Only a few hours left

This post is the end. If you would like to go back to the beginning–its here: Namaste!

Ah, friends. It’s almost over.

I’m sorry that I have really fallen off the blogging wagon. I promise that I have been making lots of memories and have tons of stories to tell, but right now I just can’t tear myself away from the children to sit in front of my computer. I am leaving India in 36 hours and while I can’t wait to go home, I am utterly heartbroken.

Its a difficult thing to describe, but somehow its so hard to understand that on the other side of the world, my American life is still happening without me. It seems unimaginable that I am leaving this strange, fascinating and amazing place that has completely consumed and redefined my whole sense of self these last several months. And that when I go home, this will all still be here–the patients, the burden of disease, the daily struggle to provide these humans with hope, dignity and compassionate care. Madam will still see patients in the little clinic. The pink nuns will still scrub into the OR with Dr. Beine. The children will still play “sky blue” at their playground.  Uncle will watch over everyone. Sunita will still cook carrot curry.

I have no idea how I am going to say goodbye to the friends who have become like family and to the 30 children who have brought so much perspective, joy and love into my life.

Pray for me. I can’t wait to see all of you so, so soon.

Hello from Rajastan!

We are having so much fun gallivanting around India!

Backtrack: my cousin Andy, the dermatologist from New Mexico, has flown out to Hyderabad to hang out with me and learn about leprosy from the experts. In the US leprosy is super rare (obviously) and is generally only contracted by people who spend alot of time working with Armadillos. Who knew?

Anyways, Andy spent the first week with me at SRH. And let the record show that he slept in Guest House 1 in the 107 degree heat, on a coconut mat, like a CHAMP.

Now in his second week in India, we are having a great adventure traveling around North India in what they call the “Tourist Triangle.” At Jann and Darryl’s recommendation, we are working with a travel agency who has sent up a series of excellent adventures for us. So far we’ve been to Delhi where we stayed in a fabulous hotel (I slept in a BED and took a SHOWER and it was AMAZING!) and toured around the capital.

india 829b small  resWhile we were out driving in Delhi there was an elephant in the road, walking right along next to us. The elephant’s owners decorate their trunks with chalk mandalas. I was so excited. I wish my morning commute was on the back of an elephant.

We saw the second largest Islamic mosque (second to Hagia Sofia) with the relics of the prophet Mohammed in it, which was cool. And we visited a big tower that was constructed by some king in 1191 to show how awesome he was (yeah like THATS never been done  before.) We also visited a Sihk temple, where I made some flat bread with a sihk woman and talked learned about “ritualistic cleansing.”  Consquently, I washed my feet at both the sihk temple and the mosque, so they even though they are dusty and gross I’m ritually clean?

Part of the Sihk religious tradition is to feed the poor. Here I am helping the church ladies make chapati (Sunita will be so proud!)

Next we drove several hours to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Turns out, I’m not much of a fan of Agra. Our tour guide was telling us that over a century ago some law was passed? (decreed?) that the area is not allowed to industrialize because the air pollution would tarnish the white marble of the Taj Mahal. So.. imagine pre-indutrial revolution India, but in 2009. That’s Agra. There are beggars and slums down around Hyderabad, but this is a whole next level up. The tour guide was also telling us that because this is an international tourist destination there is alot more “pimping” of beggar children with very clear “territories.” It all makes me very sad. The Taj Mahal is absolutely worth the hype, it is truly magnificent. But after we saw it, I was ready to get right out of Agra.

In other news, I “charmed” a cobra today with an old guy on the side of the road (from a reasonable distance–who knows if these snakes are de-venomed?) and saw a whole ton of monkeys running around.  The babies were hanging on the mothers and they were running around all over this temple we went to go see.   Apparently the monkeys are a huge problem for people because using their opposable thumbs those little sneaks can open doors, refrigerators, cabinets and steal food (and make a huge mess). charming

We went to Amber palace here in Rajastan, and it has been my favorite of the palaces. The palace is next to a fort on the side of a small mountain. The entrance is up a long sloped walkway, and I rode a small elephant to the top. It was great fun!

