Monday, April 11, 2011

The Motherland

I’ve been meaning to write a new blog post for a while now, but I haven’t actually been able to succeed because I don’t know where to begin. But here’s a start: I’m back in the States now!!!

We spent our last week abroad in Addo, a small town on the Eastern Cape known for Addo Elephant National Park, as well as its manifold citrus groves. We were told that we were staying in student lodging in the park, so I was picturing cabins with outhouses and electricity if we were lucky. But when we arrived at Chrislin African Lodge, I was pleasantly surprised. We stayed, paired up, in luxury thatch-roofed mud huts. They were adorable. And the grass lawns everywhere were perfect for my affinity for going barefoot. We went on safaris in a few different private game reserves as well as the national park; hiked, with some added cliff jumping and waterfall sliding, in the Zuurberg Mountains; canoed down a river; visited a reptile and raptor center; and much more. When we returned after our packed days, we were treated to delicious three-course dinners every night. I got to eat kudu, ostrich, and impala meat. Kudu was definitely my favorite. And to name some of the animals I saw: giraffes, rhinos, elephants, zebras, hippos, cheetahs, lions, a leopard, a caracal, meerkats, warthogs, buffalo, antelope (kudu, rare heartabeest, impala, and more,) tortoises, and alligators. I definitely felt like I was in an amusement park, looking at trained animals. But it was still awesome.

Boarding the plane back to America, I was sad to leave, but anxious to return home. When I had to go through a million layers of extra security measures solely because our flight was to the US, I was reminded of the big bureaucracy that I was about to fly back to. On the 19 hour flight from Johannesburg to JFK, emotions were running wild—fatigue and dehydration supercharged them even further. I knew we were getting close to landing when I saw Alex in the seat in front of me spontaneously squeal, waving her arms and jumping around in her seat. We were all so incredibly excited to see our families and be on American soil again. I can’t even describe how happy I was when I hugged my Mom at the Riverside Tower Hotel a few hours later. The rest of the weekend was free, and I had the most amazing time with my Mom and grandparents.

I’m experiencing some reverse culture shock. It’s a very real thing. Everyone speaks English and I have a cell phone and computer again and I can eat any kind of food I want. You’ve gotta give it to America—we do have diversity. After being in countries where solely one or two races predominate, we really do seem like a melting pot.

Last week was spent in New York City, visiting the UN and various organizations that work in areas ranging from the environment to public health. Some of them were really impressive.

We left New York yesterday morning and boarded a double decker megabus (equipped with wifi…what?!?!?) to D.C. We’re safe and sound in our rented house in the Capitol Hill neighborhood now, and I’m really excited for the upcoming week!

I admit that I do harbor a general distaste with America’s policy and culture. And the bureaucracy and complications and nonsense that accompany it all. But being back after so long has made me realize that while it’s not perfect, it’s my home.

It’s good to be back.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cheers, Plett

Things are winding down here in Plettenberg Bay. It’s my second to last day here, and I have to start thinking about packing and saying my goodbyes.

Last weekend was our independent student travel weekend, but everyone decided to stay here in Plett. We did take a day trip to the nearby town of Knysna to browse the shops and walk along the harbor though. A highlight of my day there were the awesome fish and chips I had for lunch. But other than that, I mostly hung out around town and my house for IST. Bruce kindly offered to take Lauren and I to the nearby Keurbooms Beach, to a place called Arch Rock, which is exactly what it sounds like: a big rock shaped like an arch. It was gorgeous. Apparently, they filmed a series about Robinson Crusoe there. We relaxed on the beach for a while, and I’m proud of myself because I even got in the water for a few moments (the water is a bit chilly here.) The perfect Sunday afternoon outing. Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit burned out on travel at this point on the trip, but I honestly felt no desire to go anywhere else. But, I mean, there is also a reason people come HERE to vacation—it’s a pretty fine place.

The past few days have been crunch time on our media projects. Lauren and I decided to pair up to create an artistic book. Lauren created sketches of patients with different illnesses and I wrote poems about the various demographics afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Our presentation is tomorrow, and from what it sounds like, it’ll be by far our biggest audience. Official invitations were even created and sent out. To be honest, I’m super nervous about it—I wouldn’t call myself a poet. The only poetry I’ve written has either been for school or in my journal, not meant to be seen by others, let alone shared publicly. I guess there’s a first for everything.

Friday morning, we leave bright and early to go to Addo National Park for our enrichment week. We have hikes, safaris, canoe trips, and more on our agenda. I hope I get to see some zebras!

In just over one week, I’ll be back in New York City with my wonderful mother and grandparents! It’s hard to believe that our time abroad is coming to a close so quickly, but I’m so excited to hug my mom and hit up Whole Foods once again. I’ve had so many incredible experiences in the past seven months abroad, and it’s daunting to look at the return to the states as a potential end to all of that. But my journey won’t be over yet. Back in the states, we’ll be traveling for 5 weeks up and down the east coast, and I’m sure I’ll continue to learn and experience so much. I’m expecting to have to undergo some reverse culture shock, but let’s hope no food poisoning will be involved this time!

Well, I’m off to make an attempt at starting to pack. And I need to check on the sun tea that Lauren and I are brewing in the backyard. Honey, lemon, mint, ginger. Mmm.

Friday, March 18, 2011

It takes a village...

