"ARE you crazy going to Orissa for a holiday after the cyclone?" was the common refrain from friends and well wishers when we disclosed our plans to go to Gopalpur-on-Sea for the Millennium bash! But that only made us more determined. The mantle of new-age Marco Polos bestowed on us was flattering, and further heightened the mystique of the place.
However, there is nothing very heroic about reaching this lesser-known, tourist paradise; and is in fact quite familiar to the seasoned, off-the-beaten-track travellers. The reward is that unlike most other destinations, you don’t run into droves of tourists crowding and littering the quiet Shangri-La you went in search of.
The place is fairly easy to reach. You can take a direct flight or train to Bhuvaneswar and from there it’s 200 km on the Calcutta-Chennai highway. The journey to Gopalpur Military Station from Bhuvaneswar, where we were to stay was a four-hour-long ride through a ribbon development of hamlets lining it all the way. Most conspicuous were brightly lit-up small shops of grocery with the ubiquitous banana bunches dangling tantalisingly — as would perhaps be tandoori chickens displayed by Punjabi dhabas on a highway there.
But what was truly amazing was not to pass by a single township larger than a village along the entire route, and also the fact that besides trucks and lorries, one hardly crossed any cars, except some official ambassadors! All this drove home the point that we were indeed in the midst of one of the poorest states of the country — ironically, with such a rich heritage of art, craft and architecture.
Finally we reached our destination, and were made comfortable in true army style hospitality. Turning in for the night or rather midnight — after a sumptuous dinner preceded by rounds of burra pegs — a sweet slumber, that only a holiday can bestow, overtook us. Next morning I was stirred to life with streamers of bright coastal light and a balmy cool sea breeze wafting into the room through the window that gave a panoramic view of rolling lawns and flower garden of the bungalow. I ventured out for a walk; keen to soak in the landscape and layout of the campus to get my bearings, of what had registered at night as a vague blur.
The beautiful campus has buildings atop hilltops spread all over the place with tree-lined avenues and a lot of groves. The avenues have been aesthetically named after local flora and fauna. Also visible were clumps of new saplings to replace some of the trees uprooted by the devastating cyclone — one of the worst in the history. It was hard to believe that the place that had been in the eye of the storm; had been restored so swiftly and efficiently!
However, the most thrilling sight for me was to see cashewnut trees for the first time. Their dense green foliage with shiny leaves spreading out almost from the ground itself hardly left any visible stem in sight. I only wished that I were there during the fruit season! Similarly another gift of nature’s largesse to the land is the wild growth of what looks like cactus; but is in fact the kavera plant from which is extracted the much sought after essence used to flavour mouth-watering kulfi and many other deserts.
The drive from the Military Station to Gopalpur-on-Sea resort is just about 12 km, meandering through lush green paddy fields dotted with palms, coconuts, cashew trees and of course the omnipresent kavera. The soil has a reddish tint, perhaps due to its rich mineral contents. And the newly tilled land contrasts beautifully in its texture and colour to the greenery all around.
As the old settlement of Gopalpur-on-Sea — once an ancient seaport — approaches; one can see clusters of old cottages with pitched roofs of Manglore tiles juxtaposed with the new unsightly concrete and plaster constructions. The tiny bazaar, the main shopping mall of the beach resort has plenty of tourist lodges and souvenir shops. We stop by one to buy some seashells. After plenty of haggling and the intervention of our Oriya-speaking escort — a deal is struck and we are richer by a large conch shell, fit for giving a clarion call to warring armies, but only, if you can blow hard enough to make it resound.
The quaintest feature of the ancient port is its old lighthouse, looming large over the skyline. And lighthouses always evoke romance of all the stories, novels one has read about their keepers and their sagas of saving shipwrecks through stormy nights.
The most famous address at Gopalpur-on-Sea is one of the oldest of the famous Oberoi chain: Palm Beach Hotel. Established in a renovated old colonial building, it is elegantly furnished with restaurants, bar and well-appointed rooms. But its real USP is its private beach.
As you step down from the terraces of this cosy little resort — one can just walk up to the beach. The manicured lawns and greens maintained by the hotel have plenty of palms with hammocks tied to their trunks — swaying with the gentle breeze. I manage to get into one, hoisting my portly self into its lap with great difficulty. But once ensconsed there its pure nirvana. One can be lulled into sleep instaneously in the lazy, hazy ambience — especially if a tankard of beer is downed quickly. And you wake up to the company of friendly peacocks, large turtles — pets of the hotels — prancing all around. Thank God they don’t have pet crocodiles.
As we walk on the golden sands of the beach the waves catch us unawares and wet out feet and legs. In the distant horizon are visible plenty of fishing boats — and even a big ship. A small group of tourists are having a cool time swimming in the sea or just sunning themselves. After the biting cold of the north-Indian winter, the bright sun and the golden sands imbue welcome warmth.
As we return to our base for lunch, a large spread of seafood including the traditional fish curry made from the local catch: Surmai is spread out, to fulfil our rapacious appetites. No wonder one puts on weight on holidays.
In the evening, we are taken out for dinner at the army’s private beach. A bamboo and thatch structure houses the "High Tide Bar" that caters for the tastes of a connoisseur. The sound of waves crashing relentlessly along the beach, a full moon, the Cauarina trees swaying boldly to battle the strong sea breeze, make it a night to turn even the most prosaic heart into a poet.
The next day we have a trip to the nearby fishermen’s village. We drive into its narrow lanes through dirt tracks in a rugged army jeep. Houses made in mud blocks and thatch roofs are lined in immaculately neat rows.As we walk into one of the lanes — the humble homes charm us with their beautiful indigenous architecture. Each house has a small verandah and the thresholds are decorated with vernacular paintings and art work. It’s amazing how much talent and passion for ornamentation lies hidden in the hearts and hands of these simple fishermen. Inside, the houses are spotlessly clean and cool. For these simple fishing folks — the house is not simply a dwelling; but a celebration of life itself.
The beach in front of the village is not a tourist resort — but a place for hard work; blood, sweat and tears. Men with lean, wiry bodies of ebony-like dark skins — handsome in their own raw manner, are busy making fishing boats and nets. The women have their own chores of sorting out the fish — salting them and spreading them out for sunning and auctions. Naked children play along their mothers innocently and make sand castles on the beach. The women in their traditional saris and basketfuls of fish on their heads are true "kalinga beauties"— but refused to be photographed. At last some not-so-shy ones get a nod from their men and reluctantly agree. And for the others I click with my long distance telephoto lens and then run for my life to the jeep to drive away quickly!
Alas, the Orrisan odyssey comes to an end. And my mind is already on to the traveller’s tales that I shall carry. Or should I let the serendipity and beauty of Gopalpur-on-Sea remain a little tucked-away secret in the heart. But who can hide a paradise for long. There shall always be some latter-day ‘Columbus’ nosing around.