This travel memory is from my first Big Trip in India, October 2008.
It was women and children’s day at the Shakyamuni Buddha Community health programme and since there was no scheduled program or classes and my train did not leave until that night, I took advantage of the ride along during my last day at the Root Institute, Bodhgaya, Bihar India. With this ride-along, I would leave the institute walls in the spiritual/tourism center of this state and venture out to meet the women and children of Bihar, one of the poorest states in India.
The Bihar state rests Ganges plain and is populated mostly of village dwellers. Geographically, it is located between Delhi and Bengal with Nepal to the north. Bihar has been known as the poorest state in India with the lowest GDP, but, according to Wikipedia, a recent change in state government has led changes in the education and health of the Bihari people. Still, the literacy rate among females is only 33%. The Root Institute itself was behind high walls and separate from the town of Bodhgaya, which was the home of the famous bodhi tree in Buddhism.
The morning was cool and overcast. At 9:30, the doctor Sanjit, the driver Shiva, nurses Usha and Saroj, and pharmacist Subhod loaded into the jeep and drove to a community center along the Delhi/Kolkata Interstate highway to open the mobile women’s clinic. Dr. Sanjit sat in front, the elevated, proper place for the doctor. I crammed in the middle with the two selwar-kameez clad nurses, one of whom was seven months pregnant, her belly hidden by her marigold frock.
In the back rode Subhod, self-declared “medicine man,” who spoke conversational English and was my conduit to all happening during the day. He was dressed in decorated jeans like most young Indian men and faux Versace Sunglasses, stylin’ his longer, product heavy hair. In typical Indian fashion, we stopped several times during the ride to pick up samosas and stop for some masala chai along the way to the community center. Subhod narrated the entire time past crowded buses, roadside stands, and villagers carrying firewood. It was the first time I had left the walls of the serene Buddhist institute during my stay and the morning was quiet like the five days I had just spent in silence. There was a rumbling undertone, but not much loud interruption.
The community clinic stood, rather crumbled, in the middle of a garbage-strewn field, pushed back from the interstate by a dirt road. A young boy, who looked 12 compared to his actual 16 years, named Ramesh Kumar met us at the building and worked with Shiva and Subhod to set up the clinic. The community center was a tall cement building painted an odd periwinkle shade, which covered most of the walls save the stains and chips. Each wall had a door painted bright, golf course turf green with slats for ventilation.
There was a main room where the “pharmacy” was set up, a desk and several chairs for Dr. Sanjit, myself, and the patient, and a separate room where the two nurses sat in wicker-like chairs and took woman’s history and weight for more education opportunity. Subhod narrated to me that the first part of the time would be a health education lecture by the nurses for the women.
Often village women do not understand basic health upkeep related to menstruation and this causes infections, a common affliction among young women who visit the clinic. Simple facts that I learned in the fifth grade health class like bathing every day of one’s period and changing pads every few hours were shared with teenagers, who hopefully shared this information with their mother and sisters to prevent more infection.
This morning’s topic was HIV/AIDs and its transmission. Usha stood and lectured while Saroj flipped over a picture chart, the reverse side had English so I was able to follow along. A few giggles escaped from the crowd when Usha began discussing condoms. The women were mostly alone with the children in the village as their husbands worked in Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. I wondered if the husbands brought home HIV with them, but Usha assured me they did not. My next question, then how is HIV spreading? I kept to myself.
Twenty women waited outside for the program, some old, which meant in their 40s, with tight wrinkled brown skin and faded tattoos on their arms. Mostly, young married women whose marital status was denoted stylistically by their saffron colored part and bindi, not to mention all the babies. A few old men showed up with crutches and turbans. It was a women’s clinic day, but the doctor still saw the men.
The children were small and plump, well fed, but rife with skin diseases, the main cause for the visits. Black scum outlined their ears; whiteness crept over random parts of their body, and lots and lots of scabs. Several little ones had cysts. Each patient was inspected and given homeopathic medication for treatment, which Subhod plucked from hundreds of glass bottles and plastic jars. The good news was that many of the patients were returning patients, meaning they were continuing their course of treatment.
Hygiene is the biggest factor I learned, general bathing and hand washing kills so many germs, but the kids who showed up were dirty and scabby. The women were well kept and all dressed in a Crayola-box of sari colors. The children were well fed, nursed at a moment’s notice from underneath the saris while the women were bone thin.
During my observation, I brought my camera outside and crept down to the level of some of the children. I snapped a photo and immediately showed my subject her reflection, a technique I learned from another traveler. This always brought smiles and laughter, and soon I was taking more pictures of these gentle-smiled women. Some shied away from their image and others started to art direct my photography.
I handed my camera over to those women and showed them how to point and click. They got the point, and the clicking began; watching all the action through the mini screen, but only one mastered the click. This activity, I think, removed the mystery around this tall white women coming to watch their doctor visits and created some laughter during the clinic waiting time.
Lunch was a break at 1:30, Usha and Saroj set up a mat on the floor and fulfilling their traditional woman’s role, prepared food for the staff and myself. As guest, I sat on a chair, same as the doctor while the other four sat on the floor, and was served first. Tinges of guilt hit me like mosquitoes when we ate and the patients waited outside patiently for the clinic to open after lunch.
I reasoned that to be an aid worker, one has to maintain balance and treat it like a normal workday or one would get burned out. There’s never a shortage of patients, but in the five hours we were there, the doctor saw all fifty who showed up. And no one paid a rupee.
The day ended at three and we loaded up and headed back to the institute, stopping of course several times to drop off Dr. Sanjit, pick up the driver’s brother in law and nephew, drop them off, and then pick up Dr. Sanjit again. No part of a route or space in a jeep is ever unused. The sky turned dusty gold as the day ended and we navigated through rural India, in the Bihar state, the poorest. It was farmland with confetti of animals grazing throughout. Mud huts with thatched roofs provided the homesteads, many clustered together along the road. Groups of young children appeared over and over, four or five to a family, all brightly colored clothed and barefoot. We returned at 4:30 in the afternoon, an end to the mobile clinic day.
Learn more about the Shakyamuni Clinic and the Root Institute.