Goodbye smelly streets and tummy troubles and hello leafy coastline and chilled seaside air: Goa, I’ve needed you.
A week in this relative heaven was not enough for me, though we packed it in. I read a book every day, I ate fresh seafood, I got pummelled by waves – all the things that make a beach holiday good and proper. I also learnt how to ride a moped (don’t tell my parents) and drove it several hours north from Palolem to Anjuna’s Saturday night market. It was surprisingly easy actually, once I got the hang of how heavy the bike felt. If you can ride a bicycle and drive a car, it’s doable, and cruising along a deserted coastal road with a breeze on your face and the sun on your outstretched arms is quite unbeatable. And although Indian roads are notoriously insane, there is a method to the madness that you tune into when you have to, and soon I was honking and overtaking like a local.
Sadly my Goan love affair had to end, and we flew with much grief for our adored hostel and town to Chennai. Now we were back at it: biryani stalls, stray dogs, roadside temples, people spitting. St Thome’s Cathedral is a large white beacon of the city’s sizeable Christian community, and we also visited the main Hindu temple, a picture of northern Sri Lanka with its intricate figurines in baby pink, custard yellow and turquoise.
The star of Tamil Nadu, though, had to be Pondicherry, the colonial city we made a day trip to. It was inhabited by the French until 1954, and this is still evident in its continental, tree-lined streets, chic creperies and boutiques and flamboyant architecture. But its unmistakeable European-ness still bears a streak of India, and the neat paving stones and stately government buildings intermingle with the hectic samosa stands and the chatter of Tamil to create a unique vision of Europe-Asia that is both wonderful and confusing. It just might be my favourite place in India.
On the way back to Chennai, we stopped for a day in Mamallapuram, hiring a tuk tuk driver to ferry us to several of the town’s famous temples and monuments from the ancient Pallava dynasty. The five rathas (monuments carved out of one piece of granite) and Krishna’s pleasingly named Butterball (a giant boulder balancing improbably on a slope, like a still from Jurassic Park) were the most impressive.
Back in Chennai, I feast on my last curry and reflect on the Indian Adventure. I’ve done the sights, seen the poverty, got the Delhi Belly. I’ve loved the place and hated it, sometimes both at once. I decide that I wouldn’t change my experiences for anything. But I also decide that I can’t wait to get to Malaysia.
Next stop: Kuala Lumpur.