Friday, April 29, 2011

Home Again!

Well, I have been back in the States for over a week and am still finding it difficult to settle down enough to catch up the blog.  The thirty hour trip hanging around in airports and flying two ten-hour flights was tiring but knowing I was heading home helped.  It’s just hard to stay enthusiastic while trying to shift your body back twelve hours.  I arrived in Houston on schedule and Rusty was there waiting for me as I came out of customs – a real sight for sore eyes.  I arrived in the early afternoon and we went to the hotel and I had the chance to take a wonderful hot shower before we went out to eat.  We went to a Mexican restaurant with really (and I do mean REALLY) good guacamole – which was my request for my first meal back.  It was very nice to just share a quiet meal with my husband and I really appreciated that those anxious to see me were respectful of my need for some time to adjust.  The next day I had a long phone conversation with my mother and then my mother-in-law, Aliene, came to the hotel and gave me the chance to show off everything I’d brought from India.  Rusty, Aliene, and I enjoyed yet another night of Mexican food.  The next day Rusty finished his work in Houston early in the afternoon and we picked up Veera, my friend from Tamil Nadu, for the four hour drive back from his sister’s to Texas State.  I hadn’t seen Veera since the TEDx Conference in January and it was good to catch up with him.  He and Rusty have been doing quite a bit together so it seems safe to say that Veera is now Rusty’s friend and I was just along for the ride.

Getting back to my home was pleasant but I have to admit a bit anticlimactic.  I’m not sure what I would hope would happen, but the cats didn’t seem particularly overjoyed to see me and things looked much as they did when I left.  Rusty did a great job of keeping my plants alive and all animals were safe and accounted for – including a new dog who has adopted us during my absence.  I felt I had gone through so much in three months that it is hard to imagine that my life at home stayed pretty much the same.  Though I said repeatedly for a long time that I didn’t want to have to return to my job and so resigned rather than considering an extended leave, I have to admit that it has seemed very peculiar to be back but not working at the university – I guess it was kind of like a thirteen year habit.  Because we’re still talking about relocating to the Houston area, I am not even productively looking for a new job at this time, which is probably good as I find it challenging to concentrate even after a week and a half.  Perhaps I still suffer from jet lag but it feels more like I’m directionless and have lost some focus.  What I needed to do in India was usually pretty straightforward and relatively clear cut, whether it was working on the project or getting my laundry done.  Now there are so many more options and I find I’m accomplishing very little.  I think it took a while to adjust to the rhythm of India and I now need to find a way to adjust back – but in some ways my old activities have shifted complicating this more than anticipated.  I suppose it is a good thing that I’m not expected to work right now as I am not certain how productive I could be.  However, I am anxious to get structure back to my life and hope to get busy finding my next job soon.

The part of my return home which has lived up to my expectations has been reconnecting with friends and family.  It was wonderful going out to dinner with our good friends and having a chance to catch up.  Unfortunately it seems others are more interested in my experiences in India and it is hard to find out what has happened with them during my absence but talking has never been difficult for me ;-) so regaling others with my adventures isn’t really a problem.  My kids, Bradon and Caleta, along with Caleta’s boyfriend Rich, had decided to come over my first weekend to visit and play cards, our favorite shared family activity.  At first I was told that they would come on Friday evening and intended to spend the night.  All three ended up spending two nights and didn’t leave till fairly late on Sunday so it was a surprisingly long visit and I think everyone enjoyed themselves as much as I enjoyed being back with them.  I did a tandem jump parachute drop thirteen years ago when I turned 40 and the kids have often talked about wanting to do it – and Rusty decided that since Bradon is about to graduate with his associates degree and it was a celebratory weekend, that we should jump from a plane together.  So Saturday morning Caleta, Bradon, and I flew up into the sky and skydived out together.  The weather was a little windy and both Caleta and I got a bit more spun around than we were comfortable with and were rather nauseous afterwards (Caleta actually had to get sick twice) but we all enjoyed the experience.  Bradon had an excellent guy jumping with him who let him really get into controlling aspects of the jump and he had a great time.  If I skydive every 13 years as I am presently on schedule with, my next jump will happen when I’m 66… not sure if that sounds good or bad.  Between the skydiving, eating Rusty’s wonderful cooking, playing competitive cards, and visiting about everything possible, we all had a terrific weekend and it was a great welcome home celebration. 

All in all I find I am missing the routine I had in India as well as feeling like I should be keeping up with their activities.  I worked hard to ensure that the project was as self-sufficient as I could leave it so my interference is really not necessary but I haven’t fully separated from it yet.  At the same time, it seems difficult to reconnect to projects here at home.  I think I’m going to have to shake myself out of it by tackling something big – like cleaning out a big area or painting a room – something that would probably be productive and get me occupied without requiring my full mental faculties, which seem to be stalled somewhere over the North Sea.  Hopefully undertaking such a project will allow me to recoup my abilities and get back into the swing of my “real” life.  I wonder if others find it difficult to readjust when returning from such an experience and I just haven’t been warned.  I guess this could serve as a precautionary tale for others.  Taking such a long hard look at my life and lifestyle and evaluating my activities and work efforts has certainly adjusted my priorities so it makes sense that I am finding it difficult to fit right back into that life and it will be interesting to see how long it takes for me to settle in to a new routine.  Wish me luck as the life-changing adventure continues, just on the home front!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Shopping Excursion and Update

I’m composing this Sunday morning, not a time I typically work on my blog, but it seems a good time to update, even if it may not be possible to post until Monday.   The power outage now is scheduled between noon and 2:00 and I think I would like to go to the ashram in the afternoon.  Since I feel some obligation to come back to the office to give the kitten more milk, perhaps I will be able to post this on Sunday.

