Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Things That Remain

Today marks six weeks since my return to the US. I was given a lot of warning from others about what returning to the states might look like for me. Reverse culture shock, trying to process my experience, etc. It's true that it was a tough readjustment, but I slowly eased back into life here. I went to the beach for a week with my family a few days after I returned. I attended one of my best friend's weddings in Charleston, SC. I went to the beach for another week with my dad's side of the family. Now I'm back in Philly and preparing to start classes in a week.

Everyday there are tiny reminders of India. Things that have remained unchanged since my trip.

My watch remains on Calcutta time. It's about 12:30am here, but my watch lets me know that it's 10am in Calcutta. I haven't worn my watch since I've returned, so here it stays in my toiletry case. Here on the East Coast, I'm winding down and getting ready for sleep and people in Calcutta have already started their day. I wonder what Nirmal is doing right now. I suspect that Juma has already dropped the girls off at school. Durbar is bustling with sex workers showing up for their appointments, researchers, students and interns from around the globe are there to learn, and Pintuda is probably multitasking, organizing multiple events that will go off without a hitch.

This is all that remains of the taxi-door-slamming incident. Check out how quickly my nail has grown. I've become a bit accustomed to seeing the evidence of the smash, and believe it or not, I'll be a bit sad when it's totally grown out! It's not pictured, but the knuckle on my middle finger has returned to its normal size and I have full use and sensation of my finger back.

For some reason I haven't removed the carry-on tags from my backpack. I kept forgetting for the first few weeks, and now they just feel like they're a part of my backpack and I can't imagine them not being there. I can't help but smile whenever I zip it up.

Finally, the red threads on my wrist remain. After I was discharged from the hospital, Akash tied them onto my wrist and told me that they would protect me from any danger or injury (and anymore rats, apparently!) I never cut the threads off of my wrist. They're beginning to fray and separate. They've been sweated on, used to wipe away tears, been battered by waves in the ocean, been faded by the sun and made it through two wedding ceremony despite not matching my dress whatsoever.

A few days after my release from the hospital, after everyone else except for Laura had returned to the US, I was coloring with the girls and Juma on the floor in their home. We'd originally been playing on the roof, but the monsoon downpour forced us to take cover. After about half an hour of the girls showing me how to draw the perfect temple, Juma pulled out her bindis and stuck one to my forehead. The girl shrieked with laughter and jumped on top of me as we lay on the concrete, sweating profusely in the humidity. Even Juma flashed her shy, beautiful smile.

At one point, Juma became more serious and she pulled something out of a plastic bag. It was a braid of red strings with dried grass tied into it. She motioned for me to sit up, and I did.  She tied the set of red strings onto my arm near my bicep. I had to wait until the next day to ask Nirmal what the strings mean, and he told me that they'd picked up an extra one at their temple for me, to protect me from sickness. I was so touched by their thoughtfulness and our growing connection. Those red threads now reside safely in my jewelry box here at home.

The other day I became more curious about the red strings and what they represent.

These red strings are called "kavala" and exist within the Jewish religion as well. Kavala are a symbol of unity among Hindus, but they're also thought to be a protective force. Hindu priests tie them onto people at the beginning of religious ceremonies. Sometimes they're removed right after the ceremony but many people leave them on until the next time they're at temple. (Source) This blog post remarks on the interesting significance of red threads throughout various religious histories.

Although I do not identify as Hindu, I continue to wear the thread because to me, the strings represent the kindness of so many people who cared for me while I was sick and the friends who took the time to add to my body a measure of protection that they strongly believe in.

Other updates:

I wrote a letter to Nirmal recently! I do hope he receives it, and that I addressed it properly. I'm not sure if he'll write back, but if I can figure out a way to find out if he received it, I'll print out some more photos of the family and of me with the family and send them as well. 



The research paper that I'm working on with a partner, the culmination of the course that took me to Cal, is due on Sunday. I'll post it here if anyone is reading, and/or is interested. The title is: Sex Workers Living with HIV/AIDS and Stigma: How the Mamata Network of Positive Women is Making a Positive Impact in Sonagachi, Kolkata, and West Bengal, India.

The blog has had hits from Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Poland since I've returned. This marks 30 countries that have visited! I can also view what search terms bring people here, and I find it fascinating. One person found this blog by searching "flying sex worker at rashbehari avenue". I'm not sure what they were looking for, but apparently they were interested because they stayed on the blog for over nine minutes! 


Finally, I updated The Doors page to include some more doors that I hadn't found the time to upload at the end of my trip. Anyone have any good ideas for how to display these photos in my apartment?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

So Many Little Things

Last night, as happens many nights, I dreamed I was in Calcutta. I was standing on the side of Sarat Bose Road at sunset. I was waving to someone in a taxi, who was driving away from me. I don't know who it was because I never saw their face but in the dream it was someone I knew. I turned to walk towards Rashbehari Avenue. I passed the house where Nirmal works his other job, but he wasn't there. I passed the man who sells the street food on the corner. I passed Tamarind restaurant and nodded at the doorman. That's where my dream ended, but I woke from it and felt a sense of comfort.

I've been having some weird and bizarre Calcutta dreams too. Despite the fact that I'm no longer taking malarone, the vivid, scary dreams persist. So this short and simple dream that could have been a real memory was gladly welcomed.

This is how I've been overcoming my jetlag, which I'd say is about halfway back to normal by now:

One of my favorite artists is Brian Andreas. Check out his website here and his facebook page here. What I really love about his beautiful prints and words are that they're usually applicable in a variety of situations and lives. This is one I've been enjoying lately:
Copyright Brian Andreas
Right now when I see this print I think of so many little things that I remember and appreciate and don't want to forget. Good or bad, so many little things.

The way the air became thick with moisture in the minutes before a monsoon thunderstorm hit in the evening. The hysterical laughter that emanated from our apartment living room and into the main stairwell in the evenings. The roof of No. 5...the stairs that lead up to the landing, with a busted wooden door that lead to some mysterious place we never explored. Sitting on said roof at night, hoping you could see at least three stars through the polluted and cloudy air. Sitting on said roof in the daytime, watching the entire apartment buildings' underthings and clothes flap in the breeze on the many clotheslines strung from post to post.

