Andhra Pradesh, India: Days 53-60
Thiruvanamalai, Auroville and Pondicherry Day 53, Monday 2/8/2016
Waking up in Chennai, eager to get to Thiruvannamalai, I showered, packed my few things, and, skipping breakfast, asked at the front desk about getting a car. It’s about 120km from Chennai, but hiring a private car should be pretty inexpensive, though the manager gave me a hard-sell to upgrade to his roomy, air-conditioned hotel shuttle for the three hour drive, and I acquiesced.
We drove through the busy city streets of Chennai and later the dry countryside, dotted with cattle and the occasionally crammed little town, eventually coming to small hills of boulders (reminiscent of Boulder Gardens near Joshua Tree), with scattered palm trees and the occasional monkey in the road.
Entering the heart of Thiruvannamalai, the streets were intensely packed. We had to drive right past the huge and very crowded temple in the center of town, sitting at the base of one of the most sacred of Indian mountains. Google maps calls it Vannamalai but it is known more commonly as Arunachala. The imposing presence of this single lonely mountain, far more rough and ancient feeling than a Pacific rim volcano, can be felt everywhere. Its energy, or the collective belief in it, flavors the region, and drew Sri Ramana Maharshi to settle here.
We drove past the temple (where thousands of Indians start and end the eight mile circumambulation of the holy mountain every day, ideally barefoot, an auspicious life project similar to visiting Mecca) and past Ramanshramam (Ramana Maharshi’s ashram) a few kilometers further to a little place tucked off a quiet dirt road called the Sunshine Guest House. Julianne Reynolds had recommended some months ago that I stay there, and gave me contact info for Satya, it’s proprietor. I wrote to him and he wrote back a week or so later saying tersely “my email and website have been hacked; here are my phone numbers; I’ll reserve you a place.” Subsequent attempts to get in touch, e.g. to confirm specific dates, all failed. But I’d decided to not worry and have trust that whatever unfolded would be just right.
Satya was at the front desk when I arrived around 11am. He has a big smile and seems gentle and happy, though he said he’s been going crazy since his website and email were hacked. He said he is not trying to make a lot of money but runs the guest house as a service for the foreign pilgrims - and there are many in this town. I offered to try to help with his website and he seemed very happy for the offer. People have been showing up who he didn’t know about - or extending beyond their planned stay - so he has rented some nearby rooms for guests showing up like me. He said it would be ready at 4 pm. “Don’t worry, just five minutes walk.”
“No problem,” I said, “I would like to get some lunch, then I can help with your website.” The kitchen at Sunshine only serves breakfast, so he sent me down the road a quarter mile to Tasty’s, a little outdoor cafe catering to westerners. As I walked along the quiet road, a gentle breeze blew and Arunachala sat peacefully at my left; I thought of Ramana-ji’s simple message of self-discovery of Who we really are, and felt relaxed, safe and easy.
At Tasty’s I ordered… breakfast. Omelette and “banana curd” (yoghurt) which turned out to be a huge bowl. A New Yorker introduced himself and we had an interesting conversation. He said Thiru was one of the few places on the planet where he could come and “just do nothing.” He had been here six weeks but would be leaving the next day for a short stop in Goa before heading home. He recommended the classes held every morning at the top floor lecture hall at Sunshine: a humble German called Karl was offering what he felt was an authentic, clear, and informal satsang series.
When I eventually got back to the Sunshine, I could not find Satya. I wandered around and found the empty upstairs lecture hall, adjacent to a balcony with a beautiful view of Arunachala. Again a nice breeze was blowing; I made myself comfortable and took a nap.
Woke up at four, shook myself off and went back to registration. Satya was not around but a staff member told me my room was ready. I asked if we would walk to it and he said, no, we would take his scooter. I carried my bags, he carried my bedding and towels. We drove down the long dirt driveway to the main street, crossed it, and drove up another narrow dirt road another 20 feet. I thought we were stopping because a group of children were blocking the road but he said no, this is it. Would have been a one minute walk!
The woman who manages these few small rooms, wearing a sari and carrying a baby, was showing one of them to another couple. There was a little squabble - evidently she had promised my room to Satya in the morning but then rented it out, or was about to, because she hadn’t been paid yet. But that got straightened out somehow, and I was taken upstairs to see my quarters for the next three nights.
A pretty basic place. Bathroom with shower & a real toilet but no sink, a small room with a few shelves and a bedframe holding up a board covered by a thin foam pad. No wifi or A/C of course, but, thankfully, power and a ceiling fan. Most wonderfully, a small porch facing Arunachala. My guide said I could get wifi across the street and was free to use the kitchen. This would do.
After settling in, I walked back to Sunshine to see again if I could help Satya. He was there but busy, so I did to some correspondence and read awhile. Eventually I went back to my room with a bottle of water, skipping dinner, reading til I fell asleep.
Days 51-2. As my new friend Malik noted, people seem to either love India or hate it. While I tend to be pretty non-judgmental, some subterranean part of me started to show signs of stress on the third day. My room was perfectly clean but I awoke to the smells of dust and poop, memories perhaps, but somehow real enough that I checked under my shoes to make sure I didn’t bring anything in. Opening the shades, I found the sky outside not cloudy but still gray with just a bit of blue overhead. I stayed in my room doing correspondence and online errands all morning, kind of hiding out, well aware that I was missing presentations at the Urs.
Finally I felt ready to go out. It was around 2pm. On the street I turned the opposite direction from the dargah and walked over to the small marketplace at Sunder Nagar to get some lunch. I found one restaurant and it was hopping. The seat I took was in a relatively quiet section except for a gaggle of gossiping girls nearby, but as I ate (saag paneer and nan - very good!), several other groups showed up, and the conversation volume went up to a general roar as they shouted to be heard over one another.
It was well after 4 by the time I got to the dargah. The program was running late, now a student music recital, and the tea break scheduled for 3:30 had not yet begun. I decided this would be a good time to walk through the Basti and take a few photos, which were notably missing from the description I had written in the morning.
A strange thing happened on the street near the entrance to the Nizamuddin dargah. Maybe I felt a bit uncertain about taking photos, though I was well outside the sacred zone, or even just being there. As I pointed my camera, the many wallahs selling flowers and such started shouting, not at me but I guess at one another, and the sacred atmosphere I was inviting grew dark with demons. Perhaps I could have found the resources to embrace it all, but I chose to simply move on. I wandered through narrow streets lined continually with tiny shops and food carts. I finally came around to the Hope Project, a nonprofit started by Pir Vilayat to proved help to the neighborhood, especially educational programs for children and wot opportunities for women. The dargah was just beyond.
I got back to it in time for two more wonderful recitals: beautifully meditative flute music by Shri Rohit Anand (who happens to be a colleague of my host at Maulsari) and a radiantly masterful vocal raga by Shri Anjad Ali Khan Kiranvi. During the latter, I spent time in meditation at Murshid’s flowered tomb next door. After the concert I stayed for dinner, but left before the final Dhrupad recital, heading back to my little sanctuary room.
The next morning was time to pack up and prepare for my trip south. My flight to Chennai wasn’t until 6pm. I decided to spend the afternoon at the airport Holiday Inn, where I would be staying for a night on return from the south. This way I could hopefully leave my big suitcase at the hotel to meet the 15kg airline limit – I shouldn’t need much for a week in the warm weather. I could also finally print some documents I needed to sign and mail home, as well as get lunch there. As it turns out, they were only serving their fabulous and pricey Sunday brunch, so I celebrated New Delhi with a small banquet.
The flight was smooth enough. I snapped a photo of the sunset sky on the plane and continued reading The Secret Teachers of the Western World. On arrival, I took a taxi to a place I had booked online, planning to head the next morning to Thiruvanammalai and later in the week to Auroville.
