It’s been about 7 weeks since I left the United States, and now I’m back. After approximately 26 hours of travel, I am finally sitting on my own bed, with my two cats around me and country music playing in the background. It was so surreal to be sitting on the plane from Brussels to Chicago, knowing that at some point the pilot was going to come on the intercom and announce that we had entered the United States. It’s strange to be back in Michigan, and I’m sure it’ll be even stranger to spend my last month of my last summer vacation EVER in Massachusetts. It feels like so long since I’ve been there.
This will be my final entry about India. I definitely plan to keep blogging throughout my time in vet school, and hopefully I’ll have some other adventures to chronicle. But for now…back to India.
After experiencing the forests of Mudumalai, it was pretty rough ingratiating ourselves back into city life. First off, the city felt 10x hotter upon return. Secondly, the food was a lot spicier. The Virginia Tech kids who had arrived shortly after us requested the food to be a bit more traditional, so we got a nice spicy surprise. Third, we all had to wrap up our projects, which meant three days of travel (after just traveling 12 hours by train) back to the villages to collect the second round of samples for the nutrition projects, followed by two straight days of lab work. The culmination of all our research was the 3rd annual International Case Presentation Conference held by Madras Vet Hospital, which would be held on the 14th and 15th of July.
We were told about the conference about halfway through our trip, and weren’t sure what to expect. All we knew was that we’d have to make a 5 minute powerpoint presentation on our projects in front of a panel of judges. Veterinary students from all over Tamil Nadu would be attending and presenting their cases as well. Our research didn’t quite fit the “case presentation” description, but they were eager to have us present our findings. Luckily, my BVDV project was mostly finished; we had successfully collected and run 236 blood and/or milk samples from both organized and unorganized farms. To determine the prevalence of antibody positive animals, we ran all the samples on ELISA plates and recorded the results. About 17.6% of them came up positive for antibodies, which indicates that at some point in their lives, these animals had either had BVDV or were exposed to a strain of the virus through a contaminated vaccine. So, India does indeed have bovine viral diarrhea virus and it is found in both organized and unorganized farms. We SNAP tested 60 of the antibody negative animals hoping to find viral antigen (indicating either a persistently or acutely infected animal), but had no luck. Maybe if someone else continues the project next year, they can test more calves and try to find a persistently infected animal.
Unfortunately, our Brucellosis project wasn’t able to be finished. That project had evolved into a prevalence study as well, and we were counting on using the ELISA as the gold standard test. We wanted to compare the results obtained from the Rose Bengal, milk ring test and standard tube agglutination tests to the ELISA and see if the results had any correlation. Unfortunately, the ELISA plates didn’t arrive on time, so we were never able to compare.
The nutrition projects turned out to be very rewarding. As soon as we returned from Mudumalai, we washed our clothes and packed up for the villages, which we’d be returning to the next day. We’d be doing the trip in reverse order this time, starting in Pondicherry. Sadly, we didn’t have time for any more sightseeing, but we were able to return to the same French/Italian restaurant and eat big, heaping plates of pasta.
Our job on this return trip was to follow up with the farmers who had used the GRAND nutrition supplement and collect a second set of blood samples from their animals. Most people had diligently fed the GRAND supplement and reported increases in milk production anywhere from 500-1000mL a day. Although it didn’t seem like much, Dr. Balakrishnan (the man who created GRAND and accompanied us) explained that even after you subtract the price of the supplement, the farmer is still making money off of this small increase. I can’t remember the amount saved right now, but it added up to a decent amount of rupees over a year. Unfortunately, some of the farmers who we had given GRAND to had stopped using it. Dr. Balakrishnan attributed it to suspicion. A lot of farmers are untrusting of projects such as these because they think that they are being used as guinea pigs for new drugs. If they notice any decrease in milk yield or any animals fall sick (even if it is due to something completely unrelated), they will immediately stop using the supplement and revert back to their original diets. It’s disappointing, but understandable. I’m not sure how much I’d trust a random group of Americans offering little blue bottles of minerals, either.
Despite these minor setbacks, the trip back to the villages was successful. Jeremy and Tasha were in charge of the nutrition projects, and they got some good results to work with. We also had the opportunity to visit a new village which had recently signed on to receive GRAND supplements in later trials. We met one farmer there who was in his 60s and really bonded with our group. As soon as we arrived, he came up to us and shook our hands and blessed us. He was a very religious man who had a relatively large (in Indian terms) herd of 5 Jersey cows. Years ago, he started his farm with only one Jersey female who eventually gave birth to 4 healthy, high producing daughter and no bulls. It was very cool to see the family of 5, all nearly identical looking except for the eyes and faces. The mother was 10 years old and going strong. In the U.S., most cattle are only kept until about 4 years old when their milk production begins to decline. In India, since cows are rarely slaughtered, the animals will go on popping out babies and lactating as long as they can. This man was lucky to have such a prolific cow, and he knew it. He proudly scratched and rubbed her, showing her off and letting us pet her. It was really touching to see this man’s bond with his animals and his appreciation for all they had done for him. Knowing that the supplement that we had slaved to make in that hot, stuffy lab was being put to good use and feeding farmers like him made us all feel pretty good. We left with smiles on our faces.
After the villages, we returned to the lab for two more days of sample running and presentation making. By the 15th, we were ready to present and got dressed up in the best clothes we had (which weren’t too fancy) to attend the conference. Everything went swimmingly; our presentations were received well by the judges and the students enjoyed them.
We also got to watch a number of the 5 minute case presentations given by the other competitors. These were basically just summaries of hospital cases that the students had seen and worked on. The presentations had to include signalment, clinical signs, treatment and resolution. I liked watching those, since it made me feel as if I actually knew something. There were cases of dilated cardiomyopathy in cats due to taurine deficiency, scrotal ablation in bullocks, distemper and lymphoma in dogs, blood born parasites in cattle, tetanus in a goat, dermatophilosus in buffalo…etc. etc. It was extremely cool to think that we were learning all of the same things as students halfway around the world, and we all understood each other. Sure, we do a few things different here and there, but the bottom line is the same. We’re all helping animals.
Looking back, one of the biggest differences between U.S. and Indian vet students is the path taken to choosing veterinary medicine as a career. In India, a combination of grades, caste level and standardized test scores play a role in the careers that young people can train for. Most young Indians start out wanting to be medical doctors, and take the standardized tests with the hopes of scoring high enough to qualify. If they get a good score, but not one high enough for medical school, veterinary medicine is the next best thing. We were surprised to learn that this was how many of the Indian students had come to be in vet school. Unlike in the US, where those who become vet students have dreamed of it their entire lives and have fought tooth and nail to get it, many Indian students are thrust into it only after having their real dream of medical school quashed. Fortunately, many of the Indian vets that we talked to told us that after they had started veterinary school and gave it a chance, they truly came to love it and wouldn’t do anything else. The way they may have gotten into it was different, but the end result was the same. And recently, the number of Indian students going into vet medicine out of desire alone has been increasing. As the companion animal industry grows, more small animal vets are needed in India and more young people are answering the call. And of course, with one of the biggest cattle populations in the world and no real euthanasia option, large animal vets will always be in demand.
After the conference, on the 15th night our group departed for our last mini trip to Tuticorin, the tip of India. We would be visiting the point where three bodies of water meet; the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean. This meant missing the premier of Harry Potter 7, part 2 (which I was very sad about), but it meant seeing the place where Ghandi hung out and seeing something which I may very well never see again in my life.
We took another sleeper train down to Tuticorin and arrived the next morning at 8am. Tuticorin looked pretty identical to Chennai, but was a little less hot. We visited the Fisheries College which was part of TANUVAS (Tamil Nadu Vet and Animal Sciences University) and had breakfast at a tasty little vegetarian restaurant with an outdoor sitting area. Writing about this now, I actually just had a little itty bitty craving for idly and dosa and coconut chutney…
Wind turbines in the countryside of Tuticorin
After visiting the Fisheries college, our guide, Dr. Senthil, took us to a dock where we boarded a little fishing boat which would be taking us to a small island to collect seashells. Little did we know we’d be out on the hot, reflective water for a good 2 hours. You see, the boat had the engine of a chainsaw with a mere 15 horsepower to move itself and 9 people through the water.
It took so long to reach the island and return that by the end, all of us Americans were sunburnt, salty and thoroughly cooked. When Dr. Senthil saw Tasha covering up her neck to hide her previous sunburn, he asked her what she was doing. Apparently he didn’t really understand about sunburns or what a lack of sunblock can do. Lucky Indians…they never burn.
Shortly after the boat ride, we were told that we would be traveling another 4 hours to the very tip of India. Now, at this point we felt as though we had been sitting for the last week between all the safaris, the sleeper trains, riding around between all the villages, the boat rides…our butts were tortured. It literally felt as though my tailbone would fall off, and I was winded after just one flight of stairs. Being a runner, this was pretty devastating to me, but I was coming to terms with it. The thought of more sitting was pretty depressing, but the destination would be worth it.
After a bumpy ride in the trunk of an SUV, we finally arrived at the tip in time to see the sun setting. It was cloudy, so the view wasn’t perfect, but we got some fantastic pictures of the waves crashing over the rocks and enjoyed the cool air and scenery.
The sand was three different colors, due to the three different bodies of water conjoining on the shore. There was a massive statue of a famous Indian holy man in the distance, and a memorial to Ghandi on the beach shore.
A lot of Northern Indians were visiting the coast, and you could definitely pick them out of a crowd. With their light skin, different language (Hindi, the national one) and Western clothes, they looked to be from a different country than the Southern Indians who were dark and wore traditional sarees and chudidars. It was very interesting to see the differences between the two regions. According to the Southern Indians, the Northern Indians aren’t as friendly; due to their whiter skin, they tend to think of themselves as “better” than the Southern Indians and often refer to Tamil Naduers as “calm and dumb.” Such a strange dynamic.
We toured around the shoreline for a bit and checked out the shops, which all sold personalized shells and necklaces. There were a ton of pearl dealers, but it was hard to tell who was legit and who was just trying to make a buck off of imitations. After we got our fill, we went to a delicious restaurant for dinner, where I was able to try the local catch; a tender whitefish called Kingfish. I’m guessing this is where their famous beer, Kingfisher, gets its name.
We spent the night in a hotel by the beach and woke up at 5:00am the next morning to catch the sunrise. Dr. Senthil was too tired to accompany us, so we made our way down to the shore to get a good vantage point. Apparently the other Indian tourists had the same idea, and a crowd began to form around 6am.
There was even a rooster which showed up to welcome the sun, strutting around the sleeping homeless people and crowing. The sunrise was quite a sight. Slowly the sky turned from blue, to green and finally to the warm pinks and yellows as the sun peeked from behind the clouds and illuminated the statue in the distance. The waves, coming from three directions, reflected the colors and made for a perfect picture. As soon as the sun became fully visible, the temple in the distance started ringing a bell and the Indians cheered. It was definitely a great moment; it was the one time I was actually happy that I woke up at 5am.
