Friday, September 25, 2009

Three Weekends Ago...Ooty and Mysore

Hello Friends and Family!

I hope that you are all having a wonderful week and are looking forward to the weekend! Mine has been good so far, with lots of work and also some fun with friends. Many of you may have already gotten this information via email so feel free to skim or skip at will. With this post, I am going to try to give you all a taste of Ooty and Mysore, two cities that I had the privilege to visit with 9 other students.

Several weekends ago myself and six other students headed out for the train station at about 9:30 p.m. Our train departed at 11:00 and arrived in the small city Metapallayam at about 6:00 a.m. This was my very first experience with an overnight train...well with any train in India. The trip itself wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as I imagined it would be and I was even able to get some sleep. There were a few memorable quirks though. The first was the man who came by and told us that we were not allowed to play cards on the train. This is apparently a rule for all of India, which we found quite amusing. Secondly, there were the men who started walking up and down the hall at about 5 a.m. shouting, "" and "Tea...tea...tea...." repeatedly. Not exactly what we wanted to wake up to. Anyway, after arriving in Metapallayam, we met up with three other students and rented two taxis to take us to Ooty. The drivers initially claimed that all 10 of us and all of our stuff could fit in one jeep, but we weren't going for it. The ensuing two hours in the taxi were incredible. We drove through the Nilgiri mountains and saw huge tea plantations and towns just clinging to the mountainside. It was also a little tense as our driver was quite fond of passing other vehicles...even on blind curves. There may have been a couple close encounters with cars coming the opposite direction, but thankfully we made it safely to Ooty.

My first observation upon arriving was that it was cold! Cold and rainy and for most of us, this meant that we did not have the appropriate clothing. We quickly went from being perpetually hot, to completely frozen. It was a bit of a shocking change. Despite the weather, we decided to head out and explore Ooty. All 10 of us spent some time wandering the streets and the marketplace and several of the guys bought these ridiculous woolen sweaters. After concluding our shopping, we spilt into two groups. I joined 5 other girls for a 2 km walk to the Ooty Lake and boathouse. Our goal was to go horseback riding around the lake and up into the hills. When we arrived at the boathouse, we were basically mobbed by men with horses, all trying to convince us to go riding. There was some chaos in regards to settling the price and to the fact that we wanted only one guide, not two. After some frantic shouting and haggling, on their part, and a bit of pushing and pulling, we were all astride a horse and ready to go. The ride itself was about two hours long and the scenery that we were able to pass through was definitely awe-inspiring. It would have been a really ideal ride, except for the intermittent rain and the fact that the horse I was given was a bit temperamental. Overall, despite a few bumps in the road, it was a great ride. We made a large loop up into the mountains and then back down to the lake. On our way down, we rode through this residential neighborhood that was quite the sight to see. Its hard to put everything into words and unfortunately I wasn't able to take pictures since I was a little busy trying to control my horse, but I'll just say that it was in many ways picturesque.

By the time that we finally returned to the boathouse we were completely soaked. After escaping from the mob of men and horses that was still there, we slipped into a restaurant for tea and pakora in an attempt to re-warm ourselves a bit. At this point, the guys were waiting for us at a second restaurant, so we crammed all six of us into one auto-rickshaw (quite the feat) and sped off. At the second restaurant, we all ate again and had some awesome chocolate cake. The afternoon concluded with more market wandering and a trip to a historic church. We returned to the hotel and after finally getting out of the rain, none of us could bear to go out again, so we just had dinner there, played some cards, and then headed to bed.

The next morning we departed Ooty on a five-hour bus ride to Mysore.
Distance wise, I think that it is only about 150 kilometers from Ooty to Mysore, but the roads and traffic move a little bit differently here. We pulled into the Mysore City Bus Stand at about 4:30 in the afternoon, hopped off and headed out to walk to our hotel. We were instantly surrounded by rickshaw drivers all offering rides and hotels and everything else. They just didn't seem to want to accept the fact that we were walking, we already had hotel reservations, and we actually did know where we were going. Once we escaped the mass of drivers, it was a short walk to our hotel - Hotel Dasaprakash. At this point, none of us had eaten since breakfast, so we relaxed in the hotel for about an hour and then went out to dinner. Along the way, we found the Devaraja Market - a marketplace that Mysore is famous for and so we of course had to spend a little time browsing the shops. I was again wowed by the aisles of produce and flowers and jewelry and cooking wares and just about everything else that you could imagine. Particularly impressive were the vendors of colored sands (not sure of what they are called exactly). This powder is used for celebrations, body and street art, and offerings at temples. Mysore is also famous for its silks, sandalwood carvings, and mineral oils, amongst other things.