Yesterday was our last day working with our home caregivers, which marked the end of our TBB service projects. From planting trees to teaching to shoveling poop to administering patient care; I have to honestly say that I’ve never put in so many hours of volunteer work. And yeah, it’s made me pretty good at manual labor. But what it’s also given me is much more hands-on, real world learning experience than I would have ever gotten the chance to partake in had I been at college or any other institute of learning this year. I’ve taken a dive right into the middle of each and every issue we’ve studied, seeing the problems with my own eyes while trying to contribute to the solution.

What that’s led me to here in South Africa is a reflection on community. In our readings, we learned about the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS. Tradition, culture, beliefs, prejudice, and fear all play a role in developing the shame associated with the virus. The result is that people don’t want to acknowledge their HIV status or disclose it to the others around them. They worry about what members in their community will say, think, or do. So does having a community hinder the resolution of this epidemic? I can’t agree. During my time walking around Kwanokuthula with Helper and Priscilla, there have been multiple occasions when people have approached us, concerned about the well-being of a neighbor or relative. One woman’s husband refused to go to the clinic to get treatment for his AIDS. He wouldn’t stop drinking and wouldn’t take his ARVs, either. She asked us to go visit him and take him by force to the clinic. We couldn’t do that, but Priscilla said that she would go later to check on him. Another woman, seeing us pass, ran out to the street to tell us to go check on “Rasta.” Rasta lived only a few houses down from her. She told us that he was HIV positive but had defaulted on his ARVs. He was very skinny and she wanted us to go right away to check on him. So we walked down the street to find Rasta, dreadlocks and all. And after talking to him for a while, Helper was able to persuade him to go to the clinic to restart his treatment.

In a true community, you’re surrounded by people who care about each other. Everyone looks out for one another. I was touched by the concern and awareness of these township residents and amazed by the power of one person speaking out. One person taking a few minutes out of his or her day to speak to a passing caregiver may have saved a life. I couldn’t help but think: in America, how often would a neighbor beg a doctor to help out the guy living down the street?

Another positive to a community is that when everyone is looking out for each other, friendships are made. And everyone is happier and healthier, at least mentally, when there are others to talk to and spend time with. Plett is a pretty small town when it comes down to it. The other day, Lauren and I went down the hill to Woolworth’s to get baking supplies for chocolate chip cookies. Upon reaching checkout, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our cashier was a woman who lives in one of our patients’ houses. We struck up a conversation and she told us about the patient’s weekend plans. It made me realize that the influence I was making in this community was real—people knew me, recognized me. I felt like I was actually helping people.

If it takes a village to raise a child, maybe it takes a community to combat AIDS.
A very big concept I’ve learned from our work is that every place has different needs. Blanket solutions to a problem are not the answer. What works in one region simply will not work in another, regardless of what statistics may predict or the UN may say. And that’s because societies all have their own people, culture, traditions, beliefs, infrastructure (or lack thereof.) Spending a good chunk of years living on tiny Orcas Island has led me to develop an appreciation for small-town life. So maybe I’m biased, but I think it’s important to never undermine the importance of a community. Each community knows where it stands; each community knows its values better than anyone else. Maybe stigmas wouldn’t even be an issue if policies were handled on this sort of smaller scale, as everyone would be in more equal understanding. I know it’s not that simple. There are myriad complications. But if nothing else, remember that the little things are often just as crucial as the larger ones.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Search for a Definition

Sometimes I wonder what “the end” really means. Because there’s always more that follows. The end of a game means a final score, but that’s not the last time that team will ever be together or that sport will ever be played. The end of the day means you go to bed, but sleep is the gateway to a whole other world of dreams and subconsciousness. And then there’s the end of life. Death. I don’t want to get into a whole discourse on the afterlife here but let’s just say for now that when one dies, the body or soul goes somewhere—it gets buried or cremated, maybe the soul goes on to a different place, maybe it stays here on earth as a ghost. Everyone holds a different view what really is the end. But what does unquestionably continue is other life in the rest of the world. The birds still chirp, the tides come in and out, businessmen go to work at 8 and come home at 5. The same is true for families and friends who are left behind after the death of a relative: when a loved one dies, of course a huge gap will be left behind in their lives, but the truth is that their lives will still continue. Life goes on.

The death of one of my patients, Lalli James, is what got me to thinking about this. Lalli was a sweet, old man with HIV who lived in Kwanokuthula. When we visited him, he always smiled as he greeted us. But when we walked into his house yesterday, I was surprised to find his bed, one of the only pieces of furniture in the house, gone. I thought the family had sold it to get some much-needed cash, but before I turned to Lauren to mention my hypothesis, a woman spoke up, “He has died.” On Saturday, Lalli was talking and acting normally when he went to lie down and never got up. The woman, who turned out to be his niece, told us that they weren’t concerned because he seemed to be doing fine. And then he was gone.

The family seemed to be handling the scenario with touching fortitude. Lalli’s niece told us that she believes he died in peace; that maybe it was just his time to go. As she said this, her eyes filled with tears.

The funeral is next Saturday, as there is already another one being held this Saturday. Thus prolonging the burial that, for many, really signifies “the end.” But this tribulation may never end for the family. Of course, Lalli’s memory will stay with them forever.

And the family’s dealings with sickness and medicine won’t end with Lalli’s death either. The girlfriend of another man living in that same house has not been doing well lately. But the family can’t take her to the clinic now because they have so much going on with the recent misfortune. They’ll have to wait until the burial is over. But by that time, who knows what could have happened. So the cycle continues. The end is never really the end.

I keep trying to think of what can be done. When a family is taking care of a relative with HIV or AIDS, there is so much pain and hardship that they must face. It just seems unjust and unfair that their suffering is perpetuated even after the sorrowful death.