The only thing which dampened the experience, and dampened a few other experiences during our trip to “the tip” was a group of rowdy 20 something year old boys who insisted on “stealthily” taking our picture. For some reason, a lot of the young boys that we saw were obsessed with taking pictures of us, even if they were awkward candid shots where we had our mouths hanging open or we were looking the other way. They would literally take out their cell phones and try to nonchalantly take a picture without our noticing. Unfortunately, they are usually pretty obvious about it and it made us feel very uncomfortable. There were many times where I just wanted to enjoy the scenery, but I could hear them laughing or see them whipping out their cell phones or cameras and trying to get pictures. It was pretty annoying, even if it was somewhat flattering to know that they thought we were interesting enough to take a picture of.
Anyway. After the sunrise, we returned to the same delicious restaurant for breakfast and then traveled by ferry to the stone temple which stood on a rocky little island a ways from the shore.
It stood directly across from the massive statue of the holy man and waves crashed all around it. Then we traveled more inland to another ancient site nestled in the mountains; a wooden palace owned by an Indian king which reminded me very much of a Japanese dojo. The palace was like a big wooden maze, with hundreds of room and skinny hallways and massive meeting halls where the king would feed 200 villagers for free.
After the palace, we traveled to a popular waterfall where the locals came to bathe…
View from the top
We ended the day with some shopping and dinner with some of Dr. Senthil’s friends, and then boarded a semi-sleeper bus to travel overnight back to our hostel. Let me emphasize the “semi” part of semi-sleeper. These buses LOOKED comfortable, with dark curtains, blankets, pillows and foot rests, but as soon as the person in front of you decided to recline, you were sardined in so tight that you couldn’t move. And to make matters worse, a small child behind Jeremy decided to throw up about an hour in. That was the one bathroom stop the bus made on the 12 hour journey back to Chennai.
That brings us to the end of the mini trip, and essentially the end of the traveling in India. Once back in Chennai, we spent the day packing, handing out “thank you” notes and saying goodbye.
Gifting our caretaker, Muthu, with a cricket bat and ball
Dr. Balakrishnan surprised us with a going away cake party where he thanked us all and presented us with gifts. We also ate lunch with Gowri, who took us to one of India’s best kept secrets; an American style diner called Sparky’s in the heart of the city. http://www.sparkysindia.com/ A flight of stairs led you down to the A/C basement which was decked out in American license plates, post cards and sports flags. Our group giggled and acted like little kids when we saw all of the American stuff. The diner is owned by a chef from Hawaii who for some reason or other, decided to open one of the only restaurants in Chennai that makes a beef meatloaf. I put up the link to the restaurant so you could check out the menu…as you can imagine, after 7 weeks of carb loading on rice, bread and potatoes, all we wanted were salads, American style nachos, bbq chicken and rootbeer floats. Amazing.
So now we’ve come to the reflective part of this entry. I’m home from India, I’m slowly getting reaccustomed to American life. Dr. Kumar assured us that even if we didn’t think we learned much from India right away, it would all hit us a few months later and we would realize how much we got out of the experience. Well, I’m not even 24 hours out of India and I can already feel the difference.
First off, I have developed such an appreciation for America. Before the trip, I was always one of those snobbish middle class Americans who felt like America was doing everything wrong and Europe or wherever else would be “so much better.” After India…sure, America may have some nutjobs in the government and may not do everything right, but it does have so much to offer. It’s clean, safe (for the most part), culturally diverse, free, equal…the list goes on. There is honestly no place like home. Going to a country that is not as fortunate as the US certainly opened to my eyes to how much we have here. I feel incredibly lucky to have grown up here and to have the luxury of experiencing “1st world” problems instead of poverty, etc, etc. If my biggest problem in the US is that I have too much to study…well that’s just awesome.
I also feel like I understand Americans as a people a lot more after spending time away from them. Now, I could probably pick out an American in a crowd of similar looking Europeans. We’re louder, a bit courser, we wear more casual clothes, we don’t talk as articulately (usually). I knew I was back in America when I walked through the Detroit airport and could hear individual conversations, see people wearing tons of studs and chains and could smell the fast food. The TSA was a bit rude, a bit pushy. The people were very mindful of their “personal bubbles” and said excuse me and sorry if they bumped you. The girls wore shorts and tank tops and bared it all. Compared to Indians, even though we don’t wear as shiny or colorful clothing, we’re ostentatious. Americans value individualism so much more than Indians and many other cultures. We’re privileged, and we feel like we have a right to be. So many of the Indians that I met were extremely content with where they were in life, even if it was a modest or even poor living. Americans always want more, more, more, bigger and better. I think it’s one of our strengths as a people. We may not be as calm, content and unassuming as Europeans and Indians, but we have a lot of spirit, pride and drive. We’re not better…we’re just determined to try to be.
Secondly, I ‘m so glad I got to experience such an “old” country. India has so much history, and so much culture. It is home to Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists and a variety of other religions. It was occupied by the British, has influence from China and Pakistan and other countries. There are different languages for every state, different climates and millions of people. The variety of animals and flora is astounding. It is just so different from the US in so many ways.
Third, I got practice working completely out of my comfort zone, with practically no aspetic technique, in sometimes dangerous conditions, sometimes completely flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve drawn blood on water buffalos, wrestled cattle and seen a variety of medical conditions I’ll never see again. I sat within 10 feet of wild elephants.
Fourth, I really did increase my own tolerance and patience. I never thought I could deal with sitting for as long as I did, or being sick as often as I was, or handle near-100 degree heat for nearly 6 weeks. I feel like I can handle just about anything now, and I’m happy that I’m not so hung up on the little things.
Other things, more for me to remember than for anything else…
Books I read while in India (there seemed to be a common theme of zombies, even though I didn’t intend for it):
1. Pride, Prejudice and Zombies
௨.Running on Empty: An Ultramarathoner’s Story of Love, Loss, and a Record-Setting Run Across America
3. Water for Elephants
4. World War Z (as in zombie)
5. You Might Be a Zombie, and Other Bad News
6. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time (part way through)
5 things I really missed while in India, in no particular order:
2. Fresh vegetables and fruit that would NOT make your butt explode
3. Cold weather
4. My family, friends and cats
5. Wearing shorts and tank tops
5 favorite things about India, in no particular order:
3. Movie theaters
4. Coconut chutney and idly
5 favorite places in India, in order:
3. Tip of India
4. Pinjrapole cattle shelter
5 things I could have done without in India:
1. My blowdryer and straightener, which just wasted space in my suitcase
2. Indian style toilets, although I did become a pro at using them
3. Not being able to drink the water
4. Smelly streets
5. Food sickness
5 things which India does better:
1. Friendly people- literally, everyone is super friendly
2. Offering you food- literally, all the time
3. School system, it’s pretty cheap
4. Sustainable vehicles- namely, auto rickshaws, motorbikes and bicycles
5. Small farming!
5 things which America does better:
2. Food variety
3. More wealth equality
4. Animal control and disease prevention
5. DUNKIN DONUTS (sorry, it had to be there somewhere)
5 things I keep doing in America that I did in India:
1. Randomly using my fingers to eat things rather than forks and spoons
2. Looking for bottled water to brush my teeth
3. Not watching TV
4. Feeling the need to carry toilet paper around with me
5. Using hand sanitizer
10 things I got out of India that I really value:
6. New friends in India
8. An iron stomach
9. More hands on vet experience
And that’s all I can really think of for now. I’m sure more things will come to me over time, but for now I’m just happy to have had the experience and am extremely glad to be home. India was a rollercoaster of emotions, both awe inspiring and sometimes depressing. I can safely say it has changed me for the better.
Now it’s time to get ready for some good ole’ American bar trivia, pizza and beer. It’s back to my old life, with a little more spice.
What do you get when you travel 8 hours by train into a more Southwest part of India?
On July 5th night, the group of us set out to ride a sleeper train into the night to Mysore, a palace town in another state of India. We were finally setting off for Mudumalai, the elephant and tiger preserve. Mudumalai itself is actually part of Tamil Nadu (“our” state), but trains don’t travel to it. The only way to get there is via car…and hopefully it’s a Jeep.
The train station was a very short distance from our house, hidden from view like the cattle shelter. You’d never expect it to be wedged in amongst the buildings and shops and schools. We joked around, looking for platform 9 ¾ before finding our train. Our cabin was air conditioned, unlike the poor souls in some of the others which were packed to the brim, and we were each given a hard blue bunk in a section of the train walled off by a curtain. Riding the train was an interesting experience…if you had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you’d have to bypass all the snoring people and random feet stuck out of bunks into the aisle.
At 7:30am, we were awakened to calls of “Mysore! Coffee!” from beyond the curtain. We unloaded onto the platform into a much cooler climate. It felt to be about 85 or 80 rather than the weather we were accustomed to. Outside, our driver and future guide Rajesh waited with a Jeep fit for the jungle. You could tell he was more of a nature man; he wore a khaki shirt and brown pants and his jeep had a leafy, camouflage pattern on the inside. The 8 of us (Dr. MohanKumar included) piled in and set off on our journey to the forest.
As soon as we departed, I knew I was in for a treat. The countryside around Mysore was much like the villages, with big mountain ranges (the Western Ghats) surrounding us, lots of foliage, cows and fields of sunflowers. It was definitely more of a farming community and everything smelled fresh. We stopped in front of a school to stretch our legs and all of the school children ran out to greet us, waving and jumping up and down.
After an hour and a half we rolled up to a huge arch which marked the entrance to the preserve. Guards in full camo stood out front, blocking the entrance. Although Mudumalai does allow some tourists to enter, it is a very protected area and guests are kept on a short leash. Local cattle, with their local diseases like Foot and Mouth, are not allowed to stray past the gates even for grazing. Tourist vehicles are prohibited from stopping on the road, even if there is a very tempting Nat Geo opportunity just waiting for you to snap a picture. If roads develop potholes, they won’t be fixed, since this helps to deter many vehicles from passing through. There is absolutely no littering, and tourists are urged to use actual toilets so that natural habitats aren’t soiled. You are, under no circumstances, allowed to touch or feed the wildlife (this includes the monkeys, who really encourage you to do both).
And lastly, you cannot carry a weapon unless you are a ranger. You see, this isn’t your cutesy little forest with bunny rabbits and white tailed deer and the occasional black bear; this is a sprawling, green abyss of plants and mountains and ponds and things that can kill you. Mudumalai is home to wild Indian elephants, panthers, leopards, wild dogs, bears, Gaur cattle (bison), and tigers. It took one specific instance for me to appreciate just how scary the forest could be…but we’ll get into that later.
As soon as we passed the gate, the forest spread out before us. It was absolutely breath taking. Everything smelled wonderful, and the air was cool and fresh. There was no sound of honking and only a few vehicles chugged by. Besides the occasional peacock call and the continuous, high pitched whine of cicadas and other insects in the background, the area was serene and quiet.
Peacock in the Lantana flowers
Monkeys leaped from tree to tree, chasing each other and staring down at us. Little herds of spotted deer hung out by the side of the road, eating nervously, their big ears swiveling around like mini satellite dishes.
Spotted deer doe
We traveled further into the forest and eventually came upon the tourist center. Wooden signs pointed the way to elephant rides and safaris.
There was a small museum and gift shop and an area for guests to mill about. Even though it was the most public part of Mudumalai, there weren’t very many people there. Dr. Kumar described the forest as one of India’s hidden gems, since most people never visit and it is kept very hush hush. If it were to become more popular, it would surely lose some of its charm and habitats would be encroached on. The locals and rangers want Mudumalai to be noticed, but not swarmed.
