Auroville: A Place Unto Itself

Auroville, India. It’s a place unto itself, belonging to no one in particular, instead belonging to “humanity as a whole.”

I first visited this place in 1974, six years after its founding when it was still a dusty landscape. They were building something. It was so unremarkable I can’t remember much. Just that there wasn’t much here.

Now, after massive erosion control and the planting of over 2 million trees, the place is a shady oasis. It covers an area of over 20 square kilometers, containing villages and guest houses, cafes, schools, learning centers, workshops, stores, residential spaces, and public buildings of astounding and eclectic architecture.

My rented electric bicycle zooms me around the place. I get lost as I weave along dirt paths and paved roads, but I always end up somewhere. Google Map is my companion.

At the center of the settlement is the Matrimandir, the sphere that “the Mother,” the founder of Auroville, envisioned as the focal point for bringing the people of many nationalities together in community.

About 2500 residents call Auroville their home, and most whom I spoke with love Auroville. Some were born here, have traveled abroad and returned.

I booked a slot to “concentrate” in the Matrimandir’s interior. I had to wait several days to get a space. Over fifty people, many traveling from other parts of India, followed our tour guide on the red sandstone paths through landscaped gardens and grassed areas yet to be manicured. She led us to the banyan tree, spreading its 100-year-old branches out, out, wider and wider. Aerial roots prop up the heavy branches. Some of those roots look like huge tree trunks, giving sustenance to its expansion.

The architects had asked the Mother, where should we build Auroville? She concentrated for a while, placed her finger on a map, and that was the location of this very banyan tree, now the geographical center of the development. It is revered and nurtured. The tree seems like the mother of Auroville, now that the Mother left her physical body in 1973.

People in our group stood like the aerial roots around the banyan tree, silent and reverent, holding the mighty matriarch in their attention.

We were ushered into the great golden sphere, up up into small rooms where we donned white socks. Then one by one we floated up the spiraling ramp, figures rising in a line, like a futuristic movie from the 50’s. It was rather weird. No one uttered a sound. Even the ushers inside were eerily silent, waving slowly with their arms, pointing the way.

I was the first inside that cavernous space, lined with white marble, white cushions placed around the walls in two rows so that everyone has a perfect view of the center. A ray of sunlight, guided by computer driven mirrors, streams from above into an immense crystal ball created in Germany. Energy, vibrations, manifesting the physical.

All is well. All is well.

The experience defies description. Utter calm, utter peace. Until someone belches, or sneezes, or farts. Which happened when I was there.

Auroville. You can make your own experiences happen here.

I went to the “sound bath” held every Wednesday evening in a public building. Musicians played bells, gongs, bowls, clackers, whistles, strings, chimes, flutes, and other jangly percussions as I drifted and soaked it into my skin.

Then I heard the distant thunder. I knew a big one was on the way. I started feeling agitated as we came back into the world. “I need to go, I need to go now.” I kept thinking that, but I would have been super obvious and rude had I stood up and walked among the reclining figures enjoying the music and free form dance underway. Yikes, the flashes outside. And it was getting dark.

“Please help us roll up the mats,” the man said. That was my cue. Get up, run as fast as possible to my bicycle. Darn, I can’t get the lock off. I can’t see, it’s too dark! My flashlight is not working on my phone! Plop plop. Wet. It’s coming. I can’t stop it.

I get the lock off, flip the power on for the electric assist, and into a downpour I go. I had forgotten the bike light. I will the IPhone light to work and hold it aloft. Rain in my eyes! In my eyes! My contacts, they’ve floated off my eyes‼ Blink. Blink. I can do this. I can do this. Just a mile and a half. Please help me. Please keep me safe. Who will hear me? The music gods of Auroville?

Water puddling on the road. Angry puddles. Dirt surface, slick and unpredictable. A sari-clad form hurries across the road ahead. A dog dashes the other way. Does it have shelter? Where is the sari going?

