Thursday, October 29, 2015

Day 2

I have arrived in Sikkim!  Greetings from the Himalayan mountains!

I found that the internet modem doesn't work on my laptop, perhaps because it is not configured for Apple products.  Therefore, I have been borrowing my host family's computer, which works just fine but I'm unable to figure out how to upload pictures from my camera.  I will have to post pictures once I get wireless access again.

It is four in the morning on Friday and I arrived here on Wednesday evening.  It was a short flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra airport on Wednesday afternoon. The airport is very small with one building. You depart and arrive in the one and only gate.  The town of Bagdogra is still part of mainland India.  The cows are wandering in the middle of bustling traffic. The beggars are walking from car to car and the smells are the same.  Still, I love it here and welcome all the imploding cultural infusions of the five senses.

Sanjeeb Garung is my guide. He and his family have become my family even in such a short period of time. Sanjeeb was waiting there at the airport for me.  I had been worried that I wouldn't know how to find him but I needn't worry as he knew how to find me.  Although he had driven four hours to come get me, he was just as happy to turn around and drive the five hours back.

The days are short here.  We had eaten a bit of food, curried lentils and paneer cheese with rotis, flatbreads.  Once we had finished it was 5pm and the sun was already starting to set. It took us all together five hours of driving to get to Sanjeeb's home which is in Gangtok, the capitol of Sikkim.

We drove through the darkness and it was like my son, Tenzin's video game of car racing.  Literally we were driving around sharp curves for over five hours. One side with mountain wall and the other side dropping down into what could not be seen except occasional glimpses of a river far below. On top of that Sanjeeb was weaving in and out of traffic. Very impressive I have to admit.

 Half way through we had left mainland India and entered Sikkim.  We had to stop at the border to get a permit to enter the state and get my passport stamped.

We arrived in the evening around 10 o'clock.  That night I had my first deep sleep and awoke only once for an hour.

It is so different here.  Even though the population of Gangtok is around 100,000 people and much like a little city, the nights are quiet.  The air is crisp and cool as the city itself is carved into the mountainside. The streets and walkways are very steep.  I feel a bit like a mountain goat or perhaps my own fantasized version of what a sherpa would be like, wandering the mountain tops.

I spent the day yesterday with Sanjeeb wandering through the city.  It is marvellous here.  There are little shops all along the streets and the walkways are well maintained. Immediately, I feel like a part of the culture. The people look a bit like me, perhaps because of my Mongolian ancestry through my Korean nationality.  It was amazing to me to look around and see people who look like me.  You can see the Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese melting pot here amidst the Sikkimese.  There are restaurants, touting such cuisines and shops selling wares from there as well as proudly displaying local artisans crafts.  It is the predominant feeling of Buddhism and Sikkim's national pride.  There are very few foreigners here. I think I only counted about three caucasions throughout my whole day.

There are number of things that I have learned in one day:

  • Sikkim became a part of India in 1975.  Although there is evidence of Indian culture here it is clear that the people are very proud to be Sikkimese.  I have come to the conclusion that even though Sikkim is a state of India, it still a country in itself.  
  • Sikkim is very similar if not the same as Bhutan and Nepal. The countryside is the same as they share the same mountain range.  The face of the people are the same across the board with the variety in the darkness in skin and the effect of Mongolian features.  I feel as though I have left India behind at the border. 
  • There is a convergence of religions here, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Muslims. But the main one is clearly Buddhism. You can see it in the effusion of Buddhist relics that is sold and displayed.  
  • Sikkim is the only organic state in India. And they are proud to keep it so.  They are adamant about raising animals without chemicals and antibiotics.  The produce is grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  Almost all the food is obtained from local sources.  I ate an egg this morning that had an orange yolk!  And for dinner I had momos (dumplings) made with local chicken.  
  • The former king of Sikkim, Chogyal Thondup Namgyal had a beloved American wife, Hope Cooke.  I bought a book that tells all about that era and I am looking forward to reading it.  I believe it is because of this relationship that the people of Sikkim are very fond of Americans.  
I think this is more than enough to blog about in one post.  I have a lot more to share and will write it later today after I have processed my thoughts a bit.  

I will end with a very touching note.  Last night, Sanjeeb showed me the messages that Ming Liu had sent him about my coming.  This happened right before he had passed in late April as he wrote saying that he did not have much time and wouldn't be coming.  He told Sanjeeb about me and told him to take good care of me when I came.  I almost cried because it was like Ming is still watching over us.  He had the foresight to look ahead and make connections when he could.  It is because of these messages that my path has been forged and set before me.  Thank you Ming. It is clear that you are not forgotten and still dearly loved.  