After browsing for a while, we continued on our way. None of us were exactly sure where the restaurant was, so we just wandered and eventually found it. Dinner was at the Tiger Trail, this amazing restaurant in a large hotel. And despite the quality and beauty of our surroundings, the price was good and the food was incredible. Especially the Tiger naan.... which seemed to be one of their specialties. Everyone had a huge meal and lots of good conversation and when we were done, I decided to head back to the hotel with the other girls. The guys went for a drink in this pub that was in the basement of a construction was a little too sketchy for me. As we walked back to the hotel, we stopped and bought fruits - pineapples, papayas, custard apples, mangos - all of which we ate once we were at the hotel. Fresh fruits and vegetables are definitely not a staple of menus around here, so I have come to treasure the times that I can have them. And, I have also stopped worrying so much about eating fresh things and started buying them in the markets. Our fruit party was a nice way to end a long day.

The next morning, we had dosas in the hotel restaurant, and then walked through the city. Our next stop was the Chamundi Hill where there is a 2,000-year-old temple to the goddess Shiva. Next-door is a relatively more modern temple to the goddess Durga (I think). Legend says that she killed the demon bull god in this spot. The temples were very impressive, although we were held up slightly by a rainstorm that forced us to take shelter in a small coffee and teashop. In the 2,000-year-old temple, we were given powders to use as an offering and colored dots were applied to our foreheads. A man took it upon himself to act as our guide. We let him and then, of course, he asked for money afterwards. Oh well... From the temples atop Chamundi Hill, we walked down 1,000 steps. At about step 300 there is a massive statue of the demon bull god Mahishsura (not sure about spelling). This was carved from only one block of stone. Although we only went down, traditionally pilgrims to the temples must walk up all 1,000 steps. We didn't attempt that feat.

At the bottom, we continued our whirlwind day by hopping two rickshaws to the Mysore Palace. This palace was the home of the Mysore Maharaja and is an interesting mix of Indian and European architectural influences. The palace itself is gorgeous and is surrounded by something like 7 temples. Before entering, you were required to check your camera and to remove your shoes. To me, it seemed strangely reminiscent of the palaces that I walked through in Europe. Intricate carvings, massive balustrades and columns, and just the sense of history all around you. It was extremely impressive. Dad has been there, I'm sure that he will tell you the same. After the temple, we again split up. Two others and myself did a little shopping outside the temple, which was good, but what followed was the one truly frustrating part of the day. Sarah (my friend from Germany) and I were surrounded by vendors - after we had already bought our gifts. They literally had us trapped and were pushing and shoving and trying to get us to buy something. They refused to take no for an answer and we just could not escape. Finally, I basically shouted at one who had grabbed my arm and Sarah and I shoved our way out. We were just not willing to tolerate it any longer.

All three of us had lunch in a small Indian restaurant afterwards, and the good food and relatively relaxing atmosphere did a lot to help calm our annoyance. After eating, we returned to the market, since we hadn't had much time the night before. I bought some souvenirs and we were entertained by a friendly mineral oil and incense seller. He invited us into his shop and showed us how he hand rolls all of his incense sticks. Very cool. What was also interesting to see were the books of photos that he had. Each book was labeled, US, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Korea, etc... These were all foreigners how had come to his shop and bought things. Most of them had come more than once and left their pictures, names, purchases, and often a personal note. For me, it was incredible that this guy, Quarram, working in a tiny little shop in the market in Mysore, had met all of these people. He even spoke some German, as well as English, which my German friends appreciated.

As evening rolled around, we all met up back at the hotel and then decided to return to the palace. On Sunday evenings and on holidays, the palace is illuminated with thousands (or millions) of lights and we had been told that it was a sight that we could not miss. And it definitely was amazing to see the entire palace and the surrounding temples and gates light up. Although you have to wonder what that does to the electricity for the rest of the city, since they already face daily shortages and power outages. Well, to wrap up the weekend, I grabbed a quick dinner with three of the guys and then raced to the train station, getting there about 10 minutes before our train was set to depart. We pulled out of the station at about 9 p.m. and at 7:30 a.m. the next morning we rolled into Katpadi Station here in Vellore. Ten hours for 370 or so on the ground is definitely not the speediest here!

And so, that was the end of our journey. Sorry that it has taken me so long to get this posted! I promise to be a more frequent poster in the future!

