Along the Away

travel, dream, create, inspire, appreciate

Posts Tagged ‘ Travelling in India ’

Next stop was Jaipur – the capital of the state of Rajasthan and one of my favourite places thanks to its bustling vibe, filled with bazaars and busy streets. We had a lot of fun attempting to fit as many people in an auto-rickshaw as possible (eight! But apparently you can fit 12 if necessary) which resulted in lots of in-unison-screeching as pot holes sent eight heads bashing onto the rickshaw ceiling and butts slamming onto the hard skinny seats – but lots of laughs too of course!

A Jaipur highlight was seeing a bollywood film at the Raj Mandir theatre, deliciously retro with its candy pink and baby blue foyer complete with chandeliers and star-shaped lights. We felt like celebrities out the front where an Indian tourist came over to us to introduce his family and have photos with us. The film, Thank You (थैंक यू), was in Hindi, no subtitles, but still universally entertaining (cheesiness knows no language barriers).

Another Jaipur must-do is the trek up the hillside, past a heap of crazed monkeys, to the Galwar Bagh Monkey Temple at sunset. What a fabulous view of Jaipur from the top! The monkeys are spoilt, aggressive little brats that you have to avoid making eye contact with otherwise they will jump you and mug you for everything you have on your person. But apart from that, we enjoyed a perfectly pleasant visit speed walking past the monkeys and taking photos from the top.

There was some good shopping to be done in Jaipur’s bazaars, in particular for silver jewellery – proud to say I played my part in supporting the local economy. Yep, that’s what it’s all about! As I was wandering around the bazaars with the girls we stopped to window gaze at a silver store. The next thing we knew we had been whisked inside the door by a peppy young guy who smoothly had us all lined up in seats at the counter, offering to make us tea while pulling out trays and trays of shiny silver pretties! Normally I’d be backing out the door at this point but there was just something about him, his keen entrepreneur spirit seemed genuine and he chatted away giving us an art history lesson in Indian traditional and contemporary jewellery. We liked him and more importantly we liked his trays of shiny silver pretties so it was not long until we all had our wallets out.

The bazaars are brilliant to wander through; photo moments at every corner, each store packed with a colourful variety of produce, sweets, spices – well everything actually! And the store owners were only too happy to have their stock and themselves photographed.

The tour of Amber Fort near Jaipur was a favourite for me; what an awesome presence this late 16th century citadel has, staking its claim with stone walls running along the mountain tops wherever the eye can see. Predominantly constructed with red sandstone and white marble, the fort sits picturesquely next to Lake Maotha and stands four floors high. The imposing exterior fits into the rugged landscape perfectly but the interior is a piece of art. Intricately carved columns, mirror-inlaid patterned wall panels, paintings flaking away but still showing glimpses of vibrant colour – the attention to detail inside is exquisite and one can only imagine what life was like for those who lived and worked inside the fort when it was in its prime; especially with furniture and textiles further cosying up the ambience.

The four floors all seemed to serve a purpose, the bottom set the scene for parades and the bustling bazaar, another held offices of the ruling empire and halls for public and private audiences, and another housed the consorts (100+ of them!), gardens and temple. The top floor was home to the twelve wives, all set up in their own mini-palace apartments accessible by the Maharaja by a discreet common corridor so that no one but he knew who he was visiting and how often, diplomatically maintaining harmony in the household! Diplomacy was one thing the Amber Fort was lauded for; the careful attention to neutrality and strategic alliances with other ruling forces, from nearby kings to the British meant Amber Fort enjoyed relative peace and was never attacked or conquered. I’m sure the impressive walls and outposts on the surrounding mountains also helped :-).

Rajasthan adventures continue in the next post…!

Leaving the Taj behind us, we travelled by local jeeps to a rural village heritage stay at Madhogarh Fort – a dominating-mama of a building perched at the edge of a small village.  The 400+ year old fort belongs to one of Rajasthan’s royal families and provided a unique stay in a more rural part of Rajasthan.

We were lucky to spend an afternoon walking through the local village where we were accosted by local children begging for ‘one photo’ then clamouring to see the end result on the camera preview.

We met so many charming personalities through our walk in the village, and even through the language barrier we had fun stopping for a few minutes to take photos and show the results.

We were able to visit the school and some local bead makers and sari embroiders.

And watched village life as it continued rolling on around us.