The lift in our building that required you to slam both doors in order for it to operate, so all day and all night you could hear, "Bang! Bang!" two slams as people used the lift to come and go.

The dust and dirt that settled into every crevice of my body, so that showers became treasure hunts and my scrub down game is now out of this world. Blowing my nose after a particularly long taxi ride through the city and it coming out entirely black. One cab ride in particular caused me to have black snot for 3 days straight... I don't think any of us will ever forget that taxi ride (for any classmates reading, it was the one to Anjali's Auntie's house in North Calcutta when we got stuck in rush hour).

The tiny geckos that infiltrated our kitchen and apartment building. We heard they may eat mosquitoes, so once the monsoon hit we didn't mind their squatting.

The way I perfected the "space stare" in which I walked and stared off into nothing, so that in my peripheral vision could still scan for bricks that stuck up in the sidewalk but so that I didn't make eye contact with any of the people staring at me. When I felt like I wanted to be invisible.

The orange, white and green flowers painted all over the city on crumbling walls and next to doors...it's the symbol of the All India Trinamool Congress, the state party that rules West Bengal. The entire time I was in India, I'd mistaken that symbol for something that it wasn't - I thought it was the symbol for the Communist Party of India (CPI) which doesn't even make sense, as I know what the communist symbol looks like.

The man on Sarat Bose who sold Laura mangoes and always tried to double her order. The boys playing football and cricket in every side street and every alley - their pause to let pedestrians pass by unharmed. The phrases that teenage boys would spit at me in English and then laugh about with their friends as they walked by.

Sitting crosslegged on the floor at Sunshine during the evening, and within minutes the store flooding full of international customers. Watching Akash and Imran and Sanjay pull out bags and bags of garments, taking one piece from each bag to float in front of the customer, leaving piles and piles of samples all over the floor as people chose which print, color, or style they wanted to purchase.

Soft blankets from Nepal. Cool marble tiled floors. Chicken burgers and ice cream with chocolate sauce. Sitting in the windowsill there, staring at the intersection below flood as the monsoon reached Calcutta.

All of the flavors in a Banana Leaf mini meal. The commute to Durbar on the metro: "1 to Girish Park". The repetitive, colorful prints on kurtis. The smell of our apartment when Juma was cooking in the kitchen. The smell on the roof. The smell of the blanket I slept under. The smell of perfume that ended up making its way to the US, lingering on everything in my carry-on and overstaying its welcome. The smell of fresh, hot paratha. The smell of Lalita's hair when I was braiding it. The smell of a top from Sunshine that hasn't been worn or washed yet.

The taste of "Real Mango" juice from Big Bazaar. The taste of Nescafe instant coffee. The sweetest, ripest, juiciest mangoes. The taste of veg fried rice from Pick & Carry (or Pack and Carry...or Pick and Curry...or whatever it's actual name was). Coffee from Banana Leaf. Chai from Banana Leaf. Halwa from Banana Leaf!

These memories are all compounded by the gratitude I have for the many people in Calcutta who made my two months there a marvelous adventure and a constant learning experience. Who experienced with me a hysterical calamity of errors and frustrating mishaps. Who brought to my attention things I may never have seen or thought. Who laughed with me on the roof or in a plane, cried with me in a bed or on a stoop, who clasped their hands and nodded, "Namaste" at me, who kindly combed my hair in the hospital when I was too sick and attached to too many tubes to do it myself. Who found the irony, humor, or anguish with me in so many situations ranging from cab rides to trips to the South City Mall. I am thankful for it all, and I have love for each of you.
Copyright Brian Andreas

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Overwhelmed

I've been wanting to write. I must have started this entry 8 times, and every time I delete it before I hit the second paragraph. In fact, I'm already resisting the urge to delete this, only one sentence in. The prospect of trying to describe returning to the US and readjusting to being here is daunting and makes me feel overwhelmed. How can I do any of it justice? So many reunions with family and friends, a whirlwind first few days back during which I ate whatever I wanted (mostly items that weren't readily available to me in Cal), slept at odd hours, and was regularly flipping through the photos on my phone that made me feel some immediate sense of comfort - my laundry drying on the roof of No. 5, photos of me with women from Durbar, Kumkum and Lalita reading me a Bengali children's book, Laura and I at Sunshine, with the backdrop of colorful stacks of clothing and scarves all the way to the ceiling behind us.

After the novelty of being back in The States and having access to anything and everything I conjured up in my mind wore off (Wawa coffee, Chipotle burrito bowl, Old Bay wings, the novelty of walking into an air conditioned pharmacy and knowing where every single thing would be, etc.) and after the hugs were given and time marched on as I spent time with my family, I settled into where I am now. A sort of limbo where I wish I was in Calcutta, but I don't. I miss all of the things that were familiar to me there, but I'm also glad to be here in Dewey Beach for the week, where familiar is an understatement, as barely anything has changed since my childhood.

Obviously, my bones and heart ache to be closer to the Rey family. Though since my arrival in the US, I feel even closer to them. I was able to get the letter that Nirmal wrote to me translated word for word. A huge thank you to Meenakshi, my former coworker and friend, who's brother-in-law's cousin was able to translate it word for word for me. The translation blew me away and made the gears in my heart lock up as I was reading it. One of the sentences said, "We cannot give anything beyond our love and if we could have had Kristen to stay with us, we would have been very happy." I told Laura that I thought my heart would burst, and I still feel that when I read the letter. While I was there Kumkum and Lalita taught me a song/hand game called Zim Zam Zoom. At the beach this week I taught it to Kylie, and we were able to take a video of us doing it and I sent it to Laura, who will show it to the girls.

I have photos of reunions with family, I attended a beautiful wedding 3 days after I got home at the most grand and opulent venue in Wilmington, and I have so much more to write about. Sadly, my time at Starbucks on Rehoboth Ave must come to an end, because my laptop battery is about to die.

