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A spider the size of a toddler...

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The last few days have been a whirlwind of exciting times…I attended my first Indian wedding, left Kerala, and have visited widows in two cities in Andhra Pradesh. Before leaving Kerala I experienced my first Indian wedding. Never having been to a wedding in another country I assumed they were all about the same, especially because it was a Christian wedding and I have been to plenty of those in the States to know what goes on. I soon found out that what would be considered mayhem in the U.S. is what they call a wedding in India. Of course we were running on Indian time as usual (fifteen to thirty minutes late at least) when we arrived to the wedding…which had not yet started. There were buses, cars, motorcycles, scooters, and rickshaws lining the street outside of a public hall. We entered the building where a juice and sprite mixture was being served as we proceeded up the stairs to the hall where the wedding was. There were hundreds of people piling into the hall to sit in the plastic chairs that are found everywhere in India (houses, government buildings, hotels, restaurants, etc.). We soon found our seats and sat to watch the ceremony. It was performed on a stage where the bride and groom sat in two separate chairs a few feet apart that resembled thrones (they do not walk down the aisle; they just appear from back stage). There were about fifteen ministers that sat on the stage as well, who would speak throughout the ceremony. There was a keyboard player and singer as well as cameramen (both vhs and regular cameras captured the ceremony). The back of the stage was decorated similar to a 1950’s school dance in America…polyester curtains lined the wall , flowers and balloons lined the stage, and there was a big cloth arch that had felt letters of the bride and groom’s names. The bride was wrapped in a beautiful white silk saree (a beautician comes to most weddings from the shop where you buy your saree to make sure it is wrapped perfectly) while the groom was in a traditional suit. The ceremony began with a song in Malayalam while people still continued to find their seats. Then the main preacher began speaking, during this time people in the audience got up to talk to one another and children were running about. I could not believe that people would talk during such an important ceremony and let children play. This continued throughout the ceremony as a bride’s representative spoke, then a groom’s representative, then the actual wedding vows, followed by a concluding prayer. From the representatives to the vows nothing was like any wedding I had ever seen before. Though it was not in English, the family that I was with translated much of the ceremony for me. The representative almost seemed to be selling the bride or groom…talking about their studies, church background, etc. The vows consisted of getting verbal consent from the bride and groom that they were willing participants and joining their hands (the first time they have ever touched). I could not believe the bride and groom said nothing the whole time yet the service went on for two hours while many other people talked about them. The most interesting part of the wedding was that the bride never once looked up and never once smiled. At first I thought it was because she was not happy with her arranged marriage but when I asked the family I was with they said that she was not a lot to look at so she was probably just shy to show her face. Not a comment you would hear very often in the States….

Once the actual ceremony was over everyone rushed the stage to take pictures with the bride and groom (the bride continued to look down and not smile in the pictures while the groom grinned away with all the people who had come to congratulate him). A man came up to me with his two young daughters and asked where I was from…when I told him he said that he had thought I was from the States and had brought his daughters over to show them what an American looks like. By now I was used to this…not many people in the rural areas I visited had ever seen an American. After this about twenty children came over and crowded around me to ask my name, tell me their name, ask where I was from, etc. Even an elderly man came over to me and asked where I was from…never having seen an American in his whole life. I met many friends of the family I was with and a few who had even visited the States. Then suddenly people began to rush down stairs…I thought there was a fire or something. At the bottom of the stairs I soon found out that it was time for food to be served. In India because so many people attend weddings food is served in shifts. We did not make it down in time for the first shift so we had to wait outside while the first people to be served ate. My experience with eating in India is that people eat very fast and there is not much conversation during meals…so we were able to enter the hall for food after waiting about 15 min. The doorman did not keep a count of how many people he was letting in and we ended up not getting seats, so we stood inside watching others eat until we could finally sit for the third food shift. About one hundred people or so sat in plastic chairs at foldable tables while caterers ran about handing out banana leaves (it is traditional at weddings to eat on leaves…many restaurants and food stalls serve on them too). People rushed about with bowls of rice, multiple meats, pickled items, fruit, etc. They would serve down the lines of tables then come back around. By now I have figured out how to eat rice with my hands and tried to keep up with the eating pace….thank goodness I eat less than most people so I can finish by the time they do. Once we were done we went outside to a bank of water spigots where we washed our hands and proceeded to the car. We stopped on the way home for ice cream and treats for the children back at the orphanage.

