Friday, February 25, 2011

Peace and Beauty at Gobind Sadan.

Thursday , February 24,
First full day at Gobind Sadan. Peace and Beauty! For the first time since arriving in India, last night I could truly hear only nature and silence. No car horns, no music or fireworks, no bells or chanting. It was nice. This place is beautiful – thanks Kate!

It is far away from the din of the city, and set in farmland. It is very green, and the trees and lawns are kept swept and clean.

Gobind Sadan is firmly based in the Sikh tradition, but their “guru of Biblical proportion”, Baba Virsa Singh taught about the beauty of every religion and made sure that his community would be a place for all faiths to unite in devotion to the one, common God. Gobind Sadan means “God’s House without walls”, and it has Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and of course Sikh holy places within it. It is self-sustaining, as they run a huge farm some 300kms from here, from which all the food comes from as well as the profit to run the place. There are some 200 full-time Indians working to run the place, and they serve free meals to countless locals in the daily langar, as well as the few foreigners that come and stay, and the bunches that come for special occasions.

I am trying to read up on the guru, and he sounds like a pretty beautiful person- clearly a real spiritual presence and saint, and even if all the reported miracles did not happen, many persons have certainly found healing, spiritual guidance and love via his presence, teaching and legacy. He passed away dec. 24th, 2007.

There are about 30 foreigners here right now, which is much more than they ever have, but I managed to come during a flux. The major part of their non-Indian devotees are Russian (or close) and right now a large group of Kazakhstani’s are here to coincide with the festivities around the guru’s birthday celebration: Feb 20th. I just happen to be here at the same time, which is kind of unfortunate, since I don’t get to have much privacy, but it is OK – amazingly none of them speak a drop of English. Like, not even hello. So I am left to my own, largely. I did get a tour of the place this morning from Allan, a guy from Detroit who was guided to live here permanently and now does the finances for the place. He is super and he answered all my many questions. Mary Pat is the saintly American woman who runs the place with her Russian assistant Priya, who I have not really met. Mary Pat is about 60ish, and absolutely radiates with love. The locals here touch her feet. She is wonderful. Somehow, she is a scholar as well and writes one of the most used university textbooks on world religions. There are two guys here who speak some English. One is a young Russian man from Siberia who is here for a few months by himself. The other is Eddie, a hip Latvian who is a popular singer there. He offered a sample of his music to me when he was showing me to my room (that I share with 7 other Kazakh men), and launched into singing “I’m never going to dance again”. Yeah, that one. George Michael, I think? 80’s, right? And this guy has tattooes and hip clothes and says that many of his friends are “all black guys in New York”. OK, sure. I didn’t laugh, of course. But really? Really? Well, go Latvia.

Yeah, so the common language here is Russian. Even Mary Pat speaks it fairly well at this point. I guess the guru had visions of having a big influence in Russia, and predicted a few things on national TV that later came to pass – so that is the connection. Anyway, he is huge there.

So, one of the things that I have to do while I am here is seva or service work – for the benefit of the community. I figured I would wash dishes or something, right? Actually, in the Sikh tradition, they have havans – sacred fires that can never go out. And sometimes sacred scriptures have to be read at them – again constantly. They have one main havan here that has been going non-stop since the place was built in 1969, and 3 scriptures have also been in constant repetition around it – a scripture about Hanuman, a scripture about Durga, and the Jaap Sahib – a short scripture in verse written by the guru Baba Virsa Singh. So, like everyone here, I was asked to take my turn reading and keeping the fire going. We do it in 2 hour shifts and I was asked to do from 4-6 and then from 2-4. Yeah, that would be 4-6 in the afternoon and then 2-4 in the wee hours of the morning. Um, OK? What am I going to say, no? Well I had my first shift this afternoon, and it was actually quite beautiful, stoking this fire, pouring ghee and Prasad on it periodically, reading, oh – and I actually have to wash the wood before I put it in the fire. Neat, eh? It can’t be unclean by having bird poop or bugs on it. Anyway, I am setting my alarm for 1:50am and I hope to heck I can wake up and drag this body to the havan for 2.

On my way to Delhi, belly

I did not get that long sleep.
The little food that I got for dinner went through me at breakneck speed. Now, I admit that there may be worse circumstances to have diarrhea (like maybe camping in cold rain with a new girlfriend or something) but I really think that a sleeper-class Indian railway car has got to be one of worst. You just have to see the toilet.

Yes, my initiation to India is now complete. Having the famous Delhi-belly (albeit rendered in Varanasi) on that train felt like some kind of test or tapas.. My night was long and uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel too bad – until the morning. I just went to the toilet a lot. I wonder what those beggars, sleeping against the bathroom door, thought I was doing? At any rate, I’ll try to find a photo of a railway bathroom so you can appreciate it. Plus, the light was burnt out. In the dark no less! Well, I certainly mastered the art of the Indian toilet, anyway!

In the morning, I was sure glad that the train was almost done. At around 7am we were stopped in the middle of the countryside, and Hugo walked up the few cars to visit. He found me hanging out by the toilet, sweating a fever, and looking, apparently, green. He didn’t have to mention that while I was stuck sick with a bunch of abnoxious Indians, because he had bought the last-minute, more expensive tourist quota tickets, he was with a charming French girl and two cool Italians and they talked the night away. I didn’t want to get too far from that can, that’s all.

I’ll tell you, Indians are so, so different from Westerners in so many ways. It might be nice to consider that we are all similar but boy, we are culturally so different! I mean, in the West there is just no way at all that at 5 in the morning, people would think that it would be even remotely possible to start yelling down the row to your family and playing tinny music from your cheap cell-phone. They have no respect for personal space, or rather, perhaps no concept of it, sometimes. Serious! Just before 5am this man is yelling at someone in his family, and in a few short minutes they are bickering lively. And I mean lively. Even at 10am, most Westerners, regardless of class, are at least mildly aware that people are sleeping everywhere around them. It was very strange.

Right, well Hugo came back an hour later with advice to take Charcoal care of the Italian guy. I had totally forgotten that Sarah had given me some for precisely this scenario! I take one, and feel quite a lot better in less than half an hour later. Did you notice that this makes it at least 8:30? Yeah, the train was running a bit late – supposed to have been 12 hours, arriving in Delhi at 7:40. Oh well. I am feeling worse, but at least I am not running to the can for the constant amusement of the Indians around me.

