Aug 22, 2011

Not A Foreigner In Sight: Karaikal

Our choices regarding our itinerary in terms of destinations and activities sometimes tend to be on the ‘haphazardly researched’ end of the organisational continuum.  It’ll come down to how interesting it sounds (the destination/activity), how much effort is involved to make it happen (i.e., getting there, timing), and cost (re: cost to get there, cost of the activity).  We ended up at our latest destination based on this:  it was on our way south and the literature from the Puducherry Union of States tourism office said that it was possibly the best natural beach in Tamil Nadu.  So off we set from the new bus stand in Pondy, destination:  Karaikal.
At first glance Karaikal wasn’t at all what we had envisioned/hoped for/expected.  It didn’t help that we thought the trip would take 1.5hrs when in fact it took just over 4hrs.  In reality we really had no other prior information about the place other than the bit about the beach in the brochure; it’s not included in our ‘Lonely Planet, South India’ guidebook and local people we asked in Pondy were split on their opinions of the place, ranging from ‘it’s very nice there’ to ‘there’s nothing to do there’.   So don’t ask us how or why but somehow we had expected to find a small town along the lines and size of Mamallapuram.  It was probably just wishful thinking.  Instead we found busy, dusty and garbage strewn main roads, and lots of traffic, people and horn honking.  And neither the beach nor our recommended guest house was anywhere in sight.  We eventually stumbled on what turned out to be our best-value accommodation yet since being in India. (This becomes a bit of a recurring theme for us in Karaikal.) For approximately $15 USD/Rs600, we got a clean, centrally located room with a queen size bed, fan, AC, cable TV and attached bathroom.  But we got what we paid for and apparently for $15, that didn’t include towels or hot water (let alone internet access).  

After breakfast the next morning, we were determined to find the beach, which we were told was about 4km away, and possibly a guest house located closer to it.  The town was too small to have local buses and taking a 3-wheeler (tuk tuk) raised the question of how we might get back not to mention the cost (they’re not such a cheap option for foreigners if you know what I mean).    Karaikal is not a touristy town, at least not compared to Puducherry or Mamallapuram.  Hiring a 2-wheeler/scooter would be our best bet, but places to do so were seemingly non-existent.  We asked around, and most people said that it was not possible to hire one here.  The guy at our restaurant the night before said that he would try to contact his ‘friend’ who might be able to help—he’d have to get back to us.  But in the end, after many hours waiting for an answer, it finally came back negative.  In the meantime, we walked around and looked for 2-wheeler mechanic shops in hopes that one of them might have some spare scooters they might like to rent.  We finally got lucky but language barrier threatened to cut short our discussions.  In the end, the owner finally called a friend of his on his mobile who could speak a bit more English to translate, passing the phone backwards and forwards to us, resulting in us having the use of a lovely pink scooter for $3.75 USD/Rs150.  We all piled on and off towards the beach we went.

Our first attempt at finding Karaikal beach, with its touted bench lined walk and children’s park was a disappointment.  What we found was a desolate stretch of sand with the road and a mostly unoccupied restaurant complex situated more than 500m from the sea.  In the complex was a sad little selection of children’s play equipment mostly in various states of disrepair.  We jumped back on the scooter, looking for the beach described in the tourism brochure (ok, we are idealists at heart).  A further 3km or so north with nothing in sight along the way other than the odd fishing village every now and again (from the several destroyed houses that we saw, we suspect that this area was quite affected by the 2004 tsunami), we found ourselves passing by a hospital and medical school complex located across from what looked like a quiet stretch of beach.  As it was lunchtime, we had a bit of a ‘light-bulb’ moment and decided to go in search of their canteen.  It turned out to be one of the best places that we’ve eaten in since coming to India.  The tables were filled with medical students and staff.  Everything was prepared fresh and hygienically, the environment was also clean.  The food was cheaper than we’d been paying and very delicious. 

Then finally after lunch we found it.  It was quite possibly the most litter-free and deserted stretch of beach in all of the state of Tamil Nadu.  (50m from the beach was a forest plantation which tended to be the favoured ‘place to be’ based on the amount of garbage there.)   The sandy beach went far into continental shelf to the ocean’s floor it seemed, and the waves and current were extremely gentled, especially compared to that in Mamallapuram.  The occasional local would stroll by, along with small groups of friends and students arriving on motorbikes from the nearby medical and engineering colleges to have a chat or a picnic.  No one paid much attention to us, although Jim did end up in a couple of very interesting conversations with both the mechanical and the electrical engineering students.  The water, although murky and a tad cool, seemed relatively clean with no floating garbage at least.  In fact, the next morning while we were at the same stretch of beach, we even saw a couple of pods of dolphins swim by (aren’t their presence a sign that the water is ok?!), fishing and frolicking.  Maddy and I had never seen dolphins in the wild (Yasmine was too engrossed in her play to see it).  It was an awesome sight, especially as 1 or 2 were at most a couple of meters from the shore.  There were at least a dozen of them in total.

A Pod of Dolphins

See the Dolphin?

Karaikal itself is a very intriguing town.  Not sure of what the actual population is, but it’s surely less than 100,000.  On our map (provided by the Tourism office of Tamil Nadu in Chennai), it only appears as a very minor destination (small, non-bold print) and it doesn’t even appear on our Lonely Planet map.  While many locals would describe it as a small town, its commercial district is surprisingly large and filled with many small businesses.  Even more surprising is that most of the businesses seem to be jewellers of gold and silver, ranging from the small shop to large, double storey glass-fronted ‘boutiques’-- there were more than 5 of the latter.  After the sun goes down is when most of the shoppers come out, with cars double-parked behind rows upon rows of scooters and motorbikes.  The two ‘main’ streets are single lane in both directions, although the section of the one we live on is one way, except for ‘2 and 3-wheelers’ (the latter fact being occasionally ignored resulting in the car going the wrong way down a one say street with little more than a few extra beeps of the horns).  The secondary streets are very narrow but mostly lined with tall leafy trees, providing a nice respite from the heat of the sun.   For its size, Karaikal seemed to have many schools, including Catholic primary and secondary and colleges specialising in medicine, engineering and other polytechnical fields.  Driving around on our scooter, we also stumbled upon some beautiful residences clearly left over from the 104yrs of French colonisation of this area of Tamil Nadu (aka the Union States of Puducherry) in amongst traditional Tamil dwellings and the more recent and colourful concrete buildings.  We also came across one of the most elaborate church bell towers that we’ve ever seen as well as a very serene temple ‘tank’.   And the abundance of fresh produce in their Sunday market clearly reflected the fact that this area of Tamil Nadu is the agricultural heartland.  

Karaikal by night

One of the many jewellery stores in town

Nice tree'd street

Neglected 'gem'
Chilli Anyone?!

Temple Tank

Sunday Market

So what a surprise Karaikal turned out to be.  A virtually rubbish-free beach, a pod of dolphins, a hired scooter, clean and cheap accommodation, tasty good value food, and our lowest daily average spending since arriving in India—in fact, in our entire trip so far.  Including our accommodation, food, scooter and petrol, we were spending just over $30USD per day there, for our entire family.   And there was not a foreigner in sight, other than us in our entire 4 day stay!

1 comment:

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