Friday, February 12, 2010

Pondicherry, India

On the first day of our journey through India, we ended up doing the very thing that Mohit’s parents have been insisting that we should NOT do since the moment they learned of our plans to visit the Motherland- we hopped onto a local bus for the four-hour journey from Chennai to Pondicherry.

To be fair to my mother and father-in-law, it wasn’t exactly what we’d planned on.  We’d landed at the Chennai airport in the wee hours of the morning and stumbled into our expensive-but-outdated hotel room around 4 a.m.  We woke the next morning, dragged our bags out onto the hot and dusty street, and hailed an auto rickshaw.  We'd already discovered that there were no convenient train connections, so we asked him to take us to the bus station.  I hadn't yet fully adjusted to being in India, so I had visions of getting tickets on a tourist bus with padded seats.  We explained that we were headed to Pondicherry.  The driver tried to convince us that we’d be much more comfortable hiring a taxi.  We shook our heads no and insisted we wanted to take a bus.  Resigned, he agreed, though promised that he’d bring us to “the best bus station for Pondy- one hour less time on the bus”.  We sped through noisy, dusty, hot streets.  I felt still half-asleep.

He pulled up to a crowded street corner.  There was a man sitting on the sidewalk selling bruised bananas and three girls in saris who were braiding each other’s hair.  There was no sign, no indication that a bus would stop here.  By now we'd realized what we were in for, but just looked at each other and laughed.  Mohit made the rickshaw driver wait until the bus arrived before we’d pay and let him leave.  Sure enough, after ten long minutes sweating in the sun and being stared at by all the men who walked by, a dented, diesel-belching heap of metal pulled up to the sidewalk and mayhem let loose.  An old woman with a long grey braid in a mustard-colored sari pushed me firmly out of the way and wrestled her way up the bus stairs; at the same time several men with bare feet clambered off the bus.

The bus was already rolling away from the curb while we were still lugging our bags up the stairs and into the aisle.  There were no seats.  Men stood in the aisle and sat on the stairs in the bus doorways; with no doors, the asphalt sped by dangerously close.  Women sat three or four to a bench with small children perched on their laps.  A Bollywood movie played on a single TV screen at the front of the bus and the soundtrack blared.  We sat on top of our bags in the middle of the aisle for the first hour, close to the open front door, thankful for the breeze.  Toward the end of the ride a few people hopped off the still-moving bus in a tiny town and we were thrilled to take their seats.  Everyone on the bus knew that we had no idea what we were doing and were very helpful, making sure we knew to get off the bus at the correct stop.  Most people spoke English, which is lucky since Mohit's Punjabi and Hindi are useless in Tamil Nadu.  I giggled at the TV commercial that advertised laser eye surgery as a sure path to finding a husband.

We found a clean, quiet, dark room a stone’s throw from Pondicherry’s beach promenade and settled in for our slow acclimation to India.  Pondicherry was the perfect place to start since it had very little of the crowdedness and craziness that we were both bracing ourselves for.  An old French Colonial capital, Pondy’s streets are wide and lined with tall shady trees.  We were surprised to walk down the road and pop into shops without being hassled at all.  East of the main canal, there were very few cars, auto rickshaws, or motorbikes to dodge, leaving us to meander comfortably in the street.  The crumbling but picturesque buildings are columned and arcaded and have pretty European courtyards.  Antique stores sell old carved wood colonial furniture and textiles.  The long oceanfront is lined with a thin stretch of sand and a paved promenade above big rocks and rolling waves. The water is clear and blue.

Further inland, west of the canal, the streets grew more crowded, cars horns honked endlessly, shirtless withered old men held their hand out begging as we passed, and we dodged cow patties and crumples of curry-stained newspapers- this is the India we were expecting.  Still, we were able to ease ourselves in slowly by strategically retreating to the quieter streets when we needed to recharge.

I have been wanting to visit India for almost 15 years, long before I met my wonderful Canadian-Indian husband.  When we were sophomores at Tufts, my friend Shelley invited me to visit her family in Delhi over winter break.  I made photocopies all summer at a horribly boring architect’s office to make money for the plane ticket and got all my vaccinations.  Alas, our plans changed and we headed off instead to London to visit Anita studying abroad, but the dream did not die.

Three of my best friends from college are Indian, and over the years their wonderful and generous families have welcomed me to kathak dance performances, Diwali celebrations, family dinners, mehndi parties, and pujas.  I’ve worn bridesmaid saris and glass bangles in two Punjabi weddings and one Gujarati wedding, performed in a group dance at a Sangeet, and slapped sticks at a Garba Raas.  Priya taught me to make Channa Masala, Anita’s mom has given me hugs and cooked me dinner, and Shelley jokes that I’m more Indian than most of the Indians she knows.  I know she’s just being nice, but I appreciate that she’s not laughing at me fawning over all the beautiful clothing and jewelry and wishing I’d grown up with such a colorful beautiful culture.

