The World’s Politest Policeman!

Tamil Nadu Police

Pondicherry is an Indian Union Territory next to Tamil Nadu.  It enjoys a tax free status and what many people don’t realize is that India has quite a prohibitive tax regime. There are hidden taxes on everything and one of the highest taxes is on alcohol.

Consequently many tourists come to Pondicherry to stock up on booze and then head back across the border into Tamil Nadu.

To make sure they don’t miss out on this lost tax revenue the Tamil Nadu Government has the police set up “Prohibition Checkpoints” on the main roads out of Pondicherry where they flag down vehicles with outstation number plates to check if they are carrying alcohol.

We were staying in Auroville just outside Pondicherry but often went into town for dinner as there are some lovely restaurants in Pondicherry and the ones in Auroville while good, are vegetarian and Tommy needs a good feed on meat every now and then.

Going from Auroville into Pondicherry entails crossing through one of the check points. Going into town is ok but coming out, the cops always want to stop us.

Now normally I am a law abiding citizen but sometimes the keepers of the law are not always law abiding themselves.

Two weeks previously I had been in Mysore, Karnataka, when I was flagged down at a police checkpoint, ostensibly because there had been a lot of vehicle thefts in the town and the police wanted to check my ownership documents. Fair enough, but after satisfying himself that the ownership documents were in order the policeman then proceeded to ask for every other document he could think of to try and catch me out and supplement his income with some “Chai-pani” money ( an expression used when asking for a bribe. Meaning money for tea and water). Fortunately all my documents were up to date, but I was irritated by having to waste 15 mins smiling politely and pretending to be friendly.

With this in mind , when the Tamil Nadu Police waved at me to pull over I pretended I didn’t see them and carried on, thinking that they can’t chase me so they will just wait for the next person.

The next day the same thing happened again, this time a policeman waving his torch at me in the dark. I drove past him and ahead another policeman waved his torch at me more vigorously. I ignored him too and continued merrily on my way, the sound of his shouting receding in the distance.

Turning off the main road and into Auroville, windows down, enjoying the cool evening air, I heard a motorcycle honking at me from behind before pulling out to overtake. I thought nothing of it until I looked out my side window and saw an angry looking policeman riding beside me on his motorbike gesticulating furiously with one hand and shouting at me in Tamil. Pulling in front of me, he stopped, blocking the road, giving me no option this time but to stop as well. Dismounting from his bike he approached my window still shouting angrily in Tamil, the only thing I could understand were the English words, “Police” and “stop”.

Feigning ignorance, and assuming my most innocent expression, I said “I am very sorry but I don’t speak Tamil”, which promptly took the wind out of his sails.

“Why didn’t you stop” he switched to English.

“Stop where?” I asked. “I didn’t see anyone” hoping that he wouldn’t call my bluff and wonder how I could have missed the giant yellow police barriers blocking the road and two policeman shining torches through my windscreen.

“We are staying in Auroville” I explained, hoping that he would think I am a tee-total vegetarian Auroville resident.

He looked inside the vehicle and saw The Boss smiling angelically at him, my 8 year old niece sitting behind, looking like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

His manner softened, anger dissipating rapidly.

“Where have you come from” he asked.

“We just went to the beach to visit a friend and now we are heading back to the guest house in Auroville”

“Ok, ok, I am sorry” he said, then lowering his voice so no-one else in the car could hear, he whispered apologetically, “do you have any liquors?”

“No, no” I assured him, assuming my most horrified expression, and he smiled, apologizing again.

“Very sorry, please go ahead.”

I thanked him and waited for him to climb onto his bike and ride off, however he insisted on moving his bike to the side to allow me to move off first.

I smiled and waved to him, wishing him goodnight.

As I drove off I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw the world’s politest policeman waving and calling out “Sorry sir, thank you”.

The Toilet Angel – Part two

Read Part 1 first

The next day having reached Pondicherry we were sitting in one of our favorite restaurants waiting to place our order.

We spotted our regular waiter crossing the restaurant on crutches.

“What happened to you?” we asked.

“On the way home from Pondicherry on my motorbike one evening I was hit by a drunk driver.

I spent 2 months in hospital but the doctors couldn’t save my foot”

The Toilet Angel

 

Toilet Just Do It

I pull off the highway into a large motorway services complex similar to what you would see alongside motorways in the west and now increasingly common in India.

This one has a large petrol station, coffee shop, a South Indian vegetarian restaurant and quite probably the worst McDonalds in the world.

It’s 8 am and we are heading from Bangalore to Pondicherry for a few days break.

The South Indian restaurant serves lovely Masala Dosas for breakfast but one of the main reasons we stop here is because it has possibly the cleanest public toilets in the country, a rarity in a nation where entering a public toilet usually requires the wearing of a hazmat suit and gas mask.