My heart has been made wider and my eyes are clearer.  Life is truly beautiful.  It cannot be measured by materials but by the love we share.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Day One 10/27/15

Food Market in New Delhi

Jet lag is a funny thing.  Your body thinks it wants to eat, sleep or walk or all three at once.  I tried to write on the flight coming out like I have done historically in the past  four years but I couldn’t string a single sentence together.  Now, it is 11:00 pm in New Delhi and after having slept for two hours I can’t resume my sleep.  The joys of traveling half way around the world.  So I dragged out my laptop and proceeded to pull together a much needed update on the blog.  

Every trip to India has been different and this one is certainly no exception.  Perhaps by far this is the most difficult and will be critical in setting the stage for the coming HAP projects.  There are so many unknown factors and in the months prior to this trip even though I had planned and written out in detail the beginnings of this HAP project, it became quite clear that we were running on presumptions.  We still didn’t know if the community at large would welcome an acupuncture clinic.  Where would we set up and who would be interested in taking on this large commitment to learn a whole new life skill and healing art?  All these things need to be explored and discussed with the locals before commencing with any solid base for development plans. 

Some of you have asked me how I came to decide on Sikkim, and I can simply say it was at the request of a HAP board member, Ming Liu.  Over a year ago, John Kokko, another HAP board member, introduced me to Ming via Facebook and suggested that we communicate since we seemed to have the same goals regarding enabling and training local people in destitute areas to do acupuncture.  While I was still very much involved with the Barefoot Acupuncturists in Mumbai, I was intrigued by Ming’s request to go to Bhutan.  I followed up with a visit to California and it was then that Ming and I solidified our decision to work together to produce Ming’s dream.  We labored for months and planned trips that kept getting pushed back.  Finally, we were realizing that Bhutan would be difficult to proceed without some solid connections with the Bhutanese government and their Ministry of Health.  So, Ming said to me one day, what would you think of going to Sikkim? And I said, yes. Hence my trip to Sikkim.  

It is with a heavy heart that Ming passed away last May.  We were supposed to do this trip together and I would like to think that he is with me in spirit.  It is certainly, in his honor and memory that we are proceeding with our plans as he wouldn’t want it any other way.  I am deeply grateful to Ming for having trusted me with his visions and for giving me the inspiration to take HAP in this new direction.  

For those of you who have been following my blog for the past years will remember that my previous trips have been with Barefoot Acupuncturists in Mumbai.  I am indebted to Walter Fischer and the Barefoot family for giving me the whole hearted conviction that this work can be done.  I have seen it in action with this team and their love and generosity towards me has given me the foundation that I will always carry with me with every step I take.  This new direction could not have been done without them.  My only sorrow is that I won’t see them as frequently as I have been. 

This trip was the first time that I flew straight from Chicago to New Delhi.  Fifteen hours.  I have two things to say about that, it’s a long damn flight and why the hell don’t they make the seats with low back support?  Other than that, I liked not having to go through customs twice in Amsterdam at what seems like the middle of the night.  

I ended up getting a hotel room in New Delhi since my last flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow.  A word of advice, if you are going to be needing a hotel for a layover, do your homework beforehand.  Know what hotel to ask for and what the going rate is.  I paid the equivalent of $65 for taxi to and from the hotel and one night. While at the time I thought that was reasonable, the hotel the driver took me to was posted online for $20 per night.  So, they obviously made $30 to $40 off of me as taxi fare is dirt cheap here.  In the end, it doesn’t matter, I have wasted that money on worse things.  In the future though, I’m going to stake out the hotels ahead of time.   

Now it’s midnight. I have a long day of traveling tomorrow. Another flight to Bagdogra and then four hours of driving to Gangtok.  I should’ve brought the melatonin.  More tomorrow.  Good night. Or good day. Sigh. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Last Day

I have been unable to keep up with the blogging on this trip.  It is similar to the past trips in that I stopped after the third day. I did want to write one more at least to wrap up the trip and also to finally give some recognition to the team here.  Already, I am on the flight home and with only three hours left before landing.  

