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The Lone(ely) Traveler: Independent Study in Sandur

After having less than 24 hours to wash clothes and repack after the Global Health and Healing trip, it was time for me to leave on the night bus to Bellary, to begin my week long independent study. Independent study is pretty important in the Global College curriculum, they want to give the student time to study their own particular interests, as well as travel to a place they are interested about. I was wary of the idea from the beginning, obviously, this kind of stuff doesn't really take place in Davidson. But, as the semester progressed I had come up with a topic I was interested in: the relationship between material culture and modernization. So I signed up to spend a week with Sandur Kushalal Kala Kendra, an NGO working out of Bellary that employs traditional craftspeople, especially Lambani tribals, and helps them sell their products on a national and international market. I was excited to go, especially after the BR trip when I was really sick of being around all my classmates, but leaving on the 10:30 pm night bus from Bangalore, I got pretty nervous. I had been instructed to tell the driver to let me off at the community center that shared a campus with the organization, but the driver, and everyone else on the bus, had no idea where that was. They assured me I could just ask a rickshaw driver when we arrived in Bellary the next morning.

Sunrise, and I was glad to get off the bus in Bellary, a somewhat big, industrial town. I gathered my things and went up to the rickshaw drivers, and showed them the instructions I had. But once again, no one knew where I was going. One guy led me over to the bus depot chief who also was unsure. Finally, someone realized that I was in the wrong town completely, that the title of the NGO SANDUR kushala kala kendra, referred to the town it was in, SANDUR, which is 5o KM away from Bellary, which would be a 1,0oo rupee rickshaw drive. Panicked, I called Anitha who spoke to the conductor in Kannada, and arranged for me to take another bus to Sandur in a few hours. I'll admit, at this point I was pretty pissed off. The ENTIRE time I was planning this trip, everyone was talking to me about Bellary, what the town was like, what kind of internet access I could get, whatever. No one mentioned Sandur at all, even though that was where I was actually going. I waited around in the Bus stand, trying to cry as inconspicuously as possible, while the whole station watched me. Finally, the conductor came over and told me to get on the bus. The bus wasn't too crowded yet, and I got a seat, but as we kept going it got more and more packed. And the "road" was terrible, winding around mountains and over small ones, I think. My butt hurt so bad I was nearly in tears. 
Finally, I got off at Sandur, a dusty town with a fruit market and some nondescript buildings. I got a rickshaw to take me just a little ways down the street to the NGO center. The security guard was expecting me, and he led me to the guest house inside this large open atrium with a stage and adjoining rooms surrounding it, which turned out to be a wedding center. He left me in my room and said to come out when I wanted lunch. My rooms were nice, I had a choice of five beds in three different rooms. There was a bathroom (no flush toilet, unfortunately) and  kitchen area and a sitting area. Lots of windows, but I learned later not to leave the blinds open. It was also ghastly hot. Miserable from traveling, I called home and cried to my parents for a bit, then checked in with Anitha, before I checked out and took a long nap. After I woke up, I got brave enough to venture out for some food. I met Mr. Ganesh, who was to be my escort and bodyguard for the rest of the trip (he was in charge of the community center). He walked me to every meal and back, but refused to sit and eat with me. I was glad for his company though, as the town was sketchy, being a mining area and overpopulated with men. 
Later that afternoon, I walked around the weekend market. It was full of people selling fruits and vegetables, and many of the women were wearing beautiful tribal clothes. When I walked in, I was an instant celebrity and lots of people wanted to shake my hands and have me take their picture. I obliged for awhile, and then left for the more peaceful street. I walked up and down the main road and realized that there wasn't much to see at all in Sandur. Ganesh took me to dinner, and I hit the sack early, or tried to, as the room actually got hotter with night fall. I could feel the heat coming up from the floor in waves.
The next day, I had breakfast and then met the director of the organization, Mr. Veeranna. Whatever I was hoping for, I didn't get in Mr. Veeranna. He did not seem excited to see me and really had no understanding of why I was there. I told him my interests and he just sat there silently for a moment. Then he offered to take me on a tour. He showed me the dyeing rooms, the area where the make cane furniture, and finally brought me over to the area where the Lambani embroidery work is designed and made. He left me there with one of the head women, promising to come retrieve me soon. Sundari showed me around the sewing room, where non-Lambani women made the products on which the Lambanis would embroider. Outside the building, in the shade of the eaves, sat the Lambani women. Some of them were dressed in their traditional clothes, bright red and blue fabrics with tons of embroidery and mirror appliques. They wore printed headscarves and had bells and coins sewn to their hems. Other women were wearing saris, and it took me a while to realize these were the younger Lambanis who chose to wear their traditional clothes only on special occasions. After Sundari showed me all the different products they make, bags, wall hangings, hats, skirts, pillow cases, etc. one of the Lambani women, Shanta, offered to teach me some stitches. I was grateful, as it had become obvious that I had nothing else to do and was wasting everyone's time. Shanta set me up with a needle, thread and some cloth and began teaching me some embroidery stitches. When Mr. Veeranna finally returned, he was obviously glad to see that I had something to do and retreated. 

