My first meeting with the Bay of Bengal came in Pondicherry, where beaches have no home among the seashore made up of large stones. Swimming is therefore relegated to those that dare risk a beating against the sharp edges, but, I did discover a very small strand near one of the main piers. Clearly a well known and popular meeting point, an unspoken code of “No Females” was obvious; this was visible across the faces of the men who were enjoying the water until my travel companion, a woman, and I walked up. She felt the change in attitude from the near-naked men frolicking in their speedos and underwear thus staying behind as I entered into their territory. With bulging rocks to the left of the shore, massive wooden pillars holding up the pier to the right and waves beating the narrow inlet, finding fun among the possible dangers looked like hard work. For now, I retreated to the hotel’s rooftop pool overlooking the ocean. After three weeks crisscrossing the Southern tip of India, rushing toward the salty waves of seawater (in an almost childlike frenzy) had not crossed my mind. But here I was in the beach resort town of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, frantically searching to find swim trunks. Maybe it was the heat combined with the high humidity? Or was it miles of sandy beaches lying nearly empty? Hearsay and outdated articles written about the beaches of India led me to believe the water would be filthy, clinging with waste and shorelines teeming with debris. Yet what I found was one of the best-kept travel secrets to date.
The next morning came with a semi-focused mind of the sightseeing that lay ahead. The oppressive heat of early Spring begins even before breakfast; sweat starts to pool in an arc below your arms, neck, and throat after just a few steps. Selvam, my driver, arrived on time and whisked me north to Mamallapuram. Trying to maintain focus walking through Panch Pandava Rathas, all the while dripping in perspiration, I began to wonder if the night’s promise of a true beach resort would materialize. Seasoned travelers learn to not get their hopes up too high.
As the car bumped its way down the dusty main drag of the small coastal town it was a mystery why the tourists were here. The same shops dotting every town lined the road in-between cafes, hotels, and psychic readings. A quick unload and check-in at the resort, hidden at the end of a side road, occurred as Selvam raced off with plans to return the next day. And so I found myself walking the long pebble lined path to the seashore on the edge of the resort property.
The ocean was breathtaking; a large blue expanse of water as far as the eye could see. The beach lay like a wide ribbon of a thick layer of hot sun-scorched sand ending at the resort’s steps. The sandy shoreline extended out of my view to the left. Six foot, and higher, waves were crashing into the last bits of the ocean’s grasp. The smell of the saltwater was crisp and clean, a welcome feeling against my sweat-stained skin. And here I was, mouth gaping open marveling at one of the most beautiful sights of India seen to date.
But where was everyone? The beach was empty but for a few fishermen further up the way tending to their boats. With shoes and socks off I stepped into the clear water. Behind me now was a beach clear of litter save for the natural remnants that wash ashore overnight. That’s it, cancel everything, it’s time to swim! Within five minutes I had gone from trying to look like an unsuspecting tourist with my long pants, walking shoes, and a shirt…to flip flops, t-shirt, and trunks. I raced down the steps, threw down my towel, and rushed full force for the first time into the Bay of Bengal.
Over time other tourists peered over the bluff’s edge in curious apprehension but there were few takers. Once the workday ended I was surrounded by young locals who also sought relief from the heat. Continuous waves pelting the shoreline brought out surfers (surfers in India!). Fishing boats just offshore, which had been there before my arrival, now cruised at full speed spewing thick black plumes of burnt oil eager to sell their fresh catches. Whatever articles I read were all wrong.
The ocean’s grasp pervaded my thoughts as the following day began. It would feel like such a waste to travel so far only to cancel sightseeing plans in order to splish-splash in the water. I told myself I would just walk out to the edge for a few pictures and then continue with my preplanned day. What’s this? Larger waves than yesterday were washing ashore, fanning across the wet sand in a final foamy residue. The same fishermen from the day before were once again trolling for tonight’s possible dinner. A few familiar faces from the resort had already found their way to the beach, captivated no doubt by the views and sounds. Stray dogs even took a break from foraging long enough to play in the sand. And so it was then that I relinquished my guilt and rushed one more time, full force into the water.