Sunday, February 13, 2011

Another Note from India

It’s been an interesting week.  We started the training on Wednesday and continued it on Friday.  I was feeling frustrated with it on Wednesday as I didn’t feel we were getting things across.  We’re intending the training to prepare women to work on a business enterprise and they seemed to be attending more for the free notebook and pen, potential supplies, and the salary for the training.  Christa and I discussed our approach and what seemed to be working and what wasn’t and came up with a few changes we incorporated on Friday.  We also worked really well as a team during the day on Friday to continually assess the process and modify on the spot.  I was really impressed with our flexibility as the day went on and I think the women seemed more serious and committed by the end.  The cultural differences make it more difficult to determine our progress but I think we moved forward when we implemented our new strategies.  We have three days of training left and a lot to cover so it will be interesting to see if we can continue implementing new strategies to be more successful.  What I have enjoyed most about the training is that many of the women (we have twelve now) have young families and they end up with their small babies/children in the training at one point or another – I guess other family members watch them part of the time and when they can’t, the women bring the little ones to class.  At one point Friday afternoon we had five babies toddling about while the women worked – and women were breastfeeding or caring for their children as needed and then returning to task.  I loved that we are able to provide an environment that not only allows the presence of the children, but continues to be productive.  These women couldn’t participate in the opportunity if there were any restrictions on the presence of their children so I believe this is a really wonderful program we’re setting up. 

Christa and Kitu met with Ponchuli, the shopkeeper on Thursday to bring the additional products and to discuss the progress with the elephants.  She had sold three elephants of the five originally delivered.  These were made with menswear fabrics rather than the brighter silks we were able to incorporate later.  In part this was because we lacked adequate scraps when creating the first batch but also it was simpler for Sathya and I to learn on the firmer woven fabrics.  Though they sold, they didn’t bring very much money and that was disappointing.  The feedback was valuable – they are too heavy and many of the tourists who were initially interested said they weren’t buying them because of the weight in their return luggage.  They are now filled with scrap fabrics, which are easy to acquire and free, but we need to consider better options.  I found this rather frustrating as there aren’t a lot of good recycling materials which could serve the purpose and figuring out an alternate fill to purchase reduces the profit.  Christa is considering working up a prototype with just the head filled and attaching it to some sort of small blanket body for babies.  While I believe she could come up with a cute design for this (she is really very gifted at creating toys with character), I don’t believe they will have the same overall appeal as the others.  So once we’re not dealing directly with the trainings, I’ll be concentrating on finding alternate stuffings.  The cell phone bags were accepted but Ponchuli has decided they can only be marketed in the shop outside the market because they lack hand sewing components and would be copied too quickly in the market.  This means the product will have a greater international audience if ODAM gets their world craft business running.  These items take more precision in construction (the lining portion) to make a nice product and I am concerned this is not something the women we are training will be interested in.  We’ll see – they’ll be starting on this project Monday and working more on Wednesday (probably complex lining techniques on Wednesday).  I would provide a simpler method but don’t think the quality would be acceptable for sale so am going to train on the best technique and see how it goes (remember, Bret, be FLEXIBLE).

Speaking of the ODAM World Crafts, the work of Ramsey and Kate is reaching very exciting times.  They have been working on creating soap from the glycerine byproduct of the biofuels project for a long time and within the short time I have been here have overcome several of the obstacles they faced and have progressed through some of the time consuming processes.  It looks to me like they’re flying with both of these products but they remind us that some of the things being completed now have been in process for nine months to a year and it just happens that all is coming together now.  It is a very exciting time for the organization as they are approaching a point where both of these products will begin production and start employing people and providing an income.  I am really hoping that the soap will break ground on marketing overseas (since that is their target) and that the soft goods our project are creating will be able to follow along very simply.  The other project they’ve been working on is creating a charcoal briquette for local use from an invasive tree in this region which apparently provides a very good energy source.  This would improve indoor air quality for many families who cook over fires now, and they have worked very hard to create an inexpensive alternative to wood.  This should be a win-win product and is also very close to production.  They are conducting consumer tests of the final product within the next couple weeks.  Again, I am so grateful to be here at such an exciting time – though it does tend to discount the fact that Ramsey and Kate have been working for three years to bring about these successes – nothing happens overnight in India.

We have a new addition to our little family – Stefan, Christa’s boyfriend, arrived on Friday afternoon – earlier than originally anticipated.  This will allow him to be here for her birthday on Tuesday, which she hadn’t expected, so is quite wonderful for her.  He seems a nice young man with more limited English than Christa but he seems to be keeping up.  Saturday everyone took off in different directions.  Kate, Ramsey, and Paul spent several dirty hours cleaning out the biodiesel building, which apparently involved a lot of grimy manual labor.  Christa and Stefan went to visit Alahez, the disabled  boy she works with, because her week had been pretty crazy and she hadn’t done therapy the two days they normally schedule.  Then they went on to the office to get him acquainted there on a quiet day.  Kitu and I went for our first time to the local ashram.  It was a quiet and cool place and we spent a couple hours just enjoying the calm.  I sort of meditated – been a while since I tried to still my mind and am definitely out of practice.  We saw two peacocks, who maintained a distance and never displayed any tail feathers, but never saw the pet deer or any of the wild ones there.  It was a lovely spot and I’m sure we’ll be returning there when the weather gets hotter and we’re here without the others. 

