DISCLAIMER | I stopped to sleep in Pondicherry after visiting Auroville, the famous ideal city of Indian hippies. Unfortunately I didn’t get to explore this former French colony properly. This is the story of the series of misadventures that prevented me and how I managed to cover the main attractions in just over 2 hours
Pondicherry (or Puducherry) is a charming town in Tamil Nadu where you can breathe a European atmosphere.
It remained under French rule until 1954, as evidenced by the rational urban organization of some neighborhoods, with their tree-lined avenues and the colonial-style period houses adorned with flourishing Bougainville.
There are French restaurants serving beer and steaks, bars and cafes where you can enjoy excellent cappuccinos, croissants, fresh bread and baguettes. Even today, being born in Pondicherry guarantees the right to the French passport.
A destination for a bit of radical chic and bohemian tourism, Pondicherri is the least Indian of the cities of Tamil Nadu and perhaps the one I enjoy the least.
I arrive in Pondicherry one evening in late December, with the idea of walking along the sea and the French Quarter but an unexpected turn of events is about to happen.
At the hotel reception, in fact, we are refused documents. We call the driver, Pandi, and ask him to solve the misunderstanding.
As soon as I see Pandi talking to the man at the desk, I understand something went wrong. They raise their voices, look at each other in a frenzy, the sentences overlap, until Pandi slams his fists on the table, moves away and begins to make a series of increasingly agitated phone calls.
At last, he approaches me with a low gaze. He is mortified. He had offered to make the reservation on our behalf, but the hotel decided to cancel at the last minute without giving him notice. Apparently the city is full of tourists because of the New Year’s Eve (which is tomorrow), all hotels in town are all full so the hotel owner decided to cancel our reservations (we were not required to pay a deposit) to resell rooms at a higher price to local tourists.
Pandi is furious. He must quickly find us another accommodation but all the hotels he contacts are full. In the end, after a desperate ride of a couple of hours and several refusals to accommodate us, we end up in a dive full of bedbugs and cockroaches.
“Have you also red spits on the walls?” asks Alessandro.
“I have bloodstains on the sheets”, says Fabiana a little worried. “I’m pouring liters of biokill on the bed, God help us!”.
I have already slept with fleas and ticks in Nepal, so it does not scare me. I have a bigger problem: no toilet paper in the barthroom!
When I left home, I had put a toilet paper roll in my bag and that’s what I’ve used so far, but now it is finished. I have tried to buy another one in stores but it seems impossible to find. I go down to the reception. Mine’s a desperate attempt, but worth a try.
It’s after 11pm and the desk guy is sleeping on the floor in the lobby. Sorry to wake him up, but I have to.
He rubs his eyes to wake up and replies: “We have no toilet paper. If you wish, you can wash yourself in the shower”.
“Are you serious?” I answer with a hallucinatory look.
“Yes”. The boy turns to the other side and goes back to sleep.
Indians use a shower to clean their private parts. They don’t use toilet paper. I was hoping hotels would have paper supplies for foreign tourists. I was wrong.
I contact Pandi and ask him if it is possible to get at least one roll. He really is an angel, he always does what he can to satisfy us. He comes back half an hour later, with a roll almost finished, covered in cobwebs and dead insects. It’s the best he could find around.
I’m going back to my room.
“My suitcase is completely wet!” cried Daniele. Today it rained all day and his suitcases, which was on the hood of the car, got wet. “My pajamas are all wet, look!”.
I take the hair dryer out of my bag. We will dry everything, but we it will take all night! I mean, Pondicherry welcomes us with the perfect storm!
Travel taught me to shrug when faced with adversity. The more things go wrong the more I laugh (and curse, of course)!
So we decide to leave our rooms and go out to enjoy what Pondicherry has to offer.
The French Quarter is located on the seafront. An orderly network of streets and avenues, overlooked by elegant two-storey white villas.
We pass the French Consulate and immediately notice a couple of things that give the avenue a European atmosphere. The sides of the road are tree-lined, with wide pavements of bricks to allow pedestrians to walk: it is not usual on Indian streets, believe me!
The shops and restaurants are full of tourists and the old buildings are all in excellent condition. The Beach Road, the promenade, is still full of life. There are groups of young people walking, street artists who make portraits and caricatures on commission, small kiosks selling drinks and ice cream.
We move to the beach, which is a small strip of sand interrupted by large breakwater stones. The area is not swimmable, the sea is always rushing.
Back at the hotel, we pass the city lighthouse and the Gandhi Memorial. Due to the late hour, everything is closed. Pondicherry allowed us nothing but a quick visit.
“I don’t like it”, I grumbled, “It looks like a European holiday town”. As soon as I finish my superficial sentence, a family of water buffaloes cuts me off, followed by a group of kids on mopeds. Pondicherry wants to remind me that India is India. Any attempt to make it Western is just a facade.
The next morning, after a restless night, I enjoy one of the best breakfasts ever. We enter a French café where we are served an excellent espresso, which is always a plaesure, a creamy cappuccino and every type of stuffed croissant. Drinking caffeine immediately puts me in a good mood!
All right, Pondicherry, you made it up to me!
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