A Travellerspoint blog

Chapter 3: Pondicherry and Chennai the sequel

In which Baddy Riley stars in a Bollywood movie, is poisoned by one or more of the Hindu gods and meets the world's saddest elephant

sunny 35 °C

Pondicherry feels bizarrely clean after Chennai. It also retains a vaguely French feel from its days under French rule.

This might explain why every other foreigner I met in Pondy was French

This might explain why every other foreigner I met in Pondy was French

You can probably all work out how i feel about this one

You can probably all work out how i feel about this one

Even though the city is quite small, there are a fair number of foreigners of the yoga/meditation/ayurveda persuasion . Not having the requisite degree of energy pathways chat, I instead made my way to an old school coffee house that's a bit of a local institution and also happens to be where the opening scenes of Life of Pi take place.

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The coffee, as everywhere, is loaded with milk and sugar, which makes it a bit Starbucksy for a connoisseur like me (yeah, I'm lying, sugar is my crack). They also do various tiffin (snack) items including this delightful bit of carb-on-carb action, masala dosa:

Essentially a crispy fried pancake with a filling of spiced potato and a couple of sauces

Essentially a crispy fried pancake with a filling of spiced potato and a couple of sauces

And the thali I had elsewhere the next day, just because

And the thali I had elsewhere the next day, just because

Somewhat awkwardly realised I had left all my money at the hotel when I went to pay... Not sure they understood why I was forcing my driving licence on them and miming using an ATM, but they let me leave anyway, and I did eventually go back once I'd found a machine that would give me cash...

Beyond the many, many ashrams, one of the things Pondy is known for is the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar temple. As you enter, you are greeted by what looks like the world's saddest elephant giving people "blessings" by touching them on the head with its trunk . I presumed this would be something most foreign tourists would not be in favour of but I did actually see a few posing for photo ops, so maybe it's just me.

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The temple itself follows the classical acid-trip style of all the temples I've seen so far... Lots of carvings, many deities, even more colours.

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After Pondy I headed back to Chennai with a vague idea that I might do a day trip to a big pilgrimage site called Tirupati. Having failed to see any key things on my first day in Chennai, I also thought I should probably make an effort to tick off the top sights like a proper tourist... I made it to the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, a southern area of Chennai. It's really interesting just wandering around looking at the carvings and deities and especially the men who seem to function as some sort of priest (in more of an Ancient Greek than Christian way in that they seemed to be mostly occupied with burning things and taking offerings from worshippers to the deity figures).

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As I was sitting down trying to figure out how to get to the next place I wanted to see, a woman and her uncle (Uma and something beginning with S) started chatting to me. They ended up offering to take me to another temple they were going to, so we hailed an auto and piled in. It was less flashy but the puritan in me does love a bit of monochrome. If you paid a fee, you could line up in a special area that got you really close to the deity . Uma and S----- gave their garland offerings to the priest to give to the deity. We then went to a separate area where you queued up to have a ladleful of holy water flavoured with spices poured into your hand and a mark of red powder put on your forehead. It somehow didn't occur to me until about a minute later that it might have been a bad idea to drink the water...

Then something which is apparently quite rare happened. A group of men appeared pulling a sort of wheeled structure surrounding the figure of a deity, all in gold. They did a lap of the temple - people have to pay about 5000 rupees to do this, and it's generally performed as a thank you when a big wish has been granted , like having a baby etc.

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The excitement over, Uma and S------ Invited me to go and get something to eat with them. I got to try even more carb and ghee based delights including parotta ( like a flakier roti) and puri (deep fried dough, slightly like the base of langos in Hungary) . There was also a dish called something like utappam which is basically exactly the same as Sri Lankan string hoppers (if you haven't been to Hoppers in Soho, go, have the chicken hearts, delicious ). It was slightly confusingly served with a pot of spiced cauliflower sauce and a pot of cardamom flavoured sweet coconut milk, both of which you should pour on the utappam (but not together, I learned after doing that).

