Monday, February 28, 2011

Minister's Visit

Today was a special day for the workshop participants at ODAM – the Minister of Education for Tamil Nadu came to give them certificates and small gifts for completing the month long program.  We had met this Minister for the opening ceremony for the new KGBV girls school building and we had word before he came that he had expressed interest in having us (the foreign volunteers) come to his home for dinner (the more local one, not in Chennai, though I don’t know the name of the village/city for this other home).  He arrived on time (this is supposed to be rather unusual for most ministers but he was prompt for the last ceremony as well), gave a brief speech, oversaw the certificate granting and then came over to talk with the volunteers to say that he hoped we would all be able to visit his home and that he would be arranging it with Jeyaraj.  We were very flattered and expressed gratitude and hope this can be arranged.  Apparently he had a very important meeting this afternoon or he would have had us there today – and with Kate and Ramsey about to leave for a ten day vacation, we are not certain when this visit can be arranged.  Obviously Christa and Stephan will already be gone but if it cannot be scheduled until Ramsey and Kate return (March 16), there will be only four of us able to attend which may allow a very interesting opportunity to visit with this very important gentleman.  I was very pleased that he made a point of extending the invitation to Kate and me – but this was likely because the other volunteers close to us were the newly arrived folks here for the week to work with the KGBV school’s medical needs and he wouldn’t have recognized them.  I feel very self-important.  My YouTube debut and an invitation from a Minister all in one week – pretty big time in India for me!

I had a very relaxing day on Sunday (yesterday as I write this) visiting the ashram for almost two hours.  It was cool and pleasant and I had the opportunity to meet the pet deer.  I was picturing a small, young deer when I was told that the couple managing the ashram had raised a deer – but she’s quite large and has already had several fawns over the years.  Interestingly she has white spots on her coat – which I thought was usual only for the very young fawns, at least in Texas.  I have posted photos of her on the Picasa site.  She was willing to allow me to approach but did not appear that she would allow me to touch her so I didn’t push my luck.  I believe if I were to bring her a snack and give her some time to be near me without pushing that she would allow this – something to work toward in the future.  I also posted photos of the peacocks, who make no pretense of becoming friendly toward us, and also of one of the owls that Christa saw (there were two but one flew off before the photo).  Even in the photo it is difficult to distinguish this big owl in the tree and I couldn’t see either of them even with Christa pointing at them until they flew.  It is so pleasant, cool, and relaxing at the ashram and I enjoyed the quiet time immensely.  I had decided not to go into the ODAM office on Sunday as I had been there every day for a couple weeks and needed a break.  It was pleasant to take a day off but also rather difficult for me not to feel “productive” – something I need even when I’m trying to relax.  In the afternoon (after a NAP of all things) I sat and watched an American movie on my computer in my room – feeling very decadent indeed.  You know how sometimes when you leave the theater after a movie and have to sort of transition back into your own life after being involved in the movie?   (At least this happens to me.)  Well I have to admit that it was rather disconcerting trying to come back to my Indian life after the movie… and I realize that every day I sort of “transition” into my life here reminding myself that I’m doing something different.   It was an interesting realization and is an indication to me that I’m not as acclimated to this lifestyle as I thought I was.  I was under the impression that I had adopted the rhythm and pace of the community quite well but I think somewhere in the back of my mind I’m always aware it’s just a temporary adjustment.  I wonder how long it takes to really make the transition to another culture.

Saturday both Muthu and Sathya spent the morning with me (and Christa when she came for part of the day) to finish up the cell phone bags and talk.  I am not certain if they really thought this was a day they were supposed to come in or if they just wanted to.  Sathya stayed until after 5:00 p.m., the usual time she leaves when she is working for the day.  They seem confused when I tell them that training is finished and that I am not certain when we will start working on making more toy elephants because we need to wait until a firm order has been placed.  Hopefully this won’t be a long delay getting an order so that I don’t have to continue trying to make sense of it for them.  I had the opportunity to discuss the cell phone bag construction with them and they really didn’t enjoy the process very much.  I think they liked having a nicely finished bag so showing them proper lining techniques they found useful, but they found piecing the outer bag tedious.  Since these aren’t looking like a popular item with Ponchulli in the shop either, I think this version of the product will die, though perhaps there could be future interest in the stamped or screened bags.  I feel rather disappointed at this since this was a project I came up with to use the disparate fabric scraps we have available.  I think this is a good lesson to let go of my ego on this one and go with what will work, not what I wish would work.  I keep having to remind myself to roll with the punches and stay flexible – gifts I haven’t always demonstrated in the past but which I am practicing a great deal these days.

As Christa has been going around the community saying goodbye to individuals she has connected with, she stopped by the carpenter shop to take some additional photos of the workmen holding items with their feet.  This is the same carpenter who built my table.  He invited her to his upcoming wedding sometime in mid-March.  Obviously she couldn’t come but she promised him she would print up some photos of him and I will deliver them when I come back from Madurai.  With any luck he’ll invite me (and Kitu) to the wedding.  This would give me a great chance to see a local wedding and I think it would offer him some prestige to have foreigners attend his wedding – a win-win situation for all.  I’ll keep you posted on how this devious little scheme works out ;-)

Because I’m heading in to Madurai tomorrow, which is one of my usual days to go to KGBV girls school, I won’t be going for the lesson.  I didn’t realize that I had double booked until this morning and it made me rather sad.  I feel I am missing more lessons lately than I am going to and recognize that this break in my routine has been very healthy for me.  Going out on the bus and through the fields to the school by myself is very relaxing and is a poignant reminder that I am leading a blessed and special life right now.  I feel this is my best chance to connect with people on the bus and at the school and reminds me to be grateful for the gifts I am being given during this special time of my life.  It is good to be reminded how fortunate I am.

