My flight arrived to Raipur from Mumbai on time and I’m currently waiting for the ambulance/jeep from the hospital to pick me up for the 1.5 hour drive to Mungeli.
The morning went OK, only three hours of sleep but my body is still switching over to being 11.5 time zones away. The Daisy Residency hotel, described by my Indian host Anil as “that dingy little place,” stirred awake as I entered the lobby around 5:10 am. The desk attendant was sleeping on one of the lobby couches; the boy who had met me at the airport last night was asleep on the floor.
We chatted a bit – me with my non-existent Hindi, they with their non-existent English – and had a cup of tea together. Psy was on the TV, doing that Gangam style thing, then the channel switched and we were watching cricket – a sport I have yet to fully understand.
A quick ride on nearly deserted streets got me to the Mumbai airport with plenty of time to check in, get through security and grab a latte and veg roll for breakfast.
Speaking to a Brit in the boarding area who was headed to a different destination, we discuss our impressions of India. He works for a multinational personal care company with its biggest operations and gross sales in India. He’s been here dozens of times and we both agree on how different India is from anywhere else in the world. He also echoes what I read in the morning paper – many Indian business leaders are calling for less democracy, which for them often results in layers of bureaucracy, in business development practices.
On the surface this seems like the “smaller government is good” argument often levied by conservative and tea-party forces in the US against regulatory practices. Underneath the conservative/liberal argument the US may experience though is a highly entrepreneurial country that longs for expansion. I wonder aloud if deregulation, especially in terms of working conditions and environmental practices, might be bad for India in the long term. “Ah, there’s the rub…” he says, and we depart for our respective gates.
So, here’s one thing you need to know about India if you plan to travel here. Prepare to have your personal space invaded. Prepare to have every socially normative personal distance norm you have accumulated throughout your North American life shattered. Prepare for people to touch you, hold you, rub you and otherwise make body contact with you in ways that would send you screaming back home. Prepare for big guys and tiny women to see you as the impediment between you and getting where the need to go no matter how impractical their progress may seem. And if they need to crawl over you, all sweaty and half-naked, that is not a problem for them. Though it will probably be a problem for you.
One friend described India as “a billion people with no concept of a queue,” and he is partially right. More importantly the queue, or line as we say in the US, is a social norm for keeping bodies separated by a polite distance. This social norm does not exist in most of Indian culture.
When you are standing in line getting ready to board the bus to your airplane in India, you are not really in line. You are in a herd, or a school of fish, that is eagerly orienting itself toward a common spot. You may or may not get there in the order that you started.
When you are sitting next to a large-ish man on an airplane, it is totally acceptable for him to splay himself over both armrests and expect you to rest your folded arms on top of him.
When you stand up to depart said plane, it is also totally acceptable – no matter how far back you are in the plane – to jostle your way as far forward as you can get, or until said large-ish man gives you a gentle but stern reminder that you may be offending the westerner standing next to him…
I was aware of this dynamic more during my last trip to India. This time, I hardly notice. There is a bit of “standing your ground” involved, but it isn’t in the American “this is my space” sort of way. It is a general assertiveness that pervades Indian culture and an Indian says it is partly a carry-over from a time where the caste system ruled the pecking, and line placement, order. When the caste system was abolished it granted impunity to lower castes who were suddenly able to “get their own” without fear of prosecution, though rampant persecution still exists.
Landing in Raipur I get my bag and find my favorite bicycle chain rimmed blue aluminum luggage tag is mission. The clasp was a screw and I guess it came undone, or someone in the Mumbai luggage really liked it. It has been on my bag for hundreds of flights. I will miss it dearly as it was #1) bicycling oriented and #2) unique enough that I could pick my bag out from all the other black “Travel Pro” bags on the conveyor. Bummer.
Outside I wait for the white ambulance jeep mentioned at the beginning of this post. After a not too unreasonable wait, a maroon SUV pulls up and out walks a driver who looks familiar to me. He holds up a sign saying, “Mr. Rev. Gregg Brekke” and I confirm that it is indeed Virendra from the Christian Hospital Mungeli. We load bags and begin the drive, again with my Hindi skills and his English competing for the silence in the car.
The smells on the road between Raipur and Mugeli are different. It is a clean hot smell in Raipur. It is the savanna, desert dry at this time of year – awaiting the monsoons of July through September. Three seasons visit this region of the country – dry (March-June), rainy (July-October) and cool (November-February), with about a half-month overlap on either side.
Down the road a bit and beyond Raipur, the bituminous smells of burning coal start to filter in through the air conditioning vents of the SUV. It isn’t suffocating, but you can see the black smoke mounting from homes and factories along the road. Piles of coal are dumped unceremoniously outside homes, along with kindling wood, which will provide heat for cooking. This is tribal area and the people are poor. Some run roadside shops selling random items like fan blades and empty oil drums, others can be seen making cow patties by mixing manure with rice stalk and drying them in the sun. Those who cannot afford coal can cook over dried poop.
With all due respect to Dr. Anil Henry, Virendra is a much safer driver than Anil. Anil takes every bit of the road and speeds through intersections with the pedal to the floor, often missing oncoming traffic by inches. There have been a few cringe inducing rides with Dr. Henry. Virendra, on the other hand, keeps his hands at “10 and 2” and gives space to the huge cargo carries heading toward us at break-neck speeds.
Another observation you make quite quickly in India is that vehicles of all types are mostly utilitarian. It is very unusual to see a single-passenger vehicle. Even more uncommon is seeing a bicycle that, though designed for one, is not carry two people or lumbering down the road with cargo. Overburdened and underpowered motorcycles, most in the 60-125cc range, struggle to maintain speed as they traverse pitted roads strattled by two and three passengers in addition to a variety of goods.
Time goes quickly and we pass Bishrampur, the site of a church dedication I attended in 2011. Nearby, the first of several government rice storage areas is under guard from looting. Though this region is quite poor and many people are hungry, due to government quotas and shipment difficulties, locally produced rice – the mainstay crop of the area – often rotes once the rains comes. The hospital and internal relief groups have tried to urge the release of this “surplus” to no avail. I’d like to follow this story more at some point…
I arrive in Mungeli and am assigned a guest room in a suite that I will share for the next three weeks with Danish med students Lise (pronounced like Lisa) and Ditte (pronounced Dee-tah.) I get re-acquainted Anil and his parents, along with other staff I met on my previous visit, before heading into town with the med students.
But before I can get beyond the hospital walls Anil has invited me into the ultrasound room where he finds a woman in great pain who has a large mass in her abdomen. He thinks it may be liquid (pus) but encourages her family members to operate. In the manner only Anil, and I understand his father, can operate in – he asks the son if he wants his mother to get better via a quick surgery or to believe the tribal doctor who has recommended many treatments, except surgery.
The man smiles and agrees to the surgery. Following a quick conversation, Anil and I head to the operating room where the woman is having the pus drained from the infection and ready for treatment.
Emergency operation like this happen dozens of time every week at the Christian Hospital Mungeli. This is in addition to the regularly scheduled operations to correct long-term problems and other emergencies, like Cesarean section baby deliveries.
In town, the Danes do some garment shopping, hoping to receive tailored items they ordered last week. Though their outfits are not available, they buy some shirts before we pick up staples like coffee, milk and snacks. Happy the Danes like coffee, though our choice is limited to Nescafe…
A game of rotten badminton by me and a late dinner with the Henrys and I’m finishing this blog. Tomorrow begins the long talks with the senior Henrys that will lead to the production of their book. It’ll be good fun and I’m sure there will be more time in the wards, exam rooms and the ER as Anil invites.