A Perspective of Utopia

Auroville: 4 – 9 June 2019

There’s this expectation for Auroville to be a utopia. Maybe it’s self-imposed – Google “Auroville”, and the first sentence you see in the list of results is this:  “Auroville is a universal city in the making in South India, dedicated to the ideal of human unity based on the vision of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.”

Indeed, one of the main pages on Auroville’s website describes a dream, the envisioning of an ideal society (see https://www.auroville.org/contents/197). In 1968, when Auroville was founded, 5000 people from various countries and backgrounds gathered, left behind their old lives, assets and possessions, to pursue this Dream. Back then, Auroville was nothing but a name and a group of people who had similar hopes for a different way to live. The glistening, architectural symbol of Auroville, the Matrimandir, had yet to be built. It was just barren land.

When I think about how this township, just 51 years ago was a desolate landscape without any life, I think they must have got something right. Every tree we passed by and every red dirt road we cycled through was planted and carved out by Auroville’s pioneers. Every sustainable building we visited, every rustic handwritten signpost we looked out for exists because of the collective efforts of people who believed in an idea of a city they could not yet see.

Still, there are aspects of Auroville I can’t comprehend and am, if I’m being honest, quite skeptical of. I admire the seemingly carefree nature of most everyone I met there, and how peaceful everything is. Especially coming from Chennai, the contrast of the quality of life in these two places just a 3-hour car ride apart impressed upon me (actually, just cycling outside the immediate, invisible boundaries of Auroville and into a local village nearby had that same effect).

Despite all its ‘utopian’ aspects, the abstract, spiritual concepts that drive much of the Aurovillian vision lie beyond the periphery of my perception, and its incomprehensible bits tint my overall view of the township. The bookstore at the Visitors’ Centre there display volumes upon volumes of the works of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother that address topics from education to economy. The shelves also feature many thin, A5-sized books that, quite frankly, resemble cult manifestos. Integral Yoga, a yoga developed by Sri Aurobindo, is literally integral in every Aurovillian’s life – it is what education as envisioned by the Mother is centred on. There’s one thing all of these written works point to: the importance of attaining Divine Consciousness. As open-minded as I try to be, the more I tried to understand what the Divine Consciousness is, the more I came across materials that only heightened my skepticism for it.

This is one of the passages I came across:

“Both Sri Aurobindo and The Mother worked all their lives for the manifestation of a mode of consciousness beyond mind, which Sri Aurobindo named “Supermind” or “The Supramental”. The full expression of this consciousness on earth would result not only in a new species, as far beyond the human, as human race is beyond the animals, but also in a modification of the whole terrestrial creation, even more complete than the change brought about by the entrance on the world scene of the human race.” (https://www.auroville.org/contents/533)

The hard-to-grasp spirituality of Auroville aside though, it is a community that’s united despite the fact that its citizens come from 49 different nations across all social classes. It is a place that feels free, peaceful, and is where I really did feel like money isn’t the “supreme lord”. When we interviewed Raja, an Aurovillian who worked at our guesthouse, I had hoped he would shed some light on how maybe Divine Consciousness was what made Auroville succeed in its attempt at creating this new way of life.

Raja’s story is incredible. He wasn’t born Aurovillian, but went to school there. He grew up in the local village near Auroville, and told us he never even knew about birth certificates until he had gotten a scholarship at a dance school in Mumbai – he doesn’t really know how old he is, or when his birthday is either. He told us his story in an animated voice, and weaved it with jokes like a natural comedian. Many of the things he experienced – being homeless and sleeping at a bus stop in Mumbai for example – I imagine were the opposite of pleasant or easy, but he had a sense of humour and recalled those memories with much laughter. He repeated several times, “We’re so lucky to have a place like Auroville.”

Auroville sponsored his education, and welcomed him into the community. After his own home by the ocean was destroyed by a tsunami, Auroville had a home for him. It was a simple hut, and nothing much, but Raja thought it was perfect. I clench up when he said he would find snakes, large ants and other pests inside his house, but he preferred a structure like this. “The house can breathe, no?” he would say. In comparison to the concrete apartment with air-conditioning his classmates in Mumbai rented for him, he, unlike most of us, found more joy living in a ‘breathable house’ that went along with nature. (He still lives in that house!)

