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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Off to India...destination Pondicherry

INDIA | Friday, 6 August 2010 | Views [1512]

Monday 2nd August - Today marks the beginning of a new journey, as we depart for Chennai in India. Air Asia flight AK5701 departing at 8am from Penang International airport. One of the guys from the Red Inn took us to the airport at 5am (RM50). The roads were empty, so we arrived In about 25 minutes.
The Red Inn had been a nice experience over the past few days. A joint project owned by two school friends who eventually set up in business together. Friendly, clean and laid back.
Getting through the airport was easy as it was quiet. Breakfast at MDonalds and plenty of time to kill at the departure gate. Got a good exchange rate at the CIMB bank. In fact better than in Georgetown yesterday. Free wi-fi Internet connection too.
The flight aboard the Airbus A320 was about 20 minutes late departing, but arrived in time at 9am at Anna airport in Chennai (Madras). A slightly bumpy flight due to some turbulence, but otherwise uneventful....apart from a small group of Indian ladies who sounded excited about going home.
The queue getting through immigration was crazy. About a thousand people seemed to be squeezed in there. As with my last visit, i noticed the normal habit of large family groups posting someone in the queue, and as they got nearer the desk, the rest of the family would run up and push in. At one stage it seemed like we hadn't moved for ages, but three familiies had magically appeared up ahead...like pulling a rabbit out of a hat...where did they come from?
Luggage was waiting for us when we got through and it took three attempts to get a trolley with wheels which would go straight. So funny!
Out to the pre-paid taxi stand in the baking low 30's heat at about 10:30am and eventually our turn for a taxi arrived. The old black cab with a cream roof are still being held together after what feels like a century of hard work. The driver is fixed on the road and the job ahead.
Shiera's first exerience of Chennai traffic on the way to the bus terminal was nuts. Honk..honk...everyone drives with their horn here. Auto-rickshaws race for tiny impossible gaps as everything vies for space on the overcrowded roads. Motorbikes with sari clad ladies riding side-saddle whizz along in the foray. It brought back memories of my first visit...the chaos continues unabated and always will. A metro line is being constructed on the main highway, which i assume will alleviate some of the problem. I doubt they could ever get rid of it...anyway...it wouldn't be India if they did!
The taxi ride alone is an introduction to the taste of things to come. Crowded roads, a melee of people. Some looking a bit bizarre with guru styling and painted faces. A multi-coloured spectacle of Saris and Punjabi suit clad women. Dhoti wearing men mixed with western style. A bit of everything.
The nice gentleman at the information counter at Chenna Moffusil Bus Terminal pointed us to platform 5 for Pondicherry...aka Puducherry...aka Pondy. Witihin 10 minutes we were back on the road for 55 Rupees, on the journey south. More crazy traffic which had Shiera holding her breath and thinking we were going to crash....Nope...this is normal. They all drive like they are possessed by the devil! Just take a deep breath and relax...it all fits together the Indian way.
Once the bus leaves the massive connurbation of Chennai and you reach the open road, the pace seemed to quieten a lot. Beach resort after resort line the Eastern coast, with new ones under construction all the time. I guess land must be cheap here. The plots are massive, with a nice stretch of golden sand. I remember the sea in Chennai not being that inviting when i went, but outside of the main area, i guess it cleans up dramatically. I remember lots of refuse had been pumped out to sea, to be washed straight back in again with the tide. Didn't seem a good idea that.
Last time i was on a small group tour and we stopped at Mamallarupam. A place of great archaeological history. This time we were to carry on to Pondicherry, for a quieter start to our trip in India.
On arrival in Pondy, the next step in our journey was the workhorse of the towns and cities...the auto-rickshaw. Supposed to have been 40 Rupees to get to our pre-booked hotel, but they insisted on charging us 80Rs. The guy at the hotel wouldn't get drawn into a discussion with the driver, but he told us it should have been abslutely no more than 50. Tourist rip-off in other words. We were to stay at the Coromandel for the next few days. This lies to the west of the north/south canal that divides the French side from the more Indian style.
So what does it feel like to be back in India after almost 3 years. Well...great! The Indian people are ready for a smile. Ready for a chat if you spend the time to talk to them. Calm and decisive, although they may seem abrupt at times...wouldn't you in this baking heat? Day 1...I love Shiera and cannot wait to share the next six month's experiences with her. It will be hard at times, but rewarding for both of us...bring it on!
After freshening up we hot the streets to see what Pondy was like. Well...nuts like everywhere else! Traffic appears from every direction...horns beeping away. Even on the bicycles. The waterfront of Pondy is a strange scene. Blackened rocks fall away into the sea, with a flat grit sand ledge reaching the promenade wall which follows a new paved walkway that is being laid. It is still a mess as works are under way to improve the whole front....well i think it is under way. You never know in India. This may be as far as it goes and it stays a mess? As the heat of the day subsided and gave way to cool sea breezes, more people appeared to stroll the promenade. Groups of school children found Shiera fascinating. I am just another white face here...something common. Shiera is from another world. During our walk, so many people asked her where she was from. I am proud of her and lovely to see her respond to these new experiences.
We stopped at the Adjantha Sea View restaurant for dinner...Shiera's first real Indian meal in India. It was awesome and we just absorbed the flavours as we sat watching the multi-cloured world go by... Yummee...
Darkness can be a strange feeling in a placed like this. The traffic is still chaotic. The beggars are out in force following you with their hands held outstretched. Many people just stare at you as you walk past. Some give you a feel of being unsafe, although you are generally very safe here. Just make sure you keep tight hold of any shoulder bags as a precaution.
