Do it for the chai

IMG_3797IMG_3781IMG_3788IMG_3772Despite the fact that I have traveled often throughout the past four years, I have not adjusted to the feeling of leaving one world and entering another. I still feel vividly uncomfortable, I haven’t figured out how to sleep on airplanes, and I become shy for a period of one to two days when I travel. These sensations and experiences are part of what attracts me to travel.

This time is different. This time, I am a college graduate and I don’t feel the same urge to blindly toss myself at a location and figure it out from there. I am traveling to Jamkhed, India, to work with the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) because I am driven to expand my understanding of culturally relevant and relativistic healthcare methods, and how human rights discourse and anthropological perspectives play a part in it all.

I am to work as a social media and grant writing intern for CRHP. My basic duties as I understand them are to take photos of the goings-on of the organization, keep a record of happenings, and conduct a series of interviews regarding CRHP’s work in Jamkhed. Ultimately, I will be writing grant applications for CRHP, and writing their newsletter.

Yesterday was one of the longest days of my life, in that I didn’t sleep fitfully since I left Orlando. I had an eight hour flight from Orlando to Frankfurt, then another eight hour flight to Mumbai. When I arrived, I quickly got my baggage, made a beeline to get coffee (and accidentally ordered two coffees, so I just poured them into my empty water bottle for later), then searched for an ATM. “Do you know where an ATM is?” I asked the woman working at the coffee counter. She pointed outside, and so I went toward the exit. The security guard looked at me askance, obviously aware I looked a bit lost, and I asked him. He pointed back inside, vaguely toward a counter, and smiled kindly. “Where are you from?” I told him Florida, USA, and he laughed. “Do you know Spanish?” I excitedly replied that I know a bit, and he began to speak quickly in Spanish. “I’ve been learning on my phone, Duolingo…” he told me proudly, and I became acutely aware of how much I need to prioritize learning a language other than English.

I went where he pointed, and realized that the ATM was a small booth where two young men were helping a group of travelers. “Can I take out money here with a card?” I asked, not understanding this version of an ATM. They said that yes, I could, and I proceeded to take out enough Rupees to get on the prearranged shuttle I would take from Mumbai to Pune.

I walked outside, into the heavily humid, warm air of Mumbai at 1:30 in the morning. I glanced around at the signs held by various taxi and shuttle drivers, searching for “KK Travels.” I found it, and walked up to the man. “I think I’m supposed to go with you…” I said, and he motioned for me to go around the line of men and gate upon which they leaned, and join him. I did, and he told me that they were waiting for one more rider. I propped my 60L trekking bag and backpack against my leg, pulled out In a Rocket Made of Ice by Gail Gutradt, and started reading.

Soon, the man returned and pointed toward another man, who was slightly taller and wearing a serious expression. “Go with him,” the first man told me, and I obligingly trailed behind him and two other men, one of whom pushing a cart filled with luggage. We waited at an elevator with a long line (the other elevator read “out of service”) and finally pushed our way into an open elevator car. I bumped into people with my trekking bag on my back, and backpack against my chest, until a young woman next to me said, “Please, you can put your backpack on my cart. No problem.” I told her it was okay, but she smiled and said, “really, no problem.” I conceded and allowed the backpack to fall off of my chest onto her cart, and felt immediately cooler and relieved.

When we reached our floor, our driver ushered us all toward a small white shuttle with “KK” on the back window. I lugged my trekking bag into the trunk, but kept my backpack. I tried to open the passenger-side door when the two men quickly got into the back seats, but the driver told me, “No, driver side.” I was confused until I realized jarringly that I was indeed trying to open the driver’s side door, forgetting the differences in cars and roads on this side of the world. I laughed at myself, then hurried to the other side and stepped into the car.

Our drive was quiet, with the peace of utter nighttime in Mumbai passing as we drove quickly toward Pune. We were one of the only cars on the road, the other vehicles being large trucks and rickshaws. We honked our way past these, and I watched as we climbed higher and higher, going over a mountain pass that I didn’t realized existed in the south of India. When we were at the top, I gasped as I saw the glittering multitude of lights that is Mumbai. It was so grand, and I realized how truly happy I am with my life, to be able to see the world in this way.

We did not speak much throughout the three hour drive, except when we stopped, our driver saying, “Ten minute tea break.” I looked out the window and saw lines of small snack shops, with different types of cookies and biscuits hanging from the poles holding up the shops’ tarp roofs. I saw only men, but I was curious and wanted to move about, so I stuck my head in the back seat. “Want anything?” I asked, hoping one of my fellow passengers spoke English. “No, thanks,” said the young man directly behind me, and I smiled, feeling more comfortable to know that I could communicate with someone in the shuttle.

I opened the shuttle door and stepped out, hopping down a small brick wall into the small crowd of drivers and passengers. I walked among the people gathered there, colorful clothing patterns milling in my peripheral vision, looking for a dog I could perhaps entice with a cookie (and buy a cookie if such a dog were to be found). But all of the dogs were further away, and I was aware that I should be careful to leave the lit and peopled space so I walked back to the shuttle, stretched, and stepped back in.

As the sun began to rise toward the end of our drive, the driver turned to me. He said something in broken English, but I couldn’t understand him. Embarrassed with my inability, I kept trying to guess until the young man behind me said, “He is telling you that it’s funny how no one listens to the road signs here.” Indeed, I had noticed many signs saying “Cars only in right lane,” yet we often swerved around massive trucks moving painfully slowly in this lane. We laughed, and then I asked the young man, “Where are you coming from?” He’d been to Indonesia to visit his father, and we chatted about Mumbai and Pune, his home city, and how I was surprised that there were mountains. He was kind, and our conversation dwindled pleasantly as we returned to gazing out of our windows.