Having broken our journey here many times over the years we have always been impressed at how well the toilets are maintained by a young Tamilian lady. Meticulously scrubbing and mopping both the men’s and ladies toilets she ensures that whatever time of day you visit they are always clean and smelling fresh. She lights up our day with a beautiful smile and over time we have become nodding and greeting acquaintances despite not sharing a common language.

It’s been 9 months since we last came through this way and we were shocked to see her limping as she worked. A piece of leather encasing the stump where her foot should be.

With hand signals and the few English words that creep into every language she explained that she had been heading home from work one night and while crossing the highway to reach her village was hit by a speeding lorry. Badly injured she spent 2 months in hospital but in the end the doctors were unable to save her foot.

Life in India for the working masses is tough, seldom affording the luxury of a long convalescence.
She is back at work, scrubbing, mopping, ensuring the toilets continue to be spotless.

And despite the missing foot…………….. still smiling like an angel.

 

Read Part two here

The fascinating Global Village we call Home!

Ganesha

The Boss and I were in Pondicherry last weekend. Pondicherry is a part of India which was once ruled by the French. It still retains a lot of Gallic influences and it is not uncommon to hear French spoken on the streets.

Wedding Decorations
We were there to attend a wedding. A wedding with a Mexican Bride and an Indian Groom in a resort owned by an Indian adopted by a French couple and now residing in France. The Bride and Groom met in the U.S. and now reside in Bangalore.

Mopping the Grooms Brow!

Mopping the Grooms Brow!

People had come from all over the world. 90 people had traveled over 20 hours by train from the cyclone hit state of Orissa to be with the Groom, many still without power in their homes.
The couple’s meditation teacher traveled 24 hours by train to lead a meditation and blessing on the morning of the wedding.

Wedding Paparazzi

Wedding Paparazzi

The first guest I met was a Spaniard whose nickname is Kiwi, given to him after spending 6 years in New Zealand. He has now lived in India for 11 years and speaks Tamil!
I met a French speaking Mexican from Montreal. Mexicans from Australia, from the United States. A Greek from New York. A Dane and his Mexican wife, ……… they met in Hungary.

I met a girl from Estonia. The first Estonian I have ever met. She had come with her Mexican boyfriend whom she met in Cambodia.

I met a delightful Mother and daughter from Guatemala. The daughter was born in Kenya.

A Colombian couple, she from Chicago, he from London. A French girl ( who is also English – see comments below) living in Mexico City.
And then there is us. A Kiwi married to an Indian after meeting in Hong Kong and who now live in India. A Kiwi who was born in Cyprus, to a mother from New Zealand, whose own parents were from England and Scotland. To an English father who was born in Bangalore and whose own father was English and mother was Anglo-Indian from Kerala.

Orissa and Mexico joined in matrimony

Orissa and Mexico joined in matrimony

It is fitting that the wedding took place in Pondicherry the spiritual home of Mirra Alfassa, a French lady born to a Turkish father and Egyptian mother and who made India her home. Known as The Mother, she established the nearby township of Auroville, the city of human unity, in 1964 and it is now home to over 43 different nationalities.
To quote The Mother:
“Auroville is meant to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”
On a smaller scale this wedding did the same.
A lot of new friendships were born during the celebrations. Friendships which will lead to new and wonderful experiences.
As the bride said to me after the wedding: “the circle expands”

Where to stay in Pondicherry – My adventures with accommodation in Pondicherry

Pondicherry has a lot of accommodation options and having visited many times I have managed to experience a few of them.Sleeper
The Aurobindo Ashram, one of the biggest landlords in the French Quarter has a number of well-located reasonable priced guest houses.