I just want you all to know that despite the incredible adventures that I am having and the sights that I am seeing, I still miss you all! Over the past few weeks, I have been struggling with some bouts of homesickness and knowing that there are people back home that are interested in what I am doing and in how I am doing really helps. I am sure that some homesickness will come and go for the rest of my time here, but I think that I am coming to realize that being here, living here for nine months really is possible. This is something that I can do! So, basically, keep in touch, because every time I here from one of you it is a friendly voice in my ear reminding me that I am not so far away…


Life in Vellore...Thoughts from the Past Four Weeks

Hi Everyone! First off, let me start by apologizing for being so absent from this blog. I set it up with grand intentions of updating quite frequently and I definitely haven’t followed through with that. It sort of amazes me that even in India, I make daily “To-Do” lists and I’m still not able to complete everything! The days truly have been flying by and as each week comes to a close I am astounded that I am that much closer to the end of this adventure (although that ‘end’ is still quite far away…). Anyway, I make no excuses for my lack of updates, except to say that between work, travel, friends, food, exploring, and sometimes unreliable internet access, I just haven’t been able to cross 'posting to my blog' off of my to-do list. But, I’m trying to make up for it now and in the future, plan to post about once a week or so. More if possible…

As I sit here typing, I realize that today is the 41st day since I left home. And after only six weeks, Vellore is beginning to feel like a home away from home. I am adjusting to the flow and rhythm of life, getting used to the unique sounds and smells, and simply beginning to feel comfortable. Daily life doesn’t seem nearly as strange and overwhelming as it did a few short weeks ago.

I have spent the past four weeks engaged in a mix of activities. My research work is moving forward, although not necessarily as quickly as I had hoped. Currently, my research plans have split down three roads. I am submitting two proposals for IRB and EC approval – Institutional Review Board and Ethics Committee. Basically, these committees go over all of the proposed research projects at CMC to ensure that the work is ethical and that no patients will be harmed by being involved in the study. Although writing these proposals was a rather tedious process, I am quite proud of what I have produced and am hopefully that they will be approved with out any problems. A second benefit of these projects is that they have introduced me to two physicians whom I will be working closely with – Dr. Valsan and Dr. Deepthi, both of whom are extremely nice, very enthusiastic, and incredibly helpful. I am sure that with there help, these projects can be a success. In the coming weeks, my work will move away from writing (and simultaneously away from staring at a computer screen all day) and into the lab and the hospital. The prospect of working directly in a clinical microbiology lab and interacting with patients and family members in the pediatrics department is both exciting and intimidating. I just hope that my experience and the preparation that I have done over the past weeks will be enough. And I am sure that I will continuously be learning during my time in these departments.

Conducting research in India is sure to be a unique endeavor. The process of things is very different here and it definitely takes some getting used to. Because of the newness of everything, there have been some ups and downs over the past weeks, but even the times when it seemed like everything was falling apart have taught me valuable lessons. Such as the benefit of avoiding involvement in inter-departmental politics… And also the great benefits that can be reaped from not being afraid to ask people for what you want. Making appointments can be very difficult, and so if I need to speak with someone or meet a new physician, I generally just show up in their office and hope that they are there. If not, I’m normally directed on a hospital wide scavenger hunt for their current location. Despite the serendipity of this method, I’m successful in locating these people a surprising amount of the time. And each time, I have to introduce myself, explain what I am doing, and then explain how I want them to be involved in my research or what I need from them. These meetings are great tools for increasing my ability to express myself and decreasing my sometimes innate fear of really putting myself forward. If this continues, I will surely return to the US a more confident person.

Outside of work, life has been progressing forwards quickly. And now that the initial shock of India has almost completely worn off, I have been able to process and slowly start understanding some of the things around me. Lately I have found myself really thinking about how I fit into this place. I’ve done a lot of introspection and a lot of observation of the people, places, and activities surrounding me. I’ve got a few impressions that I’d like to share.

Fear. When I first arrived in Vellore, everything scared me. The food and the streets and the animals and just everything all around me was foreign and new and terrifying. That fear crippled me. I wouldn’t allow myself to eat new things or go shopping in the market or wander around Vellore Fort alone and if I had continued to allow that fear to control me, I never would have been able to make the most of my time here. But, somehow, I have managed to overcome that fear and to begin just living – the way that we do at home. We don’t constantly worry we just go about daily life. And that is what I am trying to do now. Over the past few weeks, I have started going to new restaurants, even ones that look a little sketchy, and by doing this have had some of the most incredible food. I’ve also decided that maybe the main market roads aren’t so intimidating and have found incredible fabric stores, great little tea stalls, and a very talented tailor who is even now working on two new outfits for me. I’ve also stopped seeing only the bad things on the streets, such as trash and poverty, and begun to look past that to see the beauty that is hidden behind. I think that in some ways, simply by letting go of my fear of the unknown, everything that seemed so different became more familiar.

