what Auroville taught me about Utopia (pt I)

posted in: asia, india, south asia | 0

I spent a few days at Auroville, a universally renown community among dreamers as “the commune that worked”, in other words, some sort of “utopia”.

Definition: A commune is an intentional community of people living together, sharing common interests, often having common values and beliefs, as well as shared property, possessions, resources, and, in some communes, work, income or assets (Wikipedia)

I’ve been growing my interest in “communes” – the concept of mutual support and co-existence / co-growth of a group of individuals who are different “in practice” (i.e. profession, interests) yet similar “in ideals” (i.e. values, ethics) really appeals to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the road for 6 months, or maybe I believe in the promised benefits of growing together with a group that possess the same passion for similar higher orders to build something greater together.

First impressions

Auroville is north of the beautiful little Pondicherry, a previously French colony on the eastern shore of India. Auroville means “the city of dawn”. It is an experimental community built to further the unity of mankind. The founders, Sri Aurobindo and The Mother, had a vision to build a safe space for anyone from any country, nationality and background to come to and live in peace and harmony.

I entered Auroville feeling cautious. I arrived with a strange mixture of excitement and doubt – I was eager to learn more but I was also skeptical of the rules and perceived cultiness.

I left Auroville with similar feelings but for very different reasons. I was optimistic regarding the community and ‘culture’ that was established – the Aurovillians I met were so warm, kind and loving. However, I was skeptical of the way the city’s growing. It felt like through the decades of development, Auroville’s mission became increasingly less pronounced. It seems like Auroville is slowly transforming into another hippietown-of-yesteryear.


Over the weekend, I attended a local film festival and befriend a local Aurovillian, Tom*. Tom was born in Auroville and has lived there for all his life. We chatted about film noir, we chatted about world politics. We chatted about love and liberation. I couldn’t help being surprised that Tom, someone who grew up in this small city with it’s limited cosmopolitanism, came off a lot more worldly and educated than many of my fellow acquaintances. I felt a little silly and ignorant after my unconscious bias came into realization.

After some warm ginger tea, we started chatting about Auroville. Tom’s opinion of the city echos my own. He said that as a boy, the city was filled with liberating vivacity – they were building a future – the right future – a future that pushes the boundaries of mankind in a non-material level. It will be a city of communalism, mutual support and strong bonds. It will be a city of technology, dreams and passion. There will be no wars, no fights, no this versus that.

It would be the type of city that everyone else will adopt.

Every brick Tom moved, ever plant Tom planned, was one step towards the growth in awareness and spirituality of mankind.

“But you get older and you see things” Tom continued in a matter-of-fact tone, “we were once the ‘wild west’, it was a place of boundless experimentation, we were encouraged to explore our minds, to run free. The world was within my reach – I experimented with sounds, with sculptures; with colours, with the elements. I built the galaxy out of wind chimes and happiness out of the wind. With growth, rules are put into place: kids argue, we build schools. People fight, we create precepts. Groups disagree, we hire a government”

We ended our conversation. Tom has decided it’s time for him to move on.

* name has been changed for privacy reasons.

So what works?

My conversation with Tom left me restlessly thoughtful. As I continued my travels through India, Thailand and Myanmar, I can’t help but obsess over this idea of a “utopia”. Can we truly build man’s happiest place on earth?

Initial thoughts / insights:

  1. Communes or somewhat-exclusive living/lifestyle communities need a common goal/objective to exist. They need some specific and strong foundation that participants can feel attached and devoted towards. This has historically been a ‘spiritual’ element, but we should not rule out secular concepts or ideas that either focus on furthering something or hold a perception of truth, and just have not been fully proven true yet
  2. The promise of an idea is enough to sustain the immediate community, the starting community. It is, however, the future generations who’ll grow tired of an ideal as it is not one they have built, manifested and subscribed to holistically. Where there is no history, there is no commitment, for the understanding of ideals is shallow and the belief is rolled off tongues and paraphrased through clenched teeth. Future (second+) generations will look for more, and/or look for what else. If their journey for the Different is not successful, or they feel they are not given the true freedom for their exploration, we will be left with deep-rotted resentment that will further distant existing bonds and relationships
    1. Perhaps we should think about the continuity of the commune less about lineage (inward), but more about conversion and the acceptance of others (outward)
  3. Unless the goal is to exist severed from current society (i.e. complete detachment of the outside world), it is essential to subscribe to select, existing social norms, and to do it sooner (proactively) rather than later (reactively). Human nature encourages disputes and complacency. It is essential to set up a society with the right institutions to keep us inspired, effective and pushes forward our advancement.
    1. Perhaps this is moot point to discuss further – which social ideals to adopt, which to change. If we only select and open the commune to those of a particular belief / background, can we essentially avoid some other decisions?
    2. Perhaps certain decisions and ‘work’ need to be outsourced to third parties outside of the commune to maintain objectiveness, efficiency and have everyone work at what they do best / love
    3. Perhaps a constant and thorough democracy is not the right model to run this commune as 1 vote pp on each matter (despite an individual’s (lack of) familiarity on a particular subject is not effective and the ‘fairest’ — this concern (of overfocusing on ‘micro problems’ by the ‘wrong’ group) is triggered by a story told me to about an Italian commune that spent hours of their “town hall meetings” arguing about dog poop
  4. There must be a thorough and well-perused selection criteria for accepting new members into the commune. Race, religion, culture, sexuality, identity (etc) are NOT relevant factors. But, an individuals’ thesis on the universal truths of life and happiness must align with the core of the commune. The individual’s view of the future, and more importantly, how they see themselves fit into the metaphysical picture, must mirror that of the commune
  5. Unfortunately for mankind, it is impossible to live happily without knowing that your decisions are accepted / sought after. We constantly strive for a minimum amount of acceptance from our lovers, family, friends, general society. To be a truly utopic commune, it is important that those who aren’t in the commune are, at a minimum, interested in visiting and seeing what the commune is about, Some sort of outward comfort that you are doing something right/cool/accepted is important.

Utopia – redefined

The word “utopia” is wrong.

Self-identified “utopias”, based on the historical definition of the word, aren’t utopias because they’re trying to subscribe to an idea that’s impractical, and by that virtue, makes it no longer ‘perfect’. Our current understanding of ‘utopia’ is a predefined image fed to us as ‘perfect’ when it merely is an image constructed out of lies and a lack of thought.

“Utopia”, as we are taught to understand it, is built upon escapism – for this world is so terrible that there must be another place, somewhere else, sometime else, where everything works and everyone is happy. This place will be filled with trees with rosy red apples, there will be rainbow fish dancing along the stream, the sky is blue, the temperature is warm, and no one cares about things as trivial as clothes. (Ironically), kind of like that biblical painting of Adam and Eve, which, will never work out in practice.

We need to redefine the term so we can build something that’s actually worthwhile.


(Sent from Auroville, India)

jp concrete inspiration

posted in: thailand | 0

I’m obsessed with brutalist architecture. The clean lines and efficient build gives the structure a simple yet daring vibe. I love that it leaves so much room to grow life.

Below is a collage of a building I shot in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The images I used create the layers belong to their respective owners.



(Sent form Phuket, Thailand)

what Gokarna taught me about acceptance

posted in: asia, india, south asia | 0

Go to Gokarna

Going to Gokarna was a very last minute decision. I met up with my ex-coworker who was in town for the Global Entrepreneurship Summit when I was in Hyderabad. He has lived and traveled quite a bit across India. As we were talking about my travel plans, he took it upon himself to vet my itinerary and make sure I’m visiting the places where he thinks I’ll have a great time in.

That’s when I learned about Gokarna.

Gokarna is one of the 7 important pilgrimage centers. It’s on the western coast of Karnataka with a population of around 26,000 people. The small town is dedicated to Lord Shiva (also known as Mahabaleshwara) and is surrounded by (or is very close to) beaches – that’s what attracts the tourists – with names like Om beach, Nirvana beach, Heaven beach. Gokarna means “cow’s ear” due to the legend that Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow here.

