Further Fulfilling my Wanderlust: Travels Through Tamil Nadu (Part 2)

At the end of my last blog post, I had left you when we had just hopped off the train from Coimbatore in Madurai, at the end of our Ooty trip. We actually didn’t have any further trip plans made at this point. Some locations we were thinking of going to next included Munnar, a small town in eastern Kerala famed for its tea plantations, and Mysore, a historic city in southern Karnataka that was the capital of one of the great realms of southern India, the Kingdom of Mysore. While we especially wanted to visit Mysore, a combination of train booking unavailability and the long travel likely inhibiting our project timelines, we were forced to this plan.

That week at Inspiration, we talked more with Krishna, the Aurolab intern I previously mentioned whose father leads AEH-Pondicherry. He mentioned that he was going to Thoothukudi, on the southern coast of Tamil Nadu, with his friends that next weekend. Having heard of Thoothukudi but not knowing much about it, I learned from him that the town is famed for its coral reefs, snorkeling, scuba diving, and other water sports (the Tamil Nadu government has recently started promoting tourism there as well). This also coincidentally being the last district I needed to check off my list in southern Tamil Nadu, we decided to make this our next weekend trip.

Trip 3: Thoothukudi (July 17th)

Thoothukudi (known as Tuticorin to the British colonists) is also popularly called Muthu Nagar in Tamil, meaning Pearl City. One of the most famous aspects of this area’s economy, along with salt production and maritime shipping, is beautiful pearls from marine oysters. Celeste and I extensively planned for this trip since we’d only have a day and there was so much to see—the vlogs and pictures online made us all the more excited. We ultimately made a very detailed and ordered plan for our visit. Unfortunately, Suhaas and Manya weren’t able to join us on this trip because their visits to their respective eye camps were planned for that weekend.

Celeste and I woke up early on Sunday morning in order to make it to our train, the Mysore-Tuticorin Express that would depart Madurai Junction at 7:40 am. We thought it would just be us two, but as a pleasant surprise, my mom had traveled to Madurai from Coimbatore the previous night and would be joining us since she also hadn’t been to Thoothukudi before and also wanted to make sure we got around this unfamiliar place safely.

We arrived quite early at Madurai Junction, so again I had time to satisfy my inner childhood railfan and was able to see a variety of trains coming from all around India. Finally, right on time, the Tuticorin Express arrived and we boarded our train. This time, we had splurged a little bit and booked a 2-tier AC coach, which has two levels of beds rather than three with curtains separating the berths, giving more space and privacy. Still, the ticket was only around 700 rupees (less than 9 dollars), which from a US perspective make me wish travel back home was this affordable!

Most of the passengers were coming from Mysore and had disembarked at Madurai, so the train was not too crowded. We hadn’t slept much the previous night (I was working on another blog post until 4am!) so we slept and gazed out the window at the rolling fields and patchwork of palm trees that characterizes the landscape of southern Tamil Nadu.

We arrived at Tuticorin station quite early, by 10:30 am. The cool sea breeze rustled my hair as soon as I stepped off the train, perfectly complemented by the salty aroma wafting from the ocean and the abundant salt pans nearby. As we exited the station, we found an auto driver who was willing to take us around for the whole day, and we then set off.

Our first stop was the famous Thoothukudi Salt Pans. Capitalizing upon its seaside location, Thoothukudi actually manufactures a significant proportion of all the salt used throughout India—which is quite a lot based on the love of spices and flavoring in Indian cuisine! The auto stopped on the side of the road, and we were able to climb on top of the 15-foot high white glistening salt mounds that stretched as far as the eye could see. We even tasted some to sample—it couldn’t hurt after all right? There was enough to go around!

After some more fun sliding down the salt piles and observing how the salt was made, we then headed off to our next stop, the Tharuvaikulam Beach a bit north of the main town area. The Tamil Nadu government set up a glass bottom boat here to promote ecological tourism, for just 300 rupees per 3 hour ride. Unfortunately, this time of year in mid-summer was not the best for viewing the corals and the ticket office turned us away because the water was just too cloudy to see the reefs.

Still, we enjoyed some time relaxing on Tharuvaikulam Beach with the warm waters of the Indian ocean gently lapping on the unique ribbons of red-orange and white sand along the coast. Despite not being able to ride on the boat, we still climbed aboard to look around and take pictures! As we were dipping our toes in the turquoise-blue waters of the Indian ocean, I thought to myself that this was a stark contrast to the frigid rain of in the mountains of Ooty the previous week and realized just how diverse Tamil Nadu is, despite being just one state out of many in India. Experiencing these contrasts and sampling the lifestyles of people from vastly different settings like these is why I love traveling so much.

