Thursday, July 24, 2014

Misery Meter meets India

Before we came here, I promised myself that I would be honest about my experiences.  That I would record the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.  Because, more than anything, I am writing this blog for myself and for my family. To really remember the experiences we had and how we felt and how they changed us.

Also, having a blog is a good consolation prize. When you have a horrible day (as I did yesterday), you can look on the bright side and say, "At least I will get one hilarious blog post out of it!" 

It makes everything useful...if only for a good laugh for people halfway across the world. ; )

I now have a new LOW on my "Misery Meter". It is called India Low and there is a fair bit of distance between that and my previous America Low. To tell you the truth, I did not even know I had a Misery Meter, but it just kept going off yesterday and then I had to give it a name.

One thing being in India has also given me is a sure knowledge that even as I write this, I know that my new "India Low" doesn't even touch the "I-have-leprosy-and-my-family-and-community-have-shunned-me-and-I-no-longer-have-use-of-my-hands-and-feet"Low that I see every time I go out with our mobile medical clinic.

So, even while I have fun describing just how miserable yesterday was (and it was!), I just want to make it clear that I still have perspective on just how relative my Misery Meter is.

Where to start?.....

Avery has had an ingrown toenail for about a month now and it got infected and even though we were treating it with antibiotics, Dr. Susan (our managing director who is a medical doctor) thought it would be best to take her to the hospital for a surgery consult. As it turns out, if you want to see a doctor here in India, you go to the hospital. They don't seem to have separate doctor offices like we do.

Things went awry from the very beginning. I woke up with a horrible sore throat and was concerned that I might have strep. When I went to get dressed, the pants I had chosen out of the volunteer closet (in the next building over from us) would not fit over my ankles. They are these super baggy pants and yet had been sewn with impossibly small holes for the feet. I was running late, so I called out, "Does anybody have any leggings I can wear?" Camry tossed me her gray leggings and I put them on. (bad choice...B.A.D. choice)

Avery and I ran out to meet our driver and to my dismay, I see that there is a group waiting for us and we are in the van that does not have air conditioning.  (Please keep that always in your mind as you read...NO air conditioning...96+ degree weather...60-65 percent humidity.) There was a nurse, a house mother, and two children from the school. As we started our journey, I realized that we were not going the direct route to Chennai (which takes 2 hours) but that we were going through little villages on the way...first, to pick up another Rising Star nurse from her home and then to pick up other people that also needed to go see a doctor. 

My head and throat are throbbing and the constant honking of horns and the deplorable condition of the roads we travel on are only making it worse, but even so, I am still just dealing with it.  Still have it together on the inside and still able to cope with the discomfort.

Then we came to a train crossing where the guard rails were down but there was no train in sight.  Our driver stopped the van, turned it off, and we waited...and waited. For at least 20 minutes! The minute the van stops the air becomes thick and heavy. The leggings are indescribably hot.  I want to rip them off and throw them out the window. Then I remember where Camry got these leggings. They are the only ones I ever owned in America. I bought them to wear under my ankle-length skirt during the winter months when I would go to the temple at 5 am and I was freezing. These things were made for warmth!! Curse them!

This is probably the first time I nearly cried. There were so many times it is hard to remember, but this was definitely the first. 

Finally, the train zipped by and the rails went up and we were able to continue on our way. At length, we arrived at the hospital. Oh, if only Americans could all see this hospital we would never again complain about our healthcare.  (I am serious!) There was an outdoor waiting area under a metal structure (like what farmers cover their hay with) with over 200 plastic chairs and at least half of them were full of people waiting. After our nurses stepped into an office, they split us up and one nurse walked me and Avery over to a Specialty Building. We waited in one line, then sat down in the waiting area, and then were given wristbands and directed to the elevator. After squishing more people than you ever thought possible into one elevator, the doors closed and we made it to our floor. We checked in, weighed Avery, and were directed down a long hallway to wait near a door that said Paediatric Surgery--Dr. Prakash Amralraj.

After sitting there for about 15 minutes, an orderly came and informed us that the doctor was in surgery right now, but would be here in about an hour. THANK GOODNESS the hospital was air-conditioned, so, other than being a little boring, I thought waiting would not be a big deal.