Days 49-50. Woke up in a little hotel room on the third floor, above a busy little street (aren’t they all?) at the foot of a great highway close to the New Delhi airport. I heard what sounded like a group of people singing outside, more musical than chanting, and I could only think they must be making a Bollywood film outside. I openend a small window in the back of the room to peer out but I could see no one. I believe there was a street down below, but I could only see a rooftop and another tall building across the street.
After washing up and catching up on email, I found my hotel’s breakfast room on the floor below. It was a little scary, so I went outside and walked a block in each direction, then decided it was as safe as anything else, so I went back to get eggs, toast and tea. (Of course I know better than to drink tea, kept me up that night, but there weren’t many options, and Indian chai is so good!)
At around noon I checked out and had the hotel’s driver take me to my next destination, an hour drive across town. The Maulsari is listed on Booking.com so it appears to be a hotel, but turns out its simply a nice guest room in a private house in the upscale Sunder Nagar neighborhood, a few minutes’ walk from the dargah (tomb) of Hazrat Inayat Khan where I would be spending much of the next few days.
After settling in and meeting my hosts, I walked over to the dargah. The sky was blue, the air not as bad as it could have been. Found I was comfortable crossing the busy street (the technique is this: after making sure no one is so close they could not avoid hitting you - bigger vehicles need more room - walk confidently and steadily into the stream. It will magically flow around you.)
I walked past along highway and eventually came to the Basti (which means “slum”), one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Delhi. The main street is narrow, lined with open air food vendors, butchers with their cuts of meat hanging out, tobacco stalls and various tiny shops, some with bright and colorful LED-lit signs making the street feel like a tiny Las Vegas, along with beggars and broken people, barefoot children and babies, smoking fires, piles of trash on the ground and laundry, dirt and dust everywhere, and a riot of scents ranging from divine to disgusting. Halfway down the street is the entrance to the dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya, a winding path that leads to the tomb of one of the greatest of Sufi saints (1238-1325). At the entrance are shoe wallahs who will watch your shoes for you, along with vendors of flower baskets, incense, chaddars (sacred cloths used to cover a tomb or for other purpose), and other sacred parephernalia and trinkets that together add an exotic, and some may say a sacred, flavor to this most intense neighborhood.
Fortunately I had been to the Basti before, and walked through with a confidence that surprised me, until I came to the dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan on the other side of the the neighborhood. The dargah is a kind of fortress sanctuary - a lovely garden and series of buildings inside its walled exterior. It can be identified by a simple bronze heart and wings on the exterior wall near the gate. When I entered I found my friends Tara and Zeb-un-nissa, who live at the Abod of the Message in upstate New York, where I’ve visited many times. I also met Malik, who lives in Charlottesville NC.
After hanging out on the lawn visiting, we decided to get some dinner. Tara had a car (meaning a hired driver and his car, available for the day) and she and Zeb wanted to get some clothes too, so we decided to drive over to the Khan Market. We quickly found a restuarnt called the Cafe Illuminati with the Mona Lisa on the eclectic and not particularly Indian menu. We spent a few hours there eating and talking. Eventually it was time to go back to the dargah for the opening ceremony of the “urs”, the celebration of the passing of Hazrat Inayat Khan on February 5, 1927.
Hazrat (a title meaning “presence”) Inayat Khan (from now on: HIK) was the founder of a western Sufi path.Inayat left his home in South India in 1910 and spent the next 17 years developing and spreading a message of spiritual freedom and universality through Europe and North America. Inayat was a lauded musician and one of his most popular books is “The Mysticism of Sound and Music,” so it has become the tradition to celebrate his urs with a great deal of music. At this opening gathering, we listened to two wonderful, hour-long raga concerts: an evocative sitar recital by Dr. Sunila Kasliwal, and a remarable vocal performance by the young and talented Shahana Ali Khan. I recorded these on my little phone; maybe I can find a way to share them.
After the concert I took a tuk-tuk back to my place. I met my host at the Maulari and we had a fascinating conversation about his interest in Buddhism. And stayed up too late, wired on chai and chocolate…
The next morning (Friday July 5th), I walked over to the dargah of HIK in time for the annual procession to the Nizamuddin dargah. This dargah is located in a courtyard surrounded by a number of other smaller dargahs and a the community’s large mosque. Sitting near the muzzein who recited a number of prayers were the honored representatives of three of the orders that have emerged from HIK’s lineage: Murshid Nawab Pasnak of the International Sufi Movement (headquarters in The Hague), Pir Shabda Khan - head of Sufi Ruhaniat International (CA Bay area), and Pir Zia Inayat-Khan - grandson of HIK and head of “my” order, which was recently renamed to the Inayati Order: a Sufi Path of Spiritual Liberty.named the Inayati Order.
After these prayers, a Qawwali band consisting of several singers with harmoniums and drums began to sing their lively praises to the One Being calling out Allah again and again, something like a kirtan. During the music, the honored leaders sat in rows lining a path between the Qawwalis and the entrance to the small building in the couryard which housed the actual tomb of Nizamuddin. Guests come before these leaders to offer them money in small bills, which the leaders bless and sometimes sent on to honor other leaders. The bills eventually landed in piles which were utimately offered to the Qawwalis. In this way the musicians are paid - but rather than hiding the transaction as we do in the West, this was a central part of the festivities, making a public, communal, sacred sharing of energy and gratitude, for all to experience and participate in.
At the end of the rousing and energetic qawals, a chadar was unfurled and carried tent-like by the honored participants through the streets and back to the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan. The ceremony is analagous to the use of a chuppah in a traditional Jewish wedding, which is also set tent-like over the wedding couple after a rousing and musical building of sacred energy. In fact, the word “urs” means “wedding” - the ultimate wedding of a spiritual traveler to the Beloved, the Only Being.
We arrived in the inner building of the dargah complex, where the tomb of HIK is decorated with so many flowers. After reciting some of the prayers written by HIK, the Qawallis played more music, and Shabda Khan sang a sweet raga. Then we went out to the lawn where a typical Indian lunch was served for all of the guests. I had seen a familiar face in the dargah of Nizamuddin, and now I discovered it was indeed Laura Ava-Tesimale, who was very involved with the Seven Pillars Journey of Wisdom in Los Angeles. It was amazing to find her here for the urs, between a number of humanitarian visits in India and Nepal in her incredibly active and productive work.
After that I went home to take a nap and work on some of my travel arrangements for next week.
I missed a few afternoon events, but returned in the evening for another concert. This time it was the Santur, a kind of hammer dulcimer played by Pandit Bhajan Sopori, along with tabla, a drum (I believe it was a mdridangam), and a santur used as a kind of echo. Sopori is a confident master who played with great skill and contagious joy, engaging in playful duals and collaborations with his fellow musiicans. It reminded me of watching John Zeretske play strings, bouncing around and smiling broadly like a little kid, so happy to listen to these incredible sounds.
Day 48. To get to the airport by noon for my 2pm flight to New Delhi, I thought we should leave at 7:30am. Ketut thought 7 would be more prudent, then arrived at my hotel at 6:30 (after driving an hour). I skipped the morning swim I’d considered, hurriedly finished packing, pulled out a chocolate bar for breakfast, and we left in the dewy mist at 6:45.
The drive took us up into the highest mountains, where the temperature is pleasant and the views spectacular, before descending the southern slope towards Ubud. I couldn’t take a photo of the allegedly awesome southern view as it was socked in, and indeed rained hard for much of the drive down.
In Ubud we stopped at Kubu-Darma to pick up my big suitcase and in that brief and touching reunion I again thanked my hosts for eleven peaceful nights in Ubud promising to come back. We also stopped at the BinTang supermarket nearby so I could pick up mosquito repellant, betadine, and wet wipes, all handy for India. In the aisles I came across those vacuum-packed bags of garlic peanuts that I was obsessed with on my previous trip to Bali. How could I have forgotten the awesome peanuts?! I bought several bags for the road.