I have now come to the irrefutable conclusion that popular radio Hindi music is absolutely some of the worst combinations of sounds to have ever tainted the air on this planet. Especially when it is coming from a cheap cell-phone speaker and you have a mild headache. Honestly, that is not an exaggeration. I have never, ever heard anything so bad as this stuff, and yes, I have heard some awful music. Any sense of percussion is utterly foreign to these producers. I sincerely think that they believe that to hold a note is a bad thing – changing pitches as fast as possible is what they are trying for. And the percussion section is 50 idiots with cheap tambourines bashing them against aluminium siding. Oh, and broken bells. Just take every annoying sound ever made and chop it up into quick, jarring beats. Just awful. I have to crank my earbuds just to displace it. I wake up an hour later again and bolt to the washroom. Hey – why am I still on a train? No one speaks English. I have no idea where we are or why. I lie down again.

When I wake up and it is noon I figure something is really wrong. But there is nothing to do but rest, be miserable, and wait. And wait. This is unbelievable. Finally, we hit the station at 2pm – a full 6 hours late on a 12 hour ride. How the hell is that even possible?! At least I am feeling a bit better, but weak still. We leave the train and join the mob pushing its way out of the station. I have passed some kind of test, surely.

So Hugo and I make our way to the subway – the metro – and go our separate ways. The new metro is beautiful and civil and makes me feel better. But you should see the security! You have to go through a pat-down and screen your luggage to enter the subway in Delhi! We can’t believe it.

I take my 21Rs train to where Mary-Pat from Gobind Sadan has told me I will get picked up by her driver and an hour later, and I driving into Delhi farmland towards the peaceful haven of Gobind Sadan.

Here, it is quiet, unpressured, vast, easy.

Hopefully I can hold some dinner and wake up to a new place.

Varanasi Cont'd

The morning of our first sleep in Varanasi – Hugo and I decide to tag along with Lee (Korean) Flore (Argentina) and Nao (Japan) who are staying our guest house and plan to pack a cheap rickshaw to go to Sarnath. The ride is like taking a scary roller-coaster. You know that scene in Ace Ventura when Jim Carrey is flailing his head around in the Jeep going through the jungle – no joke this time, that is what it was like at points. Much of the road was not paved, walls of dust, and the word valley would be closer than pot-hole. It was really fun – especially the ‘game of chicken’ parts…
The Buddha Stupa at Deerpark

Sarnath was small and beautiful. As one of the 4 most important sites in Buddhism, there are a few monasteries around, and mostly oriental tourists. This is the place where, after attaining enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, the Buddha gave his first sermon, laying out the dharma that is now the basic rules of Buddhism, and is one of the most important religious, philosophical and psychological teachings of man. I enjoy seeing the deer park, the commemorative Stupa and the only lately archeologically discovered remains of the temple where it is believed Buddha lived for some time. Also, a cute little museum that holds the head of the Ashok pillar – which is the statue of 4 lions that is now the national symbol of India. Hugo and the others convince me to break one of my cardinal rules for India – not to eat ‘street food’. But the Indians are lining up to this small Nepali woman, I am hungry, and I can’t expect them to make a trip to a restaurant just for me. It turns out to be amazing, and we get seconds. We ask what it is called, and are just told it is noodles. Right. At any rate, I had no adverse reactions – it was well cooked.

Me and the others that went to sarnath

Day 3 Varanasi.

We head out early to see the South side of town. Hugo wants to see the Hanuman temple, but the cycle-rickshaw driver drops us at a big red temple that is not the right one. At least it is the right side of town for us to walk to BHU (Banares Hindu University) which I have heard so much about and want to see. It is quite disappointing, no interesting buildings or spaces, in decay, definitely no ivy here. We rickshaw across the harrowing pontoon bridge to the Ramnagar Fort which is incredible and strange.
Pontoon bridge across the Ganges

Ramnagar Fort gate
We pay 150Rs (Indians pay 5) to enter – it is a museum as well. It is like nothing I have ever seen. Priceless artefacts sit gloomily behind cracked, dusty and unlit glass panes, dirty enough to look as if someone had thrown them in the case in a hurry 20 years ago and forgot about them. The Indians (who never cover their noses in terrible dusty traffic while I do) have their faces covered due to the stench of mold in this ancient fort where they are, loosely speaking, on display. Rugs made from spun ivory and silver are rotting and barely visible, elephant guns inlaid with gorgeous gold designs, jewel-hilted swords and daggers, palanquins made of ivory (imagine the princesses peering out!) all are miserable and wait only for time to turn them to dust. It is a shame – I can’t help but know that these items in a Western museum would be the focus of spot lights. The self-stated marvel of the place is a huge 5 by 6 ft or so time piece, built in about 1840 and still accurately showing lunar phase, zodiac sign, time, date, day of the week, sunrise and sunset times. Admittedly, cool. The guard asks us for money. As does the Brahmin at the temple on the Fort’s water view. Amazing.

Hugo - actually driving our rickshaw homeward

We have dinner later at the Brown Bread Bakery, which has much better Indian classical music than Ganga Fuji, and I barely notice that it takes about 30 minutes for our Thali to arrive. Really though, the music was great, and I was sitting directly beside the musicians. With different company, it would be about as good as a dinner could possibly get.


our sunset boat ride on the Ganges - kinda the thing to do in Varanasi

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

After spending an agonizing 2 hours watching my box of books and clothes get wrapped by a drowsy man, I walk to the post office and leave it, paid, on faith. My nerves are tangled, and I buy Paan (sweet, not tobacco) from the main street on the way home since I have always wanted to. It’s not bad – but may have been a bad decision as we’ll see later on. Hugo and I go to the most authentic, least touristy restaurant we have seen in the area and wait with Indians to get a huge 45Rs special Thali which is very good. The night before – eating at Shree Café – I have one of the best foods I have had yet, ‘Butter Masala Paneer’ (very Kashmiri) as part of their 100Rs Thali. After dinner there, Hugo, an experienced, weekly player, asked me to a game of chess and incredibly, I win. Honestly I don’t know how, but being in the Hindu vibe, I invoked the God of Chess – but perhaps more importantly the inner guidance of my brother.

We decide to walk all the way to the North end of the ghats after lunch for our final afternoon and it is sunny and warm. “Hello Boat?! Hello Boat!?” – you hear this about every 2 minutes as you walk. (or you are offered Hashish or a massage or just plain asked for money.) Hugo takes a liking to the practice of responding by also offering them a boat, and it works pretty well to keep them away.