Puri to the left, parotta to the right - I'm aware that this blog is in danger of turning into a version of one of those Instagram food porn accounts, only with shit photos, but I'm just gonna go with it

Puri to the left, parotta to the right - I'm aware that this blog is in danger of turning into a version of one of those Instagram food porn accounts, only with shit photos, but I'm just gonna go with it

This is often served after a meal. The red stuff is a mix including betel nut and mostly tastes a bit like rose in a good way; the others are sugared fennel and just plain sugar

This is often served after a meal. The red stuff is a mix including betel nut and mostly tastes a bit like rose in a good way; the others are sugared fennel and just plain sugar

On the way back to my part of town we dropped by S---'s House to say hello to his family, most of whom have now decided they are going to join me for the Kerala portion of my trip in the summer. Definitely happening. Eventually got back to hotel quite late, and very quickly realised the holy water had ironically enough been a very bad idea. Spent most of the next day not really moving from a chair on the balcony.

On the plus side, I got chatting to a really fun Aussie from Perth called Anita who had the room next door. We'd been discussing Indian idiosyncrasies for a while (seriously what does the head wobble mean? "Yes/No/maybe/Whatever/I couldn't care less" is our current best guess) when the manager came upstairs saying someone wanted to speak to us on the phone. Slightly confused I took the mobile and discovered that it was someone working in casting for a big film that was shooting some final scenes at a hotel in the city that day. He said they needed some foreigners for some background scenes, that he'd arrange for us to be taken to the hotel and that we'd be paid a thousand rupees each for our masterful acting skills. Given that we guessed this was probably not an elaborate front for an organ-harvesting operation (can you imagine how bad that would have been though? waking up with no kidneys in a bathtub full of ice and not even knowing whether the ice was made with purified water...) and that I was feeling quite a lot better after taking various medicines, we jumped into an auto and drove across the city to a Westin hotel where we proceeded to pretend to chat and then suddenly run down a corridor when someone fired a gun. There was also some sitting in front of a hotel waiting for the arrival of someone who had inconceivably been given a larger role than us. And there was a LOT of down time. The film is apparently set in Malaysia so there were lots of guys wearing Malaysian police uniforms milling around, surrounded by various "international" extras like us, none of whom seemed to have been given the same dress code. The outfits ran the gamut from day at the beach to mid-shift at the brothel via afternoon at the Louvre. We got chatting to an Indian guy, Seena, who was keen to make it as an actor. This was apparently only his second film but he was expecting to really blow up from June onwards. We were lucky enough to see his large collection of photos of him in his previous role, as well as his Facebook like page ("Seena Actor" in case you're wondering) . We oh-so-earnestly promised to add to his existing 112 likes as soon as we had wifi again. Definitely will.

So much down time

So much down time

These guys had been there since like midday...

These guys had been there since like midday...

Glamourous filming interrupted by even more glamourous dinner break...in the car park

Glamourous filming interrupted by even more glamourous dinner break...in the car park

We'd been told we'd be needed until around 4.30am but by 11.30pm we'd decided the glamorous movie star life was not for us and, foregoing our promised riches, sneaked out the back way before someone could start shouting at us about continuity or something similarly crucial to the oeuvre. So if you happen to speak Tamil (or even if you don't) you should probably check out Kabali starring Rajanikanth (appaz a Tamil "superstar") and me, in cinemas nowhere near you from May 2016.

Posted by baddyriley 07:13 Archived in India Tagged food temple elephant pondicherry chennai Comments (0)

Chapter 2: The Non-Indian Indian Wedding

In which Baddy Riley goes upmarket, struggles with a sari and sings a Disney medley

sunny 34 °C

Warning: If you're easily offended by terrible photography, you may wish to look away now - a lot of blurry phone camera photos are ahead (there's only so much you can fit in a clutch bag). There are also pretty much no photos of the most fun bits because, well, priorities. Sorry!

