Monday, June 30, 2014

On Knowing

I'm feeling overwhelmed. I've just been handed a broom. A simple Indian broom. The kind with long bristles, tied at the top. It was purchased for me by Nirmal as a gift while I was in the hospital, because he remembered that weeks ago I'd said I wanted an Indian broom to bring back to the states. I feel a lump forming in my throat and swallow repeatedly to make it disappear. I haven't booked a flight home yet, but it will happen soon. And I haven't begun to process what it means to leave Calcutta and especially what it means to leave the family that I've become so close with.

After thanking Nirmal profusely, I excuse myself from the group and walk up the fourteen stairs to the top of the stairwell. The late afternoon thunderstorm is just starting and I watch the lightning off in the distance while the sharp scent of Calcutta rain fills my nostrils. It's here, at the top of the internal stairwell of No. 5, that I allow my tears to flow freely. After 15 minutes or so, Nirmal comes up to cross the roof to his own home. I quickly stand and give him a big smile and try to brush past him, but he puts his hand on my shoulder to stop me. "You are okay?" he asks. "Yes." I smile. "You..." and he gestures with his hand to imitate tears running down his cheeks.

"Yes," I say. "I'm crying."

"You cry." He says.

"Yes," I say. "I am crying because dhonobaad, to you and Juma. Thank you for being my friend. Bhondu."

"You are my friend, this side," says Nirmal.

I cock my head and cross my wrists over my chest, in what I assume to be an international symbol for love and gratitude.

Nirmal puts his hand on his heart and says, "My heart. Juma heart. Kumkum and Lalita heart." He points to my heart and says, "Your heart."

I don't hide my tears.

"You go back your side soon. If you have any problem with your family, you come here. You stay my side. When you come Calcutta, we are your family this side. You call Nirmal mobile and say, 'Nirmal! I am coming!' and you come and stay our side."

"Yes," I say. I smile over and over but the tears don't stop. I can't stop them, it's too late.

"You... Kumkum and Lalita Auntie," says Nirmal. "Auntie Kristen".

"Yes," I nod vigorously. "Kumkum and Lalita. They are smart and beautiful girls. Shundohr. You are a good father."

"Kumkum and Lalita they are not you going to airport. You fly, fly, home to your side. Kumkum and Lalita no taxi to airport," he says with a smile.

I laugh, picturing the girls holding hands, barricading themselves in front of a taxi that will take me to the airport.

I put out my hand to shake Nirmal's. In India it would be inappropriate for a woman to hug a man in some contexts. Nirmal takes my hand in his, and I cover his with my other hand. We slowly nod at each other, no words needed anymore.

He knows. And I know.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Good, The Bad, The Rat Bite Fever

This morning I was woken from my hospital bed at one of the best hospitals in Calcutta to be served my 5:30am hot tea. I groggily sat up, pushed back the down comforter that kept me warm for four nights in my air conditioned single hospital room, and accepted the tea despite the early hour. As I waited for it to steep, the nurse came in to change my IV. Antibiotics had been coursing through my veins for days... healing me, making me dizzy and protecting me when my body could no longer do so. After my tea I laid back against the starched sheets and let my body go back to resting. I stared at the narrow break between the curtains, and out at the early morning mist. I was reminded of the rain in Kerala that Laura and I saw on our first night there, peeking out of our balcony door. Were we really, just days ago, in what the locals call "God's Own Land"? My days in the hospital back in Calcutta had stretched time, morphing each sleepy day into what felt like a week. Kerala felt like ages ago. But no, we were just there, enjoying the lovely lush greenery, cool monsoon breezes, amazing food and the spectacular hospitality of our classmate Anjali's family and family friends.

Now may be an appropriate time to rewind to last week.

I returned from my trip to Darjeeling in North India well rested and cooled off from the beautiful weather there. I do want to dedicate a post to Darjeeling and will do so as soon as I feel up to writing another blog post. After Darjeeling I dove into three days at field. Sandra and I began our interviews with HIV+ members of the collective Network for Positive Women. The interviews were emotionally draining for me personally, as I wasn't really prepared for all of the emotion in the room that was present from the start. We finished with field on Wednesday and then went to a wonderful home-cooked dinner at an Auntie's house in Calcutta. We got home late and I set my sights on packing for Kerala.

Kerala is a state along the west coast of South India, flanked by the Arabian Sea. Our classmate Anjali's parents were born in the state of Kerala and they have a very large family there. A few weeks ago she invited anyone who wanted to go to travel there to stay with her uncle and see the area.

We arrived in Kerala last Thursday after a flight to Bombay, followed by a flight to Cochin. Anjali's uncle and the amazing driver Suvej picked us up from the airport to begin the long journey down to Telicherry (I literally have seen this town spelled four different ways, so Anjali correct me if I'm wrong!) Driving through Kerala is like driving through a movie...there was always something beautiful outside of the van window. Palm trees, lush forests, bodies of water, stands selling coconut water on the side of the road... speaking of:

After several hours of travel and stopping in towns for bathroom breaks, food breaks, tea and coffee breaks, and the lovely homes of friends who allowed us to freshen up, we arrived in Telicherry exhausted but awestruck at Anjali's Uncle's beautiful home and surrounding land. In the morning I took a few snaps of some of the greenery:

Over the weekend we spent time with many cousins, aunts and uncles. We went to a snake park that had a great zoo, and then we stopped at Anjali's family's temple. What an amazing experience, to enter a temple with a family who can explain everything to you and welcomes you inside. It was truly a beautiful experience. We all even washed our feet in the river behind the temple before entering:

Aside from being able to meet Anjali's family and share many good laughs with them (playing charades with cousins ranging in age from 8-20, in the dark because the power went out, and in English instead of their native Malayalum lead to some pretty intense hysterics for all involved), I'd have to say the highlight of the trip was all of the amazing food that was prepared for us by hand. So many aunties and uncles and family friends heard we were coming and pitched in to help provide us with some AMAZING meals. I mean, so much food you wouldn't even believe...piled high on the tables and pushed onto our plates so quickly that we couldn't ever keep them clean! I'm going to dedicate an entire post to the food we ate in Kerala, because I was able to take some photos of everything and I know some people are super interested in the food we're eating here. So I'll do that soon.