Bottom line: It's overwhelming to adjust to life back in The States. I can't decide this is harder than it was to acclimate when I first arrived in Calcutta. Maybe that was overwhelming on a sensory and cultural level for me, while this is more overwhelming on an emotional level. I have much more to say about this, and I will as soon as I have more reliable wi-fi.

For now, I'm off to continue my jetlag recovery and cuddle up to the best niece in the world. I'll be back with more thoughts soon.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On My Last Day.

I woke up this morning, checked my phone and felt immediate, crushing sadness. I’d overslept my alarm and missed seeing the girls off to school. Kumkum and Lalita leave by 9:30am. I felt immediately nauseous, knowing that they don’t get home from school until after 3:30 and my taxi was set to pick me up at 2:30 to take me to the airport. So much sadness and anger at myself for letting myself oversleep the alarm and frantic anxiety at figuring out how I could somehow relay my love and goodbye to them.

Laura woke and knew that I'd missed the girls- my biggest priority of my last day. She made us freshly brewed coffee and silently sliced us each one of the freshest, ripest mangoes. When she handed me my bowl of diced mango it lifted my mood a little and my gratitude to Laura for the kind of friend and human she’s been, especially over the last week, was embodied in that simple breakfast.

After that I kicked into productivity mode and worked my way through the checklist of things that I needed to accomplish. Pick up the 3rd of my 4th rabies shot from the chemist. Pack EVERYTHING. Write notes, say goodbyes, figure out some bank/ATM stuff. I went to the chemist around the corner to buy the injection… in India you buy shots or injections from the pharmacy (chemist) and then take the actual solution to the doctor, where they inject it. I got back to No. 5 and stepped into the old school lift. Slammed both doors and pressed the 4 for the very last time. Sweat was pouring down my face after the walk and the sadness that’d been weighing on my returned. I thought to myself, “I would do anything in the world for Kumkum and Lalita to be standing in front of the lift when it stops on the 4th floor.”

And do you know what?

My wish came true. It made no sense. It was 12:30pm on a Tuesday. They should have been in school. But here they were, as the lift reached the 4th floor. And the lift gate was all that separated me from them. I slammed open the doors, “Kumkum!! Lalita!!” Tears immediately sprung into my eyes. I turned and realized that Nirmal and Juma were inside of the apartment, waiting for me. They were all waiting for me to return.

I went inside, sat down on the couch and didn’t even try to stop from crying. I asked Nirmal, “Why aren’t the girls in school?” and he said, “No school this side, today your departure date.” Which led me to believe that he’d pulled them from school early in order for them to be able to say goodbye. Later on our way to the airport he confirmed, “Kumkum and Lalita no school today. Is no holiday. But no school their side because Didi, sister, Auntie Kristen is leaving today.”

Nirmal and Juma let the girls stay home from school today because today’s the day I was leaving. That is so powerful. It’s beyond quite what I can comprehend. The power of relationship that I have with the girls and with that family runs so deep.

We said our goodbyes over the course of a few hours. Precious hours that I would never trade for the world. Kumkum and Lalita helped me pack my bags. They played with the stuffed monkey I have. They played “Zim Zam Zoom” with me over and over and over. We high-fived and shook hands while staring and smiling at each other over and over and over.

I’ve never packed so haphazardly in my life. Everything is just thrown into my bags, except for the breakables that I was careful to put in my carryon. But I don’t even care about the mess I’ll deal with when I get back into The States. Because those 3 hours were solid. Possibly one of the best series of moments in my life. When it was time…when the cab came, Nirmal became emotional and I did as well. He told me again that I’m always welcome, that I am a part of their family, that I come and stay his side forever, that I am didi (sister) to Kumkum and Lalita. That if I ever need anything or if I am coming to Calcutta, I should call his Indian mobile.

Remember the broom that he bought for me a few weeks back? He’d thoughtfully wrapped it in newspaper and packing tape for me early this morning, so that I could easily get it through security. On the wrapping he left a note, written in Bengali. One side says, “Inside this package is a broom” and signed his name and the date (presumably because security would then believe that it was legitimately a broom a not some type of weapon?)

But on the other side of the paper there is a long note, written in Bengali characters. Nirmal read it to me before I left, but his English is somewhat limited. I got the general idea of the note, but I want to get it more thoroughly translated. On the way to the airport I carefully untaped the note and put it safely into a folder. I save a lot of things in life - you can ask anyone who’s lived with me. I still have old tshirts and ticket stubs from high school.  I've been trying to purge some of that stuff... But this note will be kept forever.

When it was time to go downstairs with my bags Nirmal put me and the girls and all of my bags into the lift, as that’s all that would fit. We made our way out to the sidewalk in front of No. 5 and my heart felt like it would burst. I was simultaneously sad to be leaving this family but I felt so much gratitude and love and thankfulness that they’d kept the girls home from school to see me off that I couldn’t really feel the sadness. My heart wrung itself dry watching Lalita try to drag my bag from the stairwell to the sidewalk.


Kumkum held my hand while we waited for the taxi. She just stared at me with her enormous brown eyes. I stared back, our usual form of communication through facial expressions. I felt the seriousness that filled her eyes, and her tiny sweaty hand squeezed my big sweaty hand. The cab finally pulled up. Nirmal took a few more photos on my phone of me and the girls. And then my bags were going into the trunk.

I turned to Juma. “Dhonobaad,” I said through tears, my hands clasped. “Thank you for letting me love your girls.” I asked Nirmal to translate that for me, but he couldn’t quite get what I was trying to say. I like to think Juma understood.

I knelt back down to the ground. “Shundohr,” I said to each girl, and kissed the tops of their heads. “Auntie Kristen,” said Lalita. Kumkum just smiled and stared at the sidewalk.

“Ami tomokay bhalobashi,” I said.

“I love you too!” piped Lalita’s tiny voice, and my heart melted and I knew that I had to get into the cab at that moment or else I wouldn’t. Thankfully, Nirmal got into the cab with me. We were able to talk for awhile about the girls, about Kumkum and what's going on with her in school, and about his hopes and dreams for the girls as they grow older.