A fleeting connection

I went to Gokarna with a friend I met in Goa. It’s one of those times where you meet someone and instantly decide that there’s a connection – that there’s going to be a mutual exchange where you’ll each teach something old and learn something new. At that point, my itinerary was completely blank. I wanted to avoid a cyclone but also wanted to leave Goa ASAP (it’s too touristy for me), so when my new friend, X, mentioned that he was interested in Gokarna, I saw it as a sign to lock that destination in.

We left the next day. During our 2-3 hour drive, we breached a lot of topics like family, relationships, love. It was easy sharing with a something I met a day ago – there was no history, no baggage, no judgments. Just moments of chatter we eagerly exploited, moments of silence we quietly indulged. I sought help and unconditional support was given, I fell quiet and succumbed to the master of my thoughts. It’s ironic that this man has answered questions I’ve been struggling with – ones that I don’t feel comfortable sharing with my friends, or, ones that I know my friends simply would not understand.

Oh, the irony of friendship.

As the hours crawled on, our topics got deeper. My friend revealed that he had been battling depression for a few years and he just got over it.

Then a diagnosis

Clinical depression is “a mental health disorder characterised by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life”. The WHO has labelled depression as the most common illness worldwide and the leading cause of disability. It’s estimated that 350 million people globally are affected by depression. In India, it’s estimated that there’s more than 10 million cases per year.

The thing with depression is that you can’t share it. When you’re depressed, quite often it’s less about what’s happening, but more to do with how you are internalizing facts. You feel like there’s no escape, there’s no hope and that anything anyone says is wrong – you somehow always find a way in your mind to convince yourself otherwise.

I admit that I only know a handful of people who have suffered from depression. In Hong Kong, mental health issues is a hush hush subject. You cannot be psychologically ill – that’s not allowed. Mental illness belongs to an asylum.

“As someone on the sidelines, what can I do to help loved ones who are depressed?” I wondered aloud, “when someone reaches out and asks me for help, I want to be supporting without being overbearing. At the same time, I feel like the person reaching out isn’t listening to me”

“Depression is often illogical” X said, “You cannot approach it with what you’d call a ‘sound solution’ – you cannot approach it with solution that makes sense to you“.

X continues, “solutions are paths forward and usually, those who are depressed cannot see that path. And if they do see a path, it’s often made of molten lava with white-hot spikes. Would you go ahead?”

I reflected on this quietly.

The lesson

Someone close to me is suffering form depression.

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to get this person help. I tried giving them suggestions when they asked for advice, I tried telling them what to do when they needed more direction, I tried signing them up with therapists when they said they don’t know what to do anymore.

Though my best intentions and my hardest efforts, none of this seem to work. The person comes to me every time they have an episode, but time and time again they’re repeating the same problems as last time.

It frustrated me. Why isn’t this person listening? Why aren’t they doing something to change the situation around? The road to happiness is so obvious, so simple!

But after talking to X, it became clear to me that I’ve been dealing with this incorrectly the entire time –

Step 1: Remove the “I”. No one cares if you understand or not. The person seeking help is usually just looking for a listening ear, not someone to say “I don’t get why this is a problem”

Step 2: Remove the ego and desire to save the day. If this person is not ready to follow your “logical” and “obvious” suggestions/instructions, then let it be. They know the situation better than you, and, they know what they’re capable of better than you.

Step 3: Remove time. It does not matter how many times you’ve talked to this person about the same facts and scenario. If they person is not “fixed” or well, they are not. As a confidant, you either get them professional help, or you continue playing your role as the unwavering listener.

There are two commons themes in the three steps above: forgetting that this is about you, and embracing more empathy / acceptance. Rushing people and inundating them with facts / advice / words isn’t going to help. You have to accept your loved ones for who they are, what problems they have, and that they’re going to heal at a pace that works for them.

They come to you for you. Be the listening ear that breaks the barrier. Be the comfort your loved ones can embrace.