Precisely at the half way point, far from home, my bowels indicate urgency, and I wonder what I ate that is acting like Liquid Plumber for humans. Paan? Yogourt in the Thali at lunch or the night before? Racing back, I saunter nonchalantly into the Suraj toilet. A few times.
kite tree

on the bank of the ganges

After re-hydrating (Thanks for the Emergen-C, Paula!) I wait for Hugo to return for 5pm so we can grab some food and rickshaw to the train for our overnighter to Delhi. (By a fluke, we are catching the same one.) At 6pm I was concerned - especially since I have discovered my sandals missing. But more pressing, is that our train leaves at 7:15, so just as I am giving up on him and leave the place, he comes racing in panting. He grabs his stuff but at this point we are in real danger of being late, and I am hungry enough that I need to grab something to go – Royal Café makes me a quick Veg. Sujkal. Bolting for the main streets to get a rickshaw (they are not allowed in the narrow alleys of the old town – not that they could fit) we are glad to come across the Suraj guest house driver and his friend gives us a truly memorable race to the station, through the insanity of Varanasi evening traffic. He sings and dances all the way like he is high and the 20 minutes are epic.

Jogging to the platform, people press against the train like it has free seats to a Michael Jackson concert. I find my #11 coach and join the throng. Squirting into the coach (isn’t this assigned seating?) I find my seat. A few short minutes later the train is moving. I breathe a sigh of relief but people are still bickering and yelling and pushing baggage at each other. And how the hell can there be beggars on a train? This evening is India at it craziest. OK – this is an experience that I signed up for, but already I don’t ever want to ride Sleeper class again. I put on my headphones since no one around me seems to speak or understand English and the clatter is deafening, and I pray for a long, long sleep waking up in New Delhi.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Varanasi/ Banares

Note:  Somehow this post is out of chronological order - it obviously should appear after the post titled 'Varanasi Cont'd' but I have no idea at this point how to change it.

One of the big attractions in Varanasi is the huge puja that occurs every single night at the main ghat.  It is an ancient ritual, but no one seems to agree how long it has been performed there.  Young Brahmin boys in shiny suits do the choreographed movements and prayers in synch like clockwork, and every tourist in the area shows up for the show.  It was slightly interesting, but too showy and loud for me - I left early.

I  am leaving Varanasi in a  few short minutes - all packed up and ready.  It has been a fascinating city and has taught me the difference between old and ancient.  Walking in some of these places is, I suppose, similar to only a few other historic sites in the world like Egypt.  It is amazing, but also a bit surreal and often jarring to the senses.
Parce-que je suis avec Hugo, je veins de parler beaucoup de francais depuis ces dernier quelques jours, et cet hotel est remplis des autres francophones.  C'est un peu bizarre, mais bien bon. Je parle en francais et il me repond en anglais.  Je parle et pense dans un melange maintenant. 
We are, accidentally, taking the same train (overnight, 12hours) to Delhi tonight, so we are going to catch dinner on our way to a shared rickshaw to the station.  I hope to update on the last couple days while I am relaxing at the Gobind Sadan ashram in south Delhi tomorrow afternoon.  Internet in the ancient city has not been easy or good.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Ancient City

View from the roof of my Guest House

Varanasi - heart of Hindu India and possibly the oldest, constantly inhabited city on the planet.  It is a crazy jumble of sights and sounds, an architectural and cultural palimpsest, and every square inch and person is a beggar.   It is also a tourist hotspot, and prices change steeply as you enter the non-tourist part of town.  Also, never have I been so hounded by touts who see my fair skin as a walking money sign - literally from the moment I stepped off the train they are trying to sell you, take you, show you.  Hugo, the French guy, decided to share a room with me and that has worked out well.  Our guest house is right on the main burning ghat and the first moments that we wandered down to the water we were lied to about where we were allowed to go, diverted to a private view, and then insulted when we did not give money.  The guy had the balls to tell me it was bad karma, and I almost lost it on him.  

I don't believe a good map exists of this main, old city - there are so many lanes, most of them so narrow you can touch both sides at once, that it would probably not help anyways.  Luckily there are signs, and people will tell you where to go.

At any rate, the place we are staying in is nice enough, with excellent location, and is run by a really sweet family.  Varanasi is awesome and bewildering and wonderful, and I am enjoying the feel of north India and the familiar sounds of Hindi.  I am glad to be here. 
View from Puja hotel's rooftop restaurant.

Last night I ate at a restaurant that had classical indian music as entertainment - tabla and sarangi.  They were tired and showy musicians who must have day jobs and little passion left, but it was still nice and I didn't mind paying a little extra for my kashmiri curry and rice. 
Today I am going to walk the length of the ghats and see what happens. 

Brahmin getting shaved: it is the full moon today.


Awake and Asleep on a Train

Me in seat 40

Did I ask for luck?  I don’t know about that – maybe I got it, that’s all.  I feel incredibly lucky.  Sitting here, safe and sound, reading a good book (and autobiography about a man growing up in 1940’s India called Out of India – Michael Foss, 2001) and as I stare out the window it becomes alive in front of me.  I am cutting a line through the heart of India I find out, crossing some 2000 kms from south to north.  I was concereed about this long trip -  but it has turned out to be a sheer delight!  It is magnificent.  And food, another prior concern, should not have been.  At every stop vendors are present and meals are offered on board.  I order from the train itself (veg or non-veg are the options) and eat the intensely spicy meal quietly and alone – well, with a few people staring maybe.  (They give you a spoon but no napkin for some reason.)  I would gladly do this again and again! 

Thurs Feb 17

At first, first, the train arrived and I though, ‘you’re kidding.  This is the piece of crap that I have to ride for 40 hours?”|  I didn’t know what to do.   I found the coach that said 3 tier AC, and sure enough, my name is on the list beside the door.  Boarding, I notice myself shrink – it is grimy and old.   But after a few hours I am OK – I have re-adjusted and it is just my Western standards coming out.  The train is fine, it is clean, it is just worn and well used.

I left my room in Pondicherry at 7am, biked to the place to return my rented cycle, and wlkaed to the main road to catch a gritty rickshaw (60Rs) to the bus station.  I boarded immediately for the 3.5 hour ride to Chennai (55Rs).  At the main bus depot, the ass of a conductor did not leave time to allow me and an elderly couple off the bus. Shouting, police beckoned, nothing in the end but the need to cross an enormous highway on foot. A rickshaw hails and saves me from this (as a white man, I never have to wait for long – unfortunately) and go the 18km (200Rs) across town to the Egmore train station.  I jump across the street for a lunch at the Visanta Bhawan (should have had more of the dhal fry) and fought off rickshaws to cross the road to my first Indian train station.   The un-monitored and seemingly functional metal detectors were a fun touch, as was the nearby, non-functioning and seemingly guarded luggage scanner (???).  Also, for 20Rs/ hour you can wait for your train in AC comfort. Nice.  I chose to pace. 