Monkey at the tourist center eating a mango
After the tourist center, we arrived at our living quarters. They were nestled a bit further into the woods at the back of a long drive leading off from a tiny village.
There’s a kitchen, a large room for eating, bathrooms and shower rooms (although there’s no actual showers, just buckets of warm water-I thought I would hate showering “by hand,” but it was actually kinda fun!), two large rooms for guests with multiple beds (the Peacock dormitory) and an outdoor stage for playing games.
We came to learn over the time that our home was also a popular break spot for rangers and other locals who stopped in for the delicious food that the cook made (he added a little, or a lot, or coconut oil to everything). It seems that everyone in the jungle community knows everybody else, and they’re a happy lot.
When I went to relieve myself in the bathrooms, I came face to face with my first nature scare; Charlotte, the half dollar sized black spider who liked to hang out by the toilet. She moved every time that you did and scared the living crap out of you. After a while I got used to her, but it was still always a nice surprise when she WASN’T hanging out in her usual spot.
Once everyone was settled in, we set out to meet the elephants. Mudumalai is home to a few “camps” which are run by rangers and mahouts, or elephant handlers. These men are trained from a young age to work with the great beasts, and eventually get to master one of their own. They’re paid about 10,000 rupees monthly by the government to do this job and watch over the pachyderms. Elephants don’t bond with just anybody; it takes a lot of work and effort to get them to listen and want to work for you. The mahouts speak in a language that is a combination of Tamil, Hindi and Kannada (the language of the state Mysore is located in). They’re all extremely fit, small men and boys who carry nothing but sticks and somehow manage to control multiple ton animals. The elephants respond to verbal commands which include things like “turn around, lift you foot, walk, stop” etc. and allow them to ride on their backs, bathe and feed them. They become so accustomed to their individual mahout that they won’t accept food from anyone else and will even turn their trunk up at something which has been touched by another hand.
Before coming to the forest, I had always thought of elephants as very docile, slow moving animals which didn’t really care who was around them and were unphased by just about everything. This idea probably came from attending the Topsfield fair, Big E and other petting zoos in my childhood where the elephants were just big lumbering pack mules, toting around screaming children and their parents on their backs all day long. They’d just walk around and around in a circle after the parents paid their $10 to get up top and snap a few pictures. I had seen videos of African elephants charging cars and fending off lions, but I just didn’t think that they’d take offense to individual humans.
I was wrong. Although the camp elephants are the most socialized ones you’ll find around Mudumalai, they aren’t shy in showing you when they’re upset, nervous or threatened. Elephant body language for “GET AWAY” is usually characterized by putting their tail up, their ears forward, raising their trunk and staring you down. And when you have something that tall and huge giving you the stink eye, you back up. And if you’re not in a car, you better pray or be able to run like Usain Bolt.
Dr. Kumar explained to us that the thing to do if in a car is to try to intimidate the elephant by stopping dead in your tracks and not moving. If that doesn’t work, and they start to come after you, then it’s time to gun it in the opposite direction. And all of the vehicles in India are standards, so you better hope you don’t stall out.
We learned lots of survival tips throughout the week. It was very hard for me, a sheltered American, to accept that I wasn’t completely safe walking around on my vacation. Being a tourist always carries the false illusion of safety…you’re an American, you’ve got your camera and your bug spray and your water bottles. You never imagine that a tiger could actually come out of the woods and drag you off if you wandered too far from your guides. When I first arrived, I wanted to walk around near the dorms but was told that we weren’t allowed. We could only go a little ways up the paved road. At the beginning of the trip, this seemed overly cautious to me, but by the end I completely understood why. They told us stories of panthers hanging around outside the bathrooms or sitting on the steps near the dorms, and elephants coming within a half mile of camp. While there were no peeping panthers, two elephants did come within site of our dorm by the end of the trip. The illusion of safety slowly melted away as we learned more about the forest and came face to face with its inhabitants.
Anyway, back to the elephant camp.
While at the camp, we watched the mahouts take their elephants down to the river for bathing. The elephants walk slowly into the river until they are almost completely submerged, and the mahouts urge them to stay in until they’re clean.
It’s really very cute. Some elephants seemed to love the water; they’d get in and play with big huge logs, balancing them on their tusks. Some would submerge completely and breathe with their trunks. Others would get in and turn around, looking at the mahout as if to say, “can I get out yet?” One mahout even encouraged his tusker (male elephant with tusks) to squirt water from his trunk like a hose. You could see the bond between animal and human, especially when the mahouts physically washed their elephants with scrub brushes or rubbed their tusks with sand.
We kept our distance and snapped millions of pictures, mesmerized by the site in front of us. It’s one thing to see animals that big behind the confines of a zoo exhibit and it’s another thing to see them in their natural habitat, roiling around in a river, enjoying themselves and being completely free. The only thing which signifies that they are controlled by anyone is a chain about their neck with a silver bell on the end, and a long chain wrapped around a back leg. The chains are left to drag behind them when they’re roaming so that if they happen to wander into the jungle and don’t return, they can be tracked by the mark that it leaves in the dirt.
After bath time, it was feeding time. The elephants were lead up the hill to an open hut where blocks of food were set up across a table. They were made to stand about 20 feet from the table behind a wooden beam which stood at elephant neck level. Each animal would get up close to the beam, lay their trunk over it and swing it back and forth, eagerly awaiting their meals.
The food blocks were made of a combination of rice and other grains and protein sources. Mahouts prepared food for their own elephants, and mixed in medicines when necessary. The elephants are much like cats and dogs and won’t always eat their blocks if they can smell the medicine. So the mahouts have to be sneaky. They walk up to the elephants, command them to open their mouths, and wait for them to raise their trunks up out of the way. The mahouts then gently place the food in and the elephants use their amazingly dexterous tongue to pull it back to their molars.
If the elephants still won’t eat the blocks, they’re discarded and the wild boar, which are always roaming about, sneak in for the scraps. Besides the blocks, they were fed coconuts and sugar cane, which they’d hold like a lollipop with their trunks and bite pieces off of.
Of course, a few measly blocks of rice and wheat isn’t going to satisfy a 4-6 ton animal, so the elephants are allowed to graze freely all day long. They’re constantly eating, grasping at things with their trunk and ripping them out of the ground, mouthing everything. Their trunk is in near constant motion, always feeling around with its one little “finger” on the end. (Unlike African elephants, Asian elephants only have one “finger” and are a bit smaller). The only thing they are prohibited from eating (if they’re seen trying) is the decorative orangey-pink flower Lantana, which causes photosensitization. Lantana was planted by the British when they arrived in India to help make the forest look more beautiful….as if it needed any help.
The main job of the camp elephants is to do the heavy lifting and serve as khumkis, or guard elephants. They’re used to help pull vehicles from ditches, move logs from roads or transport sticks and other heavy cargo. The tuskers are the main guards, and are used to help move wild elephants out of towns or other areas that they may have wandered into. Sometimes, elephants just can’t help themselves from barging into someone’s garden and trampling the place. The vets and rangers at Mudumalai do their best to put radio collars on the beasts that continuously enter towns so that at least the people have some advance warning. But if they slip by, the khumkis will help to get them out.
A khumki camp tusker
Besides these tasks, the elephants spend most of their day eating and just hanging out. The female camp elephants (cows) breed with the wild males, and the camp males breed with the wild females. It’s a convenient way to keep inbreeding at bay, and keep the elephants living very natural lives. They generally seemed extremely happy, and Dr. Kumar explained that due to the fact that the mahouts use only sticks and their voices to control them, there are hardly ever any purposeful human killings. In fact, one of the camp elephants, Murthy, had a long history of going on rampages and killing people. He had killed about 30 in his day, and was accepted into the camp for training and a new life. Once there, he worked nonstop with a mahout and is now so docile and gentle that we were allowed to approach him in a big group and feed him sugar cane. Elephants generally live until their 70s, so there’s a lot of time for rehabilitation.
Me giving a kiss to the vicious killer
Aside from visiting with the elephants, we went on many safaris during our stay. The second day we took two separate jeeps, but on the first day we traveled in style on one of the tourist sighting vehicles which are all decked out in camo. The drivers all have eagle eyes and can spot animals even from far away, in the dark, behind trees. Our main wish was to see a tiger, but with only about 70 in the whole preserve (which is actually a really large number since tigers aren’t very common), it would be difficult. But just like house cats, they have their hang outs, and most of those hang outs consist of big flat rocks in the sun.
Sadly, we never saw a tiger in Mudumalai. Or any predator, for that matter. But we did see a ton of spotted deer, at least 150 wild elephants, a slew of monkeys and peacocks, giant squirrels, about 5-10 Sambar deer, wild boars, Indian Gaur cattle (bison) and one of the most beautiful natural sites I have ever seen…the Moyar Falls.
The safaris lasted anywhere from 1-4 hours and took us deep into the woods, and by the end of our time there we had covered nearly all of the forest. One path led us to the top of a large hill and we could see the mountain range stretching in all directions, encircling us.
Occasionally it would start to rain, making the forest slick and shiny, and making all of the wild elephants look as though they were polished. We came to learn that if you saw a lot of deer in a row, you weren’t likely to see a tiger, since they could smell and sense them long before we could. And if it rained hard, the tigers would probably go for shelter, since cats don’t like getting their fur wet.
Other interesting things while on safari…
LOTS OF BEES
We came across a tree while driving which had the remains of a panther’s kill hanging from a crook. It was very hard to make out, and my camera couldn’t really do it justice, but you can sort of envision legs dangling if you look hard enough. Panthers often come back to feast over and over, so the prey will just hang there until they finish it. Yum.
A spotted deer that we spotted (har har) almost became prey himself, and we saw that he had a big wound over his hamstring muscles that he stopped to lick every few seconds. Not sure if it was a tiger or panther attack, but he had narrowly gotten away.
We came across a few giant groups of elephants, lead by their matriarchs. In elephant society, alpha females run the families and males often separate and go off on their own. The older the elephant, the less pigment they have on their face, so you can often tell the grandmas by their light pink, mottled ears and trunks. The younger animals are completely grey.
A family group with a matriarch, young female and baby
Baby with abscess on the bottom of his trunk
So…charging. That brings me to the most exciting part of our adventure. I can’t remember which day it was right now, but I remember it happened at the beginning of one of our afternoon safaris. We were all relaxed and in a food coma from lunch. We loaded up into two separate Jeeps, with me, Jackie and Kayla in the back and Tasha, Chrissy and Jeremy in the front Jeep. Usually you want to be in front since you see the critters first and you don’t get all the exhaust fumes. But after that day I was happy to travel in the back.
Everything started out normal…spotted deer sightings, some light rain, some elephant poop spread across the dirt road. (When I say road, I really mean the Jeep track which has been worn down by vehicles and has no branches in the way. It’s very rough with lots of mud and potholes and is very narrow). The feces was fresh, which meant that someone had recently been there. Suddenly we drove up upon another Jeep which was parked on the side of the track. The inhabitants were up ahead in the road, pointing to something off in the distance. They were elephant trackers, and reported to us that a large tusker in musth (the equivalent of “rut” or mating frenzy for deer) was spotted and was chasing down cars. He had faced off with them not five minutes before and was temporarily eating, off in the trees.
