Nary a drop to drink

I stand in front of my bathroom sink, toothbrush in hand, confused.

Yes, I’m whacked out on jet lag. I slept for the first ten and a half hours of the sixteen hour flight from Delhi to San Francisco. The flight attendants were actually worried and I only woke up when I got leg cramps from not drinking enough. Hard to take in water while you are sleeping.

Although it’s time for bed in San Francisco, I’m both exhausted and awake at the same time.

Just being in an international airport is exciting for me, hearing different languages, seeing different cultures on display. Somehow all the possibilities of life are open when you are headed on an international trip. I love to leave. And I love to come home.

I’ve spent three weeks in India, and not in luxury hotels. While I have been an honored guest at every turn, sitting at the head of the table, in the front seat of the car, never allowed to get close to a restaurant bill, the realities of daily life in India are different than here.  I drink bottled water there. Every time. Every drop. If the woman-of-the-house is going to make chutney she uses bottled water so I can eat it.

“Is is true that everyone in America his a pipe into their house with water?” a cousin asks me.

An Indian in-home water purification system. Families like to transfer water for drinking to the ceramic jug as it will stay cooler. Refrigerated water is deemed too cold.

I always invite questions, and learn more from the questions I’m asked than from those I ask.

“How many hours a day does that water come?” is his follow-up question.

“And you can drink this water?”

I told him that if you can’t drink the water it will be in the newspaper. “And we get hot water from the pipe also.”

In the village of Kanai one morning we ran out of water. The family house is one of the most modern in the village. It has two bathrooms with western-style toilets, swamp coolers, and a reverse osmosis water purifier. But that only helps if you have water. The tank was empty. The well water was too bad. I went on the search for water. The first home didn’t have any to spare. We got two jugs from a house-under-construction down the street. I’ve supported Charity Water, which brings clean water to third world villages, for 15 years now and been lucky to see their work in the field in both Ethiopia–where we dig wells–and in India where we build taankas, a modern version of ancient rainwater collection tanks.

I stare at my toothbrush again, put toothpaste on it and run it under the faucet.

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Apple: Sardarapura Road vs. Chestnut Street

Face recognition on my iPhone wasn’t working. It just wasn’t.

I made sure everything was perfect with my phone before leaving home. My Indian friends didn’t like my old phone case–too obvious it held money and credit cards–so I got a new case with a secret compartment.

Plug adapter. Check. Extra charging cables. Check. Two external batteries. Check. Check. Everything backed up and up-to-date? Check. I tell myself the $10/day AT&T charges for international service is simply the cost of doing business. I tell my family and friends I will be as phone-available as always, just opposite side of the clock.

Ariel started to call me once and her phone warned her about the inconvenient time where I was.

They don’t call them smart phones for nothing.

But my face recognition didn’t work. It just quit. I could still use the password of course, but what if something really was amiss? I picked up the phone every other minute, showing pictures, taking pictures, sharing pictures, looking up exchange rates, and punching in the numeric password was inconvenient. And we’d be going off-the-grid to the village soon.

So I trotted off to the Apple Store in Jodhpur.

In some ways it’s just like my Apple store at home. There’s a genius bar. The latest and greatest in computers and phones are displayed on white dust-free counters. There’s whiz-bang wi-fi. The helpers are great. Prices are the same. And there’s an assortment of cases and other accessories.

End of similarities.

In Northern California where I live, if I don’t make an appointment ahead of time I practically have to put my elbow pads to get into the store. There are two greeters up front–iPads in hand–who do triage. If I want actual help I’m put in a queue and given an approximate wait time, 90 minutes or so usually. I’ll get texts to update me on my place in line. If I am five minutes late, the process starts again. It’s organized and friendly, but the store is so crowded that’s how it goes.

In Jodhpur, which has about the same population as San Francisco, there are no appointments, no greeters, and no need for triage. I got right in to see the genius, whose English was just fine. He looked up my phone up on the computer, purchased March a year ago. Quickly figured out there was a new software update. I didn’t have wifi access so hadn’t been able to do it yet. We plugged my phone in and started the update on their wifi.

“How many phones do you sell in a day?” I asked.

“Ten to 15.”

Remember I said prices are the same here. Quoted in rupees, of course, but divide by 69 rupees to the dollar and it’s the same. The average iPhone purchased today is brushing up to $800. The median family income in San Francisco is $96,265.

In Jodhpur the average annual income is the equivalent of $4,261.

An iPhone is an absolute luxury item here.

After the update finished we reset my facial recognition and it worked just fine.