However to stay there you need to get past the formidable “Gatekeepers”, Dictator-like creatures who will stop nothing short of waterboarding to interrogate you on why you wish to stay there. Many times I have been refused a room or told the guesthouse is full despite a rack of room keys visible behind the reception counter, as the “gatekeeper” didn’t like the colour of my t-shirt or I had forgotten to brush my teeth that morning. On one occasion, when leaving my family in the car while enquiring about the availability of rooms, I was told to bring everyone from the car and parade them in front of the reception for inspection. A friend, who had forgotten his car registration number while signing in, was accused of stealing his car!
Once you are in, you have a long list of rules to comply with including a 10pm curfew, and woe betide anyone who fails to observe the rules!
It is worth running the gauntlet though as the rooms are spotlessly clean, well maintained, very cheap and  well located often with sea views.
On this trip though, courage having deserted me, I stayed in the excellent private guesthouse L’Escale.
L’Escale is a boutique guesthouse of only 7 rooms just one street back from the sea. Run by expat couple Nicholas and Patricia, the rooms are clean, reasonably priced and the hotel has a wonderful roof terrace where I spent many an evening enjoying the cool sea breezes coming off the Bay of Bengal.
The owner Nicholas is very helpful, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area, and an impeccable taste in restaurants (his top 5 list matching mine coincidentally). He was fully booked on the day we arrived so he arranged for alternative accommodation for us at another guesthouse for one night and even handled all the payments for us. I would definitely stay here again.
I have also stayed at the Promenade which is right on the beach road opposite the Gandhi Statue. Great service and location and a really good breakfast buffet (4 plates of bacon and eggs being essential to kick start my day) but the rooms are quite tired now and there are better priced options around.
Villa Shanti has lovely rooms and great food (as I mentioned here) but is more on the pricey side.
I would also like to stay at La Closerie one time. I caught glimpses of a candle lit courtyard from my balcony at L’Escale and one day knocked on the door. La Closerie is a beautifully restored Villa with stunning interiors and even has a small plunge pool in the garden. Staying here would be more like being a guest in a wealthy person’s home!

French Cuisine, Cuban Libations, Indian delectations

There are a lot of places in Pondicherry to satisfy my main aim in life (filling my stomach).
However my favourite and arguably the best purveyor of culinary delights is Villa Shanti.
Villa Shanti is a beautifully restored French Colonial building which has been converted into a lovely boutique hotel.
One of the main draw cards is the open air restaurant in the central courtyard which serves very good Continental and Indian food.
On our recent visit we arrived for dinner and I rapidly proceeded to order something which I have only recently discovered in life but about which I am determined to make up for lost time.
Villa Shanti makes possibly the best Mojitos outside of Cuba and being particularly dehydrated and realizing the importance of keeping fluid levels high in the tropics I made sure one was on the table in front of me not long after I arrived.

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In the meantime the Boss had ordered a smoked chicken and avocado salad which was extremely tasty.

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However preferring to concentrate on rehydrating myself I quickly ordered another mojito. The only negative with Villa Shanti is that their mojitos seem to take a long time to prepare ( something to do with the mint leaves being handpicked by French maidens under a full moon and then crushed with the blunt end of a  Baguette) so it is wise to order the next before you reach the bottom of the first.
The next course arrived, the boss taking delivery of her seafood spaghetti

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while I decided to partake of the Barracuda with Polenta to fill in the gaps between mojitos.

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Whilst this was delicious it was all in preparation for the piece-de-resistance ( my school French wasn’t wasted after-all!)
Next to arrive was what I consider to be one of the finest desserts ever created by humans.

Orange Almond Cake
Orange Almond Cake with Bitter Chocolate Mousse.

Admittedly there is a small amount of bias in my comment as being Gluten intolerant this is one of the few desserts I can eat, but everyone else at the table was in agreement and also ordered one.
If heaven could be contained to a plate, this would be it. And enjoying it so much I proceeded to eat it everyday ( sometimes twice a day) for the next 3 days!

A Slice of France in India

One of the things I love about Pondicherry is just wandering around the French quarter otherwise known as White Town or Ville Blanche.

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It is so different to the seeming chaos and constant hustle and bustle of the average Indian town with its quiet Cobbled streets, and French inspired architecture.

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Large polished wood doors sometimes slightly ajar give a tantalizing glimpse of beautiful tropical gardens inside.

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100- 200-year-old trees, probably planted by the French provide shade while frangipanis drop their gloriously coloured flowers on the cobbles.
Some places are beautifully restored and others are crumbling away through years of neglect.
Now and again you pass a traffic policeman (or should I say gendarme?) in his crisp white uniform and his bright red Kepi. Possibly one of the coolest police uniforms around.

English: Police officer in Pondicherry (Puduch...

English: Police officer in Pondicherry (Puducherry), India. July 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every street is different and I never get bored just wandering around. And I never fail to be surprised when a local Tamil approaches me and starts talking in fluent French!

