Monday, 18 November 2013

Sun, Surf and Tarifa: A Guide

An Australian on the hunt for real beaches - and I mean the proper stuff, with silky sand that moulds itself around your feet, and tumbling, sparkling seas to inspire adventure as much as a sense of peace -, my sun-loving mother led the way to chilled out surfer town Tarifa (Cádiz, Spain) a long time ago, and not once has the Noble family looked back. 

Caught between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, on the southernmost tip of Spain, Tarifa gets a pretty good battering from the elements (you'll be surprised how that harsh sun sneaks through). But despair not, that's precisely what gives this wonderful Costa de la Luz town its edge, and what makes it one of my all-time favourite places on the planet (yes, seriously). Africa (that's an entirely separate continent) rests a mere 35-minute ferry trip across the Strait of Gibraltar; some windsurfers brag about crossing the waters in only 18 minutes, although I never quite got to the bottom of that. Old-town Tarifa, marked by the grand Puerta de Jerez arch, springs to life come night-time, and the quirky surfer-chic shops and kitesurf/windsurf schools along Calle Batalla del Salado keep the wave-riding scene alive. It's scruffy beach hair, Havaianas and Ripcurl hoodies that rule the streets here.

Kitesurfers and Tarifa town, seen from Punta Paloma beach
In town, there's a busy branch of cheapo supermarket Mercadona on Calle Batalla del Salado, so you can stock up with plenty of treats (and water!) before hitting the sand; Spaniards do the beach big style. For some of the best breakfasts ever (no joke), head to Café Azul, where sky-blue walls and dangling brass lanterns create Moroccan riad vibe. The artistically presented fresh fruit and pancake is a fantastic feast, but to keep with the Spanish theme you can't go wrong with a traditional pan con tomate (toasted bread with tomato and olive oil).

If you want to stay in town, head to Hostal Africa on Calle María Antonia de Toledo, which has colourful, Moroccan-inspired rooms, friendly staff and a cute rooftop terrace with views across to Africa. 

Fruit pancakes at Café Azul
Head West out of town towards the sand dunes at Punta Paloma and things can swiftly soar upmarket, although there's also plenty of budget-friendly accommodation at various camp-sites along the N-340 road. Right in on the kite-surfing action at Playa de Valdevaqueros, buzzing beachfront Hostal Valdevaqueros is what Tarifa is all about: book in for windsurf and kitesurf sessions at Club Mistral or laze under the sun at the oh-so-casual lounge bar, wielding an oversized tinto de verano or a freshly-squeezed orange juice. Valdevaqueros has rustic rooms in an old Spanish farmhouse, and the restaurant here dishes up tasty lunches too; choose from a tantalising display of fresh salads and pastas, and finish up with a generous slice of rich chocolate cake (brother and I have been eating this stuff for years... The diet can wait).

For swankier stays, try the colourf, aptly-named Dos Mares ('two seas') hotel on the beachfront at Playa de Los Lances, which has its own multilingual horse riding school as well as fab buffet breakfasts.

Punta Paloma
For the full Tarifa experience, hit the Punta Paloma sand dunes, from which there's a dramatic coastal walk to the Roman town ruins of Baelo Claudia at Bolonia, and where entirely natural beachside mud baths are perfect for an invigorating body cleanse

Tarifa mud baths, Punta Paloma

Friday, 30 November 2012

At Land’s End: Rameswaram to Kanyakumari

When we’d had our fill of Madurai, Papi and I headed off on a 6.45am train in search of new adventures, this time in the form of pilgrim town Rameswaram, located on an island separated from the Indian mainland. It sounded fascinating and I’d been looking forward to this part of the trip for a while, but needless to say that at such an early stage of the day I was sleepy and grumpy and rather unimpressed at having to travel sleeper class (I know, I know). I generally find Indian rail journeys really exciting, but so far I’d somehow managed to avoid the carriages where – shock horror – there is no allocated seating. Things were looking pretty grim, and we witnessed some horrible sights that I won’t trouble you with. It’s a credit to the Indian people that they carry one with these challenging journey as part of their daily lives, and arrive with a smile on their faces. Things brightened up, however, as the journey wore on and our carriage emptied out. I even managed to hang out of the open doors, Slumdog Millionaire style, watching the world whizz by as we travelled south. Only in India...

