Golconda Fort and Laundry Detergent

Today I went on a outing with Jann, and her 10 year old daughter Natasha.  We visted Golconda fort, which was built in the late 15th century, and is very cool.

Natasha is a really cute girl.  She reminds me of Sophie in alot of ways.  She is smart as a whip, extremely articulate, and loves to read.  We had many long conversations about Harry Potter during the car ride.  This was Natasha’s third visit to Golconda, so she was very familiar with the tour and had lots of interesting stories and facts to share.

The fort is a huge stone structure, designed by Persians and built by slaves.  The acoustics are amazing, and were used as a security measure.  At the gate  a guard can clap, and alert a watchman over a kilometer away on the side of a cliff of who has come to visit.

We also saw a crazy weight in the slaves quarters.  If a slave could lift it with one hand, he was promoted to the rank of solider.  Natasha and I threw our combined weight into it, and it didn’t budge.

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Natasha and I unsuccessfully try to upgrade our rank

My favorite room in the fort was the queen’s bathroom.  It had a really advanced water system that included sewage removal, drinking water and even hot water.  Additionally the walls have intricately carved patterns in them, with holes ranging from the size of a marble to the size of my fist.  Once upon a time, these holes were filled with jewels and an light from oil lamp would reflect through them and illuminate the room.  I’m thinking about implementing a similar lighting design back at guest house one.

After touring the fort, we went to Q-mart which is my own personal oasis in the desert.  Jann was apologetic to take me on her errands with her, but when I saw Q-mart I literally almost cried.  It is a very nice grocery store (the Whole Foods of India, if you will) and had American imports!  I was able to purchase a small box of oreos, cheese, flour, Honey bunches of oats and (wait for it) Tide!!

Prior to this I’ve been washing my clothes with this sketchy little soap bar that I bought here in Kukatpally.   The women here have been trying to teach me how to scrub my clothes with the aforementioned bar, and then smack them on a rock. I’m not sure what role this plays in the cleaning process, but they are very insistant about that step. Then the clothes are rinsed in a bucket, and smacked on the rock again. I’m convinced this is not effectively cleaning anything, but rather decreasing the lifespan of my jeans (maybe its a bad attitude, but my heart is just not in the smacking).  Additionally, sitting out in the hot sun fully dressed, throwing wet shirts around is really just causing the clothes I am wearing to get more dirty.  So in order to have net laundry gain, I have to clean more clothes than I am wearing–which doesn’t always happen.  Clearly, I have been failing miserably at laundry, and I was just about to run out of clothes.  Chorus of angels! Hallelulia! Tide has come to deliver me!

After grocery shopping we went back to Jann’s house to meet up with her husband Dayrl and go to dinner.  Their flat is in a very beautiful compound with lush gardens and millions of flowers.  We hailed an auto (yess! I love the autos!) and rattled our way over to the new cineplex, which they tell me is THE hotspot in town.

The four of us had dinner at TGIFridays which is the place to see, and be seen in Hyderabad (not kidding).  Dayrl told me that people came from all over the city to see the escalator when the complex first opened last year. Dayrl and Jann are a very intellectual couple, so I can see where Natasha gets it from.  We discussed Indian politics, books we’re reading, HIV, and Lebron James.  Dinner came, and  I had a chicken sandwich and french fries.

It was quite possibly the best meal of my life.

 

golconda-2

Wednesday January 14: Happy Pongal!

Today I had the day off in honor of “Pongal,” which is the Telugu New Year. When I went over to the kitchen this morning I was really surprised to see all of the girls, and some of the patients (including my little buddy and his mom) painting the concrete outside the ward. The style is called “Rangoli” and it’s a cross between sidewalk chalk and finger painting. It’s a traditional art form of floor painting, characterized by bright colors and geometric symmetry. We used white chalk but apparently you can use chalk powder as well (but that strikes me as more difficult to work with). You start by drawing little dots equally spaced apart in a square (as if you were going to play that “complete the box” game). Then this dot pattern acts as the template which is used to make a design that is usually repeated throughout the drawing. We drew in a picture of flowers with the chalk, and then Larshmi took colored rice powders and added a few drops of water to make runny paint. We used the paint to color in our drawings. Then they asked me to write “Welcome Happy Pongal” at the entrance in English, and we colored that in as well. When we were finished, it looked really pretty.

Throughout the process (and entire afternoon) my little buddy was running around taking pictures. I showed him how to use my camera yesterday, and he is quite the photographer. I’ll post the pictures for you to enjoy, but he gets all the photo credit. Its kind of fun to see things from his perspective a little bit.

After Rangoli we had some breakfast, which was a little more special than usual. Sunita is out of town visiting her son, Bittu, in northern Andhra, so Larshmi and Marta made us dosa! We usually only have dosa on Sundays because its more work intensive than just rice or dal (another grain, kind of like couscous). Dosa is the only thing I’ve had to eat here that has any sort of leavening. They don’t use yeast, I’m actually not sure what they use, but something in dosa is fermented. The resulting food is a lot like a pancake. I feel like we could make some amazing progress with a little bit of baking powder, but Sunita, Larshmi and Marta have a system, and I haven’t the faintest idea where to get groceries anyways.

