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Friday, March 29, 2013

Sewing Machine Mela

The scene, as we gather for the late afternoon distribution of sewing machines, is like a small mela (the pan-Indian word for a fair,  or exhibition.)  Rows of shiny black, treadle sewing machines, with old fashioned gold trademarks, stand ready in laminated cabinets, in front of several dozen women and family or friends just nowgathering and/or seated on the ground under a scraggly though somehow shady tree.  Thirty-some saree-clad women, the most important attendees today, are to get (for most of them, their first) new sewing machines today. Many have brought along a family member for the occasion.

Some of the women have taken a government sponsored sewing course in the same district, and have applied for bank loans for their machines. Graduates of our PUSHPA sponsored short course in sewing have been guided through the process of opening their own bank accounts and applying for low interest loans to pay for machines subsidized by our organization.  All of their faces reflect the seriousness and the joy of having taken the first steps to develop their own, sustainable income-generating home tailoring businesses.

Our facilitator welcomes the group and gives an overview of his development group and how our nonprofit organization partners with them in PUSHPA projects.  The bank manager speaks of the bank loan process, extending an open door to those who care to avail of small loans like this for further improvement or ventures.  Invited to say a few words, I consider demurring, but realize that would be a faux pas.  So I manage to utter a few congratulatory words along advice to keep the machine in good condition, and to examine and practice sewing to the level of quality of garments and other sewn items available in the local markets.   I hope the fact that the facilitator does not re-translate my Telugu is an indication of how well I may have been understood by the non-English speaking crowd..

Pride, or joy, -- coupled with the sobering reality of the work and earning necessary to repay her sewing machine loan within a year -- is evident on each woman's face as her name is called to receive a small repair kit and scissors, along with her machine.  While others' family members hover in the background, one very young couple stay close to one another, beaming, stroking the new machine, and, I imagine, earnestly discussing their future as first-time entrepreneurs.

The women's names have been called, but all the machines are not ready (The black classic treadle machines have been brought, unassembled, from the dealer in Guntur; a workman, busy assembling machines in the sewing school room nearby for the last two days, is still at work).  Several women will have to wait, but they are nonplussed, hopefully confident that their turn will come.  They have seen the evidence.

The 'function,' as events are called here, is drawing to a close.  Tea is served in tiny plastic cups, along with a packet of the traditional 'sweets (which we'd call 'bars' here) and hots (spicy snack mixture.)  The women are now up on their feet, conversation crescendoes.  A few of us take a turn holding and admiring the baby of a young mother whose own mother hovers nearby.  A little boy wanders through the display of machines, testing treadles, turning wheels, batting loose wheel cords (what IS thatpart called?) back and forth.  Another woman notices him, shoos him back to his mother, gently admonishes them both on the danger of muddling up the works of their new technology.

One or two women approach me with friendly chit chat; each gradually segues to a suggestion that a word from me to the ayya-garu (sir, i.e. my ngo entrepreneur husband) might help in securing a grant (this, by a widow with young children) or additional loan for another, more specialized machine (by a woman who is already developing a thriving sewing business.)  Wanting neither to encourage nor discourage, I tell them it's not for me to say. I'm not part of that decision making process.

Day light begins to fade as people begin to take the machines away on the back of auto-rickshaws, which putter away into the night.  For awhile, on our way back to Guntur, we follow one of these rickshaws loaded with two machines and crammed with several adults, happily engaged in lively conversation, oblivious to our cheerful, congratulatory waves as we pass.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Very Short Visit to Vizag

Despite all my good words about Changi Airport, my stomach does not do well on the Silk Air (the subsidiary of Singapore Airlines) flight to Vishakhapatnam, India--Vizag, for short.  This time both meal choices are fish, of which I have been suspicious ever since an apparently allergic reaction several years ago.  I decline the meal in favor of sleep, but awaken, needing to put something in my queasy stomach. The stewardess, bless her heart, notices I am awake. Recognizing my despair at being unable to eat the food being served but, in response to my plea for simple crackers (called 'biscuits' over here), she brings me not only that, but, wonder of wonders, a container of plain yogurt.  

So I arrive in India tired, but otherwise in good shape, thanks to the 'tlc' of steward, stewardesses, and airport staff.  A wheelchair attendant whisks me through immigration, security, and baggage claim, and out the front door, where I fully expect to see my husband, waiting with a taxi.  He has taken a train from Guntur to meet me here in Vizag, for a few days 'r and r,' and a relative's wedding.

