Tuesday, 31 October 2017

#33 Vietnam part 2 & A hopeless romantic in Pondi

Every time I've travelled to India things have happened in sequence just before that cannot be explained.

This time two things happened that made me think, as ridiculous as it sounds, that India was calling extra loud this time.

The first thing was a spontaneous purchase. For some reason I was drawn to a man selling books on the streets of Hanoi. He had a friendly, intelligent face and something made stop and investigate what he had for sale, despite my limited budget. He had the usual historical novels and guidebooks which I flicked past. Then a book with a blue cover caught my eye. It was the Life of Pi and I made a spur of the moment decision to buy it.

It wasn't until I got back to the hostel that I remembered it was set in Pondicherry, India at the beginning. I was going Pondicherry! This was the first sign.

The second coincidence was a message from Super Chill Mumbai Guy. He messaged me on the exact day I was flying despite not having a clue when I had booked my flights for.

Call it a coincidence, or whatever you want, but as far as I was concerned India was calling loud and clear. The universe was unfolding as it should.

My last few days in Vietnam passed quickly. The new volunteer arrived at the hotel and I played pool one night with a group of Spanish friends I met.

We also went to Viet Hai fishing village again for a night with Viet's friends, and Stevie, the other Vietnamese guy who worked at the hotel.

This time we visited a cave, went hiking and had a campfire in the evening. We sat around it drinking Hanoi beer, cooking corn on the cob and telling scary stories under the starry night sky.

Viet then informed me I should go on a boat tour the next day. So I did. On the boat tour we visited Monkey Island and climbed up some seriously dangerous and jagged rocks. I was amazed at the lack of safety precautions and that no one hurt themselves. I even did it in jandals!

We stopped near Halong Bay and were told we could jump off the boat for a swim. It was quite high up and because I was on my own I had no one to egg me on. So I sat for a while and watched everyone else jump off. Finally I decided maybe I could do it too. So I did! And it wasn't even that bad. We then did some kayaking through some impressive sea caves before heading home.

That evening Viet convinced us to go out as it was my last night on the island. I was so tired I had to have a little nap first like an old lady. This seemed to work and after a while I was awake enough to join them. We went to one bar that played western music and served laughing gas in balloons for free during happy hour. I'd never come across this before and decided to give it a go. It was a very weird sensation that I would not like to repeat and it didn't even make us laugh. I'll stick to laughing at genuinely funny things instead. Much more enjoyable.

After a few more beersies and several different bars I spotted a Canadian couple that had been on my boat earlier so I went to say hi. They were also going to India soon so we exchanged details in case we were ever in the same place again. The evening passed uneventfully and eventually we decided it was time to head home in the wee hours.

The next morning we slept late and Viet informed me that my bus to Hanoi would leave at 4. I kicked around the hotel until then and said a final hurtied goodbye. Funnily enough I met the same Canadian couple on the boat back to Hanoi and we had a nice chat to pass the time.

I arrived in Hanoi around dinner time and found my hostel. It had a cheap female only dorm and free beers between 6-7pm which I decided to opy out of (by this stage I had consumed more beer in the last week than any other week of my life including in my first year of uni).

The next day I explored Hanoi on foot with an old fashioned paper map. I wanted to see Ho Chi Minh's body which was on display in a mausoleum. Sadly I got there too late and it was closed. Instead I got to look around the house he worked and lived in and wander around the old presidential grounds.

I liked Hanoi. It was elegant. There were cute little boutique stores, coffee shops on every corner and really good sandwhiches for around $NZD 1.

That evening I ventured out again, after a rest, to a lake in the centre of the city. That's what I like about Hanoi. If you stay in the old quarter everything is walking distance so you can see things wihout wasting money on taxis.

There were also enough things to see just on the streets that meant you could have a good taste of the city without having to buy tickets to all the 'must see' things. I did happen upon a water puppet theatre however and spontaneously decided to book a ticket because why the heck not.

