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Read. Suffer. Try to Enjoy.

...Et un jour et demi dans Pondicherry

Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Pit stop at the Chennai contact’s place over, we then went to the Chennai Mofussil Bus Stand (C.M.B.T) to catch a bus to Pondy (40 bucks by rick – the skin tones worked yegain). We got slightly gypped here…the best route to Pondy is via the East Coast Road (ECR) – which is supposed to be very scenic with a huge stretch of sea all along...pity we missed it. The bus we took went via some weird small towns, and joined the ECR for just a km or so. We had asked the conductor before boarding…so technically he didn’t really lie. But we got to marvel at the quality of roads even in the smallest of towns en route. Mumbai’s Western Express ‘Highway’(lol lol) would have shriveled (even more) in shame.

A Tamil-movie-on-DVD-accompanied (the hero was called Thirumalai – garage mechanic), cramped, almost-blood-clot-inducing 4 hour ride later, we reached Pondy. First step was to catch a rick (25 bucks – got to torture the rick guy with my version of Tamil – ‘Moddalu bike, aaparramma Park Guest House’ – thanks to Quick Gun Murugun – remember ‘Moddalu sambar, aaparramma nee’?) and go to the central market (M.G. Road) to get a Kinetic Honda on hire. There’s this guy called Gopi who gives out bikes and stuff, near the Casablanca Hotel. The rates are around 80 bucks/day for a Kine, and 120-150 for bikes depending on the models. Hiring a two-wheeler is the best way to get around here, else you will end up spending ALL your travel money on ricks.

Then it was off to the Aurobindo Park Guest House. This is an amazing place to stay in…with dirt cheap rates and first-rate accommodation. A spanking clean, airy non-AC room for a 100 bucks a day (2 persons ka sharing). That’s it. Go on…rub your eyes real well. There’s no (artificially fawning - tip cadging)room service/telephone/intercom stuff…but out there, you really don’t need it. Situated at the end of the ‘sea-face’(very reminiscent of the one at Worli), it is THE place to stay in. Slightly strict about timings – there is a 10.30 p.m. curfew. Considering that we crashed at 9.45 p.m., the time limit is not as draconian as it seems. Also, smoking, drinking and drugs - not allowed in the rooms. Lots of other staying options are available, averaging from 200-500 bucks/day but finding acco can be a slight pain on weekends. Lotsa places near the bus stand, but staying in the French part is a lot more fun.

It was then time to take in the sights. One side of Pondicherry (near the bus stand and main market) is STRAIGHT out of Tamil Nadu. The crowds, the bustle, the noise, the markets. Cross one small road, and then the French Quarter begins. A totally different world – the bright yellow buildings, the sparse population, the sudden peace and quiet.

You see more expats here than locals. A word on the French women is in place. Had only heard about French beauties, actually got to see them. Porcelain skin, ruby-red lips, and athletic bods. Shiver me timbers laddies. Shiver me timbers.

We then went to the Aurobindo Samadhi. A wonderful, peaceful place, with a lot of fragrant flowers all around. The silence was divine here, broken only momentarily by some kids' utterings - immediately shushed by their embarrassed parents.

After that, it was plain old lukkhagiri on the streets on the whiny old Kine (15 paise ka engine, 5 rupaye ka aawaj). There are a lot of options for eating out...with genuinely classy, open-air,‘French style’ joints. Our dinner menu - 3 bottles of beer, garlic bread with cheese, french fries, vegetable lasagne, and spinach rice. The bill? 517. We were left shaking our heads in disbelief. When beer is just 65 bucks a bottle, that too at such a joint, faith is all you've got to hold on to. We made our unsteady steps back, and hit the sack.

The next morning dawned cloudy and gray. We went first up to Auroville, which is around 8 kms from the Guest house.
Visited the Matrimandir temple(I LOVED the basic funda of the place – no religion, no idols, no rituals, just a beam of sunlight concentrated on a crystal. Meditate and find your own answers within your own selves. The temple is still under construction), and the museum. A must pick-up from the boutiques here are the hand-crafted, non-toxic incense sticks, which are really cool, with fragrances ranging from Lotus, to Opium, and Coffee. Very good gift ideas.

