Bonjour From Pondicherry

Trip Start Mar 29, 2007
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Trip End Sep 30, 2009


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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

After four months in India without any true vacation to speak of, I decided to take two days off and schedule a four day weekend for a getaway somewhere outside of Hyderabad.  There are many places I want to visit while I'm living in India...so where to go?  I definitely want to save my visits to the Taj Mahal and Goa for when I have some friends in town from the States.  Kerala is another location I want to check out, but that too would be better spent with friends.  I've already been to Delhi and Mumbai for work...no need to go back there.  And...it's still monsoon season in India so much of the North is still underwater.  So my options are somewhat limited.  My travel agent asks me if I heard of a city in South India called Pondicherry...I say "no"...and start to investigate it a bit.
 
Pondicherry is a former French colony in India and sometimes referred to as The French Riviera of the East (ha...right).  In researching the city, I found out that the city was somewhat effected by the 2004 Tsunami in that an estimated 30,000 people were left homeless in the territory and over 600 people died when the waves crashed ashore.  Over 18,000 Indians where killed by the tsunami and nearly 300,000 worldwide, so the damage in Pondicherry was minimal compared to some other parts of the country and world.  On a lighter note, three other things I found out about Pondi convinced me that it might be a good place to check out for my first vacation in India:  1) It's on the water and has some nice beaches; 2) it has a lot of good French and Italian restaurants and 3) it has the lowest alcohol tax in India so booze is dirt cheap.  Sold!  I call the travel agent and ask her to book it a 4 day/3 night trip to Pondicherry as quickly as possible as I need some time away from the office.
 
Saturday morning is trip day and as I leave very, very early in the morning, I decide to go out with my friends the night before and attempt to stay up all night.  At 4AM I start packing and getting ready to leave and by 5:30AM  I'm at the Hyderabad airport to catch a 6:30AM Kingfisher Air (love this airline) flight to Chennai.  My flight to Chennai was uneventful as I slept through most of it.  Touching down into the sea-side city of Chennai I'm greeting by my driver who will be taking me on the 3+ hour journey to Pondicherry via the scenic East Coast Road which hugs the eastern coast of India for most of the trip.  The good news is that I have an air-conditioned car...the bad news is it's an uncomfortable Ambassador cab.  Ambassador cars have been in production in India since 1957...and I'm 90% sure that they've made little progress during the last 50 years to change the car to make it more comfortable.  Anyway, my driver seems like a nice guy so off we go.  I pretty much immediately fall asleep again and spend most of the journey wobbling my head around as I pass out and then wake back up each time my head falls off the headrest.  One thing I do notice on the way down are the cows.  In Hyderabad we have the nastiest black water buffaloes that will occasionally be walking in the road, blocking traffic, sticking their head in your window, etc.  But here in the south, they have proper cows...and they are all over the place.  Not that anyone reading this would find that remotely interesting, but I haven't seen a cow in a while so it was something new.  We make one stop to a bathroom break and to grab something cold to drink, and by noon we're in Pondicherry looking for my hotel.  My travel agent has booked me at a place called Villa Helena which is a former French Colonial home that has been made into a 4 room bed and breakfast.  She's booked me the largest room in the place at the rock-bottom price of around $50/night...what a steal.  The room was fine and after unpacking a bit, I set off on foot to walk along the promenade which lines the seashore within the city.  The sea is only a couple blocks from the hotel but that was enough to make me drenched in sweat (fyi...the humidity is a killer here and temps are in the high 90's).  Walking along the boardwalk I snap some photo's of the sea, a Ghandi statue, a monument to the Indians who died fighting for the French in WWI and a bunch of Indian school children who must have been on a field trip.  I had some great pasta for lunch at the Promenade hotel which is where I initially wanted to stay, but alas it was sold out for the weekend I was there.  In the hotel the local language (French) was prevalent as were the number of tourists.  Living in Hyderabad, I definitely am off the tourist circuit, but Pondicherry is an extremely popular tourist destination, especially with the Europeans.  It was somewhat shocking to see that many white-skinned people for the first time in a long, long time.  Backtracking through the city I just wanted to get the lay of the land and understand where everything was so I could spend all day Sunday and Monday exploring.  From the architecture to the street signs (in French) to the police officers (dressed like French cops), you really can see the French influences in this city and some streets look remarkably like something you might see in the French Quarter in New Orleans.  There is a canal that divides the city in two...with the side towards the water (the East side) being the French side...and the west side resembling any other small bustling Indian town with crowded streets, trash everywhere and beggars/touts at every corner.
 
