In my first blog post I promised to tell you about my experience riding an elephant. While Doreen and Gaby have already talked about our experiences in Thekkady, I’ll throw in my thoughts before telling you about our trip to Pondicherry.
Firstly, I’m warning all future travelers to India, this country is huge. It seems like an obvious statement when you stare at a map, but after taking weekend trips, we have a different understanding of the size of this country. A Dutch girl Nienke that we became friends with informed us that the state of Tamil Nadu is four times bigger than the Netherlands. The scale of India in terms of geography and population is much greater than I am used to thinking.
After almost four hours of travel, we’ve moved femtometers on the map, but we’ve reached the state of Kerala. Everything is tropical and green and gorgeous.
What can I tell you about elephants? They don’t smell as bad as I thought they would. They’re hairy!! (Am I the only one who didn’t realize this?) Their tongues feel like nothing else I’ve touched before. They have personalities. They like backrubs just like humans (and many other members of the Kingdom Animalia). And in India, they are considered to be a lucky animal.
The Hindu god Ganesha known as the Destroyer of Obstacles has the head of an elephant, and from this stems the idea that elephants are lucky. Each temple will have its own temple elephant which will bless you (for a small fee of course!). Doreen got blessed by the elephant at the MeenakshiTemple in Madurai. After taking a bath with the elephants in Thekkady, I think I have had enough elephant blessings to last me a lifetime.
Pondicherry appeared on my radar after watching “Life of Pi,” as it is the birthplace of the main character. Pondicherry is a corner of India that strongly retains its French colonial influence. The French East India Company set up a trading center in Pondicherry in 1674. Pondicherry remained a territory of France for some time after the rest of India became independent, but the territory soon became united with the whole country. The French influence lingers on in the architecture, the language, the food, and the French tourists. Having taken a class on the relationship between France and its colonies in South America, it was interesting to visit a French colony in Asia (especially one that I wasn’t aware of before!). It was fun to utilize my French language skills with some of the locals. Who knew? If you’re in India, you might be speaking French!
One of the most interesting parts of our trip to Pondicherry was the visit to Auroville. This visit helped us further understand the spiritual dimension of the work at Aravind. At Aravind Eye Hospital, pictures of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo are prevalent. These two figures served as spiritual mentors for Dr. V. In fact, Aravind is named after Sri Aurobindo (Aravind is the South Indian variation of Aurobindo). Every morning Dr. V would start his day by reading from the Savitri, an epic poem in the tradition of the Mahabharata written by Sri Aurobindo. The Aurobindo Ashram is located within Pondicherry and many come to spend time at this place of spiritual retreat. Mirra Alfassa, a Parisian of Egyptian-Turkish descent, became Sri Aurobindo’s spiritual collaborator, and he gave her the name of “The Mother.” In 1968, many of her ideas were put into practice in the creation of Auroville. Auroville is an international township “where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.” “Auroville belongs to humanity as a whole. Auroville will be the place of an unending education, of constant progress, and a youth that never ages. Auroville will be a site of material and spiritual researches for a living embodiment of an actual Human Unity.”
Idealistic? Utopic? If I hadn’t spent time at Aravind, I would have thought these ideas would be impossible to implement in reality; however, I have seen these principles in the workings of the hospital. At Aravind, I have met people from India, Mexico, Guatemala, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa, Germany, and Britain. National identities are blurred in the face of something more important. All these people are striving for the same goal – to alleviate the suffering of others. They are dedicated to improving themselves as doctors, as eye camp coordinators, as humans to be more skilled, more knowledgeable, and more compassionate. Always learning, growing, and improving. Aravind itself strives to improve, always seeking to deliver better care to more people. It’s daunting to know the work is never over, but it’s exciting to imagine all the possibilities of the future.