Then went to the Auroville Beach. A nice expanse with nary a single bhel-puri stall in sight. Fab. Couldn’t really appreciate the beach much, mostly due to the lack of sunshine. Got caught in a light drizzle, which added to the ‘coolth’ factor of it all.

Two days is more than enough to take in all of Pondicherry. A very good de-stresser, the Pondy tourism department’s slogan just about says it all.

Give Time A Break.

C’est vrai. Cent pour cent de vrai.

posted by Tapan at 10:21 PM

Half a day in Chennai…

From Bangalore, it was onward ho to Pondicherry via Chennai. Now I was insanely apprehensive about visiting the place, after all the horror stories I’d heard about the lack of Hindi speaking populace, and the sheer hatred toward people who dared to speak in the ‘rashtrabhasha’. It was therefore with a palpitant heart that I got into the train to Chennai at Bangalore, with muh homeboy Vinod. The first thing this guy pointed out was the name of the train – ‘Cauvery Express’. We instantly found it very very ironic. Don’t you think?

We got the plushest seats in the house…right next to the loo. Also complimentary were the noisiest train brakes in the world just beneath us. They ensured that I could not get more than half an hour’s worth of decent sleep. And the fact that I woke up every hour, sweating bullets and trying to recollect whatever Tamil I knew didn’t help either. Suitably refreshed, we got down at Chennai Central station. For a moment, I thought we were in V.T. Ditto to Ditto. The same kind of buzz, platform structures, overhead metal awnings/skeletons. Then caught a local train to a station called ‘Guindy’. Here’s where the primal Mumbai instinct kicked in, and I managed to locate a fare chart (in English) to check out the fare as well as the position of the destination from the terminus (to get the answer to the all-important question ‘kaunse station pe utarne ka?’). When the local train pulled up, I felt another strong blast of déjà vu. The same kind of stunt-pullers – getting off and boarding running trains, a whole mass of bodies marching up and down ‘footover-bridges’...

Ricks in Chennai are too princely to bother about trivialities like fare meters. The law of the haggle reigns supreme. We had been tipped off by a local contact that the rick guy would ask for 40-60 bucks to get to his place. One look at our skin tones, and 40 was what he asked for. Felt real happy.

The roads in Chennai were a pleasant surprise. Wide, clean(ish), and the traffic didn’t look too unmanageable. Also, communication can be decent, with a little mixture of English and sign language. If you are a southie, then a smattering of Tamil shouldn’t be toooo difficult to pick up.

Then again, half a day does not a truly correct impression make.

posted by Tapan at 9:22 PM

The Bangalore Travelogue

Monday, January 09, 2006

The first thing that hits you as you get out of the Airport is the lack of slums on the outside. Mumbai is tops as far as that goes, with rickety shanties gleefully sharing the compound wall with the AAI. In fact, the lack of slums is true for the most part as far as the majority of places I saw testify. Very few beggars if at all around traffic signals, unlike the veritable mini-republic I am used to out here.

As you start going towards the city, another pleasant surprise is the lack of multi-storeyed residential structures. Mumbai mandates a minimum of 4 floors, these guys are oh-so-happy with two, the swank office premises apart of course. Things are changing it seems, I couldn't really see too many though. The quaint old/neo-worldly bungalows still are a refreshing change.

There really aren't too many traffic signals. In Mumbai, every smallish/medium sized crossroad has a traffic signal, or a roundabout to regulate flow, but here, there are 'ram-bharose' intersections galore, where bikes, ricks, buses and cars love to partake in bad driving orgies. And add to that, those lovely mini speed breakers (4 or 5 of them in a row) which have a sudden, unpainted and unannounced tendency to just materialize out of nowhere and proceed to jar the living yin and yang out of you.

Didn’t probably experience the full majesty and glory of the city’s much publicized traffic woes. Braving Chakala everyday, and Saki Naka sometimes (the horror…the horror) safely qualifies me to kinda feel that I have you know…seen it all. Open to debate though.

For me, one defining, only in Bangalore (for that matter,
Karnataka) sight is this.

