Searching for Tango in India

This is Part 5 in the story of my trip to India in 2014. Go here if you want to start from the beginning.

2014-10-24
Friday
Day 2 in India

After all of the sleepless travel drama just getting here and quite a long day of adventures and meeting people yesterday, this morning is another one of sleeping in late (late being after 9:00). Aside from needing to catch up on the recent sleepless nights, though, I don’t really feel any kind of jet lag effect. This is the farthest I’ve ever traveled across time zones before (9.5 hours in the future compared to Maine), but I already feel like I’ve adjusted just fine. I didn’t even think about jet lag yesterday. Maybe this is actually a good strategy for beating jet lag. Just stay awake for 72 out of the last 77 hours before finally going to bed in your new time zone, then wake up with internal clock successfully reset. I mean, at that point, it’s got no choice, right? Take that, Jet Lag you wuss!

There’s no rain today. It’s already warm and sunny outside, probably in the mid-80s Fahrenheit. For the second morning, I appreciate how nice Mónica’s apartment is. It’s provided by the school where she works. I mentioned the four separate balconies before – one for each bedroom plus one for the kitchen. Each of the three bedrooms has its own bathroom. The floors are all beautiful slabs of marble, with different patterns for different rooms. The whole thing is spacious with very high ceilings. Add in all of the palm trees outside, and it’s a little like being in a tropical resort. We are in fact only a couple of blocks from the beach.

Coconut palm outside kitchen balcony.
There are coconuts outside the kitchen balcony!

Mónica shows me the roof of her apartment building and I take in my first view of her neighborhood in the daylight without rain. We’re in Thiruvanmiyur, in the southern part of Chennai, just far enough from the main East Coast Road that traffic noise is actually quite low. The soundscape is mostly dominated by crows, punctuated at regular intervals by the call to prayer coming from the nearby mosque.

Thiruvanmiyur Rooftop View of Chennai
The view north, looking toward the city center.
Thiruvanmiyur Rooftop View South
The view South, facing away from the city.

For brunch, there are more exotic fruits I’ve never seen or heard of before. In one amusing moment, Mónica asks if I want a kiwi. Then I hear her puzzled voice from the kitchen saying, “Uh, this isn’t a kiwi. I don’t know what this is.” It does indeed look like a kiwi on the outside, but inside is a soft brownish-yellow fruit that naturally comes apart in neat little slices. It’s buttery and nutty and slightly grainy and not too sweet. It’s good, whatever it is.

The Plan

Today’s plan is to go down to Pondicherry, which is a couple hours drive south. Pondicherry is a popular tourist destination from Chennai, with a number of beaches and resorts. There’s supposed to be a Tango Milonga tonight in a small town near there called Auroville, at least according to this guy Shakti who Mónica has met online. She tried to make it to this Tango community once before, but when she got close to where the dance was supposed to be and her driver met Shakti, her driver cautioned her strongly against going anywhere with this guy. It’s not clear if this was a serious safety concern or just a caste thing, but in any case, she didn’t go through with it before. We’re going to try again today.

This time, Mónica has a friend with a car who will be driving us there. She tells me how she met Ajit on the plane to India when she first moved here in July, that he’s originally from Chennai, now lives somewhere abroad, but is back in town this month. She messaged him yesterday to set up our plans.

Ajit calls early in the afternoon to say he’s outside the apartment. We’re all packed for an overnight stay in Pondicherry. Mónica goes downstairs to let him in and comes back with a funny look on her face. It’s not the person she was expecting to see. There’s been a misunderstanding and she laughs as she tries to explain. Ajit, who’s now on his way upstairs after parking his car, is actually a guy she met at an InterNations event months ago. The guy she met on the plane to India was named Arjesh or something. When she knew that Arjesh was back in town, she accidentally messaged the next closest Indian guy in her contact list to see if he wanted to take us to Pondicherry and check out this Tango community like they’d talked about before. Ajit gets this message from a girl he met at a social event a couple months ago and instead of saying, “What are you talking about?”, he agrees. Oops. Anyway, we got the wrong Indian guy, but keep the same plan.

ECR

Ajit drives us south on ECR (the East Coast Road), one of the main highways that goes through Chennai. The ridiculous traffic in town thins out somewhat as we leave the city and pass into the scenic countryside. It’s lush and green, with large tropical trees flanking the roadway and views of the ocean to our left. It’s a beautiful sunny day. We all have a good laugh about the mix-up and Ajit admits that this explains why some of Mónica’s messages didn’t make total sense. We also learn from him that our mystery fruit from brunch was a chikoo fruit.

