Saturday, February 19, 2011

Graduation Day

Hello from Aranbol, in Goa. This is India for those who can’t really stomach “India”- -a far cry fro Jamkhed to be sure, but it’s nice and relaxing and quite easy travelling. I have a lovely Cliffside room overlooking the sea and I’m enjoying a few days of well-deserved rest before I hit the craziness of Mumbai and then the different kind of crazy that awaits in Melbourne. This is a hippie traveller town and with the shops selling glass pipes and the dreadlocked white kids wandering around, I’m just waiting for Jerry to show up!

Before I go any further, just a quick tutorial on how to post comments, as I’ve received many queries. Apparently, you can only do it from the main page of the blog, so I’ve sent you the link to that page this time. At the bottom of the post, there is a place that you can click on for comments. From here, you should be able to then post. So please do!

I know I’ve been out of touch. The last week of the course was busy with our group project and since then, I’ve been travelling, without my regular wireless connection. I’ll go back to our final day at Jamkhed and return, briefly, to our beautiful graduation ceremony. The biggest problem with this is that you are all very behind and frankly, you have not completed the work you need to do in order to fulfil the requirements of graduation. I am more than partially responsible for this- in my effort to complete my group project- which was a hypothetical project cycle incorporating the key principles and values in an Aboriginal Australian context- I did get a chance to share so many aspects of Jamkhed that put the “Comprehensive” in Rural Health Project.

For example, I didn’t tell you about our visit with the Farmer’s Club members, who explain how the first place CRHP starts in a new village is with a Farmer’s group, because you need to get the men engaged before you can get to the women. Unless you saw my photos, you didn’t learn about the amazing organic farm (where I milked a cow!) that uses wormiculture to create natural fertilizer and feeds 250 schoolchildren a day as well as all the visitors and staff at the compound and also provides work and housing for people living with HIV/ AIDS who have been ostracised from their communities. I didn’t go into much detail about the watershed projects that began in order to prevent soil erosion and create clean drinking water in the villages as water is the cornerstone of health. Nor did I delve into the Jaipur foot project, which provides low-cost prosthetics specifically designed for village life, allowing the user to return to work in the fields, allowing them to earn income and provide for their families.

The problem with Dr. Arole’s model is that it is so very comprehensive. One of the most powerful days of learning we had was when we did a village visit with the mobile health team alongside the village health worker. We saw the women’s self-help group (SHG) meeting, and they all gathered at the home of the VHW to have their blood pressure checked (if they were pregnant or over 40). The SHG is an income-generating scheme where each woman puts an agreed to amount. One of the women in the group was quite concerned as she was unable to pay back her loan on the due date. Her cow and calf had both died and her baby had been accidentally poisoned. In addition, she had suffered appendicitis. The combination of all of these hardships meant that she didn’t have the money. If she’d borrowed from a bank, her few, meagre possessions would have been taken from her, but the SHG understood her situation and gave her an interest-free extension, as well as emotional support. After this was decided, her blood pressure was checked, because the VHW was worried about the effect that all of these stressors were having on her mental health. This is just a quick glimpse of one of the most powerful days we had at Jamkhed, wandering around, seeing how the VHW was received into people’s homes. And the homes varied between the well-off and the very poor, but everyone was glad to see the VHW (who lived in a fairly modest home in comparison).

As the beach is calling, I’ll leave you, for now, with the words I spoke at our graduation ceremony. The ceremony was attended by our group as well as a group of 10 Nigerians who arrived our last week to learn about the project in the hopes of replicating it in their country. The VHWs were in attendance, as well as all of our teachers, translators, bus drivers…everyone at the compound who took part in our learning. Both the VHWs and the Nigerians performed a song (two different songs), giving the proceedings an international feel. Shoba, Dr. Arole’s daughter who did much of our teaching, spoke as did Shayla, another teacher. We sang as well, “We Are One, We Are Australia” at Shoba’s request and then a few of us spoke. Here’s what I said:

If I had to pick a moment- and there are many moments- that will stick with me as I return to life in Melbourne, it will be the stories of the Village Health Workers- your stories- especially the one who said this isn’t health education- this is love education.

