Nourishment…

I want to let everyone know that I will be leaving on Friday to go to Jaipur for the weekend and am again uncertain if I will be able to post updates. I will try my best. If you do not hear from me, have a great weekend!

…One of three volunteers who recently arrived is a dietitian from Australia. Today, we took a scale and measuring tape to the slum school in order to weigh and measure each student in preparation for teaching them more about what they should strive to eat (even if they can’t always get it). Using charts and calculations, she determined, unsurprisingly, that most of the kids were small and undernourished for their ages. In fact, many of the children fell into the bottom 5% of the nourishment tables. It was somewhat ironic to see the teacher serving lunches out of the bucket as we weighed and measured each of them.

One of the students today was 15, skinny to the bone, and had just had her marriage to a 25-year-old man arranged by her parents. She seemed shy and nervous. I am not sure if it was because of the attention we gave her or because of the arrangement.

Some more photos of the day:


–Kids vying to have their picture taken outside of the school–


–Improvising games: badminton with a board–


–Our lunch, where Ratatouille poked his head out yet again–


–A special dinner of pourri, aloo, and rita at home–

Invitation To Dinner…

…Yesterday, the head physician at the rural hospital honored me with an invitation to dinner at his home. Today, I went to his home along the border between Delhi and Faridabad and had an amazing time visiting with him and his family.

They live in a very clean and secure looking compound of high rise apartment buildings with extensive parking and grass lawns. They are Sikhs and originally from Punjab, a state along the border of Pakistan. On the most prominent wall of their home was a large photo of their guru, from whom they seek spiritual guidance.

I learned just how influential the guru can be from the parents’ story of their marriage. The father recited the events, describing that he was a young medical student (in Moscow, of all places!) who had returned home and was very busy with friends but found out that his guru was preaching that day. He took time out of his plans and decided to attend. At the end of the session, the guru called him forward (a rare occasion). He was afraid that he had done something wrong. Instead, however, he was asked if the woman next to him was suitable for him to marry. She was the guru’s suggestion. He immediately bowed to the guru’s feet in nearly instant affirmation. The young woman was also asked if he was suitable, to which she also responded yes. The new couple was married on the spot. The young man canceled his plans with friends and went home with his new wife. They have been happily married for 11 years and have two wonderfully pleasant and polite children.

I was shown dozens of photos, several of the mother’s paintings, and the children’s room with each of their respective toy cabinets.

The dinner was delicious and consisted of papad, curd, mixed vegetables (potato, cauliflower, and peas), chopped fresh veggies (tomato and onion), bean soup, and chapati. Before dinner, I had been served fresh juice, a delicious herbal tea, and snacks of pecans, almonds, and raisins from Uzbekistan. After dinner, I was given little cubes of sugar to aid digestion.

The hospitality and generosity of people and their families here is unsurpassed. They invited me to come back anytime, an offer I will certainly take them up on.

Hidden Gem…

…My diet here in India has been almost strictly vegetarian. Religious practices forbid even bringing meat into the house. Just about every meal comes with chapati, a pure wheat flatbread that is a nice filler but is certainly overused. Dal is the next most popular item that we eat here. It is a yellow to brown soup made of dried lentils. Wherever the dal goes, chapati follows. Next on the rotation is a lightly curried mixture of potato and cauliflower. Sometimes, we also get a salad of chopped radish and cucumber. Breakfasts are usually a sugary version of chapati on which I like to add mixed fruit jam. These five dishes, plus chai tea and water, comprise about 80% of my diet. On rare occasions, rice is substituted in the place of chapati.


–A common lunch or dinner. We were sampling the green chilly too during this meal–

Today, however, we found a hidden gem of a restaurant. At the convergence of Sectors 7 and 10 is the Sector 10 market. It is about a 20 minute walk north of our home stay. I walk through it just about every day coming home from work or to go buy necessities. It is a dusty, loud, and unappealing stretch of road. I thought we would never find a good place to eat around here. Then we happened upon the unassuming Ever Green Restaurant.

Like most Indian establishments, little effort seemed to be given to its outward appearance. Hence, I had passed it dozens of times without ever giving it a chance. This time, however, we noticed that it had a picture of chicken tikka above the door which drew us in immediately.

A short walk upstairs led us into a much more cosmopolitan and modern dining room. I was just as impressed by the atmosphere here as I had been at the barber shop last week. We were the only people in the restaurant, but it was only noon, so it didn’t bother me. We’re used to eating lunch around 2 or 3pm and dinner around 8 or 9pm here.

We ordered what we thought would be an appropriate amount of meat and waited impatiently while trying to figure out the scoring of the five-day cricket test match between India and Australia that was playing on TV (which was a luxury because it was running on either a generator or batteries since the power was out).

