On Monday I travelled to Pondicherry for the Pongal (India’s harvest festival) holiday. I set off very early in the morning and Chennai was covered in a thick smog.
The reason for the poor visibility was that Monday was Bhogi, the day that families burn all their rubbish ahead of Pongal. It is a tradition that has gone on for many years, but now the authorities are restricting the kind of rubbish that can be burned for environmental reasons.
I got the 7.30 bus to Pondicherry from the main bus station in Chennai. The smog stayed with us most of the way, but it largely disappeared when we reached our destination. The journey was OK, apart from when a fat woman holding her grandchild sat down next to me so I was very squashed for the rest of the journey.
As soon as I got to Pondi, I took an auto to the guest house. It was in a fantastic location – just two streets back from the sea, but I was disappointed to find out that the doors are locked at 10.30pm. That somewhat restricted my plans for the evening.
I didn’t spend too long in the guest house and went out to soak up the Gallic ambiance of the French Quarter. The seafront was very Mediterranean. There was a nice wide promenade that you could walk along without fear of being run over by an motorbike. The climate was very pleasant too, with a nice sea breeze.
My first meal was at Le Club, an open air French style place. Unfortunately, they didn’t seem to do any European coffee so I just had a pasta and mineral water. At about R200, prices were significantly higher then in the south Indian restaurants.
After my meal I went to explore the town a little more. I spent most of my time in the French Quarter, just enjoying the freedom of walking around on its relatively quite streets. The area has retained much of its colonial heritage with French-style street signs. You still get autos following you around, which is a bit of a pain.
I visited a craft market and walked on the beach a bit seeing a young girl tightrope walking. Many of the other visitors were European, often very serious middle aged types who were probably there to meditate. I didn’t see any of the sun seeking backpackers mentioned in the Rough Guide. There were also quite a lot of Indian tourists there too because of Pongal.
I then found my first European coffee – a proper cappuccino – in a seafront cafe. So I stopped there for a while and read my book, before returning to the guest house to freshen up.
I went for dinner at a restaurant called Madam Santhe’s. I got some french onion soup and a “French-style” beef stew, with my first beer of the trip. I then found a bar with a nice mix of punters – cool locals and backpackers. Though there looked like there were a couple of “flashpackers” with a trust fund!
I eventually got talking to a nice Indian-Korean couple who were staying in Pondicherry for ten weeks. They had hired out a traditional colonial house for their holiday, then I tramped back to my lonely ashram in time for the curfew.
I started Pongal with a latte in a cafe on Rue Roman Rolland. The owner was very surprised to see me there because he had just opened with a soft launch. We had a very interesting conversation about his new restaurant next door. He is seeking to serve authentic Italian food, using imported ingredients to an European clientele. We also had a chat about politics and the way the Indian papers present the news.
I then went to find a place for a proper breakfast and bumped into the couple I had been chatting to the night before. They offered to cook me dinner if I’m ever back in Pondi. I had taksiki with bread, a crepe and a lassi for brunch which was overpriced.
Before leaving, I visited the botanical gardens, though it was more like the kind of parks we have back home. I saw some monkeys very close up and some huge bats flying around the trees – bear in mind this is the middle of the day.