Mussoorie…

…After another installment of banana-chocolate crepes in Rishikesh, we set off for the Himalayan mountaintop town of Mussoorie at an elevation of 6,170 ft. The drive was a hair-raising, nausea-inducing, and knuckle-whitening adventure through tight switchbacks at high speeds with no guard rails.


–Hard-boiled eggs for sale on the side of the road in Mussoorie–

The name of this state is Uttarakhand, which happens to be having its major local and state government elections on Monday. Every few miles, we passed another procession of fanatical supporters waving flags on the backs of motorcycles. The parties have the most odd names and icons. This party, for instance, looks to be the “Ceiling Fan” party. I guess donkeys and elephants really don’t make much sense either though. The politicians and their advocates drive around with huge loudspeakers on their cars to campaign. All I can think about every time is the Blues Brothers.

With clouds and fog filling the valleys, the temperature at 6,000 ft was unexpectedly frigid. We played another game of “find a decent hotel.” None of them were heated. With temperatures reaching the mid 30’s at night, we each rented small heaters for Rs 200 ($4). I have been wearing everything I brought, including long johns, wool socks, two jackets, a ski hat, and fleece gloves I bought on the street. Mussoorie is a popular honeymoon and holiday destination for all Indians, especially in the summer when temperatures are more comfortable than in the plains below. It’s definitely the off season for a reason now. However, we had a great time walking the famous markets and exploring what Indian tourism feels like.


–A human-powered Ferris wheel–


–An eye-injury waiting to happen–


–A restaurant kitchen that I’m guessing would not pass any health inspection–

We walked the markets some more and had a delicious meal of pad thai, which I had conveniently been craving, for dinner at a Tibetan restaurant. We also observed another wedding procession on the way.

After a frigid night (our little rented heaters had no chance of competing with the cold marble floors and walls) I wiggled my sleeping bag over to the window to see this:

I challenge you to find a room that costs $12 per night with a better view than this (please note the snow-capped Himalayas in the background, beyond which is China). We then climbed up to the top of Gun Hill (400 ft higher) to have a better view.

I had one of my favorite South Indian dishes for breakfast, called uttapam:

Then, we visited Kempti Falls, another popular summertime destination. Unfortunately, it was down at the bottom of the next valley to the North. We had to drive down, then back up to Mussoorie, then down again into the plains on our way home. Signs reading “Speed Thrills But Kills” and other cheesy but true reminders lined the roadways in bright orange. However, the signs need to be in Hindi too. Although they were definitely touristy, we all enjoyed the waterfalls. I haven’t posted any pictures of my host family yet. Here are just a couple.

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Rishikesh…

…We arrived in Rishikesh well after sunset last night. After shopping for numerous hotels that were either too dingy or too expensive, I made some calls to places in the Lonely Planet. The hotel with availability was across the Ganges on the east bank of the river, which is inaccessible by car. We left the car and driver and crossed the Ram Jhula, one of the two well-known suspension bridges that span the wide river here in Rishikesh. The constant din of India slowly faded behind us as we traversed the dark water on the bridge, which swayed and flexed more than it looked like it should. We then entered an entirely different atmosphere from the other bank. Meditative chants filled the air with sounds of the Ganges splashing on the bank. It was so peaceful that it didn’t even feel like India. I made two hour-long trips back and forth and was mesmerized by the silence and serenity for the entire two hours.

Some photos of the Ganges and Ram Jhula taken this evening to give you an idea:

This morning, I made some calls home from the bank of the river and ate a banana-chocolate crepe from the hotel that was phenomenal. We then set out to explore what we knew was going to be a beautiful town.

Rishikesh is the yoga capital of the world and quite famous for meditations as well. I could immediately tell that there isn’t a typical Indian demographic here. In fact, I think this is one of the most eclectic places I have ever been. It’s like being in Woodstock, Venice, and Hawaii all at once. It also has, unequivocally, the highest concentration of foreigners that I have seen in India other than inside the Taj Mahal grounds. There are people here who look like they have lost everything but found what they need next to people who look like they have everything but can’t find what they’re looking for. There are religious zealots, yogis with more experience than most life expectancies, mid-life crisis sufferers, and hippies my age who look like they just got off a 20-hour Kombi bus ride with everything they own.