Then the food started coming, and coming, and coming. The server waited on us like we were royalty, serving each person every dish and assuring that were completely satisfied. It was Indian food like I had never eaten before, and it was superb! We ate dishes called boneless butter chicken, chicken rara, chicken tikka, chicken seekh kabab, a mixed “non-veg” platter, and butter naan that was practically lethal. I had thought the dishes would be somewhat small since we ordered Rs 200 ($4) half-orders. They were not.

For $8 per person, we felt like kings eating our last supper. A meal this good and with this much meat in the states would have easily cost over $80. Right as we were paying the bill and thinking that nothing could have been better, a mouse ran from under the table next to us. I pretended not to notice and tried to forget about it. Maybe he was the cook from Ratatouille! Even with the mouse, I think we found our home away from home away from home.

Merry Christmas…

…MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone!!! Today is my first Christmas away from home, my first Christmas out of the country, my first Christmas without a single gift to unwrap, and my first Christmas apart from family. However, this holiday, I am more grateful than ever and, thanks to technology, feel closer than I thought I would to home. I have received encouraging feedback from the blog and want to thank you all for following and writing. My gift this Christmas is your love and support. To have you sharing my experience here makes it even more meaningful to me.

Last night, my host family’s oldest daughter was admitted to the hospital for a high fever and neck swelling that had not been responding to antibiotics for several days. This morning, we had a simple breakfast in front of the Christmas tree (see below) and then took our gifts to her in the hospital. She has been undergoing a few tests but should, hopefully, be released tomorrow. I also took a bag of Hershey’s kisses that I had brought from home and handed them out throughout the hospital. All of the patients and nurses loved it.

After, having been inspired by the positive reaction at the hospital, we bought 750 pieces of chocolates to hand out near the slum school. We walked over and spent a few hours playing games with the kids and handing out candy. The candy distribution started out gently and happily. But, once the surrounding children found out what was happening, kids swooped in from everywhere. You would have thought we were handing out gold. Things got a little too rowdy though and we had to shut things down.

One boy was present today who catches my attention every time I visit the slum. He has Down syndrome but seems to get along well with the other children. He gets the biggest smile on his face when we give him any attention. He loves to be picked up by his wrists as if he were being launched off the ground. He will come up to me with his head straight back and simply point to the sky with a look in his eye no human could refuse. Although we brightened his day, he certainly brightened mine the most.

After leaving the slum, I went to meet the locals to play in their weekly Sunday afternoon cricket match. I took a new bat I had purchased earlier this week and they enjoyed it tremendously. I scored 16 runs, including a 6 run hit (basically a home run) and a 4 run hit (a grounder to the wall). My team won 43 to 41.

Tonight, all of the volunteers I know in Faridabad (including four from my orientation) are meeting at a local restaurant called Haldirams for dinner. It will be nice to get everyone under one roof and celebrate together.

Although I feel worlds away in body this Christmas, I am right with you in spirit. Merry Christmas! To my family, I love you!

Christmas Eve In The Slum…

…Having forgotten to set my alarm this morning, I was awakened by a call from my family to remind me about their holiday party back in the States. I quickly got dressed and left the house with my computer and 3G USB stick so as not to wake up any of the other seven people living here. I opened up Skype and was video chatting with nearly my entire close family 8049 miles away only seconds later. Realizing I was not tethered to Wi-Fi, I figured I’d take them on a walking tour. Then I decided we would just head straight to the nearest slum. While being passed around from one family member to another to say hello and Merry Christmas, I was able to show each a little live glimpse of the culture surrounding me. As they always do, dozens of children ran up to say hello and followed me wherever I went. I showed them my family back home and they waved to say hello, namaste, and Merry Christmas. I think it was very special and amazing for everyone. For some of my family and certainly the locals, it was their first time to video chat. To my family back home, it was so great to see you. Thanks for remembering me. Merry Christmas!

I returned home to have breakfast and then went back to the slum school to play games and celebrate. Few, if any, of the children know what Christmas is celebrated for here, but they love the attention nonetheless. We played many games and drew pictures for the kids to color in. Their favorite game was trying to pop balloons we brought by squeezing them between two people or sitting on them which, for some of the tiny kids in particular, was hilarious and adorable to watch. Some kids were not in school (it is, after all, Saturday) but they all looked in enviously wanting to join in the games. However, we made sure they got some candy and treats as well.


–The students holding up their drawings of Christmas trees, which they have never seen–

After spending a few hours at the school, the other volunteers and I walked along the canal and through the tiny walkways of the slum. Kids and young adults from all around came to welcome us. We were told by some that we were the first white people they had seen in person. We said hello to, shook hands with, and took photographs of hundreds of people. The interactions were some of the most special I have ever had.

