To Sweden, With Love

I would consider myself incredibly lucky to work for an organization that cares so much for the communities they reach out to. Operation Smile does not monetarily support Pratyasha Foundation but in their own way, they have made this all possible. If I wasn't here with them, none of this would have started. Even the founders of Operation Smile know about Pratyasha and love it. They love that a community as a whole is changing lives in many different ways. They recognize that the need here is vast. The constant flow of volunteers coming through our surgical center provides many helping hands. Yes, there are many people that come through and help but the volunteers that come from Operation Smile Sweden have a particular place in the hearts of us and of the kids in Lakhtokia.

It all started with Gunilla, a nurse anesthetist from Stockholm, who happens to be a volunteer and board member of Operation Smile Sweden. She has been to Guwahati several times and in January 2012 she came with me to the slum for the first time. Ever since then, every single volunteer from OpSmile Sweden that comes here to the center (and there are a lot) arrives already having heard about Pratyasha and they come ready to help. Sometimes they come with donations, I can not even imagine the over weight charges they incur, clothes, toothbrushes, toothpaste, socks, hats, shoes. They come to give their time all week at the center and then they desire to give even more, using their free time to help in the slum. Every. Single. Volunteer. They're not asked or expected to help with us too. They just desire to. They have somehow come to love these children before even meeting them and when they come back, they come even more emotionally invested in our kids. I have never met a person from Sweden who does not have a huge heart and who has not positively affected our project.

Gunilla, Louise, Lousie's whole family, Ulf, Andrea, Rikard, Michel, Olivia, Jorund, Liisi, Petra, Annki, Birgitta, Chris JJ, Peter, Chris C, Ellinor, Patrik, Ingrid... and so many more. You have each contributed in your way and give us the drive to always move forward. You fill us with motivation and you often leave me humbled by giving so much when you have so little time.

So I give a simple Thank You to anyone and everyone from Sweden and the surrounding area who have supported us because I simply do not have any other words... you leave me speechless.

"Undrar just vart livets räls tar oss båda...Tacksam för allt jag har.." 
 "I wonder where the rails will take both of us. Grateful for everything I have." 


A Week in Korea Part 2

I have become quite accustomed to traveling by myself over the last couple of years and really enjoy it. I like the ease of getting to do things on my time, see what I'd like to see and I like the added challenge that being by yourself creates. However, every now and again I am caught in a moment, an experience that is so incredible, and I just look around and wish I had someone I loved by my side. I could be swimming in the ocean off a remote island in the Philippines, standing at the top of a tower in Seoul, nearly dying on a hike in the jungle or giving a huge hug to my kids in Lakhtokia and sometimes I just feel like I want so badly to share those moments. None of this makes me any less grateful for every single experience I have had on this crazy journey, nor will it keep me from moving forward and exploring every corner of the earth I can reach. I just think that as I'm getting older I am realizing that life is really, really awesome (I already fully believed that) and that maybe getting to share that life with someone is getting back on my list of future dreams (the revelation). I guess my last few days in Korea when Bree was at work or when I travelled south by myself made me think about all of this again!

On Wednesday I took the train down to the southern city of Busan. It is the second largest city in South Korea but it feels worlds different compared to Seoul. I stayed in a hostel called HiKorea, and I highly recommend it! The staff was super friendly and because it is kind of off season, I had the whole room to myself! I went to Busan to see the beach and it was beautiful even if it was freezing cold. Busan is on the East China Sea and Japan is really really close. I had the urge to jump in and swim to Japan but obviously, that's just crazy! I ate sushi that night in the biggest mall in the world, I found the mall itself extremely overwhelming so I didn't walk around at all but boy did I enjoy that dinner.

