Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Overcoming Public Transportation and Project Start

Greetings from Tiruchuli!  Sorry about posting yesterday’s late – the internet at the office was down all morning and I was meeting with my new partner discussion my upcoming work (more later) early afternoon and then went to the KGBV school in the afternoon so no opportunity to access the internet to submit.  I kept the post separate so hopefully it’s still somewhat coherent.

I slept better last night – got six hours of sleep and feel pretty good so hopefully can maintain my energy level and resistance to remain healthy.  Everything is still just too exciting to settle down and rest.

Christa, the volunteer from Switzerland, has been concentrating on a recycling project trying to find products for the local women to make utilizing some of the items destined for the landfill here.  She’s been the primary volunteer working with the sewing project but I wasn’t initially impressed with the projects – seemed like typical items coming from developing countries and would be unlikely to have any market value either locally or potentially within the fair trade market.  Before I came I was hoping that there was a local textile craft which could be incorporated into a more marketable item to encourage small enterprise potentials but did not find that when I arrived.  As previously discussed on the blog, the kallams seem good potential images to incorporate.  I met with Christa yesterday morning to discuss my ideas and she was very enthusiastic.  We spent several hours reviewing potential ways we could collaborate the areas we would wish to emphasize and I think we’re both very happy with the potential project.  She has set up a meeting with Elango, one of the key operators here at ODAM for his feedback so we should be able to get rolling very soon.  I have a great deal of work I hope to accomplish online today so hope the system keeps rolling. 

I also had a brief training on the treadle machine and operating it by foot was actually pretty easy, though I’m sure I’ll improve with more practice.  The machine we have at the office is not one of the better ones which is appropriate as those needing them should have those which operate properly.  However, it had reached a point where it’s basically nonfunctional so one of the ODAM staff will be taking it to a nearby larger village to the “mechanical man”  for repair.  Once it’s back I’ll work at creating a couple potential prototypes so we can refine the process.  Some of the prior work Christa has accomplished is beginning to locate women who could serve as trainers so that we can concentrate on ensuring they can continue whatever project we put in place once we have left.  Hopefully we can meet with the SHE coordinator soon to get that rolling as well.  What I’m most proud of is that I’m really working at finding collaborative solutions and presenting ideas but not pushing my own solutions as the only ones.  I believe I succeeded and that feels wonderful.

Yesterday I had my first encounters with unfriendly dogs.  So far they’ve all been roaming the streets digging in the garbage or sleeping wherever they please.  Some have collars, some don’t, all appear skinny but reasonably healthy (plenty of garbage for all).  A few have barked at me but none have been threatening.  I met one aggressive barker on my morning walk, had one lunge at me right outside the volunteer mess after lunch (I could feel his breath on the back of my leg as I was putting on my shoe – couldn’t even run, and was introduced to a notoriously vicious dog others fear who protects the street past the temple near the office.  The few cats I’ve seen have all been friendly (there’s an office cat who meows loudly at tea time as he knows it’s time for his tea!) but I have been told not to trust any dog – even if they appear to be interested.  I’m taking heed of the warning now that I’ve had so many take up attack positions.