The people here stare at us with the most inquisitive and gently warm glare that does not break for as long as we are in sight. Even people whom we had passed minutes earlier continued to stare at us and wave once we looked back.

The kids in the slum will melt your heart. Compared to kids back home, they have close to nothing. Most do not have shoes or toys or even a steady diet. But if happiness were a quantifiable state, I would be willing to bet they are just as happy as any back home.

Just to have their picture taken brings the biggest possible smiles to many of the children here. I sincerely wonder what they thought this morning to see people waving at and talking to them from America.

After about an hour of wandering throughout, we met a wonderful group of people who invited us into their home in the midst of the slum. They offered us chai and, although slightly nervous about cleanliness, we politely accepted. We were given a tour of their simple, dark home and while Neetu, one of the young ladies, heated the chai tea. Her friend, a twenty-year-old male mechanical engineering student, translated for us and officiated the tremendous hospitality. These were 20 minutes on a Christmas Eve I certainly will not forget. Here we were, receiving wonderful generosity with no expectations for anything in return from a group of young adults living in the middle of an Indian slum.


–Two of the ladies who generously welcomed us into their home for chai–

I usually won’t post this many photos, but today was exceptional.

Gifts like today cannot be given. I thank God for all of the wonderful things I have been blessed with and especially for my family and friends. Thank you all for following and Merry Christmas!

Meat!..

…Last night, I had my first meal of meat (Okay, it wasn’t exactly my first; I couldn’t resist a couple of stops at McDonald’s last weekend in Delhi). It was delicious but took a toll on all of our stomachs.

Before dinner, we observed the surgical removal of a kidney stone. What was most fascinating was that the surgeon and his three assistants brought all of their equipment with them in suitcases. They came in with everything they needed except for the monitor and operating table.

After the surgery, we took a tuk-tuk to a Muslim restaurant called Karims in one of the big shopping complexes several kilometers away. I had a dish of mutton called Firdausi Qorma (aka Roghan Josh) that is a Mughlai recipe. We also had nan and Qeema (a minced mutton dish) and my friend ordered Boneless Butter Chicken, which was by far my favorite. We also had tandori chicken today from a vendor in the Sector 7 market which was even better. I’m slowly gaining courage to eat food not prepared here at the house (which is all vegetarian due to strict Hindi religious practices here). Of course, I only drink and brush my teeth with bottled water that I inspect upon purchase. I also only eat foods that are served very hot, are in sealed packages, or bananas. I do not eat raw fruits or vegetables, anything with water that hasn’t boiled, or anything served cold. I have already seen two patients with Typhoid Fever (but don’t worry, I have been vaccinated for it).

Agricultural Oasis…

…While the female volunteers were observing deliveries today, I was quickly summoned into a vehicle at the hospital. As the driver and technician spoke only very broken English, I was under the impression we were leaving to tend to an emergency or pick up a patient. We were driven as fast as possible (about 15mph) on the extremely rough main road for several hundred meters before turning down a very pleasant and well-maintained street. We meandered through nice homes interspersed with lush farms and buffalo basking in the warm sun. We then turned into an appealing compound where I could immediately tell there was no emergency.

After a few moments of confusion as to why we were there, one of the men I had worked with at the hospital the day before came from around the corner and welcomed us all to his home. Over the next half-hour, his brothers, cousins, and other relatives slowly materialized from the surrounding homes to welcome me and say hello. Now knowing that this was to be a tour, I immediately switched gears and tried to take in as much as I could from this unique opportunity.

My first impressions of this home were its unexpected serenity, lush green vistas, and organized cleanliness that seem to not exist anywhere else I have yet visited in India. I was shown their buffalo (not the North American kind, mind you), cow, sheep, German shepherd, and local peacock. It was the most beautiful property I have seen in India and I felt honored to be able to see it let alone be welcomed so royally to it. Upon the owner’s insistence, one of the men was sent to bring fresh buffalo milk for me to try. He returned ten minutes later, first with chairs, then with a table and cloth, and finally with a tray of cookies, snacks, and steaming hot glasses of the freshest buffalo milk possible.

I’ll admit, I had some reservations at first. Being used to pasteurized cow milk from a sealed and refrigerated plastic container, I felt a little anxious drinking hot milk straight out of a buffalo sitting five feet away from me in the middle of an Indian wheat field. But I was committed at this point and was rewarded by an unexpectedly delicious first sip. I even let down my primary defense of using hand sanitizer before touching anything I eat as I politely took cookies and snacks handed to me. The buffalo milk is much thicker and fattier than cow milk, which is one reason why it is strongly preferred over cow milk here. Milk that isn’t fresh is sold in non-refrigerated cartons here and has a very bitter, almost sour taste. The buffalo milk went down very smoothly but was much more filling than a normal milk and I was fully satisfied. But as soon as I lowered my glass, I saw the next one coming. I had read about this kind of hospitality before and happily started in on what was now becoming a challenge to overcome.