We spent much of the day strolling, trekking, and absorbing the spectacular vistas, calming mantras, and billowing incense of this unique and mystical place.


–Our dinner plate. This assortment of dishes is called “Thali”–

Bathing in the Ganges…

…This weekend is a special adventure. My host family has decided to join us in our journey north to Haridwar, Rishikesh, and Mussoorie.

Traveling is a great luxury for the vast majority of Indians. Even most of the doctors we have met have only traveled to a few select places within 500 km, with the exceptions of Mumbai and Goa. Although most of the younger generations wish to travel to Europe and the United States, most of the adults have never been outside of India and have no desire to do so.

My host-family, especially my host-mother, is incredibly excited to travel with us this weekend. Usually, “India Time” means that we leave 30 minutes to an hour after we intend to. Today, however, my host-mother was knocking on our door four minutes ahead of the 5:30am scheduled wake-up time. We four volunteers, two kids, two parents, and driver Ashok set out soon thereafter in a seven-passenger SUV called a Mahindra Xylo.

Today is Republic Day, which commemorates the implementation of India’s Constitution on January 26, 1950 (in case you were wondering, India gained its independence from British rule on August 15, 1947). Spirited parades lined the roads of almost every town we passed through. We were all very amused that we had the chance to stop at McDonald’s for a mid-morning breakfast of Veggie or Egg McMuffins. It was only my second egg in two months and it tasted delicious!

After five hours of driving past crops scattered with towering brick ovens and through small villages filled with festive and proud locals, the plains came to a gradual end as we entered the foothills of the Himalayas in Haridwar (in the state of Uttarakhand).

Haridwar is one of the seven holiest places for Hindus and the location where the Ganges emerges from the Himalayas on its 2,525 km trip to the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. It is said that drops of Amrit, a potion for immortality, were dropped here accidentally by a mythical bird-like God called Garuda. As a result, millions of pilgrims flock to Haridwar every year to bathe in the river, thereby absolving their sins and attaining freedom from the endless suffering caused by the repeated cycle of life, death, and reincarnation.

My host-parents told me that a trip to Haridwar would not be complete without a proper bath. We checked our shoes and entered Har ki Pauri, the holiest ghat (stairs along the river) where the drops of Amrit are believed to have fallen.

After some slight hesitation and investigation of the water quality, I stripped down to my boxers and walked down to the lower steps. My blinding paleness gathered the attention of many, but I tried not to notice as I made the most of this unique and spiritual moment in life. The water was chilly but the sense of community and humanity at the ghat greatly overpowered any discomfort. As I leaned into the swift current, lifted my head out of the Ganges, and looked out over hundreds of worshipers into the Himalayas, I said a prayer that I will always remember.

Beautiful flower boats with candles are set off into the river by many of the worshipers.

We ate lunch at a famous little street food vendor that also had tables. I had my first sweet lassi, a yogurt-based drink that is, as I found out, the perfect accompaniment to a spicy meal.

Next, we took a gondola ride to the Manasa Devi Temple on top of the mountain overlooking Haridwar.

Then, back down we went. Walking with the kids, ladies, and our host-mother through the market was like trying to paddle a canoe through a lake of molasses. However, there is no better place to get held up than India because there is always something new to look at and think about.


–Tikka powder for making tilaks or tikas on one’s forehead–

We then visited some popular modern Hindu temples with our host-family. They tried to explain the relationships of each of the Gods. However, to be honest, I am still finding it a very difficult religion to understand. The sheer number, requirements, and rolls of each God are astonishing. Unlike some other religions that forbid the worship of idols, Hindus place enormous effort into idolization.

As we drove out of town toward Rishikesh, the sun back-lit an enormous statue of Shiva, the destroyer God, with the Manasa Devi Temple in the background.

Headline News…

…Okay, so I wasn’t on the front page, but we did make the third page of today’s newspaper!

It’s the main newspaper for all of Faridabad, over two million people. I found out I was in it because one of the local boys shouted at me on the street this afternoon saying, “John! You’re in the newspaper!” His mother had saved it for me and translated it for us since it is in Hindi. The article talks about how we are or will become medical students and are volunteering in the local government hospital to gain experience, learn about the Indian healthcare system, and provide assistance. It addresses the three of us by name and our home countries.