Our driver dropped the two men off in Pune, and before he walked away, the young man said to me, “He says 45 more minutes to your destination.” I thanked him whole-heartedly, since I really had no idea where I was going, only that I was to meet another driver to take me to Jamkhed, somehow, somewhere. As we began driving again, the driver and I haltingly chatted about Punjabi music. He smiled gently when I couldn’t understand, and tried again — in this way, we were able to hold a companionable conversation, and the drive was wonderfully pleasant.

We arrived at a bus stop, and he said, “Wait.” He called someone, and told me that it was my driver for the next leg of the journey. Five minutes later, I moved my bags into a smaller car, and we drove away.

This part of the drive was a lot more jumbled for me, since my exhaustion hit me full-force as the sun rose in the sky. We stopped twice for chai, and eventually made it to Jamkhed. He dropped me off at a red building, pointed to a room, and motioned me inside.

My room is luxurious, with my own bathroom and a large bed full of comfortable pillows. I have a metal case in which to keep my clothing, and a simple wooden desk with a plastic chair. When I first arrived I so yearned to lay in bed and fall asleep, but I needed to tell someone that I was here.

I walked across a small courtyard toward a nearby cement building, and cautiously stepped inside. I didn’t want to interrupt anyone but I was curious, so I quietly walked into a main room. An aged woman, wearing a beautiful green sari, smiled at me. She pointed to a room, and I walked toward it. It was a bathroom. No, I shook my head and smiled, waving my hands in a way that by no means translated to “I’m just looking around.” I walked by another room, in which a man was evidently teaching three students who looked to be my age. The man motioned for me to come inside, so I happily did so. I shook hands with the students, who were Stephan, Taylor, and Alex, and the teacher, Jayesh, and settled down for a lesson about the history of CRHP and its work in Jamkhed.

After our lesson, the other students and I went to the preschool on campus and asked if we could come in — Mina, who heads the school, motioned enthusiastically. I spent perhaps half an hour letting one little girl play with my long homemade earrings, and we built lego stack after lego stack. One little boy was so tired that he kept falling over where he was sitting, so I plopped him into my lap and he quickly fell asleep. We left when it was time for the kids to get lunch.

We also went to get lunch. I learned that the students were on their SIT internship, and I excitedly told them that I, too studied abroad with SIT (School for International Training). We stayed a while and ate rice with yellow curry on top, thin round bread, and cauliflower with bell peppers in red sauce. I met another young woman, Bonnie, who is doing undergraduate research here to study high blood pressure in rural communities.

As we walked back to our rooms to get some air conditioner, I saw a young dog sitting in our path. I love dogs and was hoping to find a pup to love on CRHP campus, so I kneeled down. She was very shy, but soon came up to me. Another older dog stood nearby, even more shy than this one. I went to my room for a cookie I bought during one of our chai stops on the way to Jamkhed, an broke it into pieces for the dogs. They slowly ate it, and allowed me to pet them for a few minutes, then scampered away.

I spent time in the CRHP library, working on social media for my internship here. The other students and I went to the preschool on campus and asked if we could come in — Mina, who heads the school, motioned enthusiastically. I spent perhaps half an hour letting one little girl play with my long homemade earrings, and we built lego stack after lego stack. One little boy was so tired that he kept falling over where he was sitting, so I plopped him into my lap and he quickly fell asleep. We left when it was time for the kids to get lunch.

We had another lesson with Jayesh, and then I was told to meet with Ravi, the lead doctor at CRHP, at 6 pm. I fell asleep for a few minutes, then dragged myself out of bed in time to . get lost trying to find Ravi’s home. I asked two young men on a motorcycle, and they pointed me in the right direction. Ravi lives in a two-story cement building, and when I walked in, I nodded to a very old lady cleaning a pot in the kitchen. She pointed me to a nearby table, and motioned for me to wait.

I heard the pitter-patter of claws on wood flooring, and looked up to see Ravi descending the stairs with two massive dogs in tow. I grinned and kneeled to say hello to them, and shook hands with Ravi. We moved into a room with colorful flags and lights adorning the ceiling, sat down, and chatted about what my role is with CRHP and how I will accomplish it. He gave me a little black cube, and explained it would give me portable access to wifi — why I had never bought one, I have no idea. I was elated because I realized I could speak to David, my fiance, on a more regular basis. He also gave me a small cellphone for use in India.

Within a few minutes, the other young people joined us. We ate a dinner of Indian fare, and laughed and chatted. Our group has a wonderful mix of personalities, and I loved the feeling of sitting back and listening, and learning by simply being where I was. Ravi offered us drinks from his fridge, and as the night wore on, we played a game called “fish bowl,” and talked about the worst answers in game shows like “So you want to be a millionaire” or something like that. Soon, Ravi was telling us in a voice husky from chain-smoking cigarettes about the situation of women in rural India. He helped deliver a baby for one mother, and when he went to check on the family, he realized that the mother would not let the child suckle. He learned that the mother was refusing this because her life was so terrible, as were the lives of the other women she knew, that she believed it would be far better for her child to die than to live as a woman in rural India.

Around 11 pm, I excused myself, and the other students agreed that it was time to sleep. We walked back to our rooms, and I cannot even describe the feeling of opening my door and feeling pure cool air from the AC and fan, and getting into bed to finally close my eyes to so many hours spent awake — the feeling was one of bliss.

 

 

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