Well we’ve been in Kharel India for 3 weeks now, and we have definitely settled into a comfortable (but very different) routine. Here is an idea of how a regular day might go for us.
8AM – Wake up and start our day! Crawl out from under our mosquito net, which was kindly given to us by a neighbor after the mosquito incident of our first post. Take a quick shower, which most people here do one of two ways. They either use the actual shower head (which only produces cold water, due to the lack of sun during monsoon season for the solar thermal panels on the roof), or they fill up a bucket of warm water with the “geyser” [pronounced geezer] point of use hot water heater. The cold shower is tolerable on the hottest days, but not something I would want to sign up for daily. We’ve settled for a compromise where we use the hose from the geyser to just spray ourselves down.
8:30AM – Breakfast at the Canteen: We have a 5 minute walk across campus to the 3-story building of the “Community Health” department. The ground floor (what we call the first floor in America) consists of three different shops – a social enterprise “handicraft” store run by women in the community, a pharmacy, and the canteen. The canteen is kind of like a café compared to the main hospital cafeteria. Every day it serves tea, a variety of breads, and one warm menu item which changes daily.
We are now competent enough in the language to order two teas and read off the hot menu item – that may not seem like a lot of progress, but you have to cherish your successes 🙂 Back in America Wende and I don’t typically drink tea, but here we’ve made an exception for a few reasons: 1) It’s a cultural thing – people here take tea breaks and all sit together to drink tea in the morning, 2) Portion size – the cups are very small, like shot glasses, so it’s hard to feel bad about, 3) IT’S DELICIOUS!! – All of the tea here is like Chai tea, milk based and very creamy, and it has things like fresh ginger ground into it (mmmmm…).
Another thing to note: Since parts of India used to be British colonies, the English dialect spoken here (along with some of the customs) derive from Britain. One of those British habits is calling cookies “biscuits.” That might not seem like a big difference, but it’s amazing how much easier it is to eat a whole packet of cookies for breakfast when you are thinking of them as “biscuits.”
9AM – Morning Prayer: After breakfast we head up the stairs to the first floor, where the Community Health offices are located. A huge portion of the population is Hindu in India, so we start every day in the Community Health office with prayer. A large carpet (perhaps 15x10ft) is rolled out and all of the office members sit along the edge facing inward.
First, we sing a prayer song, which changes based on the day of the week. We’ve been provided with a phonetic English translation of the prayers, but because the translational accuracy is only OK it mostly leads to us just mumbling sounds under our breath the whole time. Then we proceed through a series of tonal “aum”s – the kind people associate with meditation (and the monks from pretty much every kung-fu movie).
Fun Fact: “Aum”, which may be confused with “home” when heard during chanting, is actually the name of the symbol that represents the hindu concept of Brahman. Brahman is the highest concept of Hinduism and is thought to be the source of all things in this universe. A quote from Hinduism.about.com on Brahman – “The sustaining essence that gives [the universe] structure, meaning and existential being, yet Brahman is simultaneously the transcendent origin of all things.”
After our “aum” chants, we finish up with some breathing exercises which includes: plugging one side of our nose while breathing and my personal favorite which I’ll call “intentional hiccups.” We basically perform a quick series of breaths through our nose, but on each inhalation we simultaneously sharply contract our stomach up into our chest cavity. The result is something that looks like a very controlled, if not graceful, case of the hiccups.
9AM – 6PM: Orientation – Since we’re new to the Gram Seva Trust, the first few weeks of our stay are based on getting acquainted to the hospital, its people, and their activities. At the end of our 5 week orientation, Wende and I will have a meeting with the head of the hospital to discuss where we may fit best during the coming months.
We weren’t sure what to expect before getting here, but Gram Seva has pretty much all the departments you would expect in a modern American hospital. I feel very lucky to be at a medical facility that is as comprehensive as Gram Seva, but I know that there are medical facilities around the world (and India) with far less resources to invest in the modern technologies of medicine. I would not be surprised if our next international medical trip landed us somewhere a little worse off – just a fair warning to you parents.
At this point we have visited almost every area of the hospital, including: the dialysis center, the emergency room (ironically labelled as the “casualty” ward in English), the birthing facility, the eye center, the general wards, the NICU, and the ICU. In addition to the traditional departments at the hospital, we’ve also observed a variety of Community Health programs to increase the quality of living in the surrounding areas.
On one day we tagged along to “Self-Helf Groups”, a woman centric crowdfunding program, in which all members contribute to a joint bank account which will then provide emergency funds to group participants when needed. On another day we traveled 7 hours round trip, through flooded roads and mountains, to reach a clinic run by GST in the small village of Mahal. The clinic often sees 200 patients a day, who travel from nearby villages to receive treatment.
My personal favorite program I’ve seen at the hospital has been a one-week sobriety camp for alcoholics in the community. Gujarat is a dry-state, but as we’ve seen with American prohibition, making something illegal doesn’t exactly prevent its production and distribution. 18 local men showed up for the camp and spent over a week in an intensive, anti-alcohol program. In addition to living on the hospital campus, away from their families (and alcohol), the men also attended multiple Alcoholic Anonymous meetings each day.
I personally found the AA meetings comforting, because even though everyone spoke Gujarati, the structure and energy of the meetings was the same as in America – “Hi I’m Ted and I’m an alcoholic…” seems to be an international AA mantra. Observing the alcoholic camp emphasized to me that even half a world away from each other, people are struggling against the same things and supporting each other in the same ways.
