Smuggled to Mahabalipuram

31
Mar
2007

So there was some sort of general strike today in Tamil Nadu, which meant that Silvia and I were seemingly thwarted in our plan to move on to Mahabalipuram. Everywhere we went the story was the same: “You can’t go today, there is a general strike. Everything is closed. And no cars will be on the road. And even if you did find someone to take you, it will be dangerous, as you could be attacked by people supporting the strike.”

We were done with Pondy, so we threw caution to the wind and worked out a deal with some local thugs to take us anyway. There were three of them riding in the front two seats (they told us this was necessary in case there was “problem”). About 20 minutes into the ride, Dipen called me to say that it was too dangerous to go, and that we should stay in Pondicherry. This caused all manner of angry mob scenes to dance in my head as we made our way along the east coast road. The ride wasn’t cheap, but it was fast as there was no one on the roads. We made it here in about 1.5 hours, surely an Indian record.

Tomorrow we will visit the monuments and generally take in the sites. So far, I’m not too impressed with the general tourist atmosphere here. It is overpriced and underclassed. But I am happy to be with Silvia, she is a lot of fun.

Utopian vision (and nice quiche)

30
Mar
2007
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From Auroville

What can I say about Auroville that hasn’t been said on many other blogs or sites? Not much. Auroville is a utopian experiment straight out of the book, with all of the wonder and pitfalls that befall such a place.

I arrived at the visitor center after a 40 minute rickshaw ride there. While I was in watching the video presentation, a woman I recognized from the yoga ashram (super cool and Spanish, her name is Sylvia) came in, so we decided to visit Auroville together.  We walked over to the Matrimandir, but alas it was closed while they perform some construction work on it. We perused and purchased some books in the shop, then went to the lovely cafe for a very western quiche and salad.

I was fortunate to spend the evening yesterday with Dipen and one of his friends, Dirk whose parents moved here in the 70s when he was about 12  from Belgium to participate in the grand experiment that was (and is) Auroville. He had decidedly mixed feelings about growing up in this environment. For example, the free spirit ethos of the place in those days held that children needed no formal education, only to be left to experience life and find their own bliss. Of course this caused great problems for Dirk when he wanted to pursue higher education and employment outside Auroville. Also, as with many communities of this sort, there are many infrastructure problems, and although it is meant to be self sustaining many people must bring in income from outside the community. In addition, land prices have shot up, making it ever more difficult to realize the dream of living there. There is of course great income disparity between Aurovillians and of course between Auroville and the surrounding Indian communities.

All in all though, it is hard not to admire the vision of the place that aspires to be the following [quoting from The Mother] :

There should be somewhere upon earth a place that no nation could claim as its sole property, a place where all human beings of goodwill, sincere in their aspiration, could live freely as citizens of the world, obeying one single authority, that of the supreme Truth; a place of peace, concord, harmony, where all the fighting instincts of man would be used exclusively to conquer the causes of his suffering and misery, to surmount his weakness and ignorance, to triumph over his limitations and incapacities; a place where the needs of the spirit and the care for progress would get precedence over the satisfaction of desires and passions, the seeking for pleasures and material enjoyments.

Pondy is swell

29
Mar
2007

I’m not sure if it it just the contrast with the bus ride from hell, but Pondicherry(now called Puducherry) is a total surprise and delight. There is a much calmer pace of life here compared to most Indian towns and cities. The colonial architecture is quite sweet, and the city has a grid layout making it very easy to find one’s way around. And it has sidewalks! The Park Guest House (associated with the Sri Aurobindo Ashram here) where I am staying, is quite nice as well.

Today I plan to stroll around the city a bit more, then explore nearby Auroville tomorrow.

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From Pondy

White Knuckle Death Race by Bus to Pondicherry

28
Mar
2007

Just when I was feeling so self-satisfied that I had accepted the traffic conditions in India comes a case of bus travel so extreme I fell back into panic and anxiety for a good portion of the trip. It started out in the usual way, merely honking a lot and heading into oncoming traffic at warp speed. But then as we were bobbing and weaving our way along the one lane highway holding 4 lanes of traffic, I looked out the window and noticed a man on a motorcycle fall off at great speed. He probably died. Really. I freaked out. It wasn’t clear if our bus had hit him or not. None of the other passengers that noticed seemed too overly worried about it a few minutes later, and our bus driver returned to his amphetamine fueled game of chicken. On the 4 hour journey to Pondicherry, we went off the road a few times to pass others and nearly toppled the bus on more than one occasion. Add to that our stopping for every tom dick and harry (make that every suresh, deepu, and amit) to the point that the bus was VERY overcrowded and I started to feel mighty claustrophobic.