After a day of not-quite-luxury in Chennai, I was pretty excited to get to the wedding of my friend Smriti, an old work colleague, at Fisherman's Cove, about an hour and a half south of the city. Being golf buggied to my room via the manicured lawns of the beach-front hotel was a nice change from all my other forms of transport in India so far... The events kicked off with the Mehndi, where the girls got henna-ed up for the wedding under a big canopy festooned with a vast array of flower garlands and decorations, before we all moved on to a classical dance performance. This particular performance was of part of the Ramayana, and was fittingly epic (both in that it was really impressive and in that it was verrrryyyy long). The key thing I gleaned from it was that opening your eyes wider than seems humanly possible is very important in Indian classical dance. The outfits and dancing were generally amazing, and there was quite a comical bit at the end where the choreographer presented every single person who had in some way been involved in putting it together (Oscars-style, though the Oscars tyrants would never let you get away with a speech that long). Everyone was ready for some food by the time the final thanks had been given, so we headed over to a big hall for the Sangeeth, which is my new favourite thing that has ever happened, and should definitely become a feature of English weddings. It's basically a series of performances by the wedding party and guests. The bride's work friends had been asked to do one such performance, so we headed up to perform a medley of Disney tunes with lyrics changed to relate to the bride and groom. Suffice to say, we were massively outclassed by most of the other acts, which included a (lyrics changed) version of the Fresh Prince theme, various Bollywood routines, a diabolo routine, and a slightly bizarre tribute to a former leader of Singapore (I think you had to be Singaporean to really grasp that one). As the last act finished, everyone spontaneously joined them up on stage for dancing in a scene worthy of the end of a Bollywood film. A lot of enthusiastically inauthentic Bollywood moves continued until the early hours, when we got sent to bed with the reminder that we had an actual wedding ceremony to attend in the morning.

The, er, traditional post-sangeeth round of limbo

The, er, traditional post-sangeeth round of limbo

Because why wouldn't you call your Indian beer "British Empire"?!

Because why wouldn't you call your Indian beer "British Empire"?!

It was a crushingly early start (ok, 7.30am) to go and get our saris draped and pleated and pinned for the ceremony. If you've never worn a sari, it is really way more complicated than it looks... It also gets pretty hot under all those layers of fabric, as I discovered as we were standing in the sun near the beach waiting for the arrival of the grooms (I haven't mentioned it, but it was a joint wedding with my friend's sister and her fiance). They duly arrived in flower-festooned chariots, heralded by groups of drummers. As the grooms stepped down, someone would open a parasol filled with rose petals over their heads... no idea what this symbolises but it looked cool!. The brides and grooms were then hoisted up onto the shoulders of various friends and family, and spent a while attempting to lasso each other with flower garlands (my friend got really into this and completely smashed up her garland in her enthusiasm to get her man...). That complete, the couples each sat on a flowery swing-type contraption, while married women came and offered the brides advice for their marriage. There was something involving what looked like yoghurt (potentially coconut milk) being applied to feet, but I couldn't tell you why. The brides both looked incredible in their wedding outfits, with elaborate hair and makeup and extensive henna designs all over their hands, arms and feet.

One groom arrives

One groom arrives

The flower carpet, post-procession

The flower carpet, post-procession

The beautiful bride herself

The beautiful bride herself

Everyone then headed back to where the Mehndi had happened for the actual main ceremony. This involved lots of symbolism, Sanskrit, and the narrowly avoided immolation of one of the grooms in a sacred fire. We were then all given turmeric rice and rose petals to throw on the couples as a blessing... there were quite a lot of people in front of us, so I'm pretty sure some of the other guests spent the rest of the afternoon pulling grains of rice from their hair as a result of our lack of throwing ability... woops.

Ross, who is so skilfully ruining this picture, managed to get himself mentioned in all of the wedding speeches by having swapped clothes with the bride the night before. Sadly I don't have a picture of him in the lehenga, but they do exist...

