A day in the life of a conspicuous foreigner in the middle of nowhere south India
It's 5 am, the sun is not up, but half of Tiruchuli is. Lights are on, tea stalls are open, and women everywhere are sweeping. I am nestled in my bed with a pillow over my head, cursing an invisible holy man as his whiny call to prayer pours into my room from the all too closely situated loud speakers (what village would really be complete without a PA system?) What makes the cacophonous sound of what is quite possibly the oldest most vocally inept Muslim prayer caller of all time all the more pleasant is the harmony provided by the village's ample dog population who join in with their howls.
And so my day begins. Luckily, after three months of this, my body has learned to go back to sleep when it's over, and sleep I do, until the affects of the morning power cuts set in. With India heating up like a furnace, electricity is patchy and my poor weak western body withers and drips through those restless morning hours when my fan is not running. By 7 I've had enough, I get up and begin the arduous process of making myself look presentable to India.
With layers of baby powder and jewelry in place, hair sufficiently shellacked with coconut oil and neatly plaited, I take a few moments of silence to remember the glory that was once my travel wardrobe. Oh grubby t-shirts and ripped pants of my past, how I mourn for you. Despite their dangerous lure, I do not give in; instead I turn off the fan, shut the shutters, and begin the layering, folding, pleating, turning and pinning of my sari in place. A process which I can now complete in 7 minutes flat -- I realize that this is not impressive to those of you who have never tried it, but I assure you, it is a marvelous feat of dexterity, patience, and determination, and a talent worthy of global envy.
Looking at last like a proper Indian girl, I tread out into the world and around the corner to Manjula's house where she cooks me yummy breakfast and makes me coffee and chats with me until it's time for us to go to work. Most of my days are spent creating the new volunteer program, designing manuals, responding to email inquiries, reading applications, designing project plans etc. On any given day I may attend a women's self-help group training session, take part in an NGO network organic cotton planning session, or be taken to an event where having a white person in the press photos will be advantageous for whomever is involved.
Me speaking in front of a member of parliament and 7,500 women at International Women's Day (yikes!):
Because Indian work days are incredibly long and power cuts are frequent, plenty of time throughout the day is dedicated to innumerable coffee/chai breaks, fruit breaks, paper reading, chatting, napping, errands and general staring into space. In the mid afternoon everyone heads home for lunch and then takes a couple hours of rest to let the soporific effects of the rice set in. It's too hot to focus anyway. I admit, it was hard for my overly efficient western mindset to get into this groove, but now that I'm accustomed to it, I can see the benefits of combining work and leisure. There’s something about the the head bobbliness of it all (a reference those of you who’ve been to India can surely appreciate, for those that haven’t, come to India so you can appreciate it!) that makes work seem a lot less like, well, work.
Office staff at work:
In the late afternoons, I head back to the office. A few days a week I teach a staff spoken English class which is always fun as the staff English levels vary wildly and much enjoyment is gained in making fun of ones friends and co-workers. Occasionally I’ll pick up a tutoring session for the boys class that meets at our office in the evening as well. It is on my way home from these classes that I face what is perhaps my most critical decision of the day. If I have any hope of reaching my destination in a timely manner, I must choose (of the three streets in town) my path very very carefully, for there is a mob in the wait.
Admittedly, it is a mob of overwhelmingly cute children, but it is still a mob. In America we have public campaigns to teach our children to be afraid of strangers. In Tiruchuli they take a different tactic -- teaching them to surround strangers in huge groups, demanding to know their name, their mother's name, their native village, and anything else they can half form a question about in English. On any given day, I shake approximately 8 million children’s hands and wave to innumerable others who call out from windows, doorways, alleys, schools, and cars in earnest -- "Auntie! Auntie! Auntie!". Of course, no matter how long it takes me to get through the crowd or how many dirty little hands I shake, it's impossible to stay annoyed for more than a few seconds because here in Tiruchuli, even the naughtiest of children, still manages to be the cutest kid on the planet.
And so my day comes to a close. I climb the steps to my top floor room, pause at the top to take in the ridiculous beauty of the night’s sky unadulterated by lights, and sneak into my room to change into what has become, hands down, my favorite Indian trend – the “nighty.” This all covering, loose fitting, gift from God is worn my women young and old at all times they're not in the restrictive, heavy and undeniably beautiful sari. If you had asked me a few years ago if at 25 I'd be crouched down on a concrete floor in 110 degree weather, wearing a moo moo, happily washing my clothes by hand in a bucket while listening to the jarring sounds of tamil pop music or the local wandering drum group blaring through my windows, I'd have thought you were crazy. And yet here I am …