There is not much more to post right now but I imagine that my upcoming trip to Madurai ought to give me a bit to write about.  I am becoming excited about the imminent trip to Verkala and feel a bit up in the air as I transition from one part of my project to another with this vacation scheduled as well.  I imagine it will show in my posts that I am rather ungrounded at the moment but I hope this is a positive thing as I move to the next phase of my time here.  All is good.

Take care.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

YouTube and other news

Lately I’ve been losing track of time a bit so am not being as diligent with my blog posts as I might like.  I apologize and hope the extra long posts make up for the delays.

My big news is that Veera has finished editing my TEDx talk (thank you so much Veera!) and it is now available for viewing on Youtube.  I can honestly say I have not yet watched it – and the parts I saw while it downloaded slowly were disappointing to me but you must understand I was trying very hard to speak slowly and clearly and I aimed to keep the English understandable.  This is certainly not like my usual speech pattern but it was more appropriate for the audience.  I do really like the outfit that Suganthi helped me choose for this event and I have not yet had another occasion to wear it so at least you can see how fashionable I am!  Check it out -  ODAM had also posted a short address I gave along with the other volunteers as the month long course began for the Youth Leadership and Personality Development Programme at

It was a great week.  The last official day of training set up so far with Sathya and Muthu (her short or “sweet” name) was Friday morning (yesterday as I write this) and it went very well.  They were very enthusiastic about learning to make a lined bag with a flap which we are making in limited numbers for the Madurai market.  I consider the lining process a very persnickety and precise operation and was rather hesitant to show them and they did have some difficulties but I think they got the main idea.  I have been doing it for so long that it isn’t easy for me to know which parts are hard for others so I learned a bit about teaching this process during the lesson so hopefully I’ll do it better in the future.  Christa was also anxious to learn to make the cell phone bag as her sewing experience is stronger in making toys but not something like the bag.  She was so sweet after thanking me for teaching her different sewing things during our work together.  It has been a good working relationship as well as a nice friendship that I hope will continue in the future.  Christa met with Jayaraj and Elavarasu as part of her winding down before leaving ODAM and they have some strong plans for the project in the future and see it set up as an enterprise quicker than I had anticipated.  They are discussing renting a space for the women to sew from and to store the necessary items within a month – much quicker than I would have estimated.  There is some pressure to get a firm order/contract from Ponchulli when we got to Madurai on Tuesday to move forward so keep your fingers crossed.  It is looking likely that the business could become fully operational before I leave, which would be a wonderful opportunity for me to see that my work will really continue after my departure.  Another thing we learned was that a portion of the profit from the soft goods enterprise will be set aside for mothers with children who have had to leave their abusive situations and find themselves as social outcasts.  I am so pleased that this project will e able to do so much good – providing income and social assistance.  I have also told Jayaraj and Elavarsu that I would like to help draft some web pages for them which better elaborate on the wonderful advocacy they do in this community, which I think they do not clarify enough.  Hopefully this will help occupy my time once the women are rolling as the primary workforce. 

Mark, who was here for a week working up a video of Ramsey and Kate’s organization, Design Innovations, left with Kate and Ramsey on Wednesday so it’s been just the four of us volunteers for a couple days.  Kate and Ramsey will return with three others on Sunday evening so we’re not down to nothing yet – but it does affect our day to day activities when the group is smaller.  Kitu, Christa, Stefan and I have decided to go to the cinema this evening for the movie – though we don’t even know what is playing.  Hopefully it is a Tamil film as it was dreadfully boring watching an American film (the Fantastic Four) dubbed in Tamil.  Hopefully this movie will not end as tragically as the last one.  I swear if we had left five minutes early (which isn’t hard to picture after a three hour movie), we would have believed it was a romance – only the last five minutes became this fast-paced and violently sad ending.  It is great fun sitting in the theater with the bats flying about and watching the lizards cross the screen during the movie.  If only there was popcorn!

I have now played extensively with the two silkscreens we purchased in Madurai last time and can get beautiful prints with the textile medium available here in the larger screen of a dancing woman but the smaller elephant screen is not clear enough and the prints are hit and miss with no really outstanding ones.  Several folks in the office have placed orders for tshirts with the dancing woman silkscreened on but to date I have made only two for Christa.  It’s not a bad image, but the large rectangular size doesn’t work well into any of the projects I can anticipate for the business.  Yesterday I played with the stamps that Christa bought during the festival from the henna and tattoo folks.  She had picked up an ornate peacock stamp that is an ideal size for a focal image on a cell phone bag which might make these bags more distinct and less readily copied on the market.  I played quite a while yesterday afternoon with the stamp and got consistently adequate images – some of the fabrics available in our waste material were very easy to use with the technique.  I feel like I’ve set up a small printing operation at ODAM and think that the students for the month long class must think I’m crazy as they pass by many of my experimental projects.  They don’t realize that I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas to change the products and spend hours planning how the concept could be made cheap and simple for the business enterprise.  They’d really think I was crazy if they knew that.  Christa and I will try to find a source in Madurai for some other stamps – which ought to be plentiful in the temple area though I haven’t noted them yet.  I still want a small elephant image as Ponchulli insists that is what will sell best.  The peacock image is also popular so I think it is a reasonable one to start with.  I’m hoping today to make up a cell phone bag with the new concept to have ready for our visit on Tuesday.  Perhaps this version will better suit Ponchulli’s concerns with the bag being copied so that we can find a better market for this product as well.  I’m afraid this product will better market to an international audience, which we have not yet connected to.  Unfortunately it is not a simple matter to set up something like Paypal here and shipping and mailing are difficult as well.  I’m hoping the ODAM Rural Crafts soap product breaks the ground here so that the soft goods can be marketed easily afterwards and believe that this will be a much better opportunity once established.  I know that I would be much more eager to purchase a product that I knew was assisting marginalized women in India. 