The funny thing is that the same reporter who published this had asked me why we were there while in one of the hospital stairwells. I declined to comment because talking to the media back home is usually so tightly regulated. I also didn’t want my words to get mistaken. That could turn out poorly. The doctors and staff, however, seem to freely talk to the reporters. They told the man who we were and what we were doing as he covertly used his cell phone to snap this picture. When we arrived at the hospital this morning, a photographer was present with a much more serious camera to get us going into the hospital.

I spent most of the day with the dermatologist and my co-volunteer who is a fourth-year medical student. We learned an amazing amount about dermatology because we saw approximately 100 patients. Although the patients are usually, well, patient, I counted as many as 17 of them at a time in the doctor’s small outpatient office today.

One of the most interesting cases was this man. He has rheumatoid arthritis but the doctor believed he might also have a mild case of leprosy.

Another interesting patient was a female who came in with a handsome looking police officer and another woman to have her acne treated. At first, I thought they were all family. Then, I noticed that the accompanying woman was also wearing a police uniform under her jacket. I still didn’t think much of it until the policeman made a strangling gesture while talking to the doctor. The doctor informed us later that the patient was a prisoner who had murdered her husband. My friend and I looked at each other in amazement. We can’t predict anything here, even when it’s right in front of us. Who would have thought that a convicted murderer would be allowed to walk around without cuffs and armed escorts?


–An unrelated but good photo from today of a passing tractor–

Terror in the OT…

…This afternoon, I visited the operating theater in the largest local government hospital for the second time. Last week, while viewing two simultaneous surgeries in the same hospital, another volunteer fainted and I nearly followed suit. I lost all vision right as I made it to a chair I had targeted. The sights, sounds, and smells are literally overwhelming to the senses.

Fortunately, we remained fully conscious today to view what has to be one of the most shocking sights I have experienced since arriving. I’ll elaborate more toward the end of the post.

I began the day making rounds with the hospital’s dietitian. Each patient received two slices of bread, one liter of milk (which comes in a bag in India), a small block of cheese, and a little pad of butter to last for the entire day. Patients must use their own utensils, plates, and cups as the theft or waste of such items would be extensive.

The dietitian’s main work was in the maternity and pediatric wards. Most of the babies here are born relatively healthy. However, child malnutrition is a major problem. The pediatric ward was filled with babies months behind their proper development. The doctors are quick to blame the parents’ lack of education and poverty. Proper breastfeeding is common among the educated population but surprisingly less so among the poor. The main reasons for this seem to be that many of the poor women have to work to support the family, that they become pregnant again and can no longer breastfeed, and that they simply don’t know what to do with their kids.

These twins, for instance, had been previously admitted to the hospital two months earlier. They are two months old and weigh only 2 kg (4.4 lbs) each. Their mother is uneducated and destitute. She does not breastfeed them and feeds them buffalo milk that has been diluted to approximately one part milk, two parts water. The mother did not even seem to know that the bottles of milk lying on the bed need to be held inverted so that the kids can suck milk from them. Many other children were suffering from upper respiratory infections from not being able to stay warm through the recent cold spells.


–About to remove a foreign body under local anesthetic–

This afternoon, we worked with the ENT specialist as he saw patients in the outpatient department and performed two emergency operations. I calculated the average patient consultation, from entrance to exit, to be between 30 and 45 seconds. The patients line up tightly outside the doctor’s door. As soon as the patient being seen gets up, another one rushes in. Sometimes, they don’t even wait and the line continues into the office. The doctor takes the patient’s card, has him or her sit down, does a two or three second investigation of the affected area (usually with a flashlight), then prescribes treatment on the card and sends the patient to the pharmacy. This continues for approximately three hours every day.

Two small boys also came in with foreign bodies, one in a nostril and one in an ear. The nostril was cleared right in the office using local anesthetic. We helped hold the kid down and position lights so the doctor could see. The doctor used what he called a Eustachian tube catheter to pry out a necklace bead as the kid screeched in horror. I doubt he’ll put anything in his nose again!


