Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sick Things

Cold air from the air conditioning vent blows back the tiny hairs around my forehead. We've been in the car for nearly two hours and it is only 7:30 in the morning. I have spent every moment of the ride thus far in the fetal position in my seat, head bent towards the black trash bag that Kate took from our hotel room trash can. We are going to the Taj Mahal. 

The churning in my stomach occurs at the speed of the car wheels. The bile inside cyclones at forty kilometers per hour. I close my eyes and wish for expulsion, but it doesn't come. We continue down the mostly empty road, weaving in and out of colorful trucks carrying oil, chickens, and people. Some of them hang onto the sides of truck beds where ever they can find a hand-spot. 

We enter a small town and sail through. Men groggy with sleep in their faces sit on plastic stools and stare at our car passing by. Stare at the women inside. Us. They smile. Point. Wave. I close my eyes and time my breaths with the clicking of the air conditioner. Click click click. Breathe In. Click click click. Breathe out. 

The car slows as we approach a small traffic jam. The driver maneuvers around road bikes and auto-rickshaws. Our windows are up. The cold air blows. We stare at the people staring at us. We stare at the people staring at someone else. 

On the ground, a motorbike is on its side. A crowd of men standing in a semi-circle. Staring. We stare. 

A woman sits motionless in the street, legs straight, staring at the hazy air in front of her. Her salwar kameez is pushed up around her waist. One foot has a flip flop on it. The other foot is mangled, bloody. Slick and pink like raw chicken. A young girl stands behind her. She wears a red shirt with Tweety Bird on it. Her mouth is open so wide that I can see the back of her throat as she screams. Her hands are clenched, both arms stretched at forty-five degree angles from her stiff body. 

Click, click, click. She breathes in. Click, click, click. Her breath out is shrill. Her brown saucer eyes stare at the shredded foot. She still has a tiny bit of baby chub in her cheeks and her black hair is held back by a headband. The sound of her scream cuts through the glass of our car windows and joins the churning bile in my stomach like creamer poured into just-stirred coffee. 

Our axles keep spinning. All of the questions that will never be answered radiate through my limbs, the question marks popping out of my pores. I know that I will never see the shredded foot woman or the screaming child again. I put my head back into the black trash bag but nothing happens.

Hours later we are at the Taj Mahal. A palace built by an obsessed man. It is with this man-made world wonder in my periphery that I am sitting on a ledge, the roiling bile finally close to evacuation. People stare. Sweat rolls over my eyelids and down my nose onto the ground. I stare as each drop hits the same spot repeatedly.

I close my eyes. 

And it is the not image of the slick, raw chicken foot that makes me finally vomit, but the terrified little girl standing. Tweety Bird. Saucer eyes and 22 teeth. I wretch over and over into a ziploc bag. Bright yellow bile and a scared child's howl.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Durbar Projects

This year there are four research groups working with various populations at Durbar. The research teams/topics this year are really exciting to me. 

One group is working with Komal Ghandar, the cultural wing of Durbar that includes a dance troop. Some of the members are also members of Amra Pradatik (We Are the Foot Soldiers) which is the group for children of sex workers. Others are also part of Anandam, the LGBT group for sex workers or children or sex workers. The Komal Ghandar group is interested in exploring what it means to be members of a dance troop that travels, performs, and enters competitions with others groups who are not children of sex workers. They're also interested in exploring how being a part of the actual group and having an extra group identity (aside from being children of sex workers) benefits them mentally and emotionally. 

Another group is working with Anandam, the LGBTKH group within Durbar. Anandam has been working to repeal Indian Code 377, the law that makes homosexuality illegal in India. This group is interested in how a political revolution is possible through first creating a social revolution. Keep in mind though, that while homosexuality in India is highly stigmatized, so is sex work. So that double stigmatization really creates a roadblock for Anandam, and more importantly, can create incredibly unsafe spaces for them. 

The third group is researching the networking opportunities between Durbar and other collectives that work with marginalized populations in Calcutta. For example, today they attended the elections for Disha (Hindi meaning = "direction"), which is a collective of domestic workers who are fighting for more rights and protection for women who work in that profession. Currently, there are no laws that protect domestic workers. They cannot join labor unions and typically they work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. No holidays, no time off, very low pay, etc. This group is also looking at the collaboration between Durbar and other collectives in the area. 