Jaipur is just gorgeous, certainly my favorite of the places we’ve visited. After Amber palace we went to a museum and saw alot of weapons and different forms of carpet weaving and textile making, then we saw a palace in the middle of a lake, had lunch, then we went to this giant observatory.  The king who founded Jaipur was a big time  astrologer and  made all these huge instruments out of marble and sandstone in the middle of a garden in order to map out the sky. Among these instruments are the world’s largest sundial which is accurate to two seconds, huge structures that measure all the zodiac constellations and these huge iron plates with tiny holes in the middle that are used to align stars.  The people in Jaipur are crazy about the whole zodiac sence. One’s horoscope is usually the deciding factor in arranging a marriage. Apparently if two people really seem to like one another and the families agree to the marriage, but the zodiacs dont match, its a no-go. Saisree has been trying to defend the whole concept of arranged marriage to me, but it just doesn’t work with my western sensibilities. I’m sure Scott will be relieved.
We also rode some camels this afternoon. It was fun, but I guess I never considered mounting and dismounting a camel. When I climbed on, the camel was kneeling. But in order to stand up, it does so one enormous leg at a time. So the saddle tips waay back, and then swings waaay the other way, and then kind of levels out. I almost fell off.

We are having such a wonderful time, but it feels strange. I miss the children back “home” in Hyderabad. Its been so wonderful to introduce Andy to everyone at SRH and have this great adventure with him, but it is making me homesick for the rest of my family. I wish they were all here too. I can’t believe its been 4 months, but I also can’t believe its only been 4 months.



“Can you feel that?”

I’ve been back working in leprosy this week. Today, a bunch of patients were referred here from a nearby hospital as suspected leprosy cases.  Now, as you recall from earlier blog posts, leprosy is a disease caused by a bacteria that ultimately results in decreased to lost nerve function in peripheral nerves (but you knew that already, of course). So to diagnose a patient with leprosy a few things go down:

1. The patient will have a “skin smear” taken. In a skin smear, a little clump of tissue is clipped off the patient’s ear lobe. Its heated, stained, and looked at under the microscope.  If there is massive amounts of mycobacterim leprae then voila!  You’ve got yourself a diagnosis.

Here’s the hangup: if someone doesn’t have a positive skin smear that doesn’t clear them as being leprosy-free.  In fact, many leprosy patients test negative on the skin smear since you have to have a pretty heavy load of bacteria to get them to show up in your earlobe. So there needs to be another way to look for leprosy.

Enter Lilly.

Lillykutty, better known as Lily to her friends, is certainly one-of-a-kind. She is the head nurse in the leprosy ward, and she is a tiny woman with cracked teeth and thick glasses who has no qualms whatsoever about bossing people around and showing everyone how its done. “How what’s done?” you might ask. The answer: peripheral sensory deficit mapping. Or more simply- poking.

So today, Dr. Thirapureddy told me to help Lilly. As soon as I appeared in her doorway, she grabbed me by the arm and half walked, half dragged me outside the office and out into the sun. “Here!” She thrust a ball point pen into my hand. I looked over at the blank chart sitting on the wall nearby, thinking that I might be taking notes? She called the first patient out here into the open air foyer, also directing him into the sunlight. “Off!” she said in Telugu and this young guy flipped off his shirt and dropped his trousers right on command. Standing there in his boxer shorts, Lilly looked at me and then cocked her head towards him. “Now, poke!” she said sharply. “Gentle” she added as an afterthought.

We asked the young man to close his eyes, and gently poked the skin at his wrist with the tip of our pens. “Can you feel that?” I asked him. He nodded.

“Where?” Lilly responded to him in Telugu.

The young man pointed to his upper arm, about 8 inches away from where I had touched him with the pen. Lilly clicked her tongue. She marked some notes on the page of the patient’s chart containing an outline of a human figure. And we poked some more.

We poked all over his arms, poked all over his legs. We even poked parts of his face. Lilly carefully sketched in the areas where the patient had no feeling and made annotations of where feeling was diminished. She also pointed out to me some patches of dry, hairless skin in the same areas that had no feeling.  Dr Thirapureddy explained to me how damaged nerve function means the patient cannot sweat in these places. And no sweat means dry skin. So if his skin is very dry in the same place a patient has no feeling, it is from nerve damage. And that nerve damage is probably leprosy. If the areas of nerve damage are spreading to wider areas than they were at a prior visit- it’s likely active leprosy and may need additional treatment.

So there you go: Leprosy Screening Method: Poke with pen, scan for dryness.

Lilly finished the chart and handed it to me. I walked with the young man into the office to see Dr. Thirapureddy.

“How was it?” he asked.

“Good.” I held up my pen to show him, and slid the chart to the doctor.

He nodded knowingly and opened the chart, scanning the notes and flipping between sketches.

“Ah Lilly” he sighed “she is the best.”


Today was balloon day! Being Sunday, I don’t have to work, and the children didn’t have school. Its also incredibly hot (41C).

My aunt Clara (my far-away partner in fun) sent me a packing full of “punching balloons” which are enormous balloons that have a rubber band attached to them so you can bounce them around off your fist, flat surfaces, or friends.  As soon as I opened the box, I knew this was going to be a good time.

