Sunday, January 30, 2011

Catching Up Posts

I must apologize for how long it’s been since my last post but I’ve been very busy with more going on than usual.  I am writing this on Sunday afternoon but will try to recap since last Tuesday.

On Monday we had expected Vichy, the young woman who has been working with Christa on the project and had been arranged to receive a wage as the project coordinator.  However, when we asked why she hadn’t arrived by the prearranged time we asked her husband about her and were told she had gone to Madurai.  I have been unimpressed by the commitment shown by Vichy but Christa has already invested a great deal of time trying to get her involved and keeps believing that we can train her to properly do the job.  This disturbed her though and I think it was beginning to be too much for her.  She decided to meet with Vichy when she came in the next morning to try to assess her commitment.  I am trying to be supportive through this, partly because I don’t believe that Vichy wants to work but I don’t really know her and don’t want her to lose a job because of my opinion.  Tuesday morning she comes in and we meet and she says she wants to work on the project and Christa attempts to explain the importance of calling in when she won’t be coming as expected and Vichy obviously understands and agrees.  Christa then spends considerable time trying to show Vichy how the fabric scraps we have should be sorted.  We have too little fabric actually to complete the orders we have but we’re wasting so much time digging through the assorted bags trying to put together something suitable.  Vichy works on the sorting but only so long as Christa is there with her – as soon as Christa leaves, Vichy shows up in the main office area just to sit.  Christa checks and Vichy basically tossed anything unsorted into the waste pile (which has really small pieces we use to stuff the toys we’re making).  Then early in the afternoon a young woman comes into the office and comes to tell us she wants to work on our project.  She had been by in the training ODAM held the week before and was part of the group I had spoken to.  So we have our first person to train and we’re pretty excited.  Christa gets Vichy and tells her we have someone new to work on the project so that Vichy can begin to orient her (something we have discussed with her but would have to personally supervise as it would be part of her training as well).  Vichy says “just a minute” and heads to the front of the office.  She doesn’t come back… and we’re sitting there making small talk with this woman waiting for Vichy.  Christa goes looking and then asks her husband where she went.  Apparently she went over to the temple.  Christa had finally had enough.  It was quite awkward having the new woman there as this was taking place but we got some contact information from her and arranged for her to come in the next morning.  After she left Christa got quite upset and asked Vichy when she returned why she had just left.  Of course there was no reasonable answer and it took a great deal to calm Christa down.  I finally suggested that she and I leave the office and meet on my balcony to discuss what should be done.  It took a while to get Christa to leave and on the way back to my building, I worked at getting Christa to see that losing Vichy as Program Coordinator at this point really didn’t hurt the project.  In fact, it was an ideal time since the training for the master trainers had not yet happened so the women will not have to shift procedures by removing Vichy now.  I think it was hard for Christa as she had worked really hard to get someone into this position before I came and she hadn’t really reevaluated how things could work now that I am continuing on the project longer.  By the time we reached the rooftop and could sit and rationally evaluate our next steps, I had convinced her that this was a very good time for the project to be coordinated by us and that we could choose a new coordinator (or a team of coordinators) from the women who go through the training once we see their skills and get to know them well.  I felt Vichy’s lack of sewing skills was as great an impediment as her lack of interest in the project so having someone who can fully understand the process will be a better choice to me.  I also prefer the idea that a couple of women share the responsibilities to coordinate things and planted the seed with Christa.  I have enjoyed working with Christa very much but have felt her need for control on the project has been difficult for me.  Working through this with her allowed me to bring some flexibility to her approach through a cooperative effort and it was interesting to see how the suggestions I made were presented later to Elango as Christa’s ideas – and how I actually was pleased that I had been able to subtly shift the project to a more effective path while still allowing Christa her need to be in charge.   

By the time Sathya, our new “employee”, started late morning on Wednesday, we were ready to proceed as though there had never been a previous coordinator and nothing was awkward for her.  Her husband is a tailor close to Tiruchuli and the first morning she called into the office when we expected her at 10:00 to explain she had to be late because of some family issue.  We were grateful she’d called.  When she came in she brought along her four year old daughter, a beautiful young girl who was incredibly well behaved as she stayed in the office from about 11:30 till they left at 5:00.  We started Sathya on simple tasks but it was obvious right away that she could catch on and do more so we went far further in the process of creating the toy elephants (our initial focus for the order) than I could have hoped for.  She worked quietly and efficiently, asked appropriate questions, and her English was very good.  We really felt good by the end of the day that we had a helpful person to keep us rolling on the production we’re hoping for.  It was obvious that Ponchulli was most enthusiastic about selling the elephants as they are very different than other items available on the market.  We decided to focus on working on creating them so we could get some of them onto the market before we completed the entire order.  Because I was going to Madurai to catch the bus to Salem (for TedX) on Friday afternoon, we set a goal to complete five elephants (half the initial order for them) to deliver that morning.  With Sathya’s help on Wednesday and Thursday, we managed it – along with four (of the five ordered) frogs which Christa created.  I have to admit that toy making is not very enjoyable to me – but the sewing machine I’ve been using has become almost impossible to sew with so it was probably a good thing I could help with handwork.  We just had the machine serviced so this is very disturbing and I’ll have to see what we can do this week as I need to get busy creating the bags (along with Sathya) which we need to fill the order.  As we sewed, I asked Sathya a little about her family and her husband’s work as a tailor.  Basically I got that sometimes he gets big orders and there’s reasonable income but that sometimes he makes only 50 or 100 rupees a day.  It seemed she wanted to work to provide a more regular wage.

The coolest thing about Sathya coming to work for us happened on Thursday morning when she came in for her second day of work.  Christa was still out doing her occupational therapy with Alahess so I was the only one working with her and she pulled out a notebook – the “ledger” that the children use in school – and showed me how she had taken the time the night before to write up everything she had learned during the day.  She had written out complete instructions in English and Tamil, and included diagrams.  It was incredible – we hadn’t asked her to do anything like this but it is something that we were going to need for the training (and something Christa had tried to get Vichy to assist with on other projects than elephants).  I was so impressed that she had taken such initiative and that she had done such a good job on the project.  About an hour later, she got up the nerve to show me another project – she’d written another page into a notebook – I think it was a different one – that was in crazy English but it was basically directions to her house and information about her family that I think was intended to be an invitation to Christa and I to visit so she could cook for us.  At the end it had a paragraph about how “Christa and Bret are my friends” and I have to say I was pretty close to tears reading this.  It was obvious how much this project means to her and that I can be included in that was so touching.  She had not brought a lunch to eat that day (we really didn’t understand the explanation but think it was basically there wasn’t time as something came up with the family and she didn’t want to be late again) so we insisted that she come to the volunteer mess to eat.  I think she was uncomfortable about it but we couldn’t leave her there working while we ate and sat around for an hour.  On the way Christa left us to take care of other business and I asked Sathya a little bit about the training that I knew she’d had with ODAM.  At one point she said that she’d trained with ODAM for thirty days and now was working for two with Christa and me.  I was telling her that Christa would be leaving in a few weeks but that I would continue on for a couple more months and got the feeling that she was disappointed that the project would end so I explained that we hoped we were creating work for the women that would continue long after we’re gone and that it would grow to employ even more.  It was marvelous to watch her face as it sank in that this was actually a regular job that could continue to provide income, however small, for her family.  God I’m grateful to be here!