The next morning I woke up and headed for a full day of temples. The first stop was Beomeosa, which is a city temple but nestled in the hills. I expected it to be really busy there but actually it was quiet, peaceful and relaxing. I wandered to each small prayer room, drank fresh mountain water and spent a long time walking around listening to prayers echoing into the forest. I had the free temple lunch which was basic and delicious before going to Haedong Yonggungsa which is on the ocean. All I can say is... I was filled with so much excitement when I turned the corner and saw the temple! It was unlike anything I have ever seen. I LOVE the ocean and/or any body of water so the combo of a temple and the ocean was almost more than I could handle! The downside was that as opposed to Beomeosa, Yonggungsa had huge tourist groups walking through it so it was actually a bit difficult to find peace there. There were a few quiet spots but mostly there were a lot of people, wandering around everywhere. I soaked up what I could and then it was time to part ways with Busan and head back to Seoul. 
 (In Korea, a left facing svastika is used to identify Buddhist temples and is thought of as the heart seal of Buddha. It is an auspicious symbol that is seen throughout Asia. In Hinduism it is usually right facing)

Fresh mountain water. Yes, I drank it! 

Baby Buddhas

Temple food!
Yonggungsa... breathtaking

Friday I found myself winding up all of the little tasks I had. I wanted to get people some souvenirs, go back to Jogyesa, and a few little cafes so it was filled with a lot of walking around Seoul! When the sun went down I took the metro and then a shuttle up to Namsan Tower, the highest point in Seoul which overlooks the whole city. The view up there was awesome but don't get tricked into buying an expensive ticket up to the observatory  There is a great observation deck that's free, it is also where people come with their loved ones to leave a lock with a message on it. I didn't leave one, but how fun would it be to do that and then come back again sometime in your life and find it? This was definitely a moment I wished I was there with a partner, I am not romantic usually but this was just so sweet! 

A second round at Snob Cafe in Hapjeong

Thousands of locks line the observatory deck

Namsan Tower

Saturday morning Bree and I woke up and headed to Cafe Street in Bundang! It involved transit through Gangnam (like the song hehe) and one of the fanciest subway tunnels I have ever been in! It was rainy that day and I had my luggage with me so we didn't get to spend as much time as we would have liked but we had an awesome breakfast of sweet potato and green tea lattes and Belgian waffles. Oh my, were they yummy! Then on the way to the airport we stopped and got some last macaroons from Laduree. Those babies lasted me the whole way back to India! 

Korea was amazing, I loved learning how to read it and I am continuing to study and learn how to speak it so I can go back someday! It was a great week and I am so grateful for amazing friends all over the world that let me crash their homes and explore their countries!!


A Week in Korea Part 1

Last week I took my last trip for what could be quite a long time (more on that later) and the destination was South Korea! I never would have thought to visit Korea on my own but I have a few friends living there teaching English so the idea was sparked in me when they moved there. The timing worked out so well last week with a long harvest festival/holiday here and India, great ticket prices and it coincided with the cherry blossoms coming into bloom! 

The evening I arrived to Seoul, Bree and I immediately headed to Hapjeong to drink tea and have a sweet at Snob Cafe, because we like dessert first! Then we wandered down the street to Hongdae which is a huge busy shopping area filled with lots of expats and army folk. We had dinner, did a little shopping and headed home. Bree has the cutest little Korean apartment!! 

On Sunday we woke up and headed to Hangan Park at the Han river to see a cherry blossom festival. I just about cried the whole day, the blossoms were so beautiful and I couldn't believe I was finally getting to experience something like this! After the festival we took a metro then the bus to Petite France in Gapyeong. The whole little village is themed after the book The Little Prince, this story is very close to my heart as my Aunt Sharon gave me a copy for a birthday one year and it is one of my only childhood books that I have kept. We walked around there for quite sometime before heading off to Itaewon (I think!) for a dinner of yummy thai food! 