I brought the whole box over to the orphanage (there were 35 balloons, so everyone got one) and the children swarmed me. I had them line up (we’re slowly and steadily making progress on waiting turns) and passed out the balloons. Then, I demonstrated how to blow them up.  Apparently, if you’ve never blown up a balloon before, its not the most natural concept. Most of the kids ended up just slobbering on the ends of their balloons, blowing air in and then having it compress back out into their mouths. After a few more trial runs, the bigger kids figured it out. Between myself, Goulthami, Lalitha, Sridhar and Davedenum, we got all 30 of them blown up with only minor hyperventilation.

Tying the balloons was another issue all together. Once the balloons were all blown up, the children had to hold them pinched shut and stand in line again so that I could tie them off.  Everyone was being very patient. I had finished tying about 6 balloons and those children with the tied balloons were off thwumping and shrieking and playing when someone in the back of the tying line accidentally dropped his balloon.

The rogue yellow balloon zoomed around the room and the children screamed with excitement. Just then, 24 more balloons started zooming around the room and just as many children broke into giggle fits. And we had to blow them all up again.

It was a great day. Total chaos. We did manage to get organized enough to play “keep the balloon in the air,” and “pickle in the middle.” We had balloon boxing matches,  made balloon towers, and played balloon tag. Best of all, we managed to pop only a few of them.

A lesson: On Meningitis and Compassion

Life out here  is hard.

Today I went into clinic, and we had a patient with really advanced AIDS. He has progressed into the “wasting syndrome” and additionally is suffering from other symptoms from an additional opportunistic infection, seemingly, meningitis. The meningitis is awful. It is affecting his ability to walk and it is causing him intense pain. This patient was carried in this morning by two members of his family.

He was too weak to eat, so Sunita puréed him some rice, which his wife carefully spooned to him. I just kind of watched this couple from afar, and thought about how difficult their lives must be.  Rubina, always the oracle who answers all of the questions I can never really articulate, broke my contemplation: “he has been out of work for 8 months, they have no food for the children.”  She is working to connect them with a program that provides food and clothing to destitute HIV patients.

I thought about this all afternoon. About hunger. I imagined this couple’s children, and superimposed the faces of the children I see each day on the street into my vision of their family and their struggle.  I suddenly felt more grateful for the sticky rice I eat day in and day out, and the vegetable curries Sunita piles on my little metal dish.

As the day was winding down, Dr. Suggunama (we call her “madam”) informed me that this patient needed to have a lumbar puncture (a spinal tap)  in order to collect some cerebrospinal fluid to help direct his treatment. She invited me to observe.

Uncle helped position the man into the fetal position, his back facing us. He was so gaunt that his skin stretched over his vertebrae like tight leather, and I could clearly see the demarcation from where madam would put the needle to pull the fluid.

Now, I’ve never had a spinal tap, but I can’t imagine its entirely comfortable.  On top of that, this poor man was already in so much pain he couldn’t walk—much less have a needle stuck into his spine.  Uncle held him, so he could stay steady. As madam started the puncture, this man began to whimper and eventually he cried out in discomfort. The whole time, this man’s poor wife was standing next to me. She began to wail so loudly and so severely, I thought she might hyperventilate. Uncle shot me a sharp look and tilted his head toward the door which plainly meant “get her out of here.” So I took this lady by the arm and led her outside.

Once in the sunshine, I sat her down under the tamarind tree where she continued to wail. This woman’s voice was full of agony and pain. I went to the kitchen and found a small bottle of cold water and brought it out to her. I sat with her as she sipped it slowly, and then she slowly slumped into my lap. Quietly, she shook as she wept into my Punjabi.  Immediately, I began to cry as well. Then how strange, I thought. This woman and I don’t speak a word of one another’s language. We’ve never met. I don’t even know her name. And yet, I can feel her sorrow and here I am, bearing witness to her pain. Is this what doctors do?

The spinal tap revealed that the patient does, in fact, have cryptococcal meningitis. I turned the sharp focus knob on Mary’s microscope and got a clear look at the tiny blue circles on the slide that was the cause of many tears this afternoon.

Cryptococcus spores in spinal fluid

Madam had to send him away to a bigger clinic since he needs longer term hospitalization which is outside our scope. But truly, he won’t live much longer even if he survives this (which is unlikely). I thought about my time at NIMS and imagined this man and his wife navigating through the giant crowded hospital, weak and brokenhearted.

As Uncle helped the patients family carry him out into a waiting vehicle, his wife followed behind with her head bowed. I whispered a prayer for them both, and then they were gone.

Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Stick

Uncle has been my faithful guardian since the day I landed here. You may recall on my very first day, he showed up at my door and wordlessly escorted me through my introductions at SRH.

Since then, he arrives at door my door to walk me to breakfast everyday. He always carries the same huge walking stick and silently accompanies me from my house to the facility kitchen where I sit and have breakfast Sunita and the other girls.  He doesn’t speak a word of English, and usually acknowledges me with a nod and raised eyebrow. Our walk is a short one: we walk down a light slope, following the path through tall grasses where the peacocks roam and take the little bridge over the creek which has dried up in the hot season. The creek bed is totally overgrown with bright grasses and wildflowers. Then we turn sharply and head over to the HIV ward and kitchen. Our morning walk takes us less than 10 minutes.

The morning commute

He is always around the clinic, helping with whatever needs to be done. Sometimes he assists Mary the lab technician. He always takes out the trash. Other days Shobba puts him to work moving hospital beds or running saline bags around. I’ve seen him escorting admitted patients in, helping the discharged patients get on their way home, and  also taking the bodies of patients who pass away out of the hospital. Some days he even comes with Sunita to deliver the chai at tea time.

During lunch, all of us girls squabble and laugh in the kitchen. The ladies catch up on their gossip and we sit together talking about the day. Uncle is always there with us, a quiet smile among the noisy chaos, and his walking stick resting in the corner. An occasional quip from Uncle throws the girls into giggles and cackles, and then he’s quiet again.

After work I usually go home to decompress for a half hour or so, and then change into my play clothes to head over to see the children. The children and I know that our playtime is over when Uncle appears on the playground to walk me over to the kitchen for dinner.

At one point towards the end of my first month, I was debriefing with Dr. Hrishikesh (“chief sir” as we call him) and I mentioned to him that it seemed unnecessary for Uncle to walk me everywhere.

Like a proud child who wants to be treated like a big girl, I insisted, “I know my way around now. Everyone knows me, I won’t get lost! I don’t need him anymore.”

Chief Sir smiled gently and spoke in his measured English, “Yes, gina. I know you do. But if it’s alright with you, we would prefer that he continues to escort you.”

I shrugged my shoulders, feeling moderately patronized, but soothed. “Okay. If you say so.”

Well, today it all made sense.

Like every morning, Uncle arrived at 8am to walk me down to the kitchen. I gathered up my things for the day, rushed out the door. As we walked, I was working on my mental checklist to make sure I remembered everything for the day. Satisfied that I had, I began digging through my bag to find a bindi which I stuck to my forehead and rooted around for a hair tie to braid back my hair. Finding once, I started plaiting while walking and thinking: I wonder what’s for breakfast? Ideeli, no doubt. Absentmindedly, I nearly walked straight into Uncle, who had stopped dead in his tracks.

There in the middle of the path was an enormous (and I mean, ENORMOUS) snake. I have no idea what kind of snake it was. Not a cobra. Not a copperhead. It was green. And HUGE. It definitely could have been up to 6 feet long and was about as thick as my bicep (Did I mention it was a big snake?). It hadn’t noticed us and I certainly hadn’t noticed it. But when it did note our presence, instead of casually going on its snaky way, this thing faced us, started hissing, and was striking in our general direction. In the spilt second I had to think, I regarded my feet looking vulnerable in pink sparkle flip flops. All I came up with was, Oh great. Now I’m going to get poisoned by an enormous Indian snake.

Not so! Before I could even panic, react or run, Uncle transformed into a snake killing Ninja before my very eyes. He baited the green serpant with his stick, and that enormous reptile made its fatal error in striking for the walking stick that crushed its head. Just like that, in a flash, it was dead.

So there’s this HUGE DEAD SNAKE that is bleeding from its eyes, lying in the middle of the path (tail still twitching) and Uncle casually steps over it and keeps walking, when finally my brain caught up with what just happened. I started freaking out.

“ohmygodUNCLE!Thatwasamazing,youkilledthatGIANTsnake! IdidntevenknowwhattodoandIwassoscaredand youjustKILLEDIT. Youwerealllike, ‘POW! TAKETHATSNAKE!’ AndthenitwasDEAD! ohmygod WHAT IS WITH THAT GIANT SNAKE?!”

He stopped and stared at me for a quick second while I caught my breath between exclamations, and gave me a tiny smile of satisfaction with that raised eyebrow. And then turned and kept on walking.