Gradually it seemed that news of our visit spread through the town as we started to attract more attention, and after we stumbled on a wedding celebration in the village we were completely surrounded. The cameras were turned on us as the wedding photographers came over to snap away. We became aware of a commotion happening to the side of us and noticed the musicians were playing their drums and instruments amongst a throng of people smiling and pointing into the circle they had made; on closer inspection we saw Alan, an older Melbournian on our tour, putting on a dance performance with one of the Indian guests. He was clapping and foot stamping and waltzing around with a big grin on his face much to the delight of the entire wedding party. I think it certainly made the event the talk of the town for the rest of the year!

After returning to the fort, the sun started setting on the horizon and it was a perfect time to explore all the nooks and crannies of the crumbling building. It has its own brand of charm, perched above the village with the rural landscape flat-lining all the way to the horizon. We sat on the top of a turret and watched the sun set with cold drinks – ah, peace!

That night we were dressed up in traditional skirts, tops and saris for the girls and turbans for the boys and then enjoyed dinner in the courtyard under the stars – which were popping out on the sky-scape away from the bright lights of urban India. A very special experience!

From Delhi I was off to explore Rajasthan – the land of palaces, forts, scorching summer heat and colourful villages; a very culturally diverse part of India. I joined a Classic Rajasthan two week Intrepid Travel tour with ten other travellers and a guide. It had a great itinerary and attracted an awesome group of people; we had a lot of fun and many laughs as we explored this amazing part of India.

We were meant to get a train to Agra but after an early morning trip to the train station our train turned up but with no seats for us! Something to do with the Indian ticket confirmation system – our tickets had been BOUGHT, but hadn’t been CONFIRMED, so they’d been resold. Why does that not surprise me in the slightest? Ah India! Nevermind, off we went in rickshaws to an empty bus station and got on a bus instead. It was an enjoyable four hour ride, if a little hot and sticky but nothing an open window and an ipod can’t improve.

No room for us!

Once in Agra we made an afternoon visit to the impressive Red Fort, the imperial walled city of the Mughal empires.  The massive fortress encloses multiple palaces, two exquisite mosques, a hall-of-public-audiences, a hall-of-private audiences and a tower in which Shah Jahan, the 17th century Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal, was imprisoned by his son for the final eight years of his life due to a power struggle between his sons to reign the empire.

Legend has it that Shah Jahan died in his tower looking out across the Yamuna River at the Taj Mahal, the monument he built in memory of his love for his deceased wife. A pretty tragic ending for the guy who gave history its biggest statement of eternal love. The palatial tower where he ended his time was not too shabby mind you, he did dwell imprisoned in luxury next to the palaces of the concubines and even had a sort of ancient-times-jacuzzi. Not that you can put a value on freedom of course, but just saying, he wasn’t slumming it.

The view of the Taj from the Tower of Shah Jahan's Imprisonment

We had a guide take us around the fort and it was fascinating to hear about the history and functions of all the buildings, right down to the way the plumbing worked and even some ingenious air conditioning. Impressed!

The next morning it was time; time for a quintessential Indian experience – early morning at the Taj Mahal.

This beautiful, highly-recognisable domed monument is a mausoleum built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s third but favourite wife who died delivering their 14th child (yikes!) in 1631. The Taj took 21 years to build and is made of white marble and inlaid with gem stones and jewels.

I admit it was smaller than I expected, but still pretty spectacular. The atmosphere was very peaceful and quiet, with 17 ha of beautiful gardens surrounding the Taj and its structures including a mosque and gateway. There are plenty of benches scattered around the grounds on which to sit and absorb the scene.

Everyone who enters is immediately possessed by some sort of photo snapping obsessive compulsive disorder. No wonder it is considered the most photographed subject in the entire world – does anyone walk in, take a picture and put their camera away? No. No one does that. Everyone walks around and takes photos from every angle possible, and then maybe even goes around again (well the light had changed!!!) So, like the masses, I have about 6 million photos of the Taj Mahal. Super! Thank God for digital cameras.

Apparently there are some other monuments in Agra, but really it’s pretty much all about the Taj, which lets the Red Fort share a bit of the limelight as it sits in the Taj’s shadow; but they’re quite time consuming to visit so it’s pretty much all I fit in while in Agra – definitely a must see on the Rajasthan tourist trail!

