Sunday 14 January 2007

Pondicherry. Chilling out

I've spent the morning washing clothes and catching up on a LOT of this blog. I just wish I could find the time and place to put up some photos. Still I'm in a very French style cafe, frequented mainly by young backpackers, with the most delicious cappucino (must have another before I leave). My first was at a table shared with a very attractive black woman from New York. She is a commercial lawyer taking a year out to travel, rather hoping that her career wont suffer too much. Initially I thought she might be Indian, given her hairstyle and clothes. When I said this to her, she said that she too ex0pected to merge into the landscape more, but was constantly stared at. And people find it hard to accept that she comes from New York, suggesting that maybe she comes from AFrica or Jamaica.

In the afternoon I walked over a lot of the area of Pondicherry which still has a French feel about it. It is a bit like a run-down version of Montpellier or another city in the Midi: there are signs of gracious walled gardens and grandiose stuccoed fronts, and the street signs look French. One street had a canal running down the centre which would have been very picturesque if hadn't stunk. Many of the mainly middle class homes are occupied by doctors and lawyers. It is a very Catholic area: Mission Street is home to a giant white cathedral, its ornate front reminding me a bit of some of the Afrikaner architecture I saw in South Africa. I passed quite a lot of French Indian ladies walking slowly down the street and noticed that they went into a very grand building beside the Cathedral - a convent perhaps? Yet at the same time it is essentially Indian: the colours are more vivid, the houses more chaotic, often with ornate iron gates with Indian figures intertwined with the metal lacery. The streets were cleaner: I noticed quite a few street cleaners, all women, patiently stooping as they used a bunch of twigs (like a broom without a handle) to sweep.

I then wandered through Government Place, a series of roads through a large, formal ornamental garden - or at least one half was, the other half had been turned into a fairground area, with a catherine wheel and familiar looking stalls, mainly selling things like candy floss. (That was where I also noticed posters advertising inoculation programmes, and an advert for 'Nop scalpel vasectomy'. The formal gardens were in front of Raj Nivas, a magnificent, gleaming white nineteenth century edifice, which is the official residence of the Governor of Pondicherry.

Most of the other tourists in Pondicherry are, predictably, French (though I still don't understand why, given that apart from the French-Indians, nobody here seems to speak French. Elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, there seems to be a proponderance of Germans, some Italians, and only a handful of Brits. Claire (my Kiwi friend) and I have noticed that amongst the independent travellers (as opposed to tour groups) women far outnumber men. We speculated as to why, and wondered if women actually prefer travelling to men.

Claire and I went back to our favourite restaurant, the Rendezvous, for our last meal in Chennai. I indulged in "Sizzling prawns", a heated plateful of Tiger Bay prawns on a base of sizzling lettuce leaves. Delicious.

ps A bit more from my many lost writings.

- I hadnt realised that before the French, Pondicherry had been a stopping place for the Romans! They used it en route to the Far East. Then came the Pallavas, Cholas, Portuguese, French and British (the latter two had a bloody battle in the 18th century, after which the French retained Pondicherry until 1954, when it joined the rest of India).

- Watching women pumping water in the street, where does the water come from? I would like to know more about water supplies, sanitation schemes etc.

- I saw two very different Catholic churches. In one the service was not in Tamil (the language everybody speaks here) but in English (why not French??). The other was in English. Both had loudspeakers blaring out the service to the neighbourhood. Both churches seemed completely full.

We are continuing the next bit of the journey together, hiring a car to tour the Chola temples, as the alternative is lots of bone-rattline local buses. Not an option for me, I suspect, besides taking too many days. I booked a car and driver for two days, for 3,300 rupees (about 40 pounds) and at the hotel offered a lift to two Belgian women in order to help cover the cost.

Although Pondicherry was not quite the laid-back French/Indian experience I had expected and there was a definite lack of obvious things to visit, I could see its charm and can understand why people dally and recover here, particularly if in a comfortable hotel like mine (Claire's was cheaper and less comfortable).

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hi Frances - sounds as if you are having a great trip - very envious. We are regular readers so keep up the atmospheric scribblings. Hope the teeth, back, etc are holding out.

Much love and bon voyage.