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Friday, July 26, 2013


We took a 4-day diversion to Madurai, the city that Lonely Planet calls the soul of Tamil Nadu.  Why?  Temples.  Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India, and has some of the most important temples.  The Shri Meenakshi is considered just as important to the south, in terms of architectural style, as the Taj Mahal is to the north.  Our hotel was near the Shri Meenakshi,  and we explored its depths one evening.  Because it was completed over the span of six centuries (11th to 17th), we found many styles of architecture inside.  Every painting, sculpture, and dimension of the temple has meaning to Hindu pilgrims.  Between ceiling art and the thousand pillar statues, and praying Hindus, there was so much complexity inside, our eyes didn't know where to look.  Until, that is, Courtney spotted an elephant and made one of her Madurai dreams come true.  We were all blessed by this creature, with a pat on the head from its trunk.  

Another night, we took a rickshaw south and checked out the Tirupperangundam temple.  While not as impressive in scale as the Shri Meenakshi, the setting was memorable as it was built into the side of a mountain, and some of the statues were carved directly into cave rock.  We were there during prayer time, and saw a group of Hindus making fervent offerings to each deity in the temple.  On the rickshaw ride back from temple, we were stuck in a line of traffic when we saw a large crowd of men running on the street, towing a shrine behind them.  Suddenly, a mass of white fireworks began erupting on the street, as people scattered from within.  We watched silently as this continued for about 20 second and seemed to slowly advance down the uncoming lanes, then fizzled out.  As we drove through the smoke, the occasional straggling firework blew off.  Weeks into our stay, India continues to surprise us.  

We visited a Gandhi museum one afternoon.  Inside, we read about the dehumanizing suppression of India by Britain, two centuries worth of violent uprising, and how, in the end, Gandhi led the country in a successful non-violent campaign for independence.  We also laid eyes on the bloodied dohti that Gandhi was wearing when he was assassinated.  

Madurai is a nice, in-between sized city, which feels like raw India gut with a fair bit of tourist infrastructure.  We all grew more comfortable navigating the streets and discovering neighbourhoods.  We all found deals in the markets.  We developed favourite restaurants.  Randy received a bizarre head massage.  The rubbing, pulling and vigorous chopping felt suspiciously like martial arts. 

We went to Thirumalai Nayakar Mahal (palace), the home of the Nayak dynasty of the 14th Century.  Two of us were innocent victims of pidgeons in this palace.  Did that happen to the kings and queens of old, or did their servants shield the tops of their heads?  We can not know.    

We left our hotel with our suitcases balanced on the roof of a rickshaw. We left the city on the wrong sleeper car of an overnight train.  The latter mistake we correct at 3 AM by hurrying down the platform of the first station stop, laden with too many bags, and evicting the people who we found asleep in our beds).  All told, Madurai was an unforgettable experience.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Thankyou, ASSA

We are officially finished our trip to Amar Seva Sangam, and onto Families for Children.  The time went by very quickly, as we were busy visiting a variety of programs.  We became especially involved with the patients in the spinal cord facility, many of whom grew close to our hearts.  We also frequently attended the physiotherapy sessions for the 'home children', those with disabilities who live on site and attend the integrated school.  We grew to know many of them on a personal basis, even those with whom we shared little language.  

When Brooke and Andrea (UBC physio students) left, we helped them put on a goodbye show by performing an updated version of our Evening In India dance, including Brooke and Andrea.  We like to think we rocked the house, as we had compliments on our performance for days to come. This also gave the girls an opportunity to dress up in their new sarees, and Randy in a traditional dhoti.  

We made several presentations to the staff at ASSA, covering wound care and pressure sore management, body mechanics for caregivers, emerging spinal cord research, posturing, and adaptations.  On our last evening at ASSA, we presented our donation to a grateful Secretary, physio and nursing staff, and the residents of the spinal cord unit.  The Secretary made a trip all the way from Tirunelvelli to receive our donation.  We requested that a portion of our funds go towards a 3-day conference and jamboree event for spinal cord patients (current and former) and medical experts, which ASSA runs every summer.  

We would like to thank everyone in Canada and abroad who made this possible by donating to our fundraising campaign.  

We are now into our adventure at FFC.  Stay tuned for updates!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Manalar papparazzi

We took a refreshing Sunday break during our first weekend at ASSA, by hiring a driver and heading up into the hills of the Western Ghat Mountains, where Tamil Nadu meets Kerala. We wound through tiny villages with thatch-roofed huts, and oxes pulling carts. Sometimes, the car had to drive through the river to continue (a good spot for a carwash!)

We crossed into Kerala, and were greeted by a giant waterfall, and a lot of Indians taking their own vacation days who were thrilled to see tourists so far into the countryside. There were long lineups to climb into the waterfalls, and along the way, we had many people ask to take our photos with them and shake their hands. In fact, it became so hectic that at one point we felt like celebrities being chased by papparazzi, and we had to make a physical escape.  People seemed to be in great spirits because they were beating the heat.

Randy climbed the hill to the male section, and a couple of nice Indians showed him the best place to stand in the waterfall, where the water thunders down on your head and shoulders. The crowd was jubilant. Indian boys would stack themselves into standing human pyramids 3 stories high before they crashed into the water. A group of guys lifted Randy over their heads and carried hiim into the waterfall. dy was picked up by a bunch of young guys and carried into the waterfall.

The girls had to fight through a frenzy of pushing women to gain access to a smaller pool below, where, they noted, they were bathing, fully-clothed, in the runoff from the mens section! Female Keralan police officers were blowing whistles and trying to direct people out of the waterfall to keep the flow of people moving.

We followed the waterfall by driving up another hill, winding past palm and fruit trees and emerging at a temple with a stunning view of the countryside in all directions. We saw rolling green farms, windmills and jagged mountains. Altogether, the drive into the mountains was exhilarating and worth the journey from town.

Friday, July 5, 2013

ASSA - The First 5 Days   

On Monday, June 25, we officially arrived at ASSA.  We packed a lot into the first 5 days, including, for most of us, our first bouts of Indian food poisoning.  They call it 'Delhi belly', although Delhi is now a world away from us.  Tamil Nadu was literally a blast of fresh air from the second we stepped off the plane at Madurai.  The breezes were a cool relief from the heat of Delhi, and palm trees in the distance hinted that we had arrived in the tropical south.  

Ram, a physiotherapist at ASSA, was nice enough to pick us up at the airport in Madurai, a 3-hour drive each way.  This was my first sight of rural India and it was a different experience from the city, although still busy and with equally aggressive traffic.   On

Tuesday, we were given our welcoming tour of the ASSA grounds, and were very impressed with the diversity of facilities offered to the disabled here.  There is a medical treatment unit for spinal cord patients, a home for children with developmental issues, an integrated school at which these children participate with other kids from the community, a vocational training centre, and early intervention program.  We were also impressed by the workshop in which calipers are fashioned for residents.  Clearly ASSA, which thrives entirely on donor money, has built something special out of the resources they have.

We met some kids from the school and were swarmed immediately.  I literally had a boy on each arm and one crawling up my torso.  These kids want little more than to trade a few words in English and maybe a photo, and they are ecstatic.  We are also lucky to have Brooke and Andrea here, a couple of physiotherapy students from UBC who are showing us the ropes so that we can learn a lot of things the easy way.  We're all very excited to be spending the next few weeks here.