Monday, March 28, 2011

Great Birthday Celebration

We just returned from a fabulous trip to the hillstation of Kodaikanal.  I would suggest you check out the description on Wikipedia for basics, which is what I did, as I honesty can add nothing to the description of the actual town.  Kate and Ramsey are at the end of a long-term collaboration with ODAM and wanted a chance to celebrate with their friends.  I was lucky enough to have them make the trip on my birthday so they made quite a fuss over the day, though generally I prefer to ignore the entire getting-older event.  Elavarasu, AKA “The Fixer”, lived up to his reputation by arranging a bus to take us (the four volunteers and 12 ODAM staff) and a bungalow to stay in.  He also took care                                of ensuring we had ample opportunities to see the tourist spots there.  We left on Friday afternoon, had lunch along the way, and made the long uphill trip to Kodaikanal during the afternoon.  The change in topography and temperature as we climbed the mountains was wonderful, shifting from the heat of the flatlands into almost jungle environment into more standard forests.  When we had light showers hit us on the way up, it was so refreshing I already felt a world away from the heat of Tiruchuli.  I took so many photos driving up the winding road and can’t imagine these are particularly worth posting for the blog, but will try to post some of the shots I have looking out at the area around the city as that provides a really nice feel for the place.  I saw my first family of monkeys on the side of the road as we climbed (probably an hour or so before we reached Kodaikanal) but I was so surprised that I didn’t capture the photo. 

We arrived at our bungalow in early evening, made ourselves at home, and then went up on the roof to enjoy drinks and snacks.  I have been pretty good about avoiding most of the greasier snack foods here – but I definitely had enough that night.  We went in for dinner pretty late and I had the chance to enjoy cauliflower 65, which was the vegetarian version of chicken 65 which I had heard great things about.  It was a very spicy dish and I enjoyed it a great deal.  We then went to bed – but I’m afraid we rather misbehaved in the girls’ room (Usha, Begum, Kitu and I) and acted like we were having a slumber party till pretty late.  At midnight Usha (who was checking the time on her phone every couple minutes) alerted the others and they all began singing happy birthday to me.  Pretty funny group.  I think we were the only bunch relatively sober and were probably the ones having the most fun. 

I had ample opportunity to see more monkeys on Saturday when we visited an interesting pine forest which had apparently been planted during British days and which was quite popular with the Indian tourists.  Our next stop was the three pillars, which were awesome monolithic stones and incredibly scenic.  The day was quite misty so the lookout was not possible, but it was an attractive area, again heavily visited.  Both of these areas had some roadside venders set up, many selling snack fruits and carrots.  Some people seemed to purchase these items as much to feed the monkeys as to partake of themselves.  I admit I have not seen carrots like these since I arrived – they must grow very well there.  We then went to “Green Valley Point” which used to be called “Suicide Point” but was renamed because of the huge numbers of suicides the name apparently engendered.  A large wall with high fence had been built to prevent further problems and with the mist, we really couldn’t see much at the actual lookout.  However, there were a large number of venders arranged in a narrow corridor up to the lookout so there was a festive air about the place anyway.  I had an amusing time as we were leaving when a couple young men asked if they could have a photo with me.  Several photos were taken with young guys shifting in and out of the shot and then the first young man who had approached me asked for a photo with me kissing his cheek – which I had to admit tickled me a great deal.  A woman turning 53 isn’t asked to kiss young men often.  Having no reputation to uphold, I complied with the request, much to the amusement of the surrounding crowd.  Kitu watched the whole thing and was highly amused that I was able to entertain such a crowd – and she greatly regretted not capturing the event for posterity.  Perhaps this incredible photo will show up on the internet at some point!  We ended the outing by renting boats to pedal around Star Lake, the manmade lake within the city.  We filled four boats, had a brief race, tried to ram each other occasionally, picked waterlilies (which have truly ugly stems) and enjoyed the sunshine on the water in a very lovely location.  We returned to the bungalow after the tourist excursion to give everyone a chance to rest up but I really wanted a chance to get out so took a walk toward the lake – about 15 minutes from the bungalow.  It began lightly sprinkling about ten minutes out and I debated about going back but it was only a light rain and we had travelled through small showers so I hoped that was all this would be.  By the time I reached the lake (a rather boring side of it I might add), the rain began in earnest.  At this point I was getting quite wet and knew I’d be soaked by the time I returned anyway so continued on.  I met up with two more young men (I guess I’m just a magnet for young Indian guys) as I walked toward a more populated part of town and we had a nice discussion.  When we reached an area to part ways, they (naturally) asked if they could take photos with me as well.  I must say I felt far more attractive and desirable than I would have on my birthday in the States!  Delusion is such a wonderful thing.  I wandered a bit in town but took a turn which lead me past carpenter shops and a couple cement manufacturers (probably not the usual tourist stops) and the rain just continued to escalate.  At one point I stood under an awning waiting for the rain to abate a bit, but it really didn’t help – I headed back to the bungalow to ensure I was back before the next planned event (which didn’t actually happen anyway) and I was soaked to the skin by the time I got back.  An hour and forty-five minutes of walking in the rain with the weather cooling down ought to have been a bad thing – but I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed the outing and the rain on the lake was beautiful and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to enjoy such experiences if I hadn’t braved the weather. We ended up just hanging around the bungalow all evening, had a birthday cake (thank you Kitu) and had a great bonfire which burned eucalyptus wood and smelled lovely. 