I’m a bit of a stereotypical New Yorker, jaded and cynical at times. At the same time, I have a belief in the human spirit and trust that ultimately there is good and justice in the world—I just sometimes get distracted by the negatives and lose sight of these deeply held beliefs. I get blinders on. Coming here has stripped away those blinders. The Aroles have shown that two people can make an untold amount of difference by empowering communities and teaching others that THEY can make a difference in their own lives.

Over the next few hours, we will be thanking all of our teachers for sharing their knowledge and experience with us, and this gratitude is heartfelt and sincere. And I have no doubt, with the varied talents of this cohort, we will each take what we’ve learned and apply it in various, meaningful ways to our current and future paths.

But just imagine, for a minute, if each of us were able to share with ten people the idea that they can change the world by empowering others to change their world. And then those ten people did the same thing, spreading this message. Now I don’t mean everyone will be setting up Farmer’s clubs and creating watersheds and starting organic farms with wormiculture and empowering women by training them as VHWs. I mean on a small scale, just spreading this simple message that each of us could teach those with less power and less agency to start to take back their world -this could have an untold effect.

I know that one person alone can’t change the whole world. But CRHP and the Aroles have shown me that they can change the way the whole world changes.

Thank you.

The VHW checks a woman's blood pressure. This is outside the VHW's home, as that is where the SHG meets.

The woman who had suffered such hardship and was late paying back her loan stands outside her modest house. You can tell she is much relieved after the SHG meeting where she was given an extension.

The picture of health in the village- the new VHW, who has been so for 4 years, the former VHW, who served for almost 30 years, and the nurse from the mobile health team who comes once each month.

Shae and I await the festivities

The Nigerians singing and dancing for us!

The women who bought Saris pose in their finery.

Our graduation goodies: the garland smells delicious(and meant something too but I forget what), the candle holder demonstrates that our knowledge enables us to be a source of light, the scraf (everything else is on top of it) is something all teachers are given, and the certificate is well, a certificate.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Village Health Workers

Wow, have we fallen behind on things! We went away for a couple of days to Aurangabad on “holidays” and even more things happened, not to mention we actually have school-work to do, so I’ve been remiss in keeping you up to date.

Looking back, the next thing we learned about—well, experienced- were the Village Health Workers (VHWs). For those who missed it, VHWs are women chosen by their community to come to Jamkhed to train. Initially they came for a few months of intensive training, although now that the project is so established they just go “intern” at another village with another VHW and get on the job training. But I’ll tell about the original model, which is how the women we met were all trained. Since many of these women have little or no schooling, the training is not typical classroom training with textbooks and notepads but rather involves songs, story-telling and experiential learning, especially lots and lots of role-play. My favourite kind of medical education!! They are taught everything from nutrition and hygiene to how to identify leprosy, information about good nutrition for pregnant women and how to take blood pressure readings to how to deliver babies and understand signs of foetal distress. We’re not just talking about band-aids and temperature here, we’re talking about real medical care and real skill building and these women were given the tools and the knowledge to provide this health care in their village.

In a Western, litigious society, we think about all the what-ifs and reasons why this can’t and shouldn’t work. But this is in a rural setting with no clinic nearby and hospital services far away with access on dirt roads impossible for some with no vehicles and expensive upon arrival. This health care was the alternative to none-at all and it has proven to be an excellent alternative. Maybe better than some Western options, as you’ll see when I share some of their stories.It's interesting that as the VHWs are established in their villages, they eradicate infectious diseases like TB (virtually gone from the villages CRHP works in and yet rampant in other parts of India) and leprosy. However, heart disease and diabetes are rapidly on the rise in all of India as more people spend time behind desks and start eating processed foods and the VHWs are learning to screen for this and educate people about these issues as well. They are also quite well-versed in mental health issues and in many villages, depression is less stigmatised than it is in Australia!

