Pondicherry DRAFT chapter for book
I dislike long bus journeys, I much prefer trains for the long distances. The experience of having to ask the bus driver from Goa to Hampi to stop for me to have a pee is not one I want to repeat, but there wasn’t a train to Pondicherry so we had no choice. The journey was three to four hours so not huge. I felt anxious, but when the bus arrived and we got on, I relaxed. It was very comfortable; blue luxurious seats, magazine racks on the seat in front like on an airplane and free small bottles of water. The seats were comfortable and I sat next to the window. I do love travelling, just moving and looking out of the window. The trees had the brightest red-orange blossom. We actually did stop for a food and loo break; there was a stray dog in the car park and a little stall, I bought biscuits and fed the dog.
Our guesthouse was down a run down looking alleyway, and didn’t look as nice as the pictures on the internet. It had almost art deco style small chrome and coloured glass screens at the balcony, which reminded me of the coloured glass at the first place in Chennai. Just beyond our room was an invisible step in the marble that we had to be mindful of, and beyond that another little balcony that looked out onto the alleyway.
The ‘spiritual journey’ can be lonely sometimes. I wrote in my notebook: I feel far away… maybe that’s part of it, necessary, and that I’ll come back, naturally. I could force it, like I forced the grounding last time; through fear or guilt, but no, wait it out. Who would notice, anyway?
My husband is used to me being quiet or chatty, and doesn’t get unsettled if I am off by myself either emotionally or spiritually.
I thought about D, completely devoted to the pursuit of self realisation, seemingly sure of his path, with a guru and long periods spent in ashrams, and C, a Christian with faith in God.
Should I be doing more? I wondered. Should I be more focussed on ‘the quest’ or associated practices, do something more ‘formal’ rather than this strange and ever changing way of mine? But at the same time, feeling spiritual and sensory overload.
Maybe it’s all part of the same thing for me. I knew there was a reason I’m walking round wearing a huge Om, it’s to remind me, not for others, about the different levels of consciousness, or rather the different places that our consciousness resides in.
Maybe I experience ‘the absolute state’ via experiencing the world through the five senses? I can’t do any more, but maybe I don’t need to do any more.
‘Every enlightenment has its own melody,’ as R from Switzerland said.
It doesn’t feel like anything, not bliss or joy, although that comes on the way, it’s a clear minded observance, awareness (Osho emphasised being in a state of awareness), above pleasure and pain (the Worldly Winds described in Buddhism).
The hot windowless room of the guesthouse in Pondicherry was not conducive to writing, or maybe it was my emotional/spiritual state. Plus we didn’t feel that well. We’d been eating at different places in Chennai and had also been quite casual about drinking the water off the table even at new places, saying no to the bottles often offered to foreigners and drinking the free water* everywhere like locals. Maybe we’d been too cavalier. One of the catchphrases of the Pondicherry trip was coming out of the toilet and saying, ‘Well that wasn’t normal!’
Or maybe I just needed a break. I am not that good at taking breaks though. I didn’t do much actual writing except making notes, but I did stay up late reading blogs. WordPress was especially inspiring and I was almost overloaded with things to think about.
I read a blog about family influences, about the process of working out the influences that have come from our parents, and which to keep and which to strip away. I read a blog about not having any friends, and had a dream where I realised, ‘No one likes me.’ ‘No one likes me, and that’s okay.’ Really feeling, accepting and at peace with this realisation. (Which isn’t actually true) ‘The most terrifying thing of all is to accept oneself completely.’ (Jung). The next day I woke up and discovered that it was friendship day.
Those first couple of days in Pondicherry I was reflective, almost over inspired. Engaging with other bloggers in the comments sections helped me, as it often does, to clarify my own thoughts:
I still over pressurise myself now re writing vs experiencing and going to see stuff vs just being. But my focus now is, what benefits me, what strengthens my centre, what do I really want above all else and nothing else is going to distract me? (For me, finish the fxxxing book, and self realisation, which may be the same thing?) Which means I am unfit and look a mess and haven’t learnt any other language (other than a few words), but all of that is a price so very, very worth paying.