So I went to the theatre by myself and it was great. The water puppets are controlled by people behind a screen with long sticks. They were very skilled and pulled off the whole performance without a hitch.

That evening I unpacked and repacked my whole bag in preparation for my international flight to Trichy, India. After my Vietnam immigration kerfuffle I wanted to make sure I was properly prepared for this one.

I don't know if it was the two very strong Vietnamese coffees I'd had that day, or excitement, or both but I hardly slept that night. My mind was already on the bustling streets of Trichy before I'd even reached the airport.

A hopeless romantic in Pondi

The next morning I left the hostel at 5.30 am to get to the airport nice and early. After one final delicious Vietnamese coffee I was off to Kuala Lumpur. This time I got the window seat but I barely looked up from the Life of Pi the whole 3 hours. I was hooked! It was a literal page turner and I can totally see why it won so many awards.

We soon reached Kuala Lumpur and I found a nice cheap meal of Nasi Goreng for lunch. After going through customs again, time flew, and it wasn't long before I was at my boarding gate.

Now things were starting to get real! I was the only white face in a sea of Indian ones. I felt so out of place and the nerves kicked in again. Trichy didn't seem to be a standard place for western travellers to visit. I was really getting off the beaten track.

On the flight from KL to Trichy I was wedged between a Malaysian Muslim couple who didn't speak or look at one another for the first hour until the lady was given a biryani, ate the biryani, and then, from what I could gather, complained that it wasn't a biryani. The flight attendants weren't happy.

Immigration went smoothly when I arrived in Trichy. The airport was old and dusty and there was a sleepy looking man at the e-tourist visa desk who looked very alarmed when I walked up to his desk. He probably didn't have much to do on most days and was watching a Bollywood video clip on his phone when I interrupted him with my visa requirements.

My bag arrived and I withdrew rupees from the ATM without any problem this time. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. I was literally the ONLY foreigner in the whole airport. I could feel eyes on me but no one hassled me and even the taxi drivers were very relaxed.

Because I was arriving during daylight hours I hadn't booked a hotel. All the ones I could find online were kind of expensive and I had read there were plenty scattered around the bus station so wasn't too worried. The first few I tried didn't have rooms left but I found a reasonably cheap one after a while with no problems. The man on the front desk first tried to charge me 990 rs for a non A.C. room but when I walked away the price miraculously dropped to 660 rs instead. This is what I love about Asia!

The room was basic but clean and the bed was very comfortable. There was no shower but I am getting better at washing with a bucket now so it wasn't a problem.

That evening I went back out to find food. The hotel was crammed along side the very busy bus station and I wended my way through the crowds again feeling as though all eyes were on me. I felt like people were looking at me, but actually, I don't think they were.

I didn't catch many stares, at least, none that made me uncomfortable. They were just brief glances of surprise much like I would give a woman wearing a saree back home. I was the equivalent of that here. A random white girl wearing pants and a t-shirt whilst everyone else was in sarees and kurtas.

It's hard to describe the level of happiness I felt when I got back to my room and stuck my head out the window to survey the chaotic scene below. It felt SO good to be back in India and I have no idea why.

Maybe it was the people. The food? The sounds? The way the traffic moves? The warm air? The smells, both good and bad? The electric energy. I was asleep before 10pm after a long day of travelling.

When I woke up the next morning a smile crept over my face when I remembered where I was. As I lay there listening to the cheerful honking outside, I briefly mourned Vietnamese coffee, but I soon got over it when I remembered I could find a delicious steaming cup of chai instead. Sweet, cinnamony, milky goodness with a thin layer of skin on the top. Mmmmhmmmm. This was very much the right decision. Why hadn't I come back sooner??

I wandered around the town for a bit after a breakfast of some kind of sweet pastry and a mandarin I'd accidentally brought with me from Vietnam.

Then I discovered my Indian SIM card was no longer registered so I sat at the Vodafone centre for hours whilst they filled out enough paper work for me to have been sworn in as the new the prime minister of India or something. I even had to name either my husband or my father and provide an Indian address and reference. Patriachy is still alive and well in India. But we all already knew that!

