Saturday, October 4, 2008

Bihar Trip

These pictures show the remains of the severe flooding that buried towns all over the 5 Bihar districts that were most severly hit. When an embankment (dam/levee) in Nepal was topped by heavy rains in Nepal and northern India, it gave way unleashing a lake along with the heavy rain runoff that was no longer being held back. The Kosi river had an old course that over the last 120 years was reduced to a small river, but the flood waters inundated a 15 km wide flood plain along that old river course that had become heavily inhabited and much more. The Kosi split and flooded both the old and the current river courses. We visited 2 of the 5 districts on this trip that were considered disaster areas - Saharsa and Madhepura. Note the current visible in the first picture as water was still draining 4 weeks after the embankment was breached and a 4 km wide hole was washed out of it.

9/18/08 – Thursday
Before heading to the airport, we joined a meeting at the Continental Hotel with Dr Rob Clark, a neo-natal resuscitation specialist who flew in the night before and is going with us to Bihar, and Dr Naveen Thacker of the International Association of Pediatrics. There was another gentleman there from IAP, but I did not get his name. Welcome to the NRT project. The IAP wants to be involved in the training in India. The only training to date though has been through the NNF and UNICEF back in 2006 in 2 districts in Bihar state. An objective of the Bihar trip is to assess, in person, what the status of the post-training roll out has been in the 2 Bihar districts where trainers were trained and to discuss plans for the rest of the state. Dr Clark is going to attempt to conduct some training at the district hospital in Saharsa, a stop on our trip. After the meeting, we hustled to the airport for our 1:30 PM flight to Patna. Elder Brown has already warned me to be ready for Bihar. It is supposed to be worse than anything I’ve seen so far in Delhi.

After arriving, we found our driver from UNICEF, loaded up and went to their headquarters. We met with a delightful young lady, Dr Sufia Askari, who would be going with us, and her boss, Dr Sherin Varkey, a very pleasant and intelligent young man. Both doctors seemed genuine in their concern for newborns and the programs to aid them. We discussed the programs, the NRT training plans, and the trip. Before leaving, we took time to eat a lunch they had arranged for us with some of their staff, my first real, non-airline Indian food. I don’t know what it was called, but the potatoes and chicken were great. There was some stuff in the rice though to be avoided, for my tender palate anyway. We then loaded up and took off for parts unknown.

Driving out of Patna was an experience. If I thought driving in Delhi was bad, you have no idea what we went through for the next 2 days and I do not know if I can do it justice by trying to describe it, but more on that latter. Having looked briefly at a map in the UNICEF office, I concluded we were paralleling the Ganges, south of the river. The buildings alongside the road seemed to be built in a flood plain and the road was like driving on a levee. I’m not sure if the water was normal or a result of the flooding up north. I tend to think it may be normal in this area and an abysmal place to live from my sheltered perspective. Trash was dumped in piles alongside the road for several miles outside the main city. Something I would see over and over again for the next 2 days. Sometime after dark, we crossed the Ganges River and I would say it is as wide, maybe wider, as the mid-America Mississippi. We finally reached our stopping place for the night, Khagaria, after a 5 hour drive. We drove down the main street then turned off and drove some narrow streets with no light. We finally stopped in front of a building that Sufia announced was our hotel for the night.

The tropical climate, old buildings, brick and concrete construction, reminded me of part of Argentina, in fact, I had many prior mission flashbacks during the arrival and early parts of the trip. But at the end of the day, it was not Argentina, nor anything near it. We got checked in and rooms assigned and we were upstairs. Going down a hall, we saw an open area that appeared to be a kitchen work area before we turned and went up some stairs to the 2nd floor. The room had twin beds with sheets that may have been clean, but were stained and putting my hand on them it felt damp through the thin fabric covering about a 3” mattress on a board. There is firm and then there is rock. It was somewhere between the two. Two blankets were folded and on a shelf in a small case that had a TV sitting on top of it. Altogether, a very small room with a door that led to a bathroom. It had a flush toilet, no toilet paper, a sink, and an open shower. Cindy finally set down on the edge of the bed and was in tears. She had reached her limit. I had felt her reaction when she saw the kitchen area on the way upstairs and the room, sheets, etc. finished it. I sat down beside her and put my arm around her shoulders and just held her for awhile. I didn’t know what else I could do and words would have been useless, I knew that. Our 5th day in the country and we both were feeling completely overwhelmed with the physical situation, the culture, language, and now the abject poverty and living conditions we had witnessed for the past 5 hours. Cindy finally forced herself to lay down on the bed, still dressed, and refused to let me cover her with the blanket. She could not handle the thought of it touching her body. I took my shirt off and laid it over her upper body and arms and covered her legs with a towel, yes, there were 2 clean towels, and then she let me put the blanket over her. We would survive and Cindy is a trooper above all and I dearly love her. We all have limits as to how much we can handle over a short period of time without your usual support system in place, myself included. Talk about being out of your comfort zone, were we ever. We slept well in spite of the hard beds and the morning brought a new day and renewed optimism that things would work out.

