We stayed in Chennai for a few days and then decided to get a train to Pondicherry. I had wanted to visit Pondicherry ever since reading a wonderful book, Life of Pi, which begins in that city. Pondicherry is still heavily influenced by all things French as it was formerly a French colony. There are lots of very pretty pastel houses in streets with French names and in fact the city is divided into the French quarter and the Indian quarter and lots of people living there speak in French, which was bit disconcerting! It sits beside the Bay of Bengal and has lovely stretches of clean beaches and plenty of interesting shops. It`s known as a holiday get away for Indians and we liked it so much we stopped there for several days. Indian women go paddling in their sari`s and it`s just incredibly rich and colourful to see. The police, many of them women, wear uniforms of pale and dark blue camouflage. One time I bought some candy floss from a guy on the beach and a police officer came up to him rapping his knuckle with her baton, she told him to give me more bags and that he had ripped me off, as if I really minded. The only strange event I witnessed was when a very, very old lady came on to the beach, she was filthy dirty and obviously had some sort of mental health issue. Smiling and laughing to herself, she slowly twirled around on the sand then gradually lifting her swirling skirts she sank to the beach and poo`d. Nobody seemed to mind and that`s India for you.
After our stay in Pondicherry, we travelled on to Madurai.
Madurai is the third largest city in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and has a population of around 1.2 million people so it`s buzzing with activity and is often referred to as `the city that never sleeps.` My travelling companion particularly wanted to go there as he had been told of a clinic where he could get an Ayurvedic massage. This ancient Indian therapeutic massage improves the circulation, expels toxins and benefits our emotional well being. On this occasion it was to be delivered by two clinicians and involved a great deal of sweet smelling oils which are poured on to the forehead and then gradually massaged in to the body, so it sounded really nice.
India has the finest railway system in the world, it`s easy to book to almost anywhere and cheap. When you go for your train, a list of all the passenger names are glued to the carriage doors which is great as you always know you are on the right one. The trains are absolutely rammed and people sleep under the seats and on the overhead travel racks. When the trains stop, more people come on board begging, it is heart breaking. You see children with no limbs being pulled along on makeshift trollies, blind people, people with terrible disfigurements often as a result of leprosy, all approach you for money. At first it is deeply shocking yet in the end, you do become accustomed to the sights. People have to live but what we decided was that we would take out a certain amount of money each day and give it to those who appeared in the most need, otherwise we realised we would wind up giving all our money away and not even dent the surface.
The plus side of travelling on trains in India is that a chai (tea) trolley regularly appears so you never get thirsty and on many trains, wonderful Indian food is served at meal times which is delicious and cheap as chips. Indian people are by nature extremely hospitable, most families will offer to share their food with you, it`s a nice way to be and we shared ours back. (Tip for anyone travelling solo, don`t accept drinks from strangers as they can be spiked with a sleeping drug. When you wake up your rucksack and all your belongings, including your passport, have been nicked.) You just have to be aware and sensible, say you have an upset tummy and then they`ll leave you alone.
When we arrived in Madurai, I couldn`t believe how different it was to Pondicherry. Madurai is a very industrialised city and pollution, mostly from the rubber industry, hangs heavy in the air, it made me feel nauseous. We found a hotel but it was bland and impersonal. A river flows through Madurai called the Vaigai and where we were staying it was absolutely filthy and heaving with all sorts of rubbish, it would be hard to believe that any fish could survive in such conditions. We only stayed one night. He had his massage, which he enjoyed but we quickly left to avoid the pollution and made our way across the southern tip of India, to visit Kerala.