The drama with Vichy on Tuesday ended up causing me to lose track of time and as we were initially visiting with Sathya, I realized it was already past the time I should have left for the girl’s school.  I decided there wasn’t much I could do about it at that point and that I’d go on Wednesday and Thursday to complete the two days for the week.  I don’t think they’ve figured out my schedule anyway (and now it will certainly be more challenging) so this wasn’t really a problem.  So Wednesday I left the elephant sewing frenzy and headed off to the school.  I told the teachers there that I really wanted only a small group again and this seemed to be quite challenging to them – I only hope that the girls who wanted to attend were able.  I arrive at their snack time, which is when I’m told I should go, but I hate interrupting that for them.  We got started pretty late by the time I made it clear they could eat their snacks while with me so that they ran out to get them, and then the teacher was visibly upset that the room didn’t have a full ten students when she looked in.  Wish I could speak Tamil.  We discussed weather and it went over pretty well.  Their favorite word was “breeze” (last class it was thirsty).  After I had decided we’d talk about what is obviously so important to them – and I created a family tree on the chalkboard.  This gave us an opportunity to review many terms they sometimes confuse like aunt, uncle, son-in-law, etc.  They ate it up.  First I put myself and my husband, then put Alysson and below it put her age.  They gasped in surprise and asked how old I was – so I put 52 under my name.  They couldn’t get over this and I’m not sure if it was flattering that I don’t look 52 or that girls of 15 can’t imagine anyone being 52.  It was great fun discussing my family and then shifting to asking about theirs.  I learned the words for grandmother and grandfather so came out a bit ahead for the lesson as well.  The girls begged me to bring a family photo so I said I could bring photos on the computer but that it was very heavy to bring on the bus so I’d only do it once and we agreed it would work for me to bring it the next day – though there seemed to be a great deal of concern that again only 10 could come and perhaps they wouldn’t see them so I assured them any of them there could come see the photos.  Then they broached the subject of my being white – and asking if all my family is white so I decided I’d incorporate a lesson on Thursday about the different cultures within America.  Thursday I trudged the computer on the bus and out to the school and as I arrived all the girls were asking if I had the photos and I told them yes and they were so excited.  One of the young girls came into the room to tell me that “your class is my light”.  This was the same day that Sathya had said I was her friend so I’m already feeling pretty good about what I’m doing in India – and then there’s lots of hubbub with the girls about who is staying and who is leaving to play games – and this same girl has her friends coming in to the room to get her to leave and play.  I told her she could go and play if she wanted but that I wasn’t going to be bringing the photos again – and this was obviously a tough choice for her but she elected to stay for the pictures.  I think having to compete with the everyday games brought me back down to earth that I’m not exactly making that much difference in their lives – darn that reality check.  I then gave what I hoped was an interesting lesson on the difference between India with its long history and population by Indians and America and how people from everywhere came to populate it so much more recently.  I left off native Americans as that was just too much to figure out how to explain.  I’d brought a world map which we carefully spread on the floor so they could all see what I was talking about and I explained how people from all over, Europe, Africa, and Asia had come to America and that we all lived together – all different looking.  Then I explained there were many brown people like them, white people like me, black people, and yellow people (which I hated saying as I think it’s a rude way to describe Asians) and they couldn’t imagine that – so there was no addition of red people.  I then described how Indians living in the United States are a small population but that maybe someday they might go there.  Then we did the photos – and they loved seeing them.  I went ahead and showed them the photos I’d collected of my house, though now that I see how folks live in the villages, it seems ostentatious and I don’t want to appear to brag or anything.  However, the girls were very excited to see Indian items in my home – which I hadn’t even thought about so it gave me a good opportunity to tell them how much I already loved India before I even came – and they were so pleased.   The two lessons were very good and heartwarming and I felt covering cultural information was important as we worked on English.  I would rather they come away with more understanding than just more proper grammar (which they get enough of in their classroom).

Friday morning Christa, Paul, Kitu and I loaded up in the car to head to Madurai.  Paul had visited while attending meetings with Kate and Ramsey but hadn’t really done any sight seeing yet and Kitu had only flown in and driven through briefly.  Since the shops we needed to visit are all in the temple area (the only part of town I ever see any more) coming along with us on our errands gave them an opportunity to see a bit more.  We stopped at the craft store and bought some beads we needed for eyes for the frogs that had been sewn and then all sat on the sidewalk sewing eyes on frogs before we could deliver them to Ponchuli.  I have a feeling we were pretty amusing looking to passersby but no one seemed to pay particular attention.  We also bought two proper silkscreens with nice images.  The cheap one for kolams was a great design but fell apart after two uses.  Hopefully this will allow me to further experiment with the idea – though I won’t have time till the order has been met.  This may or may not be practical but it seemed an easier way to incorporate popular images to items for sale than fully embroidering them.  We then visited the shop and they were quite pleased with the elephants.  As we were talking, two foreigners came up to look at some of the goddess figurines the shop carries and had to take a look at the elephants – a very good sign.  They were two young women from Holland working for a month in a couple local hospitals – training of some sort.  I was pleased the elephants drew some attention but think the initial batch are more suitable for a foreign market than the Indian shops.  We just didn’t have proper silk fabrics to work with to construct fancier ones.  Ponchuli gave Christa a good amount that at first glance looked good and the group was going to Ponchuli’s brother’s home after they dropped me off and had lunch to pick up more scraps (supposedly quite a bit).  Vichyan (the husband) had not yet had a chance to purchase a couple of the recycled saris so we could see the quality, which was a bit disappointing, but we wanted to be sure the quality would be adequate, particularly for the toys, before purchasing any quantity.  We intend to complete the order in the next week and hopefully he’ll get around to this before we return.  They’re incredibly nice and gracious but seem to forget what we’ve asked for between visits – and Christa is trying hard not to press them on anything.  This isn’t a concern, just slows up what I wish was happening.  I have to remember that important lesson of working on their time.  So the morning in Madurai was successful and they got me to the bus station in plenty of time for me to grab a quick lunch and catch my bus.

The bus that had been arranged to take me to Salem was a private bus company and it was really quite luxurious.  The bus on the way home (which I will take this evening) is not air conditioned so it will be interesting to see if it is less comfortable.  The ride was very pleasant watching the countryside change to more hills.  Arriving into Salem outskirts looked just like the villages or arriving into Madurai but as we got into the city, it appeared very large and there were many nice looking residential areas.  I am told Madurai is larger but perhaps because it is flatter my impression is that it is not as large.  I have the feeling I am only seeing the downtown area and that it must have a nicer side I’m missing.  However, one person I met in Salem told me that Madurai has the reputation of being “the largest village” in India. 

Veera was there to pick me up as I got off the bus – and a good thing as I was dropped off across the street from the bus station which looked like a huge riot of activity and I doubt I could have found anyone in the crowd.  He dropped me off at my hotel (where they were putting up all of the TedX speakers needing accommodations) to freshen up a bit and then a driver picked me up to take me to take a look at the venue, where everyone was working feverishly preparing for the next day’s event.  There I met one of the other speakers who was attempting to help them by reviewing some Ted talks which might be shown the next day (my understanding is that a portion of the content of a TedX conference must be actual Ted material).  We were then joined by a third presenter who was very interesting but had more limited English.  She spent quite a while instructing me on how traditional Indian dance encompasses all of life and her passion was quite obvious, even if I did remain unconvinced that anyone should be able to understand the depth of meaning behind the precise gestures.  What was most interesting was the focus on improving health through dance – and how each gesture and motion was meant to open up nerve centers or allow more proper breathing but that everything was designed to work with the dancer’s body and create no strain.  I tried to ask if she was familiar with Western ballet and the toll it can take on the dancers but she wasn’t particularly interested.  As we three speakers got to know each other, the student volunteer team and the conference coordinators were busy working on preparing the auditorium.  Probably the most disconcerting thing to me was to see the 15 foot banner that had information about the presenters – with a 3 foot x 2 foot picture of me.  Sujartha had gone to the photos on my blog and pulled the one Christa took the day we had the sewing machines repaired.  It looked as good as a huge picture of me could look.  Kind of put the pressure on me to deliver a better presentation than I felt I had prepared.   When we were taken back to the hotel, I spent a little more time polishing the talk and getting adequate rest. 

