In honor of the cold weather that persists here in Boston, some photos I took this winter.
Wait, what? Only day 5? None of us can believe it- it seems like we have been here for a few weeks at least!
Since it’s been a while, I thought I would catch you up on the couple of days we spent in Chennai. Our activities there, thanks to Nithyaa’s incredibly hospitable family, were a very good start to the trip. We met with various non-profits, including the Rotary club of Chennai. They were incredibly helpful and invited Aarti Madhusudan, who works with Governance Counts and Give India, to speak with us. Speaking to her gave us a very good rundown of the NGO culture in India and what the organizations she is working with are trying to do to improve transparency and accountability among them. She also gave us the contact of some friends from Nilgris who we will get in touch with to see if they can help to be cultural allies in working with the Kota people. Much of those first days were dedicated to mentally and physically preparing for the long journey ahead.
Dressed up in our kurtas, bangles and bindis (except for Raj, unless you prefer imagining the opposite), we boarded the 10:30pm train to Trichy. We had two corridor bunks in the second-class cabin, which meant we would have a place to lay down, curtains for privacy, and A/C (though at 3am waking up in a sweat we would argue otherwise). We arrived at 5:00am after only a couple hours of sleep and met Nithyaa’s aunt and uncle at the train stop. We disembarked the train looking a little like foreign correspondents that had just weathered the monsoons, and were welcomed by a hot morning breeze and the faint stench of urine. Trichy looked very similar to Chennai- brightly painted political faces above slogan written in Tamil, swarms of motorcycles on every street, and endless corridors of shops. Once we arrived at Nithyaa’s aunts house, we cleaned up, had a delicious meal that stuffed us to the brim, and were off to Thenur- where we would finally be visiting Payir and meeting it’s founder- Senthil. Here, we hoped to look at a successful project to get ideas on how to proceed with our reseach and planning. We found much, much more.
As we pulled up to pink and peach health center on the border of rice paddy fields, we saw a man dressed in white smile brightly at us with a group of about twenty children in tow. Children! I thought. Now there are people you can connect with no matter what language you speak. We were greeted by Senthil, the man in white, who seemed to breathe peace. After a quick introduction, he was eager to show us what Payir has done. We saw the health center, the learning center, the organic field, and the software development center, all of which we would return to learn about more in depth after a short talk with Senthil.
(Even though we were barely in Thenur for more than 24 hours, I could write pages on Senthil. So instead of talking about him and what we learned from him in this blog post, I will focus on our activities and dedicate one to him in following)
Payir has done absolutely wonderful things for the community. It is dedicated to the offering decent health care- using the book Where There is No Doctor as a model, giving supplemental education to students, and offering job opportunities with the development center which a company in San Diego outsources to. The parallels with the organization of Payir and the Guatemalan NGO Los Patojos were notable. All of these programs are amazing, but what I found most ingenious was the use of webcams as a means of teaching. They get volunteers from all over the world to connect at a certain time weekly and teach the kids via webcam. For people with visible illnesses in the community (such as skin sicknesses) they use the webcams to communicate with doctors so that they can help determine how to treat it. In an age of technology, I find this incredible! You can volunteer with an NGO in India while sitting at home in Denver. You can diagnose a painful skin problem for a farmer 100 kilometers in between two scheduled appointments. Talk about innovation.Whatever we end up doing, we know we will continue to remain in contact with Senthil to share resources and experiences. I, for one, know I still have a lot to learn from Payir, and I have a gut feeling it won’t be my last time there.
I have to stop myself here, because there was so much to write about and I’ve probably lost most of you by now. I should mention that we had to cut our trip a little short because out beloved Nithyaa has fallen sick with a stomach illness (yes, Nithyaa. We were surprised too). She has drunk the magical coconut water and is now resting. Once she wakes up, we will determine if she is feeling better, or whether we will have to postpone the 5:30 am train to Coimbature tomorrow.
And so concludes day 5.
Lots and lots of stalls. Idli Dosa Vadai (typical India fare) stalls. Jasmine stalls. Incense stalls. Chai and Coffee stalls. Motorcycle repair stalls (“repairs and replacements here. Fiance also available”- the “n” was missing from “finance”, much to the amusement of Raj and I). Snack stalls. money changing stalls. Fortune telling stalls where a parrot tells you your future.