I’m alone. Alone in the storm. Flashes of lightning sear my spine, propelling me on. Thunder barrels into my cells. Now I’m on a road that dead ends. I’ve missed my turn. Where am I? Back up, just a few feet further to my road. I’ve found the right road, and I’m looking for my next turn.

A lonely street light is on the sign. I get down from my bicycle, rain is pounding me still. My light still works. OHHH, my IPhone will be ruined by the water! Just get me to the guest house, just get me there. I don’t care if I’m soaking wet. I’m the only one out here in the dark. Lightning will surely find me with my bicycle and zap me. Or hit a tree and drop a limb on me. No one is here. I’m alone and soaking up all the water from the heavens.

I’m ok. I’m ok. I’m walking the bicycle now, too dangerous to ride on the dirt road. At least two inches of water swirls. I slog and slog, and push the bicycle through the inky darkness. I’m on the right road. I know the way.

At last the pavement starts, the final lap. I mount the bicycle, allow the electric to push me along, water still pounding me, pounding, pounding, oh so bathed in the heavenly rain.

And then the last stretch. I walk, stumble through the gate, under the shelter for parking the bicycle.

The night watchman is there. He sees my IPhone and the light.

“Is it waterproof?” Yeah, that’s really important at this moment.

“No it is not.”

“Is it waterproof?”

“No, it is not! Good night.”

The lightning still flashes. Thunder crinkles the night, and I wade to my room, exhilarated.

Auroville. No place like it.

A Weird tubular Instrument

Bamboo Wind Chime
Terry After the Storm
The Sound Bath Instruments
Auroville’s Founder, The Mother
Gold on glass plates covering the Matrimandir
The Matrimandir

A Hero on Board

One thing I remember clearly about the incident is the question I asked the man in Singapore who sold me the ticket for the ferry.stock-vector-sumatra-road-and-national-park-map-174876929

“Is it safe?”

“Oh yes,” he assured me with a smile.

At the time I wasn’t sure why I asked that question. Of course, it was safe. People had used the ferry from Singapore to Sumatra, a two-night journey, many times in the past. Why would I even ask?

Later I realized I had had a premonition. The ferry that I boarded in 1984 was anything but safe. But where there’s lack of safety, there’s usually a hero nearby.

The voyage started off predictably enough. My private indoor berth was laughable. From atop the main deck, where dozens of people sprawled with baskets, buckets, bags, boxes, and blankets, stairs descended into a long narrow room packed with three rows of interconnected platform “beds.” It was a dormitory of sorts, except there wasn’t one person to a bunk. On most beds, an entire family and their belongings sardined themselves.

I found my assigned platform, which already supported a young man huddled at one end. His eyes pleaded, “Please let me stay. I won’t bother you. I’ll just use a couple square feet.” He looked so forlorn.

I wasn’t sure why I didn’t kick Edward off my private bed. Maybe I was swayed by the photo he showed me. He said he was a math teacher, and his photo showed him sitting at a desk in front of a chalk board. The photo looked staged, as though he had concocted it specifically for convincing foreigners that he was legitimate. He looked far too young to be a math teacher.

I hoisted my backpack onto my bed, covered the thin mattress with a shawl, noted I was the only Western traveler onboard, and settled into the ride. Edward scrunched into a ball at my feet. The ferry pulled away from the Singapore dock and headed to Pekanbaru, Sumatra.

The engine was loud, the pace was steady. Because I had already spent two months in Indonesia, I could converse passably in the Indonesian language. After I chatted with Edward, I left him to “guard” my stuff, which was entirely unnecessary. We were all one big family in that below-deck cabin. I wandered to the upper deck–the discount ticket area–where I could barely move amidst the people and their parcels.

On the lower deck at one end were a couple of crumbling doors to closets with holes in the floor. The green waters glinted through the holes. I suppose that was preferable to capturing the human waste in a big vat, which would have been dumped in the water anyway.

The scenery was idyllic, the passengers seemed in good spirits. A father and his child were having great fun flying a plastic bag on a string from the railing as the boat chugged along.