It took another hour through more torrential rain and past busy Denpasar to get to the airport. We arrived an hour early after all, so I had time to get a nice (but so expensive) lunch before we departed.
Once again I transferred flights Kuala Lumpur, and due to the strange rules of AirAsia and/or Skypicker, I couldn’t check my bags through, but was required to immigrate and then emigrate within an hour. This time I only had two hours between flights, and between the passport lines and the security lines, it was a very close call. To make things worse, at KL checkin they decided my suitcase was too heavy, so I moved my bathroom kit into my backpack, but I forgot about the security requirements, and a few minutes later I had to surrender my beard-trimming scissors to the agents, though at least they didn’t take my shampoo and conditioner!
When I finally boarded the second plane, I was met by dozens of Air Asia staff dressed royally and giving away tickets to celebrate their “inaugural flight” - I guess the first from KL to New Delhi at this time slot? It was a five hour flight, then forty minutes in line to get my passport stamped, a minute to find my bag and take it through customs, and twenty minutes in line for the one ATM in the airport (really?) to get some rupees. But a 2.5 hour time change in my favor helped, and I emerged just a bit after 11pm.
I had booked a cheap little hotel close to the airport to avoid late night navigation through New Delhi. After receiving an email from the hotel warning me that there was another one impersonating them by using the same name (and then going on to enumerate a dozen other scams I needed to beware of), I asked the hotel arrange to have a driver pick me up at the airport. It was so worth it to be met and escorted through the chaos that is India to my cozy bedroom! Hotel Aerocity seemed clean enough, though in a surfeit of safety I slept in my silk sack – soundly.
Days 54-5. Arunachala greeted me in the morning mist as I swung open the door to my tiny balcony. The sounds of children, workmen, roosters, cows, tuk-tuks, motorcycles and random horns already filled the air. After my morning rituals, I ambled across the street and down the dirt driveway, passing sweet and fresh chalk mandalas in front of every door - reminiscent of the morning flower baskets in Bali - to get breakfast at the aptly-named Sunshine House, painted bright yellow with its thriving gardens. (A number of buildings in this neighborhood pop out of the arid scrub with bright, slightly pastel colors and bold designs that shout “look at me!” Like some kind of permanent Burning Man suburb.)
Eggs, yoghurt, toast, papaya, watermelon, bananas, and chai tea. I can’t deal with the caffeine in tea back home, but here in the Home of Tea I proclaim that it shall be different, as I so enjoy it.
Breakfast is also the time to catch up on email which I stretch out to 10am. This is when the non-dualist Kurt starts his satsang upstairs. The room is already quite crowded. At first I sit outside on the balcony and try to listen through the window, but as pleasant as it is, it’s hard to hear, so I go sit on the floor in the back of the room with a dozen other late-comers, where I can hear well but see little.
Kurt is a joker and a tease, playing with words and making fun of people’s questions, sometimes a little meanly as people try valiantly but uselessly to make sense of his descriptions of the state beyond the self, lost in the Self. There is no way to put this experience of Oneness into reasonable words, so teachers have various ways to try to crack open people’s heads. Helping them see the Divine Joke. But as he pointed out himself, this gathering of westerners felt more like a club than a class for serious seekers. Perhaps his approach encourages that, as he is something of a comedian - not to imply in any way that one has to be serious to “get it.” Though there was lots of laughter and even lightness, for me there wasn’t a lot of light.
So I decided to leave early and walk to the Ramana Maharshi ashram. It’s maybe a mile from Sunshine, along a progressively more busy road and eventually a highway towards the city center (that is, the Temple) til you come it opposite a little shopping center. There are plenty of westerners along the route on foot, bicycle, scooter and tuk-tuk along with of course many more locals doing all the things they do, talking, selling, buying of course, and also eating, dressing, bathing, sleeping, and doing any other necessary business outside and often right by the street.
Ramanashramam is definitely a sanctuary. Inside the entry gate is a large dirt courtyard where bikes and shoes are parked, and signs provide the schedule for the day and warn you not to fly drones. I found that the morning activities were over and those of the late afternoon had not started. I wandered into the main temple and a smaller museum-like room full of photos of Sri Ramana, found the guest quarters and the cattle yard, free roaming monkeys and peacocks, plenty of westerners, some who were no doubt living here permanently), as well as many locals nicely dressed in their colorful saris and button-down shirts.
After exploring I went to find the nearby Shanti Internet Cafe. Down a nearby street studded with shops definitely aimed at westerners, past the well marked “German Bakery,” in a courtyard. You buy the Internet service at a little vendor downstairs (closed 1-3pm for lunch) then go upstairs to the chill cafe where lots of westerners are kicking back, enjoying tea and chatting. As it was 2pm when I arrived, I got some lunch - an amazing bowl of porridge, a mango shake, and (by mistake) a cup of coffee. I used the time to write the previous post and eventually put it up on Facebook. Then I had to check out the German bakery before leaving the neighborhood, and got a few excellent cookies, not too sweet.
All this time I’ve been carrying a little Renaissance shoulder bag I got in Thaland (of course, right?) a few years ago., to carry cash, credit card, reading glasses, phone, ear pods, wet wipes. I have been really appreciating its utility and only yesterday was grateful for how it’s been holding up. Maybe because I subconsciously was aware the zipper was starting to stick. So there at the bakery it failed, and has not closed properly since.
As I head back to Ramanashramam I’m holding it closed with a bit of worry, and as I sit for a while on the marble floor of the large temple, while people are chanting Vedic prayers and circumambulating the altar and doing sacred things with incense and oil inside it and monkeys running around outside, a part of me is worrying about hanging on to my “stuff. ” And another part is watching and laughing at how perfect this is to highlight what I think of as “mine.” God’s joke again.
I had promised Satya I would meet him at Sunshine in the early evening, so I catch a tuk-tuk and pay 70 rupees (about a dollar) for the ride back. But he is not there or busy, so after a while I walk down to Tasty’s for a simple dinner, then walk back, read a while - finishing Gary Lachman - and go to sleep.
The next day (Wednesday 2⁄10) I again went to listen to Kurt after breakfast, this time getting there early enough to get an actual chair, but again feeling after a while like this is not where I need to be. So again I walk into town, this time twice the distance of Ramanashramam to the huge and ancient Thiruvanammalai temple. Along the route I have my eyes out for a shop that may have a shoulder bag, but I never do see one.
There are a number of huge structures at the temple complex, each covered with thousands of small sculpture of various dieties, all painted white the building shrouded with what looks like lace and turns out to be a scaffolding of branches tied together with twine. Four of these towers are at the north, west, south and east entrance. Outside the south entrance I pause for some photos and get a fresh coconut for ten rupees.
Not knowing whether I am welcome, I enter the complex. I go through a scanner inside the tower, but first I’m told quite firmly to leave my sandals outside. The temple complex is huge and like Ramanashramam has a feel of sanctuary and serenity. The traffic is outside, and it’s relatively quiet inside, where individuals, small groups and families are praying, doing rituals, picnicking and in many cases sleeping. I find a shaded spot where many are seated in the stone floor, and where I can rest afte my long walk. From here I can see that people seem to be gathering on the stairs of an inner temple which is closed off, in front of which is a covered alter with a statue of a black bull, and a fire on a small pedestal where someone occasionally lights incense or offers something up. There are a couple of inner towers which divide the complex into at least three separate courtyards. There are several large open pools of water, green with algae but at least not covered with trash like those outside. In one spot (close to signs that say “No photo!”) is a scale model of the complex, which I found very helpful.
