You can have your cake…

First some pictures from today’s early-morning walking tour of the Mungeli Christian Hospital and nearby areas… Most of the scenes described in my blog have pictures in this slideshow. hosted sites don’t like Flash code – so please click here for the gallery link… – Images by Gregg Brekke

Today started early again – I haven’t been able to sleep past 6am yet. I woke up and did a little reading before deciding to take a walk around the hospital complex to take some photos as people began their days. It’s Sunday here, so other than the on-call doctors and scheduled nurses, there isn’t much activity at the hospital. But life never stands too still at Christian Hospital Mungeli and I’m sure there will be plenty happening as I take my camera with just a wide-angle zoom lens attached and head out.

I hadn’t gotten very far when I was called over to the room at the end of a dormitory where the nursing school cooks, Pushba and Sukrata, were making puri, a deep fried bread. They are sitting on the floor rolling balls of dough for flattening prior to frying. The single-room kitchen is hot and smoky. A small coal-fired stove heats a large wok-looking pot half filled with cooking oil.

As they prepare the dough I take some photos. In what I call “the Indian way” they each want what amounts to a formal portrait taken of them in their setting. Once that is over, they can get back to their tasks – the real thing I want to photograph. They show me the stewed tomatoes that will be used as the dipping base with the bread and move a stack of flat-rolled dough up to the cooking pot.

Sukrata (Sook-rah-tah) is first to slide the tortilla-sized disks of dough into the hot oil. The oil crackles as each one submerges, Sukrata deftly avoiding touching the oil or being splattered. After about 45 seconds she flips each piece of puri with a flat ladle and allows the other side to cook. As soon as this happens, the dough puffs out as the cooked and uncooked sides separate. Another 45 seconds in the oil and she ladles out the fully cooked bread into a waiting cloth-lined basket on the floor. Now it’s Pushba’s (Push-bah) turn to cook the batch of dough she has been rolling on the floor.

After the second batch is cooked they offer me the freshest – and HOTTEST – puri from the basket. Sukrata asks if Kavita, the guest house housekeeper, has made me breakfast. I say that she doesn’t come on Sundays so she insist that I eat and makes up a plate with four of the puffy golden brown disks and adds a few scoops of the tomato sauce to the aluminum plate as she hands it to me.

The puri is still scalding hot and steam rushes out as I tear it open. I say “hot” and ask what the word is in Hindi. “Garum” is the reply – meaning temperature hot, not spicy hot which they also tell me, but I forget the word. Though I do remember that cat is “billi,” because they have to shoo a cat from the kitchen several times during the preparation and cooking process.

When the bread cools a bit I begin dipping it into the tasty sauce – yellow curry and a variety of other spices – that makes up my delicious but very non-western breakfast. This isn’t the toast and peanut butter I usually eat in the US.

Which brings up a good point. Someone once asked me if India is more like being in the inner city or more like being in a suburban area. I looked at this person, knowing they hadn’t ever traveled outside the US, and could only reply, “India is like no other place in the world.” I’ll stick by that statement in a number of ways including what’s for breakfast. It’s also a little unsettling to my American ways to have housekeepers and cooks who insist on treating you so well. I know everyone at CHM is payed well in relation to local salaries, but I’m still unaccustomed to being served in this way.

I finish breakfast, wash up and thank them for sharing their gifts and allowing me to photograph them. I will be sure to get some of these “Indian way” portraits printed up and distributed before I leave.

Making my way toward the main gate I chat with some of the maintenance and security staff. We talk about the oppressive heat – the forecast calls for 44-48 C today (109-118 F). They sit in the shade of a large tree and say how thankful they are for Sunday, a rest day from anything but emergency work that may need to happen around the hospital.

The road that passes in front of the hospital complex leads to town as you turn left out of the gate. On the same side of the road, heading that direction, sit the grounds of the Rambo English School and the Mungeli Christian Church in succession. I go that way and recognize some children from the school. We talk and they want a photo taken in front of a nearby Hindi shrine before they will let me continue. It’s still before 7am and most of the town won’t be open yet so I stop my walk at the church and take a few photos there. One lone parishioner has come early and sits in the back, talking on her cell phone. I leave the church and see other nurses arriving, then hear the sounds of music – choir practice for the 9:30am service has begun.

Walking back toward the hospital I pass the school and see one of the school staff, Peter, watering flowers and we exchange a few words. I remember him, and he seemingly remembers me, from my last trip here. More children are out and a group of four who are heading to church grab me for photos as they leave the hospital gate. The littlest one, Bhighe (big-ay), hams for the camera and scrunches up his face instead of seeking a formal portrait. That is, before the kids want their picture taken together.

I wander around the hospital for a little while, photographing a few family members of patients. To keep costs low, patients have relatives stay on the hospital grounds – preparing meals and providing basic care like washing clothes and bathing the patient. A building is dedicated to housing these family members, though most sleep and cook outside during this hot weather. I notice a woman hanging wash who is covered in tattoos. Pointing to mine I point back toward hers. She then points to my camera and I take her picture.

Another little boy approaches and wants his photo taken too. His uncle arrives and explains, in English (!), that the boy’s mother is expecting and the family has come to help. He is a very serious boy and I take a picture,  but the uncle and other men joke with him until he breaks into a little smile that I’m also able to photograph.

Back at the guest house I began processing photos from the morning (the slideshow above) and have a Skype call with Lindsay. Video starts out OK, so I walk around with my iPhone to show her a bit of the living space and yard. We start having connection issues and switch to voice-only, but it was still nice to see each other for a few minutes. The place is waking up, people are wandering about and giving greetings – there are really only about 10 people in the apartments, they just all happened to go outside at once. To my surprise Kavita arrives, I guess to make lunch, and in short order brings me a cup of her special masala tea as I talk on the phone. Num!

With the main kitchen closed for Sunday, an electric Dutch oven will be used to bake chocolate cake and dinner rolls.

With the main kitchen closed for Sunday, an electric Dutch oven will be used to bake chocolate cake and dinner rolls.


Lise and Deeptiman prepare the chocolate cake batter as Ditte (right) mixes the yeast dough for buns.

Lise and Deeptiman prepare the chocolate cake batter as Ditte (right) mixes the yeast dough for buns.

The Danes and a doctors Nirmal and Deeptiman are preparing to bake a cake and some dinner rolls. Yeast is hard to come by in India, so the Danes have brought their own stash from the Netherlands. Kavita has made sure all the ingredients are set out – white flour, cooking oil, eggs, bakers chocolate, sugar – and they begin to measure and mix.

The nurses modern style kitchen with the oven is locked so Anil brings over an electronic Dutch oven that they can use to bake the cake. I’m processing photos from the morning (and before long a call comes and everyone has to take off for the operating room with the cake in the oven. I’m about to leave for my interviews and Deeptiman stays around to make sure the cake is removed from the Dutch oven when it is done baking.

We made a good dent, but there is plenty left for tomorrow!

We made a good dent, but there is plenty left for tomorrow!

After my interview session and lunch with Veeru and Nancy, I return to a nice piece of chocolate cake! The yeast smell of the baked dinner rolls (Ditte calls them “buns” just like my mother did) fills our steaming hot common area. Two ceiling fans have little cooling effect on our space after a day of Dutch oven baking and 111+ F temperatures. There is still half the cake remaining. I’m guessing we can work on that for breakfast along with a curried something…

Starting to get into the groove and feeling more oriented with the people, especially the staff. Knowing their names and what area they work in is a big help as I walk through the hospital several times a day. Everyone is so helpful and I hope to keep learning Hindi words and phrases as the days go by.

Until tomorrow, peace.


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