Tuesday, August 9, 2016

iMiss | What's in a name, Kochi?

I have something of a Grammar Nazi in me; the kind whose face turns pallid every time she makes an error herself. It is this alter ego who, when she has her backpack on, scans everything within eyesight for rib-tickling humour in the guise of misspelt signage - be it the name of a store or a street - and makes a dash to take a photograph of it. It is during these quests that I have come across ‘Laddies’ written right outside the restroom meant for women and ‘No Refual’ in shiny paint across a taxi!

The streets of Kochi don't just have names; they also have character | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016
The streets of Kochi don't just have names; they also have character | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016

It was no wonder then that armed with my camera, I leapt to my feet when I read ‘Princes Street’ at Fort Kochi earlier in June. It had to be Princess, I reasoned to myself and even caught sight of another that spelt it in that way.

This is where the story began - Princes Street | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016
This is where the story began - Princes Street | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016

Laden with colonial vestiges of the Portuguese who were defeated by the Dutch in 1663 who were in turn defeated by the British in 1795, the streets of Fort Kochi have an allure that transcend time. Lined with the old while brushing shoulders with both the decrepit and the revamped, most of which dates to when the first of the colonial rulers – the Portuguese – arrived in 1503 and even beyond, Fort Kochi is guaranteed to make any shutterbug squeal with delight.

The Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral and the St. Francis CSI Church are at a distance of a mere 400 metres from each other. The former is symbolic of the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries in India and the latter is renowned for being the burial site of Vasco Da Gama before his remains were taken to Lisbon fourteen years after his death. 

A kilometre away is the Indo-Portuguese Museum that houses the relics of the Portuguese influence in Fort Kochi long after the Dutch and the British took over and destroyed most of what was there. The SNC Maritime Museum, under one kilometre from Fort Kochi beach, located at INS Dronacharya is a journey through the history of the Indian Navy as we know it today. 

Mattancherry where the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Synagogue stand tall is three kilometres from Fort Kochi.

Is it any wonder then that it is a walker’s dream destination where everything is within a 4 kilometre radius and therefore, walkable?

When the love of walking meets the love for quotes | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016
When the love of walking meets the love for quotes | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016

The more I walked, the more I clicked and the more I clicked, the more I wanted to walk. And in less than two days, I had not only seen almost everything that there was to see but also navigated my way through every lane; much to the amusement of the rickshaw drivers who could not fathom why I refused to hop in and get a ride.

It did not take too long for my homestay host to pick on my idiosyncrasies. And only to make sure, one morning after breakfast he enquired, “Are you interested in the local history and myths behind the names of streets here in Fort Kochi?” To which, of course, I nodded my head vehemently in affirmation and got handed over a folder. As I pored and leafed through the newspaper clippings and copies of articles in it, I began to layer over the streets I had been walking the story of their ‘naming’

Kochi is many things all at once Kochi (Kerala) June 2016
Kochi is many things all at once Kochi (Kerala) June 2016

It turned out that my alter ego would have to eat her own words. According to Dr. Bauke Van Der Pol, a Dutch cultural anthropologist ‘Princess Street’ was initially called Princes Street in honour of Dutch Princes Maurits and Wilhelm. But when the British took over in 1795, they would pronounce Princes Street quickly, so over a period of time, it became Princess Street. That of course left me wondering whether keeping signboards that had both Princes and Princess Street written on them was intentional!

Lying perpendicular to Princes Street is Burgher Street – which incidentally has nothing to do with anything dietary! A burgher as it turns out was somebody who has been set free from his landlord and had voting rights. The people who lived on this street did not work for the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (or VOC also known as the Dutch East India Company). They were free men. They made a living on their own and got married to women with Portuguese blood. Similarly Petercelli Street is not as one might guess named after a person. Because Petercelli is the Dutch word for parsley, a herb. So this might have been an area where a vegetable market would have functioned.

