Winging It

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August 19th 2010
Published: August 19th 2010
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 Monks, reflecting Monks, reflecting Monks, reflecting

Waiting for their bus, reflected in the pools of dirty walker at the bus station in McCleod Ganj.
I never explained at the beginning my reason for being in India - I am on my medical school elective.

If you travel much, you have probably met someone on their elective. Every summer, in all corners of the world, you may encounter suspiciously young looking people who insist they are (*cough* nearly) doctors here to do voluntary work in a hospital, trying hard to give off an air of altruism while simultaneously spending much of their time drinking and scuba diving. These are medical elective students. I am no exception.

At the start of final year (in European med schools, anyway), as a reward for surviving this far, we're given a summer to go work (or rather study) abroad, anywhere in the world we choose. Of course we're not much use because despite our four-or-five years of study we still aren't qualified and have basically no experience, so most hospitals take us either for novelty value or because we pay them.

So I know it's a little false, but in order to differentiate myself from the gap-year tragedies and the new age hippies, I still like to tell people I'm here to work in a hospital.

I am now (you will be pleased to know, imaginary med school spies) in Tamil Nadu working 8 till 5 at an NGO hospital for remote tribal populations who don't access mainstream healthcare. But my time in India totals just over 10 weeks and this placement is only 6... I need 8 weeks of work verified to satisfy the med school that I have spent my summer doing something productive. Due to a standard lack of organisation on my part I failed to get a full 8 weeks sorted before I flew out here and I didn't want to spend all my time in one place (delightful though Gudalur is)... so I decided on a whim to go to Dharamsala, home of Dali Lama, headquarters of the Tibetan government in exile. Why? I'm not going to lie, my decision was influenced in part by the fact that it's cooler up in the mountains. But I have been kind of fascinated with Tibet for ages, and (especially after my International Health Bsc) with healthcare for refugee populations, plus I was interested to see if I could do something following on from my previous research in Cambodia on the interaction between traditional medicine and mainstream healthcare provision, blah blah blah. Plus Buddhist monks love me as I established last year.

But as usual I got myself into trouble, because I didn't entirely tell the med school what I was up to. To cut a long boring story short, I never the second part of my elective proposal fully approved. They eventually noticed this (long after I left the country) and emailed me to ask where I was. I said basically I had decided to go to Dharamsala for a bit, I had a contact here but nothing official approved, so I thought I'd just turn up and wing it. Mistake! Turns out, winging it is frowned upon. I got into all kinds of trouble because they didn't know WHERE I was or what I was DOING and since this is part of my course they are supposed to be responsible for my SAFETY AND LEARNING etc etc.

Well. I felt like telling them that I was actually trying really hard to genuinely learn something on my elective, and they should be grateful that I didn't just go to Australia, get my mate to sign me off then spend 8 weeks getting pissed on the beach, as is the time honoured medics tradition.

But I did not say this! Because I am too close to the finish to get kicked out of med school now. So I explained what I was doing, suitably placated them, and all was well.

HOWEVER I am not going to talk in too much detail about what I did or did not do in Dharamsala because I am now baselessly paranoid that the med school have it in for me and will somehow read this blog and engineer my downfall.

I am also not going to talk about the tragic plight of the Tibetan refugees because so many other people have done it much better than I ever could. I am conscious of wanting to avoid turning this blog into something resembling one of those morbid Oxfam adverts, because then it will be too depressing to read. Also I just don't have the time for a good rant.

If you happen to go to Dharamsala, listen to a Tibetan speaker talk about their experience. The stories they have to tell are absolutely unbelievable. Thousands of refugees still make the journey on foot across the Himalayas each year in a bid to escape Tibet and reach Dharamsala. It can take anything from three weeks to several months.

Just to make it clear, when I talk about Dharamsala I actually mean McCleod Ganj, the little town above Dharamsala which is the Tibetan district. It's beautiful and, for India, comparatively peaceful. It's also little bizarre, kind of like a cross between a refugee camp and a backpacker hangout. There are endless opportunities to volunteer here, of variable degrees of usefulness. It's like a theme park for hippy do-gooders. I helped out with English conversation classes, you can also volunteer at the nursery providing free childcare for low wage Tibetans who have to go out and work, and there is a great need for long term teachers (a disproportionate number of the refugees are children). In terms of medical stuff I had chance to follow up my traditional medicine research a little, plus sat in on some clinics with Amchi (traditional medicine) doctors and observed some interesting if scientifically questionable treatment procedures. I also had chance to learn a little about healthcare for refugees, plus spent loads of time indulging my inner hippy hanging around with various NGO types getting involved with discussions, talks, film nights etc on all kinds of saving-the-world type stuff from environment to development. Very interesting. Learned lots, though not all of it particularly medical.

So at the end of that I had two weeks signed off (it's a start...) and a bit of time before I was due at the hospital in Tamil Nadu. Next comes Rajestan and meeting up with my friends in Mumbai...


1st December 2010
 Monks, reflecting

love the photo!
you did an amazing job capturing the moment.

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