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Serenity Beach, Puducherry India

Updated: Mar 1

Serenity Beach. One of hundreds of Bay of Bengal fishing communities. Our home for a month now, a staycation so very far from home.

(Louise with Ranjit the fisherman and his beautiful welcoming family)

Pondicherry is 15 minutes away by bone rattling, butt clenching Auto-rickshaw. Pondicherry or Pondy is the original French corruption of the towns name but is still in general use. Officially it's Puducherry.

Locals and international travellers alike descend upon Pondy for its cultural diversity from the majority of India. Predominantly French dominated, for nearly four centuries has left beautiful cool calm colonial buildings, restored in the constantly decaying way only India can do, and now merged with Tamil architecture.

People also come here to get mortally inebriated and to paddle in the ocean. Serenity beach is a destination because of this. And to buy cheap fish. And for its restaurant Theevu Plage which is very good, but I wonder if readers of Vogue India might just be a tiny bit disappointed if they relied on the glowing recommendation given by them? Its not really Gramable!

By the way, if you have a strong South Indian accent, we suggest that you do not attempt to ask someone if they have successfully arrived in Serenity Beach. See text recieved by Louise from a Taxi company below:

(Theevu Plage restaurant)

The combination of cheap local whiskey, poor swimming skills and rip tide has frequent fatal consequences. Five drowned in the last month alone. The Indian response to drownings is worthy of note for its classic insight into the short term reactive authoritarian nature of local government. Our host explained the response to me and I shall use his words: they dispatch a single policeman to the beach armed with a whistle. And a stick. He will turn up on the beach every day for two weeks after a drowning and blow his whistle at anyone even paddling. If he is ignored he will wave his stick. If his orders are disobeyed repeatedly by someone younger or of lower class, not tourists, he will beat them. After two weeks he will be assigned duties elsewhere, job done. Not a red flag in sight or life guard. And with the very significant rip tides here, they would certainly save lives.

(Some of my young beach mates)

We do swim, but have never ventured out of our depth. We found on one occasion that getting back to the shore was pretty hard work. It is not safe. The ocean is really warm and inviting. The sand golden. We love it. Surfing is an emerging business. But fishing here is the lifeblood of the community.

I need to write down, for myself only, a description of the place. You might agree that we tend to forget the details of travel and end up remembering only the photographs. You may want to just look at the photos, the text is for me. We won't come back. Not because we haven't enjoyed it, but because the world is too big. I want to remember more.

(Our villa as seen from the beach)

The approach road to our temporary home is a direct turn off the main through highway from Chennai, three hours away. It is narrow, dusty and deeply pitted, with irregular over sized concrete speed humps, and just wide enough for a small refrigerated fish truck. The approach road of perhaps 200 meters is lined with shacks, piles of building materials, some unfinished buildings, a small brightly painted temple area, several cheap end hostels, a couple of venues selling food, a corner fish market, several dogs who risk death sunbathing mid road, cows, and a family of beggars. They live in a hovel beside the road and approach us daily gesticulating with the right hand scooping from the left in a feeding mime. We have given. Not generously. Last week we met the dad buying whiskey a mile or so away. He recognised us and mimed his hunger. I'm not sure he fully understood our response but he definitely got the message "You're joking matey, we've got your number"

(Louise feeding her Tamil substitute Reggie)

(Dusk over the beach)

The side streets off the approach road are lined by a warren of small dwellings. Variegated colour frontages, spotlessly swept, Hindu shrines and Muslim prayer mats visible within. Homes for our TukTuk drivers, and the fishermen and families. The road at each threshold is decorated with daily re-drawn symmetrical rice flower patterns (Kolam). Water melon offerings, with painted flesh, lie smashed in the entrances. Dogs patrol, concerned only with repelling other canine foe who stray into their territory. Generally they are in need of a good tickle on the tummy.

There are a few cows, loads of ancient pushbikes, carts, scooters, TukTuks and humans all moving at very slow pace through the narrow streets in the heat. The smell is characteristic. Mildly aromatic, not in an unpleasant way, from hot buildings in the sun, densely housed humans, and spices.

At the beach front, and separate from the beach by a much potholed road, there are a couple of small neon clad hotels or hostels. Vogue India's favorite restaurant. More food stalls where fish is cooked to order, and the ubiquitous stand selling hand painted shells, fake dark glasses, and Serenity beach fridge magnets. TukTuk drivers wait day and night on the corner. There are several villas, of which one is ours, Casa Arma.

