. I've been asked, time and again, that oft-asked question- do you like the mountains or the sea? And most often, I have replied that I love them both. But over the years, I have realized that the heart lies truly with the sea. Perhaps, on a more practical level, this has to do with the fact that my vertigo and I are locked in a constant battle every time I visit the mountains, but it really is more than that. I have realized, that given a choice between staring at a mountain and staring at the sea, I'd always pick the latter. In a heartbeat. Without second thoughts. Its almost addictive, this pointless gazing. Imagine that you are standing on the balcony of your hotel room, waiting for the caffeine to kick in, counting all the possible things that could go wrong on the way to the Sun Temple at Konark (architectural, historical wonder- a must see, single visit is inadequate), and you look up and there it is. The last time you saw it, from that same spot, before retiring for the night- it was glowing green. You couldn't make out the waves as they crashed and broke against the darkness, broke and receded and returned again, and again. And now, in the light of dawn, it is a magnificent combination of blue and white. But not just blue and white. So many shades of blue. A blue so light you can hardly set it apart from the whiteness of the foam. And in another instance, a perfect cobalt blue. And beyond this mishmash, beyond what seems like a line drawn across the sea, a blue that stretches itself and meets the sky- a never ending blue.
I had set out to write a travel guide to Puri. About places one must visit, things one must buy, cuisine that one must consume. Instead, I have managed to write a somewhat scrappy eulogy to the sea, who, as Vikram Seth correctly and with great wit point out in his poem, must weary of description by now. I shall therefore end this on a practical note. The Sun Temple at Konark should not be missed at any cost. Start early, so that you can give yourself a long time at the temple. You will most certainly need it and might still find it inadequate. If the weather permits, visit Udaygiri- the largest Buddhist complex in India. Within Puri itself, visit the Jagannath Temple where you can still serve your offerings to the Lord of the temple. Be careful of the monkeys that roam free in the temple complex. As for the cuisine, taste the local sweets, especially the one called khaja- a kind of papery, slightly sweet dessert.
And once all of this is done, you know where to get back to.