He never directly talked about Divine Consciousness, but there was inherent in him a unique spirituality – he is a Healer. He never went to medical school because it was too expensive, but being a doctor was an ambition of his. Somewhere along the way, he discovered he could tell exactly which parts of the body were in ail, and with yoga and a healing massage he could heal people. At this point I become skeptical again, but I think of all he has said, and the incredible optimism he has for life.

I ask myself, maybe utopia is just all about perspective? Auroville certainly seems like Raja’s utopia, and even if I can’t see it being mine, it doesn’t change that it is his.

Maybe utopia isn’t something you can see, but exists in an idea you just have to believe in.

-Chelsea

14th July 2019: First Day in Мөрөн

Before posting all my reflections, here is:

How to take a hot shower when there is only cold water?

You sprinkle yourself thoroughly with the cold water dripping from the shower head, until your body temperature falls below the water’s temperature. Then the water is warm enough for the rest of the shower.

******

Don’t get me wrong, I am super grateful that there is warm water shower at my guesthouse in the first place. It just so happened that it was so chilling when I took the shower. It was drizzling, and my body had yet to adjust to the 10+ Celcius weather. I asked the Taiwanese fellow Workawayer to braid my hair (into the Katniss style yeah!) so that for the next two weeks I don’t need to shower again. Unlike in UB, I feel really fine not showering here.

I like to be reminded that every hot shower is a luxury.

On the road

I realized that out of the past 2 weeks of travelling I have spent 5 days on the road. Below is a very rough draft of what I have seen and thought of during these long hours of commuting. Also this is my first post, and I haven’t written anything legible in a while since school ended hhhhh. So please pardon the very very rubbish language – I tried my best but it was like writing my common app application essays: the more I read it, the stronger my urge to delete it all and start from scratch, yet to come up with something even lousier. There is just no way around a catastrophic first post. I’ll gradually pick up my flair though, don’t worry. And I will insert very suitable pictures for all my posts;)

There were long, square-angled natural channels that I mistook for artificial ditches right next to the road. The walls were nearly vertical.

I wonder when they will fill up, whether there are fishes ambitious enough to swim across the country. And if I fold all my secrets into an origami boat, will it sail to Мөрөн before I do?

I wonder whether these steppes are also home to the wildflowers I saw in Тэрэлж, eaten up by all the sheep and goats and cows and horses each spring before they could blossom, or there have never grown any in these vast swathes somehow.

I wonder what it was like to be a wolf with night vision, race against the wind and howl at the moon at night.

When I was still in SG, I wrote somewhere how I was looking forward to seeing an actual horizon unobstructed by buildings. The reality is that Mongolia isn’t a plain at all. There have been only valleys so far. But now that it is completely dark except for the dim moonlight, right outside the window is a ‘horizon’. Slightly higher than any actual horizon, it could have been a ridge of mountains in the distance, or a hill right next to us. The line isn’t smooth, but long enough that I cannot tell where the mountains or the hill meets the actual horizon.

******

The bus driver had lifted open the ceiling window at the first stop point. Initially it made the bus even warmer. By the second stop point, the air outside was cool enough that there was no need for aircon at all. Half past 11pm however, the temperature started to plummet. We were sitting close to the ceiling window, and the wind mixed with drizzle smashed my face, chest and legs through the single layer of windbreaker. Too shy and tired to ask the driver to close the window, or borrow an extra jacket from 大姐 (out of all time, seriously), I held up the heavy backpack in my lap to block the wind and crouched forward so that my back braved the wind. It was probably the most awkaward posture I had ever been in.

******

I was waken up at odd times throughout the night, first by the chill, then a few times by the blinding ceiling lights whenever the bus stopped, and finally waken up for the day by the TV blasting skits that very much resembled Chinese 小品 sometime past 6am. I wondered if anyone on the bus would want to watch skits at 6am. Anyways, I was near. Somehow the same river that flew down from Тэрэлж still meandered not far from us. This was one hell of a hardworking river. Narrow, shallow (the pools were practically two-dimensioned) and completely dried up at places, it was nevertheless a lifeline that connected the heartlands before roads did. I was not comfortable with calling it a river at first. But it really was, dying off and coming back to life over and over again.

