Thursday, August 29, 2013

Anaikatti Ashram and More

After all of the aforementioned travel, I settled down for the next three weeks at the ashram in Anaikatti, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. It was here where I conducted the majority of my research in India. I arrived during the final months of a three year course in Vedanta and Sanskrit which was being delivered by Swami Dayananda Saraswati to hundreds of students from all over the world. It turned out to be the perfect place for my topic of study, in fact far better than I could have ever hoped for. 

With a better understanding of Vedanta under my belt I was able to interview several people at the Ashram, most of whom had an extensive scientific background as well as an appreciable understanding of Vedanta. In general, questions pertained to the varying perspectives on the nature of thoughts and human consciousness in the Vedic and scientific contexts. In addition to receiving valuable insights on this topic, I was able to compile a fairly comprehensive database of additional resources. When not conducting interviews, much of my time was spent gathering, organizing and reviewing said resources, all the while strengthening my understanding of Vedanta in both my everyday conversation and in studies of the Tattva Bodha (which defines much of the Sanskrit terminology while explaining the underpinnings of Vedanta). 

My time at the ashram was loaded with several other unique experiences. On 22 July the Ashram celebrated Guru Purnima, a day in which the gurus of India are honored. Many of the evening Satsangs featured traditional Indian musical performances.  I went on several walks and hikes around Anaikatti and other neighboring villages, through the mountains and local farms, and to local places of interest such as hole-in-the-wall dosa restaurants, an Ayurvedic hospital and a private children’s school, Vidya Vanam School, which recently hosted a TedX event. It was especially interesting to see a successful rural education program in action. We were treated with some special dance performances by the students who were practicing for the upcoming Indian Independence Day on 15 August.  

Although this area is well known for its elephant population, I didn’t get to see any in person, but I did see peacocks, lizards, goats, wild pigs, cows, and several other wildlife species on a daily basis roaming freely through the tranquil ashram environment.

My last 10 days in India were split between further segments of research and some tourism. I spent 4 days with a friend in Chennai whom I had met in Saylorsburg. We traveled down India’s east coast to visit the ancient rock carvings at Mahabalipuram, which were of an impressive scale. We also visited the towns of Pondicherry and Auroville. In Chennai, I was able to do some shopping in town and see the Government Museum of Chennai. I visited the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis where my host was doing an internship, and was able to speak with some geneticists and other doctors there for my project.

I then spent another 4 days on the other side of India in Mumbai, where I was invited to stay by one of the students from the Vedanta course. I attended a historical talk on India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, did some more shopping and local sightseeing, did some picking at Chor Bazaar (a.k.a. Thieves’ Market), saw some of Mumbai’s clubs, and on India’s Independence Day, 15 August,  I attended a traditional Indian music concert with Mala Ramadorai and Rahul Sharma. My host arranged for me to meet several interesting people to further investigate the nature of the subtle and causal body, including a pranic healer, a yoga guru, a doctor with an aura scanning device, and a channel. I learned a lot of interesting information from them and have more follow up research to do here as well.

My final day in India was spent in Agra, on 18 August. I wanted to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort before leaving this beautiful country, and I’m glad I did, although I got sick from the food there. I’ve been traveling around Europe since then, but due to the sickness have been unable to post till now.  I already miss India and I’m definitely making a return trip one day. Although I was often busied by my research efforts, this led me down some interesting roads and I don’t think any future trips could ever compete with this initial experience. Again one final thank you to everyone who made this experience what it was. I’ve barely put a dent in the amount of research that will be required over the next several years, but the most important goals of the trip were accomplished; there is now a strong foundation to work from, and a vast network of resources at my disposal.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Final Post!

I cannot believe how fast this trip went. Although I am excited to see my family and friends again, I feel like I established a tiny part of my life here. I love living and working with my host family everyday, I love eating the food, I love being surrounded by constant closeness. 

This is a trip I will always remember. I hope to comeback soon, especially to see my host family and the new additions to their nursing school. I am very proud of everything my host family has done, and I can only thank them for being such an inspiration to me. 

So to wrap it up, these are some fun memories and lessons I learned in India:

1. India has no concept of spacial awareness. When in line, people get close and comfortable with you. You don't have to talk, you just silently cuddle up next to them while standing. It's socially acceptable.

2. It is also socially acceptable for men to pee on the side of the road at any time of day. 

3. Greet EVERYONE with a hug. They are either your aunt, uncle, sister, or brother.

4. You will never go hungry. Wherever you go, there will always be food. Great food, and plenty of it. Also, expect to have chai to top off any one of your meals. 

5. Eating out is a new concept in India. At the bookstore I was looking for an authentic Indian cookbook, but I food more books on microwave Indian recipes. Home cooking is the best cooking.

6. I’ve heard that I look like an Australian, Lady Gaga, or Barbie. Not sure how I feel about that one yet.

7. Do not eat paneer that is a couple days old. Just don’t do it.

8. The entire class of second year nursing students asked me to sing in front of them. For all those who know me well, it is common knowledge that my voice needs a heavy dose of auto-tuning. For lack of a better phrase – I thought I was going to pee myself when they asked. I felt that I couldn’t say no because it was my last day there. So I swallowed my pride and sung.  