With a reputation like Delhi’s it was an eerie arrival at the Delhi International airport, all squeaky clean with quietly humming travelators, helpful navigation signage, rubbish bins in convenient locations and no clumps of people camped indefinitely around the place. Oh there’s nothing like a global sporting event to tidy things up! Thanks to the 2011 Commonwealth Games and Cricket World Cup for my smooth and efficient arrival intoDelhi!

Even getting a taxi and the drive from the airport to the city was breezy, none of the expected taxi touts waiting for fresh blood outside the airport doors or the slum lined roads one expects. Ah, see the cynicism that results from a burned-by-India experience? Not to worry, once accepted back into the country without any issues (except the immigration officer reminding me I only have a month and a half left on my visa, yep thanks for that) I was good to go again and back on the ‘I heart India’ bandwagon. It was time to explore the north and I was excited! 

The long travel distances and the temptation to leave the logistics to someone else for awhile were enough to lure me to a tour, so I had booked a two week Intrepid backpacking tour of Rajasthan – but first I had a chance to look around Delhi.

The real Delhi – that is, the absolutely chaotic, sprawling city heaving with 12.8 million people – soon revealed itself in the teeny tiny little bit I saw.

Old Delhi is where the stereo-type is at. Established in 1639, it was previously enclosed within a great red stone wall which has since crumbled down around most of its fourteen former gates.

Walking through the crowded alleys in the bazaars here is an eye-opening experience; whereas a lot of the shenanigans I see in India no longer incite a blink of an eye from me, a result of previous experience in developing countries and having become accustomed to Indian ways over the past three months, Delhi has its own unique head-turners. The electricity poles and wires are absolutely unbelievable. I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Looking up to the sky from the streets there is a mass of tangled wire draping from pole to building to pole. I don’t know how they manage to deliver electricity to anything or how they don’t combust into flames in the Delhi heat but somehow it works (intermittent power cuts excused). Amazing!

There is a method to some of the madness. The laneways of the bazaars are sorted for convenience into themes. There’s a laneway of shops selling wedding stationery, a laneway for fireworks, another for bangles, for tassles and so on. The biggest spice market in Asia, Khari Baoli, is also in Old Delhi and well worth a wander. The streets are busy with people, motorbikes, cows, dogs and deliveries of boxes and bags of products via all of the above, and they are fascinating to walk around and watch it all unfolding.

Ducking into the occasional ‘residential’ alley is also a treat; beautiful doorways line either side, symbolising the affluent households of those in the ‘merchant’ castes who make their living in the bazaars.

The towering Jana Masjid was a fascinating first taste of ancient architecture in the north. It is India’s largest Mosque with a capacity for 25,000 people and was built between 1644-1658 in Old Delhi. 

It’s important to be covered up appropriately when entering the mosque, but even if you’re dressed head to toe, chances are they will still make you wear the brightly coloured floral mu-mu’s they dole out to the tourists to wear – on a stinky hot day I dread to think how many others have worn the bright orange garment they hand to me – but oh well, on it goes! My shoes are also handed over and it’s a quick dash to the shade as the white marble floor is scorching! But the mosque inside is beautiful and well worth the effort, as are the views across the city.

One of my favourite experiences in Old Delhi was visiting the Sikh Temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj, which is built at the place the ninth Sikh Guru was beheaded in 1675 by a Mughal emperor for refusing to convert to Islam. It was a unique experience from the start. Firstly we needed to stop by the visitor’s room where we were greeted by a Temple representative who gave us an introduction and head scarves to tie over our hair. We left our shoes outside and then walked towards the entrance stairs where we first stepped through a sort of trough on the ground filled with water – washing the feet of everyone who stepped into the temple. We entered the main worship area where three men were sitting cross legged at the front singing the kirtan (call and response chanting) from the Sikh Holy book which is on display next to them under a golden canopy. It was a very serene environment and I really enjoyed sitting cross legged on the floor with the devotees, listening for awhile.

When we moved on we went outside to the community kitchen, an important part of a Sikh Gurdwara – a place where everyone can eat together without discrimination regardless of gender, race, religion etc. Between 2000-4000 people are fed a hot yummy, healthy vegetarian meal for free here every day.

We were lucky to tour the kitchens and see all the food prep going on. Most impressive was the roti (round flat bread) dough being rolled out by some women seated on the floor and then fed into a machine and spat out all warm and toasty-delicious looking. There was some space around the table so myself and Annabelle, one of the girls on my tour, squatted down next to the women and smiled. They smiled back and rolled us some dough. My first attempt to roll the ball into a perfect circle was amusing enough to them but after a few I got the hang of it and it was a special moment to experience.