I will continue the information on the conference and the return to Tiruchuli in a future post as this has already become too long for anyone to slog through.

Take care.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sunday Event

Writing this early Sunday evening as there wasn’t time to pull something together this morning.  Yesterday I took it easy and worked from my room for the morning, headed to the office to post my blog and check emails, and then after lunch all five of the volunteers took the bus to Arrapukkati.  It’s a short bus ride (about half an hour) and there were different things to see and do so it seemed like a good break.  There were a couple things Paul has now identified he needs after being here almost a week so it gave him an opportunity for slightly better shopping.  He wanted to buy some fabric to have a tailor sew him up two men’s shirts since these are the dress uniform here.  We ladies headed off in another direction to visit a shop Kate has sometimes found cute tops in but none of us found anything we wanted in the store.  I think Christa is in the market for a pair of black pants – the wide style – but we had no luck.  We wandered into a couple small places and then into a larger clothing store (still small but larger than we would find in Tiruchuli) and I purchased the underskirt for my sari – something I’d forgotten while at Pothy’s. 

We then walked through the vegetable market as Christa wanted to take some photos – and it was a very interesting place for that.  The stalls are close together and wide around an area about the size of a city block but they have covered all of the aisle between shops so it is darker and cooler.  I’m not sure why they chose to enclose the space but it made the light coming in through thatched areas or between roofs very interesting and the baskets of unusual vegetables and rice and odd “crisps” made everything seem very exotic.  When we left Christa purchased a pineapple for us to share that evening.  She also introduced Paul and I to jack fruit – the fruit inside the hairy looking pods I’d seen first in Madurai.  I’m posting pictures of that so you can see what I mean.  The vendor first cut the very rough textured fruit in half (this is about the size of a small watermelon).  This opens up a creamy colored interior with a slightly harder core, rather like a pineapple.  Once he cut that out, the spread the fibrous interior apart which exposed the small jack fruit.  I would say these were about the size and lumpy shape of a green pepper, though still the same cream color as the fiber part of the plant.  All was thrown away but the fruit section.  This had an odd texture that reminded me of eating the white interior portions of a pepper which normally aren’t eaten (which is probably the part apparently most disliked by the other volunteers who don’t eat them) and the fruit tasted a bit like mild pineapple, but was not juicy.  In fact, it actually seemed to make me thirstier after eating it.  I didn’t find it objectionable and will probably eat it again next time I have an opportunity.

We then walked quite a distance to the bus station, which is the same place Christa and I passed through the day we took the bus back from Madurai.  On the way we passed a large mosque which I photographed to post to my picasa site.  The bus ride back was uneventful.  It was a pleasant outing with different things to see and do but not something to get overly excited about doing often.  It was just a nice change of pace.  I think Christa wants to return sometime to visit the temple there and I could be up for that.  After dinner I visited the Lalitha, the tailor, to bring her my sari and arrange for her to sew the blouse.  She had just returned from temple so arranged for me to come by for the fitting tonight.  She and her family of four all live in a room the size of my apartment and this was my first time in it – amazing.  This makes me more seriously evaluate whether I really need all of the material possessions I own.  She speaks very little English but her daughter in her late teens does pretty well as translator.  I had met Lalitha at the Pongal celebration and she seems like a genuinely sweet woman.  She wanted to mark our foreheads with the ash and the red dot and then she had us taste a very sweet and gooey concoction made from dates – something related to the temple visit.  She was so concerned with washing our hands after our small sample and then dried them off with her sari – it was somewhat embarrassing.  I wish I deserved half the respect these people offer me.

This morning we were picked up a little later than planned to get to the school.  We were told the minister, who is an important person – he’s the Minister of Education for the state of Tamil Nadu – was expected at 10:00 for the opening.  Kate and Ramsey warned this could mean we’d spend the entire morning waiting for him.  We got to the school, had the opportunity to look around at the recent work (neither Paul nor Ramsey had seen the new building), and stay out of the way as the last minute adjustments to everything were conducted.  All of the teachers were wearing identical new saris – something ODAM likes to do is ensure everyone is dressed properly for events so I wasn’t surprised by this.  The saris were bright turquoise with a border of yellow and orange with ornate gold – the women all looked very nice in them and I rather wished I’d qualified as a teacher ;-)   I wore one of the nicer chirudai outfits that Suganthi helped choose for me and felt very appropriately dressed, which was a good thing as we saw when we got there that Kate and I were scheduled to speak!  Right at 10:00 the activity became quite active with folks ushering the half dozen girls with welcoming drums up to the drive and a couple vehicles arrived bearing the Minister and his entourage.  He shook hands with the important men and they all got right to business marching up to the classroom decorated for the event and did the official ribbon cutting.  We were all ushered inside where they were lighting one of the tall gold “candlesticks” which had five incense points being lit – and they rushed me up there (I was the first of the volunteers into the room) to light the last point and Jayaraj proudly introduced me to the Minister as a visitor from Texas State University.  I have the feeling he thinks I’m a professor or something – and I feel a bit like an imposter but then realize that the really important part is I’m a white person from America and my credentials, or lack thereof, is probably inconsequential.  Ramsey, Kate and I then took our seats at the far end of the line of chairs with Paul sitting across the room, which worked out well for him to catch a few photos for me.  The girls were all ushered into the room to sit quietly on the floor.  We all rose and the girls sang a rather long and tuneless song which I imagine could have been a national anthem or something else important, and then we were seated and the program began.  There was a bit of speaking by a couple individuals and then the other woman (a local woman I did not recognize) spoke for a while.  She had notes prepared and spoke for a while and was visibly nervous, with her notes shaking and then she held her sari end, again shaking as she spoke.  I was rather relieved for her when she had finished and intended to congratulate her after but didn’t see here as things disbanded.  Hopefully I’ll have another opportunity sometime – I would like to support more female leadership.  After a couple short speeches, there was a bit of ceremony as gifts were pulled from a bag and beautifully embroidered scarves were briefly placed on the shoulders of some of the men in the chairs, starting with the Minister.  They’d place the scarf over his shoulders and then it was removed almost instantly and the man would tuck it near him somewhere on the chair.  Once they’d recognized all of the dignitaries in this way, they brought out bright colored bath towels for the other guests and did the same procedure – so I had a bath towel ceremonially placed on my shoulders and got a towel out of the experience.  They were good and made sure Paul got one as well, even though he wasn’t sitting up on the chair line.  I was called up to speak first and think I made a reasonably official speech thanking them for allowing me to be a part of their opening and recognizing the work of so many to create such a wonderful school for the girls.  The best part was that as Jayaraj was introducing me, he mentioned 8 standard (the grade I’m teaching) and apparently asked the girls and several said my name (whew, they remembered after only two classes with them).  I tried to speak slowly but didn’t really attempt to simplify my English very much – concerned I might sound like I was talking down to them.  Kate then spoke and chose to use more simple words so I’ll probably work with that more in the future.  She then had an inspired thought (she’s done this much more than I have) and ended her speech with the comment that she believed that with the building of this new school that it was now possible that “the next Minister of Education for Tamil Nadu could be sitting in this room right now”.  The Minister and dignitaries ate this up.  The Minister then spoke, in Tamil of course, and it was a bit of a challenge to continue looking at him in an interested way without the mind wandering.  I felt some obligation sitting at the front of the room to maintain a respectful air but it’s harder than you’d think when you don’t actually have a clue what’s being said.  At one point though he did refer to Kate and I and later I could tell that he pulled in Kate’s comment about the next Minister being there.  I believe he was a very moving speaker as the crowd seemed very enthusiastic.  At the end of his speech he turned to us and addressed in English thanking us for coming to work in the area.  I was really pleased to be part of their ceremony.  The school looked really nice.  A great deal of work had been done to ready it for the event – with building details painted a deep purple since my last visit on Thursday.  The yard had been cleaned up and kolams had been painted in doorways of the new section and traditional chalk ones (very colorful) greeted everyone at the entrance to the yard and at the bottom of the stairwell.  The chalkboard in the classroom (these are all chalkboard paint on the block walls) had been beautifully lettered with colorful chalk and whatever it said was read by Jayaraj as he addressed the girls.  They did a very nice job of creating an impressive atmosphere.  Kate and Ramsey have commented that they are good at coordinating these events but that it can be rather disconcerting from an outsider’s standpoint as it appears nothing is ready or being prepared (like the way the school looked last Thursday) but at the last minute they pull it all together.  My husband pointed out that’s the advantage of having a lot of labor available and I think that is a part, but obviously there was a good deal of pre-planning in order to have saris ready and the blouses sewn for each teacher and appropriate gifts readied.  They do things differently and I need to keep this in mind as I work with them – my pace isn’t the only speed to get things done.