Eventually I wandered out, found my sandals, and walked around the outside of the complex. I passed many open little shops containing not only sacred paraphernailia (paintings, statues, flowers, colored chalk) but also all the things one needs to live here - tin dishware, dry goods, plastic goods, jewelry, books, toys- and in one corner I came across at least a dozen sadhus in their yellow-orange robes, painted faces and bare feet, not begging, just kind of hanging out. Maybe they live there.
By now, it was close to 4pm and I wanted to catch the daily reading at Ramanashramam, so I easily flagged down a tuk-tuk and was there in a flash.
Turns out the 4pm reading was in Tamil so I used my free half hour to explore the trail behind the ashram that leads to the path around Arunachala and to RM’s nearby meditation cave. Of course my sandals were at the front gate so I ventured onto the trail barefoot. The trail is pretty much paved with big smooth stones, polished perhaps by millions of feet over the years. I passed a few beggars, a few craftsmen sculpting little icons, and a number of westerners walking up and down, but it was really pretty empty - and nice to get out into nature. After a few minutes, I was high enough to get a fabulous view of the surroundings. Here is a reason why mountains are sacred: from on high, one gets beyond all the noise that occupy one’s mind, to get a vast, fresh, silent sense of openness which “puts things in perspective.”
I was invited to stay and watch the sunset and could have made it to RM’s cave. But I wanted to experience the daily reading in English so I headed back down. There were many people gathered now inside and outside for the reading. To be honest, it was not very satisfying to me - presented with that singsongy Indian style of teaching that feels like haranguing with very little inspiration. But amidst the listeners were a group of loud peacocks and later a band of monkeys wandered through, paying us no attention though surely they were watching (or smelling) for food offerings. The animals made me happy and the acceptance of them by all around made me even happier.
Again I left a talk early. I went back to the awesome German Bakery for a slice of apple pie and a cup of tea, took a tuk-tuk back to my room, showered, and walked over to the Sunshine. Finally Satya was ready for me. With my laptop and his various credentials in hand, I went exploring the inside of his website. I found a backup there, unzipped it and substituted it for the current folder. And to my delight that seemed to fix his problem! I also deleted a bunch of Wordpress accounts he didn’t recognize. Satya was delighted. He then told me he had a dozen other sites that were also broken (!) and asked if I could fix them. Hmmm… the first one I looked at didn’t have an obvious backup, so it will be much harder. It was getting late by then and I’ve had no time since, but maybe I will go a hotel with good internet this weekend and see what I can do. I still didn’t know where I was going to stay in Auroville the next day - having written to and been turned down by a dozen guest houses there. I mentioned it when we were planning my ride there. Satya said he knows an innkeeper, a Russian woman named Tanya whose place on the beach called “Waves” was once gorgeous until most of it was destroyed by the tsunami. He said it was now “rustic,” but I should check it out. He also offered me some “apple strudel, Indian style” that he has just whipped up. Since dinner had been apple pie, this was a fitting dessert before bedtime.
Days 56 and 57 part 1
My apologies if these posts are getting too long. This travel writing is becoming something of an obsession. This afternoon I have lots of time so here’s how I choose to spend it, writing in my room. Lately I’ve find that during the day I often frame my experiences by thinking about how I will share them with you, dear Facebook reader. It’s possibly just a form of talking to myself, the kind of activity that the spiritual seeker is trying to reduce. Oh well, I have at least occasional moments of being present. 😉
Thursday. At breakfast on my last morning in Thiruvannamalai, I met Corinna, Satya’s American wife, who made friends with Julianne Julianne Reynolds. We had a nice conversation; she was very appreciative of the help I gave them fixing their website and asked if I could do more. We’ll see. Satya arranged for a driver to pick me up at 10am and take me the couple of hours from Thiruvannamalai to Auroville. It was a pleasant ride through mostly rural areas, during which I thumb-typed most of my post from the previous days.
When we arrived at Auroville, I navigated, thanks again to Google Maps. My driver waited while I walked down the trail to the visitor’s center. My only goal was to book a visit to Matrimandir, the enormous golden ball around which Auroville revolves, and of which I’ll have more to say later. But when I got there I saw that office hours were 9:30-12 and 2-3pm, and it was now only 1pm.
Rather than wait around an hour, I walked back to the parking lot and my driver took me about twenty minutes further east to the place on the beach Satya had suggested, the Waves hotel. It took many stops and questions to find it and we could only get so close by car. We parked and walked down a narrow path until we came to a small sign for the hotel in front of an overgrown garden with a locked and rusty gate. My driver was not discouraged, and lead me onto the nearly empty beach and up the burning sand; the sea was to our right and a fenced-in and pretty run down place on the left. Eventually we found a few people inside the fence in a crumbling pavilion who let us in and called Tanya, the Russian proprietor. Tanya then remembered the call from Satya yesterday, and explained that her places were already taken by some young backpackers. She said there was one hut with a single boy in it who might be willing to share, and took me to see it. It was a very simple hut on stilts with a palm roof and palm door hinged from above that you pushed up to get inside. Something like a teepee, no windows, certainly no power, pretty darn rustic and looked pretty hot inside. I was not ready for this level of living and told her no, but thank you.
We drove back to the vistor’s center. This time the office for getting permission to enter Matrimandir was open. There were about six people sitting in chairs around the edges of the room, and a functionary at a desk in the middle of the room. He would call people up one at a time; when new people entered the room, he made sure they took a seat to wait their turn. When it was my turn I went up and sat in front of him at his desk. He looked at me and said nothing, waiting I assume for me to make my request, though as far as I know he only served one type of request. I said I would like to go sit in Matrimandir “again”. I had never sat in it Matrimandir, but I was advised to say I had already been there in order to avoid the lengthy orientation process and also to get a longer sitting. He gave me a blue card to fill out - name, address, phone, email. Had I really been there before, I would have known that the blue card was for first-timers and I should have asked for a yellow card. In any case, I filled it out, he stamped it, waved me on and called the next person.
Have I mentioned how rare it is for Indian people to smile? I always try to smile and say think you, and once in a while I get a smile back, though more often an unsmiling head bobble. I wonder if smiling is too intimate for strangers. By the way, a thought about the physics of head bobbles. Pilots know that a vehicle in space can turn on three axes: pitch, yaw, and role. If you think of your head as an airplane, changing pitch is like nodding yes (good for changing your elevation), changing yaw is like nodding no (good for changing direction). That leaves roll, a manuever that rotates around the forward axis, which when done to a head, makes one eye higher than the other. The roll is not used for communication in western culture, but rolling back and forth is a perfectly distinct motion which is called the “bobble” and which Indians make good use of, sometimes to our confusion. I think the gesture is similar to the Japanese “hai” which doesn’t mean “yes” as in “I agree,” but it does mean “I acknowledge what you said.” It also seems to have overtones of “que sera sera,” a resigned form of the valley-girl mantra, “What. Ever.” But maybe I’m projecting.
Anyway, now that I had my critical blue card for Matrimandir, my next stop was Visitor Housing Services. Visitor services on the auroville.org website gives a list of maybe 50 guest houses in Auroville. One by one you navigate through them by zooming in and out of a map, and when you find one that meets your fancy, you can fill out a form expressing your interest. Then after a few days or sometimes a week you get back a message: “Sorry, we are full.” I had been sending messages to various guest houses in Auroville since December, asking about a place to stay. Sometimes the reply would include a helpful link to try the guest services web page, the one I started from. A travel agent in New Delhi suggested that should just show up and I should have no problem finding a place. So I was finally here to ask in person. They told me there were very full: not only was this the most desirable high season period, but there was a marathon scheduled for Sunday which drew thousands of people, and there was also a film festival. However, by raising my “budget” a few times I was able eventually to find a room for at least the first two nights of my intended four night stay.
