Monday, January 11, 2010

Millinium Development Goals
Achieved by this team from December 21- December 26;

234 Hours of class room instruction in conversational English and computer skills by13 volunteers and 234 Hours of preparation time.

24 Hours of childcare by 4 volunteer

36 Hours of construction at Seams to build the Stage 2 of the Dormitories and we fixed the roof in this team

1 Schools, 2 Children's Home and over 115 students impacted

Dec. 20, 2009
Message for the day: Why choose the narcotic of war when we can have the
elixir of peace?
After having a day to recuperate and settle into the guest house and annex, we started the day with another satisfying Indian meal of spiced eggs, tidy little rice cakes and papaya. After breakfast we did team building exercises, and Stephen presented
us with job descriptions at the various sites, from which we chose our preferences for the week.Following another spice-filled interesting meal, Stephen gave us surprising information such as; 17% of the population in Chennai have diabetes.  At 5:30 PM we took mini vans to St. Thomas Hospital where we attended a gala extravaganza of a Christmas parent. Words cannot adequately describe what we witnessed for the next few hours, but will try to summaries:  dazzling, shimmering, glittery colors in mostly orange and red hues, little girls with flowers in their dark hair, taking our hands and saying, "come here, Aunty and uncle.” Instantly we were among family! We sat among the children, nuns, and doctors the only way I can describe the parent is "eclectic", a west meets east, Hinduism takes Christianity on a wild romp through Bethlehem to revisit the night Christ was born.  The speeches, including the sombre tones of the head doctor the singing and dancing performances from traditional .Indian dances to modern pop numbers. the drawing of the "lucky numbers", to the appearance of a devil like character, to a skinny Santa Clause with a mask of a white man, it was a bedizening performance.  The last sound heard over the air conditioning, the fan, and the ever-present horns in the street, was that of the young cow in the yard behind us, whose familiar moos and groans seem to be letting us know thither or she is in need of a diagnosis of some sort.


Dec, 21, 2009

‘’The enthusiasm of the children is infectious’’

Quote of the Day: ‘’Expectation versus reality-so much of what we perceive is skewed by our North American views and standards’’

We awoke after a night of near monsoon level rains and prepared for our first real day of volunteer work in Chennai, the purpose for which we had each travelled to India. As we were about to take our first steps out the door to go to the main house, Stephen called offering us a lift. This was quite a welcome offer since it was still raining and the streets were a maze of puddles and mud which none of us had quite the right footwear for.

We arrived at the main house and joined everyone at the breakfast table. Within a few minutes there was a knock at the door which was opened to 3 young boys from SEAMs who were stopping by to say hello on their way to school. Stephen invited them in and on his cue the youngest of the three proceeded to enthusiastically circle the table introducing himself, asking our name, then repeating it as he extended his hand to shake ours and with a large and proud smile said pleased to meet you. Hi, my name is ...what is your name? Say the name, nice to meet you, shake hand.

The boys left and Lucia was asked to reading her journal from the previous day. We then dug into our breakfast of fried eggs and noodles and tomato red sauce. The team also welcomed Kimberley who had finally arrived after missing her connecting flight and spending two nights trying to get a flight out of Heathrow.

We were then informed that due to the rain, there would be no construction work and the schedule we had so diligently prepared would be completely altered for the day. The need for flexibility, one of our team goals, was already being put to the test. Once all the assignments were reassigned we each headed out to our respective location. Bruce, Kimberley, Cathy, Candice and I proceeded to SEAMs where upon arrival were met by three lovely young women who introduced themselves asked our names in similar fashion to the boys. We were also introduced by Stephen to Pastor V. Arul Pragasam who has been director for years.....After being provided with some of the basic background and mission of SEAMs, which we now know stands for ‘’South East Asia Mission and has existed for 34 years with numerous facilities and programs running in several other Indian states ...20 year old Rebekah, who grew up at SEAMs and now works at SEAMs, showed us the three dormitory rooms each of which houses 12 children aged 7 to 16, while the young girls living in them giggled with embarrassment when we asked to see their bathroom. We were also informed that the children of SEAMs, each of whom comes from a disadvantaged home, some orphaned or with only one parent, complete their high school education then go on to trade school where they learn an employable skill.