The fourth group is examining the family dynamics within sex worker families, mainly those that have babus involved. Babus are fixed customers for sex workers. Typically men, these customers sometimes have families of their own but they have one sex worker that they visit daily. Sometimes they pay her, or sometimes they negotiate other forms of payment, such as the babu acting as a father figure for the sex worker's children for social reasons and in order to get them into a school. If the babu acts as a husband to the sex worker outside of the red light district, she could have access to many more opportunities and services for her and her family. This group will also explore the relationships between sex workers and their babus and the possible interpersonal violence that takes place within those relationships. 

All groups will present their findings to Durbar in the form of research papers and also to the Penn community in the form of short presentations. I can't wait to see how it all plays out for them. :)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Adventures in Bariupur

Wow. I have never in my life experienced anything like the 36-ish hours I spent in Bariupur, West Bengal for a conference of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). In attendance were sex workers from all over India. Many of them were presidents or heads of their organizations or collectives. 

I should back up and first explain how the day started... the morning that we left for Bariupur. It was only me and three other students, who form the research team that is looking at policy surrounding LGBTKH rights in India and the efforts of the Durbar-affiliated group Anandam to repeal Penal Code 377 (the law that makes homosexuality in India illegal...punishable by a minimum 5 years in jail or a maximum of life in prison...).

After not getting much sleep the night before, we all woke at 7am. The plan was to meet Pintu, our coordinator and translator, at the Kavi Nazrul metro station, which is about 6 stops south of our place. From there, we would travel to Bariupur, about an hour away from South Calcutta. 

We took the metro to Kavi Nazrul, all along figuring that Pintu had arranged for a car or taxi to pick us all up. Why I still expect these things, I have no idea. 

Because what really happened is that we stepped out of the metro station into a suburb of Calcutta and walked a ways until we found a tuktuk (3 wheeled auto) that would take the FIVE of us. FIVE.

First of all, tuk-tuks fitting 3 people and a driver is a bit of a squeeze. Most ideal would be two people in the back and no one up front with the driver, because the seat is so small and the steering wheel is directly in the center. So in this tuktuk it ended up being the 3 girls (me, Kelly, Kendra) in the back and Sam and Pintu up front with the driver. With all of our backpacks packed for the night. We were crammed so tightly into this tuktuk...I asked Pintu how long of a ride and he said 30 minutes. Great. 

We were also told that there would be no access to filtered water in Bariupur, so we had to bring lots of big liter bottles for ourselves. So those were all also crammed into the tuktuk, with our backpacks. 

After a 30 minute ride in that tuktuk, we got dropped off. Only to get on another tuktuk. For another 30 minutes. I think I may have blacked out most of the second ride because I was so tired, so hot, and so sweaty. 

When we finally reached our destination the tuk tuk just pulled over in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by farms and cattle. I had my photo taken in front of the sign for the Children's Home (where the conference was being held) but couldn't even manage to smile after such a commute. 

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In this photo you can see over my shoulders a dirt path. We walked that dirt path all the way to the entrance to the grounds of the DMSC Children's Home (this is the home/school where the sex worker's children can attend). 

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When we got there, we were given the morning breakfast that everyone else had already eaten. Rice puffs, luchi (sort of like a fried dough/bread) and aloo (potato) with gravy/sauce.

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After some food and some rest we joined the conference. There were about 50 women in a room, discussing strategies in order to increase funding for their HIV programming. Apparently the government of India claims that HIV will be entirely eradicated by 2017, and so funding for HIV programs will be cut at that time. The women were discussing Facebook and twitter use in order to get the word out and raise funds. 

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Later in the day we were told to go rest. While we were in our room (they were so kind to give the four of us a room with two double beds. I know that people slept on the floor in order for us to have beds.) we took a rest and then TJ showed up! We'd all been laying on our beds, in various states of undress due to the heat, when he walked in with his documentary camera (not shooting...haha) and say, "Hi!" Then we chatted with him for awhile about politics and he taught us out to play Euchre. 

After that Pintu told us that we could take a walk around the property. There were lovely lakes that we could see. He said the scenery would be very beautiful. So we took that opportunity to go for a walk.

On the way we met the cutest goats.

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This little guy was very interested in my camera:


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We continued down the path until we eventually came across the beautiful lakes. Pintu was right. It was a stunning sight. 

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It was so relaxing to sit in silence. We realized that for the first time in weeks, there were no honking horns to be heard. All we could hear were birds chirping. The silence was much appreciated, and we sat for a long time, quietly chatting. 

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After that we went back to our room to relax. It was SO HOT. The heat index was near 120 and there was no luxury of air conditioning. We were sitting on the floor, the coolest place in the room, when a most terrible thing happened. 

