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Published: February 7th 2017
India's greatest modern day hero is given pride of place on Pondicherry's seafront.
Like a lot of historically colonial places in India, there is a certain romance about Pondicherry - or as it is officially known these days, Puducherry - and having been a French enclave until 1954 and being the setting for the start of the famous novel and film, Life Of Pi, only adds to Pondy's sense of enchantment. I looked forward to yet another pocket of India with its own unique character.
Getting over there from the other side of the country proved less of a mission than anticipated although finding your night bus departure point in India is never straightforward. You'll be given a vague address such as "Opposite train station" and then you have to rely on your instincts, experience and common sense to find it. Then after finding it, you're often then redirected somewhere else again, repeating the process and ending up at a place that is not on your ticket. The departure point is usually outside a travel agent's office so that is what you're looking out for. It always works somehow though and you always get where you need to go, but for some, I can imagine the whole goose chase can be a bit
Rue Romain Rolland
One of the streets in the old French quarter with a sign that could be from France. If you ignore the Tamil written on the top, that is.
Similarly, ordering at local restaurants that don't have menus or only have a menus written in an alphabet you can't read can be a bit of a lucky dip. You often just take whatever they suggest to you - thankfully it's always going to be cheap in places like these so you're never going to be put out in such a situation.
On the bus, it occurred to me that it was a complete sausage fest on-board; the bus was almost full and I reckon there were about 50 people on it - but there was one woman on board. I guess women just don't go out at night, which is kinda sad.
It's not just in buses however - in the evenings, almost every single other person out and about is a man. Travelling as a single woman in India would be tough; completely surrounded by men at all times and most probably, being stared at by all of them if not being hassled by them as well.
Getting to sleep on an overnight bus is hard enough at the best of times; it's even harder when you have a portly, middle-aged man snoring in the seat
Colonial Architecture & Bougainvillea
A picture that could just as easily be from France.
beside you. Grrrrr.
My bus wasn't actually dropping in Pondy itself, rather it dropped me on the side of the road where a small minivan was waiting to take me the rest of the way. The break in the journey woke me up and just as well, as I hadn't booked any accommodation in advance this time and now I had to do a walk around for somewhere to stay.
There are no hostels in Pondy itself which is a little surprising; the only one is a few kilometres out of town and it had got some pretty bad reviews. I really wanted to stay in the city itself to get a real experience of the place and I was sure that walking around, I'd be able to find something.
Or maybe not; Pondy is pretty expensive and it seemed Pondy was pretty full too, as I got turned away from a few hotels and was priced out of others. When I baulked at the price of one hotel, the receptionist then suggested another place for just ₹500 that his friend could drop me at by motorbike. He somehow managed to drop me and all my stuff at the place
Worn French Charm
The fading paint, the colonial architecture and the windswept facades all add to Pondicherry's charm.
but it was pretty dire; no shower (head) and no wifi. A man who had overhead my exchange with the worker at the place then points me across the road to a place that did have wifi - and this one also had a shower too! And it was the same price! Sold. It was a bit dirty though - the room hadn't been cleaned properly for a while and I'm not even sure the sheets were changed - but I can't complain too much for ₹500 a night for my own private room and bathroom, especially when everything else was priced much higher. I did have a nightly battle with mosquitoes in the room though. I couldn't see any possible way they could've got in and despite killing ten of them in two nights, they just kept coming, one after the other. Where the fuck were they coming from? Grrrr.
On my first full day in Pondicherry, it just happened to be India Republic Day. Things felt a bit quiet in town but along the seafront, everyone was out and about and there were several free shows and cultural displays put on. It was cool to see. Some
Indian Coffee House
A Pondicherry institution and where Life Of Pi begins.
of the city's more regal colonial buildings were also bedecked in fairy and neon lights. India's Republic Day falls on the same day as Australia Day, funnily enough.
I started my Pondicherry experience however, where the Life Of Pi started; at the iconic Indian Coffee House. Indeed if you have read the book or seen the film, you'll know that the main character is from these parts. Coffee definitely seems to be more of a thing down south too; and especially in French-influenced Pondicherry. And South Indian coffee isn't bad either - but they don't do it black down here, it was milky and oh so sweet. The masala dosa
and the idiyappam
that I ordered were OK, but the highlight of my meal for sure, was the falooda
, an Indian fruit salad drink in a glass served with a scoop of ice cream on top. It even had delicious jelly blocks of vermicelli in it and the dominant flavour was that of rose. Yum. I was sharing a table with strangers at the Indian Coffee House - not for the first time in India and not for the last time in Pondicherry - which is a totally normal practice.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram
The entrance to grounds of a spiritual community draws thousands from around the world every year.
