Imagine, if you can, the taut thrill of navigating a slalom course behind the wheel of a finely-crafted sports car. Revel in the snug caress and rich aroma of the sleek leather driver’s seat and the surge of power as you shift up and down through six high-strung gears, the slightest flick of your wrist weaving the car around the barriers. Arumai, as we say in Tamil! (Awesome!) Okay, now imagine that slalom course in a more plebeian Maruti Suzuki Ertiga, its stubby minivan prow bucking the wind, canting side to side as if plunging down a series of class IV whitewater rapids, and straining to hit the maximum highway speed limit in India, a hefty 100kmph (or about 60mph). A bit deflating, right?
But wait, lets add in a few complications: on our two-lane slalom course from Chennai to Pondicherry, we have dawdling three-wheeled autorickshaws courteously hugging the margin but still on the pavement; two-wheeled scooters and motor bikes efficiently carrying a family of five or a load of live goats (yes, several in cages both in front and in back . . . okay they were small goats but still); and the occasional bicycle or a picturesque oxcart loaded with 8 foot fluorescent tubes and even solo walkers on foot graciously bearing a stack of bricks on their head, all exerting their right to the asphalt pavement. More of a challenge, right?
But don’t forget the napping or trotting dogs and the herds of mindless goats and, even better, the strategically placed cow that pops up in the middle of the road like a penny arcade duck. (You better never hit one!!) And if that’s not a high enough difficulty level, let’s toss in a few metal police barricades placed as if by the spiteful child of a giant and narrowing the road to a single lane . . . in total. . . with no seeming rhyme or reason. And did you think there would be warning signs and painted lane guides or maybe some flashing lights? Silly you. The difficulty level just climbed some more, didn’t it?
Okay, now our racing game is getting tense, but the best is yet to come: Not only are you navigating that slalom course, but so are all the other cars and buses and lorries following you, all of whom seem to think you’re going way too slow, so it’s a nail-biter to decide if you should overtake that oxcart in front of you or if you should let the bus that looks like it saw WWII and whose banshee horn has been spiking your adrenaline for several minutes go ahead and squeeze around you. Enough? Hardly. This slalom course is even more special: all the cars and lorries and buses headed toward you are also competing on their very own special slalom course—and your car is getting in their way!
Get the picture? Now you can grasp the joy of our three hour trip from Besant Nagar to Pondicherry–it’s now called Puducherry–a journey of 148 km or about 90 miles so, that’s right, an average speed of about 30 mph! Nearly constant overtaking and heart-numbing close calls every other minute . . . now you know why we will NEVER EVER enter our car without our driver, Mani, who handled the slalom course with aplomb while explaining Indian history and culture and the millions of Hindu gods and teaching us Tamil and getting a kick out of our flat midwestern accent–“Oh, sir, do you mean ‘when?’ You say it so long and slow like you are singing the words like ‘waaaaaayyyynnnnn’ so I don’t understand your English . . . .” Point made!
But what better way to unwind those nerves than to fall in love with the Palais de Mahe, a heritage hotel in the heart of Pondy. Only about a dozen rooms that combined French colonial flair with contemporary details, a cafe on the ground floor that flanked the compact pool, and a full restaurant wide open to the elements on all sides but covered (so we could watch the Diwali fireworks) on the second/top floor along with a bar—yes, a bar! Can you say first gin and tonics in a long while?
The two days in Pondy were awash in gray and mist and drizzle, so not many photo opportunities, but plenty of shopping and cappuccino and dinner delights. For our first evening, our friend and travel blogger, Swapnil Midha, had made a reservation for us at The Promenade Hotel’s Bay of Buddha rooftop restaurant where she knew the chef. Sadly, the weather caused them to close that venue so we went to the hotel bar to wait for a table at the hotel’s BlueLine restaurant inside. As soon as we ordered our first gin & tonic, another couple (from Oxfordshire, England) sat down next to us at the bar and we struck up a conversation that led us to enjoy dinner together where they admitted to noticing us at the Cafe des Arts earlier in the day–“stalking” was their word. All in all, it was a delightful dinner where the chef paid us a visit to apologize for the closure and where we tried our first Indian wine, a Sauvignon Blanc that was quite lovely, especially at Rs500 a bottle (7.50 USD!!).