Sunday we packed up and headed home on the bus, with a couple stops on the way out of town.  We went to Coaker’s Walk, which was a scenic walk about a quarter mile with quite a few additional venders.  I kind of wished I could get into buying stuff but the venders were really catering to the Indian tourists and I didn’t want to buy imports from China.  We went through a nice horticultural garden and then spent time visiting the row of venders there.  Just outside of town we stopped at Silver Falls, which was pretty but didn’t have the water flow I’m sure it had during wetter seasons, We made one small stop on the descent in a small village (not sure exactly why) and there we saw the largest avocadoes I’ve ever seen – they were the size of a good sized grapefruit.  They were so hard and though we discussed the possibility of purchasing one, we ended up deciding against it. The downhill trip was a bit more disconcerting and several of us complained we felt a bit carsick by the time we got to the flatland, myself included.  Once we hit the flatland we stopped for lunch and it was probably the best meal we had on the trip.  Kate ended up enjoying quail – which was an interesting dish to offer in the same way they had chicken and mutton (goat).  Kitu and I shared veg fried rice and chili paneer, both items that Jayama doesn’t cook, so it was a pleasant change of pace.  We dropped off Elavarasu’s cousin and visited with his mother for a short time – another opportunity to be hosted graciously in an Indian home.  We arrived back in the office about 6:30 p.m. and ended up meeting back up for dinner (Jayama’s cooking) at 7:30.  It was good to be home and perhaps good to be back in the heat – though you may have to remind me I said that later as it is HOT here.

That covers the weekend trip – so now to backtrack a bit on other things happening of late.  Friday morning Kitu, Kate, and I went to Arapukutti by car with Nagalachmi (one of the women who coordinates the SHGs) to look at hand loomed saris at “the government store”.  Somehow Nagalachmi didn’t really understand that was our aim so we started off at a fancy sari store (probably the nicest in Arapukutti) which had no hand looms like Kitu wanted.  We finally got to the right place and went into the back room where the special saris were kept in a locked cabinet.  There were some very interesting ones and Kitu selected one which was a different green than any we had seen.  Most of the saris tend to be bright jewel colors so someone like Kate, who looks best in more muted shaded colors, has problems finding something that works with her skin color.  Kitu paid quite a bit for the sari but was quite pleased with the quality.  She still intends to meet up with the first gentleman we saw weaving so that she can special order another.  I felt quite fortunate in finding a hand loomed wool scarf to purchase (Kate did too) for a very reasonable cost and hope it will make a nice gift. 

The project is finally rolling again.  This Wednesday Muthu and Sathya will begin working.  We are going to spend three days setting up the work space and preparing materials.  I am also hoping that they can assist me in working up the new doll project I hope to work out before I leave.  We’ll begin actual production next Monday when the cotton waste for stuffing should arrive.  This will allow me to supervise the work and assist in setting up systems for the first couple weeks of operation.  Kitu will be around for about another month beyond my time and will help Usha learn how to manage and operate the three businesses which will be set up under ODAM Rural Crafts.  I have decided to leave India earlier than originally planned as I feel good about the work I have completed here and enough is going on at home with Rusty taking on new challenges which I should assist.  I will be arriving back in Texas on Sunday, April 17, and am really looking forward to shifting back to my new life and future job search.

Thank you for any slogging through this long email.  All is going well here, my health is holding up, and I’m on the countdown with a little less than three weeks remaining.

Take care!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Recent Updates

It has been a long time since my last post and a good deal has happened.  Initially I was here alone for a few days as the remaining volunteers were all in Munnar until Monday evening (March 14).  I enjoyed some time alone for a while and by the time I was getting lonely everyone came back so it was a nice shift in activities.  When everyone arrived back in the office on Tuesday morning we were surprised by Elango that he had made plans for all of us to attend the conference he was helping organize in Madurai for the next few days.  We were to assist with preparing a large booth for the exhibition portion of the global warming conference and Kate and Ramsey were expected to give a three hour presentation – all by the beginning of the event on Friday.  Since we hoped to include the Odam Rural Crafts soft goods in the booth, I needed to rush to create a couple of sample elephants.  There is still no stuffing available so I cut strips of some t-shirts that previous volunteers had left here, which was a suitable fill but I had only enough to make two elephants.  I was working feverishly on this production when it was pointed out that the kittens appeared sluggish – I had just assumed that I was catching them napping the times I passed by.  They were quite ill so a couple ODAM staff and I took them to the neighboring veterinarian’s office just down the street.  Unfortunately we elicited quite a bit of attention and I gathered that everyone thought the resident foreigner was crazy for taking the kittens to the vet.  However, he was a very nice gentleman who showed genuine compassion for the kittens and told me the issue was that their bodies are too small to digest the “packet milk” which was being fed them.  He gave each of them injections and I was instructed to feed the male kitten, who was much weaker, a glucose and water solution every half hour and return with him the next day.  The female, who was always much shyer in her relations to all of us people, recovered quite quickly but the male did not.  Though he had periods where he appeared to be regaining strength, after four days of feeding him with an eyedropper and taking him in daily for more medical attention, it became apparent that he was fighting the feedings more and more and was no longer fighting to live.  I had to make the tough decision to let him go.  The vet did not euthanize him but gave him a sedative so that he could die without pain and I stayed with him and placed his sister next to him to sleep for his last hour.  I cried profusely over the poor little death, something I imagine was completely incomprehensible to the locals here, but they were very kind in assisting me in disposing of his body so that I wouldn’t have to see any of the foragers with it later.  This brought my productivity as well as my mood down but I am getting back to normal.  Perhaps it was fortunate from my perspective at least that the conference ended up cancelled – though this was certainly not a good thing for those who had spent months preparing for it and those who had made arrangements to travel long distances to attend.  Those responsible for the upcoming election in India apparently have many concerns about potential corruption so events with many people are being cancelled, even though this particular conference had been granted permission originally.  The upshot was that the volunteers spent a day in rushed preparation and then returned to our originally scheduled activities.  With Kate and Ramsey leaving in early April, their time commitments are particularly demanding right now so they were rather relieved to be able to get back to their necessary remaining tasks.