After picking up Laura at Cafe Coffee Day in Girish Park, we made our way to Apollo, the hospital where I spent 5 days after the rat bite and fever. After a quick #3 rabies injection at the ER (where they totally remembered both me and Laura, including the doctor, and asked after each of us) we headed up to the 4th floor…my home base. The minute we walked through the doors and within view of the nurse’s station, they all smiled and pointed and started talking! They totally remembered us. The head nurse came and took my hand, asked about my health, etc. We explained that we were there for the last test result and they sent us in the right direction. I just found it so sweet that they all said hi to me, wished me luck on my flight and with my health. Thank you, didis.

We got to the airport in Cal and Laura dropped me with my bags. We hugged and at that particular moment, after just saying that I was okay with leaving, I felt the strongest urge to get back into the cab with Laura. I’m glad she’ll get some time to herself to enjoy the city and work at Durbar.

As I went through security, with my HUGE wrapped broom that is sticking out the top of my backpack (I’ll have my mom take a picture when I get to Newark) they almost didn’t let me through with the broom. And I threw a hissy fit! I actually started crying and telling them that a dear friend had given it to me. I showed them Nirmal’s note and the man only spoke/read Hindi, so I made him find someone who could read Bengali. The woman read the note and then looked at me and said, “Who is Nirmal?” And I said, “He’s my friend. He was the domestic worker at my apartment.” (trying to make the connection with the broom) and she said, “And…he gave you… his broom?” I almost had to laugh but instead I just said, “YES!” and then after some more tears, she finally okay’d the broom and I could have hugged her.

The flight from Cal to Bombay was uneventful… I slept a little and ate a veg meal. Now I’m in Bombay and waiting…my flight boards in 30 minutes.

I’ll update once I’m stateside!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Last Night

It's 2:46am India time and I'm not asleep yet. I leave tomorrow...technically today. So much has happened in the last 55 days...in the last 7 days...in the last 2 days. Tonight Laura and I made a list of everything I need to do tomorrow before heading to the airport. The list is daunting, but it'll get done. It hasn't really hit me that I'm leaving. Tonight was my last night and Laura and I went to Tea Trove with a friend and had pizza and tea. Then we spent a few hours talking on the roof...before "heading to bed" aka perusing Facebook and nibbling on chocolate bars for an hour instead.

I'd felt pretty apprehensive and sad about leaving up until a few days ago. Calcutta will have a place in my heart forever. There were crazy things that happened here - really hard experiences and sights and sounds and feelings that will stay with me forever. But more importantly, Calcutta gave me more than it took from me. It gave me perspective when I needed it the most. It gave me exposure to a phenomenal organization of sex workers. It taught me more about myself than I ever expected to learn. It introduced me to a family of which I'm now considered a surrogate member.


Yesterday Nirmal and Juma cooked Laura, me and the girls an amazing lunch. I wish I'd taken a picture. Afterwards we watched a Bengali movie with them and I made them all matching family bracelets...and Nirmal learned how to make one. I love when we learn from each other - it's one of the most rewarding experiences.


No more time to write...maybe more reflections while I'm waiting at the airport tomorrow. Now is the time for sleep. Not looking forward to leaving, or this flight, but looking forward to seeing my family soon... and eating the biggest steak in the world, with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli (or grilled veggies).... HINT HINT, MOM! ;-)


Saturday, July 5, 2014

And Then There Was One

Our class officially ended last Sunday, and people began flying back to The States on Monday. As the group got smaller and smaller some people had requests for the one thing they wanted to do before they go...dinner at Banana Leaf, hanging out at Sunshine, lunch at Tamarind, etc. All of our usual spots. On Monday Kris, Sandra and Beth got on their flights. On Tuesday Anjali and Muxuan. And on Wednesday Phillip, my roommate left for the airport. Watching his taxi drive away was kind of surreal. I've never had a brother, but I'd say that on this trip Phillip came the closest thing I'll ever have to one. I learned so much about myself from my interactions with him and I'm so thankful to have had him as a roommate. Phillip also taught me something else. We joke about "selfie-itis" or whatever it's called (Poppop: a selfie is when you take a picture of yourself with your phone!) and I can see how some people may become seriously obsessed with selfies and their body image. However, the amount of selfies that Phillip and I took together made me happy and feel more confident about myself! Well, except for the silly ones. Ha.

I've had a few days now to process the fact that the class is over and that I'm the only one left here in Calcutta aside from Laura, our TA. I have many feelings about the class, the research, Durbar...I don't know if I can write as eloquently as I'd hope about it, so I'll hold off until I can organize my thoughts better. However, I do know that this has been one of the most phenomenal, destabilizing, beautiful experiences of my life.
The whole group on day one of orientation
The monsoon has officially hit Calcutta. The other night we were riding in a cab to go to dinner and the streets were so flooded that it was like riding through a river!

The monsoon causes extremely heavy rains, usually in the afternoon for a few hours. But sometimes it rains all evening and causes the streets to flood.

On Thursday Laura and I joined two friends to go swimming at Calcutta Swimming Club. It was beautiful, and we had such a lovely day. Lunch at the club, swimming for a few hours, afternoon chai and then a few games of pool. It was such a strange difference from my usual days in Calcutta of walking everywhere, taking the metro, sweating to death, etc. Maybe sometime I'll write more about the dichotomy of some of my experiences here. I feel like I'm putting off writing about a lot of things, but it's just because I want to do certain subjects justice when I write about them.

My flight home is officially booked. I leave Calcutta on Tuesday evening and arrive in The States on Wednesday morning. I am finally beginning to feel a tiny inkling of readiness. I also want to clarify that no, I am not going to Thailand to work with elephants. My body has really been through the wringer, and I'm still taking a lot of medications. My immune system may be compromised, and it's probably not very safe to travel to a rural area of Thailand to work with wild animals...who knows how far the closest hospital is, if something were to go wrong. I'm still not allowing myself to feel the sadness about not getting to work with elephants... so that will come later.

