When it rains...

My morning routine now runs something like:

0500: Wake up with the first peeks of sunlight through the curtains
0515: Force myself back to sleep
0745: Roll out of bed
0755: Make protein shake and grab medicine
0800: Drive to Lakhtokia on Lil Miss Bleu (my scooter)
0805: Find the momma who needs her daily medicine and shake
0810: Play with the gathering children, do their hair, fix their clothes, play patty cake
0820: Walk back to Bleu with a child clutching onto each finger. Tell them all I will see them tomorrow , shake hands, give high fives, wave enthusiastically as I drive off, watch their huge smiles get farther and farther away in my mirrors...
0825: Make a cup of tea, have breakfast, get ready for the day. Head to the surgery center for 8, 9, 10 hours depending on what is in store for the day. Teach, advise, recover, run up and down stairs, practice my Assamese, give vaccines, mediate, play with patients, etc
7pm: Come home, sleep, repeat.

If it is Sunday then we could say:
0930: Start food preparation
1000: Have everything on the stove
1145: Head to Lakhtokia and serve some lunch
1pm: Hang out with Sima which may include: painting nails, dancing, practicing English, drinking chai,  henna, meeting every single neighbor, sitting and staring at each other, etc.
2pm: Clean up the dishes, the aftermath of Sunday meals is pretty intense
3pm: Melt into bed and read/watch a movie

When it rains here it can feel like normality and routine are crippled. The roads fall apart, they flood, mud becomes thick, power outages are frequent and it sometimes seems like everything is just supposed to pause. But that isn't always an option. Moms still need their morning medicine to fight an illness that could claim their life, leaving their daughter an orphan. They need their protein shakes to help boost their immune system and put on weight. Children still need to be checked on, surgeries still need to take place, and on Sundays bellies need to be fed. So sometimes I ride my scooter in the rain, sometimes volunteers brave the mud, trying not to slip and drop the huge vessels of food. We huddle under umbrellas and far too small awnings passing time, hoping the downpour lets up. When it doesn't (I may be talking about this week) then we improvise.

I wish everything were always an ideal situation (don't we all), that routine remained perfectly organized no matter what the day throws at us but that is not reality. I worry watching kids hunker down in the mud, eating food. I think of how food and water borne illness increases during the rainy season in India and I know it doesn't come from the food we cook but instead from the watery, trash filled mud that runs rampant during this season. (This time last year I fought dysentery for almost a month after eating food at a rainy, muddy festival) There's not always running water available where we serve the food; the kids are supposed to clean their hands before they come to eat but it doesn't always happen. So we made do with what we were given last week because the other choice is not to come at all, for the first time in eight months, and really that is not an option. Rain or shine, is what they were promised and rain or shine is what they will get. When life is lived out in the open as it is in the slums, nature is inescapable.

The flooding here in the North East is severe, too many homes and whole villages have been destroyed in Assam and all the way down to Bangladesh. My road floods but it is nothing more than a minor inconvenience, we are lucky. A majority of people here do not know how to swim so when the floods come it results in many drownings as people can not rescue themselves if caught in water. The national parks which protect the rhinos and the wild elephants are inundated with water and the animals are fighting for their lives as well as people all over the area. Positive thoughts sent to this corner of the world would be much appreciated as people, villages and animals attempt to recover from this week. The rain seems to have lessened in the last 2 days but it is just the start of monsoon season here so I anticipate many more rainy Sundays, wet scooter rides early in the morning, power outages, and improvisation at the hands of mother nature.

(photo courtesy of Deb, taken on the road outside our building)


Don't ask me where I'll be in 5 years unless you want me to shake my belly in your face

Yesterday one of my bosses asked me where I see myself in five or ten years. Knowing that my time here is tied to short-term contracts, I initially responded "I don't know, right now I live about 6 months at a time..." to which the table broke out in laughter. I almost panicked... why couldn't I answer? Sitting there at the table, I just shook my head and said "I really can't even imagine it..."