… the spiritual journey thing can become a kind of trap; it makes you think you should get somewhere, that where you are isn’t okay or enough. Realising that you are already there, and that there’s nothing to find, that it isn’t all high bliss and blazing lights, (although that can come on the way, it’s not the aim I don’t think, although people are so focussed on chasing happiness and pleasure) it’s a calm clear awareness, an observy kind of state. The hard bit is carrying it through into daily life, when things irritate, or the body is sick etc.
I agree with Osho saying, ‘Don’t seek don’t knock, just be still and it will come,’ and Krishnamurty who said it’s all about getting to know yourself, and Buddhism, which says there’s nothing to find re sense of self, re who you really are, and with Bojack Horseman’s Diane who says, ‘I don’t think there is any deep down, there’s just what you do.’ Here’s to another day of observing and trying to iron out the kinks, after a day of calm observing mixed with mindless eating of cakes!
Where am I at? Just stop trying. Remember that you are both already there… All you have to do is realise it. Don’t get distracted re new development activities. E.g. working out which traits inherited from parents and which deliberately abandoned, which opposing ones adopted, which to keep, even though that would be a great exercise. Or reflecting on friendships and the ‘well of loneliness’… (also like re the book, I don’t get distracted by submitting articles or trying to get freelance work, that can be done later. I don’t even read at the moment, although I have many things I would read if I did, I have a reading list. (Okay I have names of books and authors scribbled randomly within the pages of my notebook))
Just stop trying.
It doesn’t feel like anything (sometimes). But sometimes it does: An orange cat sitting on a wall in a warm dusty alleyway, or the light glittering on the raindrops on the shutters of my room.
It doesn’t feel the same as four years ago when I was meditating and reading and seeking. It’s in daily life now as opposed to a separate spiritual practice. Now it’s all integrated and more stable. All that seeking was to get here, and now we’re here (for now).
What does it look like? Peaceful, stable, with moments of illumination. Interspersed with dark nights of the soul, keeping the faith, and all turning out okay. Guilt, and permission to be happy. That’s my desert-without-water.
It means living in the moment, fully, then letting go (Thank you to Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha for this). Act silly, make a joke, snuggle up with my husband. Eat something nice.
Use all experiences to reinforce my centre. Do not allow others to destabilise it.
In quiet moments I sat on the invisible step and looked through the railings into the alleyway below. I thought how I had travelled there, how I had the room, money, a plan for what I was doing next. I thought about creating a little pocket of safety. I thought about should it be more edgy, is it too easy? I thought about how even people in more edgy environments would still have little pockets of stillness like this, a place to sit and at least eat safely, a place to sleep. (I’m always comparing myself unfavourably to others; hard core backpackers, war correspondents. I know, weird huh?) I thought that if I have that, a safe place to sleep, and somewhere to sit and have a quiet moment, I am okay.
The other catchphrase of the Pondicherry spell was in restaurants after eating, ‘Well it wasn’t brilliant food was it?’ A lot of the food was fusion or Indian food with a European twist and we didn’t enjoy it that much. We got excited about a shop almost next door to the guesthouse that sold dried fruit and nuts, soya milk and health food type items. I drank almost a whole big carton of soya milk in one go. One day I bought hummus, crisps and fancy lemonade for lunch. Everything was expensive, and none of it tasted particularly nice.
Meeting the Yoga teacher in Chennai, who was so surprised that I did yoga; meeting the Italian man who asked us if we were right-wing (we’re not, if I have to say it); and the covering up, and wearing of ill-fitting or unflattering clothes that weren’t always my style in India, triggered yet another minor identity crisis. I read somewhere that style was about saying who you are without words. Really? Maybe? Yet at the same time, I can feel myself dissolving under these sartorial experiments. Playing with sense of self, identity… Being here, that is the work.
We saw Indian women tourists in Pondicherry in short dresses and shorts, albeit near the beach, but I decided to relax my self-imposed modest dress code a little while we were there. My husband supports me whatever I do, but I know that he thinks I am overly covered up sometimes.
