’Round the world in 72 days: India

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 64 of the February 2011 issue.

(Part six of a series)

In the January 2011 issue, I recounted how my wife, Flory, and I transited China on our way to India. This month, I continue with the India portion of our ’round-the-world tour. (As I mentioned, for India, Oman and the UAE our private touring and hotels were arranged through Original World [Mill Valley, CA].)

Our overnight in Bhubaneswar, capital of the ancient kingdom of Orissa, was at the sumptuous Mayfair Lagoon Hotel (8B Jaydev Vihar, Bhubaneswar - 751013, Orissa, India; phone +91 674 2360 101; F +91 674 2360 236) in a room so large, we could have waltzed in it. The hotel was so vast that the breakfast area, which was in the same building, was a good 10-minute walk away from our room.

To enter the Mayfair, we had to go through metal detectors similar to those at airports, while a guard closely watched us.

Indian traffic

The next morning, en route to Puri on the coast, we were exhilarated as we drove through the countryside. India had not changed since our last visit. Traffic was, to say the least, as chaotic, hectic and frenzied as we remembered it. Everybody drove, moved and navigated in whichever direction seemed to offer the least resistance at that particular moment.

Our driver played chicken with other drivers, buses, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians. To overtake a truck, he would repeatedly blow his horn (every pickup sported a sign on its rear proclaiming, “Blow Horn.”), then pass the truck so closely, I thought for sure we were going to hit it, at the same time maneuvering to prevent crashing into approaching vehicles.

Cows ambled through the disordered traffic, lying down at will in the middle of the road. As the animals are holy to the Hindus, everybody steered clear of them.

Illegal passengers hung on the outsides of buses or sat on their roofs.

Motorcycles frequently carried four people. Our van overtook one motorcycle whose rear occupant held about 20 chickens in his arms, all to be slaughtered for the next day’s Diwali festival.

Auto rickshaws — which use a motorcycle-type handlebar for control — wove from one side of the road to the other. While designed for three backseat passengers, many were bulging with 12 people, not counting the ones hanging on outside. Others transported up to 20 jam-packed schoolchildren.

Bicycles, overloaded with more than 20 gleaming pots and pans, crisscrossed the hectic traffic.

Hardworking, emaciated rickshaw walas (drivers) snuck their vehicles between two trucks.

In between this frenzied motorized congestion, pedestrians traversed back and forth, the women, well groomed in colorful saris, carrying water, food and other necessities on their heads.

To top it all, while maneuvering the van, our driver would open the car door when he had to blow his nose.


Despite all the bottlenecks, we safely arrived in Puri for a night at the Mayfair Beach Resort (Chakratirtha Rd., Puri – 752002; phone +91 6752 227 800, fax 6752 224 242).

While driving in the city, we were intrigued by a policewoman who, at an intersection, was standing on a raised platform inside a stone pyramid. As there were no traffic lights, she directed the flow of vehicles by swapping boards with text that read “Stop,” “Move With Arrow,” “Left Turn,” etc., inside the pyramid’s four large apertures. Amazingly, everybody obeyed the signs.

In the afternoon, we had planned to view the Jagannath temple, one of the most sacred shrines in India, which accommodates 5,000 priests. As no cars were allowed near the sanctuary, we could go there only by cycle rickshaw. Unfortunately, the rickshaw seat was too high a climb for Flory and we had to forgo our visit.

Puri to Chilka Lake to Gopalpur-on-Sea

The next morning, our guide took us through scenic countryside and attractive villages to Gopalpur-on-Sea. On the way, we visited Chilka Lake, which is Asia’s largest inland saltwater lagoon and harbors approximately 160 species of fish. While the lake is famous for its migrant birds and is home to one of the largest breeding colonies of flamingos, we did not see either. Reports from other travelers confirmed the absence of fowl.

We took a delightful, private boat ride on the lake and visited the Kalijai Temple, the abode of the presiding deity, located on a tiny island inside the lake.

The tribes and their villages

The main goal of our third journey to India was to visit a number of Orissa’s tribal villages and attend their markets. The best time to take this trip is from October to March. Since each market is on a specific day of the week and is far away from large cities, careful planning is necessary. It is best to let an experienced travel agency handle the logistics.

Because the many tribes in Orissa live in remote areas, they are not affected by modern civilization. Each ethnic group has a different language, dress and customs. Although they are mostly formally uneducated, they have abundant artistic talents, as recognized in their body paintings, decorations, weaving and murals. Music and dance also are vital parts of their rituals and festivals.

Most villages looked very similar — a center street, either paved or a dirt path, with houses on both sides. Each home typically had a front room, used for most activities, and a back room, the bedroom, which usually was closed off by an ornate door. A straw roof overhung the living area to prevent rain from entering. An odorless latrine was in back. A few communities had electricity and TVs.

People were very friendly, and whenever we entered a home, its occupants immediately brought chairs for us to sit on.

The women do the heavy work, while the headman makes the decisions.

In one village, we watched as two social workers distributed antidiarrheal pills, gave birth-control advice and vaccinated young children. Unfortunately, the government provides care only for pregnant mothers and for children up to five years old.


As an incentive to attend school, the state offers a midday meal consisting of a mixture of rice and dal (lentils). It also furnishes two eggs per week for each student.

In one rural area, children, all spotlessly dressed in school uniforms, were quietly having lunch underneath the trees. After finishing their meals, they rubbed soil on their plates to clean them and subsequently rinsed them under the village pump.

Next month, I will continue with a discussion of the fascinating tribal markets we visited.