Oh, how wrong I was. That was before I started sneezing and the water/snot started running sporadically (and with no warning) from my nose.

And that was before I felt the tell-tale grumblings in my lower abdomen and realized with great dismay that I had forgotten to bring any toilet paper. The FIRST RULE of India: "Never leave home without your T.P." and all I had in my bag was a water bottle, an iPad, and two peanut butter sandwiches. All useful and/or necessary, but nothing that even MacGyver could use in my situation!

I tried to ignore it, tried to hope against hope that I could wait it out, but eventually I had to seek out a much for the toilet as for the hope of some kind of paper to blow my nose. I was directed to an empty bathroom that I saw (with some relief) had a western toilet. I stepped in, locked the door, turned around, and my heart sank. Let me describe what was in this room. It is very important for you to understand what was in the room and what was not in the room before I continue.

There was one dirty, low American toilet with no toilet seat. A water spigot and bucket of water with a scoop floating on the surface. And one empty paper towel dispenser. long as you fully understand that, we can continue.  And, please, don't judge. Desperate times call for desperate measures....

I looked in vain for any scrap of paper, any tissue, any newspaper, a leaf for crying out loud, but was only left with what God gave me.

Oh, wait...did you not know that God gave you your very own bum-wiper?

 Let me introduce you to your left hand...which is what they use here in India...which is why there is not a single scrap of paper in this bathroom. And notice that I did not say there was a sink with some lovely soap either. 

I will skip all the sordid details. I have tried to wipe them from my mind...with my right hand, of course!  ; )

When I came out of the bathroom with wet, rinsed off, but-in-no-way-clean hands, I mimed desperately to a janitor for paper towels. She disappeared into a nearby room, came out with one hand cupped, and the other holding a wad of paper towels. She tipped her cupped hand over my outstretched palm and, bless her!!, out came orange hospital soap. I stepped back into the toilet room and scrubbed and scrubbed that soap into my hands for all I was worth and then rinsed with the water from the spigot. (If only I had tried my miming skills before stepping into the bathroom...) One more thing...using your hand in such a way is akin to chopping garlic cloves with your bare hands...try as you might, scrub and disinfect and deodorize as you might, you swear, swear, that you can still smell it on there hours later. So. Nasty.
...but let's move on, shall we?

I used one of the paper towels to dry my hands, one to blow my running nose, and shoved the other 2 into my purse. On my way back to our seats, I saw some "hand sanitizer" near the front door and ran over to douse my hands with it. We continued waiting. All the while, I am using up my paltry supply of paper towels on my runny nose. We are finally shown into the doctor's office where he takes a cursory glance at Avery's toe, prescribes Augmentin, and tells us to come back in 6 days. I asked if he would operate then and he said, "No, we don't like to operate on ingrown toenails. They always end up coming back. We will check it next time and if it still needs to be cut out we will make the appointment then".  All the while he is talking, I am thinking, "I will hold her down and cut out her  "#@*#" nail myself if I have to, but I am not coming back here!" Oh yes, I had definitely reached the swearing-in-my-head level.

We left the building, met up with the other people, and had a lunch of lemon rice and boiled eggs that the nurses had brought along. After using the bathroom like a true Indian, I definitely ate like one...making sure I only used my right hand as I mashed the rice into a ball to scoop into my mouth, while my left hand tried to balance the plate using just my thumb and my palm.

 The last little girl and her housemother finally made their way out to the van and oh-so-slowly ate their lunch on the grass. Inside my head I was wishing that Indians ate on the run like Americans and that we could just start driving and get home. I was also talking myself back from the tears of  exhaustion and overheated-ness and of the futility of this whole blasted day when Navamani turns around in the van and says, so calmly, completely unaware that I am on the verge of a breakdown... "Rebecca, little Shalini is not done yet. They must go back and see another doctor." 

I could not take that hot, sticky van one minute longer so I got up and took Avery to a nearby park area in the building complex that had stone benches and shade and we wiled away the rest of the, trying to sleep with a couple ants crawling on me and she, listening to a kids' Podcast on my iPad. 

