Pondicherry, un (léger) répit du chaos de l'Inde

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End May 05, 2011

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Flag of India  , Union Territory of Pondicherry,
Wednesday, January 19, 2011

So my train journey from Varanasi to Chennai was an epic 40 hours but I had been looking forward to it.  I had a lower berth as I find the upper ones very claustrophobic with no window, but I didn't much appreciate the landscape as I spent the entire time ill, mainly trying to sleep then waking up in cold sweats.  The worst thing about it was when food did the rounds three times a day, the smells were so pungent and I didn't eat throughout the entire journey.  As we neared my destination I asked a member of staff what time we'd get to Chennai and he said '3'.  Only one and a half hours late, not bad.  At nearly 1.30pm however, I noticed the view becoming more
urban and the train slowed.  When I saw a sign 'Chennai Central' I had to quickly grab all my things and hope I had everything with me as I got off the train!  He must have meant 'in 3 hours' time'.  Unfortunately I did leave my sandals so I've been wearing flipflops, but that's what the locals do so it's ok.

At Chennai I bought a bag of crisps which I don't think I've ever enjoyed so much before!  My body was craving familiar food.  From Chennai I took a bus to Pondicherry, where I met an Australian going to Mamallapuram, which is a small town halfway with beaches and temples and lots of tourists.  I was tempted but my
itinerary was too tight, and he made me realise I was going to have to cut about half of it.  We had a nice chat about photography, it was nice to talk to someone who could name even one photographer as it's actually quite rare!  His website, if you're interested, is zamiaphotography.com.au

I was relieved to get to Pondicherry that evening but felt very ill by that point.  I
ended up at a rather expensive hotel because lots of accommodation was full as my visit coincided with the 'Pongal' festival.  It's a cross between a harvest festival and a spring clean - people burn their old things and buy new clothes, clean the house, decorate and draw brightly coloured chalk pictures on the street.  There was
a real carnival atmosphere in town, and when I ventured out the next day at sunset as far as the beach front, it was packed with middle class Indian holidaymakers with balloons and ice creams, laughing and smiling.  That was the last day of a three day celebration so I was able to find cheaper lodgings.

My first two days in Pondicherry then were really spent in my room, and doing things like going to the pharmacy, moving hotel, recharging my phone etc.  I was still however able to get an overall impression of the town, which is that despite being a former French colony, most Indians speak English rather than French, although there are large numbers of French tourists.  I'd say it's about the size of Worcester, and
very easy to navigate as the French arranged the whole city as a grid.  There are even street names (though often in several languages), which is novel for India!

 Yesterday I sat in a cafe on the beach front and had a proper coffee, the first I've had in ages (Scott and Ruth, it was a cafe cortado!!)  It's a curious place, the only beachside cafe in town, and it's full of white people, with a bamboo fence separating us from the Indians on the beach.  It's complex, and uncomfortable on two levels: on the one hand it seems like the whites are asserting some kind of superiority in sipping coffee at this expensive place, with Indian children occasionally trying
to sell things through the fence.  But on the other hand I felt more like I was in a zoo, as everyone who walked past gawped and stared as if I were another species.  When a group of boys openly pointed and took my photo I made my frustration clear and the woman next to me shared my feeling.  Although she's older, and this is her second trip to India, we've had similar experiences here, so we bonded a bit over that and we chatted.  I don't know, it's a strange situation, I suppose a lot of tourists take photos of "natives" as if they're objects rather than people and they're just doing the same.  In colonial exhibitions (e.g. Paris 1931 haha which I wrote a presentation on last year...) they used to actually bring native people from the colonies literally as exhibits.  Interesting to think they probably had a 'Pondicherry' exhibit in Paris and there's me sitting in the cafe feeling like an 'England' exhibit.

So today is the first day I feel 100% well.  I got up early and checked into an ashram
dormitory.  Pondicherry is dominated by the Sri Aurobindum Ashram.  He was a guru (philosopher/teacher) whose work was continued after his death by a woman known as 'The Mother', whose image is everywhere here.  Most of the accommodation in the town is owned by the ashram, according to a Frenchman I spoke to who lived
here for four years, and they dominate local politics as they have a monopoly over tourism, and tourism is the main business here.  I was dubious about ashrams before coming here, as I'm not the most spiritual of people, but the German lady I met yesterday recommended it as a respite from the bustle of India, and it certainly is that.  I'm in a 4-bed dorm with simple beds, shared clean bathrooms, even a shared
kitchen is available, and the house is secluded with a beautiful courtyard and rooftop.  We are entitled to meals at the main dining room in the centre of town and I had lunch there today.  For ten rupees (about 12p) I had such a healthy and nutritious lunch it was perfect.  Everyone sits in more or less silence but it's not strict, just peaceful, and eats the same meal: a ladle-full of rice, a dish of mild vegetable curry, a dish of curd (yogurt) with a spoonful of sugar (much more delicious than I expected), and two small Indian bananas which are even nicer than normal ones!  After eating you clear any waste into a bin, then hand your plates to a team of washing-up ladies.  I went with a girl from my dorm, Elisabet, and we started washing up our own dishes until someone took them off us!  The people I've met so far at the ashram do seem lovely but there was talk of meditation on the roof tonight as it's full moon so we'll see how I get on with that!!

After lunch I wanted to see as much of Pondicherry as possible, so I've walked around, been into a luridly-coloured church (although it was under renovation), and I went to the museum which is a peculiar place.  There was an interesting exhibit about beads found at a nearby archaeological site, which proudly proclaimed had been put together in 1984 - it definitely hadn't been touched since, and I was surprised it was that new.  There was also an eclectic coin display including currency from totally random eras and places, but it did include two examples of "Banque de l'Indochine" "roupee" notes from pre-1954.  My favourite item was a huge rococo mirror in which you could imagine a colonial wife adjusting her dress.  Now it
lays against a wall, extremely tarnished and covered in dust and cobwebs, with half of its decoration missing.  It looks like it hasn't been touched in centuries, and the museum just kind of accumulated around it over the years, the bead exhibit being the most recent artefact.
Tomorrow I hope to visit Auroville, just outside Pondicherry, which is associated with the ashram.  It's an international community founded with harmony and peace in mind, you'll probably get more info from google/wikipedia - hopefully I can tell you more about it in my next entry!

Love Hollie xx


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aunty lydia on

sounds like things are looking up!!!!
meditiation on the roof hey sounds amazing!lxx

Ruth on

Sounds amazing - glad you're somewhere safe and familier. Miss you lots xx

mum on

sounds like heaven - will be thinking of you on the roof - enjoy

Pat on

Ho Hollie,
Wow, your amazing journey continues on. I am so glad your feeling better, I can only imagine how trying it must have been on the train feeling poorly. I can't wait to read about the meditation on the roof, especially with a fun moon!

Norman Willetts on

Very relieved to know you are feeling better. and that you are on
the way to more normal health. Some years ago I wsa struck down
by a similar bug in Spain, I swore I would never go again, but I did !
The blogs are great , keep up the good work.
Nan & grandpa.

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