Category Archives: India

Japanese Encephalitis and “Discriminating Against Meat-Eaters…”

After pulling out my dusty India journal for the last post, I couldn’t help but skim through a lot of other entries, and I found another story that might be amusing…

By now most of you know that I am a vegetarian. I eat eggs and dairy, but no fish or other meats, and I’ve been consistent with this for nearly fifteen years.

When I traveled to India, we had 20 people on our program, with more than half (perhaps more like 3/4) of us vegetarian. It was the first time in my life I was in a group where the veggies were in the majority. It was also the first time I was in a place where I could walk into any restaurant and be guaranteed several vegetarian meal choices, or could have my choice of several completely vegetarian restaurants all within walking distance. It was both liberating and overwhelming.

Making the food transition was one of the hardest parts of returning to the US at the completion of the program. I really missed the South Asian ease of finding vegetarian food (looking for grocery products with a green dot on the packaging to ensure it was animal product free), and was sad to see my restaurant choices relatively limited once again.

Since our student group had a veggie majority, the few meat eaters were suddenly finding themselves in the uncharted territory of feeling similar to how vegetarians sometimes feel in the not-always-vegetarian-friendly US. When our program cohort went out to dinner we would order more vegetarian dishes to share than meat dishes, and the meat eaters had fewer options. Sometimes only vegetarian food was ordered, since the meat eaters liked the veggie dishes too.

Yet transitioning from eating meat every day to once in a while was too much for one student.

I’m going to call him “Bob.”

One night at dinner, about 2-3 weeks into our program, Bob started grumbling loudly. He claimed that he was being discriminated against by the group, that “it wasn’t fair,” and that his “meat-eating rights shouldn’t be trodden upon.”

Now, I get that. I don’t think anyone should be forced to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with, but no one was forcing him to give up meat. It was just on occasions when the whole group had dinner together that it was easier to order more/all vegetarian meals. Plus Bob liked the vegetarian dishes too, so it wasn’t like we were forcing him to eat something he didn’t like.

But the student continued to insist that he was being discriminated against, and that eating all these vegetables was actually making him sick.

So let me back up more, and tell you a little something extra about Bob.

Before departing for India the members of our student group were given a list of recommended shots for the program– stuff like Hepatitis, Polio, Typhoid, and Japanese Encephalitis. I had received Hep, Polio, Typhoid and Yellow Fever immunizations for my Africa trips, and not wanting extra needle jabs if I didn’t absolutely need them, I figured I’d be okay without the Japanese Encephalitis. I think it was optional for where we were going anyway.

Bob intended to get the Japanese Encephalitis shot, but I think he ran out of time before the program was supposed to begin, so he purchased the vaccine from a pharmacy in the US and brought it on the plane with him from New York to Delhi. His thinking was that once he got to Delhi he would find a nurse, or some other qualified medical technician, who could administer the shot.

However the vaccine for Japanese Encephalitis, like I think most vaccines, needs to be kept refrigerated so that the contents of the vaccine don’t spoil (or whatever it is that happens to pharmaceuticals when they are no longer in their proper state).

So here Bob is, on a plane, with a white paper pharmacy bag, containing a vial of Japanese Encephalitis vaccine, for about 30 hours. That vial had warmed to room temperature long before we reached the hot and humid streets of mid-August Delhi.

After a day or two of orientation, Bob went in search of a medical professional, and carted that same white pharmacy bag around steamy Delhi for another 2 days before he found someone to stick the warm Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in his arm.

And surprise, surprise… by evening Bob was laid up in bed sicker than a dog. Pasty and pale, diarrhea and sweating. He was in bed for three or four straight days.

Now most of us assumed that Bob was probably suffering from a combination of Delhi Belly and a reaction to the stale Japanese Encephalitis shot that he had been carrying around, un-refrigerated, for days.

But not Bob. He was pretty sure his sickness stemmed from eating vegetarian. What could be worse than eating lots of vegetables?

Right when Bob started feeling better, his first destination out of his room was to a Subway sandwich shop (yes, they have the American chain Subway in urban India) not too far from our hostel. He ate a sandwich stacked with three different kinds of meat. He felt better later in the evening, and much better the following day.

Bob attributed his miraculous recovery to the amazing power of meat. This only reinforced his original idea that he had gotten sick because for a week he was “forced” to eat so many vegetarian dishes.

