Pondicherry - C'est fantastique!For the last week I have been living in a little dream world where, although I know I am still in India, I keep imagining that I have actually nipped across for a holiday in the south of France.….welcome to Pondicherry, the Indian travellers dream!That may sound a bit OTT but Pondicherry really does give you a break from some of India's less appealing eccentricities; I'm thinking of cows, rubbish, pollution and pushy auto drivers. To fill you in on the background, Pondicherry (now given the more Tamil spelling of Puducherry) is a former French colony of India that has managed to keep hold of a charming Gallic essence; a seafront promenade, tree-lined boulevards, beautiful colonial villas, bicycles, good food and proper coffee! Of course this is still India and when you venture out of the old town area a certain Indian chaos still exists but the whole place has a much more 'continental' feel. Don't get me wrong, I'm loving India and I wouldn't want to be anywhere else but Pondicherry has been a breath of fresh air (the air is actually relatively fresh here!) and this is mainly because it has a really sociable side that, I confess, I have missed in other places. In the UK and in Europe there is a culture where people meet, chat, have food and drink, maybe listen to some music and this serves as a form of enjoyment and relaxation. From my experience this isn't the same in India. Obviously major cultural differences play a role here but the attitude to food and eating out is completely different. Apart from a westernised night-culture that is growing up in some of the big cities, food is generally viewed as something functional rather than enjoyable. You eat because you have to not to go out and have a good time. You go to a restaurant not to chat, not to drink, just to eat and go.- it's a totally different attitude to 'dining out'. My time here has really made me miss long lingering meals full of conversation and laughter. Anyway, my point is that in Pondicherry I have found a little bit of that enjoyment factor again. There are lots of good Mediterranean restaurants, lots of travelling types and a ready and cheap supply of alcohol so I have actually had something resembling a night life here! Its been a relief to be honest, I was beginning to worry I had lost all social skills!There is also another side of Pondicherry I should mention that revolves around its most famous ashram - Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Potted history; The ashram was founded in 1926 by Guru Sri Aurobindo and a Frenchwomen known as 'The Mother' (a name that I find slightly freaky for some reason?!). Basically it encourages 'spiritual tenets that represent a synthesis of yoga and modern science'. This has something to do with finding a path to God through physical and mental awareness and wellbeing…I think!? Anyway, after Aurobindo died spiritual reign passed to 'The Mother' who passed away some years later in the 70's and now in the naughties the legacy continues on at the ashram. The ashram itself is now a kind of pilgrimage site for the disciples of Aurobindo, there is a flower-festooned shrine dedicated to Aurobindo and 'The Mother' where devotees gather to meditate. I went one evening to see what all the fuss was about and although it was a very calm and peaceful place there was also something unsettling for me. People were gathering around the shrine, laying their heads on it, kissing it, praying to it…I appreciate faith and belief can be very important but I always find it hard to empathise with that level of adulation. I sat for a while with the devotees and tried to meditate and it was a relaxing experience but, not being a fan of 'The Mother', I felt like a bit of a fraud!The ashram also runs three guest houses in the town, a gift shop, book shop, paper factory and also seems to underwrite many of the cultural goings on so its quite hard to get away from. I'm actually staying in one of the ashram's guest houses - Park Guest House. I won't go into the details of my accommodation dilemmas in Pondicherry but in brief the project at first put me into a comfortable but soulless and overpriced hotel out of town. I needed to find somewhere cheap and preferably nice to stay for the rest of my time here and the ashram guest houses had been recommended. I tried them all and they all said they were full so I went in search of other guest houses and went back to my soulless over priced room quite depressed that all the other rooms in Pondy were dirty, windowless boxes and still overpriced. My one hope was that Park Guest House had said to come and try in the morning. So, the next day I packed up my stuff, checked out and tried my luck.I couldn't believe it when I got a wonderful room right on the beachfront with a balcony for 200rs (approx £2.50) a night! Success! Basically, and this advice might be useful if you ever come to Pondicherry, there are some amazing places to stay… boutique hotels and wonderful converted colonial houses…and they aren't even that expensive by European standards (around £30 a night) but if you are on a tight budget the only nice places to stay are the ashram guest houses. The rest of the central guest houses are seedy grotty pits full of sweaty Indian men and mosquitos - avoid at all costs! So all week I have been soaking up the calm of my surroundings and relishing in my luck at having such a nice room! The guest house, in true ashram-devotee style, has meditation gardens, a reading room, a 'healthy' café and from pretty much everywhere you can hear the sound of the waves lapping on the sea shore. My only reservation is that to equal this calm, open environment there are a lot of strictures. Every room comes with a picture of Aurobindo and 'The Mother' looking thoroughly glum and a set of rules stuck to the wall…. 'BE QUIET between 9pm and 7am', 'Always leave your key at reception when you go out', even 'Enjoy the Garden' as if you have to be ordered to do that! Against the calm there is definitely a regimented feel to the whole set up. I really don't care though I'm just enjoying my sea view and muesli breakfasts for 200rs a night!!!I almost forgot to mention that I am actually in Pondicherry to visit another project office of ASSEFA (not to have a holiday!) one of AVI's bigger partners. My days have mostly been spent visiting villages in the surrounding districts and observing healthcare and income generation projects set up in these areas. If I'm totally honest I think I am feeling project overkill at the moment and am struggling to get enthusiastic about what I'm seeing and the people I'm meeting because, in one way or another, I've seen the same kind of work in operation in other places. Obviously fantastic work is being done by ASSEFA to raise health awareness and improve the economic situation of village women but my mind keeps drifting off to next month when I'll be free to travel off without the burden of a laptop and several memory sticks! I've taken so much in and learnt so much over the past months that I think my brain may have reached a state of saturation and needs a little time to reflect on everything.But its not long now and thankfully next week brings a little holiday relief because I am travelling to Kerala to meet Martha (for those of you who don't know Martha she is my fabulous friend and fellow Londonite and is going to bring me wet wipes and toilet paperJ). I can't explain how excited I am about the prospect of seeing a friend, of chatting for hours with someone that actually knows me, about travelling in Kerala, about having nice long meals with good conversation, about sunbathing, about having an ayurvedic massage, about staying in mid-range rather than budget accomodation….the list goes on….Kerala here I come!