(My mate Russell on our terrace)

(where you might get dropped off on a flying visit to Serenity beach)

We have considered what we would have thought if we were staying in a heritage hotel in Pondy for two days and asked our driver to take us to a beach. Arrival at Serenity in an aircon car. Let's imagine it's 2pm. We would have been terrified coming down the approach road. The left turn at the end bumps dustily up to the drop off point. We wouldn't have noticed as we passed our beautiful villa with its cool terrace. We would emerge into the sweltering 32*c heat from the car. Next to the shiny new block attractively named "public toilets". The descent down to the beach is littered. Bottles, old flip flops, a dead puffer fish or two. On one occasion a dead cat stiff in the blazing sun. The remnants of a well eaten turtle and discarded fish on the beach side. Some rotting fruit from a picnic, crows swooping. Our driver would call to us " how long shall I wait Sir". I'm pretty sure the answer would be, no you're ok, thanks, we've seen the beach we will head straight back. We would have missed more than I can possibly describe here.

(Casa Arma - view from front door)

(Seems I had no trouble relaxing on the balcony)

The beach is broken up by piers of immense granite boulder construction acting as water breaks. The sand is hot, golden white beige, strewn with apparently discarded tarpaulin, rotten ropes, bundles of fishing nets, an anchor, groups of fishermen freeing their catch, an army of cross legged net menders working separately in readiness for tonight's trip. Three cows chew the scrub from the road side. Louise's personal pack of dogs lie in the shade waiting for todays bag of kibble to be charitably distributed.

Incoming rainbow boats arrive home, at full tilt, ploughing as far up the beach as they can, to be rescued to safety by the tractor that patrols the beach tirelessly waiting for them.

The ocean breaks in knee high plumes over the feet of Sari clad day trippers, the laughing kids are waste deep and giggling as they are knocked flat by the breakers. Early morning, the catch is set out on tarpaulins from the nets and several ladies clean fish and head and tail them. Their waste is tipped shore front for the crows.

Beyond the boats the sand stretches off, palm fringed. A few intrepid travellers cluster around a new age hippie with a guitar. There's some evidence of fire pits. Drift wood palm trees provide a morsel of shade for an elderly dog with greying black coat a prolapse and heavy nipples. A group of local lads in pairs, hold hands as they giggle and throw sand at each other. A Muslim family sit in the water and intermittently try to drown their good-humoured matriarch in full purdah. Laughter drifts on the ocean wind.

Casa Arma is one of several that constitute Serenity Beach Villas.

The ground floor is probably the original building now extended. The interior walls are white and windows are new polarised deeply tinted incongruous affairs, hidden behind cooling beige hessian drapes suspended on hooks that flap in perpetual motion under the ceiling fans. The interior temperature, hence forth to be known as Indian cool, is 25*c, and bearable.

The attraction of this place lies on the flat roof. The building is white and blue painted with thatched roof, half covering an upstairs white tiled open terrace. Reached by an outdoor staircase that Davi, our beautiful Tamil maid, washes free of its daily spatter of fish head and beach detroitus dropped carelessly by our neighbours, the murder of crows. The thatch is supported by a frame of barkless tree trunks lashed skilfully together with rope. Two shaded lights and a ceiling fan hang from the rafters. The white wooden dining area, Mediterranean blue and white three piece seating and a hammock all shelter in its shade. Louise's drawing pencils were stolen in broad daylight from the table. By our mate Picass-crow. Hopefully now part of a fabulous nest.

(Dayvee hard at work always meticulously turned out - while I chill again!)

Serenity is powerful and multi-faceted. We have loved it. Strongest, the wonderful open friendly local people. Their warmth has genuinely moved us.

Our favorite cook, Selva, "oh I love to cook for you my brother, my sister" and her fabulous fish.

Our maid, Dayvee, who despite being subjected both to the indignity of having to flush my floaters, and also getting a mortifying full frontal as I exited the bathroom unawares, told us today she will miss us "too much". She is so friendly, bringing fresh flowers from her home, and strings of jasmine for Louise's hair.

The TukTuk men who laugh as they try, every time, to rinse us for an extra fifty pence. Who regularly stop on route to pick up their shopping, and detour to introduce us to their wives. Who are there with a welcoming and genuine smile every morning to take us to yoga.

The fifteen year old local boys who come and chat on the beach about their ambitions to be marine engineers and "MBBS". Who, as they get more confident, test boundaries asking if people are "regularly fucking" in England then descending into fits of giggles. Then bashfully apologising for their language.

The 35 year old with the triple bypass who found out I was a doctor on day one and who now comes by whenever we venture out, to demonstrate that he is doing his rehab and to get a quick free consultation.

But most touchingly, Ranjit, the fisherman and his family in the neighbouring village who met us while we were admiring the days catch of swordfish and shark. Who invited us into his home and insisted we took coffee with them. Who was so genuinely pleased to meet us that he insisted Louise held his child, like a blessing from the queen. That was three weeks ago shortly after we arrived. We went back this evening to his village. The village kids came out. We had printed a batch of photos of them. They rushed about identifying the victims of my terrible photography. Within minutes grandma from our fisherman's family arrived and insisted we come back to their home. She speaks no English, but she has a strong grip. We had brought an A4 print framed of our first visit. It stands now in pride of place on their mantelpiece and my guess is it will, like our memories of Serenity Beach, still be there in many years time.

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