"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye" 

On Monday I headed to Jogyesa Temple, a buddhist temple located right in the city. I have been to many Tibetan buddhist monasteries here in India and a couple of buddhist temples in Hong Kong and every where is a little different but South Asian buddhism is quite different from the Tibetan branch that I am accustomed to. The biggest difference is the architecture of the temple, then the fact that in Korea there are not prayer wheels or prayer flags and not nearly as many incense being lit (all of these are ways to send your prayers into the universe.) However, the spirit is still the same there and I sat inside the temple for nearly two hours during prayers and was completely floored by how strong and powerful the prayers were. I don't discuss my spiritualism much on here but Buddhism is a form of faith I connect with on many levels (though I could not call myself a Buddhist) so being there during prayers really moved me. I met some very sweet volunteers there one of which spent a few months in North India in McLeod Ganj where the Dalai Lama resides! After Jogyesa I walked to a little traditional tea shop where a few monks bought me cakes and Korean tea then parted ways. I walked down the road a bit further to Gyeongbokgung Palace just in time to see the slightly cheesy "changing of guards" performance that they do in front of the palace every hour. I headed inside the grounds and walked past the mass crowds back into the gardens and far building and found peace and beauty. Being in Korea felt like fulfilling a long time child hood dream. The architecture, people, food, language, everything. I sat in the garden for a while and just took time to thankful for the experiences I have been able to have over the last few years. 

 Paper lamps are being placed in all of the temples in preparation for Buddha's birthday!


At Gyeongbokgung Palace 

The sweetest little cafe! Look at the wrapper on those Macroons!

Tuesday I spent most of the day wandering the shops of Insadong and the alleys and houses of Bukchon Hanok village. These homes are built in traditional Korean style and it feels like being in a different world, yet you can see the high rise buildings of Seoul in the distance. I felt a little bit like a creeper because people do actually live here, it is a neighborhood but there were a handful of other people walking around as well and there are maps specifically for going through the village so it is commonplace. But still, I felt like a peeping Tom! 


Happy Holi 2013!

Earlier was the big festival of color known as Holi!! Holi is a celebration rooted in Hinduism but honestly it has become very mainstream and is celebrated widely all over the country. In some places (especially cities that have big ties to Krishna) the celebration goes on for something like 16 days but here it has two main days: The first is when people throw color on each other and the next day is usually more 'natural' substances like mud and, well, other sorts of waste. Last year I didn't have a very good experience on Holi. In fact, it was probably the single worst experience I have ever had here. Looking back on that blog entry, I definitely sugar coated the experience for the sake of remaining positive but over time it has sunk in that my friends and I were very lucky nothing worse happened to us, and I can't even describe how frustrating/difficult Holi was last year. This year my dad was in town for the celebration so I was determined to learn from my mistakes and make it a good, positive experience for all!


We started by visiting the house of three girls whom I work with, Sharon had mentioned that she loves playing Holi but didn't have anyone to play with so dad and I offered to come over in the morning! I am so glad we did because it was so fun. On the scooter on the way to their flat we got some color thrown on us but not in the forceful way it was done the year prior. We then played for a but on the roof of Sharon's house before moving on to stop number 2! 

We then moved right along to the apartment complex that I used to live in (I just moved recently) to get my coworkers! On their roof was quite a celebration! It definitely wasn't safe to have out cameras up there because the kids were spraying color and beer was being poured on people (that was the point that dad and I decided to leave.) 

After stop 2

We then planned to take a break until the afternoon. We got back to my apartment when I was greeted by my neighbors. Apparently the young daughter had been anxiously waiting my return and had saved some powder specifically for me! She had been very disappointed that I had escaped her in the morning! Between the neighbors and the security guards I got absolutely covered in powder and colored water, it was caked on me and in my hair. The neighbors then asked dad and I to come for lunch (after cleaning up) and of course we obliged!


The last plan of the day was to head to a friend's farmhouse on the bank of the river. It was a rather big gathering but everyone there came by invitation  it wasn't open to the public so I wasn't hesitant to go. After last year I had decided I would only play at homes with small groups but I was pretty positive this would be okay and it was! There was music, color, dancing and it was so fun! I got to play color with a lot of friends and was thoroughly exhausted by the end of the night. It was so awesome to be able to share this day with my father, I never would have dreamed of it previously! This year was a complete turn around from the last so I think for now my faith is renewed in Holi!!

At Ramsa!