Yesterday I went to Madurai for my long-awaited shopping excursion – and was incredibly disappointed.  I had hopes that I would be able to spend some quality browsing time in the sari store and purchase a couple which I would later likely make into something else with the silk fabric.  I had even determined which colors should be highest on my priority list so I wouldn’t get sidetracked when I was offered too many choices.  Apparently I misremembered the sari shopping I did before where I saw cheaper saris with interesting designs – they were not silk saris but rather a blend.  I was unable to find anything in those that really impressed me and the silk ones were more expensive and equally uninspiring.  I tried looking at the full range of saris but somehow after seeing the beauty of the traditional handlooms, the saris with sequins and glitz were even less appealing than they had been before and I did not feel any need to purchase them.  Don’t despair though, I revisited the shop which had me on the roof my first day in Madurai and purchased a beautiful embroidered wall hanging which was definitely the most expensive thing I could afford.  My philosophy was that I should purchase anything I would regret not buying later – it’s not like I’ll make it back to shop in India in the foreseeable future.  I’m glad I purchased what I did and not trying to fit many saris into my suitcase should make packing for my return more reasonable (though there still appears to be a LOT outside the suitcase and quite a bit stored within it),  The biggest frustration for me was procuring cash.  I had tried to go to the bank machine in Tiruchuli (one and only one) three times on Friday and it was either closed or the line was ten people long.  Saturday morning it was closed so I could not get more cash before I took the bus in.  When I got to town I started stopping at machines and they were all either closed or under repair – and everyone simply points down the street and tells me there’s one just a ways down.  When I finally reached the point where I could no longer shop, it was REALLY hot on the streets and I walked at least a mile stopping at multiple machines with no success.  At this point I’m losing my patience and no longer enjoying myself, which was certainly not the point of the excursion so headed back to the temple to ask my friends at the shop if there was another location I should try.  I then ended up finding a functional machine and by then have to admit that the shopping had lost much of its appeal – I was hot, sweaty, tired, hungry, and the timing seemed off for most restaurants to just stop and enjoy a nice lunch.  Maybe it’s actually a case of recognizing that I really didn’t need anything… though even I find that unlikely ;-)

I had a suggestion to shop at a different large sari store, Rajmajal, which is where the locals apparently prefer shopping.  I felt so out of place there as all the signs were in Tamil and there were no clues on what was where.  When I asked to see the silk saris they actually had to take me outside and to their separate store across the street.  I don’t enjoy being so clueless.  I was so intimidated by the process and couldn’t really find anything well enough so after walking through, decided it just wasn’t a place I could shop. 

Perhaps the toughest time in Madurai was that there seemed to be more beggars in the street than usual, perhaps because the season is ending and there were less targets.  I started the trip off being picked up by a rickshaw driver who was trying to convince me to hire him for the day.  Though that could be practical at times, I really didn’t want to be tied down in this way.  I had no firm plans for how long I would be in any particular place and returning to a specific area and trying to find my driver each time I was ready to move on did not sound appealing – particularly remembering the frustration of the taxi driver we had my last day with Christa and Stefan in Madurai.  From that moment on it felt like everyone seemed to want something from me (read $$$).  I am really not a RICH American and it is disconcerting to be perceived as somehow stingy because I am not purchasing all they would like.  I imagine my impression of this likely created a good deal of my dissatisfaction with the day.

So now I’m sitting in the nice quiet office this morning enjoying some time with my kitten, who missed me a lot yesterday, catching up on emails, and downloading a couple things while the system is not too overloaded.  Tea was just delivered and I am enjoying being out of the city and back in my sweet little village.  My husband has asked if I’ll be able to readjust to being around others or if I’m going to be a recluse and I can’t honestly answer him.  The crowds yesterday were disturbing, but I think the language barrier adds a great deal to that.  It will be interesting to see how long it takes to reintegrate into American life.

Friday evening I went back to my apartment after work and was enjoying a cold Limca on my patio watching the evening shift to sunset when Jayama, our cook, came upstairs and said “temple going?” as though we had discussed going to the temple.  I was willing so grabbed my shoes and bag and we went off to the main Mariaman temple just off the main street beyond where I turn to go to the office.  I had been in a back temple in that area during the large festival but that is apparently an older temple and not often used so we visited the front temple, gave an offering (which we purchased on the way to the temple) and received our chalk blessing.  Though I am not familiar with the ritual, I am not able to perform it as gracefully as those around me.  Jayama then directed that we walk around the temple (clockwise) and at the back she touched a dirty spot on the wall, as did the woman following us.  This was revered as the gods were just on the other side.  I would not have realized this was part of the activities if she had not been there to explain.  She told me that during large festivals everyone goes three times around the temple bowing on the ground constantly, which has to be pretty hard on her old body, though I admit she appeared pretty comfortable doing it several times in a row to demonstrate.  We then sat quietly for a few minutes at the front of the temple and headed back to the apartment.  We stopped to visit at the neighbor’s house.  An older woman was outside who was very pleased to hear I had gone with Jayama to the temple and went to great lengths to describe that if you are very lucky/holy/or something else that you could see the holy vibrations in that place.  I must not have whatever it takes to see this, at least not this visit, but it was a fun conversation.  Jayama introduced me as her little sister, and knowing that she tends to consider the younger volunteers more as children, I consider this a compliment.  I was very flattered that she offered me this opportunity and realize that it would not have happened if there were other volunteers here – her knowing I am alone gave her impetus to invite me.  She tells me we’ll go back next Tuesday, something about the times that the temple is available.  Jayama has small books, rather like comic book printed items, which have little stories and colored pictures of gods, which she spends considerable time cutting out.  She tells me that she takes these home and glues them to old calendars – I believe essentially creating small shrines.  I really wanted to find her a nice book with god pictures while in Madurai to give her as a gift but couldn’t locate anything like this.  I was told I might find something like it within the temple but it was so crowded with pilgrims that there were really long lines for security when it opened at 4:00 in the afternoon and I didn’t feel I would have time to explore the venders in there and still make it back to Tiruchuli at a reasonable time.  As it was I had to bus through Arrapukuti so didn’t get back to dinner (normally 7:30) until almost 9:00.  I felt fortunate that I had seats on both buses heading back so it was a nice way to re-energize after the frustrating and hot day of shopping.