Lalli is one in a sea of hundreds of thousands. So many people die from HIV/AIDS related illnesses everyday. But if “the end” doesn’t really mean anything, if there’s something that always continues, what does finding an “end” to this horrible epidemic entail? Is it even possible?

I don’t like to be so pessimistic. And I don’t want to be. I really would like to believe that some cure, some relief, SOMETHING can be done to solve or alleviate this issue. But it’s so hard for me to envision at this stage.

I really think that prevention , awareness, and education are going to be the most important methods, at this point, in curbing the rampant spread of the epidemic. While treatment is obviously extremely important, the hope for future generations lies in the destigmatization of the disease as well as the true understanding of the science and implications of HIV/AIDS. If people are well aware of the importance of prevention, and understand prevention methods, the number of new infections could decline, and overtime, maybe—just maybe—be stopped altogether. Let’s hope so.

Anyway, on a completely different note, we started afternoon service projects last week. I’m working on clearing out an old, dead garden in preparation for a new one to be put in. It requires lots of weeding and hacking and shoveling in the hot sun, but I feel like I accomplish something when I look at everything we’ve cleared out. Two afternoons a week we head over to the garden after mornings with our caregivers, putting our total amount of work on Tuesdays and Thursdays to seven hours. We may be living in a beach town, but we’re not exactly on vacation.

Our caregiver, Priscilla, went on leave today and won’t be back to work until after we’re finished. So instead, we’re following another caregiver named Helper, who has been working with us the past two weeks. We’ll miss Priscilla! It’s strange to think that after tomorrow, we have only one week of work left. By this point, I’ve seen all of our 27 (according to Priscilla) patients at least once, and am getting better at knowing my way around the houses and streets. So at least I don’t feel so disoriented all the time… I enjoy the conversations I’ve had with Priscilla and Helper on our walks and sometimes we’re offered tea or snacks at the homes we visit. I recently got to try some mealie meal pap—porridge made of corn meal and mixed with milk. Mealie meal is a staple food here, eaten as a sweet dish, as I had it, or a savory dish, mixed with vegetables and meat. I’ll have to get some to bring home—I actually liked it a lot. In almost every home we visit there’s some sort of music playing. Helper always tells me to dance, so I do. And then people laugh. So I have a new resolution to work on my dancing skills.

I guess that’s enough for now. I hope everyone is doing well!


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ebb and Flow

I walked into a house where a young woman named Philiswag sat on a couch. She looked weak and wore a hat, even though the sun was scorching outside. “Moloweni!” she greeted us with a bright smile. She was very thin, but her stomach was distended and her left ankle was swollen—symptoms of an HIV infection. From her purse, she withdrew her ARVs and other pills and set them on the table to show us. She has to take them all at scheduled times throughout each and every day. If she misses a dose, everything could go wrong.

On Monday, our South Africa routine began.

In the morning, work starts when our taxi driver, Percy, drops us off at the medical clinic in Kwanokuthula at 8 o’ clock. We then set out on foot for the next five hours as we follow Priscilla from house to house for her patient check ups. Arriving at each house, we’re greeted with smiles and cries of “Moloweni!” (which is hello in Xhosa.) We visit patients with varying degrees of illness and living conditions. About half of our patients are HIV positive; of those, many have Tuberculosis additionally. Philiswag was the first patient I saw. She was also the first person that I think I’ve ever been face-to-face with who has had HIV. Maybe I’ve been sheltered, but HIV and AIDS have just never been real-life issues in and around my community and life at home. But sitting feet away from Philiswag as she held her ARVs provided a jolt of reality for me. Everything I’ve learned, heard, read, and watched about HIV/AIDS crashed down on me with full force. Seeing the epidemic in person really illuminated the immensity of the issue and true necessity for a solution. We’ve seen patients with other ailments as well. I was surprised to note that, after HIV, the second-most prevalent condition afflicting the patients I’ve seen is diabetes. The case of one man sticks out to me most poignantly. We entered his room to find him sitting with his legs in a bucket of water. Withdrawing them allowed us to see the raw sores running up the sides of his calves and ankles. We wrapped the sores with wet gauze and a cloth bandage, but that’s just a temporary fix. If these sores get worse, he could lose the ability to walk. If they get too bad, he might have to have his legs amputated. We’ve seen other patients with arthritis, high blood pressure, and strokes, too. Priscilla is teaching us to take insulin finger sticks and use the blood pressure monitor in a very “learn-by-doing” way, meaning that she hands us the tools and tells us to use them on the patient. Lauren and I were both confused and lost at first, but we’ve got it down now.

On our walks between houses, we have time to talk with and get to know Priscilla. Home caregivers like her spend their whole days—rain or shine-- walking from house to house. Since they don’t have scheduled visit time, sometimes patients won’t even be home. So they continue walking to the next house and check back later. I just want to buy all of the caregivers bikes. Sometimes Priscilla will take us to one of her friends’ houses for tea or juice or for her to get some lunch. And at one, Percy picks us up and drops us back in Plett. But Priscilla keeps doing her rounds until four.

After lunchtime, we head down to the beach for seminars. Yes, our seminar room is above a restaurant that is right on the sand. We hear the waves crashing and can watch the lifesaving team (there are like 100 little kids in speedos that are on some sort of lifeguard training team that come to the beach for hours every single day.)