For now, I am relishing all of the moments until my departure.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On Knowing

I'm feeling overwhelmed. I've just been handed a broom. A simple item...an Indian broom. The kind with long bristles, tied at the top. It was purchased for me by Nirmal as a gift while I was in the hospital, because he remembered that weeks ago I'd said I wanted an Indian broom to bring back to the states. I feel a lump forming in my throat and swallow repeatedly to make it disappear. I haven't booked a flight home yet, but it will happen soon. And I haven't begun to process what it means to leave Calcutta and especially what it means to leave the family that I've become so close with.

After thanking Nirmal profusely, I excuse myself from the group and walk up the fourteen stairs to the top of the stairwell. The late afternoon thunderstorm is just starting and I watch the lightning off in the distance while the sharp scent of Calcutta rain fills my nostrils. It's here, at the top of the internal stairwell of No. 5, that I allow my tears to flow freely. After 15 minutes or so, Nirmal comes up to cross the roof to his own home. I quickly stand and give him a big smile and try to brush past him, but he puts his hand on my shoulder to stop me. "You are okay?" he asks. "Yes." I smile. "You..." and he gestures with his hand to imitate tears running down his cheeks.

"Yes," I say. "I'm crying."

"You cry." He says.

"Yes," I say. "I am crying because dhonobaad, to you and Juma. Thank you for being my friend. Bhondu."

"You are my friend, this side," says Nirmal.

I cock my head and cross my wrists over my chest, in what I assume to be an international symbol for love and gratitude.

Nirmal puts his hand on his heart and says, "My heart. Juma heart. Kumkum and Lalita heart." He points to my heart and says, "Your heart."

I don't hide my tears.

"You go back your side soon. If you have any problem with your family, you come here. You stay my side. When you come Calcutta, we are your family this side. You call Nirmal mobile and say, 'Nirmal! I am coming!' and you come and stay our side."

"Yes," I say. I smile over and over but the tears don't stop. I can't stop them, it's too late.

"You... Kumkum and Lalita Auntie," says Nirmal. "Auntie Kristen".

"Yes," I nod vigorously. "Kumkum and Lalita. They are smart and beautiful girls. Shundohr. You are a good father."

"Kumkum and Lalita they are not you going to airport. You fly, fly, home to your side. Kumkum and Lalita no taxi to airport," he says with a smile.

I laugh, picturing the girls holding hands, barricading themselves in front of a taxi that will take me to the airport.

I put out my hand to shake Nirmal's. In India it would be inappropriate for a woman to hug a man in some contexts. Nirmal takes my hand in his, and I cover his with my other hand. We slowly nod at each other, no words needed anymore.

He knows. And I know.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Good, The Bad, The Rat Bite Fever

This morning I was woken from my hospital bed at one of the best hospitals in Calcutta to be served my 5:30am hot tea. I groggily sat up, pushed back the down comforter that kept me warm for four nights in my air conditioned single hospital room, and accepted the tea despite the early hour. As I waited for it to steep, the nurse came in to change my IV. Antibiotics had been coursing through my veins for days... healing me, making me dizzy and protecting me when my body could no longer do so. After my tea I laid back against the starched sheets and let my body go back to resting. I stared at the narrow break between the curtains, and out at the early morning mist. I was reminded of the rain in Kerala that Laura and I saw on our first night there, peeking out of our balcony door. Were we really, just days ago, in what the locals call "God's Own Land"? My days in the hospital back in Calcutta had stretched time, morphing each sleepy day into what felt like a week. Kerala felt like ages ago. But no, we were just there, enjoying the lovely lush greenery, cool monsoon breezes, amazing food and the spectacular hospitality of our classmate Anjali's family and family friends.

Now may be an appropriate time to rewind to last week.

I returned from my trip to Darjeeling in North India well rested and cooled off from the beautiful weather there. I do want to dedicate a post to Darjeeling and will do so as soon as I feel up to writing another blog post. After Darjeeling I dove into three days at field. Sandra and I began our interviews with HIV+ members of the collective Network for Positive Women. The interviews were emotionally draining for me personally, as I wasn't really prepared for all of the emotion in the room that was present from the start. We finished with field on Wednesday and then went to a wonderful home-cooked dinner at an Auntie's house in Calcutta. We got home late and I set my sights on packing for Kerala.

Kerala is a state along the west coast of South India, flanked by the Arabian Sea. Our classmate Anjali's parents were born in the state of Kerala and they have a very large family there. A few weeks ago she invited anyone who wanted to go to travel there to stay with her uncle and see the area.

We arrived in Kerala last Thursday after a flight to Bombay, followed by a flight to Cochin. Anjali's uncle and the amazing driver Suvej picked us up from the airport to begin the long journey down to Telicherry (I literally have seen this town spelled four different ways, so Anjali correct me if I'm wrong!) Driving through Kerala is like driving through a movie...there was always something beautiful outside of the van window. Palm trees, lush forests, bodies of water, stands selling coconut water on the side of the road... speaking of:

After several hours of travel and stopping in towns for bathroom breaks, food breaks, tea and coffee breaks, and the lovely homes of friends who allowed us to freshen up, we arrived in Telicherry exhausted but awestruck at Anjali's Uncle's beautiful home and surrounding land. In the morning I took a few snaps of some of the greenery:



Over the weekend we spent time with many cousins, aunts and uncles. We went to a snake park that had a great zoo, and then we stopped at Anjali's family's temple. What an amazing experience, to enter a temple with a family who can explain everything to you and welcomes you inside. It was truly a beautiful experience. We all even washed our feet in the river behind the temple before entering:

Aside from being able to meet Anjali's family and share many good laughs with them (playing charades with cousins ranging in age from 8-20, in the dark because the power went out, and in English instead of their native Malayalum lead to some pretty intense hysterics for all involved), I'd have to say the highlight of the trip was all of the amazing food that was prepared for us by hand. So many aunties and uncles and family friends heard we were coming and pitched in to help provide us with some AMAZING meals. I mean, so much food you wouldn't even believe...piled high on the tables and pushed onto our plates so quickly that we couldn't ever keep them clean! I'm going to dedicate an entire post to the food we ate in Kerala, because I was able to take some photos of everything and I know some people are super interested in the food we're eating here. So I'll do that soon.