I've had a lot of time to reflect on this past trip and to give some sort of closure.  This trip was difficult in some ways and a much needed one in others.  I was sick and exhausted this time and when feeling like this it was difficult to be alone in a foreign country.  I was longing for the comforts of my own bed and my own kitchen to make my familiar foods.  I was very grateful for the company and love of Geeta and Ujwala.  They took care of me and kept me occupied.  

I had never gone to the seaside here before and I remember particularily, sitting on a warm bench with Geeta for hours and laughing about "gathering qi".  But really, we were gathering qi and it was not to be taken lightly.  Between those long moments of sitting, whether I was in Geeta's car watching the city go by or elsewhere in a tea shop, I did what I never do, which was just take in the moment in long silent stretches.  Even now, I have tears in my eyes just remembering, enduring the pain and yet allowing joy to come in spite of it.  

This city is hard on one's kidney qi and mine was seriously low in reserves prior to coming.  The hot sticky weather, the dusty and musty polution, and the constant bustle of the hoards of people wore on me more than usual.  I took many naps and found myself falling asleep in between.  The jet lag certainly didn't help either.  My last night there was my only night of full rest without waking.  

Regardless of the difficulties, my love for the country and the people were not hampered.  I still wished that I had more time there, that the ten days was far too inadequate for what I wanted to accomplish.  

I wish that I had had more time to work with the team to give them my support.  I hope that they will take the time to read this and know how proud I am of them.  They have become exceptional in their practice and as people.  I came to know them four years ago as their teacher and now can say that they are my colleagues.  They have taken the precept to heart that Chinese medicine is a spiritual practice and a life long study.  They have continued to hone their skills and their observations.  

The new additons of the administration team, Shashi, Rashi, Aparna, and ....  have brought the Barefoot organization to the next level.  I am realizing how far they have come from the initial days. 

This trip was much needed to connect with the people here after a long absence and to meet with Walter to firm plans between Barefoot and HAP (Humanitarian Acupuncture Project).  We have much work ahead of us and yet I am looking forward with anticipation and hope.  

On a personal note, this trip was much needed.  Over the years and especially this past one, I had become much disillusioned and tired with too much unnecesary details. How much of it really matters?  I am finding myself questioning everything in my life.  From the materialism of what I have aquired to the avoidance of a routine of a spiritual practice.  In the minutae of daily life, I have sorely lost sight of the bigger picture.  In a way, I am lost and I need to find my way back. Truly, we can't know that we are lost till we acknowledge it and that was what I did during this trip.  

There is a grander scheme to our lives and the sooner we align ourselves with it, the more we will become sustained.  Daily, I looked at the people of Mumbai and recognized that we are woven into the same fabric that connects us all.  And we must find a way to acknowledge and respect them.  To not do so, is to disregard not just basic humanity but the failings within ourselves. 

This post is dedicated to my Barefoot family.  I hope you know how much I have to come to love and cherish you.  

Acupuncturists: Meghna, Satish, Vrushali, Geeta, and Mitali
Clinic doctor: Shashi
Assistants: Suvarna, Nimala, Shabnam, and Anita
Administrators: Ujwala, Rashi, Pramila, and Aparna
And of course Walter

Friday, October 10, 2014

Day 3, October 10, 2014

Dharavi Clinic

Today I visited the Dharavi clinic.  This is the third clinic that Barefoot has produced and it is located in the slums of Dharavi.  To read more about this part of the city you can click on the Wikipedia link. This clinic is located in one of the most famous slums.  As a foreigner it is difficult to set up shop in this closely protected community.  Barefoot was invited and sponsored there by a few of the Jain merchants.  Without them, this project would not have been possible.  

There are some companies that give tours of the slums and indeed in one of my posts from my first visit to Mumbai, I took that tour.   It was well executed and informative.  However, there is nothing like knowing that you are a part of it somehow, now working with the people.  As a foreigner, it is not really accepted to walk around there unattended.  And even less so to take photos as it was not allowed in the tours.  However, I was very grateful for the personal guide who was one of the patients and permission to take photos.  

The energy here is really incredible.  It is alive and thriving and this is just a normal day for them.  Businesses are busy and people are visiting amongst themselves.  I've never seen this in the US, not of this magnitude.  And there is something wholesome about seeing the children mixed in with the elderly and merchants of every possible trade.  