While our days are filled with some pretty heavy stuff in the townships, things lighten up back in Plett. On Thursday, I met the local running club for their weekly time trial. It was neat to see so many people of all ages. I had a good time, but was not expecting for it to actually be a time trial with timing and everything! I also went bungee jumping! I conquered the Bloukrans bridge, which at 216 meters, is the highest point you can bungee jump from in the world! It was awesome. And there’s more: a chartered catamaran sail around the bay. We even got to see a pod of dolphins and TONS of seals. Bruce cooked us our first braai, a South African barbecue, too.

Don’t be too jealous, though. Unfortunately, all of our activities in the sun have given me some pretty funky tanlines…. :)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Even Better Than the Ice Cream

We’ve now been in South Africa for a week, and so far it’s been fantastic. When we first arrived, we were bussed to a hostel/retreat-type place called Rocky Road. I don’t know if I can even describe how happy I was when I got there. Driving down the dirt driveway through pastures filled with (healthy-looking) cows, horses, and ponds, I could breathe fresh air again. Butterflies flocked around the flower bushes. I could hear birds singing. I felt like I was in heaven. Even though we had been traveling all night, Rocky Road gave us all a second wind of energy—everyone kicked off their shoes and jumped around on the grass. It got even better, as that night Mac (the owner of Rocky Road and one of the directors of Willing Workers in South Africa, the NGO we’re working with here) made us delicious hamburgers. Sorry India, I missed beef.

We were at Rocky Road from Saturday until Thursday, mostly relaxing, taking hikes to the beach, doing orientation things, and adjusting to culture shock. South Africa is such a huge change from India, but I’ll talk about that a bit more later.

We moved into our homestays in Plettenberg Bay on Thursday. Our homestays here are very different than they have been in previous countries—here, we’re divided up into only two houses, seven students in each. I’m living with McKinley, Kasha, Hannah, Maddie, Lauren, and Alex in a house owned by Bruce, a single man in his forties. Our house is so cute and perfect. We even have a pool. It’s located about a five minute walk from the main street of Plettenberg Bay, with all of its shops, cafes, restaurants, and bookstores. Plett draws many tourists due to its location right on the beach and proximity to myriad outdoor adventure activities. To get to the beach from my house, it’s about another ten minute walk from town, down a HUGE hill. It’ll hopefully get me back into mountain climbing shape for when I come back home! The food has been delicious, too. We even have salad to accompany our dinners…it’s amazing. Bruce, our host, is a really nice, incredibly interesting guy. On our first night, we all sat around the dinner table for at least two hours, talking about things ranging from racial issues to the science behind HIV/AIDS to natural plant medicines to cooking.

All of the Western conveniences we need are here—reliable showers, clean tap water, familiar food. The language barrier is virtually non-existent as well. It’s a bit odd to feel so at home, yet be halfway around the world. On the other hand, though, things are still very different for me here than at home. For example, the townships. The wealthy community of Plett is surrounded by poor, black settlements. I haven’t spent extensive time in any of them yet, but you can immediately tell the huge differences driving by. Fortunately, in this area at least, it seems that there are many initiatives coming from volunteer organizations and NGOs to provide help to these communities. I don’t know if that’s being done nationally though, or how much they are actually helping. Coming from seeing the slums in India though, I have to say that these townships were in better shape than I was expecting. We start our work in the townships on Monday, so I’ll soon be able to get a better look. For work, we’re all matched up with caregivers, either in singles or in pairs. Lauren and I are paired up and matched with Priscilla, who works and lives in the township of Kwanokuthula, which is about a ten minute’s drive out of Plett. I’m really excited to work with Priscilla or, as she told us to call her, Big Mama.

The sun is shining and I’ve got a free day, so I’m thinking I’ll go down to the beach later. Or into the pool. Or both!

I miss everyone lots!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

If I knew how to say goodbye in Hindi, that would be the title of this post

Today is our last full day in India! I can hardly believe how time has gone by. It seems like not so long ago when we all nervously met each other at the Miami Airport. And now we’re getting ready to leave for our last country abroad.

Last Friday, the last night in our homestay, Hannah and I went with our host mom to visit some temples nearby. When we returned, our host dad excitedly had us pose for pictures. We took probably around 50 pictures, from different angles and in different positions. I felt like a model at a photo shoot-- our host dad just kept on clicking away. The next day, we loaded up the bus and departed on an all day drive to Agra to start off our enrichment week. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal, and really nothing else besides horrible odors, pollution, grime, and harassing rickshaw drivers. I was less than ecstatic when we arrived, grumpy after a long day of travel. On top of that, we were informed that we were getting up at the crack of dawn the next day to go see the Taj Mahal. I’m not a morning person. The fact that it was the TAJ MAHAL that I was getting up to see though got me right out of bed the next morning. Although we ended up missing the sunrise, it was still worth it. It was truly a beautiful sight—so surreal to be there in person.

Our next destination was Delhi, which meant another completely full day on the bus. The length of time we spent on the bus may have been lengthened a bit due to our bus driver’s apparent lack of knowledge as to where our hotel was. We would stop, he would get out of the bus, then come back and we’d start driving again. A few minutes later, it would happen again. Until the one time when he got out, locked us in, and didn’t come back to the bus for a good half hour…We eventually made it though. Our hotel is located in the middle of a bazaar—meaning tons of people, beggars, cows, cow poop, noise, and smells. Not exactly the relaxing enrichment week I was picturing. We did some sight seeing around the city our first day here, but other than that we’ve had free time. Yesterday, a few of us went to an art museum and then out to a nice lunch near a sunny park. I’m amazed by the number of parks and green spaces I’ve seen in Delhi actually. There are some really nice parts of the city—huge hotels, fancy houses and malls. I’ve only been here a few days and have hardly seen the city, but I’ve noticed immense contrasts. Poor and rich, parks/green space and trash/poop-filled bazaars. Cows block traffic in some places, but on the other side of town is a mall with Louis Vuitton and Gucci stores. It’s a strange thing to witness such extremes like that.