One of the big events this week was a special temple event (seems like a constant here, doesn’t it) where a very tall tower was assembled which would hold the god images for a tour through town.  These images are often driven around but this cart was particularly special and was about three stories tall.  The electricity in the area had to be turned off for the long trek as wires which crossed the street were disconnected and then reconnected once the tower went by.  The woodwork on the base of the cart was very intricately carved and some of the usual cloth decorations were hung above.  One of the times I checked on the progress of its assembly they were repainting the giant wheels – which were probably about three feet high and at least seven inches thick.  The day of the event flower garlands and long strands of green oranges were hung from the tower as well.  The most fascinating feature was that the entire tower was pulled by two very large and long chains.  Since the cart wheels could not turn to either side, large wooden, greased shims were placed under the wheels for short pulls in order to force the cart to shift directions.  All of this turning and pulling was coordinated by the main priest who stood above on the tower and hollered directions over a sound system.  The entire pull took several hours and went only around a small portion of the village – but did pass directly in front of the ODAM office on the back side of the temple.  ODAM prepared a huge vat of syrupy drinks and the tower stopped in front of the office so all of those pulling could have a drink.  The two chains were sort of divided into a men’s and a women’s side but there were a good number of strong men on the women’s side near the cart so that there was a good distribution of power.  People came and went from the pulling duty as it was very hot work in the sun all morning long.  Ramsey pulled for a short time just for the experience but said it was so crowded it was rather difficult to really pull effectively.  The cart managed regardless.  There were two drumming groups which went ahead of the cart and generally took turns playing to keep the crowd occupied.  The young boys really get dancing like crazy and though this area apparently doesn’t really celebrate Holi (which was this weekend), many of the youngsters had colorfully chalked faces.   The event actually began the night before during a marriage of the gods which Kitu and I attended.  It was a very beautifully coordinated ritual and the people all seemed happy and pleased to be part of the occasion.  When we arrived at the big temple for the ceremony one of the police women ushered up to the front of the crowd where we were offered choice seats – but only by making everyone who had been there for a long time scoot around to make room for us.  I must admit that I take a bit more room than most of the Indian folks and it’s rather embarrassing having to scrunch down on the ground into a space that’s actually too small for my behind – and I’m really not all that big a person.  Two of the young girls sitting next to me with basically no English guided me through the ceremony appropriately – making sure I had jasmine flowers to throw and would know when it was the proper time to throw these at the newlyweds.  They were so pleased with themselves and found me the next morning when I went out early to see the initial preparation of the tower cart – telling everyone that we were friends.  I filmed the blessing of the cart by the priests, which was interesting as the priests make every attempt to look suitably pompous but manage rather comical acts on occasion, at least to my outside view.  I left after the blessing and went to have breakfast and then returned before the cart began rolling as they had everything prepared.  It was great fun watching the drumming routines and it was fascinating seeing the great efforts made to get this cart rolling.  When it reached the turnoff to Arapukatti it had traffic backed up both ways but there’s a pretty good sized speed bump there and getting over that was quite a feat so everyone had to wait till it had been traversed.  Fortunately the cart was bottom heavy enough to get over it without tipping too far.  I returned to the office for about an hour to have some of the fresh pineapple I bought for everyone and then Usha, Kate, Ramsey and I went down the street to watch the celebration some more.  At this point Kate and I both managed to have kids come up and pat color on our faces – which isn’t something most adults seem to do so it was probably a bit embarrassing but I didn’t actually mind.  Ramsey was tall enough that he could deflect the colorful hands as they came near.  At least they weren’t throwing powder all over us.   The only downside to the entire event was that Kitu’s special shoes were stolen while we attended the marriage ceremony at the temple.  This was highly irritating to her and rather foolish of the thief (most likely a youngster), since her shoes were quite expensive and had a special configuration where the big toe was separate from the others – not something you’re likely to see around Tiruchuli.  She was very disappointed but Elavarasue has put out an all-points bulletin and if anyone can recover them, I believe he can.

