I like to plan my trips. But I have friends who don’t. Now when we travel together, is it easier for them to put up with me or vice versa? That’s exactly what I was to find out when I had been to Chennai/Pondicherry this weekend.
The challenges of traveling without advanced planning starts with tickets. All trains, buses and flights are packed on weekends and the travel guys make hay by ripping us off. So I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t get tickets to and from Chennai when I tried booking a week before the trip. Eventually I left by the Friday afternoon Brindavan express to make up for unavailable tickets and left it to Uday, my friend & travel companion at Chennai to book return tickets from Pondicherry back to Bangalore on the 13th night. At the time of departure, the only information I received from Uday was that my return tickets were booked after he paid 40% over the regular price. However, it was only later that I came to know that the ticket he booked was from Chennai to Bangalore and not Pondy to Bangalore. Anyways, the plan was to visit Auroville, near Pondy where Uday had a friend (friends?) doing internship. That was the ‘plan’ in the broadest sense. I didn’t know the details until we actually got to Chennai, after which I was to realize that even he didn’t have any concrete idea of how to get there and where to stay. Nevertheless, I wasn’t expecting much cos I have known Uday since college
In such a situation I prepare myself for the trip by understanding the people I am traveling with, and the destination. I anticipated what it would be like, traveling without knowing where to stay or planning when and how to get to the destination. This is totally not how I am, so I packed for a rough ride by I taking only my 70-200mm and my Creative Zen Vision W. No wide angle, no tripod…nothing. Going to Auroville/Pondy and not carrying all my gear? Crazy? Yes, but sometimes we have to sacrifice opportunities when foreboding thoughts loom large
Getting to Auroville
The first half of my Chennai trip went fine. I stayed with an old friend on Friday, and we had a good time. On Saturday morning I called Uday and we mutually decided to leave for Pondy by 2 pm. I didn’t ask him where we were going to stay and how we were going to reach Auroville because I knew he wouldn’t know. So we met up at Thiruvanmyur and waited for an ECR bus. This is were express buses to Pondy have their last pick-up. On this particular hot afternoon, the stop was unusually crowded. But we kept each other good company and didn’t join the zillion other travelers in their frustration. Because of the crowd, we skipped one bus after the other, hoping that the next one would have vacant seats – but in vain. Imagine standing in the hot Madras sun at 3 in the afternoon (temperatures were crossing 40Â°C) with backpacks, ready to push and shove and fight for vacant seats. I was already feeling glad for having brought only one lens.
Finally we decided to board an express luxury bus which the junta avoided big time because of higher priced tickets. There were, of course, no vacant seats so we made ourselves comfortable wherever we found a place to stand. A loud, silly but funny Tamil movie was being played, and most of the folks traveling in their comfortable push-back seats were dozing away to glory. Luckily the bus was traveling at a decent speed and the blowing winds cooled down our sweaty bodies. We traveled this way for 2 and half hours. In spite of knowing that we could have done better than traveling this way, I didn’t feel a thing because I had predecided to travel without expectations
It was way past 6:30 and we were just about nearing Pondy. At that point of time, there were two things that occurred to me -
- Auroville closes early, so if we had to get there and find a place to stay, we had to do so fast.
- The road that deviates into Auroville from the highway comes before the town of Pondy.
I shared these facts with Uday, and we consulted a fellow traveler who advised us to get down from the bus shortly. Because of point #1, we knew it was too late to do any kind of sight-seeing in Auroville.
The bus conductor was kind enough to let us get off at the right place (which was a tiny hamlet of houses, shacks and shady places offering rooms). From the road sign we learnt that Auroville is 8 kms from the highway so we took a smart decision of hiring a bike. Our next best option, an auto, would have cost us 150 bucks. Meanwhile Uday had called up his friends who informed him that there were no rooms available at the ‘Bharat Nivas’ guest house where they were put up (inside Auroville). They told us to try another dorm called ‘Mitra’, which was supposedly close to Bharat Nivas. We grabbed something to eat at a rather pathetic shack, and then went looking for a bike to hire.