Situated south of Old Delhi is New Delhi, which was founded by the British in 1931 but over an area encompassing seven ancient cities so there is still plenty of historic sites in the area, including the UNESCO World Heritage site, 16th century Humayun’s Tomb. This impressive monument was built by the wife of the second mughal emperor and is made of red sandstone and white marble with design elements which were later replicated on the Taj Mahal. It is a very peaceful place to visit in an extremely busy city.

The heat of the Delhi daytime hit well into the mid-forties when I was there, which was pretty intense, so it was a relief to visit the night street market in Karol Bagh during the not-so-hot evening time. It’s a festive affair, with mounds of clothes, shoes, toys, bags and more more more. Anything and everything is available, so even though Delhi is currently at the height of its dry hot summer it was no great effort to pick up a raincoat in preparation for my future trip to the mountains. Even if you’re not buying, the markets are a feast for the senses and a great way to immerse yourself in the city vibe outside of the heat of the daytime.

Apart from these sights, my time in Delhi was spent eating (like everywhere in India there is yummy food galore and I am still a more than willing participant), some requisite shopping and escaping the midday heat with some hotel down time. I enjoyed what I saw in this crazy city but I admit it was with a slight sense of relief that I prepared to leave it for awhile – the sensory overload is a lot to take in for too many days in a row in such heat, however I’d happily come back and explore a bit more next time I come to India!

Next up Rajasthan, a wonderland of things to see and do… stay tuned :)

Another three day weekend, another mini-break… Such is life people! This time to Goa, which is on the mid-west coast of India. Famous for its beaches, markets, hippie havens and laid back attitude, we were in for a cruisy weekend, particularly as it was the end of the season and many of the establishments were getting ready to pack up before the monsoon arrives in May.

We went by overnight bus and pulled into the state capital of Panjim early Friday morning. We got an auto to Anjuna Beach straight away and walked about the town before settling into some ocean facing seats at a cliff top restaurant, enjoying cold drinks and watching the sun begin it’s descent to the horizon. Ah peace!

On Saturday we took an auto ride about an hour further up the coast to Arambol Beach, a welcome white stretch of sand with a lone establishment serving cold drinks and food right to the water’s edge. We chatted with Lama, a Nepalese guy who works with a group of other Nepalese guys at the cafe, they spend the six month tourist season in Goa each year and then return to Nepal to work the summer season there. It suits them as Nepal shuts down for the cold of winter and Goa closes during the monsoon. With the monsoon around the corner, Lama and the others were getting ready to leave within the fortnight; but not before dismantling the restaurant which they build at the start of every season and then take down before it’s destroyed in the monsoon.

It was hard to picture the destructive winds and rain that would arrive within the month when we were enjoying a perfect blue sky and 40 degree sunshine. We spent the day there – swim, sun loungers, swim, sun loungers. Clothing wise it was the most exposed I’d been since arriving in India; I take care to dress appropriately here, knees and shoulders and all inbetween covered up. At the beach I was prepared to stay just as covered even though generally the dress code is more relaxed in Goa as a result of the tourist saturation. But I’d also heard that it’s not uncommon for bus loads of Indian boys to swamp the Goan beaches on the weekends in the tourist season to unabashedly stare at the bare skinned tourists! Luckily we didn’t find it so bad due to it being end of season, but we were still the object of some curiousity. It’s been interesting to note that the Indian women swim in their normal clothes, a salwar kameez or sari, no cossies for them!

That night we got an auto to the famous Anjuna Saturday night markets. Wow – white people! Lots of them! I hadn’t realised how long it’s been since I saw other white people – the whole market was packed with tourists, but where did they come from? I’d been wondering if there were even any in India since I never see them anywhere. It was crazy busy but a lot of fun, and really awesome shopping. Prices start high but drop fast and the stall holders are friendly in their haggling. There was an overpriced part of the market where snooty white hippies were selling assorted handicrafts and didn’t seem to haggle, but I certainly enjoyed supporting the local stallholders :-)

Despite half hearted efforts to keep my money in my wallet I spent every rupee and then went into overdraft at the Bank of Alicia, the result of no ATMs nearby (if you go, fill your wallet, then take double more!)

