Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pondicherry trip

As written in my earlier post, I managed go to Pondy the Saturday before last. I almost didn't make it. As the weekdays were filled with the assigned office work, the temptation to remain between sheets and spend a lazy weekend was quite overwhelming. But then, I firmly told myself to stop being lazy and make use of my time there which if I didn't, I am sure I'd end up regretting once I returned.

Well, to ensure I make the trip, I decided to book my bus tickets before hand. Tried the but most of the seats were taken. So I booked through 'Make my Trip.' The bus was to start at 7 am and the return bus at 6.30 pm. The AC Volvo bus cost me Rs. 440 each way. Now that the tickets were booked, there was no escape. I got up at the early hour and waited for the bus at Adyar Bakery at Thiruvanmanyur and was pleasantly surprised to find it come on dot. A very comfortable journey of about 3+ hours with a break thrown in at a road-side dhaba.

A major minus for me was that I didn't get any time to research and plan my trip like I normally do. I went like any other tourist who has heard of Pondicherry and wants to see it.

Well, I was told that tourist information was available at the Pondy bus stand. My bus was headed beyond Pondi and therefore was asked to alight at Indira Gandhi Statue. I assumed that the bus stand would just be a stone's throw away and kept walking. Its only when I reached the destination was I to know that the distance was actually 1.5 kms. Walking that distance under the hot sun wasn't easy. On reaching the bus stand, I was told to contact counter no: 11 where I'd get tourist information.The information I got was, "Contact the tourism office on the beach. They will tell you."  Having walked this distance, this time I wanted to make sure where this beach was. I was told it is 10 mins from the bus stand. As usual, the hawk-like auto drivers were at the bus stand volunteering to drop me at my destination for  anything between 50 to 80 rupees. I crossed the over bridge and took a share auto for 3 rupees! This took me close to Vinayagar Temple, one of my destination spots. Crossing this, you have another tourist spot, the Aurobindo Ashram about 150 meters away. 600 meters from there is the tourism office. For me, it meant a close 2.5 kms walk that day. If you travel like me, ignorant about the site-seeing there, the best option would be to take a direct auto to the tourism office .Though I was thoroughly tired by the time I reached , what was redeeming was that the people there were quite helpful. They gave me a map and told me where to go and how to reach. They have two tours: a full-day tour from 9.45 am to 5.45 pm and half day tour from 1.30 to 6 pm. Reasonably priced at 250 and 150 rupees respectively for an AC bus service, this should suffice for the tourist.

What I could not savor is the French culture & cuisine that I had so looked forward to. The other tourists who had been here told me that there is not much to see in Pondy and the 7 hours I planned to spend there was enough. What I realize now is that Pondy is not the typical tourist place where you mark out a few places to visit. It is a way of life that one needs to experience through a well-planned visit to Auroville, experience the french cuisine, know the french heritage buildings housing the various administrative blocks and much more. On the way back from Auroville, I found a row of Pizza outlets. They looked very different than the ones that one normally visits, a few of them promising wood-burn pizza.

Walking around the Auroville is an experience by itself. The Matri Mandir, a large golden globe in the center of the International village, is restricted to few visitors who have booked the hours for meditation at least 2-3 days before. The booking happens only between 2-4 pm everyday. The meditation is reserved for 60 visitors per day. Without these restrictions, huge crowds would surely hamper the silent meditation that one seeks.I am sure spending time in that the serene atmosphere will be quite recuperative to the mind and soul.

What  I also missed was the shopping there. I didn't have any thing particular in mind but was told later about  the tax free shopping available there :(

I got to watch the Aurobindo Ashram beach from far as it is a rocky beach and doesn't really allow one to go dip your feet in the rolling waves. But I did have more than my share of water when I went to the beach at the Auroville and was literally swept off my feet as a HUGE wave swallowed me with along with the jhola on my shoulder which contained my belongings, the tickets, money, cards, phone everything!
But here I am, survived to tell my tale.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Returning to mana Hyderabad

Tired of your routine life? Go out of town, stay out for a while and then come back…like me.
Three weeks of Chennai—staying in the outskirts of city, on the IT highway—hungering for a simple home-cooked meal and living with people with who you have no common language to communicate…all this cured my thirst for a break.
When I boarded the Hyderabad bound train, I couldn’t believe I was set to return home.

