Chennai Journal
Sunday, June 26, 2005

This weekend Marty, Dad and I took a day trip to Pondicherry. It’s about a two hour drive from Chennai and is best done during the day. The East Coast Road that leads from Madras has many twists and turns, and—because not all Indian drivers believe in using headlights—it can be particularly treacherous at night. All along the way you also see police checkpoints, which are designed to deter Madras residents from bringing in cheap alcohol from Pondicherry....as well as scenes like the one above...

The route to Pondicherry covers the coastline that was hardest hit by the tsunami. It’s mostly cleaned up now, but many of the residents are still in temporary shelters. Along the road you can see evidence of both Indian and international response---village restorations with sponsor names from local organizations as well as European and American ones. (Ford has adopted one of these villages, and recently donated 6 fishing boats to help the residents restore their means of livelihood). The Rotary Club that Marty has joined here is sponsoring the restoration of a complete village---housing, schools, hospital, etc. The new village name will be "Rotary Nagar" --Nagar being a Tamil word for town or village.

Pondy, as it’s called by locals, is a former French colony and still the home of the French consulate for southern India. (The French flag flew here during the entire time the rest of India was under British rule). There are supposed to be many good French restaurants, although we made the mistake of eating at a place written up in both a local guidebook and The Lonely Planet called “Seagull”. It had a nice view of the Bay of Bengal but the food was closer to “seagull droppings”, and the wine was of the Magen David variety...

"French wine with a sea view"

Despite disappointment on the culinary front, Pondy is a good place to buy antiques and textiles, and we found one antique shop that had some very nice furniture. Pondicherry is also the home of Sri Aurobindo Ashram, one of the largest in India, with extensive grounds just north of the city. The ashram production, which ranges from exquisite handmade papers, furniture, and clothing to jams and vegetarian cheeses, is also sold in outlets in Pondicherry and Madras called “Auroville.” We came away with two very nice lamps with a Lascaux cave theme, which exactly match a rug we had bought in Detroit.

The ashram also explains the presence of many 60s looking (both in terms of their present age and decade of their youth!) Westerners tooling about in Indian fashion---meaning sans helmet---on motorbikes. The ashram is a great mecca for people studying meditation or yoga, or who just want to hang out in India for a while and do some community service. Given the various production activities at the ashram, which also runs a school for local children, there’s plenty to do. The ashram also has a meditation dome, but to use it visitors are supposed to reserve in advance.

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