We made it to the kitchen and I ran in breathlessly, “Sunita! Mary! OhmysweetbabyJesus, Uncle just killed an ENORMOUS SNAKE! Did you know we had ENORMOUS SNAKES?! I thought I was going to DIE but then he KILLED IT. And now THE SNAKE is DEAD! It’s right out there! Don’t you want to see the HUGE DEAD SNAKE?! Uncle KILLED IT and he was AWESOME!” The girls all needed a minute to try and figure out what the heck I was saying. They looked at uncle, who casually shrugged and reported in Telugu that he had ninja-killed a snake, no big deal.

Then turning back to my breathless, half crazed fully adrenalized self, Sunita said to me in very slow, broken English, “Of course there is snake. This is India. Why do you think Uncle walks you everywhere for months and months? This is why he follows you with his  his snake-killing stick.”


“Why didn’t you tell me?” I later asked Dr H.

He smiled softly and shrugged, “we figured you’d freak out.”

So there you go. Uncle: my very own Snake killing bodyguard. Thanks, Chief Sir.

Shobba and Uncle, the snake-killing Ninja who probably just saved my life 

Dining out: American style

Well, I came up with a plan. And though I found the whole evening to be rather silly, Theresa is happy and I have to count it as wildly successful.

I have been branching out in Hyderabad little by little. Jann and Darryl have taken me to some pretty spectacular Indian restaurants inside the city. I’ve been discovering some amazing dishes, and have learned that the paramount of Indian refinement is in service. And when I say service, I mean, service. You come up to a fancy restaurant and there is someone usually wearing a crazy hat who is there to open the door for you. A separate someone to seat you. A separate someone to pull out your chair. A separate someone to pour your water. Another someone to take your order. Two other people stand there while you eat, refilling your plate from family style serving dishes in the center of your table, as needed. Its overwhelming, to say the least.

So I figured: this is a good plan. I will order a taxi and take Theresa, Selene and James out to swanky Banjhara Hills and we will dine at one of these super fancy Indian restaurants. And since this time I am the host and they are my guests, they will have to accept my hospitality (and the 8 different waiters), and that will be wonderful.  Awesome.

Its been hard for me to meaningfully and appropriately show my appreciation for the amazing people here in my India life. The small and thoughtful gestures of inclusion, compassion and warmth really make all the difference in the world for me when I am so far from home. So many days I desperately want to contribute back. But there’s language barriers, and sensitive etiquette I don’t really understand all the time, and class concerns or whatever—and at the end of the day, I certainly don’t want to alienate anyone. So I smile a lot, and make an effort to communicate my very genuine gratitude. So THIS! This is an opportunity that I was really excited about. I don’t really get out a whole lot, and its not very often that there would be something in Hyderabad that I could expose Theresa to. Very pleased with myself for being such a savvy American, I called for a driver to pick up our foursome that evening, and told Theresa to ready her favorite sari because we were going out in style.

Theresa was very excited about this, and was all a flutter about our special outing. I had mentioned three of the different fancy restaurants I knew of, and gave a brief description so she could help me decide which would be best suited for Selene and James. Then, with a shy tilt of her head and a slight fluttering of her fingers she asked, “do you think we could go to that special American restaurant everyone talks about?”

It took me about 2 seconds to realize she was referring to TGIFridays. Oh yes. Potato skins and red polyester waiters and cheap beer. That TGIFridays.

Now, you may remember me referencing that TGIFridays is the new hotspot in downtown Hyderabad. Really. That’s where the Tollywood stars go to see and been seen, and I see it pictured in background of the entertainment section in the newspaper. Its young and hip and very popular.

My grandiose idea of Theresa being waited on hand and foot by a small army of waiters, was rapidly deflating. But seeing the excitement in her face, and the opportunity to share something with her that was exciting, glamorous and so familiar to my western upbringing—how could we go anywhere else? So yes. I called TGIFridays and made a reservation for 4. Theresa was thrilled, and immediately went to tell Selene and James about our very exciting evening so they could all get ready.

A few hours later our cab arrived and the four of us headed into the big city, specifically into Bhajara Hills, which looks like downtown Los Angeles. Even though its only a 40 minute drive away, its like a whole different world from Kukatpally. But that’s India for you: some of the world’s most advanced technology and universities, and some of the world’s most destitute poverty and ignorance. But I digress, back to the story.

So the cab pulls up to the plaza where TGIFriday’s is (for my Clevelanders: think Legacy Village or Crocker Park), and I lead the way. Theresa and Selene were giggling like schoolgirls and James asked if we could take the moving stairs. Apparently, it was a very big deal when the escalator was installed and James, Selene and Theresa  had  all never ridden one. So that was exciting.

