The last year has been a particularly dry spell as far as travelling goes - Life's changed pretty significantly, and probably will be for a long time yet.
But hey, just because you can't travel like before doesn't mean you don't travel at all. Right?
An early morning flight, most of which is spent strolling up and down the aisle with K in her sling to put her to sleep, brings us to Chennai airport at 9:30.
- Travel Tip: Babies: If travelling with a baby, a sling is critical - no issues with space, check-in, metal detectors, leaves both hands free, and doesn't screw your back. Feed baby during takeoff and landing to keep inner-ear airways clear (no popping, discomfort) but if she's asleep, let her sleep. Our doc also recommended Atarax as a pre-flight dose, but we didn't see any difference (1 flight with and one without). Also carry a carry-cot - it's excellent for stowing the baby in at restaurants to stop her from plopping off the chairs or crawling around. If she's teething, carry soup sticks.
Some people have all the fun on holidays... at our expense
At the airport, we wait for the taxi to take us to Pondicherry. We decided to be smart, researched, and booked in advance from Auroville Transports (No, I'm not giving a link) - who didn't show up, despite a confirmation on email. After several extremely irate calls (each and every single one of which ended with the assurance that the cab was 5 minutes away) the bugger showed up an hour and a half late. So if you're booking, avoid them - they're much cheaper than regular cabs, but you get what you pay for. Or call them 2 hours early.
- Travel Tip: Cabs are the best option, going straight from airport to wherever you're staying in Pondi, and you can catch them from the airport itself - costs around Rs. 3700 (in 2013) for a mid/small AC car. Or you can book in advance.
The Eastern Coast Road is more picturesque but also prone to more traffic, while the bypass is faster. Excellent road - around 3 hours later, we roll up to an elegant colonial-style hotel called Le Dupleix, which used to be the official residence of the (much) former Governer of the French Colonies in India, Joseph Francoise Dupleix.
The hotel is excellent - old furniture, French styling with nice large verandahs, wood-paneled rooms with a deep-chilling AC, brass four-posters and colonial-era collapsible crib, free wifi and very pleasant, competent, and friendly staff. Yes, I highly recommend it.
Le Art of Conversation
Le pleasant touches
What is French styling? Lots of whitewash, wrought-iron, stone-flagged and tree-shaded central courtyards, plants, elaborate gateposts with bouganvillaea draped elaborately over them, and wood. And mirrors. Lots and lots of big mirrors. The French definitely did looove to see themselves.
Pondi's basically in 2 parts - the French Quarter, which has relatively cleaner roads, boutique shops, hotels, restaurants, all French-style architecture villas and some tourist attractions... and the rest - the Tamil 'quarter' - is regular India, with traffic, noise, shops and crowds. The two are worlds apart, divided by a broad road and canal... but don't expect to be in France by staying here, it's still very much India with a little continental twist.
Really, really hot.
It's hot as Hades to begin with, and there's a lot of construction / renovation / repair going on, so much scaffolding, building material and rubble lies around, and the crowd is very clearly not European. It is, however, quiet, quite clean - almost pristine - and the preference for greys / whites / yellows makes for some very picturesque and photogenic cityscapes. It's a bit like Government Goa, actually - mostly Panjim / Miramar - with France replacing Portugal in the details.
Sooooo cleeeeeean... like canvas... must... spit... paan...
Ridiculously photogenic yellow building
- Travel Tip: Autos are everywhere and can take you anywhere inside Pondicherry for Rs. 50, flat rate, no negotiation, no meter - but you can walk from one end of the city to the other in under 30 minutes easily. For trips outside, negotiate a rate (coming and going), and they'll wait for you and bring you back. Auroville is 700, beaches around half that.
During the day - we were in the off-season, the summer - it's a killing heat. Not a leaf stirs, and humidity drowns you. The town feels drugged by the heat, somnolent - the best you can do is sleep, or at least carry enough to read. Old white fans gently rumble away in the verandahs, somehow with a lot more character and soporific effects than the invisibly, inaudible ACs.
Carry a good book. Or five.
- Travel Tip: Off-Season Pondi: Good rates, plenty of room to negotiate, plenty of vacancies, no crowds, but expect to find several places shut for the summer, especially restaurants and boutiques, and the ones that are open may have the best chef on holiday.
Once the evening comes on, we head out for a walk along the Pondicherry Promenade.