Finally we went to the main hall, a large rectangular room, concrete floor, sparely equipped to which several plastic lawn chairs were brought to begin our morning of working with five of the older children who were on site scheduled to write exams later in the afternoon. Three modern laptops were brought out and Kimberly, Candice and Bruce each paired with an adolescent and got organized to work on computer and language skills. Cathy joined in with Candice while I spent some time talking with two 15 year old girls who were studying for the accounting exam they would write later in the day. Both aspired to become Bank Managers. They were quick to learn and proud to show me their notebooks full of accounting tables and neatly entered items and calculations. After about an hour, they excused themselves to go back to studying but not before they had charmed me with their personalities, impressed me with their knowledge, confidence and dedication to their studies. They were also comfortable enough to tease me at the fact that I was married to Bruce. I only later discovered that this fact was particularly amusing to them because they had underestimated my age by about twenty years (thanks girls) and could not fathom that I could be married to such an older man! Sorry, Bruce)

After a quick study of the room and the contents of the concrete shelves, random stacks of humid, dog earned notebooks and textbooks stacked in no particular order (Cathy and I only wanted to clean and organize everything!), lower shelves holding Power Rangers Knapsacks and odds and ends that looked as if they had been left behind years ago. Yet when I looked at each of the corners where a SEAMs child was hooked up with a global volunteer all I saw and heard were smiles and laughter, and the occasional clapping and shout of glee when a question had been correctly answered. I’m not sure who was having a better time, student or teacher. In fact it was quite obvious by the end of the morning that the roles had reversed as teachers became students and vice versa as each of us walked away having learned something new: How to use the program paint, or the names of numerous flowers, animals and body parts, or how to use movie maker. Cathy and I shared impressions on the whole of it, and realized that things need not be shiny and new nor neat and tidy in order to learn. All that is required for learning is enthusiasm and willingness, the rest simply falls into place on its own.

Finally, a call in to Stephen, who had not yet arrived to pick us up a half hour past the expected time. We learned that Meredith, unfortunately, had suffered a fall resulting in a chipped tooth and was being seen at St Thomas hospital. It was arranged that one of the students would escort us back to the main house as we were not sure where we were in relation to it. The growing feeling of familiarity with the neighbourhood was felt by all as we walked through enjoying all the waves, hi’s, and what is your name, coming at us from all sides. When we happened upon a cow chewing on some grass behind a makeshift fence of sorts, one of the local boys who we had already met offered to assist us in getting a photo. Suffice to say that the bravado of the young man in question was seriously challenged after a provocation with a branch caused the cow to turn and run out heading straight for the now startled young boy. Fortunately, no one was hurt, the cow strutted off down the street and Matt managed to catch the whole thing on video.

Lunch, which consisted of Tamarind rice, lemon rice, chicken and yet another delicious vegetarian concoction was spent embroiled in conversations around the table, each of the team sharing stories with the other, and exchanging impressions on the morning’s activities.

Afternoon was given to leisure time in preparation for the evening schedule where those who had been at Assisi Illam in the morning would switch with the others who had been at SEAMs.

This was to be followed by dinner at 7pm and yoga at 8.

Assisi was yet another amazing experience. Children of all ages eagerly greeting and bombarding us, all eager, bright eyed and smiling. Within minutes it was a room full of ‘’Auntie, auntie, uncle, uncle’’ Books, crayons, stickers, dominoes, all came out and circles of children and adults started to form around the room. It was as if we had been getting together like this for years. After being treated to dance rehearsals upstairs for an upcoming Christmas show, we finally happy but exhausted took our leave back ti the main house. Goodnights and inquiries about when w were coming back, others they had met in the morning but not seen at night and good wishes and thank you’s by all.

Dinner of egg curry, rice, vegetables, and yes, Indian sweets which we had truly earned. A quest for the elusive bag of coffee finally resulted in success; then an hour of yoga on our full stomachs.