And we have yet another huge shift coming up. Tomorrow night, we’re traveling to South Africa! Every day in India has been a crazy, chaotic adventure. It seems everywhere you turn, you see a new, bizarre sight. But I’ve learned a lot here as well—about things ranging from sustainable agriculture to Indian culture and food to history and art. I definitely would like to come back to India at some point, especially to see the Southern areas. But I might need to take a bit of an India break first…

I’ll have to make sure I get a last cup of chai before I leave!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sometimes I feel like I live in a circus.

This past weekend was our Independent Student Travel weekend. I had done some research on places around Jaipur to travel to, but nothing was really catching my eye. So, unmotivated to travel very far, I decided to just stay here. Fortunately and unfortunately, there was a crazy amount of things happening in Jaipur that weekend, so almost every single hotel in the city was booked. Instead, Mary, Hannah, and I decided to go to a village called Samode, about 40 km out of the city for a night. Samode was a really small village with an old palace that was inhabited by a royal family 350 years ago. Now, the palace has been turned into a really beautiful hotel. We stayed a bit out of the village in Samode Bagh, the old family’s farm and country house. Cabins with tent-like canvas roofs were all arranged around a grassy, treed area. English gardens completed the atmosphere, with fountains, walking paths, and badminton courts. Instead of car horns incessantly honking, I could hear birds. It was really peaceful: a needed break from the city. Inquiring at the hotel how to get into the village, we were told to rent a jeep. So we did. The hotel owner insisted that a hotel employee come with us too, so we were not only chauffeured into town, but had an escort as well. There really wasn’t much to do in the village-- we saw bangles being made and a gem cutter, but that was about it. We all agreed that the palace would be a great place for a honeymoon though. The rest of our time at Samode was spent relaxing. In the morning we rode the bus back to the city, trying to deflect the stares we got from strangers.

The Jaipur Literature Festival took place this weekend, as well as a pediatrician conference, the Jaipur Marathon, the Jaipur Heritage Festival, and a stone festival (not really sure what that is.) The Literature festival consisted of seminars and lectures given by authors and other intellectuals on myriad topics. I attended one very interesting panel discussion about Kashmir. Apparently the festival is a pretty big deal: it was swamped with people. Actually, the whole city has been swamped. Definitely the most foreigners I’ve seen on the whole trip. They hail from all over the world, but I’ve noticed many from England. At the festival, it was like a whole different India. The Indians there were clearly very wealthy, and the difference really shows. It was rumored that J.K. Rowling was attending the festival. I couldn’t believe it. But she unfortunately decided at the last minute not to come. Sad. Next year, I hear Barbara Kingsolver and Malcom Gladwell are among the authors who will be attending.

I also ran the 6k Dream Run that was associated with the Jaipur Marathon, which turned out not to be a marathon, but only a half. It was like no other race I’ve ever run in. First of all, there were 25,000 people at the venue. Either I missed the start or there wasn’t actually an official one, because as I got to the start line, there were some people running from behind me and some already on the course. So I decided to just start. I had to weave and dart in between everyone. The majority of participants were men, and they would start talking to me and shaking my hand while we ran. One asked me what I ate to get so strong, to which I responded “non-veg!” (the common term for a meat-eater here.) At the finish, I was the only girl for a while, and so I was swarmed with more people asking to shake my hand and take pictures with me. The trees along the road were adorned with bunches of balloons for the race. One man broke off a branch and made me take the attached balloons. It was overwhelming! I felt so famous, yet so out of place. But it was a blast. Now I can say I’ve run a race in India. And I have a medal and t-shirt to prove it.

We switched worksites last week and we’re now working at a government research facility called SIAM. We’ve been making various products such as juice and gel from amla and aloe plants. A reprieve from the poop.

We’ve been continuing our studies in sustainable agriculture with our readings and seminars. I’m so happy to see that it has been challenging many people’s views on the sustainability of their food. Local organic versus industrial organic versus corporate industrial agriculture is a main point of discussion. I feel like I’ve had a head start in this issue, as my family eats organically all the time and locally as much as possible. I’ve had exposure to the ideas and importance behind the slow food and efforts toward feeding the world sustainably. However, our studies have made me realize the true importance of it all. Without sustainable agriculture, how can we continue to live and feed ourselves? Industrial agriculture, with its CAFOs where animals are kept in confined cages and fed food that is detrimental to their health (and subsequently ours) and genetically modified crops simply cannot be our future. They are unsustainable, and thus by definition cannot last. The health of the environment and the people of the world are declining. It’s so vitally important that we become aware of what is actually involved in the production of our food. So many people simple don’t know the effects of the choices they make when they check out at the grocery store. It’s scary to think what might happen if we continue on our path. I’ve always thought that simply switching to organic was the way to go, the solution to solve our agricultural dilemma worldwide. But after some of our readings, I see that it’s not feasible for everyone. For example, in Bangladesh, farmers simply cannot get enough cow manure to provide adequate nitrogen to their soil. So what can they do? Using chemical fertilizers and pesticides provides for them in the short term, but ultimately depletes the soil of nutrients, forces dependency, and causes numerous other problems in the long term. I think a really important point to make is that sustainable agriculture needs to be exactly that: sustainable. It isn’t a set formula necessarily; it just needs to be good for our planet and us, to ensure long-term success. I still believe in organic farming wherever it is possible. So for now, please, support local farmers, buy organically and locally, consider everything that went into producing your food!

