5 Star service in the Lodge from Hell!

Luxury AccomodationI lift up the pillow and a nest of beetles scurry away from the light.

I do the same with the next pillow, sending more beetles scuttling away in to the darkness.

I quickly brush them away before The Boss spots them and throw my own clean bed sheet over the whole bed, pillows and all.

The pillow is the same shape and consistency as a bag of cement and within 10 minutes I have a throbbing headache.

The bed too short for my height so I am forced to lie at an angle with my feet hanging over the side. The room bathed in a dim glow from the fluorescent yellow street light outside the window as I listen to late night wedding revelers returning noisily to the rooms next door, shouting at each other in Tamil despite their proximity and the late hour. I wouldn’t be getting much sleep that night.

Earlier that evening after a fruitless search for some quality accommodation in this small rural town we finally settled for the best of the rest and took a tiny room in a lodge down a noisy side street. It’s wedding season and everywhere is booked solid in a town that is not big enough to warrant a hotel of any kind.

The room qualifies as luxury accomodation as it has AC and a TV. One thing it lacks though is hot water. With hand signals and a few words in English and Tamil we explained to the owner that we wanted hot water to bathe in and he explained that he would supply us with an immersion rod, an electric element which you suspend in a bucket to heat the water. It needs to be suspended using a wooden stick so that you don’t get an electric shock but it is surprisingly effective.

Immersion heater

By 8pm it hadn’t arrived so I climbed down the narrow stairway to what functions as the reception. The lodge owner was still there juggling calls on his two cell phones.

“Hot water, hot water” I asked him.

“9 o’clock coming” came the answer. “Fresh piece.”

As good as his word, at 9 o’clock there was a loud banging on the door.

The elderly watchman, barefoot and clad in a white vest and dhoti, handed me a plastic bucket, a wooden stick and a brand new immersion rod still in it’s box.

Closing the door, I looked at the price stickers still on the bucket and the immersion rod box. The total cost was Rs650.

The rent for the room was only Rs600!

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The Boy who grew Wings

The village boy who grew wingsIndia is a land of stories. Some of them make you angry, frustrated, and cynical. But there are just as many if not more, that inspire you, fill your eyes with tears, and restore your faith in the strength of the human spirit.
This is one of those stories.
Imagine a boy, born to a poor farming family in rural India. A childhood running barefoot through the fields, playing with friends in the shade of a Banyan Tree, swimming in the muddy village pond, an idyllic life for a child but for the parents struggling to make ends meet and to put food on the table, a tough hard life.
As he grew older and finished his education he looked further afield for ways to support himself and to care for his aging parents. He travelled to a big city in another state. The language, the culture different but unperturbed he looked for work, eventually landing a job as a waiter in a restaurant. His hard work paid off, his rudimentary English improved, and over time his income increasing. Still a paltry salary but with careful living and long hours of work, it was enough to send a small amount home to his family each month.
Over the years he became popular with the regulars, his ready smile and helpful attitude endearing him to the customers. In conversation one day he spoke of his dream, to go beyond waiting tables and to train in the kitchen, gain skills as a cook, and maybe, if he was lucky, eventually get work on a cruise ship. He had found a school that would train him but the fees meant it was beyond his reach and his dream would remain unfulfilled. His father was ill and what little savings he had managed to accumulate were spent in hospital bills and replacing his father’s lost income.
His story touched a chord and one day some of his regular customers presented him with money to go towards the course fees. With tears in his eyes he reluctantly but gratefully accepted the donation, scraped together the balance needed and shortly thereafter handed in his notice, leaving to join the cooking school.
Six months passed and he appeared back in the city, a changed young man, seemingly more confident, English more polished, his way of dressing more modern, looking more like a young IT professional rather than a waiter from a village.
Proudly displaying his certificates and coursework, he explained that he would return to his village for a while to see his family, to take care of outstanding debts and obligations and would then seek employment with his new-found skills.
A month later, now with tears in their eyes, his benefactors listened as he conveyed in a breathless, excited phone call his great news.
No-one from his village had ever been out of the country. No one from his village had ever flown in an airplane.
The next day after a total of four connecting flights he would arrive in Italy, where he would be joining the kitchens of a P & O Cruise Ship sailing the Mediterranean.

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

Snakes are charming!

Pic Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/justinbaeder/

Pic CreditJustin Baeder

Last night we spotted a snake outside our front door. I rushed out with my camera phone but it was too dark to get a good pic and I stood by as it slithered slowly past and into the storm water drain.
I love snakes and having grown up in New Zealand where there are no dangerous animals consequently I don’t have any fear of them. When I see them I just want to pick them up.
The Boss however is completely different. One mention of the “S” word and she is terrified and she didn’t sleep all night convinced that it was going to climb the wall into our bedroom and sink it’s fangs into her while she slept.
She is not alone in her fear. Most people here in India are so scared that it almost borders on the irrational and will go to the extent of concreting their gardens and removing all leaves to prevent any snake habitat.
A couple of years ago I heard screams from the garden and rushed outside to find the maid cowering in fear and screaming “sarp, sarp” ( snake in the local language). Looking in the direction she was pointing I saw a 2m long snake disappearing around the corner and rushed after it. Ignoring the screams from my family I tried to get closer but hearing my approach, the snake took off at an amazing speed down the path and promptly climbed a 2.5 m high wall and disappeared into the park behind our house. The maid was convinced it was a cobra and took a while to stop trembling. However it was in fact a harmless rat snake, non- venomous and having the reputation of being the fastest snake in India, hence the speed at which it set off down the path.
On another occasion I was in Tamil Nadu and discovered a snake charmer by the side of the road. Upon seeing my interest he whipped the top off his basket and out popped two very bad tempered cobras. Fascinated, I, along with a rapidly gathering crowd, moved closer, however as the cobras expressed their displeasure by lunging towards us soon found myself all alone as all the other onlookers scattered. The thought that I might be in danger didn’t once cross my mind, instead I looked around to see where everyone had gone. In retrospect I realise that I may have been a bit stupid but I was just caught up in seeing these beautiful creatures up close. I also suspect the snake charmer had probably defanged his snakes anyway.
I once stayed in a small hotel in Mangalore, and when hearing a commotion outside, went out and found all the kitchen staff outside on the lawn shouting “snake snake”. I went into the kitchen to have a look and sure enough under a cabinet found the object of terror. A baby snake all of 40cms in length. I managed to free it into the garden after about 15 mins and with a complete lack of assistance from the quivering staff.
Maybe if I had grown up here and had the fear of snakes instilled in me from a young age things would be different. Maybe one day I will get bitten and I will be just as afraid.
But in the meantime, I don’t see what the fuss is about, and there don’t seem to be that many around. I have seen about 5 in the wild in the almost 10 years (cumulatively) I have spent in India. Perhaps I am stupid, but any opportunity I can get, I will jump at the chance get a closer look.
Just don’t tell the Boss!

 

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!

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!