Last week I came home for lunch one day and a palm leaf thatch roof was being installed in the alleyway to my building.  Jayama explained that an old woman had died in the house next door (same one I spoke with the lady on Friday night) and that the roof was being put up to accommodate the anticipated guests to the funeral proceedings.  By the evening there were many plastic chairs in place and people were sitting out there visiting as the viewing and other activities took place.  Jayama explained that the old woman had an accident the year before (I think involving a car) and apparently had issues after with one side and her head and her health had not been good since.  She died in her sleep.  This may have been the closest I ever was (proximity) to someone who died as the building she lived in is maybe 50 feet away from my room at the farthest and is also three stories so she couldn’t have been more than a couple hundred feet from me when she passed.  I think India has made me more aware of the day to day activities and occurrences than I ever am in my insulated American life.  The son arrived from Chennai the next day so the funeral procedures could proceed.  I was told the woman was Christian so Jayama had no idea exactly how the process went, being familiar only with Hindu practices.  The next day at lunch there was a huge fight outside their house – if it was the States the police probably would have come to tell them to quiet down.  Jayama spent a good deal of time explaining, in very broken English, that the family was fighting over the little bit of money and jewelry the woman left.  When she finished and I indicated that I understood, she asked how I was able to understand her and I told her it was because apparently people everywhere are the same in this way and that I am familiar with such family disagreements at times of loss.  No matter how different we appear, we are all the same at heart, with the same life issues just played out in diverse ways.

When Kate and Ramsey first came to India they purchased a guitar because Kate enjoys playing sometimes.  They have always kept it in storage here when they would return to the States but since this was their final stay, Kate gave the guitar to Elavarasu to give to a musical friend of his.  It has been in the office all this week and I’ve heard them playing it occasionally.  This morning Elavarasu played it and for some reason found there was a dead scorpion inside.  They shook it out onto newspaper to throw away and showed me (probably a mistake) and this was the ugliest, biggest, blackest scorpion I have ever seen.  We have a lot of scorpions in Texas but this thing was close to four inches long and would have terrified me if I’d seen it alive somewhere.  The idea that this probably entered the guitar either in the apartment below me or in storage within the mess on the first floor of my building is not particularly comforting.  Shortly before they left Kate and Ramsey were having problems with a RAT coming up through the drain pipe they have in their kitchen.  Fortunately that does not run up to my apartment but it was not particularly comforting picturing a rat running around.  I was told at one point they had issues with rats in the office and that is why the big cat was brought in – and they no longer have rat problems.  The worst story I heard of my apartment was when one of the volunteers living there opened the door to find a rather aggressive monkey on the patio – but they simply closed the door and called for others but the monkey was long gone before any help arrived.  I have even heard the story that a couple years ago a COBRA came into the office – while volunteers were here not less.  I think the locals, who truly are not brave about such things, still found it amusing that the volunteers were all up on the tables.  I am not sure how well I would handle such a visitor and am very grateful that my time here has not given me any opportunity to find out.

The news here has been interesting.  Most, obviously, concerns the big national elections (voting on Wednesday) but another interesting event has been coverage of Sai Baba’s illness.  Even those who are not familiar with Indian gurus may have seen this guy – he has really big hair and can manifest physical objects (usually rings and watches).  The gentleman who originally owned the Hard Rock CafĂ© is/was a follower and when he sold the business in the 90s, he put ALL of the money from the sale (apparently almost 200 million dollars) into one of Sai Baba’s projects.  Sai Baba is now 84 and is having significant health problems and has been hospitalized for over a week.  Since he told his followers he would live to be 97, perhaps there should be no reason for all the fuss.  At any rate, the news of his illness is receiving a great deal of coverage here.  Information about the election primarily relates to efforts to prevent corruption and I have to admit I truly do not understand the system.  Somehow a major form of corruption is buying votes and all efforts are taken to keep large scale gatherings from happening as these could mask attempts to buy the public.  Apparently this is particularly problematic in Tamil Nadu.  I find it fascinating that a party buying dinner for voters is seen as a major issue – in America we’d eat the dinner and then vote however we wanted.  In reality, in the States we would have to PAY for any dinner or other opportunity to spend time with candidates – fundraising being what it is.  However, it is apparently a promise made if one takes money or bribes of some type and one keeps that promise because it would reflect badly to the gods if one did not (at least this was Elango’s explanation).  He also told me that many people see that there is corruption on either side so as individuals, they take advantage of what they can get personally.  That certainly seems reasonable.  One of the most interesting articles I tried to understand related to the power outages.  Summer is tough on the power drain so there are even more shortages than normal so times without power ought to increase from the usual daily two hours.  I think these additional times are normally scheduled in the middle of the night to prevent further disruption to businesses, though I have to say these middle of the night outages are miserable as the power going out means the ceiling fans are off and it becomes unbearably hot very quickly but also stops the available mosquito movement the fans provide so everyone is bit right away.  At any rate (sorry for the sidestep in the story), the government is concerned that there should be no night outages because corruption could be masked by darkness.  I only wish I could imagine what, exactly, the candidates could do effectively during a middle of the night outage.  At any rate, trying to get a handle on the cultural differences on their election process has proven fascinating for me.  One day a couple weeks ago the parties began making promises – which reminded me of a humorous version of a chicken in every pot.  First one party promised electric blenders for each family and a three month maternity leave period for government employees (female only).  The other main party countered with electric blenders anda six month leave.  The original party then came back with blenders, six month leave, and laptops for every school child.  It is like a fascinating bidding war for votes.  At some point in the past apparently televisions were promised and every household has a TV – the sight of satellite dishes on small huts is not uncommon.  This is a very different world.

I am now completing the blog in the afternoon.  The power went out at noon as anticipated but did not come back until 3:00.  Meantime, the weather shifted and what was a cloudy day became grey and fraught with rain.  So far we received only a few drops, which made the air smell nice for a short time but which did nothing to cool things down.  Since impending rain makes it seem unwise to walk to the ashram, which would be a muddy walk if the rain caught me, I’ve returned to the office to finish up a couple things (missing Saturday makes this reasonable enough). 

This is probably enough babbling about my insights on Indian life for one day.  Congratulations if you made it to this point in the post.  Since I’ll be leaving next week, the blog will probably cease soon.  I may write in it once or twice when I return home, sort of a reflection on the return to my normal life (would I have to call it bret-back-from-India?), but figure those of you who have checked the blog often will have a respite soon.

Take care!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Still Rolling Along

The stuffing finally arrived this morning (Thursday).  We apparently ran into issues that the product shipped out in large boxes which weighed relatively little so the shippers could put more boxes paying better onto the transportation so these boxes were set back a couple times.  They finally made it to Madurai and Elango had them picked up last night.  Both the colored and the white cotton waste are very soft, clean, and already well shredded so are very suitable for toy stuffing.  I have had many nightmares about the possibility of waiting this long to receive poor quality materials which could not be used or which would require extensive preparation on our end – but my pessimism was fortunately ignored and what we have received will be very good for our use.  That said, it should be noted that we had three additional unplanned days of work without stuffing available.  This allowed the women time to each sew a complete pair of boy and girl dolls.  Now that stuffing has arrived they can be completed and I will take them to the Madurai shop on Saturday for feedback and a hopeful order.  The priority is still preparing the existing order for elephants but with only two days, I don’t think I can make an adequate delivery this week.  I am feeling much better about our progress now.