As soon as we got this information, the tusker himself came slowly out of the forest and started advancing on the Jeeps, walking lazily. It wasn’t scary at first, but then he put his ears forward, raised his trunk and began to run faster. The trackers jumped back in to their Jeep and began to reverse. We had never exited our Jeep, so we immediately started backing up. The van in front of us got a little overzealous as the elephant accelerated and backed right into us. Luckily, there was no major damage done…but we weren’t out of harms way yet.
As soon as all 3 Jeeps we had reversed a good 50 feet, the elephant stopped and stared us down. Then, he turned around as if nothing had happened and wandered further down the path, around the corner and out of site.
I thought the adventure was over, and he would disappear into the forest and leave us alone. I also thought we’d turn around and go another direction, but the drivers decided to continue on. After a few minutes the three Jeeps started advancing again, my Jeep last. We crept slowly around the bend in the road and there was no sign of the elephant. Our driver’s eyes combed the sides of the path and looked for any movement. The two Jeeps in front of us started turning another corner when all of a sudden, our driver kicked it in reverse and pointed about 30 feet in front of us. The elephant hadn’t left; he had hidden himself up on a little hill in the foliage and was now barreling down from the left after the Jeep in front of us.
All I can say is, thank god he chose to go for that Jeep and not cut us off from the group. We were the ones who had to go in reverse, and there’s no way we could have outrun him in that way.
Instead, he gave chase to the two Jeeps in front at full speed, trumpeting and crashing down the road. We watched them all disappear around another bend and then high tailed it out of there in the other direction.
Everyone in our Jeep was worried for the others, but luckily the Jeeps were faster than the elephants as long as they didn’t hit any major potholes or blockages in the road. We found out later that the elephant had chased the two Jeeps for a good half a kilometer, stopping every once and a while before sprinting again and coming for them. Eventually he gave up and headed for another part of the forest.
It was all a big adrenaline rush at the time, but looking back….
If our driver hadn’t spotted the tusker coming down from the hill, he would have side swiped us and easily could have flipped the car over.
Tasha, Chrissy and Jeremy got a great video of the Tusker chasing them down the road, complete with Chrissy’s screams and hilarious commentary. Apparently their driver thought that their reactions were priceless (he’s probably been in the situation a million times before) and would slow down to let the elephant catch up before zooming off again. He was laughing the whole time.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos of the big guy (not enough time between not crapping my pants and finding my camera), but I did a get a picture of another, tamer, male in musth for comparison. You can try to imagine him as the charger. Male elephants in musth have a gland near their eye that drips this pheromone loaded stuff down their face (which you can make out in the second picture). Musth makes them go absolutely batshit crazy, which is why that particular male was so keen on crushing a Jeep. If the elephant that goes into musth is part of a herd, no other animals will go into it at the same time. It’s a dominance thing.
After that happened, the rest of the trip went by smoothly, with no near run-ins with the wildlife. Once the safaris were over, we’d come back to a good home cooked meal, some plaintain chips and sit around the fire. One day, we made a visit to one of the ranger’s homes and drank ginger tea with him and his wife. They were a lovely couple; the wife reminded me a lot of my mother. She talked about how a lot of rangers have trouble finding wives who will follow them out into the wilderness. A lot of rangers may not even marry because they don’t want to always leave their wives at home in the suburbs or cities. But she loved the forest, and was happy to follow her husband out there and work with the plants and animals. She was a botanist. This particular ranger had won a prestigious national award for his work planting trees all across the area. He had planted upwards of 300,000 which would provide new habitats to tons of animals and insects. The couple was so full of pride and were obviously very supportive of each other.
I loved their home. It was completely decked out in nature stuff; they had a spotted deer pen holder, pictures of “save the elephants” and “save the tigers” all over the walls and little wooden animal carvings. It just had a great, open feel. With the Jeep parked out front and a view of the forest right out the window, it was a nature lover’s dream. I could imagine waking up to the sound of peacocks and cicadas and watching a little herd of Sambar deer in the front yard over a cup of coffee.
Besides visiting with the rangers, Dr. Kumar was summoned to look at a wild elephant calf which had been found abandoned in the forest by a road. We weren’t able to accompany him (it was a touchy situation), but he was escorted into the forest by an entourage of rangers and watchers to help care for the baby. A tiger or panther had grabbed it on the flank and it had somehow gotten away, probably with the help of an angry mother elephant. The wound had gotten infected and filled with maggots, and as a result the baby couldn’t keep up with the rest of the herd. After a while, even though elephants are extremely social and stick close to their families, they will give up on a member who can no longer support themselves.
The wound was cleaned with iodine and antibiotics and anti-inflammatories were administered. A few watchers were stationed in trees to keep an eye on the baby over night. Unfortunately, the prognosis did not look good for the baby since the leg wasn’t weight bearing and he had already been injured for so long. Most everyone secretly prayed that the elephant would pass peacefully or at least be eaten by a predator so that it wouldn’t starve. It was out of the question to take the baby to the camp since it was once wild and there isn’t a lot of money to care for more animals that would need intensive therapy.
Between the deer and the elephant calf, it seems that there’s a panther or a tiger out there who needs more practice hunting! One bite doesn’t get the job done…it just makes things messy.
To end the trip, we woke up early on Saturday and took a short, elephantback safari into the forest. The mahouts steered the big beasts by sitting behind their heads and nudging their ears gently with their bare feet. Another assistant walked behind the elephants, muttering commands softly.
Riding on elephant was extremely cool. They walked very quietly despite their massive size, and their feet left barely any foot prints in the dirt. You could see over the tops of all the bushes and lantana plants and could hear everything for miles around. The neatest part was hearing the elephants breathe; it sounded like someone breathing through a snorkel. Once and a while they’d get a little naughty and pull plants from the trail, munching as they walked. Overall, though, the mahouts barely needed to do anything to control them.
So…new goal in life…retire to Mudumalai and work with a mahout, or become a ranger’s wife. It seems to be an extremely peaceful life. Wake up, bathe your elephant, feed your elephant, feed yourself. Hang around a beautiful forest camp and eat delicious food made with coconut oil. Take an evening safari on elephant back. Pick up some sticks, direct some angry tuskers out of a garden. Sleep. Repeat.
Sounds perfect to me.
I am finally fully recovered from my second round of sickness! Woo hoo!
After Monday (last Monday, not the 3rd…I know, it’s been a while), when I stayed in bed most of the day, the rest of the week got better. Tuesday our group went to assist in TB testing the university farm herd. In the US, cattle are tested for tuberculosis regularly by injecting a purified protein derivative of tuberculin intradermally into the skin of their tail (caudal fold test). In India, since the exposure to TB and other related bacteria is much greater, they start with the second portion of TB testing which involves a test called the comparative cervical test. This test involves injecting the cow in two spots on the neck with two different protein derivatives; the first is Mycobacterium bovis, the causative agent of the zoonotic form of tuberculosis, and the second is Mycobacterium avium, an environmental bacterium which reacts similarly to M. bovis. M. avium is relatively harmless, whereas M. bovis can spread to people and cause all of the nastiness that TB is known for.
After injection, the test must be read within 72 hours (plus or minus 6). Wednesday and Thursday mostly consisted of lab work, but Friday we returned to the farm to read the TB tests and discovered a few reactors (positive on the comparative cervical).
We aren’t quite sure what the procedure is once they are isolated, but they aren’t culled immediately or retested in 6 weeks like in the US. It seems that some confirmatory process must be carried out before the animal is removed from the farm.
The weekend mostly consisted of more shopping at both the cheapo and expensive mall. Nothing new and exciting there…just lots of rupee spending.
One of the most interesting parts of last week was attending the wedding of the son of one of the doctors at Madras Vet Hospital. The wedding took place at 6:30 in the morning, so we woke up early to put on our chudidars (more traditional dress than t-shirts and jeans), makeup and have a few shots of coffee before we headed off.
The wedding was held at the A/C wedding hall that is reserved for such events. When we got there, we were ushered into a big room with a stage in front where the bride and groom were set up under a big, open canopy/arch. There were symbolic things placed all around them, and priests were busy chanting prayers in the native language. A few musicians were in the corner playing traditional music on long horns. There were cameramen gathered all around the arch, obscuring the view and videotaping the entire proceedings.
Occasionally they would turn around and videotape the audience, which was a little strange for us. The bride and groom looked a bit hot and dazed up under the lights, performing ritual after ritual without a word. The bride wore a traditional silk saree and was covered in henna. Her hair was also elaborately braided and jasmine was strung throughout it.
Eventually we went up on stage to get a closer look and stood around with the rest of the family. In Hindu tradition, important events must be witnessed “by fire,” so the priests kept one going in a big metal box in the center of the stage throughout the entire procession. The whole place smelled of fragranced smoke which stung your eyes. Some of the rituals included placing thin chains around the forehead of the bride (one for each future family member), the Seven Steps (which each signify something like health and prosperity, everlasting friendship, etc.), pouring of melted butter into the flames (something to do with prosperity) and throwing flower petals into the air, similar to what is done in America. The bride and groom eventually stood up and touched, holding hands for the first time. There was no exchange of rings, but the bride did put on a symbolic toe ring. Everything was reminiscent of the one Orthodox Jewish wedding that I attended, minus the yalmulkas.
After all of the rituals were completed, guests went downstairs for a huge breakfast served on banana leaves. Everything was delicious, and keeping with Indian tradition we folded the leaves towards us to signify that we liked the meal. Folding the leaf away from oneself means that it didn’t taste good (and usually results in you losing a friend).
Besides the wedding, we were witness to some other unique things throughout the week. We saw our first case of canine distemper in a little white mixed breed dog that came into the clinic. By the time the doctors saw her she was very neurologic and was experiencing involuntary muscle twitches. At that point, there was not much which could be done for her and prognosis was poor. Distemper is a lot more common in India since vaccination is not practiced and dogs have a lot more contact with stray animals on the streets.
The same day, there was a pug puppy with ascites and a cardiac abnormality (didn’t get to see the ECG…not sure exactly what), a German Shepherd with a large tumor and a few ADR dogs (just “ain’t doin’ right”). There are actually a lot of purebred animals in India, including the Pug and German Shepherd which are very poor choices in such a hot climate. And there are Labs, which always look just as fat and happy as they do in the US. Most of the small animal owners speak decent English and name their dogs modern names like Spot, Dearie, Bruno, etc. Some put religious markings on the dogs’ foreheads, such as red dots or lines or smudges. Each of the different symbols represents a family deity.
Outside of the small animal clinic, we ran our first BVDV (bovine viral diarrhea virus) ELISA tests on the serum and milk samples from the organized and unorganized farms and were excited to see a number of antibody positive animals. Although we have yet to isolate actual virus from the animals, seeing the antibodies lets us know that at some point they were exposed, and BVD is indeed circulating in the population.
