Photoshoot in Old Delhi

IMG_6131 IMG_6166 IMG_6172   IMG_6209 IMG_6213  IMG_6178 IMG_6197I was out and about in the winding lanes Old Delhi doing a photo shoot for the WHO- trying to get pictures for lead and chemical safety at a wholesale market which sells any type of chemical you can think of (although, to be fair, I can’t think of that many chemicals- chemistry was  my weakest pre-medical subject). It was a fascinating visit to a this Muslim part of town that doesn’t get too many foreigners because chemical market is not usually in the Lonely Planet guidebook.

From a professional standpoint, however, it was pretty difficult. No one wanted me to take their photo. This was strange because people in India have been amazingly generous about allowing me to take their photos, especially when asked in my special brand of Hindi/English/charades (Hinglrades?). In fact, some people are downright insistent that I take their photo even when I don’t especially need or want to. I will almost always oblige (yay digitial cameras) unless it’s a particularly insistent group of young men because you never engage with a manpack.

For example, earlier I was trying to get a shot of an old man drinking from a watertap. But by the time I had communicated my request he’d stopped drinking. A young man nearby saw me ask and eagerly jumped in to pose for me. Errrr, OK. Seeing this, the old man subsequently pushed him out of the way and started to drink again, even moving his hand to give me a better angle. Another young man attempted to elbow his way into the scene for a moment of glory but by that time I’d thanked everyone involved and moved on. Phew.

Back to the chemical market: no one wanted their photo. My companion from a local chemical safety NGO asked why and it had something to do with terrorism investigations and the police (like they thought we were the government shaking them down I guess). Not entirely sure but I managed to snap a few shots that should do the trick.

The funniest moment for the daywas when we were grabbing a bite to eat and I was washing my hands at the sink in the middle of the dining area (common here). I reached for what I thought was a bottle of soap until I heard some kerfuffle, and my Indian companion came hustling over: “no, no! That is toxic floor cleaner!” I looked over and the cooks were shaking their heads like “stupid foreigners.” To be fair, it was in a bottle right next to the sink and it looked just like liquid handsoap. It was like a sanitation boobytrap.Is there any end to the mistakes I can make in India? Love it anyway.



ImageRaksha Bandhan is a Hindu holiday celebrating the relationship between a sister and her brothers and “cousin-brothers.” The custom is that a sister ties a rakhi, a holy thread, on the wrist of her brother. In return he offers her a gift (usually money but often clothing etc) and the promise of protection. Sounds like a pretty great deal to me. Unrelated or adoptive brothers can also receive the thread if they also promise to protect their adopted sister.

Rakhi shopping is incredibly fun and the selection is immense. My colleagues have assisted me in the hunt for the perfect specimen and I’ve bought them (rakhis not my colleagues…damn you ambiguous pronoun reference) in 4 different states of India. Although I prefer a simple rakhi thread, they have incredibly glitzy and ornate ones for the taking. And lest you think it’s a very solemn custom…keep in mind that they sell Spiderman rakhis and rakhis that feature cartoon versions of the gods eating McDonalds hamburgers and drinking Coke. My eyes nearly popped out of my skull when I saw that little gem and a little part of my public health self died inside.

So, to my amazing  mountaineering brother Josh and all my cousin-brothers and adopted brothers- I have rakhis for you but they will have to wait until I get back. And nary a french fry will grace your rakhi threads, rest assured.

Note: there is apparently some confusion about the actual date of Rakhi- government offices, schools and my coworkers will celebrate it tomorrow but Google (and some other people) say it should be observed Wednesday. As usual, I have no clue but am happy to celebrate any day!

Playing Dress Up: Sari I’m not sorry


I work in an office with 3 other women. Every morning they come in wearing the most beautiful kurtis and saris and we all oooh and ahhh accordingly. I have taken to calling it the “morning runway.” I, of course, mostly end up looking like a hobo. One of the administrative assistants, Madhu-ji (ji is a term of respect), was reImagetiring after more than 20 years of service. A retirement party was held in the office followed by a party near her home. One of my other coworkers brought in a sari for me to wear and they all dressed me up like Barbie with a matching eyeliner and bindi (dot between the eyes that historically meant that you were married but is currently a fashion statement also embraced by younger, unmarried Indian women). Let me tell you, a sari is a difficult thing to wear- it consists of a very short sleeved blouse and then a single piece of fabric wrapped, pleated and pinned in a regionally specific manner.

