Pondi is the most cosmopolitan of the towns we’ve yet visited. It’s also the origin point of the book Life of Pi, for any Yann Martel fans out there. An ex-French colony, 80% of the population still speaks French, the policemen wear little circular, red, flat-topped kepi hats, and streets have names like Rue Bussey and Rue Simonel. The architecture resembles New Orleans, with drippy, green foliage to match. You’ll find plenty of wine shops (an anomoly in a country where only one brand of wine seems to be mass-distributed, an Indian specialty called Sula), and in February the ocean breeze banishes mosquitos for many blocks inland.
We spent most of our time in the “White Colony,” where the French colonists used to live across the canal from the Indians in the “Black Colony.” We took in the silence of Sri Aurobindo’s well-known ashram before hopping over to a lively local temple dedicated to the half-elephant god Ganesha, the remover of obstacles.
Hindu temples feel dark and damp, especially compared to the bright tropical sun and heat. Years of smoky incense and burning candles leave the walls as black as any Greek Orthodox cathedral I’ve seen, though heaps of bright flowers burying each of the shrines add plenty of chromatic interest. At any moment you might be surprised by drums, whistles, clanging, and clapping, as the devout offer up jubilant songs and prayers. In the center of it all there’s a special, raised room where the priests sit, usually containing a large flame and often a sacred object. The priests dole out blessings to the worshippers by smudging holy ash on their foreheads (the color indicates which god has been invoked). Outside, a painted elephant sporting delicate ankle bracelets and earrings, a common sight at Genesha temples, also bestowed blessings, gladly tapping the heads of the worthy that offered up handfuls of grass and rupees. (A word to the wise: If you make your offering out of sight of the trainer, the elephant might be tempted to skip the head-tap, as happened to a friend of mine.) Want to offer both at once? No problem. The elephants will grab what you give them with their trunks, passing the rupees to the trainer before munching on the grass.
A group of us wandered along the pretty streets and fun shops by the seaside, finally settling at Cafe des Arts, a tucked-away outdoor cafe and contemporary art gallery overflowing with bright bouganvillea. They advertise the careful washing of their produce, so we felt safe enough to feast on RAW vegetables – luxury of all luxuries! (Don’t go to India expecting to appease your salad cravings.) I topped off my good fortune with a rich cappuccino and refined, white flour in the form of a perfectly made crepe sprinkled with lemon and sugar. No doubt the exhausting, prolonged bus travel would again consume a large portion of my next day, but for the time being that all seemed eons away.