Sunday, 5 June 2011

Tribute to the people of India

            Let’s see how this goes- I’m still at a stage when one game of solitaire exhausts me completely and recovery requires five hours of staring at walls.  But here’s my attempt at a tribute to the Indian people.  Obviously, I stuck out as a tall, blonde beanpole and I felt like as a bumbling American as I tried to respond appropriately to the flurry of natives that surrounded me.  Never before have I had to depend on other people so much for clean water, edible food, safe travel advice, language translation and directions.  However, the people of India did not disappoint.  Since my arrival, I was greeted with such grace, warmth and hospitality that I felt safe and cared for even when I had no idea what was going on.  Throughout my travels, I was constantly humbled as strangers stood when I walked by, to bow their heads and greet me with “Namaste”.  When I was at Qutab Minar and the temple, I wasn’t sure why a half a dozen young kids came up to me and touched my feet.  When I later realized touching someone’s feet is a traditional sign of respect, typically reserved by elders, I was humbled and honored.  Playing peek-a-boo with the baby in line at the temple broke down all cultural barriers when I saw him kick his feet and clap his hands with excitement when he spotted me in the distance later that afternoon. 
I’ll never forget my surprise as I was presented with a pot in front of an auditorium of little geniuses at the valedictory ceremony for the math Olympiad.  I never expected to find “a long-lost grandma” when I met the cute and tiny famous Indian mathematician.  I spent plenty of time with the deans at my undergraduate institution as I signed up for extra classes each semester but never did I receive a dinner invitation like I did from the dean at the top college in Delhi.
All the girls at the hostel and the staff at the college would never hesitate to put down whatever they were working on to help me resolve the latest source of confusion.  They told me I had a lovely accent when I butchered attempts at learning Hindi and told me I was beautiful last week when I looked like a ghost and felt like death.  All the doctors’ good-heartedly put up with all the questions my nurse mother made me ask.  (When the blood test results in the US came back to confirm that I only had shingles, my dad joked “those Indian doctors knew that just by taking your blood pressure!”).
            As always, my words do not do these people justice- I hope you go to India and experience their hospitality, playfulness and generosity for yourself.
            And in closing, I want to add that people in the United States aren’t half bad either.  When I finally made it through customs and baggage claim at JFK, my brother and mother were there to greet me.  I found the car packed to the brim with everything a person could possibly need with barely room left for me- five flavors of gatorade, water, home-made chicken noodle soup, watermelon, banana, poptarts, pillows, a bucket if I wasn’t feeling well and more.  All I could really appreciate was the water and the endearing ridiculousness of her excessive packing, especially considering they left our house at around 3 AM.  I returned to constant phone calls, dozens of e-mails, texts and facebook messages.  Thank you so much for everything- there were moments when I thought I’d never survive the plane ride then I remembered my Indian friends making offerings at the Hindu temples and all the people in America praying for me- even people I didn’t know.
            For nostalgic reasons, I’m sure I’ll find some reason to post something but I think this is pretty much the end of this journey.  However, I hope this won’t be my last encounter with India.  Thanks for sharing this wild ride with me! 

Saturday, 4 June 2011

My Indian family

After my initial energy burst yesterday, I had a mini step backwards so I don't feel well enough for a full post but here's the last of my pictures and a quote I've been meaning to share.
From left to right: Rehka, me (on the edge of death before the plane ride), the Warden and Dr. Jolly in the chair

At the airport

Rehka and I at the mall on the second day... my tall blondeness blends right in! 
"From the very beginning, I was mesmerized by the great capital, so totally unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Delhi, it seemed at first, was full of riches and horrors; it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices" 
-William Dalrymple, City of Djinns: A year in Delhi (written in the 1980s)

Friday, 3 June 2011

“So what did you like about India, anyway?”