While I was waiting for the update someone brought out a tray of waters, served in shiny copper cups. Indians take their hospitality seriously and one is always offered water or tea in every home or business.

No drink service at the Apple Store on Chestnut Street in San Francisco.

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The Butterfly Effect

When we met Givraj Sen last fall he was a 19 year-old chef/barber hoping for a new ear.

Givraj and me just recently.

Givraj was three years old when when an accident in his home village of Kanai in Rajasthan, India, left him severely burned, his left ear entirely consumed and left side of his face and neck, and left arm burned. The fire killed one small child and injured several others. Young Givraj spent over a month in the hospital.

An industrious and cheerful young man, Givraj isn’t embarrassed about his scars but he would love to have ear. Although he has insurance, the rough equivalent of Medicaid, he had no idea where to begin. His father, a barber/servant, asked around but people in these villages are unsophisticated–the female literacy rate is only 20%–and no one knew where to begin.

At our medical clinic, in the fall, for which Givraj, prepared the food, I organized a meeting with Givraj, the physical therapist who runs the NGO we partner with, and Lokendra and Goldie Rathore.

I don’t speak Hindi. The physical therapist explained that Givraj would need to go to Jaipur, the largest city in Rajasthan–two to three hours away depending on how many cows are meandering on the road–and have a consultation with a plastic surgeon. The physical therapist wrote a name on a referral slip. The surgeon would advise on next steps.

This discussion happened in English. “Please translate this for Givraj,” I say.

“After we’re done I will,” says Goldie.

“No, now. This is important for his life and he needs to understand every step.”

The elder Mr. Rathore offered to take Givraj when they returned to their home in the city and to accompany him on medical appointments. Insurance would pay the cost of any surgery.

“Do you have any questions?” I asked Givraj.

Recovering from surgery last October.

Only how fast this could all happen. Today? Tomorrow? Next week?

It turned out there was too little flesh remaining to build Givraj and ear, but the surgeon could help him. They would take a skin graft from his right thigh and improve both the appearance and function of his neck. The contraction of the scars had given him restricted movement.

Less than three weeks later Givraj had the surgery, a family member stayed to help care for him in the hospital, which is expected. Afterwards he had to be careful for a good while to protect the graft, no cooking in heat for two months….

And now, Givraj has a whole new life.  He moved to the neighboring state of Gujrat, and works for a catering company. While I was in Kanai he drove ten hours–by motorbike!–to come and thank me. He showed me dozens of photos of elaborate dishes he’d prepared for his work, tiny desserts with silver foil on top. Platters and platters in which the sweets are organized to make pictures.

You ask why I didn’t get any of those pictures? I ask myself the same thing.

He was going to cook us a celebration dinner, but traffic slowed him up. It was 10 pm when he arrived. I was a uncomfortable with all the focus on his scar. Grandma kept exclaiming and brushing her fingers. All and sundry exclaimed and inspected, but I chalked up my discomfort to cultural differences.

Before I was awake the next morning he was off to Mumbai–a 17 hour drive–where he would be working on a wedding for 1,000 people.

My discomfort over the focus on his scar was surpassed by my discomfort at the level of appreciation. I wanted to say I didn’t really DO anything. I didn’t perform surgery. I didn’t pay for surgery. I didn’t even drive him, by car or camel or motorbike, to the surgery. What I did was set up a meeting and get him on the right path.

And at first I attributed my discomfort to those pesky cultural differences. Whenever anyone tries to touch my feet I go into freak-out mode. But then I realized that for him getting put on the path was huge. Small for me; momentous for him.




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Ring Makes an Unscheduled Stop

“Do you have a trustworthy jeweler in India?” Linda Carroll asks me.

