Wednesday, February 2, 2011

TEDx Conference

Veera, my Tamil tutor and the impetus behind the TEDx-Salem Conference, asked me to make a presentation at the January 29th conference shortly after he learned I would be in India at that time.  Though I considered this a great honor, I felt inadequately qualified.  Because the conference was scheduled so soon after my arrival in India (three weeks), I didn’t even feel competent to discuss my experiences at ODAM.  So though I agreed, it was with a small voice in my head telling me I really wasn’t up to the task.  This made it difficult to prepare a good presentation, but I pulled something together while still in the U.S. and then after a week here, shifted the focus entirely and wrote up a new idea.  Then I worked with the speech on the bus ride to Salem (good way to spend four+ hours) and still felt it was a work in progress even when I arrived at the venue on Friday evening.  The students working on the project were busily creating the backdrops and decorations for the auditorium and there were art supplies scattered all over on the veranda outside the room.  The coordinators looked particularly harried but everyone greeted me warmly and the other two speakers who came to see the venue were friendly and as excited and nervous as I was.  I returned to the hotel room they had arranged about 9:00 p.m. and determined to work more on my presentation.  I had a decent night’s sleep considering how nervous I was about the upcoming day and woke early to again tackle the speech.  I was feeling pretty good about it at this point but practice runs showed it was pretty short.  However, I figured short was better than running too long so stayed with it.  When I arrived at the venue that morning, it finally dawned on me that there was no podium – so the pages of notes I was relying on to get me through the recently crafted speech would do no good.  I’m not sure why this took me by surprise – TED talks never work from a podium and I hadn’t seen one the night before – but I took a deep breath, wrote down my five main points on a scrap of paper I placed into my official speaker nametag, and trusted it would all work out. 

I took a seat next to one of the women I had met the night before and another I’d met that morning at the hotel prior to being picked up – both had excellent English and were very gracious, even though they were just as nervous about the upcoming event as me.  I was really grateful for their company and they took great pains to make sure I understood the main content of those presentations offered in Tamil, which were the majority during the morning.  What was interesting to me was that I was able to understand a great deal of the speeches in Tamil, I think because those speakers who were truly passionate about their subject were very good at making clear points and there were occasional English words thrown in to most presentations that allowed me to follow.  Obviously I didn’t get everything, but I didn’t feel as left out as I had anticipated.  We had very nice food available during the snacks and lunch and the organizers took great pains to ensure that all the speakers were well cared for – though I think I often had even more preferential treatment.  Some of the students who took responsibility for hosting me (I am not sure if they were assigned this task but that’s a possibility) seemed genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to talk with me and it was really nice to have the opportunity to interact with so many people.  By lunchtime the audience began approaching me as well – sometimes to ask questions and sometimes just to have a photo taken with me – and by the end of the day one young man een asked for my autograph – and since this was after my presentation, I was immensely flattered.  I determined not to be nervous about the presentation and decided my main aim was to speak slowly (as I am an extremely fast talker and even those with good English find me challenging to follow) and to try to use a simpler vocabulary to ensure everyone could understand me.  I honestly don’t know if my presentation was actually coherent, but I was very proud that I didn’t mumble or stumble over things too badly and I remained conscious of the desire to speak clearly.  It was amazing to look out into the audience of ~160 people and see EVERY single person attentive to what I was saying.  I have truly never had such an interested audience and it was incredibly flattering.  They told me it was a good speech, but I have the feeling they’d have been gracious if I had stood up there drooling.  It was short – but because all of the other speakers went over their time, this was probably a good thing for the conference as a whole.  Naturally after the fact I thought of many more things I could have added to the speech – but it probably wouldn’t have made any real improvements anyway.  I was just relieved when it was over.  I had begun feeling a little sick beforehand (nerves I’m sure) and was just grateful I had no issues.

The vitality and passion of the speakers as well as those who attended the TEDx-Salem conference was an inspiration in itself and I was both grateful and pleased to be a part of such a remarkable sharing.  I know that the presentations will be made available on the TEDx-Salem at some point and I hope you will have an opportunity to watch when available.  Hopefully I will have internet access soon (it has been quite challenging for the past couple days) and be able to access photos and the video as possible.