Back at the hotel I requested that a scooter be delivered to help me explore more the city and a couple other sites.  While I was waiting I relaxed a bit reading a book which almost immediately put me to sleep.  I managed to wake up in time for happy hour which was at a place just down the street from my hotel called Seashells.  Seashells has a great rooftop deck overlooking the sea with cold, cheap Kingfisher beer.  I was pretty exhausted today as I really hadn't slept much (except on the plane and in the car), so I decided to grab a pizza at a local pub and turn in.  Of course at the pub I run into some locals and we end up drinking a few more beers and chatting about the nightlife and social scene in Pondicherry.
 
Sunday morning I wake up relatively early, have a great breakfast at the hotel and jump on my scooter for the 14 kilometer ride up to Auroville.  Before I can describe Auroville, you need some background on the group that built it.  Sri Aurobindo was an Indian/Hindu nationalist, scholar, poet, mystic, evolutionary philosopher, yogi and guru...and is regarding as one of the greatest yogis in Hindu history.  He was the founder of a new spiritual path which he called the "integral yoga," the aim of which was to further the evolution of life on earth by establishing a high level of spiritual consciousness.  If you really want to read more about his philosophies, click here.  Anyway, at some point Sri hooks up with a person known as the "Mother".  She is Sri Aurobindo's close spiritual collaborator and she settles in Podicherry in 1920.  After November 24, 1926, when Sri Aurobindo retired into seclusion, he left it to her to plan, run and build the growing Sri Aurobindo Ashram, the community of disciples that had gathered around them.   When Sri Aurobindo died in 1950, the Mother continued their spiritual work and directed the Ashram and guided their disciples.  In the mid 1960s she started Auroville, an international township sponsored by UNESCO  near Pondicherry which was to be a place "where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities."  It was inaugurated in 1968 in a ceremony in which representatives of 121 nations and all the states of India placed a handful of their soil in an urn near the center of the city.  Auroville continues to develop and currently has approximately 1700 members from 35 countries.
Ok...enough on the background.  Anyway, the Aurovillians are a semi-friendly group...they really don't want their "home" to be treated as a tourist attraction, but they understand that the more people that show up to check it out, the more people they may be able to convert, the more people they can sell their hand-made goods.  Entry into Auroville is fairly easy, I park my scooter and head to the info desk where there is a brief display/museum on Auroville, the Mother and Sri Aurbindo.  But that's not why I'm here...I want to see the Matrimandir.  What is the Matrimandir you may ask?  Officially it's a meditation chamber with giant crystal inside...unofficially it's a golden golf ball.  Or maybe it's a golden Death Star...but I digress.  Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to enter the Matrimandir anymore, but it's still impressive from the outside.  Anyway...I only stayed long enough to snap a few pics, then jumped back on my scooter for the short ride to the beach.  I haven't seen a beach in a while, so it was nice to relax and do some body surfing.  Again...I haven't seen white faces/bodies in a while, so the presence of some very cute tourists girls on the beaches made it that much more pleasant.  The Indian men seemed to enjoy it as well as you could see packs of them just walking up and down the beach stopping to gawk at the girls in bikinis.  Given the conservativeness of most Indian women, seeing a girl in a bikini is probably like a peep show to them.
Driving the scooter back to Pondicherry I got caught in a bit of a rainstorm, but managed to reach the hotel in time to relax and then head off for another great meal of seafood and cold Kingfisher Beer.
Monday was deemed to be another beach day and visiting a local temple where you can be blessed by an elephant.  The temple was first.  Not sure what the name of the temple is, but it's a rather large Hindu temple in the middle of the city.  I got one picture of someone getting blessed, but when I gave my camera to some French dude to take a photo of my bless, evidently the complex action of pushing a button was beyond him and I didn't get a good photo at all.  Back to the beach for another few hours in the surf...the back to town to get cleaned up for dinner.  Dinner was at a great place called Satsanga where the steak was great, the Bordeaux cheap and the prices low.
Tuesday I slept in late and checked out of the hotel.  I really only had time to spend some time in the city shopping and taking photos, so before I knew it, I was back in a cab and heading back to Chennai to catch my flight back to Hyderabd.
It was a great trip and I hope to return again before I leave India...enjoy the pics!
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