Tourism. Since I am living and working in India for nine months, in many ways, I don’t consider myself a tourist. Similarly, the other students that I have come to know are here for months at a time and so I don’t see them as tourists either. And because Vellore is such a small, out-of-the-way place, we (the students) are the only, and I mean only, foreigners in Vellore. Vendors and shopkeepers always recognize us because we are quite the anomaly in their daily life. Recognizing them in return is a bit harder for us. But because of our status as the sole “white” foreigners in Vellore, when we travel, I am often shocked to see other tourists. This past weekend, while traveling to the city of Mamallapuram, I even found myself somewhat shocked to see so many other foreign faces all around me. It was a bit strange for me to even feel separated from other foreigners, but my perception of them wasn’t exactly positive. I found myself wondering what their impressions of India would actually be if they only frequented the popular tourist destinations? Would they gain any understanding of who and what India is or would it simply be just a trip. But at the same time, there I was…exploring Mamallapuram, being a tourist myself. Overall, I was just a bit confused… In the end though, I think that I am lucky. I not only get to be a tourist and travel to new and exciting places on the weekends and sometimes for longer, but I also get to be a resident. I get to live daily life, develop a routine, and interact with the same community day after day. And I think that I am privileged because the community I am living in is for Indians – it hasn’t changed itself to meet the needs of tourists. It just remains Vellore.

Staring. Never in my life have I been stared at as much as I am here. It is a daily occurrence and one which I am still having trouble getting used to. Sometimes the most frustrating part of your day is the fact that men on the street blatantly stare at you, without any reservations. And not only do they stare, they brush past you or push their way in front of you as if you don’t even exist. Its like you’re not a person – you’re an interesting attraction for them to look at as they go about their daily life. One of the most obvious experiences I have had with staring is when we went to the cinema last week. I went with four friends, three girls and a guy. Not only were we the only foreigners in the movie, we were also the only women. And as we stood waiting for tickets every single male in the surrounding area was staring, no almost leering, at us. It was one of the single most uncomfortable moments of my life. Its something that I don’t think you can get used to. I try to tell myself that they are simply interested in us. We are so different in appearance how could they not stare. Sometimes that reassurance doesn’t do much and sometimes it does. But I’m learning from this as well – I don’t think that I will ever again allow myself to just stare at someone who is different, not now that I understand how uncomfortable it truly is.

Well, that’s about all I’ve got for my “profound” thoughts. Here are a few other quick impressions of Vellore…

People are, for the most part, almost overwhelmingly friendly and they are also extremely generous, even if they have very little.

If you want to get somewhere quickly make sure that you pick your rickshaw wisely. So far I have been in two that have broken down and two that were so old they could barely move faster than a slow walk. Each rickshaw and each rickshaw driver has their own character – every ride is different from the one before.

Indian supermarkets aren’t quite like American supermarkets! The Haresh Food Zone, Vellore’s largest ‘supermarket’ was quite the exciting find for us, although it has a total of about 6 aisles. In addition to aisles of Indian food, there is even a small amount of Western items, including pasta, pasta sauce, cereal, and oreos… Its funny how just those little bits of familiarity can seem so amazing.

And finally we have the Indian sweet tooth, one thing that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. Indians love sugar! They put sugar in almost everything, but especially in tea, coffee, and juice. We generally ask for little or no sugar and in response we are often looked at as if we are crazy… In addition to adding sugar to their drinks, there are bakeries and sweet shops every few stalls on every street. And while taking advantage of this fact, we have found some incredible cookies and treat, although nothing is quite the same as Mom’s homemade pumpkin cookies! This plethora of sugar could become a problem…

I think that is all I’ve got for now! Hope you made it through all of my rambling thoughts. From here on out (except for two more posts on previous weekend trips) I’m going to be posting on current events. Woo Hoo!

Thanks again for all of your thoughts and emails and comments! I love hearing from all of you! I hope that life back in the States is going well and that you are all having your own adventures!