To be honest, one part of me wanted to explain how if my wildest dreams came true I would have an outreach center here in Guwahati for the street and slum children. What is currently my 'community project' with the feedings would be a non-profit serving the under-served by empowering these children through meals, school, health and rehabilitation. I would own a home but not the kind with a white picket fence, it would have to be open and able to be used in any of the above capacities. I would have about one hundred children or more, however many come into my life. I would still be a nurse, tending wounds and giving out medicine and doing health education. I wouldn't 'have a family' but by then my parents, my sisters and their families would all have moved out here with me so I would 'have my family.' I would be doing a few mission trips per year with Operation Smile and by then I would have also gotten Del Taco to open up in Guwahati so life would be ideal. Yes, these are my wildest dreams.

The other part of me wanted to explain that when I was twenty I would have answered "In five years I will be a nurse in a pediatric ICU, working towards my Master's Degree at UCSF, married (happily of course), planning my first child and volunteering on short term medical mission projects." Here is the thing about envisioning myself in the future, not everything came to fruition and that is okay. Don't get me wrong it is good to have goals but goals have to remain open to change and that is what I have learned. I mean hell, forget 10 years ago, 10 months ago I didn't think I would be doing what I am right now (making my nurse education topic of the week, bookmarking the papers I need to print tomorrow to file for incorporation in the state of California for what has somehow become my future non-profit organization and blogging from what is still my bed in India.) It's scary not having a plan. Making things happen organically I guess is just something new to me, I am learning everyday how to grow and shape my future without knowing where each step leads. My parents may not even recognize me anymore, after all I am the one who had every college class planned out before I started my freshmen year. Oh, how things change. 

I meet a lot of people every month coming in and out of the surgical center and this or similar questions get posed almost on the weekly. Sometimes I want to wear a badge that says "I have no idea where I'm going but I'm standing on solid ground." Then I'd break out into a song and dance* to ease the awkward silence that would ensue after I pointed to said badge in response to the visitors enquiry... I still don't know what I would do about the awkward silence that would come after the song/dance unless I just danced myself right out of the room...

All jokes aside, in five or ten years I hope that I am continuing to live a life centered around service in exactly the place I am supposed to be in that moment. I don't know where, I don't know who but I hope I remain as content as I am right now. 

*This is a tactic I have come to use often. For the last month my go to song has been "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof. And yes, I do raise my hands in the air and shake my belly like Tevye. Before that it was "Chikni Chameli" from Agneepath. And yes, I did put my hands on my head and thrust my torso all about. 


Some smiles for your Monday

Here are a few things that I find grin inducing, and I hope they do for you too! 

A little boy with the sweetest shyness before/after surgery

 She couldn't help but take her new smile out for a test run! 

Monday morning blues... they just don't exist at the surgical center!

Meanwhile down at the tracks:
 Finding solutions for TB treatment and education!

Donated care packages (towel, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and metal plates!)

Little girls that feel remarkably better after receiving medical care (and a care package)

As a friend and I each held a child, the children held one another's hands

Have an amazing week my friends <3 Kristin


In this moment

There is hope for change, small bits of progress that are making dreams that felt previously unrealistic, tangible. The pediatricians who stood up and offered their help after the seeing the news story are helping in ways that this community never dreamt of. De-worming treatments, vitamins and supplements are being given. Last week alone, a young boy who got a laceration on his head received proper stitching. A little girl who was sick for three weeks, got a free examination, Xray and antibiotic treatment. Her mother (who is younger than me) also received an exam/Xray and was, unfortunately, diagnosed with tuberculosis. There is no telling how long she has been suffering from it but we do know it is a miracle that her daughter has not caught it yet. Tuberculosis is tough, there is a set treatment but it requires six months of daily medication and three different medications at that. That treatment was previously unobtainable for her, let alone that if left to treat herself non-compliance is a guarantee. So we are formulating a plan and trying to get the medicine donated month by month from pharmaceutical companies. Even if that is not possible, the medicine will be purchased for her via donations from Deb or anyone that is willing. (Update: I just got news that the first month has been donated, and I will have to figure out the next five months as they come) Once we get started, I will meet her every day to administer her dose and give her a protein shake and in six months, hopefully we will have a TB free momma. Despite the diagnosis she was smiling ear to ear, thanking us for the care.

