IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care (Spring 1)
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India 2012 Letter Home
This is a common and formal way of greeting people in the south of India, our home for the past five weeks. We learned, ate, and navigated daily through Chennai, the medical and IT capital of India. After a long, tumultuous journey (the flights themselves were an adventure), from the first delay in New Orleans to the uncertainty of making our connections, to the innocuous-appearing “green bean” in the airplane dinner that we realized five seconds too late was actually a hot pepper, we all finally arrived in India, Upon stepping outside of the Chennai airport, we were immediately awash with the humidity, musty air of the city, and the crowds surrounding the airport - a telling beginning to our sensory-packed stay.
Greeted by our country coordinators and their daughter, Latha, Dr. Ram, and Ramya, with flower necklaces and turmeric kumkums for our foreheads, we spent our first night at the hotel, showering to rid ourselves of the grime of travel and sweat caused by the uncomfortable heat. Well-rested and momentarily clean, the group set off the next morning to find appropriate Indian attire and was overwhelmed by the colors, selection, and persistence of the vendors of our local soon-to-be-beloved mall, Spencer Plaza. Cars whizzed past us honking up a storm - particularly during our walk to the mall. Three-wheeler auto rickshaws aplenty, dirt, coffee/juice stands, restaurant upon restaurant, fruit vendors, and shoe shiners and repairmen lined the streets. Stepping onto Indian soil was an all encompassing stimulus for all five senses: the smell - so distinctly dusty, spice-like, and with a light hint of curry; the taste of the air so much like the spice-rich smell and the food; the sight of crowds, old buildings and signs, statues, and so many stores; the feeling of the unbearable itch on our mosquito-ravaged feet and the warm, moderately humid air hugging you to cause an uncomfortable light sheen of sweat (plus the added burden of our luggage and backpacks); the surrounding sounds of chatter, exasperated car beeping, and putter of motor engines sounding like blown raspberries.
With guest lectures and site visits about Indian culture, history, health systems, assorted NGOs, and more, it became clear that our India experience would be deeply different, conservative, Asian, and strongly cultural, and as such, it was also taxing for all of us, as a large group of foreigners, mostly women and Western. Nevertheless, despite the struggle to embrace the heat of both the food and the climate, we all quickly grew to love the country and its quirks. “Only in India,” we’d fondly declare at particular moments.
Some of our lectures felt as if they could have been at our home universities. We were presented with a Power Point presentation, solid epidemiological data, and a chance for questions. But then, the daily power outage would start, the presentation erased from the screen, and we remembered where we were. Other information we gleaned was really catered to India. In one of our lectures, Dr. Suresh, Mel and Keisha’s host father, offered a startling statistic on the high percentage of patients who ride to the emergency room in an auto rickshaw. He described a program that began within the last year to teach rickshaw drivers basic first response skills as a harm reduction strategy.
Arguably, our favorite lecture was with Dr. Suniti Solomon. She was the physician to identify the first six cases of AIDs in India. Her presentation style was clear, breezy, and to the point. The others who worked for her at YRGCare, the program for AIDS patients and their families which she now runs, were still in awe by her presence, their postures straightening and offering references to the “madame” when she entered the room. Solomon’s work was distinctly India which is what made her spectacular. She described having to change her relatively conservative outlook on sexuality upon beginning her work in the field. At YRGCare, she began a program for arranged marriages for AIDs patients, “matching their AIDS status instead of their horoscopes.” Dr. Solomon was quite the phenomenal woman.
India is also where we had our first homestays on IHP. The truly unique experience of living in a homestay fully submerged us into the culture and into a home of strangers who quickly became members of our family. Many of us learned to live and love India in our homestays, and it was where most of us learned the most about daily living and societal perspectives on specific issues in India. We grew to love our host siblings and parents (who were always eager to provide us with too much food, chai, and protection), bucket showers, squat toilets, dosai, haggling, and mehndi (henna).
We would be lying to say that India was easy and fun all of the time, but that was part of the charm. India is a land of extremes. There were the honking horns and chai wallahs on the street, but also the silent meditation of an Ashram. The heated spice of the food brought tears to our eyes. Our ammas (or mothers) were always severely concerned about the time we would be returning home and the amount of food on our plates. Nothing just was. It is exhausting to live in a place where nothing is ever in a neutral state. At the end of the day, with mosquito bites lining your ankles and slight nausea from the quantity of dosai you had consumed, it was still worth it. It was foreign and sometimes hard, but it was nothing we could not handle. The small sacrifices we made were the moments that facilitated the most learning about the country, healthcare, and ourselves.
Duration: Spring, 16 weeks
United States, India, South Africa, Brazil
Prerequisites: None. Coursework in public health, anthropology, biology, or related field recommended.
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