On Saturday we spent the afternoon at the beauty salon of two family friends of Anjali's. They were SO sweet. They threaded our eyebrows, gave us pedicures and manicures, and basically pampered us...they also insisted on doing our eye makeup! After 5 weeks in the Calcutta dust and tumble, this was like paradise. Actually, at one point I believe I was even handed a coconut with a straw.

I'm also holding a piece of new favorite dessert! I don't even know how to explain what it is, so... Google that one. We all took a photo out in front of the salon. Such sweet ladies! They noticed me practicing a waterfall braid in Laura's hair and asked me to show them, which led to lots of braiding and teaching different types of braids. So cool that I was able to show them something that they'll be able to use in their salon. And they showed me how to do a half french braid that I can't wait to try out.

This is the waterfall braid I did in Laura's second attempt ever. Rach - it's no wedding hair, but it's halfway decent, no? :)
Muxuan also got some gorgeous henna while we were at the salon:

We finished Saturday evening with a trip to the beach near Uncle's house. It was a beautiful night...we just caught the last of the sunset.

And this is where things began to go a bit downhill for me. As we were leaving the beach I recognized that I felt feverish and had chills. I'd been experiencing it on and off all day, but not enough to be super alarmed. However by the time we left the beach that night, I was feeling more and more light headed. We got in the car and began the drive home. There was bridge construction and we were stuck in traffic... I remember Laura and the others saying that we could get me home and put a cool washcloth on me, maybe I could take a cold shower and take some Tylenol. And then things went from feeling icky to feeling absolutely terrible, the worst I've probably ever felt in my life. I leaned on Laura and she realized how hot I was. I don't remember the rest of the car ride. I'm told I was hallucinating and repeating conversations that had happened days prior. My body went limp and they drove me to the hospital, where I was carried inside and assessed. My temperature was 104F. I was screaming and hitting the air in front of me. I do remember feeling like my head would burst open.

At the hospital in Kerala I was given a shot as a fever reducer, and some anti-nausea medicine, which helped immensely. Now is probably a good time to explain that 10 days ago, 5 days before this, I'd been bitten by a rat in Calcutta. That's a long story, but it happened on my ankle and... yes, it was painful and slightly traumatic (especially if you know about my history with rats in Cambridge! ::shudder::) Because of the rat bite, I've been undergoing shots for rabies over the past two weeks (four shots in about a month's time). The hospital in Kerala sent me home with instructions to keep my fever down with tylenol and to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Lucky for us, Anjali's mom is a doctor and Anjali was able to talk to her to get her opinion. Her mom's theory? Rat Bite Fever.

We'd never heard of Rat Bite Fever, but as soon as we got home and got me settled, we googled it. We were still unsure what exactly what going on with me...Rat Bite Fever seemed to fit the description and my symptoms, but we didn't know how to fix it. We figured we'd get back to Calcutta and I'd see a doctor the following day. My fever stayed down for the rest of the night, with help from Laura setting an alarm to remind me to take the Tylenol throughout the night.

The next day was our flight. After a rough (for me...and others at times) six hour car ride back to the airport, and an okay flight to Bombay, it was during our layover and airport shuttle ride to the plane to Calcutta that I began to feel really not okay again. During the flight I told Laura I could feel the fever coming back, even though I'd taken the Tylenol just a few hours before. Soon I realized that my arms, palms, legs, soles of my feet, and abdomen were on fire with a red rash and hives. What a rough friends were so incredibly helpful and such good advocates. They dealt with the airline staff and pushed for the absolute best care for me while on the plane. I'm so thankful I had them during that flight. When we landed in Calcutta we immediately headed to the hospital, where I was seen in the emergency room and was promptly admitted for four days.

Diagnosis: Rat Bite Fever, Gastroenteritis, and a Viral Infection. My body has been through the wringer and I'm taking extremely strict orders to take it easy, follow my medication schedule (about four antibiotics, an anti nausea, anti diarrhea, anti allergy, etc.), drink lots of water, and REST my body for a good week or so.

Some good came out of this experience:
-I now know how to better listen to what my body is telling me.
-I now know what it means to literally run yourself into the ground by never stopping to rest (I do think that my fever/symptoms were exacerbated by a lowered immune system).
-I made two wonderful nurse friends at the hospital, Jyothika and Greeshma*. Laura and I met them on our first morning there. They were so sweet and were part of a team of nurses that took such good care of me. Before I was discharged this morning Jyothi gave Laura and I each a rosary. It was so thoughtful, and mine is currently around my neck. I've been keeping in touch with Jytothi through Whatsapp. Both of them are 23 and fresh out of nursing school, and are also from Kerala, the region we'd just visited.
-Because they're from Kerala (as are many nurses at the hospital - around 90% we found out!) they speak Malayalum, the language native to Kerala. And Anjali speaks Malayalum. This turned out to be so lucky because Anjali was able to clearly communicate with the nurses when we first arrived at the ER in Calcutta, and during my first nights there she got many questions answered for me. I'm so thankful that I had Anjali as a resource.