That question is not as odd as it might seem. I have made two trips to India in the last last year and she knew I was getting ready to leave again. Linda also knew that, while no bling princess, I do like my jewelry.
“Yes,” I answered warily, afraid of being given orders for jewels. “I know a good jeweler in Jodhpur.”
“My mother’s ring needs work and I’m terrified of something happening to it. Can you take it and get it repaired?” Linda explained that her parents had the ring made 50 years ago in Peru while her father was working at an international school there.  “It was a huge splurge for them.” Linda didn’t have to tell me that both her mother and her husband had passed away in the last couple of years, and she was deep in the care of her father, who was ninety years old with a whole menu of health problems.
Linda was the first person outside of my family that I told about my separation, and a key member of the Karen Sanity Committee who saw me through my divorce.  Laurie, Patrice, and Linda took care of me—“can you get her something to eat something? I’ll take her to a movie, and what about a walk…do you think she’ll go for a walk?” For the first nine months or so I was a basket case and Linda held my hand the whole time. We saw a lot of movies then, offbeat movies, foreign movies, screenings, Tuesday $5 specials, Linda and I were movie buddies for all of them. Her husband had been a director and Linda ran their production company.
“One of the stones in the ring is broken and we took one out to put into Nikki’s wedding ring,” said Linda, “so those need fixing. Plus I want it sized so I can wear it. I can send it to you and of course I’ll pay for—“
“Sure, I can do that.”
Two days later Linda’s ring shows up, immaculately packaged in a baby canister, with a Post-it diagram of how the stones are a to be aligned. Linda was a prop mistress in a former incarnation and knows how to manage the details of life.
She’d also been checking in with me every few hours—“is it there yet?”– so I was relieved when it arrived. Linda loaded WhatsApp on her phone so that we could more easily communicate while I was away.
This is the kind of favor I like. It didn’t feel like an inconvenience to me and it would be an immense benefit to her.
I tucked the ring container between my toothbrush and tweezers.
At Gems and Art Palace in Jodhpur I met with Manish—“Micky”—Singhvi. He looked at the ring and the diagram. Neither of us was exactly sure which way was up. “I’ll do the repair right away,” said Micky, “so there will be plenty of time if we need to redo it, or she wants changes.”
I gave Linda “ring reports” in real time. She always wrote right back even if the time was weird for her. She is also one of the people who appreciated my pictures of camels and turbans and cows in the middle of the road and commented on the eye clinic I was organizing.
Sure enough Micky called a couple days later that the ring was done.  I waved away the other pieces he was trying to sell me and sent off pictures of the ring.  Mickey also had included the old broken stones in the little baggie he returned to me.  I was a little surprised that Linda didn’t respond right away, but with the 12 1/2 hour time difference you never really know.  I told Micky the story of the ring and why it mattered so much.  I was really surprised not to hear from her the next day either. Two days later her message read:
“Thanks so much Karen, I’m really excited about it. I’m in Seattle right now. My father passed away unexpectedly but I got here before he died.”
I checked to make sure the ring was safe. It would surely mean even more now. I tried to think of a piece of jewelry that meant so much to me. While I was married maybe my wedding ring. Now I’m not even exactly sure where it is.
As I returned home to Northern California, Linda was back to her on-it mode of communication. “What day will you get it in the mail?  I’ll get you a mailing label so you don’t have to do anything, I just need to know what day you’ll put it in the mail.”
“Monday?” My feet were barely on the ground. There’s always so much to do when I get home. “Monday. I’ll do it Monday.”
I printed out the label and slipped the ring into a manila envelope, relieved to have it out of my hands.
Six days later Linda texted me. “Still haven’t received ring. Can you let me know what kind of packaging you used and if you used the USPS shipping label I sent?” She was out of town, for yet another funeral. She’d gotten dreaded phone calls on two consecutive Sundays at 5:30 a.m. First her father, then her husband’s best friend. “Maybe the ring already came,” she wrote, “I was looking for USPS priority mail envelope. I left at 4:30 a.m. and there was a yellow envelope outside my door and I just put it inside in the rush to get to my Uber.” Another couple of days and she questioned me again about the dimensions of the envelope. “Yes, 9×12 envelope.”
“It was delivered LAST TUESDAY,” she wrote, having checked tracking information. “I think the housekeeper threw it away, thinking the envelope was empty. Trash is emptied every day at our units. I’m just heartsick. At least I have the pictures you sent. I suppose this is a lesson in detachment…..”
Linda was sobbing when I called. “It’s just so hard with all of these deaths stacking up. And there’s almost nothing of my mother’s that I have!”
“There was something weird about the mailing label,” I said. “I was exhausted when I printed it, but I noticed your old street was the return address. I thought you’d gotten some sort of  mail delivery service. Let me dig through emails and see if I can find if I can find the label.”
“You think there’s a chance? I can go to the old house and have a look.”
“Let me find the mailing label.”
Good thing I never empty my email.
Linda’s ring was sent to:
Loopy HQ
PO Box 230
Schererville, IN 46375-0230
Truly. Her mother’s ring had gone to Indiana. Loopy is a small company that makes iPhone cases with little loops on the back. I found the phone number for her to call. The mailing label must have been in a queue from a previous transaction.
Three days later Linda had her ring.
Tried to think of where the lesson is here. Don’t take jewelry to India for repair? Don’t print out labels while jet lagged? Grief impairs judgement? We know that.
I think it’s more that sometimes things really do work out when friends help each other.  I’m less interested now in casual let’s-do-lunch friendships, and more interested in the I’ll-sit-with-you- no-matter-what friendships. It could be a relationship crisis. Or it could be a lost ring. Or it could be just a bad day. Whatever it is, I’m happy to have friends I can can call.
And they’ve got my number too.
Posted in Friends, Life Experiences, Travel | Tagged | 3 Comments

Come with me to India for a few minutes.