We got seated at the restaurant, which looks exactly like every TGIFridays ever. Lots of rock n roll paraphernalia on the walls, Cricket games shown on mounted TVs, Beatles playing over the sound system, servers dressed in familiar red polos with black pants. They were even giving out helium balloons at the door. Three menus unfolded and I watched as Theresa and company looked over glossy photos of very foreign looking dinner entrees. Finally, Theresa said to me, “will you order for all of us?”

Uh, sure. Obviously there are no burgers on the menu, and I didn’t want to make Theresa, James or Selene uncomfortable by ordering something that you would eat with silverware (other restaurant patrons were using silverware, and looking very much like my mom on the rare occasions she tries to use chopsticks) In the end, I ordered smoothies with colorful umbrellas, mozzarella sticks, potato skins and quesadillas. I picked out chicken fingers with fries, popcorn shrimp with onion rings, and some fish and chips. How’s that for American gourmet?!

Theresa was just tickled. She kept asking me to talk about what all the different foods were, and then asked me if I ate them at home with my family and if this is what we did at Christmastime. I gave up trying to explain that we don’t typically gather around a giant plate of French fries for special meals at our table and just went with it. So after I would talk about one of the dishes, Theresa would tell Selene whatever I had just said (Selene doesn’t speak English) and then ask me another series of questions. Then I ordered ice cream brownie sundaes for dessert, which were a huge hit, naturally even though the spoons were a minor obstacle. Oh ice cream, how I miss you.

When it was all said and done I had the enormous remainders of food boxed up so Theresa could take them home. Then when I paid the bill Theresa made a motion to contribute and I smiled her and explained that she and her company were my guests and she just beamed with appreciation. I hailed a cab and we headed back home, Theresa excitedly recapping dinner the whole way.

Its really become the common theme for my life in India: nothing ever plays out the way I think it will, but everything turns out just as it should. Even though Theresa only had one waiter, I am definitely considering tonight a smashing success.

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Theresa, gina, James and Selene at TGIFridays, Hyderabad

Ramogi Film City

Oh, the film city. Hyderabad is the home of Tollywood (the Telugu analogue of Bollywood) . Ramogi Film city is an attraction in the area that is half Universal studios, half movie sets– and totally an India experience.

I’ve actually been to the Ramoji film city once before with Jann, Natasha and their excellent friends David and Chad. We had an outstanding time rolling our eyes and clowning around with cheesy characters and movie sets. You can ride the train to “Fun-dustan” or crawl through a genie’s mouth and to arrive in a menagerie of acrylic animals. There are life sized maniquins of Angelina Jolie as the Tomb Raider (complete with pouty lips), Darth Vader and Charlie Chaplan. There are also some really cool topiary gardens, which are my favorite. Its quite the tourist destination, people come from all over Andrah to ride the train to Fun-dustan.

So naturally, when my dear friend Theresa found out that her sister, Selene and her brother in law, James were coming for their first visit to Hyderbad: Ramoji Film City is exactly where she wanted to take them. It is, in fact, the place to be.

She asked me to come along as well, and I was more than happy to oblige. It was a gajillion degrees though (104 F, which might as well be a gajillion), so I was not overly excited about walking around an amusement park. But Theresa is one of the kindest souls I know, and she has been my rock since the day I stepped foot in Hyderabad. I can deny her nothing. Armed with sunscreen, water bottles, a pom for the road, and lots of banana chips (Theresa has got me hooked on banana chips) we were ready to roll.

We took a charter bus to the theme park, and when we got there I marched up to the ticket window to get my admission ticket. Theresa was two steps behind me, taking it all in (this was her first time at a theme park) but when she realized what I was doing she flipped out.

Flustered, she squeaked: “You are my guest! I have to buy your ticket!”

“Please no, Theresa. It’s okay, I’d like to buy my own.” I answered as I shuffled through my rainbow bills. The tickets are 600 rupees ($12) each, which is probably more than a daily wage for a lot of my working class friends here.

Then she started looking really upset as her eyes filled up with tears, and I realized that (yet again) I was breaching India etiquette and truly insulting her. So I reluctantly stepped aside and let her buy my ticket. The moment passed, and Theresea, Selene, James and I set off for our adventure.

Everyone really seemed to enjoy themselves, and I was excited to find another elephant for my collection. (Side note: Have I mentioned my elephant collection? I am making an effort to procure a small elephant from all the different places I visit in India. Its going well, so far I have 8. I’m really far more excited about them than should be considered normal.) We took photos in the topiary garden, experienced a 4-D rollercoaster (you know, its theater that you sit and watch a screen with moving seats? And they spray water at you and blow wind etc), and had lunch at a small café on site, where Theresa also bought my meal.