(Sent from Gokarna, India)

what Goa taught me about ego

posted in: asia, india, south asia | 0

I’m writing this piece, albeit a little shaken up, from a beautiful cafe / healing center in Southern Goa called The Space Goa. Space Goa is in the small town of unspoiled, white pristine beaches and colourful shacks called Palolem.

from then till now: golden goa

Throughout history, Goa was one of India’s main trading hubs till the Portuguese took rule in 1510. The Portuguese turned it into the Asia capital of their kingdom to control the spice trade. The Goan bazaars flourished – there’s a Portuguese proverb that even states “He who has seen Goa need not see Lisbon”. Golden Goa stayed prosperous till the Dutch started patrolling the Indian waters, blocking access to the city.

Though Goa is the smallest state in India, it still takes 2 hours to travel from the North to the South. Modern day North Goa is more about partying and clubs, while Southern Goa is more about relaxation, quiet and peace.

I booked 2 nights at Woodstock Village Bamboo Cottages, a beautiful paradise next to a gorgeous stretch of Benaulim Beach. Benaulim is at the beginning of South Goa. It’s next to the famous Colva beach so tourists Benaulim has stayed off most people’s radars.

Generally, the beaches in Goa are very different kind of relaxation, there’s an element of serenity to it. I saw wild dogs chasing crows, cows getting washed, locals playing cricket.

exploration of the south

I dedicated my second day to exploring south southern Goa. I rented a scooter to hit up Palolem, Agonda and the surrounding natural beauty as it’s a 2 hour ride away. Though I just learned how to ride a scooter, I figured why not? I’ve always told myself that the best way to learn a new skill is to throw myself into it and be fully immersed – when you’re forced to do something for a long period of time, you have no option but to carry one.

So here I was with my scooter. The journey started seamlessly. I was maneuvering well, going at a safe speed – it was like biking, but faster and with absolutely zero effort apart from the flick of my wrist. I rode past palm trees with leaves shimmying to the warm ocean breeze, I rode over glittering rivers with colourful homestays dotting it’s coast. Each additional moment I rode, I rode with an increasing confidence. This is great, I thought, I’m a natural.

Then suddenly, everything did a 180. I was accessing an upward hairpin on the side of a mountain when two motorbikes sped at me from the opposite direction. I panicked and in a split second, my hands clammed up, I lost speed and I fell. I toppled off the road and a meter or two down the bend of the mountain. Lucky for me, there was a bush so I collapsed onto a mass of mini thorns rather than rocks, or worse.

all it took was one second

Nothing and no one was to blame but me.

My negligence. My cockiness. My ego.

The ego is a dangerous thing. Stripped away of fancy words and analyses, Egos are superimposed images we have of ourselves. It is who we think we should be based on 3 things –

  1. I am: belief
  2. I think I am: aspiration
  3. I will instead be: movement

These three pieces combined allows us to survive and grow, and gives us the necessary confidence to leave our comfort zone. But like a double sided sword, the ego also generates blind faith that often creates harm to you or those around you.

Take my accident for example. There were facts, there were beliefs, there were desires to master a new skill. In this case, the Ego allowed me to jump and take the first step towards conquering a new skill, but it also grabbed me back by the throat just when I was starting to get comfortable.

yin yang of the ego

Some may say the Ego is good – for you never make the shots you don’t fire. Others may say the answer is Ego is an evil that we have to keep in check – that it’s important we stay humble.

I’m not winning a Nobel Prize by stating that our society favors the former. We reward the ego – our conditioning has taught us to prefer those who are bold, always ask for more, and believe that they should get exactly what they want.

But is this the right attitude? Is it good that the majority of big companies are run by people who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and want to replace themselves with others with similar personalities? During one of my earlier performance reviews, I recall my then-manager telling me that I do amazing work, everyone on the team loves working with me, but I need to change the way I communicate. I needed to be louder, more assertive, more demanding. This puzzled me for a long, long time. Why am I asked to change my style when everything is working out fine?

I learned recently, years after that conversation, that my manager wanted me to improve my confidence rather than the way I speak. “Faking it till I make it” was an extremely valid attitude (probably even encouraged) to my manager. But to me, that sounded lofty – why would someone respect me if I have no substance, no experience, no knowledge?