Eventually the boat left the open waters off Singapore and entered Sumatra via a broad river with vegetation distant on both sides.

My ticket included meals. A couple of “chefs” squatted on the wood deck and chopped and stir-fried vegetables and cooked rice in woks. Their kitchen was a few square feet of one of the walkways. They whisked away their portable stoves after they prepared food for the 100 or so passengers.

After eating and using the closet with the hole in the floor, I settled on my berth, confident that Edward would keep my feet and only my feet warm for the night. Even through the loud engine noise I slept. But the enclosed cabin was quite warm, and I was a sticky mess of sweat by the next morning.

Luckily the ferry stopped at a small settlement along the river where I paid to bathe in a room with a dipper and cistern of water. Edward and another interloping young man who had moved onto the end of the adjoining berth warned me against using the bath. Both asserted someone would rip me off. But no one bothered me, and I felt much better after the bath. And they felt better after I bought them tea.

The ferry chugged off again. By now the river had narrowed. Thick vegetation flanked both sides. Here and there simple wood dwellings emerged through the greenery on shore. Fishermen in small boats shared the waterway.

By that evening, I was feeling the rhythm of the adventure. People seemed relaxed and congenial, shared food that they had brought, and passed the time chatting and napping. Edward kept guard at the foot of my platform as the skies darkened and our wooden ferry boat headed deeper upriver to the Sumatran interior.

I had fallen asleep to the chug-a-chug of the boat’s engine, then jerked awake. There was no more chug-a-chug, just a bunch of clatter, yelling, movement. Edward looked wildly about, then yelled in English, “Come on, come on!” Something was terribly wrong.

The cabin floor was no longer level, a sure sign the boat was taking on water. People were grabbing their kids and their belongings. I patted my waist bag secured around my middle containing my passport, money, and camera. Looking at my backpack I said to myself, “If I’m going to swim, I don’t want to be wearing that.” I left it on my bed–clothes, toiletries, souvenirs, and other supplies I had been carrying around for the last five months of travel.

Edward helped me up the steps in the dim light to the lower deck. People were everywhere, some of them dragging heavy bags. A thin moon glinted through the shore vegetation onto the water’s agitated surface.

From nowhere a small boat appeared—night fishermen, coming to rescue the passengers of the sinking ferry. I was one of the first to board the rescue boat, along with 10 or so other passengers. They motored us to a rickety dock several hundred yards away, then went back for more passengers.

I was so grateful—grateful that I didn’t have to swim in a murky river, grateful that I was safe on shore, grateful that I had my essential travel documents with me. But as Edward and I and others watched the fishermen shuttle the passengers, I started voicing my worry aloud.

“My backpack—everything was in it. It’s going down with the boat. I’m traveling for another five months and I won’t have it.” Edward heard me. Then left. He boarded the rescue boat and went back to the sinking ferry.

I was not aware of his intention. Maybe he went to help with the rescue efforts. He returned in dripping clothes, hauling my sodden backpack on to the dock. It must have gained 20 pounds from the water it had collected, but my hero was determined to bring the foreigner who shared her bed with him her luggage.

All the passengers were rescued and delivered to the dock with their salvaged belongings. Someone had saved their stationary bicycle, and there it sat on that wooden dock, waiting for anyone who needed their early morning aerobics. People were spreading wet garments out to dry and staying close to one another. Some of them were laughing to ease their tensions, others appeared worried about how to continue their journey to Pekanbaru.

As the gloom lightened, I waved down a small boat traveling upstream, and into the boat I pulled Edward and the interloper young man who had warned me not to take a dip bath. I was fortunate—I had the cash to pay the boatman to transport the three of us. We motored to a small town upstream and caught a bus for a wild ride to Pekanbaru, where Edward and his family warmly welcomed me into their home.

Before we left the river, we cruised  past the sunken boat, with only the uppermost captain’s cabin peeking above the water’s surface. Several men in their underwear were diving, attempting to reach luggage and goods trapped inside the boat below.