9. One day the driver came to pick me up to take me to a NGO. I was all by myself since my family had gone to work at the nursing school. I see my driver holding a helmet, and walking towards a motorcycle. I immediately start shouting, “NO, NO, NO!” Turns out he just needed to go park his motorcycle so he could pull the car out. Darn language barriers!

10. Meditation is awesome. We visited the Om Shanti Retreat Center and learned about the importance of meditation. We spent about two minutes meditating and I already felt the benefits of just being silent and relaxing.

Big thanks to the Singh family, for being such inspiring people. I am so grateful for all that I have learned and all the fun times we have had. I miss you all so much already!

Another big thanks to Leslie Davis, for introducing me to the Singh family and helping me out during this entire year-long process!

Final thank you to the anonymous donor who funded this trip. Whoever you are, you changed my life. 

For all those back home, I made it safely back to the US, and I am going to start school again in a couple of weeks. Thank you so much for keeping up with me and my Indian adventures!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Week of Changing Perspectives

I cannot believe how fast time has gone by here. It just seems like a week ago I was sitting in my room, nervously trying to figure out what to pack for this trip. But here I am, about four weeks later, attempting to end my last week here as graceful as possible. Just a head's up, this post is a little mash of everything that has been going on in this past week.

"It's all the same. Everywhere you go, it is going to be the same. People die in America too. People live in poverty there too" says head nurse, Hanife, volunteering at CanSupport in her retirement years. CanSupport is an NGO dedicated to palliative home care for patients living with cancer. During my time here, I visited about four patients a day with a doctor and nurses. Most of the families felt more comfortable speaking in Hindi, so I did not hear any of the conversations firsthand. However, this NGO really taught me about patient-physician interaction. There has to be some sort of mutual trust and respect, especially in palliative care.

It was really cool for me to see different Indian homes. One patient even lived in a slum, so we were able to go walk around there and see how the family lived. I am not going to lie, my first day at CanSupport was an emotionally rough day for me. I almost did not want to go back the second day but I needed a second look at what the NGO is all about. I am really happy I did.

We had some ice cream after my first day. I found it amusing that we did not even have to look out the car window to see the menu. The ice cream man brought it all right to us!

That weekend I was able to experience the village life. My host family took me to go to their village, where I rode a camel, held a baby goat, was driven around by a bull, and hung out with cows! I loved every minute of it!

Once we had to get back to work at the college, I ventured to my final visit. The small, rural community of Narela is similar to how sixty perfect of India lives. The main areas of focus within these communities is educating the members, and making them aware of the free health programs the government has to offer. Through this visit, I feel like I finally started to grasp what it is like be a nurse in India. Patient education and motivation is key. 

Finally taught the "Welcome to Nursing" lecture, hopefully I can get some pictures up soon. Tomorrow I am teaching a class to almost everyone in the college, on how to do a full head to toe exam in a systematic order. I spent the day prepping, so I am very excited for tomorrow!

Happy 66th year of independence to India today! 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Wealth of Knowledge

It's been a week since I came to the field station in Masinagudi near to the Mudumalai Wildlife Santuary, and the environment is captivating. Time has flown by so quickly since I've been in India, here especially, and I wish I could triple my stay. 

I've been conducting my survey over a wide demographic, getting varying perspective on human elephant conflict and interactions in the area and the cultural significance that the animal has to the people living alongside them. This has proven to be a little difficult at times due to transportation availability and more importantly translation. I've realized that the logistics of what I intended to do we're oversimplified in my mind,  and actually carrying things out here factors in so many components. Nevertheless, I've still managed to gather a great amount of knowledge on the history of elephant conflict in the area and personal interactions with elephants. 

Much of my information has come from the trackers who accompany field researchers into the forest. These trackers are tribals, and so have a lifetime of interaction with the wildlife.  They understand the behavior and movement of wild animals, which is essential for observing elephants in the forest and preventing conflict in their habitat during research. This translates into their understanding of human elephant conflict in the area, which is a result of the loss of boundaries between forest and settlement. Although older tribals understand why elephants come into conflict with villagers, they don't always take proper measures to prevent raiding and maintain solar fences and trenches put in to deter elephants. Therefore, one of the most important things that can be done is educating the younger generation on how to better conflict areas, and how important  it is to have an ecological understanding of the space elephants need.   

Elephants are so intrinsic to the culture of india as a whole, especially in these small forest villages. When I ask about the significance elephants have to many of the tribals and mahouts, they speak of the animals with respect and fondness. It's quite interesting to hear this perspective when others find the animals such a nuisance and wish to keep them as far away as possible. Observing elephants is captivating. Their movements are so fascinating and they show such human like personalities. They appear so docile and friendly which makes it hard not to love them.  But like all people, they can be unpredictable and have naughty tendencies, and this is when conflict occurs. 