Already almost six weeks in and I can’t believe how quickly time is passing…


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A Weekend Getaway in Pondicherry

After ending my first full week in Vellore, I embarked on the first of what I am sure will be many trips across southern and hopefully northern India. After only one meeting, I was invited to join a trip to the city of Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is now called) for the weekend of August 28th - August 30th. Instead of writing out a whole new description, I've simply copied the email that I sent out after returning. Hope you all enjoy!

Friday afternoon, I left Vellore with eleven other international students. They had reserved a private bus, so it was just us, and we traveled in the lap of luxury - well, for India at least... Driving through the country side introduced me to a whole new aspect of India. There were gorgeous rolling hills and field after field of grains. Small villages often lined the road and it was incredible to get a short glimpse of what life is like for a majority of the Indian population. The ride took about 3.5 hours and I spent most of it simply staring out the window, amazed by the countryside. During our drive, we also passed through several small towns. In one, we drove by a school bus full of children (with about an inch between our bus and theirs). When the kids noticed that we were obviously foreigners, they began shouting and waving. All of them saying "Hi!" and asking our names. It was a strange and somewhat exhilarating experience. We were a novel sight for these children and I think that many of them wanted to show off the English that they could speak.

We arrived in Pondicherry at about 7:30, got settled in our rooms, which were very nice, and then headed out to dinner at a roof top cafe - Le Rendezvous. Pondicherry, now called Puducherry, was originally colonized by the French and the city has many remaining French elements. Dinner was good, although some people who ordered very Western food weren't impressed. From there, we headed to the sea front, walked along the ocean (there wasn't really a beach per se but it was beautiful), and had ice cream at a little shop. We finally got to bed at about midnight.

I roomed with a girl named, ironically, Sarah, who is a final year medical student from Germany. She is at CMC for two months observing in the surgical department. Saturday morning, we got up at about 9 and decided to head out for breakfast on our own, since we weren't sure when the others would wake. It ended up that we spent the entire day off on our own, which was actually quite nice and easier than moving in a large group. Breakfast was at this cafe on the ocean called Le Cafe. I had a great omelette and some lovely fresh fruit. We sat for awhile and then headed into the heart of Pondicherry for some exploring. Our first visit was to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a place for spirituality, meditation, and yoga. We were allowed inside and sat in the meditation garden for about half an hour. People prayed over Sri Aurobindo's mausoleum and the atmosphere in this place was incredibly peaceful. There really was something in the air that was calming. Sadly, no pictures were allowed. After this, we ended up at a temple. Outside of the temple, to our surprise was an elephant! The elephant's name was Lakshmi and she had been trained to take coins from your hand and then tap you on the head with her trunk. I did it twice because it was so cool! After spending quite some time at the temple, we kept walking.

The next few hours were spent doing a little shopping in some of the street shops. I bought two sets of fabric to be made into salwar kameez...the colors are amazing. We also sat for about an hour in an ice cream shop to escape from the heat. From the shops, we headed to the Grand Bazaar, an Indian market, that was truly an awe inspiring sight. Row after row of vegetables, spices, fruits, pastas and grains, and almost everything else that you could imagine were there. And, this was a true Indian market, not a tourist attraction, which was great to see. Anyway, when we were finally done wandering Pondicherry, we returned to Le Cafe and sat in the shade, reading and eating samosas.

For dinner, the rest of the group went to a posh hotel and paid 500 rupees for an all you can eat buffet. Sarah and I opted out of this option, and ate in this hole in the wall Indian restaurant, called Le Coromondale. We had parotta, naan, vegetable fried rice, dhaal masala and paneer butter masala...all for only 137 rupees (less than 3 dollars). The food was great and it was a fun Indian experience. More ice cream after dinner, and then we sat along the beach and talked.

All in all it was incredible, and it was only the first day.

Sunday morning, I got up early and went to a Catholic mass with Jessica, an international student from the U.K. She is also a final year med student, and interestingly enough she wants to combine her studies in medicine with the religious life. Meaning, she wants to become a nun and also practice medicine. Anyway, the mass was in English and it was a really lovely service, with lots of singing.