A couple hundred pairs of brown eyes eye blue-eyed me, while I survey the crowd, with a sinking feeling.  No sign of him.  Well, he must be waiting in a nearby parking lot, I will stay in full view so he can find me, right?  After ten minutes, I ask the attendant to pull me back inside the wide open doors...
still very visible under the lights, but feeling less so, parked next to a wall. The attendant suggests I should call him.  Of course; and I have a cell phone! With 'global roaming' activated just before I'd left the states!...So I call his Indian cell phone, only to find that the roaming doesn't work in this area.  (I later find global roaming, which I have accessed for many minutes, perhaps over an hour, to talk to my kids from Singapore, much more expensive than I'd thought...good thing it doesn't work any better here.  Unfortunately, even as I'd been unable to put my hands on my camera as I prepared for this Asia trip, I later lose track of my American call phone as I prepare to return to the U.S. from India.  Is the year of the snake going to be problematic for electronics?!)

"No problem," says the attendant, a phrase I'll be grateful to hear repeatedly during my visit to India. He offers the use of his phone.  After several tries, I reach my husband.  His train has arrived in Vizag not long ago. He says he is approaching the airport, and tells me to hang in there...  I hang up and hang on, with brightened spirits, despite the fact that I am overtired; not only is it around ten p.m. here, but hours later, according to the Indonesian time to which I've just become accustomed.  It is 'the waxing crescent'  night after dark-of-the-moon, the night's blackness palpable, rich and all-encompassing as the inside of a velvet pocket.

It's not more than fifteen minutes (while I practice 'calming breath) until Franklin calls again; he is just entering the airport.  This time, I walk, expectantly, to the entrance, but no taxi is in sight.  Then I see his familiar gait, approaching out of the darkness; we exchange a quick hug, and he gestures toward our vehicle--an auto rickshaw--hardly more than a glorified motor cycle with open coach seating behind the driver.  Rather gauche, but, no problem, it's transportation.  My suitcases get piled in the back, and we putter through dark and quiet streets toward the Park Hotel, our ride reminiscent of New Delhi bicycle-rickshaw rendezvouses (how do you write the plural of that??) of years gone by.

The Park Hotel/resort is a single line, gentle curve of rooms off a generous veranda over the parking lot, each room facing the Indian ocean to our west, beyond a park-like setting of grass, walkways, a giant chess game, canopied sit-out, and beach side dining areas. Although we can walk there and see it from our room, the water is fenced off because of a rocky shore, different from the expansive sandy beaches which extend northward from the seaside eateries area.

Stubby frangipani trees, yellow champak, and scraggly rose bushes dot the lawn and provide abundant flowers for the hotel's signature blossoms, arrayed in patterns in large bowls of water inside and out, or individually placed, fresh, every day, on our beds.

One sunny morning after a typical South Indian breakfast buffet, we walk out to view the ocean shore, on the stone walk between the tennis courts, hidden off to one side of the lawn, and the round, glass-walled dining area. On the other side of the dining room is an inviting blue swimming pool, flanked by lounging beds on one side, dressing rooms, spa, and exercise rooms on the other. Heading into the shade of a large, open sided stone gazebo, we make the acquaintance of an interesting couple from St. Petersburg.  She does the talking; she studies English while he, for whom she translates, works in the ship construction business here.  They are living in the hotel for several months, as do several other other Russian couples.  She is excited about a night time Oceanside party, with an ethnic meal the women are planning along with the hotel's cooks, for this evening.. 

[The occasion for meeting my husband in Vizag was the wedding of his cousin's son.  The wedding was great, once we found the church (the invitation named  the neighborhood, but driver was not familiar with it or the church...) just before the bride emerged from her car.  It was a small wedding by Indian standards, with only a couple hundred guests at the church, and perhaps twice that at the reception.  The Christian service was all very subdued and in good taste...white cloth festoons and lots of flowers, hymns, prayers (both fathers are elders in their church,) even by the bride and groom (testimony/ thanks), in Telugu and in English... about an hour and a half long.