Here, people are making shoes, selling saris and jewelry, weaving textiles, pottery, tanning hide, making soap, recycling plastic.  The enterprises here are tremendous, estimated to be worth at least 500 million dollars annually.  The next time I see an item labeled, "made in India" I will certainly be thinking of these people as it is likely that some aspect of the finished product passed through these people's hands.  I do wish that working conditions were safer and sanitation revamped.  And for all the money that is coming through, how much of it ends up with the workers?

The guy in the yellow shirt on the right side was my guide.      

Life here is extremely difficult and labor intensive.  I would never romanticize this lifestyle and yet I have tremendous respect for these people.  They have found a way to live together and a way to survive.  Also, I often think of the women who have to clean their homes daily, cook meals, wash clothes by hand, care for the children, and care for the parents.  

Children are safe here.  The community looks out for them.  It is common to see the children running about on their own or in groups.  This is the same for the elderly.  While it is a great responsibility for the adult children to care for their elderly parents, it doesn't seem to be questioned, but rather expected.

The clinic is a joy to work in.  The floors are covered in polished white marble.  The windows being on the second floor look out over the alleys.  The patients sit quietly in the waiting room and the atmosphere is cheerful and steady even with a stream of people coming in and out.  

Satish started the morning with a meditation that included the patients.  I have to start doing that in my own office.  It was a great way to set the mood for the morning.  Thank you, Satish!  

Tomorrow, I will cover Satish and Vrushali.  I interviewed them this morning and need to get my notes together before writing.  Stay tuned!  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Day 2, October 9, 2014

Today is day two and last night was the worst with jet lag.  I should've known I would be up half the night from past consistent experience.

There have been many changes since the last time I was here. I was pleased to see that the initial clinic staff were still there, but now with the addition of a full administrative personnel and a separate office to house them. There is actually something quite cheerful about the new office.  While it is a cozy space, it doesn't feel so entrapped with the glass wall facing the street.

Rashi and Ujwala
Today was gentlemen's day.  Upon arriving, there were already ten men waiting to be treated.  I was talking with Satish, one of our long time acupuncturists about the most common conditions that the clinic sees.  There are many people with strokes and arthritis.  I was reminded of a patient I had seen the last time I was here.  He had arthritis and had been on steroids for many years.  He didn't have any followup care and nobody was monitoring his medications.  Therefore, he continued to take the steroids resulting in edema in his legs, face, and arms.  I was alarmed at the duration and the toll it had taken on his body.  Steroids should never be taken long term and if they are deemed necessary they are usually closely monitored.  I found that this was a common occurrence.  The glaring lack of followup care and overuse of medications is incomprehensible.

Many of the medications here are termed old school.  There are much more sophisticated, modern medications out now.  My impression was that the older medicines are more easily accessible and cheaper.

View from inside the office. 
I was going over some numbers today.  I thought it would be good to give an outline of what the economic landscape is like for those who live in the slums.  For every  dollar there are sixty rupees.

It is common for a worker who lives in the slums to make between 200 to 300 rupees per day, multiplied by twenty-eight makes between 5,600 to 8,400 rupees.  Converted to dollars per month makes between $93.33 to $140.  Now in comparison, what they make in one month, I often make in a hour.  Furthermore, a meal on the street which may consist of rice, legumes, and a chapati can cost thirty rupees, which is fifty cents here in the US.  Where in the US can I get a full meal for fifty cents? It is because of the low cost of necessities that people in the slums are able to survive.  Should that skyrocket, then millions of people will become effected.

Now to paint another economic picture, it is common for many households in Mumbai to have a housekeeper who comes daily to clean.  The usual salary is between 1,500 to 2,000 rupees per month.    This converts to $25 to $33.33.  That is how it is affordable to have a housekeeper, driver, and perhaps a cook.  And yet somehow the housekeeper, driver and the cook can feed their family and keep a roof over their head.  Hard, hard work.

The cost of a treatment at the clinic is twenty rupees or thirty-three cents.  Of course, if they don't have the money to pay, they will still be accepted.  This amount is not much but helps offset the cost of needles and other supplies.

In the upcoming days, I'll be interviewing the staff and including them here.  Keep posted for more!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Day 1, October 8th, 2014

It is my first day back in Mumbai and it is like I never left.

Life here goes on.  The smells are the same.  The noise is the same.  The hot stifling humidity is the same.  And yet like returning home, I welcome it like I would a dear, dear friend.  I overlook the garbage and the molding walls and see instead, the beautiful saris, the innocent children and the flowering vegetation.  It has been raining here and the leaves are bright rather than dusty as I had remembered them to be.

