Sunday, January 28, 2007

Republic Day in Pondicherry

We arrived into Chennai late on Thursday night and immediately booked a car for Pondicherry. "Pondy," as it's known, is a former French outpost that still retains its Francophone flavor. Streets feature blue Parisian-tile numbers, the only difference being that the Rues in Pondy also feature the street name in Tamil... surprise! Tamil is one of 16 official languages in India, each relatively unique to its home state, but generally Dravidian in linguistic origin (in the South).

The ride from Chennai to Pondy is about 120 km. A private black "Ambassador" ride, set of drivers, and guarantee of adventure set us back around 1800 rupees ($40). Half way to Pondy our drivers pulled off for dinner at a street-side shop. We, apparently, didn't really have a say in this so we ordered a chai, chicken, and chiapati on a banana leaf. The two locals from Tamil Nadu with whom we sat didn't speak much English, but told us we were their best friends after 20 minutes across us in plastic chairs, fingers dripping and arms smeared with curries.

Upon arrival we watched the sun rise out of the Bay, looking across the water towards the coast of Thailand, Malaysia, and Sumatra, and across the water that experienced the Tsunami two years back. The coastline appears relatively undamaged today, but locals warn of dangerous rip tides due to offshore sediment and sea-floor changes.

Aside from Francophone Indians and culinary melange of crepes and dosas, Pondy is also host to a few churches, the biggest of which features a colorful statue of Jesus and facade fit for a coastal Mediterranean post rather than aside the Bay of Bengal.

A stroll through the back alleyways of Pondy landed us amidst a local cricket match. We rounded a corner to find a scurry of seven year olds, and a stone wall that stood as the makeshift wicket. Until we arrived, the only spectators were two loitering goats and a cow in the same alleyway. The kids called us over, and we guarded the wicket through an hour of enthusiastic bowls. After a dozen short-films of our enthusiastic young friends reveling in the street, a risky handful of home-made samosas, and an exchange of emails, we attempted to leave the alley and bevy of young cricketers but were assured that we'd get a tour of the city.

Six boys between ages 11 to 16 began giving us the grand Pondy tour, ripe with junkets through back-alley homes, a shrine blessing, guided walk through the Botanical Gardens, and stroll along Pondy's tres-French promenade. Aside from the vibrant saris that unfurl across the path, the large Ghandi statue, and dearth of silver stones, strolling the Pondy promenade is not unlike being on the Cote d'Azur.

As we neared the beach we invited the boys to lunch. Eight sandwhiches, six grape juices, and three banana splits later, we'd given our crew of cricketing tour guides an unforgettable Indian Republic Day, and we'd gotten to know pure Pondy.

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