******

Q: What is the leading accidental cause of accidental death among dogs in Mongolia?

A: From holding their pee for too long.

Written in Мөрөн, 14th July 2019.

Illness and Delusion

During our last day in Amritsar, all of us fell violently ill. Below is an excerpt of what I typed into the notes of my phone. It details the severity of our situation throughout that night.

And who knew that crisis would strike at 3am. In a stroke of instinct, I arise from the bed, shivering from the vestiges of a fever. I feel warm blood start to return to my extremities, whereas the past three hours have been torturously cold, even under a quilt. In my five times in India, I have never once had food poisoning. But tonight was a test of mettle for all of us.

I find Chelsea curled up on the sofa area, complaining of numbness and cold. My fever had struck earlier in the night, and this was Chelsea’s turn. Draping a blanket over her, I tell her to think of her loved ones hugging her to warm her up. Tonight, I hid my panic to make sure that no further alarms were triggered. The situation, as I was aware, was tense, and Joy was the only one amongst us free from this ordeal.

However, waking up to each movement, sniffle, panic, and shiver is hardly comforting. And as I could sense it, Joy too, was already being stretched — trying to care for two sick adults is hardly a task for someone untrained and sleep deprived.

I type this note, just as I finish updating Annette. It’s 5.30am in Singapore. In my hasty texts I type:

“Hi Annette, myself and Chels are running a fever currently. We suspect it might be good poisoning. We’re monitoring our situation with Joy.

This is the most I can do now, and I’m staying awake to fight the stomach cramps that be. There is a burst of warmth with each sentence I type. And so I keep writing, until my stomach calls for the restroom again.

25th June 2019

Thirty-Eight More Kilometres

Today I begin the last thirty-eight kilometres of my walk. Thirty-eight! Just three more short days of nineteen, fifteen and five kilometres each (I never thought I would say that walking nineteen kilometres is short), and I’ll be at Santiago de Compostela: the cathedral holding the remains of St James, the Apostle. The past week, realising that the end was near, made me think about the results of this pilgrimage. What I’ve gained, what concrete, specific thing I can say that I’ve learned. How I’ve changed or gained a new perspective.

This question of results is something that has been frustrating me. I was running into a wall the past few days, wondering: “What have I learned? What impact does this have on my life?” I had expectations before the trip of some sort of big change or revelation that I can’t see right now, maybe when I get home and see a change. In the end, I realised it was getting me nowhere, and what made me stop asking this question was a 3.5 hour ascent over 10km, one of the more difficult sections of the Camino. I realised along the way that I had gotten much stronger over the past few weeks (for example, before this trip, I could barely climb Bukit Timah Hill without stopping every 30 seconds for a break). Walking 24km a day for twenty-something days gradually built up my mental and physical strength, making the climb a lot easier than I thought it would be. And it wasn’t until I reached a very challenging obstacle that I realised how much I’d changed.

So I stopped questioning why I came on this pilgrimage and instead just focused on walking. As difficult as it was to tell my mind to stop processing and questioning impatiently, I slowed it down and just enjoyed as much as I could. Slowly, clarity came to me on a lot of the questions I had been asking once I put them out of my head.

Other pilgrims sometimes had clearer answers to my questions. It was easier to see it in them – many people I talked to told me how they came to the Camino to find space to think, a deeper understanding of themselves, or healing from some past emotional trauma. I realised that the Camino provided distance, respite, and simplicity that was sometimes unavailable in our regular lives. This was a common thread of desire for peace wove through many of my conversations: peace that did not necessarily come from conventional, slightly more stable sources. Much of what we were looking for came from the journey itself; after all, if we just wanted to reach cathedral in Santiago, a train would take less than a day to arrive there. But people sweat and ache and hobble through 800km to Santiago, so the journey must be inherently valuable, somehow.

