In a Puri State of Mind

The small city of Puri sits in the state of Orissa, an eight-hour train ride down the coast from Kolkata.

The small city of Puri sits in the state of Orissa, an eight-hour train ride down the coast from Kolkata. For the past two months Orissa has been in the papers for arson, intimidation, murder, and forced conversion of its Christian population with the tacit support of the Hinduist state government. This fact has no bearing on my experience of the place, in fact it took part in a very different part of the state. It is provided solely as the context every up-on-the-news Indian might have.

Puri is a both a beach town, and a temple town. The beach stretches wide and sandy along a rather temperamental section of the Bay of Bengal; discouraging me from entering beyond knee-high. Nonetheless, a quiet gap in which to settle with a book was tough to find amongst the Bengali holiday-makers, at least in this festival time.

The temple, meanwhile, honors Lord Jagannath—an iteration of Vishnu whose form, along with his two brothers’, is pulled through the streets in a 45-foot-high chariot each July by thousands of devotees. The festival is also the original source of the word “juggeraut.”

Unfortunately my visit to Puri fell far wide of this celebration, and since the temple complex at Puri is closed to non-Hindus, I could only gaze within its walls from the roof of a local “private library.” And so I entered one of the more common and less insidious types of little scams to be pulled on tourists in India.

For the privilege of ascending to the roof, the director expects a “donation” to the library and pulls out a book listing tourists, their host countries, and contributions ranging from 100 rupees (about $2) to 1000 ($20) or more. The solicitor, however, with a little convincing, yields to an offer of 10 rupees for the roof view even as nobody in the book has ostensibly had the gall to offer so little. On reflection, I’m sure zeroes will be added following the “10” I mark in the book in order to make it appear to the next traveler that nobody would insult the library with an offer of so small a sum, just as it was supposed to appear to me. (It’s tough to remember at one’s intent to write the sum in cursive to avoid doctoring, when faced with all the numerals above it).

The priests/tour guides of a temple in Kolkata pulled this scam as well, although theirs took a more insidious form as they separated me and my fellow traveler to bless us each in turn and then solicit a “donation” for the temple charity with the same book full of past 1,000 rupee and 500 rupee donations. Perhaps I’m cold-hearted, but based on the various forms of used car salesman pressure applied I feel confident in my skepticism of this “charitable” endeavor: I was stopped from approaching my friend while he was blessed lest I wisen him to our first encounter of this scam, I was asked when I offered only 50 why I couldn’t maybe give 100, and I was told that only 1500 rupees (about $30) would buy one bag of rice.

Travel scams take many other forms. I hoped, in this short piece, to describe how Puri—apparently a former stop on something called the “hippie trail” back in ancient history—had a particularly bizarre tout culture (“tout” is apparently a Briticism used for those who offer dodgy and difficult-to-evade street-corner guidance to foreigners). My first morning wandering the beach a man offered to arrange a trip for me in the canoe of a fisherman from the local village—an “authentic” experience recommended in some guidebooks. When I declined my new friends offer, he wondered instead if I might not like to buy some hash. I’d been offered hash in Delhi and Kolkata too, but the frequency of offers in Puri, (including from one especially loony rickshaw-wala), when in fact the sparse Western crowd seemed a bit tame, made me wonder if “high season” had permanently departed the town (or at least its backpacker quarter, the Indian holiday business seemed to be thriving).

In Kolkata the scams had carried their own character—providing a bottle of water whose cap had already been unsealed and claiming “I just did that myself, sir” proved popular even in decent restaurants. The next destination of my journey, Bodhgaya—the spot of Buddha’s enlightenment—would house its own flavor of touts. “You think I want money; I just guide people for good karma of helping. What are you looking for?”

“Umm... enlightenment. Now jayo, bhaya: get out of here.”

An eight-year old kid in Bodhgaya latched onto my friend and I. Chutto told us he wanted to practice his English, and he took us to his family’s one-room hut, adjacent to the tent restaurant we were eating in and showed us his schoolbooks. Then he asked us if we wouldn’t buy him a football so he could play like the other kids.

He followed us to the bookstores we were heading towards clearly seeking a commission should we buy anything, and he tried to kick a young girl who attempted to beg from us while we were under his sway, his juicy catch. The kid had launched on the path of the tout, and to encourage him could only in the long run lead him away from the school and toward the domain of the loitering young men barking out “Where are you going? What you want?”