Afterwards, I met up with Sarah and Stefan (another German student), had a quick breakfast at Le Cafe, hopped into a rickshaw and headed for Auroville. Auroville is this small city of about 2000 people that is 11 kilometers outside Pondicherry. It was founded by "the Mother," and is a very spiritual and rather esoteric place. In the words of the Auroville founders, "Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity." Its an interesting and kind of strange place. The biggest sight to see is the Matri Mandir, which is a large, almost spherical building, the entire outside of which is covered in gold disks. This is the "spiritual center" of Auroville and inside is a room for 'consideration.' Visitors aren't allowed inside, but you can view the Matri Mandir from afar. It was quite an impressive sight, although I am a little confused about why a group that believes in the evils of materialism and that is searching for the 'human truth' needs such an ostentatious symbol. I'm sure they have their reasons... Overall, I have mixed feelings about the philosophy of Auroville, but it was definitely a unique place to visit. Another nice aspect was the cafe. We all sat and had apple pie with ice cream and juice (I chose guava which was delicious). The apple pie wasn't quite like dad's home made pie...

To return to Pondicherry, we grabbed another rickshaw and were on our way. We had just entered the city, when we spotted a wagon with a huge statue of Ganesh, the Indian elephant god, at a nearby intersection. This obviously caught our interest, so we basically abandoned the rickshaw, somewhere in the middle of the city and set off to find Ganesh. Well, this turned out to be one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. There was a procession of at least 100 trucks and wagons, all with statues of Ganesh and young men and boys hanging all over them. The men were covered in colored powders in celebration of the festival of Ganesh. As we walked along the roadside, staring in awe at this incredible procession, we were basically mobbed by young boys and men. They were shouting "Hello!" and "Photo, photo!!," and many wanted to shake our hands and learn our names. The young boys in particular really wanted to have their photo taken...and we complied... They especially wanted to shake my and Sarah's hand, since in traditional Indian culture men do not often touch women, especially in public. I don't really have the words to describe it, but it was incredible. We got caught up in the celebration and the excitement and it truly was a once in a lifetime experience. We were so lucky to have gone to Pondicherry on the one weekend every year when this festival occurs. The one down side to this experience was the realization that it was only men who were participating in the celebration. Women don't join in (aren't allowed to join in), for whatever reason. It was a little disconcerting to so obviously see some of the separation that exists between men and women here.

When we finally left the procession, we passed by the temple to see Lakshmi the elephant once more and then we grabbed a quick dinner at a small restaurant. The meal was served on a palm leaf, as is the custom in Southern India. From there, we walked through the Sunday market and got back to our hotel just in time to take the bus back to Vellore. Three and a half hours later, much of it through the pouring rain, we were back in the city that is my temporary home.

My First Week at CMC

Alright, so in this post, I'm going to try to give you all a brief introduction to CMC or the Christian Medical College of Vellore, which is the institution where I will be conducting the bulk of my research, the city of Vellore, and what my first week here was like.

CMC is (copying from their website) 2234 bed, multi-specialty, tertiary care teaching hospital, which is made up of a vital, diverse, and inter-denominational community. CMC Vellore affirms a shared commitment to the 'whole person' in the spirit of Christ, to the pursuit of professional excellence and the care of those who are disadvantaged, disabled and marginalized. This university and hospital has been consistently ranked as the number one or number two medical school in all of India, so I feel greatly privileged to be working here. There is so much that I could say about this place, but I feel like the work that they do is exemplified by the teeming masses of people that I pass by each day. Exhibiting what seems to be endless reserves of patience, hundreds, if not thousands, of patients sit or stand or lie waiting to be seen by a physician. And the physicians work as hard as possible so that every patient is treated to the best of their ability. They are faced daily by a shortage of resources, frequent power cuts, and various other obstacles and still this hospital is able to provide world-class care and undertake state of the art procedures. It is amazing...

Vellore, the city in which I am now living, is (again copying) the headquarters of Vellore District in Tamil Nadu, one of the southernmost states of India. The population of the town and it environs is about 300,000 and it serves as a marketing centre for a fairly prosperous agricultural area. The streets are lined with small shops and crowded with people, cyclists, cars, buses, lorries and livestock. Literally. The people here are made up of all religions, including Hindu, Christian, and Muslim and daily live side by side. After reading from several sources that Vellore is a small city, I had a somewhat romanticized view of what I would find here. That viewed shifted within the first 30 seconds of being in Vellore. I don't know if I have the words to describe what life here is like, but it is chaotic and vibrant and loud and ever changing and basically every other adjective that you can think of.

And on my second day, I had to brave it all. I live at the CMC campus in Bagayam, which is about 7 km from the main hospital. My second morning in Vellore, I took a bus to the hospital, navigated my way to the canteen, and with a stroke of luck, found the office of Dr. Dilip Mathai, my advisor. Thankfully, I was helped along the way by a friendly Tanzanian physician, Peter, who is also here at CMC to study and work. The day was consumed by meeting with research associated, Dr. Dilip, Dr. K.R. John, several DOTS clinic nurses, and quite a few other members of the CMC community. After a few hours, it all began blurring together. But one key to getting anything done here (and everywhere) is knowing the right people, so making connections from the very beginning is very important.