I am sure that everyone is tired of hearing about the sewing project details but I am constantly impressed by the promise that Sathya and Muthu have demonstrated.  When creating the first doll legs, Muthu did not curve the bottom for feet and had big square rather ugly feet.  When I told her they did not look good, she fiddled with them a little and devised a very nice, relatively simple way to construct an attractive foot which looked much better than the original curved tube I had planned.  Both women generally try hard to please.  The first four dolls they created all had closed eye faces embroidered on so I asked them to create faces with open eyes this morning on two additional dolls.  I intended to sew one of them up as an additional sample for the Madurai shop (which I would have to construct after the women leave at 5:00 in the evenings not to disturb production).  Both sewed attractive enough faces, which was a relief, but one was placed way too high on the head to be useful and the other was too high and too small for the head size.  They do not want to use patterns but show some inconsistency in repeating previous mastery, something I find confusing.  I believe it is a good thing that each face have its own individual character so resist creating a process which provides consistency, like stenciling or silk screening a face on the fabric for them to embroider, but somehow we need to overcome this problem.  Somehow they find it difficult to refer back to a successful design to create the next one.  Interesting work I do here.

One very exciting part of my Verkala trip a few weeks ago could not be covered on the blog because it involved a special surprise for my husband.  I can now share that I purchased a drum for him from one of the many venders circulating the sidewalk of town.  I had been eyeing them the first day and I knew that Rusty would love one as he has long desired a drum.  Getting a large drum home was the main concern but I decided it would be worth purchasing one and mailing it if I could get a good price.  The next morning at breakfast the seller came by who had the most interesting large drum I had seen so we began bartering.  I really wasn’t prepared to purchase it that morning and had only 2000 rupies on me.  His small drums started at 2000 and the mid-sized ones (the most appropriate to send) were 4000 – but everything there was subject to a great deal of bartering.  I told him I wanted the mid-sized drum but had only 2000 rupies on me.  He was so clever, he told me he’d be glad to accept electronic devices… like I would trade my video camera for a drum!  I told him I didn’t have anything more to trade but this limited my ability later to video him playing the drum, which I would have liked.  He told me the usual story about how important the first sale of the morning is and how a good sale brings luck for the rest of the day’s sales.  After continually disappointing him that I would not buy the chosen drum if he could not sell it for 2000 rupies, he finally decided he would sell it for that price, but only on the condition that neither Kitu nor I disclosed the final price.  I’m not sure if that is because the price was too high or too low!  We set the drum under the table and continued our meal and five minutes later a second drum seller came up, saw the drum beneath me and exclaimed that I had not purchased from him.  The first thing he asked was how much I paid, which we dutifully kept to ourselves.  He was a very nice young man and as Kitu had been having discussions in Hindi with many of the sellers about their jobs, lives, conditions, etc., he told her how he had not had a sale all week and with the season closing down was feeling quite disheartened.  I felt terrible (probably what I was supposed to feel) but there wasn’t all that much I could do about it.  Unfortunately as he was talking with us, a third drum seller came by, passed us and started discussions with a couple at the next table in the restaurant – so the drum seller missed a possible sale because he was talking with us.  I was rather relieved that the couple did not end up purchasing but it was surprising how complicated it was to feel I was distributing my sales equitably.  The entire walk back to the hotel carrying the drum everyone had to comment on it and all of the shopkeepers and venders asked how much I had paid.  I will never understand the reasons behind this secrecy but it was rather amusing.  When I left for the train station later that day, I had the drum in a bag to keep the questions to a minimum – and still one of the train passengers in our compartment asked the price.  I think it was an excellent drum and it is made of wood from the jack fruit tree, which I find so fascinating.  I mailed it from Tiruchuli on March 16 after working really hard to create a sturdy enough box for it with crummy cardboard and duct tape (I think the only roll in India , brought here by Ramsey) – something I didn’t do as well as I would have liked.  It cost an additional 1000 rupies to mail it and when I asked at the post office how long it would take to arrive in America, they said one month.  When Kitu exclaimed that was such a long time, the man shrugged and said, “OK, one week” as though that would make it happen… anything to get the foreigners to quit bugging them.  Rusty received it just under two weeks later and I have to say it was one of the toughest secrets I have kept for a long time.  I am told the cardboard box was coming apart anywhere the duct tape was not securing it, so I’m grateful the drum arrived safely.  I think it had quite an adventure on its own and hope my return to Texas is less traumatic.

