Pondicherry (or Puducherry, for short, Pondy) is in southern India, an old French colony sitting on the Bay of Bengal, in the state of Tamil Nadu. The draw for foreigners to this place today, and for the last 30 years, is Auroville, an international township sitting north of Pondy. Auroville (meaning 'City of Dawn' -- and Dawn is my middle name, cosmic connection?) was conceptualized in the late 1960's and early 70's as a community dedicated to human unity, and built literally from scratch on a desert plain with the hands of early founders/volunteers and the help of the local Indian people. One of those early pairs of hands belongs to my friend Mali, who we are here to visit. Mali currently lives in Grenada, Spain, in a cave (seriously, and it's lovely), but spends time here each February-March for the annual celebration of the founding of Auroville. Mali's flat is in town, in the old French area of Pondy, and I can't wait to visit him and hear more of his stories. That will come soon, but for now we must get settled in here.
Belu, the driver, takes us to a guesthouse just a block off the main coastal road to Pondy, directly opposite the entrance road to Auroville. It has been raining, so the car is not able to make it down the muddy, flooded roads to our intended location, which we have heard is barely drivable even via motorbike. At the corner of the block is one of the bright blue, stepped pyramid type temples emblazoned with colorful, dramatized and scary-faced Hindu gods. An old man seems to give me the evil eye when I pass, as if playing the caretaker for these deities and saying to me -- there is more to it than the vibrant colors, my dear. The tidy peach-colored guesthouse is on a narrow paved road, and is a real "house" (to me) compared to those of most neighbors' homes on the street with no running water and roofs of grass, fronds, or metal. Behind a tall peach-colored wall across the street from the guesthouse there's a large field of palm trees, and the windows to our room face that direction. It was a hot and muggy afternoon, and after an early morning flight and 2.5 hour drive, my own street view was enough sightseeing and it was time for a very, very long nap.
At 8 or 9pm we ventured out to a pizza place close by in need of comfort food. The only street lights are on the main road, and walking down our little street that first night felt a little like one of those haunted house rides at a carnival, where your eyes are just darting around in the dark expecting something strange to appear in front of you. In this case the strange things were dogs, goats, and numerous mud puddles. At the restaurant, I saw what I expected -- Europeans are everywhere in and around Auroville. I caught French, German, and English from all the white faces at the six other busy tables.
On the walk home we stopped at one of the little necessities stands at the corner of the main road for bottled water, toilet paper, and packages of cookies. About the toilet paper, I'll go ahead and say this now, since it's critical to have an understanding of how this works early on in a trip to India. TP availability and usage is a personal choice. Otherwise, you go the Indian way by using a small cup (located by a water faucet close to the toilet), fill it up, pour on necessary parts and cleanse, with your left hand. I know, I know, it's strange to imagine. I can't want to. I choose paper, and all the wipes I brought filling up half of my suitcase (the other half being deet, body cleansing products, purell, and just-in-case medications! What an American...).
Our room is just off of the entry hall at the front of the house. We have a large new bathroom, pretty in deep orange tile, with a shower, sink, and toilet, and in the main room is a bed and two side tables. Two really large windows look out to the street, and there is a small window high on the wall in the bathroom. While these allow for a breeze it is still very warm, so the ceiling fan runs on high constantly. That first night in the guesthouse it began to rain again. Rain apparently impacts the electricity often here, so some time during the night the power went out. So in the uncomfortable stillness and sleepiness of the darkness before dawn, I couldn't make out a gentle swoosh, swoosh, swoosh noise that seemed to be closer and then further away right outside on the street. My mind kept turning it over, I knew the sound but wasn't awake enough for it to register. Finally, I thought I could picture a woman in her sari stooping over at the waist, sweeping the street with her thin straw hand broom. I got up to take a look and try to confirm. I couldn't see her. Back in bed I fell asleep again, and the next arousal came as caw, caw, CAWWWW and I could swear those crows were sitting on my window sill telling the sun to come up. Next it was the noise of car and motorcycle horns from the main road a block away, the morning commute to Pondy. Voices in Hindi and Tamil began on the street around 6:30, and with them the scent of smoke, not heavy or irritating, just enough to let me know this day had begun.