The crossing over to Pamban Island was spectacular, and the rickety rail bridge is considered a work of great architectural merit. The turquoise sea widened out in every direction from directly below our train; I could see nothing but water when I glanced down through the prison-like metal bars of the window, and colourful fishing boats stood out against golden beaches in the distance. Unfortunately, things swiftly went downhill from here onwards. Swarming with flies, overflowing with rubbish, and with a distinct aroma of rotting fish, Rameswaram town failed to impress. It’s very interesting seeing pilgrims race around the temple, trying to visit and bathe in 20 different ghats before closing time, but that’s where the good stuff ends. Never have I felt more intimidated by groups of leering men, especially after dark – not quite unsafe as I was with Dad, but pretty uncomfortable to say the very least. My heart went out to the poor female Lonely Planet author who’d had to research the place a couple of years ago. 

We also found nowhere at all enticing to eat and most of the accommodation options were pretty grotty. Please correct me if I’m mistaken, as I’m honestly dying to hear otherwise. The only possible exception is the Daiwik Hotel, away from the dirty town centre and conveniently located near the bus station, although it only opened six months ago and is still very much finding its feet. Selling itself as one of ‘India’s First Pilgrim Hotels’, I think the place has the potential for success. Plans are in the making for a rooftop pool, restaurant, and bar, all of which sounds fantastic and should be ready in about six months. I’d be interested to see how it all goes. 

There’s one thing to be said for Rameswaram though, and that is the incredible beauty of the Dhanushkodi headland to the south, which offers a wonderful respite from everything else. This town was destroyed by a cyclone in the 60s and the area is now under government protection which keeps it relatively clean. Given my chance again, I’d skip Rameswaram and make a beeline for this fabulous stretch of beach, surrounded by the sea on either side. Currents are dangerous, but it’s a gorgeous walk. Indeed, strolling along, with the late afternoon sun beaming down on us, the ocean lazily lapping over our feet, and Sri Lanka so close-by we could almost reach out and touch it (a mere 30 kilometres), our morning train worries seemed a million miles away. 

On Sunday morning we were up at the crack of dawn and ready to board the 7.15am ‘super deluxe’ bus to Kanyakumari. Frankly, I’ve learnt to steer clear of anything containing the word ‘deluxe’ in India, but this was a slight exception. It was also a big mistake. After 40 minutes of loitering around the grimy bus station, it emerged that ‘bus no coming’. Uhoh. Why?

‘You go to Madurai’.

‘But we don’t want to go to Madurai... Why bus not coming?’

‘State, sir’.

Back to reality and a Rs 5000 taxi down to Kanyakumari.

Kanyakumari is a truly magical place, where the Indian mainland comes to an end and the various seas that surround the subcontinent converge. It’s also understandably a big tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners, and crowds gather at the southern tip of town every evening to watch the sun set ‘over the three seas’. Both Dad and I wondered out loud exactly which these three seas actually are. Well, seemingly the slogan refers to the Arabian Sea, the Indian, and the Bay of Bengal. A poetic idea no doubt, but it’s all the same water really, and at the end of the day we are in India so it isn’t exactly squeaky clean anyway. This said, Kanyakumari’s sunsets definitely live up to all the hype, with deep pinks and purples sweeping across the sky and engulfing the whole town in a kind of mystical haze, through which the iconic Vivekananda Rock and Thiruvalluvar Statue tower over the ocean (or should I say oceans?) 

Rather aptly, Dad and I stayed at the Tri Sea Hotel, which has wacky coloured rooms on about a million floors; our ceiling fans were decorated with Spiderman’s face (no joke) and the curtains were probably initially designed as shower curtains. Still, we also had a fantastic rooftop swimming pool from which to admire the sunset, although there was a pretty bizarre system in place when – god forbid – we actually wanted to swim in it. Firstly we had to time it so that no one else was up there as, even though I’m in India, I refuse to swim with all my clothes on, and it’s obviously inappropriate to wear a skimpy bikini in public. Next came a phone call to the friendly women on reception requesting that the gate be unlocked, before being locked in by a grumpy attendant in a white shirt, and then having to phone in order to be let out. I felt like I was at boarding school and my many exclamations of ‘why locking?’ fell on deaf ears.

