We landed in Pondicherry to take up our “Basil and Sybille Fawlty” roles for the Gratitude hotel for two months, helping out
the owners while they pursued their various jobs and interests. Kakoli who lived full time at Gratitude was one of the driving force behind saving the heritage buildings of Pondicherry which gained force after the collapse of the town hall in November.
We took a flight from Calicut or Khozikode on the west coast on the 11th December and had a spectacular view over the beautiful Keralan mountains. We were collected by a pre ordered taxi and we had two stops to make in Chennai before travelling the three hours down to Pondicherry. Chennai is not a very attractive large city and the ongoing (many years) of installing a metro rail system made for impossibly long traffic jams. It took us over two hours to complete 20 kilometres leaving the driver very frustrated. We needed to get my computer looked at which only took the technician 15minutes to take the back off, clean it up and reprogramme a couple of things which cost the vast sum of 300 rupees or $5.50. The second stop was to take my camera to be repaired. The Olympus service centre took the camera, told me it would investigated that evening and couriered to me the following day (3hours to Pondicherry) at a cost of 200 rupees or $3.80. We were most impressed by both the service agents,their quick and efficient ways and their friendly attitudes. I know in Australia it would have taken much longer and cost a awful lot more.
Pondicherry like the rest of India is an assault on all the senses. It is however in a juxtaposed way with a marked difference between the French heritage area on the east side of the canal and the much more frenetic Tamil side of town.
There is the incessant honking of horns (no stop signs) at every intersection or “cutting” as many locals call it and the calls of the door to door sellers, the pungent odours when crossing the canal from the more sanitised “white town”. There are wonderful aromas of fresh samosas and other delicious foods being cooked at the roadside, the sight of beautifully restored houses and buildings and the derelict crumbling ones with trees growing from their rooves. There are also the sobering sights of the very poor living on the streets, some in what appear to be communities.
There is such a variety of food with the French cuisine and fresh seafood to the spicy and aromatic Chetinnad cooking of Tamil Nadu.
Both sides of town have their share of beautifully restored buildings – the French heritage buildings with their concrete
pillars and the Tamil ones on the other side of the canal with their carved wooden pillars.
It was lovely being close (two blocks away)to the sea with it’s wide promenade at the seafront. It was a pleasure to walk along it in the morning to see the sunrise and in the evening after 7.30pm when the road was closed to traffic until 7.30am each morning. A rock seawall separated the sea from the promenade.
Rubbish removal remains a problem with most of it just strewn over various parts of both sides of town but seems to be collected daily on the French side whereas there remains more neglected rubbish heaps on the Tamil side of the city.
We were warmly welcomed by the staff at the “Gratitude”. Our role was a guest relations and staff relations one whereby we helped with the breakfast, had breakfast with the guests and answered any questions about Pondicherry. Most of the questions related to what to see and where to eat. There were only a couple of guests when we arrived but that number quickly rose and it was full from the 20th December until well into February. The peak season in Pondy is from December to the end of February when cooler weather with pleasant breezes from the Bay of Bengal invites people from the northern, colder parts of India at that time of year and from much hotter Chennai.
As usual there were many interesting people staying at “Gratitude”. A girl from Pakistan who had great trouble getting a visa because of the tensions between Pakistan and India. She had to nominate each place she was visiting and report to the police station at every stop.
She was attending a wedding in Jaipur and just transited Delhi, however as she had written down Delhi on her visa application
when she arrived in Jaipur they would not let her stay and made her fly back to Delhi to get an official stamp before letting her proceed to Jaipur. As we finished this discussion an Austrian professor who was staying at Gratitude arrived and asked if I was also from Pakistan!
Our first few days were very relaxed and Gratitude, a tranquil haven with a leafy central courtyard was very pleasant.
To cross the canal into the Tamil part of town one noticed the change in pace and traffic. Sundays were particularly crowded in MG road (Mahatma Ghandi) with a market the length of the street. The local so called “Big Bazaar” or “Goubert Market” was a fascinating place to visit with virtually everything on sale in vast quantities from fish, fruit,spices, flowers and vegetables to letter boxes and household items. I couldn’t get over the mountains of flowers and corriander for sale and wondered what they did with all the excess every day.
I occasionally risked life and limb on the back of a motorbike to buy food for the Gratitude.
The pace really picked up with Christmas and New Year as a lot of Indians took their holidays over that period . A lot of them book at the last minute and we could have sold the rooms a hundred times over with people wanting to book for the next day or even ringing when they were on their way into Pondicherry.
Most only stayed for a couple of days whereas as a rule the Europeans tended to stay longer. Pondy is many hours drive from
anywhere and most people were exhausted by the time they arrived having flown into Chennai from many destinations in India and abroad.
It was much nicer for me when we had guests staying for a longer period like Nidhi a very talented screenwriter from Mumbai and her sister in law Anjum, and Linda and Monica who happened to live half an hour away from Maurice’s cousin in Germany and Nick and Kate lawyers from Sydney. They invited me out and I could enjoy their company which made a pleasant break from staying at the hotel.