What I returned to:
  • to read the wording Chennai-Hyderabad in Telugu
  • to see my mobile phone stop 'roaming' as it entered AP!
  • to step on to the Hyderabad railway platform and breathe an AC-free air again..AND not sweat!
  • to the haggling with the auto driver in a language we both understand!
  • to step into a messy, yet cozy home...away from the septic, formidable, cold, guest house walls
  • to stop drinking mineral water
  • to not having to keep my possessions under lock & key every time I step out of home
  • to just have magi or rice and, yes, to be able to have my favorite upma once again
  • to be able to prepare and have my paani-wala chai after three weeks of machine-brewed tepid sugar syrup
  • to be able to sprawl out on my own bed
Even after a week of return, it sometimes still feels as though I am going to wake up to the sights and sounds of the last three weeks and I shudder! Feel so thankful to return to the routine that the body and mind are used to.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chennai Diary IV

From what I have seen of Chennai so far, I conclude, it is not a city for the foodie.
Hyderabad!!! Where are you?

Day 7, Sunday, was spent going to my aunt's at Guindy. Though a good 16 km from my guest house, the visit with a taste of lovingly prepared home-food made it worth while.

Monday to Friday had me explore different eateries around my work place and the guest house. I am now no longer surprised to find no paan stains on the road or paan shops around. You need a paan only when you have had a good/heavy meal.

Tried food at Shogun, Ponnusamy, Sarvanan…all known and recognized by any Chennaite. The rest are small outlets.Yet, these three seemingly big names disappointed too.
What’s amazing is, the ambiance seems to have no importance. It is as though what’s important is just eating the food…everything else is not necessary.

I went to Ponnusamy beside my guest house hoping to get some light snack at dinner time as I am not too keen on heavy dinners.They have idli, dosa and wada for tiffins. They also have mutton dosa, egg dosa, paneer dosa…why can’t I have one simple masala dosa with its potato stuffing? The ambiance is like the Swati tiffins we have near Secunderabad station. So, why is it famous, I wonder. Neither the quality of food nor the ambiance is anything to rave about. They present the bill at the end of the meal along with a miniature banana.

Shogun was a well recommended Chinese outlet.Though not an ardent Chinese food fan, I was game to trying anything now. It comparatively has a better ambiance than what I have seen in any other restaurant in Chennai. Ambiance-wise, compares to a Chutneys at Hyderabad…though less crowded. And the price that we ended up paying for this slightly better ambiance!  830 rupees for two for an ordinary meal (from the Chinese and Indian menus), one soup, two starters, three rotis, one curry, and one soft drink each. The food was ok. Maybe a 3 on 5, surely not more.

The world-famous Sarvanan let me down in a big way. I went to Parry’s and as it would be very late by the time I went back, I decided to have food at the famous restaurant. I asked the steward for a masala dosa. I had to ask him to guide me with the menu because every single item on the tiffin menu was prefixed with Ghee…ghee idli ghee wada, ghee, dosa etc. All I wanted was a simple masala dosa. He pointed to one which said Ghee Paper Masala Dosa for Rs. 128/- I okayed it and found that it meant a dosa about a feet and a half in length and with accompaniments of coconut chutney, karipatha chutney, tomato chutney and sambar. I had planned for two simple items but seeing the size of the dosa, I knew I’d need to rule out ordering any other item. What first hit the nostrils was the aroma (stink?) of ghee. As I kept eating and reaching the lower half of that cylinder-shaped contraption, I found more and more of it stick to my fingers. When I lifted the dosa to check, I found the entire bottom of the dosa, and the plantain leaf it was served in, smothered with ghee. I started using the tissues to dab at every bite of dosa to get rid of the excess ghee. I called the steward as I had noticed a small girl beside my table being served a much smaller masala dosa. I asked him why I was not served that. His answer, “Because that will not be enough for an adult!” My next question to him was why all this ghee. He smiled, (sadistically?), saying, “It is all pure ghee.” Gosh! I wonder how, we who lead such a sedentary life style, will be able to digest all that stuff. Again, ambiance is like that of the AC section of the much crowded Sanman tiffin center at Tarnaka. As though all that ghee in the tummy was not nauseating and tumultuous enough, right beside my table plonks a lady and her mother with their hair adorned with strong-smelling jasmine flowers!