There are a lot people in India so you just gotta get used to sharing your space...
Pondicherry's history is inextricably linked to the French; but also to the of story of Sri Aurobindo. The Calcutta native was a part of the movement for Indian independence and after leaving the movement, he became a yogi, philosopher and guru, setting up the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, that now draws thousands of visitors every year. There isn't too much to see inside and you can't take photos, but the ashram is home to 1,200 disciples who live out and practice Sri Aurobindo's philosophies which includes the practice of meditation and yoga. Sri Aurobindo's picture is plastered everywhere as is the picture of co-founder "The Mother". This deification of "The Mother" is a little scary in a cultish kind-of way. After the ashram was set up in 1926, an offshoot was set up a few kilometres north of Pondicherry called Auroville, named after Sri Aurobindo. The goal of this town is to enable anyone from anywhere in the world to live in peace and harmony regardless of nationality, ethnicity or politics. No money is used in Auroville - thus there is a reliance
Streets Of Pondicherry
Looking very French in the French quarter.
on bartering and helping each other out to get by (although all members of the community are expected to make a monthly contribution to the community's central fund). Indeed it sounds like a very interesting place but to really experience the place would require more time - a place you need to live rather than visit. Combined with the mission of getting out there, I decided not to go. Perhaps one day, I will have a proper stay there.
Instead I stayed in the city and the area I was staying in was just west of the historic quarter and the bright lights here evoked Seoul. Horns, traffic, shops and markets made it just like any other hectic Indian town or city, just perhaps a little cleaner and with footpaths you could actually walk on.
But as mentioned earlier, there is a windswept, peeled-paint romance associated with Pondy and much of that is down to it's French influence. Opposed to where I was staying, the French Quarter and the seafront was so peaceful and tranquil. I wouldn't say that it felt particularly French - in fact it felt a little Portuguese if anything, like Panaji
- but it definitely
Locals gather on the seafront on India Republic Day.
felt colonial with colourful, classic old houses draped in bougainvillea. Some locals still apparently speak French, but I only heard a couple of them speaking it, both at restaurants where French people are likely to go to.
I then decided to get myself further lost in Pondy's romantic colonial past with a trip to the Puducherry Museum. It was more than just 19th century French furniture on display however as I learnt that the Romans even traded here. The museum also had a good collection of bronze Hindu statues of the various gods; I'm getting pretty familiar with who they are and what they look all look like now!
Although Indian food may be giving it a run for its money, French cuisine is still my favourite and having not had it since I was in Lyon some six months ago
, I thought that being in India's little pocket of France, that I'd indulge myself. Stopping at the double-entendre named bakery of Baker Street, I picked up a baguette and a croissant. The baguette was never going to be as nice as what you get in France - French baguettes are incomparable - but the croissant was almost on point. Not bad. For
Sacred Heart Basilica
I happened to enter this gothic church just as a funeral was starting, where I got to see a dead lady in an open casket.
dinner however, I really pushed the boat out at Le Club. The French really do the best steaks and I was hoping for something better than the leather I had got in Varkala
. And I sure did. I wouldn't say that it was the best steak I've ever had; but it was still delicious and having not had a quality steak for months, this definitely hit the spot. The crepe I had for dessert however was disappointing; too dry, too thin and too small. While the steak was worth every one of its ₹500, the crepe sadly was not worth half of its ₹200.
It is pretty humid in Pondicherry but I think it was made worse by the small storm that was in town while I was there. For the first time in almost two and a half months, I had to deal with some proper heavy rain. This meant that almost everything - especially clothes - always felt damp to he touch.
Braving the rain, I simply walked the streets on my last day in Pondicherry and enjoyed the city's peaceful atmosphere before hanging out at a cafe - nice and relaxing.
My final dinner consisted of
Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple
The colourful fresco of Pondicherry's main Hindu temple.
some good idiyappam
and a nice "French dosa"; and just before leaving I had one last breakfast at the Indian Coffee House. In terms of Indian food, I pretty much know what everything is and I know what I like now - it's a good place to be at. The pongal
I had for breakfast is a slightly sweet polenta-like porridge which was nice enough on its own but Indian food being Indian food, it came with a spicy curry too. A great way to start the day!
And with that, my rather lonely but peaceful time in Pondicherry was over. It isn't really a backpacker city as there isn't much to see and do but it is all about sampling the peaceful, colonial atmosphere and ambience. Therefore it wasn't surprising to notice that the visitors here seemed to be mainly older tourists and those looking to visit the ashram.
As for me, it was time to make my last stop in India (for now); Chennai.
பிறகு பார்க்கலாம் (piṟaku pārkkalām) / A plus tard,
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