A well-deserved favorite
We came twice to Pondy, so that says something about how much we liked it! At first, we stopped by for a few days with Mirella, Emmanuel’s sister, coming from
Getting there the first time was a bit of an adventure. We had to take 3 different buses to get there from Thanjavur: Thanjavur-Kumbakonam, Kumbakonam-Chidambaram, and finally Chidambaram-Pondichéry (yes… now you know too!).
On one of those legs, the bus was packed, but the driver didn’t want Stephanie to stand for the whole ride. So he kindly offered (or ordered) her to sit next to him… on the engine! Oh yeah, it wasn’t hot enough yet at that time of the year! Stephanie couldn’t get up, as soon as she tried to, the driver told her to sit back down immediately: she was literally marked by the ride!
During our first time in Pondicherry, we stayed 3 days, enough to calmly walk around the city, around both the “white” and “black” cities, the park, and the seafront.
The second time around was after Chennai: we left Mirella in a tuktuk going straight to the airport (yes, sadly all good things come to an end! But we already know she’s coming to see us in Laos 🙂 ), and hopped on a bus to Pondicherry. The first time around, we had seen a lovely guesthouse (see our article with tips on the city) and booked a week there, to rest after the intense first 6 weeks of our trip.
That’s where we met Ilyas (read our article about him), and how everything got rolling. In the end we didn’t stay one week, but actually a month and a half: we volunteered in two schools, the Sathyalayam School and Om Shanti (read our article on our TWAM experience), helping Ilyas with his weekly rice distribution every Friday morning, and French conversation lessons with his son Sharik on weekends.
So many things happened while we were in Pondicherry! The first week, on November 8th, Stephanie became sick as a dog (just about everyone gets a bout of Delhi Belly in India, except for Emmanuel who was spared). That day and the next were really damned… Stuck in bed, Stephanie saw Emmanuel run into the room at 8h20 pm, screaming: “Honey, it’s fucked! The Indian Prime Minister, Modi, just spoke gave a speech on all the TV channels. The 500 and 1 000 rupee notes will no longer be usable after midnight tonight and will be pulled out of circulation!” Stephanie wondered whether she was delirious from the fever. She wasn’t. At that moment, we hadn’t completely realized what was happening, but we lived through a historic event: demonetization.
To give you an idea of how much money was pulled from circulation overnight: if you stacked all these bills, the pile would be 300 times higher than Everest. If you put them lengthwise, the path formed would go to the Moon and back 5 times! The 500 and 1 000 rupee notes represented 86% of the cash in circulation (in a country where 93% of transactions are in cash), all cancelled in a few hours. Completely insane.
Of course, this had some dire consequences. Even though, the Prime Minister’s decision divided public opinion, we were amazed by how calm Indians remained during the whole process. If this had happened in France, there would no doubt be a new revolution. But here, practically nothing. People stayed calm in the long queues at ATMs or in banks to exchange old bills for new ones. It was a bit chaotic though.
The main stated goal of demonetization was to fight against black money (undeclared revenue, dirty money, corruption…), and to encourage Indians to open a bank account (again, most transactions in India are in cash, and there are still between 200 and 300 million Indians who don’t have a bank account). You can imagine how much this could divide a country, especially when, in the end, the first ones to suffer are the poorest, those who live on meager daily wages. Street vendors and small shopkeepers saw their sales plumet, as they didn’t have the cash to buy stock, and their customers didn’t have the cash to buy their products. Agricultural workers lost their job overnight as landowners couldn’t pay their daily wages. At the same time, the fat cats and corrupt politicians pulled out stacks of old bills on tables in small villages, handing out loans to poor villagers, thus whitening their black money. So the poor further lengthened the queues in banks, essentially laundering rich people’s money.
Exchanging the old bills for new ones was very controlled: there was a daily limit, which changed along the way: first 4 000 rupees per day and per person, then 4 500, then another amount… and everything was digitized and recorded. A bag full of torn-up 500 and 1 000 rupee notes was found abandoned in the streets in Calcutta, while in other places in India, people committed suicide, thinking they were ruined. Every day, Indians went to the bank to change their old bills or to withdraw from an ATM, and often the coffers were empty before midday. Little by little, things were better organized and some banks even sent mobile ATMs to try and quench the thirst for cash. Everyone waited for hours under the blazing sun, and when they were lucky, their efforts were paid off with a brand new bill.
