So I’m in India. And let me tell you, it’s quite the experience.
My arrival here was somewhat tremulous. From plane delays, missed connections, screaming babies and gross airline food—I had 30 exhausting hours. When we finally touched down in the Hyderabad airport at 4am India time, I was wiped out. The facility where I am staying is in the northwest corner of the city in a suburb called Kukatpally, whereas the airport is in the south.
To get here from the airport I had to ride for about an hour and a half through the city, and my eyes were glued to the window the whole time. The level of poverty and destitution here is indescribable. The entire drive we passed shanties made of scrap metal and rags, and people huddled around garbage barrel fires. Crippled beggars line the streets, and the air in the city reeks of pollution. This initial experience made me feel pretty uneasy about being here.
When I first arrived at my house on Sivananda, the rehabilitation complex where I live, it was still dark. The taxi drove me into the complex, where a middle aged man with a kind face waved to me. He spoke no English, but he helped me pull my bags from the cab and walked me over to a small concrete building marked “Guest House 1.” Producing a key, he unlocked a padlock, handed me the key and waved me inside. Then he turned and walked away.
I felt so alone. I was tired, scared and not entirely confident that I could handle the next several months here. It started to sink in that not only am I so far away from my home, but that my time here is going to be so radically different than anything I’ve ever experienced growing up in the West. Even worse, I had no way to contact anyone back home yet. No phone, no internet. Just me, my bags, and the quiet little guest house. Exhaustion won out over anxiety. I found a woven mat, pulled my pillow from my suitcase and wrapped myself with the thin blanket from the airline. I passed out.
I awoke to the sound of a small man with white hair ringing my doorbell (which is more like a buzzer, really) at about 10am. I had no idea what was happening, but when I unlocked the padlock and cracked open the door, the man beckoned me to follow him. I threw on my sandals and ventured with him into the unknown. In the morning light, I could properly see the campus of where I am living. The trees, paths and flowers are all gorgeous. Also, there are peacocks that roam freely and colorful butterflies everywhere. I followed this little man like Alice in Wonderland, until we got to another building where he pointed me inside.
In the back of this first building I found a place where I am universally comfortable, the kitchen! There were four women there, two young and two old. One of the young ones, the shortest of these women, made a big fuss when she saw me saying “the American!” She tried to shoo me out of the kitchen and make me sit at the table in the front room by myself, but I kept coming back showing her that I wanted to be with them. Finally she relented, setting a chair for me in the kitchen (the other women sat on the floor with bowls and knives, cutting up some okra, I think) and handed me a plate of food.
This breakfast was the spiciest thing I’ve ever choked down (and as you know I’m not one for spicy food). It was some kind of pasty rice, with cooked vegetables and seeds that I didn’t recognize. Overall, it was sort of yellow/reddish in color. She also gave me some water (which I was dubious about, until she pantomimed to me that it was safe to drink), and she also made me tea. These people are nuts about tea. And as you can imagine, its fantastic. Its chai tea made with buffalo milk. The black tea powder is steeped with cardamom, cinnamon and many other fragrant spices—I love it. The young short assertive woman introduced herself as Sunita and the other young woman is Mary. When I told Mary that my sister is also called Mary, she smiled and told me that she will be my sister while I am so far from home.
When I finished my breakfast, the little man with the white hair appeared again to wordlessly take me to my next destination. Sunita calls him “uncle”, which is an affectionate name for someone you know that is older than you. Uncle brought me to the HIV ward where I met the woman doctor who runs the HIV branch. She is not an infectious disease specialist, rather she’s a general practitioner (like an internist) who has taken on the responsibility of the HIV ward. Dr. Suhguna was very pleased to meet me, and she showed me the data that I’ll be working with. It’s a mess from an organization standpoint, but all of the information is there. Sivananda is a free clinic, so it looks like the majority of the diagnosis happen very late in the disease process and the doctors just have to do the best they can to manage an advanced infection. The available treatments are limited, and diagnosis happens so late, and so HIV takes a very brutal course.