Since the ceremony was over by 11:00 am., we returned to our apartments and had most of our Sunday free.  Kate and Ramsey are painting a small back room of their apartment yellow to brighten up the dark space, something they’ve discussed since last week when they couldn’t get the paint color they wanted.  I spent time resting and playing with the idea of my TedX talk – and think I’m going to speak about something different than originally planned so am still working at getting my ideas in order.  I think it will be a better topic but it hasn’t coalesced enough yet to describe.  For some reason there are loudspeakers on the main street a couple shops down from our alley which have been blaring music most of the afternoon.  I’m finding it very distracting and haven’t accomplished much so thought I’d pull together my blog post so I hope you’ll forgive me if this isn’t completely coherent.  I think I’ll head over to the office to see if I can upload my blog, maybe some photos, and check my emails.  It really has been nice to take some time to wind down – last weekend I sewed and had my mind focused on the project and next weekend will be my trip to Salem so I probably ought to take care of myself today and rest a bit.  There are just so many interesting things to do all the time that it is kind of hard to take it easy.

Wishing you the best from India.

Friday, January 21, 2011


The trip to Madurai yesterday was very successful.  We met with Ponchelli and her husband, Vichyan, who continued to show great support for the project.  They chose three of the prototypes we had created and asked for ten of each and then for prototypes of a couple more ideas presented to them.  Their feedback was very helpful – especially their desire to have items made with handwork as these will not be readily copied by everyone within the market and will therefore have more salability for them.  They offered a large bag of remnant material that we could collect on our next trip in with a car as her brother and sister-in-law are both tailors and she wants us to have good quality scraps with which to work.  Of more interest to me personally was the offer of Vichyan to arrange purchase of used sari remnants – apparently the full length of silk saris which have had their ornamental borders removed.  This would be about six meters of silk for 100 Rupies (~$2.25 USD).   I believe this is the type of waste which I have found “spun” into a yarn which is very colorful (I’ve found only at the Houston Quilt Show and on Ebay).  Both Christa and I lighted up with this – as we’re both greedy fabric collectors ;-)  We discussed that purchases of this sort could be made and we could split the pieces two or three ways (depending on who wanted it) with ODAM supplies since they need some larger pieces for items like linings but six meters is too large and this would increase the steady availability of a range of quality fabrics and colors.  She and I could purchase the other portions we wanted to increase the variety of the fabric we wish to bring home for future use.  I feel a bit greedy getting excited about such a find but this fabric works perfectly for the recycling aspect of our project and allows materials for a very good end product, making it more readily marketable.  When I told my husband, he immediately understood my interest and said I need to figure out how to bring home a second suitcase ;-)

Our last visit to the shopkeepers we stopped at the ultimate craft store for the area – an interesting place with some of the materials I wanted.  One of the paint products there that I was considering purchasing we were told needed to be mixed and they offered two day classes on it so I knew it wasn’t what I as looking for at the time.  However, as we walked to the bus stand we found the street vendor selling silk screens to make kolams and decided attempting to silk screen the Ganesh design onto fabric would be good.  We went back to the craft store to purchase the paint, and to introduce our local project coordinator to the store so she could make future purchases, and when we asked to see the paint this time, the shop owner pulled out much nicer silk screens since that’s what the paint is for (am I good or am I good?).  The screens themselves were nice but the wooden mountings were unprotected and wouldn’t last long without something like duct tape to protect them.  I’ve asked about duct tape but so far haven’t found that it’s available here.  Of course, the biggest impediment to locating a product like that is knowing the right way to ask for it so it very well could be found and I just haven’t called it the right thing yet.  The screens had some nice designs which could be usable in the future and they were reasonably priced (the most expensive was 180 Rupies or $4) but we aren’t sure yet how they’ll be used in the projects so will not purchase the screens until we are sure they’re needed.  I’d still prefer to find a source to make screens from our own artwork but Christa isn’t that enthusiastic about that and it’s probably just my desire to have projects more my own creations.  Now that I have the paint and appropriate binder I can see how silk screened images could be incorporated into something for the project.  Ponchulli was reasonably enthusiastic about the possibility so we’ll see what I can come up with.  It’s nice that some of my skills may come in handy.  When I asked last week about the silk screen Elango found it rather humorous that I was considering them as apparently Jayaraj at some point had looked into opening a print shop or something similar and this would have been a product he’d have made.  Maybe there is some connection here ;-)

After the market visit, we picked up one of the very cool kitchen knives that Rusty wanted.  The driver, a young man with better English than he lets on, helped me to choose a good one – they all looked pretty beat up (everything not plastic here does) but he found one he insisted was better wood.  Getting this thing home will be more of a challenge than any quantity of fabric but for 60 Rupies ($1.35) I guess I can make Rusty happy ;-)  I’m posting a photo to the photo site so you can see this marvelous creation.  The stand where we purchased this (outside the temple shops as it would be cheaper) had some other very cool kitchen utensils that I know would be of great conversational interest (like the lethal looking coconut extractor/grinder) but their weight and shape really make them impossible to transport home.  I felt like such a tourist… which in some ways I am, but I’d rather not be a “cultural voyeur” while working here.

We then stopped on Pothy’s, the giant clothing store (and one of the few air conditioned buildings in town which wasn’t as notable when we were there in the morning but which was a great relief when we arrived there ~5:00).   I wanted to purchase a sari which I could use for future events while here at ODAM and perhaps at some point on my return to the States so didn’t want a super fancy one for this use and elected not to go to the floor with the silk saris (better for my pocketbook and to keep me more appropriate).  One entire floor of the store is covered with racks of hanging saris in an incredibly diverse array of styles.  Their marketing strategy is a bit different than America – cheaper at the front with more expensive toward the back.  I think the usual U.S. strategy is to hide the bargains making you walk through the expensive items to convince you that’s what you really want/need.  At the back of the racks were the gaudily sequined variety and that wasn’t what I wanted so I actually had to point to the sari a customer happened to be wearing as an example of what I was looking for – at which point the salespeople direct me to one area along the wall (the entire outer circle of the floor is stocked to the ceiling with shelves of saris so you could wander the circumference of the room for hours unsuccessfully if you didn’t have such guidance).  I walked up to the counter which had a half dozen saris folded up in bags and immediately fell in love with the colors of one and was perfectly happy to have taken it and the price was incredibly reasonable (430 Rupies – just under $10) – a five minute selection.  The young man with us (driver again) insisted that I look at many more so the salesperson obliged.  Though there were other lovely color combinations, I still favored the one I first chose but there was a different fabric  in that color that was a bit more textured and interesting (and the driver said of a better quality) – same price so I made the switch.  Christa moved a couple feet down the counter and found a similar style but with a less ornate border which was very attractive and which she felt could be utilized in projects when she returns to Switzerland so she chose her second sari for 360 Rupies.  We did all of this in less than ten minutes – who would have guessed.  If time permits this evening we will go by the tailors to have her measure us for the blouse underneath – which will add another 50 Rupies to the expense – still under $11 total for my new outfit! 