I took the opportunity to battle language barriers in order to learn more about agriculture in India. What I learned was fascinating. Being a farmer here in India is much more of a luxury and symbol of being elite than in the United States. One acre of farmland here in Tigaon is valued at one crore 50 lakh (Rs 15,000,000 or about $286,000)!!! I know this value to be correct because I have heard it from separate independent sources, including the doctors, here and in Faridabad. This family’s farm was 20 acres, one of the biggest I have heard of yet here. They grow wheat from November to March and then rice from April to October. I believe they said they can harvest the wheat every 90 days for a yield of about 1600kg per acre and sell it at a price of Rs 20/kg, by my calculations giving Rs 640,000 ($12,100) per wheat harvest. Here, that is a substantial amount of money.

 

The buffalo are also very valuable and are capable of generating a large income. One buffalo can produce 15 liters of milk per day, which sells as about Rs 40 ($.80) per liter. I obtained the value of buffalo but I will check it and edit the post tomorrow to let you know. My note seems a little high but I think they really are that valuable. The family owned five adult buffalo and five newborns sat right next to us as I enjoyed my milk.

After my inquisition and finishing a generous pint of thick hot milk, I was taken on a tour of the fields, where grass is grown to feed the livestock, the product out the other end is set out to dry, and wheat and rice are grown to sell. The crops were remarkably green given the dusty brown surroundings I have become accustomed to here. The cow and buffalo pies were stacked strategically to use for cooking at a later date. The sustainable nature of this farm was especially striking after the disregard for pollution and litter so prevalent in the cities here.


–My generous and hospitable hosts, and owners of a true agricultural oasis–

Two Weeks In…

…Today marks two weeks since my arrival in India. Now that I have begun to settle in and get a grasp on the culture I want to start sharing my journey over the next 5 months.

Quotidian life here is even more chaotic, filthy, and exhausting than I could have ever anticipated. In a way, it feels like some sort of post apocalyptic society in which a massive civilization has survived but has been left to its own devices. Life is set to an endless din of blaring horns, spewing engines, and overly aggressive shopkeepers. The novelty of it all is fascinating while sometimes also frustrating. As westerners here, we are the center of attention wherever we go. I have been amazed by the lack of tourists, even in the most touristy of attractions and sectors. As I have been told by numerous locals and have learned from experience, “the guest is God in India.” When the caste system was still prevalent here, westerners were seen as above the system entirely. Even though the caste system has been largely eradicated, we still receive special treatment and attention. The vast majority of people are very thankful to have us here and will go out of their way to help us. However, money is the God of Gods here. No matter how genuine and friendly someone seems, it is hard not to question his or her motives. Almost everyone wants something from us, usually money or commission from a place he or she can get us to shop in.

I spent the first week in a city called Gurgaon, which is southwest of Delhi by metro about 45 minutes. It is the “high-rent district” of the Delhi area. I stayed with six other volunteers at the apartment of the program coordinator and his wife. There, I had a week-long orientation on Hindi language, Indian culture, and many of the major sights and attractions of Delhi. We all had an excellent week and became close friends given such a short time.

Last Sunday, I was driven to my home-stay in Faridabad, a city one hour southeast of Delhi by metro plus about a 1 hour tuk tuk ride (total 2 hours). Faridabad has one of the highest concentrations of slums in all of India. There are few paved streets and even fewer stop lights or even signs in this town of over 2 million people. Unlike major Indian cities which have outlawed diesel engines on taxis and tuk tuks, any mode of transportation seems acceptable here. Everything from camel or ox-pulled carts to tractors are common sights. People will latch on to anything that moves. Tiny three-wheeled tuk tuks sometimes carry 16 or more people. Yesterday, I even saw a small scooter with 4 adult men on it. Because of the bone-dry dusty streets and billowing vehicles, the pollution here is visibly and tangibly worse than even Delhi. Honking is also endless, and is to me the most frustrating aspect of the culture. Drivers honk almost for sake of honking. It is horrible. From the room I am in now, I can hear at least 10 different horns with no more than a two second gap between honks. Cows and stray dogs are everywhere and most of them can be found eating garbage that is left in the streets.

I spent most of this week helping give medical checkups and administer medication to the impoverished elderly. I also saw a C section and helped out around a small local hospital. They have much of the medical infrastructure in place, but the quality and sanitation are decades behind US standards. At times, the scenes send shivers down my spine.