Surprisingly for such a popular destination, there was also a distinct lack of good food in Kanyakumari, which was pretty disappointing. I’d love to know why, as the place is practically crying out for a glitzy hotel and a fancy restaurant. As far as I could tell, the 7th floor restaurant at the Sea Shore Hotel is the only eatery in town with a sea view – absurd really. Some of the dishes are pretty good, especially veggie options like aloo jeera (spicy potatoes) and the seafood (or so I’m told), but unfortunately the atmosphere is a bit drab and the usual army of waiters rests poised for action and watching your every move. I suppose you can’t have everything though; at least we found somewhere with edible food, unlike in Rameswaram. 

All obstacles aside, I really enjoyed my stay in Kanyakumari and felt that the place indeed brought to life its reputation as the end of the road in India and so on, with steps leading down to the water’s edge and a few rocks gradually petering out as the sea opened up ahead. I frantically composed a postcard to my friend Fliss back home, excitedly bragging that there was now nothing between me and the Antarctic. Then I figured there’d probably be some tiny, undiscovered islands getting in the way of my spiritual musings, but I’m sure you get the gist. Anyway, there will always be something pretty cool about saying ‘shall we go to the end of India today then?’ 

It was also here, at the end of India, that my Tamil Nadu adventures came to a close. Off I went to Trivandrum, Kerala, in search of my friend Ellie on a 5am train, having walked about a kilometre beyond my 2AC carriage without realising it and lugging my 20 kilo backpack the entire way. A blonde moment if ever there was one.

I write from Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where it is currently 7.42 am and my body clock is all over the place. I hopped off my AirAsia flight and fell straight into Starbucks (my friends at home will appreciate this). I cannot explain my excitement at finally being able to order a tall skinny mocha without whipped cream. I do not plan to move for a good few hours, when I can check in for the final leg of my journey. 

And so normal life in the ‘real world’ commences as I set off for the Land Down Under. Or at least as normal as a stint in crazy but brilliant Melbourne can be. What even counts as normality anyway? Everything is normal to someone, somewhere.

PS. Keep reading to find out about my time in Kerala. It’s on the way, I promise. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Review: The Leela, Kovalam, India

Whilst I try to get together my notes on my final few days in Tamil Nadu, here’s a taste of luxury life in Kerala.

On the first of many sunny mornings in Kovalam (Kerala), my friend Ellie and I popped into the glamorous Leela hotel for a healthy breakfast of muesli and coffee (lots of it) and a good old girly catch up. What else would you expect from two giggly girlfriends who haven’t seen each other for a month? Just for fun really, we enquired about facilities and prices, and before we knew it we’d agreed to treat ourselves to just one night at the Leela, because apparently ‘we deserve a little bit of luxury every now and again’. As I’ve probably mentioned before, names are important, and the way ‘Leela’ rolls easily off the tongue is obviously some kind of clever marketing ploy that works very well indeed. The Leela is expensive by India standards of course, but when I realised that it would only cost about £80 each for a night of 5 star luxury, there really was no stopping us.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted with seashell necklaces, fresh coconut juices, and our very own Indian bindis. We had breakfast until our room was ready (check-in isn’t until 2pm), and then the friendly receptionist announced that we’d been upgraded to The Club, a sort of mini-hotel within the Leela. Our room had a beautiful view out across the sea as well as access to the Club’s own infinity pool, perched on the very edge of the cliff, and the hotel library - the English geek inside me smiled gleefully at this. As far as I can remember, I’ve never been upgraded to anything in my life, so it really was the icing on top of the cake. Ellie and I watched the two days float by as we moved between the hotel’s two infinity pools and its private beach, accessible by means of little white buggies driven by charming chauffeurs. I also took advantage of the gym, overlooking the ocean and manned by a lovely attendant in full gym attire who may well have been an instructor. Free yoga classes are offered every evening too, although I shamefully chose to laze by the pool instead. Please don’t judge me – I even swam a few laps to ease my guilt at skipping out on exercise.

