It’s the weekend after I’ve finished my construction project of building a septic tank for a family in a local village and am taking some time to reflect on the week of volunteering and free time I’ve had here in Kochi.
Travel to and from the work site was an exciting start to each day as I travell\ed by car, two ferries, and by foot to reach the house in a nearby village. Project director Rhidi drove me through the busy streets of Fort Kochi onto the first ferry, packed with trucks, tuk-tuks, motorcyclists and free standing passengers with about 2 inches between them. After a short ferry ride we were navigating our way through Vypin Island. Nothing gets your blood pumping in the morning like weaving through highway traffic and dodging oncoming trucks feeling as if every time you pass or are passed that you are having a near death experience. As we U-turn off the highway, we soon approach ferry number 2; an impressive sight of two canoes supporting a large iron sheet that surprisingly can support vehicles. The ferry takes us across the backwaters to the local island of Kothard. This local island is tranquil with farm animals such as goats, cows, chickens, and ducks roaming freely; an island inhabited by daily wage earners. The local villagers stare excitedly at me, and I feel a bit like a celebrity.
Rhidi and I are met by one of the local masons, Shelju, with whom I will be working. He escorts us to Balin’s house, the second mason who will be leading the project. The two men usher us to the project site. We are introduced to the family of four, for whom we will be building the septic tank. The owner of the house is a tuk-tuk driver, who supports his wife, son, and mother. The family doesn’t speak a word of English, but are visibly excited to host us in their home. After introductions the dirty work begins
Balin and Shelju hardly speak any English and a game of charades typically constitutes all instruction giving. The goal of the day is to dig two giant holes, and install 2 circular septic tanks within them. Digging the massive holes is harder than it sounds and I have some serious blisters to prove it. The the deeper one digs, the heavier the sand and dirt becomes as water begins to flood the holes, and the deeper one digs the farther one has to lift and throw the heavy contents. The men seem to be both entertained and impressed with my work. It is very uncharacteristic to see a woman performing such straining physical labour, but I continued to insist they allow me to help them in any and every way. My enthusiasm and exclamations often made them laugh. It was a real pleasure to work alongside them.
Each day, the two women of the household work to provide 3 meals for us to eat during breaks. After the 2 holes are dug, our first break begins. Something very unique and special to the construction program is eating the local cuisine prepared fresh, just minutes before eating. For our first meal of the day, the women have prepared a steamed combination of two types of flour, rice and something unidentified served with plantains. Everyone shows me how to take my hands, mash the plantains with the grains and shove it into my mouth. A sweet black tea is also served.
When getting back to work, it’s time to transport the massive concrete rings to th which will form the septic tanks to the project site. The concrete rings have been drying for the past couple days. Some of the rings are unbelievably heavy requiring 4 adults to lift them onto our cart. In the transport process, I’m intercepted by a group of older women demanding I come join them at their women’s club meeting. As I join the group, the women yell the only two words in English they seem to know, “Sing! Dance!” They insist I entertain them, and I concede to dance if they do the singing. They begin to sing and clap, and I hold up my end of the bargain. All the women are thrilled and seem satisfied with my display and allow me to get back to work. When transporting some of the lighter rings, I’m instructed to sit on the cart, for what I assume will balance the weight. This was a lot of fun, and all the villagers thought it was very funny to see the men pushing me on the cart.
We use large ropes to lower the rings into the holes to complete the two circular tanks. Concrete is placed between the rings to form the approximately 4 foot tanks. Before I know it, it’s time for break number 2 of the day: LUNCH! Lunch was a superb beef curry, fresh peas in the pod, and Keralan rice (much fatter than most rices I’ve had). Everything is really delicious and surprisingly not too spicy.
We complete our second septic tank for the day and finish with snack of tea and cookies.
Before getting to the work site, we stopped at a Hindu temple and receive a Hindu blessing. Seeing the beautiful flower garlands is one of my favourite things about these temples.
As the days pass, the work gets progressively less intense. Today we are constructing the small air chamber, the last waste tank that will complete the septic tank, setting the molds for the covers for each chamber, and installing the piping. What’s truly amazing to witness is the mason’s ability to complete the entyre project with very few and simple tools. For example, to ensure that things are level, the men simply stand back and ‘eye it’. On occasion they use a clear hose filled with gasoline that they hold up to determine the level of the piping. These men constantly impressed me and it’s amazing to witness their talents.
I also went to visit a local nursery school, and had a great time meeting the toddlers who were very excited to host a foreigner in their classroom. They sang me two songs in English, Twinkle-Twinkle, and a song about butterflies. They loved having their picture taken and being able to immediately see the result. It was also demanded that I dance with the teaching assistant. My dancing skills weren’t so good, but she thoroughly enjoyed being my dancing partner.
While the cement lids that we set the previous day dried, I spent the day with the other volunteers at the SDPY school. I worked with students falling behind in their classes on math and English. Teaching them was extremely difficult and I had to get really creative to get the concepts across as they understood hardly any English, but when progress was made, it was so satisfying and gratifying knowing I was giving them the help they needed.
The finishing touches on the septic tanks took hardly any time and before I knew it, we were celebrating with the family by sharing chai and a dahl based meal. We took photos India style, standing a couple inches from one another with stoic faces. The most amazing thing about this project was that being 1 volunteer with the help of two incredible local experts, we were able to build a septic tank in 1 week that should last this family of four 15 to 20 years, allowing them the convenience of an indoor toilet facility that will work to protect the beautiful backwater environment as well as the health of the community as the waste will now be contained.
With the extra time, I returned to the nursery school and bought all of the children ice cream. The teachers and assistants were beyond excited about the gift and had a blast eating and trying to communicate in broken English. I worked with the children teaching them to sing “You are my Sunshine” and had a hard time saying goodbye.
In the past week, when I haven’t been on the construction site, the other volunteers and I have been adventuring all around the area. We attended a cooking class learning to make Indian cuisine and ate ourselves silly throughout the process. Our group was entertained by a Kathakali performance where extensive eye and hand gestures were conducted by performers in elabourate make-up and costume. We wandered a market street I’ve termed “Hindu Town” in the evening witnessing the beautiful floral and lighted temples in action. A favourite restaurant titled “Vegetarian Hotel” made a great Masala Dosa, and everything on the menu was under 18 rs (34 cents USD). The Broadway market in Ernakulam was a sight to see with hundreds of stands selling everything imaginable. The endless fruit and vegetable section with auctioneer style merchants drawing attention to their heaping colourful piles of goods was a personal favourite, despite the fact that it was the location where a bird excreted on me.
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