I, of course, loved it. In a ground-breaking first, I was told that people were talking about how “elegantly” I carried the sari (!) especially combined with holding my coworker’s adorable 6 month old. I perhaps broke that spell when I hiked up the sari to try to go down the stairs- a move that earned me a look of shock “no NO! Don’t do that!” You would have thought that I had try to disrobe completely. In fact, this particular misdeed was recounted to others who laughed at how utterly gauche this was. Quelle horreur!

The evening’s retirement party was also great. Half the fun was getting therae- I got to hold the baby the entire car ride (car seats aren’t a thing here as far as I an tell). When we finally arrived at the Punjabi Association after an hour of traffic there were delicious trays of food, fabulous Bollywood music and I managed to keep the baby in my arms the whole time. We even hit the dance floor together. I think that managing a sari, a baby and Indian dance moves is amongst my most coordinated moments (which are few and far between).

Independence Day!

On this day, in 1947, India achieved independence from Britain after a remarkably non-violent movement led by thought leaders including, famously, Gandhi.

We had a small celebration at work on Tuesday with traditional songs and yummy Indian snacks. In fact, the South East Asian Regional WHO office celebrates national days for all 11 member states because there are staff members for all countries. But our office is in New Delhi and thus there are lots of Indian staff members so today is particularly special and we all get the day off.

And me? I celebrated Indian independence at the American embassy (hah!). This was mostly because there was a security risk throughout most of New Delhi based on terror threats. Therefore, I tried to avoid any crowded areas such as the Red Fort where the prime minister hoists the flag and gives a speech. Instead, I enjoyed my day swimming in the pool with my boss 8 year old and eating tricolored Indian pastries. Of note: I am an equal opportunity celebrator, I celebrated American Independence Day by wearing red, white and blue and eating watermelon with a fellow American colleague- a tradition that baffled our Japanese friend.

But today I was feeling quite patriotic about India. It was one of those days where you just feel happy to be alive. And boy do I have a lot to be thankful about. Everything was cooperating: the autorickshaw drivers agreed to use the meter, the weather was comparatively mild, I got to practice some Hindi, the food was good, and I got to be part of a great family for the day. Tomorrow off to the sacred Ganges for the weekend. I’m already feeling sad about the fact that I only have a mere couple weeks left here.

Happy Independence Day, India!

Learning to tell their stories: visit to a leprosy colony

ImageIn addition to my work at the WHO I have been trying to hone my journalistic skills. At this point, that means doing what I do best: talk with people. Rickshaw drivers, my colleagues, fellow train passengers, chai wallahs, doctors…anyone and everyone. I spent an entire 2 hour car ride this weekend discussing bribes and corruption in the healthcare system with our driver. Today I stopped someone for directions…and spent 15 minutes talking about healthy eating choices at universities. It’s great. Instead of just being a really friendly chatterbox I can now blame my verboseness on “journalism.”

In service of this, I headed out on assignment last week. I’m going to be writing a few stories for an Indian newspaper called The Hindu. My first article? Leprosy of course. I almost laughed when they told me- I feel like I’m finding a niche. In search of a new angle I met up with Meeta, a photographer for the paper who served as my translator, and the two of us went to a nearby leprosy colony. (note: because leprosy is fully curable with antibiotics, people who live in these colonies are usually persons who had the disease in the past- and may have suffered consequent deformities- and their families.)

We walked from home to home and finally found someone who spoke Hindi (as opposed to a more regional dialect). I don’t want to spoil my story but we found an incredibly kind, interesting, articulate gentleman. He welcomed us into his home and spoke with me for more than an hour. I was captivated. During the interview a rat crawled over his wife, it was hot, and I was tired from a full day at work beforehand. But I could have stayed there all day. I was struck by his story and his quiet insistence that leprosy-affected persons deserved the dignity of work, no matter how humble the job.