It made me wonder why this pilgrimage had this effect (or perceived effect) of instilling peace. Part of the reason, I think, is the freedom to appreciate the pilgrimage that comes with being directed on the path. It’s simple enough: we follow the clamshells to Santiago, and just enjoy the journey. Constantly walking – whether in farmland, forests, mountains, cities, or industrial parks – has introduced me to all these places very slowly, at my (very slow) walking human pace. One step at a time, I’ve experienced the full, blasting smell of millions of orchids, the unrelenting rain slowly soaking my backpack, the sun creeping over the earth in its heat, the crunching of soil and rock under my shoes, cities gradually build from residential areas to historical city centres, each valley and peak of the hills felt and smelled and seen by me as I climb through the forest. This intimacy with the environment and becoming acquainted with it at a very natural, human pace is an experience completely unlike watching the world flash by, outside a car or train window. As summarised very nicely by a fellow pilgrim, “Walking and thinking is such a human thing to do. Why do people think that doing the Camino is so strange?”

Walking doesn’t just bring me closer to my surroundings. It teaches me how to be by myself, with myself. I’ve spent most of the Camino completely alone, not talking to anybody, just walking and observing. Spending this much time alone gave me the rare opportunity to know my limits, my strengths, my weaknesses and my ability to grow without much outside influence. I realised that alone, I could hear myself, think better, begin to be more reflective and grew less afraid of what genuinely made me, me. Being removed from outside sources of comfort and familiarity, pushed me into exploring more deeply who I was without things I had previously attached to my identity.

The Camino also brought be closer to other pilgrims. As I wrote about previously, it strips us to the plain and simple people we are. From janitors to lawyers to retirees to high schoolers, the Camino (cheesily enough) bring us all together. It breaks down many existing walls, scrapes out our differences, and dumps us unceremoniously in 40-bed dorm rooms. While this also brings an oftentimes uncomfortable level of shamelessness, I’ve made friends while scrubbing clothes, found reassurance in stairwells while stumbling through Spanish phrases, and been ambushed in a lift by large groups of Spanish high schoolers asking where I began the Camino. Getting to know people here is such a natural and genuine process that comes about through the act of walking and travelling together, freed from the normal barriers we put between ourselves. Human-ness is brought out during the Camino, boiled down to its most simple and essential level. We walk, we think, and we do it together. It humbles me to the barest version of myself, and I pray that the last thirty-eight kilometers will continue to teach me this simplicity and bring me peace.

Period. The End of a Sentence, and also a Human Experience. 

Periods and menstruation might strike most as a rather odd topic to write about. This is especially so because I am male, and therefore do not suffer from the worse of its effects — bleeding, painful cramps, and the like. I am thus not very well appraised of its first-hand effects. However, the travel fellowship has made me much more aware than about how periods and menstruation play into the daily lives of friends, and about he communities and societies that they inhabit. Indeed, much of this post was inspired by the experiences I’ve had while travelling with two ladies, both of whom were unabashed with regaling me with tales of their hardships. It is also inspired by the brilliant work we witnessed at EcoFemme — an NGO that not only produces and sells reusable sanitary pads to rural communities, but also addresses the stigma many of these women face in the face of traditional Indian society.

As perhaps hinted at before, travelling as a solo male is a prized convenience. I do not suffer from menstrual cramps as I try to walk kilometres on the streets, nor do I have to put up with bleeding as I navigate incredibly bumpy bike rides toward my accommodation. Each of my friends had suffered to an extent — longer or shorter, depending on the duration of their periods. These were real challenges that I neglected, before this trip, to think about. Yet, there was nothing much I could do to relieve their pain. Theirs was a private experience that I had no primary epistemic access to. I merely sympathised by continuing to chow down scoop after scoop of ice-cream, offering them a cup of tea or coffee, or perhaps the random hot towel ever awhile.