After breakfast I went back to my room to get some books and ran into Theresa. She was going out to the market to buy some fruit for Dr. Beine (Theresa is the personal cook for our head surgeon. Dr. Beine is from Germany and I hear tons of stories about how amazing he is, how many people he has helped etc. He is also father Beine and I go to mass with him and Theresa and the pink nuns every Sunday. I recognize that he is amazing and all, but he’s also very German: extremely loyal, very tough, and not the warmest guy around.) Anyways, Theresa asked me if I wanted to go with her, and I was so excited! To date, I haven’t left campus except at 5am for church, which is in a car. Outside SRH, I’m a little bit afraid of India. The traffic is nonstop, the streets are crowded and dirty, and the whole thing is a bit overwhelming. I managing my little microcosm very well, but big India is a whole new adventure. I was ready to see some more.

So we went out and crossed the 8 lanes of traffic. Theresa held my hand as we crossed the street. Big buses overflowing with passengers whizzed by us, and people yelled out the window at me “hey look! An American!” (I mean, that’s what I decided they were yelling since I don’t speak any Telugu). We passed carts selling mangoes, oranges, and bananas. Theresa asked one vendor how much for his oranges, and he said 10 rupees for 5 oranges (one rupee is roughly 2 American cents, so 50 rupees = $1 more or less). Theresa snapped at him in Telugu and we walked away. I said, “what gives?” and she told me that the vendor was trying to over charge her. Seriously?

The shops resemble garages. They are small and one room, with a door on the front that lifts up when the store is open. You don’t really go inside, you just stand and talk to the vendor (well, Theresa does, I kind of gawked) and he brings you what you need. The shops are not well lit, they are hot, and there are a lot flies. I’m thankful that Sunita prepares all my food, because I wouldn’t have the faintest idea of where to buy safe groceries. Plus she does a really good job taking care of my meals, so although they are really spicy, I haven’t gotten sick at all. At the shop I asked for a little box of cookies, but when I flipped them over I saw dust and string inside the packaging. The lack of FDA in India is pretty disconcerting.

We passed a stand where a young man (about 16) was selling kites. Kites! Kite flying is the thing to do on Pongal, but I didn’t have one so this was very exciting. I asked him “how much,” 2 rupees each, and 5 rupees for string. So I bought twenty kites, and eight rolls of string. Theresa almost had a heart attack that I spent 80 rupees on something as silly as kites, but I explained the cultural importance of kites to Theresa (“everyone else is flying kites!”) and was just thrilled with my purchase. I mean, thrilled. My American-ness cracks Theresa up. Her Indian-ness does the same for me. She is convinced that people are always ripping me off because I’m American. I tell her that I’m willing to be overcharged.

We got back to campus and I was so excited to find the leprosy children. When they saw me coming with an armload of brightly colored kites they came running “auntie, auntie!” I got my little buddy a red kite, but he chose one that was pink, white and blue because he wanted his mother to see all three colors. My kite was pink. The children and I spent the rest of the afternoon in total Pongal chaos while the nurses and patients watched and laughed. We flew kites, chased escaping kites, and climbed trees to rescue kites. Everyday I wear a button down blouse and long skirt to try and match Indian propriety (no visible legs or shoulders, but bare midriffs are okay). It works at the office, but its really not conducive to climbing trees.

At one point I was running after a lose kite flying overhead with one of the little girls, when everyone started yelling at me in Telugu. I thought they were yelling encouraging things like “get it! Its going that way!” Turns out they were yelling “watch out!” I screamed as I almost fell on top of a pig that was sleeping in the bushes. Until that point I didn’t even know we had pigs. Big ugly pigs. Oops. The pig oinked at me and ran away. All the adults thought it was hilarious, and made little pig noises at me the rest of the afternoon. It was pretty funny.

After we wore ourselves out flying kites, the children had to go home. Little buddy and I sat around kicking stones with nothing to do, when I decided we should watch a movie! I went back to my room and got my laptop and DVDs and we set up shop in the HIV ward. We had dinner (you guessed it: rice and curry!) and then watched WallE with the HIV patients. They really liked the 5 minute Presto cartoon that precedes the movie. I thought WallE was a good pick because there are no words, but they didn’t quite get it. Everyone seemed to like it, I think on the basis that it is so visually impressive. Plus, India television leaves a lot to be desired.

Overall I’d say it was a very happy Pongal!

lots of love,

g

LtR patient, Larshmi, gina, patient, Shobba
LtR patient, Larshmi, gina, patient, Shobba

Lonely

I was having a bad day today. There’s no work on Sunday, and mostly everyone is gone from the campus. I was feeling mopey and lonely. Not to mention, there is a very loud gunshot noise that I keep hearing outside my window. Since it doesn’t make sense that someone would be continuously firing a gun on a Sunday afternoon on a major highway, I went outside to investigate. Turns out its an engine backfiring on the road. That seems more reasonable, but it sure sounds like a gunshot.

