Monday, February 18, 2013

Dressing up and Remembering

1. Saraswati Puja is another festival here. It celebrates the goddess of education and knowledge and was held on Friday, Feb 15. I think that is a good omen for the future of the Lakhtokia kids' education (and it is worth mentioning that I prayed to her for help and advice). The celebrations are held in any place that offers services related to young people and education, from pre-schools to colleges. These schools will gather their current students and alumni together to celebrate Saraswati. And throughout the day individuals and families will make offerings to her.


Also on Saraswati Puja, every woman dresses up in a new sari or mekhala chaddar (which is the Assamese version of a sari). And when I mean they get dressed up, I mean dressed to the nines. They are supposed to look absolutely beautiful on this day. Almost EVERY single female of ALL ages has on a sari or mekhala chaddar, which is not usually the case.

To celebrate, I wore a mekhala chaddar all day long like all the other females. I thought I got a lot of stares for being a foreigner, but being a foreigner in a traditional Indian outfit gets every single eye on you. I first went to the Don Boscoe School, where the afternoon school program invited me to take part in their festivities. I worshiped Saraswati Puja and ate delicious Kitchari, which is traditional Puja food.


Don Boscoe School celebrating Saraswati Puja.
Then, I went with some of the girls from the Operation Smile center to Handique Girls College. At the risk of making this rather confusing, Saraswati Puja is also known as the Indian version of Valentines Day. Since all of the girls are all dressed up, looking absolutely stunning, males think that this is the perfect day to find a Valentine sweetheart. At the Handique Girls College, there were hundreds and hundreds of young and beautiful girls, reciting prayers to the goddess and mingling with friends. Outside of the campus were hundreds of boys, girl watching. Although the boys were wearing jeans, they too had prepped themselves by obviously gelling their hair and getting all duded up.
Handique Girls College
Worshipping Saraswait Puja. 
Kitchery time (notice the beautiful colors). 

I also saw six couples holding hands that day. That is more couples holding hands than I have seen altogether in the past five months I have been here.

2. Remember Renuka? The girl whose uncle pulled her out of her abusive home and got her surgery at the hospital? Well, Menakshi (the child life intern) and I have had a hard time getting her and her uncle back to the center for follow up because of money issues. Yes, Operation Smile reimburses the patient, but patients still have a hard time getting money together to pay for the transportation here. So, after Menakshi and I dug up their phone number from their medical file and made repeated phone calls to them, Alison Smyth came to the rescue.

Alison Smyth is a volunteer from Ireland who writes patient stories for Operation Smile. She came back to Assam to complete an eight-month follow-up interview with several patients. After filling Alison
in on Renuka’s story, Alison decided that she would try and fit in a visit to Renuka’s house on her travels. Alison got to visit Renuka, and she started school today, Monday, February 18! Thank you Saraswati. Good luck Renuka on your second day (even though you do not need it).

3. Remember Rupa? Rupa and her family live below the hospital. I see Rupa and her siblings every day and love playing with these adorable, energetic children. Recently, MMC Hospital, which is where GC4 is located, got taken over by the biggest and best hospital in Guwahati: GMC Hospital. As a result, there are lots of changes being made to the hospital. (The hospital has never been as clean as it is now.)

But the new ownership has kicked Rupa and her family out because their house is no longer there. What used to be shack under the wheelchair ramp is now just empty space.

Every time I walk past their house, I am used to waving and yelling with a big smile, “Hello Rupa, Hello Shamir.” I am used to the kids running out, waving, and giving a high five. But now, I turn to my
right and there is no one to wave to, or smile to, or play with. I cannot stop thinking about where they have gone. They did not have anywhere to go. The hospital was their longtime home. A comfortable,
familiar home—that’s all this LARGE family wanted.

4. I am now in Kolkata for an Operation Smile International Mission. After Kolkata, I will be traveling to Agra (to see the Taj Mahal) and Delhi (to meet my parents). Then, I will return to Guwahati to show my parents what I have been up to. Mom, be sure to bring motion sickness medicine… the driving is crazy! And following our stay in Guwahati, we will go north to the beautiful tea town of Darjeeling.

