I realize it’s been a long time since I posted – it’s been busy and taking time to write the blog just hasn’t been easy. I had a great week after returning from Salem. It felt good to be “home” in Tiruchuli.
One highlight of the past week was my sari blouse was completed so the tailor wrapped me in my sari. This seems so complicated – I can’t imagine how anyone does it themselves. I looked fabulous, even though I had my Punjabi pants on underneath rather than the proper petticoat. There was reall no reason to be wearing it so that was kind of disappointing – bad case of all dressed up and nowhere to go. Now I have to wait for the proper occasion – but I’m ready!
The project is moving along nicely. We held a meeting on Wednesday with women selected by the SHG coordinators as likely candidates. It was basically to introduce them to the project and to invite them to participate in the training, even though we are uncertain when we would be having them work for an income. It was a brief meeting and we made a minor adjustment to the training schedule we had come up with in order to accommodate a festival we weren’t aware of. We asked them to let their coordinator know if they intend to participate in the training so we can have an idea of how many to prepare for – and by Friday it appeared almost all will attend. This is probably a larger group than I would have selected but with two trainers and adequate lead time, I’m sure we can manage. The training is meant to prepare “master trainers” who can not only have the necessary skills to make each of the products and any future possibilities, but who can also train others in the future. Our initial five day training appears far too focused on the skills with too little on the training skills, something I do not believe these women acquire readily in their environment. I am working with my co-coordinator to try to find more productive ways to incorporate some of the training skills, though she seems more concerned with the sewing training. We begin training this Wednesday and Friday. Our “employee” Sathya will be unable to attend the first day. I am not concerned about her missing the skills training as she has mastered several items already, but I was really hoping she would be there as she would be able to communicate effectively in Tamil and I believe she understands the majority of what we tell her (though there are some interesting miscommunications now and then). At least she’ll be around for the other training days, as well as her regular working schedule to complete the last of the order for the shops. Christa is planning to go to Madurai by herself for the next delivery on Thursday. She is approaching the end of her time in Tiruchuli so also hopes to make arrangements for shipping items and it made more sense for her to go on her own. I could probably use a day in the office to adjust the training if needed. Much of the end of last week I spent working on the string pieced cell phone bags for the order as I am the only one at this time who knows how to make them. My prototype had a tassel on the closing which looked nice but everyone insisted it had to have a more secure closure. The issue is that materials are hard to come by and expensive, which is why we have focused on creating projects which utilize waste materials and recycled items. I originally thought I’d put a Chinese ball button on the bag but they are difficult to tie nicely and I could not imagine that my poor attempts would be any more successful if I taught them to the women. I then found instructions for a “Singleton” button online which utilized fabric and a plastic ring. Mind you, we have no plastic rings, so I’m wandering the office looking for alternatives and find that the portion of the cap of a plastic bottle (water or soda) which breaks away from the cap and is left on the bottle makes a pretty cool large button. This wasn’t a suitable size for the cell phone bags but may be useful in the future if they choose to make larger items. We’re considering potential uses in the hangings we are creating. At any rate, I had to come up with something smaller and had an epiphany and have created really acceptable ball buttons using the waste material from the rim of a wax paper cup (readily available as trash) covered in fabric. I have never actually concentrated on recycled materials, though have tried to incorporate what is available to suit my needs in the past. This, however, was truly an inspired creation. If I pass along nothing else, it will be my enthusiasm for finding a practical no-cost solution to create a marketable item. I can truthfully say that I am sick and tired of sewing cell phone bags and can’t wait to have others trained to do this in the future. As of the end of Monday I have completed five and pieced the main portions of two more which will be lined and completed on Tuesday. The order from the shop was ten but it appears realistically only seven will be delivered at this time. I am trying to make them slightly different so we can get feedback on customer preference and this is probably slowing down the process somewhat.
The main highlight from the week was that four of the volunteers (me, Kitu, Paul, and Christa) decided to take a weekend trip to Rameshwaren. This is an interesting Hindu temple steeped with fascinating history of the story of Sita and Ram and her kidnapping to Sri Lanka and subsequent rescue. The temple is situated on an island which juts out toward Sri Lanka so I was probably as close to there as I’m likely to get this visit. Though the temple is the primary reason to visit the area, there are also fascinating beaches and holy bathing sites, the longest bridge in Tamil Nadu, and interesting fishing in the area. We took a bus early Saturday morning from Tiruchuli which we had been told would be a two and half to three hour trip – but was really a bit longer than four hours. Once there we checked into the hotel which had been recommended because one of the ODAM staff knows an employee there. It was an adequate facility and the price was very reasonable – with all extra fees it cost about 500 rupies per night for a double room (no A/C) which comes to a little less than $6 per night. It was safe, relatively clean, and the ceiling fan provided reasonable comfort. The area hosts a lot of tourists from North India so the variety of food was wonderful – had some incredible naan (which I’ve really missed here) and a dish I hadn’t tried before, chili paneer, which I really hope Rusty can learn to cook for me when I return to the States. We took it easy the first afternoon and hired an auto rickshaw to take us to the end of the island where the distance between the bodies of water was only a short distance apart. We originally arranged only to have the driver and “guide”, who spoke Hindi with Kitu, take us to the beach and wait for an hour but afterwards they convinced us they could show us additional sites, which we knew would cost more but we elected to go for it. They took us on an amazing adventure where it seemed we arrived for everything just in time. We went to a very old temple in the middle of a small community which housed some of the famous floating stones Ram used to cross over to Sri Lanka (they were the largest pumice stones I’ve ever seen) and also held figures of Sita and Ram which were rescued from the temple which was destroyed in the Tsunami in 1964. There we received a blessing and a quick splash with some holy water. Apparently there are holy springs EVERYWHERE on this island. We then drove back to the bridge to the island and arrived to find all traffic stopped and many people out of their vehicles looking over the edge. It was quite windy and was really a sightseeing all of the pilgrims and tourists in their various interesting garb. When we joined them, we realized that a train was crossing on the tracks and drawbridge below the auto bridge – and we were there in time to wave at the many folks on the train waving back. It was great fun – and then the bridge quickly cleared and we drove back to the next site. The driver started driving down very nondescript narrow alleys into a housing area which was rather rural (still in town) until we got to the shore. There was a really ancient looking bridge out to a well in the sea – and it looked completely uncrossable from the shore. However, the guide insisted that he could cross and bring back water for us to verify the miracle of Ram’s creation of a freshwater spring in the ocean. Kitu and Paul took the challenge to go out with him and said it was easier to cross than it looked, which was apparent as Christa and I watched safely from shore. The water brought back to bless us was a bit salty but both insisted it was less than half as salty as the water pulled up from the surrounding area. We finished up there just as the sun began to set – and it was breathtakingly beautiful – again, perfect timing. It was a wonderful experience and even with the additional charge for the complete tour, cost us less than $4 each even with a healthy tip.
