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Dispatches from India 2012

by UofL Today last modified Dec 20, 2012 07:24 AM

A group of University of Louisville students and employees are traveling to India during the winter break to volunteer at health camps.

Gerome Stephens, coordinator of student leadership in Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership and Service, is accompanying the group. While in India, Stephens and the students will send UofL Today updates about their trip, their work and photos.

They will return to Louisville Dec. 23.

(Most recent blog entries posted first)

Dec. 19

Visiting Rajasthan

As the days remaining of our journey to India quickly dwindle down, we are striving to ensure intentionality with every minute of every day; today was no different.  We decided to take a roadtrip to the state of Rajasthan, which is approximately five hours northeast of Gujarat, where we have been staying.  Though the length of the trip was a bit longer than expected, it was most assuredly worth the drive.  The landscape along the way changed drastically from flat, relatively barren land, to lush greenery comprising the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains. The main goal of this journey was City Palace. The sight of this palace was nothing short of breathtaking.  It reminded us of cities in Italy; it was beautifully built on top of a large hill overlooking several gorgeous peninsulas and a fantastically beautiful lake.  I feel safe in saying this was the day we all took the most pictures.  

We were given a guided tour by a local villager who had been giving those very tours for 39 years.  Though it was difficult to understand him throughout the entirety of our journey, we followed along enough to know how lucky we were to be there in the presence of spectacular views, gorgeous architecture, and deeply meaningful religious structures.  He did a fabulous job with the entire tour!  It was incredible to see how ornate and intricate every aspect of the palace was built; it seemed as though they left no detail to chance or happenstance. 

After the tour ended, we decided to take a stroll through the town.  Following the suggestion of our fearless (and superbly amazing) bus driver, we made a quick stop at the local temple.  Like others we had seen on our trip, the temple was strikingly beautiful and incredibly detailed with its architecture.  A man from the village acted as an impromptu guide, feeding us various pieces of information about the temple and the religious happenings taking place within.  Ironically, this man will be in New Mexico in the coming weeks for an art show he directs.  Following the temple, we quickly stopped at the local market to pick up a few trinkets and souvenirs.  What made this stop the most fun was the Rickshaw ride back to the van. Talk about a crazy ride winding in and out of traffic, narrowly missing mopeds, walkers, goats, dogs, cows, etc.  It was pretty amazing! 

What impressed me the most throughout the day was the continued deep and meaningful bonding I see taking place amongst the students.  Though many of them had well-established relationships prior to leaving for India, it's quite easy to see these continue to develop and mature throughout basic interactions, conversations, and experiences everyone has together along our journey.  This intangible outcome of the trip is certainly one of the most beneficial to both the students, and the leaders viewing it from afar.  

- Bryan L. Shelangoski

Dec. 18

Gandhi's Home

It's rather curious that I just happened to be in India visiting Mahatma Gandhi's home and ashram right around the time of the horrible tragedy in Newton, Connecticut. For a man who's entire life revolved around a creed of non-violence, such horrific acts would be especially unbearable. At the same time, however, I believe that Gandhi's response to these brutal killings would be quite different from that of many Americans. My brief stint abroad has allowed me to remain "outside" of the chaos, observing it from a completely new viewpoint. This is what I consider to be the most valuable, albeit intangible, benefit of a trip like this. I am able to travel to an entirely foreign part of the world, learn about a completely unique culture, and then apply what I have learned to my life (particularly my life back home) and see things from brand new perspectives. With that being said, I believe I have learned a lot from the teachings of Gandhi.

Looking at Gandhi's life, I can see how there is an underlying problem that we've all neglected to face. It runs deeper than gun control, deeper than our constitutional rights, and even deeper than our cries for peace and non-violence among all. In the heat of it all, I believe that we've missed a greater truth - most likely because it is a truth that is much more difficult to swallow: that we must be prepared to die. In the words of Gandhi himself, "If blood be shed, let it be our own. Let us cultivate the calm courage to die without killing." 

The thought of it, alone, is enough to scare me. It requires bravery of the rarest sort, and a bold acceptance of death. Neither of which I possess, personally. For now it is only something that I can aspire to. However, I'm not saying that those children deserved to die, or that it is something we should just accept; their lives were unjustly taken from them at a cruelly young age. Rather, I would call your attention to the commentary, media coverage, and emotional response that I know we have all seen. Just look at the debate between liberals and conservatives. Both sides want security and protection, though they seek it in different ways. Both protest vehemently, declaring the need for prevention of such atrocities. My question is this:

How exactly do any of them actually plan to stop such violence from occurring?

The simple answer is that there are no simple means to such an end. Taking a step back, it's quite plain to see that there are much deeper forces at play. We live in a culture that tenaciously grasps onto life, refusing to let go of all that is ours until we have finally had our fill of it. But is that how it should be? 