I am sad that I have to leave at a time when the girls from Lakhtokia are beginning to go to school. At the same time, I feel that this break has come at a perfect time when my empathy for these children is overwhelming and I can have time to think about the best options as far as education goes for these kids.

Sending smiles from India,

Friday, February 15, 2013

Happy ValenKINDs Day!

There is nothing better than walking into Lakhtokia, seeing the girls washing themselves off with water, putting on their best outfits, getting their notebooks, and then grabbing onto my hand to go to school. There is nothing more difficult than controlling eight girls for the ten-minute walk from Lakhtokia to school. There is nothing more adorable than seeing two girls from Lakhtokia show up to school on their own because they were late meeting up with us in the slum. There is nothing harder than having to listen to a stranger tell you, and THIS HAPPENS EVERY DAY, “Do not give these kids anything because once you do, they will not leave you alone.” There is nothing more rewarding than hearing the teacher tell you, “Avita learned how to hold a pencil today. She was so excited that she just kept smiling and drawing with her new grip.” There is nothing more frustrating than having to understand that you can take the girl out of the slum but not the slum out of the girl, even though that may sound too brutal to say.

For me, there is nothing more exciting that running down the street, screaming “SCHOOOOOOOOOOOOOL” with the girls.

As I was walking home from dropping the kids off yesterday, I broke down again. This was Valentines Day. There are moments when you think anything is possible with these kids, and the next minute one of them is begging you for food after you just bought her a pair of shoes for school. The frustration that comes with little moments of optimism can drive you insane.

Apart from taking the girls to and from school, a new development walked into my life the other day. When I went to talk to the coordinator about bringing the girls from Lakhtokia to school, she also explained how they did not have enough teachers for the afternoon program. She asked me if I could teach english or another subject. Of course, I said yes! This is perfect since I have to drop off and pick up the girls, and now I can stay and teach. So now I am teaching English to the older kids. On Tuesday, I taught class six and seven. On Wednesday, I taught class nine and ten. (I am not quite sure the ages of the classes because when I have asked the ages of the students, they have ranged from 10 to 18.) The first English class had three subjects… 1. How to Introduce Yourself, 2. I, You, He/She, etc., 3. Body Parts.

Group picture with class nine and ten! 
Evening school teachers! 
The day after I taught my first class, the students were coming up to me asking all of the introduction questions I had taught them. "Hello, how are you doing?" And later on in the week, they were coming up to me naming their body parts. That seemed like progress. I know only a little Hindi and very limited Assamese, but with my dances, and songs, and games that I have going on in my classes, I think the students might be able to pick up some English. One student told another teacher, “I have never had a teacher who moves around so much and is so energetic.” Ooops… I've always had energy, and now it seems to be paying off.

Sending smiles and valentines from India,

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Small Victories

I recently told you all that my roommates and I would be trying to help the kids from Lakhtokia go to school. Last week, I met with a top official at a local school to push this idea along. Don Boscoe School, a well-known Catholic school in Guwahati, has an afternoon school program for lower income kids. From 3:30-5:30, the teachers there volunteer their time to teach a rowdy group of kids everything from math to science to Assamese history and English.

Before actually bringing the Lakhtokia kids to some of these afternoon classes, I described the state of these kids to the school official. I explained how they are not clean, have never been to school, are out on the streets all day long, know nothing about authority, etc. I went into great detail. She said that was fine and that most of the kids in the program come in that way.

On Sunday when I went to the slum to feed the kids, we asked some of the girls if they were interested in going to school the next day. We told them that if they were, they needed to meet us at the makeshift temple in the slum at 3 o'clock on Monday. Honestly? We were expecting that we might have zero girls show up. I mean seriously, how on earth would they even know it was 3 o'clock?

So when the time came on Monday, Kristin and I started making the walk from the hospital to Lakhtokia. When we got there, two girls, who are around six years old, were ready and waiting for us nea the temple. Upon seeing us, these two girls' faces lit up as bright as the sun. To them, it was obviously dawning on them that this was not some joke, but a real thing! It was  time to go to school!

