We’ve finally left our lovely little town of Lauzun to continue our bike trip and flew Paris to Chennai this week to begin a cycle trip we hope takes us to Goa.
Despite all the annoyances and stress of airline travel, I still love the fact that in a mere number of hours I can step from one world into another. One night I am sleeping in an airport hotel in Paris and the next I am standing on the balcony of my Pondicherry hotel, breathing in warm, waterlogged air, watching the crazy traffic on the street below, and falling asleep to the sound of motorcycle engines and horns.
Pondicherry is quite a soft landing as far as India goes. Having travelled a lot in the third world we are finding that we are adjusting very well to the chaos – traffic that obeys few rules and navigates by horns; shops that spill out onto sidewalks that are already crammed with parked motorcycles so that pedestrians share the street with moving traffic, cows, dogs, and other people; narrow tiny shops with big signs that compete with all the other big signs so that it all becomes one big sign; no street names; and bewildered and bemused traffic cops with ineffectual whistles.
We’ve given ourselves five days to get over the jet lag, plan our bike trip, and to buy the odds and sods we have forgotten. (Ian forgot his underwear and is quite amused to find that in India, the men wear underwear with pockets – we guess that this is for the men who wear dhotis and have no other place to put their keys and rupees).
As we have worked down the list (maps of India, mosquito repellant, shoe laces, hair dye, underwear, batteries for bike lights) we have ambled about both the French and Indian parts of town and admired the scenery. We liked the market for its colour and overpowering smells of fish and spice. We walked the boardwalk along the ocean and admired the Bay of Bengal while people watching and dodging the come ons from local sellers (drums, jewelry, wash off tattoos, scarves etc. etc.)
There are a fair number of tourists about, many French given that this was governed by the French until 1954. Many of the tourists are interested in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram right in Pondicherry and the commune, known as Auroville, 10 km outside of town. We were able to pick out a few of these travellers from the airport gate in Paris – girls with yoga mats and yoga pants and hair piled in top knots and wrapped in Indian cotton scarves.
We had thought about visiting the ashram and commune but a very unfortunate incident this week has the city tense and the ashram off limits. It seems that the locals resent the fact that the ashram is not governed by any local authority – it reports into the federal government — and there are all kinds of accusations of corruption and mis-management. This week there was a supreme court ruing against a family who had lived in an apartment in Pondicherry which was owned by the ashram. After a decade of fighting eviction for an infraction of ashram rules, they lost in the final ruling and the entire family walked into the ocean to commit suicide. Three of them drowned and four were rescued by local fishermen. This sparked a protest by Pondicherry citizens who want local governance for the ashram and today, a day-long general strike. Felt just like France…
We took the opportunity of a relatively quiet Pondicherry to take our bikes out for their first Indian spins. All was well with them and as soon as we were three kilometres out of town we hit the real India and I quit feeling sorrier for the mangy, hungry dogs than the people (my guilt-ridden reaction to our first few days here where I felt the opposite). Yes, it is still a very poor country for some people and the living conditions are appalling.
But we were both happy to be out on the bikes and meeting people not so used to tourists. Everyone was friendly and when we stopped at intersections more than one person asked if we needed directions, including two lovely children who giggled and charmed and eventually, unable to tell us what road we were on, pointed to the police across the street and very helpfully suggested we could get help there.
We passed loads of garland eating goats and sandy-coloured dogs and happy looking cows as we plotted our route out of town (we leave the day after tomorrow when the real journey begins.)
The extremes of India – the dirt and pollution, the amazing colour (of saris, and of spices in the market and painted temples), the noise, the chaos of traffic and no queuing and hordes of people, the piles of stuff for sale, the fabulous food, the amazing smells of fruit and curry – all the stimulation is what makes it both exciting and exhausting.
I first started thinking of going to India when I was in my late teens. I had become friends with a couple who had recently come back from a trip to India. Bill played guitar with my boyfriend of the time and I thought he was one of the coolest people I’d ever met – he was in the final stage of earning his PhD in biochemistry and liked to smoke hash – this contradiction in itself amazed me — and he was supplementing his student loans by dealing a little. He had a pipe he called a chillum and whenever he would spark up he’d say Bom Shiva. He talked a lot about India and in that small prayer he acknowledged the reality of the world – the bigger world that includes both light and dark, destruction and creation, the extremes of India and our relatively easier lives in the west. And although we westerners may be lucky in many ways I, like many of my kin, can become obsessed with having enough money, especially these days as I try to get advice on taxes as a non-resident, and lose track of the precious present. I like to come to India to be reminded of that.
So, yeah, Bom Shiva.