Once I returned to the campus I had the privilege of serving the kids sweets with their afternoon tea. I walked by and handed them one item each as they said “thank you auntie.” They were so appreciative of a simple treat. I sat and ate with them and then we went outside to play. I asked them to teach me cricket…forgetting that I was still in my saree from the wedding. One of the boys came up to me and said “Auntie…a saree is not appropriate cricket wear.” He tried to be so polite it made me laugh out loud. I quickly ran to change and came back to play. I think a few of the boys did me a favor by calling me over to play badminton instead of cricket because the boys take cricket quite seriously and would have been upset if auntie spoiled the game for them. I played badminton, baseball, volleyball, and football (soccer in America) for hours with them until it was time to go in and get cleaned up for supper. I had the best time playing with them and many fought over who got to throw the ball or catch the ball from auntie…it was too cute. After dinner all the children, the bible college, and some of the staff gathered in the hall of the orphanage building to say a prayer for my safe travels. The children sang a song and then a wonderful prayer was said…I cried the whole time. I really hated to leave what had become like a home to me in India. All of the children and students shook my hand and wished me safe travels and then I headed off to bed so that I could wake up at 4:00am to start my trip from Coimbatore to Bangalore and Bangalore to Vijayawada, followed by a three hour drive to Khammam…

In Vijayawada a nun, driver, and father from the Diocese of Khammam picked me up from the airport. I was very excited to finally arrive in Khammam as this was one of the contacts that I had been emailing for over two years about my project. To finally be in India meeting the people who have helped me to put this whole program together was a surreal feeling. They quickly took me to the convent in Vijayawada where fifteen nuns stood around me like mothers stuffing me full of food…rice, veggies, fruits, juice, soup, etc. After eating until I was almost sick it was time to get on the road and head for Khammam. After two hours in the car and a few stops for bananas and drinks we finally arrived at the Diocese compound. We pulled up to a gate where a guard checks every vehicle entering the compound. Once inside we drove about a mile down a dirt road lined with perfectly rounded trees to the Bishop’s house…it was more like a hotel than a house. It can hold more than 100 guests at a time in addition to the half a floor the Bishop gets to himself. It is three stories and in the middle there is a huge courtyard with a Virgin Mary statue surrounded by lush green plants and flowers that are perfectly manicured. My room was on the first of three floors and had its own bathroom attached (this is a major luxury here). The compound itself covers 15 acres and has an orphanage, schools (tailoring and grade school), a deserted persons home, a social meeting hall, a microfinance facility and is in the process of building many more facilities (an elderly home, a cooperative farm, etc.). I could not believe everything they were doing for the surrounding community…they have many programs all over the city helping three thousand orphans, feeding thousands of poor people daily, and funding many projects such as self help groups and skills training.

Upon arriving the Bishop greeted me and escorted me around the Bishop’s quarters making sure I knew that all I had to do was ask for anything that I needed. I could not believe someone in such a position of authority was taking the time to make sure my needs were met, I was very honored. He told me about the Diocese programs as we walked to the girl’s orphanage building on the compound about a half a mile from his quarters. There I was greeted by 200 girls, all asking where I was from and telling me how much they liked my saree. A few sisters (nuns) brought out chairs for the Bishop and I to sit and talk with the girls. They all sat Indian style on the big cement stage in front of the school building. The Bishop told them my name and that I was from America, he then had them repeat in English. I was very impressed with their English skills…the Bishop is big on all the children knowing English. Once introductions were completed one girl from each class sang or danced for me. These talents must be in the Indian genes…they all can sing or dance so well! I love to see the traditional dance of the areas I visit…it appears they all tell a story, similar to that of Hula dancing in Hawaii. After about an hour of entertainment the girls wanted me to perform…thank goodness it was time for dinner so I did not have to make their ears bleed with my singing. We made our way to the convent which was located next to the school, where the sisters had made us dinner. After eating we talked for two hours about the children and details of the programs the Diocese was currently running. Finally I got back to my room to shower and go to bed…I was greeted in the shower by a spider the size of a small child which nearly gave me a heart attack. After rushing to get all the soap off me, I stuffed my towel under the door of the bathroom so I would not be greeted by my new friend in the middle of the night.

In the morning I went to visit the girl’s school again to see their tailoring class in progress. When I arrived about 150 of the children (boys and girls) in grade school were lined up in rows to say their morning prayer before classes. I made my way to the third floor of the school to find twenty five girls sewing on machines, cutting patterns, and practicing hand stitching designs. The girls quickly crowded around me as I watched one of the teachers use a special machine for stitching patterns on fabrics. Though they did not speak much English, we girls shared a lot…they put their jewelry on me, told me they liked my churridar, and even went and got nail polish to paint my fingernails (it seemed like a good idea until we ran out and I had three fingers still unpainted, I still appreciated the gesture). After this I went down to the boys living quarters where the fashion design school is. They recently had an order come in for one thousand school uniforms from a local school in Khammam. There were four girls working away on much more high tech machines than that of the tailoring school. These were machines made to sew elastic and seams like those in shirts and athletic gear. I saw some samples and could not believe how professional looking they were. The basketball shorts looked like those many boys wear in America, same fabric and everything. After the power went out for the second time that day and the girls could not use their machines they headed to lunch and I headed back to the Bishop’s quarters. Upon arriving the Bishop told me that some widows had begun to arrive for me to meet with…little did I know what was ahead of me for that afternoon….

India tip of the day: Electricity is called current and it can go out at any time…even when you are in the shower!

Also please email vicki@weicreatechange.org for information about tickets for the August 8th event. WEI hope to see you there!

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