Speaking of my return, it is now one and a half weeks until I leave Tiruchuli.  I am very anxious to get home and excited about beginning my new life there, whatever it will be, but am starting to feel nostalgic about leaving certain aspects of life here.  So far the list I have compiled of things I know I will miss includes:
  • Daily interactions with people – here I walk the short distance between my apartment and the office a couple times a day and say hello to little children, old women, shopkeepers, and everyone else from all walks of life.  I avoid mean dogs, make note of the trash pickup days, am aware of festival activities, pass cows, goat herds, chickens and every other sort of livestock that can be kept in town, and the only livelihoods I avoid noting are when passing the butcher shops.  At home I go from inside my house (in the country with no neighbors) to inside my car to inside my work… and interactions are therefore limited to the same people in the same circumstances.  Perhaps my only exposure to a variety of strangers is going to WalMart – and that certainly does not create friendly exchanges.   Here I never know who or what I will run into just in my short journeys back and forth through town.
  • Holding automatic celebrity status – no matter where I go in the area, I stand out as a foreigner and a white person and somehow command a certain amount of notoriety or respect, and always generate crowd interest.  It will be very strange to return to my anonymous lifestyle in America where I blend in and have to do something exception to be noticed.
  • Having people concerned about my well being – ODAM provides a wonderful cook, Jayama, who ensures that I eat well (probably more than I would otherwise) and makes sure I have things I like or need.  She buys fresh flowers for my hair every day.  The office staff ensure that anything I need is arranged for me, usually as quickly as possible.  I know that if I have a health issue, they are immediately concerned and involved in ensuring my best care.  Even strangers on the street seem to take extra measures to ensure the crazy foreigner isn’t run over by the sometimes chaotic street traffic.  At home it is usually only family and friends who take any note of what I might need or want.  I will miss the extra attention and giving of so many friendly people in Tiruchuli.
  • The sense that I make a difference – which is evident in my life every day here.  I am so grateful that I have the opportunity to improve my surroundings in meaningful ways.  I believe that I work toward serving others in whatever capacity I can wherever I am but that the service I can perform here is more impactful than what I did in Texas.  Perhaps this is just my perception and I can take this feeling of accomplishing things for others to my future work in America – I hope so.
  • The fun I have trying to understand a culture that is always providing me with surprises – just when I think I fit in and know what I’m doing, Tiruchuli throws me a curve and I find out that I have no idea what is going on around me.  It is even fun reading the newspaper in an attempt to better comprehend how things work here.  Even understanding the upcoming national election provides a great deal of amusement for me.
  • Reminders that there are important things in life and that they usually aren’t things.  The people here often have so little but seem so happy.  They also live at a different pace than the usual frenetic one I maintain.  Though there are times it seems nothing gets done here, no one worries about it or gets upset because of delays; there is no road rage.  Problems deal more with interpersonal relationships and providing necessities than frustrations with coworkers and planning meaningless purchases.  There is a sense that there is more sharing and cooperation, though this is quite possibly just my view as an outsider to the community. 
I have been the only international volunteer here for a week and admit it has been a little lonely but less problematic than I originally anticipated.  Finding ways to amuse myself in the evenings has been an issue since my arrival.  The light in my apartment is not sufficient to sew or read by at night so the computer is primary entertainment.  I brought a few movies along but resisted watching them often, though other volunteers do this regularly.  Somehow I feel like reading a lot of fiction or watching many American films is some sort of escapism – something I don’t really feel the need for while I’m already “escaping” to this life adventure I am on.  Since these are the normal off-work activities for the other volunteers, I have needed to find different recreational activities and admit that I have relied a great deal on the meal conversations with the others.  Without those discussions, which range from highly inspirational to completely foolish and fun-filled, I do feel a certain lack of interesting diversions.  Somehow in moving items off of my primary computer to the small notebook and assortment of flash drives a couple weeks ago I decided to delete the few movies I had, thinking I had no more use for them.  I am now rather regretting that and last night was reduced to watching a quilt art workshop video.  Though I usually enjoy such workshops, and do not take the time to view the videos, it is a bit frustrating to have the creative juices jumpstarted and then no way to make something.  Soon this will not be a problem as I will have to spend at least a couple days packing (at least I intend to drag it out just to keep myself busy).  My upcoming trip to Madurai is also something exciting to look forward to and preparing the list of things I hope to do and to buy is a productive diversion.  Basically I think I am just anxious to get home and get busy on my upcoming job search and related life changes.  It appears a good possibility that Rusty and I will be moving from our home of thirteen years to relocate in the Houston area to better position him for the job he has taken during my absence.  I feel this is a good opportunity for us and is perhaps a good way (the only way?) to really push us to address the items we have hoarded away so easily because we have had space.  I think my initial time home will be spent starting to clear out the clutter of my life, something India has definitely helped me identify and wish to address.  However, I still have some issues with the idea of getting rid of my all-important “stuff”.  As you can probably tell by this paragraph, my head is all over the place right now and I apologize if following my train of thought is confusing – imagine what it is like on this end!

As I approach the end of my time here, I recognize I have truly been fortunate to end up working with ODAM and placed in such a friendly, helpful environment – not just Tiruchuli but India in general.  There are so many places in the world where Americans are reviled and unsafe and it has been an amazing experience to be welcomed and appreciated here.  I hope that everyone’s international experience can compare with mine.  It has been truly inspirational to me and I am anxious to see how much I have been changed by it when I return to my “normal” life.

Friday, April 1, 2011

We’re in Business!

The best news to share is that the softgoods enterprise, an official part of the new ODAM Rural Crafts project, is up and running.  Wednesday Sathya and Muthu began paid work and they will be joined on Monday by Vijarani, who will work as an assistant to their production.  I had them begin a partial week to clean and organize the new work area, one side of the front porch of the ODAM office, and to get the machines and fabrics ready.  Once that was completed, I had the women start working on perfecting prototypes of a doll pattern I am hoping we can add to our product line.  We only had these three days to “play” as we need to get into elephant production to meet the order Ponchulli asked for some time ago.  However, since stuffing won’t be in until Saturday, this seemed like a good time to try our hand at creating dolls.  I admit I am not a doll maker, having created just one baby doll for my first daughter, which must mean it was made about twenty-five plus years ago.  I have looked at any images and websites related to dollmaking that I could access and didn’t really find much that I felt could translate into a simple product here.  However, long ago when we were first discussing what might well with Ponchulli, she pulled out some rather ugly puppets with wooden heads and said that she had many customers ask for such a product dressed in south Indian clothing like saris.  Obviously carved wooden heads like they had were out of the question for the area as wood is really expensive and we already have feedback that items need to be light for tourists to take home so those particular puppets were only shared as a concept.  I know that puppets are bound to be less marketable than dolls so decided boy and girl doll sets in south Indian clothing was the goal.  After a couple pathetic attempts, I finally believe I have a workable doll body concept and so had Sathya and Muthu spend time developing suitable faces for embroidery.  This has been an interesting challenge.  When I first mentioned to Muthu a couple weeks ago I was working on a doll, she immediately suggested we buy plastic heads from the market.  She really considered this a good suggestion and I’m not sure she really bought my explanation that this would 1) not produce a salable item, at least not for the international market; 2) be too expensive for the product; 3) not work within the recycling concept central to the ODAM Rural Crafts project; 4) add significant raw material costs which leave the community (likely funding the poor in China who are manufacturing these); and 5) be downright ugly (I have seen these heads).  I think she resisted the idea of working on creating a face right up until the first nice face was embroidered – and she could see it was both attractive, relatively easy, and unique.  The love affair with cheap plastic runs deep in this area.  Though the women did not complete the dolls on Friday when they focused on them, I think they were beginning to understand the process it will take to create them.  In some ways I think it was difficult for them to transition from the style of production used for elephants to this project.  One highlight for me of the experience was coming back from lunch on Thursday and having a casual conversation with Sathya before Muthu arrived about the dolls.  The women had been working at drawing up faces but couldn’t let go of trying to draw lifelike features and I kept suggesting they think about cartoon faces, simplifying the lines as much as possible to allow a reasonable amount of embroidery to work.  Kitu had suggested that I show them the simple line drawing of the Indian woman with hands folded in Namaste position – a very attractive image being used on many items related to Indian tourism that we bought imagined they’d be familiar with.  This particular image has very few lines and creates a highly stylized, easily recognizable woman.  As we were talking about this image, Sathya and I realized we could change the arm structure of the doll slightly to create a doll with her hands in Namaste position, which is actually “Vanakam” in Tamil Nadu.  It was one of those incredibly synchronistic moments where two creative minds come up with more than either had and I was so inspired that this could happen even with the language barrier we battle.  How cool is that!  So we will try working up some dolls with what we are calling “hug arms” that look like they have hands clasped because of a knot in the arm fabric, and some that have folded hands.  It was a really positive spin to put on the dolls and I think it will make them even more attractive as south Indian representations.  I realize how much I really missed working with Sathya while we waited for the project to get back in gear.