The more I speak with people here and hear their stories, the more questions I have. i want to learn so much more  about these people's lives alongside elephants, and I'm so sad my time is nearing its end.  Everyone at the field station and the locals who have invited me into their homes for tea have shown such warmth and hospitality. They've made my stay more than memorable, and have sparked my desire to return. My last week and a half will be bittersweet, but I can only dwell on the fact that every moment of my stay has been an unforgettable experience that I can carry back to the States and hold onto forever.  

Mudumalai is the 51 year old tusker whose mahout I interviewed at the Thepakadu Elephant Camp 

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Gods and Hospitals

Today I visited a small, privately funded, Christian hospital, named Shalom Delhi. It is one of two care homes in Delhi, but the only one to have three doctors (the other home has only one doctor). Last June, the government stopped funding care homes for HIV patients, thus leaving the two. Shalom Delhi, although a small hospital, contains an outpatient clinic, as well as a pharmacy. It is maintained by a larger health organization called Emmanuel Hospital Association (EHA). The EHA is the largest NGO in India, containing 2,500 employees, and running since 2001.

Here’s a timeline of the EHA’s work:

Phase 1: Established medical services, and primary and secondary home-based care. Primary care is defined by patients who are unable to go to work or school based on their illness, while secondary care is defined as patients who are able to do some/little work or education. Part of this phase includes giving food hampers out on the first Saturday of each month. When I asked why not food stamps – the doctor responded that the patients would not go out to buy groceries on their own, it is more effective to just give them food.

Phase 2: Focused on income generation for women. Unfortunately this sector had to be shutdown due to lack of staff, and the program ended up sending women in the program to jobs elsewhere. Another section of this phase took children infected and affected (meaning that parents are infected) by HIV/AIDS. During this program, they are taught about gender, sex, and HIV/AIDS.

Phase 3: Focused on urban health and community transformation. The EHA adopted a slum and worked on making it more of a stable community through education, youth programs, and government help. This program ended up being a larger focus on the education of the transgender community. They also established a palliative care program, which is now coordinated by a trained head nurse.

Phase 4: This phase is location specific. In Shalom Delhi’s case, they must focus on educating the community of Delhi on HIV/AIDS. Haryana (a nearby state) currently has a large population of infected patients; therefore they created a care center to help out.

I started off my day here joining in on the staff’s daily devotional. Busting out the lungs of a nurse comes a song of Christian prayer. Soon enough, the rest of the staff joins in, and the small service has begun. At first, the whole work setting combined with a religious song singing came out of left field – I did not understand exactly how religious the entire staff is. I am Catholic, but only during Mass and retreats have I ever heard anyone sing like that. After the song, everyone opens up the hospital-provided Bibles to the Philippians, and one of the doctors begins a lesson on discernment. She spoke about how she prays to not only being a loving human, but also a discerning one – one that is open towards God’s future path.

I was later lucky enough to talk to this doctor for a while. (This is where it gets personal, and as uncomfortable as I am posting about God on the internet, I feel that this is a necessary part of my story here.) She brought up how from her strong, Christian background, she does not understand the mentality behind being a transgender. God made each one of us perfectly, why be unhappy with that? But then she went on to ask, “Who are we to judge?”. Overall, I find it unfair that this community is so marginalized and oppressed, partially due to biology and partially the larger society’s mindset. I later remember a conversation I had with Jayaa last week. She argued that God makes all systems perfect, yet unequal - slums, storms, and everything. The will to let go, care unconditionally, and have faith are much more difficult once one sees an unfair system. Needless to say, this month has been by far more of a spiritual experience than I have ever expected.

I am also finding the transgender community very interesting. I think I have too much to process before I can write about it, though, so it will have to be saved for a later post.

Back to healthcare, this is the most organized hospital I have been to. They actually take time to document the patient’s health care status in a formal system. Shalom Delhi does not turn down any patients regardless of space or financial status. The poverty line in India lies on 28 rupees per day - that is about 60 cents for us. Therefore, cost is no trouble at all. Sometimes people come in depressed, and need a place to stay away from their families, so the hospital takes them in. The staff of Shalom Delhi does not wear uniforms, in order to eliminate white coat syndrome. They truly believe in supporting their patients spiritually here, noticing that it does make a difference for their patients.

The eight patients I saw today were all HIV positive, and ranged everywhere from children to grandmothers, straight men to transgender.  One nurse managed all of these patients in one large room. This is considerably a much better nurse-to-patient ratio in comparison to what I have seen in previous hospitals.

I cannot believe how fast time is flying by. I could easily spend a year here, trying to absorb everything. So far every hospital I have visited has been vastly different from the previous, all working towards the same goal. One thing I can for sure say, is that even though India has its problems, it sure does try for the well-being of all its people.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Comparison of Hospitals, The Catch 22

Today Shreshtha and I went to Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital. Shreshtha went to the nursing school that is attached to the hospital, thus I received an insider experience today. The Government of India (Ministry of Health Family Welfare) funds this hospital, meaning that all hospital visits, medications, outpatient care, and surgeries are free (similar to the BSA hospital I visited last week). Unlike the BSA hospital, however, this hospital is very similar the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer and Research Hospital. It was very easy to tell that the Government of India had placed much more money into making this hospital, while the state government of Delhi funds the BSA Hospital.