73 Smiles in Chabua, India

Last month I attended a local mission to Chabua, Assam, India. I have to admit, I was really nervous and not sure what to expect from the mission as I had some added responsibility and the mission was in a very rural part of Assam (the state I live in.) It was a lonnnng mission, we were there for two weeks and it was held in an actual tea garden where there is a hospital. I really came without high expectations and honestly anticpated it to be a long, difficult two weeks. As soon as we arrived, I knew that I was wrong! It is definitely my favorite mission I have ever attended. First, the tea garden was gorgeous. I had to be at the hospital very early every day so I chose to walk from our accommodation to the hospital through the tea fields. The sun would just be rising and it was simply beautiful, what a perfect way to start each day. Our team was the best team I could have asked for. Most of us were from the surgical center but the team included local hospital staff and a few people from other parts of India. We basically functioned like a big family and it made a long two weeks fly by. The hospital was the cleanest I have ever been in in India and the local nurses were top notch. The patients were, of course, the cutest (that really goes without being said.) The accommodation was in the doctor's quarters. Many of us were placed in the homes of various doctors so this tea estate hospital literally had such hospitality. All in all, we performed 73 safe and successful surgeries and I am not sure that any mission experience could ever top Chabua!

 Getting on the night train. With the creepy baby. 

 Morning walks through the tea garden

 Ten minutes after this walk, a leopard was sighted along the path!

 Make shift tea cups
 Play time before surgery!

 I call this a Priority 6 Procedure, sleep restoration therapy. 

Future doctor!

 On our team day we went to a bird sanctuary and went on a boat ride!
 The many faces. 

 Exhaustion set in and I fell asleep like this at one point :/

Chabua, I miss you! (Photo by Bhabesh Doley)


On Education and Empowerment

In October, while I was away on a mission, I got an email from my co-worker/old flatmate/Pratyasha Foundation co-founder Rosie that she had found a very sick little boy in the slum. He was unarguably the sickest child she had seen and he appeared near death. Despite being around four years old, he was unable to walk. He ate mud and had chronic gastrointestinal upset. If he tried to eat anything, his GI system was so sick that he couldn't even break down food, it just passed right through him. The parents brought him to Rosie, knowing that we have access to pediatricians that will provide free health check-ups and treatment to our kids that need it. This family, even in the hierarchy of the slum, is easily one of the most poverty stricken they don't have access to clean water and were unable to identify their resources, let alone afford treatment. Rosie could see how much this family cared, they were scared and she was more than happy to help. 

She set-up an appointment with the hospital and met the father and mother the following day, she described how the father spotted her from far down the rail road tracks and ran to her. The mother and Rosie headed to the doctor where the little boy was treated for a severe gastrointestinal infection, dehydration and malnourishment. After seeing the pediatrician Rosie sat with the mother and gave her a long education session on hygiene, clean food and water preparation, diet recommendations and medication administration. The mother was extremely engaged and involved in the educational process and sure enough after a few check-ups in the slum she reported that he was significantly better. He was starting to eat and his symptoms were nearly non-existent. It has now been five months and the little boy is walking, talking, eating full plates of food and even fighting with his elder brother! 

No mother wants to watch their child suffer, but what do you do when you feel you have no support and do not know your resources? This mother always puts her children first on Sundays, they get their food and when all of the kids have been fed on Sundays only then does she take a plate for herself. She understands that is about the kids, and she believes in us as we believe in her. There is so much to be said for educating mothers, there is endless power in empowering them to take charge of their child's health and well being no matter what their economic situation may be. Seeing this family every weekend, seeing them beaming with happiness over their boys is proof that hopes do come true! 

There is even discussion of starting the older son in school soon. The father talked to Rosie for quite sometime this past weekend about how deeply he desires for his boys to escape this cycle and we all know that really can only come through school. It is so much easier said than done, we have faced serious challenges with getting our girls motivated to continue in the afternoon school. Things were going well until the police came through the slum a few weeks back and knocked down most of the homes. The kids understandably didn't want to leave their parents for school and for most of them, it has been really hard to convince them to start at it again. We have a star student, Khusitan, who goes every single day without fail and she is excelling. We're praying that she continues to be an example for the other kids and that the others will get back on board. Until then, seeing Khusitan so motivated puts the hugest smile on all of our faces!!