Wednesday 29 May 2013

That's it for S. India - What's Next?

The heading of this post basically tells you where I am right now.  I am home and have been sharing my mini-memories of Southern India with you.  It was a great adventure. Thanks for joining me.

Today being Tuesday I should be posting more mini-memories. Because these little paintings are done while I travel I don't have any more to share with you at the moment. I will be back sharing our exciting watercolour workshop journey to Normandy and Paris, France in October.  In the meantime I will post small mini-memories of day trips I take from my home in Ontario.

Ontario is a very exciting diverse part of Canada and I am sure you will enjoy travelling with me.

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Thanks for joining me in Croatia and Southern India. It was a great journey.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Puducherry, Pondicherry, Pondi to Chennai - Day 18

This is the last day of my mini memories. As you can see, I was busy to the point of not having time to paint. Imagine!

Today's itinerary took us by coach from Pondicherry to Villupuram Junction where we boarded an express train to Chennai. I must admit even though our trip by train was interesting because of the very busy families we shared our coach with the experience itself is not one that I wish to repeat.  Travelling by train in India is something that every tourist who wishes to experience India should do. It is how India travels. Our train was very tired, the windows were too dirty to be able to see through so the trip which should have been interesting was very limited. I painted the chai cup, the chai canteen and the back of the chair in front of me. I was able to purchase a chai (not like what I get in Starbucks… much better) from the chai wallah. It was very much a positive to the time spent on the train. Next to me Sue opened a coke she had purchased before boarding and it exploded! A highlight of our journey was how she dealt with this, without a blink. Great traveller is our Sue.
Back in Chennai we returned to the Park (pleased with this chance to once again spend time at this hotel) for a special set dinner. The chef had outdone himself, (this is a quote from Marion’s journal):
“a westernized chicken and crunchy vegetables and…mashed potatoes. We were in heaven”.

Tonight we said goodbye to our travelling friends. Marion and I departed the hotel at 3:00 AM. We had to meet our transfer in the foyer of the hotel. With little sleep we exited the elevator on the main floor to be greeted by 100 male faces. We climbed over a floor covered with cables, cameras and crew. Bollywood had taken over the Park Hotel’s massive lobby. Disco music blared from ‘our’ bar!
Remember, the Park Hotel was once the favorite destination of Bollywood. I am hoping that it really was a movie and not that we had walked through a dream, or the ghosts of things past. It was exciting what ever it was and I will always remember the feeling as the door to the elevator opened.

The rest of our group left at different times during the night and early morning. Three headed for Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Two boarded their return flight to Toronto and Marion and I started a long trip (really the shortest distance) from Chennai to Pune where we spent four nights, visiting long time friends, enjoying Sangam, our accommodation at the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, World Centre. We swam in the pool, swung on the garden swing, painted a little painting and talked about a future trip to Sangam as part of the 2015 Around Our World to all Four World Centres that I am planning.

On the 5th of March I once again said goodbye to India. Happily, I disembarked in Toronto to be met by my husband, my daughter and my beautiful granddaughters.

Home again. Planning!

Next time will you be Going Places Together with me?

Pondicherry – Day 17

A day of leisure: that special day when you get the chance to head out on your own, to return to a gallery or historic place for a second look, or to track down that special shop or setting discovered during your own trip research. In Pondi, some wanted to be blessed by a holy elephant rumored to make daily visits to Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple, others wished to wander the markets and shaded streets looking for a final adventure.

After breakfast we met in the lobby and started out together. Shops where shuttered, not to open until late in the morning, but along the street colourful vendors had taken the sidewalk space and laid out their wares. We wandered this impromptu morning market for a while and slowly began to separate into smaller units, each setting off for something of interest.

I was interested in returning to a lovely garden I had noticed the day before. It seemed to be a quiet place that the people of Pondicherry came to rest and relax from the heat of the day. We found the park, called Bharathi, as the sun moved overhead. Most of the shaded benches were taken at this time of day but after some searching, we found a spot out of the sun with a great view of the surrounding garden. I captured a few mini memories and my travelling friend enjoyed people watching and viewing the local plants.  We stayed out of the sun for an hour and then we strolled on.

