Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Weekend Getaway in Pondicherry

After ending my first full week in Vellore, I embarked on the first of what I am sure will be many trips across southern and hopefully northern India. After only one meeting, I was invited to join a trip to the city of Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now called) for the weekend of August 28th - August 30th. Instead of writing out a whole new description, I've simply copied the email that I sent out after returning. Hope you all enjoy!

Friday afternoon, I left Vellore with eleven other international students. They had reserved a private bus, so it was just us, and we traveled in the lap of luxury - well, for India at least... Driving through the country side introduced me to a whole new aspect of India. There were gorgeous rolling hills and field after field of grains. Small villages often lined the road and it was incredible to get a short glimpse of what life is like for a majority of the Indian population. The ride took about 3.5 hours and I spent most of it simply staring out the window, amazed by the countryside. During our drive, we also passed through several small towns. In one, we drove by a school bus full of children (with about an inch between our bus and theirs). When the kids noticed that we were obviously foreigners, they began shouting and waving. All of them saying "Hi!" and asking our names. It was a strange and somewhat exhilarating experience. We were a novel sight for these children and I think that many of them wanted to show off the English that they could speak.

We arrived in Pondicherry at about 7:30, got settled in our rooms, which were very nice, and then headed out to dinner at a roof top cafe - Le Rendezvous. Pondicherry, now called Puducherry, was originally colonized by the French and the city has many remaining French elements. Dinner was good, although some people who ordered very Western food weren't impressed. From there, we headed to the sea front, walked along the ocean (there wasn't really a beach per se but it was beautiful), and had ice cream at a little shop. We finally got to bed at about midnight.

I roomed with a girl named, ironically, Sarah, who is a final year medical student from Germany. She is at CMC for two months observing in the surgical department. Saturday morning, we got up at about 9 and decided to head out for breakfast on our own, since we weren't sure when the others would wake. It ended up that we spent the entire day off on our own, which was actually quite nice and easier than moving in a large group. Breakfast was at this cafe on the ocean called Le Cafe. I had a great omelette and some lovely fresh fruit. We sat for awhile and then headed into the heart of Pondicherry for some exploring. Our first visit was to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a place for spirituality, meditation, and yoga. We were allowed inside and sat in the meditation garden for about half an hour. People prayed over Sri Aurobindo's mausoleum and the atmosphere in this place was incredibly peaceful. There really was something in the air that was calming. Sadly, no pictures were allowed. After this, we ended up at a temple. Outside of the temple, to our surprise was an elephant! The elephant's name was Lakshmi and she had been trained to take coins from your hand and then tap you on the head with her trunk. I did it twice because it was so cool! After spending quite some time at the temple, we kept walking.

The next few hours were spent doing a little shopping in some of the street shops. I bought two sets of fabric to be made into salwar kameez...the colors are amazing. We also sat for about an hour in an ice cream shop to escape from the heat. From the shops, we headed to the Grand Bazaar, an Indian market, that was truly an awe inspiring sight. Row after row of vegetables, spices, fruits, pastas and grains, and almost everything else that you could imagine were there. And, this was a true Indian market, not a tourist attraction, which was great to see. Anyway, when we were finally done wandering Pondicherry, we returned to Le Cafe and sat in the shade, reading and eating samosas.

For dinner, the rest of the group went to a posh hotel and paid 500 rupees for an all you can eat buffet. Sarah and I opted out of this option, and ate in this hole in the wall Indian restaurant, called Le Coromondale. We had parotta, naan, vegetable fried rice, dhaal masala and paneer butter masala...all for only 137 rupees (less than 3 dollars). The food was great and it was a fun Indian experience. More ice cream after dinner, and then we sat along the beach and talked.

All in all it was incredible, and it was only the first day.

Sunday morning, I got up early and went to a Catholic mass with Jessica, an international student from the U.K. She is also a final year med student, and interestingly enough she wants to combine her studies in medicine with the religious life. Meaning, she wants to become a nun and also practice medicine. Anyway, the mass was in English and it was a really lovely service, with lots of singing.

Afterwards, I met up with Sarah and Stefan (another German student), had a quick breakfast at Le Cafe, hopped into a rickshaw and headed for Auroville. Auroville is this small city of about 2000 people that is 11 kilometers outside Pondicherry. It was founded by "the Mother," and is a very spiritual and rather esoteric place. In the words of the Auroville founders, "Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity." Its an interesting and kind of strange place. The biggest sight to see is the Matri Mandir, which is a large, almost spherical building, the entire outside of which is covered in gold disks. This is the "spiritual center" of Auroville and inside is a room for 'consideration.' Visitors aren't allowed inside, but you can view the Matri Mandir from afar. It was quite an impressive sight, although I am a little confused about why a group that believes in the evils of materialism and that is searching for the 'human truth' needs such an ostentatious symbol. I'm sure they have their reasons... Overall, I have mixed feelings about the philosophy of Auroville, but it was definitely a unique place to visit. Another nice aspect was the cafe. We all sat and had apple pie with ice cream and juice (I chose guava which was delicious). The apple pie wasn't quite like dad's home made pie...

To return to Pondicherry, we grabbed another rickshaw and were on our way. We had just entered the city, when we spotted a wagon with a huge statue of Ganesh, the Indian elephant god, at a nearby intersection. This obviously caught our interest, so we basically abandoned the rickshaw, somewhere in the middle of the city and set off to find Ganesh. Well, this turned out to be one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. There was a procession of at least 100 trucks and wagons, all with statues of Ganesh and young men and boys hanging all over them. The men were covered in colored powders in celebration of the festival of Ganesh. As we walked along the roadside, staring in awe at this incredible procession, we were basically mobbed by young boys and men. They were shouting "Hello!" and "Photo, photo!!," and many wanted to shake our hands and learn our names. The young boys in particular really wanted to have their photo taken...and we complied... They especially wanted to shake my and Sarah's hand, since in traditional Indian culture men do not often touch women, especially in public. I don't really have the words to describe it, but it was incredible. We got caught up in the celebration and the excitement and it truly was a once in a lifetime experience. We were so lucky to have gone to Pondicherry on the one weekend every year when this festival occurs. The one down side to this experience was the realization that it was only men who were participating in the celebration. Women don't join in (aren't allowed to join in), for whatever reason. It was a little disconcerting to so obviously see some of the separation that exists between men and women here.

When we finally left the procession, we passed by the temple to see Lakshmi the elephant once more and then we grabbed a quick dinner at a small restaurant. The meal was served on a palm leaf, as is the custom in Southern India. From there, we walked through the Sunday market and got back to our hotel just in time to take the bus back to Vellore. Three and a half hours later, much of it through the pouring rain, we were back in the city that is my temporary home.

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