Dr. Arole’s model is to get women of various castes from different villages all learning together so they can start to break down some of the class (and caste) divisions among themselves so when they go back to their communities, they know it can be done. It is hard for low caste women to go to their communities and convince the high caste women to let them treat their babies, but once they see that the low caste babies are thriving, they generally come around. Over and over again we’ve heard that it takes action not words for communities to believe in the ability of the VHW. The Health workers are fighting against traditional beliefs- for example, it is common practice not to breast-feed babies for the first 3 days after birth when there is lots of nutrients in the milk. Another common practice is to keep feverish babies very warm, rather than putting cool water on them. Sometimes, pregnant women are taught to avoid certain foods. All of these traditional practices need to be re-taught by the VHW who is going against generation after generation of belief and practice. Having her, a member of the community, to start to break down these myths is far more effective than having a western health workers come in and do so, but it still takes time.

We were in a classroom and 6 VHWs came in, along with Shayla, one of our teachers who served as translator. One by one the women shared their stories (I won’t tell them all here). There was Sambi, who has been a VHW for 26 years, yet can’t be older than me. She told us how she was the fourth of 4 girls in her family, but her sisters were all married off so young she never knew them. She was married at 12 (the same time I was studying my Bat Mitzvah portion and reading Judy Blume books) and her husband did not ask her father for a dowry (a tradition here in India is for the Bride’s father to pay a hefty sum to the groom to take his daughter off his hands). What the family didn’t know is that this man was already married. Sambi delivered her first baby, a girl, when she was 14-years-old.

On a side note, a girl baby is always a cause for disappointment and is an excuse for the mother-in-law and husband to punish the wife, often violently (one particularly horrifying statistic we learned in our seminar on the status of Women in India is that 55% of Indian women TODAY believe it is normal and acceptable to be physically abused in their marriage and many women feel something is missing from their marriage if their husbands DON’T beat them.) It is one of the many ironies of India that when a woman bears a daughter it is her fault and she is blamed but when she has a son, the husband is praised and given the credit.

In any case, Sambi’s daughter was one of twins, but the other baby died. She had gone to her parents’ house to have the baby and her husband came to visit but his other wife was suing him for divorce. She went back to Pune with her husband but eventually left him because he as violent and had debts to pay to the other woman, and went back to her village at 16, with her daughter in tow. Her parents couldn’t really take care of her though and she was scared and alone with no brother and no son…she didn’t know what she would do and she became depressed. A woman in the village talked to her and told her she could sit tall and stand on her own feet and told her about being a VHW. She slowly, slowly learned and got people to listen to her and eventually, she helped the people in her village and then, got a loan from Dr. Arole and bought two embroidery machines and started sewing and now she owns a 4 BR house. Her daughter is 12 years old and her husband came back to her. Before she took him back, she made him take an HIV test. Now, she is strong and feels happy and secure.

There was also Rekha who has been a VHW for only 10 years. I’ll tell her story in the first-person: “I was low-caste. When I was training at the compound, Dr. Arole had me make some bread for everyone and I said no one would eat bread from my hand but the others took it from me and it made me feel so happy for the first time in my life people took something from my hand. I thought to myself, this isn’t health education- this is love education. We (the VHWs) all have the same brain as we had before but it was locked and Dr. Arole had the key and opened it up. “ Rekha uses songs in her community to educate people about nutrition and sanitation and started a community group with others. Her singing has been featured on National radio and she even got to go (in an airplane) to Calcutta to sing.

A third VHW we spoke with has been in the role for over 30 years and she told how she was married at the age of 2. Yes, 2. TWO. Her husband was much older than her and she was widowed with young children and had nothing; being a VHW saved her life.

VHWs don’t get paid for their work, but they are privy to learning about government schemes and they also get involved in Women Self Help groups which are income generating groups—which I’ll talk more about in another blog.

