Auroville

Note: I still have a little bit more to write about the mountains, but I’m back in south India for one more week and want to get some of this down in more-or-less real time.

Traveling around south India for a few days with a friend from the states. Robyn and I agree that it feels a lot like Florida (although she adds, “in the seventies”). Palm trees, humidity, thunder.

It’s her first time in India too, and her first few days, so it’s been interesting to see her take on things that have become completely normal for me. Like driving. At first she said, “They’re all honking at each other all the time, but they don’t seem angry.” After a while she was able to distinguish the vocabulary of beeps—the “coming up behind you” and the “hey just want to make sure you see me” and the “make way comin’ through” and the “thank you” and the one that kind of sounds like thank you but means something quite different.

We stayed a night in Chennai, in what felt to me like a ridiculously fancy hotel. I’ve gotten used to places with a handful of rooms, sporadic electricity, and usually no hot water. This place made us go through a metal detector to get in and offered free wifi and “high-altitude dining” on the 15th floor. I felt totally out of place in my rumpled, just-spent-3-weeks-in-the-Himalayas clothing. There was a fashion show happening that night, so we got to hear the bass thumping, mercifully not too late into the night. In the morning we sort of got a mini-fashion show, eating breakfast in the lobby with the models (one of whom was wearing a sari that kind of looked like a peacock). The food was great, twice the price I’ve gotten used to, but still inexpensive by US standards.

Then we headed south to visit an intentional community outside Pondicherry. On the way, we passed trucks loaded with huge, hot-pink Ganeshas. One was preceded by a parade of drummers with strips of blue cloth tied around their heads. Speaking of trucks: the trucks here seem much less ornate than those in the north. There they were painted up with flowers, paisleys, great big tassels hanging from the side mirrors, sometimes lions or tigers painted leaping from the back. Here they are mostly a utilitarian orange, although the hand-painted, circus-style font of “SOUND HORN” on the rear is still pretty charming.

We stopped partway in Mahabalipuram, to see several temples there. First we stopped at an active temple, where we were given flowers and turmeric powder, and a metal cone was placed on our heads to give us special blessings from Laxmi. There were several shrines within the complex, each with a lamp from which you could “take the sacred fire” by passing your hand over the flame and then over your head. Robyn and I were the only white folks there, and we weren’t hassled at all, although I did overhear some comment about a “gori.” I have no idea what they were saying about us, but the tone of voice sounded non-hostile. Then we headed to the archeological temples. These were the most touristy spots I’ve been to yet, and here we got the people dangling bead necklaces in our faces, asking us to take pictures of a dressed-up monkey on a leash, and offering fortune-telling cards chosen by a parrot. But the temples were cool. We stopped for lunch at a place which at first was empty, but filled up soon after we arrived. Again, we were the only white folks, and again, we didn’t seem to garner too much attention. I modeled for Robyn how to eat with her hands, but she wasn’t quite ready to dig in and try it.

Our booking here in Auroville includes the use of 2 beater bikes (with the disclaimer that they couldn’t guarantee that the bikes would actually work). It’s nice to be able to get around for a bit on our own instead of relying on a driver. While riding around in the afternoon, we saw the Matrimandir, which looks like a gold-plated Epcot center. I kind of wonder if inside it has a theme ride with Michael Jackson, but we’ll never know because we’re not allowed in (and you have to watch an instructional video before you’re even allowed inside the fence).

We’re here for 3 days, during which time we hope to check out an indigo-dyeing unit and some other textiles and design-related projects. It’s kind of like not even being in India–more like just being among international hippies. Which is also fun. Stay tuned.

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