-Which leads me to my last point. Throughout this experience I have been so incredibly thankful for everyone involved. Every single one of my classmates (friends, really), whether they were in Kerala or not, were a part of the support system that came together in a big way for me over the last week. From Anjali's family, who cared for me during and after the trip to the ER in Kerala, to Anjali's little 8 year old cousin who was by bedside and staring at me intently, waiting for me to wake up for the entire time I was in the ER (apparently when I opened my eyes she ran out into the waiting room shouting, "She's awake! She woke up!"), to Laura and Anjali fighting for a flight attendant to get a thermometer out of the medical box even though there was no doctor on board the aircraft, to Muxuan treking home with my suitcase once we got back to Cal while Anjali, Kris and Laura supported me in the ER and during my hospital Anjali staying the night with me and experiencing some very humble moments when I had to accept help from her for some very basic human Kris's encouraging texts and "one word checkin" while I was really struggling in the Laura visiting me every day, providing me with her own clothes, toiletries, entertainment...she even loaded my photos from my big camera onto my laptop and brought me the laptop so that I could go through the photos while sitting in the hospital. She kept my family well informed, worked with my mom to ensure a smooth billing process and was an amazing advocate (as she was when my fingers got smashed in the taxicab door). She contacted my sister for me and passed messages since I had no wifi and no way to contact anyone in the states. I was visited in the hospital by two outstanding guys, Akash and Imam, who motorbiked all the way up to North Calcutta to see me. Nirmal, our caretaker, called my hospital room to check in on me. My professor's mother, Kumkum, visited me in the hospital and also spoke to the doctor and nurses in Bengali and helped guide me through the discharge process. Phillip and Anna went through all of the food in my cabinet before I got home from the hospital to make sure I had things I could eat (I'm required to eat gluten and lactose free for awhile...) My professor TJ is not only willing to work with me since I've missed an entire week of field this week and couldn't turn in a paper on time, but has sent strength and bravery. And my family provided so much support and love from afar, the best way that they could from such a distance.

I'm so thankful to have such a supportive network at this moment in my life. I never dreamed that I'd travel halfway around the world and need to rely so heavily on people that I didn't know before three months ago. Don't send me well-wishes...instead, thank those who are surrounding me right now. Without them, I would most definitely not be in the mental, emotional, or even physical state that I am right now.

My professor sent an e-mail that said, "Right now, Kristen's health is of utmost importance." And he's right. Because of that, I'll be taking some time in Calcutta to rest my body and recover from this. If you know me, you know that I'm avoiding even thinking about the inevitable. I'm supposed to be leaving for Thailand on Sunday... in 3 days. Right now, it's not looking possible. I'm trying not to think about it too much today because it hurts my heart and I'm not ready to process it yet.

So at the moment, I'm focusing on being here in Cal and being back in the apartment instead of in the hospital room. ::Selfie Break (this one's for you, Phillip):

Morning of discharge...SO HAPPY.
The USA soccer game is on and I'm watching it with Anna while I relax on the couch with my pillow. Anna made us chai (with soymilk, mom!) earlier and it was possibly the best chai I've ever had. Maybe just because it was made by a friend when I'm not feeling 100%. I saw Kumkum and Lalita in the stairwell tonight, and they must have been told I'd been in the hospital because they were silent and solemn. I could barely get a smile out of them. But as they left, Kumkum turned around and gave me her toothy grin and stuck out her hand to shake mine - our best form of communication.

It's taken me many hours to write this update. Close to 5 hours with breaks for rest. I hope you're all well. We're up to 19 countries that have touched the blog, and over 5,690 hits at the time of posting. Amazing.

Love & Light,

*Jyothika and Greeshma allowed me to use their names on the blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

All of the Updates!

Things have been crazy, in a good way! I've been keeping a mental list of everything I want to write about but just haven't found the time to do so between course readings, paper writing, field, exploring Calcutta, and hanging out with friends.

The fingers are doing much better. Writing is still difficult, and typing is still more time consuming than it used to be, but my fingers are functional and I'm still just so thankful they're not broken. I think they feel a little bit better every day, and I imagine that they'll heal up perfectly fine with no long-term damage or anything. It still amazes me that they were properly slammed in a door and sticking out the other side, and the bones did not break!

On Friday night we went out to experience the nightlife in Calcutta. We went to The Park Hotel, which is a 5 star hotel that has a bar and a few clubs in the lobby/first floor of the hotel. At the first bar, there was live music...a band singing entirely in Spanish. We had no idea what was going on, but we paid an exorbitant amount for our drinks and enjoyed the live band, and later an even better one. Later on some other friends met up with us and we left and went dancing at one of the clubs. Nightlife in Calcutta is interesting, at least the circuit that we experienced on Friday night was. None of the women were as conservatively dressed, actually I was probably dressed conservatively in my spaghetti strap, knee length dress compared to some of them. Also, we attracted A LOT of attention at the various places we patronized. I'm getting used to being stared at, but it's still a little bizarre to be approached by random men and told that I'm beautiful. Multiple times in one night. Luckily, Laura knows a few choice phrases in Hindi. ;)
Me and our friend Aman
 Tonight we had class and I think it may have been my favorite class yet. I really connected with the readings that we did. There's one book, written by Cindy Patton (who I just found out is at Penn!) called Globalizing AIDS that I just loved. To borrow from the back of her book:

As AIDS began to appear around the "global village" in the early 1980s, the closeness brought by new technologies no longer promised wondrous cultural exchange; instead it made possible the transmission of a frightening new kind of disease. International scientific institutions and news organizations quickly constructed a "place" for AIDS in the global imaginary: from the heart of Africa and gay bathhouses in San Francisco to the back streets of Southeast Asia and poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the United States. Such simplistic accounts helped recycle racist ideas about Africans and Asians, intensified homophobic visions of irresponsible gay sexuality, and ignored the scientific and human reality of local experiences of the epidemic. 