So I went for a walk by myself wearing my lungi dress- above the knee, with side slits- without loose black trousers underneath and without a scarf over my shoulders. I had got so used to walking around with trousers and a scarf that I felt half-naked and vulnerable. I walked down the road and to the park, feeling a little self-conscious. I saw no one dressed in as little as me, then at the park, although there were people around and it was daytime and there was a policeman outside the gate, I still felt uncomfortable. This could have just been me, I get anxious, you could say I have anxiety except I haven’t been diagnosed or labelled; anyway I get paranoid the drop of a hat. I didn’t stay long, came home, put some trousers on and grabbed my scarf.
We went to the beach at Pondicherry which was completely different to Chennai beach. It was very clean, no rubbish, bins everywhere, and a new looking wide pedestrianised boulevard. There was a beautiful statue of Gandhi. There were lots of Indian tourists, well off looking; we saw lots of expensive looking gold sarees. We sat on a low wall between the boulevard and the beach. We saw a little Indian owl like in Panaji. I drank takeaway coffee that tasted bitter. I foolishly said hi to some kids selling plastic tat and then they wouldn’t leave us alone until we got up to leave.
(My favourite shop window in Pondicherry, or possibly, ever!)
We went to a big weekly street market. The length of a big main street was lined with stalls selling leather belts, parts for cars, all kinds of everyday household items and products and clothes including God dresses, gold gowns and dresses that looked like little girls’ princess dresses in adult sizes. In the street I saw a woman wearing a floor length fairy tale gown of red and white net with red velvet applique flowers.
Plastic animal face masks were sold on stalls and in bunches like balloons by street sellers. The smell of coffee, citrus fruit, and occasionally toilet smells.
It was the first time I had seen women’s underwear since leaving the UK. First plain white then padded bras in bright colours with polka dots and slinky night dresses.
My husband bought pants (underpants), they had a pocket in them! The man explained that that, plus the top pocket in the short-sleeved shirts that India men wear, was where Indian men kept their money and their phones, as they wear lungis that are essentially a piece of material and so has no pockets. D told us that some Indian women sew a tiny pouch into the tucked in end of their saree and that is where they keep their money. The man on the stall explained how money was safer in the pants pocket as it could fall out of the top shirt one when you bend over to pray. Later my husband tried on his pants and put his mobile phone in the pocket. It did indeed seem safe and ideal. He even thought about keeping the passports there!
Pondicherry streets were a mixture. Down one side pretty coloured buildings with intricate lattice iron work, on the other side grey and dusty concrete, people living in very basic pavement dwellings. Metal grills like big drain covers propped to make ramps at kerbs and pavements, outside shops and restaurants, like in Chennai. Chalk rangoli patterns decorated the pavements outside shops, like in Kanyakumari.
We didn’t go to the temple that the Italian man we’d met at Broadlands in Chennai had recommended. We went to a different one, that Y had suggested. We didn’t feel like going to more than one, involving as it did a trip in a taxi.
If we go everywhere people recommend we won’t have any space to just be spontaneous and discover things for ourselves. We both really enjoy just discovering the local area, getting to know the shopkeepers a little, the guesthouse staff, and just being there in the immediate surroundings and the place that we are staying in.
We went to the temple at Chidambaram. Chidambaram is where the God Lord Shiva is represented as Cosmos. That, plus the fact that Y had recommended it, was why I chose it. The temple that the Italian man had recommended, Tiruvanramalay, is dedicated to Shiva as Fire. Kanchipuram, not far from Chennai, is for Shiva as Earth.
The driver stayed with us and took us around. This was good in that it meant we didn’t accidentally walk in a wrong area or the wrong way, but bad in that he whisked us around so fast we could barely take anything in. He’d been there maybe thirty times before, he said. He didn’t have enough English to explain things so we didn’t know what we were looking at.
We were called over by two monks who gave us a blessing and asked us to write our names in the visitors book, then asked us for money. We gave money, we would have done anyway, for our visit. The monks blessed only us, and asked only us to write our names, even though our driver was the only one who was a Hindu, which I felt a bit uncomfortable with.