            I was really surprised when my Dad asked me this last night- I thought I made it clear that I enjoyed this country immensely despite being somewhat overwhelmed, most of the time.  Since I’ve been back, multiple people have commented “I didn’t understand why you wanted to go there in the first place” and another person said “now you learned your lesson.  Stay away from dirty countries”.  I stand by the fact that this trip was an amazing, life-changing experience and here’s my attempt to defend India as an extraordinary place.
            In the Mark Tully book I referred to earlier, he said it was the beauty and the people that made him fall in love and stay in love with this country.  I could try to come up with unique reasons but I’m pretty sure that’s what it comes down to for me too.  
            I found the beauty of India (and this is without me having been able to visit inside many of Delhi and Agra’s most famous sites) in all the colors and exquisite clothing of the women, in the temples and in the historic buildings.  I mentioned how women are dressed in beautiful saris, even when helping on dirty construction sites.  There’s bright colors everywhere, excessive gold jewelry, intricate henna designs on hands and feet and a general grace with which they hold themselves, as they sit side-saddle on a motorcycle or carry a huge bucket on their heads.  These colors carry through to their artwork and the temples I have seen.  I love how lively Hindu temples are- there’s little kids running around, a clanging of bells each time someone enters, people circulating in the same general direction but everyone has a slightly different way of making offerings.  I always get a little uncomfortable during mass when everyone sounds like mechanized robots repeating the same prayers week after week.  I’m not saying I’m going to convert to Hinduism anytime soon but this somewhat individualized and very personal faith made me feel more connected to my God than being in an impersonal Catholic church. 
And, finally, the monuments I did get to see (Red Fort, Qutab Minar, the Akshardham templ, etc.) took my breath away.  The sheer size (Red Fort, in particular) instantly humbles visitors, the opulence of temples overwhelms the senses with the gold gilding and with thousands of deities carved into the walls.  The Red Fort and the Minar stand testimony to the resilience of this nation, which has preserved through countless violent takeovers and maintained some sense of identity throughout.  Even Dr. Jolly says its remarkable that the country “hasn’t blown itself up” when you think about the enormous land mass which joined together under democracy despite having a history of fragmented feudal states. 
I think this final testament will come in two parts and later I’ll write a second post about the people.  But the previous paragraph makes me hope the India will maintain its uniqueness as the country continues to transform by the day.  Even though the Western influence is impossible to ignore when you look at the newspapers and when you visit the malls and see the changing attire of the citizenry, I think India’s pride in its past with preserve and maintain its unique cultural identity.
I’ll finish this later but it’s nice to be waking from “zombie mode”.  I’m still having trouble with solid foods but I think after a week, my fever is finally gone.  Hurray for small victories.

"Be happy"

So I’m feeling a little more alive so I figured I’d update you more on my interesting experiences with the Indian healthcare. The first doctor I saw was at the University health center and he just talked to me a couple minutes, looked at my rash, said “oh, its herpes, be happy, you’ll be fine.”  [They call it herpes there but it’s not an STD, I promise!]  And then he wrote me a prescription for like five drugs and he was ready for me to get on with my life.  After some persisting, he took my temperature which was 102* and he was waving as I left “be happy!”.
             My other two visits were very similar- (I had to see so many doctors because I was miserable and none of them were collecting any empirical data and I needed a form to fill out to file a medical claim for insurance to cover switching my flight).  Advantages of Indian doctors are: I got taken right away and it’s refreshing to see people who believe strongly in the healing powers of positive thinking.  However you were lucky if they decided to check your blood pressure or your temperature.  At least all of them were consistent with the diagnosis, even though they prescribed a variety of drugs.  I agreed with their diagnosis but my mom made me worried that it might be something else too and all of them are like “no, no, you’re fine”.
            So even though I was frustrated with the quality of healthcare, all the people at the hostel and college were so sweet.  The girls would stop by to check in and visit.  The warden went out of her way to arrange for food to be brought to me.  I had no appetite and there was over a day when I couldn’t keep any food down, but she kept trying.  She asked me if I would like to try a boiled potato, and I said I’d try that.  A little bit later, we came back with at least a quart of cubed boiled potato.  I felt terrible when I could only eat a couple cubes.  And she arranged for chocolate ice cream “chocolate makes everything better!” (even though there’s barely any chocolate in Indian desserts- usually they serve sweet dairy dishes).  I laughed when the warden asked the guard twice to get me two mango juices in Hindi and she wrote it down on a piece of paper then the guard came back with one apple juice and 2 packets of ramen noodles.
            A bunch of people offered for me to sleep over in their rooms and I said I’d be fine because I toss and turn and didn’t want to disturb them.  The warden was so worried that she kept stopping by my room every hour until I gave in and moved into her room for the evening.  But Indians really are the most loving, sweetest people and I’m going to miss them.
            I’m not ready to write my final tribute to my trip- I’m still feeling a little loopy but getting slightly more revived by the day.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Home safe!

Just a quick update, that I safely completed an epically long return journey to the US.  I love India and I'm definitely going back but it isn't the best place to be sick, with doctors who only give minimal examinations (they take your temperature OR your BP, if you are lucky).  I'll close with more detailed information when my mental capabilities return.  Thanks for your warm thoughts and prayers!