Even as an undergraduate I had my international educator’s hat on. This was the excerpt from my journal:

After several vocal comments at dinner last night I pulled [Bob] aside and said that study abroad is about pushing your boundaries and being outside your comfort zone. I told him that he should take this as a learning opportunity about how other people may feel in the United States when roles are reversed. Often times, as a vegetarian, you have fewer meal options, you have to eat something you might not necessarily want, or you might have to do without. It can be very frustrating. I told him that for the first time, many students are able to go to a restaurant here and pick anything they want off of a menu without being worried about what could be in the dish, and that feeling is new and liberating for us. I told him that we don’t want him to “convert” but that we ask that he be more flexible and understand that it might be harder, because it is often harder for us in the US, and it is good to see the reverse side of an issue.

Sadly, Bob didn’t take my heart-to-heart truly to heart, and spent a majority of his remaining time in India hunting down US fast food chains like Subway, Pizza Hut, Domino’s, and McDonald’s. When we were stationed in Jaipur for six weeks he would have Domino’s Pizzas delivered to his host family’s house each night–I worry what that family’s impression of American students was after his stay!

So the moral of the story is… refrigerate Japanese Encephalitis vaccines and eat more vegetables!

To Feel Something, Deeply…

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by a young woman who was doing research on Hindu/Christian couples for a paper she was working on at the Harvard Divinity School. She had found me through some of my blog postings on negotiating different religious territory for our wedding.

I admit that I am probably not the best “Christian” to interview for such a paper, for even though I was raised in a Catholic home, I don’t really consider myself very Christian. I was upfront about this in the interview, but the interviewer said that it was okay, that it was good to hear a diversity of opinions.

I always mean to write a more in-depth post about my own feelings on religion. I have touched on some here and there, but sometimes I’m afraid of offending more religious readers of this blog. I wouldn’t mean to as I actually find religion a fascinating topic, but sometimes I worry that professing no faith can seem insulting or sad to those that have deep faith.

Yet personally, I’ve never really felt any religious or spiritual stirrings. Perhaps not everyone is struck with a deep religious calling, but I haven’t even felt minor religious or spiritual murmurs. It’s not for a lack of wanting to, or having tried to seek such feelings out. There was a time when I really just wanted to “get” what other people seemed to, without having to try so hard. However it hasn’t happened, and on an intellectual level, at least with the Catholicism that I was raised with, Christianity just never made much sense to me.

So it felt kind of cathartic to talk to this woman about my religious feelings (or lack there of), and how it shaped our multicultural household. As we neared the end of our hour long conversation she asked me if I ever had something close to a spiritual feeling even if I wouldn’t necessarily label it such, and I had to admit there was at least one time.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the book, but when I signed up to study in India I had been grappling with my complex religious feelings for years. Although the main purpose of my trip was to learn more about South Asia in general, I was hoping that perhaps something in this “spiritual land” (sorry, even I’m cringing as I write that) would speak to me, and that perhaps I’d finally find that missing religious link I’d been searching for.

I didn’t, I came back just as atheist as I was when I departed, but there was one experience that felt inspiring, that did churn something up in my chest.

I pulled out my India journal to see what I had written.

As our program director was a Tibetan monk, our India semester had a special focus on Buddhism, and in addition to learning about Hindu culture and traveling to places like Varanasi, we also traveled to Dharmsala (where the Tibetan government-in-exile and the Dalai Lama reside) and Bodhgaya, the place where Buddha supposedly sat underneath the bodhi tree and meditated until he gained enlightenment.

The town of Bodhgaya is off the regular tourist track, and although you do bump into western tourists, a lot of the visitors are Buddhist pilgrims from around the world, and particularly from Tibet. It wasn’t uncommon to see nomadic Tibetan pilgrims walking down the street looking like they had just stepped out of a National Geographic documentary on life in a yak caravan.

Bodhgaya itself is a bit of a dusty backwater with frequent power cuts, and not much traffic. Around the outskirts of town are various temples from different Buddhist nations, built to reflect each culture’s style and architecture: Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.

At the center of town is the Mahabodhi Temple, which sits beside the spot where Buddha meditated. A bodhi tree is still in the spot, supposedly the sapling of a sapling of a sapling of the original tree. Around the temple and the tree is a path that pilgrims circumambulate night and day.