Here and I thought I had become unflappable in this type of situation. Then life throws it back in your face and says “Start again, start again…” (that line for you vipassana fans out there).

Ask.

28
Mar
2007

It is that simple really. And something we tend to neglect or not need in the US. We pride ourselves on our individuality, our self reliance. If we can find the info ourselves, on the internet or wherever, we are happier. And for the most part, this strategy works in the west, with its heavy emphasis on standards and infrastructure. But in a place like India, that is all out the window. You MUST rely on the specific knowledge of many people along whatever journey (or task) you take.

To take a simple example, I found my bus to Pondicherry this morning by asking around, finding the bus station, then finding the buses at the station heading to my destination.  I never would have got here if it werent’t for these simple interactions. It is the same with taxis and rickshaws across the country. There are no good maps here. People rely on their knowledge of big landmarks, then when they get to the area they work down from there. Most directions are a series of larger to smaller or lesser known landmarks, each of which will be increasingly recognized only by ever more local people. All of this depends on a social contract of interaction that involves helping each other in these small but essential ways. It also leads to a greater feeling of connectedness with everyone around you (and I tend to think that a good thing, despite the occasional need for solitude).

Om Shanti

26
Mar
2007

Goodbye, Sivananda (next stop Chennai). It is time to move on. I have learned a ton here and will try to practice yoga every day. I even bought a mat. Does this make me a real hippie?

Notes on Shivananda Ashram

23
Mar
2007

– We all eat sitting on the floor in lines, are forbidden to talk while eating, must chant before dinner, and eat with our hands as is the custom south India. The chef is a bit of a nazi when it comes to yelling at people that talk during dinner. On the other hand, sitting all together in this way reinforces a sense of community and equality among everyone. We each wash our own dishes at the end of the meal (which encourages us to be thorough I think, since any of us could receive a dish washed by someone else)

-In case you haven’t read from my previous posts, it is HOT and HUMID here and there are LOTS of MOSQUITOS. And they seem to be immune to all manner of repellent.

– The yoga and asana courses are fantastic. The teachers are great, friendly and very helpful. The lecture courses on the history and theory of yoga are also top notch in my book. This place has definitely broadened my understanding of some core concepts in Hinduism.

-This place is a hetero guy’s wet dream. It is crawling with beautiful women (and some men for that matter), who all seem quite flirty, despite the spiritual pretensions. Sometimes I think this place is just a big singles bar for straights. (Although I would be the first to say that sex can be very spiritually uplifting.)

– I could be wrong about this, but my impression from the video I saw about the founder of this place (Swami Vishnu Devananda) gave me the distinct impression that he and his mentor, Swami Sivananda, were shall we say, more than just good friends. But I read everything on baser levels, so there you are.

– A very unpleasant Israeli guy (who we have nicknamed Eor, because he never smiles), comes in to browbeat us all in the early morning in an effort to get us to go to the least interesting part of the program, Satsang (or as we call it, church and prayer).

-We walk barefoot everywhere at the ashram, and my feet are busted from all the rocks and fecal matter underfoot.

Kumbaya, ick

23
Mar
2007

That said, we went on a forced late night march a couple of nights ago, to the mosquito infested lakeside so that we could meditate and then sing songs of devotion to Siva, Ganesh, et al. After the main prayer, the swami asked if anyone would like to chant some special song. All I could think of was Madonna’s “Om Shanti“, but it seemed inappropriate, so I kept my mouth shut. The whole thing had a real feel of Christian summer camp or Up With People. And it was of course, hot as hell and I was soaked in my own sweat.

Ashram love

23
Mar
2007

One of the things I love about ashrams is the almost universal goodwill among the residents (whether these residents be long term or short). Almost without fail these places are filled with people that are searching for some sort of path to enlightenment or connection with the infinite (or god, if you prefer). As seekers, they are very open to all kinds of people. Here at Sivananda, for example, I have met really great and open people from places as diverse as Mexico, Iran, Israel, France, Autralia, Canada, Germany, and Brazil. They all share an open spirit and want to discuss the meaning of life with each other. Some of it may be touchy feely or new age, but for some reason none of that bothers me here. I accept at face value the sincerity of everyone, regardless of their path, and it makes for some wonderful exchanges.