Last Updated on June 17, 2020 by Leyla Kazim
|Image of the week: Pondicherry Street (more images at end of post)
Where in the world
A four hour train from Madurai to Pondicherry, situated on the east coast of the state of Tamil Nadu, then an hour drive to the French quarter where we stayed for two nights.
Back to the station, then a four hour train to Chennai, staying there for two nights. A flight back to Mumbai in the state of Maharashtra for round two, where we stayed for three nights.
When the French were in Pondicherry in the first half of the nineteenth century, they laid out their streets in a formal grid pattern – this was White Town (over the canal – or the ‘Drain’ – was the Tamil quarter, or Black Town).
Today, many of the buildings lie derelict, some falling apart through a combination of lack of maintenance and heavy monsoon rains, framed by overgrown vines scaling crumbling walls. But as the French do so well, it’s a town that manages to remain chic, with the rundown buildings adding to Pondicherry’s European old-world charm and romance.
The roads are wider and the slower pace of Gallic life has remained. Predictably, the French tourists gravitate to this part of the country, making the most of the cafés, craft and book shops (as did we), to recharge and while away a few hours, a pastime easier said than done in the chaos that is India.
|derelict chic in Pondicherry
Chennai is ‘the capital of the south’ – a city of roaring traffic and heat, much like many others in India. It’s a bit lacking on the sightseeing front, and some might say it’s the dowdy sibling of India’s four biggest cities. But the people love their hometown and are some of the most hospitable we’ve come across. There’s a new layer of cosmopolitan glamour in the shape of luxury hotels, polished boutiques and contemporary restaurants still draw the crowds.
In all honesty, the ITC Grand Chola we stayed in (review to come) was so plush, and outside was so hot and dusty, that we spent little time exploring and more time relaxing and recharging – much needed after nearly four weeks moving around.
Then we were back in Mumbai for round two. Having time apart is a powerful thing. Perhaps absence made the heart grow fonder, but our second visit within the month felt like meeting an old friend. We had fully acclimatised to India by then – it seemed less of a culture shock, more inviting, more doable. We even joked about living there.
Specifically though, in Bandra, the suburb in west Mumbai the other half’s grandmother grew up in, from the Parsi side of his family (see Did you know below). We spent two days with his great aunt Amy, looking through black and white photo albums from the 1800’s, and visited the schools and roads the grandmother and her siblings called home in 1920’s Bombay.
It’s a charming part of the world, and an affluent one, with signs that prohibit horn honking and spitting (incessant everywhere else in the city), and where the Bollywood stars call home.
|the house Matt’s Grandmother grew up in. Bandra, Mumbai
Amy volunteers four days a week at Happy Home School for the Blind. We popped in to say hello to the staff and children, and got a sense of the inspiring work done there. Boys from across the country (there is an equivalent school in the city for girls) – many of which were born with additional disabilities – are given the prospect of a future where there was none before. When they leave at 17, many go on to college and a lot of them into IT.
The best things I ate this week
Bhelpuri. A type of chaat (typical savoury roadside snack) made of puffed rice, vegetables and a tangy tamarind sauce. At Sangeetha Veg Restaurant, Chennai.
A really good Mulligatawny soup. Hot with a lot of pepper, great with a squeeze of lemon. Had at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai.
Mangochi pakauri. The whole thali meal at Royal Vega was a unique experience (more information on this in the ITC Grand Chola hotel review post). But my favourite was the ground mung daal, rolled into balls, spiced with dry fenugreek and red chilli, simmered in mung lentil and turmeric buttermilk, tempered with asafetida and white cumin – it was fantastic. At Royal Vega, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai.
Alu vadi. Also known as patra. Colocasia leaves are smeared with a sweet, spicy and tangy gram flour paste, stacked on each other, rolled, then steamed. They’re then shallow or deep fried and are a popular Maharashtrian snack. A bit like fried artichokes, with meaty hearts. Enjoyed At Mama Kane’s, Dadar, Mumbai. Thank you to @imbevda for taking us here.
|from top left: bhelpuri, multigatawny soup, mangochi pakauri, alu vadi
|the full thali meal at Royal Vega at the ITC Grand Chola in Chennai
Street food must-eat
Dahi vada. This is a popular chaat (streetside snack) where lentil dumplings are dunked in a creamy whipped yogurt topped with spicy green and sweet tamarind chutneys.
This one was enjoyed outside Shree Krishna Vada in Dadar, Mumbai. Thanks again to @imbevda for taking us here.
|dahi vada, Mumbai
Madras Bashai or Madras Tamil, is a colloquial slang of the Tamil language spoken in Chennai.
Dhool! A superlative, as in “well done!” or “kick ass!”.
It’s likely from Hindi dhool (dust), referring to the dust cloud after a good ass-kicking. ‘Dhool’ is also used as Dhool kalappitai where kalappitai refers to the action of starting or kicking up (dust).
Did you know?
|the skies above
the Tower of Silence, Mumbai
Parsis are Indian Zoroastrians, originating from Iran but settling in India in the tenth century, and Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world.