We found a shop bang in front of where we got off, and the ‘thatha’ at the shop told us that a TVS-50 moped would cost us 70 bucks per day and we took one gladly. Note: The TVS-50 is the coolest thing to ride off-road So we began our journey into Auroville. The roads were good, but it was getting dark and we had no clue where Mitra was. We just kept riding into the darkness, and on either side of the mud road we were surrounded by trees, trees and more trees. We were riding through sparsely populated country side. Finally, after numerous wrong turns, ‘just over there’ replies, misleading road signs and vacant looks, we found something that looked like a dorm. It was Mitra indeed, and the time was 8:o0 pm. En route we discovered the ‘Visitors Center’ and ‘Matrimandir’, the two main landmarks of Auroville. The Matrimandir was light up and quite a sight in the dark jungle, but since I was not carrying a tripod, I couldn’t get a good shot
Finding a room
Mitra was being manned by a chinki watchman. Mr Chinki had only one piece of information to give us – call this guy, Samrat, to book rooms. Where is Samrat? Chinki didn’t know. When will Samrat come? Chinki said probably around 9…maybe 10 and sometimes even 11. Are there any vacant rooms? Chinki was positive and optimistic about that, but he had no powers to give us one. I tried calling Samrat but the call just wouldn’t go through. So there we were, in the middle of nowhere, not knowing what to do. Another quick call to Uday’s friend cheered us because she too was positive about us getting a room at Mitra. Only problem was locating Samrat.
We thought it would be a good idea to find some grub instead of just sitting there and waiting for the missing dorm in-charge. But finding a restaurant meant risking losing our way again. Nevertheless in the spirit of adventure and hunger we retraced our steps till the ‘Visitor’s Center’. When we told our predicament to the watchman there, he gave us the best piece of news we wanted to hear at that time – The Visitor’s Center had a restaurant. We parked and walked in.
The Visitor’s Center is a stone building right out of some French town, and we had only firangs for company at the eat-out. We ordered some totally firang dinner, binged and rode back to Mitra filled and satisfied. Small accomplishments like this make life less boring The time was 9.30 and there was still no sign of Samrat when we got back. We began discussing the prospects of riding back to Pondy (another 15 kms) and looking for a room there. But since Uday wanted to meet his friends, we decided to stop at Bharat Nivas first.
Bharat Nivas turned out to be another secluded building in the middle of the jungle. Unique architecture, single cottages circling a main verandah and the use of earthly materials for landscaping made it a beautiful sight. We met the in-charge there and explained the situation. He was an acquaintance of Uday’s friends, who at that time had still not returned from wherever, so he was keen on helping us. Luckily there was a vacant room at Bharat Nivas itself. He let us take it for 420/-, instead of the regular price of 500/-, ‘because we were friends of Shivani’s’. Neat
So finally at 10 pm we got a place to crash. And when we entered the room, where we happy or what! The room was as beautiful as the exteriors. A fine ending to an adventurous evening. After a much needed shower, I joined Uday and his friends who had returned by now. We chatted into the night and crashed after 1.
Living it up Auroville
We had decided to to head out to the beach at 6. It had rained during the night, so at 5:30 am when I opened the door, I was greeted by the most beautiful morning ever. The air was cool, the air calm and the grass greener than ever. I hadn’t woken to a morning like this since my college days (when I had my room in a similar jungle). The girls and us got ready and headed out to the beach. We had good fun there, playing in the water and watching dolphins jump around in the sea (!). We returned by around 9 and after a sumptuous and relaxed breakfast at Bharat Nivas itself, we headed out to the Visitor’s Center to get passes to visit Matrimandir. The girls meanwhile got ready to leave to Pondy where they had decided to spend the day shopping.
Buying souvenirs at the many boutiques at the Visitor’s Center was on my agenda but unfortunately I didn’t find what I wanted because some of the shops were closed (being a Sunday). Having acquired the passes, and seeing educational videos of the place, we set forth to Matrimandir on our TVS-50. But were in for two surprises. Firstly, we weren’t allowed to take the vehicle anywhere close Matrimandir so we had to park it in a nearby building after buttering the watchman there. Secondly we realized after walking in that tourists weren’t allowed anywhere near the main building, let alone enter and see the crystal – the main attraction of the Matrimandir. It was a total let down, but we were glad that unlike the other tourists present there, we had seen the Matrimandir lit up in all its glory the night before. Again, I didn’t feel depressed about not having the tripod, because I was mentally prepared to trade a photo-op for foraying into an unplanned vacation. I wanted to challenge myself and not be me. And it worked!