To end the evening, a power outage and more rain, which had Bruce, Matthew, Candice and I heading back to the annex with the assistance of a small flashlight built into Bruce’s recently purchased cell phone. An investment that had already paid it’s way. The end of a very full and satisfying day. Oh, dare I mention it, the power in our annex came back on a few minutes later!


Dec, 22, 2009

The inspirational quote I chose for today is: "We're all a family under

one sky."

This is a song I frequently sing with children and is written by Ruth

Pelham of N.Y. - USA

The day started out with a relaxing bit of yoga at 7:30 a.m. I breathed in and breathed out as much as I could, but try as I might, thoughts of the malarone I forgot to bring from the apartment, how I was going to finally email to my friends and family the four page treatise I wrote about my first few days here and call my mother before I was to go off to my construction job plagued me. Amazingly, however, I was able to call my mother, email the treatise and even have a bit of breakfast before I left for my day of hard labor-hard labor it was. (I skipped the malarone and hoped that taking in the afternoon would not induce a bout with malaria). We arrived at SEAMS all bright eyed and bushy tailed waiting for instructions as to what to do. No sooner had we arrived then we were escorted to a large pile of bricks which we learned we were to haul across the courtyard on her heads and ascend the stairs to the second story of the building. Bruce, Kathy and I diligently began hauling the bricks with pail situated directly on her heads. As we ascended the stairs, we were met with the horrified looks of the laborers, who insisted that we place a cloth cushion on her heads. We complied and quickly realized that hauling 50 or lbs or more of bricks or more in Bruce’s case directly on her heads without anything to cushion the weight was probably not the best idea. ( I must admit I was guilty of continuing this practice of direct head contact as my cushion often fell off as I was hoisting the pail over my head and I was forced to go bareback much to the chagrin of the laborers who watched). Throughout our working day, we were continually humbled by the sight of Bhatma, a lithe twenty or thirty something (we debated her age), systematically placing 8 bricks over her head (without a pail) and blithely walking across the courtyard and up the stairs. As she repeated this pattern over and over we were amazed by her poise and grace and most importantly, her ability to never break a sweat!

We continued this work for over three hours, with Bruce, our most diligent union representative, calling out for five minute water breaks so that we remained hydrated and able to work. As we hauled the bricks across the courtyard, we heard the sounds of Lori and Kimberly teaching their respective students. Bruce and I commented that we finally understood the plight of our ancestors in Egypt and I thought to myself that this year at the seder, I might have more of an appreciation of the exodus from Egypt.

After over three hours of this work, our ride arrived and we were off to shower and then lunch. After lunch, we had our break, after which we were shuttled to Assisi Illam for our afternoon session with the children there. When we arrived it appeared that someone had taken to heart the old biblical saying of be fruitful and multiply, as it appeared that the student population had doubled from the previous day. As we came in, the children rushed us, so eager to see us and take us into their home. We each sat down with a few children and began to work with them using the tools we had brought. While I was struck with the knowledge that some of them possessed, I was most impressed with their diligence, their respectfulness and the caring they demonstrate to those around them. These children certainly are marvels; they have almost nothing but appreciate everything. Although I still battle with the mosquitoes here in India and most particularly, at Assisi Illam, each day I leave this place, I have a smile on my face.

As I sit here in typing in my bed, with a few muscle aches, and after two showers, pieces of grit in my hair from my morning battle with the bricks, I am reminded of the old adage my mother used to quote to me as a child which I believe is apropos for the day : “a little hard work never hurt anyone”.


Dec, 23, 2009

Our collective work as a team so far certainly illustrates this quote. We have committed ourselves individually and as an entity toward certain goals, but what is especially wonderful about the philosophic cornerstone of Global Volunteers is that we are entrusted to follow our creative instincts toward that end.

Every day -- another piece of a large tapestry. After yoga on the terrace roof this morning, with a gentle breeze, we descended to breakfast with (yes, real!!) coffee and yummy egg pancakes with curried noodles. By 9:45 our quartet was off to Assisi Home, dropping Matt off first at St.Thomas Hospital.