–Child crying as he watches an operation before his own–

We then made our way up to the operating theater, where we removed our shoes, put on flip flops, and walked past about a dozen patients sitting and waiting for their turns on the table. We entered an operating room with one table vacant. On the other, a fully-conscious man was having a lipoma the size of a softball removed from his left shoulder by a surgeon who looked more like a professional butcher. The child who had thoughtlessly put something in his ear was now carried into the room, past puss and bodily fluids squirting onto the floor to his own recently-vacated table. There were blood-stained gauze and clothes on the floor as well as used syringes and surgical tools. The child looked over at the other patient with eyes the size of quarters and cried in sheer terror. If there is ever a time for an observer to be able to feel the fear and anxiety of a patient, this was it.

The surgery proceeded as normal and a seed was removed from the little boy’s ear. After a few minutes of resting on the table, the boy was picked up by his shoulders and pant legs and carried out to his mom who was waiting with all the other patients just outside the door. I doubt he’ll put anything in his ear again!

Just about 45 seconds later, as I was walking out of the operating theater, the next patient walked past and lay down on the bed. At least the bed’s warm, right?

I also took this picture of a wall outside the hospital today. It shows the typical costs of surgeries here versus what one would pay in a private hospital nearby. The conversion is 50 Indian Rupees to 1 USD. Where there is just a word in place of a number, that’s Hindi for “free.” As you can see, the most expensive surgery here is a laparoscopic cholecystectomy which, without any insurance, would cost Rs 5000 ($100)! For patients below poverty line, all medical care is free. I doubt they get the laparoscopic procedure though.

I also happened to peek into this room, which houses the backup batteries. However, the beatteries don’t seem to work very well. Whenever the power goes out, which happens about five times per day for anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 hours, the hospital reverts to a large diesel generator. The generator takes time to start, however, so equipment even in the ICU and NICU are sometimes not operational for over a minute. Luckily, no patients here are on ventilators, or else that would become a serious problem. I have not been in the operating theater here yet during a blackout. But I’m sure it will happen and I’ll report back.

This afternoon, we went to teach at the slum school. I didn’t go last week since I wasn’t feeling well, so the kids were very happy to see me and welcome me back. Their Math and English are certainly improving gradually.

We walked home with kids on each arm. I played cricket with the locals, showered, and then made dinner with my host-mom. Now that’s a day!

Spirituality from the Colonel …

…My digestive system hasn’t been quite right since the wedding last weekend. To be honest, I am incredibly surprised I made it this far (seven weeks) completely healthy. Fortunately, the most aggravating symptoms have just been fatigue, lethargy, and a lack of hunger. The weather has also been uncomfortably cold and gloomy which have further contributed to my drowsiness. Moreover, I was beginning to feel quite lonesome because the last of my close friends and roommates had departed for home over the weekend. While sleeping off my sickness yesterday afternoon, I was surprised by the arrival of three new volunteers, including two fourth-year medical students from the United States. With the house full again and plenty of new questions to ask, my spirit was starting to rekindle.

Today, however, my vitality was completely revived in the unlikeliest of locations. Hunger finally hit me in the hospital this afternoon and I wanted nothing more than to have a simple taste of home. On our ride home from the hospital, I requested to get out of the car near a KFC I had spotted a few weeks ago.

What began as a desperate maneuver to refuel quickly developed into a festive and heartwarming occasion. As I entered the KFC, I could see the staff already gaining excitement to serve a foreigner. The two male cashiers both vied enthusiastically to take my order and the staff behind them waited eagerly to prepare what I ordered. However, I don’t think they were as excited as I was to see them. I ordered the 3 piece chicken meal with a large 7 Up and felt like a big kid in a candy store. The staff found out I was from America and the smiles spread like Hollywood gossip throughout the kitchen.

I found a seat near the sunny window and, with my friend Colonel Sanders glaring at me from every wall and package with his big happy American smile, bit into my first heavenly drumstick. Having not had meat in nearly two weeks, I said a short prayer of thanks to the little birds who now tasted so delicious. After savoring every bite, I went back for another order of drumsticks and fries. And, after that, I went back for a Mochachino that looked awesome on the other tables. It was!

Just as I was beginning to get very introspective over my Mochachino in what was now a full-blown spiritual revival, the perfect twangy country song, ideally called “Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band, came through the restaurant’s speaker system. The lyrics (below), fried chicken, Mochachino, sunshine coming through the window, and KFC staff smiling at me with thumbs up as I sang along were just what the doctor ordered!