9/19/08 – Friday
We had refused several offers from hotel staff to order dinner the night before and Dr Sufia was concerned that we had refused because of conditions or worry about eating the food. No, we explained it was late and we were very tired and had just wanted to go to sleep which was the truth. Breakfast was a pleasant surprise as we were served omelets with shredded onion in them along with buttered toast. I do not think I’ve enjoyed such a tasty breakfast in a long time.

Ready for a new day.

The front desk is behind my left shoulder.

On the way out of Khagaria, we stopped and paid a courtesy call on the District Director of Medical Services to explain what we were doing. He elected to accompany us with his car and driver as far as the first refugee camp we would stop at near Beldaur. His house servants set up chairs in his courtyard and we sat around and talked while he changed to go with us. The Beldaur camp was not an official government camp, but UNICEF did have one of their maternity tents set up there and they wanted to show us what they had done and where the newborn blankets could be used.

Waiting for the District Director of Medical Services to change his clothes and come with us to Keldaur.

When we arrived, the Director made a show of examining a patient register at a table outside the tent, under a tarp out of the sun. Dr Sufia asked me to present him with a bag and mask kit which I did, but he refused to even look at me as he accepted it. He didn’t stick around long and took off. No loss in my book. I can suffer officials, especially when this is where they live. Dr Clark, Sister Brown, and Sister Tanner had gone into the tent before this happened.

There were 17-18 people in that tent. 4 women who had just delivered, 4 in labor, and various mothers and family members attending, one female doctor, and a single metal delivery table as reported by Sister Tanner.

A temporary school room at Beldaur. Note the slate boards.

I definitely felt like a foreigner in this environment as the refugees passed by to see what was going on. Elder Brown was off taking pictures around the camp, but I wasn’t feeling comfortable venturing too far out on my own, so my wanderings were fairly limited although I did go back to the highway to check out a procession that was going by. The time we were there was a celebration of the god of machinery and almost all tractors, trucks, etc. in the local area seemed to be decorated to some degree. This also turned out to be the largest of all the processions we passed or saw on the trip.

I believe this is an image of the god of machinery, one of the 100,000 or so Hindu gods.

When the sisters and Dr Clark came out of the tent, the decision was made to distribute the 15 blankets we had right there. There were 4 women inside who had just delivered and 4 more in labor, so 8 blankets were taken back inside. The rest we gave to women who had recently delivered and were sitting around under the flap in front of the tent. One woman had twin boys. Cindy took each baby and wrapped it in a new blanket and handed it back to its mother. There were a few smiles, but mostly just stoic looks. Even with that, I was feeling a lot of emotion watching my sweetheart lovingly cradle the newborns and wrap them. She is an angel. But the reverie was short lived as Dr Sufia said we had to leave now, and said it with some urgency. Once word spread that something was being given away, the refugees came quickly and it surprised me when I looked out and saw a crowd gathering. We pushed through to the cars and got rolling again. The experience has been that the somewhat tribal community people can get upset quickly if they feel shortchanged which can easily happen if you’re passing something out that is very limited like we were.

Sister Tanner passing out the newborn blankets we brought with us. Hopefully, there will be about 11,000 more going up there for use at all of the UNICEF maternity tents.

Notice the twins that the woman in green delivered the day before. Her husband is holding one of them in the light green blanket.

From the camp, we proceeded to Saharsa and left Dr Clark at the district hospital where he was going to do some training. We continued on to Madhepura which still had parts of it under water as we almost turned down several roads trying to locate the district hospital, only to see them disappear under water a few blocks in. The head doctor, a Punjabi and a cool guy, was there on assignment as part of the relief effort. He later told me that the entire town was under 2 feet of water at one time and the hospital and about 50 meters north were an island that stayed dry. Dr Clark had brought a suitcase full of various drugs that had been donated by an organization back home and we left them at Madhepura. A young doctor led me inside and insisted on carrying the suitcase. I knew that if I did not let him carry the case, it would be an act of disrespect on my part. It seemed strange because he was a little guy and it was a large case. But a very nice young man. I am noticing a lot of humble, warm people around the UNICEF and hospital types when we associate as opposed to the stares and blank faces of the refugee tribal types.

The head doctor volunteered his hotel room for the sisters and apologized for not having any toilet paper in his bathroom. In the back country anyway, toilet paper is not used. There is a tap conveniently located by the toilet, whether flush or squat type, to use to rinse your hand after the necessary cleaning. However, the sisters were prepared. While we waited on the second floor of the hotel, we observed the refugees gathered around a table with 2 government types taking registrations. I’m assuming it had to do with getting relief food or other supplies.

Our next stop was a government camp that had been set up with tents on an old festival ground. At the time of our visit, it had over 8,000 people in it and more coming in each day. We checked out the medical clinic that was set up in a couple of tents, walked to the back of the camp to see the latrines that had been set up and a self-chlorinating water pump. The Punjabi said it was one thing to build latrines and a different thing altogether to get people to change habits and use them when they were used to doing their thing wherever they happened to feel the need. I saw women going into the complex and I’m sure they appreciated the privacy. I think the females are inherently modest in that regard. But not the men. Cindy said she was going to scream if she saw one more male twiddling or squatting off the road in plain site. She’d turn her head sometimes and there would be another on the other side. I’d actually even seen that a few times in our drives between Noida and Delhi. Oh, well.