This goes back to our society’s obsession of the ego and how we assume those with the bigger ego are the ones who are more successful. Is this a result of our conditioning (this is the way things have been, so therefore, we accept it and fulfill the assumption)? Or is it actually true (those who do have a bigger ego do posses the skills to get ahead)?

a request

Regardless of the answer to the unanswered question above, I’ve learned during my travels that louder voices often does not mean more success, just more unthoughtful words. Shooting out 100 ideas to get 1 does not make one better and more innovative than a person who makes the one shot they fire. Our society needs to better balance between these two conflicting personalities as it stretches across gender, race and culture.

There’s no easy solution apart from work on both sides. The quieter, more introverted ones (what I identify as myself) need to help themselves and raise their voices a little louder to be heard a little better. After all, no one will hear the idea that is not said. And to the rest of society, we ask that everyone reflects more the words/phrases that are being emitted. Serenity brings about more mindful ideas and no one needs more noise to circumscribe our daily lives.


(Sent from Goa, India)


what Hampi taught me about travel

I spent 5 days in Hampi, an ancient city on the Tungabhadra river in Karnataka.

Ask any Indian about Hampi and they’ll rave about the historical significance of the Vijaynagar Kingdom’s capital city. They’ll animatedly discuss how Hampi was once the most prosperous and largest medieval-era city, boasting of magnificent stone-carved temples and one of the world’s biggest trading centers; how Hampi survived multiple invasions and attacks before being tragically reduced to ruins in 1565 by five Deccan Sultans.

The Indians will then enlighten you on the spiritual and mythological aspects of Hampi – how the city is the pilgrimage spot where Rama and Lakshmana met Hanuman, Sugriva and the monkey army; how Hampi is the place where Pampa pursued Shiva and resolved herself to yogic meditation and asceticism.

Ask any foreigner who has visited Hampi and they’ll rave about the incredible chill out zones, solid marijuana, and dope “hippie culture”.

This dichotomy is so drastic, it’s comical.

My initial reaction to this was to hate on “modern day hippie” – surely they know that smoking a lot of weed, having dreads, scooting without chappals and paying too much for trinkets at local markets does not make them a hippie (!!!).

But then I dwelled on my annoyance a little more. I soon realized that it is less to do with the image one is trying to build, but more to do with the way one travels. We often see travel as a holiday we take to escape all responsibilities of daily life. So, we adopt the mentality where vacation equates to a total freedom to pursue whatever makes us happiness. This makes us travel without much care and quickly forget that our vacations are technically enroachments upon someone else’s home. We forget that respect is different in every culture, we forget we’re guests in someone else’s country.

I spent a lot of my time in Hampi thinking about how I travel and more importantly, what travel means to me.

To me, traveling has always been so much more about exploring new places and seeing new sights. The word ‘traveling’ is about a series of isolated Moments,
Senses and Perceptions welded together by a journey. You are not just going to a place, you are indulging in a whole new and uniquely You experience.

Travel is about the aimless wander, stumbling upon small wedding ceremonies tucked behind ancient ruins; travel is about the refinement of plans, frantically scribbling on the back of pamphlets words dictated by strangers; travel is about dirtying your feet, following a spark of curiosity past running streams and balancing boulders to a small white cave with engraved footprints of the gods.

Travel is about observing, silently watching local culture to understand and become One; travel is about listening, waking up to the morning moos of a herd of sacred cows; travel is about breathing, connecting yourself with the depths and pulse of the universe; travel is about touching; transforming yourself to a different era under the soft caress of your fingertips.

Travel is about patience, where inner peace takes longer than time; travel is about giving, where currencies are more than coins and notes; travel is about gratitude, where thanks are given and felt with the heart; travel is about Feeling, watching the world pass by in daze as your inner self combusts with thoughts and aches with tenderness.

And to pay homage to a recent favourite book, travel is always about the “Here and Now”.

Hampi is the dreamy place where I learned the above. Thank you, Hampi for teaching me how to travel.


(Sent from Hampi, India)

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