I went to the kitchen to find Sunita and ask her if that happens alot, but she was gone—only Marta was there. Marta also didn’t have any food and she seemed scared that she was ill prepared for my arrival. She went and fetched one of the nurses (the very pretty, kind one–Maheswari) who got me some food. I ate in silence while they watched me because whenever I tried to talk to them, they got nervous. Then, sadly, I wandered back to my room. Outside my door there were two people, a young boy (11 maybe?) and woman. I didn’t catch the woman’s name—but the boy is named Ganesh. I said hello to them, and they said hello. Then I went into my house to wallow in my bad attitude.

About ten minutes later my doorbell buzzed, and it was the girl. She asked me what time it was, so I told her 1:30. Then I asked her if she would want to watch a movie with me, and waved to Ganesh to ask him also. I brought my laptop outside and put on the “Presto” cartoon that proceeds Wall-E (it has no words). The girl sat down next to me and we watched the little 6 minute film.

Then a young family approached us. The father’s name was Siva, and he introduced himself in good English. He also introduced his wife and 10 months baby. He explained to me that he lived in Detroit and was going to Germany tomorrow for 6 months to work as a mechanical engineer. The family was very kind. The wife asked me if I had eaten, and I told her that I had. Then she told me about the festival of Pongal which is in two days or so. She wished me a happy Pongal. Siva gave me his email address and asked me to stay in touch. Additionally, he wanted to snap a photo on his cell phone, so I grabbed my camera and we took pictures as well. I promised to email them to him. They even let me hold the baby for a picture. I gave them all candy (which they looked at funnily, and thanked me graciously). They live in the house nearby. I feel so much better having interacted with them, and making a new friend. I’m sad that Siva is leaving because he is so kind, but grateful that his wife and baby will be here for me to talk to. I feel so much better.

*****

I just went and saw Sunita in the kitchen. She’s leaving tonight to go see her son, Bittu in Northern Andhra. She is so cute. She told me to call her tomorrow morning at breakfast and to put Larshmi on the phone so she can make sure I’m okay, and that I’ve eaten. Also, she promised that when she gets home in 5 days we can go shopping! (I need another anklet. ) They think its weird that I only wear one. I think its probably like wearing one earring here—they come in pairs.

Ironically, Sunita and Larshmi invited me to go shopping with them yesterday but I couldn’t go because Barneto from the leprosy ward said he would take me to get internet yesterday at 5. I was so excited, and it just seemed so typical that the one time I’d have an opportunity to leave campus with Sunita and Larshmi, I’d have something going on. So I turned down Sunita and Larshmi. I waited for the guy until 5:15, and when he didn’t show I headed down to the offices to find him. On the way I ran into Theresa and told her the story. She too was going shopping and offered to let me come along if I couldn’t find Barneto. Well, I went to the offices and apparently Barneto had left because he got bad news or something, so I ran back to find Theresa only to hear from an old guy on a bicycle that I had missed her by 5 minutes. Three opportunities to go somewhere, all at the exact same time, and I didn’t get to any of them. Totally lame.

This morning Theresa took me to church (I woke up at 5am, we left at 6) with her. We walked in the darkness to Fr. Dan’s house, where Theresa works, and were picked up by a SRH car. Then we drove to the back of the complex and picked up four little nuns in full habits that were (wait for it) pink! They climbed in, and I rode in the car full of little pink Indian nuns to the church of Immaculate Conception.

Immaculate Conception makes Holy Family look like St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. There are colorful streamers of tinsel draped across the ceiling and glitter gold letters hang from the ceiling reading, “Jesus is the living bread.” The music is provided by an electric keyboard circa de 1980 complete with fully synthesized hymns. The choir is completely off-key, but sings enthusiastically into the microphone, and the congregation sings back. The best part (wait for it) was the light up plastic Jesus behind the alter complete with red-neon crucifix. You may think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Here’s the thing though, these people worship God with more joy in their hearts than 90% of Christians back in American, and don’t have one tenth as many things to be joyful for. So honestly, who am I to criticize? They welcomed me with open arms, and I joined in the joyful singing—tone deaf and all.

I saw Sunita off for her journey to northern Andrah. I will miss her, but hopefully I’ll be well-adjusted when she gets back. Sunita told me this afternoon that there would be no chapate for me at dinner, since Marta doesn’t know how to make it. When I came to dinner tonight, Mara was there making chapati especially for me. I felt bad that she was going to the trouble, and I was really moved by her kindness. I ate dinner with Marta and Mary, and as I was leaving Mary came over and brought me a present!! It was a whole booklet of bindi stickers and a henna cone! I couldn’t believe it. I was so touched that she would bring me this gift which was to help me feel included.

I started the day off feeling bad for myself and by the end of the day I am feeling so blessed.

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Namaste!

Namaste!

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,

gina