The camp seemed well organized, but looks are deceiving. The head doctor said the biggest problems in trying to administer the camp were the tribal or local groups would come up with a complaint or feel slighted about something and the next thing you know there would be a demonstration of 50-70 people demanding it be corrected and it could get out of hand very quickly. You don't see them in the pictures, but there were army security personnel there, mainly to keep order and protect those trying to provide the services.

Note the Indian sized hat on a big head. The tabs in the back were inches apart so I tucked them inside.

It is hard to tell how hot and humid it was, but one vivid memory was sweat running down my back walking in the sun. I could literally feel it like someone was pouring water on me. I'm sure you didn't need to know that though.

The camp had 4 food stations where rice was cooked, dumped on the table, then taken by servers who laddled it onto plates of those waiting. Another server followed with a curry gravy of some type to put on the rice.

The roads were really a mess in most places. There were a few places where we had extended good road on both lanes, but for the most part, it was a series of potholes connected by short stretches of asphalt. This created an interesting situation because traffic in both directions would head for the good road to go around potholes and it seemed like if you were bigger and first, you got the road. Our driver was on the horn constantly so imagine driving for 7 hours with the horn going about every 10 seconds. The horn was used to indicate I’m passing as well as get out of my way. The road was shared by people walking on both sides, bicycles, pedi-cabs, auto-rickshaws, tractors pulling wagons, ox carts, horse drawn carts, water buffalo, pigs, cattle, goats, dogs, large trucks-no semis though, and other cars and jeeps. Add to this the occasional religious procession I mentioned earlier, a few truck convoys, and the already mentioned road conditions, and you have instant stress. Looking out the front windshield, it reminded me of an old video game where you had to constantly maneuver to avoid things that were flying at you. It was a stressful ride for the most part even though we rarely got going much over 30 km/hr. The jeep Cindy was in even got caught in a water buffalo stampede. They were passing through a bunch of them and something spooked them and they just took off with the jeep in the middle of the pack.

After a very long day, we stopped at Begusarai which was only several hours from Patna and reachable to make our flight back to Delhi the next morning. This hotel was equally surprising, in a different way. It had a circular drive in front, a large, well appointed lobby, and when we went upstairs to our room, we found it was a very large suite. Clean sheets, the whole thing was great. One word of advice though. Do not order fish in India unless you’re prepared to eat bones or be sure to ask first if it’s de-boned which is not the norm.

9/20/08 – Saturday
Had a good night’s rest and got up refreshed. The last leg into Patna turned out to be uneventful. The flight to Delhi was delayed and that posed a problem as we were supposed to meet with an NNF representative at UNICEF headquarters in Delhi. Elder Brown tried calling ahead, but no answer and the gentle left about 20 minutes before we got there. We did manage to meet with Dr Mohan from UNICEF and it was short and enlightening as he suggested we take a different tack than we had planned with the next phase of the NRT training.

While waiting in the Patna airport, Elder Brown received a call and it was David McIllece trying to reach me. David is someone who grew up with Jared in our old Sandy neighborhood and I’d known him from the time he was 4 years through his mission, etc., but had lost track of him after I left Sandy. He is an Army officer and is in Delhi studying Hindi. He is married and has children and is serving as a counselor in the new district presidency. He had seen my name on an ordination report for the new elders in Noida on the 14th and figured correctly that there weren’t too many Duane Tanners in the world. I’m looking forward to an opportunity to meet with him and his family.

9/21/08 – Sunday
We went to church and were greeted by Dr Ryder, an investigator and friend of the church, who was standing outside on the steps of the building. He greeted us warmly and remained outside. Nothing happened to bother the meetings inside, but Dr Ryder turned a couple of people away that had come to disrupt the meeting. In a subsequent meeting with the association, the misunderstandings were hopefully resolved. Dr Ryder listened to a complaint that elders were converting people against their will and then he asked for the name of someone that had happened to. When no one could be identified, the situation seemed to defuse itself. I got this from Dr Ryder later when we visited with him.

Many refugees do not want to go to the government camps, but want to stay close to their property or animals. They build these simple shelters for sleeping along the road or on any high ground they can find and then go by boat back to their area during the day. Not everything is underwater. In some cases, it is only isolated and they feel a justified need to protect it.

Note that these boats are propelled by poles, not oars.

Could not pass up including a few "pimp" my ride type pictures. These are the best of the best I saw. Many thanks to Elder Brown for almost all of the pictures of our trip. Sister Tanner also gets photo credit.


jjensen said...

The words "Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore," come to my mind as I read your blog. You've survived the first few weeks so you can survive anything now! Keep up the great work on your projects and thanks for the great efforts on your blog!

Ray Tanner said...

Kitty and I love reading about your experiences.
Hope Cindy is 100%
Happy Thanksgiving