Last night Kitu made firm reservations for us to take a train to the community of Varkala in the state of Kerala.  The info on Wikipedia is about as much as I know about this place so far.  We plan to take a night train from Virudhangar a week from Monday (the 7th?) and then spending one night in a hotel and heading back on a night train Wednesday night to arrive back on Thursday morning.  It will be the first work days I have missed, though there’s no firm schedule here but I am sure I can schedule anything with the project around this time.  I’m looking forward to another trip – Salem and Rameshwaran were both fascinating places and my understanding is the area we are heading is green and lush and beautiful – so how can we go wrong?  I’m looking forward to a busy day in Madurai this coming Tuesday (March 1) as I’m taking a car in to run several errands for the project with Christa and then dropping her and Stefan off as they plan to stay there a couple days before departing for their two month jaunt around India.  Hopefully we can make the connections with the gentleman about foam for a lighter weight replacement for the elephant stuffing and take care of some other business as well.  I originally purchased only black colorant for these experiments and am considering buying the metallic gold (which requires a separate binder) as well to add a bit of bling to the bags.  We’ll see how I feel about that after creating this first bag where I am looking at putting some of the glitter glue or colorful embroidery on the stamp to give the item some special touch.  One item I am seriously considering is purchasing silk yardage to make a “sleeping bag” of silk.  Christa has one that she uses in her travels and it is basically like a sleeping bag liner so you can sleep in your own clean environment anywhere and have a comfortable covering which breathes as only silk can.  The beds in the hotel we stayed at in Ramesharam were not particularly inviting and she was able to feel clean in her bag while there.  The bag would be really useful on the train as well.  Ramsey and Kate had Christa purchase silk and make a bag for them when she decided to remake a second for herself (or Stefan) and they found it useful.  I am not certain how much use I would get out of this later – a lot if I travel outside the U.S. but I don’t think it would be useful in my usual life.  Kitu wants to learn how to use a treadle machine (I think we’re talking about basic sewing lessons here) so wants me to buy the silk for her on this trip to Madurai so she can make a bag.  Her enthusiasm is making me seriously consider going ahead and investing the $22 USD to purchase the silk.  I guess if I bought a color I liked and never used the bag, I could then remake it into something else later…

Thursday evening I went to the KGBV school for the first actual lesson in two weeks since I’d missed one week when I had my cold and Tuesday’s visit was occupied by the occasion of saying goodbye to Christa and Stefan.  I had managed to pull more photos from the internet – this time focusing on the people of China – and even had some short dance clips from ethnic minority dances around China.  The girls loved them but seemed to get hung up on seeing more – there was no meaningful discussion of the similarities and differences in the other cultures as there had been with the last couple.  I think the videos were too engrossing and will probably not spend time looking for and copying such videos in the future though they seemed like a good idea at the time.  It is very difficult to find good websites with photos of the people of an area and it has occupied more of my time than I feel was productive so I think the cultural lessons need to be modified a bit not to incorporate so many of the external sources.  The girls always want me to show photos of America – and I have issues with this.  In one way I am not certain how I could create a photo essay of “America” since there are so many various views and I would want it to deal more with culture than landscape or architecture.  In another way I don’t want to feed this obsession with America as a rich country where people have everything.  It is somehow important to me to convey to the people I meet here that many people have more physical possessions in American than India, but that they also have more responsibilities and take less time to enjoy those belongings.  I think that the quality of life here often surpasses that in America as the people can enjoy their families and appreciate what they have.  Another facet of Indian life that I think provides them with more inner peace is that they live in the moment – not worrying so much about yesterday or tomorrow.  I also found this trait very frustrating when working with the trainings so cannot say this is an ideal mindset but I would like to try to find a happy middle ground – at least for myself.  If I could change anything about the Indian culture it would be to allow more individual freedom within the marriage system so that women with abusive spouses or dowry problems could have safe and viable options to improve their lives and that does not exist now.  If women and children could be provided a more secure future and not face ostracism from their families and societies, I would say that these people have the best of all worlds.  This isn’t something I can broach with the KGBV girls in a productive way and I find that difficult.  The advocacy and assistance that ODAM provides for women and families in difficult circumstances is admirable but touches only a small percentage of the problems and I wish I had the training, experience, or just-plain-guts to do more in this area.  At the same time, their strong family ties, which unfortunately makes breaking free from bad situations impossible, is one of the enviable things about these people in every other way.  The old cook now comes up as soon as I pull out the computer and unabashedly participates in the viewing.  I don’t imagine she understands anything I say but I think the girls comment enough in Tamil and English that she can readily ask what the image if needed.  She has asked the last couple of visits for me to show family photos, and the girls also ask each time so I ended showing about five of the photos I have on the computer.  I swear they would all look at my family photos more than I do!

Well, enough pontificating – I will not solve the world’s problems, India’s problems, or likely even my own problems today so will go on about my business and hope you will enjoy doing the same.  Thank you for taking the time to read today’s post and take care.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Rain, Palmistry and Other Ventures

It rained this morning!  It wasn’t a huge amount but it was the first rain since I arrived over six weeks ago.  I was hoping to get enough rain to wash out the sewage drains a bit but that didn’t happen.  It did tamp down the dust a bit and it changed the air quality considerably.  I really enjoyed the light rain just before breakfast.  What a pleasant way to start the day!  There were two young children on the street with umbrellas and I had to laugh – what were the odds they needed them enough to carry them around?  Guess it worked for them.  I’m adding this at 1:00 as it began raining again – this time in earnest.  The women in the ODAM workshop were outside working with the beautician (something they’ve done for almost a week) and all had to come inside.  The cooks preparing their lunch had to rush everything in (and the food smelled very good) so there was quite a flurry of activity for a while.  Now everyone is settled down to lunch and it is time for the volunteers to head to the mess for Jayama’s lunch but we’re hoping the rain slows a bit to do this.   Once again adding a bit – as it is now the next day.  The rain continued into the early evening and created quite a muddy bog of the main street of town.  It did end up cleaning out the sewage drains very well (good wishing on my part) and it was a pleasant way to clean up everything and add some variety to life.  Unfortunately I wore my white pants (which I love with my bright yellow churida) and ended up with quite a few mud spots which haven’t come out even after soaking.  I don’t think the folks of Tiruchuli will be particularly critical of the mud stains until they disappear ;-)

Things seem a bit in transition with the volunteers right now.  Kate and Ramsey will leave for a workshop in Delhi on Thursday and Mark will accompany them to Madurai and head back to the States.  They’ll be returning on Sunday with three guests – two men who are childhood friends of Ramey’s and the wife of one.  They are trained as EMTs and will be doing some health workshops at the KGBV school – and the girls really need some attention to some issues so this will be good.  My understanding is they’ll be around for a short time and then all will head off to vacation together for a couple weeks, which will leave Kitu and I alone, as we will be when Kate and Ramsey head back to the states in early April.

