Our bus ride was great! We booked an AC non sleeper Volvo with Rathimeena Travels and couldn’t have been happier, except for the Indian music they played at an unbearable volume that seemed to bother no one but the only two Americans on the bus (us). It was so loud our ears were throbbing afterwards!
We arrived and were instantly transported to an old french colonial town. Everything from the architecture to the street names were french! Puducherry (or Pondicherry as we have been saying), which was under French rule until 1954, has been called the Indian Cote d'Azur. Even present day, It has kept a tight grip on its french influence which can be seen through the architecture, but it also can be heard around town with the locals practicing their french at various cafes. Oh, and if you've ever seen the movie, Life of Pi, the opening scenes were set here! It was a slice of heaven we were both eagerly awaiting (still suffering from that forty hour train ride). But of course, even the French Riveria of India had something else in store for us...
Another wonderful discovery was how clean Pondicherry was, especially for Indian standards, with posted street signs throughout the city asking tourists and residents to keep their city clean. Every street held another beautiful surprise. I've never heard Brian describe so many things as cute (actually, thats a lie. Brian uses that word too often). It felt like we were on a proper vacation, talking strolls along the beach front, enjoying gelato every day, eating at cute cafes, waking up to Trump as our president errr... never mind. I won’t talk about it anymore here, but we woke up on a Wednesday in Pondicherry to find out Trump had won the US election. Confused and in shock, we decided to have a work day and planned to drown our sorrows in delicious coffee and Nutella crepes at a beautiful french cafe we had passed several times called Cafe Des Arts.
We packed our bag with our computers, tripod, and camera equipment and walked the four kilometers in the sweltering heat to Cafe Des Arts. Before we even sat down, a waiter informed us that they would not be able to accept our 500 or 1000 rupee notes and were only accepting 100 rupee notes. Confused, we asked to speak with the manager and instead of acknowledging our question, she just handed us the newspaper which pictured a shattered 500 rupee note on the front page. In short, the government decided, without warning, that the larger bills were no longer valid and basically everyone was SOL. For a second, we thought this was related to the election and couldn’t wrap our head around what had happened. Overnight, our money became completely worthless. And of course, no one accepted credit card.
(Note: the true efforts in wiping out over 80% of its cash relates to anti-corruption measures, namely corruption and tax evasion. Brian and I were fascinated talking to locals about the huge black market/economy in India. It went completely beyond anything we ever imagined. It was utter chaos on the streets for a long time and its safe to say the feelings towards Prime Minister Modi were not positive after he made this seemingly drastic decision. Cash is everything in this country.)
I, true to form, began panicking, picturing us rationing crackers and potato chips since we didn’t have any money to buy food. Imagine the US Government, overnight, decided that the five and ten dollar bills no longer held any value. We just didn’t know what to do. Everyone in the country was at a loss. The banks were allowing individuals to change up to 4,000 old, now obsolete, rupee notes a day ($60) and we only had 5,000 rupees to our name. The ATMs weren’t working, and no one knew when they would have money again while the lines at the banks were outrageous (that is once they opened up again).
We found a restaurant that accepted credit cards and said goodbye to what was supposed to be a successful workday. The following morning, we returned to the same cafe and decided to confront the banks. I waited in line while Brian ran around town trying to get photocopies of our passports (apparently our physical passports weren’t enough for the transfer). After a couple hours we successfully exchanged our 5,000 rupees (plus 3,000 for another gentlemen since we had the capacity) into 5,000 rupees in 100 notes. While this was a success, the bigger problem ahead of us was we didn’t know how to get more money.
Aside from the money crisis, we really relished our time here. Pondicherry is to India what I imagine Luang Prabang is to Laos. It's a vacation destination not just for international tourists but for local Indians as well. Romance lingered in the air while we took in the sea breeze along the promenade. Couples strolled hand in hand, sharing sweet moments between them; families played silly games in the sand and let their kids run wild in the streets; everyone had an ice cream cone at all times (including me); locals played petanque well into the late afternoon. And who could forget those beautiful cotton candy skies. It felt like the chaos of India actually slowed down in this quaint little town and we welcomed the peacefulness of it all.
I had an ice cream cone from Gelateria Montecatini Terme every single day.
Families lingered around Promenade Beach while children played on what is said to be the largest Gandhi statue in all of Asia.
We walked the tree lined streets of Pondicherry every day eyeing all the delicious street food we couldn't enjoy due to our cash flow issues.
We admired local street art
...and every single sunset
We watched from the sidelines as friendly games of petanque took place under the setting sun
And tried to take a picture together...
I encountered my second bird shi*t incident in India. And this time, captured it on film thanks to the tripod. (There are a series of five pictures showing everything happening in slow motion. This is the final one).
We decided to try our luck in a bigger city, so after five days in beautiful Pondicherry, we booked an overnight sleeper bus to Madurai. Madurai was another city we never planned on visiting. It was halfway between Pondicherry and Munnar, our next stop, so we figured we’d test our karma with the ATMs there.
The sleeper bus was SO fun and way more comfortable than the train. Brian and I agreed that we prefer taking buses over trains whenever possible even though at times they are pretty scary. They drive like maniacs, use the horn constantly, and we always had pee anxiety on our minds. They do take bathroom breaks and aggressively wake everyone up to make sure you don’t miss them. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but for some reason, Brian and I both love confined spaces. We are pretty much the opposite of claustrophobic. But if you suffer from claustrophobia, you may want to think twice about taking a sleeper bus!
With the worst of the money crisis still ahead of us, we decided to split up once we got to Madurai...off to the Ashram for me!