The RML is a much nicer hospital. They have private rooms, a garden, and a very large facility in total. The hospitals I have seen so far do not have waiting rooms for their patient’s families, but the RML has large enough spaces outside that seem to accommodate their needs. It is in a beautiful neighborhood, the center of Delhi. I would say that the biggest challenge with this hospital is that they do turn down patients, in order to avoid crowding in the hospital. If I were a patient or a faculty member in the hospital, I would be very happy that they have turn down patients, so that I would receive more attention and thus better care. On the opposite end, I would hate that system if I needed care and was turned away.

The BSA hospital does not turn anyone away, however, as stated in a previous blog posting, the standard of care is reduced. Despite the efforts to make the quality of care equivalent, the understaffed faculty physically cannot take on the load of patients that they do and not reduce the standard of care. It is a matter of overpopulation. On top of this, though, I feel that there are many factors that contribute to why the RML is nicer than the BSA hospital. The Government of India could have done a better job with its budgeting in comparison to the State Government of Delhi. Another factor that may come into play is that with nicer/wealthier areas come less communicable diseases. Also, the RML hospital is a newer hospital.

In terms of HIV/AIDS, the anti-retroviral therapy (ART) center was under construction, therefore I did not fully experience the workings of that center. The RML hospital has the same systems from what I have seen before – starting with counselors that guide the patients, determine their needs, and track their medications, ending with doctors providing even more medical therapy. However, one difference I did learn today, is the fact that they save these counselor positions for someone who is HIV positive. Looking more into it, it must be very difficult for someone with HIV/AIDS to get a job in India. If they receive their medications from the government, it must be very difficult to come in everyday and receive medications and maintain a job. From the patient’s perspective, going into a hospital can be quite scary. It may ease the tension if the first person they must talk to is someone who understands first hand what that patient is going through.

Our time at the hospital ended with visiting Shreshtha’s old nursing school. Also funded by the Government of India, it is a beautiful facility that accepts top students. In comparison, the Salokaya College of Nursing has a very different range of students. Salokaya takes students that would not normally go off to receive a higher education, works them very hard, and makes them top nurses.  Anyways, it was fun hearing about Shreshtha’s experiences in school and made us leave RML on a high note.

I am off to go teach a class to the new students at Salokaya now, hopefully I will be able to post the video on the blog! 

Friday, August 2, 2013

Lady Gaga Came Here Too

I have happily spent these past three days with the Naz Foundation. Started by Anjali Gopalan in 1994, the foundation was the first to work on the issue of HIV and AIDS. Naz focuses on spreading awareness, while providing support to those in need. They are very strict about patient confidentiality, and extremely creative when it comes to teaching and confidence boosting. The actual location of Naz is a large house in a residential area, that homes HIV-positive orphans. At the home, they provide schooling, counseling, and medical support. 

I was lucky enough to come in the first day and teach a class on food, nutrition, and exercise. I thought this topic would be important since HIV/AIDS patients are immunosuppressed, and that diet and exercise can both be in the control of the patient. The older kids already knew a lot about nutrition, so my lesson was fairly quick. After, I taught them how to play "Down By the Banks", which ended up being more useful for them in terms of entertainment. 

I really enjoyed spending time with the kids and the staff at Naz. The kids were so full of life, it made me remember what it was like to be their age again. They were all so curious and so welcoming towards me. As for the staff, they did an excellent job being supportive and protective towards the children. I would love to go back there to volunteer in the future. 

Naz does not only have the home, but also has a variety of programs to support the HIV/AIDS community. They have a home-based care program, where someone from the staff would check in on families who have a child with HIV. Naz also travels to schools and other NGO's to provide teaching and counseling on sexuality and HIV.  I was able to jump in on their "Goal" program yesterday - a program dedicated to build confidence for adolescents going through puberty (main focus on girls). I learned that there is a high rate of primary school dropouts, mostly among girls. What I have heard (and what I have researched), is that when girls reach the age of puberty, they feel uncomfortable going to school because they do not understand what is going on with their bodies. The old-school Indian style toilet does not help much either. The "Goal" program raises these issues, and creates a safe space for boys and girls to learn that these changes are normal. 

Naz also tries to empower the gay community. Section 377 in the Indian Penal Code bans homosexuality as a whole. In 2009, Anjali Gopalan fought against it and one. However, the main problem still lies within the community of India - many people still see homosexuality as "bad", making it difficult for the gay community to land a steady job, and therefore resort to sex working. Physiologically, gays are more susceptible for HIV/AIDS during unprotected sex; then on top of that becoming a sex worker would almost guarantee to become infected by the virus. To fight this, Naz offers counseling. 

The staff that I spent time with truly taught me how to work from a place of joy. There is a vast array of people in need, and positivity is the first step that brings these neglected communities power. Naz provides hope in an area that not too long ago seemed hopeless. Many people understand the importance of education, however these past few days I have experienced the power of feeling safe. Once we feel safe, we are less resistant to sticking to our old ways, and can move forward to learn something new. The Naz Foundation fosters this perfectly. 