Since Christa will be leaving next week we are conducting the final training with her.  We have selected two women for the continuing master training program so held a morning workshop yesterday and will hold two more (Wednesday and Friday).  The first was just to do more thorough one-on-one assembly instructions for the toys and the next two will completely cover the cell phone bag construction and will review a document Christa prepared with instructions for a multitude of projects she wants to share as a future resource.  Hopefully this will be ample training for these two to begin working with me to train additional producers.  Once we get that first order, we’ll need to begin production and I think we’ll be ready.  I really hope that will come while I’m still here to coordinate so there’s a pattern to the process when they’re on their own.  The initial focus is definitely on the elephant production because that’s what we know we can sell in Madurai, though they believe the cell phone bags will be marketable when they figure out international sales.  I’m still concerned that we have not yet replaced the elephant stuffing for something lighter, which is something that must be done to make these items more appealing.  We are dealing with the slow Indian process on this one – Elavarasu has told us he has a connection to someone who could provide foam from car seats but we keep reminding him that we need some to see if this will work and it continues to be delayed.  The other delay is making any progress on getting recycled silk sari and I’m not sure if it will ever really happen.  I know that when there are deadlines things suddenly are accomplished and perhaps Christa’s departure will be an adequate deadline to get this moving.  I’ll know next week.

I mentioned having some health issues last week and am now getting over them so don’t feel too whiney discussing it on the blog.  Basically I have been having lots of small issues like infections (particularly two nasty mosquito bites on my ankle and calf of the left leg) and the cold and feel like I’m rundown.  The cure for everything here is injections of antibiotics but this scares the heck out of me.  I really don’t like shots and have had an allergic reaction to penicillin so feel I can’t trust anything strong.  I finally relented on Saturday and visited a woman doctor just this side of Arrapukati that Kate recommended (she was gracious enough to come along the first visit so I could figure out the process).  The doctor was far more interested in talking with a foreigner than handling the issues but she did seem to take each complaint relatively seriously.  She prescribed three days worth of antibiotic pills and told me to come back Monday evening.  The cost of the ointment for the bites, medicine for the bladder infection, antibiotics, and the treatment for the cold was 200 rupies, which included her fee (this equates to less than $4.50 USD).  Then when I returned yesterday evening as requested, she was unavailable and her husband (the other physician in the practice) began the process all over again – though I would say he was even more keen on visiting with me as a foreigner rather than treating me as a patient.  The funniest part to me was that he asked me to show him the prescription sheet I’d received on the first visit – they maintain no patient file.  Of course that hadn’t occurred to me so he called in the pharmacist who remembered very well what had been prescribed so there were no problems.  He again offered me an antibiotic injection and I told him I preferred to have it in pill form if possible but I guess he felt three days was enough as he didn’t offer me any more.  I do feel much better and believe the ointment I am using on my leg infections is making a difference.  The cold symptoms are also subsiding and I feel the medicine really assisted drainage.  I am continually told how difficult it is to maintain health in India and that I am lucky to be doing so well.  I am used to full  capacity so it’s rather annoying to be rundown.  One other thing I have changed is that I am now adding an antisceptic to my water cistern.  I decided that bathing with potentially nasty water was probably creating a lot of work for my immune system on my skin and that any open wound (read any one of my million mosquito bites) was too susceptible to compromise from the water.  Hopefully this will help.  Showering with potentially nasty water isn’t comforting anyway so though the water now has a slightly medicinal smell, I think it is worth the effort.  The funniest part of my last doctor’s visit was that he told me that I was being bit so much by the mosquitoes because they DON’T like my blood.  He says they love Indian blood so they bite, drink to satisfaction, and move on.  With me, they bite, spit it out (and he was rather humorous as he illustrated this), and try again and again.  And here I thought they loved my foreign blood ;-)

Sunday evening Christa, Stefan, Mark, Kitu, and I took the bus to Arrapukati just for a change of scenery.  We visited the vegetable market again, which thrilled Stefan who is a serious photographer (takes black and white shots and works with them basically as one of a kind art prints).  He and Christa loved the light in this place so much we thought we’d never get out.  Mark has already taken so many photos of India that he is realizing he needs to be more selective as it will take ages to go through and process those he has already taken and he was less enthusiastic about filming than he has been to date.  We found a vender selling Jack fruit so I had it my second time – but didn’t get to watch him pull the fruits from the interesting rind.  Though we have had some good fruit lately (the venders in for the festival were a pleasant change), the fruit in Arrapukati that evening was disappointing so we didn’t buy any.  It was rather like hitting the supermarket produce section late on Sunday evening with everything picked over.  We helped Mark and Stefan pick out a couple fabrics to have tailors in Tiruchuli sew up shirts.  Mark has two grown sons who can wear the same size as he does so that’s one of the gifts he’s taking back to them.  The coolest thing about these tailored shirts is that they sew an inside pocket into the shirt and then cover the stitching with the usual men’s shirt outer pocket.  The fabrics available for shirts are really fascinating – sequins and gaudy embroidery and colors run rampant and strange blends are typical so it is rather fun to try to find something which gives a taste of India but might still be wearable in the states.  It was a pleasant outing but the bus ride back challenged me – the bus was too full and I got stuck in the men’s section in the back so was surrounded and squashed into a seat back to the point of pain and bruising.  It was much better once things cleared a bit but afraid it sapped a good deal of my already depleted energy.  Probably the worst part was I ended up losing my sunglasses during the crush and am not sure what it will take to get a decent pair.  I hate being a party pooper.