I sewed until lunchtime, when I went back to my room to wash up. A wedding party had started and I was immediately surrounded by children. I had met a few of them the night before, when I had played with them and they had shown me around the campus, but they had multiplied, and as I walked through the atrium I was surrounded by hundreds of them, all wanting me to dance. They blocked off my door, so I did one of my step dances to appease them, and the wedding photographer shows up and records me doing it! So now the happy couple will have me on their wedding videos for eternity. I finally, got into my house and steeled my strength before I had to emerge again for lunch. Throughout the week, I had to learn to just run past the children to escape their clutches. I had lunch - and got really sick of thalli, and then sewed some more during the afternoon. In the evening, the kids got even wilder and once I went into the guest house they would pound on the windows and doors, screaming "Auntie, Auntie". It got pretty creepy and annoying, and then the wedding music started! yay! I called mom, and interrupted her in the middle of class to bawl for a while. Then I watched Pride and Prejudice on my laptop (thank God i thought to bring movies) and went to bed.

The next morning, I found a dead lizard being eaten by ants in my bathroom. My bathroom was actually overrun by aunts, especially because it took me a few days to figure out how to manually flush the toilet. After breakfast, I got immediately sick with massive diarrhea and I actually saw a worm in my poop. It had eyes and everything! AAHHH! I had to stay in and sleep for a while. I eventually made it over to the sewing house to practice a little more. The next few days were occupied with eating a liquid diet and sewing a bit between bouts of intense sickness. I was getting to know the women, which was nice. I enjoyed sitting and listening to them gossip and sing while they sewed. Several of them brought their kids along too, which was neat. They also were nice and motherly to me, asking me how I was feeling and offering to take me to the doctor and all that. I was feeling pretty comfortable finally, except for my stomach of course. By Wednesday afternoon, I was feeling confident enough to ask to make a belt - so that I would have a project to accomplish before I left. That belt was a serious challenge, I had to attach 10+ mirrors to the cloth, by sheer stitches and willpower alone. Then I put a crisscross embroidery stitch between each and one along the edge. The sewing women helped make it into a belt, and then we added string ties and tassles. I finished just as the day was ending on Friday, my last night, after working from morning till midnight for two days. It usually takes the women no more than a day and a half to finish one! It was interesting how the women reacted to my work, some were overly impressed and kept telling me how beautiful it was. Shanta would just say good, and one woman kept just shaking her head and saying it wasn't very good!

On thursday, an American author showed up to interview the women. He's writing a book about modernization in India and I sat in on his interview. He asked Shanta and one other women some pretty simple questions about their lives and how they viewed their craft, and I was happy to see that I already knew most of their answers from our discussions. After he was done, I asked a few questions with Mr. Veeranna translating, and the journalist kept saying "Wow, great question!" like he never would have thought about that on his own. He took down my name and details and took my picture, saying he might just put me in his book! Neat, but I think I could probably write a better one than him! actually, he said he thought I would make a good journalist ... interesting thought.

On my last day, after i finished my belt, I went over to their shop and bought tons of gifts to bring home. I had a little panic after i spent all that money, i actually had to have the shop lady go back and take some stuff off. Then some of the women came by and asked for some money, so i felt bad and gave them some. I barely had enough left for the bus, so I could only give Mr. Ganesh a small tip and I felt bad. He took me to the bus stand, which was basically just a shack on the side of the road, and it was all rainy and muddy and a truck drove by and splattered me with mud, that I still can't get out of my clothes. I was so glad to leave, leave the dust of the town, the wild pigs everywhere (more pigs than cows, and they make a blood curdling squeal) and all the kids calling me auntie and everybody staring at me. Although sandur is beautiful if you look at the mountains surrounding it, the place itself is pretty grungy. I learned a lot and i was happy to interact with the women, but then when they asked me for money, i felt like we didn't really connect. I was impressed that I had survived, but tired of being so alone and conspicuous (people took my pictures, laughed at me, the women at the internet cafe read my emails over my shoulder, one girl even asked for my autograph) and glad to be going back to my familiar apartment and hanging out with Alex and the people at school.

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