Sunday I had the opportunity to participate in another exciting adventure.  Gaille from France who had been a volunteer here for a few months before my arrival came back through town to pick up some of her belongings.  She originally timed this to be present for the Women’s Day celebration but this had been postponed because of the election issues so she went ahead and came anyway.  Kitu had been working with a local woman who taught during the last ODAM development class to arrange a visit to silk weavers and it finally came about – so Gaille, Kitu, and I boarded the bus to Arrapukuti early Sunday morning and met up with Chithram at the main bus stop.  We then took an auto rickshaw through parts of town we never could have found on our own into an area where many weavers live.  As we passed homes there were sounds of looms coming from every doorway – but most apparently weave cotton and almost all are power looms.  We first went to the home of an elderly couple and he generously showed us a great deal about the silk sari he was weaving.  Chithram very graciously arranged all of this and did her best to translate but her English sometimes made it difficult to get full information.  We then visited another operation, that of a widow who we found out was the previous gentleman’s daughter.  I was able to figure out more of the loom operation at her home as it was easier to see and we managed to get our questions across better.  The third home we visited was that of another widow supporting herself through her weaving.  Kitu felt much more comfortable getting details of their income and business expenses from the women and it was very interesting to get full details of what is apparently a dying art, though the government of India is doing all it can to subsidize and support traditional weaving operations.  However, these folks made a minimal living working on these pieces and were all eager to ensure their children went on through school to have more opportunities.  I believe we were privileged to see the last generation of hand loom weavers.  The first gentleman sells his saris in shops so has some control over their production.  Kitu plans to visit him again when he has prepared samples of available colors and weave designs so that she can have one custom made.  The second woman gets her silk from a government operation, weaves the sari, and turns it back into the government who sells it at a “government store” and pays her 700 rupies for between seven and ten days work.  The third woman works with a cooperative which pays her 1000 rupies for the finished sari and provides raw materials so she makes a bit more profit.  These looms were incredibly rustic looking and huge and they had a fascinating system of punch card-type tags which fed into a unit above the loom which controlled the fancy designs.  Though I tried hard to see exactly what triggered that, it wasn’t possible to figure it out during my short visits.  I took some video which is interesting, at least in parts, and should edit to a good overview of the process.  The looms took over the entire living space of these families – and you could see in many of the homes that the loom was being worked while other members of the family sat and watched television – though how they could hear over the repetitive thumping was hard to imagine.  The second location I asked about the small spool of thread within the shuttle and they pulled out a fairly large wooden contraption that I swear Gandhi G could have used which wound three shuttles of fine silk onto the spool – three of these threads create the warp and two threads create the weft.  I would have given anything to watch them set up the weft on the loom – it had to be an incredibly complex job.  For me the biggest disappointment was that though these saris were very beautiful, I could not see any way to tell the difference between a hand weave and a machine loomed sari.  I realize that I am not an expert, but it does seem like an issue for the market where the hand looms need to bring such a high price.  Kitu plans to spend between 5,000 and 7,000 rupies for a sari – when nice machine loomed silk saris can be purchased easily for 1,000 or less in Madurai.   Though I was impressed with the process, my husband will be very grateful that I don’t feel compelled to purchase one of these saris, even knowing they could be quite a collectors item in the future.

We have gone to the cinema in town several times now and Kitu and I went on Saturday evening to see Robo on the big screen.  It was my third time to watch this movie but the first time I’ve seen it at a theater and with a crowd so it was great fun.  I must say, for a small village, there’s always something fun going on in Tiruchuli!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Verkala Trip Details

I feel as though I’ve been gone from my usual life for some time – with the two trips to Madurai last week and the couple days in Verkala.  It feels good to be resuming my routine back in Tiruchuli, though I feel I have more to accomplish than I can get done as quickly as I’d like.  Taking a vacation usually makes me feel behind upon my return and this is no exception.

Before we left for Verkala on Monday evening we had an unexpected treat.  Monday morning we were invited to the wedding of Elavarasu’s sister-in-law in Kerioppati.  I probably should have taken the opportunity to wear my sari but was concerned that the delay preparing me at the office would get us there later than we needed.  As it was, we ended up missing the actual ceremony, which surprised Kitu who says she is used to ceremonies lasting several hours and we arrived there only about an hour later than the invitation had said.  The bride and groom were already stationed on the stage of the large hall having photos taken with all of the various visitors.  Guests were brought up in their family groups to present their gifts and to stand for their photos.  I felt the bride and groom were very patient through all of this – they had to bow often in their beautiful, but likely uncomfortable clothes and maintained a pleasant demeanor throughout the event.  This part of the event was definitely not for them but for their families and the guests.  After we spent some time visiting with those we knew from ODAM, Usha, Kitu and I went the second floor of the hall where they were serving the luncheon.  It was quite a feast with several dishes I hadn’t tried yet.  Everything was very tasty and they were feeding large numbers of people very efficiently – no mean feat.  It was fun to learn a bit more about the wedding customs in the area but wish we had seen the wedding ceremony.  I have to be honest that the entire gathering felt a great deal like other events I have attended in America with the Indian population there – a lot of women dressed in their best and everyone visiting and enjoying the company of their friends – so I actually felt very at home for the wedding.

