Travel Stories

India – the second venue – continued to end

16. Puduchcheri

            Puduchcheri,aka Pondicherry, is such a quintessential Indian city I almost feel there is no more I need to say about it other than that.  Just picture everything you’ve heard about the clamor of Indian cities, everything you’ve seen in the movies, everything you’ve read in National Geographic, and there you have Puduchcheri where I sit in absolute awe in a traffic jam on the immensely crowded main road into town during the morning rush hour, caused in part by a man guiding eight spread out oxen who want to explore the garbage left on both sides of the street to see if there is something worth eating that a dog or beggar hasn’t taken first, followed by a big bus blowing its horn, followed by about ten thousand bicycles, motorcycles, cars, rickshaws, pedestrians crossing the street, kids running, vendors of every kind lining both sides of the street, stores packed shoulder to shoulder behind the vendors, their produce spilling out into the street, alleys, cross streets, colors, flags, banners, billboards, street signs, cooking fires, food vendors, piles of shit, flies, cats, goats, loud voices, high temperatures, people eating, spitting, laughing, animated conversation, music, the tinkle of bells, an Om, a symphony, the chaos of life unfolding of a typical morning in Puduchcheri.  My sister Sheryl, who lived for two years in rural India in the late nineteen sixties early seventies, tells me that if I want to see the real India I’ve got to get out of the modern cities where there are now even supermarkets and malls.  I know she cannot mean Puduchcheri, which is as real as it gets.  And I am so glad to have seen it.  And even more glad not to have stayed in it.

17. Leaving Auroville

It is quite hard to force myself away from the delights and comforts of Camp Auroville, which is in so many ways totally atypical of India - like South Beach is atypical of the state of Florida - yet totally within India and within the Indian context (and has had such a positive economic and cultural impact on the people of the villages which surround it.)  It is as if I landed in Big Sur, or Hawaii, where I’d also have a hard time leaving, but if my goal were to see America I’d have to.  And I do.  I literally force myself to leave Auroville, which is just too comfortable, too much like a vacation, too European and familiar, too distracting for my current purposes with its many stimulations and diversions, notwithstanding its existing within the very alien cultural context provided by Indian villages, peasant farmers, modest sized towns, and even the city of Puduchcheri, to which Auroville is physically proximate and spiritually connected.  And while I can also imagine myself returning to Auroville, not necessarily as a prospective member of the community, but just as a place to be, and do yoga, and go to the beach, and live for a period of time on far less than my modest social security check provides, I also know that I am not looking to be on vacation while in India this time around, that I see this India trip as a broad survey of the subcontinent within the context of a personal spiritual journey, and that wonderful and lovely as Auroville is, and even as much as I was learning in yoga there, I just felt too comfortable and too unchallenged, and in that sense fearful that at the levels accessible to a short term visitor, Auroville was, and I was, instantly a bit stagnant and routinized, even after just two days.  I mean if you are looking for some sort of Club Med for retired hippies, or a retirement community that isn’t in Florida or Arizona, I think Auroville could fit the bill just perfectly.  Which is why I force myself to leave while I was having just an absolutely wonderful time.

Oh, one more word about the scooter.  You may recall that I thought the man who rented me the scooter had said it cost 800 rupees a day and I had left him a 1000 rupee deposit.  So when I brought the scooter back I gave him an additional 600 rupees, for two full days, but I could tell he was looking at me quizzically and that something was not computing, which I instantly assumed meant he was looking for more money.  “This is wrong, sir,” he said, “It is not the right amount of money.”  “I don’t understand,” I responded, “I left you a one thousand rupee deposit, I have the receipt.  What is it you think I owe you?”  “Owe me, sir,” he said, “no it is I who owe you 840 rupees.  The cost of the rental is 80 rupees a day.” 

I’ll just state the obvious; you draw your own conclusions.  The man already had 1,000 of my rupees.  And I was prepared to give him 600 more, a total of forty dollars, not an insignificant amount of money in village India, probably the equivalent of one or two week’s earnings, if not more.  And instead of pocketing my money he returns over 800 rupees to me, keeping merely the $4 he expected to receive. Paul Theroux says through one of his characters in Elephant God: “Though the Indians were difficult, India was not hostile, it was indifferent, a great hot uncaring mob … damaged people scrambling on ruins.”  There are many ways the manifestation of “indifference” in India seems to be obviously true – the pushing, the aggression, and the desensitization stand out.  But as a one week long veteran of India travels I have also seen great caring, curiosity, humility, patience, trustworthiness, good humor, kindness,and love.  And it touches me.

18. Transition

            At the bus station in Puduchcheri, where I have gone one day early explicitly to have a face to face conversation with the bus company ticket agent about bus travel to Chennai before I purchase a plane ticket from Chennai to Pune, I inquire when the express air conditioned buses leave for the airport in Chennai, but because the tumult and noise in the outdoor bus terminal is so great, and I can not hear or understand his answers to my questions, we conduct our “conversation” by passing a piece of paper back and forth on which I write my questions and he then provides his answers in a very neat hand with excellently written English.  The bottom line appears to be that express buses leave for Chennai every fifteen minutes and that no reservations are needed because tickets are sold on the bus.  Fine, I need to leave the bus terminal for the airport by these calculations at 9:30, and to play it safe arrive at the bus terminal a bit before 8:30 the next morning, only to find that while “express” buses leave every fifteen minutes, the next air conditioned express bus was not expected to depart until either 8:50, 9:00, 9:10, 9:25, or 10 o’clock, depending on who I asked and when I asked them.  My most reliable informant, who said he himself was taking the express air-conditioned bus to the railroad station in Chennai, and that he did so often, said 9:25.  The question for me was whether to wait possibly an hour and a half or more for air con, and if it didn’t come risk missing my plane, or to surrender to the slower, far hotter and more crowded buses that were leaving now.  I decided to gamble and wait.  In the end the bus left Puduchcheri at10:05, the driver moved his large rig with immense skill and a sense of fluidity - regardless of which side of the road he was on - and I did get to the airport in ample time.  Sometimes it is as simple as they say in Sanskrit, “Om tat sat,” which I think means “that which is,” or maybe just “it is” – like I am it and it is me - comparable but not quite the same  (same same but different) as what we say at home, “what is is.” I’m headed to Pune.