“I thank God for my life
And for the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly, let it ring
Salute the ones who died
And the ones that give their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice
All the things we love

Like our chicken fried
Cold beer on a Friday night
A pair of jeans that fit just right
And the radio up

Well I’ve seen the sunrise
See the love in my woman’s eyes
Feel the touch of a precious child
And know a mother’s love…

…And it’s funny how it’s the little things in life that mean the most
Not where you live, what you drive, or the price tag on your clothes
There’s no dollar sign on a piece of mind this I’ve come to know
So if you agree have a drink with me
Raise your glasses for a toast.”

Here here Mr. Brown!! Here here!

My new friends asked if they could have pictures with me and be my Facebook friends. Duh! Then, they wanted to send me on a tour of the kitchen and meet the rest of the staff. Obviously! The manager came out and introduced me to the head chef, who gave me a special tour of the immaculate kitchen, freezers, and cooking process. I asked if he would give me the secret original recipe, but apparently we weren’t that tight yet.

I left KFC with a new hop in my step and about ten new friends whom I will see at least twice a month. Thanks Colonel!

Some touching photos from the day:


–Waiting to see a doctor–


–Holding hands to hold on–


–Unknown child born on the street to a mother who can’t even remember her name–

Confusing Dichotomies…

…This week has been my first taste of government-run healthcare on a massive scale. All week, my standards of and preconceived notions about healthcare, especially on such a large scale, have been incessantly challenged and modified. This blog post has been delayed because, quite honestly, I haven’t had the same thoughts about anything here for more than 30 minutes. I have at times been frustrated and appalled while at others inspired and impressed. It has taken me until now to process what I have seen and feel prepared to share what I learned.

I am extremely fortunate to be able to work inside a public hospital here because, like most government-run operations, it is shrouded in bureaucracy and red tape. I am the first volunteer from my organization to be given access here in recent years. Luckily, this fact also means that the physicians and staff are incredibly happy to see me and generously offer me their knowledge and time.

This is the main district government hospital for all of Faridabad and the surrounding communities. The statistics here alone are staggering. Although it has only 204 beds, it is the main hospital and only public surgical setup for a population of 2.5 million people! Last year, the outpatient department alone saw 380,000 patients and more than 26,000 new patients were admitted to the wards! With only four operating rooms, they conduct more than 400 operations per month.

My first day here was marked by contrasting emotions and endless rhetorical questions. I spent most of the day sitting and waiting for hospital administrators in their relatively plush offices complete with personal waiters to tell me what to do or give me some work. A constant river of physicians and staff passed through to give their reports and take orders. Although I was impressed by the quantity of work that appeared to be occurring, I wondered how much of it could have been streamlined. No one offered me a tour of the hospital, which I thought was quite odd considering the incredibly warm welcome I initially received.

Toward the end of the day, I performed my own investigation by walking the halls alone. After recent rains and cold, gloomy weather, I found the hospital to have had a frigid, unsanitary, and eerie atmosphere. Throughout the day, the temperature inside the hospital likely never surpassed 55 degrees F. Mud and dirt had been tracked throughout the halls and stairwells while the families of patients slept on the floor in small empty lobbies next to the only elevator. Six to eight patients were crammed into wards the size of the boss’s office without any privacy or medical equipment (other than beds). Rare IV stands and bags were some of the only treatments I could see. Occasional and alternating smells of urine and formaldehyde coupled with sights of empty blood-stained beds and mishandled biohazards sent shivers down my spine. I came home appalled by the apparent lack of patient monitoring and sanitation standards.


–The baby was delivered a while ago. Why is this blood still here?–


–Locking the main doors of the hospital with a chain (isn’t this an obvious no-no?)–

However, my experiences over the subsequent days were entirely different. The next morning, I brought two other volunteers with me. One of the head medical officers, a very outgoing physician who seems to have earned much respect from his colleagues, gave us a tour of the entire hospital. We stopped at every door as he introduced us to every doctor in the building. Even in the outpatient department, where more than 30 patients were sometimes lined up outside an office, each specialist would invite us to sit down and involve us in his or her patient interactions and thought process (more on this in a later post…it was incredible).