Despite the high room rate, I was happy to get a place at all, and very happy that the place I got was quite central. I walked back to the parking lot to get my bags and thank my driver, then walked back through the visitors’ center and another five minutes up the rural dirt road to the adjacent neighborhood called Bharat Nivas. Turns out this particular neighborhood represents India and was the first of many neighborhoods in the “international zone,” a kind of spread-out version of EPCOT center, with villages representing Africa, Tibet, and France on the map, as well as many others advertised at the visitor’s center that I could not find on the map. Auroville is enormous, by the way. I counted 136 of these villages on the map, and they are so spread out that as I walked between some of them in the following days, I rarely saw other people walking. Most folks on scooters, though there were a few bicycles and occasional tuktuks, cars and buses.
My room turned out to be a suite with a huge stting room that I never used, a huge empty bedroom with a king bed and single chair, a large bathroom, a porch facing the woods, and many large windows which, lacking screens, I had to keep closed. Unfortunately the air conditioner didn’t cool the air, the small refrigerator didn’t cool the one bottle of water in it, there was no food available after breakfast, and their wireless service was only available if you sat in the open-air lobby at the registration desk - and cost an extra 50 rupees/hour to boot. Oh, and by the way you have to take your passport to the town hall to register, and be sure to have cash to pay the bill when you check out. OK I admitted, I was feeling grumpy about all this stuff.
After settling in and showering, I walked back to the visitor’s center. I found the place where they rent bicycles and asked if I could rent one, but the woman there said “no bicycles.” I imagine she meant that all the working ones were already rented, as there were plenty parked there, but who knows?
I went to the cafeteria. As by now it was about 3pm, it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but they had snacks, so I got some cookies and tea. I was hoping for internet, but none was available there. I was hoping for power to charge my iphone, but could find nothing to plug into.
I struck up a conversation a lovely woman named Hannah from Denmark, traveling with her two daughters, maybe 12 and 10 years old. She had found herself without a place to live last fall, and decided it would be a good time to take her girls to Asia. They have been traveling around the country and, like me, just got to Auroville and found it rather disorienting. The have to leave India in a week unless they can get their three month visa extended; they may go to Nepal. Eventually when the money runs out they will have to return to Denmark. But they seemed in great spirits.
Eventually I said goodbye and left the cafeteria to explore. Crossing the visitor’s center courtyard, I was surprised to find another less formal snack bar, the Dreamer’s Cafe, right there. It had better snacks and also wireless. So I sat back down, got a couple of samosas (dessert for my cookies), and spent a few hours finishing off my previous Facebook post and doing some other correspondence.
By the time I looked up it was getting dark and the mosquitoes were coming out. I wasn’t ready for dinner, had no useful form of transportation, and no idea of where I ought to go, so I just walked back to my room. That evening I stayed home in a mildly grumpy way, reading, listening to podcasts, and playing video games until very late.
Friday. I slept in and got up the next morning well after 9am. By the time I left my room it was already 10:30. My hostess caught me on the way out. “You missed breakfast,” she said. “There’s breakfast?” I replied. “I told you, breakfast from 7:30 to 9:30.” “Oh, well, if I missed it, that’s ok.” “Well, just this once, I will serve you breakfast late.” “Really? Thank you!” So I sat down in the outdoor dining area and was brought toast with several jams and butter, sliced mango, tea, and a bit later a few pancakes. Lovely.
Just for fun I got a permission slip to “view” Matrimandir from the outsider. For newcomers, this is supposed to be a prerequisite to going inside, though no one had told me that officially. I figured I might as well get the permission slip which was an easy process. My next goal was to visit an ATM, to make sure I had enough cash to pay for my room. I hired a tuktuk and we left Auroville and drove to a nearby village; when its ATM didn’t work, we went to another village, and the second one paid off, so that task was done. I then had the tuktuk driver take me to the Town Hall, an adminstrative neighborhood 20 minutes walk from the Visitor’s Center. He dropped me off at 1:30 and left. There was a nice view of Matrimandir from the neighborhood, and I took a few photos. Then I discovered that the Town Hall was actually closed for lunch and would not be open again until 3pm. I thought I could wait around by having lunch, though I wasn’t that hungry. There was a cafeteria in the village, and I ordered lunch, though since I was so late there was very little available and it wasn’t very good. Studying my map I decided it was silly to wait around. I could walk to the Matrimandir viewing spot and continue to Solar Kitchen, where I had an appointment at 4pm.
It was a long walk, kind of around Matrimandir, off in the distance surrounded by huge lawns like a golf course and all fenced off. Eventually I came to the gate for the viewing zone, went in and kept walking. No one asked me for my permission slip, though I was told by another visitor that they were asked many times. Maybe I looked like I knew what I was doing, or maybe I looked grumpy.
The viewing spot was pretty amazing, though. This huge golden somewhat oval dome is of course the centerpiece. Surrounded by a dozen red stone “petals” and beyond them lawns, gardens, fountains, a huge amphitheater, and a few of the two million trees that have been planted in Auroville since it first began as an arid desert. Seems a shame that it is so protected that very few get to enjoy all this space, though I did learn that it gets used - for instance there will be a big program in the amphitheater a week from now.
I left in time to get to Solar Kitchen by 4. Solar Kitchen is another of the many Auroville neighborhoods, just south of Matrimandir, but I was there only to meet my friend MARTI (she likes to spell it with all caps) and catch a bus. MARTI is a photojournalist I met at Burning Man. She has been living part time in Auroville since the sevenities. She also has a place in Paris. We were going to a place called Sadhana Forest, to meet our common friendsJonah Lee and his girlfriend Jasmine who have been staying there. Seems they have a weekly open house on Friday nights, and as it’s a long way, they provide buses from Solar Kitchen to take folks there. The Sadhana Forest event lasted from 4-10pm, and was very rich experience. I’ve already spent too long on this post, so I think I’m going to save that for a separate post tomorrow.
Day 57 (part 2)-58
Friday evening: Sadhana Forest
MARTI and I joined two busloads of people for the 20 minute ride out of Auroville proper, down the public highway, into the woods, to Sadhana Forest. On the way she told me a bit about it. Sadhana Forest was founded about twelve years ago by an Israeli couple, Yorit and Aviram Rozen. They came to Auroville to ask for land to practice green techniques. There was no land available near the center, but roughly 70 acres were found for them 20 minutes away. Not much was expected, but over the years it has blossomed into one of Auroville’s most successful projects. They have an open house like the one we were attending every Friday afternoon.
We walked through the village, which looks like a village Robinson Crusoe might have designed for a hundred friends. We gathered in a large and sophisticated hall made of stone and trees for a presentation. To my surprise I took notes.
Sadhana Forest is the third most visited place in Auroville, first being the Visitor’s Center, and second Matrimandir. (So despite the vast overwhelm of Auroville I have been guided where I need to be.) Its purpose has been reforestation and water conservation. In the first six years, they raised the water table in the region by one meter per year, which they confirmed because local farmers nearby found the water going up in their wells.
On the sixth day after the place was founded on this arid and empty land, the first volunteer appeared and offered to help. They were not looking for volunteers but said, “sure, thanks.” He had his own hammock and was able to find a tree to tie it to. Since then, there have been volunteers coming continuously. As many as 170 have been there at a given time. Today there are about 30 residents (defined as those who have been there longer than six months). Minimum stay is two weeks; volunteers must pay for their own food (400 rp or about $6/day) and are given simple accomodations.
The presenter (whose name I missed) listed six principles of Sadhana Forest:
- Egalitarianism (no hieararchy, all are treated equally)
- Nonviolence (sanskrit: ahimsa) which includes vegan diet
- No competition
- Gift economy
- Unschooling for the children
- Sobriety: no drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes to permit clear communication
I was struck also by their generous daily schedule reminiscent of the New Monasticism (Rory, xxx). The times can evidently vary as needed.
