With the new day came the sad realisation that our home in our little Garden of Eden had come to an end. Dan did some yoga, we had breakfast, packed and were soon picked up by a taxi to take us into Pondicherry. Unfortunately, we hadn’t negotiated the fare in advance and paid ₹500 for it. The bus station was sensory overload and totally baffling. Even person we spoke to had a different set of instructions. Dan suggested trying out the train station instead, as he’d seen a timetable online that could apparently get us to our next stop Thanjavur by 9.30pm with one connection.
We had three hours to kill before (what we hoped was) our train arrived in Pondicherry bound for Villupuram, so we took a tuk-tuk to the Pondicherry Ashram. Alas, it was closed. We wandered along the beachfront, a hundred times better than the shore of Chenna but still not beautiful. The French “White Town” appeared and we wandered through for a while. I was hungry and Dan wanted to see the museum so we decided to split up and meet at the train station later on. I spent a bit more time strolling through Frenchville but it was essentially just a collection of classic colonial buildings (perhaps my hunger caused me not to appreciate it enough) so I wandered back in the direction of the train station.
It was nice to spend some time taking it in alone. With a man, a woman in India is just the less important half of an opportunity to make money. Men ignored me and deferred to Dan constantly. As a woman alone, I felt like a force. Just walking alone was an empowering act. It felt good. I found an up-market restaurant across from the station that did a fantastic lunch for me – mushroom masala, aloo gobi and a curried vegetable naan. And aircon. Heaven!
Dan and I arrived at the train station at the same time, and our train was waiting at the station. We boarded, expecting the worst, but we were pleasantly surprised. The train was full, but everyone managed to find a seat. We found ourselves in a carriage with two German tourists named Jana and Fabrice, and two chatty Indian men who loved joking around. They pored over Fabrice’s family photographs, trying to spot Jana in them. He yelled “No Jana!” each time she didn’t appear, and tossed the picture away with a laugh. They spoke about their love of beer and gave us travel tips. It was a fun ride.
The relatively short journey ended at Villupuram, where we had to wait a couple of hours before a second, longer train would take us to Thanjavur. I managed to talk Dan into a wander around Villapuram even though we had our packs. Boys playing football just outside the station area asked me to photograph them, and pulled spunky poses. We walked down back streets lined with cramped, colourful buildings and on the main street we wondered what to make of little shop alcoves appearing to contain only a typewriter. I tried the Indian take on Coca-Cola, a drink called Thumbs Up, and thought it was pretty good.
On our way back to the train station we shook hands with two adorable schoolgirls and paused briefly to watch kids playing cricket in a large dust bowl. I liked that town. Back at the station we bumped into our German friends and the four of us went to an upstairs restaurant which opened just for us. Dan and I shared a “meals” plate then we wandered back to our train platform.
After the pleasant, roomy ride we’d enjoyed on the way to Villapuram we were thoroughly unprepared for what came next. When our train arrived, we first saw one of the most crowded carriages we’d ever seen, followed by progressively less crowded ones, then comfortable, air-conditioned sleeper carriages. A bit of asking around taught us that we had tickets for the “unreserved” section of the train – Yep, the crazy crowded part – and worst of all we were nowhere near those carriages so we’d be among the last to board.
The unreserved section looked completely full as we gazed up at the train door, which already had boys hanging out of it to avoid the crush. But we had been in India long enough to know that there is always more room. So we climbed aboard with our awkwardly large packs and waved goodbye to the Germans, who were off to find their own train door.
Thus began a long journey aboard cattle-class on an unusually crowded (even for India) intercity train. The kind of adventure you would never agree to in advance, but appreciate in retrospect. We fought our way onto the train, to the amused incredulity of some young Indian guys already aboard. They began to look concerned as our departure time drew close, and advised us to push further into the carriage. We soon understood why. When the whistle sounded, about 20 men pushed with all their might and crushed onto the train. It was all we could do to keep upright, and before we could protest, our bags were whisked away to store further down the carriage. We worried about thieves, but we needn’t have. We spent the next four hours standing, all the way to Thanjavur. It was funny how our impression of our surroundings changed over the trip. People were lying down in the overhead luggage compartments, sitting on the floor, draped across each other… We couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculousness of it at first. But by the time we alighted, anything else would have seemed an inefficient use of space.
It was exhausting and fantastic ride. We made new friends (the same boys who’d laughed at our boarding attempts), who spoke excellent English and gave us tips for our stay. We were yet to meet any unfriendly Indians. They must be the most charismatic group of people on earth. The train ride gave us sore feet and a new appreciation for the generosity and good humour with which the locals conducted their organised chaos.
It was dark in Thanjavur when we arrived, close to 10pm. We turned down an overpriced taxi in favour of a tuk-tuk. The driver was convinced he could fit all four of us, and our luggage, into the tiny vehicle. Much to our surprise and admiration, he did. We weren’t certain where we were going, but Eloy said he was staying at the Thanjavur Guest House so we instructed our driver to head there too. He had to pull over and ask random pedestrians for directions more than once, but we got there.
The guest house was pretty basic. A bed, no air conditioning, a cold water shower, and not much else. Lucky for me, I had less than ten minutes of being bothered by that before I fell soundly asleep.