–Joining the ENT surgeon–


–Line for one of the offices–

On my first day, I only received a cursory overview of the hospital. I saw exactly what any patient or outsider would have seen just walking around. On the following days, however, I got to go behind the scenes and see where the actual medicine is being practiced. Everything in India is nothing like what it initially seems. First impressions are utterly useless here. What I observed with the doctors were hopeful initiatives and altruistic undertakings that were 180 degrees different from what I saw in the wards the evening before. Much of the Indian culture confuses me, such as the differentiations within the hospital. Why would you have a packed and smelly medical ward with almost no technology when, down the hall, you have a spotless ICU with some of the latest equipment?


–Brand-new equipment waiting in an idle ICU–

However, one thing here is certain! Almost all of the physicians I have met here in India have been extremely proud of their work. They believe and will outwardly claim that India’s healthcare system is among the very best in the world. They know they don’t have the same technology, financial power, or research that we do in the developed world. But the doctors believe that, with what they have, they are able to practice more effective and more efficient medicine than even America. Multiple doctors have even tried to convince me to come to medical school here.

Upon first hearing such statements, my gut reaction is just to nod in politeness and let the matter rest. But, their insistence is so adamant that it begs further contemplation. At first, I thought to myself, “You have to be kidding!” But, as my mind continues to wrap itself around this unusual country, I’m beginning to see what they mean.

The physicians here are proud because each of them is able to care for thousands of patients every year who have almost nothing. There are private hospitals scattered all around the country that range from tiny outpatient clinics to massive sub-specialty complexes. However, most of the population cannot afford care at these facilities. For them, the public option is their only option. In fact, many of the patients here are below the poverty line (which, in India, is placed at an obscenely low income of Rs 40 [80 cents] per day).

With a steadily increasing population of 1.21 billion people, India is on track to overtake China as the world’s most populous country by the year 2030 (when the population here is estimated to be 1.53 billion). Guaranteeing free medical care to a population four times that of the United States with a GDP only one tenth the size is a bold but noble undertaking.


–A sign outlining this very fact ironically just outside the hospital–

It is financially and statistically impossible to give everyone here the same level of care we are accustomed to back in America. These doctors are entrusted with and passionately care for a sixth of the entire planet’s population. These government physicians take salaries ($800 per month) that are less than one fifth that of their private practice counterparts even though their patient flow is likely quadruple or higher. These doctors love what they do and, God bless them, will always have a steep hill in front of them.

NICU…

…This afternoon, I was blessed with the opportunity to accompany the hospital’s biomedical engineer and a pediatrician to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). There were 13 babies here, most of whom were born prematurely. I had seen photos and videos of premature babies before but had never viewed one in person. While the engineer and pediatrician were completely habituated to the sights of the NICU, I could not stop staring at these precious and minuscule marvels of life.

Although the child pictured here weighed less than 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) and looked incredibly underdeveloped, he is actually one of the healthiest babies overall in the room.

Just to enter and see a NICU anywhere is an incredibly special, touching, and rare experience. To see a NICU in a public Indian hospital puts a whole new spin on life. In one respect, these children are so helpless and unfortunate. Yet, on the other, it is a miracle that most of them are alive at all and made it to a district level hospital with proper facilities to care for them. I will be going back next week to spend an entire day in the NICU with the pediatrician.

The Indian Wedding…

…WOW!

Tonight’s wedding was one of the most vivid, vivacious, and enchanting events that I have ever attended. In eight hours, I took 310 photographs hoping that just one would capture a small hint of the dreamlike atmosphere and spirit. Rising out of millennia of traditions and religious rituals, this wedding had not a single dull moment.

First, let me give a little background to the story. The groom is a handsome 27 year-old software engineer who lives with his family (as is customary) in the house next to ours. He and his family have been incredibly warm and generous since the day I arrived. Although he was given permission to pursue a love marriage if he desired, the groom chose to have his marriage arranged by his parents. This is standard in India as 80-90% of Indian marriages are arranged. He has known the bride only vaguely as his parents are acquaintances with the bride’s parents. However, he has only seen the bride a few times and only rarely since becoming engaged eight months ago. They have eaten at restaurants together but have otherwise not spent time alone, although they do talk on the phone from time to time. Before tonight, they had not seen each other in more than three weeks.