After some more time admiring seashells and washed-up coral on the beach and then watching a herd of goats go by, we then headed off to our next destination, one of the most iconic places in Thoothukudi—a historic white and blue church called the Basilica of Our Lady the Snow.

Churches can be found throughout Tamil Nadu because of the state’s geographical position at the southern tip of India being a natural crossroads of historical trade between the West and the East, opening up the doors to external influences like European missionaries. Even today, churches remain quite abundant in the state because of the Tamil Nadu government’s special emphasis on religious tolerance and diversity even more so than many other states in India. Within Tamil Nadu, Christianity is most prevalent in the most southern districts like Kanyakumari, Tirunelveli, and Thoothukudi, since their location made them the most easily accessible to external influence from these missionaries.

Celeste and I had previously marveled at online pictures of this magnificent church, but it was even more beautiful in person. The white stone walls of the church accentuated by blue trim around the doorways and windows with a completely blue ceiling was a more simple elegance that was quite distinct from the plethora of colors and intricate carvings making up the temples in Madurai that we had gotten more used to.

Inside, we spent time marveling at the intricate, colorful art at the altar, combining a decidedly Tamilian art style with traditional Christian representations. It was definitely a stark contrast to any church in the U.S. and we both enjoyed reflecting about how different historical crossroads led to the development of this unique art style and branch of Christianity here in South India. After some more time walking around inside the church and sitting for some quiet contemplation, we then headed out.

The next place we visited was another characteristically-Thoothukudi location, the town’s fishing boat harbor. As you can see in the photos below, these fishing boats were jam-packed together, impossible to get out unless all the ones in front moved. Our auto driver said that these boats were still in use—many go out at night when the fish patterns become more favorable. We even climbed aboard one of these boats and looked around!

Our next stop was the V.O. Chidambaranar Port, the main harbor of Thoothukudi that is the site of its maritime shipping industry. While we weren’t allowed inside because it was a Sunday, we were able to take a look around at some of the exports. I was particularly awestruck by the massive fiberglass wind turbine blades that were almost 200 feet long. We found a small, secluded beach near the port and spent some time there quietly relaxing in the cool sea breeze only accompanied by the sound of rustling palm trees and the gentle waves washing ashore.

Next, we went to Harbor Beach, a favorite amongst both tourists and locals, where we spent some more time wading in the ocean. Another interesting sight here were large sheets on top of which fishermen were spreading small, anchovy-like fish to sundry. It was interesting seeing the process of boats piled high with these fish coming onshore, and then observing as they were set out to dry like this.

Another recommendation from the vlogs we had watched was to visit Thoothukudi Eco Park. We went here next, where we were able to kayak in a saltwater lake near the ocean. We enjoyed boating around for about half an hour, which was a nice bit of relaxation in the otherwise jam-packed day.

After a quick stop at Roche Park, the main town park of Thoothukudi, we then headed to perhaps the main attraction of the town—Muthu Nagar New Beach. Unlike almost all of the other places we went to that day, this beach was quite full with people, so it definitely was not as serene of an experience. Still, it was great to take in the sights, sounds, and scents, from people excitedly swimming amidst the waves to beachside vendors selling delicious snacks and fruit juices. This beach also has the famous I ❤ Tuty sign, which we made sure to get a picture with!

Sunset had come upon us and it was already getting dark by now, so we decided on making one final stop before heading back to the train. Aside from the seafood, one of the most famous foods in Thoothukudi are the cashew macarons, invented at Ganesh Bakery in the heart of town. Anyone who visits Thoothukudi raves about these airy, crunchy treats, so we had to go try them for ourselves. We were definitely not disappointed by our sampling, and we bought a couple of boxes to take home.

It was almost time for the train, so we asked the auto driver to take us back to the station. We made one final stop however—to try the famous oil parottas of Thoothukudi. These are like Madurai bun parottas, but they are deep-fried in oil (yes, I was also surprised someone found a way to make the bun parottas even less healthy!). We bought a couple each and then packed them in a parcel to eat at the station.

Our return train, the Pearl City Superfast Express, was already waiting for us at the station when we arrived, so after eating our dinner, we boarded the train, and soon fell fast asleep as we pulled away from Pearl City at 8:30 pm on the way back to Madurai.