In Globalizing AIDS, pioneering cultural critic Cindy Patton looks at the complex interaction between modern science, media coverage, and local activism during the first decade of the epidemic. Patton's critique of both the production of scientific credibility and the implementation of public health policy at the local level offers a bold reevaluation of how we think about AIDS and an innovative way to approach the reality of the disease.

Reading from her point of view about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic was fascinating and I really appreciated the raw, honest way in which she wrote.

Food... I really need to update about the food I've been eating. I'll update in pictures:
This is a masala dosa. One of my favorite foods here... it's basically potatoes, carrots and peas in a masala sauce, wrapped in a thin crispy bread. You eat it with your hands and dip it in sambar (sort of like a lentil soup) and coconut chutney. Or if you're LB, you just eat massive quantities of the coconut chutney. ;)

"Pizza" was actually really good! Flat dough with masala spices and pieces of melted paneer (cheese).
This is chaat. It was described to me as "kind of like nachos" and "kind of like mini wheats"'s potatoes, chick peas, crunchy chip things and other randoms, covered in a yogurt sauce with a red chutney, topped with crunchy noodles. It's the first food in India that I wasn't fond of!

Phillip and I went to the movies with LB and Aman. We got two kinds of corn! Popcorn and Masala corn, which is basically a cup of steamed corn mixed with salt and masala spices. SOO GOOD!
Malai Kofta. Sort of like vegetarian meatballs, with naan. 
The research: So Sandra, my partner, and I have finally nailed down exactly what we'll be researching. I couldn't be more excited. The women at Durbar started a group for HIV positive women. It's called The Network for Positive Women. This group provides support for HIV+ sex workers in the collective, as well as anyone in Calcutta. They have educators, counselors, provide food for those who need it, as well as clothing. We're going to be studying the positive effects it has on women who are HIV+ or have AIDS and the success of this resource.

I've mentioned Pintu before. He's sort of our coordinator at Durbar. He works so hard to coordinate all of our schedules, make sure we have translators and also ran our entire orientation when we first arrived. He has been an invaluable resource for us, and we so appreciate his hard work. This is me and Pintu today at Durbar:

And I am still in love with the kittens that live in the Durbar offices:
Kumkum and Lalita, Nirmal's daughters, are still major parts of the sunshine in my day. Last weekend they came to our apartment and played with me for awhile. They're so expressive and hilarious. I showed them photos of my dog, Sydney and my niece Kylie. They asked if Kylie has a pink backpack (Nirmal had to translate that one for me). When I'm really missing Kylie, I find these sweet girls and they help fill that hole in my heart!
This sweet girl... me and Lalita. :)
 The other day Laura (our TA) took us to see where she lived last year when she was on the trip. She lived in New Alipore, so we got to see a new neighborhood in Calcutta and meet the caretaker at her old apartment, Maity. Laura brought him some photos from last year and a UPenn tank... it was such an emotional reunion, Maity was so happy to see her. I thought that he was going to tear up, it was so incredibly sweet. I almost cried myself. He just kept saying, "Oh ma'am. Thank you ma'am." So sweet. And also, we got to ride in a tuk-tuk for the first time!! Tuk Tuks are these crazy three wheeled taxi scooter things.
Me and Anna in the back of the tuk-tuk!

I'm probably missing a ton of stuff from the last few days, but as usual, things are a whirlwind! Tonight we're going over to hang out with Akash, one of the owner's of Sunshine, the store where we bought most of our Indian clothes. We'll probably hang out with him and end up at Fairlawn... one of the only outdoor bars I've seen here. It's super chill and they serve beer and Indian+Chinese food.
Outside of Fairlawn
Today Laura and I walked around the neighborhood for a few hours. In the moments that I have nothing to do, I find myself still staying away from the apartment...I love finding a new street to explore. We found a soccer field with an older youth soccer league starting up practice. We were so tempted to run onto the field and join in. We sat and watched them for a long time and just's so nice to have friends here. Last night Phillip, Anna and I sat on the roof until 3am and had one of those great cleansing conversations that ends in a group hug.

Oh, I almost forgot! We planned two upcoming trips. One for this weekend (Darjeeling!) and one for next weekend, to the state of Kerala. It's in southern India, next to the Arabian Sea and we'll have to fly there with a layover in Mumbai. We're going for a long weekend because Anjali has family there, who has graciously offered to host us! A man at the luggage store today told me to try the excellent seafood there...crabs and lobster. I'll get back to my Marylanders about how they compare. ;) 

Time to sign off... I have to get in the shower before we head to Sunshine. I wish I could write more. There's always more to say. I'll be back soon.

With love,

PS. I still don't want to leave. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Being Here.

I find myself avoiding calendars and figuring out the date. I know that now that it's June, every number that I see will be closer to 29... June 29th, the day I leave. It's somehow, impossibly three weeks from tomorrow. How am I so attached to a place I'd never been to less than a month ago? It's more than this just being the first place I've ever visited outside of the states. It's more than just the fact that my experience is heightened because I am immersed in the culture here instead of being a "tourist". It's Calcutta itself...raw and bright and alive. Dusty and efficient and loud.

"Listen with your whole body," says Kofi Annan.

I'm listening. I hear Bengali and Hindi. I hear the thwacking of a machete against bamboo, the sizzling and popping of street vada in hot oil, the coughing and wheezing of the woman with her hand outstretched for money, the clink of shot glasses at an upscale club, the shrieks from the toddler a few floors down that echo in the scorching, humid stairwell. I hear the spinning of fans in every indoor space I enter, hear tile floors and shop stoops being brushed off with brooms made of long bristles and tied at the top with leather.

I hear the words of sex workers ringing in my ears long after I've left Sonagachi for the day.

