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Published: October 9th 2008
I decided on a whim to take a flight down to South East India, to Pondicherry, an old French colonial town on the Bay of Bengal.
The driver picked me up at the airport, with a sign reading my name "Mykl". Ha Ha! Somehow I found him in a sea of about 100 white clad taxi drivers. The ride from Chennai (used to be called Madras) was about 2.5 hours, through coconut groves and along the seaside. It is very hot and humid down here, about 90 degrees, and about 60 percent humidity. There are huts all along the road, farms, shrimp hatcheries, and lots of animals. After arriving in Pondicherry (called Pondi for short), I checked into my hotel, called Hotel Corbelli. A very nice place, with immaculate rooms, friendly staff, and its own restaurant. The room was 850 rupees per night (about $18 USD). Amazing.
I explored much of this old french colonial city, walking down streets like "Rue Dumas", and "Rue Saint Martin", with beautiful old homes and mansions, some falling apart, and some painted fresh as they day they were built. So many bright colors, and a very clear french influence, but this is still
in Central Park
India! Everywhere there are stray dogs, 3 wheeled rickshaws honking, and pedestrians walking in the middle of the road with cows, goats, and oxen.
The city itself is quite unique, one of the highlights being a huge temple to the elephant god Ganesh, with an actual elephant in front tapping people on the head as a blessing. You buy some grass or bananas and feed it to him, and then you touch his trunk, then he taps you on the head! Kind of intimidating to be so close to such a huge animal, but he seemed very peaceful (but probably not so happy to be chained up all day). He does get lots of free food and attention though, there are swarms of people taking photos and giving offerings. The elephant is also painted in bright colors on his head and body, with sanskrit symbols like OM on his forehead etc.. You know he is a boy elephant because he has tusks.
The central park is the focal point of the city, where everyone hangs out for lunch, and all of the kids play on the swingset and jungle gyms. Many people just sit here for hours, relaxing
they are huge and are everyewhere!
and talking, reading, or spending time with their family while on holiday. Most of the people in Pondi are Indians, I have only seen a handful of westerners, and have not met any other Americans. Most are from the UK, Australia, or Canada, and also a few Japanese. The rickshaw drivers keep yelling "auto!", because they want to get you to take a taxi ride with them, but I keep thinking they are saying "OTTO!", calling me by my last name! I have learned to ignore them. Ha!
Well it is official, I am a celebrity in Pondi. Strangers approach me and ask to take a photo with me, like I am a circus freak dressed in a crazy costume or something! I suppose many of them have either never seen a white boy with blonde hair, or just think it would be kitschy to have a photo with this "freaky white boy"! LOL! Everyone is very friendly, and very interested in where I am from, what my religion is, my family, my travel plans, how many children I have, and pretty much anything else they can pry out of me. Nothing is off limits in conversation here, and
sometimes it is a little easier to just fudge the truth a bit to make the conversation go smoother. It goes like this... question: "And you are married? Your wife? Her good name? and How many children do you have?" - response "I think I may get married when I return to the USA! Oh and my sister just had a baby!" - This usually works, although not always!
I have had quite an interesting variety of food here, from local shrimp creole (a pondi local dish), to classic french, all kind of indian (north indian is totally different than south indian cuisine), and even a club sandwich (with a little Indian flair of course). My favorite dinner was at the Hotel L' Orient, a heritage hotel, in a beautiful 1700s French colonial mansion, the restaurant in the courtyard. Almost surreal to be there, and a 5 star dinner with wine, coffee, and all the fixings was about $20 USD. This would have been $150 minimum at any nice restaurant in the US.
I have walked along the boardwalk many times, dipped my feet in the 80 degree Bay of Bengal, watched fisherman bring in their catch of
The elephant god
the day, and have seen TONS of Indian families on vacation here. I did not realize it until i was in the middle of a crazy festival, that there just happened to be a 3 day celebration where everything is decorated with flowers, leaves, and paint. All the homes draw intricate chalk mandalas on thir doorsteps, some in white and some very colorful. People also throw "pumpkins" all over the streets, like pumpkin smashing on halloween, but they are not actually pumpkins. They appear to be some kind of tropical squash or something, bright red in the middle, and green on the outside. I have yet to figure out what it actually is.
Last night, there were literally thousands of people walking around town, setting off firecrackers, and just generally being crazy and having a good time. All of the restaurants were either closed or PACKED, and i waited a while to have a quick dinner of super spicy rice cake thing with onion, spices, and to be honest, I am not really sure what else. It was good! Even when you don't know what you are eating! Before that I snacked on some corn, grilled on fresh coals,
and some yummy coconut water fresh from the coconut stand. Man those ladies know how to hack open a coconut with a massive knife!
Spending time here has been relaxing, they say all your cares float away while you are in Pondi. I had an ayurvedic massage, and also a session of Shirodhara (warm oil poured on your head and massaged). I have been fighting a bit of a sinus cold and cough, but that has not stopped me from exploring! I saw the most famous place in Pondi, the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. It is a huge international community of about 1000 people, who follow his teachings and live in homes around the city with the actual buildings given spiritual names/titles like "compassion", "enlightenment", and "prosperity" - see the photo. About 10 miles away is the huge ashram community of Auroville, where there is a massive gold plated domed meditation center, and various communities related to the ashram. At the grocery store, there is cheese made by the ashram, incense from their incense factory, knick knacks galore in every gift shop, and basically everything is Auroville or Aurobindo something or other. To put it simply, Auroville/Aurobindo basically runs the
town, and has a major influence over what goes on here.
Photos are coming soon. Internet is not very reliable here, and uploading is quite a time consuming endeavor. SOON!
After heading back to Chennai, I will take a 28 hour train ride back to Delhi.
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