There are many interesting things to see just driving down the highway here. Most of the traffic is composed of motorcycles, and almost all of the motorcycles carry at least two people. Of course there are cows, usually hanging out right beside the road, but sometimes wandering across the road at their leisure while the traffic just flows around them. We pass through some small villages where the crowded busses on the highway slow down a little to let people scramble off and on. The buildings seem only half-built, or half-ruined (or both), but that doesn’t stop most of these places from being shockingly colorful.

We randomly have to slow down for enormous speed bumps in the middle of this major highway, and sometimes we have to come to a complete stop because a police officer has put barricades in the road to close down some of the lanes, apparently for no other reason than to slow down the flow of traffic. The intersections never have traffic lights, so drivers just honk their horns constantly as if to say, “I’M NOT STOPPING! I’M NOT STOPPING!” Here, it’s also customary to honk when you come up behind another vehicle, when you’re about to pass another vehicle, while passing a vehicle, when coming up to an intersection, while going through an intersection, when ready to make a turn, maybe if the vehicle in front of you is making a turn, or is slowing down . . . . There’s a lot of honking. I’m also confused at first by the way people are always flashing their headlights. Back in the States, if someone is trying to pull out onto a busy road and an approaching driver flashes his lights, it means, “Hey, Man. I see you there. Go on ahead. You’re cool.” Here, though, it basically means the exact opposite. More like, “Don’t you do it! I’m serious! Don’t even think about it!”

After hours of this entertainment, much idle conversation, and a little bit of getting lost, we find the road for Mango Hill. This is the resort where we’ll be spending the night, and we decide to go check in before heading to Auroville to find the Milonga.

The luxury of Mango Hill provides a strong contrast to all of the places we’ve passed through to get here. Owned by a Frenchman, the resort makes its own European-style cheeses that are supposed to be excellent – an unusual treat in a country where any cheese other than paneer is a hard thing to find. The resort features a lot of rooms they call Thai Cottages, and has a large pool behind the main building with a jade tree growing in the center.

The Pool at Mango Hill Resort in Pondicherry
The fabulous pool at Mango Hill.

We’ve booked a suite that should be big enough for the three of us, but after seeing it, Ajit decides to go get his own room so Mónica and I can have more privacy. The suite is nice. There’s a huge bathroom with a deep soaking tub in addition to the shower. They even have toilet paper. Strangely, the doors to the room do not lock, but we don’t think much of it.

Mónica in our suite at Mango Hill, Pondicherry
Beautiful and Happy
Gecko on the wall of our suite at Mango Hill Resort, Pondicherry
Our room comes with its own gecko mascot.
Suite at Mango Hill Resort, Pondicherry
Our lovely suite and the lovely Mónica.
Alton, Mónica, and Ajit at Mango Hill Resort, Pondicherry
Alton, Mónica, and Ajit at Mango Hill

After settling into our rooms for a bit, it’s off to Auroville. Mónica calls Shakti, our contact in the Tango community there, to tell him we’re on our way and to try to get some directions. I think one of the steps involves finding “The Mud Road”.

Auroville

We drive inland, on red dirt roads, with great trees and fields of livestock all around. It’s very rural. We try meeting Shakti at the Auroville Visitor Center, but there’s some confusion. I think we end up at the wrong parking lot or something. And by parking lot, I mean, “patch of dirt beside the dirt road next to a sign that says it’s the Auroville Visitor Center Parking Lot”. There are no buildings visible from where we are and it’s starting to get dark pretty quickly now. More phone calls, this time with Ajit talking to Shakti in Tamil.

We go a little further on the road and pull into what could be an abandoned driveway or a cow path. We finally see Shakti. He’s a very dark-skinned young guy, bald and barefoot, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. He smells like a mixture of pungent spices I can’t identify. Shakti gets in and in between giving Ajit directions, starts talking about how excited he is that we’re finally coming to see the Tango community in Auroville.

Auroville is an unusual sort of spiritual village retreat where people from all over the world come to live in harmony with one another and with their surroundings. The village strives to be self-sustaining, so there is a lot of agriculture, and a lot of crafts are produced here. Shakti says that the people in this village are from 135 different countries. This is certainly impressive, but it’s now pitch black outside (Diwali occurs during the New Moon), I haven’t seen a single building, and we’re driving on a rough dirt road through nothing but trees and the occasional group of cattle.