Then comes the dream of education. This has been keeping me up at nights, as my coworker who has her master's in public health would say: the key to breaking the cycle of poverty is food, shoes and education. Education. Education. Education... this is a barrier that is extremely difficult to overcome for reasons which maybe I will explain in another entry. I have tossed and turned and wondered what to do. I found a school near the train station who eventually pointed me to another school down the road. There at this Don Boscoe school, they offer night classes for street children. The ones who have never gone to school can receive literacy training, the others who do attend another school can receive tutoring and at the end of the day they get dinner. The school will prepare them for exams to enter regular schools and as I sat there talking to this principle I dreamt of the cycle weakening, to the point of cracking. Could some of my babies learn a trade, get a job beyond picking trash for recycling, not live in the slum someday? If just one, right? If just one breaks through. I well-up with tears over these hopes, they are so heavy in my heart. I feel like with the goal of education, I had been grasping at straws when someone came along and put the ground back under my feet. There is a lot of planning to do before the new school year starts in August. I was told they can wear anything but based on previous talks with some of the kids, one big reason they don't attend school is because they don't have the proper clothing. So uniforms and shoes for each child whose families will allow them to attend the classes are a necessity. It will not be an easy road, or an instantaneous change but, friends, there is a very real dream becoming reality in Lakhtokia. 


The homes of the ones I love

It has been nearly 8 months since I first walked through the slum area of Lakhtokia. I had seen pictures of massive slums, this is one is small by comparison to the ones that pop up in major cities like Mumbai. Despite its small size, I was shocked at how many people could live in one space. I remember feeling almost like I was invading their privacy because I was so out of place and they live their lives in the open. I tried not to gawk but I was estimating how many children there were and trying to comprehend what I was seeing. Maybe it is because I have been there now so many times, their homes so clear in my head that I forget that not everyone knows or can visualize what we speak of when we use the word 'slum.' I guess my best description with words is that slum homes are made of other people's discarded materials. Some with tarps, cardboard maybe even some old metal siding. They are easily broken down, burnt and moveable if needed quickly (the government here randomly decides to raze slum areas, leaving the families without homes and no alternative place to go) Some have been built behind fencing that was there for the train tracks and they even form little alleyways and rows, it is actually quite organized when you take a walk through the insides of the rows.


Backside of two rows of homes

Inside a typical slum home

One of the downfalls of the otherwise awesome leaf plates is that they tend to leak a bit. The manager of the temple where we serve the food isn't a fan of this and tried to get us to go back to the aluminum containers. I say tried because it wasn't something I could really budge on so instead the solution is that the kids cannot sit on the temple grounds to eat therefore reducing the mess. I was walking sweet Mirna back to her home yesterday (the wee ones struggle with the big plates) when I was just washed with momentary sadness. What do they do when it rains? What if they fall ill with cholera or dysentery, unable to escape the monsoon water and the diseases it can carry? How do they sleep at night? What would they think if they saw my home? I don't know the answers to all of these questions but I know  we have an awesome group of pediatricians who would treat their illness. We have friendship and time together rain or shine. This is their home, it is what they know, it is where they are comfortable. So instead of getting totally lost in the sadness, I took a moment to sit Mirna down inside the four cardboard walls where she lives, placed her food on the makeshift table and became overwhelmed with thankfulness at being so welcome inside these homes. 