This is getting lengthy, so I’ll just list a few of the successes these women cited in their villages as they proudest accomplishments

  • We worked together to build a road (this may not seem health related but improved access means quicker ability to get to the hospital when needed as well as better access for government trucks to deliver rations and better opportunities for income generation. Lack of isolation =improved health.
  • No child under 5 years old has died in my village for over 6 years now
  • When I started as a VHW, there were 20 leprosy patients living outside of houses, (stigmatised)…now, they have been given medication and most escaped permanent deformity and all of them are back with their families in their homes because the stigma is gone.
  • I have taught my village that cleanliness is very important. Before, children were defecating everywhere. The Women’s group and the Men’s group (farmer’s club- tune in next blog!) worked together to teach about hygiene and now no one defecates near the water we drink.
  • Everyone has healthy pregnancy and knows what to eat.
  • In my village we try to make sure the adolescent girls don’ t marry before 18 so she can have a healthy baby.
  • We teach about immunisation

A few interesting comments in contrast to western medicine:

1) The VHW who married at 2 has delivered over 300 babies and only 6- SIX!!! of them were Ceasarean (performed at the closest hospital-- as I said, the VHWs are taught to recognise signs of foetal distress, breech positioning, etc. and when necessary, do send women to hospital- often by motorcycle!!) So perhaps it is possible that at least some of our c-sections are unnecessary?!

2) One really interesting comment is that when asked what they do with a woman who can’t produce enough breast milk for her baby is that among all of them- with over 100 years of combined years of VHW experience and countless births, there was only ONE incidence of a woman not being able to breast feed.

It got us all talking about whether there could be environmental factors or a different level of patience in terms of how long we try before we allow a mother to decide she “can’t” do it…not trying to start a la leche war here, just thought it was interesting.

In any case, I don’t mean to gush- I’m not really a gusher- and I’m not easily impressed, but the stories of these women- and how Dr. Arole has transformed their villages and their lives- is truly amazing.

Next up- the Farmer’s Clubs...these are the men’s groups…where it all really begins!

Here is a few shot of these great women: (Shayla, our teacher, is the 3rd from left)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

India Republic Day...and Australia Day

Wednesday, 26 January was both India Republic Day, which commemorates the birth if the Indian Constitution after getting rid of the British and gaining independence and Australia day, which commemorates the European invasion of Australia. In our honour, Jamkhed celebrated both, though thankfully more emphasis was put on the former. Dr. Arole told us that they purposefully don’t invite government officials or powerful businessmen to their India celebration but prefer to have HIV positive patients or Leprosy patients, to demonstrate that those people are as much a part of the fabric of India as the “important” people.

The celebration included a performance by the children from the Jamkhed compound preschool, which services the slum across the road. The school was started by Jamkhed to help the immediate community and while its been operational for a number of years, ahs only been in a formalised setting for one year. There was also a poem and a group of our students sang the Australian National Anthem (I did not). Then, we all helped out giving out snacks of grain and bananas to the children. I can’t imagine Western kids getting this excited over a banana. At the end, the kids asked for “just one photo”. They see westerners all the time at the institute but still want “just one photo.”

Our class-time was much more like regular class, with lectures and PowerPoint’s by both Dr. Arole and others on various issues, such as the Caste system in India, Tribal Groups in India and Social Factors (aka determinants) in health. It was good to hear this and put it in context. The Caste lecture was especially enlightening and interesting to hear how the Jamkhed model worked to deal with Casteism. For example, when they were deciding where to dig a well, they would put it in the Dalit or “untouchable” area, to ensure that these marginalised people would have access to the water and force the higher castes to come to that area and mix with them. They also sought out low-caste women to become Village Health Workers…but I’ll save that for the VHW story, which is coming up next!

Here are just a few photos from the celebration:

The whole pre-school sings

A few girls had a solo

These women recite a poem (in Marathi so I don't know what about...)

"one photo, one photo"

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Our first Village Visit

So, you’re probably wondering when we’re going to start doing some learning around here. Fear not, the reason I’m so behind on the blog already is because our days are full (as is my brain!). As the week has progressed, I’ve gained a better understanding of the Jamkhed story and history so I’ll give you the two-cent version in instalments over the next few blogs.