The reception was in an ocean side garden of the hotel next to ours.    All around the bumpy lawn, to negotiate which safely we hold hands like little children, was table seating for hundreds of guests, with separate serving areas for vegetarians and non-vegetarians off to the side. Soft religious music under girded the constant chatter of the guests, while stars glowed silently in the velvet tropical sky. The bride and groom were eventually led to their throne-like seats at a stage with a backdrop of white satin and fresh flowers. The couple  tried to come and visit casually at all the tables, but groups and individuals kept mobbing them to pose for pictures, seriously limiting their mobility.  They were finally persuaded to return to the stage for the more usual reception line, while the guests lined up, posed for pictures and introductions with the couple, and presented gifts which were handed off to another cousin, to be handed to a table off-stage.  I know it sounds cliche' but they are a nice couple, evidently well matched for looks as well as personality (which, in that area of India at least, means physique, which I do not mean, although that too applies, here.) He's our son's age, a banker, and she's a computer techie, to put their developing careers in simplistic terms.]

My stomach seems to know it is on home territory, and settles down almost right away. We spend the next day touring the territory.  Up too late to join the citizens enjoying a walk along a portion of oceanside road closed to other traffic for morning walkers.  We rent a taxi, from which we can see that the main roads on which we travel are clear and clean, a definite plus for a busy Indian city. Vizag is the second largest port in India, in a natural harbor surrounded by several mountains of the 'Eastern Ghats."...In the afternoon we drive uphill from Vizag, on about forty minutes' worth of hairpin roads to see the view from there...Wow...and down again. On another drive, we drive northward to the village of Bhimli because the husband of a Telugu/American couple we know (and who are coming to visit us later in the month) has mentioned that his parents once lived there.  At noontime, it's a sleepy town, of  run-down lanes hunched together with hardly a lane and a half between buildings.  Our driver is nonplussed with my request to just drive around to get a feel for different neighborhoods....he drives in a few blocks and back, saying something like, "There you have it, all right?!" 

On our way out of town, we decide to get out, and, remembering a cracked kneecap suffered in a similar scenario a few years ago in Hyderabad, risk negotiating a couple uneven, sand-covered rocky steps of a token stone entryway for a walk on the beach.  The afternoon is still too hot to enjoy a beach walk, although other tourists are attempting the same.  The sand is grimy and the ambiance lackadaisical.  We hunker under the eaves of a couple of souvenir kiosks and buy beach-themed jewellery and toys which we suspect we could just as well buy at any beach in the world.  As we pack our suitcases later, we notice the name on one of the toy boxes, and chuckle:  made in China.  Even here!

There are a few resorts along the way back to Vizag, and we check out two of them for future reference.  One reminds me of a modest, sleepy, well-used fishing resort in Minnesota.  The other, a government undertaking, is a two story stone building clinging to the side of a hill, commanding impressive views of the bay.  On the driver's recommendation, we drive up another set of hairpin turns facing the ocean, to a 'model town' that is put to multiple uses, as a movie setting, hence a tourist attraction (There's an admission charge at the gate, and an additional charge for the car), and as an ad hoc resort/event venue.  There are a number of tourists, but no movie stars, at least as far as we can tell, today.  We walk a few blocks, but the sun is still high and we stop at a tiny shop for refreshment before returning to our car for the ride back, enjoying the ocean view on the way down.

The next day we have limited time before our train, and decide to spend it lunching at a well-reputed restaurant (packed), again recommended by the driver, beforehand. He hears us wish we'd had time to get some of our shopping done, quickly ascertains what we'd had in mind, hurries the waiters and the serving of our meal, which is excellent, and just as quickly recommends and takes us to a store where we can buy dresses for our granddaughters.

Tired from our travels and not quite enough sleep, we demur when we find that the Chandana clothing store's children's clothing department is on the second (which is called 'first' in India, as being just above the 'ground' floor, which in America we call first) floor, and there is no elevator.  Always eager to please (and make a sale) the proprietors find out what we are looking for (readymade, traditional long-skirted, silk special occasion dresses), and oblige by bringing samples down to us, while we wait at the counter, fascinated by helpers at their never-ending task of refolding luscious silk sarees recently shown to other customers.  We are in luck, and find just the sort of two piece silk dresses -- one pink, one pink and green, with silver or gold thread designs -- we had in mind. We have the bills written up by hand (still the prevailing method, if any receipt is given at all, in Indian shops), double-checked, and stamped as paid, before heading off to the station in plenty of time for our train

A good taxi driver is worth his weight in gold; we're grateful to have found such a good taxi driver.  Usually resourceful, the best act as ombudspersons, concierges and local contacts, helping you get where you want and what you want in the most expedient manner.  Well, all except the 'tour' of Bhimli.