I prepared a Christmas lunch (with the help of one of the staff) for 15 of the owners’ family and friends and that went down well with five kilos of plum pudding that we had brought from Ireland for the day.
Our dear friends Tony and Michelle from Perth arrived for a week’s stay which was a welcome relief as we could spend a bit of time with them and show them around a bit. We went to the “Dupleix” hotel for New Year’s Eve after confirming that the music would not be techno or blaring like we had had in Chennai the year before. For about $50 a person we had a wonderful array of seafood, fish, chicken and vegetarian fare with wonderful desserts and unlimited wine or soft drink. A French couple provided wonderful music for the evening.
We had a trip out to Auroville, a very different community about half an hour away to see the Matrimandir and to Chidambaram temple a couple of hours away. Our nice little guide that we hired was very hard to understand and he kept asking me if I had understood what he said. I did say yes although with his thick accent some of it was unfathomable but he was very enthusiastic.
After a month Maurice flew back to Kerala for a three week stay for more treatment for his rheumatoid arthritis which worked a treat and he came back a week before we were due to leave, pain free. It meant that I was on my own for those weeks which were fairly hectic with a six o’clock start and sometimes late finish but it was all in all a worthwhile experience although exasperating at times and a tiring one.
We tried out a few of the restaurants in Pondicherry even finding an Italian couple who produced fresh homemade pasta. I suffered a few trials and tribulations with the staff which made us appreciate how troublesome running a place of that kind could be. I also had some middle of the night awakenings and a few problems to be solved as well as writing procedures and generally cleaning up the back of house areas.
We didn’t need an alarm clock at Gratitude as the noisy crows woke us up every morning. They were a real pest and picked over all the garbage on the streets before it was collected by the rubbish people. There were packs of dogs around the French quarter but they were in the main a tranquil and well fed lot and most slept very soundly during the day and only seem to get agitated if other dogs encroached on their turf.
We fed one who slept under the owner’s car when we had leftovers and he became quite friendly by the time we left. We hoped that they would continue to feed him. There were also very cute tiny chipmunks who would vacuum the courtyard for any croissant crumbs that I saved them but who disappeared at lightning speed if you came anywhere near them.
The Ashram has many sites in town and they run many businesses in the city.
There was a major incident the first week we were in the city with a family of seven being evicted after a ten year battle to stay in the Ashram. They threatened if evicted to commit suicide and the whole family went and threw themselves in the sea with three of them unable to be saved.
There were many theories as to why they were evicted but afterwards people threw stones at the Ashram and had a general strike and wanted the government to take over the running of the place.
It was a sad time and there was a large police presence around the Ashram and we were advised to close the front windows in case of any trouble.
Everyone luckily calmed down and we didn’t notice anything different up our end of town.
I had changed my views on beggars after reading Rohinton Mistry’s “A Fine Balance” which was a graphic depiction of life in India pre and post partition. The beggars had a beggar master who obviously took their takings but who also looked after the group to ensure their own income. Their did not appear to be many professional beggars in Pondicherry rather just poor people living on the street or beside the canals. Instead of always giving them money which some gratefully accepted I would buy a couple of doughnuts or pastries and give them those instead. They all looked as though they needed a good feed.
Some homeless people just bedded down anywhere on a spare piece of pavement and most of the ones I saw had a blanket or cover that they wrapped around themselves with the odd dog curled up beside them. Many of the cycle rickshaw and auto rickshaw drivers slept curled up in heir vehicles, their only home.
We went and bought the fresh croissants (which all the guests enjoyed)every day getting there by 7am (a 15-20minute walk away) but we didn’t mind as it allowed us and then me some exercise every day. The walk took us along the promenade by the sea and then via the Governor’s mansion opposite a nice park and over the odiferous canal to the “hot bread” shop.
Nidhi joined me for the time she was at Gratitude which made for a nice morning walk and she introduced me to the juice shop across the road while we waited for our croissants. I ventured later to trying their onion samosas for 2rupees which were delicious.
Maurice and I went out to Auroville one day to the “Tsunamika” day which was attended by thousands of school children as well as tourists and locals. It was to celebrate 10years since Tsunamika was established. The project has focused on the fisherwomen who were traumatized by the Tsunami disaster. The initial aim of the project was to help the women overcome the trauma they experienced, by getting them involved in some creative handicraft work which could channel their energy in a constructive manner. For this purpose, 480 ladies from 6 coastal villages were given handicraft
training to make a small doll using left-over fabric from Upasana’s products. The project team then bought the completed dolls from the fisherwomen and began distributing them widely as gift items. The doll, known as Tsunamika, quickly became very popular, and soon helped establish a strong emotional bond and identity among the people who had made her, as well as among those who received her. Soon the project evolved into a livelihood option for nearly 180 ladies, who began receiving income for every doll they made. At the same time large numbers of people volunteered to distribute Tsunamika worldwide, and the entire project became a demonstration of “gift economy”. Within a period of just 18 months, with donations coming in from around the world, the project became self-sufficient to run on its own income.