Men wait on the left. Women wait on the right.

“What do you mean we cannot use the school?!”  Lokendra Singh Rathore, cell phone to ear, paces the dusty road in front of the primary school in Nimbera Khurd, a village of 819 souls in Rajasthan, India.

Even in the best of times, Mr. Rathore does not speak softly. At our two previous clinics, held in adjacent villages, we were welcomed at the public primary schools.

This boy’s vision was injured in a fall.

It is election season in India and nothing is usual. Voting in this region was to be held the following week and there was fear that the clinic, which I support in conjunction with the Sarthi Foundation, a small local NGO, would be buying votes or creating a scheme to influence the election.

Check-in system. Everyone has a mobile phone.

Kitchen at the home we are using for our clinic.

“Can you tell them,” I say, “that we have done this twice before. We have never asked anyone for a single rupee. Never done anything improper.”

“We will try.” And I get the Indian head wobble which, to me, means there is no place to hold our clinic.

We Americans may be exhausted by what feels like a perpetual election cycle. But here in the world’s largest democracy the election is intrusive in ways we can’t imagine. Voting in India goes from April 11 to May 19, in different geographic waves, affecting nearly every aspect

Cooler is transported to clinic via tractor. Happy to have unseasonably cool weather. Only 96 degrees.

of life.

There are roadblocks and random checkpoints. Our car was stopped and searched once and photographed, with an old-school 35mm camera. If you are carrying a lot of money, you better have a good explanation. At the jewelry store, the merchant showed me many beautiful old pieces he had just received, “because of the election.” On two previous trips I had, with a local family, visited the Jodhpur leprosy society delivering tea, sugar, and basic foodstuffs to supplement the government allotment of lentils and oil. We were ordering supplies for our visit when informed it wouldn’t be safe. It could could be seen as a bribe and the local family risked retribution.

Our car is also a problem. As explained to me the government can simply requisition any commercial vehicle—a car with yellow plates—if it is needed for the election. So our car is kept locked garaged and locked for a couple of days, and then the driver makes sure to always have me and my travel arrangements on hand so it was clear the car is under hire. We also cancel a visit to a temple because of a huge political rally in the city.

Mostly, though, I worry about our little clinic. The doctors come tomorrow, where are we going to set up?

Turns out that Lali Davi who lives across the street from the school heard Mr. Rathore yelling in front of her home. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

He explained the problem.

“Our house is your house,” said Mrs. Lali, who remembered a long-ago kindness and instantly offers up her home.

Women receiving their new glasses. Jewelry is a sign that the woman is married.

Advertising is done with tuk-tuk—a baby taxi—and a megaphone. The family removed all their furniture and possessions, except one bed that the physical therapist uses as an exam table. The home isn’t as spacious as the school, but we put up tenting so patients have shade for waiting. Women sit on carpets to the left, men on carpets to the right. Registration, blood pressure and diabetes checks happen on the front porch. Preliminary eye checks in the bedroom on the left. PT clinic and medications in the center room and advanced eye appointments on the right. Since women here won’t remove their veil in front of men we have a female optometrist. While the other professionals are from Rajasthan, the optometrist is from Agra and doesn’t understand the local dialect. An assistant translates.

Mr. Rathore hauls a swamp cooler, fan, and chairs over in his tractor. The electricity is out most of the day, but my helpers thought to rent a generator, which gulps diesel. Three times a runner on motorbike zips out for more.  Money goes so much farther here. I am able to get prescription glasses made for 300 rupees each, just over four dollars. The frames have been donated by Manhattan Beach Vision. The temperature is ten degrees cooler than usual, only 96. A tribal man in a turban lifts up his long shirt, called a kurta, to feel the cool air on his belly. We both smile as I take his picture and then he gestures for me to take another more dignified one with his clothes in place.

We serve over 400 people in one day. I put give the children stickers, watch the clinic hum, and am happy, for a few hours, to give not a thought to politics, either in on the Indian sub-continent or back home in the United States.

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