Going to Salem the coordinators had arranged for me to take a private bus from Madurai.  This was an air conditioned bus and was really quite luxurious.  The bus was made by Mercedes Benz (my first time riding in one!) and had plush seats and nice curtains.  It was fascinating watching the countryside change as we approached Salem.  That area reminded me a great deal of the hills surrounding Phoenix Arizona – rather jagged and with sparse vegetation – and it was a very nice change of scenery from Tiruchuli and Madurai.  Salem itself is smaller than Madurai but I must have a rather limited view of Madurai in my trips mainly to the temple area and it seemed much larger.  There were also many very nice and pleasant residential areas, clean and attractive, which I have not seen in the Madurai area.  One of my fellow speakers told me that Madurai has the reputation as “the largest village in India” and I believe this may confirm my impression.  The conference was held at the Sona College in a very nice air conditioned auditorium with good lighting and multimedia equipment.  The gentleman who formed the college presented the opening address at the conference and afterwards took me and several other speakers on a very special tour of the campus.  There are 47,000 students attending programs for business, engineering, and architecture and it was a very impressive campus and a very gracious tour.  This gentleman (sorry, not sure of his actual title) started the college fifty years ago and was so informative about every building and green area on campus.  They have created a truly impressive and modern facility and the student who accompanied us was equally proud of her institution.  Afterwards, he took me and another speaker to his home for tea – and it was a very beautiful home created by one his sons who is an architect (one son went to school in Oklahoma, the other in South Dakota).  It was very beautiful and was probably the most impressive home I will have the privilege to visit while here.  He introduced us to his mother who interestingly was from Rangoon but had to leave when she was six because of Japanese bombing during World War II.  She walked to India with her mother who carried her infant brother – what an incredible experience to be able to recall.  We also met his beautiful and gracious wife – a very pleasant tour.  That evening we had a relaxed evening dining with the speakers, the coordinators (who were still very busy), and a couple of the student organizers.  It was a very congenial group and a pleasure to spend time with them.  The next day (Sunday) most of the speakers had returned home but I stayed to have an opportunity to meet at the home of Veera’s parents.  It was a very comfortable home and it was nice to see a more typical lifestyle.  As Brahmins, they have a very significant space in their home dedicated to their home temple (which was in every home I visited).  In Tiruchuli homes this space is usually just a small shelf area dedicated for this purpose so it was interesting to see homes which had space devoted to this.  After leaving Veera’s home, we made a trip to Suganthi’s home.  She is one of the co-coordinators and also the generous young woman who met me in Chennai when I arrived in India to help me purchase appropriate clothing (for which I get many compliments).  Their home was very nice as well and had a beautiful upper floor for the two daughters.  We took her father to the train station which gave me an opportunity to see inside the sleeper trains (from outside) so I can be better prepared when the day finally comes for me to ride in one.  I then had dinner with Suganthi and her mother at one of their favorite restaurants and tried an interesting meal which was a dosa cooked with extra ghee making it more stiff and formed into a cone with another stiff dosa placed on top – apparently a concoction devised to appeal to children.  Veera later joined us and remained with me as we returned to check out of the hotel and he took me on to the bus station – on his scooter/moped!  So I had the opportunity to ride the streets on the back of one of the bikes – but since it was 11:00 p.m. on a Sunday, traffic was pretty light.  He waited with me to get on the bus (which ended up not leaving till 1:00 a.m. and the poor boy was exhausted) and made sure I was safe my entire trip.  I only hope my husband can return this favor to some extent when Veera returns to Texas later this week.  I arrived back in Madurai at 4:30 a.m., hired an autorickshaw to the other bus station (and negotiated a good deal at the same time) and caught a bus to Arrapukkati station where I caught a second bus to Tiruchuli.  I think I negotiated all of this very well and was pleased I could be somewhat independent.  It was, however, exhausting and I felt Monday was less productive a return than I would have liked – especially with the three hour nap I fit in after lunch. 

Yesterday (Tuesday) I managed to be a bit more productive as Christa and I planned for the Wednesday morning meeting we had scheduled to meet with about ten women to discuss the project in an effort to recruit what we are calling “mastertrainers”.  Unfortunately the power outage issue became something of a problem.  Each day a two hour outage is scheduled and it remains the same time each day for a month.  All of January the scheduled outage was from 2:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon and you learn to save tasks which do not require internet or power use for those times.  Tuesday morning – the first of February – the power went out at 10:00 and returned at noon so we assumed that was the new time.  Then it went out again at 2:00 (just as I returned to the office from lunch) and was out until I left for the KGBV school.  Christa and I managed to prepare the materials we needed for the project introduction but I had to leave it for her to print them once the power returned.  This morning the internet had issues even though electricity was available and then noon the power went out and returned at 2:00.  Who knows what that means in establishing a regular schedule.  I decided after the lack of productivity yesterday that I would move the sewing machine outdoors so I could have adequate light to continue working even when the power was an issue.  This morning after the introduction (which seemed successful) I sewed for a couple hours outside.  The order we have at the shop includes ten cell phone/small string pieced bags and I’m the only one making them so far so I have to get more done than I’ve managed so far.  That’s how I intend to spend the remainder of the afternoon.

At some point I will write more about my recent lessons at the KGBV school as they have been very fun and inspiring.  Though these sessions take time that could be used for the project, they are so very worthwhile and I am very grateful I have the opportunity to work with the girls.  For now, I really appreciate if any of you actually made it to this point in the post.

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