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.