Monday at the office the two kittens living in the back area finally began coming out into the ODAM yard.  I would estimate they are about six weeks old, old enough to be without their mother but only with care.  I haven’t yet seen their mother but believe she’s still around as they appear well cared for.  They were very skittish at first and I asked if someone would go buy them milk.  Pichay and Pothy have apparently been buying them milk since and Bagam, the young woman who keeps the office clean and serves tea, has been feeding the kittens since we left.  Coming back today, the kittens are already better at eating from the bowl without walking through it and are much more approachable, though one is definitely more curious and bold than the other.  I can tell it won’t be long before he is tamed as he has already let me touch him but the other may remain wild as he/she is so timid.  It makes me miss home less having some pet interaction – missing my cats has been tougher than I expected.

Monday evening Kitu and I were driven to Virudhanagar to catch the train to Verkala in the state of Kerala.  We had to sit in the station for a couple hours as the train was quite late and I was pretty exhausted by the time we finally boarded.  The trip over we had a first class compartment with just the two berths and it was pretty comfortable.  Unfortunately Kitu was fighting the cold I had a couple weeks ago and was having a lot of coughing fits when lying flat – didn’t disturb me but she didn’t get much sleep.  We woke about the time we hit Trivandrum, a much larger city close to Verkala, and then anxiously watched train stations since there was no announcement of stations or anything and we were a bit afraid we’d miss getting off at the correct stop.  It was almost an hour past Trivandrum so we were quite ready to get off when we arrived.  We negotiated an auto rickshaw like pros and asked the driver where a good hotel was.  He took us through a circuitous route when we neared the tourist area and we never could have negotiated it without such assistance.  He dropped us off at the Kerala Bamboo House, pretty much in the center of all activity.  The beach is below a cliff with several stairways connecting them and there is a walkway along the cliff that serves as the main thoroughfare for the tourist section.  There were very pleasant accommodations up and down the walkway and there were good selections of places to stay all along the way.  Since it is nearing the end of the season, places were anxious to fill vacancies and the Bamboo House offered us a very nice room for 1000 INR which normally goes for 1500.  I think the main selling point was the open air bathroom – there was no ceiling and you could take a hot shower looking up at the palm trees.  The grounds of the hotel were planted with beautiful gardens and each room and cottage had small verandas to enjoy the outdoors.  It was quiet and peaceful and the hotel also offered many of the ayervedic massages and therapies so I think they catered more to a quiet and meditative clientele.  It was a very good choice and we were both very grateful for the good recommendation.  Kate, Ramsey, and their friends had elected to stay on an extra day so were still there when we arrived and we went down to the beach to find them after we cleaned up and changed from the journey.  Unfortunately we hadn’t taken into account that we were going to the beach at the height of the noonday sun and it was truly scorching with high humidity – I felt like a wet washrag much of the time in Verkala but definitely started off on the wrong foot.  Neither Kitu nor I are big on beach activities, particularly those involving swimsuit exposure, so we realized pretty quickly that we needed to head back up to the main tourist walkway to check out the many restaurants and shops.  The tourists came from many areas, though we heard a great deal of German and I would guess they were the majority at this particular time of year, though the majority of restaurants boasting a German bakery made me believe there were often many foreigners from there.  I was a bit surprised at the number of people on the beach with very scanty coverage – afraid I’m not used to the European exposure and felt more comfortable on the sides of the beach frequented by the Indians to avoid seeing the skimpy outfits on so many old and very unfit individuals.  I don’t think I’m normally prudish but guess I can be when not used to such displays.  The dress on the upper cliff was a bit more conservative but the outfits were rather unusual and the shops were catering to the colorful, relatively cool clothing – though I wasn’t tempted to purchase any as it wouldn’t be appropriate in Tiruchuli and wasn’t something I would be likely to wear when I return to America.  I guess I would classify the style there as the international yuppie version of old hippie wear… hope that’s clear.  I guess the saddest part was that though there were many stores, all offered the same items so shopping really wasn’t as interesting as it might have been.  The other amusing part of the shopping experience involved the street vendors walking along the main thoroughfare – almost every item started at 450 rupees – like that was the only price of anything and everything offered.  It became rather amusing.  I somewhat enjoy bartering but believe I’m still paying more than necessary – but can’t feel bad about it when I realize how little I’m paying and that I doubt they make much – particularly late in the season as it is now with fewer tourists to approach.  I really enjoyed the interaction with one little salesperson – a ten year old girl with excellent English which she picked up from the tourists – and I believe she had other languages she had acquired in the same way as well.  She was quite a gifted salesperson and even knowing that she was monopolizing on her youth to make sales did not prevent me from enjoying shopping with her and buying a small necklace for my daughter – again the bargaining began at 450 rupees.  