Monday, April 16, 2007

Chennai, Pondicherry & Mamallapurum

I’m sitting on my rooftop balcony in Hyderabad, bathed in Deet and typing to the light of my computer and my book light because it’s the only place in my villa that I can get internet access. I have a lot to catch up with in my blog since last Tuesday!

On Wednesday I went to get my sarees tailored with Parveen, a girl from work. I sent out an email to a work email list and she wrote back saying that she could accompany me to her tailor and make sure that he could have my sarees back backing time for the Indian wedding I’ve been invited to this weekend. We headed out to a part of town that I've never been to before and went to the tailor. Afterwards she invited me to her house and I met her mom, grandma, and her son.

The architecture in the neighborhood was completely different than the other housing I’ve seen in Hyderabad- villas with balconies and private gardens. It is very interesting to me that in the same city, people of different cultures, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, live close to each other and interact on a daily basis, each maintaining their own cultural identity.

They invited me for dinner and I watched her mom make fresh roti and fried egg with olive oil (the most familiar food I’ve had here ;) and she took me to the dining area which was a cloth spread out on the living room floor with pillows up against the wall. We ate the egg, roti, rice, and a vegetarian ‘curd’ curry with our hands (her grandmother tried to tutor me in eating technique in Hindi as I tried to eat rice with my fingers, to everyone’s amusement), and I’m starting to get good at the one handed roti-break. My favorite part of the entire experience was that we could talk about the differences between the US and here, and learn a lot from each other. Usually because American culture is so central to tv, I learn things from other people, but they already know about American culture. But in India, American culture isn't so ubiquitous, and we each had plenty of questions for each other.

On Friday night I went with 6 other expats on a weekend odyssey in the South. The players were me, 2 other American girls, Shannon and Kerrie, a German girl, Sarah, two Irish guys, Neil and Dave, and a Portuguese guy, Filipe. We flew on an Indian discount airline, which I was a bit worried about, but it turned out to be really nice (way nicer than Southwest or Jetblu, with entirely new planes). We arrived at about 9 and were greeted by our personal driver, whom I’d arranged for with Ismail, the guru of all drivers everywhere in India. Our driver, Mari, was holding a sign that said “Welcome Ashley & Team” – a running gag that lasted the whole weekend. We asked him to take us to dinner on the ‘road to Pondicherry’ which was supposed to take about 3 hours, but Mari took us to a rooftop hotel restaurant in Chennai, knowing that there wasn’t actually a good restaurant on the way to Pondicherry. We had a leisurely dinner until about 11 when we rolled out to the 8 seater van. Our brilliant plan had been to get something to eat, wait for rush hour(s) to end and then speed on to Pondicherry. Sadly, the best laid plans….

We happened to roll out of the restaurant at the time when every bus in India lines up on the main road out of Chennai to pick up passengers and bully their way into the 2 lane road. It also happened to be the time that all trucks, decorated with pictures of flowers and chickens and monster faces, and elaborately written ‘Sound Horn’ messages, get onto that same road out of Chennai for their overnight deliveries. Therefore, we spent over an hour going about 4 miles in Chennai, as buses and trucks rumbled around us in every direction and a ‘monster truck’ behind us threateningly came within inches of the back of our van every minute or so. Filipe: “Ah! The monster truck”

After we escaped Chennai we had a delirious 3 hour journey with Mari pulling off in a super sketchy place to ask for directions, and playing chicken with oncoming ‘prison buses’ (buses full of night travelers with gated windows that looked like prison buses from the movies). When we finally reached Pondicherry at 3am, we ended up driving around and calling the hotel multiple times to get directions for Mari. When we finally arrived, exhausted zombies, they showed us to our rooms. They opened up the boys’ door to reveal one very romantic canopy bed ;)

Shannon and I shared another ‘romantic canopy bed room’ with a ‘bathroom’ which involved a screen placed so that if you were at the toilet or sink you could see straight into the shower. Our hotel was decent, the nicest in Pondicherry- a converted French colonial building with high ceilings. It was cool to stay somewhere that would be roped off in a museum in Europe or America, but we were so tired, and it was so rustic (I took a cold shower), and I was ready to be back in Hyderabad in my air-conditioned cave.

