Holy Cow!

Holy Cow wandering the streets of French-flavoured Auroville

I sought to continue my travel by train towards the south-eastern coast, but since it was holiday season for many Indians, the train network was booked up to the point of bursting. Checking the status of my reservation a day before departure, I was still at fiftysomething in the queue for a place on the train, so I decided to try a little-known avenue to secure a seat.
The Indian Railway system has countless seat quotas to ensure particular groups of people can acquire train tickets, such as quotas for the disabled, the military, government officials and so on. One such quota is reserved for tourists, so I ambled along to the Madurai ticket reservation office to ask the supervisor if I could be placed on the tourist quota for that leg of the journey. He was an abrupt but helpful chap, and told me to come back the next day a few hours before the train was due to depart to see if I had managed to acquire a place on the train. I didn’t feel comfortable with the fact that my plans would be up in the air until late in the evening, at which point it might be difficult to bag an onward bus ticket if my train application was unsuccessful, but I decided to run that risk, the only downside of which would be another night in the bargain basement Palace Hotel.
The following evening I wandered back to Madurai train station. For such a foul stench of a city, Madurai had a lovely modern train station that would put many British train stations to shame. When they’re working, you can use special terminals to view the progress of your train to see its last recorded position on a map and from that work out if it’s going to be late. It also has terminals to check the status of your reservation, and using one myself I discovered with some relief I had been assigned a berth in Sleeper Class, sneaked under the “High-Ranking Official” quota.
Sleeper Class was not air-conditioned, but with fans whirring and windows open as the train chugged onwards to the east coast it was a perfectly comfortable way to travel. My alarm clock jarred me awake in the early hours, and I got ready to disembark at the town of Villupuram, which was the nearest broad gauge train station to my destination, the coastal town of Pondicherry.
Villupuram’s buses only had signs in Hindi, but someone at the bus stop helped me out by pointing out a bus going to Pondicherry, and I stood amongst commuters for the 20 miles or so, jumping off when I reached the centre.
Pondicherry was a French colony settled in the 18th century, and the look of the central streets, known collectively as Auroville, was strikingly familiar. The narrow alleys and tree-lined roads with striped kerbs, many free of cars and instead buzzing with motorcycles, and the “ramps” bridging the ditches running down each side of the road to the stores and houses struck me as being strongly reminiscent of the French colonial cities I had seen in Vietnam. This familiarity, coupled with Auroville’s sparklingly clean streets (at least when compared to the rubbish tips of Mysore and Madurai), made me warm to Pondicherry immediately.
I made my base a nondescript business hotel at the northern end of Auroville and struck out to explore the streets. Pondicherry still maintained some French tinges, including French-inspired menus in some restaurants, road names in French and a promenade along the shore. There were also tonnes of ex-pats around, predominantly French-speaking. I had a decent south-Indian tiffin meal (a tray with lots of different compartments containing different curries, dals, rices and so on) and wandered on to check out a wifi cafe I had heard about.
In my time on the road I’ve met my fair share of unstable individuals – a German in Auckland who blew his top when I “vasnt korrekting his grammar enough”, a staring Yank in Boston who lay awake at night giggling and making his hand into a gun shape, pointing it at sleeping dorm-mates; and people with definite signs of schizophrenia in Phnom Penh and Helsinki. Added to those illustrious ranks was the Indian-American who I unassumingly plonked down next to in the cafe.
I could feel the chap’s eyes on me, but ignored him and carried on reading the newspaper delivered to my hotel room. Eventually he spoke up, and we had a stilted conversation in which I established he was an Indian immigrant to America as a teenager, and now ran his own software development company. This should’ve led to some rapport as we had something in common, but when I asked follow-up questions about his business, he just let out a deep sigh and stayed silent. Thinking he hadn’t understood me speaking British, I reworded my question, but got a similarly bizarre response. The chap continually got up, paced around the room and then sat back down again to stare at me again. Feeling uncomfortable as well as slightly saddened by the guy’s erratic behaviour, I finished up my coffee, said goodbye to him and never went back to the cafe again.