Eventually, Shakti points to a patch of dirt indistinguishable from the rest of the road and tells us we can park here. We’re all a little confused, since there doesn’t seem to be anything around, but Shakti jumps out as soon as the car stops. Ajit looks at me and Mónica before shutting off the engine. I get out and see a beautiful starry sky, with no other sources of light in sight. It’s warm – about 80 degrees. We’re surrounded by trees and I smell cows. . . but there’s one more thing. From some distance away comes the unmistakable sound of Tango music playing. Mónica and I start grinning like crazy. The scene is just too absurd.

Tango Milonga

Taking a short path through the trees, we come up to a small thatch-roofed building with a concrete patio attached. It’s dark, with some dim lights and candles on the tables providing the only illumination, but on the covered patio, open to the night air, about 8 couples are dancing Tango like it’s a Milonga anywhere else in the world.

Tango Milonga in Auroville, India
Just your everyday casual Tango Milonga in a rural village in India.

I get some introductions and watch some of the dancers before joining in. Only a couple of the people here are Indian. Most are clearly foreigners. Almost all of the women I meet or dance with are from France or Germany. There’s Aurévan, Jorinda, and Belgita – all from Germany – and others whose names I didn’t get or don’t remember. Some say they’ve lived here for 14 years or more. It’s delightful to make these new connections, but of course I spend over half the time here dancing with Mónica. After all, Tango is how we met. It’s a big part of how we fell in love. Now I get to dance with her for the first time in three months. It takes a tanda or two for us to really get back into the groove, but after that it’s magical. I’m so happy to be holding Mónica on the dance floor again, and we’re both still filled with delight at the unlikely setting.

When the evening of dance starts to wind down, it’s still very early by Tango standards – not even 21:00 yet. Everyone is telling us about future events and inviting Mónica and I to come back anytime. We get lots of compliments. Someone even says, “You two are obviously very professional, but we would love to have you come to our Holi Tango Festival in March.” I would love to.

Epilogue

Now this would already be a wonderful ending to a magical evening of adventure in India, but the night is still young. Ajit and Mónica and I get back to Mango Hill in time to order dinner from the restaurant before they close. We have it delivered to Ajit’s room and we eat out on his balcony under the stars, overlooking the pool with the jade tree growing in the middle. Though the menu features a lot of Western cuisine, there’s still plenty of Indian food to try, too. We share some Bengali Fish Curry, Tandoori Shrimp, and Chicken Biryani. The curry is fine, but the prawns smell dangerously less than fresh. I eat them anyway.

We talk about many things – what we do for work, places we’ve traveled, and a lot about some of the peculiarities of India. I know that some technical jobs here have salaries about one sixth of what they would be in the US. Correspondingly, many things here are extremely cheap, but Ajit points out some exceptions. Apparently, cars and real estate in Chennai cost similarly to what they would in the US, which creates a huge barrier for those in the middle class to really advance their quality of life. On our way through this discussion, it takes us a while to sort through some confusion as to what a Lakh is. In America, we start to group large numbers first by thousands, then by millions, and so on. In India, after thousands comes lakhs. A lakh is one hundred thousand (1,00,000). So pay attention to where the commas are if you’re shopping for something expensive in India. It’s easy to misread a lakh as a million.

After all the food and conversation, with everyone well fed and tired, Mónica decides it’s time to go swimming. Ajit doesn’t even think she’s serious at first, then decides she’s crazy. It’s getting on near midnight now, and it doesn’t look like anyone else is up in the entire resort. She goes off to the room to change and I follow after her. Even though the pool certainly isn’t heated, the water temperature feels to be in the 80s. Mónica and I swim around like we have the whole resort to ourselves. It feels for a little while like we’re the only two people in the world. Everything is dark and quiet and the stars are so clear. We float on our backs, holding hands and looking up at the sky, and suddenly both see the same shooting star together. We smile and look at each other – each sure that we’re both thinking of some version of the same wish – and kiss. It’s a perfect moment. The whole evening from Auroville to here has been full of magic and I tell her that I’m falling in love with her all over again.

We swim around laughing and talking and enjoying life for a while longer, until we hear a strange voice from under the Thai Cottage balconies call out and tell us, “Pool closed.” It looks like a night watchman or guard of some kind. We say OK, but continue swimming around after he leaves. Eventually, it starts to rain on us. This just makes us laugh more. We take our sweet time getting out and heading back to the unlocked room. It’s late, and we have an early morning of surfing planned for tomorrow, but we’re practically drunk with happiness and can’t stop enjoying each other’s company. We continue to take our sweet time getting ready for bed, not falling asleep until late into the night, happy that Ajit elected to get his own room.

The pool at Mango Hill Resort, Pondicherry

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