We all met up on my balcony about 5:30 for drinks and Kitu, Christa, Stefan, and I went to the local movie theater at 6:30 to see a Tamil film, Mynaa.  The only English was a title which said “The Journey of Love”.  It was a typically long film but had beautiful scenery and the couple of songs incorporated actually fit into the story well and were not over-the-top as were others I’ve seen.  Interestingly you went through three hours of the film and in the last four minutes the entire movie became a tragedy and there was a fast montage of clips showing a rather brutal end to the film – not at all like the body of the film.  The scenery they shot was beautiful and the music was pleasant and worked well with the story.  The only times I didn’t feel I was certain what was going on were when there was a lot of phone dialogue and not knowing the language definitely impacted those moments.  I think we had the gist of the movie the entire time and I would say that’s an indication it was likely a well made film.  It was our second adventure to the local cinema and this time we figured out there’s a men’s side and a women’s side (not enough people attended last time to figure that out) and that the back of the theater, which is designated non-smoking and has benches with backs is probably men’s only – though we’ve sat their both times.  The owner is very pleased we come and asked afterwards how we liked the film.  I’m sure if there was any issue with the crazy foreigners sitting there that he’d tell us so we’ll continue even if it’s not standard behavior – comfort is important.  The greatest feature of the theater is the ever present bat family who fly around the screen – and apparently live off to one side.  Since the place is loaded with mosquitoes, one has to be grateful for the bats’ presence.  In addition to them flying across during the movie, we also had a very large lizard cross the screen slowly during the second half of the movie.  He must have been somewhere between six and twelve inches long to be so visible.  It was actually amusing watching where he’d be on the scenes as he moved along.  The screen is actually a wall painted white with a black border – and there are patches on the lower corner of the white area.  It’s quite functional but seems odd when you’re used to a real theater experience.  We had considered attending the film in Arapukuti, which has a “real” theater.  The movie there started its run on Friday and has something to do with more local things (not sure if it’s content, story, film, or what) but the part I found cool was that the man who wrote the musical score for the film apparently did so while living in MY apartment for six months.  Guess this means I have some connection to the film and therefore hope to see it at some point.

There’s some big celebration coming up in town and they’re doing things that weren’t done for Diwali or Pongal so it’s apparently a big deal.  There is discussion that a lot of tourists will be coming here as this is a big deal locally.  None of us fully understand the occasion but we were told it has to do with an “inauguration” and the focus seems to be a small temple down the street from the ODAM office – not the larger temple next door to the office.  They were constructing a stage in that area and we understand there will be dance performances and outdoor films several nights, possibly beginning soon.  The main street now has a well-lit tunnel constructed at the end heading to Madurai and there are colorful streamers decorating the inside.  They spent a good deal of time creating a tall structure on the front which we thought would house a banner.  However, yesterday they built a similar tall pole structure more toward the center of town and by the time we’d left the theater they had installed a Ganesh image made of colored lights on the stand so I guess that’s what the structure will hold.  There were poles lashed together further down the street so it appears there will be another one set up soon.  There were also lights above a couple of the shops at the tunnel end of town – they were elaborate and lit in sequences to appear to move.  The most interesting one was a cart being pulled by a peacock and driven by a rabbit…  I will be posting photos but also intend to take better video once everything is set up.  The locals got quite a kick out of watching Christa and I photographing and filming the lights last night – we’re always entertaining.

It was very pleasant having the weekend free.  Last weekend was our trip to Ramashwaran and the weekend before I was in Salem so this is the first rest I’ve had in a while.  It’s actually been a bit boring – when I found myself scraping the wax drippings off my floor so I could scrub it more clean, I realized I needed a bit more to do!  It’s felt pretty hectic with the training and production for the market, mixed with the trips and never really slowing down, it’s probably healthier for me to just stop and chill a bit.  However, I’m looking forward to getting back to work and the training on Monday.  Power was off all morning or I would have headed to the office to play a bit on the internet.  Getting this posting done was probably a good idea so that I could upload it and a few more photos if I get the chance.  Internet service has been spotty lately because there is apparently some sort of electrical problem in the room where they keep the internet connection.  It’s frustrating not having access, not just because I can’t upload blog posts and photos, but also because I am trying to incorporate photos of other cultures into my work with the KGBV girls and it takes considerable time to find appropriate photos.  Thursday I had downloaded a couple pages from the website of a photographer couple who had very nice images from several developing countries.  I showed the girls the photos of Laos, Cambodia, Mexico, and Guatemala.  What I liked best were the images were from village life and showed great images of the people – children, the aged, and everyday folks going about their business.  The girls really liked that they had black hair and brown skin – and then pointed out some of the differences as well (they noted flatter noses on the photos from Asia).  It was fun to introduce the concept of similarities between cultures.  They always ask for photos from America and I would really rather widen the view of the world a bit.  I loved the site I pulled those photos from and hope I can find something similar for other areas.  Need better photos of Africa and would love something with Maori folks as well.  The idea that I am teaching English doesn’t mean I can provide a more relevant message to their lives.  The thing I enjoyed the most is that the older cook (a tiny old woman) who snuck up to peek at the last class photos of snow and ice, joined us immediately for these photos and appeared to realize she was more welcome.  How cool is it to introduce a sixty year old woman to other places in the world!  These are the experiences I am so grateful for now.  This is, I feel, why I came here.  Touching individuals is just as important as establishing the business enterprise we’re working on.  My goal is to leave a good impression of both me and Americans by the time I leave this place – and I hope I’m living up to that standard.  I am so lucky!

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