Missed scoops of ice-cream, or the pain of riding over pothole-ridden roads are hardly comparable to the stigma and discrimination that many rural Indian villagers face however. I write this after getting off a Skype call with my friend in Kerala, India. She complains about how she was unfairly chided by several village elders for going to the temple today — all because she was having her period. She goes on to tell me about the rather conservative, and even, misguided notion that periods are supposedly “dirty” and considered an illness by many of her village elders. Fortunately for her, she has a caring husband and mother-in-law who are not tolerant of such outdated notions. I recall their wedding rather fondly, about the time when she completed her polytechnic education.

However, her experience is a rarity. As the EcoFemme representative shares, periods are still hardly understood by many women in rural communities in India. Thus, many of their initiatives as an NGO revolve around volunteers travelling to such villages to educate the women about their bodies. These initiatives have a profound effect. Firstly, the women understand that menstruation is a perfectly natural phenomenon that is nothing to be ashamed of. Secondly, they are better able to manage their periods. My friend shares stories of women who stopped going to school because their clothes would keep getting soaked. Having a sanitary pad would alleviate many of these issues, and help them continue with their education. The EcoFemme representative also shares how many of these women live around large communities of men, and were constantly shamed for having their periods. They would have to leave the village to simply find a private spot to change before returning. And this would happen multiple times a day. This both baffled, and shocked me.

Fortunately, EcoFemme has an army of volunteers from various states around India who constantly do such outreach programmes. These are trained volunteers of course. They only have to come down to Auroville or Pondicherry to attend a short two-day course. They are then dispatched to the villages to educate the women.

Aside from education, EcoFemme’s initiative also revolves around the production and distribution of reusable sanitary pads. Each of them is stuffed with layers of cotton. This helps women in rural communities better manage their period, but also cuts on the large amount of waste that would be generated if disposable sanitary pads were issued. Logistics also become a lot easier when one merely has to wash, rather than continuously buy sanitary pads where they are scarcely available. Even if they were, they might serve as being too prohibitively expensive for the allowances that they are given.

I thought that their most remarkable innovation was in the red, foldable style pads, designed to look surreptitious on a clothing line so as not to bring them embarrassment when they hung them to dry. I thought that this was an ingenious blend of industrial design combined with cultural norms and sensitivities.

EcoFemme is only one of the many NGOs that operate out of Auroville. I decided to write about EcoFemme because of their amazing work, but also because I realise how relevant many of these experiences are for friends that I know and love. My hope is that, even in Singapore, that talking about something as natural as one’s period ceases to be a stigma. Rather, it should be discussed in the same comfort as one would discuss a visit to the restroom — for periods are just natural bodily functions.

Of the Solo Traveller

I write this note in the immediacy of the events that have bright me tremendous stress in New Delhi. However, because I do not want to drag a downtrodden morale further, I suspect that I might post this much later when the fellowship has come to a close.

I’m somewhat of a vicarious traveller. Most times, I jet off on a whim to far out places alone, content with a tin roof above my head and a little shrub to do my business in. In the imagination of most people, this is an unbearable condition to live in whilst overseas. Yet, this is the small modicum of comfort I expect when I travel. It has served me well.

Perhaps then, I least expected the capital, the city of New Delhi, to be the source of many of our problems during this Fellowship. Over the past two days in Auroville, I had witnessed Chelsea and Joy’s faces dip into a sort of saddened state. Perhaps, they were in physical pain, or were facing troubles of their own, or that they were perhaps already homesick. These were not things I had expected or anticipated. It would seem encouraging them to share and communicate their discomfort did not help too, for the two ladies were more content to be silent out of fear of imposition.

And so when we had reached our accommodation at New Delhi, physical and mental conditions had beset both Chelsea and Joy with so much discomfort that when the air-conditioning had broken down in the sweltering 42°c night, their spirits just went into free-fall.

I hadn’t had much of a problem with the heat, for I was already about to fall asleep. Things were much more dire in the other partition of the room however, for the low morale was now exacerbated by pitch darkness and stuffy heat. At this point, even I was a little disheartened at hearing their sighs. The power had only come back on after 15 minutes, only to go off again in another 15. Seeing their resignation at the whole situation, I suspected that perhaps, a stay at a proper hotel would be perhaps best for everyone. After all, the three nights in Delhi were meant to be buffer days for us to rest before the second half of the fellowship in Chandigarh.