By all means, ramp up security protocols or flood our lives with more legislation. At the end of the day, though, this all comes down to a battle of the soul. Maybe, just maybe, by eliminating our fear of death and destruction, we may one day eradicate the very things with which our tormentors plague our world. 

 - Nick Lynch

Third Medical Camp 

We’re a little more than halfway through the trip and we are all having an amazing time. The city of Ahmedabad has been great to us and provided us with many sights to see. We have visited museums, historical landmarks, hundreds of years old structures and temples, open air bazaars, and a sleek and modern mall. The city is an urban jungle and it has been interesting to see its extremes.

Here, BMWs share the roads with camels. You can visit a 500 year old step-well in the middle of a sprawling urban area with many new developments. There are beautiful gated communities with people living in shanties just a few feet away. In short, it is clear that this is a city in transition. 

While tragic and heart-breaking poverty is widespread, there seems to be much less of it than when I visited this city five years ago. I am glad that this region is making progress and hope that it continues to do so.

Today we had our 3rd medical camp of the trip. This time we drove about 50 kilometres out of the city to a rural village called Varsoda. To reach the village we drove through some of the Indian countryside. I thought there was something rather charming about this landscape that is dotted with farming communities and villages that, for the most part, have not yet been touched by 21 st century advancements. Our destination was a fairly large building that seemed to appear out of nowhere right off of the rickety road that we were travelling on.

As we drove up, we could see a large queue of villagers had already formed in anticipation of the medical camp. After a quick tour of the facilities and lunch, we were ready to begin the medical camp. This is when things got interesting! Indian villagers have a reputation for being loud, pushy, and tad bit unruly. I would have to say they definitely did not disappoint. As soon as the camp opened, there was a mad rush to get inside. There was much shouting, pushing and shoving as the camp organizers tried to keep the crowd under control. We were manning the blood pressure and diabetes station and we were overwhelmed at first but quickly settled into a rhythm in the chaos.

I walked around and helped direct people as well as observed some of the doctors. It seemed to me that the optometrist and dentists were a very big deal to the villagers. These are common services

that most Americans take for granted but these people have never had access to them. I saw how

poor dental hygiene was the root cause of a lot of the ailments and suffering of the villagers. I feel that there is a big opportunity there to improve the lives of the villagers by educating them aboutproper dental care.

The camp was chaotic and crazy but I did enjoy the experience. With our last medical camp behind us, I am excited to see what the last few days will bring us!

 - Krishna Patel

Dec. 17

Blue and Yellow

On Sunday we left our hotel at around 5:30 in the morning for our second medical camp. After two hours of driving we arrived in Anand at a Mandir where the camp was ready to be set up.

We began by setting up the blood sugar testing station and the blood pressure station. After a brief lesson in how to test both, we began seeing people. Throughout the day we saw 150+ people from and around the city of Anand. While I enjoyed meeting those who took part in our camps, the most memorable part of the day was my time spent with the children of the village.

After a brief time exploring the Mandir, I turned a corner to find 8 children coloring on the sheets we had given them. At first it was veryChildren in India hard to have a conversation with them because of our language barrier but after some time, a little creativity, and a LOT of help from a very helpful little girl we were all able to laugh about commercials, talk about school, and teach me Gujarati.

The names of colors were some of the first words I learned. After mastering green, black, and white, I attempted to learn blue and yellow which to me sound identical. We laughed at my inability to distinguish between the two. Soon I leaned all the colors we had before us and we moved on to phrases and simple words. Between each attempt there was a long recess incited by my comical, southern rendition of Guajarati.

Out of the eight, one little girl knew English very well. She helped translate the other’s questions and my responses. She asked me why in America we don’t learn Gujarati? It only made sense to her that we should learn Gujarati if she had to learn English. I had no response for her. She waited awhile and said, “You should tell your friends to ask.”  Her statement was so profound and simple.

It had taken me twenty-one years and a trip halfway around the world, to find the desire to learn a language outside of my immediate necessity –yet all I had to do was ask.  I could have at any point asked my roommate, who speaks Gujarati, sought out a student at the diverse university I attend, or simply Google searched the simple words and phrases taught to me by a group of elementary school children. In a matter of minutes I made a personal connection with complete strangers though simple questions. 

This trip has helped me to recognize my own perceptions and assumptions of the world and how limiting they can be. I think there is an arrogance that accompanies the privilege life I lead that works to validate my assumptions and create missed opportunities for connections outside of what’s easy.

  - Morgan Jenny

 Dec. 15

Gandhi's presence

As soon as we landed in Ahmedabad, Mohandas Gandhi’s presence has always been with us. In the city he is painted on walls and every time we make a purchase, we see his picture on every rupee note. It seemed natural for us as tourists to visit the Satyagraha Ashram.