Tomorrow (Sunday) is another celebration – the opening of the new portion of the KGBV girl’s school.  I’m not really certain if the building is actually completed (looked about the same when I was by last Thursday as it did when I first saw it Monday almost two weeks ago) but “The Minister” is going to attend the festivities so this is apparently a big deal.  Kate and Ramsey said that odds are good this will be a long drawn out event mostly spent waiting for the minister’s arrival and Kate just didn’t feel up to wearing her sari and Christa will be in Madurai conducting a training she’d arranged before the opening was announced so it’s not to be a sari event – good thing since I’d have to rush a blouse if that was the case (not likely).  I’ll wear one of the nice outfits Suganthi helped me purchase in Chennai and it will be fine I’m sure.  I’ll let you know how it goes after – though have to admit the lack of enthusiasm of the more knowledgeable volunteers makes me a bit nervous about this.

Last night after we returned from Madurai the volunteer group all got together with a few of the ODAM staff in and out to watch a movie.  When Kate, Ramsey, and Paul were in Madurai this past week for meetings they stopped at a street vendor and purchased a couple bootlegged movies.  The regular movies (DVD format in a case) are 20 rupies and more current movies are 30 rupies (all less than $1).  For example, the purchased the movie about establishing Facebook which is still showing in lower end American movie theaters.  They purchased two Tamil movies, too.  The training the other day utilized the organization’s projection equipment and since the computer, projector and screen were still set up in the training room, this seemed like the perfect time for a Friday evening movie night.  One of the staff bought beers – a short bottle of “super strong beer”.  I smelled one and knew it wasn’t something I needed (really not a beer drinker) but everyone else seemed to reasonably enjoy them.  We made it through almost two hours of Robo, which only I had seen before, and the DVD locked up (not permanently) and it was 11:00 p.m. after a long day so we opted to call it a night and head back to our rooms.  This morning Kate and Ramsey told us they’d finished the movie in their apartment.  It was a nice way to spend a quiet evening.  I am so very grateful that the other foreigners here are so open and friendly – what a huge relief it is to feel part of a community so far from home.

Guess that’s about all I have time to pull together for now.  I need to get to the office to post this, check emails, and see if the potential plans for the volunteers to take a bus to Arrapukkuti for the afternoon are any more firm.  Knowing tomorrow has the opening event,  I opted to take it easy this morning and work from my sunny and pleasant room rather than going to the somewhat dark, mosquito filled office.  Pulling together my upcoming TedX talk (now a week away) and still need to spend more time with it.  Next week ought to be busy hopefully beginning to train a couple of the women interested in working on the project as we begin production for the shops – but will decide more about that Monday as we meet to consider the best options.

Take care!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Settling In

Yesterday was relatively uneventful – guess I’m already falling into some routine.  I worked finishing up some of the sewing prototypes in the morning, met with Christa to prepare for our meeting with the shopkeeper, Pooncholai, which will happen today.  There was a large group of women from the self help groups in the office for the morning for a presentation about high schools presented by a guest speaker.  They had a very animated discussion and film in the training room next to where we volunteers work and I wish I had understood Tamil as they appeared very interested.  When they broke into smaller groups some of the women came by to talk with me and at one point I showed them some of my photos from home, which was my first opportunity to do so.  Some of the photos of my house included the dog and the cats (two of them) so when it was finished the only question they had was how many cats lived in my home.  I was a bit embarrassed to admit four (and easily could have lied and said two) and they all laughed like we Americans are quite insane.  Since I’ve seen very few cats while here, I doubt housecats are very common.  The office has a cat and he’s pretty friendly and wants love and attention but he’s scraggly and feels like he has bug bites and scabs so it’s not very comfortable to cuddle him.  The only other cats I’ve seen were in a restaurant on the way between Madurai and Tiruchuli which we stopped at when I was first picked up on my way to ODAM – a mother and two kittens who were very entertaining but not particularly interested in the people around them so I’m not sure how tame they were.  With all of the dogs running loose, I can understand not seeing cats on the street – I’m sure there’s no protection for them.
I went out to the KGBV school for the first time by myself yesterday.  I ended up missing the stop on the way because there were so many people blocking the view of that side of the road that I wasn’t sure when to get off.  It wasn’t a big deal, I just got off at the next stop which was “downtown” Narikuddi – which is not as large as Tiruchuli but is a pretty good size.  I ended up walking ten minutes back to the place I should have gotten off the bus so I was a little late but since no one actually understands to expect me, this doesn’t appear to be any problem.  I stayed a bit longer before leaving to catch the bus so spent a full hour with the girls.  This time there were many more (too many) and controlling them was not as easy.  I plan to have one of the young women in the office write up the Tamil explanation for the girls (even if I have to have one of them read it) that says the time is optional and that they can leave if they’d rather have their free time.  I think there’s some expectation on their part that they have to attend and then they’re disruptive and I certainly don’t want them to be forced to be there.  The word I covered that they found amusing was “thirsty” – I think it was the hard th sound – as their use is always the softer-tongue-behind-the-teeth sound.  Those who were involved in the lesson really seemed to enjoy it and if I could work with just them, it would be a great deal more fun for me as well as productive.  My bus ride home was uneventful – I got to the bus stop on my own, got on the right bus, and got off at the correct stop.  I’m almost as competent as the locals (OK, that’s probably quite an exaggeration).  The only problem was that I stood most of the way up and all of the way back as the busses were full and then did the walking – my bad knee really complained about the abuse last night.  Since I’m constantly standing or walking on hard surfaces (no such thing as carpet), my old body isn’t as pampered as usual.  Then I look at some of these old women carrying huge buckets of water on their heads and sitting on the floor all the time and feel there’s no way I have any right to complain.

I need to get back to work since I have only this morning in the office but hope you’ve had a chance to check out the photos I posted.  Rusty has certainly enjoyed them ;-)

One more thing – for those of you who recommended I use Avon Skin-So-Soft to help keep away the mosquitoes, I’d appreciate if you’d email the mosquitoes here and let them know it’s supposed to be a repellant as it isn’t cutting it so far ;-)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Finally Photos

Looks like I finally managed to post some pictures.  Sorry it took so long but I can only experiment with the process when the internet is available and often we’re busy with other research or emails at that time.  Head to for a small sampling of what I've been up to.  They take a lot of internet time to upload and my access isn't as frequent as I'd like to post more.  Hope you enjoy.

Tuesday we worked out of the office and had a meeting with ODAM staff mid-morning.  Once again I learned valuable information which helped guide the project.  All of the twists and turns have been somewhat disconcerting but I decided to liken it to my thesis where I had a wide subject area and had to keep narrowing the focus of the research to something which could be accomplished.  Hopefully we’ve finetuned this pretty well now, though I cannot imagine we can be fully aware yet of what we will really accomplish until we leave.  The most interesting shift was that the ODAM vision for this project is to provide full-time work for women outside the home – creating small work sites in Tiruchuli to begin with and hopefully growing them into what I envision as small factories.  I thought we were working toward something more like cottage industries where women with family responsibilities could still earn some income – but was told that is not practical in India.  Somewhere in my gut I fear that I’m creating sweat shops – but it is employment for women who otherwise would have none.  Dilemma, dilemma.  Apparently there is a program which has been operating for about thirty years somewhere in the area which has women producing soft goods and this is more ODAM’s dream.  At first I was rather wishing I’d had this information from the beginning, but have been told I was lucky to hear it in my first week (Christa has been here two months and was unaware that was how they hoped to build our project).  We meet with the shopkeeper in Madurai tomorrow morning (hopefully) to get her full input, which I think will be the real catalyst to how we proceed.  That has meant that I feel somewhat directionless on the project until then.  Christa wanted to continue creating prototypes of some items for the shopkeepers further review – and lacking any better suggestions, that is what we’ve been doing.  Sitting around sewing usually keeps me pretty satisfied.  Yesterday, however, I started feeling a bit pointless here and experienced my first bout of “what-the-heck-do-I-think-I-can-do-here-anyway” syndrome.  I’m told it happens often so guess I need to learn to cope with it – but the shaking of my sense of purpose is disconcerting for me.  Guess that’s why I never pulled together a blog – though being pretty tired and having an exceedingly long power outage didn’t help either.  Thank goodness the sewing machines are treadles or we’d never accomplish anything.