What made all this more difficult is that when the announcement was made, the Reserve Bank of India didn’t have enough new bills printed out. At first only the brand new 2 000 rupee note was available. It should be noted that 2 000 rupees is a lot of money for many Indians, often more than what they make in a month! What could they do with such a high denomination? The craziest rumors flew around on this new bill: equipped with nanotechnology, supposedly it could be traced by satellites, wherever it was on Earth! This was a hoax of course. The new 500 rupee notes came in close to 2 months after demonetization, so the situation was really complicated, with everyone fighting for small bills to pay for daily expenses.
The country is apparently still suffering from the effects of demonetization, notably with significantly lower economic growth. As foreign tourists, and therefore privileged, we can’t say we suffered due to demonetization. We just had to get organized and be patient, but we were never in trouble: we were just spectators of a historic event in India, and had to queue at the bank, like everyone else.
To add to this dreadful day of November 9th: Emmanuel followed the US presidential elections all day. A really shitty day, we told you.
Riots of mourning
A few weeks later, as we were in class at Om Shanti, one of the teachers bursted into the room with tears in his eyes, telling us the school was closing down in just a few minutes.
We didn’t understand what was going on, but we of course complied, and let the kids go home. When we got to the teacher’s lounge, we saw everyone was panicking: everyone was getting their stuff and saying they should get home quickly as it was dangerous to stay there or go in the streets.
One of the most important political figures of Tamil Nadu, Jayalalitha, had just died. To help you understand, Jayalalitha was a major Tamil, Telugu and Kannada movie star, before getting into politics and “reigning” over Tamil Nadu for close to 15 years and 5 mandates as the state’s Chief Minister.
It’s surprising to us to see the natural death of a politician cause riots, but that really is the case. Especially when said figure is loved and worshipped: her supporters would punish all those who didn’t respect their grief by leaving their shops open. With rocks and broken glass.
By the time we got back to the guesthouse, we realized the streets were already emptier than usual. We learned that the mourning period would last 3 days, and that we should quickly stock up on food, because everything will remain closed. So we rushed to our usual supermarket, a few blocks from the guesthouse. The gate was pulled down, with just enough space for customers to crouch under it. The shelves are almost empty, as everyone has stocked up on milk, fruit juice, bread, and other basics. There’s barely anything left! People hurried through the aisles to find the last available items. Out of this world. We ran into an Australian who lived there and summed the situation up pretty well: “India really is an astounding country. Demonetization doesn’t stop life from going on, but everything stops when a politician dies.” We couldn’t put it any better.
With that, we didn’t have class for 3 days, and lived on instant noodles and toast. We managed to find a couple restaurants which stayed open on the down-low: the doors were closed, but if you popped your head in, sometimes they were open. Meanwhile a gas station got rocks thrown at it, the hospital in Chennai where Jayalalitha was under siege. The streets stayed empty. On TV, you could see people crying, screaming, hitting themselves… everywhere in the streets, billboards were put up to pay their respects to the woman Tamils called Amma (mother). People mourn differently in India.
After the human revolution, the natural one! A few days after going back to class following Jayalalitha’s death, we were again interrupted in class. We have to leave asap, a cyclone is coming.
So, what do you do in that situation? Well, you pull all the furniture away from the windows, you shutter the windows and doors, cut the electricity and rush home to wait out the storm. The government closed schools for 3 days. Everything stops. Again…
In the end, the cyclone was aptly named Nada, as nothing happened. It died out before hitting the coast. We got two cyclone alerts like this: life stops, and it’s quite impressive. Everyone was hoping for them to hit though: Tamil Nadu desperately needed water to get out of a drought. To this day, we can’t say if we’re happy or not to have missed seeing a real cyclone…
Yep, as you can see, quite a lot happened to us in Pondy! Most importantly though, we met great people… Of course, we remember foundly our experience volunteering at the Sathyalayam School and Om Shanti (read the article here), but also all the people we met at the Swades Guesthouse: Alexandra and her blog Eye on the Globe, in the middle of a solo trip around the world, Isabelle and Thierry, going around the world as a couple, just like Ollie and Anna, Carmen, who saught to perfect her osteopathy in Auroville, Fleur, who was taking a course in ayurvedic massages, and of course Christine and Béa, two amazing women and experienced travelers, with whom we shared quite a few laughs and fun moments. Passionate about India, we learned a lot from their experiences traveling in India and across the world.
That’s what traveling is all about.
That’s also Pondy, baby.