Unbelievably, the ride home was worse than the ride there. I was running out of water and had to resort to reusing all the used, soggy tissues in my bag while we made countless stops. One at a leprosy colony to drop off some supplies, many to drop off the other patients, three times for the nurses to run to a nearby store and buy something they or the school needed, and of course, 15 minutes waiting for that stupid train. Every time we would stop, the sweat would drip down my face and arms, my legs would swelter in their winter leggings and the air would become unbearable. Still 45 minutes away from home, we had pulled over near a busy intersection in Chengelput. All the nurses were out on little errands, so there I sat with the children, the other patients, and the driver...all of whom speak little or no English.

On the brink of losing it, I grabbed a 100 rupee bill (less than 2 dollars) out of my purse and told Avery to follow me. Pantomiming to the driver that I was going to go look for a cold drink, I felt confident that we could find something easily and THANK HEAVENS we did. We bought one cold water bottle and two ice cream sticks. I was ecstatic to see a pile of napkins on the counter and stashed away as many as I could for my dripping nose. We walked back to the van, quickly finishing our melting ice cream, and sat down to drink our water on the curb...when almost immediately we were accosted by a group of street urchins. 

I am serious. And I am not exaggerating...
I have never had cause to use that description, but that is what they were. They were clearly siblings...6 of them...the oldest holding the baby on her hip. They were practically naked, their hair was matted and full of filth and lice and they were grabbing our water bottles to take them away from us. They were not begging, they were simply taking. If I had not been sick, with what I am still afraid might be strep throat, I would have gladly given them my water bottle.  I tried to shoo them away, telling them I had nothing to give them. One of the kids held onto my bottle with such tenacity, I had to pry her (his?) little mud-caked fingers off of it. They were the most pitiful sight I have ever seen. Even in the leprosy colonies I have never seen such filth and squalor.  I wish I had been together enough to figure out what I could actually do for them. But I was exhausted and sick and depleted. I felt a little sadness, but mostly relief as I watched them walk away.

At length we made it home, where I pulled off those wretched leggings, threw them in Camry's room ("Oh, yeah, sorry," she says. "I forgot to tell you how hot they are!" ten hours too late) and scrubbed and scrubbed my left hand before getting in bed at 6 pm and calling it a night.

As I write this, I laugh, remembering the conversations I had with friends about
moving our family here...

"Yes," I hear myself saying, "the kids will have good days and they will have bad days, but all of them will teach them something in the end."

Karma: 1    Me: 0

Saturday, July 12, 2014

What our days look like...

During the summer months, we have a new group of volunteers coming every two or three weeks. These volunteers go on rotations through Education, Community Outreach (construction), and Medical.  We have had the privilege of going out on these rotations with the groups.

Here is Camry and Liberty on their first day of Education. We always wear a scarf when we are working in the school with the children. Otherwise, we just wear a tunic and chudidars (pants that are often baggy on the top but tapered to be snug at the ankle).

Liberty with Kishore Kumar going over his ABC's. 

These little girls are so adorable.  Brooklyn is working with Diyasri (Dee-ah-sree). She is so teeny and totally adorable. Her grin is the biggest thing about her. Camry is working with Yamenishri (Yaw-men-ee-sree). We just love these little UKG (Upper Kindergarten) kids!

Camry and Liberty have gone out with construction twice and come home exhausted and a little sore, but since I have never gone out with them, I don't have any pictures. 

When we go out on medical, the small kids and I do water management and Liberty and Camry normally do blood pressure and eye drops. 

This picture was from the very first time Lon and I went out to a colony with just Avery and 
Cohen. The nurses from BYU were here and one was kind enough to include Cohen and Avery. Water management is simply taking the basin after a patient's foot has been soaked and washed and dumping out the water. Then you rinse the basin with "clean" water and then with antiseptic solution. Then the basin is ready for the next patient. I put CLEAN in quotations because it is still considered gray water for us Americans.

Liberty doing eye drops...

Avery and Camry doing blood pressure...

Whatever rotation we go on, we are gone from about 9 am to 2 pm.  Then we come home, have a couple hours to rest and relax in our air conditioned house and then we go out for playtime. 

The kids are so excited to play with the volunteers.

My main job happens during playtime...I head out to the playground to round up children who need to write letters to their sponsors. It is a very rewarding job. All the kids I have worked with so far are so excited to get letters from their sponsors and are so very sincere and careful in their letter writing and so intent on making it very beautiful and they love to draw pictures.

