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,


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

The Children

I just had my first encounter with the children. They were the “leprosy children” (as opposed to the “HIV children”) which just means that their parents have significant disabilities due to leprosy and live here on the compound. They are completely healthy, fun loving kids. They live here with their families, go to school here, and love to romp around all over the place. They are so cute. I just wanted to snap picture after picture of them, scoop them up and play all afternoon.

I had a long day of staring at record books, and seeing lots of patients with discouraging cases. I was staying in the office sending emails to my family (no internet in my room yet), when I heard a sound that’s joyful in all languages, peals of laughter. I shut down the computer and ran outside to find about 20 children ages 4 to about 12, standing behind the kitchen. I went over and said hello and they all stared at me—some bravely calling out “Hi!” I asked, “what are you guys doing?” blank stares. Then, their teacher (a young man who can’t be older than 25) told me that they were looking for a kite. So I said, okay- I’ll help you look. But they just kind of stared at me.

We stood there awkwardly for about 4 seconds and I said, “soo do you guys want to play a game?” and some of them shouted back “game!” I picked up a stone and drew a hopscotch course in the dirt, and the children eagerly followed. One of the little girls about 10 I’d guess picked up my stone and drew an extra box where I had forgotten one, and we hopped along. The girls and little boys giggled. After everyone had a few turns, I gave them double thumbs up and said, “good job!” which they mimicked and repeated back to me “good job!”

I saw a boy holding a long stick so I called the two oldest boys over to hold the stick at shoulder length, and showed them how to play limbo. They were so cute—just running under the stick those first few times. Then as it started to lower we kind of lost the sense of order, but they were having a blast—laughing, jumping and screaming. After we finally found a winner at limbo, I got really ambitious and taught them how to play “down by the banks” which was one of my favorite recess games when I was little. Except I wanted to use a telgulu song, but no one volunteered one (its possible they didn’t know what I was asking) so I sang the song in English every time. They caught on really quickly and every time we got to “SPLAT!” they all laughed and rejoined the circle. At the end, the winner was the little boy holding my left hand, who could barely get the hand slapping down to begin with. I picked him up, and said “winner!” and all the kids cheered.

When that was done and over, after an hour or so, their teacher said it was time to go in. There was a chorus of “bye!” and they walked down the path following their supervisor. I want to find some kites for Wednesday, which is Telugu new year, and the thing to do, apparently, is to fly kites.

It was really really fun.