After that beginning, it became clear that getting my project off the ground was going to be a lot of work and was going to take some time (I'm still working on it). My first day was a Thursday. Friday was similar, filled with lots of meetings and discussions and just some familiarization with campus and the hospital. I spent the weekend relaxing on campus and just trying to adjust to the fact that I was really in India. It was still sinking in at that point.

The next week, I began working in earnest. I collaborated with several medical students on a presentation on TB/HIV coinfection, had a tour of the microbiology department where I hope to be working, and started hammering out some details of my own research. By Friday, it was clear that I will be conducting two studies (which I'll say more about in another post). The first will be an examination of case management and the social impacts of drug resistant tuberculosis. The second will be an analysis of the accuracy of a new diagnostic tool in possible pediatric TB cases. I'm excited about both, but like I said, I'm still in the very beginning stages.

Some highlights of the week were: Going to Darling Residency, a hotel in Vellore, for dinner in the rooftop restaurant with the other international students. I've already met people from several countries...this is going to be a truly international experience. Spending time in the market, experiencing the market when the power went out, and buying an Indian cell phone, which allowed me to call home for the first time! And, moving into my new room in a building called Big Bungalow Annex. First impressions were somewhat negative, but it has definitely grown on me! Oh, and the food (most of it anyway) is wonderful here! No problems yet and I have enjoyed everything that I have tried. It is a common occurrence for me to order a meal and have absolutely no idea what it is, but that is all just part of the fun!

Well, that was my first week...

While I am sitting here, I just have to mention something that happened this afternoon. Sitting on the town bus, headed back to campus, the woman next to me started up a conversation. We chatted for some time and were actually able to learn quite a bit about each other. She was interested in where I was from, what I was doing in Vellore and how long I'd be there, my family and if I liked the food (a common question) and basically just things about me. Just before I got off the bus, she turns to me and says, "Well, I live at the next stop and you should come to my house for dinner sometime. And if you ever need anything or any help, just come by." She gave me directions and we parted ways. But this experience is something so typical of the people that I have met so far. Even if they have very little, they are completely willing to share it with you. They are interested in your life and especially in helping you become a member of the community. It is really an incredible show of kindness and one which you would not frequently encounter in the U.S. I hope that I do see her, Ipsy, again and I hope that we do have a meal together... Her kindness in this one short conversation had a huge impact on my day and again renewed my belief that I really can live and thrive here for nine months.

Orientation in New Delhi

So, this is the first of several "catch up" posts that I'll be writing in the next few days. Hopefully, by the end of the week I'll be up to the present! Basically, I have now been living and learning in India for over three weeks and I have a lot to report from that short time. I'll start from the very beginning.

On August 15th, I left my family and my home to begin my journey to India. Saying goodbye to my parents and sisters in the airport was tough. It was especially hard to walk down the line to security and to see them standing outside the barriers. I had this insane urge to just leap over the people in my way and turn back before even beginning. Luckily, I suppressed this urge, but it was close... Once my emotions had calmed somewhat, I was able to begin really processing what I was doing. It is amazing that although I had been thinking about going to India since August of 2008, it wasn't until I was in the airport, departing, that what I was doing truly struck me. The mind is a funny thing. As reality hit, I was filled not only with fear, but also with a great deal of excitement. Like I said, I'd been thinking about this journey for more than a year and to finally begin was exhilarating. Although the actual physical trip to India was definitely not exhilarating!

From Denver, I hopped a three hour flight to Chicago where I had a five hour layover. In Chicago, I ran into two other Fulbrighters headed to India and it was a great feeling to no longer be completely alone. We boarded a 777 and began a 14 hour flight to New Delhi. Despite being somewhat of a nervous flier, the flight wasn't bad. Decent food, free movies, and an empty seat next to me all helped improve the atmosphere. We finally arrived in Delhi at about 10 p.m., fetched our luggage, met the Fulbright welcoming group, and headed to our hotel. It turned out that there were actually 7 Fulbrights on the flight, most of whom I hadn't met.