Spelt correctly it would be Burgher Street | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016
Spelt correctly it would be Burgher Street | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016

Who'd have thunk this would have anything to do with parsley? | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016
Who'd have thunk this would have anything to do with parsley? | Kochi (Kerala) June 2016

And while it may seem that all names are telling of the backstory of the streets, the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry had left me wondering why it was even called so when nothing about it was Dutch. I would soon learn that it had been the Cochin Raja’s Palace and truly has nothing to do with the Dutch, in terms of architecture or occupation, except that the VOC gave the Raja some fund for its renovation! And that’s the story behind how it has come to be known as the Dutch Palace.

Even more interesting is that Fort Kochi does not have a fort – not one that can be seen, not any more at least. Unless of course, one makes a trip to the Indo-Portuguese museum to see the remnants of a submerged arch in the basement.

The next time I am tempted to ask out aloud “What’s in a name?” or make a dash to photograph what seems like a typo, I am going to try not being as hasty! 

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Monday, August 1, 2016

iGiveaway | Win A PeeBuddy Gift Hamper

Riddle time.
Question: If you are not scanning the landscape to locate one and are most likely to cautiously tip-toe over after you have found one, what would you say you are doing?
Hint: You are also muffling your olfactory senses simultaneously.

Answer: Searching for or struggling to squat at a toilet

The bane of not just finding a toilet but finding a clean one tops the charts when it comes to challenges of travelling as a woman (especially in India).

I know I have struggled and how. When I was a little kid who accompanied her parents on road-trips, I would be filled with dread the moment my bladder decided it needed to be relieved. Because this meant identifying a ‘safe’ place where the deed could be done i.e. where I could go urinate.
With the exception that I now travel mostly independently, little else seems to have changed over the years.

Of course, petrol pumps along highways have now begun installing toilets for men and women. But I have sometimes found these locked up, unclean and without any water supply. Not to mention that a petrol pump isn’t a guarantee to a toilet. Not yet.
Those at coffee shops, food-courts, bus-stands and railway stations confront you with a similar dilemma: should you risk infection or should you endure longer?

The workaround for not having to lookout for a toilet has sometimes meant reducing the in-take of any liquids. That hardly counts as one because if you’re on a road-trip, parching yourself out is the recipe for a lousy trip ahead. Think dehydration and headaches.

From limiting my water in-take prior to departing for a trip to skipping my customary chai en-route to then sometimes contemplating wearing an adult diaper so that I don’t have to forgo the essentials, namely water and chai, I have always found myself back to square one – where my dignity, my health and digestive cycle are compromised.

So when I was approached by PeeBuddy for a collaborative post, I decided to hear them out.

A bio-degradable urination product, PeeBuddy is an answer to the discomfort of having to use unclean toilets – and not just when you are travelling. You could be at a mall, a restaurant, a pub or you could be nursing an injury on your leg that prevents you from bending your knees, Pee Buddy grants women the choice of standing and urinating without it being messy at all.
Yes, as a woman you can stand, urinate and dispose the product right after using it without any embarrassment whatsoever.
Personally, I have found it to be a relief as it is easy to use. That and of course the fact that the product is bio-degradable is what won me over.
You could also take a look at their range of other products such as Multi Use Wipes, Anti-Mosquito Patches and Under-Arm Sweat Pads on their website.

Contest --
I am offering 10 of my readers the opportunity to win PeeBuddy hampers. Each hampers includes: 1 pack of 5 PeeBuddys, InWi (intimate wipes) and ‘I Love Clean Disposal Bags’ (which contain agents that initiate degradation upon exposure to light)

To win one of these, all you have to do is share your hygiene story in under 200 words and write about the discomforts you have faced in using toilets at public places (or not finding one when you’ve needed it).

Send your responses via email to deep@firststepprojects.com with the subject line ‘PeeBuddy Hygiene Story’ by 23:59 hours on the 15th of August, 2016.
Winners will be informed via email by the 22nd of August 2016.
Contest is open to Indian nationals only.

Good luck and do let me know when you win!

P.S.: I know you don't like annoying pop-ups. So if you like the posts you see on my blog, you could also Subscribe to HaveFeetWillTravel by Email and receive newer ones directly to your inbox! 