I’m now finishing this post on Wednesday afternoon and added a bit about the continued rain on Tuesday.  The rain was only one of the unusual occurrences on Tuesday – we also managed to get the little holy man I’ve mentioned before to come to the mess and tell our fortunes from palm reading.  I convinced Christa that we had to set this up before she left and we had a bit of trouble getting the man to come in the morning, which would have allowed Kate to participate, so had to do it at 3:00.  We were able to get Usha, the young woman who works on the soap and the briquette projects, to come and translate and since she rather enjoys things like this, I think she liked having her palm read as well.  I used the flip video camera to capture Christa’s reading and two passersby stopped to converse with “TaTa” (or small grandfather) for a while so caught some interesting conversational video as well.  The camera battery was acting strange (sure hope it’s not going out) so didn’t film Stefan’s or Usha’s reading and Stefan filmed mine.  It was great fun and was pleasant to have a way to understand and communicate effectively with him.  Afterwards he posed for some photos and Christa and Stefan set up a couple photos and one of the shots I took as they did this is probably the best picture I’ve taken here so far.  Please check out the Picasa site to see the latest – I’m really proud of some of these.  After the reading was complete we all headed to the KGBV school and Hostel so that Christa could say goodbye to the girls and introduce Stefan.  She had discussed her plan to visit with Jayaraj and he arranged to have special treatment – the teachers stayed after and the girls were all inside the classroom waiting for us to arrive.  They were a very attentive audience and it was a pleasant visit.  They sang us a group song and were much more interested in doing this than they had been during the minister’s visit at the opening.  We then had the gift of two students singing solos for us – very pleasant entertainment and more subdued than the usual Bollywood dance routines the girls try to imitate for us.  Christa took some nice photos I hope to post soon.  It almost made me cry and I’m not even leaving.  We went from the KGBV school to the Hostel where Christa had worked with the girls teaching a toy sewing class on Saturdays for a couple months.  She had photos of each girl printed and then presented them with these and a photo of herself with Punil Tarron and an individualized message on the back.  They were all very pleased but I think the teachers were a bit sad they didn’t receive anything.  It is very difficult to figure out appropriate things like this and I’ll have to give this some thought before it’s time for me to head out.  We caught a late bus from Narrikudi to get back just in time for dinner and it was a very special day. 

This morning (Wednesday) we had the second day of training of the “chosen ones” – and it was such a pleasure to work with them.  It was my time to teach the cell phone bag and I started by teaching how to put a standard lining into an ordinary bag (without a flap) so they had the basic background and understanding needed.  Then they pieced the bag with all the strips I’ve been cutting and using for the past order.  This was a bit more challenging for Sathya than other things seem to be but Muthu Ganesh Vallamal (who I finally found out can go by Vallamal as her “sweet” name) really picked it up quickly.  They were scheduled to train until 1:30 but ended up returning after lunch and staying till about 4:00 to finish the piecing and probably would have lined the darned bags if I’d have been willing to teach it to them this evening.  However, I feel this is an awfully precise procedure and didn’t really believe they had the energy left at the end of the day to manage this so convinced them we’ll tackle it on Friday morning.  I was so pleased they were so enthusiastic – this is a big deal for them to take additional time since they both have small children.  I really believe we have made good choices for the project.

Hope the post wasn’t too confusing coming back and forth in time through the writing but I need to get things done when I can – and internet and power issues always seem to interfere with prompt posting.  I appreciate anyone who actually makes it through these diatribes!

Take care.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Festival Time in Tiruchuli

Several days since I posted and many things have been going on.  First, my cold is now gone but was very annoying while it lasted.  As I typically do, I lost my voice about the time I started feeling better (which means sympathy at the wrong time) and his was particularly inconvenient as I had no voice on Thursday, which Christa and I decided would be the last day of the training.  Perhaps this was good as we had a theory that the women sometimes paid better attention when only one of us was presenting information (not sure if this is true or simply appeared to be the case) so I remained an observer for the day.  Initially we scheduled five days of training but realized that a good number of the women were there only for the free supplies and to visit with their friends and that they were taking a lot of our time and attention, which meant those who might seriously be considered for future work were not getting the training we intended.  We decided to cut the last day of training and completely eliminate the lining portion of the cell phone bag since only those really working on the project would need such detailed instructions.  Though Christa and I were very flexible throughout the training and really analyzed what was working and what wasn’t as we went along, we were surprised by how challenging training this group was.  The best information we had though was watching Sathya in the training.  With one on one instruction, she picked things up rapidly and adapted techniques to fit projects, showed innovation, and was always attentive.  During the training, even she seemed distracted and she did not appear to learn new material well.  She did, however, demonstrate to us a willingness to share the skills she already had and with further instruction on how to show someone a method without doing it for them, I believe she will be able to train others well.  If the group training did not work well for someone we know is trainable, it was unfair of us to negatively judge the trainability of the group.  The last day we decided to use as a final assessment so that we could realize analyze which women had the capacity to learn the skills necessary to produce products which could be marketed.  Because we had focused so much on behavior and catching up those who needed extra attention the first three days, we felt there were some women we really hadn’t properly assessed.  We had each woman create the head of the elephant since this was an excellent test of whether they could machine sew accurately and how well they picked up other skills like invisible sewing closures and stuffing the toy.  Their homework from the class before was to demonstrate proficiency with hand sewing stitches we considered essential so between the head and this sample, we had an excellent measure of each woman’s skills.  They were a bit sobered to learn that we were stopping at four days and they worked more diligently that morning than they had at any previous time.  However, the afternoon went rather the same as earlier days with really peculiar attitudes being displayed by the end.  Christa wanted to handle the afternoon and I stayed in the office working on the computer and only acted as a sounding board.  She was so frustrated by the end of the day I’m not sure this was very kind to her but it was somewhat helpful to realize that the couple hours we could schedule in the afternoon really weren’t productive and we won’t pursue that in the future.  With only one week left before Christa leaves, we decided how we wished to continue training while she is here and met with Jayaraj, Elavarasue and Seamay and came up with a workable plan to train the two best students from the workshop (Sathya being one) for three mornings next week and focus on the final skills.  Then I will work with these two for my remaining months to assist them to learn to train the other women who are more likely to be producers of the products.  Both Christa and I feel we met the goals needed for the project, even though we had to modify our initial plans quite a bit to take into account the actual skill level of the participants.  My greatest pride was that Christa told me she considered us a great team – and I felt that was a tremendous compliment because there were times I was very concerned about working with someone with such a similar personality (which I recognize as challenging).  I put aside my ego on this project more than I have ever done before and the results were gratifying, the experience was pleasant, and the results were successful.  I feel I learned a LOT about teamwork on this project and hope that the participants could sense some of that as well. 