When it was our foursome's time to disembark and enter the children's center, we were greeted by a wave of open arms, smiles and "auntie-auntie’s from these little ones we have come to know. So eager to get underway!

So, we headed directly upstairs to our open studio and created our first morning circle with Ring Around the Rosie and London Bridges. We used sing-the-story books as well. Of course, Twinkle Little Star and Eensy-Weensy Spider top the charts. Free drawing with chunky chalk along a blackboard wall was very engaging and calming this morning. New age piano contributed to the flow. I was about to launch the kids into reggae around the world when I sadly discovered that the boom box was actually a cassette player. Alas...what would we provide to release all this preschool energy? Wonder of wonders...Who should walk in for our second day together but Father Christhu. "Can you stay for a little while with us?" Ellen asked eagerly. "Oh yes," was his reply. I ran upstairs to where I knew there was an old tabla in hiding. In mere minutes we co-created a movement exploration class. Father played drum-moods and we all moved freely around in response to the drum for a half hour. It was just what they needed!

As the children ate their lunch, the four of us had a chance to have an open dialogue with Father Christhu about his dreams for the future and his roots. And now...where am I? Sitting in an orange chair at St. Thomas Hospital, awaiting my turn for a first-ever aryuvedic massage. Just minutes before I took up the pen to begin writing this, a mother and nurse stopped by with a newborn baby girl on their way out to go home. With a deep smile, this mother moved closer toward me and placed her swaddled baby in my arms for precious minutes and then into Candace's arms beside me.

Now..who was it that said there are many surprises in Indian life?

This journey to India for me is more than community building and a gift of human efforts. It is also answering to a call to better understand and perhaps feel closer to my ancestry. My great, great grandparents had a shipping business all their lives, sailing back and forth between Calcutta and Newburyport, Massachusetts. With a home in Calcutta, they raised their children there. A four month journey it was between these two ports. Since landing here, I have come to realize that they sailed right past Chennai on every voyage. Now I need to find the diary that was meticulously kept with all of the notes of each crossing.

At 6 pm tonight, we were once again entertained at St. Thomas Hospital, where many children took the stage to produce the Christmas for Children Program, held each year. A wonderful sequence of dancers in full costume and spirited singers as well provided a great start for the Christmas season. Following this, we all had dinner together at a local hotel, guided so kindly once again by our team leader, Stephen


Dec, 24, 2009

-God does not require you to succeed, God only asks that you serve

Thursday morning came as quickly and with as much noise as the days prior, although the ritualistic beats of the drums and singing of the temple-goers outside of our window seemed more harmonious and less irritating today, perhaps a sign of me finally being settled in my Indian home. I even handled the ride to the hospital as I would a typical drive around the US, with the motorized vehicles coming within inches of our miniature, seatbelt-less minivan not even eliciting a jump from me. I met with the ever-charming Reverend Doctor Sister Rexline in her office as I have been doing the past few days, thirty minutes taken out of her ludicrously busy schedule to make time for me, a gift I almost felt unworthy receiving. She introduced me to the orthopedic surgeon, who, not surprisingly, was also extremely forthcoming. He stored my number in his phone and said he would call me if I was able to watch any of his upcoming surgeries. I decided to take an auto rickshaw to Assisi Ilam after about an hour due to the day’s decreased patient population and fact that most procedures were scheduled in the afternoon.

The driver insisted that he knew “Assisi Illam school,” a claim I was suspicious of, but I decided to take the ride anyways. After about 7 minutes of driving I asked him how much further it was, knowing it should have been very close to the hospital. “Four more kilometers,” he replied, “very far.” “Damn,” I thought, knowing my suspicion had proved to be true, that this guy had the wrong Assisi Illam in mind. Thankfully I had my phone on me and was able to call Stephen, who told me to hand the phone to the driver. “Great, I thought. This man has to be aware of a million different things going on around him in order to drive in this city and not kill us, and I’m handing him a cell phone. Stephen sorted things out with the driver in a matter of seconds, his rare selfless ability of taking care of everyone never ceasing to amaze. I will admit that Nicole’s rickshaw horror story did run through my head briefly, although the driver seemed harmless and jumping out of moving vehicles has never really appealed to me.

