Sunday, November 1, 2009

Dalit Village Overnight, India

Oct. 27
6 am
From the landing where I slept (loose translation of the word!) in a small Dalit (untouchable) village south of Kancheepuram.
Up for an hour after finally giving up trying to catch naps in between shifting my weight around to find comfort when there's nothing separating me from the hard concrete but a thin bamboo beach mat. Ox carts have been passing by since the wee hours of the morning - really, since 2 or 3 am! Now that it's getting light, villagers wander by returning my waves with a sudden smile and a wave. Arriving here last night after dark, we were immediately caught up in absolute festive pandemonium, or so it seemed to us anyway. Everyone in the village was waiting for us, with flourescent lights strapped up to trees, plastic chairs arranged in front of a make-shift stage, and children thrusting out a hand to shake, chanting happily "Hello! How are you? I'm fine thank you!" Every villaer wanted to shake our hands. As we began what turned out to be a complete parade around the wide circular route through the village area, some of the men would periodically shoo away the children and women because, apparently, they were slowing things down too much. There was a schedule to keep!

Periodically, we would stop in front of a cluster of thatched huts, a wick floating in oil would be lit and passed in circles in front of us to the frenetic beat of drums, water was splashed on the ground, a leaf was placed on the dirt in front of us with the flaming wick placed in the middle, and we would be urged onward. This happened at least 10 times in the course of the parade before we arrived back where we started. Eddie, our trip leader, was then bedecked with a HUGE garland of flowers and we were seated in chairs with women and children on the dirt surrounding us, more villagers standing outside of them. Let the show begin!
And what a show - dancers with elaborately sequined parrot headdresses, dancing horses on short stilts, fire breathers and jugglers, martial arts demos, hip-hop dancing and acrobatics, all in our honor. Then Eddie and I, as trip leaders, were called to the stage and presented with small trophies and silk scarves ceremoniously draped around our shoulders.
As soon as the show ended, the villagers were hustled off and we were loaded back into our vans for the short ride down the road to our "compound" - the walled concrete complex where we would spend the night. But first, just one more ceremony! This one was quite lovely - Dalit nursing students joined us in a big seated circle, each of us holding small clay vessels of oil with a flaming wick. A meditation led by the director of the Dalit re-training center about letting our lights shine in the world, after which we all placed our lights in a tight circle in the dirt to see what a strong light they created when put together. Wonderful!
After eating our pitiful boxed dinners packed by the ship, we unrolled blankets on the floor while the village men attempted to manually wire a couple of flourescent bulbs and 2 very rusty, clanky fans. Here's a photo I took the next morning to give you some idea of the town wiring state.

Power goes out on a regular basis here - in the last village it just wasn't even turned on til 5 or 6 in the afternoon. There was one waterless squat toilet which many students couldn't talk themselves into using (creepy concrete cubicle, no light, spiders), but there was at least a trough outside with cold running water for washing up.

The sleeping rooms were stifling, so I moved my mat to the landing of an outside staircase, where I could stand up to look over the walls of our compound at villagers going by, if I was so inclined. That was a good decision - not pestered by insects (bats flew constant guard overhead), I was much cooler and always love the chance to admire the night sky. Although real sleep was not possible, I did relax, listening to music from my iphone to drown out the voices of our Dalit guards, who talked loudly until late into the night - guess they couldn't sleep either!

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