Nearing 4pm, on a train, my first Indian train, out of Chennai and gratefully so.  India surround me, and I allow myself to be embraced in the smells and landscape of this wonderful land. Outside, I pass majestic views – the ones we have heard about and seen on film:  sprawling fields of rice and palms buttoned up with men tonga-clotherd and their tough wives, and also distand temples and buffaloes crossing small streams, and vast industrial wastelands – throwing smoke malignantly at the sun, a swamp of toxic sludge a moat around it (it’s barbed wire a truly ridiculous sight as men – god help them! – bathe in the eerie phlegm of this far side of the city.
            Inside, my first impression genuine amazement (no wonder my ticket is so cheap?) This is not the worst class?  Cracking plastic seats, dull tired windows, and the feel that everything  here is the original pieces of this lurching metal donkey, built probably in the seventies, but really – who knows around here?
            I sit across from a quiet military Indian who speaks no English or Tamil, only Hindi.  He eventually opens up to a cautious smile,  but the young mother across the way (who has lived in Nashville I later find out)  is much sweeter. She speaks English well and her husband has an iphone and works for Oracle – they are also going to varanasi, for a wedding and temple worship.
            I am glad to have left Pondicherry, and very glad that I did not have to spend more than a few hours in Chennai – it was a horrid city – a beast whose roar burst the ears and shook the sky so much that it covered itself in shame.  That gorgeous blue sky had been reduced to a tiny mirage there, the sun merely a place of heat.
            There, my reckless driver was daring and downright rude – making pedestrians reel, cutting through gas stations, and cutting off every motorist in his field so he could get ahead.  I closed my eyes and pushed my hanky up my nose – this is a place where if you can, you should try not to breathe. 

There is something romantic about a long train ride – even though only a few hours in I am already uncomfortable and wondering how my stomach and bowels and butt will make it to Varanasi.  Young boys behind have laptops out, plugged in and playing games and surfing the net with the help of TaTa sticks.  I am slightly envious but not really – I am glad that I am not doing that, my Indian is of the Raj variety, the turn of the 19th century in its Victorian opulence captured my heart and imagination long ago, and the scenes outside my window help me project.  I am not terribly fond of modern India – it is not yet found its footing yet, still stumbling over the threshold of two worlds, ancient and new, or perhaps spiritual and materialistic, or perhaps agrarian and technological.  At any rate there is a void somewhere.  No, my India is the days of princely states, of simple living, of the jewel in the crown.  And the remnants are still here and not hard to find, though many would have them forgotten. I’ll take my India without cell phone and anywhere-internet, without high-rises and traffic and the Americanization that is so obvious and urgent among the hungry youth.  This is not denial I don’t think but a preference to look one way and not the other, that is all.  You can go shopping – I’ll take the temple. 

Feb 18th
I managed to sleep surprisingly well, and the train food is not nearly as bad as it is in Canada or on a plane.  As a mater of pride, I believe, Indians pack enormous duffle bags full of food and picnic utensils and families feast on gorgeous food for their entire journey, cleaning plates on the morose sink near the toilet and laughing at the foreigner who orders food from the staff. 
The only other Caucasian on my coach is Hugo, a French guy who has been hired to guide white water rafting toursin Rishikesh for a year, and is travelling his way there.  Boldly he is carrying only 10kg with him in his single pack – which I admire of course,  but I am not at all ashamed to have abandonded thoughts of lightness for a pack larely stuffed with healthy snacks and supplements and now a few books.  They are my comfort zone, I am content.  I still can’t bring myself to buy gifts though – it is too hectic and the shops are overwhelming- besides the fact that I don’t like shopping in the first plalce.  Hopefully, all that can come out of Kashmir, where I prefer my dollars to go anyways. 
            People are eating lunch now – Shamsher (the Indian army guy) is admirable in his efficient ways.  And as I go to put away my mp3 player he grabs it and puts the earbuds in his ears, smiling, looking to me with expectation.  Sheesh – I can’t play him Sufjan Stevens, now can I? Quickly, I flip it to some Zakir Hussain, but I don’t think he is impressed.  2 minutes later I return from the toilet and it is folded on my bag, somehow playing MBV.
            Meditating is hard on the jostle and exposure of the train, but reading is not.  Sure glad I have a few books on hard – I still have all day and night but tomorrow I should be in Varanasi!

Ok - here at last and go all is well. Pictures will come when I have a better signal for internet!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Varanasi: only a 40 hour train ride away!

Indian ladies looking out of the shore of Pondicherry

First off, my energy has been much better the last few days, and this morning is the first morning that I have not been hacking and coughing.  I am consoled by the fact that this is what pretty much every person living here does – the air is not friendly if you stray from the freshness of the beach into the streets.  But, at least the streets are paved here and they actually have a garbage collection program, so everyone is not dumping their trash into the street and burning it. I am not sure what has made the difference in my energy, but I have stopped taking the malaria pills and have cut out all rice and all sugar from my diet, and those are things that seem pretty obvious.  It means I am eating less authentic south Indian cuisine, and sticking to restaurants like “Daily Bread”(their website is humorously misleading.  It is a crappy little place with greasy tables) which offers continental foods.  So, I have been having Spanish omelettes, veg Franky (this funny bunch of cooked, spicy veggies wrapped in a chapatti) and hilarious excuses for spring rolls (imagine spicy veggies packed into small, doughy buns).
At any rate, feeling miles better.
These are in front of every home.
I got a video of a woman making one - post it when I can.