My Fulbright experience began with a whirlwind two day orientation program in New Delhi. After a few hours of sleep, we spent the day engaged in meetings and sessions all meant to help us transition to Indian living. We were also privileged to meet the new Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupama Rao. She spoke with us about India's foreign relations and showed a lot of interest in our projects. It really was an honor that she made time in her busy schedule to meet with us. The day was packed and by the time our first break rolled around at 5:30, we were all on the verge of collapse. But, we only had about two hours off and then it was back to the Fulbright House for a beautiful welcoming dinner. Despite our exhaustion, the sessions and the dinner really were worth it.

Day two began early and was again packed with informational meetings. The most impressive was one with a professor who came to discuss doing research in India. He had actually read all 45 proposals and prepared contacts and information and advice for each person. Sadly, he knows very little about the medical field, so he didn't have too much for me, but it was still incredible the amount of time that he must have spent preparing.

Well, orientation ended and I raced back to the hotel, packed my things, and hopped in a taxi with two others who were also headed for Chennai. Nothing very exciting to report from this leg of the journey... Basically, I took a three hour flight to Chennai, spent one night in a hotel, and then had a two hour taxi journey to Vellore. I arrived around mid-day, was welcomed into my room (a temporary home for about a week), and collapsed. I think I slept on and off almost the entire day, which was desperately needed. In the midst of a somewhat sleep deprived haze, it struck me that I was actually, finally there. I was in Vellore, the travels were over and everything was really beginning. I could hardly believe it...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Better Late Than Never

Vannakum (Hello in Tamil),

I have finally gotten around to setting up this blog now that I have been in India for over three weeks! But as I say in the title of this post, better late than never. Hopefully, I will be able to update frequently and keep everyone informed about my journey, physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, over the next nine months.

As I'm sure that many of you who will read this know, I will be spending nine months in India on a Fulbright Scholarship. The goal of the Fulbright is to increase mutual understanding between the peoples of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge and skills. And they go about doing this by sending American students and Professors all over the world to conduct research, to teach, and to experience the lifestyles and cultures of places near and far. The purpose of my nine months in India has several facets, but there are three that I hope to concentrate on. The first is the reason why I received this conduct research on tuberculosis at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. CMC is one of the premiere hospitals and medical schools in all of India and I am privileged to work and live here. Interacting with the physicians and students here and experiencing first-hand how a non-American medical system functions is going to be an incredible experience.

Secondly, I want to truly experience the Indian way of life. My hope is that I will be able to break away from my comfort zone and enmesh myself in Indian culture. I know that I will never be able to completely fit in, as I am separated by barriers of appearance and language and background, but I don't want to be a stereotypical tourist either. I think that I will gain the most benefit from simply living here, without restrictions and without judgement. Although I have already found this a challenging task in many ways, in three short weeks I have already reaped the benefits of this policy as well. And I still have a long way to go before I am able to be completely accepting and to fully let go of my fears and doubts.

Finally, I hope to travel... And I have already leapt into working on this goal! Vellore is an incredible city to be in because it is truly Indian. Apart from a few other international students at CMC, there are no foreigners in Vellore. It is not a commonly traveled stop for tourists (it isn't even listed in the Rough Guide to India) and so life here is still very Indian. For example, there is not even one Western restaurant to be least not one that I've spotted. I suppose there could be some hiding somewhere. I'll have to keep exploring. But because Vellore is so small, it also presents only one small piece of the whole huge, complex, and intricate puzzle that is India. Over the course of the next nine months, I want to push myself to visit and witness as many pieces of India as I possibly can.

Since I am so late in getting this blog set up, I have three weeks of information to share with all of you! Over the next few days, I am going to post some emails and journal entries detailing my experiences thus far and try to get caught up. I'll also try to put up a post with more details about CMC, Vellore, my research, what daily life in Vellore is like, and some of the every day things about Indian life that have really struck a chord with me.

This is the furthest away that I have ever been from my family and it is the biggest adventure that I have ever undertaken. I am often filled with fear of the unknown and sometimes think about how easy it would be to just give in and come home to where I know that I am safe and loved and where I fit in. I don't think I thought about what it would be like to live in a place where when you walk down the street everyone knows that you don't truly belong. It is something of a hard transition, but despite that I am already falling in love with India. But as I make this transition, I would love to hear from all of my friends and family back home! Keep me updated about your lives and adventures as I tell you all about mine! You are all always in my thoughts...

I think I'll end this first post with a quote that I wear around my wrist and that came from the man recognized by most as the founder of India, Mahatma Gandhi:

"Be the change you wish to see in the world."

With this journey I am trying to be and do, rather than simply watch. I hope that in some small way I can live up to these famous words.