This is a picture of students from the Goal program playing a game called netball, a no-contact sport that is fairly similar to basketball. Boys are girls are encouraged to play together to inspire confidence.

PS- The kids who live at Naz told me that Lady Gaga came here, sang them "Born This Way", and gave them a TV. She was not wearing a meat dress this time. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Paradise Found in a Torrential Downpour

This afternoon I finally reached the first CES field station at Mudumalai in Tamil Nadu, and I never want to leave! Being in the city's and on campus at the university was definitely a valuable experience and a true exposure to the real hustle and bustle of India, but as soon as I stepped off the bus here I wanted to cry. It is so peaceful and beautiful and refreshing. Just being in the mountains is so exhilarating, and I fully understand how this natural beauty inspires the passion in ecologists to carry out their work. 

From the bus station,  the road to the village and station cuts through the national forest, where you have every chance of seeing a tiger or panther crossing the road. The elephant camp where I will be interviewing the mahouts (elephant caretakers) is also located just down the road. Three of the amazing animals ere carrying bundles of branches along the side of the road as we drove past, and it was a sight that just made me smile. Elephants are such fascinating creatures from their anatomy to their behavior, and its so sad to think that so many are killed yearly for their tusks and because of human conflict. I have been reading many articles concerning human-elephant conflict due to crop raiding and habitat fragmentation via the construction of roads and dams, logging, etc. Both sides of the story are important to understand since many human lives and livelihoods are taken as well as the lives of wild elephants. 

    The view from my cottage room of the Niligiri mountain range. This means Blue Mountains, and they are called so because of the rock found within them that appears blue and the blue flowers that bloom every 7-12 years.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Another Week in the Garden City

At first time seemed to be moving so slowly here, but everyday it goes by faster and faster and somehow just over two weeks of my five week journey have whiz zed  past. My second week in Bangalore was again spent in the lab, this time extracting DNA from dung samples collected in the field. This sounds like a simple process, just picking through some poo and placing it in vials. However, it's a very tedious and expensive process that takes almost an entire day of work! In addition to purifying DNA to be used in later analysis, I also helped Dr. sukumar's lab begin compiling a database of the flora found inn the Kodagu district where many of his students do their elephant research. The project is long term, it's intention being to better understand what plants elephants eat specifically. Chloroplast DNA sequences for hundreds of plants must be catalogue s to compare against sequences found in collected dung. Before coming here, I never could have imagined how much time and work goes into providing data on something that seems so simple as an elephants diet. A fact  you would read on Wikipedia and think 'hmm, that's interesting' and read on without honking further of how that statistic was researched and proven, not thinking about the months spent tracking and collecting and analyzing by ecologists. I've truly realized how unaware I and so many others are of the environment that is all around us' and the passion and effort that ecologists put forth in studying such particular yet vast aspects of wildlife. 

My appreciation  and admiration for the CES faculty and students grew even more when they held a farewell celebration for one of the women who founded the department nearly 30 years ago. Even though I have only met these people in the past week, I couldn't help but get choked up as they shared stories of the years passed together and the birth and growth of CES' amazing research community. I am so lucky to have been able to  work  and speak with so many intelligent and driven individuals who so passionately pursue their ecological work. 

After a long week in lab, the weekend was again spent strolling through Bangalore, visiting beautiful temples, markets and land marks. Even though the city is noisy, crowded, dusty and chaotic, there are so many little parks and gardens and temples where peace and quiet can be found and savored. Some of my new friends at IISc treated me to a traditional North Karnataka meal, eaten off a banana leaf with endless refills on any dish. It was so delicious, and I've become an expert at scooping up rice in my hands. Not being able to dig into every mescal only using my hands and bread to eat will be quite an adjustment when I return to the states! 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Yesterday was tough, Today was better

Yesterday I went a government-funded hospital for the first time. After seeing how loud, dirty, and crowded it was, I came back to the nursing school feeling like I needed to lock myself in somewhere and cry. I couldn’t articulate the huge wave of emotions I felt, but luckily I had some time to sit and think about it.

What I felt was guilt. I wish that all of these people could receive the same hospital experience I would if I were sick. Going further into that, I cannot understand why I am the one on this end of the spectrum - healthy, educated, financially stable – while others live on the complete opposite of the spectrum. I did not choose the family I was born into, nor did I choose to be without congenital diseases. There are so many factors that interfere with our lives before we have the privilege of making a choice.

I believe that the United States does its best to eliminate these pre-determined factors (though I do acknowledge we have flaws). Our President is our finest example. However, with India’s system, those who are born at the bottom stay at the bottom. Thus, my guilt comes into play. I was lucky enough to be born in a land of opportunity and high expectations.

I could go on and on about the shocking sights and sounds of the hospital, but I do not believe that is fair. Going back today proved to me even more that even though this hospital is dirty, it is a step in the right direction. It manifests a system that even the United States (a first world country, I might add) does not have – free health care. In India, the poorest of the poor are given some safety net by being able to walk into a hospital if they are sick.