Assisi Ilam turned out to be a blast, and a decision I did not regret in the least. The children always greet me like I’m one of their long lost relatives, a position that I would be glad to fill any day. Although I hold education as paramount, I regrettably admit that my lesson plan at Assisi Illam and SEAMs consisted more of roughhousing and Tamil games than mathematics or reading. I left SEAMs sweaty and exhausted, my UCF Knights t-shirt that was subject to Barnabus’ tender care only the day before covered in dirt. In other words, a great success.

Almost in fairy tale fashion, Christmas Eve concluded with us sorting, packing, and wrapping gifts for the children, my 200 count bag of peppermints I lugged 17000 miles finally finding a home. With Christmas music merrily filling the room, the entire group wrapping presents and packing bags like elves, and a little Christmas tree flickering festively in the background, I, against all odds, felt the Christmas spirit half a world away.


Weekend – December 27 and 28

When you come to India if you have patience, you lose it; if you don't, you learn it – Kathy Bender

After an arduous week of construction, education and compassion, we were rewarded with an opportunity to visit some of the major sights within the proximity of Chennai. An early breakfast and we were whisked aboard two comfortable air conditioned buses. Our ultimate destination was Pondicherry but, in tune with the philosophy that permeates the region, the journey was as important as the destination.
Our first stop was the memorial to Rajiv Ghandi, who as Prime Minister campaigning for re-election, was the target of a suicide bomber posing as a devotee. Ghandi, a victim of the Sri Lanken War, was killed by a Tamil Tiger woman. The Ghandis, like the Kennedys in American Political History, all suffered a violent death in the service of their country. Their position in the Indian social and political psyche remains legendary.
The memorial is in the form of 7 obelisks, each ornately carved and topped with a traditional symbol of India's heritage. At the centre is a simple granite rectangle bearing a bas relief coloured carving of Rajiv.
Our second destination was the city of Kancheepuram, renown for its temples. Here Stephen took off his squadron leader hat and assumed the role of tour guide. We were educated as to the names and roles of the major gods, Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva along with their respective vehicles, children and the domains under their control.
The temples, ornately carved with images of the Gods, have been constructed through the centuries under the aegis of the dynastic kings of each era. Despite the passage of time, most of the temples, made from granite, show little signs of deterioration. Stephen, explaining the myths and legends that accrue to each specific carving, elicited a link of images and recollections of my childhood. Similar themes such as jealousy between siblings, as exemplified by the race around the world for the Fruit of Knowledge, evoke memories of Cain and Able as well as Adam and Eve. The sense of invulnerability resulting from a prophesy as felt by Narasimha, who was killed by a half man half lion emerging from a pedestal at dusk, is directly tied to the legend of Achilles in Greek mythology. Likewise the prophesy of the 3 Shakespearean witches who provided Macbeth with a sense of security based on seemingly impossible occurrences which ultimately came to bear, resulting in his demise. The first temple we visited was in honour of Parvati, the next two, Shiva and the final one Vishnu. Its 96 ornately carved columns told stories of battles between Muslims, Europeans, and Hindus. As a counterpoint, many of the carvings related to the Kama Sutra, showing that making love and making war hold equally high positions in India's long and colourful history.
Speaking of long and colourful, our after lunch stop was for beautiful silk scarves and wraps. The girls had a wonderful time selecting, modeling and comparing the various patterns and, after doing their share to rejuvenate the Kancheepuram economy, we were on our way to Pondy.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful as the two buses sped, well maybe not exactly sped, to the famous coastal town, arriving just as night was falling. First impressions of Pondicherry, or Pudicherry as it is now called (note to self – invest in Indian sign manufacturing company when you get home), was of a city less blighted by slums and poverty. The city's roads were well demarcated, there were traffic lights that actually worked, Pondicherry exuded a certain cosmopolitan charm. The hotel Mass was more than acceptable particularly since it offered the volunteers their first hot shower in a week. Those of us who have been residing in the annex guest house, however, had to do without our Jacuzzis and personal daily massages that we had left behind back in Chennai, but we decided to suck it up and put the welfare of the team ahead of ourselves for once.