First thing in the morning (after laundry and writing my blog), I walked farther out the main street just a little past the luxury apartments which I visited the night before to go to the ATM machine in town.  I managed to successfully find it on my own and get the money for my first month’s room and board for ODAM (the equivalent of $200 USD).  The main bus stop in town is very close to the bank site and there’s a sizable road heading off the main road on the opposite side of the part of town I’ve spent all my time in so I decided to venture down it to see what was there.  I could see some buildings a ways down that appeared pretty nice so figured I wasn’t heading out too far from civilization.  There were some people about but it was still pretty quiet without the usual clamor of school children arriving for school.  There is usually a steady parade of middle-school age kids heading through the main streets from 8:00 to 9:00 – which means lots of interaction as I pass through the street.  They love to say Hi and some approach to ask my name and occasionally where I’m from (America is the answer – not the U.S. or United States).  The side road passed a few businesses/shops and then had more open land than the main side of town – lots of shrubs and small fields, very pretty and calm in the morning.  A short distance I came to the end of that road – it split to the right and left where there was a large, impressive, but apparently vacant building and LOTS of stacks of cement barriers – at least that’s what I thought they were from a distance as they’re stacked like U.S. construction sites stack the roadway barriers.  Up close it was obvious they were too small (plus Tiruchuli certainly doesn’t need such things) and I guessed they were railway tracks – which turned out to be right.  There was a tall dirt embankment running behind these cement stacks which was why the road ended.  To my knowledge there was no train here so it seemed pretty curious.  Later I got a bit more background but the story’s still a mystery.  The building there is the new train station built about two years ago – awaiting the track apparently.  The guess is that by the time the track is in place, the building will be too decrepit to use.  When I visited the KGBV girl’s school the first time I had the chance to see the new section being constructed which should be completed in about a month (want to bet?) and it looked so much nicer than the old section – which I then learned was only little more than a year old.  The building has large cracks and apparently poor construction accounts for much of the decrepit look of everything in the area.  This explains  lot as there are many partially constructed buildings (never see anyone working on them) that look old and abandoned and I’ve wondered why – now I think they just start out looking old. 

Back to my walk adventure… I do tend to digress ;-)   I turned to the left as that should parallel the main street of town and head me back the direction I know.  I passed a few very nice homes (relatively) and something I’ll call a temple pit until I figure out the appropriate term.  They make these fairly good sized square open structures painted red and white with roofs and columns which have pretty tall bases (like one or two stories just for the base) and they’re usually in large square pits.  There is one at the Tiruchuli temple grounds and I was told they are meant to be surrounded by water.  They look the same as the construction in the middle of the river in Madurai.  I have no idea if they have a purpose as they appear to be intended to be inaccessible.  The location for the one on my walk seemed pretty out of the way.  Again this area is still much more open and green than the built-up portion of town I live and work.  As I continued the road started winding a bit and began passing through small cement one floor huts – appeared they were all one room.  Many had no doors, some were constructed together like apartments or duplexes.  The school age children I saw were not dressed in the usual school uniforms.  Obviously this was the poor side of town but the people didn’t appear much different – still colorfully dressed in clean clothes (no mean feat here) and the women all appeared busy on small cookstoves or with the young children.  I didn’t notice where they were getting water (a very obvious activity in the central town but I missed this somehow) but things appeared kept up.  In fact, because the huts were so close together, there was much less garbage and piles of rocks/bricks/wood/junk laying around.  The people seemed pleased to see me and would usually respond when I said vanakam but the children didn’t race to see me like they do in the other parts of the village.  I’d estimate I passed about forty to fifty of these dwellings when I found myself intersecting the main street just two shops down from where I usually turn to head to the office (going the other way off the main street).  I never would have guessed those homes were right there.  I hope to visit again soon when I take some time off and perhaps can get some photos.  I’m still a bit unsure about the whole photography thing.  People in Madurai looked at me like I was crazy when I took pictures (of course, I’m photographing things like shop fronts and odd signs which are so normal to them I can see why it would be odd).  When I’ve used my camera in Tiruchuli there appears to be no problem – but the school children (and some adults) come up to have their photo taken.  They are so excited to pose and then have you show them the digital image.  It’s kind of endearing – but also a bit irritating as you can be stopped a lot.  One young girl in particular has already figured out I have a camera and will run up, grab me (rather hard) and insist I take the group’s picture.  I’m already lying to her and saying I don’t have it with me and she almost grabs my bag to check (of course I do).  I need to find a productive way to deal with her because it feels too much like harassment and I believe she’s not typical as no one else has been so demanding or so physical.  I also want to be respectful and not looking like I’m going around photographing someone’s home to show poverty – wouldn’t make me feel very good if I were them.  I also have to figure out how to share the photos I’ve taken.  I used some of the morning yesterday while the internet was down going through the photos from the Madurai temple and I was really disappointed – between my camera and my lack of skill, they are pretty pathetic and certainly don’t do it justice.  However, Christa was showing me her photos (she’s quite the photographer and has an excellent camera) and she may share some images.  I would suggest you check out her website ( which is in German) to see what I unfortunately cannot share with you.  I haven’t had an opportunity to review this but hope you find it useful and that I can share my own photos soon.

