HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pondy: Rejuvenation

44 rupees = 1 USD
Blue = train to Villapuram. Black = bus to Pondy.

My four-day stretch in Madurai and Trichy left me feeling depressed. I had only talked to a handful of people that weren't trying to rip me off, and I had done nothing of any interest, except to tour a few temples. I really wanted to throw in the towel on the trip, but my flight out of the country wasn't for several more days, and I already had a route planned, so the only real option was to soldier on.

For my rail trips to Madurai and Trichy I had booked through travel agents in advance, and both tickets had been much more expensive than I was expecting. Mind you, they did get me my own sleeper berth in an air-conditioned car, but my trips weren't that long, so that wasn't really necessary. Partha, my guide at the temple in Trichy, said that I could simply go to the station the day of the trip and get a much cheaper ticket. So, an hour before the train to Villapuram Junction was scheduled to depart, I wandered into the station. The sign above the ticket counter declaring "No Tickets Sold Within Two Hours of Departure" worried me, but apparently that rule only applies to Indians. I soon had a 58 rupee ticket, which was about a tenth of what I had previously paid. Sure, I had to stand for most of the trip, but I didn't mind. Rail is far and away the best way to travel in India; you don't have to worry about cows, bonkers drivers, potholes, or any of that.

The countryside between Trichy and Villapuram was a curious mix: verdantly green paddies, brown scrub grass, and bone-dry riverbeds all blurred by in random order. Clearly whatever water could be irrigated was being used for rice production.

After a few hours I alighted at the train station in Villapuram, about 30 km west of Pondicherry, a former French colony affectionately known as "Pondy". As I walked across the baking expanse of concrete on one side of the station, a crowd of boys playing cricket swarmed around me. "Who are you?" "Where are you from?", they shouted. They looked extremely hot, but each had a huge smile on his face, and I gave them my water bottle before hopping in an auto for a ride to the bus station.

The bus ride from Villapuram to Pondy was the first insane journey I had had in a while. After thirty minutes of standing, holding onto the handle bars bolted to the ceiling, constantly being stepped on and elbowed in the head on a bus with no air conditioning and a ridiculously loud sound system, I exited into Pondy's tpyically chaotic bus station dripping in sweat. Ten minutes later I was at the Park Guest House, a little slice of tranquility in an ocean of madness.

Allow me to give a bit of background on this guest house. It is run by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a new-age organization that focuses on yoga and a bunch of vague, pie-in-the-sky ideals. Founded by Sri Aurobindo, an Indian nationalist and spiritualist in 1926, the group now runs a host of hostels and guest houses, mostly in Pondy. Sri's main message was this: "Man is a transitional being. He is not final. The step from man to superman is the next approaching achievement in the earth evolution. It is inevitable because it is at once the intention of the inner spirit and the logic of nature's process." Dude, I totally agree.

Members of the ashram believe in all sorts of nice things, a fact reflected in the rules of the guest house: no alcohol allowed, gates closed at 10 pm, etc. There are hilarious signs like this posted throughout the building:
As well as this, on the front lawn:
Each room also had a silly name, such as 'Humility', 'Honesty', 'Sympathy', etc. Mine was called 'Tenderness'. I had to make a conscious effort not to laugh at such nonsense, since everyone else there seemed to take it quite seriously. Normally, this is the kind of place I would avoid like the plague. However, its location, tucked away in a quiet corner of the seafront, was superb, and when you have a view like this from a $13 room, it's hard to complain:
The Bay of Bengal
As I mentioned earlier, Pondy used to be a French colony. It gained indpendence from France in 1963, and is today officially known as the Union Territory of Puducherry. It is not actually a part of Tamil Nadu, and the state's vice taxes hold no sway in the territory.

While most of Pondy's French history has been wiped away by India's growth, there remains a 3-block stretch, between the ocean and a canal, called the French Quarter, where some lovely French architecture stands in various states of disrepair. This area is also mercifully quiet which, for me, was exactly what the doctor had ordered after the audio assaults of Madurai and Trichy. The neighborhood also reminded me of the French Quarter back in New Orleans, although it was far more sedate than its American counterpart. Still, I enjoyed wandering down the cobbled, shaded streets, taking in the best-looking buildings I had seen since leaving Fort Cochin almost two weeks earlier.

Yes, there are even street signs in French.

There was also some very cheeky graffiti.
After a while I realized I was starving. Sadly, none of the excellent restaurants in the French Quarter were open, since they keep useless European hours. Trying to eat before 11am or between 2pm and 5pm was an exercise in futility for my two days there. So, I continued on.
There are several impressive churches in Pondy.
I finally found some food, and then I walked down the seaside promenade. At one point a group of about eight young Indian guys surrounded me, taking turns posing for photos with me, switching sunglasses with me, etc. It's strange how obsessed Indian men are with white guys.

The next day, my last one in Pondy, I took a walk outside of the French Quarter and into a very poor, very Tamil Nadu, area. Derelict buildings full of goats and cows lined the narrow streets, and naked, hungry children played with rudimentary toys. At one point I emerged onto the seawall, and the "houses" built there clearly demonstrated that living on the water is not always luxurious.

That night, I indulged in two of the treats of Pondy: steak, and cheap beer. At least the French are good for something...
After dinner, I returned to my breezy porch overlooking the ocean, where nature treated me to a spectacular departing gift: a lenghty lightning storm just off the coast.
After two days in Pondy, all of the misery of Madurai and Trichy had been forgotten. The quiet of the French Quarter streets, the serenity and beauty of my guest house's location, the good Western food, and the more honest people made up for everything. I was in love with India again, just in time for my last stop on the trip.

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