Monday I met an interesting man, a Serbian named Anton.  I was strolling on the beach after 9pm before going to bed.  He started talking to me about Pondicherry, what I liked, where I was staying, and it came out that he was still looking for a place to spend the night.  I thought this was a bit odd, so I pried for info.  It turns out that this 50-something man basically was unemployed in Serbia and was fast running out of money there.  So, his sister bought him a plane ticket to India, and he is just trying to live here as cheap as possible.  He rents a room in Tiru for 2000Rs/month (about 40$) and eats largely from street vendors and ashrams.  Sheesh!  At any rate, I let him spend the night in my room, since I had an extra bed and he was going to sleep on the beach otherwise.  I just couldn’t let him do it.  Yeah, I know, I know.  But I felt it was right.  (And, I stuck all my money under my pillow, just in case.) In the morning he washed up, made his bed, thanked me profusely, and was out the door for 7.  Ok then. 
I figured that maybe this good deed would help me get that damn train ticket that I have been anxious about for so long.   I needed to get the last minute ‘tatkal’ ticket that can only be booked 2 days before the train departs.  Train in India are a bit crazy – they often sell out a full month ahead of time, and although I tried to book this back in Canada, I was still waitlisted.  So I went down to the travel agent’s place for 9am, just as I had told him I would.  And I waited.  I was getting nervous as 9 passed and nobody showed up – knowing that elsewhere the tickets were now being sold.  Some other guy who shares the storefront offered to call the agent, and told me that he was on his way.  I can tell you that I was getting pretty damn angry at ten past 9.  I had no where else to turn to – all I could do was wait for this guy to saunter into the store.  I tell you, one thing that is crazy here is the business hours.  Nobody except a few road vendors are open before 9, and most other businesses either open at 10 or even 11.  But then, then! they close down again from like 1-3, or even 12-4.  This would be easier to handle if any, any of this was ever posted on some place like a door.  But I swear to god that I have yet to see, on even a single shop anywhere, anything resembling business hours.  What the hell?  So I just show up and hope you are open?  So you have to make sure that if you plan on returngin to a business, you ask them when they plan on being there.  Otherwise, you show up and they have that garage door type  thing closed over the front. 
Right, so I was pretty fuming mad – at this point towards this guy and generally towards all things Indian.  I was trying to talk myself down from it, acknowledging that if I didn’t get the ticket, that it would simply be a sign to do other things with my time.  Well, in the end, the guy strolled in about a year later - at 9:15 – and after using a long stick to turn on the circuit breakers for his computer, managed to get me precisely the ticket I wanted.  The idiot even forgot to charge me his commission of 50Rs which he thoroughly explained – so I had to triple count his change, come back, and give it to him.  So, I went home and had my regular breakfast of a fresh papaya, feeling relieved.  That means I leave for a 40 hour train to Varanasi on Friday. 
After that, I went and used the internet to book a room in Varanasi, and that went really smoothly, considering that I had been trying to phone a certain place every day for the past 4 days to book.  So I gave up on them, tried another place, and was done in 2 minutes.  Here is a link to the guest house I will be staying at : Suraj Guest House Varanasi. Yay! 
As I was standing outside taking a picture of a man sleeping right on a busy street, oblivious to honking and traffic veering around him, this German girl who had been using the internet for 4 hours straight came up and asked me if I was hungry.   

I said no, not really.  Then I clued in that she was asking for my company and if I knew a good place to eat.  So I had lunch with Susanna from Berlin and I heard her interesting story of her past 2 months in India – discovering yoga, quitting cigarettes, taking meditation classes.  It was actually a nice break to have the company. 
After, I headed out to attend a class on the Vedas according to Aurobindo that was being hosted by Matthias Cornellsson, the man I was hoping to talk to afterwards.  The class was kinda strange – it was another teacher from the Aurobindo ashram, a Vladimir Iatsenko, who spoke beautiful Sanskrit and read Aurobindo’s The Secret of the Veda line by line to the class, analyzing and explaining as he went.   

He was a fascinating scholar and beyond that, about as interesting as the ants that I watch crossing my window sill. Now this is no small book, and Aurobindo is probably the longest winded, Victorian prose-style writer in the world, renowned for his page long sentences.  This was amazing – it is going to take this guy like a year to read half this book to this class.  The whole time I am sitting there thinking, “Seriously?  You are still reading?  When the hell is this guy going to stop reading and talk to us?” Anyway, I met with Matthias afterward, and he was an interesting man doing some really good work.  (website:

I decided to try a new Indian restaurant for some a bite to eat, and as I sat down a young Indian girl with an American accent asked me if I was alone, and if we could dine together.  Uh… sure?  She was a nice Punjabi girl, grew up in Arkansas, did Engineering in Chicago, parents are doctors, etc.  Anita. She helped me pick good food and shared her Punjabi Thali – which was excellent.  She also is an avid cyclist and a huge proponent of community based cycling initiatives, having attended ‘Bike -Bike’ in Toronto last year.  Neat.  I walked her to the internet place after since it was her first day in town, and there I saw and met the first black man I have seen in just over 2 weeks of India.  He is a Londoner, from Camden (I told him about the Inspiral Lounge and he said I am the 2nd person to mention it to him -  but he hasn’t been home in so long that it was not open when he left last year!) and he figures he is the only black man in all of Asia.  6 ft 4 to boot.  He was hilarious, and we walked with him and his partner to help them find a place to sleep, since it was late and they had just rolled into town from a harrowing journey. 
Yeah, so it was a different day – social theme I guess. 
boy selling this cooked bean and veggies thing - there is one of these every few metres on the beach

I was unable to secure a time to go back to the Matrimandir at Auroville – those people are ridiculously hard to deal with, so that is that.   Today I just stock up on food and prepare so that I can get the right bus into Chennai tomorrow morning so I can get to the train station to catch my 13:30 train.  Then, I arrive in Varanasi Sunday morning at 5am!  Crazy, eh? 
Health food store/ Health restaurant
Sample of the menu - crazy Indian herbs!  Yes~!

The Beach turns into a mini-fair at dusk.  Don't eat the food!

Well, at least I got the 3rd class AC ticket that I was hoping for – I was really not prepared on getting the lower class ‘sleeper’ ticket for such a long journey.  So, this will be my last post until at least Sunday afternoon.   Wish me luck on a long train ride!  I am really looking forward to the experience, though I know by the end it is going to be miserable.  But, I can’t wait. 
I friggin love mosquito netting!!!

A few notes: 
OK - I am figuring out driving in India, since I have been part of traffic a couple weeks, driving my rented bike all over town.  The horn thing is making sense, though I am still a bit unnerved by it at times.  See, imagine a city about the size of, oh, let's say Hamilton.  And imagine that for every car, you replace it with a mix of 5 motorcyles and scooters.  Now, none of these guys have indicator lights.  So, the horn is the signal that you are passing.  And, there are no traffic lights (I know, eh?!) so the horn is your indicator that you are entering an intersection.  And there are no street lights, so at night your horn is your indicator that you exist.  Now, add to that the peculiar fact that drivers just generally feel the need to honk when they are approaching you in broad daylight - as if you would otherwise have jumped in front of them - and it starts to make sense. 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Um... another day in Pondy.