These plug-ugly electricity transformers or whatever you call them, can be found everywhere, right from the poshest colonies to malls. Never seen one in Mumbai. Very cool curios. Probably serve as a visual reminder as to how important 'poweru' is to the Bangalorean way of life.

Then we have the eating places, with fancy suffixes like palace(!), corner, sagar, mandir (I kid you not), camp and paradise. I'll be damned if I can find a spoonful of good old white coconut chutney here. A very disturbing development is the total bastardization of this all-important side dish. All these places serve a 'tastes-good-the-first-time-sucks-every-subsequent-time' type of revolting, greenish pudina (or if you want the Kannadiga spelling - pudhina) chutney, with coconut bunged in as an afterthought. The coconut prices are probably on par with the IT salaries here, and these guys thoughtfully pack in a good deal of this green stuff to serve the hungry hordes and make a nice little profit in the meantime. Waat to do saar? Vaalumesu (that's volumes with a 'u'). Food used to be cheap once upon a time here, but the decent sit-and-eat places are on par with Bombay rates. A Masala Dosa is priced on the wrong side of twenty here too. There should be a media story highlighting how much the eatery dudes here are raking in. If the famished crowds in front of EVERY joint are an indication, the IT earnings do have some serious competition.

Then the expat crowd. Tons of them, with the best part being the total absence of grubby street urchins running behind them, palms outstretched, idiotic smiles on their faces, and condescending 'wtf' types of smiles on the expats'. Here, they have their own space to take in the sights without taking home nice stories about how ****ing poor our country is. Which hopefully will influence Hollywood film-makers to show a little less begging in future flicks.
(Start of huge tangent)
An episode of the X-Files comes to mind, which showed Sahar Airport, and as soon as one of the characters steps out of the terminal, he is beseiged by a proper mob of raggedy people mouthing 'Kuch khaane ko de do sahab. Kuch nahi hai sahab'. And later when he mysteriously dies, his autopsy report is written in 'Farsi'. Brilliant homework there. Patriotic sentiments aside, I think they are justified... just think of the stellar portrayal of 'foreigners' in our movies. Bob Christo, Gavin Packard, even Amrish Puri (Marcolini - Commando, speaking flawless Hindi) and the likes, and you will realize that we HAD to meet Nemesis sometime.
(End of huge tangent)

Some rickshaws sport digital fare meters. Pity they stop working the way they are supposed to, post 9 p.m., when the mysterious rule of 'one-and-aulf' mows down everything in it's path. Post 11 p.m. it’s double. And really late? Gaad(u) help us awwl.

Had the good fortune to walk along Bannerghata Road, which houses some really swank IT companies at 4 a.m. Felt like I was in a bad-ass rural hinterland. There are no ****ing street-lights. Or maybe there are, but they don’t work at night. Was too dark to see anyways. Heh Heh. The only illumination I could see was thanks to the IT companies ka buildings on the road. Which really isn’t saying much. No ricks, no people, just the usual friendly stray dogs. Forget good roads, shouldn’t at least a couple of streetlights be provided? IT capital and all that?

The newspapers here are a lot better than the miserable rags we get in Mumbai. I LOVED the fact that ‘Bangalore Times’ is just 4 pages. Let’s not even go into what we get here. It’s enough to merit another post.

Somethings never change here though. It is still difficult to find a paan shop open after 10 p.m. here, people LOVE to retire early. The roads post 9 p.m. are as deserted as a theatre daring to screen 'Mr. Prime Minister'. Contrast that to ANY railway station in Mumbai, which can boast of a good amount of push-HAS-to-come-to-shove even at 1 a.m. Was a very refreshing change indeed. Enough for any Mumbaikar's sanity to be threatened. Where have all the people gone?!!! (pinch pinch) Where?!!

But the best part of whatever I saw was the typical Bangalore bus stop. Very nice colour combinations of white and dark green, with good lighting, intact railings. Everything save bus numbers mentioned on it. Couldn’t get enough of the concept. Bet you never thought that there could be bus stops without any bus numbers on them. How wrong you were. How wrong. According to sources, there’s something in the ether surrounding the city which permeates your inner consciousness, and automatically guides you all your life, just in case you ever felt like getting into a bus.

End of story.

posted by Tapan at 8:58 PM