We arrived back in Madurai right on time around 11:30 pm, and headed straight back to Inspiration in order to rest up in preparation for our work week ahead.

Trip 4: Chennai (July 22nd to 24th)

I mentioned in my previous post that I had traveled quite extensively throughout Tamil Nadu even prior to this summer. From Coimbatore to Kanyakumari, Trichy to Rameswaram, I had seen and experienced so much. But strangely, I had never been to Chennai!

To most Tamilians, Chennai is not exactly considered a prime vacation place. Yes, it has centuries of history including as the capital of the Madras State and now Tamil Nadu, and has incredible attractions, from historic government buildings like the Madras High Court to places for relaxing like Marina Beach, but there are still so many other places that most Tamilians would consider far more beautiful and worth visiting.

Still, I knew I needed to visit Chennai at least once—how could I say I had fully experienced Tamil Nadu without visiting its capital and largest city?

Thus, Celeste and I decided our next trip would be to Chennai. An added bonus was that we’d be able to stay with my cousin and spend time with him as he took us around the area. Manya and Suhaas decided not to come because both have spent quite some time in Chennai on many ocassions.

We decided to make this trip fairly long as well, since a day trip to Chennai would not be feasible given the travel time. We’d leave on Friday afternoon, reach Chennai by Friday night, and leave Chennai on Sunday night to arrive back in Madurai on Monday morning.

After going to work on Friday morning, Celeste and I took the afternoon off so we could pack and then head to Madurai Junction. Our train to Chennai was the famous Tejas Express, recently introduced as the fastest train in Tamil Nadu and one of the fastest in the country. While most trains take about 9 hours between Madurai and Chennai, the Tejas Express only takes 6. We arrived at Madurai Junction with time to spare for our 3:00 pm departure, so we spent some time walking around and then boarded the train.

Once we boarded, I could see why this train had made so much news. Unlike the sleeper cars with stacked beds we had gotten used to, the Tejas Express’s seats were arranged in a 2-2 configuration, complete with personal TVs, WiFi, a traytable, and luggage storage overhead—it was almost like taking a flight! The experience got even better as they started us serving the food that was included, first an array of afternoon snacks with tea and later a full Indian dinner and desert!

During our train ride, we mostly worked on tasks for our respective projects since we were nearing the end of the internship by this point and there was still much to be done. We quickly sped through the Tamil Nadu countryside, only stopping at Dindigul and Trichy along the way.

At around 8:45 pm, we began seeing the bright lights and bustle of Chennai outside the window, and soon pulled into Chennai Egmore station. We initially thought we’d have to find an auto or ride the Chennai metro to my cousin’s home, but he very kindly came to Egmore station to pick us up.

After a 45-minute auto ride through Chennai, we eventually made it to my cousin’s apartment, where we talked with him and his wife for some time and then headed to bed.

The next morning, we awoke early in order to have enough time for everything we planned. The main attraction today would be Mahabalipuram, the site of an ancient city 1 hour south of Chennai whose stone structures and intricate statues are still standing today.

After getting ready and esating a breakfast of idly, vada, pongal, sambar, chutney, and pineapple kesari, we headed out. My cousin booked a driver for us to have the whole day, which made getting around very easy.

Our first stop was the SIMS Hospital, a private hospital in Chennai especially famed for its neurological and neurosurgical treatment. My uncle is the Chief of Radiology there, and I wanted to make a quick visit to meet him since it had been a long time since we’d last met. Once there, he very kindly took time out of his day to take us on a tour around the department and explain his work to us. We spent quite some time talking to him about our internship so far at Aravind as well, and learned about the operational differences between a nonprofit like AEH and a for-profit private hospital like SIMS.

After our visit, we then headed for Mahabalipuram. After a slow crawl through the Chennai weekend traffic and seeing some famous sites along the way like IIT Madras and the 44th Chess Olympiad being set up, we finally made it to Mahabalipuram around 1:00 pm.

Unfortunately, we encountered another obstacle. While my entry fee was only 50 rupees since I could pass as an Indian national, Celeste’s ticket cost 650 rupees! This was just one of many pricing discrepancies between foreigners and locals we encountered throughout the summer.

