Pondicherry and Chennai
31.01.2011 - 08.02.2011 28 °C
Never trust a book by it's cover, a salesman by his handshake, an Indian hotel by it's gleaming white foyer (distracts from the horrors beyond). Never trust a town by the grim bus station on its outskirts at 1am. This can be said for Pondicherry.
Trips to kolkata, due to the pollution, often have me gasping for air. There are two ways to cleanse your lungs - the mountains (more of that later) and the seaside. On 31st Jan I opted for the latter.
Pondicherry is a town with untitary status although it is geographically embeded Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This is where skin tones are as dark as southern African. The state capital of Tamil Nadu is Chennai (formerly Madras). If you fancy a hot Madras well it is pretty much hotter than the North. Temperatures are about 30 degrees but the sea breeze does help, fortunately it cools down in the evening. In the summer you can expect 40 degrees.
14 years ago I had traveled extensively over Southern India as part of my first trip (5 months) to India. The rationale was that I will always return to NE India, as most of my family live in the North east. One place I missed out for some inexplicable reason was Pondicherry. Cheap internal air fare got me there finally, via a 2 hour plus flight to Chennai. I am yet to hear anything good about Chennai, and that is from the Tamils. Sprawling polluted and lacking in historical sites. With this in mind, after arriving at Chennai airport at 8pm on 31st January, I took a pre paid cab to the bus stop to catch an apparently luxury AC coach directly to Pondy (as it is affectionately known). Unfortunately all the destinations on the buses (going past every few minutes) were usually only in Tamil. The taxi driver waited with me for 15 minutes to no avail. A kindly student volunteered to wait with me, even at the expense of missing his own bus until the said bus arrived. After one hour no sign until I heard the cry 'Pudicherry (also known as)'. Unfortunately the rusty, windowless, prehistoric, bit of twisted metal that looked like it had escaped from a scrap heap was not the AC version but was the standard bus. I was sick of waiting. After checking the terms of my holiday insurance i jumped on board. Any notion of comfort was jetisoned. Like a hamster emerging from a tumble dryer, I emerged shaken and stirred 3 hours and 160km later. At least it was relatively fast if not painless.
I must admit that my first thoughts were 'what is all the fuss about'. In the morning it quickly became clear. Pondy is a former French colony, gaining full independence 50 years ago. It is a labyrinth of tree lined boulevards ,quaint narrow streets (some cobbled). The Mediterranean architecture is all pillars balconies, court yards etc. Admittedly many of the buildings are crumbling ruins. An international operation has sought to renovate the streets and buildings which it is doing bit by bit. Some of the old hotels are the centre piece of this project. They have been brought back to their original glory with pristine pastel coloured external decoration. The sea front is relatively clean and is popular for evening walks. Fine churches (including the Church of our lady of immaculate conception and Ashrams are dotted all over town. A spiritual leader (a freelance Jesus I suppose) based himself from here. According to legend, after his death his powers were passed on to a French lady until she died in Pondy in 1973, aged 97.
As is keeping with the Mediterranean feel it is very much the cafe culture. I spent much of my time sipping decent coffee, fruit juice and Lassi, people watching or just reading a good book. Perfectly relaxing. An undisputed gift that the British left india was the railways. We didn't leave them fish and chips or Hollands pies however. In this small enclave of india the French did however leave their cuisine. French food and of course the odd lassi is all I have been eating. Perfect, as I am no fan of southern indian food, neither are many Northern Indians. It is often just a greasy, salty overcooked mess lacking in any protein. 4 days of eating lovely fish and beef dishes. The cakes are also a winner.
Their version of French cuisine is not however the typical Nouvelle cuisine style with the poncy sized portions. "Can I have the wine list please and oh bring me a magnifying glass for the meal". None of that over fussy style of presentation that looks like a minimalist bit of contemporary art rather than a hearty meal. You know what I mean, the price of the meal is disproportionately related to the size. \
Instead it is really satisfying. You can get a decent main meal for 2.50 (and that is expensive for India).
To counteract the food there was plenty of activity including just plain walking around. I took one afternoon on a nearby beach, hoping to do a bit of swimming although the menacingly sized breakers caused a retreat. Also I had discovered that people had recently drowned. The beach was no, Goa, Kerala, or Andamans but refreshing nevertheless.
For 3 days I visited a local gym, just round the corner from the hotel. The owner is a short tubby chap. A plaque for Mr Pondicherry Weigtlifing championship 2010 is permanently on his desk. "Is that you" I asked. Guiltily he looked at his stomach. "I am out of shape at the moment". Anyway he is very eager to offer advice and was mentoring a pretender to the throne when I was there
I was determined to take just 24 hours in Chennai. Worth a visit but only if you can stomach the traffic. I heard so much about the paralysed snails pace even away from rush hour. As the airport is 25 km I decided to stay fairly near. On the evening of 5th Feb I took the bus but decided to jump off 2 miles before the destination as the traffic was moving at a slower pace than a stoned Sloth.
Back in Kolkata. The 8th February was a day for celebrating the God of Education and for some reason it means no meat until the evening. Anyone caught eating meat will face lines and/ or a detention. I shared a surprise birthday party with the god evening also. Uncles, Aunties, Cousins were present. I got a nice shirt and chocolate cake with my name on and an honorary PHD in Art and Literature from the God
I'm off now - home time.