P.P.S.: For opportunities to work with me, click here
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Sunday, July 24, 2016

iSoak | 40 Days of Slow Travel Through Tamil Nadu

This summer I spent 40 days exploring the southern state of Tamil Nadu and it has left me stunned – positively and not so positively. Although, I could have chosen a different time to be there and not when the incinerating might of the sun was leaving me with blisters and itchy skin besides leaving me drenched in my own sweat on certain nights!

The joys of slow travel let you begin by wetting one foot at a time | Valparai, Tamil Nadu (May 2016)
The joys of slow travel  | Valparai, (May 2016)
I have few scant memories from childhood of having travelled to the state. Perhaps that was the reason behind it assuming a spot in the list of places travelled to when I began charting my own routes and therefore, left mostly ignored. But that was only until the summer of 2016 when the impending return finally came through.

It, of course, began in and with Madurai…

Manamadurai to be precise, where I along with a friend spent 4 weeks volunteering our time with a local NGO. You can read all about that experience and my takeaways in an earlier post.
With the students at Manitham | Manamadurai (April 2016)
With the students at Manitham | Manamadurai (April 2016)
I would like to iterate that volunteering aids in ensuring that you have a more intimate relationship with the places you go to. It deepens what travel can offer by way of broadening our perspectives about the world we live in. It has been my own personal observation that as a people we are becoming a little too myopic for our own good. What I mean is that we imagine what we know to be the universal truth and take it one step further in applying it to everything around us. The fallacy of generalizations.  As it turns out, there is no harm in letting go of our biases and prejudices – because even if we claim to have none (and I am one of those), experiences such as these help in un-numbing us! And some times that is all that is required.

While at Manamadurai, Madurai at a mere 50 kilometres away was visited too. Known as the ‘Athens of the East’ (at least by the government of Tamil Nadu), it is renowned for the Meenakshi Temple. Consecrated to an incarnation of Lord Shiva, the temple is an expansive complex bedecked with life-size statues, massive columns and long hallways. The temple has four distinct entrances marked by four rajagopurams corresponding to the four directions each adorned with images of gods and goddesses. It leaves you awestruck, even if you like me understand very little about architecture. While the temple is mostly open to all, certain sections aren’t - for non-Hindus and foreigners. And with the exception of the mobile phone and wallet/purse, other valuables and belongings are required to be left at the entrance.
Meenakshi Temple | Madurai (April 2016)
Meenakshi Temple | Madurai (April 2016)
1.5 kilometres away from the Temple is the Thirumalai Nayak Palace. An impressive 17th century structure, from what remains of it over the centuries given that part of it was destroyed by the grandson of the first ruler himself, it leaves you with an uncomfortable silence – especially since there is very little to glean from or even walk around it. There is a light and sound show that happens in the evenings though.  The huge columns at a height of 20 metres and width of 4 metres do attest to the genius minds of an era bygone and give the structure a sense of grandeur.

Tip: When in Madurai, do not miss the opportunity to relish on parothas (which are unlike any you would find in any part of Tamil Nadu, let alone the country) and chug a tumbler of Jigarthanda.

Dhanushkodi (or what I call 'The Boat Graveyard’), though visited about a year ago, was hard to skip especially since it was under 200 kilometres away from Manamadurai. There are regular buses and trains plying to another temple town of Rameswaram – from where Dhanushkodi is accessible by state-run transport buses. Unlike last year though, my return from Rameswaram happened a little before sunset and the splendour of chugging along the Pambam Brigde – India’s first sea bridge – was thoroughly savoured.
Dhanushkodi | May 2016
Dhanushkodi | May 2016
On the Pamban Bridge | Pamban (May 2016)
On the Pamban Bridge | Pamban (May 2016)
The island town that was wiped off the face of the earth after a cyclone struck it in the early 1960s, retains an allure – albeit a haunting one – of its own. The difference between my visit last year and this one was that much has happened on the infrastructural side of things – in that, the road to Dhanushkodi is nearing completion. One still has to board into a pre-paid Tempo Traveller where the driver doubles as a guide. You can read about my experience from last year here. And I have a feeling that as much as the completion of that road is a requirement in some sense, it is going to dramatically change the allure of Dhanushkodi that brought me back a second time.