The next thing our our To Do list was unfortunately a bit of banking. In this former French colony, Visa cards was not as easy to use as we had found in other parts of Southern India. As funds drew short, we set off to find an international bank that accepted all credit and debit cards. Someone thought that they had seen a Citibank logo the day before and after some searching we tracked down the local branch.

Later as we wandered through the French Quarter we discovered a new edition to Pondicherry's culinary scene and decided to give it a try. Lunch at Villa Shanti was perfect. We liked it so much - the modern d├ęcor, the historic location, and of course the food - that we decided to invite the rest of the group to join us for dinner. Not knowing how many of the group would join us, we made the mistake of not making a reservation. More on that later.

It is easy to become relaxed when the temperatures are up in the high 30’s C / 90’s F. especially when you have had a lovely, quiet, relaxing sojourn. We decided after lunch we would head back to the hotel and spend some time in the pool. We found a tuk-tuk (no meter rates here) and headed back to our Atithi Hotel. This hotel has an amazing infinity pool on the roof giving you a 5 star view of Pondi. We floated in the cool water looking over the roof tops of the neighbourhood wondering what it would be like to be staying there or there.

It really was a perfect day at leisure. I painted, I wandered, I ate and I relaxed in the pool. I was happy.

Our full group returned to Villa Shanti that evening for dinner under the stars. As we hadn’t imagined a reservation would be essential in this sleepy town, we were surprised to find that all the tables in the open air restaurant were reserved for the evening. But our disappointment only lasted minutes a flurry of activity led to a private room over looking the courtyard being opened to our group. It was a perfect place to spend our last evening in Pondicherry.  Next time I visit Pondi I will try very hard to make this hotel my home.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Pondicherry - Day 16

[Saturday May 4th: It's a beautiful day in Stratford; a warm sun and a cool breeze. And of all the weather I have experienced in all the places I have had the chance to travel, a late spring day in Stratford is hard to beat. While I would miss those crisp, clear, snowy mornings, the amazing colours of autumn, and the blue skies of summer, if I could make arrangements for this kind of day to be everyday, it would be perfect. But until then, a February day in Pondicherry is a wonderful alternative.]

After travelling in India for three weeks it was very exciting to arrive in Pondicherry. We are in France! Well, maybe it's not actually France, but until 1962 Pondicherry was French territory and enough of this history and culture remains that you can still find a perfect French restaurant, walk down a lovely French street and if there is a gate open, peek into the courtyard of a beautiful French home. Local constables still direct traffic wearing the rounded flat-top hat or kepi of the French gendarmerie.

Defined by a river that empties into the Bay of Bengal, Pondicherry is an imperfectly divided city with the French Quarter on the south bank, the Indian Quarter north of the river and Sri Aurobindo's ashram somewhere in the middle. Ang Lee's recent adaptation of The Life of Pi was filmed in these streets and wonderfully captures the beauty of Pondy.

Today we joined our guide Suna and were introduced to her Pondicherry which included the city ashram, the French Quarter and neighbouring Auroville - not geographically part of the city but none the less attached to the life of Pondicherry.

My mini-memory paintings are like steps taken through the day. In Pondicherry, the houses painted grey belong to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and this is the most interesting ashram I have visited throughout India. As a follower of Sri Aurobindo, Suna explained that anyone can come here to stay regardless of your religious beliefs. It is a place for artists and crafts people and the followers of yoga. Sounds lovely, don’t you think? The feelings at the ashram were very positive and the work on display was wonderful. We visited the paper makers and batik artists whose work is sold to help support the activities of this religious community. While my knowledge of Sri Aurobino, the founder of this religious place is limited, the well tended gardens and buildings of the ashram neighbourhood certainly give a positive look to Pondicherry.

Also giving Pondicherry much of its colonial flavour is Rue Cazy. It is here where the history of the French, the English and the Spanish mixes into vibrant architectural details. The owners of these historic homes are reclaiming and restoring each building to its original form and in vibrant purples, pinks, yellows and orange, they are making Rue Cazy a visual delight! The French wrought iron work reminds me of Havana and Savannah and even Paris which is maybe the most fitting comparison. Our cameras worked overtime on this lovely little street!

