Can I take a photo?” I ask a gypsy man Ranga selling bead necklaces on the Promenade Beach in Pondicherry. Pat comes his response: “How much you give me?”
In awe over his ‘English’ response I smile and say “I buy a necklace from you. Ok?” And then he is all set to face the camera.
He has been selling necklaces “made by my daughter and wife at home,” for two years now. A turquoise bead necklace hung around my neck — proof that the bargain was fulfilled. I enquire him for a good coffee place. Pointing to a street, he says, “Go straight 500 metres, then take left. You get very good coffee at the small coffee shop there. No AC. Ok?” “Ok”
Perks of listening to a total stranger — a good coffee at ₹13.
While it may seem intimidating at first, travelling alone is a rewarding experience; it pushes you out of your comfort zone and stretches you in ways that companion travel won’t.
With a modest budget, an exotic island such as Bali was definitely off the cards. So, Pondicherry (152 km from Chennai), a town down the highway, worked just fine for a solo trip. A budget friendly Airbnb home (₹2,670 for two nights) at Auroville — an experimental worship township, near Pondicherry — looked exactly like the pictures put up on the website. The Auroville beach was at a walkable distance and the main town easily accessible through local bus or autorickshaw.
Everything about this place is intriguing. Home to over 2,000 people — writers, artists, doctors, engineers, chefs, farmers and students from more than forty countries, living in a lush green campus — it has no pucca roads or urban buildings, no churches, temples or mosques, not even a police station! You can see sunlight filter through the green canopy as you walk through a mud track to reach the Matrimandir also known as the ‘soul of the city’. The entire green patch is a result of years of meticulous afforestation — three million trees occupy 1,250 acres of land.
It is quite impossible for one to see all of Auroville in a day. Indulge in conversation with a resident and you come to know that it is a self-sustaining community, driven by its own economy. Owned by the Auroville Foundation, over 150 income-generating units like Maroma, a handicraft manufacturing unit, Auroville Handmade Paper Factory and Auroville Bakery contribute at least a third of their profits to the Foundation. More than a dozen restaurants earn money for the Foundation from 3,000-odd daily visitors.
My host, Rekha recommended a Heritage Walk Tour organised by the Pondicherry Tourism Department at White Town, a former French quarter, that has a number of great monuments and brilliant pieces of architecture. “A great way to explore the architectural beauty of the region at nominal charges. All you’d need is a hat and a bottle of water,” she says, dropping me at the main town in her mini truck post a lunch of eggs and Maggie noodles.
Yuvaraj, the tour guide and a fascinating storyteller, walk me through the bougainvillea-lined streets in laid out grids, with parallel streets cutting across each other at right angles. “This is exactly how it is in the French cities and one could not be at fault if they thought they were in Montpellier or Bordeaux,” he says.
Every ‘Rue’ (street in French) is lined with elegant colonial mansions in mustard, grey and pink. While roaming through the French quarters, travellers can see plenty of quirky urban graffiti on the walls or on an old scooter and in the most unusual places. The walk covers the French neighbourhood — the Dupleix Statue, Old Court building, statue of Jeanne d’Arc, a French military barrack, the Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges (The Church of Our Lady of Angels), French Town Hall, Old French Library turned into a government office, Goubert’s statue, Roman Rolland Library, Old Lighthouse, Asia’s tallest Gandhi statue, and wrapping up with a coffee at Le Café at the old port office.
Some of the cafes in White Town not only serve great food, but also have gorgeous Instagram-worthy interiors. Most of them serve Ratatouille, gazpacho (soup), fondant au chocolat (French chocolate cake) and Lasagna, a must-try at Pondicherry, and the Gelato in a waffle cone from Gelateria Montecatini Terme is worth a kill. The pricing is easy on the pocket. You could also sit in the balcony in one of the many sea-facing hotels and sip on a Breezer or drink a beer while enjoying the sea breeze and an amazing view of the Bay of Bengal.
The coastline is stunning and each beach in Pondicherry has something different to offer. Also known as Plage Paradiso, the Paradise beach is accessible through a ferry ride from the Chunnambar boathouse for ₹300. A range of activities such as kayaking, jet skiing to banana boating are lined up here. Or you could walk on the sun-kissed shore, watch the waves, collect seashells or just curl up with your favourite novel.
Looking for mementos to take home for friends and family? Stop by Jawaharlal Nehru Street for open street shopping or Rue Duplex which has shops selling interesting earthenware and handmade lanterns. The Cotton House at Heritage Town has great outfits at unbelievable prices. The Auroville Boutique on Matrimandir Road also has a good collection of handicrafts. The store has trays made from real leaves, naturally processed jams, scented candles, perfumes and handmade stationery.
It is a magical world out there. Travelling solo? You still don’t feel alone or lost. It is one of those experiences where you can love your own company. I, for one, got back rejuvenated and refreshed, eagerly awaiting for the next weekend to explore yet another treasure trove that our neighbourhood has to offer.
Pictures by Kiran Zehra