5:30 wakeup (someone goes aroung singing or playing music) 6:00 morning circle 6:15 first seva (work projects, which include cooking) 9:00 breakfast 10:00 second seva 12:45 lunch free afternoon might include workshops, visits to Auroville, alone time etc 18:00 dinner 19:00 evening program - talent show, films, tech meetings, workshops etc
Sadhana Forest has grown enough to start two other projects, one in Haiti and one in Kenya. They are planting trees in Haiti but many locals cut down trees to make charcoal for cooking, so to reduce this practice they are bringing “rocket stoves” to the people, which work with a small amount of wood and are much more effficient. They made the point that most NGOs go into places like Haiti with a limited commitment say five years or even two years. SF on the other hand does not limit their commitment, and because of that is able to build trust among the local people, who they work with as equals.
During Q&A someone asked about the hall we were in. Stone pillars at the foundation were hand hewn by locals, though they are more expensive than the machine-cut pillars. The place is highly ventilated and since heat rises it stays pleasant during the hottest times. It was orginally a smaller room that is now the foyer of the larger room. Large wings on either side of the main stage provide a play room for the children, a chill zone for adults and a place to serve food for large groups.
After the presentation and Q&A, we took a walk through the grounds.
The kitchen uses efficient rocket stoves that take very little wood to cook for a huge number of people, and a hand pump to draw water for cooking and washing.
The dozen or so panels in their solar array generate most of the electrical energy they use. However, they also have a bicycle system to drive a blender which can make a smoothie in 30 seconds, and a bigger system for charging phones and laptops, which consists of four bikes hooked up to a generator and can charge 30 devices fully in three hours. That’s a long time to peddle, but they solve that problem by taking turns. Who needs a gym? smile emoticon
We went by the large dorm, an experimental building, also highly vented, but with corrugated roofing that looks like tin (though I heard him say “paper” and forgot to pursue it).
We saw their composting toilet area and the many low-water hand washing stations. These are containers of soap made from local plant incredients, a bucket of water with a ladle, and a few cups at hand level with a small hole in the bottle. After soaping your hands, ladle a scoop of water into a cup, and as it dribbles out use it to lather and rinse. Uses much less water than running the tap, and the organic soap doesn’t harm the thirsty plants thriving around the station.
We visited an area where they are starting new trees with an innovated method. Originally when planting seeds in holes, only a few survived. After considering how nature does it, they begin covering seeds with a mound of dirt. The ditch used to create the mound would be on the uphill side of the mound and would not be covered; that way runoff rainwater would collect and help irrigate the seed. This process increased survival to about 50%. Then someone came up with a brilliant idea. A two litre bottle has a hole punched in the bottom, and a wick run from the bottom around the seed. The bottle is planted in the mound near the seed. The wick draws about 50ml per day to the seed; the bottle only needs to be filled once every 40 days and wastes no water. This increased the seedling survival rate to about 90%. Once a seedling is a year old, it can take care of itself. If they are too busy for the wicking system, just using a bottle with a few small holes in the bottom is still very effective.
They showed us a couple of areas they had dammed up to reclaim rainwater. Heavy rains fill a large pond. Eventually much of the water sinks into the ground which is fine, at least it didn’t run off the land. The pond is also enjoyed by volunteers who swim in it. Swimming keeps the water muddy, which he said prevents mosquitoes, which only breed in clear water. In addition, there are plenty of frogs in this area to keep the mosquitoes and other bugs in check.
We came to a play area for the children. The children asked for this and designed it interactively: they asked them to draw what they saw. One child drew a tree. Another put a swing in the tree. A third added a treehouse. This is what they got.
Ultimately we came to mysterious area with dozens of blue barrels and a large mound covered by plastic. This, near the parking lot, is the fertilizer curing from human waste. Many visitors have contributed, and it is being put to good use.
It was getting dark toward the end of the tour and we gathered back in the main hall to watch a movie, part of the Friday night tradition. I cannot fathom where they came up with this film. It was about “high frequency trading” on Wall Street, the secret algorithms and protocols known by very few people, and a whistle blower who learned about a protocol that allowed certain big insiders to get valuable microsecond advantages in their trades. While I followed it and was fascinated, I think it was totally over the heads of almost everyone there, and certainly not relevant to their interests and lives. Bizarre.
After the film we had some singing (kirtan songs from a number of cultures, including American Indian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish songs) and dinner (a fire brigade of volunteers handed out plates full of food to the eighty or so guests). During this time I had a great conversation with Jonah, about travel and about tension fabric structures. Jonah designed the beautiful fabric shade structure at Red Lightning a few years ago, which one awards at Burning Man for the most beautiful camp. I asked how he got into it, and learned that he had worked with Mar, who for many years was with the Department of Tethered Aviation (DOTA), and a regular neighbor of the Ojai Bureau of Pleasure (OBOP) at Burning Man. Yup small world.
We looked up from our conversation and discovered the dining hall had emptied out. MARTI and I gathered our stuff and said quick goodbyes. We got to the parking lot as a bus was departing, but fortunately the other was still there. We got one of the last seats. When we got back to Solar Kitchen, it was 10:30pm and dark. The crowd departed on scooters and motorbikes; I walked through the woods the twenty minutes to my immense suite, and slept soundly.
Day 58: Saturday: Matrimandir and Pondicherry
On Saturday I got up early as I had a 9am appointment at Matrimandir. At breakfast I met a woman from Italy here to volunteer. Later a strong Indian woman came by, a Ph.D. named Monica who lives part time in Glendale CA. She told me that she was retired from the U.N. and on a faculty. She travelled the world teaching “tools” to various organizations and disadvantaged groups; she was here to give such teachings. I have a feeling she was quite well-known in her field and will maybe track her down.
I walked back to the Visitor’s Center and arrived just in time to join a group watching a 15 minute film about the founding and purpose of Auroville. I’ll leave it to you to read about auroville.org if you like. We then took a bus to the Matrimandir and everyone had to turn off their cell phones and check their bags. I’d left mine at the room so I wouldn’t have to do that. Sorry, no photos!
A guide appeared to orient us to what we were about to experience. He then lead us through the gardens on perfect stone paths. We passed by an enormous banyon tree - I counted 25 trunks of various sizes - and he told us this tree was here before Auroville acquired the land, cared for by an old woman who understood its importance, and was the only one preserved in this large parklike area.
We came to a space between two of the twelve huge stone “petals” that surround the dome. Here we left our shoes and walked single file through one of the petals. Each petal contains a hall that passes by meditation area we could see through a window. The area is a white carpeted room with maybe six white cushions that face a wall on which appears a large oval icon. This oval is the same shape as Matrimandir itself, and serves as a theme in many places, for instance, the inner park in which the dome sits is laid out in this oval shape. The room had eerie blue lighting, and I suspect the room was lit by a reflected ray from the solar beam that passes through the dome.
Emerging from the petal on the other side, we descend a white marble stairway to the “lotus” at the base of Matrimandir and form a circle around it. The lotus is made up of concentric rings of white marble petals. In the very center is a large crystal ball. Surrounding us are four enormous pillars that hold up Matrimandir. At the top of Matrimandir is a mirror and an opening that brings through a beam of sunlight; passing through the entire structure, the beam emerges at the bottom and enters this crystal ball. The optics allow each of us to see reflected in the crystal, the base of Matrimandir with the white dot of the sun: Some of the light emerging the sun, after passing through Matrimandir, has connected with our personal consiousness. We can also see reflected in the ball the circle of people gathered here, and the spot below the crystal where the sunbeam finally comes to rest, in the center of the lotus.
While I have not seen it mentioned, the light design of Matrimandir (which means “Mother temple” or perhaps simple “mother space”) represents perfectly the central Tibetan Buddhist mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum.” The ineffable Great Mystery (Om) radiates through the jewel (Mani) of the sun / consciousness, unfolding the colorful miracle of life represented by the lotus (Padme) rising out of the primal matter (mater, mother) which is the “congealed” vibration of the universe (hum). This formula is also a direct if esoteric invocation of the alchemical wedding, Heiros Gamos, as Mani refers to the masculine lingam, and Padme the feminine yoni.