Tuesday evening was Christa’s birthday and she had planned to purchase snacks and soft drinks to have people drop by the ODAM office in the evening to celebrate.  The ODAM staff and volunteers were the main participants, which shows that others were not comfortable with coming to this type of party, but we had a great time and many of the friends Christa has made in the community demonstrated their appreciation for her time here during the entire day of her birthday, catching her on the streets or presenting her with special gifts throughout the day.  I know the celebration was much more meaningful for her to have her boyfriend Stefan present, which was an unexpected pleasure.  He had such an unpleasant journey to India initially but is now so happy and at home in Tiruchuli.  This truly is a special place.  Kitu arranged a baker to make a cake and it turned out very kitschy but tasted like every bakery cake I’ve ever had (once you peel off the nasty frosting) – which apparently made it the best cake anyone had ever had in India.  Christa loved the Puli Tarron t-shirt everyone signed and also received a funny little vignette of a couple with deer in what appeared to be a field of rolling snowballs.  She also got a lamp and clock combination item in the form of a ship which was amazingly kitschy but was from one of the ODAM drivers she has befriended – and was therefore very special to her.  It was quite an expensive gift for someone on his salary and she was very grateful.  Stefan and Christa had prepared a special dinner for the volunteers of spaghetti and shell pasta.  It was very tasty and nice to have a little taste from home. 

The big festival ended last night and we had several days of interesting events.  There were interesting things happening on Wednesday night at a stage built for the event but I was too sick to participate.  The other volunteers seemed to enjoy their time out.  This was the day that two new temporary arrivals came in – Mark, who is a videographer capturing Ramsey and Kate’s projects, and Greer, a friend of Paul’s.  Greer and Paul left this morning (Saturday) but Mark is around for another week or so.  Mark was so excited to arrive in time for the festivities and has come in like I did – too excited to sleep much and running on enthusiasm.  He seems very pleasant and has expressed to me how fortunate he feels to be here – which, of course, is a great thing in my book.  Friday night (last night) was the BIG day and we visited the large festival in the evening, which was busier than usual but still pleasant.  We had been told that the big events would be going on about 10:00 p.m. so had dinner and each went to their rooms to recharge cameras, batteries, or take in a quick nap.  I met up with Christa and Stefan about 9:15 and we made our way through the incredibly crowded streets.  The main street was wall to wall people – unbelievable for this tiny community.  There were lots of small shops set up in front of the large ones mainly selling little plastic items for the kids, bangles (the necessary bracelets for every female), and really cool hand cut stamps which were made primarily to transfer on henna designs but there were several men there using them to then tattoo the designs into the arm.  I’m really no judge of tattoo procedures (though I ought to be with my heavily tattooed youngest daughter) but the equipment seemed pretty small and it didn’t appear any ink was really put into area – just the stamp which looked like it was henna.  However, those getting a tattoo were obviously in pain – some seemed surprised that it hurt and were pretty amusing to watch.  It didn’t appear that there was any concern for changing out needles (YUCK!) so the whole process was rather nasty, but we spent a good amount of time looking at the stamps for possible future use.  Most of the sidewalk venders had some and they were clustered under the temporary canopy so were very well lit and easy to shop.  Christa found a peacock one in the afternoon that was very nice and then purchased a tiger (for Puli Tarron) which was initially offered for 300 rupies but which she ended up purchasing for 70.  Normally there is no bargaining in Tiruchuli, the venders give us the same prices they do the locals and business as usual does not include haggling – but these venders were from out of town and selling to an out of town market so we had to shift gears a bit to do business.  Though the vast majority of the crowd came in from other areas, primarily the rural communities around Tiruchuli, we met up with several local people we knew (or who knew us) and they all seemed so pleased to see us.  Several of the young people participating in the training now going on at ODAM stopped me to introduce me to their families – which all seemed so honored and never appeared to speak English.  They were so excited to prove I was a friend – though there isn’t a one of them that I could name.  At times we met up with others from the volunteer group but for the most part we did our own thing.  At one point we met up with the 81 year old man I mentioned in a post a week or two ago – and he had to guide us to the small temple to give us a blessing.  He pushed his way through a small crowd into the interior area where he picked up some of the white blessing powder to apply to Stefan, Christa, and me.  He placed the line across our forehead and then pinched a bit into each of our palms and told me (specifically) to eat some.  Realize that this guy speaks absolutely NO English, though he talks to us quite a bit and tries hard to gesture – but I’m sure I shouldn’t eat this chalky stuff.  No, he insists I must eat it and then indicates it will help my throat.  The people around all act like this isn’t an abnormal thing so I take a pinch of the powder and put it on my tongue – like eating baby powder, blech!  But it makes him so happy and we’re all pretty sure he said my throat would be well the next day – and it is better so guess chalk never hurt anyone ;-)   It took us a while to do all the things this funny little man wanted us to – and he led us around for some time.  He’s so happy and nice and there’s absolutely NO way to know what it is he’s trying to tell us and get us to do.  There was something about moonu (three) and he kept telling us that it was very important but none of us could get any idea of what he meant (didn’t seem to be the three of us).  Unfortunately during this entire time we didn’t run into any of the folks around with some English.  Usually we don’t seem to be gawked at as much in Tiruchuli as the locals are quite used to foreigners coming through – but the visitors to the community were often quite taken with us and after a while it became difficult to take pictures because so many would beg you to photograph their children, families, etc.  You try to be nice and fit into the festive atmosphere, but it is exhausting and some are not so gracious and it is easier to start saying no.  I hated being so hard hearted but it just isn’t possible to make everyone happy and still participate in the festivities.  One of the nice things was running into the other woman we will be training next week (Muthu Ganesh Vallimal) and her family and tell her that she has been selected for further training.  We had tried to arrange one of the office staff with good English and Tamil to make the calls to her and Sathya on Friday so that payment could be properly conveyed but apparently that never happened.  She was so pleased to hear she had been selected to continue and it was very nice to be able to deliver that news.  I am posting a few photos from the event but have to admit they are pretty poor, as are the videos I shot.  They just don’t capture the festival nature.  Kate likened it to Mardi Gras without the alcohol or breasts… what could I possibly add to that?