Mahabodhi Temple– “front”

Mahabodhi Temple and Bodi tree at night– “back” of temple

This is the passage from my journal:

Tenzin-ji [our program director] says, “You can sleep when you get back to the US” and I have tried to adopt this as my new motto…

For instance… our last morning in Bodhgaya a group of six of us woke up at five in the morning and walked to the Mahabodhi temple to circumambulate for two hours before our thirty minute meditation. We left in the darkness, as the town slept, yet found the temple bustling with activity as we walked around it with many Tibetan pilgrims. A chant was playing over the temple loud speakers, and we walked until the power went off… and then we walked in darkness, feeling our way along the path… until the power kicked back on and the sun slowly rose. The devotion of the pilgrims is awe inspiring… old and young alike were making slow prostrations around the temple… hours of bending up and down in prayer…

After being here and watching activites such as this, I feel like I could do something crazy and seemingly impossible. Like walk across the US, or do anything I set my mind to do. It would almost be a test of wills, just to see if I could do it. Nothing seems impossible anymore.

Your mind does funny things when you test it… like walking around a temple in a continuous circle at 5 in the morning for two hours. It starts to wander… and you think about life… I meditated on my feelings about religion, I thought about my family, and life after college. I tried to release some of the anger that I have kept bottled inside and tried to breath out my frustrations.

This has been good for me, healthy.

It’s easy to let life and routine get in the way of seeking out these really inspirational moments. I don’t know if I really felt something spiritual while walking around the temple, but I definitely felt something deeply that day, and it will be a moment I’ll never forget.

The Urge to Smack a Delhi Airport Employee at 5 O’Clock in the Morning

This post is long, but the title pretty much sums up what I wrote….

I’m sitting on my flight to KTM waiting for the rest of the passengers to board, but I was so steamed that I couldn’t wait to whip out my laptop and draft a blog post.

P and I landed in Delhi early. Our flight was originally due to land around 4 (Sunday morning), but we got in at 3:30am. We had already been traveling more than 24 hours straight, departing Boston at 8pm on Friday and flying to London, then London to Bahrain, and then Bahrain to Delhi (last minute tickets… what to do?), before finally making it to Tribhuvan International Airport a little after breakfast time on Sunday.

A lot of Nepalis that I know tend to be wary about flying through Delhi. They seem worried about being hassled, or having problems with their luggage, or missing flights. I had chocked that up to the general attitude that Nepalis sometimes have towards India– as a country that tends to push Nepal around. But after today, I’m happy to say that on our return flight we are flying from KTM to Bahrain direct and skipping Delhi completely.

When we checked our bag (and thank goodness we only have one between us!)  in Boston the worker at the airline counter said that our bag was checked straight through to Kathmandu with no problem, but that we could only get boarding passes until Delhi since gates for flights more than 24 hours in advance hadn’t been issued yet. Okay, I’ve heard that before, I understand that.

So as we departed our flight in Delhi, P and I follow the signs for “international transfers” knowing we had to eventually find a check-in desk for Jet Airways to get our boarding passes before continuing on to the gate. Eventually we were herded into a corner where a gathering of European tourists and Nepali workers returning from abroad had already started to congregate. In front of us was a check-in counter with 5 kiosks and about 8 or 9 airport employees who were waiting to “assist passengers” to get their boarding passes. In addition to the 8 or 9 people behind the counter, several other airport employees were circulating through the crowd of passengers trying to track down passengers from different flights.

P and I got in the Jet Airways line behind about 8 European tourists. We stood in line for a good fifteen minutes and only 2 people had been serviced.

“This guy is slower than death,” I said to P, “What the hell is he doing?”

Finally one of the employees searching for passengers came over to us and asked, “Gulf Air?”

P answered yes.

“Come with me,” he said, and pulled us out of the line that was going nowhere fast. “Do you have your luggage tags and your eticket information?” We pulled out both and innocently handed them over to him. He then asked for our passports, and an “assistant” took down all our details and carbon copied them onto two sheets of paper. Luggage man #1 explained that he had to go down to the Gulf Airways baggage area, find our bag, and then pull it so they could transfer to the Kathmandu flight.

It was a little after 4 am, so we really weren’t thinking about how this logically didn’t seem to make much sense. I mean, don’t airports transfer luggage all the time without having to go through all this? But for the first half hour I had my cross-cultural adjustment hat on, and I was giving the workers the benefit of the doubt.