When presented by Stephen with the option of dinner a la carte or buffet, we unanimously decided to spoil ourselves and chose to be served rather than deal with self-serve as we had earlier in the day. The two buses pulled into a swanky LA styled hotel and we were led outdoors to sit near the pool - a romantic and upscale placement. The staff scurried around setting up temporary seating arrangements next to the open kitchen, replete with delicious smells wafting out and tempting our taste buds. I now understand the overwhelming popularity of the buffet in India – one gets to eat before passing out from starvation.
Drink orders were taken and, being of British heritage, I was looking forward to my first gin and tonic of the trip – a drink invented by the British Troops during their Indian colonization to allow for easy ingestion of quinine- a drug used to combat malaria. It was akin to eating a hot dog at Yankee Stadium or Crepes Suzettes at the Eiffel tower. Sadly, the G&T will have to wait a bit longer since the waiter informed me that there was no Tonic Water available. It was a harbinger of things to come.
With drinks and food ordered, we sat around chatting about the experiences of the day waiting for our cocktails. And waiting and waiting and waiting. Eventually the maitre d' decided that he may as well actually hire some staff to serve us. He pressed several new faces into service, some of whom may have actually worked in the hotel business at some point in their lives. A few us were starting to foam at the mouth in anticipation, including Stephen who had received clearance from the home front for a beer. Lori and I opted for Mojitos, a drink I associate with Cuba more so than India. We sat and waited somewhat patiently as the rest of our party received their libations while the bartender waited for the mint to finish growing prior mixing up our two servings.
Dinner was eventually brought forth as we were serenaded by the delightful squeal of misbehaving, spoiled children who decided to use our elongated table as the centerpiece for their game of chase. Lori tried to get me to use some yoga breathing techniques to block out the annoying distraction, but I've always been a fan of a different form of relaxation, something that comes with a high alcohol content.
When the meals finally arrived, it seemed that the waiter had learned everything he knew about service by watching Manuel on Fawlty Towers. It began with Kimberly being offered her repast. “Here is your steak” the waiter declared with obvious pride that he had managed to deliver the goods in less time than it took for the moon, to orbit the Earth. “ I ordered chicken” was Kimmie's slightly vexed reply”. “This is chicken” replied the waiter, deftly changing lanes with the skill of an F1 driver. This charade was repeated with virtually every presentation, as we watched the food morph from its original incarnation into the desired order right before our very eyes. I am now a believer in the Hindu philosophy of re-incarnation. An animal died and was reborn as a different species directly in front of the astonished crowd. This magic took place for the benefit of all except yours truly. I explained to the waiter as he placed my meal down in front of me that in Canada lamb does not have feathers or drumsticks. Opting for a new tactic, the waiter explained to me that there was as much lamb available in the kitchen as there had been Tonic Water. He thoughtfully and unilaterally determined that I would enjoy the chicken just as much.
We finished dinner full of good cheer, aided to no small extent by the appearance of several bottles of Carlsberg. We awaited our individual bills since the waiter, at the start of the meal, was advised of our desire to go Dutch in East India. He meticulously kept track of each individual's order and, at the end of the meal, presented a single tab that Candice, in her role of Director of Fun, took back to her room and spent the rest of the night dividing up
The meal featured Stephen as the after dinner speaker as he regaled us with a story of his encounter with Vishnu in his 11th incarnation as Dominic the Volunteer. We hopped on the buses for our trip back to the hotel and despite my vow of secrecy forced on me by the Triplets, must say that their vehicle was like sitting in first class as compared to our coach. The extra leg room, contoured velour ceiling and amply stuffed seat cushions made for an exquisite journey back. Before carrying out your veiled threats, girls, remember – one phone call to Visa and you'll be walking home from Kochin.