Pretty boring stuff lately.  Mostly sitting around reading, and then scurrying back and forth around town on my bike trying to make travel plans, eat, etc.  I did find a health food store today, so that was pretty cool.  At least that means I can eat some snacks without sugar in them.  (plain figs! yay! plain raisins! yay! plain cashews! yay!... yeah, it's the simple things sometimes.)
But something interesting did happen.  I got an email from this person in Holland saying that she met this amazing person and we should meet if I was going to be in Southern India.  I figured there was no chance, but I emailed the guy and it turns out he lives just outside of Pondicherry.  So, we just met and had tea.  His name is Ranvir and is a spiritual healer that works at this really posh spa/resort outside of town.  His energy was beautiful and really uplifting - we had a great talk and an instant connection.  It totally made my day.  If I get stuck here for longer, I will connect again and maybe go out there for the day or something - I can't afford the place for a night, it is seriously expensive (not like my 150Rs/night place...).
blessings to you all.
Wish me luck securing this blasted train ticket tomorrow morning!  I have to go to the agent at 8am to try to get a 'tatkal' ticket - last minute rush!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

“Auroville – City of the Dawn” is still asleep

neat tree at Auroville

So, this morning I took a taxi to Auroville, the experimental intentional community based on Aurobindo and the Mother’s philosophy.  The taxi driver had been waiting around the corner for me for almost 15 minutes, until I called his dispatch again and they got him to pull up to my place. How weird is that?  I am just supposed to know that he is going to be waiting for me around the corner?  Why did you ask for my name and room number at my guest house?  Right. 
So Auroville is pretty spread out and I went to the Visitor’s Centre first, of course.  They claim in their literature that they are not supposed to be a tourist attraction so they don’t really cater towards brief visitors – but they do have this big info centre with an expensive café and shops etc.  I got my free pass to go see the Matrimandir, and would have to be content with just seeing it from a distance, since you have to book at least the day before if you actually want to enter it.  That rule is designed so that it remains peaceful and does not become too touristy.  Auroville has a city plan that is laid out in the shape of a spiral galaxy.  It is really cool on paper.  The “soul” and centre of it all is the Matrimandir, which took from 1968 (Auroville’s birth) to 2008 to complete.  I have to say that it is particularly gorgeous, and is one of the most beautiful man-made structures I have ever seen.

It is set apart, alone, in a vast field, shining like sun, and it is not a tomb or a temple – the only thing that it houses is a room, made entirely of white marble, with the largest crystal sphere in its centre which catches a single stream of natural light for the room.
Model of Matrimandir in visitor's centre

It is made for ‘concentration’ (read: meditation) only.  You have to watch a video the day before and right before entering.  It is meant to be a symbol and a testament to divine consciousness, and this I find enormously refreshing.
inside matrimandir: web

I wandered around some other buildings there, and the whole place smacks of Star Wars.  Designed in the 70’s, trying to be ultra-futuristic, it looks like some of it’s buildings or spaces could easily have been found on Tattooeen (sp?).
Her desk is below this object on the bottom floor.

The Tamil girl sitting at the reception in the main administrative building had this funky round cockpit to work from.   I asked her if I needed to buy a guest bank account in order to buy food from the famous Solar Kitchen.  She didn’t know (turns out I did).  So then I couldn’t resist asking her how the rebel alliance was doing against the Empire.  She didn’t know that either.  “Yeah, they never tell us little people.” 
It is a commune, really, and most of the stuff is members only.  But as I looked and looked, I realized that the place, for all its fame, is not doing that great.  Proposed as a living space for “up to 50,000” , it is a permanent home to just less than 2,000 members, and an additional 900 locals.  Their original city plans are no where close to being realized – only a few of the intended main buildings were built.
One of the original plans.  cool eh?
Current layout.  You can see - black spots are buildings.  Not exactly the vision yet...largest object is the visitors centre...

I am guessing that the matrimandir took all their money for a long, long time.  Plans calling for bodies of water and light rail are clearly out of the picture.  In fact, as I ventured into places I probably should not have been, I saw city design specs which belied the fact that current structures are terribly sparse and barely indicated any kind of cosmic design that may have been intended.  What is the problem?  Well, maybe for them, there isn’t one – they just figure it is a futuristic vision and will have to wait for the future. 
But by noon literally bus-loads of tourists were piling in.  The cafeteria was insane for lunch, I saw at least 5 classes of school kids coming through.  Surely they could harness greater income from this.  I think that as much as they don’t want to call it a tourist spot, it clearly is, and they might as well cash in.  
It is a shame, really.  I mean, I gues the people living there enjoy it enough.  But as a visitor, I could barely wring information out of people.  Maps of the place cost 12R – not a big deal but they should be free – and there is no offering of tours or general information about the place.  The Visitor’s Centre just has more pictures of the Mother and Aurobindo and talks about how glorious their vision for the place was fifty years ago.
Honestly, this whole Aurobindo and Mother thing is really getting to me.  I am not sure why, exactly, but I am thinking about it.  There are continually these enormous photos of them everywhere – and it bugs me for some reason that they particularly like the 4 by 5 foot photos of the decrepit, drooping and tired looking Mother – who is much revered in all manner of other semblances.  Now, clearly these two had some great ideas, and yes, they were visionaries, but so are a lot of people.  They certainly weren’t saints – though they did good works and helped people live better.  I dunno.  The whole thing just hits me the wrong way.  The say they didn’t want a religion, but it sure as hell seems like people treat it as such.  And it would be one thing if they were magical, divine creatures accredited with miracles or divinity.  But even that is not true – they were just writers and philosophers who managed to get a following.  Hmm.  Something is still not fitting here for me.  Not sure what it is. But, I can tell you I am pretty tired of seeing them everywhere. 

I fell asleep briefly after lunch, under the epic banyan tree that has a radius of 50 metres.