Here is Cohen and Camry out with Sudha (SOO-duh).

Cohen is still very unsure about all the kids. He has a fair amount of anxiety about being with them, so right now, we are settling for him to either go to lunch with the kids or playtime with the kids.  He has had a couple fun times...once he played hide and seek with Avery and a group of 6 or 7 little girls and one day he played "Sevens" with the older girls. It was so very cute to see him interacting with them. I snapped this photo right as he messed up and ducked his head. The older girls are really cute with him and are less overwhelming to him. They don't really get in his face like the littler ones.

The girl to the right of Cohen is Priyanka. She is always so kind to Cohen and tries to draw him out if his shy little shell.

After playtime, we come home and have about 45 minutes until our dinner with the volunteers up on the roof of the green house...just above where we live. 

We have Indian food that is made for us over at the cafeteria and then fresh fruits and vegetables cut up by the volunteers. As we are eating, we each share our low and high from the day. We had an awesome session that just ended and it was so fun to share everyone's experiences.  Even our children share their highs and lows and it is really fun. Tonight, we ate had dinner inside our house since it was just our family and the long term coordinators. Cohen surprised me tonight by opening up his journal and sharing his note from the tooth fairy. (He wrote a note asking the tooth fairy where she lives. And the tooth fairy left a note for him explaining that she lives in an empty coconut shell high up in a tree!)  It was adorable and I was so excited to see him becoming so comfortable with this group of college kids. 

Speaking of Cohen, he has lost not one, not two, but THREE teeth since we have been here and each time he has gotten over 30 rupees (fifty cents) from the tooth fairy. ; ) 

After dinner with the volunteers, we come back down to our house, one child does the dishes while the rest are supposed to be getting ready for bed.  We tuck them all in bed but they rarely stay. ;  ). We are constantly having to kick them out of our room. Everyone loves our bed. (In their defense, it really is the only nice bed in the house.) Cohen has even started a new campaign. He wants us to all take turns sleeping in different rooms (including me and Lon) so that sometime, he would get a turn in our nice bed. ;)

FAT CHANCE, Cohen!  ; )

Another part of our every (week)day life is our beautiful house cleaner...Selvi. She speaks almost no English, but we tell her Nandri (thank you) every day. She sweeps, mops, takes out the trash, and cleans the bathrooms. She also does the dishes if we have not gotten to them, so now I make sure that one of the girls does the dishes every morning before she arrives.

One day, I came in the front door and the girls called out to me..."Mom, come and see. Selvi is doing Liberty's henna." They had been fiddling around with some henna they bought at the Junction (a very crazy little intersection about 2 or 3 miles away that has a number of little ramshackle shops.) I guess she came over and motioned that she would do it. I was so delighted that there had been some small connection with her. A couple days earlier, I had been over in the Volunteer hostel and she walked past me into the common room and said "Family". Then she went and got out one of the children's memory books and it turns out that two of her sons go to school here at Rising Star and there was a family photo in his memory book. I was so happy that she wanted to show me her family. 

I want to get a picture of her sweeping one day. Their brooms are actually quite graceful and there is something peaceful and calm about their sweeping. 

She also did Avery's hand that day...

Selvi has four children (which is quite rare in India). They are all boys and they all come to Rising Star. We have met them all and they are such good kids. They some of the beat behaved kids in the whole school. Their names are Ashok, Vijay, Moorthy, and Karthik. (The th always sounds just like a t.) The two older ones live here at the school and the two younger ones live at home with their parents in the nearby village called Thottanaval.

India, as I am sure you know, is extremely overpopulated and so the government is very active in family planning campaigns. In fact, almost since day one I have wondered about a saying that is painted on the back of most trucks.  "WE TWO. OURS ONE." Turns out it is a family planning slogan. We also see "ONE IS BEST" everywhere. When we asked our director about it (we were on a long drive with her and kept seeing the slogans) she explained that the government offers free sterilization after the first pregnancy. Also, whenever there is a tubal ligation or vasectomy (even after two or three kids), that family will receive rice and money from the government! And some schools offer a free education if your child is an only child!  Isn't that interesting?

It is a different world over here. But we are loving the adventure. 