After we entered, we spent a few hours exploring the rock formations, caves, and ancient stone temples around Mahabalipuram. The scorching sun bared down upon us, but it was still all worth it to see this amazing place. My favorite part of Mahabalipuram was the so-called Krishna’s butter ball, a perfectly spherical rock that is on a sloped stone hill but is stuck in one place and has not rolled down. We had fun taking lots of creative pictures here and also spent some time snacking on juice and ice cream in the much-welcome shade.

After this area, we then headed to the Five Rathas, another site a few kilometers away that also had several ancient stone temples and sculptures. While this site was much less expansive than the main area of Mahabalipuram, we still had fun climbing into the temples and exploring them, admiring the intricate carvings on the columns and walls and taking pictures with the sculptures.

We were quite famished by now, so we decided to get lunch at a small local restaurant along the beach road. The coastal areas around Chennai are known for their delicious seafood, so we took the opportunity to try local preparations of fish and squid.

Our next stop was Besant Nagar beach. Despite the fact that we had left our lunch place in mid-afternoon, we got stuck in Chennai traffic again and it was dark by the time we reached the beach. Besant Nagar Beach is a favorite amongst locals for being more serene and peaceful than Marina Beach, so we still wanted to go and experience it. The night beach experience is definitely something I would try again. While we couldn’t see much, it was quite calming to feel the sea breeze and wade in the ocean waves amidst the dark of night. The beach was also much more lively than we expected, with a bustling fish market along the road and vendors selling snacks, toys, and souvenirs.

While we didn’t want to leave, it was getting late, so we strolled through the sand back to the main road. Before heading back to our car, however, we wanted to check out the nearby Shri Ashtalakshmi Temple, a beachside temple famous in Besant Nagar. We walked through several winding streets and alleyways, but by the time we reached the temple, it was closed. Instead, we spent some time on the nearby beach. On the way back to our car, we also stopped at the Annai Velankanni Shrine, a Gothic-style Catholic basilica that is also iconic to Besant Nagar.

It was quite late by now and it had started raining, so we decided to make a quick run for the car and soon started heading back home.

The next morning, we awoke early again in order to take full advantage of our last day in Chennai. The plan today was to explore the main urban areas of Chennai, taking the famous Chennai Metro as transport.

We first took a cab to the nearest metro station, Koyambedu. I was immediately taken aback by how advanced this metro was as soon as we entered the station. The station was very large and clean, with electronic entry gates and even security lines like an airport. I was also very impressed by the train once we boarded—it was even better than the NYC subway and no comparison at all to SEPTA in Philly. Definitely a stark contrast to other trains we’d taken in India, it seemed like the Tamil Nadu government’s investments into public transit in Chennai were paying off.

After disembarking at Chennai Egmore station, we took an auto to the Government Museum and National Art Gallery. These are part of a complex of several museums in downtown Chennai showcasing artifacts and art of the history of Tamil Nadu and India from ancient times to early-modern history. We spent a couple of hours here learning about the stories that these exhibitions told and even got to learn about Indian contemporary art when we visited the National Art Gallery.

Next, we headed to Fort St. George, the site of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly and other state government buildings. On the way, we drove over the Napier Bridge, which was decorated completely in a chess theme, complete with black and white checkers and different chess pieces, commemorating the upcoming 44th Chess Olympiad. We visited the Fort Museum, where we were able to learn more about the history of Tamil Nadu, particularly about the period of British colonial rule and their ongoing influences on government and society in Chennai to this day.

On the way back, we briefly stopped at the Madras High Court and drove by the Reserve Bank of India, two other places we wanted to see in Chennai.

We then headed to Marina Beach, where we first stopped to eat a traditional seafood lunch prepared at a small beachside stall. After sampling a variety of delicious fish, prawns, and squid, we then headed out to the water. This took longer than we thought, however. Marina Beach not only the second longest in the world, but also deceptively deep—the sand stretches for about a quarter kilometer from the beach road to the ocean.

We eventually made it to the water, where we set up our beach towels in the five feet of available space we could find amidst the bustling Sunday afternoon crowd, and started wading in. We spent several hours here just talking and walking along the sand, and taking in the sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal.

The sun eventually started to set, and it was time to leave so we could cover the remaining items on our list before heading to the train station. We hailed an auto and then drove along the Marina Beach road, where we briefly stopped to take a picture with the “Namma (Our) Chennai” sign and then at the St. George’s Church.

It had gotten dark by now, and the time of our train’s departure was approaching, so we ate a quick dinner across the street from Chennai Egmore station and then headed for our train. We said our goodbyes to my cousin and his wife, and then headed in to wait for our train.