Dr. Raj and Mabel Arole met at an Indian medical school and wanted to do something to change the dire health outcomes in rural India. Knowing a western stamp would help them gain acceptance from funders, they travelled to the US and studied public health at Hopkins (among other things) before returning to India and eventually settling on the current site for their visionary project, that of improving the health of the locals in rural India, receiving a land grant and funding from various NGO’s, many of them Christian, in line with their Christian faith. Btu they do not proselytise and they serve people of all faiths, rather their Christianity informs their strong values and sense of justice.

Originally they tried to get nurses to come to this remote area of Maharashtra. The nurses were afraid they would never find husbands if they came here, so the Arole’s even arranged marriages for them. But when the nurses started families, they didn’t want to stay to raise their children so they soon realised this model was unsustainable. Dr. Raj , when in a village and seeing how a woman was responsible for caring for the family and for handling the delivery of babies, realised that someone without a medical degree could meet many of the basic health needs of the village. This brainstorm led to the idea of engaging Village Health Workers; that is, local women from each village who would be trained by the Aroles to provide basic medical care. The idea for the project was born and over the next few blogs, you’ll learn, as I have, how this simple idea has changed over 200 communities and in addition to dealing with health issues, has addressed such issues as gender discrimination and caste-ism as well as economic sustainability.

For our part, we spent Tuesday morning on our first village visit, which meant that we drove about 30 minutes to a village and once there, divided into small groups, each with a translator, and had a walk around, with a chance to chat with the locals about their lives. We got to witness firsthand their infrastructure, including the large wells they had and a collection of toilets in the centre of town, just waiting to be installed somewhere. We saw the kinder, which provides protein formula for children up to age 6 and the school, which also has a lunch program. We saw the variety of houses in the village, from rudimentary huts a man told us he sleeps with his family and his 5 goats all in one room, to larger 2 and 3 room cement blocks with satellite dishes on top. We saw lots of healthy babies, smiling, shy girls and boys angling to have their picture taken.

We learned at the end of our visit that this is a village that is part of the CRHP, with a Village Health Worker. There is no TB and virtually no leprosy in the village and all of the children are well nourished. This doesn’t mean there is no poverty and we saw ourselves that there is still a discrepancy between the haves and have-nots in the village. We also saw women working very hard, cleaning, scrubbing, fetching water, carrying things on their head, while a large portion of the men were drinking tea in the town square.

It wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. The toilet blocks were a good example, as Dr. Arole told us one of his greatest failures is teaching people to use toilets, even if they have access to them, because defecating in the street is simply the cultural norm, and obviously, poses a great sanitation and hygiene risk. But the children are in school and the babies are fed and the Village Health worker told us no babies had died in her village in 6 years. That is a start.

I’ll leave you with a few photos of the village so you can see the happy children yourself!

These girls greeted us shortly after we arrived, when we were in a poorer section of the village. Then, their teacher came out to scold them for missing class!

This is the man who told us about his goats and explained he was worried about theft and predaotrs and thus, the livestock slept in the family home.

We saw this woman carrying these sun-dried Chilis. Before we could photograph her, she had to fix her dot, which demonstrates that she is married and her husband is alive.

These boys were all hanging out in the kinder-though some of them look a bit old for it. The teachers were proud to show us the protein/ grains that are part of a government scheme but promoted by the Village Health worker.

This was the youngest boy at the kinder and he kept getting pushed out of the way as the other kids jostled to have their photo taken. He was in tears before we left for the day- I think the excitement was a bit too much for him.

Friday, January 28, 2011

An Indian WEDDING!

So now that you have a vague idea of where I’m sleeping, I can tell you a little bit about our first days at Jamkhed. I know it seems like I’m posting a lot, but a lot is happening, so please, try to keep up. It’s only a three-week course and if you fall behind, you might not catch up. I won’t have a chance for private tutorials. The good news is that in a few more days, I’ll have to start studying and working on my group project and my short paper that is due before we leave so I’ll have to stop sharing so much with all of you. Can’t promise things will get any less exciting though.