Yesterday I had started the day with a rather interesting experience – I woke early and got up to exercise.  As I started doing stretches on my balcony, I happened to look across the main street and saw a monkey perched on a sign on top of the building.  I once saw a monkey racing through trees from my front porch (so the other side of town) and was told that one came down the street in front of the ODAM office chased by children one day when most of us were out of town, but monkeys don’t pass through Tiruchuli often so it was exciting to me.  I got my camera and took a couple pictures as he casually walked around and then a second monkey popped up.  The two of them ended up crossing to a residential rooftop a couple buildings away and then they opened up the water cistern on the roof and messed around in the water supply.  I’m not sure if they were drinking or playing but they were obviously very familiar with how the system worked and made themselves quite at home.  The idea of a monkey messing around in the water that the household uses to wash (and potentially drink?) didn’t appeal much to me and made me grateful the water I use is stored underground.  I’m probably deluding myself thinking my water is any cleaner, though.  I haven’t had a chance to see if the photos captured much – even on maximum zoom the monkeys were pretty small.

Kitu purchased one hand loomed sari from the government store last week but decided she really wanted a second created by the first weaver we saw a couple weeks ago.  Chittra, our translator for that weaving excursion, had a lot of difficulty with English but we thought we had worked out that the man could show us samples of silk colors and different trim designs and that Kitu could then select what she wanted on a sari to have made special for her.  We were going to return to his home the Saturday following our initial trip but that ended up being our trip to Kodaikanal so the visit was postponed.  Since Kitu will be leaving tomorrow (Sunday) to spend a couple weeks touring Kerala with her mother, she was hoping to arrange the visit this weekend so the order could proceed.  She didn’t get around to arranging this until Friday morning and Chittra wasn’t available for Saturday so we decided we’d do this Friday evening.  Chittra was teaching at the KGBV school so we waited at the bus stand and got on the bus she was on to head to Arrapukutti with her.  We then took an auto rickshaw to the weaver’s home, which was a rather complicated journey because there was a lot of road work in that area (remember, it’s election time here and the best time for road construction to take place!).  When we finally got to the weaver’s home, we learned that our concept of him showing us various options was totally inaccurate and that he cannot just decide on a color for one sari.  The long threads (I think warp) take a long time to load so he uses the same color to create six saris.  He can still vary the cross thread (weft? – I forget) so they are not all identical.  Then we get clarification that he can’t really sell them to us, though that was the impression we had on our first visit.  He has a middle man who works from another town who handles the sales of his saris and we would have to work through him.  This wasn’t a severe problem but Kitu has her heart set on purchasing the sari that she knows this particular weaver created.  As it happens, the warp threads he has now loaded on his loom are the most beautiful, intense, deep, rich purple/blue color and he has just completed a sari and it is ready to remove.  It was a great treat for me to see the process for removing it and it involves having about six inches of the next sari completed to provide stability to the exchange.  The sari he removed had a weft thread of violet so the two colors were unbelievably iridescent together and the gold threadwork on the sari was exquisite.  Kitu decided to try to find out if she could make arrangements to purchase this sari so Chittra dealt with the dealer by phone and they arrived at a price which was probably reasonable, though more than I personally would spend.  The newly removed piece would have to be ironed (I think this involved a blocking process) before Kitu could have it so we were making arrangements with Chittra to get it the next day to bring to the office when it occurred to Kitu that perhaps she might prefer the next sari on the loom, the one that so far was only about six inches complete.  The weaver was using the same color for the weft thread and I cannot even describe to you how vibrant this color is (though I wish I had the language for it).  The weaver, Chittra, and the weaver’s wife all tried to convince Kitu that the two color version was better – apparently the one color sari is for “rural” women – but Kitu decided that the other handloomed silk sari she purchased last week was two toned and this would provide a nice contrast.  Both were stunning so she really couldn’t make a bad decision.  She finally elected to wait for the one he is now weaving since he’ll be done by the time she arrives back from Kerala so there’s no significant delay. 

Kitu and I then went back to the shops in the area as I wanted to buy a couple small things I’d seen there before and it was rather fun energy on the streets on Friday night.  As we’re walking along there suddenly appears in front of us a small parade of children following two strange parade dolls (for lack of a better descriptor) the type used for parades in South America.  I really had to run through crazy traffic to catch up and try to get ahead for photos but the pair stopped in front of the funny looking police station there and began dancing to a drummer.  Hopefully the photos will be worth posting.  Initially there were only children interested but once I began taking photos, quite a crowd collected.  I was as much a draw, I believe, as the dancing figures.  It is surprising to me how excited the folks in Arrapukutti can get over foreigners since they so often have them just half an hour down the road.  We finally extricated ourselves from the masses and made it to the bus stop, which was strangely empty.  Turns out the bus stopped moved across the street since we were there two weeks ago – good thing Kitu had the sense to ask.  We made it back safely on a very full bus – but it was a pleasant journey and the interactions with folks was amusing as usual.  It’s always an adventure here – which is amazing for a small rural area.  Perhaps everything just seems like an adventure to me.  Unfortunately some weird setting on my camera had been inadvertently pushed and all my pictures were fuzzy.  It took almost half an hour for me to figure out how to reset the system to defaults so at least I'm back in business.

