Pondicherry to Chidambaram 68 km (East Coast Road)
Chidambaram to Lakshmi Villas (T. Nedenberry)16 km
Now that we have hit the real India, I am realizing I’ve got a lot to learn about travelling here.
In the traffic-laden areas, cycling takes pure concentration and becomes a kind of dance — a kind of cycling yoga if you will. Motorcycle slides up beside you on your left? Make sure you don’t swerve into something on your right to avoid him. Bus passing another bus up ahead? Get out of the way – like onto the shoulder or dirt. Horn honking — well there’s always horns honking — learn to figure out if it’s meant for you and move accordingly. Always give trucks the right-of-way. It is a lot like cycling in Vietnam.
We cycled our first day on the road from Pondicherry to Chidambaram, leaving a lot of the western tourists behind. Traveling outside the touristed part of cities like Pondicherry we are learning how the poverty prevents hotel staff from delivering up to western standards. The staff simply don’t know what that means.
In Chidambaram our very basic room (22 Cdn a night) looked out over a temple and the grounds leading up to it – despite this being a reasonably big town, people were getting water from a local well. On our way out to the rural resort where we have spent Christmas (Lakshmi Villas) we were transported back in time to farmers living in thatched bamboo huts, working the land by hand, and tending goats. On our walk through the local village yesterday we were a novelty and were greeted and giggled at. A local potter called us in off the street to show us, with great pride, his manual potters wheel. Many people ask us to take photos of them – this was true in the local village as well as the main temple site (Najarata –a huge temple complex that dates back to the 12th century and worships Siva) in Chidambaram. I had read that we needed to be careful about taking photos of people worshipping but we were asked numerous times.
The living conditions explain why the waiters never wipe the table we eat at with a damp cloth — they simply wipe it with a napkin, leaving a residue that hardens and which I recognize the next meal. The walls have probably never been cleaned despite the enormous number of staff hanging around. Our only real issue with this is we are paying western prices (60 dollars a night nets you a clean motel room these days in North America). However, the staff are charming and genuinely try and feel badly if they feel they haven’t measured up.
Today we had a big issue with trying to pay with a visa card, although the owner had reassured us in Chidambaram (16 km from here) that there wouldn’t be a problem. (If we’d known they needed a cash payment we would have come with the right amount of cash, of course.) I figured out eventually that the staff had not been trained to troubleshoot the visa card reader (I urged the manager to phone the help line on the device and he gave up when he was put on hold – I think he was having problems understanding the English voice recording although I bet if he’d waited he would have been talking to someone in his own dialect in Chennai). Eventually we discovered that there was an ATM in the local village and our problem was solved – but not before a bit of a tussle with the hapless manager who wanted to send us back to Chidambaram in a tuk tuk at our expense. My only issue here is charging western prices for non-western service…something the owner will eventually need to figure out. Once we are out on the rough again (this was a Christmas treat) we will expect grubbiness and haplessness but will be paying less.
On Christmas Eve night we shared the resort with two groups of Western tourists. We had as much fun watching them as we did the dance troupe (which included an acrobat who was quite amazing). One group, the Veggie Voyagers (not kidding) were lovely, sweet, eccentric and in love with all things Indian. One bony elderly lady came back from the temple with garlands in her hair and looped over her ears – she reminded me of a goat festooned for a wedding — but she was thrilled and looked as though she expected a goddess to manifest right in front of her. The other group were Italian and they were a bit bitchy about whatever they perceived was not up to snuff and kept popping out of their rooms in various states of undress asking for extra towels and pillows, and complaining about problems with hot water etc. and so we were treated to the Indian version of Faulty Towers as we sipped our evening beer and giggled a little to ourselves.
Arguing about the lack of (promised) internet for four days was an interesting experience and made me think about the differences between Indian culture and Western culture. We expect to take control and be in control. Indian culture accepts and shrugs. This ability to roll with it and surrender is one of the big attractions for westerners learning yoga and meditation – we are so programmed to be in control we get anxious when we aren’t and learning to let go relieves anxiety. But there is a limit to acceptance as well – non-action isn’t always the right way to go. The caste system here is served well by the fatalism that is inherent in Indian religion and now when the government run visa website doesn’t work, or when the Internet is down in a hotel for two days, the answer is to shrug.
Striking that balance between accepting a situation that can’t be changed (or isn’t worth the hassle) or deciding to stand up for yourself, in as culturally appropriate and polite a way as possible of course, has become our own personal yoga practise — the Indian travel yoga practice.