After glancing over the at the databases, the male doctor who is works in the leprosy ward came in to the office to meet me as well. The two doctors spoke English (better than anyone I’ve encountered so far) but its still very difficult to communicate. They both told me that they understand me, but I can’t always say the same for them. They speak quickly, and my ears aren’t really tuned into everyone’s accent yet. After we talked, the woman doctor rang a bell and Sunita, the woman from the kitchen, appeared with three small cups of tea. Sunita smiled and winked at me before she walked out, which made me feel good. We drank our tea, Uncle magically appeared again, and I was off once more.
This time we took a different path over a dried up creek and through many gardens and trees to the main clinical building, the leprosy ward. Here I met Dr. Hrishikesh (pronounced Hursey-kesh, which sounds a lot to me like “hershey- kiss”) who is the big man on campus. He is 83 and the director of this place, but doesn’t look a day over 65. We talked for awhile, about leprosy, HIV and the work I helped Dr. Yadavalli with at UH. He also ordered (another) cup of tea (nuts about tea, I told you!) which was brought to us by a different woman. Then this woman brought me my cell phone (chorus of angels). A good friend of the Kermans bought me an Indian cell phone and had it delivered here before I arrived. I’m not sure if it can make calls outside of India, but I will have to talk it over with the cellular provider. Still it’s something. Next, Dr. Hrishikesh showed me the staff computer and offered to let me email my parents. This was a great relief, because I hadn’t been able to contact them yet.
As an aside, the power goes out here all the time, probably every other hour for a few minutes, and then at least once a day for a full hour when they shut the grid down on purpose. Its incredibly frustrating as I have lost some work already and it makes typing emails difficult (case in point, I’m typing on my laptop with battery backup presently).
After I was dismissed from Dr. Hrishikesh around 2pm, Uncle did not appear this time, so I wandered my way back to Sunita’s kitchen. On the way, I met a woman who is a leprosy patient here, who smiled at me. I smiled back and said hello, and she said to me (surprisingly) in English, “You are the American?” I nodded and she looked me over and said “very far from home” as she patted my hand. She has big eyes, slightly graying hair and chipped teeth. I must have looked concerned, or maybe just completely zombie-fied from jet lag because she gave me a hug and said “namaste” Let me tell you, it was the best feeling ever.
Sunita and I have become fast friends as well, and I am so so grateful for her. Sunita makes me feel like less of a stranger, and gives me confidence that I can manage it here. She is the head cook, and speaks virtually no English although we have been teaching each other. Its funny to think that we are so close in age but our lives are so different. She’s 24 and has been married 8 years and has a 7 year old son named Bittu. Sunita lets me help her in the kitchen and watches over me sharply at mealtime making sure that I get served the least spicy food and explaining to everyone else what I like and don’t like to eat. She also brings me a bindi sticker every day (the dot on my forehead). Sometimes I feel like her pet American, but I always feel thankful for her friendship.
I’m getting better at eating with my hands. Or I should say, Hand. Everyone eats with their right hand, and its not dainty, although there seems to be a very definitive etiquette that I have yet to fully grasp. They mash the rice, spicy chutney stuff and yogurt together through their fingers and eat it from there. I’m very grateful that I haven’t gotten sick yet. I know it will probably come down the road, but its been a blessing to spend my first days getting acclimated without that additional worry.
Each day brings a new small adventure. I’m becoming more and more accustomed to being here, but every so often something shakes me up and I remember how far I am from home, and I really really miss my family. I’m learning to appreciate simplicity and kindness in new ways. I’m also recognizing how much I take for granted– such as sleeping on a mattress every night, or being able to call or text my family whenever I please. Do me a favor, next time you’re using silverware, think of me!
Honestly, what I miss most from home is all of you! Please keep me in your prayers, and know that I pray for you and think about each of you every day. Please keep me updated on all the happenings in the states!
With all the love in the world,