On Monday, we had a tour of the compound, including the new hospital, which is about 2 years old. Most of my fellow students are staying in the old wards of the old hospital. We saw the surgical ward, children’s ward and labour and delivery unit. I haven’t spent that much time in Western hospitals but could tell that this was more rudimentary. However, it is comparable to something you’d find in Mumbai or Pune and considering how remote we are, that’s pretty impressive. It’s a 50-bed hospital with only 7 full time nurses because the philosophy is to train family members to care for patients in order to be able to send them home as quickly as possible. This is both for budgetary reasons and in line with Indian cultural norms. Every Thursday, an Ophthalmologist comes and offers free eye screenings and twice a month on weekends, they perform up to 200 free eye surgeries for cataracts, glaucoma and such for the surrounding villages. We’re allowed to witness the surgeries this weekend but I think I’ll pass…years of watching Hedy put in her contacts has convinced me that I am not up for watching a scalpel pass through a cornea!

In the afternoon, we went into Jamkhed town, about a 15-minute walk- or 5-minute drive- away. We went to check out town but also to buy some traditional outfits so we could go to villages dressed appropriately. There are 22 people on my program, 21 of whom are women. This is a shop that sells showra (the pant/long top/scarf combination- I'm sure I’m spelling it wrong) outfits starting at 450 Rps, which is about $10AUD. We went into the shop, up the stairs where they have literally hundreds of these outfits in packages and they start pulling them out and throwing them on the counter…it was like a Wal-Mart with the last Bratz doll the day after Thanksgiving.

I grabbed a few I liked but as most Indian women don’t have the same body type as me, I didn’t expect them to fit across the hips. I had a bit of a struggle in the dressing room and never got to find out if they fit across the hips since I couldn’t get them past the boobs. Instead, I went for the custom-made look where I got to select my fabric and I go back in a couple of days to pick up my finished product. I was a little disappointed to not have immediate gratification like most of the other folks, but I haven’t had a made-to-measure outfit since September, 09 and that one cost a little more than the $30 I spent on this one…plus I think I’ll wear this one more than once!

One of the reasons most people were so anxious to find the perfect outfit was because we had been given THE MOST EXCITING NEWS that afternoon. The grand-daughter of one of CRHP’s benefactors—the man who donated all the land that the compound is built on- was getting married…and WE WERE ALL INVITED TO THE WEDDING! THAT NIGHT!

I can only imagine how thrilled my mum would have been had someone from Dad’s office called 3 hours before my wedding to say there were 25 folks from another hemisphere who wanted to stop by the wedding, was that okay? I’m sure she’d have been as enthusiastic about our attendance as this person was. To be fair, the guest list for this wedding was over 1000 so what’s another 25 guests?

We returned from our shopping trip and changed into our outfits- luckily I had a nice (Indian, no less) dress I’d brought with me- and were on the bus by 5:30 as the wedding was about 90 minutes on the same bumpy dirt road away. But it was worth every bump in the road.

We arrived in perfect timing, just as the groom was doing his procession into the reception. There was a huge band playing Indian music you could hear in all directions. Young people had candelabras atop their heads to light the path and the groom was literally perched atop a white stallion.

As we entered the outdoor reception grounds, it felt like we were going to a festival. Everywhere we looked was another catering station. We were with Dr. Arole, the founder and director of the Comprehensive Rural Health Project (CRHP) whom I’ll be talking about a lot in the coming blogs. After we greeted a gaggle of relatives with “Namaste” and smiles, we stood and stared in awe at the sheer enormity of what lay before us. Soon, Dr. Arole ushered us from station to station, letting our plates be filled again and again with dahl, paneer, various curries, dosa, pakora, and a bunch of things I can’t even name, each more delicious than the next. We had fried to order naan thrown onto our plates, roti, pappadam, and more and then we were led to the sweets table where there was a delectable dessert that was a sweet apple custard of some sort, basically sweetened condensed milk with some fruit in it that was AWESOME!! Had I known my fellow students better, I would definitely have had seconds of that one! Alas, I had to show restraint. There was a popcorn machine and cotton candy (aka fairy floss for you Aussies) for the kids and we barely scratched the surface. I thought Jews knew how to eat at wedding…and they were catering for over 1000!!!

