Saturday, 2 December 2017

#34 Auroville adventures, a spontaneous stop in Mahabs and chaotic Chennai

After Pondicherry I, very eagerly, headed to Auroville. I had been intrigued about this place since I heard about it earlier this year from SCMG and several other people I met along the way.

After asking around, I found a bus that would take me almost all the way and I could get an auto the rest of the way.

After missing the first bus, I stood on the side of the road and waited in the light drizzle for the next one, which a nice man selling Indian snacks, helped me identify and flag down.

I squeezed myself and my bag onto the very full bus and bumped along for about 20 mins for 20 rupees as the bus blared cheerful Bollywood tunes. Local busses make me so happy. The more uncomfortable the better. I think it's the novelty. This was how I'd imagined India and travel adventures when it was all just a day dream.

I caught an auto from the main road into Auroville and the driver told me about his family as we slid about on the red, clay roads. He had two daughters who were coming up to marriagable age but he was worried he couldn't afford to marry them off because he needed to provide a big dowry. One of them would have to wait and finish her studies first before he could afford to arrange a marriage for her.

After about 15 minutes I was in Auroville. I was so curious to discover this mysterious place. I got dropped at the visitors centre where I made some enquiries about accomodation. There was a reasonably cheap mixed dorm just inside the town for 350 rupees which sounded perfect.

Inside Auroville there is limited public transport so the best way to get around is to hire a bike/scooter just outside. This way you are independent and can explore much further.

There is also a free shuttle service to some accomodation places so I took this option. As it had been raining quite a lot, and the roads were all ocre coloured clay, everything was very slippery and muddy but over all the place had a very peaceful atmosphere and there were lots of trees and open green spaces. The roads were quiet and everyone was just getting on with life.

I saw quite a few non-Indians driving scooters around but I never knew if they were tourists like me or residents. There were also lots of Indians going about their daily tasks. It still felt like India, but on a smaller, more relaxed scale.

After a cheap dinner of Samosa's I curled up in bed and continued to read The Life of Pi as the rain gently pattered outside.

The next day I decided to walk to the information centre and read up on the history of Auroville. Simply put, Auroville is an experimental township, for people of all nationalities to live together in harmony.

The founder, who is referred to as The Mother, wanted there to be one place on earth that belonged to everyone. The story goes that she randomly pointed to a spot on a map which turned out to be a large empty area. Here, people spent many years creating the village which is built around a central structure called the Matrimandir.

This is an enormous gold globe-shaped building that is solely for meditation and inner reflection.

The whole idea of Auroville was, and still is, very appealing to me. Some people told me they found it cult-like and creepy but I didn't get that vibe at all. It really depends on what state of mind you are in when you arrive, your pre-conceived ideas and expectations. It seemed very ordinary and harmless to me.

It isn't laid out for tourists at all. It's purely residential so it can be quite difficult to get around if you don't know where you are going or what you want to do. I spent the first few days just finding my feet, renting a bike and trying to navigate my way around.

It's the kind of place where the longer you stay, the more you get out of it. I stayed only three days but by the last one I was finally feeling like I understood it a bit more.

On my second night, a guy from Chennai arrived in the dorm, and we had a nice conversation about Indian politics, the caste system and his work with fishing communities around Mahabalipuram and beyond.

He was starting a social enterprise which aimed to help these communities find other ways of making an income and working together.

He was very passionate about it and was in Auroville to meet with some other people, who had started similar social enterprises, to get ideas. India is full of these amazing, highly educated, compassionate, young social entrepreneurs.

We decided to get dinner together and I rode on the back of his bike to the outskirts of Auroville. Afterwards we wanted to find some beer and ended up driving almost all the way into Pondicherry as alcohol isn't sold in Auroville.

On the way back it started to pour down and we got completely saturated but we had the beer so it was worth it. The rain was warm and refreshing and I'm a big fan of riding as a passenger on scooters.

After drying off, we sat on the balcony of our dorm and sneakily sipped our beers like naughty school children. It tasted twice as good simply because it had been so hard to find and because we weren't supposed to drink inside Auroville.

The next morning he invited me to go with him into Pondi again - this time to the beach. He had some business calls to make so I sat on the rocks and soaked up the ocean air. I was still madly in love with this place and very happy to have found nice company.

After a while we got some breakfast of idly - fermented rice cakes with coconut and chilli chutney - and dosa - a large pancake type of bread with potato and spices inside - and headed back to our dorm.

It was time for him to go back to Chennai and I went off on my bike again exploring. I was really enjoying driving around on the quiet roads, and breathing in the clean air, so I wasn't too worried about finding things to do.

The next evening a very excited young man from Mumbai arrived in the dorm and we had a nice chat about travelling and the different places in India we had been. We had breakfast together with the other girls the next morning.

I was almost tempted to stay and explore with him because his enthsiasm for Auroville was contagious but decided I had seen enough and it was time to move on.

Quite a few people had told me to avoid Chennai for as long as possible so I took their advice and headed for a place called Mahabalipuram instead which was suggested by one of the dorm girls.

I found a local bus thanks to an honest auto driver (30 rupees for an hour long ride!) and squeezed myself in again. A beautiful old Indian woman sat next to me and after a few shy smiles put her hand in mine and we sat the rest of the ride that way. She spoke to me in Hindi and I to her in English. Between the two of us we figured out some of what we were saying.

She admired the tattoo on my wrist and I admired hers which I assume had some religious significance and she offered me snacks. This is why I love local busses.

I arrived in Mahabalipuram and walked from the bus stop to my accomodation easily. The town had a cheerful seaside vibe and I liked it immediately.

I found my hotel without having to get an auto (always a win in my books) which was very close to the beach and had a super friendly host. Everything about it was perfect. The room was lined with beautiful blue flowered tiles and there was a large courtyard in the centre of the hotel which was decorated by large green leafy plants.

The host told me the best place to go for Thali (a very good reccomendation) and I ate it off a banana leaf with my hand without even thinking about it. I was surprised at how naturally it came back after all these months in Thailand and a month using chop sticks in Vietnam.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the beach and wandering around the streets soaking up the atmosphere. The next morning, after coffee and pancakes, I set out to see the rock carvings which make Mahabalipuram famous.

There's also a large boulder, which looks as if it is defying laws of gravity, called Krishna's butter ball. Apparently it was named by Ghandi and is a reference to the story where the Hindu god Krishna steals a ball of butter.

It was free to wander around these amazing carvings and I spent a good few hours examining them and reading the sign boards.

When I got back to the hotel the friendly host asked if there was anything I needed.

"More blankets? Beer? Something to smoke?"

I was very impressed with his eagerness to help and said thank you very much but I was fine. I guess those are the most common things tourists want.

I had a quiet evening in reading and drinking the last beer left over from Auroville. Life was goooood!

The next day I took two more local busses to Chennai and was glad I didn't arrive any earlier than I had to. It was a busy, dirty, frantic city. The only reason I was there was to catch a flight to Mumbai to visit SCMG.

I checked into possibly the smallest hotel room ever and made myself comfy with a bounty bar and my book.

The room was so small, the bed which was quite narrow already, hung over the edge of the bathroom door. I had to laugh. It was very cheap but it did feel a tiny bit like a cell. There were no windows and the thought of how I would escape if there was a fire flickered across my mind. Thankfully I had an uneventful evening and a reasonably good sleep before I caught an auto to the airport at 5am the next morning.

Before I knew it I was in Mumbai and in a taxi heading to Andheri West to see SCMG.

The Matrimandir, Auroville - Tamil Nadu

Krishna's Butterball, Mahabalipuram

Mahabalipuram beach and fishing boats

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