Pondicherry Escape

For my final road trip in India, I spent a long weekend in Pondicherry – a small, coastal city one state over from Bangalore which is the perfect distance for an overnight bus and a weekend getaway. I had been planning this trip with friends for some time now, and was really looking forward to spending some time at the beach and at the gorgeous hotel pool.

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Pondicherry is a small Union Territory (about 2 square km) surrounded by the state of Tamil Nadu. It was ruled by the French long ago their presence is still heavily felt today. Street signs posted on walls feature road names in both French and Tamil, restaurants offer cheeses and fresh breads, and locals passing each other on the street wave and say “bonjour” to friends. Schools within the city limits of Pondicherry are still under the control of the French government, so most children grow up being at least tri-lingual between English, French and Tamil. The architecture is a beautiful fusion of French and Tamil and historic buildings bear names like biblioteque or tribunal superior. Even the small, blue and white ceramic tiles displaying the house numbers were the same as what was on my house when I lived in France. It is like a little French bubble had traveled across the vast continents and popped right over top of Pondicherry.

Needless to say given my obsession and love for all things French – I was in heaven. My favorite aspect (other than the Camembert…obviously) was finally being able to understand what was going on around me. My Kannada never really advanced as much as I would have liked, so while I have become a master of interpreting hand gestures and picking up on one of the 20 words I know to make my own version of what is actually happening (which has actually proven to be fairly accurate), I could finally understand conversations with ease and join in if I chose.

Most of our time was spent reading, lounging by the pool, or exploring the nearby beaches. One morning we woke up early to walk out on a rocky pier to watch the sunrise which was absolutely beautiful. Fishermen slowly patrolling the waters, aunties and uncles getting in their morning exercise and children playing in the surf before school.

Good food, peaceful beaches and pretty architecture. Nicely done, Pondicherry.

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A Weekend in Hampi

Hampi is a small village in rural Karnataka which is surrounded by rice fields, coconut trees and lots and lots of goats. Hundreds of years ago around 1500, however, Hampi was the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire and was one of the richest and largest cities in the world. The city was home to kings, queens, thousands of army men and over 2,600 temples beautifully carved out of stone, with intricate scenes depicted across every available surface. The city also had a Grand Bazaar where Portuguese horses (the very best horses) were traded for one diamond a piece and bowls overflowing with rubies, gold, and other colorful jewels could be bought and traded amongst the shoppers.

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In the mid-sixteenth century, a religious war broke out when the Hindu Empire was attacked by a large Muslim sect which feared the Hindu Empire was growing too big and too powerful. Battles broke out involving up to one million soldiers and the Muslims were eventually victorious and fled the city, taking the 1,500 elephants of Hampi with them. When they left, they set fire to the empire, destroying whatever remains were left.

In 1986, UNESCO declared Hampi a World Heritage Site and began conservation of the exiting ruins and multiple excavations to find what time had buried under layers of dust and dirt. Today, Hampi has become home to backpackers from around the world who have made it their home to study yoga and existential questions. Tourists from around the world also list Hampi as a must-see stop on their trip through India and the town has a very unique and multicultural vibe.

As my time in India is drawing to a close, I decided that I should spend my remaining weekends visiting nearby sites in Southern India, and Hampi was first on my list. I convinced my friend Arjun to join me, booked some bus tickets and off we went. We were taking an overnight bus, which is probably the easiest way to travel in India. We finally found our bus in the madness of the bus station around 11pm and we were officially on our way.

We were scheduled to arrive at 6am. I woke up around 6:30 to our bus stopped along the side of the road and it seemed everyone was getting off. Luckily, Arjun speaks Kannada and Hindi, so communication was finally a non-issue. Apparently the drivers had decided we’d reached our destination…even though we were still about 65km from the Hampi bus station. The passengers argued, and the driver changed his story to say that his bus wasn’t working properly, so we should find another bus. Again, lots of arguing, and the driver took us to a local bus and paid our remaining bus fare. In my early morning, lack of sleep-induced stupor, it was nice to let the crowd do the bargaining for me and happily follow along afterwards.

After another two-hour bus ride (including a government worker who hopped on midway and audited the bus, threatening to kick all Bangalore folk off for not having tickets), then a 30 minute rickshaw ride, 20 minute walk and a five minute boat ride, we finally arrived at the hotel where we quickly dropped our stuff, freshened up and set out to get some much needed food and do some exploration. We wandered up mountains of boulders, checking out the ruins of temples which had once been and soaked in the amazing views. The scattered ruins provided some much-needed shade from the scorching sun overhead. We heard of a specific temple to the Monkey God which sat on top of a mountain a few kilometers away and involved 600 steps to the top, but promised awesome views of the entire valley and a beautiful sunset, so off we went.

Hanuman Temple (Monkey Temple) was definitely the highlight of the trip. A small, white temple sat on top of a huge boulder mountain and provided panoramic views of the entire empire. It was also full, of course, with monkeys. Monkeys always seem to be portrayed as such cute creatures; like loving, mini humans encased in fur. Actually, however, I’ve decided that almost all monkeys are quite mean. Stealing water bottles and snacks from any tourist who steps within their view, these monkeys were very comfortable with people and were quite bold. One came up onto my lap as I sat waiting for the sun to sink…which was pretty cool but slightly terrifying at the same time.

Monkeys are quite skilled at opening the water bottle and then drinking up the water

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On Sunday we did a bike tour which took us through picturesque fields on dirt roads filled with vendors selling fresh juice, water bottles and popsicles. Along the way, we hopped off of our bikes and learned about the history of the Vijayanagara Empire. Looking around at the temple and palace ruins in the blazing midday sun and the barren, dusty land that surrounds them could easily make one think they’ve been transported to Egypt instead of the lush farm roads of India which they were in only a minute before. We laughed at the extravagance of the palace grounds and admired the brilliance of the three kilometer-long aqueducts and the naturally air conditioned buildings.

After finishing our tour, we grabbed lunch with some Dutch girls from our tour group and headed off on foot to see some more temples. Between the 100 degree heat and our action-packed days, we were exhausted by the time we began heading back to catch the Sunday night bus to Bangalore. Luckily, exhaustion works well with overnight buses, and the AC which is normally freezing was quite helpful on my newly-acquired sunburn. I slept like a baby. So long, Hampi, hope to see you again one day.

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