The man disappeared with the print out of our eticket and our luggage tag number (along with the two carbon copies of all our information). We didn’t see him again for nearly an hour and a half.

P and I sat, and watched some of the other airport employees chat with the European tourists. For being so freaking early in the morning there were a lot of staff people around, and precious little actually happening… just a lot of “confirming of information,” “taking down passenger details,” and staff chit chatting with each other.

After about half an hour, and a quick trip to the nearby bathroom to brush my teeth, wash my face, and generally freshen up, I started realizing how utterly ridiculous this was. Where was the guy who took our baggage info? Where were our boarding passes?

I went up to the Jet airways guy (finally his “slower than death” line had disappeared, more because of the circulating employees than probably his doing.) and said, “I am taking the 6:30 flight to KTM that starts boarding at 5:30am. An airport employee talked to us more than half an hour ago about transferring our luggage, but we haven’t seen him since, and he has our eticket print out and our luggage tags. Can we get boarding passes? Are we supposed to just sit and wait?”

“Do you want to go to Nepal without your luggage?” The guy—Sumit—his real name, asked, condescendingly.

“Of course not, but can you not issue a boarding pass if our luggage isn’t here?” I asked.

“I can, if you don’t care about your luggage.” He answered.

“So we just have to wait for him to come back?” I asked, “Isn’t there some way to check? I mean, when we checked our luggage at the start of our trip the airport employees told us that it would go straight through to Kathmandu. I don’t understand what the situation is.”

This sparked some comments back and forth in Hindi between several workers milling around the front desk.

“We cannot guarantee your luggage will get to Kathmandu if we print your boarding pass now ma’am. But if you are so concerned talk to that man.” Sumit said, pointing to another idle-looking employee.

So I went to him, explained that we talked to a guy who was supposed to locate luggage for Gulf Air more than half an hour ago, and we had heard nothing since. “Can I see your luggage tag and eticket info?” luggage guy #2 asked.

“THE OTHER GUY HAS IT, that’s part of the problem!” I explained.

“Okay, okay, let me check. What is your name?” I showed him P’s passport (the bag was checked under his name). Luggage guy #2 left with a promise of, “I’ll be back soon.”

Then he disappeared, for about 20 minutes or more. P started talking to another Nepali guy waiting for his flight, which wasn’t scheduled until noon. Damned if I was going to miss this flight and wait until noon. I jumped up to talk to Sumit again. In was approaching 5am.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you again, but our flight starts boarding in half an hour, and now two people have gone missing tracking down our luggage. I’m afraid of missing this flight after traveling so far, and having to wait until noon to fly because of this baggage issue.”

“Fine. I’ll print your boarding passes so you will be confirmed on your flight. But I don’t know about your bags. I won’t give you the boarding passes until the man comes back.” He took the passes and stuck them behind his keyboard. This sparked more conversation in Hindi between people behind the counter.

“I don’t understand.” I said again, “Would it be easier for me to walk down to baggage claim myself and pick up the bag and recheck it?” I asked.

“You do not have an entry visa for India to go to the baggage claim, ma’am.” Sumit said.

“My husband is Nepali,” I’d only shown Sumit P’s passport half a dozen times at this point, “he doesn’t need an entry visa, should he go down and get it if finding the bag is so hard?” I was really losing my patience.

This sparked more discussing in Hindi. I’m sure this was fun entertainment for the workers.

The guy standing next to Sumit, who looked like he had a fever since he kept wiping his face and rubbing his head, offered to call his manager. He dialed up the phone and another exchange took place in Hindi. “He will call back in 5 minutes, come back in 5 minutes.” He said.

I walked back to P. I was trying really hard to be patient, but I was tired, and this truly was ridiculous.

Then I spotted luggage guy #2 again and walked up to him.

“Our luggage is all set?” I asked him.

“I relayed your message.” He said, noncommittally.

“So you have talked to the guy who is looking for our bag or you haven’t talked to him? Does he have our bag?”

“I don’t know. I passed your message to him. He will explain the problem.”

“So there is a problem now?” I asked.

“No, no… no problem.” He said.

“There isn’t anyone we can call?” I asked a bit desperately.

“No.”

I went to Sumit again, the time getting dangerously close to 5:30 when the flight was due to start boarding. “I don’t really understand the problem.” I said, “Why can’t we call someone to track down the bag? We are going to miss our flight!”