The power went out. Completely.

That meant that the lights and overhead fans went off immediately. And there we sat, in a room, with the stillest, hottest air that you could ever imagine. 

We ended up stripping down to the most we could bear (bare? hehe). I had to remove my leggings and kurti because I just didn't think I would make it otherwise. So there we sat, in our underwear, trying to pretend we were all just in bikinis. 

Each minute felt like 30. Sweat didn't drip. It just pooled on our bodies. I was laying on the floor and my entire stomach and chest looked like I'd just stepped out of the shower. 

It was the hottest I'd ever been in my entire life. We barely even spoke. We all just lay there on the floor. Trying to sip water. Trying to be still. 

Eventually, a generator was connected and the lights came back on, though the fans only worked at half speed. We were brought a snack of rice puffs, tomato and cucumber. 

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And then Pintu came to the room to tell me that there would be a small party downstairs with the women before dinner. At this point it was probably about 8pm. He used the phrase "drinky drink"...haha. 

And so when it was time, we went downstairs. We were served thin plastic cups of vodka (the brand was called "White Mischief...") mixed with water and salted ice cubes. The women really wanted us to drink up! And so began the party. 
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This is us with our White Mischief drinks and Pintu, the best coordinator and translator ever. Also, this is what my hair looks like after I have experienced mild heat exhaustion and produced two liters of sweat. 

Then the women put on music and the dancing began! During the middle of this, the power went out again. Which was quite an excitement for all of us who were tipsy from the White Mischief and the heat. 

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Sam continued to dance despite the power issue. His headlamp was all that was needed. ;-)
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Once the power returned, the dancing began again. 


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If you had told me two years ago that one day in my life, I would be drinking and dancing with a group of sex workers at a conference in India, I would have laughed. But that night, with lots of dancing, lots of drinking, and lots of hugging, it felt like the most normal night of my life. Despite the women wanting to take 5 billion photos of us and with us, it felt like a normal night with friends...friends who speak a different language. Smiles go a long way when you don't share language. 

We finally ate dinner of rice, dahl (lentil soup) and boiled egg that night at 11pm. During dinner one of the sex workers came over to me, Kelly and Kendra and told us, "My father only has 1 daughter. That's me. But now, he has 4 daughters." And she pointed at the three of us. 

After that we all went up to the roof and fell asleep on the concrete for some time while each of us took a turn taking a cold shower before bed. 

That night I barely slept. The mattress absorbed every degree of my body heat, making it feel as though I was laying on a heating pad. Tossing and turning wasn't an option, as it produced more sweat. So I lay next to Kelly, both of us as far away from each other as possible in order to not share body heat, both of us still. I was able to sleep for short periods of time throughout the night, but then my body would wake and I'd need to take a sip of water. I have spent many nights at girl scout camps...camping at lake houses in the summer, sleeping on the ground in backyards...but never, ever in my life have I tried to sleep in such hot conditions.

In the morning we all showered the sweat we'd accumulated overnight and joined the women downstairs for Day 2. Pintu translated for us what they were speaking of. There was one quote that I found highly amusing, as did everyone else. The woman speaking said in Hindi, "The government did not care about cancer. And then the Maharaja got ill with cancer, and the government began to designate money for cancer. Right now the government does not care about HIV. Perhaps the answer is to give the Maharaja HIV." A funny, but sad joke which implications need not be explained. 

Eventually, it was time for lunch and we ate our last meal in Bariupur before TJ drove us home. It was an eventful overnight trip for the four of us. Something of great interest, beauty, confusion, fun, and extreme heat. I'm so thankful that I was able to participate in the conference, even if only for one day. 

Hati, Hati

Another morning with the girls.

I slip on my sunglasses and carry my mug of coffee up to the roof. The sun hits me and instantly all of the moisture in my skin evaporates into the hot air.  I cross the roof quickly, slide the bolt across the iron gate, and enter their territory. When I round the corner, I hear their tiny voices from above, "Pishimoni!" I smile and wave and start the unsteady walk up the iron slatted staircase to their home. Each metal rung burns the soles of my feet and when I reach halfway, a set of tiny hands reaches down to take my coffee mug. A few quick wipes on the concrete with a wet rag to rid the floor of loose grains of cooked rice, and they unfold the mat that I always sit on.

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And then, we begin.

"Rainbow violet, indigo blue.
Rainbow green and yellow too.
Rainbow orange, rainbow red.
Rainbow smiling overhead."

"ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYANDZ"...

"Kabhi ek, ek, ek
Swasa kay kay kay
Kabhi dui, dui, dui
Swasa no no no
kabhi tin, tin, tin
Swasa cleem, cleem, cleem"

And then after our songs, we move on.

"Pishimoni, binuni!" (Auntie! Braid!)

I say, "Thika. Ek or dui?" (Okay, one or two?)

"Mmmmm....ek." (One)

"Hah. Thika acche." (Yes. Okay.)

One of them digs around until they find the tortoiseshell comb, and Lalita plops in front of me. Kumkum watches with fascination, leaning on my thigh, as I turn her sister's long hair into one french braid. At the end I put both hands on either side of her head to smooth out any loose hairs. I kiss the braid and say, "Sesa." (Finish.)

And Lalita puts her hand on the braid. Kumkum holds up the mirror and Lalita says, "Voooowww!"

I take a break in between braids. I sip my coffee and they offer me some of their breakfast, which I have plenty of downstairs, but I take a few tiny bites of luchi or rice puffs or halwa because it means something to the girls when I eat with them. Sharing food is a bonding experience between us. They find it hilarious when I attempt to eat with my right hand. "Nay, Ami Bengali!" (No, I Bengali), I once said as a joke when I was offered a spoon. Now every time they see me eat with my hands, they repeat the phrase and giggle at me and give me pointers on the best way to scoop rice and dahl and slide it off of my fingers with my thumb, into my mouth.

Lalita points to the elephant charm around my neck. Hati, hati!" (Elephant, elephant!) I point to the matching charms around their necks and say, "Hati, hati!".

When I first got here I was able to find 3 cheap little metal elephant charms. I threaded each on a thin red rope. One for each of us. They are our Hati necklaces. The girls have not taken them off since I tied them around their necks. Nirmal even added another charm.

Kumkum uses the hati around her neck to attack mine. "Ahh!" I feign fright. And they laugh and I laugh and I am so thankful that something so small could make us all so happy.

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By the time I finish with Kumkum's two braids, Juma is finished in the kitchen downstairs and she joins us up in their home. We play with the doll, who now sports a red bindi as well as a red fingerprint on her forehead, the kind that the entire family comes home with after a visit to Kalighat Temple. I use the doll to show Juma how to french braid, something we've been working on for the last few weeks.

The girls flip through their school workbooks, eager to show me the English words they've learned.

"Comb, comb, comb your hair.
Brush, brush, brush your teeth."

"Bhalo, bhalo. Khub bhalo" I say. (Good, good. Very good.)

Then it's time for me to shower and begin my day at Durbar. We blow air kisses, hold hands, and Lalita says, "Bye!"

Kumkum puts either hand on my cheeks and stares into my eyes. I send her everything.

"Sundohr," I say. (Beautiful).

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And then I stand. Back down the scalding stairs. I'm dripping in sweat. My ponytail sticks to the back of my neck and I know my face is pink. Above me I hear, "Pishimoni?" I pause and look up. "Hmm?"

Lalita is standing on the stairs. She cocks her head and says, "Tomorrow coming?"

I smile. "Hah." (Yes.)

With my empty coffee cup in my hands, I pass through their gate and cross the roof, my heart full.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Case 458

Last year when I was hospitalized because of the rat bite my days were spent laying in a bed, connected to wires and IVs, in a room on the fourth floor of Apollo Gleneagles hospital. I'd lay on my side and stare out the window. By then, since it was the end of June, the monsoon clouds would begin to creep closer and closer, my signal that the day was half over and perhaps in the morning I would be released and go home. Laura, the TA, spent as much time at the hospital as she could, it was still an hour taxi ride from our apartment and she had many responsibilities with the other students so she could not always be there during the day. 

I quickly became lonely and bored. And just as quickly, I made two friends. Two wonderful Didis from Kerala who were nurses on my wing, 4L. One in particular, Jyothika, would take her time when inserting new channels (IVs) into my already bruised and marked arms and hands. And each day, as she slowly worked, we began to get to know each other. We talked about my life in The States and about her home state in Kerala. I'd just returned from a trip to Kerala and had many photos. She happily looked at all of my photos of the food we'd eaten there. 