I hear the voice in my head, constantly wondering, calculating, converting, and translating.

Wondering if what I'm wearing is appropriate, if my research here will be meaningful, what that man is thinking as he stares at me without abandon. Calculating how much I'm spending on groceries at the store (1400 rupees) or how much the bill will be at Banana Leaf, if I have the right denominations- for at any point in time I could be carrying with me 5, 10, 20, 100, 500 or 1000 rupee notes. Converting how much I'm spending in American dollars...1400 rupees for groceries that will last me two weeks converts to roughly $24. The best coffee in the world at Banana Leaf is 29 rupees, which converts to roughly fifty cents. We haggle with cab drivers, begging to pay 50 rupees less, and then we remember that we're talking a difference of less than 1 American dollar. The constant translation of words, facial expressions, gestures, and looks.

"Don't just be here," says Aman. "You have to BE here. Experience as much of everything as you can. Really BE here."

Friday, June 6, 2014

First (Right?) Hand Experience of a Hospital System in Cal

This post is going to be a labor of love. Why? Because I am typing the entire thing with only my left hand and the thumb of my right hand. It's taken me about a full minute to type this much...but I'm going to take one for the team so that I can record my experience with the medical system in Calcutta over the last 24 hours. It will be worth it so that it is fresh in my mind. By now you're probably wondering why I'm typing with one hand. I'll also make a disclaimer that I'm slightly medicated for pain, so my usual flow of writing may not be a little more disjointed (no pun intended)...

Last night we decided to get out of the house for awhile and see a movie at the theater at South City Mall. Phillip, Beth, Anna, Laura and I caught a cab that would let all 5 of us squeeze in for Rs 150, and we were off. One person in front with the driver, 3 sitting in the backseat and me laying across everyone in the back. When we arrived, the person sitting in the front opened their door and got out, and we opened the back door so that I could shimmy out. On my way out, I wrapped my right hand around the metal piece of the car that separates the front passenger door from the back door. A second later, the front door was slammed shut - crushing my fingers in the door.

The person who'd just exited the front passenger seat heard a loud, long scream (that I have no memory of producing!) and then noticed from outside of the cab, the ends of my fingers sticking out of the closed door. I don't remember the door being immediately opened to release my fingers, nor do I remember getting out of the cab. My next memory is sitting on the steps in front of the mall/theater, holding a huge chunk of ice that had been immediately handed to me by a very kind street vendor selling sodas outside of the mall.

My fingers were immediately swollen like sausages and adrenaline rushed to the injured area...that mixed with perhaps some shock prevented me from feeling extreme pain. I sat on those steps laughing hysterically (clearly, I was in shock) for a good 20 minutes before the real pain set in. The surrounding vendors were so incredibly sweet. They'd seen the whole thing and continued to provide us with man even offered me his own bottle of water (which Laura took to be polite, though I did not drink from it because we can only consume filtered or bottled water here to avoid sickness). Another vendor gave me water, cut a lemon and squeezed the juice into the water and gave it to us, insisting it would help. Another man suggested I pour cold water on my face to help with the pain. A little boy of about five stood in front of me, just watching out of curiosity and concern. Luckily I had the wherewithal to remember my stash of small toys for children, Phillip helped me fish a small plastic bumble bee figure out of my purse and I handed him to him with a smile, to thank him and to show him that I was alright. He was so cute and thankful, thanking me in English and then later, when his family left, waving and saying, "Goodbye miss! Goodnight!"

Anna's mom is a nurse, and Anna was able to use her cell phone to call her internationally to ask for her advice. (Thanks, Anna's mom!) The decision was soon made to take me to the emergency room - the question was, which one? I never imagined I'd have to visit an ER in Calcutta, but our TA Laura was on top of it. Through a friend of hers who lives in Calcutta she was able to find out a reputable, 24 hour emergency room/hospital. Soon we were off to Bellevue Hospital. (I linked the hospital, Mom...I knew you'd be curious!) Flanked by Laura and Phillip, I walked into a completely empty emergency room that in it's entirety was made up of 3 beds in a row, and a desk. The whole ER was about the size of my apartment! Maybe 650 sq. ft? I'm awful with guessing sizes.

We were quickly tended to, and I attempted to tell the Bengali speaking nurses what had happened. The language barrier is usually an interesting component to our activities...not so much when I was in excruciating pain! One of the nurses spoke a bit of English, and through a mixture of English, hand gestures, and our limited Bengali, we were able to explain that my fingers had been crushed in a taxi cab door. I was told to lie down and was given a shot for pain in my buttocks (first time for everything?)

I was then sent to radiology for an x-ray. When we arrived in the x-ray room however, we soon had a new language barrier problem. The x-ray technician insisted that I lay my hand flat on the board for the x-ray. I tried to explain that I couldn't flatten my fingers. They were swollen and permanently stuck/crushed into the shape they'd been when I'd grabbed the door frame trying to get out of the cab - fingers curled. We tried to tell him, "can't bend" and he insisted in his limited English, "FLAT". I tried to show him multiple times that I couldn't unbend the fingers. He tried to explain over and over why the x-ray couldn't be done if my fingers were curled. I tried over and over to explain that I understood that, but that I physically could not flatten my fingers. He conversed with another x-ray tech in Bengali; he was clearly frustrated. He left to get someone else who spoke more English. When he arrived, he told me the same thing and I told him, "I can't." He then attempted to flatten my fingers for me, and I cried out in pain and almost sunk to the ground. Laura, ever the advocate and strong support for all of us here on the trip, took that moment to step in and say, "Enough! No x-ray." The original technician said, "Fine. No xray." And we went back to the ER. There, a doctor wrote me 4 perscriptions, told me to go home and to come back in the morning to see an "Orthopedic Doctor". We took a cab home and fell into bed by 3am.

