We manage to cycle into Pondicherry on delightful quiet rural roads, avoiding the truly horrid highway 32 (we were forced to use it to cross a river yesterday). Farmers are struggling in drought conditions. In Tamil Nadu rainfall for the most important NE winter monsoon is 62% short of normal, and last summer’s SW monsoon was 19% deficient. Most of the step wells are dry, amazingly there are fish struggling in the shallow rivers. They look like they are trying to escape from the polluted waters and who can blame them? Pondicherry is the worst. Open sewers feed into concrete ‘rivers’ and the stench is truly awful.
Pondicherry is as chaotic as any other Tamil town but in the central “Ville Blanche” (a nod to colonial racism) next to coast the quiet leafy boulevards are delightful. This is not Nice, during the day the seaside promenade, has the forlorn look of an out-of-season French resort – to be fair the 2004 tsunami damaged many buildings, and the occasional waft of sewage doesn’t help – but it’s nicely designed, perfectly laid cut granite slabs, and newly planted palms. From 6pm the seafront is closed to traffic and the effect is remarkable! I gasp, arrested by the hushed sounds of footsteps and chatting voices. In all urban areas my ears are assaulted by the pervasive honk of horns (Charles thinks they all need a good slap!) We stroll, smiling at policemen in De Gaulle-style képis, sit on the black basalt boulders watching the waves…. an old man sits near us, then asks us if we are still cycling, apparently he met us in Hampi two months ago!! How many people in India? 1,326,801,576 people (UN figs 2016) projected to be 1.7 billion by 2050 yet or paths cross.
Google suggests a rooftop cafe for salad so we find it and begin to climb the stairs, alongside two American girls. They coo over a pair of newborn puppies asleep on a step … ‘Didn’t know puppy was on the menu’ jokes Charles. No response, yet he persists ‘Wouldn’t they make a great pair of moccasins!!’ Now a stony silence. I am struggling to suppress my laughter as three people who speak English fail to communicate!
I ate a typical English salad and chips with French bread and quiche using a knife and fork – proper cutlery for the first time since Rajasthan last December. And I did enjoy it, but not as much as the delicious masala dosa, plain mango milkshake (it means no sugar) and giggling ladies at breakfast. Women want to communicate, share stories and laugh out here. It was fun.
Boutique heritage hotels and chic cafes cater for French tourists, Pondicherry is rather like Galle in Sri Lanka, and it is wonderful! Charles celebrates his birthday with food: french bread, real coffee, apple pie, coconut lime cheesecake, dinner in a pretty garden villa.
I look for the swimming pool where Piscine Molitor Patel or Pi learnt to swim (Life of Pi, Yann Martel). There’s nothing at the point Google maps suggest but a woman sends us 2km further down the road suspiciously close to a river- surely she doesn’t think we plan to swim there? Then there it is!! Eight 25m lanes of crystal clear water surrounded by palms, and only ourselves. A joy! Greenbank pool with coconuts!! A Parisian pool is used in the film.