Coming home, everyone was tired but happy. Selene and James are staying the whole week, and Theresa is trying to come up with some more awesome adventures.

I am still a little uncomfortable with Theresa’s overwhelming generosity today. Theresa’s role at SRH is certainly one of servitude. I don’t really know the details of her salary and all, and she is very well cared for in terms of necessities (housing, food, etc), but I get the impression that her role as xray technician and assistant to Dr. Beine is similar to that of the nuns who live here. Her work is centered around service, not income. This is my Theresa who helps me bargain  my poms down to the lowest cent in the market because she is adament that I should not be overcharged just because I am foreign. My Theresa who would rather walk miles in the sun in spite of her bad back, because it is frivolous to waste a few rupees on an auto ride when “God gave us two good legs.”

I know that she has been saving for the very special occasion of her sister’s visit, and I am touched and honored that she included me. It’s just very difficult for me to accept something so significant when I have so much, and those around me have so little.

I need to think of a way to appropriately reciprocate her kind gesture. I’ll work on it.

gina and Theresa at Ramoji Film City


My mornings generally go like this:

I wake up, and groggily stumble around my room for my contact lenses and flip flops which I pop in and on, respectively, and drag my way over to my shower. Once in the shower, I turn on the faucet to fill my plastic bucket which I unceremoniously dump  over my head, washing off the nights worth of dust and sweat (have I mentioned how HOT it is here?!) in one big wave.  After some vigorous scrubbing, I brush my teeth (with treated water, of course. No dysentery for this girl.) and find myself a skirt and a blouse off my clothesline worthy of the day.

After greeting Gopal, my nightwatchman (“Goodmorning madam!” “Namaste Gopal!”) Uncle (my escort? security guard? …he walks me everywhere, every day) and I head down the path and across the bridge (over a creek that is dried up and full of wild flowers and greenery) over to Sunita’s kitchen for breakfast.

9 weekdays out of 10, Sunita makes Idle for breakfast (pronounced eed-lee).  It’s a traditional South Indian breakfast made up of ground rice and dal.  Dal is a legume that is often used to make thick stews, but for breakfast Sunita puts it, along with rice, into a mortar and pestle type machine and grinds it down into a coarse meal. She mixes this with some oil and water and pats it into flying-saucer shaped cakes.

At this point I should clarify, that there are no ovens at SRH. An oven is considered something of a luxury, and isn’t generally utilized in all the cooking done here or in lower income brackets around the country. So Sunita “bakes” her idle-cakes in this funny little box which is made out of aluminum. It’s a cube about 1.5 feet in each dimension, and the front has a little garage-like pull down door. She slides the trays of idle into the box, puts some water in the bottom, closes the front, puts the whole box over a fire, and lets them steam.  When they come out, they are little white cakes that have a texture similar to taking white bread, breaking off the crusts and smushing it into a dense bread ball (sort of?). With the idle cakes, Sunita serves chutney, which is a general name for a dipping sauce. The breakfast chutney is made from nuts that seem to me halfway between a peanut and a pine nut. She grinds these nuts down into paste and cooks them with red chilies and oil.  Every morning at breakfast I have to bargain down to two idles (Sunita can be unrelenting and tries every day to give me four) and I get a scoop of chutney. Its pretty spicy, so I mix sugar into mine. If you stretch your imagination really far, its kind of like eating peanut butter bread.

So this morning, when I walked outside to greet Gopal and head to breakfast, he had a package for me (“Parcel madam!”). Weee! I was so excited and a quick glance at the return address confirmed the package was from my Aunt Clara, so I could assume it was full of fun surprises for the children.

I tore it open to find sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, beads, glow sticks, and a number of books and flashcards. At the bottom however, there were some special treats for me! These treats included some Luna bars, chocolate (melted, still delicious), and a “just add water” pre mix for banana-nut muffins.  A shame, I thought, since I had no way to bake them.  I considered mixing in some water and pan frying the mix into pancakes. But then, I got a better idea.

I walked over to Sunita’s kitchen, mix in hand, and presented it to her. She gave me a quizzical look, and said, “what is?”

“American Idle!” I answered.

Her eyes got big as she scanned the front of the package. A foreign label reading “Betty Crocker” and pictures of bananas, pecans and muffins.  A smile broke out and she repeated “American idle!”

I showed her how much water to add (3/4 of a cup), and we got right to it. She grabbed the Idle pans, we patted in the batter, and stuck them in the box.

After about twenty minutes I had no idea what to expect. Sunita was excitedly telling the whole staff about our culinary feat earlier this morning and invited Uncle, Rubina, Mary, Shobba and Marheswarie over for some “American idle.”