The other cool thing I did on Tuesday afternoon was go for the first time to teach my English class at the KGBV girl’s school.  After the two previous visits with large groups of the unruly younger girls, I wasn’t sure what I was in for – and Sophia told me that the 8th level standard girls weren’t much better.  However, the teachers had somehow determined which girls would be involved in my class and told me only ten were selected.  I could never get from them whether these were the better English students or the remedial ones ;-)  I ended up with only nine in the group and it was quite pleasant.  They were very well behaved, seemed reasonably interested, generally responded well (a couple pulled the “too shy Indian girl” routine), and I enjoyed myself.  Basically I started out to assess their present knowledge.  It was minimal in the way of comprehension – more strong on rote learning (like days of the week and month names they could recite).  I decided that I’m not really there to supplement their class learning (which seems meaningless – what they have to prepare for exams is pointless and something even English speakers wouldn’t understand how to answer).  I think the most likely use of English by these girls is if they marry into a larger area where they work with foreigners (say in a shop, though even that’s a high aim) or to speak with the occasional English speaker who passes through (rather like me).  Therefore I am going to concentrate on simple conversational responses and see how it goes – basically things I wish I could say in Tamil or things I would ask that I wish someone could answer ;-)  At lest the girls seemed willing to attend – since it’s at the end of their school day and I know they must be tired and it ought to be their free time, this is a lot to ask.  With that in mind, and my own schedule on the project, I have told them I will come on Tuesdays and Thursdays – twice a week seeming a reasonable commitment for them and for me.

I as pretty tired returning after the hectic afternoon getting to the school (on the bus) and returning (Jayaraj happened to be at the hostel with a car so we rode back with him – probably took longer than the bus as he had many stops to make).  I was trying to figure out how to convince the others that it might be a good night for a drink on the porch when Kate politely asked at dinner if it would be possible to use my deck for socializing – how perfect is that?  I actually had a bit of alcohol in this drink but even just the cold citrus was refreshing.  The moon was one day from full and absolutely beautiful over the village.  It was an incredibly pleasant evening with the four other volunteers – Paul fits in very nicely.

I guess that’s about all for now – have to prepare to head for breakfast and the office.  Hopefully I’ll continue to post more pictures today so by the time you see it, there will be more available.  Not sure if I’ll continue with different albums or what (I appear particularly photo challenged) but think posting on Picasa is easier than on my blog at this point.

Take care!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Back to Madurai

Sunday was a very laid back and relaxing day.  I went to the office after breakfast to sew prototypes, which may sound like work, but for those of you who know me, on a good Sunday at home I’d be sewing if I had the time.  Worked up a couple items that weren’t great but gave an idea of what we were looking at doing.   Christa joined me later and sewed as well so it was also a bit of a social time.  Kate and Ramsey avoided the office all day, saying when they come in even just to use the internet or something they end up working and that they need a definite break at times.  They visited the ashram so a group trip will wait – probably until another Sunday since that is apparently when there is no construction noise in the area.  When I returned before dinner I talked briefly with Kate and Ramsey who were wishing we had a deck of cards so we could play something – and believe it or not, the “super store” here in Tiruchuli had some.  The funniest part was they brought a box down off their shelves with “Paris” across the front an the Eiffel tower – but the three decks inside look like designs created for Indian tastes.  I bought two decks and after dinner they taught Christa and I Eucher (hopefully spelled correctly) – at least the version they play.  It was played with teams and Kate and I started off pretty weak but I finally got the hang of it and we ended up winning.  Christa was so funny because the game involves trump cards and playing the suit that was led but every round she had to ask if she had to play that suit (which she pronounces with her cute Swiss accent).  It was a diverting way to spend the evening.

Monday morning we were expecting a new volunteer to arrive in Madurai so Ramsey was going to pick him up (Paul will be working on his project) and Christa and I decided to bum a ride into town to price and source supplies and also to meet with the shopkeeper Christa had a relationship with who seems interested in our project.  The drive in was quick – only one hour with the new road – and once we got Paul the car dropped us off at Pothy’s, the biggest/nicest clothing and sari store in Madurai.  The building is several stories tall (I think five but we didn’t hit them all).  There is an entire floor of regular saris, one for the premade clothing, and one for silk saris and fabrics.  I was literally in heaven.  Christa wanted to buy some tops and tried on a good number.  I purchased a simple regular length tunic top out of a softer synthetic material (tired of cotton already) and a chirudai (set of mid-thigh length tunic, pants, and shawl/scarf) for me and one for Caleta.  I didn’t really need more clothing but again it was the softer fabric and I liked the colors.  I spent about $25 for all three of those items so didn’t feel any guilt.  Then I picked up some basic colored scarves as I feel I don’t have any and ought to.  I bought one more exotic dyed and crinkled scarf as well (may end up a gift as it doesn’t really coordinate with my clothing here) but again spent about $20.  Then we hit the amazing floor of the store with the silks.  I was literally in heaven.  The color everywhere was so amazing and they have long tables where they can spread out the saris for viewing.  There were many shoppers in the store by the time we reached this floor (thankfully arriving early allowed us space while looking through and trying on the clothing) and it was a bustling sea of color.  There was fabric to purchase by the meter also – fabric with the ornate edge of a sari but without the specially designed hanging portion and also solid colors.  Christa wanted to purchase some plain silk to create a silk sleeping bag – lightweight and folks up small but gives you the equivalent of clean sheets anywhere so great for travel.  She says the silk also keeps you warm when it’s colder and is cool when it is hot. The one she has from Switzerland was very expensive, though simple to sew, so she wanted to replace it and Kate and Ramsey asked if she’d make them one as well so she had a real reason to look at the silks.  I, on the other hand, had no good reason but you couldn’t have removed me from the area with dynamite.  I purchased the equivalent of about eight meters (half meter minimums) of maybe ten rainbow colors.  They had some remnant pieces so I ended up with a bit more fabric in some colors but it was discounted so ended up a good deal.  At $5 USD per meter, it seemed an excellent buy.  The silk habotai they had was luscious and at $10 USD was a good deal – but I’d have to figure out what I’d want to invest that much.  I also have to be concerned about getting all of this home at some point.

The shopkeeper we met with was the sweetest woman and her husband was very nice as well.  They operate three shops in the temple area – so get lots of tourist business as well as local sales and she really knows her market.  She looked over our samples and said she’d prefer to meet at length this coming Friday when she’s had an opportunity to pull together her ideas of what we could make.  She also says she’d prefer to have projects made with the nicer fabrics as she can justify higher prices to folks if things include silk, etc.  Since our project is basically a recycling project, this could be difficult, but she said she may have a supplier who could assist.  She also mentioned that items with elephants, Ganesh, or dancers (in that order) were always popular and she could sell them.  I think her marketing of the items would be a fantastic first step for this project – but feel we lost the recycling emphasis and perhaps the concept of utilizing the more local art of the kolam.  This beginning stage of this has shifted so much already in the past week (that’s all I’ve been here after all) it will be interesting to see where it all leads.  If she provides ideas for items she wants sold and our main job becomes creating an infrastructure to train women to produce these items for an income, that is still a success and a reasonable goal for my limited time here. 