And book stalls. Lots and lots of book stalls. At nine at night, the only things that seemed to be open in Chennai were motorcycle repair shops and book shops. I was taken completely by surprised. Because it wasn’t only one book shop (“college and leisure books here”) signalling the need of a niche market, but there were dozens of them! There was competition and the shops were busy! Coming from Guatemala, I don’t think I have ever seen a quality book store that reached out beyond just the elite. And in the US it is rare to see a small book store that has survived the stronghold of Amazon.com. Not only were people buying and reading books, but entrepreneurs found it profitable to be selling books!
I thought this was an incredible introduction to Chennai. Tamil Nadu, being the most literate states in India (90%!), prides its citizens’ appreciation for education. It is home to some of the best IITs (India’s Institute of Technology), educationatiol schools, and art schools. Our short visit to a two-room schoolhouse by one of Chennai’s slums confirmed that. The bright eyed children sat on the floor as studied us quietly and curiously in spite of the fact that we waltzed in without warning (unwavering hospitality- another amazing character trait of everyone we have met so far). They wanted to be everything from Government collectors to Policeman to doctors. They are going to achieve it too. Hope prevails in this part of India. It is incredibly refreshing.
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In August of this year, I hope to be doing some baseline research on malnutrition in Guatemala along with Kathryn Taylor. We have been in contact with the World Food Programme in Guatemala and we have been anxious to hear how Agatha has affected their response mechanisms and position. Specifically in the area where we plan to be working- Jutiapa and the Dry Corridor- it was suffering a drought a year ago and is now recovering from being 50cm under water.
Life is never boring. With the volcanic eruption and tropical storm Agatha affecting the transportation and school schedules- Vanessa and I weren’t even sure if we were going to be able to do our workshops this week. But luckily the director of Los Patojos made sure all of the kids knew the center was still going to be open, even if schools weren’t. And good thing too- because Monday was a big day.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine, Eduardo Santella, got in touch with me through Facebook just to catch up. His audio-visual production business has been really successful- creating music videos, documentaries and producing music for national and international artists. I told him about Los Patojos and the Theater of the Oppressed workshop and he wanted to do a pro-bono mini documentary on it. He came to Los Patojos on Monday and got some incredible shots. He interviewed the Los Patojos Director, got some footage of the daily activities at the kids’ center, and then went over to the youth center to tape the workshop. Afterwards he interviewed Vanessa and I- a slightly awkward, but fulfilling experience. We ended the long day with an arroz con leche in hand talking about old times in the park. What a day. I’ll keep you all updated with the production process and post the link when it is available. Thank you so much, Eduardo!
Tuesday was our most difficult day yet. The kids were restless and we weren’t sure what direction to take our workshops. We gave them the option of continuing to explore Image Theater, beginning to look into Invisible Theater or starting their own project. After a short demonstration by Mario, everyone wanted to create their own invisible theater. Vanessa and I met eyes briefly- because neither of us had much experience in Invisible Theater. Once we broke up in groups- we had very mixed responses. The giggly guys and girls seemed more interested in writing love notes and juggling than creating their own scenes they were expected to perform in public- understandably.
What we realized after yesterday, though, was that none of these kids should feel forced to participate in these workshops. Some of them find making bracelets or talking to their friends and much more fulfilling use of their time. Theater of the Opressed is intense, and we cannot expect everyone to want to talk about the issues they come to Los Patojos to escape. So we decided to do something a little different on Wednesday.
A long time ago I participated in a game called etiquetas where a tag with a stereotype is stuck on our forehead so that we cannot see what it says. Some are postive and some are negative- perfect, suck-up, feminist, prostitute, woman, poor, indigenous, illiterate… etc. Each group acts as a town trying to solve a problem and they treat each other like they would treat someone with the term stuck on their head. We integrated some Guatemalan slang terms to make it closer to home. When I had done it in the past, it had been really effective and some deep discussions about language and stereotypes. It wasn’t as effective as I’d hoped it would be in terms of discussion and insights- but I think that some of them did take away some important points on oppressive language and characterization.
After a few minutes of planning out their scenes, they started getting a little restless. So we decided to end early and play some games with them. I taught some of the quieter girls how to make bracelets and I was able to bond with them a little. They said they would come today to make more bracelets and hopefully that will encourage them to participate more in the workshops.
Only three more days here in Antigua…