We were woken at about 5a, by the call to prayer in the form of loud music with a wailing voice leading the chant through a megaphone. Once we’d had some more sleep and freshened up, we met up with Eloy and Sunni, and the four of us went around the corner to a bakery they’d eaten at the day before. It had delicious ‘vegetable puff’ pastries which looked like some kind of French sweet but had delicious curry on the inside. We also had rockmelon juice, which is more delicious than it sounds.
Thanjavur was not unlike the other cities we’d seen – crowded, loud and beautiful. Roaming the streets of these places was its own unique pleasure. There was always something to entertain (or assault) the senses. Thanjavur seemed to be a cleaner city than Chennai or Pondicherry, but that may have been the result of a city-wide, pre-Pongal clean-up. We walked to the Royal Palace, which turned out to be more of a collection of buildings to explore. There was a library, an art gallery, a museum and a bell tower. The latter proved to be an excellent place for photographs, with its high arched ceilings and thick pillars. It was a shady, cool escape from the sun, too.
We also checked out the art gallery next door, which housed lots of beautiful bronze statues of various Hindu gods from the 15th to 19th centuries. I loved the figures with four arms and 20 slender, delicate figures. And a dark upstairs room with a giant lotus painted onto the ceiling. There were two somewhat erroneous statues of dalmatians at the entrance to one room which struck me because our recent Airbnb host had owned two dalmatians. Dan spent the gallery time teaching Sunni some Buddhist philosophy (a subject he is tutoring in at the ANU back in Canberra). After a while we were politely kicked out for the daily afternoon shut-down, which seemed to happen right across the city. It reminded me of siesta hour in Spain.
I had looked up a highly recommended restaurant on Lonely Planet called the Thanjore Hi Hotel (in India, hotel means place to eat, sometimes with rooms too, and guest houses are the actual accommodation). So we checked it out. It was a lovely rooftop restaurant with pretty blue decor. The food took a long time to come, but when it did we weren’t disappointed. We had dhal and masala, and both were superb. The meal was ten times what we were used to paying for food, but still cheap by Aussie standards.
After lunch we decided to do some clothes shopping, something that seemed like an obvious thing to do while holidaying in a ridiculously cheap place full of glorious fabric. We asked our hostel manager what he recommended and he directed us to a large department store a few streets away in the heart of the city. On the way I bought a packet of bindis and put one on my forehead. I wondered whether it was culturally insensitive to wear a Hindu symbol in such a way. Celebrities in the west have been called out for it before. But everywhere I went, Indian woman pointed to my forehead with a smile. I realised the moral outrage directed at this kind of appropriation is a very western thing, generally speaking. It was nice to adopt a bit of the Indian dress without the fear of being accused of offending a religious group. (The irony of criticisms of cultural appropriation is that it only ever seems to be the white privileged folk who feel offended). Anyway. That is an unfinished thought.
We tracked down the store – the Thanjavur Maharaja– and found a large, clean hall filled with clothes and busy shoppers. Sunni and I flicked through racks of beautiful garments and after a while, a shop assistant started following me. Usually I would’ve been annoyed, but she was sweet and actually very helpful. By the time we left the store I had two matching pant-and-scarf sets and a long, intricately sewn dress which was too big. The assistant even made sure we received our complimentary gift for spending more than ₹2,000. It was a small bowl, plate and spoon set (which came in handy later on).
The sun was beginning to set, so we hightailed it to the number one tourist destination in Thanjavur, the Brihadeeswara Temple. Sunset was the right time to go. Sunlight was streaming through gaps in the gatehouse towers (gopuram) and turning everything into gold. We were accosted every couple of minutes by people wanting selfies with us (something that happened pretty much everywhere we went, especially if we were in a group). We dropped off our shoes and walked into the beautifully kept temple grounds. It was the first time in a long time that I’d seen grass. Because it was Pongal (Tamil Nadu’s annual harvest festival), the temple was absolutely swarming with people.
We joined a long line into the inner sanctum of the temple, something which was generally restricted to practising Hindus, but nobody stopped us. In fact, everyone was thoroughly entertained by our presence (bless India!) We were given some white ash to mark our foreheads with, and we made a small donation. Outside, we sat on the grass and watched as the temple melted into darkness. The mosquitos eventually drove us away.
On our way out we ran into men selling prayer beads and each of us proved how good (or bad) we were at bartering. I got my necklace for ₹200, Sunni for ₹150 and Eloy for ₹100. My last place position did not come as a surprise. I eventually managed to drag Dan away from his adoring crows of selfie-seeking fans (he was enjoying it a bit too much) and we went hunting for dinner. Pongal was in full swing and everywhere smiling crowds milled amongst evening traffic. We wished everyone we passed a “Happy Pongal!” and bought some freshly made potato chips from a street vendor that were covered in a delicious spicy seasoning.
Dinner was the usual “meals” at an unpretentious restaurant close to our hostel. We were all getting used to eating with our right hand and no other utensils. After dinner we stopped at a well-stocked supermarket for some toiletries, snacks and other essentials before heading home to bed. I annoyed/ entertained Dan with a bad Russian accent attached to an old evil woman who plots to kill everyone who crosses her, and speaks wistfully about the Soviet Union.