Ross, who is so skilfully ruining this picture, managed to get himself mentioned in all of the wedding speeches by having swapped clothes with the bride the night before. Sadly I don't have a picture of him in the lehenga, but they do exist...

A wall of flowers - eat your hearts out Kim and Kanye

A wall of flowers - eat your hearts out Kim and Kanye

The ceremony - there are a couple of sacred fires there somewhere

The ceremony - there are a couple of sacred fires there somewhere

We made a quick exit before we could be identified as the culprits, and headed over to the big hall for a traditional banana leaf lunch. I'd struggle to name most of the things on my banana leaf, but they were all delicious - sadly I have not improved at the whole eating with hands thing yet.

The thing at the bottom right was a sort of sweet cardamom flavoured rice pudding that (we found out afterwards) you're supposed to eat at the start

The thing at the bottom right was a sort of sweet cardamom flavoured rice pudding that (we found out afterwards) you're supposed to eat at the start

Later that day, everyone congregated down by the beach for cocktails followed by an Indian street food dinner. I actually recognised the names of some of the things we had there - kothu is a particular favourite (as is whatever the thing is served in what looks like a soft white roll lightly fried in ghee). If you ever happen to see the food van called Kothu Kothu in London, definitely try it out. There was jalebi for pudding, which is a bright orange fried batter with (as you probably know if you've ever had any Indian sweets) loads of syrup on top. My friend's sister and her new husband made a grand entrance in a specially decorated jalopy to a backdrop of fireworks.

The big entrance

The big entrance

The night ended with a bonfire on the beach, the raucous singing of lots of classics, the odd 90s RnB tune and, inexplicably, a rendition of Jerusalem by some rugby fans with a truly minimal grasp of irony.

The beginning of the end

The last day began with a breakfast of typical southern Indian foods, including vada (a sort of spiced dougnut-shaped fritter) and idli (small spongy pancakes) with sambar (a sort of spiced soupy thing). Controversial, but I'm not a massive fan of idli... bit too much like an actual sponge for my taste.

Lots of us then went on a trip to the nearby UNESCO listed site of Mamallapuram/Mahabalipuram. The various temples were very impressive, though the guide had such a thick accent that I wouldn't struggle to believe you if you told me he was actually speaking Tamil.

Spot the Brit...

Spot the Brit...

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Good cricket, good cricket

When we got back to the hotel complex, most of the boys headed off to play in the cricket tournament on the beach, while the girls and those guys who hadn't been persuaded by the joys of running around in 35 degree heat spectated with a glass (or eight) of Pimm's from the shade. I'm not sure Pimm's has really made it to India... the barmen were mixing it with Sprite 1:1 and then shaking it before someone flustered-looking ran up and corrected them. Some of the cricketers were obviously really good (diving catches aplenty), but there were a fair few novices making valiant efforts - one American was batting one-handed, which was novel. There was a fun awards ceremony at the end of the tournament, with the big trophy going to the team of the father of the brides (who became something of a celebrity over the course of the three days).

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One final quick change, then down to the beach lawn for drinks before the big formal wedding dinner (dress code: cocktail dresses and colourful chinos). My friend and her new husband turned up on a customised rickshaw driven by the other couple, and then everyone settled down to some of the most delicious food I've ever had, with the traditional south Indian accompaniment of Moet. The celebrity father of the brides made a really touching speech (though I'm not sure how much my friend appreciated it when he mentioned that she'd been "slightly obese" as a child...), as did the groom and best men. Pudding involved pistachio kulfi (a sort of ice cream made with condensed milk), which is by a long way my favourite Indian sweet. Then it was back to the big hall for dancing to everything from Tamil hits to rockabilly and old-school RnB until the early hours.

Leaving the next morning for Pondicherry was as painful as you can imagine...