An example of how things happen all around me without my understanding is the other Muthu was working and her small son was there (he’ll be two next month and is such a cutie).  She suddenly put down her work and said she had to take him to eat.  Next thing I know she’s back and I notice he’s eating a big piece of cake and has frosting all over his face.  I ask and it’s birthday cake.  I’m still confused why she had this rush to go get him birthday cake and we finally sort out that there’s a bell outside (I hadn’t even noticed) that signals some child has a birthday and you can come out and get a piece of their cake.  Birthdays here seem to be more about giving cake than getting presents.  I never noticed the ringing bell and would never have realized it meant someone had cake available.  How often have I missed such events happening around us here because we just aren’t aware?  Another example is last week when we were coming back from Kodaikanal we stopped in a small place outside of Madurai to drop Elavarasu’s cousin off at his home.  As we were leaving Elavarasu pointed out a poster on an energy transformer on the street outside their home, telling us this was his uncle (Jayaraj’s brother).  He shows us a second one just down the road.  We then find out these posters were commemorating the one year anniversary of his death.  All this time I’ve seen posters all over and assumed they were politicians or something and likely many were similar remembrances.  Not being able to read the language certainly added to this lack of understanding, but I believe that I could be here for years and still find out I was missing vital pieces of the culture.  Probably a good lesson for me.

Another communication issue arose when I tried to talk to Sathya about her work here to get an idea of whether this opportunity is really a good be for her, something important to me to fully understand if this enterprise is doing good for the intended recipients.  Sathya had worked picking groundnuts (peanuts) the days prior to starting with the project.  She told me it was hot, backbreaking work and that it tore up her hands – and showed me how rough the top of her index finger was.  When asked, she said twisting the plants was very painful for her hands and that they had even bled from the effort.  Wanting to know if this work had been better paying – just to know if the present job is an improvement in that area since it obviously provides better work conditions – I asked how much she made per day.  Seems like a simple question – but poor Sathya couldn’t answer it that easily.  With Usha’s attempt to translate and both trying to figure out ways to explain this, I was able to determine that she was not paid in cash but for every 50 liters of groundnuts she picked she was allowed to keep 10 liters (I think this was actually kilos but this is what I got as an answer).  Then the question was whether she would use or sell the groundnuts, and it appears she will keep them.  In order to determine market price appropriately, I tried to get to what this amount of groundnuts was worth, but then learned that she doesn’t use the groundnuts as such, she will press the nuts for groundnut oil.  She couldn’t even tell me accurately how much she kept at the end of each day – not sure if she didn’t know the amount or just couldn’t figure out how to answer so I would understand.  Still trying to get at a monetary value (why am I so determined?), I am eventually told that she has never pressed groundnuts to oil so doesn’t know how much she will get, and therefore cannot answer what this is worth.  The exchange took ten minutes of rather frustrating conversation.  I, foolishly, thought I would just get a simple answer like 100 rupies which would make it easy to compare that income to her present one.  My main lesson – nothing is simple in India…

Tomorrow Kate and Ramsey leave Tiruchuli long term and Kitu will head for her vacation in Kerala.  It will be different to be the only volunteer here for my remaining time but I will be busy and can manage.  I know Jayama will make extra efforts to keep me company as she did this when I was the only one here for a couple days.  I also have my kitten to provide some companionship.  She now has a name, Neela, Tamil for Moon.  She always trails around after me and I started singing “I’m being followed by a moonshadow” by Cat Stevens which seems appropriate somehow.  The ODAM staff seem to have adopted Neela pretty well and the ODAM cat, now called Gus at least by the volunteers, accepts her more than I would have hoped for.  By the time I leave she will be able to drink the packet milk and will be much less dependent on me as a surrogate mother so I think I served my purpose for her.

That’s most of the news for now.  Hope you find your lives as joy filled and exciting as I find mine.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Great Birthday Celebration

We just returned from a fabulous trip to the hillstation of Kodaikanal.  I would suggest you check out the description on Wikipedia for basics, which is what I did, as I honesty can add nothing to the description of the actual town.  Kate and Ramsey are at the end of a long-term collaboration with ODAM and wanted a chance to celebrate with their friends.  I was lucky enough to have them make the trip on my birthday so they made quite a fuss over the day, though generally I prefer to ignore the entire getting-older event.  Elavarasu, AKA “The Fixer”, lived up to his reputation by arranging a bus to take us (the four volunteers and 12 ODAM staff) and a bungalow to stay in.  He also took care                                of ensuring we had ample opportunities to see the tourist spots there.  We left on Friday afternoon, had lunch along the way, and made the long uphill trip to Kodaikanal during the afternoon.  The change in topography and temperature as we climbed the mountains was wonderful, shifting from the heat of the flatlands into almost jungle environment into more standard forests.  When we had light showers hit us on the way up, it was so refreshing I already felt a world away from the heat of Tiruchuli.  I took so many photos driving up the winding road and can’t imagine these are particularly worth posting for the blog, but will try to post some of the shots I have looking out at the area around the city as that provides a really nice feel for the place.  I saw my first family of monkeys on the side of the road as we climbed (probably an hour or so before we reached Kodaikanal) but I was so surprised that I didn’t capture the photo. 

We arrived at our bungalow in early evening, made ourselves at home, and then went up on the roof to enjoy drinks and snacks.  I have been pretty good about avoiding most of the greasier snack foods here – but I definitely had enough that night.  We went in for dinner pretty late and I had the chance to enjoy cauliflower 65, which was the vegetarian version of chicken 65 which I had heard great things about.  It was a very spicy dish and I enjoyed it a great deal.  We then went to bed – but I’m afraid we rather misbehaved in the girls’ room (Usha, Begum, Kitu and I) and acted like we were having a slumber party till pretty late.  At midnight Usha (who was checking the time on her phone every couple minutes) alerted the others and they all began singing happy birthday to me.  Pretty funny group.  I think we were the only bunch relatively sober and were probably the ones having the most fun. 