Then it was time for the ceremonial part, so Dr. Arole instructed us all to the seating area and the bride and groom went up onto a huge stage where bride and groom each had a floral lei-type thing in their hands. They walked out onto the front of the stage, which then rose up about 20 meters high so everyone could see them as they wrapped the lei’s around each other’s necks. The bride’s sari was so sparkly and shimmery, it was like she had diamonds all over her. She looked like a bedazzled disco ball and I wanted to see it up close…and it was as if Dr. Arole knew my wish because as soon as the ceremony was over, we were all ushered up to the front and brought up onstage where we were posed for a photo with the bride and groom! (We don't have a copy of the photo of all of us with them, but this is a photo one of my colleagues took of them when we were onstage)

Apparently, it is a sign of status if you have westerners at your wedding so we made them look good, even as we stood with our mouths agape at the whole process.

As we were leaving, a guest asked us where we were from. When we replied “Australia”, he said, “oh, so this is like, all EXOTIC for you and stuff, right?” and we all laughed.

It was a great night, one that put every Indian wedding I’d seen on film (Monsoon Wedding, Bend it like Beckham, etc.) to shame. The ride home didn’t seem nearly as bumpy, perhaps because we were all floating from the unique cultural experience.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Life at the CRHP compound

It’s only Tuesday and already my brain is overflowing and I am exhausted. I thought I’d post a quick update about the living arrangements before I get to the meatier stuff so here goes….

Our days have been so full we didn’t have a chance to have our introductory administration meeting until this evening and we arrived on Sunday afternoon.

But I’ll back up. Sunday we all met at the Pune train station to take the 4+-hour drive on bouncy rutted dirt roads to the Jamkhed Compound. There are 22 students and our two tutors (who are married) plus their two children. Of the students I’m the third oldest, which is a strange place to be. Especially when I learned that two of our group are undergraduates, one of who is turning 21 next week! That makes her younger than the kids I took to Israel!! But how refreshing to be in a vehicle that was older than me! Luckily there was none of that new-fangled air conditioning to chill my old brittle bones on the drive and we bounced and bounded along on road only slightly wider than the bus, with oncoming traffic and cars passing on either side the whole time. The experience was good since I hadn’t had time for a cardio workout in the morning.

Upon arrival we were shown our rooms. Because of my advanced standing in a community that still respects the elderly, I’ve been given one of the luxury rooms. I’d been expecting to share with as many as 3 other people but instead, I’m in a suite with just one of the other oldies, Karin, and we are next door to the tutors and their family. We have two bedrooms and 2 bathrooms as well as a lounge room with a television and a fridge! It’s quite odd as some of the others are4 to a room with a single bath so I’m not sure how it’s been divided.

The only drawback is that we’re about a 5 minute walk away from the others, who share a common courtyard so we’re a bit out of the social hub, but we’re obviously welcome to go hang out there any time we like. And it doesn’t seem like there is much free time anyway!

The room itself is great. I hung my mozzie net from my metal wardrobe and I’m using my second bed to supplement my cupboard space. I have a desk which is serving as a vanity and my bathroom is simple but has a western toilet and shower that has really good water pressure and plenty of hot water as long as I turn on the hot water heater 10 minutes before I want to use it. My only complaint is the mattress. Having just spent a week on an air mattress at camp, which was a bit too soft, I feel like Goldilocks but this mattress is too hard. I don’t know what it is about developing countries but they do love their firm mattresses! I tried taking the mattress off the second bed but that just made it a higher-up firm bed, it didn’t make it softer. Oh well, it’s probably good for my back.