Posted by baddyriley 08:28 Archived in India Tagged wedding flowers beach chennai Comments (0)

Chapter 1: Chennai

In which Baddy Riley takes all the transport, walks in circles and acquires a large collection of hair accessories

sunny 36 °C

Day 1 started so efficiently that I was almost tricked into believing that the whole stereotype of things not exactly running to schedule in India might be a myth. My flight into Mumbai landed almost an hour early, immigration was the breeziest of breezes and my luggage turned up in one piece (which was helpfully the exact number of pieces I had checked in). Then I saw that my onward flight to Chennai was delayed by three and a half hours, meaning six hours of airport wallowing beckoned. On the plus side, Mumbai airport is great - really good facilities, a couple of tropical garden areas and loads and loads of interesting paintings, sculptures and other heritagey bits and pieces all over the walls. I took so many photos of different parts of the airport that I'm probably now on some sort of watch list.

In my defence, half the other passengers were also stopping to take photos of the walls

In my defence, half the other passengers were also stopping to take photos of the walls

011

011

Heathrow's got nothing on this

Heathrow's got nothing on this

When I eventually landed in Chennai I decided, in the name of intrepidness (intrepidity?), to forego the obviously sensible option of a five-pound cab to the city centre in favour of a trip on the local commuter train that left from a little way outside the airport. Achingly authentic (a more descriptive adverb would be sweatily, as it was a casual 35 degrees). Giving in to my inner masochist, I was bumbling around trying not to be hit by various types of vehicle when a really nice guy said he was also going to the station and could show me the way. His second question to me (after where are you from) was whether I liked cricket. I'm a sucker for anyone conforming to stereotype so perfectly. He was also just generally great and ended up leading me to the "laydeez" carriage of the train I wanted, having bought my ticket for me because I didn't have the change (obviously it's entirely ridiculous to try to pay for a 5 rupee ride with a 100 rupee note... 5 rupees is about 5 pence). The train was actually really quick, and the whole "we don't do doors on any form of public transport" thing is a winner when it's really hot. I was pretty surprised by the fact that every single woman in the carriage was wearing traditional dress. Such good sari-watching for the half hour or so it took to get into the centre.

Sorry for rubbish quality - phone camera needed for extra surreptitiousness

Sorry for rubbish quality - phone camera needed for extra surreptitiousness

Once I'd found the hotel I had a vague plan of trying to visit the old British fort, which looked pretty close on the map. I then spent a stupidly long time scrutinising the various modern military buildings that are housed in the general fort complex (including the ominously named "Transit Camp 1078") in search of something vaguely historic-looking. All this achieved was probably getting me moved further up that watch list, because by the time I eventually found the old fort, it was closed. I then attempted to walk to Marina Beach, where frantic Chennai meets the Bay of Bengal. I say attempted, because anything that requires me to summon up something resembling a sense of direction is doomed to fail. I essentially walked for an hour in what I thought was a southerly direction (through some really really poor areas where there were people lying in the street who were so thin they basically looked like skeletons vacuum packed in skin) only to arrive back at the exact point I'd started from. I still have no idea how I did this. Presumably a break in the fabric of the space time continuum or something equally plausible.

This river smelt so bad even from where I was standing - cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to have to live next to it

This river smelt so bad even from where I was standing - cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to have to live next to it

The auto rickshaw driver who'd offered me a lift earlier was still there and found this generally hilarious. I ended up paying him R40 (40p) to take me there. I suppose excellent banter along the lines of "Chennai beach is number 2 in the world. You know what's number 1? Miami. But Chennai is 2" comes at a price. The beach resembles Miami beach in that (a) it involves sand, and (b) it is next to the sea. So basically, they're both beaches. Unlike Miami, this one is really, really dirty and packed with food stalls, "modelling" photography stands and fairground rides. It's also incredibly popular - it was full of locals hanging out and taking selfies in front of the sunset (one of the two words of Tamil I now know is "selfie"; it means selfie).