This is all one tree!  Banyans drop new growth from their outstretched branches that reach down to the ground and grow roots, eventually looking like new trees growing into the rest.  But, all of this is one tree, and that is pretty cool.  It is over 100 years old and it is the physical centre of Auroville that they chose when Mother put her finger on a map somewhere close to it when choosing the site for the town. 
Leaving, I was waiting for a taxi again which really didn’t seem to be showing up.  These guys really suck at this.   I mean, the first time I called the guy said sure, a taxi to Auroville Visitors Centre, and then hung up.  He didn’t tell me where to wait, which entrance, or what kind of car.  So I called him back and asked.  I also mentioned that these things may be valuable to future customers.  Well, after waiting almost 20 minutes again, an auto-rickshaw driver came to me and started haggling with me.  And at this point I was ready for a deal – so we agreed on 150R (car would have been 170).  Well, it was a noisier ride, and he was mistaken on where he was taking me – though not by much.  I told him to go to “Mother’s Guest House” which is right across from where I am staying.  He took me to the “Mother’s Seaside View Resort”.  When I directed him another 5 minutes to my place and got out, offering 150 – he got really mad.  He wanted 200 because it was further.  I told him that was B.S., since we agreed on a price to this place and he made the mistake.  He told me it was not his problem but mine, and refused to take any money below 200.  This was quite bizarre.  I tried to talk him down.  I offered him 170 to be nice.  But he was making a scene.  People came out to see what was going on.   A Polish lady came to my side and only made things worse.  In the end, I left 170 on his seat while he was ranting to another guy, and just walked away.  Didn’t feel great, but I wasn’t going to give in.  I’ve been in Pondicherry for what, 3 days, and I know the difference.  He has lived here all his life.
So, that was my little eye-opener before dinner.  Not looking forward to ashram food again tonight, but I don’t have the energy to go searching. 
update:  didn't eat at the ashram and am resolved not to!  happened across a place that I had heard recommended 'surbuda' and though noisy, it was decent.  had dessert - so there! pistachio and saffron ice cream. sometimes....


Man, I feel like utter crap this morning.  Yeah, I know - sugar.  But it's not Just that.  It is 10, and I have yet to garner enough energy to leave my room – let alone stand up for a long time.  And I slept from just before 10 to just past 7am.  I don’t know what is going on, but something has to change.  It is almost a full week that I have felt mildly sick, and this is no way to spend my precious days in India.  I am not enjoying this in a healthy way.  I have a hard decision to make, I believe.  It is possible that the Malaria medication is doing at least some of this – the energy sapping anyway, which could influence my immunity.  I have asked many people during before, and during my stay, and I have only come across 1 other person taking the medication, and from I can gather, Malaria essentially does not exist in the places I am going to, or if it does, it is very very rare.  So, I have to decide if I should stop taking it to see what happens.  I know, I can hear my mother’s voice now – but if it is making this big a difference, then it is a question of whether I want enjoy India or be safe and and unhappily stuck in my room.  This area, Pondicherry, is extremely safe, so I think I will stop taking it for the next few days.  I can always start again later.  Frankly, if it makes a difference, it will be very much worth it.  I have had zero energy the last few days, even though my sinus cold has largely cleared up – and this is way past the excuse of acclimatization.  The only other thing could be some wicked allergy that I did not know of before – so I suppose an alternate strategy could be to take some anti-histamines and see if anything changes then.  We’ll see. I have things that need doing today – I want to rent a new bike, find a phone to call home, confirm my train bookings through an agent, and find a post office to possibly send some books and gifts home.  I haven’t really bought any gifts yet, though –since I just haven’t done too much shopping.  I think I am just going to wait and buy everything in Kashmir.  I saw some cool teas and treats I would love to send home, but it just has not been realistic.  OK!  I think I am going to try to nap before noon.

Another model of proposed Auroville.  Still about 100 years away, I'd say. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Puducheri/ Pondicherry/ Etc.

February 11, 2011

Pondicherry, TN.
I have been in India now for 12 days, and I have yet to see a cloudy day, let alone rain.  However, I am not feeling very well.  A few days after arriving in Tiru I got rid of the cold I obtained in London, but then Monday night I got sick again during my first night in the tapas room.  Still not feeling great – definitely have some kind of cold I am fighting, and I have very little energy both mentally and physically, and basically I just want to hide in my hotel room.  So that is what I am mostly doing. 
I found the recommended book shop yesterday and bought a neat little novel about Indian classical music – right up my alley.  I also bought some tea and treats at a store, and am sitting here enjoying these things as I look out my window to the crashing waves.  It sounds rather delightful, but I am still feeling crumby.  Travelling, as wonderful as it is, takes a lot of effort and energy and preparation.  Because I left this early part of my journey largely flexible, it has also meant that I am often concerned with where I am going to be staying – and my mind has often been occupied with how the hell to fill my days leading up to Varanasi.  I can’t seem to figure out  how to secure or confirm my 2nd class train ticket going there either.  And, Pondicherry, though situated on the obvious beauty of a beach, is a tremendous let down as far as the Aurobindo ashram goes.  It is unspeakably poor in its user-friendliness to visitors, it is spread out over a vast area, and it seems in most ways completely stuck in the past.  I was expecting a modernized (well at least semi-modern) institution but the librarians did not even know where I could find an internet connection – let alone have one – and I have been here for almost 2 full days and have yet to find one of the three contacts that I was directed towards. 
I had hoped to have this time as a truly scholarly period in my travels, and figured that this ashram would be a good place to do some research, write and get some feedback.  It has not.  I am doing some reading and studying, but my Kindle is not functioning properly (please, just don’t ask) so that is also a bit of a kick in the pants. Well – I truly believe all things happen as they need to.  So given these conditions, I am just relaxing and recuperating and enjoying the fresh air.
Last night I went for a stroll on the beach, and found a sandy spot near the pier where I joined some locals for a wade in the sea water.  It was surprisingly warm water to me.  I also saw some ridiculous wooden planks tied together that are apparently used by some men as boats to go fishing.  Un-frickin-believable that they go into the sea with these things!  Holy crap do they have courage! 
Also, after the pier, on the beach front, when the business district is cut off – the rest of the beach front property is basically slums.  WTF??  What is going on here?  Why the hell is this – which in the Western world would be considered by far the most coveted property in the city, covered over by derelict shacks and the unemployed?  It is literally a km from the heart of the tourist area, too.  Crazy.  Where the hell do the rich people live, then?
OK – it is time for the ashram lunch.  Hope it is better than yesterdays, which was bland and crappy.


OK - better afternoon. I was able, finally, to connect with two Aurobindo scholars here who had intelligents things to say about what I am writing about - and perhaps more importantly showed me some striking books that I was not aware that will help a lot.

also, a major relief is that I very haphazardly found my way to a cheap guest house further down the beach - (150R) which will take my booking for as many days as I want.  phew!  so, with that security, I have planned a day trip to /Auroville tomorrow (google it, it is a very cool place) and hopefully eat some good hippy food there.

