For my third big trip to India and Dave’s first, we decided Chennai would be a good place to start. I remembered it being slightly less of an assault on the senses than Delhi and it was closer to places we wanted to visit.
We arrived late at night and I was surprised by the lack of hassle at the airport. We organised a pre-paid taxi with no bother at all, until we got into it that was. The ride to the guesthouse brought a lot of memories back for me and put all other terrifying road experiences to one side in Dave’s mind. The driver was mental, flying past cows, auto-rickshaws, lorries, buses – weaving in and out like the king of the road. There were many eye-shutting moments.
The next few days were spent acclimatising and getting used to the chaos. It can take up to half an hour to walk just 500 metres in Chennai thanks to the vehicles that seem to drive at you. We were naturally delighted with the abundance of cheap, tasty food but not so delighted with the staring and incessant beeping of horns.
We took a disappointing half day tour of the city and then decided to move on to India’s Little France, Pondicherry – although it is now called Puducherry, it is still referred to by locals as Pondy.
We took a ‘luxury’ air-con bus for the three hour journey and had numb bums when we arrived. An auto-rickshaw driver took us to a lovely place called Hotel Continental which was in the heart of the French quarter and close to the immaculate seaside promenade.
Parts of Pondy are so quiet and removed from typical India that as ridiculous as it may sound, it could feel like you were in France at times. There’s clearly a big ex-pat community and it’s as common to find espressos and croissants on the menu as curry and rice. French wine is expensive but India makes its own fine tasting variety at a fraction of the price, what a treat!
Traffic is forbidden along the promenade road from 6pm until 7.30am which is one of the many reasons it is a hugely popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Every night crowds stroll along the front taking in the Gandhi monument, the lighthouse and countless stalls selling Indian snacks and drinks. We also spotted a large number of nightly power-walking groups as well as men playing boules.
While in Pondy, we took a trip out to Auroville – an international commune built on soil donated by 124 countries where people from all walks of life strive for harmony. Of the 1,800 inhabitants, two-thirds are foreign and there are mixed views on the place. The French woman, whose vision Auroville was, is known as ‘The Mother’ died in 1973 aged 97.
She had hoped it would grow to a city (or universal township) of 50,000 but there seems to be a long way to go. You could argue that it’s a place for the self-indulgent to fulfil their every whim on a spiritual quest to India – or a place to leave all your worldly material goods behind you instead realising interconnectedness, love and the divine. The jury’s out!
Dragging ourselves away from Pondy was pretty tough going, especially as I already know it’s one of the most chilled out places in this gigantic country – but, we’re full of energy and dying to see what this wonderful and frustrating land throws at us next.