On completing our volunteering stint in Manamadurai, we made our way to Thanjavur or Tanjore – known as the rice bowl of India and home to one of the largest temples – the Brihadeeshwara Temple.
Brihadeeshwara Temple | Thanjavur (May 2016)
Brihadeeshwara Temple | Thanjavur (May 2016)
The temple – also a UNESCO World Heritage Site - completed 1000 years in 2010. It left me standing agape as I attempted to fathom how something this magnificent was designed and executed at such a colossal scale so many centuries ago. Non-mechanised and purely based on the human intellect in its rawest form, walking around the temple was a gentle reminder of just what we've been able to accomplish. Keep an eye to catch inscriptions on the wall (akin to the ones at the Qutub Minar in Delhi) as well as the intricate carvings and etchings along every structure within the temple complex.
The Thanjavur Maratha Palace Complex, on the other hand, that belonged to the Bhonsle family who ruled Thanjavur from 1674 to 1855 is all sorts of things all at once - it's exquisite in some places just as it is random and unkempt at others! There is an AV that is screened as a part of 7 sites your ticket permits you an entry to that I would recommend just so to make better sense of a history that is indeed very rich.
And if you are interested do drop by the crafts village that is slightly on the outside of the main town of Thanjavur. We were most delighted when an artisan walked us through the process of how Thanjavur paintings get made as well as explained the makings behind brass statues.
At the craft village | Thanjavur (May 2016)
At the craft village | Thanjavur (May 2016)
At the craft village | Thanjavur (May 2016)

To make a Thanjavur painting, the outline to the image is first drawn by pencil. The gold is embossed by applying glue to the glittering foil and putting pressure on select sections within the drawing. The remaining spaces are then coloured. Very interestingly, the colours used are all natural i.e. prepared from flowers and leaves. The paintings are also accompanied with bead-work or even semi-precious stones. Looking at the finished pieces, it was hard to tell that it was nothing but natural colour and golden foil. This surely is a testament to the skill of the artisans.

Three days and an overnight train later, we were in Pondicherry. There is something to be said about first impressions when visiting a place. That morning very groggy from sleep as we walked from the railway station to Le Café in White Town, the air was a steady mix of calm and vibrant even as the sun was yet to make an appearance. I had been longing for the sea and starting from that moment for the next six days I felt at home. You can read about my experience of cycling through Pondicherry in this post.

Having arrived and departed from Thanjavur at midnight around a week ago, my friend and I were rather comfortable arriving in Salem at 10 PM. We had arranged for a pick-up through the hotel we were staying at in Yercaud. But 30 minutes into that journey, our vehicle was stopped at the check-post. We had to submit proof of identity and had cops questioning us on whether our parents knew where we were! This was a first for me in all this time of travel and solo travel. And as much as I can try and understand perhaps the need to be cautious and concerned around safety of women, there is something awkward and even a tad bit annoying about being interrogated in that manner. It seemed to connote that ‘you have no business travelling so late especially since you are accompanied by a man!’
The Shevaroys | Yercaud (May 2016)
The Shevaroys | Yercaud (May 2016)
But 20 hairpin bends up and a good night’s sleep later, Yercaud - located at an altitude of 4970 feet above sea level - seemed like just the thing the doctor had prescribed. My skin allergies that had been acting up since I got to Madurai - thanks to the blistering heat - were finally relieved we were at a hill station. The onset of the monsoons added just the kind of touch to the weather that I couldn’t be anymore grateful for. The local sights are akin - in nomenclature - to those one comes across at most hill stations – think <insert name> Point and <insert name> Seat. But the views of the valleys and the surrounding hill tops are ravishing. Do stop by at the Botanical Garden – it was my first at seeing an insectivores plant years after they filled my imagination from reading about them in my science text books from school.  P.S.: The insectivores plant was dead, btw!