The Coromandel Hotel is a 'Heritage' Hotel due to its age. Old character wooden beams and flooring. A rooftop area to sit out in when you don't get roasted by the sun. Friendly staff.
Over the next few days we just plodded the streets. Each day a little bit more. This place is full of contrasts and experiences. The greatest of experiences always comes by exploring the areas the locals inhabit. the 'Big Market' is an awesome experience. Even for me having been here before. When it says 'Big' it really means it...it sprawls for ever. The fruit and veg area was beautiful with the effervescent smiles from the stall holders becoming infectious. Beaming from ear to ear, we wandered through one alleyway after another, being stopped for photos with the locals as they seemed as excited about us as we were about them. Areas of garland makers sat cross legged whilst they knit together one flower bud after another into a stunning array of colour. Surrounded by a heady aroma of Jasmine, Marigolds, and many other scents. The beautiful ladies bedecked in dazzling coloured sari or Punjabi suit flocked around Shiera to put garlands in her hair. For 10 Rupees you can look a star for the day. We bought a Sari...a 6 metre length of beautifully sequined cloth for 300 Rs (about 4 British pounds). The ladies helped to show Shiera how to wear it, but it is complicated and not for the novice. Many Europeans have them tailored into a Sari suit that they step into to make it easy. Cost about 750 Rupees and about 2 hours to make. Many other experiences such as buying a cocnut to drink..turned into a photo shoot again! Every corner was a new photo opportunity. 
To the nothern end of town is the bit most tourists do not visit. The slum areas where the real poor people live. A place for daylight, not after dark, but worthy of a visit to see that it is a place of many faces.
The French areas are lovely to stroll through. Leafy wide cobbled streets. Rue this, Rue that...Pondy is the onlt French town in India. It has an air of serenity when you pass from the overcharged new town to the undercharged old town. Many buildings are painted in pretty colours. Many more are under renovation from wise investors who will have bought themselves a good investment. This is also Ashram town...Sri Aurobindo owning most of it. A pilgriage ground for those seeking Ayurvedic relaxation or soul seeking and maybe even soul repair. Whatever people are seeking of their inner self, Pondy can supply. It has its comfort zones where you can eat Pizza, French, and general European cuisine, amongst every variant of Indian fayre. After coming from the alcohol restrictions of Malaysia to India...the Kingfisher brand of beer is a welcome sight. Singha, Fosters etc...cool and welcome. There is a nice supermarket which seemed to have all the comforts we needed...apart from low fat milk. Something the Indians don't understand maybe? Good fruit is available throughout town, althugh the usual warning to wash everything in bottled water is important, no matter how good it looks.
Arts and crafts are well represented in the old town, and we bought a few good bargains to get our collection started. 
On the promenade opposite the Gandi statue, they are developing a new park area. The whole waterfront is also undergoing a makeover, getting a new paved walkway and walling. When it is finished...maybe a year from now, it will be much smarter than it is at present. 
So what do i think of Pondy? As a first port of call on our trip, it is a soft start, with plenty to offer for the uninitiated. Some western comforts to satisfy before leaving and not seeing them again for a while. 
On our walk today we visited the main Hindu temple (Manakkula Vinayakar),  where you get bombarded by the streetwise kids selling peacock feather fans, and the guy selling Bindi Kits...the coloured dye dots that ladies have between their eyes. Their prices are five times what they should be... 350 Rupees means 50! And still they were prepared to drop further! Walk on, say nothing...just smile and the price keeps tumbling. Carry on and then return and walk by again....still falling...eventually, they are getting desperate and real price comes out. Just learn the technique, as i have done before, and you know what to do, and you get the real price.
As soon as i tried to withdraw cash, my ATM card company blacklisted my card, so i couldn't get any cash....call to the UK to sort it out. A pain, but at least they are protetcing my interests! Phewww... Got some cash eventually...
More purchases...Cloth lanterns, Embroidered Pillow covers. As for furniture...wow....so reasonable the prices. As for the cost of shipping? No overland option here, only air post, which is very expensive.
Now, the Indian people have some characteristics unique to them, and almost nobody else on the planet. One is the wobbling head when many of them talk. There is this sweet little wobble of the head that is more to do with the way they speak. Shiera thought it hilarious when i pointed it out to her. After that, she noticed so many people doing it that she could not contain her laughter. It is a bit funny at times, and you find yourself doing it too on occasions.   
We continue to have great Indian meals, mostly vegetarian. 2 of us eating including drinks for 200 Rupees total. Not bad eh! 
A great saying ... `I dislike feeling at home when i am abroad`...George Bernard Shaw. Can't beat a nice cooked English breakfast from time to time, and bit of TV with a warm drink. Sorry George... Sometimes it's nice to have some home comforts ...when you are abroad! 
On one of our walkabouts, we stopped for a chat with a French lady who has been in business as an interior designer for four years, with what is percieved as an alternative approach to life in a place where every day has to be treated as a fresh start. Whatever happened yesterday has no effect on what will happen today...India isn't that reliable to be consistent. People you fight with yesterday, are your friends today. It certainly isn't an easy life for any foreigner who settles here. A very interesting conversation. Following that we were in need of a taste of home...minimal spice...off to Kasha Ki Aasha. An interesting place run by eight Indian ladies, like they would run their homes. Great simple food in the rooftop cafe, and somme crafts for sale in the shop below. Expensive though.
  