The adventure never stops
If you thought that we were through with our adventure, you are wrong. Cos after seeing Matrimandir, we got back to our room, freshened up, vacated and headed out to leave Auroville only to find thatha missing from his seat back at the bike hire shop. We had planned to join the girls at Pondy, but the missing thatha ensured that we don’t leave for Pondy just yet. He had our deposit of 500 bucks and also Uday’s ID. We asked around but no one knew where the man had disappeared. It was 1:30 and hot as hell. A boy, who I think was his grandchild, came to help us out but even he couldn’t find thatha. The boy managed to find the ID card inside the shop where we had taken refuge from the heat but the 500 quid was yet to be returned. With no sign of thatha, it was time to take another decision on the fly – and since it was lunch time, we headed back into Auroville to eat. We had yet another firangi meal, and it was as delicious as ever. Back to the shop, we found thatha just returning, so we finished with the formalities and crossed the road to flag down a bus back to Chennai. We had decided to return to Chennai and skip Pondy. But it was not to get over that easily, cos no bus was willing to stop.
With no other choice but to go to Pondy left, we crossed the road again and boarded a bus that took us to the Pondy bus depot. And boy, was the bus depot a mess or what! There was absolutely NO information about which bus to catch and every bus going to Chennai was just overflowing with villagers. The ratio of men with pants (like the 2 of us) to men with lungies was something like 2:20 and we were feeling so bloody lost. Everyone around seemed anal about something or the otherso our questions yielded rude replies but no useful information. But we were, of course, riding high on the chill-pill so we maintained our cool Also, I had a 10:30 bus to catch from Chennai to Bangalore.
Finally by some sudden brainwave, I realized that we had to catch an ECR route bus to get back to Chennai the fastest. Uday stood in the mad queue and reserved tickets for the 5:50pm bus. Since it was only 4:30, we decided to visit the beach at Pondy, which was rather uneventful. Oh, we so lot of sloshed men. It was sad what Pondy had become. We saw more when we got back to the Pondy bus depot. They were puking all over and I think I don’t need to get more descriptive.
We boarded our bus at 5:50. The seats we had reserved where placed just after the back exit door, so we were comfortable. But only till the bus started. And it didn’t start easily because of a couple of villagers who created a scene about the whole reservation system. See, no one likes reservations. Basically this one dude didn’t understand that all who had seats had got them because they had made a ‘seat reservation’ earlier. He was one of those people who jumped in from windows/threw in towels/pushed their children etc to reserve seats, and probably that is how he had got the one in which he was sitting. So he wasn’t ready to give it up to someone showing him a reservation ticket. It was quite a sight watching him defend his stand, and until the cops came, he wasn’t ready to let go of his seat. In fact, he wasn’t ready to let the bus go, threating to stop it unless he got his seat.
The bus finally left Pondy at 6:10, but we couldn’t sit back, relax and watch a movie on the ZVW as we had expected. The bus was stopping at almost every other village and people were boarding in hordes. So pretty soon the entire bus was jam-packed and even the ones sitting weren’t comfortable. It was turning out to look like a city bus, and we still had over 2 hours of travel time left. Nevertheless Uday and shared a joke about the situation every now and then, and about the number of drunk men we saw in one day. In fact, it was the number of people whom we saw throwing up, which was the highlight of the day. It was all funny until the kid standing next to me threw up. Yes, he puked. I’ll save the details, but it is worth mentioning that the sick kid was sitting on me for the rest of the trip. He grabbed the opportunity when I showed him a little bit of pity, and it wasn’t until 8:30 when the bus stopped for dinner an hour away from Madras that he let go.
So the Pondy trip ended with us traveling in an very uncomfortable bus, seeing too much puke but generally having a good laugh about the situation. The Pondy bus dropped me till Koyembedu from where I caught another bus back to Bangalore and reached home on the 14th fully refreshed and thankfully in one piece.
Sure, things would have been different if I had planned everything to the T, but I would have surely missed out on such an adventure. So I have no regrets. All’s well, ends well. Cheers to that