Cycling in Pondicherry

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There are certain memories in life which stay with you vivid and clear. You remember even the smallest details of the memory as distinctly as if it just happened. Oxford, UK was one such memory. I was hardly eleven at that time, but it still made an enormous impact. The majestic stone buildings with ivy climbing on to the walls, the mild chill in the air, people casually walking into cafes with satchels slung on their backs, neat tidy rows of houses which looked similar to each other,just as though they had stepped off the rack of a toy store, cobbled roads, and CYCLISTS.

In India, the only people whom I knew cycled were us school kids, and people who could not afford a better means of transport! That cycling would be a preferred vehicle of choice for professors, students who actually owned cars to ferry them back to their hometown and even really old people, was something I could not fathom.The way they locked their cycles with chains to the parking place oh so casually impressed me. And to know that they called their cycles “bikes”,a word, which in India meant a motor cycle, made it sound ever so cool!

We generally outgrow most of the fetishes of our childhood as we mature, or so I believe. My love for cycling was something which stubbornly but secretly stuck on. Secretly because, generally and practically speaking in most towns of cities in India, we do not encounter doctors or bank managers or teachers or chartered accountants whiz away on their cycles for work. I am not saying this as a snob. It is just reality. And staying right across from the place where I work takes away from me, the freedom to rebel against this cliche!  On occasion, I have also had his fear of being branded as a “weird” shrink(I do worry about my practice, you see) if I did go against the norm! I also do not live in a place like Bengaluru, where cycling in super stylish cycling gear complete with a helmet and radium piping, would be considered cool. I would be stared at on the road, as if I were a two headed alien who had suddenly landed on this earth!

Hence, sadly,my love for the bicycle remained in the closet for long into my adulthood. I would vow to myself that, when I went to Amsterdam, I would cycle to my hearts content( maybe, going to Amsterdam would be so expensive that I could only afford to cycle across!).

Till, I went to Pondicherry. It was surprising to see cycling still existed as a prominent means of transport for both the young and the old, saree wearing aunty to an expat!

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Even more exited to hear of a cycling tour of Pondicherry, offered by Sita Cultural center which is a one stop shop for everything you want to do.From scuba diving to bollywood dancing to cooking lessons, this hole in the wall, blue, building which I failed to find despite whizzing by it thrice, is a hub for all adventure.

cycle tour

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And so my adventure started at 6 in the morning with my guide Manisha and a cycle.

To start the day cycling into the small gullies of Pondicherry was not on my agenda when I went, but I really ended up enjoying my sojourn. Pondicherry is divided into a tamil quarter, a french quarter and a muslim quarter. I have no idea what the last quarter of the whole comprises of!Maybe the christian quarter(just to round off the national integration part).

And this is what I saw

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Large houses built in Chettinad style with embroidery like wooden  panels adorning them. These were houses of Soldas, the Muslim tamils who worked in the Portugese army. They were given a dual citizenship, based on which most of the descendants are now staying in Europe, and come only in the month of July for trading in spice. Rest of the time, the houses are restored and maintained as they were hundreds of years ago!

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That the buildings in Pondicherry are colour coded. For example, the Aurobindo institutes are grey in color, the Government buildings are yellow, the French buildings are orange and the like.

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For the film buffs,this is the house where the crew of “The life of Pi” stayed during the shoot.

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An artist’s depiction of how to make the best of waste! Made out of plastic bottles he found in the trash.He also apparently made a sculpture of a huge boat with people depicting how the city was saved during the tsunami.

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Courtyards with a beautiful mix of French style architecture and the very Indian rangoli blending smoothly with each other

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Temples on the roadside with fierce looking Goddesses, not yet open for the day’s prayers

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The beautiful sunrise, yet again.

Huge cathedrals, mosques and temples residing in harmony, with devotees quietly going about their business.

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A bakery with fresh morning produce.

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Fisherman's wharf.

I enjoyed myself so much, that ending the ride was saddening. But as the saying goes, "When you want something badly enough, the universe conspires to give it to you”, I discovered a cycling club back home.So despite the lack of coffee shops, designer gear and Victorian buildings,now, every weekend I relive the memories of my childhood, cycling early in the morning with the wind gushing on my face and drinking tea from the dhaba on the roadside. Fair enough deal, if I could say so!

A little bite of France and a big gulp of the sea -Pondicherry

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I remember reading a quote by Kurt Vonnegut which said “Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God”. I did not even know who Kurt Vonnegut was, at that point of time (though I did google him and found out that he was an American writer!), but the quote somehow stuck in my mind.

