Sightseeing all day in the rain, can test all your abilities within a few hours. The humidity, sweat, and sights around her were overwhelming, but Sweta kept going. Public transport, not the best or fastest- but she believed it to be the only way to feel a place or its people, and definitely the safest means for single women travelers.
Definitely true, two and a half decades ago. She didnt even have cell phone for a back up plan. Having one day to see Bhuvaneshvar, Konark, and Jaggannath Puri, she had traveled from Chilka lake at 5 am, hoping to make the most of her day.
Each trip, from one city to another was 90-120 minutes, especially in the rain. She still remembers the trip like it was yesterday! She was
whacked blessed by the priest at Jaggannath Puri and maybe his unusual bamboo stick rappy blessings and the amazing prasaad* kept her going till sunset. Suddenly, she had a feeling she’d better head back.
The last buses became her charm for the rest of the dark, streetlightless, sploshy night. Leaving Konark Sun temple for Bhuvaneshwar, she explored the possibility of stay in an army guest house, but decided to go on to Chilka lake on priority, since she was there for an assignment, which must be done next a. m. at 7:30.
“Last Bus! Last Bus! Chilka! …” and a number of cities’ names that came after it; prattled the bus conductor. She went in quite thrilled to make it for this last connecting bus and got right back down.
You got to imagine that in Orissa, in ’94-’95, how many single short haired, women in jeans travelled in local buses at 10 pm? The looks she got inside from a full bus of local men and someones’ timid wife was enough to deactivate her springiness. No seat inside either, left her no choice but to try to stay back for the night. By the time she found a phone she could use to arrange a room, the last bus was ready to leave.
Sweta decided to abort mission and take the risk and trust the sweet local people of Orissa, even if some of them were vividly surprised to see her initially. That trust was built up over time, with lots of travel, throughout the country, from childhood, a fistful of guts, and gut feel.
Two pensive hours later, the conductor alerted her to her destination stop and said, “This is where you get down.” And she okayed, alighted, and the bus left.
She had such a weird midnight visceral feeling! Not a single light, no bus stand, no intersection. Just a forest on one side of the street. Bus was gone, and after its fading tail lights and engine hum, she was surround by a silent night. As her eyes got used to the scene, which included some gorgeous moonlight, few stars, she saw the dark trees painting the sky, and far into the distance, a tiny bulb at eye level, through the midst of the now apparently rustling-hustling trees.
She thanked her stars and felt herself running toward the light, her feet following their instinct, as she followed with hope, towards hope. Echoing feet, competing with the din of thoughts in her moonlit head, she ran with her heart in her mouth. Over trainless tracks and the bulb still far out of reach, she could see the welcome outline of a guard hut, but no warmth. Panting and stopping at the sentry post, breathlessly she informed him of her identity, and said, “I need to go to the guest house.”
Miles into the complex, only a six-tonner vehicle finally passed by on its rounds, was made available to give that ride, after prolonged verification. A good 30 minutes later, she went to bed, finally, dead to the world.
Next morning found Sweta at work, happily relieved, celebrating an eventful, adventure!
* prasaad: a sweet mix given in temples, as a blessing to be partaken after darshan, the point of witnessing the famous Lord Jagannath, around which rests the architectural splendour from second b. c. in finely carved stone.