NONE of the restaurants here serve my favorite upma…not one! It is always dosa, idli wada. Choice is between these three. No golgappa walas to be seen anywhere either.
Everyone is so practical here…like they just need to get the work done. The finer things of life don’t seem to matter much. Back in Hyderabad, we live life the Nawabi style!

Off to an early start to Pondy tomorrow. Look forward to enjoying the fine French culture.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Chennai Diary III

Day 6 saw a lazy Saturday. The WHOLE day stretched in front of me with an option to do whatever I want to…this prospect was too tempting to not exploit. Express Avenue at Royapettah was what I had narrowed down my choice to. Before starting I had searched the internet for some info on Chennai bus routes and was absolutely stunned at the wealth of information  I found.


The frequency of the buses is amazing. There seems to be one every minute. To find the bus that you need, just type the source and destination and an amazing number of options throw up!
The Google map has the option of showing both the car and bus routes. When you click on the bus routes, a tiny figure of a person shows where you need to walk to catch the bus. Or how many meters you need to walk to your destination after getting down from the bus. The bus conductors have started conversing in Hindi, even if broken. They may/may not come up to you for tickets. The money gets passed from hand to hand till it reaches the conductor and the ticket gets passed back in a similar way. The Hyderabadis can bring their 5 rupee notes and 50p. coins...all are accepted here. Bus tickets are sold for odd amounts like Rs.4.50 and the the change of fifty paise religiously returned!
Despite being loaded with all the bus numbers, I still asked around to confirm whether I was headed the right direction. And guess what?! The one to guide me was not a Tamilian / Indian but a British lady! She advised me on how much to pay the auto driver after I get down from the bus to head to Express Avenue.


Hmm. I heard that this is the biggest mall in Chennai. I chose to visit a mall because I was told that the mall was different as it also housed some authentic Tamil stuff. Towards that end, I was disappointed as it had all the stores that any other mall has. Yet, there are no regrets at having visited this mall. The sheer size of the mall stuns you. There are three floors of clothes, accessories, cosmetics, shoes etc., plus the basement with the Big Bazaar that I didn’t have the time to visit. I felt that each floor had a circumference of 2 kilometers. It took me about 5 hours to only window shop through each of them.
I briefly spent some time at the Life Style and saw the hip crowd there. What is amazing to find is that there were the traditional sari-clad, jasmine wearing women and also the t-shirt-jeans kind too. So, though I wasn’t really dressed well that day, I didn’t feel out of place. The younger lot seemed to be modernly attired, the older ones more traditional. However modernly dressed, none of the women wore any cleavage–revealing clothes. I’d find more such girls amongst the hip crowds in Hyderabad.
What happens to husbands here is the same as happens to them in every mall in any city. The poor guy acts as a hanger for all the clothes his wife has selected and keeps passing them one by one to her in the trial room as she keeps stepping out and asking for his opinion (but then goes on to buy what she thinks is the right one).
When I reached EA, I headed straight for the multiplex and bought a movie ticket. This done, I started looking around the fourth floor which contained all the food joints. You are issued a food card after you pay whatever amount you decide to. And then you use it like an ATM card to keep paying for your food. If any amount is left at the end of the day, you are refunded.
I first decided to make a round of the entire floor to check out what was on offer. Almost every kind of food in its about 20+ outlets found menus from Italian to South Indian, Arabic, Malaysian, Chaats, KFC and many more. After having completed the tour of the place, I opted for Kobe