Things in my homestay are still great. Whenever Hannah and I return home in the afternoons, our host dad asks us, “You have come?” to which we respond, “Yes, we have come.” We’re trying to think of dramatic ways to change it up. I don’t really know why I’m about to write this on my blog, but I realized this week that I haven’t done laundry for four weeks. Don’t judge me. I’ve done some handwashing in a bucket, but who knows how effective that has been...

India continues to amaze, shock, confuse, and excite me in new ways everyday. Who knows how many monkeys I might see tomorrow. How many men will I spot peeing on the side of the road? And will we get evening chai? Vital questions. Who ever thought these would become usual, everyday things for me? It seems that the out-of-the-ordinary has become the norm.

Monday, January 24, 2011

India Post: the service for mail and chai

Everything on this trip is an adventure. Some are more exciting than others, but they’re all adventures nonetheless. The past few weeks though, I’ve been on some especially crazy ones. The first involved me going to the post office. Alone. With no way to contact anyone, and really no idea what I was doing.

For over a month, I had impatiently been waiting for a package sent from home to arrive (six to ten business days was such a lie.) I kept checking its tracking number to make sure it wasn’t lost—supposedly it had arrived in India and cleared customs weeks before. I was about to give up on it altogether when I decided to give it one last shot and call the foreign post office. I had not been notified that my package was stuck there because of “unidentified medicines” that it contained. All I had to do was go to the post office before 5 p.m. with my passport to claim my package. Easy. Or so I thought it would be.

We had a guest lecturer that day who spoke around in circles with a heavy, incomprehensible Hindi accent. Time ticked by--4:15, 4:30, 4:40—until I was finally able to run out the door and catch the first tuk tuk, getting me to the post office around 4:50. I was then directed around to the backside of the building and up a flight of stairs to the foreign post office, which turned out to be a few run-down rooms filled with men sitting around. I got there at 4:58. I gave my spiel to a man sitting at a desk, asking if I could please retrieve my package. Next thing, I was led back to a tiny office crammed with more men and had to go through the whole thing again. Their response: come back tomorrow before 2 p.m. But after waiting for that cursed package for so long and being so close to it then, I was not going to give up. I pleaded with them to allow me to get it, as I was only in India for a short time. Eventually, they led me back to another room and brought my package in. I thought that was the end of the endeavor. I was so wrong. They ripped open my package and started going through every item, asking me all of the contents were. I can understand why they would have held my package—protein powder and vitamins in Ziploc bags could appear quite questionable in a customs officer’s eyes. The men asked me why I didn’t have a prescription for the medicines, and couldn’t comprehend when I told them I don’t have a prescription because the medicines don’t require one.

“They are made of herbs and fruit and vegetable powders,” I told them.

“But why don’t you have a prescription?”

“Because they are not sold that way in America.”

“But how can you not have a prescription?”

“Because I just don’t!”

It went on like that for a while until they opened the Ziplocs and started taking the vitamins out. One man even grabbed a multivitamin, popped it in his mouth, chewed, swallowed, and bobbled his head as if to say “not bad.” It was maybe the most bizarre experience ever. There were also stretchy exercise bands inside the box. When the officers saw those, they picked them up and, after finding and reading the accompanying sheet that described possible exercises, began playing with them.

Apparently they were satisfied with my explanations because after a while, they told me I needed to write a letter to the assistant director of customs asking to release my package. I was then taken to another back room, where a man dictated the content of the letter to me.

“Now you wait an hour or two while we bring this down,” he told me when I was finished.

So I waited an hour, and then two.

It gave me some good time to do my readings for seminar at least. The men seemed very interested in my reading as well, and took it from to look it over. They asked me what I was doing in Jaipur, which prompted the whole TBB explanation (we are all too well versed at giving that by now.) Apparently it was also tea time, so they gave me a date to eat, as well as chai to drink. I was the only customer there. The whole time, the package was sitting about ten feet away, tempting me to just grab it and run. But I kept waiting.

At around seven, I was told that all I needed to do was give my signature before I could leave with my package. I waited some more, rather impatiently at this point, as a man entered other people’s information into a book. One customs officer started talking to his friend and pointing to my package. I picked up the word chocolate a few times and got a little worried. My worry was confirmed when he said to me, “the customs officers try your chocolate to see if it is tasty or not.”

“YOU ATE MY CHOCOLATE?!” I almost yelled at him. (Okay, not almost. I did yell. Chocolate is serious stuff.)

“We open your box,” was his response.

So, for the third time that afternoon, my box was opened. The man took out one of my protein bars and repeated again “chocolate.”

“Oh, no, no,” I told him. “That’s not chocolate. That’s a protein bar.”

At least they didn’t eat my chocolate…

“Protein bar? Customs officers will try it.” He told me.

Right before my eyes, he opened the protein bar and broke it into pieces, sharing it around with the other men. “Not chocolate, but tasty and sweet!”

All I could think was…SERIOUSLY? Is this actually happening?

Yes. Yes it is. I’m on TBB.

After that was all done, I was offered a ride home from one of the men on his motorcycle. I declined and walked home, carrying my package, literally laughing out loud to myself. After all that, it felt like a victory march.