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Black Market Wine in a former French Colony

Pondicherry has until recently been a tax free zone and even now the taxes are much lower than the other Indian States.
Feeling a little parched in the hot tropical sun I asked an expat, where I could buy some of the grape juice that the French are partial to, assuming it would be much cheaper in Pondicherry and also readily available for the thousands of thirsty French tourists who arrive every year.
He suggested I try the local wine shop but said that they didn’t have much selection, mainly having Indian and South African wines.
After pausing for some thought he mentioned that there was a place where I could get some very good French red wine but I would need to listen very carefully to his instructions as it wasn’t strictly legal.
Feeling thirstier by the minute and my tastebuds salivating at the thought of quaffing back some of France’s finest, I paid close attention ( my school teachers would have been proud if I had paid this much attention in class).
That evening I turned up outside the shop described to me by the helpful expat. A big sign saying “Duty Free” was above a shop window filled with aftershaves, perfumes and a selection of plastic toys.
Waiting til the appointed time of 5.30pm, ( any earlier and the owner’s school age son would be behind the counter and not aware of the fine liquids otherwise available from his establishment), I pushed open the door and walked in, followed by my equally dehydrated brother in law. We approached the counter nervously and gathering up all the bravado we could muster ( but still feeling a little stupid saying this in a toy shop) announced to the man behind the counter that we had come to buy some red wine.
Frowning he looked at me suspiciously and then looked at my brother in law with even more suspicion ( he can be pretty dodgy looking). After what seemed like an eternity he glanced towards the door and then sighed. Pushing back his chair he reached down below the counter and slowly pulled out a dusty bottle of French Merlot. It had a label from a fancy French vineyard and seemed to be of a suitable age.

As I eagerly reached for it, thoughts of an evening on the roof top terrace gazing out over the Indian Ocean, cool sea breeze wafting over me and a glass of Merlot in my hand, I felt that something was not quite right. As I feverishly grasped the bottle my fingers pressed indentations into the bottle.
It was plastic!

The Great Indian Road Trip

Driving in Indian cities can be extremely frustrating but there is nothing I like better than venturing out into the country side for a road trip. The distances are vast and made even vaster by the road conditions reducing your average speeds down to 50kph. There is a never ending kaleidoscope of things to see in the countryside,( that’s if you can take your eyes off the road!) and it often feels like you are driving through a movie set.
We hadn’t done a long trip for a while so we decided to set out the other day for the 320km drive from Bangalore to Pondicherry on the coast of Tamil Nadu.

Pondicherry or Puducherry is an interesting place and unlike many other cities in India as it still has a lot of French influence from when it was a French Colony. It is one of my favourite places to visit and a place where I can indulge in one of my favourite pastimes…… filling my stomach!
We had to make an early start as the trip involved crossing Bangalore so we left at 6am to miss the traffic. Bangalore with no traffic is a delight and it is a refreshing experience to drive in 30 mins, distances which would take over an hour later in the day.

We stopped for breakfast at a motorway services which reflecting the rapid changes in India , now includes a McDonalds drive thru, and a Coffee shop besides the usual vegetarian Dhaba ( roadside eatery) Along with us making the Saturday morning escape from Bangalore were the Bangalore Chapter of the Harley Davidson Owners Club attracting plenty of stares from the locals on their mopeds and 100cc motorbikes.
After leaving the roadwork strewn motorway we were to join a narrower country road (still classed as a national highway) from Krishnagiri thru the pilgrimage centre of Tiruvannamalai and on to Pondicherry.
What is normally quite a pleasant drive through the country along a tree lined road has now been ruined. In the name of progress the road is being widened and miles and miles of Tamarind Trees planted 100-200 years ago by some enlightened soul are now being felled to make way for the wider lanes. All the charm of the road has now been lost and there is nowhere to stop for a rest in the shade. However stop we did and while parked on the side of the road we were passed by pilgrims walking from Tirupati to Tiruvannamalai barefoot, a distance of 190 kms in 35 degree heat and each carrying their provisions in a sling bag!
When leaving Bangalore, little did we realize that almost the whole 320 km journey would be taken up by road works. Road works in India are carried out in a peculiar fashion. There will be a couple of kilometers of beautifully finished asphalt on one side while the other lane remains unconstructed, resulting in plenty of nerve racking and butt clenching moments as you swerve to avoid oncoming buses and lorries lumbering towards you on your side of the road. Then both sides will be dirt and gravel for a few more kilometres before hitting another stretch of beautifully finished tarmac.
There also never seems to be anyone working on them, however this is a phenomena not only confined to India. I remember a stretch of highway from Auckland to Hamilton in New Zealand, where the road works lasted for almost 5 years and there was never a worker to be seen.
Sometimes I feel that roadworks are carried out at night by an army of Pixies as you never see any work going on during the day. It’s probably the best solution as the heat during the day will cook the brains of any human road worker.
This journey also brought home the benefits of having a vehicle suitable for Indian road conditions. I am fortunate enough to drive an Indian made SUV and while the journey was tiring it wasn’t that bad given that the roads were like the surface of the moon.
However my brother in-law arrived ½ an hour after me like a badly made James Bond martini, shaken and stirred in his little Suzuki hatchback which was slowly rattling and vibrating itself to death. Looking at my brother –in-law’s expression I fear the same was happening to his internal organs!