The adventure began the morning after we finished our last exams before Christmas break. The five of us waited to board our flight from San Antonio to DFW for our first of 3 legs of our journey to Chennai, India. We were volunteering at a shelter for women with mental health issues located in the state of Tamil Nadu, in southeastern India. We would be working alongside our medical school alumnus, Dr. Weiss: a sassy Chennai native with a fierce heart. I already had some anxieties brewing in the pit of my stomach:
- We can’t speak Hindi, much less the hundreds of other dialects in each bustling city in India.
- If we can’t communicate, how on earth are we supposed to care for patients?
- What if we get kidnapped… I mean we are five white girls who have never been to India before. I’m sure we have naïve written all over our faces.
- I can’t get sick, I can’t get sick, I can’t get sick.. don’t forget your daily doxycycline and bug spray- no malaria for me, no way! Don’t eat street food. Don’t drink the water. Pray that no one is bleeding around you, since gloves are out of the question.
- Don’t get kidnapped.
- And did I say, don’t get kidnapped?
As I’m pondering the various reasons why this trip was a stupid idea, I hear the intercom overhead, “Due to overbooking, the following people will need to move to the next flight this afternoon, leaving only one hour later. No need to worry ladies and gentlemen.” And of course, the three girls we are traveling with remain on the original flight and Whit and I are left fervently praying for no more delays on our already delayed flight. This new flight time left us a little over an hour to make our connecting flight from DFW to London. As my stress level rises and dark patches of sweat arise from my armpits, we wait and wait.. and wait some more. Our flight is delayed another 30 minutes. As I hash out an escape plan including a frantic scramble for our backpacks then elbowing our way to the front before the rest of the flight deplanes, I realize that there is no way we will make our next flight, unless some time warp develops upon landing. We still give it our best shot with pokes and prods, sprinting through the airport with massive backpacks bouncing behind us, eliciting well deserved glares from fellow travelers. We reach the desk of our gate 15 minutes after take off. Luckily, the last flight of the night going to London leaves in 2 hours. After a relaxing dinner, we calmly boarded the overnight flight to Heathrow airport. Nothing we can do now about our next missed flight, the leg to Chennai. We might as well sleep off the interminably long flight.
Now, until that moment, I had had many great experiences with American Airlines. No complaints, always great customer service. But oh no buddy, not this time! It appeared that my airport luck had run out. There is only one flight from London to Chennai per day. Of course we missed our scheduled flight, so we would have to wait until tomorrow (20 hours away) to fly there. But if we were willing to fly to Delhi, then Chennai, our flight would leave in a mere 11 hours. Too bad these 11 hours were all over night. We obviously needed a place to sleep and hoped that the airlines would put us up in a hotel, considering their screw up with the initial flight in San Antonio caused this entire hubbub.
It’s dark and late, nearly 10 pm. We have no idea if Dr. Weiss received our voicemails indicating our new arrival time. We are wishing and praying that we see someone holding a sign with our name outside the airport. We have an address for where we are staying, but like all addresses in India, it’s not an actual number address. It is a general neighborhood with no street names and no numbers; place known only by people who live in the area. After we saddle up our backpacks, I glance over at Whit. She is trying to put on a brave face, I can tell. Unlike me who is verbally confirming all of our worst fears, she is calmly reassuring me. We agree that when we walk out of the airport and along the line of waiting men, we will check once for our names. If we don’t see it, we will run back inside so at least we can sleep in the safety of the airport overnight and try again tomorrow.
The automatic doors swoosh open and we are hit with the humidity and heat that marks India, and the yelling and madness of hundreds of men screaming for friends and loved ones filing out of the terminal. I feel the look of shock on my face and a sense of utter fear causes bile to rise in my throat. I start hyperventilating and can’t focus my eyes on the signs. Whit is frantically reading all of the names on the signs. We get to the end of the corridor and we don’t see our driver. My heart is beating a mile a minute. I am terrified for what a night in a foreign country without shelter will bring. As we head back towards the airport doors, Whit points and starts yelling. A young man is holding a sign with “The Banyan” on it, jostling the men in front of him. I’m sure he knows who we are, being the only Caucasians of the bunch. He leads us through the crowd, weaving among hoards of sweaty bodies. I feel claustrophobic, crushed in by the sheer weight of humanity surrounding me. I illogically question whether we should trust this guy. What if he just found that sign and he really is going to kidnap us? I feel faintly reassured when he loads our backpacks into the van labeled “The Banyan.”
For anyone who hasn’t been to India, driving the chaotic streets can be frightening. With no clear traffic signs or lights, drivers all follow some unwritten code of organized chaos, weaving in and out of unmarked lanes sometimes five cars wide. Fitting into spaces between cars that you swore was only wide enough for someone to slip through sideways just seconds before. A system of honking, not out of anger or road rage, but as a sense of warning, like “hey I’m here, don’t hit me.” Sedans mix with motorcycles laden with 6-8 people with the intermingling of hand drawn wooden carts and livestock. Yet somehow, car accidents seem to occur less in India than in the traffic law laden lands of the western world.