Sunday morning I woke early and went up to the roof of the hotel and it was a beautiful view. I went back to the room for my camera and Christa decided to join me. We decided the shore was closer to the back of the hotel than we would have guessed and that it appeared we could walk to the area with boats so we went exploring. We walked through a maze of small streets but finally found our way through the thatched buildings around the fishing area. Men were working everywhere and didn’t seem too concerned that we were traipsing through so we go some interesting photos. The fish being caught all seemed very small flat fish and there appeared to be baskets and mats to sort out far more than the catch being processed. Probably the most interesting thing was the water appeared relatively shallow and the smaller boats would come in toward shore and then a cart pulled by one or two oxen would go out to meet it, unload the fish, turn around and head back to shore. This seemed to provide a pretty speedy way to get the catch ashore. The only boat we saw land the evening before at the beach on the far end of the island appeared to be concerned more with catching creatures with marketable shells and odd looking spiny starfish. The folks on this beach in the morning were serious fishermen. I think the photos I’ll put on the site are pretty good – and convey everything except for the smell ;-) Christ and I returned to the hotel to meet up with Kitu and Paul and we all went to the temple after breakfast. It was quite different than the temple in Madurai. Shortly after entering the temple we heard sounds of bathing and when we approached the area, found two men diligently bathing one of the temple elephants. The elephant was laying on his side quite relaxed and was obviously enjoying the men hosing him down and scrubbing him with big brushes. He watched the crowd and moved his trunk around very contentedly. My photo didn’t turn out well, however, I got an excellent video (just don’t know a way to share it). After several minutes of this elephant’s bath, the crowd turned and I realized a second elephant was walking down the corridor towards the bathing area. He was smaller and adorned with bells and had a nice painted design on his face. He entered the bathing area but then his handler took him to the back and he didn’t return while we were there. We probably watched for twenty minutes and they only worked on one side of the elephant – so bathing must take a very long time. I was very pleased to see the care they take of these magnificent creatures – it was obvious he was loved and he knew it.
The main feature of the Rameshwaren temple is the healing waters. There are over twenty water sources within the temple and pilgrims come to bathe in each of them and sometimes to collect water in bottles as well. Throughout the temple there are little wells which are numbered so that pilgrims can go from station to station having temple staff dip a silver urn into the water and bring it up to pour over them. The system works quite well and they handle a good number of folks – all walking through the temple shivering (it really isn’t cold but being indoors and acclimated differently makes them appear pretty miserable wet). Though we watched this and filmed a bit, none of us were too enthusiastic about undergoing the water dunkings. Kitu went into the inner temple which was open only to Hindus so the three of us had quite a while to wander about and observe the outer area. When she came out, a gentleman approached us about whether we wished to go into the temple – he said he could get us non-Hindus in if we wished. Naturally we knew there was a fee involved but he didn’t want to reveal it until we were in. Turned out it cost him 100 rupies for each non-Hindu to come in and then we could pay him whatever we thought was fair afterwards. His English was quite good and he took us to several places outside the main temple area to have us blessed by holy men. We then entered the inner temple and he took the time to explain the story and the significance of each of the areas. It was fascinating and we were all very respectful. The primary aim of this particular temple is to pray for your family and I worked hard to keep all of them in mind as I went through each area. This was supposed to bring them peace, even if they did not make the pilgrimage themselves. Hope you all feel better and more peaceful now! It was a truly wonderful experience and we all paid him generously for his time. Meals averaged about $1 each and we treated ourselves to fruit drinks and snacks as needed. All in all we determined we each spent between $20 and $25 for the weekend trip. It was wonderful but we were all pretty tired by the time we took the four hour plus bus ride home on Sunday to get back in time for dinner. Kitu ended up getting sick in the night and believes she ate something that disagreed with her, certainly could have been the water as she took a pill at one point drinking regular water – more daring than I would be. She said she had no fever so hopefully it will be a quick bout to clean out her system but she was still ill by the end of the day.