Lunch today was at Le Club on Rue Dumas. The sun was very hot and the covered patio with slowly turning overhead fans was a perfect place to spend our noontime: out of the sun, under the green leafy canopy, with a gentle breeze. Time slows in Pondicherry, and our lunch was no exception, but it was worth the wait. If you visit Pondy, visit Le Club for lunch but be sure that your afternoon is free.

Our afternoon was not free and for this delicious leisurely lunch we had to give up part of our visit to Auroville.

Driving in India: The road to Auroville is one lane - maybe one and a half - and it is under construction so on each side of the road is a ditch. Driving in front
of us was a large colourful Tata truck hauling dirt. Coming towards us was another
very, very large Tata. And so the age old question, who goes first? At least that would have been my thought in the unlikely event that somehow I was driving one of those trucks. However, I was a passenger on a bus, and each truck continued to proceed in the direction it wanted to travel. One scraped by a tree while the other balanced its wheels over an open ditch. The room between them was almost non-existent, but somehow at the pace of a snail they made it. I can still hear the sound as we all took our first breath as the two trucks passed. Best show of the day!

Auroville is an experimental township, an alternative community founded in 1968 by a figure known as The Mother. It is a surviving artefact of a time when European artists and intellectuals turned their attention, and their sense of design, to India. Imagined as the catalyst for a worldwide revolution in the way we live, Auroville is multi-national, pacifist, non-denominational spiritual community. The township is laid out on a spiral design with hand-made houses turning in towards the city centre where a golden sphere towers over the landscape. Our visit to Auroville was brief as lunch at Le Club stretched into the afternoon and two trucks slowed our commute but we were able to capture a bit of this interesting place in photos and in our memories.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Chennai to Pondicherry – Day 15

Every tour has travel days and the trip to Pondi, aka Pondicherry or Puducherry, was a special journey as it included a visit to Kalakahetra School of Dance and Mahabalipuram.

A quick tip: If your tour passes through a city and then circles back to the same hotel before departure, consider leaving any unneeded luggage with the hotel staff. It is a great way to lighten your load especially if you plan on travelling by train!

Because we were to return to Chennai some of us left our main luggage at the Park Hotel in the luggage room. I was one of the people to do this. Our return trip from Pondicherry included travelling by train. It was so much easier to pack my carry-on bag for this trip.

In Dalrymple's Nine Lives we read about temple dancers and in Chennai the great schools of dance still teach this ancient style of performance.

Our first stop of the day was to visit this school. Mrs. Githa told us that at the time of our visit 180 students were studying here. It is an honour to be chosen to be a student at this school.  We walked quietly through the gardens, peaking into windows, stopping to listen to each magical voice and instrumental music. It was the quiet and the calm feeling that you experience here that impressed me most.

On arrival in Mahabalipuram we walked through a busy market heading toward the sea. Children called out greetings, asked to shake our hands, and wondered aloud where we were from and would we take their picture. Always fun! At Mahabalipuram our first destination was the Shore Temple.

The day of our visit was very warm and like all the other visitors out in the hot mid-morning sun, we walked in every bit of shade this ancient century Hindu temple and each of its weather worn carvings would offer. Imagine, this temple was built over 2600 years ago and still visitors come, sun or no sun.

Back in the market we watched master carvers bring out the shapes of the gods. They work in the sun, along the main market street and the sound of their chisel on stone is unlike any other sound. The work is a very slow labour intensive practice (one chip at a time) and while we wished to watch the the gods take shape, it would have been days or weeks of waiting. Yet, in this very small area you could see and experience the past, the present and the future as it comes together in the sun and the dust.

As a Canadian travelling it is always fun to meet another Canadian and see what brings them to this place. For lunch we stopped at the seaside restaurant,  L’attitude 49 a newly opened cafe owned by Chindi Varadarajulu, a Vancouver transplant. Chindi had a restaurant in Vancouver before coming to India to start this very new adventure. We enjoyed our lunch, spent some time with Chindi, and of course we talked about Canada.

On arrival in Pondicherry, a former French colony that still retains signs of this colonial heritage, we checked into our hotel and as I set to some unexpected negotiations with the hotel staff, the other group members went out to explore. It was the night that the citizens of Pondicherry celebrated a festival in honour of the goddess Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva. The streets were full of people and excitement and it was a wonderful way to see this historic town.