Speaking in my broken Indonesian, I learned what had happened. The captain had steered the boat onto a submerged tree, puncturing its haul.

But the most remarkable part of the story involved Edward. When he went back to the sinking boat to find my backpack, he first found two children in the cabin who would have surely drowned had he not pulled them to safety. Then he returned to my backpack, hauling the sodden bundle through the water-filled cabin to the rescue boat.

He was not only my hero. Edward was everyone’s hero for saving those children. I was very glad I had not kicked him off my private bed

Moments of Glory in India

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After giving a talk at the Gandhi Museum, Madurai, India 2007

I really didn’t want to do it. I was on a three-week vacation, after all, and didn’t want to do anything that resembled work.

But I couldn’t say no to my dear friend Rengasamy when he asked me to give some public programs during my visit to Madurai, India in 2007. We knew each other from when I was a college student in Madurai in 1974-75, when he assisted the American students there for study.

On my return visit, I had scheduled just a few days in Madurai, and had hoped to wander the busy streets, visit old friends, and walk around the famous Meenakshi Temple.

But Rengasamy thought I should offer my vast wisdom and experience as an American to the people of Madurai. After years as a professor of economics at Madurai University, Rengasamy was now director of the Gandhi Museum, a post that gave him much satisfaction. He was respected by many. And here he was trying to honor me by asking me to share my perspectives and knowledge.

He wanted me to give an illustrated talk at the Gandhi Museum for the staff and some local college students, which required me to search the internet for photographs for a PowerPoint program. He also wanted me to talk to teachers and students at a local school. Just a small talk, he said.

But he had informed me about these talks just a few days before the planned events.

I agreed to do it. He and another official at the museum discussed with me possibilities for the talks. They assured me it was no big deal. Just a few interested people would attend. They wanted me to talk about my work as a park ranger, national parks, preservation and such. Okay, I could do that—at least for the Gandhi Museum talk.

But the school talk puzzled me. I would be speaking with a group of teachers about my work. I envisioned sitting around a small table with a dozen or so teachers, having a cozy chat for 15 minutes or so, and a question and answer session. I could be informal. But then I would do a presentation to the students. Eegads, what would I say to them?

Rengasamy’s daughter suggested I talk about life for teenagers in America. Great idea. I had two teenage sons. I could draw from my experiences of being a mom and the students would find it fascinating, or so I thought.

The fateful day arrived for the school talks. I was driven to a local secondary school and fed a delicious traditional lunch. The founder and head mistress of the school ate with me in a small room and she commented on how little I ate. That’s because I don’t usually eat three cups of rice as most Indians in the south do for lunch. I remember there was a curried eggplant with the meal. I assumed the teachers would file into the room after lunch and we’d have our cozy chat. Nope. She led me out of the small room down some hallways and through a door.

Into an auditorium. With hundreds of chairs lined up. There were at least 60 teachers watching me enter. Mostly women, sari-clad, with dark faces and white teeth flashing. A podium with a microphone was in front of the audience, and a vase of flowers sat on a table nearby.

My worst nightmare had just materialized–my recurring dream of walking onstage in front of an audience naked, or showing up to an examination not knowing what I would be tested on.

I could feel the sweat dampening my armpits. And it was probably running down my temples, too.

The head mistress introduced me and I greeted everyone.

“How much time do we have?” I asked.

“Oh, an hour,” she said.

I’m usually good at this type of thing. That is, standing in front of an audience and saying something intelligible. But at that moment I was seriously doubting my abilities. I had not prepared an hour talk for 60 teachers, I had prepared a talk for some teenagers and nothing for my cozy brief chat for a handful of teachers.

My mind whirred. I probably swallowed. I probably smiled. I probably looked composed. The adrenaline was flowing and they were all looking at me.

I launched into a talk, of sorts. I wandered from one topic to the next, following my intuition on what to say. My job, historic sites, preservation, the importance of places of the past, a range of topics. Somehow, somehow, most of it made sense, (I think), and the teachers were warm in return.