However, it was only 7:45 pm by this point, and our train was only scheduled for 10:00 pm. We didn’t want to spend our last couple of hours in Chennai just waiting at Egmore station, so we took the impromptu decision to get back on the Chennai metro to just ride around the city. Earlier that morning, we had only ridden a few stops on one line, so we decided to explore the rest by riding the other line and making a circle around Chennai. We were able to take in several beautiful night vistas of different Chennai neighborhoods from some of the above-ground metro stations, and made it back to Egmore with plenty of time to spare.

Back at Egmore station, we easily found our train platform and boarded our train, the Madurai Mahal Express. In contrast our inbound train, the Tejas Express, this train would take significantly longer to reach Madurai, more than 10 hours. We would be taking a more indirect route, first along the coast and then turning westward toward Madurai, passing through the eastern cities Cuddalore, Mayiladuthurai, Thanjavur, and then only re-connect with the main route at Trichy. Still, we would be sleeping most of the way and we were scheduled to reach Madurai at 8:15 am the next morning, so this wasn’t much of a problem.

We fell fast asleep soon after boarding the train, and awoke as we were passing the Sirumalai mountain range in between Dindigul and Madurai. Right on time, we reached Madurai Junction as the bright Monday morning sun shined overhead. We disembarked and took an auto back to Inspiration to get ready for work, with our penultimate trip and last train journey this trip completed.

Trip 5: Pondicherry (July 29th to August 1st)

One of the most popular trips for past CASI interns and even other interns at Aravind has been to Pondicherry. AEH-Pondicherry likes to have the intern group there to give them a tour of that hospital and explain how they’ve implemented the decades of learnings from AEH-Madurai as they were developing this hospital. We were also excited to have Pondy as our last trip, not only to explore AEH-Pondicherry and meet the much-storied Dr. Venkatesh (CMO of AEH-Pondicherry and father of Krishna, our fellow intern and new friend), but also to experience the unique French-Indian amalgamation that is Pondicherry.

Pondicherry is one of four locations in the Union Territory of Puducherry—the other three are Karaikal (also an enclave of Tamil Nadu), Mahé (an enclave of Kerala), and Yanam (an enclave of Andhra Pradesh). Unlike the vast majority of India, Puducherry is a collection of past French colonies, the influence of which remains in the architecture, food, and even language today.

An added bonus on this trip was that Sylvia would be joining us! This was quite a last-minute addition—I was coordinating with Sylvia the morning of our trip to get bus tickets—but I’m glad that everything worked out for her to join us.

We left Madurai at 11:15 pm Friday night after boarding the Vaigai Travels sleeper bus that would take us overnight to Pondicherry, dropping us off right at AEH-Pondicherry at 5:30 am the next morning. Like our previous sleeper bus to Coimbatore, this bus was also very comfortable, and after working a bit on our projects, we climbed into our bunks and fell asleep.

I awoke in the middle of the night when the bus paused for a rest stop on the outskirts of Trichy at around 1:00 am. We all hopped of the bus to stretch and buy some snacks at the roadside stand—we shared a delicious sweet coconut bun which definitely hit the spot. We all fell asleep soon after the bus departed, and the hours rolled by until the morning.

A golden ray of sunlight passing through the window disrupted my slumber, and I awoke to see a golden orb rising up from the horizon. My heart sank a little because we had planned to head to Rock Beach to see the sunrise—it turned out the bus was running late.

We only reached AEH-Pondicherry by 6:00 am, and after some time figuring out where the guest house was and then how to get in, we were finally welcomed in by one of the sisters.

To put it simply, the guest house was amazing! Rather than the quite large, hotel-style layout of Inspiration, the AEH-Pondy guest house was quite similar to a large mansion, with a foyer, living room, dining room, kitchen, central courtyard with lush green plants, and bedrooms arranged in a square on the floor above. We wished we had planned for some more time here!

Since we had already missed the sunrise, we took a couple of hours to nap and freshen up, with the plan to eat breakfast and leave around mid-morning. After I napped for a bit and took a much appreciated hot shower, I got ready and headed downstairs.