Twenty hairpin bends down and forty hairpin bends up with four state-run buses changed en-route, we were at Valparai. Lower in altitude at 3500 feet, everywhere you cast your eyes in Valparai it is only tea gardens owned by private folk such as the Tatas – that have come at the cost of slashing down the jungles of the Annamalai in the Western Ghats. But the greens compensate somehow – or at least that is what I, an urbanite from the concrete jungle tells herself.
There is no such thing as too much tea | Valparai (May 2016)
There is no such thing as too much tea | Valparai (May 2016)

Lion Tail Macaque | Valparai (May 2016)
Lion Tail Macaque | Valparai (May 2016)
Valparai is rich in wildlife. Our journey at the foothills – prior to commencing on that 40 hairpin bend journey – began with a sighting of elephants not too far away from the main road. The next day after being driven around to some of the local sights while we were walking through the jungles, we spotted the Lion Tail Macaque family ripping jackfruits with their bare hands for brunch. I also had a blink and miss sighting of the Indian Giant Squirrel too. No luck with the hornbills though. And that thing about shinrin-yoku is true. I haven’t felt as purged of my weariness as I did in those two days at Valparai. In my head the phrase ‘enchanted forest’ now has a Google pin I can associate with to.

Last year, I made my third visit to Kanyakumari. And this year while being very much in the vicinity, I was sure I didn’t particularly want to ‘drop in’ yet again. But while in Trivandrum, my friend’s mother drove us to places within the district of Kanyakumari and I was left stumped. Stumped because as it turns out there is always something hidden and unexplored to a place in spite of the number of times you’ve been there before! First up was the Thirparappu Falls is where the Kodyar River cascades down from a height of 50 feet while burgeoning at its seams at 300 feet to create something so magnificent that it dominates the landscape with that fervour for close to seven months a year. The Mathur Hanging Bridge (Aqueduct) is the longest and the highest of its kind in all of south-east Asia and was constructed in 1966 as a drought relief measure with the purpose of carrying water for irrigation from an elevated level of one hill to another. Standing atop I saw nothing but the tree tops in that lush green landscape. And as if on cue then, it started to pour. Padmanabhapuram Palace constructed around 1601 AD, is Asia’s largest wooden palace. However, in 1795 the capital of Travancore was shifted from here to Thiruvananthapuram, and the place lost its former glory. The palace complex continues to be one of the best examples of traditional Kerala architecture. #FunFact: The Palace though surrounded entirely by the State of Tamil Nadu is still part of Kerala and the land and Palace belongs to the Government of Kerala.

A photo posted by Elita (@nomadicthunker) on

A photo posted by Elita (@nomadicthunker) on

A photo posted by Elita (@nomadicthunker) on

To think that for the past month or so I couldn’t get myself to write anything and here I am 2000+ words later nodding in agreement with Ibn Battuta who said: “Traveling—it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

You can read all about how I was able to afford my three month long travel stint in the post 'How I Travelled 90 Days in India under 90,000 Rupees'

P.S.: If you like the posts you see on my blog, you could also Subscribe to HaveFeetWillTravel by Email and receive newer ones directly to your inbox! This option is here because I know you don't like annoying pop-ups.

P.P.S.: I'm running workshops!!! You could be a school or college principal or you could be running either a for-profit or a not-for-profit organization of your own - for opportunities to work with me click here
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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

iUncut | How I Travelled 90 Days in India under 90,000 Rupees

I have to be honest. I have been struggling to get any writing done for over a month now. I’ll caveat it by saying that it is especially true for my blog because I’ve been finding Instagram to be a far more interesting and engaging medium.

But that’s not what this post is about.

A little over three weeks ago, I concluded a 90-day journey around the country. No biggie except that I did this 18 months after I stopped drawing a salary.
Note how I do not prefer to say I-quit-my-job-to-travel.

How do I afford my travels then? 
Through and through it was an out-of-my-own-pocket-experience for me; with no travel gods waving wands in the guise of FAMs, sponsors or benevolent parents. Not because of any lack thereof but because that is not my preference.
I understand I am not an exception. There are others like me. But it is for the uninitiated that it helps to call such matters out. More so because in direct and indirect, hushed and not-so-hushed tones I have been asked how I am able to afford my travels given that I am technically unemployed!

