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Late-night moped rides and tango dances in an Indian forest: a travel memoir
I arrived at Chennai airport after midnight to be greeted by The Lord of the Dance himself, poised gracefully in his fiery wheel. And then, for the next two hours, I was driven through a star-dusted night under a nail-clipping moon, a night clotted with heat and whining with mosquitoes, past skittish dogs clustered by the roadside, ears pricked, who would chase our wheels for a few metres with barks of bravado, and past lumbering, slow-hooved bovine processions—down, down, down into the forest, to Auroville.
I woke the next morning to a dense soundscape of cooing, hooting, cawing, grunting, whistling, screeching, squawking and warbling. Stiff-legged little grey birds hopped two-footed across the path in front of me; scarlet and black beetles inched along in couples, back to back; tiger-striped butterflies flitted around and tiny ants crawled under the rim of my spectacles and bit at the salty corners of my eyes. Spindly-legged baby goats trotted along the red clay paths and pallid, spongy-looking geckos suctioned themselves to the wall of my shower. And everywhere there was a riot of flowers: hibiscus trumpets dangling their frondy stamens lasciviously; entire banks of bougainvillea in shocking pink, China white, apricot, lemon and blush; droopy-headed beige and peach lilies, shaped like folded parasols, and hedges of star jasmine, saturating the air with scent. Everywhere, there were ponds, carpeted with lily pads, with spiky-leaved violet water lilies and plump brown carp or with a regiment of double-headed chalk white lotuses standing to attention amid a carpet of lotus leaves—blousy and frilly and a little bedraggled: like petticoated Victorian women after a hard afternoon’s side-saddle riding in a stiff wind.
Like most first-time visitors to Auroville, I fell immediately in love with its tropical abundance. It felt the most unlike Buenos Aires a place can be, the most remote, exotic and unlikely place to find Argentine tango. But that’s what I had come for.
Auroville is spread out into little clusters of hostels and miniature villages. Mine sported the Miltonian name of New Creation and enclosed a group of guest houses and private homes, together with a primary school, full of pigtailed girls in maroon leggings and maroon-and-cream kurtas, sitting cross-legged at classes in yurt-shaped open huts.
To get to the festival’s various classes and dance events, I could either cycle along the dirt track by the side of the main road and through the wooded central complex of theatres, meditation centres and temples—a charming trip by day but blacker than pitch by night and baffling to the non-initiate, since the venues blithely scoffed at Google maps’ attempts to locate them. So instead, on that first night, I had my first ride on the back of a scooter.
The night was freckled with stars. We rode through an avenue of trees whose line of pale trunks looked like grey stitches threading the velvety darkness. On my right, two almost life-size bedecked and betassled terracotta elephants stood guard over a Hindu shrine, the gods’ pastel paintwork faded to monochrome in the moonlight.
The scooter bounced over a few tiny undulations in the dirt and I tried to stay poised: the balls of my feet pressing into the footboards, as I tried to lean forward at the tiniest angle, as if reaching into an embrace. The small points of contact with my friend Alwyn’s body—especially my hand touching his sweat-soaked upper back, more for psychological reassurance than to hold on—were helpful points of reference, like a ballet barre, which is not to be gripped or clutched at, but simply helps you find your bearings and keeps you aligned as your foot slides out into tendu.
Later, out on the dance floor, on the stage of an open-air amphitheatre with the tousled heads of tall palms lining the sky, my hand is again on his back. We're bathed in crimson glow from a footlight, as if the warmth of the South Indian night had been revealed in infrared; as if our skins—his a dusty chocolate and mine clotted cream—had been rendered translucent, so you could view the blood within. The floor is stone and resists my pivots. If I step the slightest bit off centre, I am stuck there, unable to adjust, trying, as on the moped, to just stay calm and ride out the wobble. My hand on his back is once again a reference point, a place to spot myself so that I don't get dizzy. Its reassuring warm dampness provides a human signpost to let me know I'm on the right track.
We’re poised here, in the dance, near the tip of India’s dangling elephant ear, in this enchanted tropical place of long-stemmed lotuses blooming shamelessly, as blousy and brazen as chrysanthemums; this place of spongy pallid geckos and fan-tailed birds; of dogs and frogs and scorpions. There is almost nothing between us and the south pole but stormy ocean. And we’re riding a whirling dervish planet around a nuclear reactor in the constant controlled falling we call orbit.
Balance, I realise, is a process. It’s a matter of always almost falling. It's about making a thousand microadjustments. Whether you want to ride a moped, to ride this globe through space or to dance around each other in the twin orbits of a tango giro (turn), you'll have to learn to find your balance—and to lose it and to find it again a thousand times over. Without fear.
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