A couple of things jump out immediately. There's a very large expat population here - not just French, but all miscellaneous Europeans - that live and work here, and roam gently (and wobbling a bit) around on cycles dressed in loose, flappy, pastel shades, generally looking extremely peaceful. The Tamils on the other hand, come across as much more energetic and excitable, and almost universally in white. The tourists, of course, are like tourists anywhere - extremely colorful, but just a little bit wrong for the weather.
The promenade is decent - it's basically a pleasant walk along the sea, with lots of locals and tourists alike out to chill / chat / check each other out, with the usual balloon-sellers, chanawallas, etc roaming around. No sand on this beach - it's a rocky shoreline with a traffic-free road, that's it. You can walk it in 15 minutes. Reminded me a bit of Bandstand, or the Panjim riverside. A couple of statues, a memorial, some government buildings. One end is the old jetty, sticking out into the ocean; if you've seen Life of Pi, you'll recognize it, though precious few other glimpses of Ang Lee's Pondicherry are visible... you have to really time your shots.
Ang Lee ne di Ung li.
This is not Goa, or Paris, and this is not Chennai either, but it is a bit like Chennai's Alibagh equivalent. The weekend beach getaway. Every metro city has one, I guess... a seaside and a hillstation, each. Goa and Matheran. Digha and Darjeeling. Etc.
- Travel Tip: Babies: A lot of meditation places / ashrams in Pondicherry are off-limits to children under three years.
The bulk of our entertainment time is basically restaurant-hopping; The Governor's Lounge (loved the courtyard breakfasts); Baker Street (brilliant quiche and giant sandwiches); Carte Blanche (absolutely amazing ambiance and fish); Mama Shanthe's (too hot, power cut, mosquitoes); Villa Shanti (very elegant, sophisticated, minimalist whitewashed world but excellent food); Auroville Cafeteria (substantial quantity and decent quality); missed out several we wanted, discovered others...
Baker Street Breakfast
More cool, minimalist whiteness at Villa Shanti
The Governor's Lounge
All in all, I'd say the Carte Blanche stood out over the rest, with its tree lights, leaf-strewn verandah, dim, soft lounge-y music, warm lighting, bookshelf and display pieces in the portico, helpful and intelligent servers who gave the right recommendations and then left you alone to enjoy yourself. Definitely worth a visit.
Beaches: It's no Goa. It's not Kovalam either. It's not even Juhu or Aksa, actually. East coast beaches means no sunsets, only sunrises; We saw Auro beach, which had some fishing boats but not much else; no shacks, no restaurants, nothing. Peaceful, but fairly narrow, and given the seclusion and quietness, a bit crowded. Surprising.
Auroville - It's an interesting place, but remember, it's a proper functioning place on its own, not a tourist destination. It's good if you read up about the concept and philosophy behind it, and maybe some of the history, before you visit; lots of long walks in the sun, and much of it will be a bit incomprehensible if you walk in with no idea of what it's about. To really experience the place, of course, you have to live there for a while. For the casual visitor, it may come across as a bit standoffish.
I can't help but get a slight sense of shades of The Beach from here - a kind of idealism, an earnest, flower-child vibe. Should be interesting to see how it copes up with the world in future.
- Travel Tip: Auroville: For the casual visitor, especially if you like shopping around for artsy, natural stuff, the visit to Auroville's visitor center boutiques and shop will be well worth the cost of the visit; they have a far better range, prices, and variety than most of the Auroville or similar shops in the main market. If you are planning to shop, don't until you've finished this visit.
Demon heads on fancy gateposts. Old villas gently crumbling away. Shiny clean streets, street names with the French 'Rue' appended to continental and subcontinental names alike. Dozing dogs. Lots of statues. An air of general politeness.
A Bilingual Stop
The Continent meets the Sub-Continent
Cops in Kepis
An inefficient scarecrow
- Travel Tip: Power: There are power cuts, frequent and often, long ones; be prepared. Odomos, hand fan, etc. Keep phones charged and room chilled when you have power, for soon you may not. Carry a torch.
Overall - it's a nice place to chill, but you tend to get bored after a while unless you're actually there only to recover and do literally nothing.
And some of the random stuff...
A poster proclaiming 'Chicken Punch'. Nothing else. Some new martial-art move?
The most important thing that legitimizes any event - birth, marriage, achievement - is the vinyl poster. It's everywhere, for everything.
If you're not on vinyl, you're just in denial.
The founder was a big ER fan, it seems.
And finally, for all those who came to Chennai wanting tea, nimbu-pani, beer, or water...