We stand in silence for quite a while, though bird song fills the air, and as clouds drifted by, the light slowly grows brighter and dimmer; and at a moment when the light disappears, we are invited to enter Matrimandir.
Ascending into the dome, we get a close look at the golden disks that cover it. Each is made of many small tiles. The disks are not touching the surface of the dome but emerge from it, the larger ones slightly concave and the smaller ones convex, in a very organic pattern, as if it were some kind of plant. The dome appears to be spherical but it is actually (as I mentioned) somewhat oval shaped. An oval is different from an ellipse, by the way, and I’m sure there is a story behind this shape though I haven’t yet come across it.
We enter the lower room of the dome, all white, and are led to rows of marble benches around the outside, where we each have a personal seat beside a small stack of white socks to put on. From here we ascend one of two marble spiral staircases that wind halfway around the inside of the dome, like a double helix of DNA. As we ascend these we pass water trickling down from the center of the dome via four gold tiled waterways.
After we reach the top of the stairs, we pass through a small vestubule and into the upper hall. This immense, dark room is all white, including white carpets. Twelve white pillars hold up a roof far above. Between each pair of pillars are three white cushions, and three more behind them along the wall. As we all take our seats it becomes clear to me that there are exactly 72 of us in this group, and presumably in each group that comes to meditate on Matrimandir.
In the center of the room, a huge crystal ball sits on four sided structure, each side a golden Star of David (or Seal of Solomon) wherein the four points at which the two triangles intersect are connected to form a square. I saw this symbol elsewhere at Auroville. The sunlight is brighter here and, as the air is not perfectly clear, one can see the beam of light passing down from the ceiling into the crystal ball. Again the optics of the crystal ball allow us to see the reflection of the sun near the top, and the exit point near the bottom, and the fuzzy white ray of light passing through between, crossed by a darkly which is the group of us sitting, and not dressed in white.
The horizontal beam of light and the vertical row of meditators forms a cross, and in fact precisely signify the esoteric meaning of the cross, as described by Pir Vilayat Khan and certainly many others. The vertical axis connects heaven and earth via the Divine light. The horizontal axis is the axis of life, of relationship, of community (sangha). It represents us being here with one another, to witness, contribute to, and share our experiences in this this magical pageant, this play of Lila. Each of us is a living and feeling facet of a single holographic fractal crystal, absorbing and reflecting all of it from our unique perspective.
There is absolute silence as we sit for fifteen or twenty minutes.
Eventually it was time to leave - to stand, circle out, descend the spiral stairs, remove the socks, exit the dome, pass again through a petal, find our shoes, and walk back into the park. We go to the great amphitheater which maybe holds a thousand people and is frequently used for plays, concerts and group meditations. Near the center is a structure maybe 10’ high with what appears to be a huge white wick emerging from the top - I know they have sacred fires here, and imagine they light that thing. The structure was placed here at Auroville’s founding ceremony, and is filled with earth from many countries around the planet, along with the original Auroville charter, hand written by Sri Aurobindo’s equal partner known as “The Mother.”
We then have some free time. I hang out under the banyon tree and by a nearby fountain full of fresh clear water. Then I got on the bus that went back to the visitor’s center. I went to see if there were any room openings (of course there were not), ran into Hannah and her daughters and said goodbye, and went outside to hire a tuktuk driver. He took me the short drive to my room and I asked him to wait while I packed up and checked out. Then we drove into Pondicherry.
I had reserved a room the day before, in case I could not find one at Auroville. Booking.com showed about 50 hotels, but only two had a room available, and one had pretty low ratings, so I chose the other. The hotel I had booked was quite a distance away from shore and the part of town I would want to explore, but I had no choice. When I went to check in, the very busy clerk couldn’t find my reservation until I showed him the online document. “Oh, booking.com” and made another phone call with his third phone. Eventually he explained to me that they were overbooked but he had another room for me, much closer to the neighborhood I wanted to be in, and half the price. He got me another tuktuk who ferried me over to this place, the Hotel Subuya on Bussy street (there is a bar next door called “De Bussy”.)
As usual they made a copy of my India visa had me fill in a document to check in. This particular one caught my attention; I had to get my glasses to double check, and take a photo of it. Under the label Name and left of the label Organization there is a box with a surprising label. The hotel had no wifi at all, but my room had power, working A/C, a bottle of water, and a little window which opened to a narrow shaft through which sunlight filtered down – reminiscent of Matrimandir. I thought I would visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and found that I first needed to go to the “Bureau Centrale” which was open 4-8pm. It was only 2, so I settled in comfortably, and spent the next three hours writing my previous post.
At 4:30 I pulled myself away, gathered my things, and went out to explre the town. The ashram was about 15 blocks away and I thought it would be interesting to walk there. I was also interested in seeing Nehru street, which MARTI had told me was the big shopping street, and I had things to buy.
Like every other urban area in India, it was chaos outside: continuous honking, all forms of vehicles, pedestrians, and occasional cows in the road, and no sidewalks, so as you walk you simply trust that no one will hit you and try not to be stupid. I found an internet cafe (six tiny stalls packed into a room the size of a closet) but they didn’t have wifi, and since all my photos are on my phone, that was no help.
After some blocks I saw a store with a sign that said “Cashews.” Not snacks, not even nuts, just Cashews. I went in. They did have snacks but I got me a big back of raw cashews. The storekeeper didn’t have the 5 rupees change she needed, so she gave me a piece of chocolate instead. Happiness!
A few blocks later I remembered that I wanted to replace my shoulder bag, as its zipper had broken. I was still carrying it around, hoping no one would reach to take my phone or passport. I had been thinking I had to wait til I got to Nehru street, but I was surrounded by shops. And indeed as I looked up I saw a little luggage shop right across the street. I went in and found the perfect bag, actually way more functional that the last one, with several different zipper pockets. I invested 480 rupees (about $7) and was even more happy.
I came to Nehru Street. These crazy Indians - the street sign could have said “Nehru St.” but in the same amount of space they wrote “J. N. Street” Fortunately, I knew where I was. This was indeed the shopping street, and it was interesting, but as an official nomad, I’m allergic to shopping. I did however find an Internet Cafe with Wifi, and spent 90 minutes there finishing up my post and doing other online stuff. It was well after six now, starting to get dark, but I was close to the ashram and had completed all my other errands.
Wandering now toward the ashram in the dusk, I came to what appeared to be a colorful amusement park. It turned out to be the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple. Brilliantly painted gods, bright colorful lights, a huge room that looked like a grown up playground with various shiny brass devices and flames, families dressed up and going around doing various rituals together. We might get more out of religion back home if we made our churches and synagogues more magical like this place - fewer sermons, more ceremony! I got a few photos of the outside, but had to respect the sign that said no cameras inside.
Just beyond the temple is the Sri Aurobindo ashram, a group of large buildings which, in contrast to the temple, are pretty drab on the outside, though quite modern. I found a place where many people were entering; it turned out to be the samadhi (dargah, shrine) of Sri Aurobindo himself. There were several connected courtyards filled with all kinds of flowers, and in the inner courtyard, his tomb absolutely covered with beautiful flower designs, many people sitting around meditating, and a continuous stream of people - mostly Indian - surrounding it to kneel, place their foreheads on the tomb and pray. I believe his birthday is a week from now and large crowds are expected for that.