I did purchase a beautiful quilt made with old sari scraps which was an Indian speciality I specifically wanted to go home with. Well actually, I’m going home with two. It just sort of happened after I unintentionally starting haggling and the price went so low I couldn’t walk away (seriously, I couldn’t. They were beautiful, but more to the point, at that price it would be embarrassing to walk away!)

Apart from severe over-exposure to over-exposed sun-burnt/sun-tanned tourists, the market had a good vibe with funky music playing and a great variety of things to buy including clothing, shoes, jewellry, bags, art, trinkets and textiles. I’d definitely recommend the markets if you’re in the area on a Wednesday or Saturday night.

Monday at Silk Cotton Resort at Bogmalo Beach in South Goa was a suprise luxury stay after we changed our plans last minute to skip a day trip to Old Goa (I confess complete utter immersion in beach mode made not even the 15th century former capital of Portuguese India worth getting out of my cossies for) to stay one more night by the beach, this one a lot closer to the airport for our super early flight the next morning.

We stayed in a lovely little villa in a garden overflowing with beautiful flowers and boasting a sparkling swimming pool. The couple running the show greeted us at the gate, brought us cold fresh juices and drove us down to the beach. Bogmalo was a really small place; a decent stretch of sand with a cafe shack perched on the edge, a few little shops and that’s about it! But perfect for a last night stop before a flight as it’s a 15 minute drive to the airport, to which our male host drove us to well before sunrise. We were even sent on our way with a takeaway brekkie in brown paper bags since we had such an early flight, aw!

So Goa was a beach, markets and food-by-the-water kind of weekend; highly recommended no matter where you are in the world, but particularly enjoyable here in Incredible India!

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I was battery-challenged on this trip, and feeling fairly Goa-laid-back so I have pretty much zero photos from this weekend. I must really feeling at home in India by now if I’m failing to get my camera out of my bag.
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Continuing the theme of relaxing weekends, what a way to follow Pondicherry – a long weekend on the backwaters in Kerala.

I feel the need clarify that the term ‘backwaters’ really doesn’t do the beautiful, serene waterways of the state of Kerala justice. The ‘backwaters’ are a network of lakes and canals fed by 38 rivers and cover more than half the Arabian Sea coastline of the state of Kerala.

Alicia and I flew down from Bangalore on Friday afternoon (no the snorer didn’t put us off the buses, we just left it too late to get a seat!) and stayed at a really lovely guesthouse called Ashtamudi Homestay in Alleppey, an hour south of Kochi where the airport is. It was a good place to stay with a big open balcony where we enjoyed breakfast and met a lovely Lithuanian couple with whom we were able to exchange a few suggestions from our travels around India.

The owners of the homestay were also very friendly and helpful; we wanted to explore the backwaters straight away so they arranged a 4hr canoe cruise for us with a local village guy on Saturday. He took us away from the main channel and through the narrow passages feeding the canal system to tucked away villages. At one point a little girl started chatting to him from the bank, then he pointed to her and proudly told us it was his daughter! A little while later we met his wife the same way, he really was a local villager!

 

Watching village life pass us by on the banks was fascinating. The water really sets the scene for much of day to day life; we passed women doing the laundry, washing pots and pans by the bank side and collecting water in big buckets, there were kids swimming, people bathing, canoes coming and going loaded with goods to buy or sell. We even witnessed a woman walk up to the edge of the bank and empty an entire rubbish bin into the water (ignorance? I don’t know, but very difficult to watch!) Some people smiled and waved, others ignored us, the kids always laughing and calling out ‘Hello, what’s your name? One pen?’ obviously accustomed to recieving little gifts from visitors.

Our guide was friendly, pointing out all the wildlife and explaining the different types of boats on the water. His efforts rowing us for four hours in the humidity was impressive especially his friendly nature right to the end!

That afternoon we had a wander around the town of Alleppey and had dinner before watching the Cricket World Cup Final where India claimed victory and defeated Sri Lanka! Cricket mad India was filled with anticipation, and the long weekend for Ugadi (New Year) just added to the festival vibe of the occasion. As soon as the Indian team had won the game there was cheering from everywhere and our hosts even had fireworks to celebrate the win.

One of the must-dos in Kerala is to cruise the backwaters on a houseboat, so on Sunday we boarded one that would be ours for the next 23hrs. It was cosy, featuring some comfy chairs and cushions on the front deck, a bedroom with ensuite, a kitchen and a top deck with a couple of chairs. We also were accompanied by a captain and a cook. All resulting in one of the most relaxing days of my life!