The other idem the shopkeeper suggested (and I’m sorry I am not putting her name – it sounds rather like the place name Ponducherry but I have no idea yet how she spells it and will start using it later) were puppets.  Right now she has puppets made of scrap material from northern India and people often ask for these with more southern looking clothing.  Her present stock have wooden heads but I think we can make soft sculpture faces and I think that’s one of the things Christa and I will experiment with this week before our next meeting.  Too bad my doll making interest was never that well developed – but I do know a bit and will check out the internet today for more insight. 

The shopkeeper’s husband (I suppose technically he’s the shopkeeper too) suggested a shop in the area which should have most of the supplies we would require.  They had a good number, not everything.  What we did find was rolls of the ribbon with sari edge embroidery at a very reasonable price.  It was sold in rolls of 8 meters for anywhere between 50 and 100 INR – basically $1.25 and $2.25 per roll.  We bought several so we could add nice trim to the puppets and perhaps in the strip sewing as well.  I can imagine more of this will be purchased to come home in my suitcase as well.  Sophia had wanted some of this to take home and purchased it for considerably more so that shop was a good deal. 

We also purchased an interestingly made screen print of Ganesh designed for use with the kolam powder to create quick designs with the chalk.  We’ll have to experiment with some local paint but thought this might be a quicker way for women to create a project incorporating this popular Indian image.  The screen is stretched on a metal circle – I didn’t have a chance to see how well it is held on for the standard screen print process but it is worth checking out – only 20 INR (less than 50 cents) so even if it isn’t durable, it could be easily replaced.  If this works, perhaps we could find an elephant image and have conquered all ;-)

One of the most interesting sights in the shop area (which is just inside the temple – so utilizes the old columns and everything) was the long row of sewing machines on the way to the shop we’re dealing with.  I would estimate there are thirty men with all of these ancient looking (but I now know not that old) machines sewing busily as you walk by.  They have some small items above them like bags and things which they offer for sale but most were pretty busy on their current projects.  I believe these tailors are actually sewing orders for folks – but didn’t fully comprehend.  I guess these are the producers of many of the items in the stalls but can’t be sure.  Hope our local women can compete with that kind of on-the-spot workforce.

We ate out in a restaurant, which was a great deal more interesting than the local Tiruchuli restaurant experience.  Ate on the usual banana leaf and shared a table with locals who (perhaps graciously) acted like we weren’t there.  It ticked the waiters so much when they would come around to give you more of different items and I would say “pottom” meaning enough – I know so little Tamil but that made them happy.  Used their restroom, too – kind of an interesting experience even though I’ve adjusted to the pit latrines.  I’ve really acclimated now!

Madurai felt crowded, dirty, and extremely hot after my time in Tiruchuli.  By the time we’d hit all these places, we walked to the bus area (covered about six miles in all I believe) to catch the bus to the main bus station on our way.  There were cool stands in the bus station and I held up for a moment to photograph the mounds of green and purple grapes and when we reached the side with the buses, found that the next Tiruchuli bus would not be for quite a while so opted to take the bus to Appakutti to transfer there to Tiruchuli.  It got us back quicker than waiting for the direct route, but was still about a 2-1/2 hour journey.  We got back in town in time for a quick shower before dinner – exhausted. 

Paul, the new volunteer here for a month, is from Virginia but spent almost a year in Austin so we talked a bit about that.  I feel like something of an old timer now that I’m not the new kid in town.  Later this week another woman is scheduled to join us.  She’s an accountant from the UK who is hoping to work with microfinance in some way.  It will be interesting to see what she comes up with.  I think she will be here longer than me but information is sketchy and probably as much hearsay as accurate.  We’ll see when she arrives. 

This evening is my first class with the KGBV school girls.  I’ve really debated over whether I should spend time on a real “lesson” but after seeing the craziness with younger girls and Sophia’s attempts, I think this first meeting will be more casual and hopefully lay some productive groundwork.  Before lunch today we also meet with Elango to discuss the project and what’s happening and our needs.  I think Christa and I have discussed enough of what we want to cover but hope we can take a bit of time this morning to make more concrete notes to ensure we talk about everything we need.  I’ll be interested in his feedback as well.  One of my biggest concerns right now is that Christa believes a young woman named Viji who has recently been assigned into a new position of “volunteer coordinator” is working on our project.  I’m not seeing that she’s all that interested and am not as certain that ODAM sees her role as strongly allied with the project as we need for it to keep going after we are gone.  Hopefully that can be clarified today – though I don’t think I should expect much in that regard.

The other cool think I’m anticipating is delivery of my table today.  It was due yesterday noon and we stopped at the carpenter shop (near the bus drop-off) and it was finished but had only been recently glued so it will be ready by noon today.  Right before lunch I’ll go over and pay the remainder and bring them to my apartment so I can get it set up – which is about the last thing I need to really make my space functional.  I purchased a small Ganesh wall hanging (will look great in our upstairs living area) at the shopkeeper’s (yes, I am a tourist) for an incredibly reasonable price and have it hanging over the new desk space.  I still wish I had a larger wall mirror (6” x 9” is just not great) but have only found plastic garbage ones not much larger anyway.  I’m sure there’s probably something in Madurai, though we didn’t pass anything yesterday, but I don’t want to spend too much as that would be tough to take home.  Hopefully I’ll find a way to post pictures of my humble abode at some point (or frankly, pictures of ANYTHING).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Happy Pongal!

Well the celebrations today were so fast and furious I decided to capture the moment this afternoon while everyone is resting.  We met this morning with Mootu (there are several men working with ODAM with this short name so hopefully this won’t confuse you later as it is me now) who took us to his home.  There we met with his wife, his father and mother, and another woman and her child who we think was a sister but none of us came away clear on that.  The little girl was darling and took a while to warm up to us.  She had turned three in December and was quite enamored with Kate’s bangle bracelets (an apparent must though I have none and get away with it – probably as I’m older).  The father’s English was pretty good and we spent time talking with him and then looking through scrapbooks of the baby’s second birthday, where her head was shaved, and the wedding album of Mootu and his wife.  Then they cleared the floor and laid down blankets for us to sit on to eat.  The father ate with the guests while everyone else watched.  Pongal the celebration has a special sweet rice served – and that was the main dish this morning along with idli and chutney, a piece of banana, and a piece of coconut, all served on our banana leaves.  Our hosts were very gracious and after the meal went to get us pieces of sugar cane, also an important feature of the festival.  They were very patient explaining how to eat it and I wasn’t particularly successful at peeling off the outer husk with my teeth so they cut mine in half down the length and then I had all the women laughing as I started eating it incorrectly.  Fortunately I’m getting used to looking foolish ;-)  The special pongal rice was sweet and heavy, followed by that pure sugar cane, it was rather heavy on the stomach.  The women of the family placed flowers in our hair – no mean feat with my short hair, but it was nice to be pampered.  Ramsey then went off with several of the men (and once again was served pongal at another home) and we women went to the office so that Ushu, a young employee there, could assist Kate and Christa to properly put on their saris.  I felt like the poor cousin, though my outfit is attractive.  Kate has been in India on and off several times over the past couple years and this was the first time she’s had a sari.  Both looked beautiful. 

