Saturday, October 31, 2009

And counting...

Today marks a week in Rajasthan, the last day of October, and the beginning of the last two weeks of our trip. I shouldn't be counting the days, but a weary, restless fraction of me just is. Each day is a minuet of sincere affection for the students I lead, and blindsided exasperation when the reality of responsibility for thirteen angel/devils spreads me thinner than cellophane on a day-old sandwich.

Two days ago I logged a record three trips to the hospital. As I left patient reception for the third time, with its plaid couches and 4-foot tall Ganesh statue wreathed in incense, I sucked in a lungful of dirty but cool night air and swore never to return. The city is a shallow cup surrounded by rolling hills, and smog sits just above the rooftops like lavender-tinted latte foam. It makes for spectacular sunsets, but I now have the lung capacity of a tubercular millipede.

I whisked my medicated students away to a pre-wedding reception being held by a local family, where the rest of our group (minus an ominous two) awaited us in their Indian finery. The event was sort of like a family talent show, as the caste of this family is peopled with generations of dancers, singers, and storytellers. There was a sound system, stage, lighting, and even the youngest children took their turn twirling and leaping and peering coquettishly from behind artfully arranged hands. The night ended in a massive dance party, driven to a frenzy by Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie" (a local favorite) throbbing from the speakers. We were sweaty and vaguely queasy from the spicy reception feast, but laughing as we rumbled home through the deserted streets in our rickshaw convoy.

I discovered upon my return to the guest house that my co-leader, Francis, was in the midst of yet another hospital run with another desperately ill student (the two dance party no-shows), and I braced myself for an early morning trip there myself, to relieve him from his "night duty". Unfortunately, a gurgling gut and fever/chills kept me in delirious discomfort all night, and I was still moaning from the depths of my windowless chamber when Francis showed up the next day. I barely had enough energy to beg for water and a banana, and issue a few half-hearted directives for the unfolding day. I felt like King George- infirm, but unwilling to relinquish the reins of command. I pledged myself to a bland liquid diet for as long as I could stand, and was able to muster enough energy to dive back in the next day.

After nearly four hours spent trying to extract my student from the bureacratic maw of hospital administration, I stationed myself outside our neighborhood juice shop with a cup of pomegranate seeds, reputed to kill unwelcome intestinal visitors. I wasn't out of the woods, nor was I willing to subject myself to the litany of unregulated pharmaceuticals being urged upon my students. The owner of the shop clucked and mixed me up a spoonful of dried shredded coconut and Amritdhara- an Ayurvedic remedy and staple of every Rajasthani household. Used for all ailments internal and external, it tasted like a mouthful of sawdust impregnated with Vick's Vapo-Rub. A wraithlike Belgian, peroxide blond Brit, and sweaty lost Canadian hooted over their fresh juices as my face spasmed with the effort to ingest the gritty, mentholated bolus. We ended up swapping "India Illness" tales (true and tall) like grizzled vets. Staph infection scars were compared, and bizarre "cure-alls" shared with abandon.

I slipped into an intriguing conversation with the British gal, who works with male prison inmates in Britain, many of whom are the same age as my students. She says that few of them have any incentive to stay out of jail, as being "inside" provides them with the food, shelter, and relative security they lack- "freedom" seems beside the point. I expressed that the opposite seemed true of our students, that having grown up with few real concerns in regards to the basic necessities, freedom (from structure, responsibility, definition, constraint) was all they seemed to crave, even at the expense of themselves or others.

Part of the idea of bringing them to India is to give them a taste of the limits and lack of security experienced by the majority of the world's population, in order to help them re-define the "freedom" they are grasping at. There is a hope that they will realize that a freedom exercised at the expense of another is not freedom - that when freedom is truly exercised, all are liberated.

Perhaps it is the cheap grandiosity of my room, with its garish glass lamps, gold plastic Ganeshas, and the bewildering poster of a girl feeding an ice cream cone to a puppy, but these were the ponderings that had me staring at the cracked ceiling well into the night. Better pondering than gurgling, I suppose, even if they lead to stupor rather than slumber...

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