For a few minutes Kristin and I went on in search of more people to join us. We found another girl who wanted to go but could not because she could not leave her baby brother. What the heck, we decided to take him with us.

Walking to school.

I felt like a school bus with not enough arms. As we walked to the school, the three girls and one boy wanted to hold our hands for the 15-minute walk to Don Boscoe. Before long, it was up the five flights of stairs to the school's afternoon program. I found myself getting really nervous, like my first day of school. I grabbed on to their little hands even tighter—none of my hands had circulation at this point. When we got there, the other after school kids were beginning to line up for their “assembly” that marks the beginning of their afternoon. The girls stayed very quiet and very close to Kristen and me.

When I saw the coordinator, she looked completely shocked. I was not quite sure what had happened but it was dawning on me there had been a serious miscommunication problem. In short, she said the kids needed to come to school looking presentable, at least with shoes and cleaner bodies. I came back at her and explained that I had told her how the kids were going to show up and that she had said in the meeting that was okay. I said what was school for, after all? She apologized a bit for the lack of explanation but continued to put the girls down. It got bad. She finally said they needed to look like "human beings."

At some point, I snapped because I couldn't take it any more. Even though our slum girls can't understand English, they could feel what she was saying. The looks on their faces said this: that they knew they were not going to be accepted at this school either. They clutched on to our hands. It was awful. I laid out my case very clearly. Kristin and I were not going to leave with them still in our arms. That would have been so disappointing to them. And also to us.

At some point, the coordinator told us to put the girls in the line that was being formed for the assembly. After placing them in line, the coordinator started lecturing them on cleanliness and hygiene. It was clear the coordinator did not want them at school that day. But it looked like it was going to happen.

Waiting in the assembly line.

Standing in line.

After the assembly, which lasted about ten minutes, the girls ran back to grab our hands. They just gathered around us, still very worried and still totally understanding that this was a touch and go situation. I felt like a mom dropping off a baby: so nervous and so sad as we told them to now go into the classroom.

And off they went—walking in and sitting at desks. Meanwhile, I still had the baby brother with me. So at that point I realized I needed to take him back to the slum. I got in a rickshaw with him. Once I sat down, I just broke down in tears. Nobody gives these kids a chance. And it just kills me. They want a chance but they cannot get it. This is not their parents, or law enforcement, or priests telling them to go to school. They themselves want the opportunity to go to school, and it isn't easy.
I got it back together. After I dropped off the boy and got back to the school, the girls left their classroom and had dinner, which is part of the program. It only costs one rupee, or about 2 cents. When dinner was over, we walked them back home. (Along the way a woman spit on me because I was walking with these kids… Have a great day lady…) Meanwhile, the kids were all saying “Cali, cali, tinne, tinne,” which means "Tomorrow, tomorrow, at 3, at 3!"

So I guess the teacher paid attention to them in class. And vice versa. I hope so.

First day of school group.


It’s the second day of school! When I got to Lakhtokia, the girls were getting all clean. It was the most adorable thing I had ever seen. Somehow, they had gotten hold of some water. And they were splashing it all over themselves, trying to put a dent in the soot and dirt and grime that is part of their skin. And then they began putting on their best outfits, brushing their hair, and safely guarding the notebooks they had been given on the first day of school. One thing they were lacking: shoes. The girls wanted me to buy them some shoes, so we detoured into a little store and bought some. They were simple flip flops that they picked out. Then we were off on the “Hannah School Bus.”

While looking for the girls on the second day of school, I found some of my other friends.

Mother putting Abita's hair into a ponytail.

Abita washing herself off.
Cleaning away.
One of the older girls, Puja, who is probably twelve years old, wanted to join in today too. We were already running behind because of the shoe excursion and Puja was not clean and had on a dirty dress. The younger ones explained to her what she needed to do, so she told us she would get ready and then meet us at the school. When we got there, the girls hopped right in the assembly line and seemed to fit in better. And before I knew it, Puja had found her way to the fifth floor, clean and dressed in her best outfit, ready for her first day too. At the school's dinner, she was sitting with other girls that she had met in class—making new friends!

Puja (a picture taken a couple of months ago).