Finally I had a SIM with unlimited calls and a reasonable amount of data to last my entire trip. The ladies at the store were SO lovely and taught me some new words in Tamil and Hindi whilst we waited.

I had a quick lunch of samosas and went back to the hotel room to consider my options. I could catch a local bus to Pondicherry that afternoon or stay another night in Trichy in the hotel and go the next day. I decided to catch the bus that afternoon. Pondicherry sounded nice and I wanted to get there as soon as I could. The bus also happened to leave right outside my hotel. It would mean arriving in the dark around 9pm but I decided to risk it.

Admittedly I was a little wary of catching a local bus at night time but I felt braver now I had a working cellphone and data. If I began to feel uncomfortable I would simply get off the bus and find a safe hotel to wait until morning. Plus I strongly believe that you'll always be surrounded by more decent, kind people in India than bad ones, despite what everyone who has never been, will tell you.

It was as if immense and insatiable curiosity transported me to Pondicherry rather than the rickety old bus I squeezed myself and my backpack onto.

For the next 5 hours I sat next to various beautiful South Indian women who smelt of the flowers in their hair and gave me shy smiles. One woman in a pink saree fell asleep on my shoulder. Two boys sold me warm roasted salted peanuts wrapped in a piece of newspaper written in Hindi and shot me brilliant white smiles when I handed them some extra rupees.

I'm constantly in awe of how smoothly everything works in India. I was dropped off in Cuddlelore right next to my connecting bus. This bus cost 30rs for an hours journey and was just like the city busses in NZ. It was brightly lit so I felt very safe even though it was dark and raining outside by this stage.

It's difficult to describe how much happiness I felt as I listened to the scrambled sounds of Tamil (Tamil Nadu's dialect) spoken around me and the gentle Bollywood music that played in the bus.

I arrived in Pondicherry around 9pm as expected and caught a rickshaw to my hotel (which I had booked in advance on my phone on the bus ride as I knew I would be arriving after dark - that's my rule now - only book if it's a matter of safety).

The hotel was dirty and run down but had a certain charm to it. It had an open court yard with Chinese lanterns hanging across it. There were some sad looking pot plants that desperatley wanted watering, huddled around the winding staircase. The walls had once been painted a cheerful blue but now the paint was peeling off and the floors needed a good scrub. I didn't mind. There was a bed and a bathroom. That's all I needed.

The poor boy at reception looked at me like he'd just seen a ghost. Obviously he didn't get many strange foreign women travelling alone and checking in at 9.30 at night. I had to suppress a giggle. Instead of feeling self- conscious I was beginning to find people's reactions to my solo-ness kind of funny and quaint.

Pondicherry had an unexpected effect on me. They say the feeling of falling in love is actually just a rush of dopamine similar to taking a drug. Well this is the only way I can explain how I felt the next day when I discovered this beautiful little town.

I fell completely and unapologetically head over heels in love. I don't think I've ever really, properly been in love with a person before so it's probably a bit weird that my first love is a place.

The combination of elegant French architecture plus the South Indian vibes, food, smells, smiles and French coffee made for giddy, addictive combination.

I wandered down a small road towards where I thought the beach was. Suddenly the sky got wider and there it was! The glorious Andaman Sea!

A comforting breeze ruffled the palm trees on the boulevard and men with bamboo ladders hung fairy lights from trees. It looked like they were preparing for some kind of event. People were also hanging banners in the Indian flag colours from a gazebo and rickshaws bleated as they hurried past.

I found a cafe by the beach which served croissants and French coffee and sat there for a while watching the waves and people pass by.

I dreamt of marrying a nice Pondicherry boy and living out the rest of my days writing nonsense and drinking French coffee by the sea.

For the first time in a long time I had made a very, very good decision! The next two months were going to be great! I could tell already.

Antique store - Hanoi. October, 2017.

The streets of Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India. October, 2017

Can I just live here forever now?

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