On Saturday we spent the afternoon at the beauty salon of two family friends of Anjali's. They were SO sweet. They threaded our eyebrows, gave us pedicures and manicures, and basically pampered us...they also insisted on doing our eye makeup! After 5 weeks in the Calcutta dust and tumble, this was like paradise. Actually, at one point I believe I was even handed a coconut with a straw.

I'm also holding a piece of halwa...my new favorite dessert! I don't even know how to explain what it is, so... Google that one. We all took a photo out in front of the salon. Such sweet ladies! They noticed me practicing a waterfall braid in Laura's hair and asked me to show them, which led to lots of braiding and teaching different types of braids. So cool that I was able to show them something that they'll be able to use in their salon. And they showed me how to do a half french braid that I can't wait to try out.


This is the waterfall braid I did in Laura's hair...my second attempt ever. Rach - it's no wedding hair, but it's halfway decent, no? :)
Muxuan also got some gorgeous henna while we were at the salon:

We finished Saturday evening with a trip to the beach near Uncle's house. It was a beautiful night...we just caught the last of the sunset.


And this is where things began to go a bit downhill for me. As we were leaving the beach I recognized that I felt feverish and had chills. I'd been experiencing it on and off all day, but not enough to be super alarmed. However by the time we left the beach that night, I was feeling more and more light headed. We got in the car and began the drive home. There was bridge construction and we were stuck in traffic... I remember Laura and the others saying that we could get me home and put a cool washcloth on me, maybe I could take a cold shower and take some Tylenol. And then things went from feeling icky to feeling absolutely terrible, the worst I've probably ever felt in my life. I leaned on Laura and she realized how hot I was. I don't remember the rest of the car ride. I'm told I was hallucinating and repeating conversations that had happened days prior. My body went limp and they drove me to the hospital, where I was carried inside and assessed. My temperature was 104F. I was screaming and hitting the air in front of me. I do remember feeling like my head would burst open.

At the hospital in Kerala I was given a shot as a fever reducer, and some anti-nausea medicine, which helped immensely. Now is probably a good time to explain that 10 days ago, 5 days before this, I'd been bitten by a rat in Calcutta. That's a long story, but it happened on my ankle and... yes, it was painful and slightly traumatic (especially if you know about my history with rats in Cambridge! ::shudder::) Because of the rat bite, I've been undergoing shots for rabies over the past two weeks (four shots in about a month's time). The hospital in Kerala sent me home with instructions to keep my fever down with tylenol and to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Lucky for us, Anjali's mom is a doctor and Anjali was able to talk to her to get her opinion. Her mom's theory? Rat Bite Fever.

We'd never heard of Rat Bite Fever, but as soon as we got home and got me settled, we googled it. We were still unsure what exactly what going on with me...Rat Bite Fever seemed to fit the description and my symptoms, but we didn't know how to fix it. We figured we'd get back to Calcutta and I'd see a doctor the following day. My fever stayed down for the rest of the night, with help from Laura setting an alarm to remind me to take the Tylenol throughout the night.

The next day was our flight. After a rough (for me...and others at times) six hour car ride back to the airport, and an okay flight to Bombay, it was during our layover and airport shuttle ride to the plane to Calcutta that I began to feel really not okay again. During the flight I told Laura I could feel the fever coming back, even though I'd taken the Tylenol just a few hours before. Soon I realized that my arms, palms, legs, soles of my feet, and abdomen were on fire with a red rash and hives. What a rough flight...my friends were so incredibly helpful and such good advocates. They dealt with the airline staff and pushed for the absolute best care for me while on the plane. I'm so thankful I had them during that flight. When we landed in Calcutta we immediately headed to the hospital, where I was seen in the emergency room and was promptly admitted for four days.

Diagnosis: Rat Bite Fever, Gastroenteritis, and a Viral Infection. My body has been through the wringer and I'm taking extremely strict orders to take it easy, follow my medication schedule (about four antibiotics, an anti nausea, anti diarrhea, anti allergy, etc.), drink lots of water, and REST my body for a good week or so.

Some good came out of this experience:
-I now know how to better listen to what my body is telling me.
-I now know what it means to literally run yourself into the ground by never stopping to rest (I do think that my fever/symptoms were exacerbated by a lowered immune system).
-I made two wonderful nurse friends at the hospital, Jyothika and Greeshma*. Laura and I met them on our first morning there. They were so sweet and were part of a team of nurses that took such good care of me. Before I was discharged this morning Jyothi gave Laura and I each a rosary. It was so thoughtful, and mine is currently around my neck. I've been keeping in touch with Jytothi through Whatsapp. Both of them are 23 and fresh out of nursing school, and are also from Kerala, the region we'd just visited.
-Because they're from Kerala (as are many nurses at the hospital - around 90% we found out!) they speak Malayalum, the language native to Kerala. And Anjali speaks Malayalum. This turned out to be so lucky because Anjali was able to clearly communicate with the nurses when we first arrived at the ER in Calcutta, and during my first nights there she got many questions answered for me. I'm so thankful that I had Anjali as a resource.

