Archives for: July 2007
Overall, I would say the cultural experience was the best part of my trip. I love learning about people and different cultures, especially trying to discover WHY another culture is the way it is. History is really an important key to this, since if you can trace the history of a culture, you can often see how certain patterns of behaviour emerged as an adaptation to daily life. I have read quite a few novels (many with lots of historical context) about India and became fascinated by it, which is part of what inspired me to go on this trip.
I found the people in India to be very dignified, respectful, and eerily calm! Despite (or due to?) the incredible chaos, desperation, and physical danger of daily life, there is a sense of spirituality that permeates everything. People in India seem to have mastered remaining detached from the external environment while remaining intimately connected with the collective population. And even I (control freak and cultural outsider) was able to embrace this fateful outlook and literally flow through traffic, crowds, animals, and whatnot… At least some of the time! What an interesting feeling that was.
I am trying to hang on to that feeling here, with some success, but I have to make a conscious effort. I tend to rush everywhere and I’m almost obsessed with sprinting down the long hall to the subway when I can hear or see a train coming and I know I can just make it if I run as fast as I can… So, lately, before I leave my house I remind myself that “I am calm and collected” and that there is no need to rush. When I’m commuting to work in the morning, I try to float above all the people and when I’m taking an escalator, I try to consciously “stand right” not “walk left”. I’m doing OK…
The best explanation I heard for the culture in India was that in India (and much of Asia), religion and culture are nearly indistinguishable from one another. Religion is a guide for how to live life and sets a pattern of cultural norms and values that reflect the “proper” way to live. While not everyone in India is Hindu, Hinduism strongly impacts the culture because it reaches into all areas of life. And while there is formal worship for sure, it is not so “obligatory” or chore-like as it seems in North America. Being a good Hindu does not seem to hinge so heavily on whether one faithfully goes through the religious motions, but has more to do with how everyday life is lived and whether one follows the core values of Hinduism. To me, this is really what religion SHOULD be – a guide for living one’s best life and achieving peace and balance. One night during the first week, the OB/GYN we preceptored with brought us along with her to a friend’s house to attend their weekly worship and celebration for their guru. As an aside, nearly every Indian I met had a guru, a spiritual leader whom they look to for guidance and inspiration. This celebration was lovely – music, singing, reading, and finally meditation on one particular lesson for that week. Afterwards, there was a small potluck, then back to work! I was so touched that these strangers would welcome 6 bumbling med students into their home to take part in such a personal ceremony.
I noticed that in India there seemed to be no boundaries. No boundaries between people and animals or people and machines. Behaviour seemed to depend on the whim of the person acting – people did not concern themselves with attempting to control the behaviour of other people. If you want to drive faster, you could pass the vehicle in front of you, honk your horn, drive on the wrong side of the road (temporarily!), or even leave the road entirely! Cows and dogs lived where they chose, alongside people, who also lived where they could make a home. Men, women, and children bathed in the river on a whim. Many roads had no dividing lines, and the city I was in had only one stoplight that I ever saw. However, I still felt that my personal space and my body were respected. Nobody grabbed me, blocked my path, or stuck their hands in my pockets. Even in crowds, I was never badly jostled and I never felt like I would be robbed or groped.
When I travel, I try to cultivate a truly open mind and to absorb (as much as possible) the culture I am in, rather than assuming that I know what will be construed as polite or rude... This is incredibly hard to do and demands that one be extra observant, especially when immersed in culture so different from North America. Finally, here are a couple of stories of how what I considered polite was actually perhaps inappropriate in India:
During the first week with my host family, I made sure to say “thank you” following every meal because I wanted to show them how much I appreciated having 3 hot meals each day cooked from scratch! From the start, I was kind of confused by their reaction, which seemed to be a mixture of annoyance and discomfort. However, the last thing I wanted to do was imply that they were making me uncomfortable, so I just ignored it. Later in the week, after many “thank yous” had been made, they finally asked us to STOP thanking them! They explained that because they were welcoming us into their home like family, it was unnecessary (and even inappropriate) for us to thank them constantly because with family you do not need to exchange such pleasantries. They told us that it was making them uncomfortable and asked us to save our thanks for the end of the week…
It took me many more weeks to pick up on the fact that Indians are not so concerned with saying an official “hello” or “good bye” as I am. The best examples of this occurred when I would talk on my cell phone with the program coordinators. If I called them, they would answer with “hello”, but it was a lot quieter and mumbled than I’m used to and it would confuse me! The reverse would happen when I would answer with a distinct and loud “hello” – it seemed to really creep them out… The funniest thing to me was “good bye”. I can’t even count the number of times that the coordinators would simply hang up without warning when the conversation was done, leaving me confused. And when I would say “good bye” first, they would always answer with a very strange “uh, good bye” as if I had said something really strange…
Considering that eating ranks high among my favourite activities, it only seems proper to begin recounting my experiences in India by discussing food. And as we are all aware, health follows naturally from food, so I’m going to cover that topic too!
My month in India marks the closest I have ever come to being a vegetarian. Other than a few servings of eggs, 2 trips to McDonald’s (driven by a need for protein), and one fantastic dinner of lamb in garlic sauce, I did not eat any animal products other than butter (which I applied liberally to everything possible, just to get something other than starch in my diet) and some other dairy (only during the first week) for the entire 4 weeks.