Next morning, we met up with Roshan, our Storytrails guide, for the French Connections Trail, a two hour guided walk (including a starter of filter coffee, yum!) explaining the French colonial history of Pondicherry. Even in the drizzle and starting at 7:30am, the tour was a wonderful way to learn so much about the city and India. Did you know that, although India gained its independence from Britain in 1947, Pondy, being a French colony, only joined India officially in 1963 and is still a separate “Union Territory,” which is rather like the District of Columbia? (We also learned about a Raja who was so embarrassed when he praised, unwittingly, the stunning architecture of a bordello, that he ordered it razed . . . )
But the highlight of our stay in Pondy was receiving a blessing from Lakshmi, the elephant, at the Vinayagar (Ganesha) Temple. Simply place a coin in her outstretched trunk and she lightly touches your head to give her thanks and a blessing. Truly a unique experience and her gaze was so penetrating–next time I’ll get a better photo of that intense communication. We then walked through the temple and Mani explained the different representations and styles of Ganesha and we received a few more blessings from the priests as well as sitting and listening to the Indian flute and tabla players’ music echo through the gleaming space. An inspiring visit.
We then headed to Auroville–only about 12 km–where the community’s “. . . purpose . . . is to realize human unity,” and where we confirmed what the website notes: it is definitely not a breeze-through spot for tourists and intentionally so. While we knew it was a wide open area, we didn’t realize the distances between, say, the Visitors’ Center, and the Matrimandir, the heart of the community. (Sorry, but I must admit–to my embarrassment–I envisioned something like Colonial Williamsburg where vehicular access was restricted but where everything was, well, within sight and easy walking distance.) We learned some good lessons about the genuine pace and spirit of Auroville, where life is slow and natural, and simplicity is honored above “creeds, politics, and nationalities.” More importantly we learned or confirmed some truths about ourselves.
Yep, we are too old to stay in a guesthouse (not one of the official Auroville Guesthouses) that needs two exterior flights of rough-carved stone stairs at a pitch that suggests the need for pitons and belaying ropes; that has about 15 watts of light in each of the rooms (we had the family suite); that has no hot water; that requires kneeling down to shower; that, when one asks what time dinner will be served, gives a response of “Not sure. May not be dinner tonight.” Okay, what about breakfast? You guessed it.
At any rate, we did discover a pair of delightful restaurants just down the Auroville Main Road: Tanto, an Italian bistro, and Bread & Chocolate, recently opened by the well known Mason & Co chocolatiers in Auroville, and quite possibly one of the best breakfast/lunch spots we’ve ever enjoyed. Consider the morning pleasure of perfect coffee and a crusty European sourdough drizzled with olive oil and shaved, dark chocolate with a side ramekin of honey . . . yep, a nirvana called Il Buli!
We were also delighted at how quickly folks connected with us: one lady, a child psychologist with a practice on the ECR in Chennai, left her party to sit with us over our pizza at Tanto and another, a woman close to our age who had dropped out and was now making jewelry as a member of the community, who chatted with us over breakfast at Bread & Chocolate. (It turns out we missed Marc’s Cafe, just a few hundred meters down the road . . . his coffee is magnificent and we took his “Coffee 101” class at Nicobar last weekend . . . and boy is that another story!)
So, all in all, a flavorful and relaxing road trip, with only minor skirmishes as we–Mani–leveled up with another heady run through the return slalom course to our home. But as we drove down our street, we automatically looked for Walter, our teru nai–street dog–who consistently sleeps right in the middle of the road, and we realized there was no sign of him. For the next four days, sadly, still no sign–and the fraternity of watchmen and even the ironing man across the street had no idea what had happened to him. Our attachment surprised us by how much we missed the bedraggled old fellow, and I wondered if he had been insulted by my too formal a name for him and simply moved on.
But the story has a happy ending as I happened one afternoon to glance out our front window—I was actually hoping (wishing) to see him even after so long—and there he was, skinny as a whippet and limping painfully, but trotting with decided focus down the street. It turns out that, with the thousands of crackers that are constantly exploding over the few days around Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights, many of the street dogs take refuge at the nearby Arupadai Murugan Temple down by a quieter section of the beach (where the horses hang out), and where the crackers are fewer and less intrusive. Anyway, we ran out and fed him and gave him water and the folks across the street have now provided a blanket for him in their carport as Northeast Monsoon season has now hit Chennai–but that, as you can guess, will be another story.
Welcome home, Walter.
Next up, we head to Dubai for a few days. But in the meantime, I explored the Thiruvanmiyur wholesale veg market and, as noted, Sarah and I both gained coffee enlightenment with Marc Tormo’s Coffee 101 class at the new Nicobar boutique up in the tony Nungambakkam neighborhood. Stay tuned . . .