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I got chatting to a family who were sitting on the beach and they ended up inviting me to their house for dinner. We got on an incredibly crowded local bus, with all the women seeming to think it necessary to act as my Praetorian guard in a way that was equal parts sweet and unnecessary. When we at last got to the house we had some really tasty chicken biryani and everyone mocked me for being incapable of eating with my hands (they relented after a while and gave me a spoon). They also asked whether i was Hindu or Christian which i found funny - i suppose living in India must make you think of Hinduism as the default religion. They were actually Muslim, and were comically impressed when i was able to read out a bit of their Qur'an in Arabic (obviously I picked one of the easy bits). When i told them i was a lawyer, they were so overawed (presumably by the required outstandingly high boredom threshold) that they actually took it in turn to shake my hand. It's never got that reaction in the UK for some reason... They even forced presents on me as I was leaving - I tried (and failed) to refuse, so I am now the somewhat unlikely owner of an impressively colourful and shiny collection of hair accessories. Sadly they were uncomfortable having a picture taken, so you just get a photo of the food.

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Generally people have been great in Chennai. There's no hassle (auto drivers will ask if you need a ride, but they actually only ask once), and people are always willing to help you figure out where you should be getting on or off some form of transport. Fingers crossed that it continues!

Posted by baddyriley 05:37 Archived in India Tagged beach train chennai mumbai_airport Comments (0)

The Grand Plan

Or, a hastily thrown together, poorly thought through list of places I may go

I've known what date I would be leaving for India (22 March) for about a year. So, obviously, I left any sort of route-planning until last weekend. I like to pretend that this is because I'm the sort of spontaneous, carefree creature who captures hearts and minds in indie rom-coms. In actual fact, it's just because I've been too lazy to start trying to make sense of which Pradesh is where, what exactly an Inner Line Permit is, and why I need about ten. After a weekend of haphazard itinerary construction, demolition and redevelopment, I'm not much the wiser on any of the above, but I do at least have a vague travel plan. Ok more a list of places and dates. Actually more like regions/countries and months. On the scale of, say, van Dyck to Pollock, we're at a Monet-esque level of recognisable detail here. One of the late ones where his eyesight had become quite bad.

If I manage to see parts of most of the places listed below, I think it'll take a little over five months. But I may well speed up/slow down/decide to devote my life to a particularly compelling guru/contract dysentery, so it could all be over rather sooner or rather later than that. Caveats aside, the plan looks like this:

March:

  1. Chennai (friend's wedding, all very exciting and glamourous)
  2. Pondicherry
  3. Kolkata

April:

  1. Nepal (New Year celebrations)
  2. Ayodhya (more celebrations)
  3. back to Nepal (try to find some sort of trek for people who are incapable of proper trekking)
  4. Sikkim
  5. Assam

May

  1. Arunachal Pradesh (Pradesh No. 1!)
  2. Bangladesh (I'm basically just going to turn up at the border and hope they give me a visa off the back of my lively charm and quick wit)
  3. Bihar
  4. Uttar Pradesh (Pradesh No. 2!)

June

  1. Himanchal Pradesh (Pradesh No. 3!)
  2. Punjab
  3. Jammu and Kashmir

July

  1. Jammu and Kashmir
  2. Ladakh

August

  1. Rajasthan (in case you don't know much about India, this is basically where all the big-name tourist attractions are), then fly to
  2. Kerala (snake boat races!)
  3. Goa (maybe pushing into September)

I might also come up with spurious reasons to go to Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh in search of some sort of wondrous Pradesh full house.

There may or may not (depending on my level of technological incompetence today) be a map at the top of this page showing what the above should look like.

I will try to keep this blog updated fairly regularly throughout, but I've never managed to keep a diary for more than a week, so if I don't post for a while, it's probably because I'm reading a trashy novel in a hammock somewhere with no internet rather than because I've fallen off a mountain.

If you're expecting an exciting souvenir (you know who you are), you'll need to earn it via (frankly sycophantic levels of) enthusiasm for my writing/photography skills in the comments section.

Posted by baddyriley 13:57 Archived in India Comments (0)

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