I found it interesting that the four medications he prescribed me, without discussing with me first what they were going to be, were: voveran (for pain), alprazolam (for anxiety), a "pain gel" (basically the equivalent of Icy Hot), and another medication that we later Googled and found out is used for esophogeal issues (I didn't take that one)!

This morning Laura and I returned to the hospital to meet with an orthopedic doctor. This is where things got interesting for me, from an observational standpoint. We arrived at the hospital and asked the front desk where to go for orthopedics. He told us both "negative one" and "first floor". So, we went to the first floor. The night before the hospital had been entirely empty save for some employees sleeping on various benches, including the lift operator who was asleep on the floor of the elevator, on a bed of newspapers, with a stack of newspapers to cover his face (this we encountered around 1 am, and at that point we were exhausted and could only crack smiles at each other and say, "Only in Calcutta"...) This morning though, the hospital was jam packed and bustling with patients and lots of family members. We went to the first floor (which is what I would call the second floor) to look for the Ortho office, and couldn't find it. Eventually we found a random room with three women (possibly nurses?) typing at computers. We showed one my hand and she took us straight to radiology, where we went through the entire rigamarole of the previous night with me being unable to straighten my hand and the x-ray tech (a different one this time) becoming frustrated and possibly slightly offended. He gave us the name of an orthopedic doctor and said, "Go to him then". So we left and finally found a big board that listed all of the specialties in English, including Orthopedics, but not their locations. After asking someone at one desk, who didn't speak English at all and directed us to another desk, a woman couldn't understand what we were looking for when we said "orthopedics". We said..."bones"..."joints"...and finally mentioned the name of a doctor who'd been listed under the orthopedics sign. "Oh!" she said cheerfully. "Basement, new building" Wonderful... we thanked her, "Dhonobaad", and went down to the basement.

When we arrived there, we spoke to two people sitting at the front desk and tried to explain the whole situation. The man at the desk spoke limited English, and the woman presumably spoke none, and  eventually the man whipped out his cell phone and called the orthopedist that we'd mentioned. He got him on the phone and Laura spoke to him (he spoke English! win!), he wasn't scheduled to be in until 3 but he offered to come in half an hour early for me. At that point it was only 1:30 or so, so we went back to the Emergency Room to inquire if they could give me something for the pain. At the ER (which was still completely empty), they tried to send us back for an x-ray and we explained to a very kind and helpful doctor who spoke English that we were just trying to see the orthopedic doctor before getting the xray - extending my fingers was just too painful. She understood, and ordered a painkiller shot to be administered into my arm. After about 20 minutes, the pain began to lessen, though the swelling was still there. She advised me to take off my ring... I've been wearing my grandmother's ring on my right hand ring finger every single day since I graduated from high school. My finger was so swollen that I couldn't move it. But she said, "if you can't get it off, we'll have to cut it." "No," I said, shaking my head. I wouldn't let them cut my grandmother's ring. I was sitting in a chair and put my head between my legs, put my hands at my feet, held my breath and began to twist the ring. The excruciating pain was worth it as I considered the alternative of having the ring cut off. When it was stuck at the knuckle, a nurse came with some sort of lubricant gel. Two minutes later, the ring was off and we all cheered.

We went back up to radiology and I was able to extend my fingers enough for a proper x-ray. After some confusion and waiting time, we went back to the ER where the orthopedic doctor met us looked at the film.


We were shocked, but so grateful. We couldn't believe it, after seeing the state of my fingers after they'd been shut in the door.  The doctor told us that I'd definitely damaged the soft tissue/ligaments in my fingers and that they would be sore and would need a splint. He prescribed me some medication and we went to the chemist to pick it up. It took almost 24 hours, but the ordeal was over and I'd officially borne witness to the Indian medical system. Of course, the hospital where I went was a private hospital (and interestingly enough, I paid for each service separately, and in cash directly to each person who cared for me) and I am sure the public/government hospitals are very different. One of the public hospitals (nursing homes, they call them here) had about 60 people sleeping outside of it one night last week. On stone benches, on the stairs outside, on the ground, etc.

My experience last night and today was fascinating. I got to see a sector of Indian healthcare that I hadn't yet seen (we've experienced thus far a much smaller clinic, the clinic for the sex workers in Sonagachi, a doctor's office, and a doctor home visit - all for various reasons).

The plan for now is to keep my fingers splinted, apply ice when needed, manage the pain and let time do it's thing. I may go for a follow up visit to the orthopedic doctor - tonight I noticed that the skin on one of my knuckles that was shut in the door is entirely numb. Perhaps nerve damage?

It took me roughly 5.5 hours to type this post. If you've made it this far, thank you! You deserve a cookie. :-) I haven't figured out how I'm going to write my papers for class, take notes during class and field, wash my hair, change my clothes... everything feels like a struggle right now but I'm just chugging along. There were some great parts of today - I a particular pair of comfy new close-toed shoes for which I'd been on the lookout. I also finally remembered to buy a set of nail clippers - the one item I forgot to bring on the trip!

Also, after we left the hospital Laura and I hadn't eaten all day. So we went to our standby, Banana Leaf, and had lunch. Then one coffee turned into two, and because of an issue due to the language barrier, we ended up with THREE coffees each. Proof:

LB with the scattered shells of our caffeination
All in all, I've been looking for the positives with this experience. Does it kind of stink? Hell yes. Could it have been worse? Hell yes. But I'll never forget my "Calcutta Claw", the elevator operator taking his nap, the insane running around in circles at the hospital, and the help from my kind classmates/TA. I'm also really interested in what kind of healthcare is available to people who wouldn't be able to afford to go to a hospital like Bellevue if they're sick or injured. It's apparently one of the best in Calcutta. I suspect that many people here practice non-Western medicine and I'd love to learn more.