Meals: We eat both our lunch and dinner in the hospital Cafeteria. The plate always consists of some spin on a few of the same dishes: Daal (lentils/beans) – the protein portion of the meal, a sautéed vegetable dish often containing Okra (called “lady fingers” here), some sort of soup, a small fresh cold “salad” of cucumbers/tomatoes, roti (a delicious wheat flat bread), and a spicy tortilla-chip like bread called paaper.
In India, most people eat everything with their hands, so even if someone gives you a spoon it’s often only meant for serving yourself. You start the meal with the roti by tearing off small pieces and picking up your food with it. You finish the meal by scooping a big heap of rice onto your plate and mixing it together with your soup (and anything else left on your plate). The experience is definitely messy, but it’s kind of enjoyable to walk away from a meal with a hand covered in goop.
Apparently there is a stereotype that white people can’t eat spicy food, so when we first arrived at GST, the kitchen had been instructed to prepare all of our food separately. We were pretty uncomfortable being treated any differently than the other hospital staff members, so we quickly convinced them that we were fine eating spicy food. Despite our reassurance to the cooks, we were still pretty anxious to take the first bite when our “non-special” meal arrived at the table. How spicy were we talking? Was all their fuss legitimate? It turns out that our few years of eating Thai food (and other ethnic dishes) at college paid off, and the level of heat in the typical food here is pretty mild for us.
The hour following lunch is my favorite time of the day. In Indian culture, it is expected that everyone rests for an hour after lunch. That means that the hospital pretty much shuts down from 1-3pm every day. Everyone just takes a nap! If you go into the kitchen at 2pm, you will find 6 happy kitchen workers resting on the floor after a morning of hard work. Nothing like culturally enforced nap time 🙂
In the evening, most people eat meals at home, so the kitchen closes down to the general public. They prepare dinner for the hospital patients, and afterwards they leave out one plate for us (and a couple other bachelor physicians) in the dining hall. At around 9pm we walk over to the nurse’s station in the hospital and get the key to unlock our “private” kitchen. During the day, the dining hall is full of life with people constantly passing through and chatting in jovial tones. But at night, the dining hall is super-spooky. They only leave one light on in order to save electricity, and it’s so quiet that you can hear every little scurrying insect or animal. On the days we don’t feel like enduring the Scooby-Doo like ghouls of the dining hall, we just bring our dinner back to the room.
6PM Onward: Our evening activity varies, but there is always one commonality – Rain. We weren’t sure what “monsoon season” was going to be like…. turns out, it’s exactly like it sounds. It rains here every day, if not all day, and it can change from cloudy to heavy rain in a moment. We carry our rain jackets with us everywhere, but it rains so much that eventually you just stop worrying about it.
On the evenings that it’s not raining, we take a walk with Nikki the German Shepherd, and her owner Nandini. Nandini is the bubbly 13-year-old daughter of Sharmishta, the head of the Community Health office. Because Nandini attends an English based school, she is one of the few people on campus who speaks English fluently. A few days after we arrived, she told us that she had a German Shepherd in her back yard. Since Wende and I were already in animal withdrawal, we were unreasonably pumped to meet her dog.
After all Nandini had told us about loving animals, I was a little surprised to see that Nikki looked a little unhealthy upon first glance. However, when I realized her situation, her physical condition made more sense. About 3 years before we arrived, Nandini’s father moved into Mumbai for work, and since that time Nikki has been primarily confined to a small back yard. Neither Nandini nor her mother are strong enough to walk comfortably with Nikki, so the dog hadn’t seen much activity for the past few years. I completely understand what it’s like to be uncomfortable walking a dog, especially when you don’t feel you could control her were she to have an aggressive encounter with another canine. That risk is especially high in this area, where there are stray dogs around every turn. Since we’ve been taking our daily walks, which as Nandini says “are good for us and for Nikki”, the dog seems to be much healthier and happier.
After our walk, we may do a number of things. Perhaps we stay-in and watch one of the DVDs we brought with us, or we might go into town with some of the other people who live in our building. We have become particularly good friends with a couple named Nirali and Paresh who live caddy-corner to our apartment. They are about 6 years older than us, but since we’re both married (and Paresh speaks fluent english), we spend a lot of time together.
Another activity that takes up a number of our evenings is doing laundry. We don’t have a washing machine here, so instead we use a bucket and some old fashioned elbow-grease. We start our clothes soaking at lunch time, and then we agitate them throughout the day any time we return to our apartment. In the evening, we replace the wash water and give them another good scrubbing before rinsing them, wringing them out, and hanging them up to dry on our porch. We do this 2-3 times a week, but because of the rain and humidity the clothes can often take 2 days to dry on the line. Since our lifestyle here is very laid back, I don’t mind washing our clothes this way, but you can be sure I’ll have a new appreciation for our washing (& drying) machine when I return home.
After a day full of interesting medical encounters, smiling Indian patients, and frustrating broken Gujarati conversations, Wende and I are ready for a good night’s sleep. Our sleeping arrangements are a little different than in the US, so we had a tough time sleeping when we first arrived. The beds consist of a metal frame/rack covered in a thin pad, similar to a futon with most of the stuffing taken out. The first few nights it bruised our hip bones, but now we have acclimated and sleep like a baby most nights. While lying in bed, we’re lulled to sleep by the sound of nature outside our window, and wake up the next day ready to start it all over again.