Kitu and I strongly encouraged her to be sure to take advantage of getting her education because she was so bright and when asked what she might want to be when she grows up, she replied “a policewoman” which I found interesting as it was probably the job with the most authority she interacted with.  I wish I had more that I wanted to buy (and better funding!) there as the interactions with shopkeepers and vendors were highlights to the time there as the tourists were generally not conversing outside their own groups.  We did have one rather odd British many who now lives in Los Angeles who approached us (mainly Kitu really) and was quite a character.  Kitu knowing Hindi made it possible for her to interact with almost everyone working there.  Interestingly most of the people catering to the needs of the tourists are not locals from Verkala but were from other parts of India and Nepal.  That rather disturbed me that the local jobs were being lost until we had a great conversation with a local man who runs a juice shop who told us that the main reason was that the Keralans, because they receive rather good educations and are generally more literate than those from other Indian areas, frequently take jobs in the middle east working in places like Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, etc. making better money to send home and this opens the tourist market in Verkala to lesser trained individuals from outside Verkala.  I found the emigration/immigration pattern very interesting.  We had a nice evening in the local bar that overlooked the ocean attempting to watch the sunset (though the sunset was disappointing) and enjoying the quiet ambiance of the place.  We then met up with the other Tiruchuli volunteers for dinner at a restaurant that specialized in Italian food.  The menus in every restaurant catered to a wide variety of palates – serving Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican, Italian, German, American, and others (even Tibetan Momo). Though I wasn’t necessarily impressed that anything truly captured the essence of the foods I had, it was nice to have a change.  I had guacamole which was really just overcrushed avocados and tomatoes (really needed garlic and lime at least) but though it wasn’t the real thing, it was nice to get something close to what I’m used to for a change.  The lack of flavor, likely done to appeal to a variety of foreign tastes, made both Kitu and I appreciate the good food Jayama prepares for us.  We had a bit of a mixup on our return train ride home and ended up rescheduling to return to Madurai on a second class sleeper car, which was much more of an adventure than the ride there.  We shared an open “compartment” area which sleeps eight people on three tiered bunks and it was really a very effective setup to accommodate many travelers at once.  The train was not an express as the first was so it traveled very slowly but this was actually more convenient than leaving in the middle of the night (necessitating sitting around in the train station anyway) and we left at 7:00 p.m. arriving in Madurai about 6:30 a.m. the next morning.  The bunks weren’t quite as wide as the first class so it was a bit more cramped but was certainly not difficult to sleep on the return – though Kitu again fought her cold symptoms.  One of the highlights of the trip was a completely serendipitous moment – we hired the same auto rickshaw driver who had taken us to the train station to work out our tickets during the second morning to return and take us back to the station to catch the train.  On the way another rickshaw driver was in the street and was telling him something that obviously concerned a traffic issue of some sort which we didn’t really understand but as we went a different route, the driver stopped in an area where there were many auto rickshaws and motorcycles parked and told us he would wait for us and that if we just walked up a little ways perhaps we could see the elephant parade going into the temple there.  Well we walked about two blocks up to the crowd outside the temple just as the elephants began to come by – there were six elephants decorated for the parade and I was madly trying to get video and take photos at the same time (which doesn’t make for good quality of either) and it was really very exciting.  Five minutes later the parade is over and we headed back to the taxi to get to the station with plenty of time to spare – how convenient was that!  I hope to post the photos soon and maybe will get around to figuring out how to edit videos enough that I could post that as well.  I was very pleased when we returned to Madurai that I am already an old hand at getting to the larger bus station and we were able to catch a direct bus to Tiruchuli which left at 7:00 a.m. and we were back in our own little rooms by 8:30 – which would have been in time for breakfast but we’d already told Jayama we’d be out so we didn’t worry about that.  Kitu went immediately to bed and finally got some rest and I caught up with my laundry and finished the book I’d started over the weekend (The Toss of a Lemon – very good fiction about a family in Tamil Nadu from the turn of the century on) so somewhat continued my vacation as I didn’t feel rested enough to accomplish much in the office, though I did make some productive plans related to the project while chilling at home.  It felt good to get back in the saddle and get back to work on Friday and hope to accomplish some projects in the office tomorrow as well.  Kitu decided to accept an invitation to join Kate and Ramsey and the gang in Moonar (not sure how that’s spelled but I usually make phonetic attempts so apologize if I mangle too many place or people names) so I’m the only volunteer at ODAM for a couple days and intend to be productive while it’s quiet in the office.