-Which leads me to my last point. Throughout this experience I have been so incredibly thankful for everyone involved. Every single one of my classmates (friends, really), whether they were in Kerala or not, were a part of the support system that came together in a big way for me over the last week. From Anjali's family, who cared for me during and after the trip to the ER in Kerala, to Anjali's little 8 year old cousin who was by bedside and staring at me intently, waiting for me to wake up for the entire time I was in the ER (apparently when I opened my eyes she ran out into the waiting room shouting, "She's awake! She woke up!"), to Laura and Anjali fighting for a flight attendant to get a thermometer out of the medical box even though there was no doctor on board the aircraft, to Muxuan treking home with my suitcase once we got back to Cal while Anjali, Kris and Laura supported me in the ER and during my hospital admission...to Anjali staying the night with me and experiencing some very humble moments when I had to accept help from her for some very basic human needs...to Kris's encouraging texts and "one word checkin" while I was really struggling in the ER...to Laura visiting me every day, providing me with her own clothes, toiletries, entertainment...she even loaded my photos from my big camera onto my laptop and brought me the laptop so that I could go through the photos while sitting in the hospital. She kept my family well informed, worked with my mom to ensure a smooth billing process and was an amazing advocate (as she was when my fingers got smashed in the taxicab door). She contacted my sister for me and passed messages since I had no wifi and no way to contact anyone in the states. I was visited in the hospital by two outstanding guys, Akash and Imam, who motorbiked all the way up to North Calcutta to see me. Nirmal, our caretaker, called my hospital room to check in on me. My professor's mother, Kumkum, visited me in the hospital and also spoke to the doctor and nurses in Bengali and helped guide me through the discharge process. Phillip and Anna went through all of the food in my cabinet before I got home from the hospital to make sure I had things I could eat (I'm required to eat gluten and lactose free for awhile...) My professor TJ is not only willing to work with me since I've missed an entire week of field this week and couldn't turn in a paper on time, but has sent strength and bravery. And my family provided so much support and love from afar, the best way that they could from such a distance.

I'm so thankful to have such a supportive network at this moment in my life. I never dreamed that I'd travel halfway around the world and need to rely so heavily on people that I didn't know before three months ago. Don't send me well-wishes...instead, thank those who are surrounding me right now. Without them, I would most definitely not be in the mental, emotional, or even physical state that I am right now.

My professor sent an e-mail that said, "Right now, Kristen's health is of utmost importance." And he's right. Because of that, I'll be taking some time in Calcutta to rest my body and recover from this. If you know me, you know that I'm avoiding even thinking about the inevitable. I'm supposed to be leaving for Thailand on Sunday... in 3 days. Right now, it's not looking possible. I'm trying not to think about it too much today because it hurts my heart and I'm not ready to process it yet.

So at the moment, I'm focusing on being here in Cal and being back in the apartment instead of in the hospital room. ::Selfie Break (this one's for you, Phillip):

Morning of discharge...SO HAPPY.
The USA soccer game is on and I'm watching it with Anna while I relax on the couch with my pillow. Anna made us chai (with soymilk, mom!) earlier and it was possibly the best chai I've ever had. Maybe just because it was made by a friend when I'm not feeling 100%. I saw Kumkum and Lalita in the stairwell tonight, and they must have been told I'd been in the hospital because they were silent and solemn. I could barely get a smile out of them. But as they left, Kumkum turned around and gave me her toothy grin and stuck out her hand to shake mine - our best form of communication.

It's taken me many hours to write this update. Close to 5 hours with breaks for rest. I hope you're all well. We're up to 19 countries that have touched the blog, and over 5,690 hits at the time of posting. Amazing.

Love & Light,
K


*Jyothika and Greeshma allowed me to use their names on the blog.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

All of the Updates!

Things have been crazy, in a good way! I've been keeping a mental list of everything I want to write about but just haven't found the time to do so between course readings, paper writing, field, exploring Calcutta, and hanging out with friends.

The fingers are doing much better. Writing is still difficult, and typing is still more time consuming than it used to be, but my fingers are functional and I'm still just so thankful they're not broken. I think they feel a little bit better every day, and I imagine that they'll heal up perfectly fine with no long-term damage or anything. It still amazes me that they were properly slammed in a door and sticking out the other side, and the bones did not break!

On Friday night we went out to experience the nightlife in Calcutta. We went to The Park Hotel, which is a 5 star hotel that has a bar and a few clubs in the lobby/first floor of the hotel. At the first bar, there was live music...a band singing entirely in Spanish. We had no idea what was going on, but we paid an exorbitant amount for our drinks and enjoyed the live band, and later an even better one. Later on some other friends met up with us and we left and went dancing at one of the clubs. Nightlife in Calcutta is interesting, at least the circuit that we experienced on Friday night was. None of the women were as conservatively dressed, actually I was probably dressed conservatively in my spaghetti strap, knee length dress compared to some of them. Also, we attracted A LOT of attention at the various places we patronized. I'm getting used to being stared at, but it's still a little bizarre to be approached by random men and told that I'm beautiful. Multiple times in one night. Luckily, Laura knows a few choice phrases in Hindi. ;)
Me and our friend Aman
 Tonight we had class and I think it may have been my favorite class yet. I really connected with the readings that we did. There's one book, written by Cindy Patton (who I just found out is at Penn!) called Globalizing AIDS that I just loved. To borrow from the back of her book:

As AIDS began to appear around the "global village" in the early 1980s, the closeness brought by new technologies no longer promised wondrous cultural exchange; instead it made possible the transmission of a frightening new kind of disease. International scientific institutions and news organizations quickly constructed a "place" for AIDS in the global imaginary: from the heart of Africa and gay bathhouses in San Francisco to the back streets of Southeast Asia and poverty-stricken neighborhoods in the United States. Such simplistic accounts helped recycle racist ideas about Africans and Asians, intensified homophobic visions of irresponsible gay sexuality, and ignored the scientific and human reality of local experiences of the epidemic. 

In Globalizing AIDS, pioneering cultural critic Cindy Patton looks at the complex interaction between modern science, media coverage, and local activism during the first decade of the epidemic. Patton's critique of both the production of scientific credibility and the implementation of public health policy at the local level offers a bold reevaluation of how we think about AIDS and an innovative way to approach the reality of the disease.


Reading from her point of view about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic was fascinating and I really appreciated the raw, honest way in which she wrote.