Dining at the Leela was a great experience and I have happy memories of whiling away the hours at The Terrace, a poolside restaurant with – you guessed it – sweeping sea views. The hotel organises a (pricey) lunch and dinner with all the usual Indian and Western fare, but it’s also possible to order a la carte. The wholemeal pasta with aglio, olio e peperoncino may sound simple, but it’s also delicious, as are the freshly baked breads – they even come with real, English style butter! Best of all, the drinks menu is cocktails galore and my ginger martini ticked all the right boxes. There’s generally some type of entertainment available every night; a stunning traditional Keralan dance show accompanied our evening meal. And my god, the busy breakfast buffet was good. Muesli, exotic fresh fruits, yoghurt, smoothies, cheeses, a whole range of homemade pastries, and even wholemeal bread (a rare find in India). Chefs in white hats whip up all kinds of omelettes and dosas in a busy open plan kitchen and, most importantly, there’s also an endless supply of good coffee. 

The only criticism I have is that service can be a tad slow, especially at peak breakfast time. My advice? Sit back, soak in the sun, and enjoy the view. It isn’t every day in India that you can lounge atop a cliff, un-hassled, and calmly gaze out over the Arabian Sea. Faced with the infinite expanse of the ocean and the worldly possibilities it embodied for us, we found that all our other worries faded into the background. 

As a self-proclaimed backpacker, I feel I ought to steer clear of the lavish lifestyle represented by the Leela, but really I loved every minute of our time there. Clearly, I’ll either have to find a very rich man to marry or otherwise abandon my bookish dreams and go into banking.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Down South: Madurai

It is with a heavy heart that I announce the demise of my faithful friend and companion for the last three years - lappie. My laptop has been with me through thick and thin, even helpfully deleting all my final year coursework a few days before my deadline. Unfortunately, this means all future blog posts must come from India's many lovely and extremely unreliable internet cafes. I'll continue to do my best, however, so keep reading. I am supposedly in the land of technology after all... 

It may have been partly due to the sight of the sun after gloomy Ooty, but I absolutely loved Madurai. Home to over a million people, the city has life to it - good old, fast-paced, colourful Indian excitement. Women selling brightly coloured flowers crowded the pavements (especially at bus stations) and motorbikes zoomed by incessantly. Yes, Papi and I had certainly come crashing back down into the land of rickshaws. 

This said, the roads surrounding the main temple - Meenakshi Temple - are a pedestrian area. The temple itself is more subdued and tranquil than others I've visited, despite its size and the persistent shouts of 'Yes...? Postcard, madam?' Inside, the corridors are quite cool and the ceilings are stunningly painted in vibrant colours. I sat for a while on some steps, gazing at a bronze statue of Shiva and at the roof's designs. Silence and tranquility are hard to come by in India, so it's great to embrace them whenever possible. A charming young flower vendor then taught me how to braid together the long wreaths of flowers used to decorate temples and for hair decorations. Turns out we both have friends at Leeds university - what a small world it is. 

For shopping addicts like me, there's a great little market just outside the South entrance to the temple, which sells the usual pashminas, embroidered cushion covers, and incense sticks in an undercover setting. The place was relatively quiet in the early morning too. The selling point is that dozens of tailors set up shop along one of the corridors, working away on customised clothing throughout the day. Although I was repeatedly and firmly told that 'tailors is all busy because of Diwali', I managed to get a stunning navy blue shirt made up the very same day, and could happily have gone back for a few more. 

In terms of food, there are plenty of rooftop restaurants with fab views in the area surrounding the train station, but the highlight for me was definitely the upmarket buffet dinner at the Taj Gateway Hotel, perched on a small hill a little out of town. It's a steep walk up though, and we fell into the authorickshaw trap where sneaky drivers drop you at the bottom of the hill. Beware. Thankfully dinner more than made up for our sufferings. The fresh salads were fantastic (especially the spicy potato recipe), as were the views out over Madurai city. The rooms and swimming pool were also top notch. After seeing Maduari's budget options, I'm slightly concerned that this latest  India trip has transformed me into a bit of a flashpacker. And there's plenty more of that to come - just wait until I get round to writing up my Kerala journey. 

