Mahabalipuram to Pondicherry; In which I finally get the better of a taxi driver; Finding the only hotel room in town; Pondicherry has a split personality; I finally get my phone working; Lakshmi the Painted Elephant

We had the same difficulty leaving Mahabalipuram that we had in arriving. Our guidebook said that we needed bus 188A to get to Pondicherry, and the hotel staff said it left every hour. But when we arrived at the bus station and asked, we were told that there was no Pondicherry bus that stopped in town, and that anyway it had no number and there was no such thing as bus number 188A. Conflicting reports from different people told us that there was an unmarked bus that stopped in town, or an unmarked bus that stopped outside of town. I was sceptical - we’ve learned to our discomfort that this particular guidebook is usually right. But we grabbed an autorickshaw to the highway turnoff all the same. There was a bus to Pondicherry stopped right there, but it was standing room only so we let it go - the thought of spending two hours standing with the packs on didn’t appeal.

While we waited for the next bus, we were being harassed by a taxi driver. This wasn’t a little autorickshaw but a big white car, privately operated as a taxi. The driver was annoying. He started out demanding Rs600 to take us to Pondicherry. I admit it, I laughed in his face. I told him I wasn’t going to spend that kind of money. In fact we genuinely weren’t interested in taking a taxi at all - we firmly intended to take the bus. I think this genuine disinterest was mistaken as a haggling tactic because he followed us yelling and incrementally dropping the price. Unbelievably, by the time the second bus came, the cabbie’s price had come down to 150 rupees. This was probably assisted by a certain desperation on his part to leave, since he had two other paying customers and didn’t want to go without a full carload. The second bus was standing-room only as well, and so we took him up on it. The bus would have been 70 or 80 anyway, so a nice comfortable ride for the equivalent of less than a dollar extra each didn’t sound like a bad thing at all.

We had an altercation near the end when it turned out that Rs150 only got us to the bus stand outside of Pondicherry, not into the town itself, which would have cost 200. I was perfectly content to walk or take an autorickshaw from there and told him so. In fact we had no real option, because we didn’t have 200 rupees on us. We hadn’t bothered to find money before leaving Mahabalipuram, since we had plenty for the bus. I thought that had settled the matter, but fifteen minutes later another yelling match ensued in which he again demanded 200 to take us downtown and we again refused and told him to drop us at the bus stand. All in fractured English he said that this was stupid and it was 7km to walk (really it’s more like 3) and that an autorickshaw would cost us 70 rupees (really 30). He went on and on about how we were cheap Westerners and fifty rupees was only a dollar and he was poor and we were rich and we should just pay him the money. I might have done it just to shut him up but the fact remained that we didn’t have 200 rupees and he just wouldn’t understand or - possibly - believe us. In the end he took us downtown anyway, over our protests. I’m not sure why. Maybe he felt like being a martyr, or maybe he was going into town anyway, I don’t know. As we left I gave him 170 rupees, which was all the money we had, and he threw me a bitter look that said I was a sneaky bastard who’d cheated him. He clearly felt taken advantage of, but I certainly hadn’t wanted all that nonsense about the ride downtown. The extra twenty represented a tip, actually, and a pretty decent one for a taxi driver in these parts. And it really was all the money we had. To be honest, it probably says something bad about me, but I took a certain dark satisfaction in finally getting the better of a taxi driver Maybe by the time I return to Morocco I’ll be able to take my revenge on all the crooked cabbies there.

So there we were in Pondicherry, reeling at the bizarre stupidity of the episode just past, standing on a street corner without any idea where to go. This is by no means an uncommon occurrence for us, though - in fact it’s more like our constant state of being. And we did have one overriding goal - find money. Can’t do anything without money. Pondicherry is split lengthwise by a smelly covered canal, on the shore side of which is the so-called French Quarter - the Tamil Quarter is on the landward side. We’d landed in the Tamil Quarter with all its crowds and traffic. We walked ages with the packs in the hot afternoon sun to find a working ATM, but the three we tried didn’t like our foreign cards. The guidebook told us that Pondicherry had a tourist information office and we headed into the French Quarter to find it, hoping they could tell us where to find an ATM.

The French Quarter is much quieter and prettier than the Tamil Quarter - no surprise. There are wide, leafy streets and a big green park - the first we’ve seen in India. The park was very tempting but the day was wearing on and we needed to find accommodation. We found the tourist office on the ocean-side promenade. There’s a slim strip of beach between the road and the water where kids and families were taking in the cool breeze off the sea, looked over by a big statue of Mohandas Gandhi ringed by white marble pillars. The tourist office was utterly useless when we found it, though. We asked about a bank and the girl behind the desk made a vague guess as to where one might be. We asked about accommodation and got a two-year-old tourist brochure listing all the (very) expensive hotels in the city. Asking about cheap hotels got us nothing but a head-wobble and a shrug. At least we got a bigger map out of it than the one in our guidebook, although half the streets had been renamed and renumbered since it was printed.