I had nervous butterflies this weekend as we made meals and headed out to Lakhtokia, I knew how much I had been missing these children and hoped that they would welcome my return. Deb and I were buying bananas when I saw Asbanu and Puja further down in the market. I saw them first and when they looked up the expression on their face said something like "Do I see who I think I see?!" Carefully they walked through the slippery mud to me, and hugged me with looks of disbelief in their eyes. I had promised them I would be back but I have a feeling that promises made are not often kept in their little corner of the world. After purchasing the bananas we walked arm in arm to the small temple where we have been distributing the meals. It was incredible. The kids lined up all of the serving vessels, organized the line and started handing it out (even asking for the marker when we forgot to give it to them.) The rest of us just stood and overlooked everything, played around and gave out lots and lots of hugs. I am almost certain that if allowed, these wonderful kiddos would gladly help make the food too! It was incredible, just incredible to remember the very first time Asbanu decided to help hand out the meals and then to see how they have completely taken responsibility in helping one another. 

Realizing how much things have grown gives me hope for the future and the dreams I have for this community. Hopefully lots of good news will be coming our way soon and I will gladly share it when it does. 

Reunited with the ever-sweet Asbanu

 Bare bum on the rail just kills me!

Going around all of the homes, gathering friends


While I was away

The Sunday that I left for the states to renew my visa I told some of the children to count five Sundays and then I would be back. A few of them broke down into tears, thinking that they would not see anyone on Sundays during that time. I quickly explained that every week they would continue to get their food and that was largely due to the ever awesome Deborah:

I had asked Deb to head up the project in my absence and though I know it made her nervous, she excitedly accepted the challenge. After a few weeks of 'precepting' (nurse jokes) she was on her own. Little did I know that one of the weeks Deb completely made all of the food by herself. Making a meal for eighty is no easy task, add in power outages and transporting four hundred leaf plates alone on a scooter and I'd say that Deb is extremely dedicated to these kids. I swell knowing that so many people here care enough to donate their time and resources to help and every week when I got a little report from her I longed to be home but felt so much comfort. Also, nearly all of the photos you see of the kids and the project are taken by her. I hate typing it out but in just two weeks she has to head back to the U.S. and resume life in the states. We will all sorely miss her, and hope to see her on this side again soon. Below are just a few of the snaps she took while I was away...

 A little guy walking across the tracks with his plate to his slum home on the other side.

 Showing off their muscles!

 A regular kiddo showing a new boy how to carry his plate and where to sit. My heart melted when she shared this one with me. 

Joy in the midst of immeasurable heartache.

Visitors world wide loving on the kids!


California - Assam

How quickly time passes! On Thursday I started the long journey back to my India home and safely arrived yesterday morning. I usually sleep really well on the long flight (which is typically anywhere from 14-16 hours) but for some reason this time I hardly slept at all. Instead, I fell asleep on a bench by my gate in Shanghai for two hours during my layover and nearly missed my plane. Seriously. A little Chinese woman woke me up as they made the final call for boarding, five minutes before closing the gate. Thank you little Chinese woman, thank you. I fell asleep again before we even took off and woke up six hours later when we were landing, by the time I reached Delhi, India I was feeling great! I am currently sitting in my bed, watching the rain fall and fall, hoping it clears up in a few hours so we can get out there and feed the kids!!

I figured that leaving the states would become easier each time, but it was so hard to say good bye to my family this time around. I got to spend quality time with each of them but it never feels like enough. 

Theatre and treats with my dad

Sending my little sister off to her senior prom
California Science Center with my nieces, nephews, sister and mom

A trip to the dog beach with Bruiser (and yes, he does go in the ocean!)

Tattoos with my sister

Best friend time at the botanical gardens in San Francisco

Celebrating my cousins graduation in Boulder, CO (by the way she is like a genius... she received her degree in Molecular Cellular and Developmental Biology) 

And even squeezed in a trip to Disneyland with my nieces and nephews! 

All in all, I could not have asked for a better time in my U.S. home to prepare for more time in my India home. I am so lucky to have friendships that last the distance, endless love and support from my family and work worth making these sacrifices for. While at a cute tea shop in SF I fell upon this poem by Daniel Ladinsky:

have a cause
We need those don't we?
Otherwise the darkness and the cold gets in 
and everything starts to 

My soul has a purpose, it is
to love;

if I 
do not fulfill
my heart's vocation
I suffer

So here is to love, sacrifice and hard work in order to fulfill my heart's vocation!