Service Learning and the Tamil New Year

This Monday was our first day of service learning, an opportunity to work alongside Aurovillians and Tamil Villagers in everyday work.  As I said, my internship will be with the Tamarai Health Centre, where elderly patients come in for traditional healing treatments, and where women and children come for health classes.  There is also a play group, a pre-school, for children from 9:30 to 3:30. My day starts at 9:30 with the play group, where I am learning a little Tamil language from the teachers and kids.  At 11:00 I go next door to the Health Centre where a group of school kids come during their break for yoga and health classes.  On Thursday, school was out for Pongal holiday, which is a celebration all through January.  Some children came and we made ginger tea and talked about the stomach soothing effects of ginger.  We crushed aloe vera into boiling milk and also discussed the preventative benefits of aloe vera.  One girl gave me some beautifully designed henna on my hand and arms, which was really sweet.  The Amma, which means “mother” but also means the woman who cleans and cooks at the pre-school, prepared flower chain wreaths for my hair like all the other Tamil women wear, so I was feeling very much like a princess.  Outside of the school, I am creating some handouts about traditional plants and healing.  For instance, papaya seeds as deworming agents, or neem leaf to protect against mosquitoes.  All of these plants are readily available and the hope is to relearn traditional medical practices that have been lost with western influence.

At 12:30 I leave to meet up with the group for lunch and then afternoon classes with our professor, or with Auroville teachers.  On Saturday mornings we work at the International House, where nine students are staying, to help with new construction projects.  The original structure was put up by UW architect students ten years ago, and now the International House is expanding to hold more students and classroom space.  The architecture is very unique in the aim of low ecological impact.  Yesterday, we made concrete that was one part cement, two parts sand, and four parts Styrofoam from the land fill.  When we had it all mixed up, we funneled it into petrol hoses, the tube that pumps gas into your car.  They received the hoses for free because they are considered toxic waste that gas companies can’t do anything with.  It was a bigger challenge than we anticipated to shake the concrete down a 3 meter hose.  Finally, we filled them, and tied them to a curved railing so the cement would set to a curve shape.  When all the hoses are filled, they will be put in an egg shape that will be the form for a roof of a new building.  The hoses are waterproof, and the Styrofoam absorbs some of the sound that concrete will not.  By the time we leave, the building will be up and it will be exciting to see the end product.

Sunday was the first official day of Pongal celebration, the Tamil New Year.  My friend at the Health Centre described it as the time when gods wake up from a six month slumber to the six month period of awake.  Loud music is played every morning for three weeks to wake up the gods. It wakes us all up, actually, around 5am.  It’s a time to clean house, to get fresh for a new year.  On Friday at the Health Centre the school girls made gorgeous Kolams, colored flour designs outside of doorways.  We also ate sweet rice and chewed on sugar cane.  We went of the second day of Pongal to a town about 4 kilometers away to see some cow races that are supposed to help bring in the new year.  The cows are all dressed up in paint, bananas, and flowers.  They are pumped up with sugar and sometimes beer then fireworks go off and the cows and bulls go crazy.  We were standing about two feet from the starting line and  I was more than nervous as they all went by.  The owners stay with them running the whole time, and I was surprised we didn’t see any serious accidents.  The crowd was huge, and bananas were thrown everywhere.  Afterward, there was a mini festival with toys and candy for sale and small amounts of sweet rice provided .  We were all glad to have seen such a commotion, but I was ready to bike back after it was all over.  Everyone seems to say it’s something you have to see just once, and I’m pretty sure they are right.