Kobe, I had read even before going to Express Avenue, was a place of Sizzlers. As I wanted to try something different, I opted for it. Kobe is a separate restaurant and doesn’t accept the food card issued by EA.
When seated, I saw that about 70% of the items on menu were non-vegetarian ones. Undaunted by the limited choice or the price, I stuck to my choice. The menu mainly consisted of sizzlers, pizzas, and mock tails. I selected one vegetable sizzler. It was priced 290 and I wondered whether one snack is worth 290/-. After a wait of less than 10 minutes, the waiter rushed towards me with a sizzling, steaming oval shaped plate which was about 12 inches long. Looking at the quantity, I was petrified. I just can’t eat all that stuff, I thought. I wasn’t sure of where to start…whether I’d get a plate to serve myself smaller portions of that gigantic offer or directly dig into it? I realized that the plate was quite shallow and placed on a half inch thick, burnt wooden base. The dish was made up of a portion of rice surrounded by shredded and par-boiled vegetables like cabbage, peas, carrots, French fries, baby corn and a flat potato cutlet. Over all this was poured Schezwan sauce. Between pepper/garlic/Schezwan sauces, I opted for Schezwan sauce though I was warned it would be spicy. What I realized by now was that this sizzler is not a snack but the main course itself. The dish was kept piping hot throughout the meal though the sizzling subsided after a while. It had a tangy taste to it, not very spicy with a delectable mix of rice, sauces and vegetables. I enjoyed every bite of this awesome dish which nearly burnt my tongue. This dish is a must-try.

                                Image from Kobe website


Getting a ticket for a Saturday movie is unthinkable in Hyderabad. Yet here, I was pleasantly surprised to find a seat for the evening show. Well, I read reviews in favor of and against the movie. I trust Rajeev Masand’s reviews. A 3 ½ /5 from him means that the movie is a sure-watch. There also are reviews which speak to the contrary belittling it as a Karan Joharesque movie with its unrealistic, feel-good, made-for-the-NRI-crowd kind of movie.I went with an open mind to watch this movie. Story apart, the script and execution was slick. Not a moment of boredom as you are taken through a journey of three 30-something bachelors reviving their younger days and finding a new meaning to life at the end of this one all-boys trip to Spain. You will not be disappointed when you watch this. But beware, Katrina Kaif and her non-acting still jar!


A few of my observations on my first outing in Chennai. Many women adorn their hair with jasmine garlands. This is a disappearing feature back in Hyderabad…unless women go for a wedding or some such traditional occasion. Most of them have good hair though. I also see many dark complexioned people around. In some imperceptible ways, I sense a respect for women a man won’t sit beside a woman in the bus, even if the seat is vacant. I also find fewer lungis and more trousers this time. The roads are almost empty by 11 pm. In fact, when I was going back from EA, I found I was the lone woman on the bus home. A bit scary! What I don’t find is the fidayeen-kind of the ubiquitous women found everywhere in India these days, their heads all wrapped up and only the slits for the eyes showing. When I tried wrapping my head here, I realized why they don’t do that. I nearly suffocated in the sweat inside my scarf! I found one or two on the streets, though I am sure they too will give up soon.
I didn’t find any of those wide, pleasure-to-drive roads like we have in some posh locales in Hyderabad. Yet, the roads here have far fewer potholes than what we find back home. Many of the main roads too aren’t really wide.
There are almost no paan shops… as a result, also no red marks on the roads unlike in Hyderabad where we literally have painted the town red.
It is sweaty and clammy even in July whereas back in Hyderabad, this season sees you shiver with cold, especially after heavy showers. Here, shower or no, you always sweat and one can’t imagine life without an air-conditioner.
More posts to come when I explore Chennai more.