After finally falling asleep at 4:30 due to post-car traumatic stress syndrome, I awoke at 9:30 unable to sleep. I dragged myself out of bed and went outside to a whole new world! The hotel had a beautiful inner courtyard a la Spanish missions in California, and the whole building was white washed with gardens reminiscent of New Orleans. I sat in the courtyard and ate a croissant and wrote in my journal and relaxed as the temperature rose to a baking humidity. The sky was a blue that I don’t appreciate at home, but now appreciate after Hyderabad, and I walked to the beach of the Bay of Bengal while everyone else was asleep or getting ready.

The beach was only a few blocks away and I could see it once I turned the corner out of our hotel. The streets were quiet except for a few people working on a building, and the water was tropical blue. There wasn’t too much of a beach, because it was blocked by big black rocks, but women in sarees were bathing and men were swimming. The temperature was already sizzling so I headed back to the hotel.

Later on, after everyone was ready, we walked around Pondicherry and spent a leisurely several hour “first lunch” at a French-esque restaurant called “Rendez-Vous.” The architecture of Pondicherry is all somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans, since it’s from French colonization from around the same time period, but with rickshaws, fruit stands, and a heat and humidity that would stifle even Louisiana. We walked to the Tamil quarter, and down the “Rue de la Cathedrale” and saw all the white-washed churches and buildings, and enjoyed the relatively little street traffic. When we finally reached the famous Gandi statue on the beach, I was ready to pass out from the heat (we’d walked for maybe half an hour and I’d finished an entire liter of water). We were heavily haggled by hawkers trying to sell stuff while we waited for Mari to bring the car to rescue us.

We drove around Pondicherry, mostly to find the botanical gardens where the fictional zoo from the “Life of Pi” was, but the gardens were closed so we headed out of town (after waiting for a herd of goats to clear the road). The road north along the coast to Mamallapurum was amazing – along the Bay of Bengal with small villages of huts, cattle in the road, coconut groves, and occasional plantation houses of French origin. I saw a Christian school and was reminded of Aunt Mae’s diary from when she was in Jaffna, Ceylon, and I wondered how she could have possibly lived somewhere so remote (the road felt absolutely isolated even though there were some cars and it was a big road only 50 miles south of Chennai). We drove past areas where they collect salt to sell, and the whole drive was along an area that was completely wiped out by the 2004 tsunami (seemed to look re-built, although I don’t know what it used to look like).

When we arrived in Mamallapurum, a world heritage site with carved caves and a Hindu temple overlooking the Bay of Bengal (the last of 7 temples from an ancient empire), we went to our ‘resort’ which turned out to be more rustic than we had anticipated. We learned that it was the Tamil new year, which apparently doesn’t warrant a party or festival of any kind, but did warrant most restaurants not having most of the food we wanted. At the hotel there was a pool that was as warm as a bathtub, and monster mosquitoes, and the girls shared a ‘suite’ and the boys shared a regular room. Our suite turned out to be a self-contained bio-dome shaped like a hobbit house with trippy circular windows. We also realized in the morning that it was made out of a semi-transparent material that allowed light in so that I could watch the critters run across the top of the dome. The boys found a massive cockroach in their room, which gave me the heebie-jeebies when we turned off the lights to go to bed.

We went to dinner in town and spent a leisurely 4 hours at the restaurant, not necessarily because we wanted to be slow, but because that’s how long it took us to get our food. We ordered a ton of food because we were starving, and throughout the night they would bring about 1 dish every 20 minutes, and occasionally mention when we’d ask for a particular item that was missing that they didn’t actually have it.

In the morning Mari escorted the girls to the Shore temple and then to the cave carvings, which were worth the trip. The shore temple, the last temple of 8 created by a lost dynasty during the 7th century, sits dramatically over the Bay of Bengal. Many families and school children were there enjoying it with us. Walking through the town was harrowing, because for a small town, there were tons of scary prison buses which came inches from plowing Shannon down, and weren’t too far off for the rest of us. The heat was oppressive.

After the temples we met up with the boys and went to lunch, and then the girls went shopping. We met a fantastic salesman who managed to keep us in his shop the entire time we had devoted to shopping, and I’m now the proud owner of 3 tapestries, a tea tray, and 6 christmas tree ornaments – truly an amazing salesman ;) I love all of them and they are now decorating my room.

We finished up the trip to Chennai getting to the city super early after our Friday night experience and hoped to have a relaxing dinner. Sadly, we were there during the 3 hours a day that no restaurants are open, so we ended up in the basement bar of the hotel we ate dinner at on Friday, eating grilled cheese sandwiches. And let me tell you, they were the best damn grilled cheese sandwiches ever.

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