Monday, July 29, 2013

Orissa Adventures - Eating a live bird

The Inbox chimes - the Orissa tickets have arrived. The weekend is a blur, driving to the Buddha International Circuit for the Formula 1 race, packing, emptying memory cards and charging batteries, and of course drinking like a fish. So a strong coffee is called for as I wait for my flight to Calcutta and onward to Bhubaneswar.

The aircraft circles over the City of Joy, providing stunning vistas of the two bridges over the Hooghly, the Maidan, Victoria Memorial before turning north to line up with the runway. As much as I love the city, I hate its abominable airport and am glad to be up in the air again. This time, we follow the Hooghly’s course where it meets the sea at Haldia before following the coast southward. We turn inland over the Mahanadi Delta and catch a glimpse of the famous Lingaraj Temple before touching down.

 The aircraft seat gives way to a captain’s chair in an Innova and we’re cruising along the NH-5 to Keonjhar, Kendujhar or Kendujargarh as some call it. Grumbling tummies called for a halt and our driver assured us that Hotel Annapurna, just short of Dharmasala was the best in the area. But if burnt daal, garlicky cauliflowers and rotis that could be used as pizza bases was the best NH5 could offer - we are in serious trouble.

Turning left from Panikholi, we drive past Jajpur Road and the next 40 odd kilometres till Anandapur are horrible. Broken roads and heavy traffic slow us down. The sun begins to set as we approach Ghatgaon hills and what a sunset it is? We stop and admire the orange disc as it gently dips below the horizon. Things are looking promising again.

Darkness has fallen as we thread our way through the thick forests of the Ghatgaon hills. The road now lit up only by the headlamps looks like a ghostly path with massive trees bending over it like guardians of a hellish portal.

It is dinner time as we check in at Hotel Sans on College Road, Keonjhar. The running joke has been that the hotel will be ‘sans’ anything. An empty plot with beds laid out in it. However, we’re proven wrong. Almost every creature comfort is provided for. I had expected Keonjhar to be the boondocks, but boy was I wrong?

Nevertheless, Small town India is the best place to look for exotic meals. And on that count, Keonjhar had topped the list. On the menu was ‘Chicken Singing’, described as ‘Chicken on a hot plate served live’.

Since I am the last person on the planet to miss an opportunity to eat a live bird served on a dinner plate, I promptly order one. Only to be disappointed to find a dead bird, hacked to pieces and dabbed with cashew flavoured white sauce. I register my protest with the Bengali cook, who calls me the choicest terms his language has for a madman; for expecting to be served a live bird cooked to perfection.

Heartbroken and hungry, I go to sleep determined to get a refund in the morning, promptly forgetting about it at the sight of steaming Dosas for breakfast. The destination for a day is an Anganwadi where I am shooting for a UNICEF project.

The centre is set high up among the hills, surrounded by scores of iron ore mines. Strangely, the air is clear and no sign of the red dust associated with iron ore mines is visible. Instead, an interminable queue of trucks is parked along the jungle road. Apparently, there is some temporary ban on mining and as a result everyone in the area is twiddling thumbs. Not that I am complaining.

I wonder though if the dust has any affect on the tiny tots at the Anganwadi, but am surprised to find a fancy device installed at the centre by the mining company to take care of. Not sure of the science behind it, but apparently the thing prevents dust from settling in the air in a 50 metre radius by creating some sort of vacuum.

Shoot done, we head back and I come across a huge Hanuman statue in the middle of nowhere. Our local guide informs us that the hills in the area are called 'Gandhamardana' after the Ramayana legend where Hanuman carries back a mountain full of life giving herbs from the Himalayas. A twitter post on the same launches a fierce debate as it turns out that Gandamardana was the hill in Rameswaram from where he took off on his epic flight to Lanka. The Orissa connection in unclear, especially since there is another Gandhamardana hill in the nearby Bolangir district.

Not wanting to mess with local legends, we head back to our hotel. Not wanting to mess with the cook either, I order Dal and Rice and crash early. The next day’s shoot takes us to many other Anganwadi centres where UNICEF is supporting Govt of India’s Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) in order to improve the mortality ratio among young children.

Children in Orissa are among the most deprived in the country and visits to Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs) set up to treat severely malnourished children are both heartbreaking and heart warming. It is horrible to see kids who were virtually a bag of skin and bone, yet I am happy to note that Indian Public Health system is now setting up facilities that can prevent these children from dying. My time in Keonjhar is almost up, but not before a visit to the lovely Sanghagra waterfalls just outside Keonjhar town.

Useful Info on Keonjhar

Location - Kendujar District, Orissa - India 21.63°N 85.58°E

Access - Nearest major airport is Bhubaneswar (200km away). From there, take NH5 towards north and leave the highway at Panikholi and take SH215 via Jajpur, Anandapur and Ghatgaon. There is also a direct train 18416 Express that leaves Bhubaneswar at 0745 hrs arriving Kendujargarh station 1155 hrs.

Stay - Hotel Sans - Sirajuddin Chowk, College Road Tariff - Rs. 1300- 2500 per night per couple (please check for current rates) -  is perhaps the best hotel in town. The nearby Hotel Shrikshetra and Mayur hotels are decent options for those a tight budget .

Eat / Drink - Outside of the hotels, very little is available to drink / eat in town as there are very few decent standalone restaurants.

Other Tips - September to January is the best time to visit. The forests are resplendent and water plenty in the rivers and streams. Weather is mostly mild but winter nights can get chilly.


This post was first published on my now dormant Tumblr - 'sidelower'

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