Thrown back on our own resources, we did manage to find a bank and get some money, although that involved going to the counter to change the thousand-rupee notes the ATM had given us into something smaller that anyone would actually accept. One objective satisfied, we went looking for a room. The thing to do in Pondicherry, apparently, is to stay in one of the ashrams. That sounded like fun, but when we’d asked we were told they were all full and that we should “try the hotels”. We couldn’t find anything at all in the French Quarter, let alone anything with a vacancy - the renaming and renumbering of the streets made it impossible to find anything we were looking for. Sheryl got the name of a street from an autorickshaw driver, who said there were lots of cheap hotels there. It was, infuriatingly, right around the corner from where we’d first arrived, if only we’d known (and had money). Heading there, we tried one place after another, working our way west along the street, finding the hotels dodgier and dodgier as we went. There was nothing available. At least here in India they make negative hand-waving “go away” motions at you when you look in the door if there are no rooms, so you don’t have to carry the packs up the (inevitable) stairs to ask.

At last we found a room at a place called, less than euphonically, the Raj Lodge. The Raj Flophouse, more like. For 400 rupees it was very nearly as bad as the terrible place in Kanchipuram, which at least had the virtue of being only Rs150. Everybody there except us were long-term guests, I think. They hung out on the first-floor courtyard balcony overlooking the street and partied until late at night, and half of them slept on mattresses in the open-air hallways around the middle of the building. It was very loud in our room, but at least the ceiling fan was predictably noisy and served to drown out most of the noise. There were thin, nasty mattresses that looked filthy, and I didn’t trust them. We have silk sleep-sheets that stop most of the bedbugs, but I wouldn’t touch the pillows for fear of lice. As it was we still got a few new bedbug bites, but at least there weren’t many mosquitoes.

We had a very mixed impression of Pondicherry by this time, as you can imagine. It seemed to be a town with a multiple-personality disorder of sorts. Still, it was nice to be able to retreat to the French Quarter and the seaside when the din and filth of the Tamil Quarter got to be too much. Pondicherry, like all the Indian towns we’ve seen so far, is far nicer by night. People come alive and are friendlier and happier when the deadly sun has set, the buildings glitter with coloured lights and the darkness hides the dirt. We wandered for a few hours around the town, back and forth from one area to another. We went down to the water, took tea at a cafe (appropriately named Le Café) and watched all the vendors selling sparkly glowing-light toys on the beach. One in particular caught our eye - people were flinging it up into the air from some kind of slingshot, and it twirled and glowed blue all the way back down to the ground. When we asked to see it, it turned out to be an ingenious little hacked-together device consisting of a battery, blue light-emitting diode and a couple of stiff plastic tabs to make it spin like a helicopter. It put me in mind of the LED Throwies produced by the infamous Graffiti Research Labs.

I got a new phone number, too, which proved to be amazingly painless after the multiple run-arounds I’d gotten in Chennai. Unlike in Chennai, there was no local address requirement - only a passport photo (and I’ve always got some of those on me), a copy of my passport and visa, and a hundred rupees, plus two hundred for airtime. Very easy and done in minutes. I can understand the perceived need for copies of the passport and visa - the terrorists in the Mumbai attacks used disposable phone numbers to coordinate their plans. With disposable numbers there’s no way to link a given number with a given person (and don’t governments just hate that). The copy of the passport creates that link. I suppose it’s now possible that the Indian government is listening to my phone calls, in which case I wish them joy of it because I can’t imagine it being very interesting for them. If anyone feels like risking an international incident and calling me, I can be reached at +91 96 5554 1562 (that’s 011 91 96 5554 1562 from North America). I beg you to please keep in mind that I’m 10.5 hours ahead of EST, 5.5 hours ahead of GMT, 4.5 hours ahead of CET and 3.5 ahead of South African time.

By far the best thing that happened all day happened completely by accident. We were walking past the crowded mouth of a side-street that had a temple archway above it, when Sheryl started pointing at the archway and stuttering frantically, having lost all power of speech. Finally she managed to force out the word Elephant! I thought meh, another temple carving of an elephant, but she was pointing through the archway, not at it, and through the archway and down the street there was a real, live elephant! We pushed our way through the crowd hastily to see her. It was obviously her usual spot. She was standing there on a little platform with a couple of lazy handlers behind her paying no attention at all. She was an older elephant, with a drooping mouth and short tusks. She had designs painted in white all over her ears, and on her forehead was the same tilak as the elephant-headed god Ganesh, the “third eye” of three horizontal bars. She wore lots of jewellery around her neck, and silver ankle-bracelets on each foot. Hanging down both sides of her body were big brass bells on chains, and she swayed back and forth from foot to foot to make them chime. A big oval nametag in gold around her neck read “Lakshmi”.

Lakshmi was obviously having a grand time. There was a delighted crowd gathered around her taking pictures. You could hand her money and she’d take it delicately with her trunk and pass it back to her handlers. An enterprising shopkeeper across the lane was selling bundles of grass for ten rupees (bloody excellent business model, I thought) so you could feed her, which of course we both did. She’d reach out with her trunk and poke passersby, an if you ducked your head she’d bonk you gently with her coiled trunk as a blessing. If you fed her she’d let you pat her trunk, which was as big around as a man’s thigh, rough and bristly and as hard as rock. I’ve never felt an elephant’s trunk before. She was completely tame and friendly and obviously loved people. She had some scars on her skin, evidence of rough treatment in the past (including a scarred ring around one hind leg obviously caused by a chain) but none of it was recent and she seemed very happy and healthy. Sheryl and I both instantly fell in love with her and stood there entranced until she was led away for the night. Even then we couldn’t stop talking about her, our first Painted Elephant.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

February 22nd, 2009

I see your adventures continue. Enjoy!

¬ Elaine
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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