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Critters of India

On arrival, we got settled into our new home, started unpacking and promptly found a little friend in the bathroom. Cohen named him Hopper.  He stayed with us for about four days, always hanging out on the toilet tank and then one afternoon, Cohen came and got me saying, "There's a frog that got out of the bathroom." He pointed to the leg of a kitchen chair and I saw my opportunity. I grabbed the chair, took it outside and flung Hopper as far as I could. ; ). 

We also have many geckos that live with us. They vary in size, but the biggest ones are about 4 inches long. They really gross me out when I see them skittering across the walls. Luckily they normally stay in the window wells or behind furniture. Once, there was a gecko on our bed.  Ick! But thank goodness that rarely happens.

Another thing that has only happened once, and hopefully will never happen again, is a scorpion being in our house! One evening while I was over at the Volunteer Hostel, Liberty found a scorpion behind her violin case. Lon was called in and he killed it, but that really frieked me out!i did not expect to ever see one in our house.

One day Avery caught this tiny little gecko in her hands. If they were all this little, they really wouldn't bother me. It is the big ones I find repulsive.  Most of them are about four inches long and just yesterday morning, there was one on the shelf when I went to grab my toothbrush. I screamed as it skittered behind the shelving unit. Yuck. I don't think I will ever really get used to them, especially when they startle me.

This little guy is almost cute...

On our third day, we had a monkey hanging out in the mango tree right by our house. Then one time when Lon and I came back from being at the school, he was sitting on our steps enjoying some leftover banana from our garbage. He just stared at us and when we tried to shoo him away, he simply raised his eyebrows a little. 

As we stood there waiting for him to move, we thought he bore an uncanny resemblance to George W. Bush....just sayin'.

We also have ducks and kittens that live in our courtyard. They completely avoid us and quickly move off the path when they see us coming.

This is our courtyard that also has a swing....

There are also two dogs that live on campus...Manikum and Chief. We aren't allowed to pet them, but you can often find Chief curled up on the floor of the administrative office. And one day, Lon and I went out for a run on the road heading south towards the next village and Manikum decided to join us. 

The monsoon season is just beginning and we are really noticing an increase in the number of little bugs and beetles in our house and particularly at our door at night when our outdoor light is on. We are beginning a nightly ritual where I sweep up the bug carcasses and Camry stands nearby to step on any live ones. If you had told me that I would get used to the constant presence of bugs and creatures in my house, I would have thought you were crazy, but let me tell you....the jungle always wins. 

It would take constant vigilant effort to keep our house completely bug free and I just don't have the time. But the up side is that the jungle teaches you to not procrastinate. If you make a peanut butter and honey sandwich and don't completely rinse the knife, but instead leave it sitting on the counter (which my kids did all the time in the U.S.) within less than five minutes, the counter and knife will be swarming with ants...even if there were no ants visible when you started. I am happy to say that we are all getting better at this. We are learning to clean up EVERY LAST CRUMB because if we don't, they will come. You also have to clean up every last bug that you kill, because if not, within five or ten minutes the ants will be swarming and trying to carry it off. 

I know it sounds crazy, but it is life here...and we are learning to live it. One day and a couple hundred bugs at a time!

The arms of Jesus

Last week, we had a beautiful experience in a tiny leprosy colony out in the middle of nowhere. Camry, Liberty, Cohen, and I accompanied the medical team to Mogalvadi Leprosy Colony. It was a long, hot ride that got progressively more bumpy as we traveled farther and farther from any civilization. 

We unloaded the medical van and started setting up the stations. I heard David (our medical coordinator) ask, "Where is Jayaraj?". The residents gestured to the road and there was Jayaraj riding into the colony on an old rickety bike. The only way to describe this man is JOYFUL. He was so excited to see us.  He greeted each of us and was especially delighted when he came to Cohen. 

There were only 5 patients at the colony. We start by taking their blood pressure and recording it in their chart.  This was Libby's job...

This woman in the picture with Liberty was absolutely heartbreaking to watch. You can see how very tiny she is. Her left hand (you can see it in the picture) only has the thumb and one digit on it. Her right hand was just as damaged. She cannot walk...cannot even stand up. Both of her feet are stumps and her body is permanently curled nearly into a fetal position. When we arrived, she was curled up on the floor waiting to be seen. She will refuse any help (we were told) and manages somehow to carry her chart cradled in her lap as she scoots from station to station. She even pulled herself up onto the chair for her blood pressure.