Anyway, enough about animals. Another fun activity which we took part in during the week involved getting henna tattoos on our feet and hands. One of Gowri’s friends is an artist who came over for a small fee and tattooed us. The material used for henna is made from leaves which are ground into a paste. The paste is kept in cake decorating tubes with different sized nozzles for fine or rough detail. The thicker you lay on the mehindi (the word for the material in India), the darker it stains your skin. Supposedly, skin with a higher estrogen content will also show the henna more brightly…buttttt I’m not quite sure how true that is. There are a lot of old wives tales circulating around India…things like, if you eat mango it creates a “heat” in your body which can only be quenched by drinking milk. As a group, us Americans have consumed 8 mangos during one meal and never felt the heat…but you never know.
Back to the henna. The artist brought along a book of designs to pick from which ranged from Arabic to traditional Indian designs. The only stipulation was that we couldn’t have any pictures of gods on our feet. There was a flickr.com picture of an American woman with Ganesh tattooed across her foot which Gowri thought was in very bad taste. God does not belong on your foot. So, Jackie ended up getting a sketch of one of her Holstein cows jumping over her foot and the rest of us got some traditional designs. The cow was pretty darn cute. I got a peacock/fish thing over my hand and a flower with some fun designs on my foot. When it’s first applied, the mehindi dries to a dark brown crust and you have to coat it with sugar water over night to keep it from falling off prematurely. In the morning, the sugar and mehindi can be scraped off and the orangey-brown stain is left behind. To me, the smell that the henna leaves on your skin is very much like the smell of unfired porcelain. My mother used to make a lot of porcelain dolls, and the house where she went to fire the porcelain smelled a lot like the henna. Or rather, the henna smells a lot like that place. Strange how smells stick with you for so long.
To preserve the henna, you’re supposed to apply coconut oil daily to keep the skin moisturized and the color fresh. This is the best part, since coconut oil smells amazing. See, we try to hang on to as many good smells as we can since a lot of India smells….how shall I say it….RIPE. We’ve nicknamed the street that crosses in front of our hostel “1,000 Buttholes St.” It’s classy, I know. The street just always reeks of the nastiest things imaginable. There’s also “Rotten Egg St.” by the river and “Dead Animal St.” by a fish market. A lot of people walk around holding cloths over their nose to avoid the dust, but you can tell they don’t like the smell either.
One of the most interesting smells that we’ve encountered is the odor of water buffalo. It’s a sour smell that isn’t really bad or really good. We noticed it after making friends with a big female buffalo whose eartag identifies her as M-16. Most buffaloes are pretty feisty, but M-16 loves a good neck rub.
On a side note, another thing we’ve noticed about India is that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of knowledge about animal behavior. Although the caretakers can tell when an animal is angry, it seems as if they can’t tell when they’re scared or the proper way to use flight zones. One of the cattle handlers at the university farm was very keen on using a big stick to make all the buffalo move. Although the buffalo are stoic, they definitely react when they get whacked with sticks. I don’t think the men are doing it maliciously…they just seem ignorant of other ways to get the animals to move. A lot of times the men try to manhandle the cattle and buffalo into chutes or towards the areas they want them to go, which only makes them more wild and panicky. When we tried to tie the buffaloes in order to draw blood, the men had a lot of trouble moving the animals towards the head gate and kept hitting them with the stick. Jackie (our local cattle wrangler) jumped in and started moving buffalo herself. We could see that the buffalo didn’t want to come close because the group of men were standing in front of the gate. No prey animal is going to walk willingly into a group of predators. By using simply animal logic, we knew that if you just moved those men, the buffalo would move right in with a little coaxing. Or, if you fastened a halter around their head and gave them a little time to adjust, they wouldn’t jump and flail around so much. So many simple fixes to so many big problems! Sometimes it’s maddening watching things go down the way they do here, but I know it’s all part of the learning process. Hopefully they’re learning from us, too.
Another place where technique is lacking is in the lab. Things just never seem to go smoothly. When we try to run samples, we are often given tubes which have been washed in plain water and reused. They still have numbers from previous samples smudged on the side. We also reuse syringes and puncture the same bottles with them over and over again, contaminating the inside. Since the power goes out, it’s never guaranteed that your samples are fresh or have been kept at the proper temperature. All in all, lab work gets pretty messy and you’re never sure if your results are genuine. We just recently got gloves for the lab, which makes us feel a bit better…but it has been the biggest exercise in patience yet. Everyone is confident that everything will work out in the end, so we’re banking on that and hoping for the best. You can’t change a country in 6 weeks, and you can only work with what you are given….right!??
Tomorrow it’s more lab work for us and then we’re leaving for the elephant preserve, Mudhumali, in the evening. At that point the internet will be no more and we’ll be lost to the wilderness. There’s talk of tigers at night, bonfires and s’mores. It’s also supposed to be closer to 75 degrees as opposed to the typical 95, so we’re looking forward to that. The next 15 days before we return home will be a whirlwind of activity. But for now, it’s the 4th of July, and we have some celebrating to do (in the form of Kingfisher).
I am unhappy to announce that India has once again got the better of me and I’m on round #2 of traveler’s sickness. I was debating whether or not to just launch into the past week’s events or to disclose that little tidbit, but I think it makes for an interesting story. I aim to include all of my experiences in India, whether they be good, bad, or ugly (like this).
Getting sick is particularly distressing to me because in the States I rarely ever get sick, and I’m a stubborn SOB. I won’t show that I’m sick until I’m reeeaally feeling it and always try to jump back into things too fast. I’m not one for being babied and dragging it out. And I really, really don’t like it when all attention is on me…which tends to happen when you are the only white person in an Indian hospital. Yesterday, I had that great pleasure.
I started feeling sick in the morning. I couldn’t get cool and my head felt like a giant boulder on my shoulders at breakfast. Saturday I felt completely fine…the last time I had had any problem was the Tuesday before, when I had a mild fever and nothing else. It passed uneventfully. Sunday felt like that, only worse. I just couldn’t sit upright for very long and got extremely lightheaded and sweaty after even mild physical exertion. I decided to stay in the back of our 14 passenger van and lay across the seats in the air conditioning rather than visit the 1,000 year old temple which was next on our list. More on that later.
After passing up some other activities, our guide Dr. Balakrishnan decided that we would stop by one of the local hospitals and get me checked out. I couldn’t hear very well in the back of the van so I didn’t get a chance to protest, and next thing I know I’m there. I still don’t really think I needed to go to the hospital, as I was suspecting another case of traveler’s sickness. But I didn’t like the fact that I was sick last Tuesday as well and this was my 2nd bout of it. It made me worried to have a fever that often.
The nurses, like people do everywhere else, stared. This threw me off since I wasn’t feeling well and wasn’t up for staring, but they were very nice. The hospital was a relatively small, one story building open to the air with a bunch of exam rooms and a waiting area visible. I think this was more of a community hospital, like Lansing Urgent Care, than an actual big time hospital. I didn’t see too many high tech devices or too many rooms, but then again I was mostly just trying to figure out what was going on.
I got ushered around back to sit in the open air waiting room for my appointment, which came quickly. The doctor was an older gentleman who spoke English decently well, and asked me “how I liked India.” Bad time to ask, buddy. He listened to my heart, lungs and GI system, took a glance at my tongue, listened to my symptoms and diagnosed food borne sickness. I’m still not quite sure that that’s what it is, but he seemed pretty sure of it. I was thrown off by the fact that he didn’t ask for my drug allergies or current meds before prescribing a bunch of drugs, including an IV injection of some fever reducer and an antibiotic. The whole experience made me a little wary, but at least I’m at home now, and alive. I made sure to search my take home meds online, since I didn’t want to just be taking antibiotics willy nilly and all of the instructions were in Tamil.
Our group had joked at the airport on our first day together that one of us would have to visit the hospital just to see what it was like, and I got to be the lucky one. So…if this entry seems a bit negative…it’s just the sickness talking. I’m trying to remain positive in light of being sick three times, losing my luggage and just generally sweating all the time, but sometimes it’s hard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure at the end of this trip I’ll be extremely happy that I went and will realize all the things I’ve learned here. Just writing this blog helps me appreciate it. It’s just hard to see past my 103 fever from yesterday.
One thing I know for sure…I have never loved and appreciated the United States more than I do now. I miss driving my car, the food, the cleanliness of restaurants and homes, the foliage, the quiet, the clean smell of alcohol in hospitals…lots of things. I love a lot of things about India, too, but this place sure does make you homesick.
Now on to what happened the rest of the week.
Monday and Tuesday were mostly sample collection, going to the clinic in the morning and running tests in the afternoon. We saw a calf with an umbilical hernia, a cow with rumen acidosis, a cow with an interdigital abscess, a horse with forelimb tendonitis, a horse with saddle sores and a dog with subcutaneous emphysema. This condition occurs when air gets trapped between the dermis and faschia, which is the connective tissue which covers muscle and other things in the body. Air is generally introduced from the outside, such as when an animal’s trachea is punctured. That was the case with this poor pup, who was grabbed by the neck by another dog and developed the emphysema shortly afterward. You could feel the crepitus; air crackling under his skin all over his body. He felt like touching bubble wrap. To fix it, the doctor made three small incisions over his dorsum and released most of the air. It was something I’ve never seen before, and don’t know if I’ll ever see again.
The rest of the cases were your run of the mill mastitis, abortions, rumen impactions, not eating, etc.
Wednesday we headed to the veterinary school’s organized farm in Mahabdipurum (sp?) for sample collection. The farm is about an hour and a half away in a beautiful, breezy, mountainous area. It houses an ostrich breeding facility, sheep, pig, goat and cattle farm, “slaughter hall” (aka pathology lab) and a place to get lunch. A group of 50 veterinary students came with us to help us restrain the cattle, since there were no chutes or holding pens. We just manhandled them into corners and a few people held while someone else stuck. We were also forced to get blood with vacutainer needles that had no hubs…you know, the plastic pieces which make it so that you don’t stick yourself. All in all, it was a challenging but rewarding experience. We certainly felt like field vets after that one…improvisation is key!
After lunch, I visited the slaughter hall where our pathologist friend Ron (from across the way in the guy’s hostel) was doing his work. His project involves testing a vaccine for Johne’s disease on a flock of Madras Red sheep.
Unfortunately, like with many research projects, his trial required sacrificing the sheep, and this week was that week. After the act was done, he would have to perform necropsies and detail his findings. I could tell it was a hard experience for Ron, since he knew the sheep well even though they were never named. They also didn’t use a captive bolt gun on them before decapitation (they were slaughtered in a way similar to Halal slaughter). It was definitely hard to watch, but was over quickly and seemed relatively painless. We said a prayer for them before they were sacrificed. They also saved all the meat for consumption, which made everything seem a bit better. At least every bit of the sheep were used.
From left: Dr. Namalawar Srirangnathan, Dr. Bala Supramanion, Dr. Ron Tyler Jr., Dr. Ron Tyler Sr.
The necropsy lab was a far cry from DCPAH, but it was cool to see. The attendants walked around barefoot and didn’t wear gloves, but Ron and his father Ron Sr.(also a pathologist) did. There was a big cutting block that was literally a tree stump, and a stainless steel table. It was incredibly well ventilated and real sunlight flowed in. They used a Bunsen burner or something like it to sterilize instruments and Ron provided his own whirl bags and other things for samples. He made sure all samples were embedded in paraffin for their journey to the US. While we were there, they found tapeworm cysts in the bellies of two of the sheep. It was pretty disgusting, but being a path nerd, I was excited.