Puja eating with her new friends. 
While I was there, the teachers drew me aside. They explained the difficulties faced when teaching these children. These children have never sat, listened to someone else, tried to focus, for two hours, in their lives.  First, the teachers told me the students needed to learn basic discipline. But already, they are learning things—they have learned the alphabet and how to hold a pencil. I hope they are beginning to learn how to listen.

There are so many barriers. But I am hoping this is a start to something. I don't know what that "something " is, but I feel what we did is the right thing to do, even though we really don't know where it goes or where it ends.

Sending smiles from India,

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Elephants, rhinos, and buffalos, oh my!

The past two days, I have been in Kaziranga National Park. Kaziranga is a UNESCO world heritage site located in eastern Assam. It is most famous for having the largest number of one-horned rhinos in the world. In addition to those, there are wild buffalo, deer, elephants, tigers (very few), beautiful birds, and the list goes on.
Guwahati to Kaziranga National Park. 
Wildlife population status 
Kaziranga in the early morning.
I went there with Susan, an Operation Smile nurse living in Guwahati. We stayed at the Wild Grass resort, which I highly recommend to anyone planning to visit this beautiful park soon. They have the tourist’s visit down to a science.

The cultural program at our hotel: Tea garden dancing. 
Nothing much is in the small village of Kaziranga itself. There is a large tea plantation, a few hotels and other places for tourists to stay. There are huts and schools and small markets. You really cannot even put Guwahati and Kaziranga in the same sentence—they are so different. I reached Kaziranga at night after a 4-hour car drive from Guawahati. I could not see much, but I immediately noticed the scent of  “fresh” air. The atmosphere did not smell like dust or pollution or trash, but it smelled like trees and plants. There were other differences—I heard crickets and the birds while falling asleep, and not trains or honking cars. The first night I was there, not knowing what Kaziranga looked like, I found myself taking a deep breath. Sometimes getting away from the constant “overload of the senses” can be a relief.

Another difference I noticed between Kaziranga and Guwahati was this—everyone in the village waves. You mostly travel around Kaziranga in an open jeep, and the kids walking to school or the women sitting outside their houses will immediately smile and wave at you. Kaziranga is such a friendly and welcoming place that by the end, I was waving to everyone!

The first morning of my visit, Susan and I took an elephant ride as part of an "elaphant safari." We got up at 5:30 to our hotel wake up, which was a knock on the door and two glasses of delicious tea from the tea plantation down the street. After driving ten minutes in an open jeep with fresh cool air blowing in my face, I saw elephants. For those of you who do not know me, I love elephants. Actually, I am obsessed with elephants. Upon our arrival, there was a 6-month-old elephant “greeting” people. HEAVEN! He just walked around, sticking out his trunk to shake our hand.

Kaziranga in the early morning.
Driving to the elephant safari.  
Susan and I got to ride on top of an elephant for an hour. I kept having to tell myself, “Oh my gosh, I am on top of an elephant in India.” I actually thought I was in a dream for the first half of the elephant safari.

The guides were very knowledgeable and sweet. While riding, they would sit on the elephant’s neck, with their bare feet behind the elephant’s ears. The pressure of their feet sends a message to the elephants about when to go, when to stop, when to turn, etc. Each guide spoke English, which is surprising, as the guides come from poor backgrounds. They ride the same elephant every morning, so they become best friends with that elephant. In a sense, they are “in charge” of that elephant and take care of them through out the day. I was worried that going on this elephant ride would support mistreatment of elephants. But from what I saw, the elephants were well treated, and after the ride, they were allowed to roam freely.

Susan and I rode an elephant named Babon. A massive mammal, Babon was so sweet. I spent much of the elephant ride watching Babon and the other elephants eat. With their trunks, they grab clumps of grass, slap it on their legs as if they are cleaning it, and then stick it in their mouths. It is fascinating. After the elephant safari, I got to spend time with Babon, petting him. He was so sweet that I proposed to him and he said yes. We are getting married this week so hurry and book your flight! 

