Thursday, April 24, 2014


We recently made our second—and much overdue—sojourn outside of Chennai this past Easter weekend. We drove three hours south to the former French colonial town of Pondicherry.

The drive didn’t seem long, despite the fact that I was riding folded in half in the back of our Honda CRV, partly because we were venturing into new lands and partly because Elise sacrificed herself to the car sickness gods (maybe she doesn’t get car sick the way I do, having been raised on a healthy diet of prolonged car trips) by reading the first several chapters of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

The book presents itself initially as a mystery, and both Sam and Peter were enraptured as they conjectured the true nature of the undersea monster, initially thought to be, by the book’s narrator Monsieur Arronax, a giant narwhal. Clementine napped soundly through most of the drive.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t done much planning in the run up to our trip. I realized this suddenly after we had checked into our hotel, a lovely heritage hotel converted from an old Parisian manor in the heart of the Old French Quarter in Pondicherry which was noticeably calmer than the surrounding districts. It really was like a quiet slice of Europe tucked within India. I guess I thought we would just wander, stroll, duck into shops, stop in cafes, and take photos. Then, I realized we had three toddlers in tow.

We arrived around noon and it was close to 95 degrees out. We needed lunch. I did have the foresight to scope out a local South Indian restaurant down the road, A2B, from our hotel and we headed there for lunch.

After entering the restaurant, Elise and I quickly realized that this was not a traditional sit-down restaurant, but it took us quite some time to figure out what the system was. After finding a spot to park the kids, I tried to go to the self-service counter and order. Ordering South Indian food for the kids has always been a challenge. The food is notoriously spicy as hell. This is not a problem for Elise and I. In fact, we now find we can’t eat anything without heat into it. We both suppose that a plate of volcanic buffalo chicken wings back in the States will now seem mild in comparison to some of the dishes we have to date eaten in India. But the kids still don’t do spice. Images of Pete vainly attempting to wipe his tongue with palms of his hands while at the same time screaming, “I got spicy in my mouth!” come to mind.

Fortunately, after having been cut in line no less than three times (Indians don’t generally queue), the proprietor of the establishment took pity on me and was kind enough to wait on the table of Americans (sorry, I even wore my Nats cap to shield my face from the sun). Elise quickly noticed that he wasn’t waiting on anyone else. Just us.

The food came quickly and was delicious. Elise and I ordered a traditional North Indian thali which arrived after a sumbar-like gravy that was already enough food for the both of us. I asked him the name of the dish, but I never did catch it.

After lunch, Elise and I had the notion to return to the hotel and nap the hottest part of the day away. Only Clementine, who had slept for an hour in the car, had other plans. Such as run around the room for an hour and flick all the light switches on and off and on and off again. We threw our arms up in frustration and decided to head out anyway. Okay, we thought, if you don’t want to nap then we will march you through the 95 degree heat!

We walked down to the beach and found a refreshing breeze coming off it. If we stayed in the shade we were sure we may not melt. We wandered to a Bharathi Park, in the center of the Old French Quarter. There, in the shade, the kids played on the playground until everyone was thoroughly drenched in a thick, viscous sweat. We bought Chocobars from an ice cream cart and headed back to the hotel.

The hotel didn’t have a pool much to our chagrin—few of the colonial heritage hotels in the heart of the town do—but it did have a tub. So I filled that up with some water and let the kids cool down. After bathes, we changed and sat in the courtyard outside our room under giant mango trees replete with ripening fruit. In another week or two the courtyard would have a legitimate hazard on its hard, but for now, overhead was just the promise of sweet hanging fruit. Elise ordered a glass of wine, and the kids ordered juices. I ordered a cold Kingfisher. The kids swirled around us in play on the uneven cobblestones despite our words of caution, and a minute later Clementine, chased by Sam, caught her toe on the edge of an empty trench encircling the courtyard and smashed her face on the pavement.

Blood rushed out of a gash above her eye and we immediately raced to the street to hail an auto. I hurriedly dialed the nurse at my work, hoping she would know where we could take Clementine in the likely event she needed stitches. Her recommendation didn’t come soon enough and we found ourselves outside a clinic few blocks away. We piled out of the auto and into the clinic. The auto rickshaw driver guided us past the check-in window to the triage room where I pulled up.

A man lay on a gurney holding a bloody kerchief to his head. I grabbed Peter and Sam by their shirt collars. I said to Elise, “We’re not going in there.”

We reassessed. The cut had stopped bleeding so, after stopping at a pharmacy for hydrogen peroxide, we decided to clean it out ourselves. The cut was clean and if it leaves a scar, it will be small. After the scare, we found our drinks right where we had left them and decided to go up to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner.

We had the place to ourselves for most of the meal and played various word games to make the time pass more quickly as we waited for our food. We took turns going through the alphabet. The first person thought of an animal that started with the letter ‘A’. The second person thought of an animal that started with the letter ‘B’ and so on.

The next morning we returned to A2B for a traditional South Indian breakfast of dhosas, vadas, idlys and chutneys. At 10:00 we headed to the Pondicherry Museum. We returned to the room early and made tuna fish and peanut butter sandwiches and prepared for naps. This time, worn down by the mornings heat, everyone would nap, myself and Elise included, though she snuck out of the room after an hour to go on an impromptu photowalk.

Our hotel was conveniently located across the street from the Manakula Vinayagar Temple where, in the late afternoons, Lakshmi the elephant stands outside the entrance to the temple and bestows blessing on passers-by for a two rupee coin. Clementine and I and Elise were blessed. The boys not so much.

That evening we had a reservation to eat at Villa Shanti, the nicest restaurant in town. Our reservation wasn’t until seven, and the kids help up well, despite the heat and the time it took for the food to come. We would have had to carry them all back to the hotel if we hadn’t found an auto.

The next morning, as I had mentioned in the previous post, we had breakfast at Café des Artes. There, Elise and I concluded that we liked Pondicherry…even if it wasn’t very kid friendly. We had heard from others that had visited that there wasn’t a lot to do in Pondicherry, but I think some people may just have trouble being in a place. Neither Elise nor I need to be entertained. We are content wandering, stopping in cafes and shops and just enjoying each the scenery. The kids not so much, and though they were as good as could be expected, next time I might make sure that there is at least a pool or beach for them to go to. 

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