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Published: November 28th 2007
The following is an unsolicited testimonial for CouchSurfing. No money has changed hands in the production of this advert!
In case you don't CouchSurfing is an online community in which travellers offer hospiatlity, and make use of hospitality offered while on the road. It's based on the premise that this makes travelling more affordable, but more importantly, gives travellers the opportunity to experience the community they're visiting at first hand, rather than in the somewhat detached way hotels and so forth can offer
Bit of a long lead in though.
In Thanjavur I stayed with Gwen, an American doing post graduate research at the University there. We'd exchanged emails over a month or two, so she didn't feel like a stranger when I met her. She gave me a wonderful welcome and time with her, so I wanted to treat her on our last evening together. She asked to eat at the best hotel in town, as she's heard the food was good, and as a student of modest means, it was she thought, beyond her reach. Good idea.
A we passed through reception, we might as well have shown our passports. Thanjavur disappeared from sight to
be replaced by marble walls and floors, corporate decoration, and uniformed staff of the kind that usually frequent these places. Where were we? Birmingham? Milan? Dubai? Mumbai? Who knows? And so into the restaurant, where we pulled our dupattas tight round our shoulders to combat the cold of the air conditioniong. Consulted the menu (Indian, Chinese and European) and ordered our meal. Got talking to the English couple next to us as they finished their chicken and chips. They turned out to be on an organised tour, and it looked as though their time was spoken for. They were enjoying it, but were scurrying along at the pace set by the demands of te tour, with no opportunity to go off on any tangents, and certainly no opportunity to meet local people on their own territory.
Compare my time in Thanjavur with theirs. Gwen's American, certainly, but she's made it her business to be part of the community she lives in. She's learnt fluent Tamil, so has good relationships with her neighbours. So while there, I had the chance to mooch round and enoy with her the rangoli decorations and lights put out at night for a Hindu Festival
of Light (not Diwli, yet another one). I met the neighbours and was invited into their hmes. Narrowly avoided a big faux pas in one. Invited to sit down, I nearly plonked myself in the nearest vacant place on a sofa. Recovered myself in time and did not sit there, next to the husband, but squeezed onto the other sofa, with the women. Gwen said it would have seemed very odd to them if I hadn't remembered in time. Chatted to another neighbour, a Christian, who explained that she liked to keep the Hindu festivals too, and showed us her Hindu decorations taking their place alongside her pictures of the Pope.
I ran errands for Gwen, and in that way had several languageless conversations in the food market, where everyone was keen to shake my hand, because tourists in Thanjavur don't generally go and buy half a kilo of carrots.
We zipped round on her scooter and bought takeaways. We caught local buses together and visited temples. We had meals in local cafes. I wandered round her neighbourhood when she wasn't there, and saw a small community going about its day to day business.
I was woken
in the morning to local sounds (actually I was invariably awake anyway, I don't do sleep in India); the Muslim Call to Prayer transmitted by loud microphone at, erm, 5.30 a.m. The church bells ringing a few minutes after that (20 % Muslim and Christain communities here). The street hawkers who kick in at about 6.45. The day-today noise which seems to begin so early in Indian communities.
And of course it was interesting to talk to Gwen, who knew exactly what I would be finding difficult, and could guess what assumptions I might be making. Gave me a quick Tamil lesson, and more importantly a gesture one ('Yes' and 'No' aren't the same here, I learned rather late in the day). She's much the same age as Tom and Ellie, but that didn't seem to matter - it didn't to me, anyway.
And of course I saved money, though that wasn't my motivation. I tried to make sure I didn't cost Gwen anything. So what did our new English acquaintances gain from their corporate type hotel? A thicker mattress maybe. Constant hot water possibly (doesn't really happen in India). I'm willing to bet I had loads more
Another temple at Kumbakonam
There are 18 in town. We saw 3
fun. Oh, and by the way, the meal wasn't that good, and cost exactly 9 times as much as the meal we'd had at lunchtime in a local cafe.
Just in case you think I only eat in spit and sawdust establishments however, this evening I had a treat. The restaurant I'd planned to go to proved ghastly (I don't do paddling in toilets, Lonely Planet), so I decided to treat myself to allegedly the best restaurant in Pondicherry. I chose a simple spinach and lentil dish, with parathas and rice, and it was sensational. I have no idea where they conjured up such wonderful fresh and zingy flavours. And mains come in at about 90p a portion..... I sat among the other tourists, the great and the good, and had a really good time. May go again tomorrow
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