A typical street in the colonial part of Pondy
Upon arriving in Pondicherry -- known as â€śPondyâ€ť to the locals -- I went to the Cottage guest house, part of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. One of my colleague Sabitaâ€™s sisters, Jyotsna, is a full-time ashramite and manager of the guest house. She arranged a room for me for 300 rupees (about $7.50) a night, thankfully with air conditioning. The heat during a good chunk of the day was so intense that it was impossible to be outside, which forced me to see Pondy slowly over the next few days. I picked one tourist-y thing to do each day, either in the early morning or late afternoon. Otherwise I sat in cafes and restaurants, reading books and chatting with other foreigners, or checked email in air-conditioned internet cafes.
Pondicherry is lovely.
It was originally a French colony, and the architecture and colors still feel European. No offense meant to anyone Indian reading this, but Pondyâ€™s still Indian: Autorickshaws racing everywhere (and foreigners being overcharged for rides in them), constant horn honking, no traffic lights or crosswalks, beggars, in your face kids selling a random assortment of things (need some q-tips?), people bathing out in the open. But there was a lot less trash than anywhere else Iâ€™ve been so far in India, (some) unbroken sidewalks, comfort with foreigners, much more English spoken, and a much greater variety of food options.
The Gandhi statue near the water
Ah, the food. Delicious. I confess: I didnâ€™t last long on the no bread during Passover rule. Passover started the day before my arrival and would end at sundown the night before my departure.
That left just one night (Sunday, my last night) to partake in the croissant, baguettes, and other French carb delights. Staying at an ashram guest house entitled me to meal privileges there. For the first couple of days I ate three silent meals a day in the ashram dining hall, for 20 rupees (50 cents) per day. But the base of every meal consisted of rice and a huge chunk of bread; at breakfast and lunch there was curd (which I donâ€™t eat, among the lactose-intolerant of the world); and dinner was potatoes (yet more starch in addition to the rice and bread). I didnâ€™t eat the bread, but still, after two days I was carbed out, so I started sampling the local restaurants.
Near the beach in Pondy
Among the best meals, some as memorable for the conversation as they were for the food:
At Your Daily Bread: A mouthwatering selection of croissant and danish; I figured if I was going for it (that is, eating bread during Passover) I might as well really go for it, so I had a chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee.
Several days in a row.
The beach in Pondy
At Hotel Aristo: Fish with grilled tomatoes. Here I met Murray and Nicholas, a father and son who are the most well-traveled people Iâ€™ve ever met. They were warm, funny, and interesting. I had lunch at Hotel Aristo, and then that nightâ€¦
At Rendezvous: Baked chicken with French fries. I ran into Murray and Nicholas again. They were just finishing their meal, but they invited me to sit with them and then kept me company for my entire dinner. Most enjoyable.
At kasha ki asha, sitting on the rooftop in big, comfy chairs under a whirring ceiling fan: A black bean burger and an amazing cauliflower salad.
Here I met Bruno, a tall, thin, gentle French man who was probably about 55 and has never worked a day in his life, living off government assistance. He recognized me from Rendezvous the previous night, though I confessed I didnâ€™t remember seeing him there. Heâ€™s been traveling for years, and heâ€™s tired (and looks it) and lonely. He came right out and said he needed someone to talk to, and I was quite content to sit and listen. He was down on himself, convinced that he has wasted his life. He said he hopes that someday heâ€™ll turn things around. We talked about the potential pitfalls of hope. Hoping for something wonâ€™t make it happen, but taking action will. I hope someday Iâ€™ll have a job I love. I hope someday Iâ€™ll be happy. I hope someday there will be no violence in the world. Hoping does nothing. Having faith, now thatâ€™s a different thing. My wish for Bruno -- since I canâ€™t take action on his behalf to change his life -- is for him to find the strength to do it himself.
Jyotsna and Joy
At La Terrasse: For my last meal in Pondy, Jyotsna (my colleagueâ€™s sister) and her friend Joy (a lovely man) took me to this restaurant, one of their favorites, for pizza (which I couldnâ€™t resist despite the aforementioned lactose intolerance) with a delicious thin crust.
Jyotsna asked me if I would be open to having pineapple as a topping -- yes!!! Itâ€™s my favorite but most people look at me like I have three heads when I suggest it. The pizza was excellent, and Jyotsna and Joy are an absolute pleasure to be with.
Jyotsna, me, and Joy
Hmmâ€¦ Iâ€™ve gone on a bit about the food in Pondy. It was definitely a big part of my experience there. Oh, one more thing about food: Near the guest house was a grocery store called Nilgiris; itâ€™s small, but itâ€™s a real grocery store (there arenâ€™t any in Bhubaneswar). I was so excited that I actually bought some things and lugged them all the way back to Bhubaneswar. Wait, I lied -- one more thing about the food: Thereâ€™s a health food store in Pondy! Iâ€™m not sure if you can appreciate what it was like to see foods like stevia and wakame in India. Itâ€™s easy enough to find that stuff in New York City, where thereâ€™s a decent health food store in every neighborhood and several huge Whole Foods. But in India thereâ€™s little attention paid to having a healthy diet. Thereâ€™s so much fried food (though of course just about anything fried tastes good) and oil. This store in Pondy was undoubtedly catering to the many foreign visitors, but still I was psyched. A pound of spelt pasta made its way into my suitcase.
More on Pondy coming soonâ€¦