Pondicherry had a lot to make up for before I even got there. I was angry with the weather for cancelling my trip to Kerala – which was the part of the trip I’d been excited about for the longest – and we’d subsequently booked Pondicherry very last minute. We were hoping to beat the monsoon by racing to the opposite coast to the one it was currently ravaging; I must say it worked.
It’s getting a little less sharp in my brain so I thought I’d wrap up my India posts here. The highlight of the largely hilarious trip was the Night Bus there – the 8 and a bit hour journey from hell, where we realised the utterly wrong thing to have done was to have booked seats right above the wheels at the back of the bus. I attempted to lie horizontal but not a single bit of sleep occurred as my whole body flew up and down off the mattress with alarming violence, we found ourselves looping our arms around the rickety bars on the side of the bed to ensure we didn’t fly right out and as soon as it got dark I frequently panicked, due to the dramatic squealing of breaks and tipping of the coach, that we’d gone off road and been hijacked. Out of the window once I looked and just saw a dense black expanse of trees and potholed mud stretching as far as the bus lights carried my vision – I definitely thought we were going to die. And as for the creepy bus staff…
We made it, were yelled at to hurry up getting off the bus and then were dumped in a deserted street, a little delirious, at 6.30am. The hotel wasn’t open and we got shouted out of a cafe, which had had its door open, so we headed for the seafront. That was glorious. The road there is closed to traffic from 8pm till 8am so it is just full of joggers and walkers and families with push chairs. The beach isn’t one for swimming off – just a pile of sharp-ish black rocks tumbling straight into the grey sea – but it looked very atmospheric, the sea reflecting the bright morning rays of sun back to us as we sat at Le Cafe, the only cafe on the sea-side, which is handily open 24hours, and munched our cheese on toast and masala omelettes. To the left of the cafe the promenade stretches a long way, past a large metal statue of Ghandi, surrounded by white pillars, and ghostly stalls, empty now, which fill at night with vendors selling brightly coloured sweets and children’s toys. At night the beach is a lovely place to sit and people watch. The dogs roam the streets and beaches in packs, but are mostly unthreatening, children plod past you trying to sell you anything for money, people have skype conversations while watching the sea; they sit together and share headphones, or let their children play on the now-cool rocks. It’s very serene. Pondicherry is mostly that, serene and harmless. One the last night in Pondicherry us and the rest of the town, it seemed, gathered on the rocks as though to watch a firework display, to gaze in awe (in my case fear) at three storms converging on each other in the sea, all heading our way, sending lightning strikes to the floor in broad white forks. Then when the rain started we sheltered again in Le Cafe and watched as umbrella sellers began to emerge from the streets and hassle passers-by.
Pondicherry itself isn’t over burdened with ‘stuff to do’ but there are a lot of places to eat and a lot of luxury hotels with pools (we were so jealous). I probably had more food than is actually legal during the three days we spent there – including my first time trying Barracuda – and I had a lot of Iced Tea there, which is exceptionally good by the way. It was also an exercise in finding air-conditioned venues for much of the time; we certainly beat the monsoon. We popped into churches and museums as we stumbled across them but after a long walk on the seafront, during which we were asked to star in a Tamil Movie, which we did, we made a beeline for the House Boats. It was a little disappointing that so late in the day your options for what boat you can take seem to be pretty limited (our language barrier was also a massive problem). We hopped on the only boat that seemed to be available and headed out onto the water, weaving in and out of fishermen in their coracles and making for an island on the horizon. We hit up paradise beach totally unprepared with no swimming costumes (everyone was ignoring the No Swimming sign) and collected shells and walked instead. It had a tropical vibe, water sports galore, plenty of palm trees, white-ish sand and washed out beach huts with straw roofs. As with all Indian beaches, dodge the rubbish, but it was pretty clean and the water was warm. I put my toes into the Bay of Bengal for the first time ever!
On the Friday I dragged everybody on a short Auto ride to the other side of town to Serenity Beach, a beautiful mess of fishing nets and boats, in a rainbow of colours, with a small concrete path leading past the quaint beach houses, looking a little windswept, at the back of the beach. I came there to surf with Kalialay Surf School and I had one of the best mornings of my life, repeatedly plummeting from my board into the warm salty water while my friends watched be, in a bemused kind of way, from the stone groin. I harbour a lot of love for serenity beach, which has its own breed of serenity, the contentment (so it seemed) of fishermen and avid surfers, living a relatively simple life on the front line of nature. To some people it might have looked unreasonably messy or just plain shabby but I loved the how effortlessly the beach seemed to exude all its colours and how intensely I could smell the salt water.
Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Meditation dome at Auroville challenged my typical travel incentives a little. I’m not the world’s greatest meditate-er and though I admire the ethos of a lot of communities, like those in Auroville, I can’t quite see myself identifying enough to ever become a part of them. Although, I would love to see inside the dome at Auroville. The Ashram is a small, lush space just behind the temple in Pondicherry that is made for meditation and personal thought. Nothing fancy but very serene and with beautiful flowers and a little history about the founder of this community, known as The Mother. Inside what I noticed most (not getting too far with inner thought) was the most graceful seeming woman I had ever seen; she was very old, bent right over the centre of the ashram and lost in her own world, wearing a beautiful dress, with quite an open back displaying her perfect posture and smooth shoulders. I was quite shocked by how beautiful she was and it wasn’t until she stood up, and began to move very slowly, I realised that she could barely walk, due to something wrong with her feet and legs; and yet I’d never seen anyone radiating so much peace and grace. We went on to Auroville which was colourful and tourist friendly, still peaceful and very secluded in a forest with beautiful gardens all around but at the same time very open and warm. And quite commercial, although the food is delicious and the shops are wonderful to look around, certainly worth spending a little time and money there.
The dome itself seems to have been deposited by an alien. Unlike almost any architectural structure I’ve ever seen these strange, dimpled golden orb shimmers oddly in the natural surroundings, fitting in and yet not quite fitting in, surreal and otherworldly; it’s like you can’t quite look at it straight, or can’t quite see it. How it seems to glow is quite magical and the surrealism is only heightened by the buzzards circling above it searching for prey in the clearing below; it looks like their being drawn to it to guard it. I would love to see the inside but it’s reserved for serious meditation and is by invitation only.
The thing that rounded the trip off incredibly – before we piled back onto the hideous night bus in the pouring rain – was getting to see, and touch, a real elephant at the Ganesha temple in the centre of Pondi. I was so excited to see the temple elephant but hadn’t anticipated to be so scared of him when I came close to him the twilight. When there is no fence or large pit between you the elephant suddenly seems a lot bigger, even the Indian Elephant is majestically large, and obviously extremely docile with it, as it collected coins in the crook of its trunk and handed out blessings in return. I can see why people want to spend their lives working with elephants – there is a magical sensation that tingles all through your body when one touches you, you start to think there’s a reason these creatures are sacred, like they really are delivering you something godly in the gentle tickle of their long trunk. The thing that made me think was looking at his eyes though; they weren’t beautiful per say, they were scary. When you look at an elephants eyes you see that this is a wild creature, they look inherently wild, and there seems a shame in keeping them tame. I know he’s not treated badly, as a temple elephant, but he did look bored – maybe, if that’s possible – and it seemed just unfair to me, that he shouldn’t be stomping through the forest and foraging with a herd. Perhaps that’s a very naive view but I was pleased to get so close to such an awe-striking beast anyway.