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


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.