We travelled along the main water channels which were almost like highways, they were so busy with houseboat traffic. The hours were ours to lounge on the seating options and watch the landscape and village life pass us by. I also read, listened to music and dozed. Our cook kept us supplied with tea and Indian style snacks like spiced fried bananas, and we were spoilt with a delicious spread at lunch and dinner.

It is so humid in Kerala, and away from the water it is quite unpleasant but on the water there is a breeze that drifts by and keeps it cool. Just as dusk was approaching we felt the temperature and humidity drop and looked out to the horizon to see some ominous clouds appearing. The Captain and the Cook (incidentally both their names are Muni) hurried around us dropping all the side tarps down and securing one on the top deck. At first we were a bit miffed, it seemed a bit premature and now we were sitting in our comfy chairs enclosed by tarps where the gorgeous view had just been, but then we heard the first rain drops fall and within a matter of minutes a crack of lightening, the boom of thunder and the rain downpoured – on the water, in a houseboat, in the middle of a thunderstorm! The crew had acted just in the nick of time. So we settled down to listen to the show outside whilst enjoying being cosy in our boat. We caught glimpses of the storm as the tarps billowed in the wind and we saw the rain slashing the water, the lightening flooding the dark night and the thunder following.

It was a brilliant closure to such a relaxing day, with the added bonus of dropping the temperature and cutting back the humidity to make the nights sleep much more bearable. Sleeping inside the dingy mosquito net was the only unappealing aspect of the experience but after hearing some little scuffles in the night and then finding a nibbled hole through my little paper bag of Laddus (Indian ball-shaped sweet) in the morning, we were more grateful for the net than we’d realised!

After a relaxing brekkie on the deck it was time to return to dry land. We got a lift with our host back to Kochi where we planned to have a quick look around before going to the airport. When our host realised how little time we had he found an eager auto rickshaw driver who took us on the fastest whirlwind tour I’ve ever been on! In less than three hours we hooned around Kochi seeing churches, temples and a spice warehouse, we snuck into a hidden courtyard heaped with piles of ginger, then checked out the museum at the Dutch Palace and strolled along the waterside to see the iconic Chinese Fishing Nets.

It was fast but fun, though it meant one helluva speedy ride to the airport afterwards where we arrived only in the nick of time to check in!

Another fabulous weekend trip in south India. I wish we’d had longer to check out Kochi but think we made the most of the time we had. Unfortunately there is never enough time to do everything, but I guess that just means I’ll have to come back one day!

I somewhat expected this, I figured at some point I would be offering an apology for an unintended absence from my own blog. The Indian experience continues, and you’ll still hear about it, it’s just that it’ll come a little delayed due to a seriously hectic final fortnight in Bangalore, a rejuvenating week in Sri Lanka and now life as a backpacker. What can I say? I’m on India time.

I’m now in the second week of the travelling part of my trip, with less than six weeks left before I return to Australia. Holy moly. Time is flying!

For a little atmosphere (to make up for the lack of visuals) picture me right now as I’m typing this on my iPhone, travelling on a non-AC local bus making a five hour trip from Agra to Madhogarh, a rural village in the heart of Rajasthan, on a 43 degree Indian summer day. The sweat is trickling down my back but the hot wind is on my face and the two little Indian girls seated behind me are sneaking opportunities to play with my hair through the gap in the seats (the fascination with ‘lighter’ is rampant in India like elsewhere in Asia). Rural India passes the window, the colourful women in saris, the nonchalent holy cows, the smells, the noise. Like nowhere else…

Because I am now on the road I am not as well equipped as I was previously, having left my laptop in Bangalore to travel as light as possible before I pick it up on my way back home. This means my blog posts will be sadly sans-photos at this point. I hope to post the pics up at a later date though.

I’m now going to play catch up with some of the trips I made before leaving Bangalore, the end of my Janaagraha experience, and the visa registration hell of my final week.

Here we go…

Another weekend, another adventure! This time we headed to the south east coastal town of Pondicherry – currently my favourite place in India.

We opted for travel by overnight bus again, which is usually pretty cosy not to mention cheap and convenient (transport and accommodation for about $20? Excellent!) The only negative experience so far came from the Bangalore to Pondicherry leg – snorers. In particular a loud, snorty-snortison snorer. All night. Right opposite us. Oh well, luckily for us the lovely hosts at the guesthouse we were staying at showed us right to our room when we arrived at 5.30am and we managed to catch up a bit before we ventured out for the day.