It’s quite cool at night but I’ll run the ceiling fan anyway to discourage the mozzies, though there really don’t seem to be many. But they’ll find me, even hiding under my canopy so I’m taking every precaution. Speaking of that canopy, my bed is calling me now, so tune in soon for details of our first excursion into Jamkhed town as well as other excitement!!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

I'm Right Side up in India!

Yes, it has been a while. A year, in fact. Turns out, working full-time while going to grad school is enough of a procrastination tool! Well, and facebook...I have played my life out in 290 character bits throughout the last year.

Most of you know I have a new job, which I've been meaning to post about (short version- I love it, it's great). But I've gathered you all here today because I'm embarking on a new adventure for the next month, in India and while I doubt I'll much time, I wanted to use this forum to share a little bit about what I'm seeing because I'm anticipating it's going to be pretty amazing.

This does relate to my last post of a year ago because I've come to India for a 3 week class (aka subject for you Aussies) in Primary Health Care in a rural setting. I'll be travelling to Jamkhed, a village near Pune, tomorrow, with 19 fellow Melbourne uni students (not all MPH students, though some are) and we'll spend the next 3 weeks at the Comprehensive Rural Health Project. The project was started in the late 70's by 2 US-educated Indian MDs who wanted to do something for their home country upon their return. What began as an initiative to provide clean drinking water (and this was in the days before the term community development even existed) led to the training of local women to educate their fellow villagers on pre- and post-natal care, bringing the infant mortality rate from over 200 deaths/1000 births to below 14/deaths/1000 births in about 20 years which is quite an accomplishment (although India was also undergoing vast developmental shifts during that time that probably also contributed). This in turn led to other projects for the men in the community, micro-fund projects for the community health working women and an adolescent girls program I am particularly keen to learn about.

Over the years, the project has grown and their numerous successes have led them to receive $ from OzAid and USAid to build a training centre so folks from around the world (like our group) can come to learn how they do what they do and then replicate elsewhere. So in the coming weeks, I'll be learning much more about the project and all of it's varied components, so I won't go into that much more now.

I'll just share a few of my initial reactions to India, having been here for about 20 hours so far.

I arrived to Pune at 4:30 Am local time, having travelled for about 27 hours door to door. This is after spending 5 intense days at camp for work- for the new job I love-- so needless to say, I'm exhausted!

I flew Melbourne to Perth to Singapore to Mumbai and from there took a 4 hour car ride to Pune. I had hoped to sleep in the car but I had underestimated the constant braking and honking that would accompany us throughout the whole journey. I dozed a bit but it was hardly relaxing so I was thrilled to lie down on the hard wooden block that is serving as my bed. I feel a bit like goldilocks, having spent the last week at camp on an air mattress that was a bit too soft. I suppose when I get home I'll find my mattress is JUST RIGHT!

I forced myself to rise in time to grab the end of brekkie and set off to run a few quick errands...or so I thought. It was time for my first auto-rickshaw adventure. Pune is a smaller Indian city but certainly no place for the weak. I've decided that you should have to demonstrate a certain number of passport stamps before they let you into the country because I'm feeling overwhelmed a bit and I consider myself a fairly seasoned traveller. I can't imagine what it must be like if this is someone's first stop on their gap year tour!

Traffic rules are more like gentle suggestions and it took me about 20 minutes before I felt confident to cross the street. My tactic is to find locals who are crossing and just draft off of them, muttering a quick Sh'ma under my breath as I go.

I won't bore you with the 2 hour challenge of buying a phone card, only that I had to find a place to get my photo taken and my passport copied...sim cards are very serious business here. I got back to the hotel- this time with a metered rickshaw and realised the previous driver ripped me off (though he did invite me to his kid's birthday party so I'll forgive him) and had a hugely filling and delicious Channa Masala for about $2. Have plans to meet up with a few people from the course for dinner so just have to stay awake until then.

Hope you'll enjoy this journey with me...and I'll try to spare you any details of toilet adventures!!