As I look back on it, the hospital system is extremely well-organized, and strives for similar standards of care that the US requires. This hospital is not perfect, but for being a free health care facility, it comes fairly close. Another problem I had at first was the lack of privacy from having so many patients in one room. However, the people of India are very family-based and do not feel the same lack of privacy as Americans would feel. The hospital staff does reinforce patient confidentiality, but all in all crowded is normal for them. Again, I am lucky enough to grow up with different expectations (private or two-person hospital rooms, clean floors, quiet surroundings).

What I really liked about the hospital, was that it was separated into male and female wards. Female wards are not allowed to have male attendings during the night shift. Most hospitals in India are like this. I think this is a really interesting idea in terms of patient comfort. It is an idea I have never even considered.

In terms of HIV/AIDS management, the hospital goes out of its way to ensure that the virus does not spread more than it has to. They treat their waste in a similar fashion to US hospitals, and have specific protocols for accidental needle stick injuries. The hospital also has two centers for HIV/AIDS patients, a unit for medications/patient information/counseling and a clinic. All paperwork is done by hand, and is systematically organized in a way that works for them.

In the end, government hospitals are a beautiful thing. They provide help to those who would not normally be able to receive it, and open up jobs for many educated people. What I am experiencing now is largely a cultural gap, but I hope with more experiences like these, I can understand Indian life much better. 

Saturday, July 27, 2013

First Hospital Visit!

Today I visited my first hospital in India, the Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute and Research Center (RGCI & RC). This is solely a hospital dedicated to the treatment or prevention of cancer.  Although I originally came here with a focus on HIV/AIDS, Jayaa believes that it is important that I see this hospital.

One of the teachers from the Salokaya College accompanied me on this trip. She introduced me to many nurses that work in the hospital, and explained to me what a hospital experience here is like. Throughout the day she and the other hospital staff members emphasized the importance of preventative measures, or prophylactic treatment. For example, oral cancer is extremely common among both men and women. This is usually from chewing tobacco. Patients do not usually go to the doctor immediately after experiencing symptoms, therefore in this example, patients come in to the hospital once their oral ulcers have become cancerous. Unfortunately, women have a tendency to be more a culprit of disregarding prophylactic treatment. I learned that women discount their own health, until it is usually too late. Women either do not know about or opt out of receiving the HPV vaccine, making cervical cancer a popular problem among women in India.

First off, RGCI & RC is one of the top hospitals in Delhi. In addition, it is a privately funded hospital, rather than government-funded. This detail is key, due to the fact that today I learned that privately funded hospital require out-of-pocket expenses (insurance companies can reimburse the patient after the payment, however). Government hospitals are free to the public. The hospital I visited today was fairly similar to an American hospital – it is highly focused on patient-centered care. I would say that the largest difference between an American hospital and the RGCI & RI is that the latter is far more crowded. I felt like there were so many people around at all times, coming in and out of small rooms and doctors offices’.

Within a population of one billion, India cannot afford to have so many patients in the hospital with diseases that could be prevented. Like the United States, two major lifestyle diseases are hypertension and diabetes mellitus (both diseases that can lead to cancer or other complications). The RCGI & RC has a unit in the hospital that checks for an early detection of cancer. It costs them only 200 rupees (approximately four dollars) for a check up, complete blood count, and specific exams for each gender. Nursing students are also a great resource for spreading awareness. Nursing students go back home to their families, and teach them about what they are learning. They can make conscious decisions for their families in terms of what they eat, and how to take care of family members and friends when they are sick.

I came back from the hospital with so much on my mind. I feel that a great portion of India holds the necessary research for a healthier population, however implementing these research ideas proves to be a problem, due to unwillingness or lack of education.  I talked to Jayaa about this, and for her, none of it is a simple or lone issue. On a more positive note, though, she said small advancements do make a large difference. After seeing what this nursing school has achieved, I fully agree.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Kuznia Family's First Adventure Abroad

We came out of the airport in Delhi and immediately felt the air, feeling like a creamy tomato soup wrapped around every crevice of our American bodies. We met up with Jayaa's driver and headed towards our first night in the hotel. Driving in India is an experience within itself. We quickly realized that all the detail that goes into making a road is immediately disregarded as decoration. On top of this, India does a wonderful job coexisting with camels, elephants, dogs, and monkeys on the streets. My family and I feel extremely grateful to have a driver during our stay that is able to artistically maneuver through the chaos of the roads.

Our tour was a six day trip around Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Mandawa. Each day was absolutely incredible, and I am so grateful that my family decided to make this trip out here before I begin working with the Salokaya College of Nursing. Here are some highlights of the tour:

DELHI - We weren't expecting to make such a purchase, but after learning about how families in Kashmir spend their entire lives devoted to hand-knotting rugs, we couldn't resist. We learned about the different kinds of tools they use, and how they learn to make the design so intricate. They also gave us special green tea from Kashmir.