We still spent the night however in that Airbnb however. It was the next morning that we decided to leave the early and head toward a swanky airport hotel. Even so, it’s often rude to tell a host that their place has been less than welcoming in India. I was prepared to tell a white lie for the host was indeed quite sweet and helpful in his services thus far, but Joy was against the idea of telling lies at all. I admit I was rather conflicted by this. I was incredibly used to telling white lies to get myself out of situations where cultural needs necessitated them. In some cultures, this was even perhaps the norm. 

I realise that I might sound quite pompous and arrogant at this point: “oh how dare you accuse the two ladies of expecting more”. I assure you that these are misconceptions. For when we reached the hotel, I felt incredibly bad that I had not anticipated the sensitivities of my two travel partners.

Indeed, as a solo traveller, I am usually so wrapped up in my own expectations and minimal needs of travel and make-do. However, I realise now, travelling with two ladies whose experiences, and thus needs, are different, must and should be taken into account. Such has made me much more aware of the privilege I carry as a (single) male traveller (infer what you wish of that).

Sometimes, when even riding a bike can be a discomfort for others, one learns that simple things such as hot towels and frequent rests go a long way. One should of course, do much better to communicate these concerns with their trip partners in a timely fashion.

Final thoughts…

21 days, 25 remarkable women 🙆‍♀️

Immensely grateful to have spent the last 3 weeks in Tokyo embarking on a travel project to learn about the lives of working Japanese women, with a special focus on women entrepreneurs! 😊😊😊

The places of interest were the working spaces of women from various backgrounds. The admission tickets were the generosity and kindness of these women who welcomed a curious traveller amidst mounting emails and endless to-do lists. The top attractions were to spend an hour or two listening to these women earnestly share about their beginnings, their struggles and their aspirations. And the souvenirs were their experiences that I’ve documented which will form the material of a short story I will write and hopefully, share with you soon.

In all solo travels, moments of solitude are inevitable but I’m thankful for these pockets of time to reflect more deeply upon the nuggets of experience shared. In that process, here are three thoughts that have lingered…

1. In the city of flashing lights and pulsating crowds, it was so easy to be swept up in it and apply that same rhythm to the interviews I conducted – test the hypothesis, note the parts that don’t fit and draw a conclusion. But I soon realised that in my haste to sieve out the dominant narrative across individuals, I had overlooked the multi-stranded narratives present in each individual. Instead of going into interviews with a notebook filled with methodical questions, I had to grow accustomed to working with blank spaces. Listening to understand and not to reply. Writing to chronicle and not to justify. Getting to know these women as individuals and not through labels.

2. The perennial chicken or egg problem – which comes first: success or happiness? When asked to rank how successful they think they are at present, most women gave themselves an above-average rating. For many, their success ranking followed an upward trend over the years. However, even at their lowest point, they had already experienced the happiness of discovering what they loved and what they could devote their future to. As Narumi Onishi, woman entrepreneur, quipped, “Entreprenuership is about doing something you love and pursuits fuelled by love and happiness, have their own special way of working out.” Perhaps happiness is less of a destination and more of a starting point.

3. As one fond of sentimentality, the goodbyes were the hardest. One moment we had made ourselves vulnerable to each other and the next moment, both of us were whisked onto the bustling streets not knowing if we would ever see each other again. Physically apart, however, I feel that we are now connected by our shared dreams. In dreams begin responsibility and in shared dreams, we experience camaraderie and uplift each other to do more for our communities. I used to think that we all had to grow our own trees but as Akiko Otsuki, a fighter of women’s rights for over 50 years, illuminated, “we are all part of one tree and our duty is to extend its foliage to provide shade and protection to help others thrive”.

This travel project was sustained by the warmth and kindness of many.🙂☘️ From high school friends, colleagues, acquaintances and even names they have only heard off, these people tirelessly delved into contact books and generously shared their networks.

This trip has left me touched and transformed and I hope to pass on the universal wisdom and kindness that was generously shared with me. I guess this is why they say that the best trips, never really end.✌🏻🙂