Weeks and weeks with a blog update, but with good reason. Many a good reasons:
Spent a week in Chennai in mid-June adjudicating visas on a week-long TDY assignment. The exchange was concocted as a way to improve cross-polination, of sorts, across the five posts in India. Things go more smoothly for everyone if we all understand the intricacies of visa law in a similar manner; it’s still a bit of a work in progress.
The weekend before, came early to enjoy a great day at the beach with 151st classmate Maureen, her husband and cute son Noah. Almost ran into student-exchange-sister-by-extension Julia the Lufthansa flight stewardess in Chennai, too. Close but no cigar. She flies into India once a month, though, so we’ll plan something someday.
Monday through Friday were interesting, a good chance of pace. It’s fun to see another consulate’s procedure in motion. They’ve been at things in Chennai since 1867, after all, so they’re a bit more polished than our operation in HYD. And it was refreshing to be in a building with twice as many Americans to meet and befriend and such modern conveniences as: a cafeteria, a canteen shop, a public-access library, a meeting hall, conference rooms and interview booths that actually work. The city itself is a bit more drab than Hyderabad, and our weather’s certainly better, but life in Chennai has some perks: better flights, a more international population, better driving destinations, and a slightly more “civilized” city.
And the weekend after, roadtripped to peacefully Pondicherry. I’ve long romanticized the former French colony, now administered by the central government, and it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood, even if it wasn’t as cool as Goa.
From Chennai, bus is the best option to Pondi. If you select a private air-conditioned bus, it’ll take about 4 hours and $30. The “station” is a bit of a shock. A jumble of modern buses, jammed into a crumbling stockade of little private stalls, each selling tickets for only one of the buses. Tourists, locals, animals, shipping freight all milling around at various speeds, buses coming and going without timetable but with plenty of honking. Once you manage to find the right number stall, and get pointed onto the right bus, though, you’re pleasantly sound-proofed from the bustle. The seats recline, Bollywood is played, and the chaos of India flashes past the window as you cruise along as the king of the road.
Make sure someone lets you know when the bus gets to Pondicherry: there’s no bus station, of course, and none of the shop signs along the road they drop you off on are in the French you’re hoping for. I was a bit skeptical as I held a map out to a late-night autorickshaw driver, but he nodded and five minutes later the streets started to broaden and I saw the first signs of beautiful French.
Most of Pondicherry is a beautiful-to-behold grid of streets, a most excellent change of pace of the usual Indian “urban planning.” The three or four blocks closest to shore are lined with well-cared-for colonial buildings. Ancient trees, sidewalks, French-quarter-esque balconies, street signs in French, the whole shebang. For centuries, Pondi was the headquarters of French interests in India, to this day France still has a consulate in town. These days, the old colonial buildings house the Pondicherry government, which oversees four or five enclave cities up and down the coasts of India, all returned to Indian possession by the French in 1964. There isn’t a lot to see and do, but that’s half the charm. You can STROLL in Pondicherry, an exceptional rarity in India. So everyone – locals, Indian tourists, and a smattering of westerners – strolls with a smile on their face.
The Promenade comes with recommendations. Modern, trendy feel at a great location, right across the main promenade from the shore. The hotel has a good brunch, a hidden pool that makes a great oasis, and an under-utilized rooftop bar with a great view. You can get a room in Pondi for less than $100, but why would you want to? Website
And it was in Pondicherry, naturally, that I picked up three French wives.
Andrew and I elbowed our way into their conversation at the restaurant late on a Saturday night. They had been looking at us, we took that as permission. In delightful French accents, they explained how they had come to India to volunteer in an orphanage and practice their English. They lasted one day in the village before they left, unhappy to find out that the program was actually a school, the children were older than expected, and didn’t speak English. They retreated to Pondicherry to concoct a plan, and were willing to consider an invitation to Hyderabad.