Yesterday Sophia, the young volunteer from Germany who will be leaving soon, was going to the KGBV school and I asked if I could tag along.  She has only been her for a month and intended to teach English  but had little opportunity before she got quite ill.  She had worked with all the classes except one and felt up to going out just so they weren’t left out.  Going with her seemed like a good opportunity to see how to navigate the bus there, which I’ll have to do starting next week.  When we left the office to catch the 4:30 bus (runs every half hour), the notoriously mean dog was blocking the street she would normally pass and Sophia was terrified so we went a long way around – so I’m not sure I had the best directions to use later.  The bus was not as incredibly different as some photos and stories I’ve seen from places around the world.  Only people ride (no animals) and everyone is inside, sitting or standing if it’s full (which it was when we first left town) and no one hanging on the outside or anything so exotic.  In reality it was very similar to a typical city bus ride except that I stand out like a sore thumb and can’t really speak well to those around me.  Once I finally was able to sit down on the ride out to the school, I sat next to two younger married women – neither spoke any English.  The one closest to me was very curious and we managed to have a very nice conversation – which I understand is the “typical” one you have in this country covering what is your name, where are you from, do you have children, where is your husband…  It was fun but made me really wish I had thought to bring smaller pictures that I could carry with me of my family.  The volunteer from Switzerland also had some small pictures made of some of the Swiss landscape/sites to share for such occasions but said she used them when she first arrived but apparently tired of it later.  I also don’t think she is interacting with strangers often like the bus situation (only those going to the school do this on a regular basis).  I am beginning to think this could be one of the strengths of my adding this activity to my role here.  I believe the casual cultural exchange is just as important an activity within the community as anything else I do.  The bus ride to the school was generally pretty successful – you have to get off at a non-regular stop and the driver had no issue doing so when we stood.  However, when we went to leave, it did not work so well.  Again I thought we were doing the usual thing as we returned to the drop-off point.  We waited a short time for the bus (which was running on schedule) but it passed us by though we crossed to the correct side of the street when we saw it approaching and then both waved.  At that point the Sophia mentioned that she’d never actually caught the bus there…  got to love these international interactions!  So we had to walk down the side of the small highway (it’s wider than one lane but just barely and is asphalt covered).  However, they had apparently recently added new dirt to the shoulders and large trucks had driven over it making it very rough to walk on.  We had to walk about half a mile further from Tiruchuli to the real bus stop – which is actually right by ODAM’s hostel.  Apparently I would normally walk some back road or path to that location but Sophia once missed the bus there so had decided to go the other way.  All of the teachers have already left the school by the time I would finish my lesson but I’m assured that I can ask one of the girls to guide me there the first time and that is not an issue for them.  Probably the bigger problem is not having all 100 accompany me jumping up and down and doing high-fives the whole way ;-)

Sophia’s lesson at the school was interesting and gave me a small idea of the capabilities of the girls.  I believe I will be approaching it very differently but have several days to wrap my mind around that and determine my best approach.  Right now Christa is so fired up about our project that it is a definite priority.  I think she’s as much a mover and shaker as I am so I’m really feeling the two of us can actually pull this together in the short time available.  Whew!

That’s long enough for today – hope it didn’t wear you all out.  If anyone is actually reading this I’d love to have comments just so I know.  Though, honestly, I’d probably write it anyway as I’m enjoying trying to organize my random thoughts and impressions (if one can call these postings organized!).


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