The bride is a beautiful 24 year-old who also happens to be a software engineer. Keep in mind, however, that we had not seen her until tonight, contributing to a feeling of suspense that dominated the evening. Like the groom, she is a Brahmin, which is considered the priestly class and is the highest caste. Marriage among different castes is still very rare and often looked unfavorably upon. Thus, it is typical to have a marriage like this between two individuals from the same caste.

The wedding itself takes place in multiple stages. Different events and celebrations have been occurring for more than two weeks, with spirit and expenses peaking over the last two days. Today, we planned to depart from the neighborhood in a convoy of vehicles at 4 pm. The female volunteers had their sarees and makeup perfected at a house nearby while I remained at home to prepare my jootis, kurta, stole, and turban. Since this was my first and potentially only true Indian wedding, I wasn’t about to hold anything back.


–My jootis–


–Kurta and stole design–


–Turban–

My host-family, three friends, and I jumped in a large taxi hired by the groom’s father. We followed the groom’s car to the local temple for a short blessing, then to the staging area 45 minutes away in Gurgaon (where I stayed during my first week in India). We pulled up right behind the groom and were welcomed by a full band and continuous array of ground and airborne fireworks from which flaming debris rained all around us. Mind you, this was not the actual wedding location. This was just a place for the families to stage while the guests arrived at the main venue.

Garlands of fresh flowers were placed over our heads by the bride’s uncle. Throughout the ceremonies yesterday and today, the bride’s eldest uncle and the groom’s father practically ran the show. They determined what happened when and directed processions and gift giving with the wave of their hands. A short (30 minute) religious ceremony occurred here in which the groom’s family gave gifts of jewelry and garments to the bride’s family. This is also where I met all of the groom’s childhood friends, who took me under their wings and gave me the front row seats to the remainder of the events.


–Short ceremony of gift-giving in the staging location–


–My host-family and friends–

After two hours of snacks, visiting, and ceremonies here, we departed to more fireworks and music. A short drive led us to yet another staging area, where a horse-drawn carriage, a second full band, two rolling generators, multiple strands of chandeliers, and a massive music machine awaited us on the side of the road. As soon as we pulled up, the diesel generators were fired up, spewing clouds of black smoke into the air. As the smoke dissipated, the ‘portable’ lights began to illuminate the entire street while the band and music machine blared festive songs as if to an audience in Bangladesh.

After a few minutes, the groom exited his car and boarded the carriage.

Then, the dancing began! With the music machine leading the way, the procession of perhaps 75 people danced our way down the street with generators and chandeliers in tow for the next hour.

With my ear drums and feet ready for a break, we made the turn into the breathtaking wedding venue. We danced in front for another 15 minutes. To bless the crowd and the groom, guests waved stacks of 10 rupee bills in the air before throwing them all into the air. Nearby members of the band would then scurry around to hunt for money on the ground.

The groom’s friends all joined the groom on the carriage and began to dance above the crowd. They escorted the groom, who was also now dancing, down the steps and into the entrance.

Halfway through the long entrance tunnel, the bride’s female relatives blocked the grooms entranced and performed yet another ritual.

As is customary and also highly ironic and comical, the groom had to haggle his way into the venue. The groom’s brother-in-law led the negotiations. I think they settled on an entrance fee of about Rs 11,000 ($220).


–Negotiating the groom’s entrance–


–Access granted–

We then entered the massive venue, a lawn where more than 1,000 people were eating, dancing, welcoming us, or watching us live on one of multiple jumbotrons placed around the venue. I knew it was going to be a big wedding, but I had not anticipated such grandeur. To top it all off, I was given some of the best seats in the house. In fact, for much of the wedding, I stood or sat right next to the groom. I got to learn what he was thinking and a small taste of the emotions that must have been overwhelming him. Wow, what a special gift!

After about 30 minutes of snacks and mingling, the moment everyone had been waiting for arrived. The stage was cleared except for the groom, who waited alone in anticipation. Eyes and cameras fixated on the door of a single story building in a corner of the lawn near the stage. The bride’s family assembled and then, finally, she emerged.

The bride’s dress alone contained more than 15 kgs (30 pounds) of silver and jewelry! After uniting on the stage, the couple exchanged garlands before spending an hour taking photos with relatives and friends.


