I finally made it to the villages again! After a whole year of failed attempts! And it was as full of chaos and unexpected issues as ever. Gradually I learn persistence.
I decided to keep things simple – given that it’s the beginning of a new year, I thought I would focus simply on giving the children their long overdue Christmas packages (replete with pencil box, pencil, eraser, ruler, scissors, sharpener, stickers, bubbles, toy (teaset for the girls, car for the boy – don’t glower at my reinforcing of stereotypes, those tea sets were awesome), drawing book, crayons, and modelling clay, as well as a really nice little bear-decorated plastic carry-bag to put them in. A sizeable package of goodies! So on Friday evening, Ammi, Thushari and I pulled down the suitcases of presents I had bought at the end of 2012 (!), and made up the individual packages. I’d made the list of names of each child who had ever been in my workshop from my old reports, which would start with the number of the kids followed by a list of their names, and glancing at the number, we figured out how many packages to take, with two extra packages per village, just in case. It took us about two hours, so I was glad I didn’t leave it for when I got to Vavuniya. There was still a sizeable heap left over when we were done, so my mother had a bright idea. With the “leftovers” we made up smaller packages for the many poor children in our village/church whose families are in the awkward position of just scraping by enough that nobody knows how poor they really are, and who find it embarrassing to ask for assistance. After much thought and shifting things around, she managed to figure out how to spread out the leftovers (about 10 packs) to make packages for 24 of these children. It turns out that I should have stopped and pondered why that much was left over, but that comes later.
All in all, I had a good feeling about this trip. For once, I hadn’t left the travel logistics (the planning of which I never cease to dislike) until the last moment. Everything was sorted, from train tickets to the hotel to the van hired to take us to the villages. The toys were packed in a way that would make their handling and distribution incredibly easy. I had three friends – Muradh, Sadhani and Varuna – who are core members of Connect, to make the journey with me, partly to help me out and partly to see where exactly where I conducted my drama workshops. The train journey itself was smooth and uneventful, although the growing coolness, and cloudiness of the sky, began to concern me slightly. By the time we got to Vavuniya, it was drizzling steadily. (After an entirely dry spell all these days! If ever the people in Vavuniya want rain, they should just ask me to try to come up north to do a drama workshop.)
It was at this point that things started slowly coming apart at the seams, as they inevitably do. I’m not sure why I never learn to tell the van drivers to come a whole half hour before I actually want them to be there. The driver was late, and because he’d never made the journey before, our progress to Chiraddikulam was much slower than usual. I’d hoped to get there by 2.45, but we arrived only at 3.30. Looking at the sea of children in the community centre, I beamed at them in affection, only vaguely registering how many there were. I’m not entirely sure when exactly I registered my mistake, and why on earth I didn’t realise it when I was copying names from my laptop into my notebook earlier in the day. All I could think at that point was that I really wished I’d listened to my OCD self and made the individualised name tags after all. What happened was this: I’d pulled all the names from my workshop reports, for which I would list separately the number of girls and boys per village, followed by their names. I’d collated the lists to include everyone, but never updated the number right in front, which is what I read off when making the packages. [EDIT – I just typed: “It was an idiotic and ruinous mistake, and I’m sorry to note that I completely lost my head for a good five minutes.” Right now, I looked at my list of kids on my computer to explain the extent of my ruinous mistake at length in this post, and it seems that my false numbering system only had two boys unaccounted for, since I put in an ‘extra’ gift pack just in case – but it felt like I was off by ONE MILLION at the time, especially since there was a whole bunch of extra children in the room.] Eventually, though, thanks to the calmness of the Connect volunteers, we managed to sort out a completely new set of packages, that took into account brothers and sisters and unaccounted children and older children who might not want a toy, and made sure that everyone got a decently-sized package. The whole time, though, I felt enveloped by a large and unreal cloud of embarrassment. As always, though, typing about it in the train is incredibly helpful in separating the larger-than-life feelings of the in-the-moment from the good sense one gets in the after-the-fact. It probably was much less of a tragedy than I felt it was at the time (although at the time it felt like the end of the world). The children only had to sit a little longer to receive their presents, and we managed to make the not-enough-presents stretch to five extra girls, and four extra boys. Perhaps, in retrospect, a success.
My panic attack and our subsequent rearranging of bags meant we were hideously late at Kakkaiyankulam – originally supposed to be there by 5, we rumbled in only at 6.30. I found, to my bitter disappointment, that we’d arrived at Kakkaiyankulam so late that fully half of my little scamps had gone home. But funnily enough, this moment was also a wonderful reminder of the madness that had transpired in 2012. The remainder of the children, clearly tired out after two hours of being made to sit patiently when I know their energy bounces of the walls, quickly made two lines that resembled a comic guard of honour, and clapped their little hands off while I died of embarrassment at how late I was, how I’d miscalculated the numbers, and how forgiving they were despite all of it. They’re good kids, and I love them for it. I hate displays of affection, and tend to be incredibly schoolteacher-y with my kids, but I swear at that moment I wanted to take each one of them and hug them, from determined-to-walk Sahir to I-threw-up-in-your-van Farvin to responsible-looking Sabiba to incorrigible-but-endearing Hafrath to I-pronounce-my-name-Powusan Fausan, to demure Asna, who has interestingly lost her good-girl braid and has cropped locks as short and spiky as mine. The teacher there, Mr Azar, ALSO incredibly patient and generous and understanding, joked that maybe she’d copied mine. I’d missed them, but I forgot JUST how much I missed them, and in that moment I remembered. The visit was brief, because it was late and we wanted to send them home, and although I was sad I hadn’t seen Fathima and Aska (who never missed a session till this visit) or Ijas (usually a monkey, who got strangely tongue-tied during an improvisation session but refused to get off stage until he could think of a line to say) to cheeky Aasir who thumbs-upped my halting Tamil that same session, or Rifasa (“My name is Ripasa and I like noodliss”) I was glad I saw the ones I did. We left the remaining packages locked up in the school office, and I told Mr Azar to please let me know if I’d miscalculated and there weren’t enough, but looking back at my list, I think that again we’re short on two boys, which I will somehow figure out. But again, not the apocalypse that I thought it was at the time.
The rest of the evening, I was really glad I didn’t have time to wallow in feelings of misery alone. The four of us went out to White Stone, and after dinner and ice cream, there really wasn’t a whole lot of room left for anything but sleepiness.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t want to write this post. I was too annoyed at being betrayed by my false feelings of optimism that this trip would be perfect (still harping on perfection after all this time – you’d think I’d have learned that lesson by now), too ashamed of my glaring incompetence and lack of precision (I swear I can count, you guys!), and too irked with myself for royally (at least it felt that way) screwing up something I’d been lovingly planning for a very long time. For a couple of hours, I sat in my carriage this morning, grumpily reading the end of an unsatisfactory novel. It was naturally of no solace whatsoever, and I nearly started reading another book just out of defiance, a lingering need to refuse to think about events that make me uncomfortable (or as in this case, downright embarrassed). After breakfast, though, I somewhat reluctantly started blogging. A couple of hours and several realisations later, I’m glad I did. And when I see you next, dear generous donor who has now managed to give presents to about 70 children instead of 40, we can have a good laugh about my theatrics. Also, I made the mistake of telling the children I’ll be back in June (what’s the bet I bring thunderstorms to Vavuniya again) so there’s definitely another blog post in the works later this year about more spectacular failures and lessons learned on my part. And yes, despite my perennial fear of failure, I look forward.
PS. Apologies for painful reading, I don’t edit these stream-of-consciousness posts and my sentences can get hellishly long.