Babon the elephant!
Riding the elephant.
Petting Babon.
Hugging the elephants
While riding the elephants, we got super close to one-horned rhinos, buffalos, and deer. The one-horned rhinos look fake—they look as if they are built out of metal. They do not have good eyesight, so you can tell when they hear or smell you. Usually, when they know you are around, they will look up from their meal and begin to back away. Getting so close to them and seeing the rhinos in their natural habitat was unreal.

Baby rhino and the protective mommy. 

That afternoon, we went on a jeep safari. I really enjoyed seeing the animals in their natural habitat, all living together, and eating together.  For example, we saw a deer eating three feet away from a buffalo. Each animal minds his or her own business. Most of these animals are very protective of their children and when they sense danger to their children they get angry. Of all the animals in the park, the tiger is the only threat. We saw skeletons of animals that had been killed and eaten by tigers. You have to be a lucky tourist to see a tiger, and we were not. On the jeep safari, a park ranger who came with us was equipped with a massive gun in case a rhino stampeded us. The park guides are trained to know when a rhino looks calm and when it looks threatening.
Protection for the jeep safari. 
Wild buffalo
One threat to Kaziranga are the poachers. A poor poacher who kills a rhino and cuts off his horn can make $400 right away. But ultimately as the horn enters the black market it can sell for as much as $150,000. Wow! The Kaziranga Park has ranger stations all over the place to catch poachers. The poachers usually come in the very early morning or in the evening.

On our second morning there, I went on another elephant ride. I had to see Babon before I left again! The elephant ride was so nice, with the fresh breeze blowing in my face and animals going about their business. When I left, I waved away to Babon. If he comes to Guwahati, I'm sure he'll look me up.

I love Babon!

Sending smiles from India,

More photos from the trip: 

Watching the rhinos live their life.
The deer

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Renuka's love

At the Operation Smile center, I am trying to collect stories of patients who have been affected by their cleft lips or cleft palates in significant ways. With the help of the child-life assistant, Menakshi, I am hoping to gather stories that show how much a surgery can help children in Assam and all over the world.

Last week, Menakshi came to find me to say that I MUST interview this 9-year-old girl and her uncle. With the help of Menakshi as the translator, the uncle and I talked and this is what I learned.

Renuka Ghatowar is, like any nine-year-old girl, intelligent, playful, and ready to love anyone and everyone. Most 9-year-old girls go to school, make friends, and play with their family. Not Renuka. Renuka has had to fight to receive love, fight for a caring family, and fight for a fair life.

Renuka and her loving uncle.

With four siblings, she is the second oldest and only one with a cleft lip. When her alcoholic father is home, he beats her up because of her cleft lip. Renuka’s Uncle took her away from her family because, in his own words, “I did not feel good about it.” Although the uncle is married and has two kids, he decided to take in his niece in so that he can provide everything he possibly can. Through the Accredited Social Health Activist program (ASHA), he discovered that Renuka could have cleft lip surgery for free at the Guwahati Comprehsive Cleft Care Centre. He jumped on the opportunity right away.

The uncle told me that Renuka really wants to go to school. She attended kindergarten at the age of 6 but when she was pulled out of her father's home her schooling was interrupted. Regardless, the school was not very accepting with regards to her cleft lip. The uncle’s goal for Renuka is that she go to school. Renuka is very excited about returning to school and being able to do what other 9-year-olds do.
Renuka sporting fairy wings.

When Renuka arrived to child-life (the space that patients stop by before surgery: here they learn about what will happen in the operating room etc) after a four-hour travel from Nagaon, she was so excited for surgery. She was aware of how much better she would look after going to sleep, and could not wait to see the results. Renuka has given love her whole life, and now it is time to be on the receiving
end of the love game. 

The after photo (a little bloody but that's normal).

She got surgery on Friday, and I went in Saturday morning to take a photo of her and say hello. She jumped out of her bed when she saw me, waving and practicing her wink, which I taught her the day before. I pointed to the lip and said “tunia,” which means beautiful in Assamesse. She nodded her head energetically and kept winking. 

Renuka will be back on Thursday for her one-week follow up. I will be sure to write an update and provide a follow up photo.

Sending smiles from India,

All smiles!
Friends forever :)