Yes, I could easily pop back to Madurai sometime, and that has a lot to do with its friendly inhabitants actually, who were more than welcoming to a pair of strange foreigners. The staff at our hotel, however, were an entirely different question. I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt though, and assume that something was lost in translation. After all, it must be very difficult indeed to comprehend why a father and his daughter would want a twin room...

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Adventures in Snooty Ooty

I’d like to apologise for the lack of India coverage recently. Sudden power cuts, long train journeys, dingy hotels without wifi, and many other elements have been wreaking havoc with my writing plans over the last couple of weeks. I’m now happily settled in a cute hotel in Kovalam, Kerala, and things should be back on track in no time, all being well.

Back to business then.

Having fought our way through the research of five separate bus stations in Coimbatore, the Manchester of India (which says it all), Dad and I hired a driver for our journey up to Ooty, a hill station known as the ‘Queen’ of the Nilgiris. It was Sunday afternoon and apparently also rush hour on the Ooty ‘highway’. Up and up we went along a rather windy road that gave the Competa drive a run for its money, often overtaking several other vehicles on blind corners. The plains gradually faded into the distance and the drop beneath us became sheerer by the second. At one point, we came hurtling round another narrow bend and straight into a rather messy traffic jam, only to find it was caused by two wild elephants perched beside the road, happily munching on some trees. Monkeys lined the edge of the track too, eagerly awaiting leftovers from all the passing cars. Despite several occasions on which I thought we were about to die, it was definitely a spectacular ascent through the thick green jungle, dotted with bright orange flowers and tea plantations. It’s also possible to do this trip aboard the ‘miniature train’, as we did on the way back down. The baby train, as I came to call it, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, although you’d never know it from the chaos aboard; apparently it’s tradition to scream when going through tunnels, making the whole thing more like a fairground ride. This said, I’d say it’s certainly a once in a lifetime experience and worth every single one of the 40-odd rupees we paid for it.

As we drove into Ooty town, with the telltale evening chill sweeping in through the window, signs began to appear for our hotel, which was highly rated on Tripadvisor. I hold Tripadvisor entirely responsible for everything that happened next. Our hotel was very well signposted actually, perhaps overly so I began to think. ‘Pay like a poor, live like a rich’ announced one board, which really should have been a sign in itself. Well, arrive we did and, to be fair, the entrance looked promising enough, with a cute garden and a couple of swings; staff were friendly too. ‘How many nights you stay, Sir? Four? Maybe five?’  I read the slogan above the door, which claimed to be ‘serving the outgoing guests affectionately, waiting for incoming guests enthusiastically’, and began to worry. Oh. Dear. God. I’m a bit of a cleanliness freak, the type who whips out the hand sanitizer all the time for no reason whatsoever, and I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when we saw our room. I won’t go into details, but things looked bad. ‘I think perhaps it’s missing a bit of a female touch’, I told Dad. We left the very next morning, and spent the rest of our trip avoiding all places at all connected.

Our next abode, the Welbeck Residency, offered equally as much entertainment, although luckily in a much cleaner environment.  It was also here that I began to understand where the ‘Snooty Ooty’ jokes came from, as the colonial style decor harked back to the era of British rule in India, car and swanky car included. The place even has an official porter, a lovely old chap with a nice smile dressed in a deep red jacket. ‘Morning, ma’am!’, he’d beam at me every day.

Breakfast adventures at the Welbeck also kept us entertained for days after we left Ooty. The first morning we tucked in to an alright buffet but, when we wandered down the day after, there was not a morsel of food in sight. Papi stormed over to reception: ‘What’s happened to breakfast?!’ The look on the receptionist’s face was priceless, somewhere between sheer terror and absolute hysterics: ‘Oh, breakfast is à la carte on Wednesday, Sir’. Ah yes, of course. Why didn’t we think of that? In we tromped and were given our menus.

‘Um, do you have any fruit other than papaya?’

‘Yes, ma’am. What is on the menu is available’.

‘So what’s the fruit then?’

