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).

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