4th Feb: 14,621 steps walked
7th: 3 tears. Time to say bye to Pondicherry/Auroville.
And no, I’m not calling it Puducherry.
One winter evening last season, Deepali (soul sister/travel buddy/gossip partner, nah, partner in all crime) and I figured we should let the office cafeteria snacks swim in oil and head out for a bite instead. She had just returned from a 3-day trip to Pondicherry/Auroville, so there was enough spice for a long chat.
A few cups of tea and a shamefully high number of buttered buns (What? You see a pun here?) later, I realised that Deepali’s escapade tales were exactly the inspiration I needed. The timing was right too — I hadn’t taken a vacation in months. Somehow resisting the urge to make reservations right away, I decided to take a few days to look at my calendar, get leave approved, and most importantly, tend to the paranoia. In under a month (timed perfectly, right after a big event and hence busy month at work) I was to fly to Chennai.
Research on company-approved accommodation options and cab vendors was the first step. And then unlimited reading up on general safety — could I stay outdoors after sundown? How about wearing shorts at the beach? How about letting an actual conversation start with a stranger? (Yes, this is India, and I already confessed to my paranoia.) Fortunately, almost everything I read told me that not only were all my doubts unnecessary, Pondicherry was one of THE safest places in India for women to travel solo to. Guess I could’ve just taken Deepali’s word for it. But that’s not how you earn the paranoid tag.
Anyway, with a strange sense of freedom that can only follow sufficient anxiety, I took off on the morning of 4th February last year. There was a three-day itinerary ready to replicate, and then another day. I’ll spare you the chronological details, and get on to a more Buzzfeed-approved format now:
1. Pondicherry is just about spending a weekend drinking at the beach.
FALSE. It could be that too, but there’s so much more. The cafes, the streets, the architecture, the contrast between White Town and Black Town (Yes, they mean exactly what you think they do.). And Auroville. What a magical place.
2. Pondicherry is for broke couples looking for a quick and dirty getaway.
FALSE. See 1.
3. Pondicherry doesn’t have much to do beyond 1–2 days.
FALSE. See 2.
Okay, clearly mythbusters don’t agree with me. Let’s just skip to the highlights.
I wanted to maximise the time I had in every way possible, so stayed at different properties each night. Started out with a villa on the Promenade Beach, moved to a run-of-the-mill everyday-premium property on the next day, and ended my trip at a boutique heritage hotel, all within a few kilometres of each other and in the “downtown” of the city.
Barring the cafes I already had on my list (How can I ever thank you enough, Deepali?), I tried to go to to as many of TripAdvisor’s top recommendations. Every place had different specialties, but three common things I saw:
– Great, fresh food (You don’t have to be big on seafood even!)
– Unbeatable prices (Well technically, nothing can beat the cheap price of free, but then again, there’s no free lunch in the world.)
– Very welcoming and polite staff
My favourite cafes:
1) Le Cafe, Promenade Beach, Pondicherry
2) Kasha Ki Aasha
3) Villa Shanti, Pondicherry
4) Cafe Ole, Pondicherry
5) Zuka Choco-la, Pondicherry
6) Highdesign Cafe, Pondicherry
Getting around the city
For my trip to Auroville to book a slot for concentration at the Matrimandir, I asked the hotel concierge to arrange a cab that I could use by the hour/kilometre. For short intra-city trips, I would highly recommend walking or bicycling. For longer distances, app-based cabs work perfectly. Hotel staff and others were happy to speak to the drivers on my behalf if pickup directions ever became a problem.
I will admit that I knew nothing of Auroville, or associated principles/history before planing the trip, but there was enough time to change that. I knew that missing the chance to meditate inside the inner sanctum wasn’t a choice, so I ended up making a total of three trips to Auroville (~40 minutes from Pondicherry) — one on my way from Chennai on day 1, when I missed the window to reserve my spot; one the next day, when I finally got a spot; and then to meditate on day 4, on the way back to Chennai.
Anyway, boring details aside, Auroville. First off, your attitude toward meditation/religion/spirituality could range anywhere between 0 and seven-chakras-aligned, but you have to go meditate inside the Matrimandir. The place is divine — spotless to the eyes and ears; everything inside is mystifyingly off-white, and there is this brilliant interplay of sun rays from the skylight with the few dust particles in the inner sanctum. First-timers are allowed inside for only fifteen minutes, but the impact lasts long. (Lasts long, really long, as they would say — still not trying to make a pun.)
You step inside only after receiving an introduction from an Aurovillian and on the way out, you’re guided to a garden and allowed to stay there for a few minutes before the next batch comes in. Ours had enough millennials, busy professionals, and curious tourists who would normally die every minute without their phones, but everyone felt so one with the moment that they had to be physically plucked from the garden. Well, I can at least speak for myself. For the longest time, I didn’t want to utter a word.
Obviously I had to, at some point. So I broke my silence getting a berry ice-cream. Spent the rest of the bright afternoon biking all over the village, going over some patches over and over, just because. Actually not just because, it was so I could earn the lasagna and brownie I would have in a couple of hours at Tanto’s.
SCUBA diving is a fairly hot bucket list item for most people. Yours truly included. And so I booked my Introduction to SCUBA dive before I could get any more deathly scared about jumping right into the ocean on a solo trip. Thankfully I noticed before the dive that since I had a one-on-one instructor, having company wouldn’t have made a difference. As far as recommendations are concerned, Pondicherry is a great place for first-timers. The Temple Adventures instructors* and staff and extremely friendly and fun, and if things don’t work out too well (bad bends, cold feet, too much sea sickness) it’s relatively okay because you’re only missing a part-artificial underwater jungle. I, for instance, had to come back up sooner than I wanted to, because my right ear was off exploring, perhaps, outer space, and kept hurting regardless of how much I would equalise the pressure.
This end of the country is as great a place as any to buy trinkets, souvenirs or you know, actual useful stuff, but that wasn’t quite on my agenda. I did pick up a pair of sandals from Kasha ki Aasha and a necklace and a beanie from Auroville though.
If I Had More Time
– Spend more time relaxing on the beaches — this time I didn’t even get a chance to lay my sheet on the sands.
– Stop by at Mahabalipuram on the way from/to Chennai.
– Spend a night at Auroville. Airbnb has a kilometre-long list of places. I’m sure some would pass my paranoia filters.
The Elevator Pitch
Go there. Enough said.
Breathe the city, drink the city, live the city.
*My pool instructor, Siddharth’s instructions were so on point:
2. Equalise (Thanks, again, right ear for your adamant refusal.)
3. Have fun