‘Ma’am, papaya is available’.                                             

I was fighting a losing battle, so after a good five minutes I eventually ordered an omelette and toast. ‘Two toast or three toast, ma’am?’ My plate arrived with four pieces of toast, along with omelettes for both Dad and I. Uhoh. It gradually emerged that somehow, and I really have no idea how this happened, our waiter thought we wanted two servings of every single dish we’d mentioned: papaya, omelette, toast, dosas, the lot. ‘Um, I didn’t order this’. ‘Ok, Sir’. Smile. Head wobble. The next day we came better prepared. We’d bought our own supplies at Modern Stores (Garden Road), which sells an amazing collection of Western products including yoghurt (yes, real yoghurt!) and Special K. I was armed with Dorset’s Really Nutty Muesli, a few apples, and a loaf of brown bread. ‘Can I have a bowl and some butter please?’ The poor waiters were baffled. A while later I reached for my bread. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the waiter poised to move, and then: ‘You want toast, ma’am?’ Oh for god’s sake.  

I also spent a day alone in Ooty, while Dad went off to research Coonoor. Amongst other tasks, I visited the office of the Field Director in order to find out about Mudumalai National Park, one of the area’s main attractions. Fortunately enough, the director turned out to be another genuinely charming Oooty man, who happily answered all my probing questions and even pointed out a couple of things I’d forgotten. When I bounced back in two days later, soaked from head to toe thanks to Cyclone Nilam, he greeted me like an old friend, and demanded that I sit by the heater with a cup of chai before allowing me to do any work. All jokes aside, we actually had a very interesting chat. The sad truth is that the future of India’s national parks, along with that of the tiger, is pretty uncertain, marred as it is by corruption amongst local forest officials. Bribes are more common than people imagine and laws regarding access to these parks are often broken. Tourists frequently remain unaware of the regulations and fail to recognise that their actions not only harm the local environment, but are also completely illegal. We came face to face with this during our visit to Mudumalai. ‘You want jungle safari, eh?’ muttered a rather creepy character. ‘I get you jungle safari’. Needless to say we gave a swift no thank you and headed off.

Dear Ooty, you may not be my number one destination, but you’ve clearly made a lasting impression. Perhaps that’s mostly thanks to the very welcoming priest at St Stephen’s Church who happily asked: ‘Now, tell me, are you married or a spinster?’ I’m pretty sure he had no idea how insulted I was. In my opinion, 22 is a perfectly acceptable age for exploring the world and enjoying life without any extra responsibilities. In Mr Pastor’s eyes, however, I was very much back on the shelf. That’s cultural differences for you.

Other Ooty highlights:

Dinner at the Savoy, including yummy vodka cocktails and a fabulous triple chocolate dessert of mousse, ice cream, and brownie.

The terrifying 36 hairpin bend road between Ooty and Mudumalai National Park, considered so dangerous that buses don’t use it at all.

Exploring the coffee plantations of The Wilds at Northernhay, a charming hotel in the Mudumalai area. Perks include excellent jungle safaris, accommodation in tree houses, and fresh watermelon juice. When we visited the last guests had been lucky enough to spot three tigers! The place was so peaceful I could have stayed for weeks. 

Researching the bus station on a cold, rainy day. The fog was so thick we could barely see across the road. That's commitment if ever I saw it. 

Monday, 29 October 2012

‘Peaceful’ Pondicherry

On the day we began our journey down the ECR from Chennai, Papi was wearing a particularly distinctive T-shirt, one that he was very proud of indeed. ‘No skyscrapers here, just sky’, it read. ‘Peaceful Pondicherry’. Dad had visited Pondy before I joined him and had told me that he’d enjoyed his time there, so I was looking forward to seeing the old French colony for myself a few days later. We stopped at the Crocodile Bank (between Chennai and Mahabalipuram) and there we met a volunteer who quickly noticed the T-shirt.  ‘Ooooh Pondicherry... Peaceful? Maybe not! Haha’. Uhoh. What on earth was I letting myself in for?