We all at a delicious breakfast of poori and masala, idly, vada, sambar, and chutney sitting around the dining table together. Meanwhile, we planned our day ahead. We definitely wanted to visit Auroville first. This is a community of people who follow the spiritual teachings of Shri Aurobindo, a philosopher, scholar, and Indian freedom fighter who lived from the late-1800s to mid-1900s. Auroville is a unique society where the economy is said to be all based on bartering and people spend their lives living a peaceful, spiritual existence. Auroville is perhaps the most iconic place to visit in Pondicherry.

We booked a cab online and then headed out to Auroville first. After driving through the streets of Pondy, we got there after not long, and then walked to the visitors’ center. There was a small museum here where we were able to learn about the history and current society of Auroville. Two of my favorite topics to learn about were the development of the barter economy system and Auroville’s efforts with improving primary healthcare. Still, I had some doubts. Is this bubble within the rest of India as idealistic as they made it seem? Realistically, wasn’t this place’s economy supported by tourism dollars and not entirely off the barter system?

Eager to learn more, we headed in, setting off first for the main attraction of Auroville. At the center of this community is a golden orb-shaped temple called the Matrimandir. The main gatherings of this society are held here, and inside is a quiet space for meditation and prayer. We were able to walk the main path to this place, a sandy path through lush green forests and flower-filled fields. Along the way, there were signs displaying the meanings of each different plant and lower according to the teachings in Auroville. After we walked past a lush green garden with perfectly sculpted topiary, a ray of golden light pierced through the foliage—we had arrived at the Matrimandir.

This temple was as grand as I had imagined it—and clearly other tourists thought the same as well. We sat here for a while and took pictures as well. It was also very interesting to talk with the other tourists. One that I still remember is Armand, a current mechanical engineering college student in France who is ethnically Indian and was born in Pondicherry but moved to France when he was 1. His entire family had come to Pondicherry for their summer holidays.

We then returned back to the main visitors’ center after a while, taking the same stroll through the lush, green forest. After we got back, we decided to take a snack break and try the various cafés there. We sampled flower juice, some esoteric ice cream flavors including chai and Auroville-grown spirulina-banana.

While we were here, Manya struck up a conversation with a kind elderly man, who lived in a village near Auroville and came here often. He very generously gave us snacks and then offered to arrange us an “insider” tour of Auroville, where we’d be able to go to places that visitors normally cannot see. He called up his auto driver friend, and somehow all 5 of us managed to squeeze inside.

We thoroughly explored Auroville in this auto, visiting a variety of places including an instrument-making workshop and store, a spirulina farm, a movie theater, and even some of the living quarters of Aurovilleans, which consisted of small apartments. I was most surprised to see that Auroville has a co-working space that would not be out of place in downtown Philly! I initially imagined Aurovilleans to be living lives free of most creature comforts, but this tour shattered my preconceived notions.

Once we were done exploring Auroville, we asked the same auto driver to take us to White Town, the historic French district of Pondicherry. We were excited to try out the French cafés here, but most had extremely long wait times due to all of the summer tourists. Eventually, we were able to find a place in the Hope Café, an eclectic French bistro. It was quite a change eating European-style food after months of eating homecooked Indian meals—I think I still preferred the comfort food of Madurai!

After lunch, we split up as a group, with Manya, Suhaas, and Sylvia heading back to the guest house to rest for a while and Celeste and I staying in White Town.

First, we went to Rock Beach since this is one of the main attractions of Pondy’s White Town. After visiting so many beaches this summer, I still had not swum at any of them, so I took this chance to change into my swim clothes and venture out deeper into the ocean for a bit. Celeste very kindly watched my things onshore while I went out for my swim.

It started getting dark after a while, the red-orange wisps of the sunset painting the evening sky, so we decided to finish off at the beach and head out. The others had still not returned yet, so we took the opportunity to explore more of White Town before they joined us for dinner. First, we went to the Romain Rolland Library, the oldest library in Pondicherry. This library was not too different from libraries back home, but it was interesting being able to browse through some Tamil books as well. I picked up a book on Indian foreign policy, which I read for a while until the library closed at 8:00 pm.

Since we were still waiting for the others, we then headed to another café for some snacks (and to charge my phone!). We went to the pondybucks cafe, where I had a refreshing lemon iced tea and Celeste had a green tea with honey.

When we checked in with the others, it seemed that Manya and Sylvia had woken up, but they were still struggling to wake up Suhaas. In the mean time, Celeste and I took the opportunity to find a nice place to eat. After shortlisting some French cafés online, we then ventured out into the night to walk around White Town to these places. We walked for quite a while, having fun just exploring the streets of coastal Pondicherry which were almost indistinguishable in some parts from those of southern France. Along the way, we walked by the Shri Aurobindo Ashram (which we’d visit the next day) and the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple, where we were greeted with the site of an elephant procession.