It was a fun couple days but it felt good to get back to my own life.  All is well with my health for those who have expressed concern.  I’m back wearing actual shoes as my feet aren’t swollen or getting blisters as they were for a while – which certainly made traveling easier.  The little colorful footies with flipflops were amusing to everyone and managed to get me through the healing process needed but they were not particularly easy to walk in and I’m grateful to feel more comfortable and healthy again.

Take care.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Halfway Through!

It has been too long since I last posted a blog update and I think I’ve been busy but as I try to review what has been happening in order to write it up, I’m at something of a loss so maybe I’ve just been lay ;-)

On Tuesday I accompanied Christa and Stefan to Madurai as they were leaving Tiruchuli and we planned to take care of some business for the project as well.  We managed to be pretty productive but wasted a good deal of time with frustrations related to a driver with no English – and giving directions to so many locations created a good deal of aggravation and confusion.  At one point we actually lost the driver for about 45 minutes – though we kept communicating by phone.  We had people from the office and people from the hotel talking with him trying to get him back to us and it still took that long.  Hopefully my future trips will be scheduled with drivers that provide a more productive experience.  We visited an eye hospital so that Christa could arrange sun glasses – and it was interesting seeing how inexpensive prescription glasses are in India.  I have debated for a long time about trying to adjust to a pair of glasses (had problems with this after years of contacts) but the expense didn’t make sense.  Now I’m considering the possibility of picking up a pair here…  too many ways to spend my money saving money!  The hotel in Madurai was in a heavier tourist area than I had been to before so it was interesting seeing more foreigners around than I’m used to (though there were still not many).  The hotel seemed like a nice place and the price was good so perhaps I’ll stay there if I need any overnight stays in Madurai in the future.  We spent a considerable time with Ponchuli and Vichayan in the shop and it was productive as we came up with some firm commitments for the upcoming months.  We also detailed the method of payment which will help me plan better for the upcoming expenses.  Christa and Stefan also took advantage of the opportunity to shop for more souvenirs to take home.  They found quite a few very nice items they intend as gifts but then left the bag with them in the car and it came home with me to Tiruchuli. 

Fortunately another trip was arranged for Friday so that Elango (who is back from his month long workshop) would be able to come in and meet with the shopkeepers – something Christa really wanted to facilitate while she was around.  Ramsey and Usha came with us to town and we took care of some errands for their projects as well as meeting at the shop (and getting Christa’s bag back to her).  I had the chance to see the demonstration of a machine which may be purchased to pulverize charcoal for the briquette project – which was interesting to see some Indian business transaction processes, which seemed lengthy and unproductive to me but which established some more personal relationships among them I imagine.  It is nice to have Elango back as he seems enthusiastic about the project and how it fits into the ODAM Rural Crafts business being established for distributing the soap and briquettes.  Elango really seems to have a grasp of the future in this area and has productive ideas of how to get ODAM to establish solutions for upcoming issues.  I think he has the ideas but implementing them requires a great deal of effort here.  Though I am grateful for the opportunity to work on a meaningful project, I wonder if perhaps my efforts to empower local capacity should have been addressed to a wider audience to be more effective.  I hope the ODAM staff are as interested in devoting time in the future to these projects to see them through properly – but that is not something that Christa or I could really impact, though she worried about it a great deal.

The most amusing thing that happened this week was that we had a going away party for Christa and Stefan on Monday night, their last night here.  The volunteers met at the office with half a dozen of the male staff (females would not attend a function with alcohol) and there was a good amount of foolish dancing and singing  (I spared you photos or video of this particular entertainment) of individuals I haven’t had the opportunity to see letting their hair down like this.  Christa had her stuffed toy tiger, Puli Tarron, there and was acting like he had too much to drink as he tried to deal with leaving Tiruchuli.  As we walked back to our rooms later in the dark, she had him on her shoulder and at one point he fell on the street and we laughed about how inebriated he was.  However, the next morning he was missing and though everyone searched the streets (which had already been swept by the time he was missed), he could not be found.  Interestingly Christa found it amusing and a sign that he wanted to stay on in this community.  Others were far more upset by his disappearance, especially Jayama who had tears in her eyes when she learned he was misplaced (though admittedly she was already upset that Christa would be leaving as they had developed a nice relationship).  After we had run many errands in Madurai and were finished with the meeting at the shop, we headed toward a public toilet (I hesitate to spend too much of the blog detailing the intricacies of using public toilets in Madurai, suffice it to say it takes skill and an adventurous spirit – mixed with a healthy dose of desperation).  Stefan had not yet seen the Meenakshi temple up close so we were leaving the bags with him and Christa went digging in the bag for coins for the toilet fee and lo and behold found a small stowaway in her pack – Puli Tarron was safe and sound and would continue his journey with them.  Since he officially writes her blog (which is in German so I can’t fully appreciate it), she was intending to go in and explain he had left her and then have him write the next blog about how he was so drunk that he got into the wrong compartment of the pack but was still around.  I had the great job of going back to Tiruchuli and telling everyone he was safe and sound – with firm instructions from Christa that Jayama be told first.

I have to admit that I have been suffering with some real bouts of homesickness.  I think it confused me a great deal going around the final week of Christa’s stay as she said goodbye to everyone – and I mixed up the sadness of losing a business partner who had become a good friend with the goodbyes being extended to her and think somehow I was feeling ready to head out as well.  When I realized this was all going on somewhere in the back of my head, it hit me pretty hard that I’m not going home and it really made me miss being there.  I almost didn’t attend the Monday night party I mentioned earlier – felt a bit sad during dinner and when everyone headed off didn’t really feel in a party mood so went up to my wonderful balcony, sat down, cried my eyes out for ten minutes, and then realized how much I’d been feeling this bubbling up inside and getting it out was very helpful – so then I took off to join everyone for the party.  I can’t say this ended the melancholy mood, which still lingers even today as Kate and Ramsey will be leaving with their three friends who have spent the last week here (and have been very pleasant company) as they all head out for a ten day vacation in the Kerala area.  Kate and Ramsey will be back for about three weeks before they leave India until next December.  Kitu also mentioned she’s feeling some abandonment issues and I was somewhat relieved to know it’s not just me trying to integrate all of these partings.  I even fought with my husband, something I deeply regret but guess was inevitable – absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it plays havoc on the emotional front meantime.  In some ways this has made me take a serious look at my future goals as I consider my return to my “real” life.  Perhaps some of this is also taking place because I am now at the half-way point of my visit here.  I am just completing eight weeks here and have eight weeks remaining before I leave India.  I am amazed at how quickly I became used to the pace and rhythm here – and wonder just what I’ll accomplish in my remaining time.  Interestingly I had brought a small notebook from home with me that I just pulled out to use and found that the first twenty pages or so were notes from a workshop I took several years ago (five or six I think) and I enjoyed rereading some of my responses to the exercises.  One week we completed the following concept:  What would I do if it wasn’t too crazy?  And my first response was “travel the world – living extended periods in exotic places.”  So it took me a while but it appears I’m doing something I considered too crazy not that long ago.  I rather liked the perspective as I suffer this bout of homesickness.