Plenty of time you want, and you will usually have, at Indian railway stations. The railway system is popular, and city stations have multiple platforms for multiple tracks, accessed by overhead or underground passages involving long stairways and crowds of porters, people, luggage, all intent on making their connections.  While trains make every effort to be on time, and, surprisingly enough, often are, they are also often late, giving you ample time to catch your breath, buy a magazine or snack for the ride, and still have time left over for the popular sport of people-watching (watching and being watched) and spontaneous travelling-companion conversations.

But more about that in another blog entry...We're in for a seven or eight hour ride to Guntur, along the coast of the Bay of Bengal, for now.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Slightly Seeing Singapore

I'm only in transit (for the second time this week!), but I do want to 'see Singapore,' courtesy of the free bus tour co-sponsored by the Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines.  Though tours are offered at several times, day and night, you can only avail of one per transit stay. and must sign up at the airport's tour kiosk, allowing enough time to be back in the airport two hours before your ongoing flight.  The tours are filling up fast; I sign up for the mid-day tour just in time, and hurry off to check my carry-on suitcase for a nominal fee at one of the 'baggy' rooms...(there's a wait at the baggy room...I make a note to allow time for thatthe next trip through Changi.)  I re-join others congregating around the tour kiosk, where my attempt at making conversation with a young couple in the group proves rather lame...  I guess they are honeymooners.  Nobody in the group is talking to anybody else, only eyeing each other now and then.

Half an hour before the tour, a brisk woman's voice calls us to take our passports in hand and follow her. We fall in and out of line like school children on a field trip, as she guides, no, exhorts us, down an escalator to the immigration level, where she instructs us to show our passports, receive a trip-i.d. sticker, and wait until all of us are cleared.  Extra attendants whisk us efficiently to the quickest moving lines, and we cluster around each other on the other side of the gate. I look around, find another woman who seems travelling solo.  This time I am more successful at striking up a conversation.  After initial small talk, she asks, surprised, "How did you know I was alone?" (Takes one to know one, I suppose.)  

She's a graduate student on her way back to studies abroad, after a home stay in India.  We find seats across from each other on the luxury tour bus just in time for the guide to start her narration.  The woman guide is exceptionally articulate and full of interesting facts and asides ("Singapore's national pastime is eating.") as we roll on through the lush (sorry if I repeat myself, it's the only word I can think of, for the abundant greenery I see in Singapore and Indonesia.) boulevards into the heart of town, learning about the history, population, and activities of the city.

Numerous clubs, from tennis to model airplanes, and restaurants line the shores to our left.  Impressive apartment buildings and a meticulously groomed golf course consisting almost entirely of hills and water traps are on the right.  More and more unusual constructions are visible off on 'the water side' of the road as we approach the city's center:  The Marina Bay Sands (as in the Las Vegas Sands)  is actually three hotels joined together with a skateboard-like crown bearing a rooftop esplanade. Another building is shaped like a humonguous blooming lotus.  The Singapore Flyer is the largest ferris wheel in the world.  A pair of bulging buildings look like the two sides of a clamshell. 

Clouds and lightning threaten rain as we take a twenty minute halt midway on our tour, and  descend stairs of a large plaza to view the Singapore's iconic fountain, the mythical white 'merlion' (half fish, half lion) spewing water into the Marina Bay mdi-city center.  ("In Singapore we have  no place to go but up.")  I snap a picture of my new friend, and she of me, promising to send me a copy.  I give her my email address , but fail to get hers, and, unfortunately, later lose the picture she sends me, in a spur-of-the-moment blitz-emptying of my spam inbox.

The ride back is along the same route we came on, with a less than satisfactory proximity for viewing the unusual architecture of some  of Singapore's public buildings.We have seen from the air, however, evidence of the shipping that is Singapore's number one business (finance,tourism, and manufacturing being the others)  There are lots of ships in the harbor, like seven hundred, today. 

I reach across the aisle to share a chocolate with my friend, only to hear, "And please remember, no food on the bus," matter-of-factly inserted into the guide's running patter.  We smile sheepishly, but eat the morsel - quickly - anyway.

Everyone is eager to get back to their air travel itinerary, so we bid friendly good byes as we depart the bus.   Back in the Ambassador Transit lounge, the food for the evening buffet is fair to good: fresh fruit and salad stuff, one each carb, meat, and veggie dish, plus snacks and desserts, a cream soup, all kinds of expected condiments and drinks (although the hard kind requires a cash outlay).  But I choose to survey the mall level restaurants in search of that ever aromatic and tummy pampering chicken soup, before I indulge in a pedicure at the spa at five.

I am definitely enjoying this Changi stopover more than the last--and that time, you may remember, I was charmed.