Ashwini Life

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April 19th 2013
Published: April 19th 2013
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After nearly a month I am convinced of one thing. This country is bananas. Within the space of 10 minutes you can run through a series of emotions along the lines of extreme confusion, hysterical laughter, ‘get me on the next plane’, desire to punch someone in the face and ‘I am never leaving’. I am strongly considering having a t-shirt made emblazoned with the following phrases that seem to be all that is required for general conversation:


I am fine.


And on the back, simply:


That is no to rickshaw after just getting out of a rickshaw, no to hotel after have just walked out of the entrance to hotel where am clearly staying, no to a picture with creepy Indian man. Endless uses.

In other news we are very settled into our Ashwini life. It is amazing how quickly things which at first seem totally alien become routine-I daily have to remind myself that showering with a bucket whilst staring at mountains with a soundtrack of drums and prayer calls is not normal! Having said that have still not fully adjusted to the happy family of cockroaches living in the fridge…We also took issue with the toddler-sized dead rat directly in front of the hospital which we pointed out might be slightly off-putting to patients. This was followed by a passionate debate in our house about what to do with said rat. UK suggestion: throw it into the forest where it can rot away/be eaten. US suggestion: douse with alcohol, set alight where it is, if the bones aren’t burnt to ash crush them by hand. Indian suggestion: put in ‘incinerator’ which is actually oven owned by Irish doctor. UK suggestion wins. Go figure.

We are still seeing some incredibly weird and wonderful medicine including a man who was wheeled in totally unresponsive, head flopping all over the show, after a huge night of drinking. We thought he was done for. Nandekumar casually finished his consultation and wandered over. He was convinced the problem was low glucose but naturally the machine to test this was out of battery so he just went with his gut and gave him some IV dextrose (basically sugar in vein) and it was genuinely like he had risen from the dead. Within about 3 seconds. Was incredible.

It hasn’t all been miracles unfortunately. The most difficult thing we have found is watching people undergo procedures which without question would be done under general anaesthetic in the UK-this is just not an option here as they don’t have a resident anaesthetist or the resources. We saw a man with awful 2nd degree burns to his leg from a kerosene lamp who needed the necrotic, infected skin removed. I shall spare you all the details but let’s just say if certain patients within the NHS saw what he went through they might think twice before moaning …

Han and I are doing a project suggested by Shyla looking into why tribal women have their contraceptive coils removed prematurely. The general conclusion seems to be that they take them out when they want another child (pretty reasonable really) but it has been so interesting to speak to the women about this subject which still a huge taboo. Basically the tribal women tend to be aware of three types of contraception: staying away from their men, the copper coil and sterilisation. None that we have spoken to have ever had any formal sex-ed, reproductive health or contraceptive education other than opportunistically when they happen to come to hospital or what their mothers tell them. We are going to try and convince Ashwini a bit more sexy health teaching might be a good plan!

Life outside the hospital has been pretty idyllic. For our first weekend we decided to stay close by to make the most of our pretty stunning mountainous backyard. Well fuelled from our cooking lesson with Shyla (I say lesson-we chopped some onions and a few tomatoes which she somehow then morphed into three separate but equally beautiful dishes within the space of about half an hour) we headed off for what was intended to be a good day’s hike. Armed with an impressively accurate hand-drawn map from Shyla we headed, as instructed, ‘past the thatched huts, right of the buffalo pen (containing 0 buffalo), keep the water tower on left, find path through dense forest, turn left and if you get lost, which is likely, ask for cinema shooting point’. We reached the final stages after about 20 minutes (think we have slightly differing opinions as to what constitutes a ‘trek’) so decided to venture a bit further into the forest and stumbled across a pretty magical clearing overlooking the valley with dozens of white butterflies flittering around where we spent most of the afternoon making the most of no-one else being around to expose our shoulders and, shocking I know, even a touch of knee.

Last week the wonderful Mahesh-an Ayurvedic (the branch of Indian medicine which focuses on natural remedies etc) doctor took us on a school trip to Ashwini’s Tea Estate where we very trustingly smelled, poked and ate various plants. Our favourite is a small fern-like leaf called ‘touch me not’ which angrily curls up if you brush against it. We received a lesson in exotic fruit picking: for a mango all you need is a big stick and good aim whereas guavas require a tree climb and shake. The highlight of the day came as we reached the waterfall at the bottom of the valley where we swam (fully clothed, woe betide any knee flashing), tried our hand-picked park shampoo and munched our chapattis. Paradise. We also had a very brief attempt at tea picking (I was sacked by my woman after approximately 45 seconds for my inefficiency). It is no easy task-they work 12 months a year regardless of heat/monsoon and earn 180 rupees (just over £2) for an 8 hour day, providing they pick at least 30 kilos of tea which is carried in a huge sack attached to a band around the forehead. My new appreciation for Tetley’s was cemented by a visit to the tea factory where, in a bizarre attempt to be an ‘attraction’, they have strewn various model animals around the entrance including a dinosaur, possessed-looking giraffe and-a natural choice in country with an average temperature of about 35 degrees- a penguin. Tea making is a hefty business involving multiple rollings, grindings, fermentings and sorting. Workers sweating away are however reassuringly informed by a sign on the wall that ‘God is pleased to have put you in this position’. Sure they are delighted by this news.

We were somehow engaged in 6.30am football sessions with some of the local boys. Which are complicated slightly by a goal-post eating dog. My contributions I have to admit were pretty limited to running at people screaming rather than any actual skill but felt pretty wholesome all the same.

We have also visited the local national park through which runs one of the main roads- people speeding past elephants on motorbikes is quite a sight! We took a trip on the safari-bus and saw more elephants (some not even chained to the trees), peacocks, bison, deer and a giant squirrel which are possibly the cutest animals of all time. We also went to elephant feeding where we were as much of an attraction as the animals. Though have to say we have all also fallen into the habit of staring at any white people we see-they are quite a rarity!

Finally (and arguably most importantly) we have made some excellent new food discoveries the highlights of which are egg curry, coconut pumpkin, an apple shaped marzipan-like sweet and, our newest treasure, Special Avil Milk. It is hard to express in words the wonder of this concoction but I will try: layer of banana, then grape and other various fruits, followed by nuts and topped with a muesli style grain and all packed out with ice-cream. Not sure exactly what avil, or in fact milk, have to do with it but it is epic. I shall try an recreate it on return. It has to be tasted to be believed.


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