I spent the morning at the clinic and was happy to meet the new additions to the Barefoot team.  I'll write more about them soon as I am still learning their names and their roles.

The morning clinic, as I call it, is located in the East Bandra slums.  It is a community style setting with up to six tables in two to three open rooms.  There is a large movement in the acupuncture field in the United States that calls the clinics, "community" style with multiple chairs or tables in a large room.  I like to think of this clinic here representative of how acupuncture is practiced in much of the rest of the world.  Most of the world does not have the luxury of single patients with the privacy of their own rooms.  This is what I feel is the true "community" style long before it became popular.

We were busy with patients and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday only women come to the clinic.  Tuesdays and Thursdays are for men. It is customary not to mix the genders in certain public offices especially in a clinic where the spaces are open and not as much privacy.

I was struck by this patient.  She had shoulder surgery one and a half years ago.  I found the scar to be quite extraordinary as shoulder surgery in the US is often marked with only one inch incisions.  Her story is quite unusual as well.  After the operation, as she was being wheeled out of the room, the door apparently had been slammed on her shoulder ripping apart the incision.  This required an emergency repair.  I can only imagine the damage that had occurred and wonder what might've been worse, the actual initial complaint or the massive amount of scar tissue.  We'll never know.

If this were to happen in the US.  There would have been multiple lawsuits against the hospital, the attending staff and the surgeon.

As it is, the care that can be provided through the team here is wonderful.  There are not many other options for followup care.  And truthfully, there couldn't be a better option.  How many other people are out there in the midst of the millions of slum dwellers who have stories like this?

According to this link, 54 percent of the population of Mumbai lives in the slums.  They are estimating that by the year 2025, there will be 22.5 million slum dwellers.  It is overwhelming to me the amount of work that needs to be done.

I'll be closing up now as it is getting late and I have yet to eat dinner.  I have more time during this trip for writing and there is lot to cover.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Heading for Mumbai - 10/6/2014

For the Gofundme campaign that this post is listed on, click on this link here

On October 6th, I'll be heading to Mumbai to volunteer for two weeks. People are always asking me why I do this and this is what I tell them: I’ll never forget the first time I came to India. A young man came to the clinic asking if Walter and I could come to his home to see his mother. We went that afternoon. This was the first time I had visited the inside of a home in the slums and I came to understand the living conditions that the people are faced with. One small room that served the purpose of a bedroom, dining room and living room for four or more people. The elderly mother was lying on the cement floor, and upon seeing her we knew immediately that she had had a stroke. She was resting on a blanket and nothing else. Upon further inquiry we understood that she had been like this for a couple of months and because it was not within thirty days of the onset, the doctor refused to treat her. We told the young man that his mother had a stroke, and suggested a thicker mattress to protect her from the cold floor. We encouraged him to include her in family activities to get her moving around as much as possible. And to bring her to the clinic when they could get her to walk. I’ll never forget this story. 

Photo by Lydie Nesvadba

A number of things struck me then, and have stayed with me to this day. The low level of care for the millions of people in Mumbai alone is overwhelming. The amount of education required to help people with basic self care is overwhelming. The daily survival mechanisms of these people, which go back multiple generations, is also overwhelming. I immediately understood the importance of what we offer. Where I come from in the United States, Chinese medicine is usually seen as secondary care or primary care in conjunction with allopathic medicine. However, here we can help people as primary care and, more importantly, community support. This is the difference between compassionate medical care and none at all.

Photo by Lydie Nesvadba

Since 2008, Barefoot Acupuncturists has treated 4,500 patients in four clinics that are set up in rural villages and urban slums. After chronic or acute pain, the range of treatment includes paralysis and stroke recovery, digestive disorders, gynecological issues, stress and anxiety, and hypertension.

If you believe health is a human right, DONATE to our cause: 
$ 30 will allow a grandmother to reach and use slum latrines on her own, giving back to her some independence and dignity. 
$ 50 will enable a family breadwinner to go back to work and to prevent the family from falling into poverty. 
$ 150 will help a paralysed stroke patient to walk and talk again. 

Even a small donation will make a world of difference. Please help us reach our goal.  All money collected will go directly to the clinics in Mumbai.  Anne is covering all of her own expenses related to airfare, travel, accommodations.  

Video produced by Kathryn Nemirovsky. 
Humanitarian Acupuncture Project is the USA branch/ partner with Barefoot Acupuncturists.  To learn more about either one of them go to: