By the time we reached Pondicherry, we figured we had our system down. We’d drive into town and ask at the police station where it would be safe to camp. With all of the recent high profile rape cases here in India, this was no place to mess around. I’m squeamish, after all, and my worst nightmares revolve around me dropping soap in prison showers.
But camping could wait. Our Lonely Planet guidebook says that Pondicherry is “a little pocket of France in Tamil Nadu.” Oh? Upon entering town we expected to see a parade of dapperly dressed androgynous artists carrying baguettes on their antique bicycles, but the truth fell short of the high bar set by our frog-eating friends of Gaul. I hadn’t recalled Paris having been quite as loud, so full of street cows, or having sidewalks so well decorated by discarded garbage. We wound our way into the city center, made different from the rest of the city by two streets having pastel-colored buildings—what Lonely Planet must have been stretching to call “a little pocket of France.”
But I digress. We wanted two things: a safe place to sleep, and some French food as promised by the Lonely Planet. We found a restaurant with a Frenchy name, and then conducted a culinary experiment whose result unambiguously concluded that, regardless of the pastelliness of the building’s paint, you will produce the best ratatouille if A) you’re a loveable cartoon rat, or B) you have generations of finely aged, hickory smoked camembert coursing through your veins, and at least 30% of the letters comprising your name are silent.
As we sipped our après food lemon soda, God decided to spontaneously punish some group of sinners somewhere by flooding Pondicherry. The rain came down just as described in that biblical story about the flood, and before anyone could even begin to think about saving any animals, the city was under water. Didn’t stop me though—I was on a mission to avoid a rapey camping experience, and went out with my umbrella to find the police station on foot while Sheena read her coming of age princess novella in the van.
I scoured the city amid the shin-deep sewer, being passed from one police station to the next. As it turns out, the police of Pondicherry become quite busy with traffic issues when the city spontaneously floods, and the needs of worried American car-sleepers are shunned. Eventually I was directed to the main police station, and over an hour after my walk began, I emerged prune-legged and successful. Our camp would be within the cramped and flooded courtyard of the downtown Pondicherry police station. I returned to the van, finding it under water, and told Sheena the great news.
As the rains continued to fall and Pondicherry sunk deeper under water and toward a state of emergency, we did what any sane person would do. We sought out the deepest waters and watched cars try to pass through. And just as we arrived, who else should we miraculously run into but our German friend Tatjana from the Chennai hotel along with a protective male chaperone! We caught up for old times’ sake, reminiscing about the last few days since we’d last seen each other while standing knee-deep in the street’s gray water.
After Tatjana left, we watched with carnage-hungry eyes as cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, and bicycles attempted to ford the dangerous standing water. From my younger years spent playing Oregon Trail, I knew that this could be very dangerous. We lost a lot of good Zekes fording rivers back then. And if fording the river didn’t get them, you could bet that cholera was waiting just around the bend.
At just about the point that we were ready to call it a day and retreat to our police compound for the night, we noticed two wide-eyed idealistic western hippie types approaching on their underpowered scooter. This should be good, we thought, and waited in anticipation. To our dismay they stayed upright, but just as they reached the deepest part, their little one cylinder engine aspirated some water and died. They pulled it to higher ground where they were met by hoards of well-meaning Indian men, who also happened to be clueless about motorcycle mechanics.
Indian man after Indian man grabbed the bike, twisted the throttle, and kicked the engine until fatigue got the better of them. After a while it was determined that the bike would never run again, and the idealistic-looking westerners seemed hopeless. At this, I walked over and told the couple that their bike had aspirated some water, and that they’d have to dry out the cylinder before it would start. This produced blank stares, so we walked the bike over to Nacho where I removed the spark plug and cranked a small typhoon out of the cylinder, and then set it to drying out.
While we waited, it became dark. And when it became dark, our new friends became worried. They talked in whispers and the outlook seemed bad. They didn’t trust the bike and didn’t want to ride it so far at night, what with the prowlers and all. Sheena and I looked at each other for a split second and just as fast came to the collective conclusion that wherever they were going was better than the flooded police compound.
“Look,” I said, “we’ll take you home. You can come back tomorrow to pick up your bike.” At this they became stoked and loaded into Nacho.
“All right amigos, where are we going this evening?” I asked.
“To Auroville,” Ivy said. Ivy was an American from California who had decided to move to India to live on a commune, and had ended up in Auroville, where she met Alex of Latvia, and they had become the best of friends before their ill-fated scooter ride into the City.
“I have no idea where that is,” I said.
“It’s like, north. Or maybe east.”
“Oh, I assure you it isn’t east, as we’re on the east coast. Do you know how far? Or what road?”
“It’s on the road that goes north, I think,” Ivy instructed.
To summarize, we drove for a long time through the city, a trip that didn’t seem familiar to either Alex or Ivy. Later we ended up on a northern highway, after which we turned west for a prolonged sojourn through the woods on a back road, which later placed us on a southern highway. A while later we were on a steadily diminishing dirt road, now made muddy by the biblical rain, and finally we arrived at Sadhana Forest, a sort of hippie commune on the fringe of another hippie commune, whose goal was to reforest Tamil Nadu’s desertified plains using idealistic western volunteer power or some such.
We parked in the pitch blackness outside of the community, and walked through the dense foliage into what was turning into a very strange evening indeed. We entered an enormous circular bamboo hut where a couple dozen people sat around on mats. When we entered, Ivy called everyone’s attention and introduced us.
“Excuse me, everybody, I have an announcement.” And then it was silent. “This is Brad and Sheena. They saved us today in Pondy.”
“Hi Brad and Sheena,” said the collective voice.
We sat on the floor and chatted with Alex and Ivy, and then with a family from the Netherlands. Next it was a man from Spain, and then a Swedish couple. Everyone had come here to get away from their boring lives for a while. Accountants, grocery clerks, students, psychiatrists. Some had been here three months, some for ten years. A small collection of children played on a rope swing in the center of the hut. A man plucked a guitar, people were engrossed in conversation. An African-looking girl very slightly too old to be running around naked ran around naked. Everyone seemed pretty carefree.
Someone stood up and announced that it was mealtime, and a few people walked around handing out plates filled with food made from the crops that they had grown. Before we ate, a small boy stood up and rang a bell, and then said some kind of chant, followed by a moment of silence—by now it was all becoming a blur—and we all ate. Someone else came around and picked up the plates.
Everyone had a job here, and they were on rotation. Some cooked, while others watched the kids in the garden during the day. Some planted trees, while others dug holes around the expansive property. One girl enthusiastically told us she was on alarm duty—this meant that in the early morning it was her job to walk from hut to hut singing songs to people in order to wake them up; a human alarm clock. Each morning and night they sat in a circle and ate communal meals. In the evenings they sat in circles and took turns singing songs to each other, or telling stories for entertainment. There was no electricity except in the main dining hut, and they were their own entertainment. They were all vegans.
We would never survive here, we decided. If not for the isolation from society, or the veganism, then because we’re both too embarrassed to sing in public. Behind dreams involving soap dropping, dreams involving public singing are my second worst nightmare.
“Okay everybody, DANCE PARTY!” It was Ivy, and she was ready to kick it. She would be leaving to go back to America in a week’s time, and she wanted to put on one final dance party in the dining hut as a last hurrah. The lights went out and her laptop conducted techno dance tracks to a solar-powered speaker system. And just like that, the whole place was up and dancing, carelessly, dreadlocks flinging around, arms flailing, bodies gyrating. Dancing: my third worst nightmare. I would never survive.
And that sealed it. A day which had started out so typically, which was destined to end so unromantically in a flooded police compound, had turned into this. The beautiful result of a natural disaster combined with a small dose of poor judgment and bravery.