I flew back to Hyderabad, while they mosied their way northwestward on the train. The next day, I finished packing six months of affects – as the last holdout in Alcatraz – and moved a curvy mile away to my brand new apartment! Expect a fuller tour soon, but know that it’s spectacular. Four bedrooms, four balconies, five baths. A great kitchen, huge living areas, and a sitar-emblazed puja room! The colony is peaceful and green and quiet and lovely and calm and fantastic. It’s so much easier to be happy in India when you have a place to call your own and finally make your own.
But settling in is hard work. And frankly I knew I’d need a woman’s eye and touch to make the new place a home. So why not three? And what society is more cultured in such arts than France? Within a day, the ladies were helping me furnish and adorn the apartment with the right touches of color. They helped me find everything in need for a more-than-modest kitchen, and were pretty good chefs in their own right. With their help, hosted a perfect little dinner party with a blend of friends, hopefully the first of many. Plus, added bonus, the ladies were traveling with a video projector, so in the absence of a television, we watched movies on the wall.
One day while I was sitting at my desk, they sent an SMS. “We have a surprise for you Jeremy!” I smiled the whole afternoon. When I got home, a fish bowl and four gold fish on my ten-seater dining table! “One is Delphi, one is Sophie, one is Marie,” they said proudly. “And this one is Raghu!” Delightful sentiment. Alas, the next morning, we awoke to find Delphi floating. And during breakfast, Raghu went belly-up, too. (He laughed a lot when he learned this in the car an hour later.) Marie made it two days longer. Twelve later now, only Sophie swims on.
Sadly, after two weeks or so, they’re gone now, all back to France. Delphi to keep delivering other people’s babies and Sophie and Marie to continue their studies. Bon voyage!
The only downside to the new palatial set-up is...the Internets. I miss it. A lot. I like the 21st century. I like my friends. I like the Daily Show. I like the Interweb. I want it back.
But getting anything done in India is, well, a battle. My home is pre-wired for the internet, which is cutting-edge in India. It blew the BeamTelcom guys away when they came to hook up the cables. After an hour, they decided it was installed improperly because they couldn’t figure it out. The building electricians spent an hour twisting wires before determining the same. It took a week for the landlord’s electrician to come and pronounce that he’d prewired everything for a different internet provider, not BeamTelecom. The consulate electrician decide a week later he could probably get it to work with BeamTelecom, but those efforts have yet to come to fruition.
Even posting this update was a 4-hour struggle. I flipflopped over the hill and down the road to the first mall. Not only did the bookstore coffee house not have wifi, but it took 46 minutes to receive a strawberry swirl, or something along those lines. The second mall didn't have wifi either. Marching off to a "net center" down the road, i ran into a long-lost friend. back in hyderabad despite her best instincts, who graciously offered a ride to the ONE PLACE IN HYDERABAD with wifi! This is ridiculous. The 21st century in one of India's most cyber-saavy cities...and there's only one damn place to get on the internet. CyberCafe's don't exist. i speculate it's a two-prong issue: 1. if you're a member of Indian society who is "on the web," you're wealthy enough to have a computer and internet at home. and if you can't afford those luxuries, you don't have any interest in the same. 2. india jumped from chiseling fancy things in stone straight to super high-tech cell phones, skipping over laptops and the need for public WIFI, i guess.
(Opp, just interrupted mid-keystroke by a request from a "Beyond Coffe" customer to explain why i had refused his L1 application last week...)
So instead of the internet, I read. I clean. And I feed my one remaining fish.
Also in the review mirror, the Fourth of July, my first as a diplomat abroad. Andrew and others put a lot of planning into the consulate party at a local hotel, but I was pretty detached, I didn’t have any time to volunteer over the past few months. Heavy rains couldn’t dampen the spirit, even if it did reduce the turnout. Pleasantly so. And the skies did clear for a nice firework grand finale.
And the twin excitements this week? Turning 31 will likely prove anticlimactic, as who would want to be any older than 30? But as long as I continue to act closer to 25 than 35, I figure I’ll be just fine. The better birthday present will be a visit from D.C. friend Janani*, swinging through Hyderabad on a month-long pre-graduate school heritage journey of sorts.
(* Not pronounced as it looks.)