Thursday was a visit to another university farm, but this time it included just us, Dr. Balakrishnan and our friend Gowri. We got our hands a bit more dirty manhandling the cows on our own, without the help of the students. It was empowering to be able to collect blood without a chute; to watch the cows’ body language and restrain with our very own hands. Dangerous, yes, but good practice getting blood in a difficult situation.
Some differences that we observed between US and Indian ag over the last week:
-In pig raising, there are no farrowing crates. Pigs farrow on the ground and have an open pen to raise the piglets in. They raised Yorkshire pigs at the university farm we visited, but crossbred to Durocs and other hardy breeds for parasite resistance. Breeding is done through natural service. The pigs are allowed to wallow around in water troughs, but there is no dirt for rooting. Of course, this was a more modernized, university farm. Most pig farms are not modernized and the pigs are just allowed to roam freely around the farm, rooting and having babies wherever and living outside. These pigs at the university were being raised as breeding stock for farmers to start their own pig farms, so they were kept more confined.
-With ostrich farming, the animals are kept for meat, eggs and leather. They have two toes, and emus have three. They’re just like big chickens…they walk around and peck the ground and fan themselves with massive wings. Not much more to say on them…
-Sheep and goats are numerous everywhere, and do quite well in the heat (except the wool breeds, which aren’t very common in India). Most of the sheep and goats I saw were in great shape, feeding on all of the shrubbery, weeds and grass around. They are often lead to an area to graze, and fed extra fodder for needed protein, etc. They kid and lamb year round since the weather is always warm. The kids may or may not be kept under little woven huts to protect them from predators at night. At the farm we visited, the gentleman vaccinated for entertoxemia (Clostridium perfringens type D), PPR? which is a disease like Rinderpest which isn’t in the US, and one other thing which is escaping my memory right now. They don’t vaccinate for Tetanus like in the US.
-Cattle are kept either in confinement, tied to something, or allowed to freely roam around the yard. They are often walked somewhere for grazing, and may or may not be given ad libitum water. They are hand milked and calves are allowed to stay on them until they reach a decent size. Many cattle are bred by A.I., even in the villages. Cattle are kept until they have calved about 6 times, and since the intercalving interval is about 2 years, this can mean about 12-14 years old (as compared to the 4-6 in America). They may be vaccinated for blackleg, Foot and Mouth or hemorrhagic septicemia, and they may or may not be dewormed. You can acquire cattle through private trade or a shanty (similar to an auction).
-Chickens in intensively raised farms are kept much the same way as American chickens; on grated floors in small cages where the eggs roll away from them into an egg collection trough. The farm we saw had a well lit and breezy barn with an assortment of laying hens in such cages. Bigger cages held roosters and other breeds. The chickens didn’t have much space, but they seemed generally happy and clean. In unorganized farms, chickens are just kept on the property and allowed to roam around, toting little lines of chicks behind them. Some common breeds include white leghorn, Rhode Island red, New Hampshire (represent!), Polish top and local Indian birds.
-Turkeys can be raised similarly to chickens (free range) or kept like broiler chickens in a big, open pen. The one turkey farm we visited raised about 200 poults at a time in a big, fenced in coop. The turkeys had a lot of space and were offered corn meal, water and vaccinated for Newcastle’s disease.
That’s all I can think of for now. Next week we’ll be introduced to fisheries and get some more experience in that area.
Back to the week’s events…
Thursday night was a fun break for all of us. Gowri took us on a shopping and movie trip at one of the modern malls. Unlike the ones we had been to, where you are harassed at every shop and pushed to buy everything in sight, in this mall the clerks were less pushy and were a lot more professional about it. It was definitely a high end place, with beautiful leather shops, book stores which sold an assortment of candy and chocolates (including Snickers in the designer chocolates area), jewelry, saree shops and duty free stuff.
We ate at a restaurant very much like Friday’s, with dinners called “sizzlers” that come out on super hot skillets. The restaurant was tucked in the back of the mall, was air conditioned and dressed modernly, so it felt like we were back in the US. We only remembered where we were when the power unexpectantly went out, and we all started laughing. During dinner Gowri told us the “proper way” to use the Indian toilets, which cleared up a lot of questions for us.
The movies were amazing. First off, the tickets (and these were 3D tix) were only $3 each. Just like the US, popcorn and soda equaled the price of a movie ticket, at 130 rupees (about $2.50).
The serving sizes were much, much smaller, but the popcorn was just as delicious. We got there a bit late since we were making some last minute purchases, and were thrilled to find that there were assigned seats!! We just waltzed right up the center aisle and found out preordered seats in the perfect viewing position.
Finally, a cure for my movie anxiety! In the US, I always feel the need to get to the movies at least 30 minutes early or more so that I get a decent seat. Here, it’s done for you! In some movie theaters, you can even request to sit in a “service section” and have people bring you food throughout the movie. Those tickets are a bit more, so we figured save that treat for Harry Potter. This time, we saw the Green Lantern, which I enjoyed a lot (maybe a little too much…it might have been because of shirtless Ryan Reynolds).The movie was in English, but also had English subtitles. I’m sure sometimes Indians have problems with our accents too. It was really interesting sitting through it…the Indians sometimes talk openly and cell phones will go off randomly. And when there’s a funny joke, you know it. The whole theater EXPLODES with laughter at the exact same jokes. Whereas we’d giggle at certain parts and catch little comic nuances, they’d practically jump out of their seats at some of the one liners. It also got a little awkward during make out scenes…all of a sudden there’d be a lot of shifting in seats and quiet chatter. The tension was palpable. Speaking of…they have “couple’s seats” with no arm rest in the middle. But the craziest thing about the movies was the intermission. Halfway through, the sound cut out and the movie stopped, and we thought we were dealing with another power outage. Wrrrong. All movies have intermissions! It lasted about 20 minutes and allowed for more consumerism. So strange, but I guess you’ve gotta make money somehow when movie tickets only cost $3.
Friday, it was back to sample collection and running tests. The next morning we would leave for Tiruchy, a city that is a bit West of Chennai and thus a bit hotter. We left early on Saturday and made it there within 6 hours. We were taken to a few farms, including a turkey and duck raising facility and a goat farm, and then to a market which was overlooked by a giant, hilltop temple.
The only way to reach this temple was to climb about 350 ancient, stone steps, painted red and white to help you from missing one. The steps were all different sizes and shapes, and you had to go barefoot (afterall, it is a holy temple). There were landings along the way where people sold little Ganesh statues and other things, and everyone stopped to catch their breath. After a while, we made it to the top and drank in the view. It was a beautiful, breezy temple, totally worth the hike.
And that was Saturday.
Sunday began my sickness. Most of my time was spent lying in the back of the van, but the highlight of my entire day, maybe my entire trip, happened that day. When I began feeling bad at 6am, I decided not to risk passing out and just stayed in the A/C van even when everyone stopped to visit the 1,000 year temple. The temple is gigantic, with huge stone arches and stone structures all over the place. There are an assortment of statues and paintings and just tons of stuff to see. I didn’t want to miss it, but I felt like crap.
Luckily, Kayla, my savior through all of this, called me on the phone 15 minutes after they had left to tell me that there was an elephant outside the temple, and we could ride it. She figured that even if she was sick, she would attempt to get out of the van for that. She was right.
I followed the driver across the street to the temple and was met by the sight of my friends all congregated around a giant female elephant, swinging her trunk lazily and looking at us with intelligent eyes. I had been reading Water for Elephants (and just finished-such a good book…read it!!), and it was so strange to be standing in front of a real elephant, REALLY about to climb up it. I gave the man my 50 rupees (about $1.05) and approached. The elephant had a rough rope tied around her massive neck which I was to grab onto and start pulling myself up with. As soon as I lifted my foot, she raised her own and allowed me to stand on it, raising me up about 3 feet. Then, I continued to pull myself up the rope and walked up her rough, hairy side. Her skin had so much friction that I didn’t slide off, even though I was bare foot. Once up top, I settled in behind her head and stared around, smiling my head off. She posed, lifting and curling her trunk and opening her mouth in a “smile.” Then she fanned her ears, which hit the sides of my legs and made me laugh. After about two minutes of my friends snapping pictures and me grinning like a dope, I slid down and stood staring at her.
Nothing cures sickness like riding an elephant.
It’s Sunday again…which means it’s time to stop being lazy and update!
The dreams from my malaria meds are getting more and more frequent. I’m pretty sure most of my friends have been in at least one of them. I keep waking up completely disoriented, thinking that I’m actually working on a project with stallions in Portugal (last night) or that I’m outside and it’s snowing or that couples that have broken up are back together, or that I’m actually back at school (shudder). Then I remember I’m in my nice, extra firm bed in India and its another day.
Yesterday our group was taken to some of the holy temples about an hour from home. I have a hard time spelling the name of them, but it’s something like Mahabdapuri.
As soon as we got there, we realized the tourist trap we had wandered into. Whereas we’ve been getting the true “Indian experience” by living in the hostel, shopping at the local haunts and eating the local food, this was the place where many of the tourists were living. There were Radisson hotels and beach side resorts and a lot more white people. As such, the second we set foot on the ground when we exited the van, a group of men approached with their hands full off goodies for selling. And they don’t take no for an answer.
If you look at them, the harassment gets worse. If you say no, they’ll keep forcing stuff into your hands saying, “looking is free.” Then they’ll make you stand there with it, shaking your head feebly “no” and continue to show you postcards and everything they’re carrying. Kids are even worse…they come up and literally stand next to you saying “hello, ma’am, hello, hello, hello” while tugging on your arm, trying to show you the necklaces they have. Getting hassled for the short time we’d go between the temples was extremely annoying and made me want to punch a baby.
After some time though, we learned that if you simply don’t look at them and continue to move in a straight line, they’ll eventually give up. Some were on a mission and would follow you even up until you were in the van, holding their arms up to the windows.
And besides the merchants, there are the regular citizens trying to get pictures of our group without our knowing. It’s actually super obvious…they’ll pretend to take pictures of their friends and then slowly move the camera in our direction before snapping a few. I feel like a wild, endangered animal. Everyone wants a shot for National Geographic. We’re not that weird looking, are we??
I just keep telling myself, “India will teach you patience.”
The temples themselves were beautiful. Southern India is known for its sculpture work, and this was one of the finest examples. The temples are all carved from one giant rock and were worked on by thousands of hands. One that we visited was located by the beach and was caked in limestone to keep it from eroding due to the salty ocean wind.
We had purposely gone early in the morning to beat the heat, but halfway through being out we were all cooked. It’s strange; most of us naturally have a lot of energy and act like Energizer bunnies, but in this heat everyone is a zombie. We hardly talk. The sun just sucks the power right out of you and you find yourself craving a nap right in the middle of the day. For those who know me well, you know I rarely ever nap. I’m almost opposed to them. But I’ve been falling asleep everywhere after spending just one hour in the sun.
I wonder what our group would be like if it was 70 instead of 95 every day.
We finished off the morning tour by going to a crocodile park and getting Subway. I was surprised to see “local flavors” for their footlongs which included chicken tandoori and chicken tikka masala as well as the normal turkey, ham and cheese and BMT. They even had a mint mayonnaise which tasted really delicious.