I was sure, given my obsessive traits, that such travel was never going to be a part of my existence. After all, super planning was my forte.

Cut to October this year, after six months of working myself to the point of exhaustion, the craving to take a break was immense. With unexplained logic, I decided that Pondicherry would be the place to refuel me. I knew there was not much there to entertain my kids, and that it was really far off to go (around 400 odd miles from where I live), just to put up my feet and rest! The idea was so uncharacteristic of me, that people around kept asking me if I had a conference there or would be meeting my friends, perhaps!

Slow, lingering holidays were hardly a part of my previous agenda in life. Off late, I have been reading books like “Falling off the map” by Pico Iyer and have been an ardent follower of Shivya Nath, who writes a  travel blog “The shooting star”, which may have subconsciously influenced me to visit a place, just because!Or maybe it was just sheer exhaustion which made me travel without anything specific to do, but be!

And Pondi ( as I now call it fondly) did live up to all my expectations and more.

Revisiting forgotten pleasures of watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee for hours, waking up to watching the sea in front of you, listening to the waves when you sleep at night and gorge on cuisines as diverse as the fiery Chettinad and subtle French make being in Pondicherry a divine experience!

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Whenever I used to read about Pondicherry or see pictures, it would seem to me as if the city had a quaint, old world charm to it. In reality, the city is sharply divided into a bustling, crowded,typical Tamil neighborhood and a smallish French quarter, which is rather racistly called “White town”.Strange though it was,within five short days, I got used to seeing a Tamilian lady speak fluent French and Frenchman haggle for veggies in a liberally accented Tamil!

Needless to say, all the tourist attractions and the hotels are located in the French Quarter. Most of the hotels are restored homes of the French governors and other officials, and hence stately,huge and grand.

view of the hotel foyer- complete with a fountain and wrought iron chairs
view of the hotel foyer- complete with a fountain and wrought iron chairs

The hotel which we stayed, was on the Promenade road, just across the beach. Every window we opened gave us a magnificent view of the beach, and this was perhaps the best part of the trip. I have never been a big fan of the sticky, salty ocean, but this experience transformed me! Just watching the magnificent sunrise ( sunsets are not visible on the sea, as we were on the east coast!)was enough soul food.

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watching the sea as i wake up

One of the best things about the Promenade Road is that it is home to most of the attractions that are to be seen! The Gandhi statue surrounded by intricately carved pillars (which were apparently scoured from a fort conquered by by Shivaji, in Gingee, Tamilnadu- never knew Shivaji travelled that far), the French war memorial, the old eighteenth century light house, the Cathedral of Immaculate conception,the half sunken pier and the Aurobindo ashram institutions  all are neatly placed one next to the other on the road, making it easy to tick off the things on our to do list in the span of a day! The rest of the stay hence, was used to explore and laze!

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the long stretch of promenade road
the long stretch of promenade road
The war memorial
The war memorial

The road is off limits to traffic from 6 in the evening to 7 next morning owing to the amount of people who throng the beach every evening! The road is brightly lit through the night and boasts of a cafe which is open twenty four seven to feed any hungry visitors! Waking in the middle of the night and looking out of our hotel window gave me a glimpse of the road which was still teeming with people at 3 AM!

coffee and sea at Le cafe
coffee and sea at Le cafe

The French quarter is picture perfect. The worst camera would probably still give the best picture! Every building is clickable and vibrantly colored! And one in almost five buildings is a cafe serving mouth watering food!

neat picture perfect buildings in the French quarter
neat picture perfect buildings in the French quarter

Back after the holiday, I was reading a blog on Pondicherry, when I realized that there were quite a few touristy places that we had not visited. Any other time, it would have made me squirm at the lost opportunity, but somehow, this time, it felt okay.

I had carved out my own experiences. I had explored the by lanes and alleys with an old battered cycle and knew the best place to eat street food! I experienced riding a bike on the scary, honky,busy roads with my daughter and watching rows of glaring neon signs and really really huge jewelry shops(each one the size of any respectable mall!).

neon neon everywhere
neon neon everywhere

I had unearthed stores which sold old vintage furniture, a convent  where destitute women made exquisitely embroidered clothes, discovered a never before seen insect and watching my kids’ excitement, taken a selfie with my son and a hundred year old banyan tree and read peacefully for hours while watching the sea!

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With Pondicherry,I think I have discovered my love of soaking up the feel of the place with my seemingly bizzare travel plan!

my partners in crime - a red vespa and an old cycle with hardly any brakes!
my partners in crime – a red vespa and an old cycle with hardly any brakes!