At the end, teachers approached me and asked me to spend a few minutes talking with a class about tropical rainforests, another about patriotism. Hmm, patriotism. I would encourage the students to not blindly accept what their country does, but question always, and voice their objections. I briefly entertained a patriotism talk, then declined, explaining I had a tight schedule.

As I recall, I had a bit of a break before the next talk. But my armpits were still dripping. Soon the students filed in, girls on the left, boys on the right, crisply uniformed and all looking nearly identical. They filled the auditorium.

Now I can have fun, I thought. This should be a breeze, talking about things I’ve personally experienced. Raising my two sons.

I was familiar with the typical life path for a child in India. Work hard in school, memorize examination material, earn “top marks” in order to enter university, study a subject chosen or approved of by the parents, perform well in order to get an outstanding job, earn financial stability and achieve material wealth to attract an appropriate marriage partner—usually chosen by the parents, get married and have a child within a year. The “issue” would repeat the cycle.

My sons were not following that path. As I talked that day, I didn’t hold back much. I talked about how my older son dropped out of school at age 16, and went to work as a welder. Although a brilliant child, he just didn’t thrive in the school system. My younger one was still slogging away in school, however. I noted a few troubled looks on the students’ faces, and the teachers still hanging around probably didn’t know whether to stop me or applaud.

My sons were both on the wrestling team, a sport that has a long tradition in India but is not as popular as other sports such as cricket and soccer. I told them my son’s first match was with a girl. There was an audible gasp from the students and many covered their mouths in shock.

Then I talked about kicking my son out of the house when things were getting a bit tense from some problems. That’s when those proper Indian teenagers with their predictable lives really looked troubled. Mouths were hanging open. Someone asked a political question about President George Bush to change the topic.

Not all of my banter was so scandalous, however. I’m sure I covered mundane topics about raising my two sons. But I think the students were relieved when we moved to the question and answer session.

Then it happened. A girl raised her hand and asked, “Will you sing your national anthem?” Other students were smirking, wondering what I would do. I was trapped.

And stunned. The Star-Spangled Banner? Everyone knows that song is nearly impossible to sing. And it’s about fighting and killing and so depressing. But how could I refuse to sing my country’s national anthem?

The one thing I knew was I had to start on a low note so I could hit the high note later. Into that microphone I began singing the national anthem. Or at least my version of it. Just me and that auditorium full of students and teachers. I sang it loud and I sang it proud. But wait, are the ramparts gleaming or streaming? Who knows, I mumbled something and kept going at a lively pace so I could get it over with. I even inspired myself at the end when I was acutely aware that all eyes were on me. I had to end with a bang, so I leaned into the microphone.

“…Or the land of the freeeeeee, (big pause….) and the home (pause) of the (pause) brave!”

Yee-haa, I did it. A lone student started clapping, he was so moved by my rendition.

A student from the audience stood up and said, “Well, we have had such an unusual speaker today. We would like to thank her for her warmth and honesty.”

The students clapped and I was feeling good. Or maybe I was just relieved it was over.

Rengasamy had not attended, but he picked me up from the school.

I described my singing and the unusual twists in my talk.

“I will NEVER forget this day, Rengasamy, NEVER!” All Rengasamy could do was giggle.

The talk at the Gandhi Museum the next day seemed rather anti-climactic. Somehow, I muddled through, and I was again asked to sing the national anthem. Rengasamy laughed and laughed at the side of the room and stared at me as I mentally smacked my forehead. Not again! But I could not refuse, so I sang. And I still didn’t know whether the ramparts were gleaming or streaming.

Very Beautiful: A Cultural Perspective

I hoped he would go away soon. My friend and I were sipping our fresh coconut waters in a restaurant on an island in the Maldives. But the restaurant manager/owner was trying to be friendly, probably so that we would feel welcome to visit again and spend our tourist dollars there.

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Sunset in the Maldives

“Hello, where are you from?” he asked.