One of the personal projects I’ve worked on this week was constructing a silk sleeping bag.  Christa had one she had purchased some time ago in Switzerland but which needed to be replaced so she had copied the concept and also made one for Kate and Ramsey about a month ago.  Basically it is a silk sleeping bag liner which can be used as a light cover to protect you from questionably clean sleeping surfaces.  After our visit to Rameshwaran, I could really appreciate the value of such a bag – hotel sheets washed in the local river aren’t very appealing.  Kate and Ramsey were very pleased at how convenient their bag was when traveling on the sleeper train so I decided to make one before my upcoming trip to Verkala.  Kitu had already expressed an interest in learning to sew so she had me purchase silk for her as well and she’s done most of the work on her sleeping bag and already finished the small bag to hold it.  The beauty of this project is that it folds up compactly and weighs very little in the backpack so is easy to take along, even if it isn’t needed everywhere.  I am excited that I have a convenient way to travel India now.  Unfortunately I wasn’t using my brain when purchasing the silk for this and went to Pothy’s and purchased yardage because that’s the way Christa had done it.  Afterwards Rusty pointed out it would have been far cheaper if I had purchased an inexpensive silk sari to make the bag – and the remnants would have been a good deal more interesting for later projects as well.  Disappointing but it showed the rut my mind was in thinking $25 wasn’t too much for such a bag when I probably could have made it for $8 or $9.  Oh well – another lesson in continually maintaining a more open and critical thinking process…

The only other things on my mind these days are the local animals.  On my way to the office alone for the party Monday night I had a dog viciously threaten me.  I have never had a dog lunge at me and I yelled back at him aggressively and he lunged again – scared the bejesus out of me.  This did not make me more afraid of the daytime dogs but reinforced a commitment not to walk alone after dark as the dogs seem to think they rule things more at night.  I also started hearing what I swore were the cries of a kitten the other day – but everyone else thought the sound was just a bird or the office cat.  I went looking over at the trash area next door to the back yard of the office where the sounds seemed to be coming from but then they stopped.  While I was in Madurai yesterday one of our short-term guests, Chandler (who has a big heart and has already bought chicken pieces for the office cat), followed the sound and saw two small kittens beneath a bush in that area – but it’s impossible to get there and probably they’re safer if we don’t disturb them.  I heard the cries today but didn’t see them in the same area so maybe the mother cat has moved them a little.  I’d feed her if I saw her but can’t imagine how I could leave anything out for her that the pigs or other roaming creatures in the area wouldn’t scarf up first.  I don’t imagine the office cat would greet other felines in his territory so it’s not very practical to try to tame them and encourage them to come here for future care.  Just a dilemma of being here such a short time – though even if I was here long term I couldn’t adopt every animal around.  I think this also made me miss my own cats even more (yes, again a symptom I’m homesick).

There’s not much more new to share.  I did a little consulting work on printing an image on boxes for the briquette project.  Ramsey had his friend Chandler cut out a couple of the logos as a stencil but I expressed the concern that the images were too large and ornate to effectively stencil.  They did use my suggestions to apply wax to better protect the cardboard stencil, and I came up with a pretty good method for them to try.  Unfortunately I was correct that the stencils were too complex but I ran a quick test for Ramsey with one of the silk screens I have here and he decided it would work better so at some point he’ll give me artwork and I’ll have one made at the silk screen store Christa identified in Madurai if I have something made.  I am now the confirmed printing queen of ODAM.  Ramsey has begun discussion about the creation of the ODAM Rural Crafts website which is being created so that we can incorporate the soft goods enterprise adequately.  I’ll be working on drafting something before his return so we can move ahead on that by the time the first order of elephants is produced with professional tags referencing the site (something I should be able to order before I leave for Verkala on Monday).

I may not post further on my blog until my return from Verkala on Thursday (10 March) – and you may be grateful as the little pity-party I’m likely to have as everyone leaves may be more than you can bear.  Hopefully I won’t dwell on this further on the blog but feel it would be inauthentic if I try to keep up an imaginary happy demeanor while dealing with the realities of being thousands of miles from my home, my friends, my family, and my life.  I think it’s only reasonable that I should miss them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still grateful and excited to be here – it’s just a bit harder to keep that in mind as things become more commonplace and the novelty wears off.

Take care and enjoy being with those you love today!