Morning brought us down the streets of Pondicherry one last time. It was odd to see French styled street signs featuring the familiar cobalt blue background bearing names such as Rue de la Marine in the midst of India. This particular road housed the ashram started by Sri Aurovindo, an Indian fugitive from British justice who took refuge in Pondicherry seeking asylum from charges of sedition. His time in prison and subsequent inner spiritual development led to the creation of one of the most peaceful, tranquil and spiritually wholesome places I had ever visited. While I was allowed to enter as a tourist, I felt a strange uneasiness and discomfort as I wandered in amongst the disciples and the meditating faithful. I did not feel that I had earned the right to participate in this level of tranquility and left the building after admiring the flowers and the palpable silence.

Our next destination was Auroville, a large plot of land dedicated to the New Age, the physical embodiment of Sri Aurovindo's vision. My initial reaction, which was shared by many of the group was a sense of disharmony brought about by a large number of armed soldiers traversing the grounds. Shoes were a no-no but rifles were OK? Why would a military force be required to promote world peace? It turned out that the soldiers were there for the same reasons as the rest of us – to bask in the physical realization of one very special man's dream. The existence of Auroville, located seemingly in the middle of nowhere was dumbfounding. A brief video introduced the visitor to a spiritual vision that had taken wing and come to fruition over the past quarter century. Designed as a haven to transcend traditional religion, eschewing established paths in favor of seeking the divine presence that existed within every soul, the project's centerpiece was a perfect crystal orb designed to focus human concentration. It was contained in a pure white environment housed in a large oblate spheroid covered with gold discs. The term 'oblate spheroid' was taught to me in elementary school. It refers to a round object flattened at the top and bottom. The words sounded funny at the time but I never forgot them. I remember thinking to myself “When would I ever use that term in my life?” It seems appropriate that after these years that the single usage of the epithet would apply to a special and unique object that verged on other-worldliness.

The shopping areas and restaurants served the visitors like a well oiled machine. Instead of wind chimes and finger cymbals, the gentle clanging that I heard was the sound of cash registers ringing up sale after sale. Someone with a strong organizational and marketing sense was behind this operation. Initially I had felt that the main motivation behind the existence of Auroville was spiritual enlightenment. I left the property feeling somewhat cynical about the impetus behind it. I apologize for my cynicism, but it is very difficult to shake 50 plus years of jadedness out of my psyche this quickly. I looked to buy an appropriate T-shirt before leaving but was unable to locate one with the message that I wanted on it. As yet the marketing department has not come up with “There's no Place Like Om”, but I'm sure its in the works.

By the time we had reached the stone carving village of Mamallapuram, we had maxed out on beggars, hawkers, vendors, animal abusers, mothers with rented children and other assorted locals desirous of separating us from our rupees. Lily's shriek as a hand holding more souvenirs was thrust through the bus window, reminiscent of the scene from Night of the Living Dead, spoke volumes for all of us. Some vendors were relentless, not receptive to stern no's or indifference as clues to move on to the next 'customer'. The level of our groups' compassion speaks for itself. We are here trying to help out a little corner of humanity, but the overkill and constant bombardment leads to desensitization and a feeling of intrusive annoyance.

Upon Stephen's advice, we ignored the plethora of pleadings from the multitude and moved on the see some of the most awe inspiring stone carvings, some of which dated back to the 8th century. In the capable hands of our guide, stories were recounted based upon the displays in front of us. The gods came to life as tales of jealousy, penance, anger and trickery surfaced in the revelations. Unlike the attributes of the Western conceptualization of God, which places Him above human behaviour, the actions of the Indian Gods underline human foibles in an anthropomorphic sense, which serves to bring their Gods closer to humans rather than create a distinctive division. Whether temple, statue or gigantic butterball, the formations proved to be a unique and inspirational insight into Indian history, culture and religion. I will always be indebted to have had the opportunity to be shown such a fascinating cross section of a new culture presented by a man who had equal portions of knowledge, passion and respect. Thank you Stephen Raja.


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