After relaxing in the magical hippie goodness of Auroville and Sadhana Forest for two weeks, I was anxious to get moving again. I’d spent the last two months (almost all of my time in India) in the warm, colorful and relatively sane southern half of the country, nearly 3 weeks of that with Western tourists between the ashram and the Forest. While it had all been very very good, my little time in the north (Varanasi) made me realize how truly different the two parts of the country are. I was itching to get back up to the grit of the top half (that which I’d always imagined India to be) – and to spend more of my time interacting with locals again.
I took one more dive in the mud pool down the road, said goodbye to the rest of the volunteer crew, and jumped on a bus heading north. My plan was to head to Kolkata (formerly known by its colonial spelling, ‘Calcutta’) in the northeast next, then start heading west across the widest part of the country as the temperatures started to rise again.
I stopped in Chennai (formerly ‘Madras’) again on the way. While I wasn’t interested in exploring the city, I did have two good reasons to stop for a few days. I’d dropped off my camera for repairs a few weeks earlier and, to my surprise, they’d fixed it. $55 later (3-4 days worth of living expenses in this country..), I was the complete tourist package, again equipped to take stupid pictures of random road signs like this 28-letter long job in Chennai.
While I had actually enjoyed being gadget-free (no iPod or camera to distract me from what was happening directly in front of me at all times – ‘oh, I have to get that shot.. and from this angle.. and maybe a close-up’..), I realized how many places I’d been that I’d never have photos from.
I’d also gotten another recommendation from my buddy Bryan about a place to check out in the city. He was right about Auroville so I jumped on it. The Vasanta Vihar in Chennai is a study center dedicated to the teachings of a deceased Indian philosopher named J Krishnamurti. People interested in learning about his work are invited to come, stay and study. I’d heard bits about him but didn’t really know what I was getting into when I made a reservation to stay there. I’m glad I went. I spent two days relaxing in the several acre oasis of manicured gardens (photo at top) including a clean and comfortable room – shockingly novel on the Indian budget travel trail, watching some of his recorded speeches, and talking and eating communal meals in the dining room with others who’d come to learn more, all Indian, some of whom have been following his work for over 40 years.
While two days wasn’t enough to wrap my head around it, what I learned I liked. The guy subscribed to no particular religion, spoke about the need to look within to understand life’s issues and discouraged people from looking to him as a guru (a refreshing thing in India), instead encouraging them to take the teachings as a starting point for self-learning rather than a polished ‘answer’ to life’s questions. I picked up one of his books and look forward to getting all the answers..
Back to earth. I found a cheap flight from Chennai to Kolkata and, after comparing the benefits (30 hours on a hot train for $20, 1 hour in the air for $60..), headed to the airport. I was giddy walking into the place. I realized how much I LOVE flying, no matter the reason or destination – a massive guilty pleasure for a so-called environmentally-minded type.. There’s something about the whole experience I can’t articulate. It had been four months and countless hours on some very difficult bus and train rides since I was last on a plane and I was psyched to take advantage of modern technology again. Someone, please design pollution-free air travel STAT.
Naturally, there are quite a few things distinctly Indian about the experience here. Checking in at the SpiceJet airlines counter (their version of JetBlue, Southwest etc), the safety regulations caught my eye. In addition to the usuals (fireworks, guns etc), the list of prohibited items on board included the following: sabers, swords, meat cleavers, blasting caps, brass knuckles, knitting needles, hatchets, darts, pickles and spices, and chilly powder. Oh, and paste. Paste is forbidden on flights. Leave it at home.
Chilly powder tucked safely into my underpants, I made it through the flight. And got off the plane on another planet, Kolkata. Extraterrestrial descriptions in the next post..