Lots of love to everyone!  The last few days I have really been missing some people, places, pets (pet) and other home comforts.  honestly, I would have loved to stroll into Full Circle today for work, and come home for a quiet dinner.  Seriously.  some days, eh?

ok.  Namaste, i guess. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Leaving Tiru

Sunday, February 6, 2011
 Last night was better, but not much.  Still hacking, coughing, awfulness.  But I slept better.  Had two interesting dreams – one was an amazing song that I had to hum and record, the other was a dream that I was leaving Tiru – today.   
So, following that strong inner prompting, when  I woke up I used Amarjit’s phone to call Aurobindo’s ashram in Pondicherry – and they had rooms available.  Amarjit and his friend John were going to be taking a taxi with a couple other ladies to have darshan with this saint who lives in Auroville, and I figured I would pack up and go for the ride – so I did!
It was a bit rushed, but it felt right.  I needed to get out of TV.  So, for 170R I came in this minivan cab with them, and am now sitting in a mango grove in the lawn of a home in Auroville, waiting for the saint – Aum Amma they call her.  Pictures indicate a delirious, blessed out woman not aware of reality as we know it.  She is the type that needs to be fed and taken care of apparently.  At any rate, they were into paying all this money to come here and see her, I am just here for the ride.  But it is gorgeous so far, and as much as I loved Ramana’s ashram, I really disliked most of Tv.  It was just so unbelievably polluted, I didn’t want to breathe, let alone go anywhere.  And of course my room was dismal. I’d had enough, I guess.  At any rate, here we are.  After darshan, hopefully I will get a decent room in Pondicherry! 
Aurovillian House where Aum Amma stays

OK – that darshan was an incredible experience.  We waited for well over an hour, then were guided into a tiny room at the back of the house.  She was sitting there, eyes rolled back, hands in mudra, seemingly oblivious, with this giddy grin.   
Web Photo of Aum Amma
Three devotees chanted, fanned, and offered her the flowers we had brought in huge bins.  We wondered why we needed so many flowers,  but she would reach out and grab a bunch and rub them on her, or throw them around all the time.  Each of us, in turn, were told to approach her and kneel at her feet.  When we did so, she would take us in her arms, kiss our cheeks, lovingly caress our hair, and look into our eyes with a distant joy.  It was amazing fun, really.  One of the ladies totally lost it and cried all over the saint – we wondered if we would have to pull her off or something.  But, she got cheap therapy I guess – maybe getting rid of some early childhood issues in the embrace of unconditional love we all felt from her.  At any rate, it was kind of embarrassing.  Then, the saint hand fed us all some rice – it was hilarious.  When she finally was guided out of the room, she threw flowers at us with remarkable aim – bang!  Right in the nose for me. 
All in all, it was a remarkable experience of India, I felt.  Five of us getting crazy interactions in close quarters with a remarkable guru – it was utterly bizarre and thoroughly embodying the spirit of this place.  I can’t say that I was spiritually ignited or anything, but I had a great time.
Afterwards, we drove into Pondicherry for dinner.  The traffic was the kind that I had read about occurring in places like Delhi.  This was real, big city, multi-lane insanity – the honking thunder storm or vehicles that a will make a pedestrian pray.  The driver was good enough to take me directly to the guest house I was hoping to stay at – although we had to ask directions about 6 times on the way.  But, we found it, and thank god, they still had a room!
Aurobindo ashram Park Guest House

enormous Gandhi monument on beach

Pondicherry!  What a glorious contrast to the dismal squalidness of TV.  My guest house is right on the beach of the ocean!!!  My balcony looks out over the Bay of Bengal, and I stroll the shore as the sun sets.  Wow.  Now that’s more like it.  Fresh air.  Man - that makes all the difference in the world.  My throat is still sore from Tiru, and is better already. I wake up having had an amazing sleep, and I watch the sun rise over the water.  Sometimes it is hard to imagine that there is anything good in the world – but sometimes it is hard to imagine that there is anything wrong at all.
View from my balcony ($8/day room)

Current score after 4 days:
Mosquitos = 50
Rob = 6
OK – so mosquitos here are a little different from back home.  They are a manifestation of evil itself.  They are like ninjas, sneaking up behind you, vanishing into thin air as soon as you swat.  I swear to god they know how to approach from the rear.  And their bites don’t itch – they swell up red and hard and just irritate.  In my first week I had none in my ashram room – so I was ok.  I only had 22 bites restricted to the feet where the sandals didn’t cover. 
But after the hell of that cheap room in TV – I managed to count a dazzling 16 bites on the left side of my face alone, and due to the shirt I slept in, another dozen or so on each hand.  The worst is a patch of about 4 bites all on my lower left thumb.  It is red and angry and won’t go away.  I saw myself in the mirror for  the first time in days last night, and it is pretty funny.  The big one on my nose is particularly attractive. 
At least I am in a proper hotel-type room now.  Hopefully it can remain solitary.
Aurobindo ashram old reading room.
Elephant with star of david on his forehead at downtown temple
 In the beach section - the old French Colony section of Pondicherry - it is interesting to see the odd person speak some French, as well as seeing road signs in French and English.  makes things confusing, though, as every road has an old French name, plus another English name.  Which one they use, you never know.  I looked for Mission street for a while until I realized it was actually the street I was on:  Rue de Cathedral.  
Sri Aurboindo and the MNother have their names and images plastered over every building here - like good old Hindu gods.  It is kind of bizarre, though - when he was more a scholar than a guru.  But they are literally worshipped. This is India of course.
Aurobindo Shrine - a crowd was here praying when I saw it.

I am a bit dissappointed so far - I was hoping to get some serious studying done here -  but the libraries are atrocious.  No, really.  I don't think there is a volume here later than 1955.  I checked the ashram lending library, and it is like this.  Then i sought out the public library - even worse.  It is just a musty old place where half the volumes have bindings falling off.  It is awful!
The motto in Pondicherry is "Take a break from Time."  I like that - it makes you feel like you are going to get away from worry or something.  But based on the ashram and library, this place is frozen  in time - like at the moment Aurobindo died.  crazy.  Well, it is beautiful anyway.  It has an old-world European charm to it and the prices are good.  So, if I just hang out and read and write by myself for a while - so be it.  
 Oh, I have figured out that if you are staying in an ashram guesthouse you can get a meal pass which entitles you to 3 meals a day at the ashram (about 1 km away from the guest house - it is all spread out everywhere) and it is only 30R a day!  yeah, that is like 60 cents or so.  Not bad.  So, I am going to try to stay in my guest house for a week - although they say that this is not allowed.  I may be able to bounce from the 4 or so different guest houses - we'll see!