Despite all of the frustration and waiting involved, I feel like my post office mission was a success. Out of it, I not only got my package, but some excitement and a story. I truly was able to see India up close and personal, in a very non-touristy way. On this trip, I’ve been questioning my status as “tourist.” I’d like to think I’m not when I’m living with families in each country for so long, volunteering and interacting with its people. But then again, I can’t escape the reality that I AM a tourist on a visit. Ventures like this, though, make me feel different than your everyday traveler to India. Maybe I’m just wishing too hard. Either way, it’s something I’ll never forget.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Over the Hump

I mean that literally and figuratively, as this past weekend consisted of a camel safari as well as the halfway point in my journey.

Last Friday, we loaded into a bus for a three hour journey West to the town of Pushkar. Pushkar attracts tourists of all sorts—Indian, Isreali, Chinese, American, European. Many Hindus will make a pilgrimage to the town to visit one of only three temples in India dedicated to Brahma (there’s a myth that anyone who builds a temple dedicated to Brahma will die…) and also to see the Holy Waters, which is what it just what it sounds like: a big lake. The whole town of Pushkar is actually a holy city, so meat and alcohol are illegal! In contrast to Jaipur, which has shattered the Disney-fied Indian world I’ve had in my head, Pushkar seemed much more like the stereotypical India I had been imagining. Narrow streets filled with old mustachioed men, heads wrapped in turbans; women doing henna; the sound of sitars and the smell of incense.

Arriving to our safari Saturday afternoon, I was barraged by the camel drivers, each one nearly pushing me toward his respective camel before I even had time to put my backpack on our luggage trailer. The camel I ended up with was draped with colorful, beaded netting and decorated with ribbons, fake flowers, and pom poms. I christened my camel Lucille, which I thought would be an appropriate name until it dawned on me that she was potentially a he. It remained Lucille though, because I really didn’t feel the need to accurately assess the gender of my camel. My camel driver, Nanu, was a little boy—he couldn’t have been older than seven years old. And it made me feel horrible. I’m sure he wasn’t attending school. But I’ve been debating with myself whether or not this is a good thing. An education would prepare him for the world and his future, possibly giving his family a boost in the poverty struggle. But is his job now sustaining his family? If he’s not making money now, will it take a meal away from a baby brother or sister? I’ve been struggling with questions like this lately as I see people living in extreme poverty along the sides of the roads. Either way, it was hard for me to sit on the camel while he walked through the dust, holding the lead rope.

The safari was two hours in total. It wasn’t the epic trek through a barren, hallucination-inducing desert that I was hoping for, but rather a mellow jaunt on roads through fields and rural farms. But, you know, I guess that will work too. We camped in tents that night, on cots with comforters. Actually, the only part of it that really reminded me of camping was the big, warm fire we had, which I sat next to all night. This camping experience further made me think about the contrast between my position and the position of a vast number of Indians. I am so incredibly lucky to have the life I do, to be supported emotionally, financially, and otherwise. And the sights I see hurt me. I know I’m not personally responsible for them, but it’s hard to reconcile the comfort and luxuries I enjoy when I see families living in the dirt, cooking their meals on median strips. I just don’t know what to do or how to react when children approach me asking me for “just one chapatti.” The IDEX employees told us that giving to individuals is bad, as it encourages dependence. It breaks my heart that I must just walk away. BUT, the point of this trip is learning how to be an agent of change, so if I try to look for the good in everything, I can view this as inspiration to change things and to somehow find a way to help these people.

We’ve continued our work at Go Sewa Sangh this past week, which has consisted of (take a wild guess) lots of cow poop. I’ve rotated through organic farming and vermi-composting, as well as the production and packaging of naturopathic medicines. We actually stirred the concoction of amla fruit and cow ghee cooking in a huge pot over a fire, skimmed off foam from the surface of boiling cow urine, and mixed huge bags of sugar into a vat of some sort of liquid. If I really tried hard to pretend, I could have been in potions class at Hogwarts. Wishful thinking.

A major cold front came in last week. And when I say that, I mean that it’s in the 60s during the day and gets down into the 30s at night. But it NEVER gets that cold here. My host mom told us that the last time the temperature hit 0 degrees Celsius was in 1905, and it got down to 1.5 last week! Whenever Hannah and I would walk upstairs to breakfast, the first thing we’d hear was how low the temperature got last night. We haven’t gotten many weather updates this week though, as it’s warmed up a bit.

The smells, traffic, and noise of the city have been starting to get to me, so I’ve been attempting to find ways to relax and block it out. Our daily chai helps (Sujith has started giving us a cup in the evenings now!) And lots of reading. We found a market nearby our house that sells Western snacks, so I got my jar of peanut butter and finally found some dental floss. Who knew it was so hard to find in Asia?

When Hannah and I got home today, our host brother called us up to the roof to practice for tomorrow’s kite festival, national holiday, where people hang out on their roofs and fly kites all day. I learned that there are two types of strings—a hard and soft kind. The hard kind is used so that you can cut other peoples’ kites down. But you have to be careful because they can also cut human skin! I’m a little bit intimidated by how serious people are about their kites here…hopefully I’ll be able to hold my own if it comes down to a duel with a neighbor’s kite.

I miss everyone lots and hope all is well!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Camels, and Monkeys, and Goats-- Oh My!

I looked out the window of the bus to see a camel, hair shaved into ornate designs, pulling a cart full of fruit. Then a huge Reebok billboard met my gaze: the backside of a woman seemingly only wearing bathing suit bottoms and a t-shirt. Our first bus ride in India, from the airport to the IDEX office, felt like a crazy dream to me. After flying all night and sleeping on the cold tile floor of the Mumbai airport during our midnight to 6 am layover, I was a little wiped. I was unable to focus enough to determine whether or not the things I was seeing were actually real, or abstract figments of my exhausted mind. Reaching our destination, IDEX, our partner NGO here, greeted us as their office with chai. The rest of the day was spent lounging around on the cushioned floor and having orientation talks before (surprise!) we met our homestay families around 5.

