The Indian airplane food confirmed my embarrassing intolerance for spiciness. Alas, my new home in Tamil Nadu, India’s hub of medical tourism in the land of healing! Deliriously tired, we trudged up to our rooms at 5am, slept til 11, and filled our first day with exploring. Spice tolerance is building already. Day 2 I awoke at 3am to mosquitoes buzzing around my head. Convinced they carried malaria, I thoroughly sprayed down my bed with deet. Which succeeded only in making the room smell. Peeking over the balcony as the sun rose, I saw Emma was also up and about and we headed to an early breakfast. A yellow lizard shared our bathroom, which was equipped with a wonderful large bucket and cold water for our “baths.” I’ve grown to love these bucket-showers; you realize how little water is actually needed, and it feels very natural. After breakfast of idli, coconut chutney and masala chai, we all sat through “inauguration” and met our country co-coordinators: Latta and Dr. Ram, who works at the National Institute for Epidemiology. The next few days were filled with shopping, food experimentation, history and healthcare lectures, a yoga demonstration and a Carnatic classical dance performance. Photo attached of me eating my first dosa!
India is beautiful. Pictures and words really can’t capture the abundance of trees and flowers, the fabrics, colors and patterns, the fresh food, the aromas in the streets, the hospitality—it’s all exceeding my expectations. The beautiful dancer who performed for us Monday night turned out to be my host sister! She picked Isabella and me up Tuesday night with her sister and mother. I’m in love with this family and never want to leave (also no language barrier!). It’s only been a week. Kaavya, the dancer, is 20 years old and pursuing her BA in architecture. Her younger sister, Darshu, is 12 years old and is the most articulate and energetic 12 year-old I know. She reminds me in some ways of Salma. Then there’s Uma, our mother who we call “Ama” out of respect. The father (“Apa”)is working in Algeria for 3 month intervals for an oil production company, but he calls four times a day and we were able to chat with him. Our first dinner with the family was like climbing through a window into their lives. Ama spread a bamboo mat on the floor and we all sat cross legged in a circle (careful not to point our feet towards anyone, which is awfully offensive since feet are considered dirty and unholy) around colorful dishes of rice and sauces. My roommate and fellow IHPer is Isabella—she’s from Cambridge and is studying at Columbia and overall rocks. Instead of documenting my every conversation and happening, I’ll break this post up into categories.
Ama, Kaavya and Darshu are of the Brahmin caste; this dictates their interactions with others, their dietary restrictions, and their lifestyle. Ama serves us and waits until we are sufficiently full and satisfied until she serves herself. There’s also the custom across all castes of eating with your right hand. Eating soupy rice with one right hand sitting cross legged on the floor is a challenge and usually ends awkwardly and messily, but it’s entertaining. Brahmins are vegetarian. No more Moroccan mystery meat, hooray! They also avoid strong foods like onion and garlic because they are believed to interact with enzymes that activate desires and passions inappropriate for the everyday. Brahmins will eat food prepared only by other Brahmins and leftovers are unheard of. You prepare only what you will consume. After each meal, we put any scraps of food into an itty bitty plastic cup next to the sink that holds about 2 banana peels total, so we are incredibly aware of any food we waste. Ama also has a maid who comes most mornings to clean.
Ama: Ama, Isabella and I hit it off from the start. She’s a riot. So much attitude and mischievous glances and smirks, I love her. Ama is fiercely proud of her culture, Tamil language, and Brahmin caste, and she’s intent on teaching us everything about her religion, lifestyle, beliefs, and family history. I think we’re the only students learning Tamil at home. Ama and her husband lived in Ghana for a few years for Apa’s work and she speaks about that period of time nostalgically and often. The family is Hindu, and Ama showed us her beautiful puja, or shrine of gods and goddesses and freshly picked flowers where she worships daily. At our first dinner Isabella and I got the long-winded story of Ama and Apa’s love marriage! Their engagement, the torture that came with joint-family living after marriage during which they couldn’t touch or speak to each other… it’s all very romantic. Ama’s hair is dyed with henna, her nails meticulously painted, and gold and silver jewellery dangle off her nose, ears, wrists, neck, and ankles—announcing her presence with light tinkling sounds like wind chimes. She wears big silver toe rings as well, which her husband put on her during their marriage ceremony (instead of a finger wedding ring). The rings indicate her marital status and the fact that she can wear only silver below the waist, not gold, attests to her spirituality, which brings me to ayurveda.