I hate to minimize the religious aspects of the festival but don’t feel very qualified to describe most.  There were many small processions in the street throughout the day Friday – many had drummers and some played the long wind instruments.  Several included women (maybe men sometimes but I didn’t see any) who were carrying baskets with large flames in them.  Considering how warm this was, that probably wasn’t very pleasant.  We were told this was something the individuals promised the gods when praying for something – so they promised the gods they would perform this service if they got something, like they wanted a child, so once they conceived they would perform this act of supplication.  There were also many people in trance in the streets, though I personally saw very little of this.  The lights installed in the street between the temple and the main street seemed to be only for the processions between the temples – nothing else extraordinary was happening along this route as all activity was on the main street.  We caught the end of the long parade of two silver bulls which were heavily decorated and pulled through the streets.  Interestingly they attach fluorescent lights to these floats for visibility and then have a couple guys pushing along a generator behind which is wired to each of the floats.  There is a large open area beside the smaller focus temple and it had a lot of families picnicking and napping (people were able to sleep anywhere during all this ruckus) and along the wall behind the street shops there was an area set up with over a dozen men (assuming barbers) lined up on the ground who would shave heads of anyone who wished.  I didn’t see money change hands but it may have cost.  We were told this could be a supplication for a prayer request granted or to show sincerity in a current request.  There were a LOT of bald folks in the festival and many seemed to be getting their head shaved even as late as we were there.  Some of these individuals place an intense yellow powder on their newly shaved head, and it is often done on the children.  There was also a man going through a neighborhood who was being washed down at each house with a pail of water with turmeric added.  Apparently he was acting for the gods and would then bless the households.  We were told this, too, was a service promised to the gods for granting a prayer.  The folks in trance were probably the most disconcerting – and there were quite a number around during the afternoon, though I personally did not see any during the night’s festivities.

There were two interesting Indian versions of a ferris wheel.  Basically there were four small baskets welded to the turning frame and large numbers of people would sit in these baskets (sometimes five or six) and then the wheel was kept turning by a man pushing these by hand – WAY too much work.  They were enjoyed a great deal by the crowd but really took a lot of work.  I can’t imagine what they had to pay to ride these but they were worth it to the folks.  There was also an inflatable slide set up for the children and it appeared to be a big hit, though seemed very out of place to me.  This was definitely a family event and by the end of my time on the streets (about 11:00 p.m.), many children and even some adults were sleeping on the sides of the streets.  It might have been fun to wander the streets in the early morning just to see everyone who crashed on the public streets, but I wasn’t up to that adventure.

Hopefully it will be a calm and relaxing weekend now – the power was out for quite a while this morning (I’m sure they’re in a deficit after last night) so wrote most of this blog hoping the computer battery would make it through.  Now that power is back on I think I’ll stroll over to the office to see if I can upload the blog and some photos.  Yesterday I spent some time cutting up one of the plastic banners (which are very useful and I hated to sacrifice one) in order to make three aprons for use at the biodiesel station.  They need them to protect their clothes for both the briquette making and the soap making, which utilizes some chemicals that could hurt the women’s saris.  These projects are moving in to a production phase very soon and they have hired the young woman who prepares tea in the office (and keeps very busy with small tasks to keep the place neat through the day).  This is wonderful as she is a very nice woman with a sad past and working on this project will almost triple her daily wage.  We had an older woman in our training who was so committed to being to trainings on time, who tried hard to do everything we asked, even with no real understanding of English and apparently no ability to write even in Tamil, and who really tried to master the skills.  Unfortunately her sewing skills were not going to be adequate for producing items for the market and Christa and I agonized quite a while trying to find a suitable place for her on our project – but couldn’t.  When we met with the ODAM guys about the results of our training, I made a special request that they do whatever is possible to find her a suitable job and recommended her as a hard and diligent worker.  I’m sure Jayaraj will do what he can and we’re rather hoping the position in the office could become available for her.  All we could do was try – but I have to tell you it was really difficult when she came up to me after the training to thank me – took my hands in both of hers, then kissed her hands and clasped my hands again.  I almost cried knowing how much the training and potential job meant to her – and being unable to hire her broke my heart.  I hope she gained something from the experience working with us – I know working with her was important to me.