“Wait five minutes ma’am.”

What the hell!

So I walked back to P who was still talking to the other Nepali guy. A few minutes later P spotted luggage man #1, “There he is, let’s go talk to him!” he said.

P and I walked up to luggage man #1 and I asked, “You found our luggage?” (thinking in my head, “it’s only been about an hour and a half! Where the hell have you been??”)

“Yes.” He said.

“And it’s definitely on the flight?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered, “It’s a blue bag with a retractable handle, right?”

“Yes.” We both answered simultaneously.

He handed us back our eticket and original luggage tag. Sumit had conveniently walked away from the counter, so I said to the fever man, “Our boarding passes were printed out earlier, can you please give them to us now that our luggage is confirmed?”

Fever man shook his head, “I can’t. Sumit has them.”

So now we had our luggage, no boarding passes, and the flight was getting ready to board, and we were quite a walk from the gate (and P can’t walk fast… he has a torn meniscus, and his surgery isn’t scheduled until November, so even gingerly making it across the terminals had been a challenge this whole time.)

I spotted Sumit coming from the bathroom from across the room. He walked over and I asked him for our passes. He insisted he had to print everything again, asking for both our passports, our luggage tag, our eticket, and a verbal confirmation from luggage man #1.

P and I were practically stamping our feet in frustration.

“I’m sorry,” Sumit said, looking up from the computer, “I can’t put you two next to each other on the plane, since we waited so long to confirm your boarding passes there are no seats left together.”

“Whatever,” I said, “Just give us our boarding passes.”

He printed them and handed them to us saying, “It’s boarding now, I suggest you run.”

Thanks… asshole.

“Don’t forget your luggage tags*.” He said as we walked away from the counter. That was the least of my worries, so P and I ignored him and ran through the passageway towards international security check.

* for clarification—I mean the luggage tags you loop through the shoulder strap of your bag with your name on it that serves as identification, not the sticker on your boarding pass envelope that tells you where your bags are, which I had been talking about previously.

A uniformed young woman with a large noise piercing and a colorful bindi asked us for our passports, tickets, and wanted to see the luggage tags for each of our carry-ons.

“Shoot,” P said, “I forgot that they stamp the luggage tag to verify that you have gone through security at this airport.”

Of course the woman only had one spare, and we had three bags. I spotted one on the floor near the x-ray machine and picked it up, it was blank, good. I frantically looked around for another and saw one under the foot of another uniformed security officer, a man with a mustache. I asked him to hand it to me, but it wasn’t blank. “No matter,” he said, and gave it to me anyway to loop on my bag. Whatever works.

We tossed our things on the x-ray machine and I walked through the scanner, and of course set it off, and had to be taken aside and frisked. I told the lady we were running late. She looked at my boarding pass and said, “You have time.”

P and I gathered our things on the opposite side of the x-ray machine, and started walking as fast as we could through the Duty Free section of the terminal, on the other side was a sign that said “Gates 1-14 to the right”, with a notification it would be approximately a 15 minute walk.

I hefted the bag I had been rolling on to my back and picked up my speed. I called out to P to see how he was doing. He was moving along, but didn’t want to push himself too hard in case he injured his leg more. So I said I’d go ahead, at least let them know at the gate that we were on our way.

So I hurried ahead, and by the time we got to the gate the crowd waiting for the plane to KTM was still waiting, some playing cards, a few stretched out sleeping on the floor. Apparently there wasn’t such an urgency as Sumit made us think.

“Do you think we can ask someone to trade seats on the flight so we can sit together?” P asked.

“It’s only an hour and a half, I think we will be okay if no one switches.” I said.

When boarding started P and I got on the flight and waited as people found their seats. I was placed between two older Nepali men who looked like they were returning from working in the Middle East.

As the plane filled, I noticed no one sat in the seat next to P. I asked the stewardess if I could move. She said if once the pilot closed the doors no one came on the plane with a ticket for that seat I could move.

Lo and behold, the pilot closed the doors and no one came. That jerk Sumit probably just wanted to mess with us some more.

I moved back a few rows to sit with P.

So now our flight is just about to land in KTM. Our freaking bag better be on this plane, or I might just have to conjure up a voodoo curse on Mr. Sumit of Jet Airways at the Delhi International Transfers desk. Yes, Sumit, I’m talking to you.