When I first contracted food poisoning about 2 weeks ago on my 3rd night in Bali, using the toilet in this country quickly morphed from a daunting and cumbersome yet still intriguing dabbling in another culture to a hellish exercise in some cruel torture form. We can forget about the issue of squat toilets, because those actually are not so difficult to get used to, and besides, the Educate Girls guesthouse has a Western-style commode. The issue of the manual flush is not so important either, although admittedly, it’s unfortunate how much longer it takes to flush when you yourself must fill a bucket with water to dump into the toilet bowl, replacing its contents with clean water. My most pressing question is this: Where is the toilet paper here? How do I know that I’ve washed myself clean? Do people really use their left hands for that? And how do I put my pants– the kind worn here, with the baggy thighs and skin-tight ankles forced on without the help of an elastic band– back over my now-wet feet? All of these questions prolonged my time spent inside the non-ventilated, humid, smelling bathroom, and with my number of visits per hour steadily rising, I believed this could be the end of me.
But the bathroom in the hospital in Jodhpur, where I found myself dehydrated and in need of I.V. fluids 36 hours later, was worse. Maybe it was because I couldn’t help but think of how the woman who came to clean early in the morning used the same bundle of twigs to brush the inside of the toilet bowl and sweep the bathroom floor, maybe it was because we had to personally ask the hospital attendant for soap, or maybe it was because I somehow had my trips to the bathroom perfectly timed so that I could always hear the patient on the other side of the wall hacking up impressively massive loogies, but I started to wonder if I was running to the bathroom to vomit or if I was vomiting because I was running to the bathroom.
I’m thankfully totally healthy now. I’m back in Bali, back in business. I was discharged from the hospital after 2 days, but I stayed in Jodhpur for an extra week with the family of Dr. Shukla, the manager of monitoring and research at the Educate Girls Pali district office. He insisted I stay to regain my strength, and by the end of the week, I had to use every ounce of my convincing abilities to insist I was well enough to return to Bali. His family was so worried about my health that they wanted me to stay another half of a week.
So, while my beginnings in India have not been easy, I have been so taken aback by the kindness of the people around me. Dr. Shukla’s home, which he shares with his parents, brother, and brother’s family, has 2 air-conditioned rooms, and I was ushered into one of these rooms immediately. As I slept in the bed with the calming hum of the AC unit in the background, Dr. Shukla’s 7-year-old daughter, Shaivya, slipped crayon drawings of floral pastures under my pillow. Each drawing reads in block letters on the backside, “GET VELT SOON”– the endearing transcription of a mispronunciation I’d expect more from a Swedish child than a little girl in India. Dr. Shukla’s father took it upon himself to be my personal coach on my road to recovery. He cut my wristband from the hospital off– “It makes you look sick! I can’t stand to look at it!”– he checked by blood pressure daily, brought home bottled mineral water for me because my stomach embarrassingly could not handle the water that the rest of his family drinks, insisted on adding the electrolyte powder to the bottle himself, and called from work to make sure I was eating. When we walked to the neighborhood park in the evenings, we discussed the infallibility of arranged marriages, his yet-unfulfilled wishes to travel outside of India, his research in ground-water preservation as a geophysicist, and the dog his family used to own. Now that I’m back in Bali, he still calls me around 7:45 P.M. to see how I’m doing, to tell me that he’s taking his evening stroll and misses me. I miss him too.
Family looks different in India than it does in America. With joint-family homes, families are bound up by everyday life and practical matters. Marriages, largely still arranged, are practical too, based on the perfect balance of intellectual, familial, and personal considerations. The numbers of spouses are listed in cell phones under “Husband” and “Wife,” and endearments are absent from all (public) interactions. But the love is present, and it is strong. And the willingness to add a stranger to this family is overwhelming. I slept in the same bed as Dr. Smita and Shaivya. We ate on it, watched TV, read, and chatted before bed. Dr. Smita studied for her exam to become an associate professor of Biology, and I read The Da Vinci Code aloud to Shaivya, who politely pretended to understand. Dr. Smita cut up fruit for me as she does for Shaivya, and watched me carefully to make sure I finished all my meals. While miles away from my home, I could not have asked for a more loving set of strangers to call my Indian family.
I visited the hospital again two nights ago. This time I was not the patient, and I was not in the private hospital in Jodhpur but the government hospital in Falna, about a 15-minute drive from Bali. Ali, Sudi, and I went because the young woman who manages the guesthouse and stays here with us was in tremendous pain. From what we could understand between her broken English and inability to speak through the pain, her muscles were cramping and her limbs were numb. Incredibly worried and totally unable to come up with any potential diagnosis, we called Vikram, a supervisor at Educate Girls, who took us all to the hospital. After the nurses at the hospital in Bali told us they were incapable of diagnosing or treating her, we sought a doctor’s help in Falna. This doctor took her blood pressure (they do this a lot in hospitals here—is it the only medical test they actually know how to do?) and listened to her breathing. The swiftness with which she was whisked from the evaluation room and dismissed with a diagnosis of ‘extreme stress’ suggested that this doctor might be similarly incapable of providing a diagnosis or issuing treatment. After multiple failed attempts to properly insert an I.V., the hospital attendants (I assume they were attendants, but they were wearing jeans and t-shirts in lieu of any uniform) administered injections to assuage the pain.
Standing in this hospital, watching my friend fighting fits of extreme pain and anxiety, I felt so American, and privileged. While I was rushed to the private, expensive hospital in Jodhpur, this woman couldn’t consider that option. Ali and I desperately sought the medical advice of our fathers, both doctors, convinced that they, miles away and unable to see the patient in person, could provide a more accurate diagnosis than the doctors here. I felt absurd, incredibly vulnerable, and helpless. I was ashamed of my reaction to the slightly unsanitary but private bathroom of my hospital room as I accompanied my friend to the urine-covered cement block that was the Falna bathroom, the massive lizard crawling up the wall and the shadowy corners only contributing to its dungeon-like quality. This is what medicine looks like for most of India, for most of the world.
There is much to get used to here, and a lot of it has to do with being different, being White, being American. I am stared at in the street, I am the immediate target of child beggars who tug at my arms, I go to fancy hospitals. I often feel uncomfortable in my own skin, in my body that doesn’t have enough built-up immunities, casting me as delicate and weak. But I still feel so lucky to be here, and now that I’ve lasted longer in Bali upon my return than I did the first time around, I feel ready to really dig in.