After walking by the Consulate General of France, an French International School, and some other sites, we eventually made it to the first restaurant on our list. Unfortunately, it was already past 9:30 pm by this point so the place was closing and couldn’t accomodate us. Still, the chef, Chef Stalin, personally came out and suggested us to visit his friend’s restaurant, on a hotel rooftop nearby.

We walked there and certainly were not disappointed. The hotel itself was quite nice, and the rooftop restaurant was all the more better. It had incredible views of White Town, Rock Beach, and the lighthouse, and even had an infinity edge swimming pool. Celeste and I sat down at our table near the pool, ordered food, and then waited for the others to arrive.

Manya, Suhaas, and Sylvia joined us after not too long, and we ate a delicious dinner of various European-style dishes. We took our time to slowly eat our dinner and enjoy the expansive views, and headed back to our hotel after some more late-night exploration of Pondy.

We woke up late the next morning and planned our day over breakfast at the guest house. Our first stop was Baker Street, perhaps the most iconic French bakery in Pondicherry. This place was quite busy, but we eventually were able to buy a few different French pastries and shared it amongst ourselves. We also made another new friend at Baker Street! Charlotte, a French yoga teacher who had come to Chennai to learn Carnatic music was visiting Pondy for the weekend and had been sitting at a table nearby. We invited her to eat with us and soon struck up a conversation, learning about each other’s backgrounds and experiences in India.

After this, we went back to Rock Beach where we walked along the beach road for a while. We decided to split up again, since Manya and Sylvia were interested in doing some shopping while Suhaas, Celeste, and I wanted to explore more places around Pondy. After walking around for a bit, we first visited the Kuthba Mosque, a historic mosque that was build in the 19th century as the first mosque in Pondicherry. The mosque was quite empty when we walked in, but we met the Imam, who kindly took us into his office and started explaining about the history of this place and his family’s contributions. After this, we walked to Sacred Heart Square, where we visited one of Pondy’s most famous Catholic churches. We spent some time here admiring the artwork on the ceilings, looking at the stained glass, and sitting in quiet contemplation.

After we headed out, we next wanted to head to the Shri Aurobindo Ashram. Manya and Sylvia, as well as Charlotte, would meet us there. This ashram was probably my favorite part of the entire Pondy trip. It was very peaceful inside, with beautiful plants and flowers in the ashram courtyard as well that created a meditative atmosphere. We all spent some time meditating here, and also went to the bookstore to read a bit about Shri Aurobindo and the history of this place. My experience and what I learned made me realize why Shri Aurobindo was such a powerful philosopher and why so many followers have grown to love his teachings. I also reflected on how Shri Aurobindo has impacted the development of the Aravind Eye Care System, from influencing its name to its philosophy of selfless service to all of humanity.

We eventually headed out, and were all quite hungry by this time, so we searched for another café to visit. Ultimately, we decided on one called Bread & Chocolate, located on the rooftop of a teal-green former villa. Our group of 6 ate an amazing smorgasbord of different dishes here, from quinoa bowls with fruits and nuts and delicious pancakes to vegetable wraps and a poached egg toast.

After we finished eating, we headed back out—Manya and Sylvia returned back to the guest house to rest for a bit while Charlotte, Suhaas, Celeste, and I headed back to Rock Beach. Suhaas and I went to wade in the water for a while. Once we reunited with Celeste and Charlotte, Suhaas decided to split up to explore White Town on his own, while Charlotte kindly took Celeste and I to the rooftop of her hostel. On the way, we walked alongside the boardwalk of Rock Beach, where we saw bustling shops set up for Independence Day celebrations and a French memorial.

Once we made it to Charlotte’s hostel, we went to the rooftop together, where we talked for quite some time about Charlotte’s experiences back home in France, what she is doing in India currently, and our own experiences as well with our internship. The warm ocean breeze and crescent moon overhead created the perfect atmosphere. It soon got late, and after having juice with Charlotte at the ground floor level, Celeste and I said our goodbyes and headed out to meet Suhaas, Manya, and Sylvia at the Writer’s Café.