“I’m from the US, and my friend is from Canada.” This chat won’t last over a minute, I thought.
“What is your age?” He smiled, but all I could think was, huh?
Why does he want to know my age? And who asks a paying customer from another country her age within one minute of greeting her? Okay, sure, in my Asian travels people have asked my age after an extended conversation. That’s because the questioner wanted to know how to respectfully address me, and my age would determine whether I would be “mother,” “auntie,” “sister,” or “grandmother.” I was rarely addressed as “grandmother,”—only by the youngest–and was usually “mother” or even the dreaded “madam”—a term most frequently used in India.
But as a customer sitting in a restaurant for a drink, this question seemed abrupt and unnecessary.
So the dark-haired man stood there, expecting me to tell him my age, and I didn’t want to tell him. I just looked at him, saying nothing, until he said, “Oh, let me guess.”
Danger. Yeah, DANGER.
Never, I have learned, NEVER allow someone to guess your age. Especially in another country. Especially in an Asian country, where people appear ageless, and their skin always looks smooth and beautiful. Where even wrinkled skin is beautiful. And never do this if you’ve not fully embraced and made friends with your wrinkles and your uneven complexion and your thinning eyebrows and sagging jowls and….you know what I mean. And don’t do this if you’re from a culture that is obsessed with appearing young, where people spend thousands of dollars on creams and makeup and diet pills and surgeries and “health” products all geared toward fooling the eye of the beholder. Including the beholder in the mirror. And don’t do this if your mother carefully applied her face daily and frequently commented on your appearance.
So here was this man—who was probably about my age, I thought–wanting to guess my age. I wish I had said, “No thanks.” But I didn’t.

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Holding a screw pine fruit in the Maldives.

Maybe a part of me wanted to hear him say, “Fifty.”
Oh, to be fifty again…Or to appear to be fifty again.
“I can tell from looking at you that you were once very beautiful,” he said. He couldn’t wait to say that. I said nothing, and had to consciously maintain a neutral expression as my thoughts went wild. Once very beautiful? You mean I don’t appear beautiful now? I’m old and wrinkled and saggy and undesirable? Was he looking at my double chin? Furrowed neck? The creases around my mouth? Could he tell that I still apply highlights in my hair in a vain attempt to camouflage the creeping grey?
Did he think he had just given me a compliment?
I looked at my friend across the table. She was grimacing. Her turn was coming.
“I think you are sixty-five?”
“No, I’m sixty-four,” I replied. I didn’t just reply, I almost spat those words, and thought, stop now, buddy. Just stop.
I had just turned sixty-four. And he was even standing on my good side—the side of my face with fewer wrinkles.
Then he turned to my friend. Don’t do it, I thought. Just walk away…
“And you, I think you are seventy?” He smiled again, speaking slowly, mustering all the Maldivian hospitality he could. Uh-oh. Uh-oh. You see, my friend gave up coloring her hair years ago, and instead wears a lovely helmet of grey. I hadn’t seen too many Maldivians with grey hair. Or maybe I just hadn’t been looking. Of course, most of the women in the Maldives wear the hijab, covering their hair.
“No, sixty-five.” She wasn’t amused. How she managed to say her age with any semblance of pleasantness is beyond me. He was only one year off for me, but he had aged her by five years! Plus, he didn’t tell her she was once very beautiful…But wait, that wasn’t really a compliment, was it?
“Well, I hope when you return to the Maldives you visit us again.” He turned and walked off. He probably uses hair color, I thought.
My friend and I looked at each other, mouths open, heads shaking.Then we thoroughly discussed the exchange–that moment of cultural intersection that slapped us both on our wrinkled faces. We didn’t return to that restaurant during our visit to the Maldives.
We did try to laugh more, and explore, and appreciate the sunsets, and poke fun at one another, and enjoy the fact that two women in their mid-sixties were traveling in a remote corner of the world and enjoying the heck out of it.

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Read more about my trip to the Maldives at my travelblog.

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Warm waters in the Maldives