We spent the afternoon recovering, going for a walk/run (I really miss running more than 3o minutes but it’s just too damn hot) and steathily getting two cakes, chocolate and vanilla, for Kayla’s 25th birthday. At night we surprised her with a mini party complete with pizza and cake and even convinced Mutu, our caretaker, to come for dessert. He’s so used to doing things for us that he kept trying to give up his seat and refused food. But we eventually persuaded him to sit down and enjoy with us and he sang Kayla “happy birthday” in Tamil.
And that was yesterday.
Other than that, we’ve had nothing new happening. We start back up with our projects tomorrow, getting samples at the clinic in the morning, doing lab work in the afternoon and stopping in between for lunch and dinner. Things randomly break in our hostel (like the air conditioner or the fridge or the toilet) so we spend some time reporting problems to Mutu, doing chores like laundry and cleaning and switching off using the internet. It’s a simple life, which is very refreshing. Next weekend there are plans to go snorkeling on the tip of India and then visit Mudumali, the elephant sanctuary, the week after.
And now it’s time for some rooftop tanning and reading. More updates later.
I’ve finally returned from my 3 day trek over Tamil Nadu. Time for a long update.
On Monday, we woke at the heinous hour of 4:30am to get ready for our 6 hour journey. It’s strange to me that at the beginning of the summer (while shadowing at the lab), I’d sometimes be awake until this time, fooling around on the net or watching t.v.. Now, I’ve reverted to old person mode and go to bed between 9:30-11pm to wake up anywhere between 5-7a.
Since everything runs on Indian time, our air conditioned van arrived 45 minutes late. We’ve come to expect that things will not go according to plan here, as people run on their own schedules and things are a lot more laid back. “India will teach you patience” is the best and most accurate thing we’ve been told since arriving. My patience was certainly stretched to its limits many times on our 3 day journey, and I still struggle with the amount of waiting around that we do. But I think I’m getting better.
The first leg of our journey took us Southeast, to a region called Darmapuri (arrow 1 on the map). The temperature there is at least 5-10 degrees cooler since there aren’t huge buildings to stifle the wind and it’s a lot more open. The area also had a lot more foliage and a beautiful backdrop of hills and mountains. It finally felt like Asia, or at least the Asia that I had imagined for myself.
An example of some of the super narrow country roads…where the trucks like to play chicken
We stopped at a roadside vegetarian restaurant for brunch. The professors are very careful about what places we eat, since we’ve already had a brush with the unpleasant. Our digestive tracts still haven’t truly recovered from whatever we were hit with…we’ve even created an exclusive club: the LPC (liquid poo crew). Everybody wants in.
One of the animal nutritionists who traveled with us, Ashwari (shortened…her real name is more than 10 letters) explained to us that in India, vegetarians don’t eat any animals, fish or eggs but will still drink milk and eat dairy products. Pseudo-vegans, basically. It’s funny because they just assume that all Americans are meat eaters, and were very surprised to learn that one of our group is a vegetarian.
The professors attempted to surprise us after brunch by bringing us to the “Golden Temple” which is the site of worship for the Hindu goddess of wealth. Although the lines ended up being too long, when we exited the temple we were met by one of our biggest surprises yet. A man was leading a painted elephant around the premises. The elephant was trained to “bless” people when they paid a rupee by curling up her trunk and bonking them lightly on the head. We literally FREAKED OUT at the site of our first pachyderm and went running after it with rupees. The elephant was extremely gentle and sucked the rupees out of our hands with her trunk. That made the stop totally worth it.
Eventually, we arrived at the extension branch of the veterinary school and met up with the other researchers. They honored us by allowing us to plant baby palm trees in the back of the school, and promised to send us pictures of the grown trees in about 3 years. From there we moved on to the first of the milk districts that we would visit during the next 3 days. The milk districts are made up of little villages which lie off the beaten path where nearly every house owns a cow or two. The residents pool all of their milk and sell it to the local collectors, and this keeps their families and village running. The villagers depend on the cows for their own lives, which is part of the reason why Indians revere cows as holy. Many villagers also keep buffalo (not holy, for some reason), goats and chickens as well as a dog or two to protect the household. Goats are considered walking bank accounts, since they can be sold for meat in times of need. Buffalo produce milk that has a higher fat content than cow’s milk, so their product reaps a higher profit (although they may not produce as much).
A milk collection center
As soon as we got to our first village, the people started piling out into the streets and the staring began.
I don’t really mind when the children or the villagers do this (since they rarely seem to get out and probably don’t see too many white people), but when the adults in the cities stare, it eventually gets on my nerves. People know better than to continue to stare for 5 minutes, even if we do look weird. One guy in Chennai even achieved mega creeper status and kept moving to stand near our group, totally invading our collective bubble.
But I digress.
The houses are built of what looks like clay or stone and painted bright colors, with open doors and windows. Some houses have roofs made of dried palm leaves. They range in size from one bedroom to large, multi-room households with TVs and satellite dishes where the richer folks reside.
One of the nicer farm houses, complete with satellite dish
One house that we visited (probably with the only real bathroom in town) had marble floors. Even in the villages, the uneven distribution of wealth was evident. But still, the friendliness of the people was the same across the board, and we were offered tea, coconut milk and a variety of other food over the time that we spent there. We even got to try a traditional Indian snack of unripe mango, which is more like a vegetable than a fruit. They cut it up into slices, dip it in salt and mild chili powder and eat it like a crunchy French fry. Unfortunately, eating these unripe and unpeeled mangos broke one of the three traveler’s commandments:
1. Don’t drink the water
2. Don’t eat anything that you can’t peel
3. Don’t eat raw vegetables or anything from a street vendor (unless you know them personally)
Hopefully we won’t be paying for it later.
The villages are pretty much self contained units, each with what looks like a school (or at least a school nearby), a place to hang out, a place to get water and a place to bring your milk and other goods. The children run and bike around the streets and many people have motor bikes. There were a lot less cars and a lot more bullock-drawn carriages. Bullocks are castrated male cattle with huge, painted horns that are strapped up to yolks and used to pull carts around. In each house, entire families would live together, including the grandmother and grandfather, immediate family and relatives. A lot of the older women were silent and tiny, and many sported double nose piercings. The most memorable older woman I saw seemed nearly blind and was in charge of a giant compost pile near the one cattle chute in town. While we were collecting samples from the cows in the chute, she would scrape up the manure with her BARE HANDS (literally scraping the ground with her nails) and toss it into the compost pile. There were things that could have been used as shovels…I have no idea why she chose to use her hands. That woman was exxxxxxtreme.
The children were especially fascinated by us. Literally everywhere we went in every village, there was a little band behind us, watching our every move. If you smiled or waved at the girls, they’d run away or start giggling, and the boys would push each other towards us. One even took a million pictures of us on his cell phone. Many of the children knew some English words, and were thrilled when you talked to them or asked them questions. They were especially excited if you spoke any Tamil (the native language). Some words we’ve learned (probably not spelled right):
Nandri- thank you
The children would go running around pointing at the animals and saying these words until you pronounced it right. It was very cute. One of them asked me where my village was, and knowing that Massachusetts would be a difficult word for them to pronounce, I simply wrote “Boston, America” on my notebook. They could pronounce that. Soon we were all drawing pictures for the children, which they’d fight over and run away with. Another girl started calling us “famous girls” in Tamil, and it certainly felt that way. Every time we clambered back on to our van to go to the next village, the people would all come swarming up to wave goodbye and yell to us.
Drawing for the kids
At all of the villages, our job was to collect information about the cows using a survey and gather samples of rice gruel, bran, and whatever other types of food the farmers chose to feed their animals. We’d then give them a bag of the mineral mix to try out for two weeks before we returned to collect subsequent samples. Each house had at max of about 4 cows, with some only having one. The cows were usually tied to immovable objects in the yards and left to stand around and think about whatever cows think about. In general, they looked alright, albeit a bit skinny. But some things made no sense to me, such as the fact that many of the cows had no water to drink. They didn’t seem dehydrated, but it only makes sense that if milk is about 80% water, they should be supplied with a constant source. And it’s not that there was no water to give; some farms even had their own springs or wells. One particularly pretty house nestled in the back of a big field of tapioca plants had a square trench dug into the ground for water and something like a moat going around the back of the house. Supplying continuous water to the beasts would be such a simple way to improve production. And providing shade wouldn’t hurt either.
A cow eating her gruel
After collecting samples from about 35ish animals, we finally quit around 9pm at night. Exhausted, we checked into the hotel and tried to get some sleep. Tuesday was very similar, collecting samples in the morning, traveling in the afternoon (to Pondicherry- #2 on the map) and getting more samples at night. We knew that Pondicherry would be a good place when we arrived at the hotel and found American style toilets rather than the customary Asian “hole in the ground” variety. With those toilets, the “flush” requires you to manually pour some water down the hole, and no one uses paper. It’s pretty awkward.
Pondicherry is a charming place on the coast of India which used to be an old French settlement (a large portion of the current residents of Paris descended from the French in Pondicherry). The name literally means “new village”. On Wednesday, we finished the last of the collections (about 60 total for the whole trip) and spent the rest of the day touring around this historical spot.
Our tour was lead by a very charismatic Indian vet who is married to one of the animal nutritionists from Madras Vet School. He spoke English better than nearly all of the people we met over those three days, so it was very refreshing to talk to him. He wore a pair of snazzy yellow Ray Ban aviators that I eyed admiringly. When I finally told him that I liked them, he took my own cheap aviators off my head and put them on. He then offered to let me keep the Ray Bans.
Indians are too nice for their own good.
I felt too guilty to keep them, but I swore to myself that I’d eventually get my own pair (when I win the lottery).
Dinner in Pondi was orgasmic. We were directed to a French and Italian style restaurant located down a back alley with a huge outdoor seating area and giant comfy chairs. After hours on our feet collecting samples in the heat, sitting down to a cold Fosters, an Italian meal and non-spicy food was better than anything we could have asked for.
Double drool- pesto covered red snapper with mashed taters and veggies
The temperature was perfect, the company was good and the restaurant was extremely cozy and well decorated. We even finished off the meal with crème brulee. A British couple next to us lazily smoked cigarettes and drank beer, chatting about their own travels. It was like a scene out of a book- exactly what I was hoping for from Pondicherry.
Afterwards, we visited an ashram, which doesn’t really have an English word equivalent. It basically means “a place to meditate, be at peace and think.” This ashram was started by a religious figure called The Mother, who was a very wise woman who wrote a lot about meditation and life in general. I didn’t catch her whole story but I plan on reading more about her when I have regular internet access.
We were told to take our shoes off, turn off our cellphones and leave our cameras outside when we entered the ashram since it is a very serious and holy place. Inside, it was so strangely quiet, and the atmosphere was almost thick? with concentration. Our guide described the phenomenon as “feeling the waves of concentration” between all of the people meditating. It was weird, in a good way. We sat for a bit and took in the atmosphere. No one stared at us. They were all enjoying their own thoughts.
After a brief stay there, we moved on and ended up walking around a place called Auroville which is home to a huge golden, golf ball shaped temple. It was after visiting hours, so we decided to come back on our next trip to Pondicherry (in about 2 weeks for more sampling). I’m sure I’ll be writing more on that later.