Gorgeous Pondicherry is a very interesting town, it’s a former French settlement left with a significant French influence on its architecture, cuisine, language and culture. Even the street names feature the French ‘Rue’, bicycles line the streets and the bread tastes like… bread (bread we’ve eaten elsewhere in India is really sweet and always seems to come with the crusts cut off!)

We stayed in the French Quarter which was lovely and quiet; the streets wide and tree lined, with vibrantly coloured houses hidden behind gates adorned with pretty flowers. And a bicycle propped outside for maximum effect of course. Charming!

There are plenty of places to visit on the outskirts of the town of Pondicherry, including some temples, beaches and Auroville (a fascinating ‘universal township’ where more than 2000 people from 45 nations are currently building a harmonious city-in-the-making in what is described as ‘an experiment in human unity’. ) But we didn’t venture any further than where we could walk as the pace for the weekend was an intentional slow down, a time to recharge.

We wandered the peaceful streets in the French Quarter, stopping to browse (and buy) in the funky little boutique stores and for brunch or coffee in the tucked away garden cafes or rooftop restaurants.

We then crossed over the canal which divides Pondicherry from north to south into the French Quarter by the coast and the Tamil Quarter to the west. The other side of the canal was a different place altogether – bustling is the kindest word. People-congesting, car-tooting, bike-hooning, canal-stinking would be a few of the less so!

The comparison between the two quarters really highlighted the chaos of India, just in case we’d gotten so used to it we’d forgotten (I had). But I have to admit, it reminded me again why I love it. It sounds like mayhem, and it is, but it’s energetic, life living, peace-in-the-chaos sort of stuff. Hard to explain, but it makes me walk around with a smile on my face. Yes a motorcycle is trying to run me over because I’m in the way on the footpath, yes there is a gaping hole where the footpath should be, yes a cow is standing on the road eating a pile of rubbish. But standing in the middle of this scene is awesome. It’s witnessing life unravelling for a billion people in front of your eyes, people that don’t even blink at any of this stuff. You just shut up and appreciate it.

That being said, it was really humid in Pondicherry, and even more so away from the coast, so I admit that on more than one occasion Alicia and I shared a look of sticky exhasperation and agreed to go back to France… where there’s quiet. And cheese. And air con. Just for a few hours.

One of the highlights of Pondicherry was the walk along the promenade. The whiff of a salty sea breeze again was bliss, and the path itself provides a lovely, cool, vehicle free 40min walk alongside the Bay of Bengal.

During the day the promdenade was really quiet, our only company were the street sellers. We consistently shoo-ed away the bongo and paper fan sellers, but when the glass bead man approached us he had us immediately. All those pretty coloured strings of glass sparkling in the sun, how could we resist? Besides, those things must have weighed a tonne and so we didn’t mind helping to lighten his load as he walked up and down the promenade in the heat and humidity :).

At night the promenade was teeming with Indian families out for a walk, or watching the free stage show, taking photos of the kids climbing all over the Gandhi statue, eating food from the street vendors. It had a great seaside holiday vibe to it and it was really enjoyable to walk along and watch everyone having fun.

While visiting the Ganesh Temple we met Lakshmi the temple elephant who is considered a living God and is responsible for blessing people that come to the temple (well, only after they have given her a coin or some food!) I took my opportunity and recieved my blessing and then had a little tête-à-tête with her, she was lovely with gorgeous eyes.

Although I felt quite comfortable around Lakshmi after watching her gentle interactions with the other passer-bys and gift givers, I was still amazed to see a little girl jumping all over her with the ease and happiness that I’m sure only a little girl would have! She was insistent on getting a cuddle and she got one. It was very sweet to watch.

We also took the opportunity to visit the Aurobindo ashram in Pondicherry while we were there and attended a collective meditation at dusk. It was a very peaceful experience as we sat outside in the courtyard while  the sun set around us, and ashramites and other meditation attendees lit incense sticks and and gathered around the samadhi (shrine to the ashram founders). It was a silent meditation signalled by some ringing gongs at the beginning and end. We were there 50 minutes though it felt like half of that – it was a wonderful way to finish our relaxing weekend before we had to get the overnight bus back to Bangalore.

On that note I’m happy to report that the bus ride home was snore-free and we made it back fairly well rested and ready for another week of work, made easier with another weekend away on the horizon, which you’ll hear all about next time!