–The couple with the bride’s parents (who were fighting tears) and brother–


–The couple with the groom’s parents, sister, brother-in-law, and niece–

During the photo shoot, most people returned to dancing and eating. I estimate that there were at least 25 food and beverage stations each preparing unique specialties. Without the wedding celebration or dancing, the event could have easily been mistaken for a gourmet food festival. As the families are devout Hindus, all of the food was strictly vegetarian and there was no alcohol served.


–The groom’s childhood friends (and a Swede who is in school with one of them)–

At about 11:30 pm, rain began to drizzle and then pour. Everyone moved under the awnings and enjoyed more desserts. By midnight, the scheduled celebrations for guests started to come to an end. After a round of goodbyes and thank you’s, we departed for home.

I’ll go on more about the wedding tomorrow because, actually, the official wedding does not happen until 2 am! This post is a marathon for the eyes. Thanks for hanging in! Just imagine how tired the bride, groom, and families are. They will not have a chance to sleep until 6 pm tomorrow! If any of you are reading, thank you so much for such an incredible and memorable experience!

Pre-Wedding…

…I had heard that Indians do not mess around when it comes to weddings. Today’s pre-wedding celebration did not disappoint.

Following typical Indian standards, we planned to leave at noon and actually departed at 1:30 pm. Apparently, we had to wait for the groom and his family (our neighbors) to leave first. My host-family, one volunteer, and I rode about 5 km to a place designated just for wedding ceremonies.

We were welcomed by the groom and his family and gathered around for photos. Then we sat at any empty table where the onslaught of appetizers began. In keeping with religious practices, only non-alcoholic beverages, such as Pepsi and Mountain Dew, were served.

Family and friends welcomed me with open arms. I mentioned before that the groom’s sister and her family actually live in Phoenix. Thinking what a small world it is, I continued on to meet this man, a childhood friend of the groom. It turns out he is also a pilot. But you would never guess where he completed his private, instrument, multi-engine, and commercial pilot training: Scottsdale Airport! In fact, he had some of the same instructors that I did and probably flew some of the same aircraft that I learned in. Now that’s a small world.

It wasn’t long before I was summoned inside and escorted by the groom’s sister to a prime seat near the left side of the stage. Just as I sat down, the groom’s father noticed me and waved me up to sit right next to him on the stage, right behind the groom and priest. How special of a treat is that! The procession had already begun but paused for a moment as I removed my shoes, sat down, and as the priest turned around to place a tilak (a red paste, with rice in this case, that is smeared on the forehead to symbolize the mind’s eye) on my forehead.

Today’s procession was all about the groom. The bride was not even present and only men were seated on the stage. For the next hour, the groom was literally showered with gifts from the other side of the stage (the bride’s family). The procession started with a myriad of religious traditions. Bananas, rice, and hundred rupee notes, among many other items, were used to bless the groom. There was hardly a second in which the groom was not also being fed sweets. After about 30 minutes of religious chants and sprinkling rice and flowers over the groom, the procession took on a slightly less religious tone. The big gifts started coming, including many installments of money, jewelry, and food. Even I was given 10 rupees! I looked at the father for clarification. He simply nodded with a hint of a smile.

Before the big gifts had even started coming, the groom already had a meter tall pile of shiny packages next to him and baskets of sweets and goodies practically buckling the legs of a table behind us. Just when I was thinking he would need a suitcase to take all of these gifts home, lo and behold, here came the suitcase!

Then, it was time for the groom’s family to receive gifts. With the groom working on what must have been his 20th sweet, his grandfather received a ring.

Then, his father received a ring.

Then, women from both families came on the stage to give the groom his ring. The woman second from the left is the groom’s sister, who happens to live in Phoenix with her husband and daughter (the smallest girl in the photo).

Still chewing on sweets, the groom was now blessed by the women. One-by-one, the women would come onto the stage, circle money around his head, and drop the offering into a towel on his lap.


–The groom’s mother blessing him–

Now more than an hour into the procession, the children and some of the guests were becoming restless. Luckily for them, the ceremony slowly fizzled to an end and everyone went back outside to eat from the dozens of stations cooking up delicious dishes.

Wanting to try a small bite of everything, I was soon absolutely stuffed. But, I could not pass up dessert!


–Having ice cream with my host-mother–


–Finishing up the event laughing and joking with my host-parents–