And yet once Mohit and I booked our travels and India finally became a reality, I started to get scared.  All of my Indian friends and my new Punjabi family have told me over and over again that India is crowded and overwhelming, that the poverty is devastating and the air is thick and polluted.  As Mohit and I explored Asia together on a previous trip, I freaked out one day in Saigon.  Overwhelmed by the rain and mud and crowds and assault of motorbikes, I cried with homesickness.  He told me India would be worse.  When I complained about the trash on the beaches in Kuta, Bali, Mohit told me to expect more garbage in India.  When I begged to find another hotel room after a sleepless night on mildewy sheets in a cheap room in Guatemala, Mohit sighed and said I’d never survive India.  I've read other traveller's blogs and am terrified that some have given up on India and split for calmer days in Thailand.

As a result I'm still nervously greeting each day here but definitely enjoying myself so far.  I can see that India will be all those things my friends have warned me about, but after my first few days I noticed those things less and began to relax.  I am seeing past the dust and sweat and finding that this country is indeed as colorful and diverse as I had hoped.

Our few lazy, relaxing days in Pondicherry went by in a blur.  I sat on a third-floor wrought iron balcony looking out over the pretty beach as my dish of decadent chocolate kulfi melted before I could finish it.  I watched a family pause below to take a photograph.  Mother and daughter wore saris in matching shades of emerald green with gold borders that blew in the wind.  Dad, thin as a rail, wore tight bell-bottomed white pants, a slim-fit shirt, and sported a straight-from-the-70s mustache and poufy combed hairdo.

Workers wearing lunghis (white cotton sarongs tied around their waists) squatted in the sun to lay new stone tiles for the boardwalk, their heads and torsos a tanned shade of deep chocolate.  Hard-working women in flower-printed cotton saris carried buckets of water on their heads to the men mixing cement.

At dusk, we watched the entire town come down to the beach to stroll back and forth along the water.  Women walked with their daughters and men walked with their male friends and relatives- only rarely did we see young couples walking or sitting together.  Beautiful garlands of white jasmine flowers adorned all the women's oiled braids.  I was surprised to see women wearing gorgeous sequined georgette saris and salwars even on a weeknight on the beach.  Vendors sold ice cream, sliced pineapple, and bags of hot pink cotton candy.  Little girls wore lacy tiered chiffon dresses and kids everywhere are clearly adored.

Everywhere, girls swept the sidewalks with tied bunches of branches.  Rivulets of soapy water emptied from houses onto the street.  Women crouched at doorways filling in chalk-drawn flowers with colored powder.  In front of one doorway, a large bowl of water was filled with floating flowers.

Men and women slept sprawled out on the sidewalk in shady spots and rickshaw drivers snored loudly, their leathery feet propped up at the wheel.  A cow the color of milky chai walked lazily across the street in front of a Tamil temple, stopping traffic. There are more Christian churches here than Hindu temples, and many of the schools are Catholic or French.  Mohit and I laughed together at all the white women (there are a lot of French tourists and ex-pats in this town) wearing kurta pajamas, silver anklets, and saris and sporting henna tattoos on their feet.  Then I gave in to temptation and bought a pretty pink and white cotton tunic.

We sipped iced cafe lattes on the lawn of an old French mansion.  A sikh couple and their naked chubby baby sat in the group of rattan chairs nearby, on vacation here just as we are.  They wore matching T-shirts declaring "Proud to be Sikh".  On a roofdeck restaurant at night, with a welcome breeze coming off the ocean, we washed down a salty spicy snack of Channa Pepper Fry with a pitcher of Kingfisher beer.  The south indian spice made us both pant and eat slowly, being careful to pick out the whole peppers before taking another forkful.

On our last day in Pondicherry, Mohit waited in line for an hour at the train station to book our overnight tickets to Trivandrum, at the southern tip of the country and our entry point into Kerala.  I'm a bit nervous about the train travel but excited to venture on and see more of this amazing, unique country...


  1. the blog! I like how getting laser eye surgery is the way to a husband:). hopefully i'll see the two of you in delhi on the week of february 23rd...xoxo reetu

  2. Randomly found this blog when researching my next trip to India - sounds just like the India I have experienced already with a little get away available as well. I am excited to say the least! Great blog, thanks.

  3. Hi Kate/Mohit, first of all let me tell you that this a great blog. Globetrotting is something my fiancee has been tugging at me all along now.

    She and I have planned for Pondy in August. Could you please help us by mentioning the hotel you stayed in and must-go restaurants.

    I wonder what my fiances' reaction would be when she checks out this blog!!


  4. Aniket-

    I'm so sorry, but i can't recall the name of the hotel we stayed at. Typically, we'd arrive in town without a hotel reservation, I'd find a cafe to sit at with our bags, and Mohit would head off in search of a clean, cheap room. Hope you enjoy your trip to Pondy!


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