Signing off for the night. Time for more medicine and sleep. Update soon, and I still promise to write about the babus...

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Spinning Tops

Yesterday I enjoyed a day off from field and had the apartment to myself for about 5 hours. I caught up on all of my classwork and wrote my response paper for the first week. Our response papers are a reflection of the week's readings, integrated with our two classes for the week and with our experience in the field. I'd like to share my first paragraph of my first response paper here:

I like to think of my life and emerging social work career prior to arriving in India, visiting Durbar, and starting this course in international social work as “BC”: Before Calcutta.  Previously, my Western lens provided me with what I regarded as perfectly “normal” thoughts about sex work. Although in recent years I have embraced the sex positive movement, I am ashamed to admit that I did not extend the idea to sex work. Before beginning this journey, a small part of me may have still thought of sex work as an individual’s last resort or a profession that those involved were ashamed of and disliked. After our Durbar orientation, doing the readings for the first two classes, and enjoying lectures, my mind has exploded with new information and a new lens with which to view sex work as a legitimate profession. If anything has resonated with me during these first two weeks, it has been the mantra: “sex work is real work” and the idea that often times, an assumption is made that all sex work is exploitative when it reality, it is not. I have learned an important lesson: do not enter into a situation with any preconceived notions or assumptions. Unionizing around sex work is not to improve conditions for individuals working in an unfortunate profession. Sex Work unionization is about legitimizing a profession that the vast majority of workers feel passionate about, enjoy doing, and do not need rescuing from. 

This week class and the readings focused heavily on International Social Work and it's foundation, current practices, etc. I'm learning very quickly how much bias I have, with my Western, middle class, white lens. I'm beginning to question everything about myself and my belief systems. 

I wrote a few weeks ago on the blog about the poverty in India, and a part of me wishes I could take back those words and rewrite them. I won't, because this blog serves as a place for my growth and reflection, and those words were true for me at that time. I came here with an idea of "poverty" and an idea about myself. But much of it was based around assumptions that I've grown up with about "poverty" and "developing countries". What exactly is a developing country? It's an interesting question to think about. We consider ourselves to be a developed country, an industrial power... yet the US is a relatively new country, when compared to countries that have been established (though perhaps under colonial rule at times) for many centuries. Our country is only 300 some odd years old. I read a news article recently about how political corruption is holding India back from becoming a more "developed nation"... but don't we experience similar corruption in the capitalist US? 

In class last night we talked about universalities and the dangers of assuming "universal ideals/morals". Is anything universal? Is anything applicable in every single situation? Probably not. Each situation must be carefully investigated and considered. What we believe to be progress in one instance may be oppressive in another instance. The example that TJ gave in class is Roe v. Wade. As a liberal feminist, I had always considered Roe v. Wade to be progressive and positive for women in the US. However, what I didn't know was that there are a group of women who suffered, and who still are suffering, because of Roe v. Wade. Black women in the south had better access to abortions pre RvW than they do post. Now, more southern black women have less access to safe abortions, have to travel further, and die more often from complications than they did pre-RvW. There is always another side. With every good comes bad, in one form or another. 

It all depends on the context. What is murder? Is state sanctioned death murder? What makes the electric chair not a form of murder? (My own personal beliefs on the Death Penalty aside...)

One sentence uttered by TJ last night was enough to make my heart turn to ice. "Whenever we come at it from a 'oh those poor things', we're coming at it from a position of power and privilege". 

Is that how I came to India? Is that what I thought of sex workers, here and in the US? Is that how I thought of the "sidewalk sleepers"? I don't know that I ever would have used the term "poor things", but in that how I thought/think? I have been making assumptions for my entire life, based off of movies, media, my education, etc. about poverty, without ever interacting with impoverished peoples in an international context. In the US, we are bombarded by images and stories and a general knowledge/assumption that those who live in "3rd world countries" are so much worse off than we are. But who decided that? We ourselves? Why did I not think first about the strengths? The ability of people here to be resourceful and smart? They are the ones who are living this reality. How can I make any assumptions about them at all?

I realize these are jumbled thoughts and questions... I can't formulate a better post right now because I'm still working it all out in my head. This morning I woke up and laid in bed thinking about class last night. I feel silly and privileged and fraudulent. And very, very white. I don't even know what that means to me anymore.


Today I go back out into the field. Sandra, my research partner, and I will have a chance to spend the day with a peer educator who goes to the brothels to visit the sex workers. I am really looking forward to this hands-on experience and it will be great for our research. But something just feels off today. Remember those cheap, plastic spinning tops we played with as kids? And how if you started with a bad spin-off from your finger and thumb, the top went into an unbalanced, crooked spin that was off-kilter. That's what I feel like right now.  TJ always says that the best learning is done when you feel uncomfortable, and I'm going to have to just embrace that today and tomorrow and for however long I feel like this. 

In the meantime, please read this unrelated, but interesting article: Americans Can't Even Stomach An Apology for Slavery, Let Alone Reparations.

Also, I've had a request from a few people to write more about the babus and their role in the lives of sex workers. I'd love to elaborate on that, and on my research project (as I keep promising to do). I'll make that my top priority for my next post. 

Until then-

PS. Today marks 3 weeks since I've arrived in Calcutta. I have 25 days left. I don't want to leave and I don't want this to end. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Routines, Weekend & Thunder

I feel a sense of normalcy about life in Calcutta now. I know the view from our roof like the back of my hand...if I look to the east, I see the house that's crumbling and decaying and I see the roof where women who live in that building often go to wash themselves from a spicket near the ground. If I look to the west, I know the order of the brightly colored rooftops, like Starburst candies lined up on a table. I know I'll see the roof that's always covered in birds. Directly across the street is the house that reminds me of the home of Ernest Hemingway in Key West. There are no polydactyl cats roaming the porches, but there are lush green plants flowing down and cracked white paint on the pillars and balcony rail.