Mumbai has a big expanse of green on Malabar Hill belonging to the Parsi people, called the Towers of Silence. When Parsi people die, their bodies are exposed on this tower to scavenging birds for the purposes of excarnation.
An incredible number of eagles and crows live in the forest on this hill and circle the skies above it. However, the number of vultures – the primary birds that would clear the bodies – are in decline.
Here’s an interesting article in the New York Times about plans the Parsis had to build vulture aviaries to help replenish the numbers, but I’m not sure how far it’s come.
Freddie Mercury was Parsi, and the three wise men from the Bible were said to be Zoroastrian priests. Bet you didn’t know that.
My insider tips
Seatbelts in India. Get in a car in India and more often than not, it won’t have seatbelts. Considering the style of driving there – generally with little value for human life – being in one whilst not being strapped in is an ordeal, particularly if the car gets a clear stretch and belts it over a flyover.
Notice, though, that the seatbelt is usually there, just not the socket. Turns out most of the cars do have fully working seatbelts, it’s just the buckles are concealed under the seat. Before the driver sets off with you as a passenger, ask him to please take a moment to help you lift the seat and reveal the buckle – they should have no problem with it.
Highlight / Lowlight
Highlight. A joint one with Matt – spending time with Amy and being able to put faces and places to all the stories we’ve heard about his ancestors, right back to his great great grandparents.
Also, the langurous lunch we had at the Willingdon Sports Club, of which Amy is a member. It has exclusive membership and a long waiting list, playing host to Mumbai’s answer to Desperate Housewives, while their husbands sip whisky and play golf in the vast grounds.
Lowlight. This week has been good to us on the whole; the one blip was dining in Pondicherry. On our first night we took advantage of the good European food available (my cravings for pasta after not having had any for almost a month were at crisis point), so we lost that evening to a carb overload.
The next night we intended to get acquainted with the unique Creole cuisine of the area. We went to Carte Blanche at the Hotel de L’Orient based on a Conde Naste article, and were given two curries which despite their rich and dark colour, managed to taste of absolutely nothing.
We told the waiter we weren’t going to finish it and that it wasn’t very good. Annoyingly, his supervisor wasn’t in to authorise a refund so we still had to pay for rubbish food we barely touched. And it was one of the most expensive meals we’ve had in India – isn’t that always the way.
Onwards to the spiritual capital of India, that most sacred of holy sites on the Ganges, Varanasi. After that, we move west into the state of Rajastan – the romantic India, wrapped in royal robes – spending time in Udaipur and Jaipur.
|Pondicherry street art
|tuk tuk in Chennai
|butcher in Chennai
Week 0: Gone travelling. London – see you in nine months
Week 1: INDIA – Mumbai → Goa
Week 2: INDIA – Bangalore → Mysore → Wayanad
Week 3: INDIA – Kochi → Allepey → Kollam → Madurai
Week 4: INDIA – Pondicherry → Chennai → Mumbai
Week 5: INDIA – Varanasi → Udaipur → Jaipur → Delhi
Week 6: TAIWAN – Taipei
Week 7: CHINA & VIETNAM – Hong Kong → Hanoi
Week 8: VIETNAM – Sapa → Hanoi → Ha Long Bay → Hanoi
Week 9: VIETNAM – Hue → Hoi An
Week 10: VIETNAM – 6 day / 5 night motorbike tour from Hoi An to Da Lat
Week 11: VIETNAM – Da Lat → Nha Trang
Week 12: VIETNAM – HCMC → Mekong Delta → HCMC
Week 13: CAMBODIA – Siem Reap (and Angkor Wat) → Phnom Penh
Week 14: CAMBODIA – Sihanoukville & Koh Rong Samloem Island
Week 15: CAMBODIA – Kep
Week 16: THAILAND – Chiang Mai
Week 17: THAILAND – Songkran Festival in Mae Rim & Chiang Mai
Week 18: THAILAND – Bangkok → Koh Phangan
Week 19: THAILAND – Bangkok
Week 20: MALAYSIA – Penang → Borneo
Week 21: AUSTRALIA – Melbourne
Week 22: NEW ZEALAND – Auckland → Rotorua → Turangi → Whanganui
Week 23: NEW ZEALAND – Wellington → Nelson Lakes → Hanmer Springs → Christchurch
Week 24: NEW ZEALAND – Lake Tekapo → Mount Cook → Queenstown → Milford Sound
Week 25: NEW ZEALAND & USA – Queenstown → Hawaii
Week 26: USA – Hawaii (Big Island) → San Francisco (Oakland)
Week 27: USA – San Francisco
Week 28: USA – Los Angeles
Week 29: MEXICO – Mexico City
Week 30: MEXICO – Oaxaca
Week 31: MEXICO – Mérida (plus Uxmal and Kabah)
Week 32: MEXICO – Tulum (plus Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve)
Week 33: USA – Postcards from Washing DC & Cape Cod
Week 34: HOME (LONDON) – The best and worst from the past 8 months – Part 1