The temple was made of several buildings, each one incredible to look at, and beautifully coloured. I could stand and look at one area for hours and still not take it in; sensory overload, again.
We came outside and sat in the shade on the stone floor of the grounds. I went for a little walk across the courtyard by myself. People and cows were asleep under the cool stone walkways. I stood and soaked up the sight of blue sky above a row of gold minarets, and below, a beautiful white cow statue. Those two sights alone filled me to the brim with beauty.
The evening before the temple trip an important political figure died in a Chennai hospital, he was a much loved ex Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. In India each state has its own political parties and Chief Minister. We had been out for a very late lunch/early tea, we’d eaten light as we’d intended to eat again later. On our way back we saw that the street was almost dark and the metal shutters of shops and restaurants were half closed or closed. We thought at first there was a power cut. In Chennai the power had been scheduled to be off from nine am to five pm for maintenance.
We got back to the guesthouse, several men were gathered in the lobby. The guesthouse staff explained what had happened and advised us to go out and buy bread, as there would be nothing open that evening or the next day. We went back out and joined many others in a shopping rush. The restaurants were already closed, but from street stalls and shops we bought nuts, biscuits, crisps, bananas and water. Within an hour everything had closed.
Literally overnight there appeared framed photographs on tables, with flower garlands and coconut shells, like little shrines. Huge billboard posters of the Minister’s face and shoulders, some with huge real flower garlands hung around his neck. A level of adoration UK politicians could only dream of.
In the morning we checked out of the guesthouse as planned, intending to go to the temple and then get our bus back to Chennai. We got a message confirming that the temple trip was still going ahead, but in the car on the way to the temple we got a message saying that the bus to Chennai had been cancelled as part of the closures. We asked the driver if he’d take us to Chennai, he said it was too dangerous, that later would be better. His manager said he could arrange for us to be taken back by another driver later on, but we’d still have a few hours to kill in Pondicherry.
When we got back to Pondicherry we met some Westerners that were trying to get back to Chennai, they decided to get a rickshaw to a halfway point and stay there the night, they said that people had thrown stones at taxis in Chennai (for being disrespectful by working). We didn’t want to stay in Pondicherry, which we hadn’t liked much for a fifth night and were eager to get back to Chennai, which we loved. Everything was closed, there was nowhere even to go to the loo. We asked the guesthouse if we could rent a room for just a couple of hours but they said they would charge a whole day. We weren’t prepared to do that, the room wasn’t very nice and it had been at the top end of our budget anyway.
We sat on a big concrete step at the side of the road around the corner from the guesthouse, with our bags of snacks and our backpacks and wondered what to do. Just then a taxi pulled up on the opposite side of the road. We asked the driver if he’d take us to Chennai. We told him what we had heard and asked him if it were safe. He asked us which area we were going to, he called a guesthouse in that area and then said yes, it was okay to go.
*usually comes from big bottles like gym water bottles, or is carefully boiled tap water. But if it isn’t a regular place you visit you don’t always know if it is okay for you.
Next up, Chennai Part Four, then Thailand.
Koh Phangan, Thailand. We moved from Haad Rin, party bit, North to Thong Sala which is more of a proper town and our place is right on the beach and very quiet. Tomorrow we move further North to the yoga and vegan area. About a week later I will travel to Bangkok and then to Tokyo. My husband is going to Cambodia, and we are meeting again in Kolkatta, India on 1st October.
In a bar the other night I caught the end of an advert for India. ‘Find the incredible you… Incredible India.’ Amen. See you soon, India.
This week I worked on this piece, everyday except Saturday, day off, and Tuesday, when we went to Koh Samui to extend our visas. I have more to add in from notes and notebook that I didn’t have time to put in this week, that can be added in later for the book. These drafts on the blog are a great way of me testing things out and your feedback is much appreciated!! It shows me what is working well and what needs fuller explanation or description. Dear Indian readers please forgive me if I make mistakes, and feel free to correct me.
Thank you very much for reading
See you next week