I've fallen into a routine and schedule that feels nice. I know that I'll hear the man who walks around the neighborhood loudly chanting prayers each morning for all to hear. I know my walk to the metro... I know who we'll pass and what stores/stalls and smells to expect. I wave at the man who sold us some bags and other goods. I nod at the doorman when we pass Banana Leaf and he acknowledges me by closing his eyes with a smile and doing a slight Indian head bob. We get to the metro and I know where to get my token, the process of having my backpack scanned before I go down the stairs and ride 10 stops to Girish Park. The sight of those sleeping on the sidewalk doesn't catch me in my gut anymore. I mill along past them like the rest of Kolkata. Not ignoring or forgetting them, but just accepting that they are a part of my daily sensory intake. I've learned to stare off into a weird space when I walk, since I (and we as a group) attract a lot of stares. I don't mind the staring so much, and by looking off to a distant point as I walk is a way to disengage, which has done wonders for my state of mind while out in public. At night we stay at home, mostly because Calcutta shuts down for the night around 10pm. I know to expect the honking of taxis at all hours. Their horns mixed with the hum of the AC in our bedroom have become the lullaby that soothes me to sleep each night.

I've assimilated into life here, while maintaining my Western/American identity. I don't wear the beautiful saris that most most women wear, but I make sure to have my shoulders and knees appropriately covered. I don't pray at the small Hindu/Buddhist temples along the street, where fragrant orange and white flowers adorn statues of deities, but I pass by silently as to not disturb those in prayer. I take off my backpack on the metro and hold it between my legs, to avoid it being in the way of other commuters and to avoid pickpocketing. I greet Indians with "Namaste", my hands clasped together, and thank them, "Dhonobaad". I take cold or lukewarm showers and expect that within 20 minutes I will be sweaty and grimy again, my hair curling and flying in all directions from the humidity as it dries.

Our TA Laura arrived late Wednesday night.  It's nice because she has friends in Calcutta and was here on the trip last year so she knows plenty about what there is to do and see, and has good resources here. She actually graduated from SP2 (Penn's School of Social Work) last week, so a big congrats to her! On her first night here, her and some of her friends from Calcutta took us to a Chili's in Bollygunge at a HUGE mall called Quest Mall. It was an actual Chili's... I was shocked! It's the first American chain I've seen here (aside from KFC, Subway and Pizza Hut at the South City Mall). At Chili's I ordered a burger and french fries...the burger was made from buffalo meat since they don't eat cows here. It tasted really similar to a regular burger and was just as good.
I also just found out that since I've been buying the "toned" milk that means that it comes from a buffalo... so I've been drinking buffalo milk for 2.5 weeks? Cool. Haha.

On Friday Laura took us to Park St. There's a big museum there, I believe, as well as the tomb of Mother Theresa - so it's a big tourist spot. But we had two other destinations in mind. The Sunshine Store and the beer garden! We enjoyed a massive 3 hour shopping extravaganza at Sunshine, a tiny store tucked away on a side street where the amazing owner, Akash, helped us find all sorts of tops, dresses, and pants:

Afterwards we went to the beer garden and enjoyed Chinese/Indian food and I took my first sip of Kingfisher, a popular beer here in India.
 Well -  popular among those who drink. Many people don''s very different than the US. There is no drinking culture, and it's not seen as a social activity. There are no bars, and most restaurants do not serve any alcohol. Even the Chili's we went to served "mocktails"...margaritas with no tequila. Carlos would be astonished. ;) But alcohol use here mostly takes place among those in the upper class, and not at bars...but their homes or perhaps at one of the few clubs that exist in the hotels. It's so interesting and I can't wait to learn more about the class systems here.

Yesterday we all took it pretty easy and caught up on schoolwork. It poured for a majority of the day so we stayed in and watched movies and at one point last night, Kris and Anjali were nice enough to stop by the wrap place on the way to our apartment and brought us food. Two nights ago we had the loudest thunder storm I've EVER heard in my life. The thunder wasn't rumbles or claps, it was CRACKING thunder. And the comes in sheets, the biggest raindrops you've ever seen. I've never seen anything like it! Technically the monsoon isn't here yet, but it feels like it with all the rain we've been experiencing the last week or so. No one minds the rain though because it seriously cools things off. Today's high is only 90 or so. The next few days should be hotter, with highs of 97-99 and less rain.

I really want to come back and explain my research project in more depth. I had a lot of questions after I mentioned it a few entries ago. I'd love to tell you more about the Targeted Interventions and what our research question is. For now, I must go make coffee... I don't know how I wrote this coherently before my morning coffee. :) I promise I'll be back soon to write about the research I'll be helping with! I'd also like to touch on the topic of our second class last week, which was fascinating. I love our "lectures" that take place in the living room, hot chai and good conversation. It feels like I've been here forever, and I already feel like I never want to leave.

We are looking into planning a weekend trip to Darjeeling! This is a photo of Darjeeling that I did NOT take, but stole from the internet:
NOT my photo!
Also: the stat counter on the blog does more than just count hits from countries. It counts hits cities and states as well. Sometimes I'm shocked to see a hit from a certain city, where I know someone who maybe I haven't spoken to since high school or Camp Hoover or PACAA. If you're out there, leave a comment and say hi! I know some people were having trouble commenting from their phones, but I may have fixed that... let me know if I didn't.

Love & Miss

PS. If we're not friends on FB, then you haven't seen my album of Doors. I added a new tab to the blog to post The Doors. I added to it today as well. Cheers. :)