I lingered a while and found an area with all kinds of notices posted. There among them was a notice that said the Bureau Centrale had new hours, and would be open 2-6 instead of 4-8 in the evening. Since it was now maybe 6:30 I’d missed my chance to be there to get the special permissions I need to visit other parts of the ashram. I made a little head bobble: whatever. smile emoticon
I went wandering through the neighborhood looking for dinner. I found a brightly lit and crowded self serve cafeteria, but I had no idea how it worked and decided I would hold out for a restaurant. I passed a hotel with a very western menu and sky high prices, and street vendors that I’m just not sure my stomach is ready for. At one point in a quiet neighborhood, a man asked me if I was “look for eat”. I said yes, does it show? He asked me where I was from then told me, I think, that he taught Ayurveda in Washington State, though he had a super heavy accent and I wonder how it went. He took me to a place very close that looked like another hotel restaurant, but then explained this was the Aurobindo Ashram cafeteria. He asked if I had a card, and I had the strange sense that he was fishing for my credit card so I said no. But he looked disappointed, said “Oh, need card” and left. Finding someone who spoke better English, I learned that you need to get a meal card from Bureau Centrale to eat there, that a card costs 40 rupees ($0.60) and is good for three meals. Amazing. Maybe tomorrow.
Eventually I found a little local restaurant, the Appachi. Mabye I thought it would be American Indian food. smile emoticon Low ceilings, a dingy place, but probably as good as any other around, and there were several families dining. The menu had a northern Indian side with dishes I understood, and a southern India side with unfamiliar foods. But when I ordered from the northern side, the waiter told me they don’t serve any of that. So I picked a couple of things from the other side - “garlic chicken fry” and “Appachi special parotta”. I still don’t know what the latter was, but it was pretty good. From there, I walked the dozen blocks back home, stopping for ice cream on the way to celebrate a good day.
Days 59-60. Pondicherry. Not much to say, really. smile emoticon Sunday-Monday
After puttering around in my cell room on Sunday morning, I went downstairs at around 9am to see about breakfast. I first went outside to a bright, crisp sunny morning, and found that the whole street, normally busy, was utterly quiet. There was very little traffic, only few people were out, none of the nearby shops and restaurants were open.
Turning around, I saw that my own hotel had a sign that said “restaurant closed” along with one that said “no rooms”. But the restaurant door was open and there were staff inside. I walked in and went to one of them. I asked “Restaurant closed?” “Yes, closed.” “Do you know where I can get breakfast?” “Oh, you want breakfast? We have buffet. Sit down.” In fact, there were a few people eating, and several other parties came in from the street to get breakfast as I sat there. Go figure.
After breakfast, I spent most of the morning writing that last long post and doing some other errands. My intention for the day was to get to “Bureau Central,” an adminstrative office fo the Sri Aurobindo ashram, during their 2-6 afternoon shift. I had tried to find it without luck the day before, though I knew it was already closed.
I went out at 2pm and asked a tuk-tuk to take me to Bureau Centrale. He didn’t know where that was but he took me back to the Aurobindo Ashram where I had been the night before. From there I asked for and got clear directions - two blocks up, left, 3 blocks, right 1 block. So I walked over to that spot, indeed the corner I had searched before. I asked someone at the hotel and he pointed me down the street. There was a huge building with a gate that said “Cottage Industries” and a few little shops beyond. I walked down looking carefully for a sign on both sides of the street, went around the corner, around the block, got back to where I started. This time I asked at the Auroville Travel agency. They gave me similar directions but when I made what might have been a gesture of despair, they said “large gate.” So I went back to Cottage Industries and went inside the gate. Sure enough, there - inside the gate - was a sign identifying several offices, one being “Bureau Centrale.” Sheesh! But as I moved in that direction, a woman at the gate told me a few times - first in Tamil and eventually in sign language - that the office was closed and would open at 4pm.
Ok. I remembered the Internet cafe I had used the day before was nearby, so I walked over there to send off my latest report and upload my latest podcasts. By then it was 4 and I went back to Bureau Centrale.
This time it was actually open, and a sign in front explained their latest hours. The bureau was a collection of large empty rooms with stories and pictures on the wall, basically a museum for Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. There was also a small desk in the middle of the front room, with a line of people waiting. I took my time to enjoy the musuem and learn a few things, and eventually the desk was not so busy. I sat down with a volunteer and said I would like to come back and stay near the Ashram one day. He showed me a map and said he could take me over to see it. I tried to say I just wanted to learn about the process for the future, and when I think he eventually understood me, he told me the ashram guest houses do not take advance reservations. You come in the morning and see what you can get.
“Ah, I see. Thank you. Well, can I get a meal ticket just for tomorrow?” I was interested in visiting the ashram cafeteria, though it was too late to get a ticket for today, and I could only be there for breakfast tomorrow. But he said, “No, when you get your room, they will give you your meal tickets.” The sign at the door clearly said you can get mail tickets here, but perhaps he didn’t understand what I meant by “tomorrow” or maybe the sign was just for guesthouse management. I don’t know. I decided I did not really need a meal ticket, said thank you and took my leave. After a short walk I found a nearby local place for a western style dinner of fish and chips.
When I left the restaurant it was already dark. Nehru Street was crowded with street vendors, booths, people and vehicles. I thought how nice it would be if they closed off the street, and when I got to the corner of Nehru and Gandhi Streets, I discovered that Ghandi Street was closed off (at least to 3- and 4-wheel vehicles)! This was the night market! Groups of people out walking, couples, families with kids, packs of boys and gaggles of girls, shopping, eating, haggling, making deals, laughing. The street was peppered with bicycles and daredevil scooters buzzing through the crowd, and vendors walking around with flutes, super-long party-horns (I had to google the name of that toy), LED toys and other trinkets. Products were laid out everywhere; one vendor had her fabrics laid out on top of a row of motorbike seats. I enjoyed a slow, ten block walk back to my room, people watching and “shopping,” though I had no intention of buying anything. At my corner, the vehicle blockade ended and the dense traffic reappeared, so I also enjoyed going back to my peaceful cell.
On Monday morning I beamed my spirit back to Ojai to participate in Madrigali’s first Valentine’s Day event the night before. It was a smashing success, though only those on the astral plane could hear me, and as there was a lot of bawdy music, the astral plane was fairly quiet.
At breakfast I arranged for a car to drive me to Chennai airport around 11am. After packing up I went downstairs at 11 to check out. The person who said she would arrange for a car then called for one and told me it would be half an hour. Fortunately I left plenty of time to spare so I wasn’t worried. A man came in ten minutes, negotiated a price, took my cash for the car, and walked down the street. I imagine he kept some and found a driver, and for a moment I wondered if I would ever see the car. But the car did come, and they helped me with my bags, and I settled in for a three hour very exciting ride up the coast. I found a card inside the car suggesting it actually did belong to the hotel I was staying at, showing that all my concerns and projections were imaginary.
My driver was interested in making the best time, and used all the techniques: pass anything that is slower than you are; if there is a hole in traffic up front, aim for it and accelerate; trust that smaller vehicles including bikes and people will hear your horn and get out of your way, especially if there is a larger vehicle coming from the other direction; be aware of dogs but don’t slow down for them; be aware of cows and do slow down for them, as they will do what they want. He didn’t take the route Google suggested, but what taxi driver does?
We arrived at the airport at 2:30 for a 6pm flight. I suggested we stop at the domestic building, but my driver asked for my airline, had a few conversations in Tamil, and took me to the international building, where he said the IndiGo terminal was located. I said goodbye to him and took my bags, but when I got to the door and the security offericer looked at my ticket, he told me I needed to walk back to the domestic building.
I had plenty of time to change my clothes, check my bags, get a snack (I found a vendor who advertised “corn flakes” which I had to try), charge my phone, and read before the flight. The three hour flight was comfortable, and on arrival I was met by a tour guide who send my off to my hotel, where I met up with my frend Joan Roberts from Ojai, who is also participating in Yuval Ron’ tour of Rajasthan.