AGRA - The Taj Mahal is the greatest love story there is. This was probably my favorite sight to see in India. Although most may know the story of the Taj Mahal, I needed a little refresher. The Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan (a Mughal emperor) for the love of his life that he met at age 14. He already had another arranged marriage, and therefore could not marry his love, Mumtaz Mahal. However, his first wife died after their marriage of one year, leaving him the opportunity to remarry Mumtaz Mahal. Together, they had (I believe) four sons and two daughters. Later she became ill, and on her deathbed Shah Jahan promised to build her something magnificent to show their love for each other. Twenty two years after she passed, the Taj Mahal stands. She is buried right in the center. Within those twenty two years, there was a race between the sons on who will be the successor. One of the sons killed all his brothers, and locked his father away. When Shah Jahan died, his daughter snuck him out of the prison, and buried him right next to his wife.

From this story, a masterpiece arrived. The Taj Mahal is a beautiful combination of Hindu and Muslim architecture. From the Muslim side, everything in there is symmetrical, except for Shah Jahan's grave. The Hindu architecture decorated the Taj with tiny flower inlets, all made by hand. I am blown away by how much work went into making this. Every detail is absolutely perfect.

One thing I want to mention with Agra, is how poor the city is around the Taj Mahal. So much money comes into the city from all the tourists, but outside of our hotel and the Taj itself, is basically a slum. I do not understand why this is, but when I pictured Agra and the Taj Mahal, I thought the whole city would be as grand as one of the seven wonders of the world. Keep in mind also that I am here during the tourist off season, and that even though it was pouring rain, the attraction was still packed.

JAIPUR - Jaipur is packed with energy. Unlike Agra, it is a planned city. My family and I agreed that Jaipur is our favorite city. We had an awesome tour guide that day named Vijay Singh (no relation to Jayaa, or the golfer). Our day spent in Jaipur was packed, but the best part was with the elephants. we started off the day riding an elephant up the to Amber, just as the queen did back in the day!Lucky for us, Vijay has a friend who owns ten elephants and took us to go play with baby elephant, Gury, after. What a gentle giant she is!

The end of the day consisted of walking around through the city. Vijay wanted us to get a feel for what walking around the city was like, outside the tour bus. He wanted us to smell the Indian spices and flowers being sold on the side of the road. It was a beautiful experience, walking around with all the locals. Although we did stick out, it was really cool to feel like one of them. (For the record, my dad, pictured below, was proudly wearing his Michigan cap the entire elephant ride)

Vijay also taught us about the caste system in India. My understanding of it, is that there are three castes on top - the teachers/priests, the warriors, and the businessmen. The fourth class is below the three, called the "untouchables", or the servant caste. One is only allowed to marry within each caste, even though the top three are equals. Vijay also told us that not too long ago, only eleven percent of women are educated (as in reading and writing). Now, sixty-four percent of women are educated. According to Vijay, he believes that India learned how much more valuable it is to have women educated in terms of arranged marriage. An educated woman is far more attractive within a household rather than an uneducated one.

MANDAWA - This was the last stop of our tour. It was really interesting to see the rural parts of India, mostly because the city is fairly Americanized. Where we were, we saw more people taking a more traditional route, rather than using any sort of technology. Driving by the fields, we saw women digging with their hands and carrying bricks on their head. It was a whole new way of life.

Today is my family's last day in India. Last night I met Jayaa and her family for the first time. The Singh Family is very warm and hospitable, and got along very well with my family. Starting tonight I will live with them, and tomorrow morning we will venture to the Salokaya College of Nursing. Jayaa explained to me that while I will be here I will be visiting different NGO's and hospitals that focus on HIV/AIDS research and reporting back to the school. As sad as I am to leave my family, I am so excited to live with the Singhs and to start an adventure on my own.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

First 2 Weeks in Tamil Nadu, India

Flooded Street in New Delhi

How to sum up everything I have done in the past two weeks? Has it really been that long? How time flies. I’ve never flown before, nor have I really left the Midwestern United States, so flying to India by myself was an adventure all its own. My first day in India, spent in New Delhi, was anything but pleasant thanks to the terrible airport services and staff. Fortunately, I made some friends during my 17 hour layover, so I had the opportunity to walk around Delhi and learn some conversational Hindi. Some of the streets were flooded due to heavy rains, and some small children tried robbing me. It was adorable!

One flight with a brief layover in Mumbai later and I was in Coimbatore, about an hour away from the ashram in Anaikatti where I am primarily residing. My driver was there waiting for me to take me on the four hour journey to the small (not even on Google maps) rural village of Mangala Puram, on the outskirts of Mangalamkombu Village in Tamil Nadu, where I would spend the next 10 days learning Taittiriya Upanishad Chapter II and Bhagavad Gita Chapter IX. I am grateful for this journey, as it allowed me to see parts of southern India I may otherwise have missed, although I was so exhausted from my flights that I ended up sleeping through the latter half of the drive. 
Tranquil Nests: My Daily View

I should probably mention for the record that this class was an optional expense paid for with my own money; fellowship funds were not used. I felt it was important to experience a traditional style of Vedic teaching, opposed to just relying on my own self study, before beginning my formal research. I am so glad that I opted to do this, as the teacher taught with great clarity and I learned and experienced far more than I had bargained for. 

