Looking back, there are a great number of things I didn’t do in Chennai. I never got a chance to go to the Theosohpical Society, the Krishnamurthi Center, Swami Vivekananda’s House, Marina Beach, or walk through Fort George. I didn’t shop at all, which isn’t all that unusual for me but I didn’t try a lot of restaurants either (that’s definitely unusual). During the six weeks I was in Chennai, I spent 208 hours studying at Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram; I missed two classes. Almost everyday, I simply wanted to go home and rest. Even on the weekends I had no desire to go out and explore. Just the thought of being outside made me tired. Aside from my classes, the constant noise, traffic, and the pollution, it’s gotten very hot in the city. So when I was finished with my second course at KYM last Friday, I was ready to leave Chennai for some R&R.
I do best with well-researched plans and knowing exactly what I’m doing when I’m traveling, but I think India has changed me. Somehow I knew I would figure things out as I went along so I didn’t plan the second half of my trip in India. I thought about traveling in Rajasthan or going to Varanasi or maybe up to Dharamsala. Then I was leaning towards staying in the south and thought I would make my way down to Madurai, but I honestly didn’t feel I had the energy to pack up and start traveling again immediately after Chennai. I had been reading up on Pondicherry and Auroville, and with it being just 140 km south of the city, that’s where I decided to spend a week before heading up north. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by three of my classmates, a couple I had been sharing my flat with and a lovely woman from Mexico by way of Barcelona, Spain. I had arranged for a car to come from Auroville to pick us up from Chennai and the car arrived a full 15 minutes before the 9AM scheduled time- a good sign for our journey and an unexpected surprise for India. Of course our landlord Mrs. Lakshmi had come in and out of the apartment a few times by 8AM (she had also come by the night before as usual) to see us off. Until the very end, there was no escaping her and her constantly visiting us unannounced. But we thanked her honestly and she posed for a photo with us before we said our goodbyes. I will have to reflect on my experience there and think about whether I would stay at her apartment again the next time I go to Chennai.
An easy 2.5 hours on the road later we arrived at our destination and checked in at Vatika Guesthouse on Rue Francois Martin in Pondicherry. And what beautiful house it was! Datta, the lady of the house, wasn’t there when we first arrived but I had a brief chance to speak with her later. I had to ask her who decorated her house because it was so tastefully done, especially when compared to the sterile service apartment where I first stayed in Chennai and the other apartment where I spent the last two weeks. Datta humbly replied to my question by saying, “I decorated but it’s just a house.”
It’s a modern, four story house and I think the top two floors has the guest rooms with the lower two floors set aside for the family and the kitchen/dining rooms. The staircase had clean white walls with white marble floors, and the landings had statues of various Hindu deities. When we opened the doors to our rooms we saw cool black stoned floors, dark wooden furniture with colorful linens and unique, local Indian handicrafts on the walls. We even had balconies! Complete with white paper lanterns overhead, breezy curtains, fans, and AC, I was tempted to remain in a supine position for the rest of the day.
But we peeled ourselves off the beds and went out for lunch. I know that I should be tired of eating Indian food everyday by now. But with three months in India, I’m still enjoying and looking forward to having more Indian food. My lunch was a delicious South Indian thali meal at Surguru, which seemed to be popular with both the locals and the foreigners alike. I ate as if I had never eaten before, practically inhaling my lunch and even drinking two cups of tea. Fortified with yummy-ness, we went out to explore the town…. But not before I stopped to visit the largest and the best Nilgiri’s I’ve seen in India.
I know it may seem silly to everyone but this chain of grocery stores makes me giddy with happiness because I can find so many great things there, and I can spend oodles of time wandering the aisles. My traveling companion for this leg of the trip and friend from KYM, Lorena, had shared with me a jar of mango chutney from Nilgiri’s a few weeks ago and ever since then we’ve been on the look out for this Nilgiri brand of jams and chutneys. After my previous flat mate Elizabeth and I bought out and devoured the small selection of chutneys at a local Nilgiri’s, I even googled the Nilgiri store locations in Chennai looking for more. At this one in Pondicherry, we finally hit the jackpot! There it was, in front of me, an entire shelf of every kind of chutneys, jams, and marmalades you can imagine. The running joke amongst us has been to ask whether the happy women from the mountains made the chutney we’re eating because this particular line of condiments has a label that explains how it is “handmade by the happy mountain women from the village of Bhuira in Himachal Pradesh.”
We had casually walked into the store to browse but when we located the jams and chutneys, all of us hightailed it back to the front of the store to each pick up a basket. Then the fun began. My thoughts went immediately to the parcel post office I saw on the way to lunch and within seconds, decided that I will ship the goods to my parents house. And thus began my first and only shopping spree in India and fittingly, it was at a grocery store. How I got to ship a box via parcel post from India was an experience in itself, which came two days later. I will write about that separately… For me that was a quintessential Indian experience, and it still makes me smile a week later when I think about it. But for now, back to my first day in Pondi (that’s what everyone calls it!)
Pondicherry or Puducherry as it is call now, has a long history. My guidebook says that the Romans traded there 2 millenia ago, followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the Danish. But the French made a lasting impression there by purchasing it in the late 17th century. Relinquished in 1954, this small town has its own local government, colonial architecture, quaint streets (with their names in French), and numerous boutiques and eateries. The town is divided into two areas by a small canal and I’ve read in a few books and maps that the French quarter was referred to as “white town” and the Indian/ Tamil side as “black town.” Regardless of the names, the differences between the two sections are noticeable. The Indian side looks like, well, India. The streets are lined with small shops, the sidewalks are cracked and uneven, and there is trash everywhere. You cross over to the French side and it’s pastel colored French colonial houses, wide and clean streets (I mean boulevards), and signs that say “no honking.”
For dinner we went to a restaurant called “Rendezvous” on the French side. Everyone either spoke French or English on the rooftop of the restaurant where you could dine on Indian or French/continental food. As it is Union territory and not governed by Tamil regulations, you could have wine or beer with your meal as well. Ooh la la! I didn’t think the food was very good but then again, I still prefer to have Indian food in India than anything else. But all in all, a wonderful day in Pondi and the memories of the city life in Chennai started to fade away a bit.
More on Pondi to come later…
On a side note, I would highly recommend Vatika and would stay there again when I return to Pondi. A few things to note, however. The mattresses are as hard as I’ve seen in all of India (as hard as the ones at the Sivananda ashram) but I am now used to the hard mattresses so it didn’t bother me at all. It is a house, not a hotel so the guests are asked to be quiet after 10PM and required to observe a curfew of 10:30PM. For my group of yogi friends and me, that was not a problem. It is at the north end of Pondicherry so you have to walk a bit but it was nice to stroll either on the beach or through the nice wide streets. Lastly the breakfast served there is very simple- dark bread (Datta called them “ashram bread” from the Aubindo ashram) with butter and jam, fresh fruits, and tea (note: no coffee). More on the Aubindo ashram and Auroville to come as well…
Vatika Guesthouse: http://www.vatikaguesthome.com/