Friday, September 25, 2009

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…


1 comment:

  1. Beautiful Sarah, thanks for sharing your thoughts. It is great reading, our conversations by e-mail and brief phone are different! I love you, be safe, enjoy your hard earned adventure!