We took a half day tour run by the Tourism Council (Rs100) which included a visit to Auroville as well as the local Auroville beach and one of the city's churches.
Auroville (meaning 'City of Dawn') is one of those infamous projects which has made Tamil-Nadu famous on the travel scene. Originated in 1968 as a concept project of the Sri Aurobindo Society, and inaugurated by Mirra Alfassa...known as 'The Mother'. It brings together groups from 124 countries to form what is promoted as the city of the future. It is really an ideology and has no religion, and above all politics. The site is modelled on the spiral arms of the universe, with a golden squashed ball at its centre called the Matrimandir. Inside this ball is a crystal which has a single beam of sunlight focussed on it through the top of the ball. When the sun goes down, the beam is replaced by a light powered from a solar cell. A concentration room inside, allows devotees to enter their inner peace for ultimate concentration. The whole space surrounding it is an area of peace. It isn't actually the centre of Auroville, but next to a Banyan tree, which was the chosen location for the town.
Its mission statement takes a bit to grasp...
1. It belongs to nobody, but humanity as a whole. To live in Auroville one must be a servitor of the Divine consciousness.
2. Auroville will be a place of unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages.
3. It wants to be the bridge between the past and the future. Taking advantage of all discoveries from without and within, Auroville will spring towards future realisations.
4. A site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual human unity.
I hope you were following that and understand?
Anyone can join Auroville, although you have to demonstrate your commitment to the concept of the project. They would provide free acommodation if they could, but generally you have to contribute to the construction costs. The financing whilst you are living there is a little involved, as there is no money, just an individual central account. Also there is no pension or support other than a maintenance payment, which is small. Check it out on the net for more info.
We stopped at Auroville beach, which supposed to be one of the best here. To be honest, apart from dipping our feet in the Bay of Bengal, it isn't appetising enough to want to swim in it. Rubbish is strewn all over the reddish gritty sand, and there is a strong fishy odour. The locals are ok with it as they have grown up to know no different. We are probably too choosy.
 
Another day...more great meals. Sorry stomach, here comes another treat. Need to keep up the exercise or we will be like a pair of walking barrels soon! 
Pondicherry has been a nice place to begin our tour. French sophisticated colonial charm in the old, alongside chaos where Cows wander the streets amidst the soundtrack of beep, honk, screech, as everyone seems in a hurry to get that little bit of space on their way from A to B. Beggars follow you incessantly. The poor sleep in piles of rubbish or on anything that forms home...a rickety box, a shopping trolley, or more usually, just where they feel tired. It could be in the gutter with the crecsendo of noise surrounding them. Impoverished women raise their babies in the most filthy environment. What chance do they stand? In the caste system, not much. Take a deep breath...and absorb incredeble India....
Tomorrow we move on...more on that next time....

 

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