Now, poor Pondy was fighting a load of pretty horrendous circumstances from the outset. The torrential rains of the monsoon were quickly wearing me down, and to make matters worse Dad hurt his back whilst we were there so we ended up have to pay the hospital a brief visit (never much fun). There’s more as well. From my experience, there comes a time in every traveller’s visit to India where everything suddenly becomes too much to handle; the incessant noise, the overpowering smells, the sheer number of people crowding the streets; you feel that the sound of a single car horn more will reduce you to tears on the spot. Well, this time my momentary breakdown came whilst I was wandering the streets of Pondy, grumpy, exhausted, and probably dehydrated. I heard a vehicle of some kind honking at me, despite my already being on the edge of the road, and all of a sudden something snapped. I spun around to face the offending man and reeled off a whole load of swearwords in loud, aggressive Spanish. The guy blinked at me, confused, and then merrily continued on his way. Dad was slightly further down the street and noticed nothing. I was furious. And yet, despite all these odds, Pondicherry still managed to charm me.

Of course, Pondy is still crazy old India, but perhaps a tad more glamorous than most of its neighbours. The influence of the French can be felt everywhere, and we all know that les Français are the pinnacle of sophistication; sometimes I even wish I was French. Street names like Rue Romain Rolland dominate a large part of the town, wide avenues abound (ignoring the roadworks, of course) and freshly baked baguettes seem as popular for breakfast as traditional Tamil Nadu idlis. What a bizarre place... It’s split in two by a rather grimy canal, with the Indian area on the Western side and what is known as the French Quarter to the East. As befits an ex-IB French student, I spent most of my time in the French part, which is chock-a-block with charming old colonial style houses that have been converted into hotels and B&Bs. My favourite by far was Les Hibiscus on Rue Suffren, where the smell of incense drifts through the door as you enter and a fabulous breakfast is served up each morning. Unfortunately they have just four rooms, so we were only able to stay the one night. Maison Perumal (Perumal Koil Street) was also a great find, although probably a bit too upmarket for the Nobles. They take food orders early in the day and then buy all their ingredients fresh from the market, a mere few hours before meals are dished up. We enjoyed a lovely fresh lemon and ginger juice, made on the spot whilst we had a look around.

As one might expect from an old French (ish) town, eating options in Pondicherry are among some of the best around. Baker Street (Bussy Road) has great French-inspired food (baguettes, croissants, quiches, cakes), and the rooftop restaurant at the PromenadeHotel cooked up the most creative non-Indian vegetarian meals I’ve seen in a long time (nice as they are, one does get fed up with veg curries and byrianis after a while); apparently the seafood here is good too. I also loved the cafe at the Alliance Française, where I whiled away a sunny afternoon in the garden writing postcards over a freshly squeezed pineapple juice. For entertainment, Pondy offers some wonderful shopping opportunities. Kalki and FabIndia came top of my fashion list, as both stores manage to give traditional Indian clothing a modern boutique-y twist in that oh-so-fabulously-French way. I picked up a floaty cotton shirt in a vibrant blue colour, as well as a pure silk dress that I have yet to crack out as it’s far too short to wear in India.  Prices are probably a little steep for this part of the world, but nothing when compared to what those kinds of garments cost back home in London.

All this aside, for me Pondy’s selling point was the beachfront promenade. The beach itself isn’t much to write home about (it mainly consists of large grey rocks), but all the way along the edge a wide walkway provides the perfect place for a relaxing stroll. From about 6pm, this entire seafront area becomes pedestrianised and families roll out to enjoy the evening, making it one of the most relaxing urban spaces in Tamil Nadu. Pretty ironic really, considering Pondy’s reputation as a noisy place...

On our last night in Pondicherry, we stumbled across what can only be described as an auto-rickshaw street party. We’d discovered earlier in the day that the Pondicherrians were celebrating a festival, the Ayudha Puja, to worship the objects that help them earn a living. These rickshaws were all lined up along the edge of the road, whilst drivers floated around here and there, enjoying some extra food in honour of their trusty vehicles and burning incense to show their gratitude. The men were so excited that they darted over and shoved their handfuls of chickpeas and crisps on us, passing on their exuberant energy as well. And even though the party finally careered off up the road making an enormous racket that would normally have driven me mad, the whole thing still made me giggle hysterically. The rickshaws looked adorable with their floral decorations, almost like cute little pets, and the drivers were happy.