Food... I really need to update about the food I've been eating. I'll update in pictures:
This is a masala dosa. One of my favorite foods here... it's basically potatoes, carrots and peas in a masala sauce, wrapped in a thin crispy bread. You eat it with your hands and dip it in sambar (sort of like a lentil soup) and coconut chutney. Or if you're LB, you just eat massive quantities of the coconut chutney. ;)

"Pizza"...it was actually really good! Flat dough with masala spices and pieces of melted paneer (cheese).
This is chaat. It was described to me as "kind of like nachos" and "kind of like mini wheats"...it's potatoes, chick peas, crunchy chip things and other randoms, covered in a yogurt sauce with a red chutney, topped with crunchy noodles. It's the first food in India that I wasn't fond of!

Phillip and I went to the movies with LB and Aman. We got two kinds of corn! Popcorn and Masala corn, which is basically a cup of steamed corn mixed with salt and masala spices. SOO GOOD!
Malai Kofta. Sort of like vegetarian meatballs, with naan. 
The research: So Sandra, my partner, and I have finally nailed down exactly what we'll be researching. I couldn't be more excited. The women at Durbar started a group for HIV positive women. It's called The Network for Positive Women. This group provides support for HIV+ sex workers in the collective, as well as anyone in Calcutta. They have educators, counselors, provide food for those who need it, as well as clothing. We're going to be studying the positive effects it has on women who are HIV+ or have AIDS and the success of this resource.

I've mentioned Pintu before. He's sort of our coordinator at Durbar. He works so hard to coordinate all of our schedules, make sure we have translators and also ran our entire orientation when we first arrived. He has been an invaluable resource for us, and we so appreciate his hard work. This is me and Pintu today at Durbar:

And I am still in love with the kittens that live in the Durbar offices:
Kumkum and Lalita, Nirmal's daughters, are still major parts of the sunshine in my day. Last weekend they came to our apartment and played with me for awhile. They're so expressive and hilarious. I showed them photos of my dog, Sydney and my niece Kylie. They asked if Kylie has a pink backpack (Nirmal had to translate that one for me). When I'm really missing Kylie, I find these sweet girls and they help fill that hole in my heart!
Kumkum
Lalita!
This sweet girl... me and Lalita. :)
 The other day Laura (our TA) took us to see where she lived last year when she was on the trip. She lived in New Alipore, so we got to see a new neighborhood in Calcutta and meet the caretaker at her old apartment, Maity. Laura brought him some photos from last year and a UPenn tank... it was such an emotional reunion, Maity was so happy to see her. I thought that he was going to tear up, it was so incredibly sweet. I almost cried myself. He just kept saying, "Oh ma'am. Thank you ma'am." So sweet. And also, we got to ride in a tuk-tuk for the first time!! Tuk Tuks are these crazy three wheeled taxi scooter things.
Me and Anna in the back of the tuk-tuk!



I'm probably missing a ton of stuff from the last few days, but as usual, things are a whirlwind! Tonight we're going over to hang out with Akash, one of the owner's of Sunshine, the store where we bought most of our Indian clothes. We'll probably hang out with him and end up at Fairlawn... one of the only outdoor bars I've seen here. It's super chill and they serve beer and Indian+Chinese food.
Outside of Fairlawn
Today Laura and I walked around the neighborhood for a few hours. In the moments that I have nothing to do, I find myself still staying away from the apartment...I love finding a new street to explore. We found a soccer field with an older youth soccer league starting up practice. We were so tempted to run onto the field and join in. We sat and watched them for a long time and just talked...it's so nice to have friends here. Last night Phillip, Anna and I sat on the roof until 3am and had one of those great cleansing conversations that ends in a group hug.

Oh, I almost forgot! We planned two upcoming trips. One for this weekend (Darjeeling!) and one for next weekend, to the state of Kerala. It's in southern India, next to the Arabian Sea and we'll have to fly there with a layover in Mumbai. We're going for a long weekend because Anjali has family there, who has graciously offered to host us! A man at the luggage store today told me to try the excellent seafood there...crabs and lobster. I'll get back to my Marylanders about how they compare. ;) 

Time to sign off... I have to get in the shower before we head to Sunshine. I wish I could write more. There's always more to say. I'll be back soon.

With love,
K

PS. I still don't want to leave. 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Being Here.

I find myself avoiding calendars and figuring out the date. I know that now that it's June, every number that I see will be closer to 29... June 29th, the day I leave. It's somehow, impossibly three weeks from tomorrow. How am I so attached to a place I'd never been to less than a month ago? It's more than this just being the first place I've ever visited outside of the states. It's more than just the fact that my experience is heightened because I am immersed in the culture here instead of being a "tourist". It's Calcutta itself...raw and bright and alive. Dusty and efficient and loud.

"Listen with your whole body," says Kofi Annan.

I'm listening. I hear Bengali and Hindi. I hear the thwacking of a machete against bamboo, the sizzling and popping of street vada in hot oil, the coughing and wheezing of the woman with her hand outstretched for money, the clink of shot glasses at an upscale club, the shrieks from the toddler a few floors down that echo in the scorching, humid stairwell. I hear the spinning of fans in every indoor space I enter, hear tile floors and shop stoops being brushed off with brooms made of long bristles and tied at the top with leather.

I hear the words of sex workers ringing in my ears long after I've left Sonagachi for the day.

I hear the voice in my head, constantly wondering, calculating, converting, and translating.

Wondering if what I'm wearing is appropriate, if my research here will be meaningful, what that man is thinking as he stares at me without abandon. Calculating how much I'm spending on groceries at the store (1400 rupees) or how much the bill will be at Banana Leaf, if I have the right denominations- for at any point in time I could be carrying with me 5, 10, 20, 100, 500 or 1000 rupee notes. Converting how much I'm spending in American dollars...1400 rupees for groceries that will last me two weeks converts to roughly $24. The best coffee in the world at Banana Leaf is 29 rupees, which converts to roughly fifty cents. We haggle with cab drivers, begging to pay 50 rupees less, and then we remember that we're talking a difference of less than 1 American dollar. The constant translation of words, facial expressions, gestures, and looks.

"Don't just be here," says Aman. "You have to BE here. Experience as much of everything as you can. Really BE here."