Namaste- Last Week Part III

My final blogpost about India is going to be about a place called “Anandwan”, literally translated as “Forest of Joy”. I spent one afternoon at Anandwan, but it was an incredible few hours, and a fitting end to my entire India experience.

Firstly, the way I got there was entirely Indian, in a style that I miss dearly. It was my last day at Hemalkasa. How was I to get home the next day? There had been some sort of vague arrangement with a taxi driver to get me back home, (6 hours away), but in true Indian fashion, plans were changing every half hour. Someone suggested I catch a ride with the ambulance. Then it turned out that a group was leaving from Hemalkasa the same week. Cool, could I hitch a ride home with them? “Maybe, we’ll find out tomorrow”. The next day after breakfast I asked the question again. “Oh, those guys already left.” Great. Now what options did I have? “Well there’s another car coming in today. It can take you to Anandwan. We’ll make arrangements for you to stay there overnight. Then your relatives can pick you up.” Sounded like a plan. The next day, I packed early, and then waited. And waited. Finally a jeep came up to the gate, setting the geese honking. After a while, I heard someone speak. “Is that the girl that’s riding in the back?” After assuring them that I did want to go with them, I made some hurried goodbyes and got in the back. “Oh no, you get in the front.” Awesome- but wait, I had to sit next to someone, the two of us squished in the front seat. Oh well.

With my travel buddy, a real life author (!), an expert on the Amte’s. She was working on an Amte biography at the time
With my travel buddy, a real life author (!), an expert
on the Amte’s. She was working on an Amte biography at the time

What followed was a fun, if physically uncomfortable ride. We picked up jungle fruit from roadside sellers and told stories. The woman I was sitting next to turned out to be a lawyer-turned-author, and extremely interesting. She got along great with me, even after I fell asleep (and possibly drooled on her?) once. We got to Anandwan at 11 pm. We were fed generously before bedtime.

The second thing was that Anadwan totally exemplified what I had come to India to work on- taking healthcare challenges and turning them into community solutions. Anandwan is a basically a township, and it is a community in every sense of the word. It was founded as an ashram, or a rehabilitation center, for leprosy patients by a man called Baba Amte (the father of the Dr. Prakash Amte mentioned in my last two posts). Anandwan welcomed leprosy patients, who were otherwise outcasts in society and often left to die on the street. Baba Amte was convinced that the stigma of leprosy was worse than the disease itself and that it must be replaced with hope, dignity and self-respect. One major principal of Anandwan was that not only patients’ physical needs, but also emotional and social needs must be taken care of. Anandwan was built bottom up as a community, where members help each other and do whatever work they can. It grew to include anyone who felt unwanted in the outside world, including orphans, the deaf, blind and differently abled.  Today it functions as a community of over thirty thousand members. Being welcomed at Anandwan for the afternoon, we became a part of the community.

One of the most beautiful parts of the campus. Over the grave of Baba Amte and his wife grow flowers
One of the most beautiful parts of the campus. Over the grave of Baba Amte and his wife grow flowers. Instead of a cemetery at Anandwan, there are calm woods, with each person represented by a tree.
a closeup of the poem behind the final resting place, or Shraddhawan
a closeup of the poem behind the final resting place, or Shraddhawan

The residents go to work everyday, and each person does a job that they are able to and find enjoyable. We saw people weaving carpets, making wheelchairs, farming (Anandwan is self sustained in food productions), cooking or serving food, making arts and crafts to sell, and keeping busy in many other ways. We saw happiness and fulfillment.

this is how a massive carpet gets woven
this is how a massive carpet gets woven
rafts and cards made out of tree bark and paper strips. Some are hanging in my room right now!
crafts and cards made out of tree bark and paper strips. Some are hanging in my room right now!

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Later on, we also visited the hospital, which was mostly focused on leprosy treatment. [Note: It’s recently come to my attention that the politically correct term for leprosy is Hansen’s Disease. From what I experienced, this term is not in common usage in India. At least at Anandwan, the word leprosy was used all the time, and I hope you can see that it was used without any stigma whatsoever. In respect to what I observed, I’ll continue to use ‘leprosy’ and ‘lepers’ in this post.]

A sign displayed by the hospital. Lack of education about leprosy is one of the biggest barriers preventing patients from seeking treatment. It also is the root of stigma and discrimination against them. Unfortunately, misconceptions are still very common.
A sign displayed by the hospital. Lack of education about leprosy is one of the biggest barriers preventing patients from seeking treatment. It also is the root of stigma and discrimination against them. Unfortunately, misconceptions are still very common.

We talked to the head doctor there. It turns out that in the whole community of thousands of patients, only 49 have active leprosy. Around fifteen thousand were completely cured. However, they still carried the scars of the disease in anesthetic patches, disfigured fingers or limbs or other ways. Because of this, they were still stigmatized in broader society and felt more comfortable living at Anandwan.

We sat down and talked to a few of the patients.

Leprosy is easily cured through a multidrug regimen, provided free of cost to all primary health centers by the Indian government
Leprosy is easily cured through a multidrug regimen, provided free of cost to all primary health centers by the Indian government
a young leprosy patient. He wasn’t supposed play soccer because his leprosy status  made him prone to injuries, but he did it anyways
a young leprosy patient. He wasn’t
supposed play soccer because his leprosy status
made him prone to injuries, but he did it anyways

In all the time I spent in India, I always learned the most and felt the most when talking to patients. I’m nowhere near being a doctor, and I haven’t been taught (and don’t ever want to be taught) to focus solely on the disease. Talking to patients was always just about talking to people, and learning their stories. That’s what has been most meaningful about my trip abroad: being exposed to new contexts, meeting new people and hearing new stories. The amazing surroundings, exciting adventures and thousands of quirky and sublime moments along the way were quite a bonus!

Kulfi, the Indian ice cream. I will never find a replacement for the treats we bought from this Kulfi-wala.
Kulfi, the Indian ice cream. I will never
find a replacement for the treats we bought from this
Kulfi-wala.

I can’t deny that I want to go back to India someday and live there for a while, not just visit. There are so many places I still have to see, and so much I could do! Far from finally getting rid of my travel bug, this awesome semester just made me want to go wider and further, whenever in the future I have that opportunity. From my 10 weeks in India, I can tell you one thing for sure – you never say goodbye in Hindi. Even today, I didn’t know how to translate goodbye. I just looked it up online, and the official answer is “Namaste”. Hmm- I’ll give you a hundred rupees if you ever hear that word actually used to mean farewell. The term to use is always “Phir Milenge”, meaning “We’ll meet again.” It’s what I said when I left Anandwan, and when I left the country. India will always be ready to welcome me back, and I’ll always be ready to go back and say Namaste- “Hello!”

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