We rushed to the official village celebration where we were honored guests.  The first order of business was to walk through the front of the police station and the long side street where the kolam competition was held and we admired each and took appropriate photos of the kolams and their makers.  We were then ushered in front of the equivalent of the city hall where the awards were to be presented to the winners.  They were awarded either silver pongal pots, which look rather like shiny silver spittoons, for first place, or decorative silver plates for the next level of awards, and then small silver bowls with lids were the lesser awards.  Each of us took turns handing the awards to the winners as we posed for the cameras (felt like we had our own version of the paparazzi).  Then the real fun began – we volunteers and several members of the community (dressed very well so assuming important folk) had a race where we were to hold a spoon in our mouths with a small lemon on it and had to make it some distance without dropping it.  Ramsey raced ahead with Kate close behind and everyone laughed and made us begin again saying “slowly, slowly” so none of us quite understood the point of the race.  Perhaps it was to go furthest but who knows.  The next entertainment was a group of about nine women playing musical chairs.  Then it was the turn of the volunteers – and the crowd seemed to get quite a kick out of the four of us playing musical chairs.  On our second round Ramsey and I were both close to the same chair and I probably had the best chance of sitting in it but he grabbed the arm and turned it so he could sit in it.  Everyone laughed and made us redo the round as that wasn’t fair – but all in good spirits.  I ended up winning – and so now have my own special silver pongal pot.  I guess that was worth the humiliation of a 52 year old woman playing musical chairs in front of a couple hundred onlookers.  We then stood around behind Kate as she made a short presentation for the local Sun TV station.  I have no idea if we really made it on television but sure hope not.   Then we were taken inside the city council building along with a half dozen men and again fed pongal, though we had spoons this time which removed the messy finger problem for this public ceremony, for which I was very grateful.  By the time we came from the building, the crowd had dispersed and we were driven back to the office (a two minute walk) because we’re so important ;-)  There Usha, the young woman who had helped with the saris, was cooking pongal for the first time and we had our third helping.  You have no idea how heavy three helpings of pongal can be – and poor Ramsey had four!  Obligatory eating isn’t really something you can avoid but at least it was relatively tasty – though not as good as the usual food – rather like being fed super sweet cream of wheat several times.

The trip to the ashram and to the Gamesh temple both fell through – perhaps something like this will happen another time.  I think the rest of the afternoon will be quiet and peaceful and maybe everyone will be rested enough to do something this evening, though I don’t believe there’s anything special planned. 

Take care – and Happy Pongal!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Trip to Town

Back to my morning routine – sort of.  Today is Saturday and the second day of Pongal.  Sophia left after dinner so we are down to four for a short time.  A gentleman will arrive Monday to work on Ramsey and Kate’s project and another volunteer will arrive on the 20th from the UK I believe.  There’s also a gentleman returning but I don’t have the full story and apparently he could just show up at any time.  In a very casual count at dinner last night Ramsey decided we could have as many as eleven volunteers by late February.  Interesting!   I think ODAM is filling half the rentals in town!  Tiruchuli seems more bustling than usual for the morning.  Last night the streets had a carnival atmosphere with almost double the usual number of people on the streets.  However, my body finally decided it was time to sleep so I came back to my room about 8:00 pm with the intention of resting and the going out but it wasn’t going to happen – went to bed by 9:00 and slept until 6:00 this morning with only short interruptions.  I regret missing any of the excitement but the short sleep cycle finally caught up with me. 

Yesterday’s post mentioned I may get to go to the nearby city of Arrapukati to take the sewing machines for repair.  The guys got a truck and four ODAM staff including the driver accompanied Christa and me to the sewing machine repairman in the nearby city.  There was just one seat inside the truck and they insisted I sit inside on the way over but I rode in the back on the way back and had an opportunity to take a video filmed from the roll bar of the truck which turned out better than anything I’ve filmed so far.  It was dusk and got a bit dark for filming but if I can figure out time (and how), perhaps I can edit it small enough to get online.  Now it’s almost 2 gigs in length and certainly not all is worthwhile.  It is pretty jerky as every road bump is captured (and there were many).  Entering the city we passed more interesting things but I don’t think film could ever capture it – you need the full panoramic view as things are going on al around and that’s what really gives the character.  In fact, Christa has mentioned that she intends to record the sounds to enliven presentations she may give in the future and I believe she is right – the music blaring over the loudspeakers, the incessant honking, and the general animal and human sounds create a great deal of the flavor of this place.  On the return drive riding the back of the truck with the wind in my face and driving through rural countryside but with such exotic differences, I felt truly blessed to be here.  It felt like the ultimate adventure experience even though it was just a ride in a truck.  I feel so fortunate to live this dream.

The visit to the repairman was interesting.  He had been working on a woman’s sewing machine but when we arrived with our two he set aside hers and worked on ours.  Hopefully this was more because ODAM had called ahead than because he had foreigners waiting.  He worked on the machine heads and then his son (in his early thirties with some English, of which he was very proud) worked on the portion which hooked to the treadle as well as the pedal on one which was an issue.  He informed us that the older machine was from 1998.  Amazed me – these look like Singers made in the early part of the century, maybe up to 1940.  The grime on them and inside as the repairman worked would also have led me to believe they were fifty years old.  The younger repairman became rather irritated when we spoke about anything – as though we were questioning his ability.  It happened a couple times so Christa and I became very cautious about how we talked about the work as it was progressing.  At one point we were just trying to recall which of the machines had a certain problem and identified it by a missing rubber part and the repairman became very angry as though my pointing at that missing part was a criticism of his work.  First time the language barrier has been such an issue and was surprising as he was so proud that he was trying to polish his English.  We gathered quite a crowd of children and a few women as well stood outside the business  when the stands were set up for testing and work.  Young men on a moped even stopped and stared for a moment.  I don’t think they get the same number of foreigners coming through.

This morning I awoke refreshed and decided to go for a walk to capture the special Pongal kolams before they get trampled.  It was very pleasant walking out with people around but not the festival crowds.  On the main street several women were finishing the kolams in front of their stores.  I got a nice video of one completing hers and she seemed a bit self conscious at first but then returned to the task and after we spoke a moment and I could tell she was very pleased that I recognized her artistic ability.  She had the color in a small bowl (some used paper cups) and pinched a small amount and could mark about a 4” line with each pinch.  She had great control of the line thickness and I’m sure it takes a great deal of practice.  A second video was two women still adding the color to their kolam.  The typical designs are white and the colors cost twice as much as white.  I’m not even sure how available they are throughout the year – the venders were marketing them heavily the past few days.  I was also photographing kolams as I passed.  No two are the same but I was trying to capture different styles and those which were exceptionally well made.  However, I also photographed some which were simple and might be adopted to use for embroidery.  Occasionally a child or two would come up fascinated that I would take pictures of these and would walk with me a short way showing me those before me – unofficial little tour guides.  After walking the main street, I journeyed through a more residential area.  Sometimes I’d head down small side streets that appeared to have nice kolams so I walked areas I haven’t passed before.  At one point my husband called me so I was photographing while walking and talking with him.  A large group of children took on the task of escorting me to the kolams so I would capture theirs.  The entire small street became involved – I probably had an entourage of twenty children with twenty adults laughingly looking on.  Made the conversation with Rusty virtually impossible but he could hear the hubbub so understood.  I know the people think we foreigners are nuts but Christa already has a reputation for collecting fabric bits and talking to folks about trash and recycling so I guess I can be the “kolam lady”.  When a woman was outside the home I would ask if she had made the kolam and they were always very proud that I’d take a photo.  Sometimes a woman would have seen me photograph a neighbor’s so I’d feel some obligation to photograph hers even if I had several similar already.  I believe they were very flattered to have a crazy foreigner interested - and I recognize that these are special ones created for the holiday so am sure they put more pride in them. 

It is almost time for us to meet to go to the home of one of the ODAM staff who has invited us for breakfast so I will end this post now and elaborate on the Pongal adventures in the next.