I had ample opportunity to see more monkeys on Saturday when we visited an interesting pine forest which had apparently been planted during British days and which was quite popular with the Indian tourists.  Our next stop was the three pillars, which were awesome monolithic stones and incredibly scenic.  The day was quite misty so the lookout was not possible, but it was an attractive area, again heavily visited.  Both of these areas had some roadside venders set up, many selling snack fruits and carrots.  Some people seemed to purchase these items as much to feed the monkeys as to partake of themselves.  I admit I have not seen carrots like these since I arrived – they must grow very well there.  We then went to “Green Valley Point” which used to be called “Suicide Point” but was renamed because of the huge numbers of suicides the name apparently engendered.  A large wall with high fence had been built to prevent further problems and with the mist, we really couldn’t see much at the actual lookout.  However, there were a large number of venders arranged in a narrow corridor up to the lookout so there was a festive air about the place anyway.  I had an amusing time as we were leaving when a couple young men asked if they could have a photo with me.  Several photos were taken with young guys shifting in and out of the shot and then the first young man who had approached me asked for a photo with me kissing his cheek – which I had to admit tickled me a great deal.  A woman turning 53 isn’t asked to kiss young men often.  Having no reputation to uphold, I complied with the request, much to the amusement of the surrounding crowd.  Kitu watched the whole thing and was highly amused that I was able to entertain such a crowd – and she greatly regretted not capturing the event for posterity.  Perhaps this incredible photo will show up on the internet at some point!  We ended the outing by renting boats to pedal around Star Lake, the manmade lake within the city.  We filled four boats, had a brief race, tried to ram each other occasionally, picked waterlilies (which have truly ugly stems) and enjoyed the sunshine on the water in a very lovely location.  We returned to the bungalow after the tourist excursion to give everyone a chance to rest up but I really wanted a chance to get out so took a walk toward the lake – about 15 minutes from the bungalow.  It began lightly sprinkling about ten minutes out and I debated about going back but it was only a light rain and we had travelled through small showers so I hoped that was all this would be.  By the time I reached the lake (a rather boring side of it I might add), the rain began in earnest.  At this point I was getting quite wet and knew I’d be soaked by the time I returned anyway so continued on.  I met up with two more young men (I guess I’m just a magnet for young Indian guys) as I walked toward a more populated part of town and we had a nice discussion.  When we reached an area to part ways, they (naturally) asked if they could take photos with me as well.  I must say I felt far more attractive and desirable than I would have on my birthday in the States!  Delusion is such a wonderful thing.  I wandered a bit in town but took a turn which lead me past carpenter shops and a couple cement manufacturers (probably not the usual tourist stops) and the rain just continued to escalate.  At one point I stood under an awning waiting for the rain to abate a bit, but it really didn’t help – I headed back to the bungalow to ensure I was back before the next planned event (which didn’t actually happen anyway) and I was soaked to the skin by the time I got back.  An hour and forty-five minutes of walking in the rain with the weather cooling down ought to have been a bad thing – but I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed the outing and the rain on the lake was beautiful and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy such experiences if I hadn’t braved the weather. We ended up just hanging around the bungalow all evening, had a birthday cake (thank you Kitu) and had a great bonfire which burned eucalyptus wood and smelled lovely. 

Sunday we packed up and headed home on the bus, with a couple stops on the way out of town.  We went to Coaker’s Walk, which was a scenic walk about a quarter mile with quite a few additional venders.  I kind of wished I could get into buying stuff but the venders were really catering to the Indian tourists and I didn’t want to buy imports from China.  We went through a nice horticultural garden and then spent time visiting the row of venders there.  Just outside of town we stopped at Silver Falls, which was pretty but didn’t have the water flow I’m sure it had during wetter seasons, We made one small stop on the descent in a small village (not sure exactly why) and there we saw the largest avocadoes I’ve ever seen – they were the size of a good sized grapefruit.  They were so hard and though we discussed the possibility of purchasing one, we ended up deciding against it. The downhill trip was a bit more disconcerting and several of us complained we felt a bit carsick by the time we got to the flatland, myself included.  Once we hit the flatland we stopped for lunch and it was probably the best meal we had on the trip.  Kate ended up enjoying quail – which was an interesting dish to offer in the same way they had chicken and mutton (goat).  Kitu and I shared veg fried rice and chili paneer, both items that Jayama doesn’t cook, so it was a pleasant change of pace.  We dropped off Elavarasu’s cousin and visited with his mother for a short time – another opportunity to be hosted graciously in an Indian home.  We arrived back in the office about 6:30 p.m. and ended up meeting back up for dinner (Jayama’s cooking) at 7:30.  It was good to be home and perhaps good to be back in the heat – though you may have to remind me I said that later as it is HOT here.

That covers the weekend trip – so now to backtrack a bit on other things happening of late.  Friday morning Kitu, Kate, and I went to Arapukutti by car with Nagalachmi (one of the women who coordinates the SHGs) to look at hand loomed saris at “the government store”.  Somehow Nagalachmi didn’t really understand that was our aim so we started off at a fancy sari store (probably the nicest in Arapukutti) which had no hand looms like Kitu wanted.  We finally got to the right place and went into the back room where the special saris were kept in a locked cabinet.  There were some very interesting ones and Kitu selected one which was a different green than any we had seen.  Most of the saris tend to be bright jewel colors so someone like Kate, who looks best in more muted shaded colors, has problems finding something that works with her skin color.  Kitu paid quite a bit for the sari but was quite pleased with the quality.  She still intends to meet up with the first gentleman we saw weaving so that she can special order another.  I felt quite fortunate in finding a hand loomed wool scarf to purchase (Kate did too) for a very reasonable cost and hope it will make a nice gift. 

The project is finally rolling again.  This Wednesday Muthu and Sathya will begin working.  We are going to spend three days setting up the work space and preparing materials.  I am also hoping that they can assist me in working up the new doll project I hope to work out before I leave.  We’ll begin actual production next Monday when the cotton waste for stuffing should arrive.  This will allow me to supervise the work and assist in setting up systems for the first couple weeks of operation.  Kitu will be around for about another month beyond my time and will help Usha learn how to manage and operate the three businesses which will be set up under ODAM Rural Crafts.  I have decided to leave India earlier than originally planned as I feel good about the work I have completed here and enough is going on at home with Rusty taking on new challenges which I should assist.  I will be arriving back in Texas on Sunday, April 17, and am really looking forward to shifting back to my new life and future job search.

Thank you for any slogging through this long email.  All is going well here, my health is holding up, and I’m on the countdown with a little less than three weeks remaining.

Take care!