Ayurveda: I’m thrilled to be learning about Indian conceptions of “health” in the home. To Ama, “the kitchen is the doctor” and she reverts always to traditional healing methods like eucalyptus and coconut oil and herb blends before seeing a doctor. Almost nothing is processed and nothing has preservatives. Wellness and theories of ayurveda (I will explain in detail later!) are integrated into everyday life. Baggies of fresh, pasteurized milk are delivered daily to our doorstep and a glass of milk is drank before going to sleep because of its stable, calming properties (and in ancient ayurveda, richness was measured by the number of cows you owned, so milk is valuable!). All the piercings adorning her body are thoughtfully placed on specific points, like acupuncture. Balance is key here. The hot, tropical climate calls for cooling activities every day—the milk before bed, the yogurt that finishes every meal, and henna on the hair and skin. Yoga manifests itself in every part of life: Kaavya’s dance is a form of meditation; eating cross-legged at dinner is a pose promoting digestion, and even squatting to go to the bathroom is a form of yoga. Essentially, Ama explained, every movement and activity serves a greater purpose in balancing health and spiritual wellbeing.
Food: Our kitchen is filled with jars of herbs and roots—from peppercorn, fennel, and cumin to mustard seeds and curry leaves! We’ve been eating dosas, idli, thali, rasam soup, pappad, lentils, chippotti bread, paneer cheese, sanbar, coconut chutney and lots of veggies. And masala chai, of course. Darshu makes great omelettes for us with curd and turmeric powder—an antiseptic and antibiotic. But the best breakfast so far was fresh Algerian dates right off the leaves that Apa brought home last week (he’s back in Algeria now), freshly-squeezed lime juice, and coconut.
Kaavya: Kaavya is a beautiful 20 year old dancer in architecture school. Her father allowed her to design this apartment before they moved in last year and she transformed the space to fit the family’s needs and to abide by proper feng shui. She’s lively and so thrilled to have us here, and expressed to Isabelle and me right off the bat her desire that we “always stay in touch”! Before college, she grew her hair down to her knees. The pictures are crazy. If long hair is considered beautiful, she was an absolute goddess. She would wake up at 3am every morning for her mother to wash it with homemade oil remedies and she consumed an extra daily meal of spinach and broccoli to maintain its lustre. Kaavya also has a boyfriend of a few years now; like in Morocco, premarital relationships are not discussed to parents, so Ama doesn’t know details.
Darshu: Darshu stole my heart the moment she met me with a homemade clay heart necklace in one hand and flowers in the other. At 12 years old, she’s taking classes like economics, physics and chemistry at her private school. She far surpasses me in intelligence and eloquence, can animatedly recount mythology stories and Indian history like a scholar, and she’s always got a book or craft in her hand. This week she has exams so Ama doesn’t allow her to eat anything other than what she makes to ensure Darshu is well-nourished the entire week in advance. Darshu grows coriander, aloe and other plants up on the roof… but I learned the hard way that pointing to plants will stunt their growth. Especially if you point at them after 6pm. Duly noted.
Between classes, guest lectures, site visits, and 3 hour dinners, I’ve been dealing with a ridiculously obscure allergic reaction. It’s been like a real-life public health investigation, because a few others had similar reactions. By day three in India, tiny red spots were appearing on my feet, stomach, arms, neck and face. Was it the malaria pills? Sun exposure? The combination? Ants? My body’s reaction to the climate? A food allergy? First step: see ya later, malaria pills! When that didn’t help, I headed to the dermatologist—a California-educated Indian man who ran a walk-in clinic in his home every night. I entered with the country coordinators Dr. Ram and Latta, and an even more severely affected student, Laura. We crowded into his tiny office and within seconds he was diagnosing me with something children typically get—a reaction to the mosquitoes. Huh? He prescribed me some lotion, antihistamines and vitamin C tablets and charged me $4. We headed across the street to the pharmacy and picked everything up for another $3. Not bad. Needless to say, the spots are gone, but the culprit remains a mystery to me and I’m staying away from the malaria meds.
A few anecdotes:
1. After a scavenger hunt racing through Chennai on rickshaws all afternoon, we ended at Marina Beach. I was lingering by the water behind the group and was approached by a young Indian woman with a camera. Sure, I’ll take a picture of you and your boyfriend! Nope. She was asking, on behalf of her boyfriend, to take a picture of me with her boyfriend. A bit bewildered, I agreed and posed with the boyfriend, who said “You are very beautiful. That’s my beautiful girlfriend who I love very much. I’m going to marry her.” Overall bizarre experience, and only more so when an older man asked for a picture with me and a friend 30 seconds later. This has become a daily occurrence.
2. Of the three toilets in our apartment, Isabella and I get the only Indian squat style one.
3. IHP Food stipend in New Orleans: $85 per week. Food stipend in India: $6 per week.
4. The driving is far more horrendous than what I got used to in Morocco. Instead of cabs, we ride around yellow 3-wheeler auto-rickshaws and drive on the left side of the road, dodging scooters holding 5 family members, cars, cows and people. A recent tsunami in Pondicherry left huge potholes in the roads, which adds to the fun.