Short answer: If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse. Courtesy: Jim Rohn
And no, that does not involve robbing a bank or scamming one’s way through!

Long answer? Sit back and read
I was looking at my bank statements earlier today. My account balance is precariously resting at a four digit amount. I have to admit that it is new, very new for me. And in spite of it all, I have done more - both qualitatively and quantitatively - since I let go of The Desk.

My first long-term travel stint of 7 months last year had been through a project I was working on. And ever since that, I had managed three 2-week long trips in the 8 months since. Not entirely because I could not afford to travel but because I was busy doing things in the city – like getting trained on being a counsellor.

That being said, I was certainly itching to lug my backpack and head out of the city.

Through a few short term engagements and a couple of travel writing assignments (both of which can be excruciatingly hard to come by), I had somehow been able to set aside enough money to be able to rub my palms together with glee and formulate a plan. The catalyst appeared in the form of a friend making a trip to Amritsar and a separate itch to trek Sandakphu on the other side of the country. My then five-digit bank balance seemed strong enough to stomach this plan. But I was also relying on an investment that was nearing maturity to pull me through should the need ever arise. This was also going to be the first time I set out without a return ticket in hand – well, at least I did not have one until a month into my travels.

Now what started off by plotting Amritsar and Sandakphu on the map gradually looked something like this!

And yet at the end of those 90 days, I spent less than 90,000 INR.

And that includes expenses from a trip to Decathalon prior to the journey itself. So mathematically speaking, I spent less than 1000 INR per day – which is a lot less than what I invariably find myself spending when I am in the city I call home.

I am going to further preface The How by adding that travel is only as expensive as one’s preferences are - which means that somebody else can undertake the exact same journey I did for even lesser!

If you have been following my journeys through all the avenues that social media permits anyone to stalk everyone with, you would know that my preferred medium of transportation while traveling is by train. Not always the cheapest mode with flash sales and what-not on airfares, train travel still gets a vote from someone who does not (and currently cannot) plan too ahead into the future.
A little bit of common sense and flexibility go a long way for me in securing tickets that are still cheaper than the cheapest airfare.
For instance, I do not take the Rajdhani Express to Delhi when a Garib Rath will do just fine. That alone saved me 1000 INR. In the same vein, not every journey I undertake is by the AC coach – a sleeper coach will do just fine when it’s an overnight ride.
Those decisions alone save me anywhere between 30% - 50% on the total fare.

Likewise with local commuting, over time I have gotten a lot more comfortable hopping not just on to state or private run buses but also shared taxis and rickshaws to get from point A to point B – instead of hiring a private vehicle; which I reserve for extreme situations like when I was at Yercaud and Valparai and where getting around to any of the local sights was not without  hiring a private car.
With the fair share of adventures and misadventures public transport comes guaranteed with, the money saved is still an added bonus for me. That same journey from Yercaud to Valparai required that I take four different buses. It is not the most convenient way to travel, I’ll agree. But that’s not what this post is about any way!

Oh and sometimes I will also walk miles - just for the fun of it.

But what about stay? That gobbler of currencies can also be tamed when you’re willing to let go of preferences. A nice boutique hotel or a BnB would most certainly be an ideal must-have, but what it comes down to for me is – am I going to stay cooped in indoors and curl with a book while filling reams with prose flowing on to paper OR do I want to soak in the great outdoors?
Google has almost always had an answer for both those options and in maybe two or three out of ten instances, I have leaned more towards staying indoors.

Yes, I do need a clean bathroom (sometimes even more than I care for a comfortable bed or AC even though it's summer) but that is all I truly care for.
In turn, it's decisions such as these that allow me to spend that money hiring a private car when required. Plus, if you are travelling during the off-season, you could get lucky with hosts upgrading you to a plusher room as it was lying vacant  anyway!

Long story short, being flexible as well as patient and crafty with your Google search skills can lead to some real good returns. That and the off chance of having an acquaintance or a distant relative or a friend’s family to couch-surf with do make it easier on the wallet.