Our final stop of the night was a rooftop restaurant where we serendipitously happened to meet a group of medical residents that was also previously at Bread & Chocolate. After spending some time here, we finally took an auto back to the guest house since we had a tour of AEH-Pondy scheduled at 8:00 am the next day.

We woke up early the next morning in order to get ready in time for our tour. After a quick breakfast, we headed to the hospital for a meeting with Dr. Venkatesh, the aforementioned CMO of the hospital. When we got there, the conference room was empty, so we walked around the outpatient building for some time until he arrived. Once he arrived, we each explained our projects to him and he gave his feedback as well as additional ideas to implement. In relation to my project, he mentioned how the neuro-ophthalmology team at AEH-Pondy had designed a research study to examine the best counseling strategies to increase treatment adherence for high risk retina disease patients. He suggested meeting Dr. Manavi, who designed this study, which I planned to do later that day.

After discussing our projects, he then took us on a tour of the hospital. AEH-Pondy had many similarities to AEH-Madurai of course, but there were numerous improvements that I was impressed by. In fact, some of these, like a computer screen displaying billing info to patients at payment counters, were studied and implemented by past interns! Another cool implementation were color-coded footsteps directing patients to each department. This eliminated the need for patient guides that need to be assigned to each and every patient in AEH-Madurai. Dr. Venkatesh’s extremely detail-oriented passion for making this hospital run as efficiently as possible was apparent throughout this tour—he was telling us how he finds ideas everywhere he goes, from optimal chair arrangements in airport waiting areas to ticket systems for customers at ice cream parlors.

Once our tour was over, we split up to do work related to our respective projects. I went to meet Dr. Manavi, who explained how she designed her research study and gave me inputs for my project.

After we all met up again, we were then given the chance to see the operating theatre. After heading up to the OT floor and changing into scrubs, we were taken around to see various OTs. Since this was a Monday, the majority of operations were for eye camp patients, so were mostly cataract removal and IOL implantation surgeries. We were also able to see some retina operations in the retina OT. We were also able to see the pre-op and post-op rooms, where we met Prabhu, a medical resident who we later learned is the son of the head of Aurolab—to us, the family web at AEH seemed to grow more connections day by day!

We left the hospital around 1:00 pm to go back to the guest house for lunch. Celeste had a presentation coming up to pilot her project, but the rest of us to a couple of hours to rest.

Once we woke up, we decided to head back to the beach. We left the guest house around 5:00 pm, eager to go on the nearby river boat to Paradise Beach. Unfortunately, the boating had closed by the time we got there, so the auto driver offered to take us to Eden Beach instead. We drove through a small village to reach the beach, but were pleasantly surprised once we got there. This beach was perfectly picturesque. There was a river leading to the ocean, grove of palm trees around a lake in front of the beach, and then a path to the ocean. We were only able to spend some time near the water since the beach was closing as the sun was setting, so we instead went to the nearby lake. We were able to spend quite a while amidst the grove of palm trees, watching the sun paint crimson, orange, and yellow shades on the crystal-clear water. We had to leave once it got dark, so we got an auto to our final stop.

Celeste had arranged a dinner with Dharshini, the younger sister of Krishna who I previously mentioned. We went to the Cafe-in, where we ate various French dishes and learned more about Dharshini’s life as a medical student in Pondicherry. It was getting quite late, with less than an hour until our overnight bus back, so we eventually had to wrap up and head out.

Our bus was at 10:15 pm and we only got back to the guest house at 9:40 pm, so the sister there was anxiously waiting for us, emphasizing that we’d miss our bus unless we packed extremely quickly. We all hurriedly packed and were out the door by 10:00, speedwalking to the main road in order to catch our bus.

The bus was actually somewhat late in arriving, but we eventually got onboard, climbed into our bunks, and quickly fell asleep as the bus drove through the night towards Madurai. The bus again was comfortable, and we were back in Madurai in no time, reaching the Mattuthavani Bus Stand before 5:00 am. Celeste, Suhaas, and Manya took an auto back to Inspiration and I went with Sylvia in another auto to first drop her off at her place and then headed to Inspiration myself as well.

This trip seemed to go by even quicker than the previous ones, despite being the longest! It was now Tuesday morning, with only four more days until the end of our internship—everything was ending faster than I had hoped, but I was still content knowing we had experienced so many adventures this month.

I headed up to my room, unpacked my bags, and quickly fell asleep, knowing I’d have to wake up in just a couple of hours to get back to work on the final stages of my project.

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About Aravind Krishnan