Here in India, we have homestay partners again. I’m with Hannah and am loving it so far. Our host family lives in Duleshwar Garden, which is in C Scheme (for anyone familiar with Jaipur.) We’re in walking distance to restaurants, two malls, and Central Park. Maddie and McKinley live two blocks away as well. My host mom, Reeta, and host dad, Rakesh, are very nice. We also live with Anant, their son, who I’m guessing is in his late 20s/early 30s. Hannah and I live on the ground floor of the house. Grandma (we don’t know her actual name) and Sujith, the housekeeper, also live down there. Grandma is pretty old and spends most of her time in bed but occasionally will get up and walk past the door to our room. We know she’s coming because we can hear heavy breathing and footsteps (picture Darth Vader in the form of an old, kind Indian woman.) I’m not gonna lie, it’s a little creepy. But she’s actually really sweet and will occasionally pop her head into our room and laugh or smile. Sujith sleeps on a mattress on the floor in the family’s prayer room. When we first got here, Hannah and I didn’t know the appropriate way to act toward him, since the caste system still does exist here. We don’t interact with him much, other than saying hello and thank you as we cross each other’s paths. We want to try to get to know him better, once we find out if it’s okay for us to do that… An outside staircase connects our section of the house to the second floor (where an Italian couple lives,) then to the third floor, which is where the family lives. Their floor is nicer and newer and definitely less dungeon-like than our section of the house. The stair case continues up to the roof, which is a flat, open space that you can fly kites on or do whatever else you choose. It’s so nice to sit up there on a sunny day, like I’m doing right now.

The past few days, I’ve been getting to know the city a little better. Turns out, the sights I saw on our first bus ride were not, in fact, hallucinations. It’s just India. Camels, monkeys, pigs, goats, chickens, and dogs roam the streets. Fruit stands and tuk tuks are everywhere. Brightly-clad women balancing baskets on their heads line the sides of the road. Kites circle and dive above the tops of houses. And then there are the less-appeasing sights, like men peeing on the sides of the road; poor women and children pleading for money, food, anything; piles of dung from all of the wandering animals. I can’t even describe Jaipur—the words that come to mind right now are vibrant chaos. It’s a big change from China, and has taken some adjusting to. For women, clothing is important to pay attention to. We are supposed to wear long pants and cannot wear tank tops or tops cut too low. Even around our homestays they advised us to be careful of wearing capris. For our work, we need to wear traditional Indian dress. So we all went to the market to buy our own traditional Salwar Kamez, a loose tunic-y dress with pants or leggings. They're so comfortable, I think I may start wearing them at home!

In the mornings, Hannah and I wake up and head upstairs to breakfast at 9, which is always followed by a cup of chai. Then we catch a tuk tuk in hopes of getting to our worksite by 10. That doesn't always go as planned though. On our first day, we got a tour of the city (and the slums) when our tuk tuk driver circled us all around and got out at one point to talk to friends and drink chai, and got to work a half an hour late. At our worksite, Go Sew Sangh, they raise cows and use their byproducts for pretty much everything you can think of, besides meat. They milk them; use their manure for compost, which they utilize on their organic farm; water down the dung to make biogas to use in their kitchen and cars; and make naturopathic medicines from the byproducts as well. For the past few days, I’ve been working on biogas. The first day, we hosed water into a pit of cow dung, which then flowed into a holding tank. An anaerobic process ferments the bacteria and a few chemistry lessons later the gas is compressed and available for use. It seems to be a very sustainable process, as they even use the left over dung as fertilizer on their farm. I learned that biogas can even be made with human waste! The problem I noticed is that it seems a bit water-intensive. 25L of water and 25kg of dung are required to make one cubic meter of gas. I’m interested in doing more research into whether or not this method could be successful on a larger scale. The next day, we shoveled fertilizer onto a cart drawn by bulls, which we proceeded to ride over to the field, where we’d unload our pile. The facilitators at Go Sewa are hilarious. Three old men lead our groups around and inform us on the various parts of their farm. My favorite quote by Dr. Bhundary is “age is no boundary, look at the playboy man who marries 25-year-olds!” After work, we always have a cup of chai.

For lunch, we head back to IDEX and eat on their rooftop. After that, we have our seminars or other afternoon activity. Dinner at our homestay is usually around 8. My family is vegetarian, and our lunches are vegetarian as well. So let’s just say I’ve been missing meat. I was searching for non-vegetarian restaurants all week that I could eat at on the weekend, and today I finally got some chicken! Other than the lack of meat though, the food tastes good! And of course, there’s chai. I have at least two cups every day, but I don’t think I’ll get tired of it! I hope not. Fun fact: chai is the hindi word for tea.

The weather has been cooler than we expected. It’s in the high 60s during the day, and gets chillier at night. Our host parents always tell us how freezing it is for them, but I’m just happy that it’s warmer than China! So far at least…

I wish everyone the best of luck in the new year! I spent my New Year’s Eve at the program leaders’ house with everyone else that didn’t have plans with their host families. We played games, watched a movie, and celebrated with poppers and horns at midnight. The next morning after breakfast, we even streamed the ball drop in New York!

I can’t believe it’s only been a week—there’s so much to tell! But I’ll stop here for now.