Thursday, July 24, 2008

French-ish land makes a perfect holiday destination
“Are you going to Chennai?” the three-year-old smartly dressed kid asked. When I answered in negative, her smile faded by few millimetres, as she ran into the arms of her mom, seemingly an NRI. With Outlook in hand and idlis to munch, the three-hour journey in Pallavan Express moved quite rapidly; so much so that I had to be reminded by my co-passenger to detrain when the express halted at Villupuram.
The station was cleanly kept but for the lack of any sign boards to indicate the way out. For me though, the aroma of freshly brewed coffee at a shop outside the station showed me the way. Just when I stepped out of the station, a bus to Pondi, apparently less packed, stopped. But quite unfortunately, the 45-minute-journey could not provide me a seat inside the bus, which filled in people at dizzying rate.
Though the journey time was short, it was anything but enjoyable. Fish in hampers irked my nostrils, while heavily drunk commuters shoved my luggage at the fag end of the bus. Finally when I got down at the bus stand of Pondi, it was a welcome let-up.
Couple of my friends joined me as we headed to our first destination – ‘Manakulai’ Vinayakar. Sunday is certainly not a day to visit the tourist spots in Pondi. The temple had never-ending queue that thankfully moved at fast-pace. Perpendicular cement roads led us to Aurobindo Ashram, which again was overfed with visitors on Sunday. But as ever, the serenity and calmness are kept up.
When we walked out of the Ashram in inexplicably high spirits, Chunnambar beckoned us. The boating place has gained its popularity in recent times. A 15-minute ride in auto is all needed to reach the backwaters.
The sprawling sand-borne area in Chunnambar has been sparsely filled with play things for kids. A locked boat house, broken swings and rusted steels precariously hanging loose from slides are dampeners. Tickets, moderately priced, to reach the ‘Paradise beach’ are available only till the evening. Large boats, ferries and pedalling ones take the tourists to the shore of Paradise beach.
When we hopped into the boat, the person who mans the boat was singing in shrieking pitch. The music died on his lips when he saw us getting in. “Sit on either side of the boat. You don’t want it to topple,” he said. Petrified, I elbowed my way through my co-passengers to find a seat next to him.
For Chennaites or Mumbaikars, it’s a welcome break from mucky Marina and teeming Juhu. Fewer tourists meant less litters on the shore. Currents are stronger and even few metres into the sea are sure to scare you off with their dynamic pull.
Checking-in at the Seaside Guest House of the Ashram, we decided to visit the recently popularised ‘Panchavati,’ a Hanuman temple on the road leading to Dindivam. But travelling in autos would cost you a fortune. As it did for us. The auto-wallah halted near the Tamil Nadu border and made us jump into other auto of Tamil Nadu to avoid paying tariff at check post (yeah, you have to pay for the other auto separately).
The temple, on Sunday, was moderately crowded. Facade of it is under construction. The aisles let out an overwhelming smell of cement and paint, notifying you about the embryonic stage of the temple. But the newly done up temple’s sanctorum has as much soothing vibes as that of its centuries-old counterparts.
When we walked out, we all slid the Hanuman, shrunk into pocket-sized picture, in our handbags.
By the time we reached Pondi, its much-famed Sunday market was teeming with shoppers. From cotton capris to sand-blasted jeans, you get chic western wears on the platform shops. But before you swing into action, gear up for some post-shopping disappointments. Not all materials are colour-fast and long-lasting. If Lady Luck smiles upon you, you can get things at perfect bargain.
Bumpy rides in auto took toll on our energy levels. None of us were in mood for long walks through the Nehru street, where the market is spread over a kilometre. We walked into India Coffee House, yet another landmark of Pondi. The flavour of coffee at the hotel is said to linger in tongue for days together. With coffee being the least favourite among us, we opted for sambar-bonda. The bondas are really huge, so make sure you stomach craves enough before plunging into them. The taste, as ever, is deliciously distinctive.
We went straight down to Fab India, which, people say, has a unique collection in Pondi, with an eye on French population. It does, but the collection is minimal.
A drive in an auto took us to Sri Krishna Restaurant, which served awfully sour ‘thayir sadham.’ Invariably, all hotels in Pondi stop making idlis by dusk. Sigh. To satiate the badly treated tongue by the curd rice, we rounded off our night’s trip by heading to nearby ice cream parlour. The parlour was nestled between bakeries and very unassuming. But appearance is purely deceptive. The combos that they offer are absolutely lip-smacking. My chocolate-American nuts dessert was the best among all.
“Are we heading back to the sea?” one of my frens asked when we crashed on bed, with the bags strewn all over. “Yes. We are. Refresh yourself and be back,” I told her, as I unbolted the French window of the balcony to have a better look at the sea.
Grudgingly, she got ready and we set out to de-stress ourselves with the sharp smell of sea and salt. The smell was sharp, yeah, but it was the sound of waves that caught our fancy. Sometimes the waves hit the shore in a tuneful fashion, with note-perfect intervals. Suddenly, they get fierce and crash on the rocks with creepy thud.
We retreated to our rooms at 11, as the heavy eye-lids beckoned us back to bed.
Six-thirty in the morning seemed like well past dawn at Pondi. The clouds were cleared and sun shone brightly on the weather-beaten rocks bordering the sea. Cycles in Pondi, which were once ubiquitous, made their appearance only in the morning. We hired a couple of them and came round the park before it became too hot to loiter. As we sat at a cafe that night in Chennai, I couldn’t help think of what the person who collect shoes at Ashram said: “people still relate Pondi to France. The French-ness of it is long gone. Now all you find here can be got elsewhere and cheaper too. Ashram is the only unique thing about the city.” A land, despite losing all its serenity lost in the holiday bustle of tourists, remains to attract more of them. And surprisingly, people who revisit outnumber the newcomers. It may be the uniqueness of Ashram or the alluring beach or just the clean roads, Pondi succeeds in lingering in the hearts of visitors long after its welcome board fade away from our eyes.