At this colony, we just set up outdoors. The first station is bandage removal, then washing. We then oil their legs and clip their toenails (if they have any) and then the nurse (Navamani) at the end does the actual care of the ulcers and cutting away any dead tissue before putting on fresh bandages.

It is a very powerful experience to serve these people in this small way.  

But, everyday when we have gone out, I feel we gain so much more than we give.

This day, Jayaraj taught us what it means to be joyful, to take the life you have been given and LOVE IT.  He and his wife live in this colony. They have been here for years together. They are beautiful and happy, both wearing huge smiles with warm, welcoming eyes. 

Jayaraj LOVES to sing and dance. Once the work with the patients was done, he motioned for people to gather around him and he got us all clapping. He made sure he had Cohen right next to him and then he started singing and dancing and clapping his hands.  One time (I have video and will share it as soon as I can) he succeeded in getting Cohen to raise his arms and wave his hands a bit and Jayaraj nearly burst with joy. He called Cohen "SOO-PUH! SOO-PUH BOY!!" ("Super boy"...just wait until you see the video! ; )

I could tell that every volunteer there that day was touched by this man. To see someone who loves life this much, who is deeply and truly happy and yet has nothing -NOTHING- that we usually believe brings happiness. It was beautiful and humbling to the core. It was pure grace.

Often after going out on medical, the volunteers are taken to see a local shrine or temple. Our driver seemed to be lost and we really weren't sure we were going to find it, but eventually he was directed to a small conclave of buildings and we unloaded from the van. There were about 12 of us and we headed up a long, wide staircase cutting into the side of the mountain. There were loudspeakers playing devotional music and beautiful crosses and statues of Christ along the path. This was a Christian shrine to St. Thomas and the main attraction, it seemed, was at the top of the hill. After many steps and numerous switchbacks...353 steps to be exact (the kids counted on the way down)...we came to the top and were treated to a beautiful view out over the countryside and this statue.

Without a person in the picture, it is hard to judge the scale, but It was quite large. The feet of Christ were well above my head. It was a hot day and the sun was beating down on us. We congregated in the shade below the cross and the figure of Christ and I was struck with the symbolism in our action. 

The sweet protection of His shade, a place of rest, a respite from the day's harsh sun...I looked up and all I could see were the outstretched arms of Jesus. 

Beckoning, welcoming...and always open. It was one of those quiet peaceful moments...a moment of stillness when something in the universe reaches down, narrows, and gently touches a single soul. 


All the way down the hill --with the kids counting (124, 125...267,268...), with the volunteers talking, and the music floating from the loudspeakers--that stillness stayed with me as I pondered that moment, that feeling, that small nugget of insight.

And I was left wondering one simple thing, pondering one simple question... 

How can my arms become more like the arms of Jesus?

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Our beautiful little boy...

So here is the funny story from the sari shop...

We were at Express mall in Chennai just meandering through a few shops. I found a home store where I was able to find measuring cups, measuring spoons, and cutting boards for decent prices. We walked out of that store and saw a sari shop directly across from us.

The fabric is just amazing. There are endless choices. So many that I have no idea how I will ever choose which one I want to buy before we leave! After seeing a few sari shops, I have decided that saris are India's snowflakes...there are no two that are exactly alike.

We walk in and are greeted by two sales women who immediately start showing us saris.  There was one that was absolutely gorgeous and she pulled it off the hanger and wrapped me in it.

Then Avery picked one out to try on.

After it was clear to the saleswoman that we were not going to be talked into buying one that day, she turned to Claartje (our construction coordinator for the summer from the Netherlands) and tried to talk her into trying one on. When she refused, Cohen said, jokingly, "I want to try one!"

So they said, "Come, come." They thought it was hilarious. They wrapped him up and a male salesman came over laughing and gently teasing Cohen, "What a pretty girl". Cohen was loving all the attention. Then the man went and got a wig off of a mannequin and put it on Cohen.

Once he was all dressed up, they all wanted their own pictures with him. It was a total bright spot of the day! They got such a kick out of the little American boy that wanted to try on a sari.