This Ashram (or monastery), was established in 1917 as a place for Gandhiji to meditate and to test various agricultural ways of living. This

is where the famous march against the use of British salt started. The ashram now has a museum, a bookstore and is also connected to a non-profit organization for homeless kids.

At the Ashram, we were free to explore. We were able to walk through the same doors Gandhiji and many of his followers walked through. We also were able to learn about his legacy at the museum and more importantly feel his presence by standing next to the cloth he made with his own hands. It was an honor for us to be able to visit the very place Gandhi sought support and enlightenment. While the ashram and the city is going through on-going development, the message of Gandhi and the respect he has worldwide shall never wane. 

 - Jubin Shah

Dec. 13

First medical camp

As we sat in the hotel lobby, after the initial meeting of the doctor in charge of the first medical camp, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. He seemed extremely focused, revered and distinguished, leading me to feel a bit of intimidation in that I wanted to ensure we met his expectations, whatever those were. 

Upon our arrival to the camp, my expectations of an impoverished and underdeveloped clinic setting were quelled fairly quickly; what we experienced, I learned, was quite different than in past years.  Similar to before, the camp staff was very excited to have us as their guests for the afternoon. Upon our arrival, we were met with signs, posters and even banners depicting our university name and co-sponsorship of the camp.  We even partook in an "opening ceremony" for the camp, during which four candles were lit, one by our student leader, Deepa Patel. The part that differed from camps in previous years was the very nice facilities involved in both the camp itself and the small closing ceremony/snack banquet held after the camp closed.  We were all very impressed by both the facilities and the area around them with the nature and scenery.  We even saw and took pictures of several monkeys hanging around us!

During the camp, there were several specialists (general physician, pharmacist, pediatrician, dentist, optometrist, etc.), strategically positioned in various rooms throughout the clinic in order to attempt to meet the needs of the patients. Each of us was originally assigned to one of these specialists and later on we would switch around to experience each area.  I began the afternoon with the pharmacist's team.  Despite having a fair amount of vicarious pharmaceutical knowledge (my fiance is a pharmacist), I was left totally clueless. I neither spoke the language nor understood more than a few of the common drugs being dispensed; I was clearly not helping their cause. Thus, after several feeble attempts at helping and despite a strong desire to bring back this experience to share with my fiance, I moved on to the other specialists. 

My experience with the other specialists was more fruitful in that they were able to take the time to converse with us, attempt to learn about our goals for the camps, and they even involved us in their patient interaction and diagnosis.  At times, it was helpful to have a few of our students around to translate the conversations taking place between the doctors and the patients. 

All in all, the opportunity to observe this medical camp was priceless. I was able to see the processes and procedures of this type of camp facilitated for a population who truly needed both the medical expertise and the medications dispensed to them, all at no cost.  I will take away from this experience a steadfast appreciation for health insurance, organized medical care and my overall health in general. It's obviously cliche to note how privileged we are coming from the U.S. to India.  But until one actually experiences something like this and sees the patients one-on-one, it's difficult to understand just how lucky we are. 

-Bryan L. Shelangoski

associate director for facilities and operations

Housing and Residence Life

Dec. 12

Officially, the hourglass has been turned.

After surviving a number of complications in airports around the world, we stepped off the plane into a warm new world. At approximately 11:10 on Dec., 12, we landed in New Delhi airport, at which point we proceeded to sprint across the airport (“Home Alone” style) to take a short flight to Ahmedabad.

Ahmedabad is so alive with the hustle of cars and the melody of horns, but there is a feeling of ease when observing the pedestrians who stroll the open streets, feeding cows as they graze.   

While on this first day we are too tired to explore much, from the window at the end of the hall in our hotel we watch as one family goes about their day in an abandoned building. Through the same window, vendors can be seen lining the streets preparing for the nightly market. I want to witness all of this in person, but for now I will settle with a good night’s rest and dreams filled with anticipation of what’s to come

-Morgan Jenny

Dec. 7

Ready to go

We are three days away from our departure date and I could not be more excited! As a three-time returning member and a current organizer, I have seen this trip grow from its starts as a mere idea Deep (Awggarwal) had three years ago to the established program it is today. I have been asked many times why I continue to return to this program year after year and my answer is simple: each year this trip provides a new valuable learning experience and gives me the opportunity to constantly meet new people from both our university and abroad.

In the previous years we have traveled to Punjab, a state in northern India. However, this year we have the exciting opportunity to travel to Gujarat in central India. The new language, customs, and food are not the only aspects of the trip that will be different from previous years. We are also working with a new nonprofit to set up medical camps in various villages around the state.

As I travel with two team leaders from the university and five fellow undergraduate students, I look forward to immersing myself fully into this new culture and learning new things about myself, my peers, and our surrounding scenes. I hope everyone follows our posts over the next few weeks and enjoys sharing these new experiences with us!

-Deepa Patel 

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