Over the next few days I spent less time staring and waiting for the monsoon clouds to bruise the sky and more time waiting for my friend Jyoti to come to my room to change my IV bags or give me my pills or just to say Hi. When I heard the door opening, I wished with all of my heart that it would be Jyothika or Greeshma. My favorite Didis. Five minutes of interaction with people who spoke English and who laughed with me at the terribly bland food I was being fed (rice and boiled chicken only...tea with no sugar or milk). Who held my hands when a procedure hurt. Who fixed my blankets, brushed my hair and took such amazing care of me.

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One day Jyothika showed up for her shift with two rosaries. One for me and one for Laura. I put mine around my neck and didn't remove it until I got home from the hospital. 

I became known at Apollo as "Case 458" or "Rat Bite Case". Hospital employees would come to my room and peek in the door to get a glance at the girl from America who'd been bitten by a rat in Calcutta. Some of them snapped photos with their phones. Jyoti and Greeshma quickly put a stop to it, and they began to stand guard so that no other people would come and gawk at me. 

The day that I left Apollo, I was able to get Jyoti's phone number and we have kept in contact all year. We usually chat about once a week. She sends me photos of her family, I send her photos of mine. She sends me photos of her lunches and dinners and I send her photos of my strange looking American food. When I told her I was coming back, she couldn't believe it. I think that back then, I could not either. 

And finally yesterday, we were able to meet. Jyotikha and Greeshma brought two of their nurse friends who also work at Appollo, and I brought four of the students with me to meet them. We met at a large mall near the hospital and it was a heart exploding type of reunion!

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We caught up, took many photos, and shopped around a bit at the mall. It was so good to see them. They will always be my Didis...even though technically Didi means "older sister", it's a term used for nurses in India. Once they realized last year that actually, I am older than them by 4-5 years, we began to joke that really, I am the Didi. ;-)


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Once again I am left with an experience here in India that has left me nearly speechless and my heart exploding and full all at the same time. 


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

June 3

Currently, Nirmal is folding my underwear. Well, now he's moved on to a sports bra. But I can't help but feel some type of way, even though last year I tried to get used to him and Juma doing our laundry and cooking us food and doing all of our dishes, etc.

The thing is, I stuck my basket of dirty laundry on top of the washer last night around 6pm, hoping that they would just do it this morning. Usually they like to do laundry in the morning, when the sun is hot and the clothes dry quickly. But by sticking my laundry on top of the washer, I guess it was a signal that I wanted it done ASAP, because when I got home from the New Alipore apartment, my laundry was washed and hanging out to dry. In the dark. Sigh. I didn't mean for anyone to have to do it last night, after a long day. And this morning I tried to fold the clean pile but I think instead Nirmal took it as a sign that I was unhappy that he hadn't yet folded it. Because he said, "Sorry, sorry." and then stopped eating his breakfast just to fold my load of clean underwear. 

e stopped and said, "You, any complain? Your problem, my problem. You any student this side, any complain." Which I can now easily interpret to mean, "If any of you guys have a problem or are unhappy with me, please come tell me and I will fix it." I think this may also be in response to the fact that last night we changed the water jug. We have one of those Deer Park type water coolers so that we can easily have access to filtered water. And usually Nirmal changes the water for us because it's heavy and kind of weird to do. But last night it was 11pm and we needed water and we felt bad calling Nirmal to come from his night job (as a night guard at another apartment) around the corner just to do it. 

So we did it ourselves. Which we've never done before. But he noticed. And this morning he apologized and I tried to explain that we just didn't want to call him so late and make him walk over here, but my explanation got lost in translation. Because body language and voice inflection and certain phrases do not have the same meaning here. And so I try to use short, easily understandable sentences. I speak in Banglish (a term we came up with for when we speak in part Bengali part English to each other)...but still my message is so often lost and probably I should just be leaning into it, allowing him to do his job in its entirety because that is what he is paid for, and that is the work he is proud of. But I can't help it, I can't help what's in my gut, that Nirmal's breakfast should not be getting cold because he has now moved on to ironing my sports bras. I didn't even know we had an iron here. He has never ironed before, so I hope this is not his attempt to make up for not knowing that we needed the water changed, or not folding my laundry fast enough before I woke up. 

So many conflicts. SO much difference in culture. 

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Today we go to Durbar so that the students can meet with Dr. Jana to talk about the research proposals that they have come up with. I'm pretty pumped for the four groups. I'll write soon about their project proposals and what they want to research while they are here. 

Tomorrow I leave for Bariupur, which is a small town on the outskirts of Calcutta. I'm heading to a sex worker conference for sex workers and sex worker groups from all over India. It should be REALLY interesting and definitely an adventure!