The 14th until the 17th of January marked the Tamil Nadu harvest festival called “Pongal”. The first day of the festival saw many small fires outside houses to burn any old items no longer wanted. The second day saw beautiful “Kolams” or chalk drawings in front of most houses, businesses and hotels. The city had several Kolam competitions with hundreds being drawn along the promenade. It was a shame that the first for the season was washed away with rain as soon as they were done. The second competition was more successful and the Kolams remained for a couple of days.
A group of us went along to day three of the “Pongal” celebrations to a small town where there was going to be a procession of decorated tractors and carts with bullocks with their brightly painted horns. We saw a number of these but left before the procession started as they were waiting for a local MP to arrive to begin the festivities which meant that it would have been nightfall and we didn’t want a drive back in the dark. The fourth day was party day with thousands of locals all in their finery parading along the promenade.
One night we went along to a traditional dance performance by two Dutch/Indian brothers called “Arangart Tanjore Quartet Bharata Natyam”. They were wonderful dancers who were passionate about not losing the traditional dance forms.
We were lucky to get to the show as the autorickshaw driver who we thought knew where we were going – didn’t and after him asking a few people as to the whereabouts of the venue – just walked off and left the four of us in the rickshaw. He did eventually come back and we found we were only a few metres from where we should have been.
I took Nidhi along to “Aquarelles” art gallery where Maurice and I had seen some lovely watercolour artwork. I ended up buying two paintings from two of the very talented artists.
The Gratitude is regularly visited by many Indian architect students and tourists alike as a fine example of a renovated
heritage house. Some arrive in groups and are quite noisy so it is a constant job of keeping them quiet while there are guests around. There are also walking tours for mainly French guests of which there are many. Many of the local Tamil people speak some French rather than English as it was a French colony for so many years.
I had quite a lot of practise with my French and some with German and Italian although the majority of people visiting Pondicherry are Indian tourists,then followed by the French and a handful of English, American, Australian and a few Scandinavians, Germans, Italians and Russians.
The 26th January apart from being Australia Day for me was also Indian Republic day and a lot of the businesses were closed for the long weekend holiday. We had 100 percent occupancy, so with me and the owners who had returned from their sojourn in Delhi made twenty one people for breakfast.
It took me a while to get used to the staff when I asked them to do something, shaking their heads ear to ear for “yes” which for me meant “maybe”. The difficulty was when asked a question which involved more than “Is the room ready” I had to take the
staff to the reservations manager Vijay who spoke English and Tamil so as to translate for me. I wished that I had more time to learn some Tamil rather than just “hello, how are you” and “very tasty” for the delicious food we had.
We went invited to Vijay’s house one night for a lovely dinner and to meet his wife, son, mother and niece. He lived in a quiet village about 1/2 hour away from Pondicherry. On the way there we saw a huge rally for two political parties (elections were coming up) and we wondered why there were so many thousands of people attending the procession. We were told that people got a meal and were paid for their support. No wonder there was so much enthusiasm.
We had a frightening incident the week before Maurice got back. I and all the guests, the security guard (who normally slept)and the owner were awakened about 1am to a very loud explosion and crash. I expected to see part of the building lying in the courtyard but there was nothing untoward as we all ventured out into it. Three of us climbed a ladder up onto the roof to inspect the solar tank thinking it may have been the cause but there was nothing to see there either. I looked over the wall which was a common one with our hotel and an old metal water heater in the bathroom of the guesthouse next door had exploded in one of the guestrooms and gone through the asbestos roof and landed in their courtyard (just next to ours) along with the toilet, basin, door and many other things from the room. There was a woman asleep in her bed just metres away in the bedroom and it was a miracle that she wasn’t hurt. She would have however got an almighty fright as we all did and she was much closer. I don’t think anyone slept much after that. I know I didn’t.
Another commotion the following week resulted from a monkey walking into the breakfast room and overturning the milk powder (leaving a footprint) and breaking a cup. He obviously didn’t like the tea or coffee we served and left. Two days later there were two monkey on an inside staircase who managed to frighten one of the cleaning ladies. After that episode we closed the door to the terrace in the afternoon and also the glass doors in front of the breakfast room. They could still get in from an opening in the lounge area but at least it was a deterrent.
Prices for food varied greatly from the wonderful”Kamatchi” biryani veedu local restaurant where you could get a delicious meal for about $3 to the more expensive upmarket hotels in the French quarter serving more western fare. The prices there were still at least half of what we would pay in Australia. We mainly ate what the cook had prepared for us for lunch and dinner which was always tasty but occasionally we ventured out for the odd meal.
Our money went an awfully long way in India. I found an excellent tailor (the pictures I took of the tailor’s shop would not inspire you) who did a wonderful job of turning the silk sari I bought (they are all six metres long) into a top and a long lined coat for about $12. Maurice had shoes fixed for next to nothing including a tip to a wonderful smiling cobbler. We have found in India a “can do” and obliging attitude which although understanding that everyone has to make a living, is a refreshing thing to find when in so many countries the attitude can be so different when something is not vital to their survival.
I’m afraid that this was a very long post with many photos but the experiences of two months in one place in India were too
much to fit into a short one.