Guess that’s enough for now.  It’s been a busy week with the festival but I have to admit to being pretty boring trying to regain my health.  I feel like I’m just rundown here – and am recognizing that the typical cure here of an antibiotic (which they inject anytime you see a doctor) may become necessary for me just to stay ahead of the myriad of small infections, colds, and health challenges I’m experiencing.  I’m told this is India and what I should expect.  Darn.

Take care!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Daily Life

This is probably not going to be one of my stellar posts (if there are ever any) as I am feeling under the weather with a cold.  I am at the office this morning but left right after the training yesterday to get extra rest and will probably take some time today to do the same.  This means I won’t go to the KGBV school this afternoon, though I wish I felt up to it.  I think an hour with the dust on the bus would probably do me in.  This morning I plan to meet with Christa to have a very hard meeting about our project.  We both realize after completing three of the five days of training that we are not meeting our initial goals and we need to re-evaluate the project with a more realistic view of the skills we can anticipate the women will bring to the enterprise.  This is something very difficult to do as we both recognize we will not be establishing the business we initially envisioned, at least not in the way we had hoped.  All I can say is that reality sucks – on top of major nasal congestion, coughing, and losing my voice.  Obviously I am having a small pity party and apologize for inviting you ;-)  The most amusing part of the training yesterday was mid-morning when the women told me that my nose looked like a rose – because I had been blowing it all morning and it had turned red.  Afraid I’m not sure a rose is the image that I would have chosen but I liked the nice spin they put on my condition.

Today is Christa’s birthday and we have several fun activities planned.  First, Ramsey drew a fabulous image on the front of a t-shirt of Christa’s traveling companion, Puli Tarron (apologize if misspelled), the stuffed tiger which narrates her blog.  He is quite the photogenic stuffed toy and elicits smiles from people everywhere we go as he works his way into photos for her blog.  She is considering someday creating a children’s book of his travels, which would be wonderful, and capturing his image on this shirt was inspired.  We have all signed the back and Kate is still collecting signatures from folks around the office.  There are some very sweet messages on this and I’m sure she will love the gift.  This evening from 5:00-8:00 she is inviting folks to come to the ODAM office for snacks and she is purchasing fresh fruit and snack items for the event.  It will be interesting tasting some of the local snacks, though to date very few have appealed to me a great deal – they are far more excited by sugary sweets than my palate prefers.  Later Stefan, her boyfriend, is preparing a spaghetti dinner for the volunteers.  This is as close to “home cooking” as we can manage with our varied backgrounds and the cooking facilities.  It’s nice to celebrate – change of pace is good. 

I haven’t written much lately about our day-to-day activities, mostly because they’re rather boring.  However, I don’t have much to post today while the project is in its state of reconstitution so I’ll share a bit of how we volunteers maintain our sanity.  First of all, I should point out how truly inspired I am by the group we have here.  The ages vary from early twenties to mid-thirties (with me at 52 as the exception) and everyone seems to be genuinely concerned with making a difference while here in India, both for the local population and as an effort towards personal growth.   We have had some incredibly deep philosophical and spiritual discussions, and share a surprising number of personal beliefs – far more than I think you would find in the average group of seven individuals thrown together.  I attribute much of the commonalities of our spiritual outlooks to the fact that these viewpoints drive us to share our blessings with others.  We also share a curiosity about what goes on around us that I think is somewhat uncommon.  While this makes it easier for us to relate together, it probably also makes it a bit harder at times to expand our perspectives to understand some issues – something I would say is happening with Christa and I as we try to relate to the women who are not driven and organized as we are.  Some of our rooftop conversations, which may be a bit loosened by sharing a couple drinks, have covered some really personal and deep topics and the sharing is both respectful and comfortable.  We also have times where it is apparent we spend altogether too much time together – and it’s still wonderful.  A couple weeks ago Ramsey attempted to fix one of the plastic chairs in the mess with duct tape.  One evening last week it was apparent the repair was worse than the break so Kate pulled all of the duct tape off and rolled it together, which created a very nice sized duct tape ball.  In no time at all the guys figured out it would be fun to throw the ball into the ceiling fan and we all spent time creating rules and a point system for our new game.  I think we spent close to an hour taking turns tossing the ball into the fan and cheering each other along.  We even had Jayama, our cook, taking turns tossing it up and though it is obvious she enjoys being included, it’s also apparent she thinks we’re pretty crazy.  It was great fun and will be a precious memory from my time here.  Paul will be leaving at the end of this week and we have a couple temporary folks coming in tomorrow so the composition of the group will be shifting but I believe it will still be an interesting mix of people.  I am so grateful for the camaraderie and support.

Sunday evening we were invited to have dinner at the home of Nagalakshmi, the woman who coordinates the SHGs (self-help groups).  She lives over on the street where Lalitha the tailor lives and we all sat in the main room on mats on the floor.  Nagalakshmi was still preparing the meal when we arrived so we ended up laying a game of carambol, which involves a board and flicking chips around the board.  The group divided into teams with Christa, Kitu, and Kate on one team and Paul, Ramsey, and Stefan on the other (I sat out being particularly untalented and to allow more even division).  After a short time Kate gave up her spot on the team to Nagalakshmi’s ten year old daughter and she sat at the doorway to the kitchen talking with Nagalakshmi and the smaller son.  It was a very pleasant way to spend the evening, though I find it very awkward to be invited for dinner and then not spend time with the hosts, but that is how they entertain here and their joy is to serve the guests.  I’m told the limited size of the rooms also makes it difficult for everyone to eat together and that it is typical for families to eat in shifts.  The food was all familiar, dosas with sambar, coconut chutney, and tomato chutney.  Nagalakshmi’s cooking was more spicy than Jayama’s, though to be fair, she probably makes more mild cooking for the volunteers than she would normally.  Everything was very good and it was a pleasant end to the weekend. 

Not much more time to post now – I want to get this online before the next power issue ;-)

Take care!

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!