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.

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