IMG_4275While Meeta set up her photos I was led around the colony by an impromptu volunteer tour guide- an older gentleman who spoke no English but insisted on taking me to every dwelling and had me take pictures of everyone, young and old. When he wanted to get my attention he would call my “name”…”eeeleee” and (Hayley is hard to pronounce in Hindi) and off we would go. When the “tour” was over he brought me to his home/small shop, insisted on giving me tea and a coke and refused any and all forms of payment. Remember: I was a complete stranger, coming into their community, asking them deeply personal questions and offering nothing in return. I couldn’t even communicate without my translator, relying instead on the universal currency of pointing, gestures and smiles.

By now I should be used to this amazing generosity. During the International Leprosy Summit in Thailand I met Mr. V Narsappa, the chairman of a national advocacy group for leprosy affected persons.  He was diagnosed with leprosy at age 9 and was kicked out of his house at that time. He too spent hours talking with me about his experiences. At the end he asked only one thing of me: “write something that will help people affected by leprosy.” His injunction is one that I take seriously and it reminds me that be it medicine, journalism or public health…with great privilege comes great responsibility.

The generosity of my impromptu tour guide, the gentleman I interviewed, the leprosy patients I met at the hospital last month is so intense and humbling. They make me want to be a better person- more generous, more optimistic, more hospitable. In the meantime, however, I will just try to take advantage of this incredible fellowship so I can learn to tell their stories.

Down for the count

ImageAs I alluded to in a previous post, a few weeks ago I fell prey to the plague. And by plague I mean a mild, self-limited illness. I won’t bore (or disgust) you with the details of my exact symptoms and their precise timing but suffice it to say that my intermittent fever to 103 had me worried that I might have malaria.

Of course, this wasn’t my Imagefirst thought. I had been engaging in some unscrupulous food practices: street food, unpasteurized buffalo milk, fresh veggies likely washed in not super clean water…pick your poison. So I had every reason for a bout of the famed Delhi-belly with only myself to thank.

But my second thought was that I have the dreaded MalariaDengueFeverSyphilisEbolaPlague. ImageWhatever it was, I felt awful enough to miss work (and as a medical student we are basically trained not to miss work unless we can also produce a death certificate) so I heeded my coworkers and went to the doctor here even though I knew I didn’t have any exciting physical exam findings. She listened to my lungs, pressed on my belly and raised her eyes disapprovingly when I mentioned my culinary exploits. “An Imageadventurous one, huh?” Alas, her eyes said what my conscious was already screaming: you stupid foreigner- a few long stints in Africa do not a steel stomach make.

I went to get my blood drawn near my house instead of at the fancy-shmancy medical center. For less than $3 they would come to my house to do it (perks of living in India) but the lab is literally Imagearound the corner from me so I managed to make it there. Now I am super paranoid and had brought my own needles to India (yes, you read that correctly). But in my weakened state I had left them at home. So, with visions of Hep C swimming in my brain, I became The. Worst. Patient. Ever. I demanded to see the technician open the needle, asked her to Purell, declined their communal spray bottle of (presumably) alcohol to cleanse my skin (I Purelled my own arm) and generally was a pain in her butt.

The cost for all my paranoia? 1,300 rupees for physician consultation ($21.50), another 1,300 for all my lab work including full blood count with cell differential (measures what type of cells are in your blood), blood cultures, sedimentation rate (measures inflammation) and peripheral blood smear (to look for malaria).Image

And the results? Well that is PHI: protected health information. Just kidding! I was, unsurprisingly, stone-cold normal with a slightly elevated sedimentation rate that means a big fat nothing.

Did I learn from my mishaps? That would be too intelligent. Two days after I recovered I was at a huge Sikh temple eating a free communal meal with hundreds of people. But when my coworkers mentioned family members with similar symptoms I deduced the true origin of my downfall- unrelated to my food-related stupidity. Bon appetit everyone!

Note for my grandmother: I am obviously exaggerating a bit here. I am far from cavalier about my food intake: I use a Imagesteripen to sterilize water or drink bottled water and avoid street food unless things are cooked in high heat. But, as I stated in my Baroda post- there are certain calculated risks I’m willing to take: you don’t refuse fresh Buffalo milk! And as you can see- I’m alive and well.