I am still understanding and learning my way through cash-backs, reward points and mileages earned in exchange for purchases made.
And yes, almost all my travel till date has been within India. But the bottom line is the same – I’m still saving enough to savour as much as I can while I’m on the road.

And did I mention I did not have to touch my savings at all?

P.S.: If you like the posts you see on my blog, you could also Subscribe to HaveFeetWillTravel by Email and receive newer ones directly to your inbox! This option is here because I know you don't like annoying pop-ups.

P.P.S.: I'm running workshops!!! You could be a school or college principal or you could be running either a for-profit or a not-for-profit organization of your own - for opportunities to work with me click here
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

iPedal | Bicycling And The Art Of Zen Maintenance In Pondicherry

“So, why exactly did we decide to pick bicycles over a scooty again?”
Huffing our way up another incline under the 11 AM blazing sun, my friend and I – parched from the heat and muggy in sweat - were left staring at each other in a faint attempt at trying to answer that question.

Going GPS-less in Pondicherry | Pondicherry
Pondicherry, like Hampi and Amritsar, has been one of those places that has always come up in conversations with the ‘Oh-You-Must’ recommendation tag. And going by some of my experiences, I treat such reccos with much caution. Nevertheless, whilst planning our next leg of vagabonding after the 4 weeks of volunteering our time near Madurai, Pondicherry - for its relatively close proximity - was an obvious pick for my friend and me!

That first sunrise | Pondicherry
I love walking and have professed my love for it in as many words in some of my previous posts. But here, on the east coast of India we had humidity along with the incinerating heat to consider while deciding our ‘preferred’ mode of locomotion.
Well, that and finances.
We were continuing to keep costs as low as we could – even as we were realising that budget travel in southern India is somewhat a misnomer. (I’ll save that for a separate post though).
Anyhoo, long story short, we chose bicycles over a mechanized two-wheeler.

Meet Evana aka JP 39 | Pondicherry
If, because of travel, I wasn’t going to get me any exercise, I reckoned I may as well burn off some ‘lethargy’ cycling my way through the once-French-occupied-and-governed-but-now-union-territory-of-India Pondicherry!

At first it was, both liberating and daunting, zigzagging alongside city traffic. After an hour of that, it ceased being daunting – this is especially important because unlike my friend, I don’t ride/drive a vehicle; neither back home nor anywhere in spite of my driver’s license.

But working those legs on the pedal, going as good as aimlessly (read: not consulting Google Maps unless it was through Zomato. Because, food) has been an emboldening experience to say the least!

If walking is the most intimate way of getting acquainted and familiar with any place, especially a new one, then cycling through it is the second best way.

Getting familiarised with Pondy | Pondicherry
Day One 
And because on the first day, we really hadn’t the slightest clue about which way we kept going, when I now look back I realise we were much like the Duracell bunny! Whatever we zipped past - the yellow and sometimes grey coloured structures with their big wooden doors garlanded with bougainvillea - they were a visual treat. My most favourite stretch has been the Beach Road as it extends beyond the Promenade towards the north. Here fisherfolk communities can be found tending their nets and boats – either gearing up for a catch or returning from one.

Our homestay - MantraPondicherry
The back-roads | Pondicherry

The back-roads | Pondicherry
Day Two
After that ‘warm up’ on the first day, we put ourselves to our first test when we decided to hit Serenity Beach on our second evening in Pondicherry.
Avoiding the main road (M. G. Road) and riding along the strip (which turns into a dirt track) that ran parallel to the sea, we had only the dwellings that lay in between separating us from the shore! Unlike the well outlined and tarred roads of the main hub, this route felt a lot more personal in that neither homes nor streets bore anything even remotely French about them. Suddenly we could have been in any town along any coastal village with its thatched roofs and children running along the periphery of the lanes.
There was nothing serene about Serenity Beach which was thronged with people taking a dip in the sea – something the Rock Beach does not truly allow for! But turn your back to the throngs and you can feast your eyes all you want as white waves lather up the shore.
N.B.: Cops are stationed to whistle you out of the beach at 7 PM. So bear that it mind.