We pulled out the trays and the muffins were totally edible! They were shaped like flying saucers, and a little bit chewy, but overall everyone was thrilled.  Especially me.  Sunita was very excited and told me that she loves “American idle,” and is going to try adding bananas and nuts to her recipe.

So there you have it: American Idle, the breakfast of champions!

India Idle and Chutney (with sugar)
India Idle and Chutney (with sugar)

How to Heal?

Today Thanmi picked up a rock.

The HIV branch of SRH was started three years ago. At the onset, 20 children were brought to live here, and the remaining 10 were added over time. To be admitted, the children need a total of nine certificates including both parents’ death certificates.  Initially, many of the children were brought here by government social workers. They had been orphaned and living on the street. Other children were brought straight from their parent’s deathbed. Thanmi, however, is the exception to both of those cases.

She is 11, and grew up in a village area in rural Andhra. After her father died of AIDS, the people in the village realized that her mother was a carrier of the disease, so they killed her. Stoned her to death. Thanmi was 7 at the time, and witnessed the whole thing. Her brother was 3.

Its barbaric and horrifying, and I was told that the very sad reality is that these villagers made a utilitarian decision. Apparently it was widely believed that if the village didn’t kill Thanmi’s mother, the disease would spread throughout the village and kill everyone.  So they acted out of ignorance and fear, and I like to hope it was more misdirected utilitarianism than open aggression toward a young widowed mother of two. I’ve turned it all over in my mind hundreds of times, wondering who to blame for the very emotionally traumatized child that has been left behind.

As a whole, the children are amazing, but there are challenges. For example, sharing and waiting one’s turn are difficult concepts for them, but understandably so since they are so counter-intuitive to the laws of survival. Some of the bigger kids had to learn to live on the street, and I can’t imagine it took long for the younger, more impressionable children to pick up these habits.

Additionally, all of the children struggle with the emotional difficulty of losing their family, leaving home, and realizing that they are sick with the same disease that killed their parents. They know they are “different” and sometimes expresses that they feel alienated.  They are generally isolated from the other healthy children who live on the compound with parents who have leprosy, because the HIV children are so vulnerable to the healthy children’s common colds and germs. But overall the orphans are joyful, and they really do a good job of looking out for one another.

Thanmi, however, really seems to have some much deeper emotional issues. She is beautiful and charming, but she can swing so quickly from mania to depression. One minute she is climbing a tree as high as she can, calling for all to see,  and then suddenly withdrawing and displaying angry or aggressive behavior.

SRH has hired a counselor for the children, but frankly this guy is pretty checked out. He doesn’t know the children’s names, so how could he know their histories?  Meera madam has expressed her frustration to me that there are so few child psychologists, and it has been very hard for her to find anyone to work with children who have HIV.  The man she has now is some kind of therapist who usually works with adults.  He observes the children once a week as a group, and engages them in yoga and meditation. That’s all fine and good, but in my mind, many of the children need one-on-one counseling with a specialist, especially Thanmi. The medical and administration staff has really put alot of time and effort to get her the best help they can, but its a struggle.

So this afternoon I was on the playground paying “Amina Katamina” (which is the India version of “Miss Mary Mack” I think, for those of you who played these kind of games at recess) with a few of the girls when I saw conflict a-brewin’ across the yard.  From a distance I saw that Thanmi wasn’t waiting her turn for a game, so one of the other kids pushed her out of the way as she tried to shove herself forward. She tripped and fell on the ground, landing hard on her backside.

I walked towards them to dissolve the argument and referee the game, when I saw Thanmi’s hand instinctively reached for the ground next to her. Her fingers clenched on a stone about the size of her fist, and her eyes narrowed flashing with anger and she raised it above her head. I sucked in my breath sharply. Then I barked out her name.

Immediately she snapped out of it, dropped the stone, and picked herself up. She trotted over to me and started to whimper about  how she got pushed.  I told all the children firmly, “fighting. no.” They all nodded solemnly, Thanmi included, and we went on with our game.

I don’t know much PTSD or child psychology, but I do worry about Thanmi.   She is watched closely for signs of hurting herself or the other children. Meera Madam and the whole SRH staff are aware of her behavioral issues and are desperately trying to get her the help she needs.

This poor little girl has been through so much.  And I worry about how she has internalized it. I can’t stop thinking about how when she felt threatened, Thanmi reached for the weapon that murdered her mother and destroyed her family.

They are working on a solution for her. She has already been tried on several medications and hopefully there will be better therapy soon. In the meantime, she is watched, cared for, and loved. And I  pray it will be enough.