First off, social norms in India dictate that you MUST eat everything on your plate because wasting food is a major faux pas, for obvious reasons. Initially, my host family served us plates already filled with food, which meant that I had no choice but to eat what I was given and then get seconds of what I actually wanted to eat. This also meant that I ate copious amounts of wheat and dairy for the first few days. They soon observed that we liked some foods more than others, so then started allowing us to serve ourselves. After the first few days of eating dairy at every meal, I started to have some pain in my right ear, where I am sometimes prone to infections. At this point I stopped eating dairy entirely, and the pain disappeared. Wheat was harder to avoid, since it was the staple food in every meal!
A “typical” meal consisted of: rice, chapati bread, dal (made from one of: peas, lentils, chick peas, black eyed peas, mung beans, gram, kidney beans, soy cakes), and a vegetable (usually some combination of potato, cauliflower, eggplant, peppers). Sometimes there would also be raita, which is yogurt mixed with spices and chunks of vegetables (often cucumber). Breakfast would be a bit different. While living with my host family, we had “sprouts” a few times, which was tomato, onion, cucumber, and lentils or beans that had been soaked and started to sprout. This was my favourite breakfast because it was refreshing and not so starchy. However, usually we would have poha, a rice paper, cabbage, pepper, and peanut casserole type thing that I also liked and would be eaten with “snack sauce” which was essentially ketchup. If we didn’t have one of the above dishes, breakfast would consist of bread and butter, and maybe a piece of fruit. The fruit in India was amazing! Bananas, mango, musk melon, watermelon, and pineapple were the most common, always fresh and so delicious! I ate more mangos than I ever have before and I still wanted more!
The most notable physical effect was that I lost 10 pounds in just under 3 weeks, most of that no doubt being muscle. My clothes were literally falling off me when I left the country and most people told me I looked way too thin when I got home. I attribute this drastic weight loss to the change in diet (major deficiency of protein), the heat (eliminated my appetite), constant walking/hiking, and just plain day to day stress of culture shock, getting around, over-stimulation, etc. In the 4th week I consciously tried to eat more and gained back a couple pounds and then gained back the rest in my first week home!
Considering how much wheat I ate, I survived remarkably well! I think this is thanks to much healing achieved in the last year or two via BTD, homeopathy, and a consistently healthy lifestyle. I took Polyflora and Deflect daily, which kept my digestive system working as usual. I was fortunate enough to avoid any GI sickness for the whole 4 weeks while most (if not all?) other students in my program got sick (either with full-blown food poisoning or at least chronic diarrhea)! Most people resorted to Immodium and/or Cipro (broad-spectrum antibiotics) at some point, but I didn’t even bring those with me.
I wasn’t very anal about what I ate, excluding one day when I washed mangoes (bought on the street) and my knife (also bought on the street) with Purell before cutting them up to eat… I ate quite a few mysterious things, including what I guessed to be cornstarch/fat/sugar/spice balls given to us in a village by a family hosting a wedding the next day. These things were literally dripping with fat, but I was so hungry that I ended up eating many of them (I lost count) on an empty stomach and I STILL had no problem digesting them! And they sure were delicious…
However, I did come down with a pretty nasty respiratory infection in the 3rd week, while we were in the city where the air was extremely smoggy. I think I managed to just narrowly prevent full-blown pneumonia. I possibly had “walking pneumonia”, since I felt fine, but had the most extreme chest congestion I’ve ever experienced plus lots of strange noises (popping, crackling, wheezing) when I breathed deeply. Anyway, I DID NOT want to complain to any of the doctors I was preceptoring with that week since although I liked all of them a lot and respected them as professionals, I knew that as soon as they examined me they would pump me full of antibiotics and I would have little say in the matter. So, I managed to hang in until the end of that week, not getting better or worse. The 4th week we moved to a small village in the Himalayas (quiet, clean air, more exercise, yoga/meditation daily) and I immediately started to get much better, although it still took a full week for me to breath without crazy noises!
While I was in the city I also had some strange eye reactions. One day one of my eyes got very puffy and developed a dark red area below it. Idiotically, I decided to give it a vigourous wash with tap water, which just irritated it further! Then I realized I should probably wash it with bottled water, so then I washed both my eyes with bottled water by basically pouring it into my eyes over the sink (not pleasant!). At this point, both my eyes were red, puffy, and itchy, so I decided I should leave them alone! The next morning my eyes were still pretty puffy and the area between my eyes over my nose had completely flattened out due to the swelling! However, apart from looking kind of strange, I felt OK and decided to just leave well enough alone. Again, this approach seemed to work out and after a few days my eyes were fairly normal again (although they didn’t fully recover until I left the city).
So here I am, back in Canada - healthy and happy!
So, I’m back from my travels to Arizona and India! I have so many things to blog about, I am overwhelmed… IfHI, India, plus I just saw the movie Sicko…
I am also having some sort of streak of luck or good fortune right now that is hard to believe… Opportunities are coming to me in many areas of life and I’m just trying to find a place for all of them.
With my overactive mind, I of course have lots of thoughts and ideas being generated, but I am short of processing time right now. So, I promise blogs eventually… Just wanted y’all to know I am still here!