In the city of Puri, on the east coast of India, a place of pilgrimage, and more importantly, beaches, I was awake at the light at 5:30 a.m. and walked on the beach, where the sun toyed with a few clouds.
I found a bracelet in the sand — a triple band of little brown wooden beads, and asked a handsome young man— the only person in sight — if it was his. He said no, but offered that we could throw it back into the ocean. Somehow, it became clear that it was meant to be an offering—to the sea, the sky, the silence.
Some women in saris collected wood along the beach. I quickly snapped a picture of them emerging from the sunrise, and we all enjoyed it, until a man walked up and asked for money — on their behalf, it seemed.
Most people here still enjoy having their pictures taken, and often ask me to take more. A fair number do check, as a passing gesture, to see if I have something to give them. I don't give people money to take pictures, preferring to walk away. I do, however, now carry a few San Francisco keychains or postcards as gifts for people I connect with along my path.
Closer to 6:30 as I was returning, crowds were entering the beach, and a drone was hovering overhead.
I came upon a camel, a group of photographers, and two more drones.
The photographers told me they were shooting a “preevary”— a short video, they clarified.
We continued talking, and they told me a bride and groom were involved. I walked over to the couple, who told me they were shooting a "preeveg."
I eventually understood they were shooting a pre-wedding video and flew to the beach just for this photo shoot.
I continued along and found a group of people who would in any other circumstances be considered insane. They were old and skinny, wearing saris and dhotis. At the direction of their spiritual leader, they entered the water fearlessly, spread themselves facedown on the sand, waiting for the waves. When the waves came, they were submerged in a broiling mass of bubbles. The stronger women pulled men weighing around 60 pounds, definitely near their last pilgrimage, up to their feet and back to shore.
My own gods drove me closer to capture their images. I ran to escape a large wave, getting soaked and almost crashing into a few worshipers on my way out. This continued until they had all finished their objective, and they walked toward me, telling me how happy they were.
“Happy! Happy!” It was either their only word of English or their joy wiped all other words from their minds. Of course, I never figured out while on that beach exactly what they were trying to do, but I assumed it was a pilgrimage. They then walked away and the beach was given back to tourists.
I was a sandy, salty, soaked mess — and my grin reached from ear to ear as I walked back to my Western hotel where the man watering the bushes obliged me by spraying my legs so I could enter the lobby.