After my little outburst on that sweltering afternoon, I remembered the words of a charming Italian woman, who had cooked us delicious dinner at La Pasta a couple of hours earlier, and had happily told us about the complications of her life in Pondy: ‘You have to laugh, otherwise you go to kill someone! It’s the price we pay to live in India...’ And how right she was. I often think back to what she told us then, although I doubt she realises how much of an impact her comments had. My bad mood that day eventually subsided, of course, and all as well.

As for Dad’s T-shirt, well, what’s life without the odd bit of artistic license here and there? Pondicherry may not be a peaceful French village, but it will hold a special place in my memories for a long time to come. Not least, as the town where I first dared to set foot on an Indian government bus... And that, boys and girls, is a milestone indeed.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Chennai to Mahabalipuram: A Snapshot

So it turns out this guidebook research thing isn't quite the permanent holiday I had in mind. I asked Dad when it would be tanning time. 'Never', apparently. Since we arrived in Chennai just over a week ago, it's been non-stop as we've gradually worked our way down the East Coast Road and along the coast of Northern Tamil Nadu. We've encountered terrifying crocodiles, groups of weavers, unrelenting rickshaw drivers, countless cows roaming the streets, and even several professional surfers along the way. I've also been learning to live with the 'abnormal monsoon', which has been battering the coast for the last few days and seriously gives England's rain a run for its money. Reports in local papers tell of the general fury at the government's lack of preparation for the rainy season and, from what I gather, several people have in fact died in various incidents caused by the storms. I suppose the small saving grace is that the wet season will work wonders for the land. 

Anyway, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a small visual summary of  my time in Tamil Nadu so far (and hopefully some useful info as well). 

Coffee and cake at Chamiers, Chennai. Starbucks, step aside.

Chennai, viewed from the rooftop terrace of the Raintree Hotel. If you can afford it, stay here. The Raintree prides itself on being an environment friendly establishment, and offers luxury as you've never seen it before. There's also an infinity pool on the roof. Need I say more?

Early evening at Elliot's Beach, Chennai. Not quite the same bikini and tan beach experience you might get in Europe, but great fun nonetheless.
The Wishing Tree at Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Mylapore, Chennai. People tie string to the tree and make a wish (usually about marriage or children), hoping the gods will work their magic and make it happen. We had a fantastic tour around this temple (dedicated to Shiva) through a company called Storytrails, who specialise in telling Hindu stories rather than just listing boring facts. They also do a lot of work with kids, teaching them how to explore literature and enjoy learning. 

Kalamkari at Kalakshetra, Chennai. A traditional Indian art that involves decorating material with hand-painted designs which gradually narrate a story. We also got to see block-printing (on material too), and weaving at the Kalakshetra centre, which supports and enourages the use of ancient local art forms that are in danger of dying out. These people produce incredibly intricate work, whilst also transforming the 'making' itself into a beautifully creative process. Truly a wonderful experience. 

Lunch, Indian style: Thali.

A deserted beach, just North of Mahabalipuram. The beach in front of the town tends to be busier, but up here you get the sand all to yourself, especially at this time of year. Gazing out over the ocean, alone, with a breeze blowing through the air as the monsoon began to brew, was perhaps the best moment of my trip to date. 

The Five Rathas, Mahabalipuram. The town is actually a World Heritage Site, and each of these ancient temples is dedicated to a different Hindu god. But my favourite by far was the huge elephant standing guard in the middle - he  looked really friendly and I wished he was real. Try to avoid the crowds and school trips by arriving early.

The Radisson Blu Resort, Mahabalipuram. Home to the longest swimming pool in India and one of the most amazing breakfasts of my life. Again, you really should spend the odd night here if your budget allows. You get seashell necklaces on arrival too. Mahabs or Mal itself, as it's often known, wasn't really my cup of tea (the Lonely Planet calls it 'Backpakistan', so I'm sure you get the picture), and it was only our visit to the Radisson that saved it from a really brutal review. 

Ginger honey lemon tea and fruit salad (sans banana, of course). Life is good