As I hold onto the seat cushions with a death grip, my knuckles turn white and my shoulders begin to ache with the tension. We continue to weave in and out, stop and start, nearly missing another vehicle every ten seconds. The onslaught of noise, bright lights, crowds and cars is a sensory overload. I can’t figure out where to look or focus. My head begins to ache and I feel the subtle beginnings of motion sickness. Somehow my fear abates the nausea, as we suddenly turn off the main boulevard and delve deeper and deeper into alleys and side streets with no names. It’s dark off the main street, with no streetlights and only the occasional lamps of chai stands. There seems to be one of these entrepreneurial vendors every block or so, always bordered by men squatting on tiny stools in circles. It seems that there is always time for chai in these parts.
My fear piques when we stop and ask a passerby for directions, or so it seems that is what our driver is asking. We of course have no clue what he is saying. With some hand gestures and a few grunts and nods, we turn around and head down another alley. Again, we stop and ask. This repeats itself three more times. I am convinced that this guy has no idea where he is going and that during any one of these stops, someone will notice us foreigners and come mug us. Yes, I realize that my ignorant assumptions engulfed me. We finally make it to the apartment that we have rented out for the two weeks of our trip, and are thankful to find the plethora of locking mechanisms lining the inside of the door frame.
The Banyan Itself:
Our first day “on the job,” the five of us meander out to the dirt road in an attempt to find a tuk-tuk, or auto rickshaw, to take us to The Banyan for our first day. We were told that The Banyan is located about two miles from our residence, but we have no idea how to get there. A bright yellow tuk-tuk covered in painted flowers pulls up to our gangly group of wanna-be Indian females in our flowy tunics and bindis. As we try to finagle a price for all five of us to ride in the same tuk-tuk that has barely enough room for three of us, the driver’s annoyance creeps onto his face. He keeps yelling “five numbers” at us, much to our dismay. He finally accepts our offer after we resort to begging, pleading, and ultimately looking pathetic. We arrive at The Banyan, a large multistory building with a gated entrance. The few women at the gate start giggling and reaching with outstretched arms as we approach the gate. Once we enter into their realm, we are immediately surrounded by smiling faces, women playing with our hair and arranging flowers behind our ears, and the famous Indian head wobble. Dr. Weiss then leads a tour of the shelter and introduces us to the various health care workers and psychologists. We set up in an upstairs room with two clinic beds and some sheets hung for privacy, along with hundreds of paper charts with the women’s health records starting from their original story of how they arrived at The Banyan.
For a lot of women, there is not much information other than the location of where they were initially found. It is not uncommon in India, where mental health is highly stigmatized even more so in females than males, for women to be left to fend for themselves in the streets once their mental illnesses manifest. Women are found searching through trash piles for food, or are reported for roaming the streets naked, or tragically found after physical and sexual assaults. Fortunately, there is a safe haven for these beautiful human beings: The Banyan. Although we didn’t share a common language, our interactions with these caring and kind-hearted women were so rewarding. Body language alone conveys so much. A smile shared communicates a more true and honest feeling than words ever will. And the acceptance that these women bestowed upon us provided a beacon for us to see the rest of Chennai. Their tragic pasts of stigma, isolation, abuse, and neglect are unimaginable. And their resilience and capacity to express love despite their pasts was eye opening. We take so much for granted with our birth right privileges of wealth, health care, and family support. These women have none of those privileges; yet exude so much happiness and joy. If that doesn’t sucker punch you in the belly, I don’t know what will.
Due to patient privacy, I don’t feel it is right to delve deeper into these women’s stories to display on the Internet, whether anonymously or not. Their stories and unconditional love pull at my heartstrings every time I think about them. I didn’t realize the full extent of the emotional toll of this medical trip until I was back stateside. As I was driving home to my parent’s house to celebrate Christmas, I reflected on the lessons learned and the experience as a whole. I found myself crying while endless wheat fields passed alongside the car. I couldn’t quite process the emotions, nor do I think I have yet to this day. The mix of culture shock, disbelief that humans could treat others so inhumanely, gratefulness for people’s dedication to service, confusion about how there can be so much joy in a life previously so devastated by violence, and guilt. Guilt about my white privilege, guilt about every complaint I have ever made, guilt about my realization that my own comfort meant more to me than choosing to serve those in need. Then guilt would be clouded by frustration and anger. Anger at men who believe women are objects, anger at perpetrators of obscene violence upon innocent victims, anger at the unfairness of the world. It pains my heart to read about Indian women who are raped with no retribution, or widows who throw themselves on their husbands funeral pyre according to custom, or honor killings. It pains me not only for the obvious feminist reasons, but also because I think of each and every beautiful soul I met at The Banyan and how that horrific story in the news could be their story.
Although I would love to say that this trip left only a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, I would be lying. Yes I am in awe of the resilience of these women, but why should they have to be so resilient? Why are women’s rights still on the backburner in so much of the world? Why are women’s bodies considered objects and women not able to make choices regarding their bodies? Why is violence against women still deemed acceptable in so many countries? And instead of asking, “Why do men think this is acceptable,” the question remains, “What did she do to provoke it?”