En route to Serenity Beach | Pondicherry

Waves lathering up the shore at Serenity Beach | Pondicherry
Day Three
It wasn’t until Day 3 that we decided to make circuiting the churches of Pondicherry a priority. According to a count, there are 34 churches in Pondy but we decided to stick to no more than 3 – 4 of them. I prefer meeting ‘God’ in a more natural setting. That said, the architectural marvels that the churches of Pondy are made of did leave me walking (and cycling) about agape. And I was mindful enough to say a quick ‘Hello’ to Mr. God while I was there.

The Scared Heart of Jesus Church | Pondicherry

Church of Our Lady of Angels | Pondicherry
Day Four 
We were at Day 4 already and some more exploring later (read: Google search on things-to-do), I realised that Arikamedu seemed very appealing to me; because after Dholavira - a little over 2 years ago - my interest in all things ruins and archaeology has only continued to grow. That ruins in India sadly are just that i.e. ruins is a caveat I bear in mind.
But Arikamedu came in the disguise of challenge number 2! Located about 9 kilometers away (one way), the distance was something to consider – given that between my friend and me, neither of us had ever ‘cycled’ that distance before. But you know that they say right – There’s always a first.
And so cycle we did to Arikamedu with Google Maps by my side. At some point the dirt track seemed misleading. It didn’t help that Google recognised the road as uhm, ‘Unknown Road’! Turns out, not all adventures have to be misadventures because that unknown road brought us straight to the ruins themselves and then further to some off the grid sights.
Though they did lead us to a cycle repair shop to undo a puncture though.
P.S: Cycling on sand should be worthy of a feat or something, no?

Ruins at Arikamedu

Ruins at Arikamedu
Day Five
After that ‘achievement-unlocked’ moment under our belt, cycling 10 kilometers (again, one way) to Auroville seemed a lot like a been-there-done-that!
And that is exactly what it was – it only ‘seemed’ so.
Because that was the morning when we were huffing after our legs went woozy on the inclines – though between the two of us, the unspoken word was that at least our return trip wouldn’t be as agonizing.

At Auroville

In what may seem surprising that though we did spend the day at Auroville we didn’t get anywhere near the Matrimandir. Instead through a previous association we met with Kathy from Eco Femme.
From their website: Eco Femme is a women-led social enterprise founded in 2010. Based in Tamil Nadu, India, their goal is to create environmental and social change through revitalising menstrual practices that are healthy, environmentally sustainable, culturally responsive and empowering. They produce and sell washable cloth pads, provide menstrual health education to adolescents, and open dialogues on menstruation all along the way.

Cloth pads and liners from Eco Femme

There’s something about knowing someone’s story but then hearing it from them – their entire journey with its many moments of sheer confusion topped with an equal number of those filled with excitement owing to the newness and uniqueness of what they set out to do – in spite of all the voices around them. Kathy was kind enough to share her entrepreneurial journey with us – from her time back home in Australia to making it here in India and choosing Auroville as the place she knows she belongs.
Hers is a story that spoke to me.
As someone who is experiencing her own journeys within the larger journey through travel, those moments spent listening to Kathy have been the most inspiring and reassuring ones in a while.

And that is how we spent our five and a half days at Pondicherry. Bicycling through the roads and retreating into moments of realising that my ‘zen’ needs some maintenance. Getting ahead of myself is anything but helpful. I am still learning though.

Zen maintenance by the sea | Pondicherry

But this post would certainly be incomplete without the slightest mention of food! So here are a few recommendations:
Le Café for obvious reasons and for also being the place where our gastronomic journey
Chez Nous for their yummy Italian cuisine 
Carte Blanche for some delicious French cuisine
Surguru and A2B for good old south Indian breakfast
Canteen 18 for the best and greasiest burgers (I obviously recommend the ham, egg and cheese burger)
The Indian Kaffe Express (for everyhing in that image below)
Malabar Tiffin
Baker Street for one too many kid in the candy store moments
Café Xtasi for their wood-fired oven pizzas

Brunching at The Indian KaffeExpress | Pondicherry

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