Tranquil Nests: Dining Area at Night
The classes were initially to be held at the ashram in Anaikatti, but due to limited space, they were relocated one week before my departure to a beautiful inn called Tranquil Nests, tucked away in the mountains of Palani Hills on a small coffee plantation. No internet or cell phone connectivity made it difficult to keep in touch with family back home, but at the same time provided the perfect atmosphere for study and focus. The view of the misty mountains, the abundant variety of insects, animals, fruit trees and plant life, and the sounds of the jungle and the nearby village made this place the closest thing to “paradise” I have ever seen.
Tranquil Nests: Activity Area

The class size was small (about a dozen students) and I will never forget the people I met there. Each person brought an invaluable contribution to the group dynamic. I was sick and jetlagged my first few days, but everyone was extremely helpful and understanding during this time, even interrupting scheduled classes to make a visit to the local pharmacy with me, where we got to see Mangala Puram’s colorful atmosphere and visit a small roadside temple for prayer. 

Mangala Puram: Anti-Plastic Demonstration by Local School Children
Our days were divided between 3 delicious vegetarian meals, yoga, meditation, pranayama, tai chi, tea time, nature hikes, and of course, 2 intense lectures on Taittiriya, 1 on Bhagavad Gita, and a nightly satsang (a Q&A session). I was also given the opportunity to write and deliver 4 brief lectures during this time – one on special relativity, two on quantum mechanics, and a fourth describing how I plan to incorporate Vedanta into my research in the sciences, as well as discussions on various topics related to the relationship between these ideas. Each lecture was permeated and followed by Q&A. With no internet connection or other resources at my disposal, this was a good opportunity for me to discover how much I really know, and to practice lecturing/teaching/public speaking. 

View from the Bus en Route to Kodaikanal
View from Coaker's Villa
We took one day off from our usual schedule on 15-JUL-13 to visit Kodaikanal and a nearby temple in Poombarai. We traveled by bus through the mountains, seeing spectacular views along the way. One of our students made special arrangements for us to be guests of honor at Coaker’s Villa in Kodaikanal for the day, and I saw firsthand the immense difference between American and Indian hospitality. We were greeted with fresh flower malas, tea, and a drum and dance performance. A five-star chef prepared a custom-made meal of our favorite dishes (even some Italian food!) for us to enjoy on the edge of a cliff overlooking the scenic mountains and valley all around.

Poombarai, Tamil Nadu, India
As if this surprise weren’t enough, another of our students made special arrangements for us to visit the Kuzhanthai Velappar Temple, a small, discrete 3,000 year old Hindu temple nested at the center of the valley town of Poombarai. We were told that no cameras, technology, etc. had ever been allowed inside, and that unless you were destined to be there, you would never come. I believe it too, considering the fact that on the way there our bus avoided being crushed by a fallen tree by just less than 1 minute. (We were not held up by this obstruction for long, as local villagers quickly obtained an axe to chop through and move the tree, which was too large for the 20+ men at the scene to even budge.) We were given a special puja in which the priest of the temple prayed for us and our close family members by name, and then allowed us to chant in the temple for a solid 45 minutes – another miraculous thing, considering many people were said to be incapable of even speaking in this ancient place, let alone entering. The deity, Lord Murugan, was created over 3,000 years ago purely out of herbs, known as navabashanam (nine herbs), and still remains preserved to this day.
Tree in the Road

On the last day of our classes, the remaining students and I visited the Balamurugan Temple in nearby Thandikudi, again being given a puja and chanting for a while. It was situated on the top of a hill overlooking the village and the surrounding mountains. The shape of a peacock, which is known as the vehicle of Murugan, naturally formed on one of the nearby rocks on the hill.

Palani Hills Murugan Temple - Inside View
Palani Hills Temple (Source:
The following day, 19-JUL-13, we left to return to the ashram in Anaikatti, but made a stop at the Hill Temple of Palani, one of India’s oldest and largest temples. A puja had been arranged for us here as well, and I was graced with additional vibhuti (ashes from the deity which are symbolic of the basis of life – carbon) from the head priest. We stopped for lunch and were served a full course South Indian meal on banana leaves. This easily would be a $20 meal in the US, but it cost only 100 rupees – less than $2 in US currency. Amazing! We dropped off the last remaining student besides me at the airport in Coimbatore, picked up some food and supplies, and made it to the ashram in Anaikatti, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (which means the place where one lives with the family of the guru to learn the knowledge passed down by the Rishis) late that night.

You will see by the date of this post that I have been at the ashram for a few days now. It is truly a remarkable place, but I will save my descriptions and stories for the next post. I will however mention that I am off to a great start in terms of research leads – I have 2 pages full of topics to research, people to interview and talk to, places to visit, books to read, etc. Needless to say I will be very busy in the next month. I owe a HUGE thank you to Surya and Neema for going above and beyond in terms of teaching me Vedanta, helping me navigate India, arranging my accommodations at the ashram, and providing a great abundance of resources for my research project.