Being Hours Away

It’s a strange feeling to now be hours away from the flight that would take us to places I’ve only read about over the past few months.

What I see when I think of Auroville is the official .org website that contains information on virtually everything, from its history to how visitors will need Aurocards and can only get one if they stay in an Aurovillian guesthouse. Then my mind shifts to the Matrimandir in all its grandeur, the centre of Auroville and its spiritual temple, reflecting the sunlight in its golden facade. From pictures, the rest of the township looks like a myriad of red mud roads, Glenn Murcutt-esque “touch the earth lightly” eco-structures and dense greenery. These spread out in a circle around the Matrimandir.

Contrastingly, Chandigarh exists in my mind as a series of near perfect rectangles, all so regularly and thoughtfully laid out, filled with austere concrete buildings permeated by bursts of bright paint or brick. Google satellite images of the City Beautiful are very satisfying to look at – it almost looks like the structural column grids I used to draw in architecture school.

Then, I think of the possibly overwhelming atmosphere of roads bustling with traffic (and street food), full of colour, when I think of New Delhi.

At this moment, I feel like I know these places, and yet I don’t.

Today I’ve been advised on the many things I should be aware of in India. My aunt, someone who has lived there for over a decade, told me about how you can’t enter airports without printed flight itineraries, and how the white chalk marks that may appear on your luggage indicate that security might want to open your bags. Someone also said to wear sunglasses and that I must try the samosas. Another two of my aunts met me to give me chrysanthemum flowers hand-packed into teabags for me and also spontaneously bought me a mini-fan.

All their kind concern filled me with some dread, but also questions about what being in the cities we’re headed to will truly be like. Will Auroville feel like a small town where everyone knows everyone? Would the heat really be that unbearable, and would Chandigarh actually be a lively, welcoming place because of her people, despite her brutalist architecture?

Right now it’s much like I’m only seeing buildings from a distance – I see the form and can generally identify its materiality. I can guess at its interior layout, but not really. I can see the grey, unfinished concrete walls, but I’m not yet close enough to see the blemishes and darker streaks of water stains that show age.

I’m not going to pretend I’m not the least bit filled with trepidation (yes, Delhi belly is a thing to worry about, among other things), but I’m also excited about getting close – walking on streets, meeting people and being immersed in soundscapes. And that’s what I think this travel fellowship is to me, experiencing the diverse atmospheres we’ll encounter: the phenomenology of a place.

A few more hours to go.