Commuters near Auroville
Our guides at the temple- check out the Aviators 😉
Our final stop was the Ganesh (elephant God) temple back near the French quarter. In that temple we were able to see the golden statues of Ganesh and witnessed the priests blessing people and leaving offerings. It was a very strange system…I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. The inside of the temple was beautiful, but also seemed strangely like a mall, with people leaving rupees at different stands and paying for coconuts and leaves to offer to Ganesh (after all, he is an elephant god). There was even a golden and silver chariot attached to a trailer hitch which Ganesh “travels in” that people could rent out for special occasions. I guess donations are a part of every religion, but it just seemed odd to me that so much of the prayer and worship revolved around money. On the way out, we were again blessed by the temple’s elephant, who stood outside on a big platform.
She was just as gentle as the first elephant we saw, and was ridden home to sleep for the night by one of the men who was in charge of her. He just hopped on, no big deal, and took her for a leisurely stroll back down the streets of French quarter to wherever she slept.
A piece of French quarter
While we waited for our van to pick us up, we walked barefoot to the beach and made friends with another street dog.
The beach reminded me a lot of Salisbury beach in New Hampshire, which was comforting in its own way. Same amount of trash, same number of vendors and people. Not the same smells, but still very much like Salisbury. The van eventually got us, and we headed back to our home sweet hostel.
And that pretty much sums up my life during the past 3 days. Today, we were forced to visit the immigration office since there was a minor hiccup with our visas. Apparently we aren’t supposed to be doing any kind of research since we bought tourist rather than student visas. But all is fixed now. Other than that, we made yet another trip to the mall where we got a bunch of gifts and were harassed by shop owners. You have to learn to haggle with them to get the price you really want. Being foreign places a big “gullible” sign on your head and people will take your money, no problem. We’ve learned that if you just name your price and play hard to get (literally exiting the store if they say no), they will come running after you with the exact price you wanted just a minute later. You’ve just gotta be firm and stick to your guns.
In other news, I was super excited to discover that the creator of the RB-51 vaccine for brucellosis is currently living across from us in the guys’ hostel!! He is an Indian veterinarian visiting for some reason or other, and I nearly asked for his autograph when I found out. This probably isn’t very exciting for you non-vet people, but for me it was like meeting a celebrity.
In other other news, we finally found a place that sells real, American style cookies. We all have a bit of a sweet tooth, and as such have been searching for some good desserts besides the chocolate bars you can buy in the local convenience store. (BTW, they also sell Kinder Eggs, the candy with a toy in the middle that were banned in the US due to toddlers choking on them). A lot of the things that Indians call cookies are really just spicy crackers. At the mall, we discovered a sweets shop with real chocolate chip cookies. At 40 rupees a pop ($1 American for one cookie) they were a bit overpriced, but totally worth it. We eventually noticed that the logo of the company had a little British flag in it, which probably explains the priceyness.
Also…besides finding real cookies, one of the best parts of my week was discovering that we can indeed see Harry Potter 7, Part II in ENGLISH on the day it’s released!! I swore to myself that I would wait if I could only see it with subtitles, because I wanted the entire experience (including Daniel Radcliffe’s nasally voice). But we can indeed see it in all its glory!! WOO HOO! Annd I’ll be able to see it a whole 9.5 hours earlier than you Americans :P. Don’t worry, I won’t ruin any of the surprises.
Short update for today…but here’s a cow joke for you:
They brought the cow from Illinois and the cow was wonderful. It produced lots of milk all of the time, and the people were very happy. They decided to acquire a bull to mate with the cow to produce more cows like it. They would never have to worry about their milk supply again.
They bought the bull and put it in the pasture with their beloved cow. However, whenever the bull tried to mount the cow, the cow would move away. No matter what approach the bull tried, the cow would move away from the bull and he could not succeed in his quest. The people were very upset and decided to ask the Vet, who was very wise, what to do.
They told the Vet what was happening. “Whenever the bull tries to mount our cow, she moves away. If he approaches from the back, she moves forward. When he approaches her from the front, she backs off. An attempt from the side, she walks away to the other side.”
The Vet thought about this for a minute and asked,
“Did you by chance, buy this cow in Illinois?”
The people were dumbfounded, since no one had ever mentioned where they bought the cow. “You are truly a wise Vet,” they said. “How did you know we got the cow in Illinois?”
The Vet replied with a distant look in his eye, “My wife is from Illinois.”
Okay so it’s lame but I got a chuckle out of it.
Tomorrow we leave for a 3 day trip into other parts of India including Pondicherry. We’ve been told that Pondicherry is home to a large French colony, so we may get to try some new kinds of food (!!!). Although the purpose of the trip is mostly to collect dairy nutrition samples, hopefully we’ll get to do some sightseeing. And the van we’ll be going in is AIR CONDITIONED!!
Today is Sunday, and as such there isn’t much to do. Sundays are actually considered days of rest here in India, unlike the US where a lot of people still work. A few of the girls and I sat up on the roof and read books in shorts and tanktops. It was amazing how much cooler we all felt with just a little less clothing. What I wouldn’t give to walk around all day like that. Later, we’ve planned to go on a shopping trip and pick out some goodies for everyone at home. Other than that…should be a quiet day. Even got to read the paper a bit and discovered that the consumption and use of deodorant is on the rise here in India. Apparently many people were confusing deodorant with perfume, so there was even a small blurb in the article about what deodorant is, how it works and how to apply it. Here’s some trivial pursuit: it was first invented in Pennsylvania.
Yesterday was a loooong day. In preparation for our trip on Monday, we had to make a large batch of nutrition supplements for all the farms we’d be visiting. A large batch ended up being 1,800 little vials of copper and cobalt sulfate and decanted urea. It took 5 hours in a stifling hot nutrition lab with only a few fans to cool us off. I have a newfound respect for factory workers and now have blue fingernails from the copper. So…as a treat, last night we had our first “American Night.” Okay, we’re weaklings. We’ve only been here approximately a week and a half and yet we’re already pining for our homeland. Ron, the friendly veterinary pathologist who rooms with Jeremy, helped us order from the local Pizza Hut and bought us some Kingfisher beers. The Indian Pizza Huts actually make pizza with Indian spices so we had to request “American” pizza…you know, the bland stuff that doesn’t make you run for the bathroom.
But anyway, back to the important stuff. The beers. Women, even Western women, aren’t really allowed in bars around here. Not sure if it’s different in the less conservative North, but in Chennai it’s really frowned upon. Ron was nice enough to buy us a few and smuggle them home. We had a glass, ate some pizza and watched Due Date. It was glorious.
We hath been stricken.
Yesterday, I was inside in the A/C for the entire day. I only ate a tiny cup of icecream, some rice, bread and Gatorade. Nearly passed out on my way back from lunch. The most I was able to do was pop in my $1.30 bootleg copy of Big Fish that I got from the local mall and stare at my laptop. Nearly everyone in the house suffered from some sort of sickness. I’ll spare you the gory details, but let me assure you it wasn’t pretty. I think this trip is hazing me. I can now be admitted into the traveler’s club.
Being vet students, everyone tried to figure out just what may have caused the synchronized sickness. We all drink the same bottled water, eat the same food and do the same activities. The food is catered from a nearby company that Dr. Mohankumar trusts, so it may have just been an unlucky twist of fate where people were exposed to something in the environment. The locals often eat with their hands or use bread etc. to scoop up their rice and lentils. At a few dinners, no forks were provided and we all ate this way as well. Besides employing tons of hand sanitizer and being vigilant about washing your hands, you are sure to eat some bad bacteria at some point if you’re eating like that. Or even if not…it’s a brand new country with brand new flora. Dr. Mohankumar thinks that we may have all gotten heat stroke from spending too much time outside. I’m gonna hope it’s just that.
Anyway, this morning I feel much better and can finally sit up long enough to type up what has happened.
We have finally ironed out the three projects that we will be working on with Madras Veterinary School. Everyone split up into pairs and drew their project from a hat. One group will be testing the efficacy of a mineral and nitrogen supplement aimed at increasing the efficiency of rumen microbes in dairy cattle. The rumen is the 1st of the 4 stomachs and does the work of fermenting the grass/hay with the help of good bacteria. If you meet the needs of the microflora, you improve their ability to ferment stuff and make use of coarse plant matter and less digestible feedstuffs. In the US, cows are fed a mixture of super digestible hay and a lot of concentrates such as corn silage, barley, etc. Here, cows are primarily grazed on whatever land the owner has and are fed a special ingredient called gruel. Gruel is basically just the water that the rice (eaten by the family) is boiled in and whatever other table scraps the family has left over from dinner. The rice leaves behind a starchy residue in the water which serves as an energy source for the cows. This gruel is mixed into whatever other stuff the cows are fed (usually rice bran) and attempts to provide the proper nutrients. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do the best job and the cows are undernourished. This leads to lowered milk production, with cows producing anywhere from 1-9 liters a day (18lbs max without supplementing concentrates like corn). In the US, cows can produce upwards of 80lbs.
So…adding a mineral and nitrogen supplement that helps out the flora effectively helps out the cow and leads to increased milk production. Our job is to find out just how much it improves it and if it’s worthwhile to the farmer.
The other two projects focus on diseases. The first is BVDV, or bovine viral diarrhea virus. It’s not zoonotic (people can’t get it) but it causes big economic losses in the cattle industry in the US by immunocompromising cattle, causing abortions and infertility. It isn’t really known if BVDV is rampant in India, but we have a feeling it might be. Unfortunately, the Indian government isn’t keen on admitting that there is another virus wreaking havoc on their populations, so they have sort of denied its existence. The philosophy that many Indian vets believe in is that if you eradicate one disease, another one will come in to take its place. It’s all about competition between bacteria and viruses which all keep each other in check. The Indians aren’t big on eradication of diseases…they just control them. Part of the reason for that is because they have little interest in animal trade with other countries. They are more focused on just providing for their ever growing population. Therefore, it’s not as important to be able to declare yourself disease free, which is why there hasn’t been any real attempt to eradicate Foot and Mouth Disease (the big bad wolf of viruses in 1st world countries).
The BVDV project is the one I’ve been assigned to. We’re basically just trying to get an idea of how prevalent it is in the population, since not much other work has been done on it. The second disease project is on Brucellosis, which is caused by B. abortus, a particularly nasty bacteria which targets the reproductive system. This is carried by a variety of species and is spread through most bodily fluids including milk. Pasteurizing kills the organism, but if people drink milk raw, they may be exposed to Brucella and can contract the disease (which in people is known as undulant fever). Males who are exposed may develop orchitis, or inflammation of the testicles. Still think you wanna go hippy and drink raw??
In the US, Brucella has been nearly eradicated and is only really found in places where wild buffalo can introduce it to cattle herds which are nearby. It is screened for frequently and animals are vaccinated against it. If animals do contract it, they end up with reproductive problems such as infertility and may abort. It is a costly public health concern.
In India, the prevalence of Brucella is much greater. Most herds do not vaccinate, and many more humans are exposed through the drinking of raw milk and being in close contact with their animals during calving. Many people even keep their animals in their house. Our job is to figure out just how high the prevalence is, and to try and correlate it to certain breeds or locations. To do so, we are going to be collecting blood and milk samples from animals in a variety of situations and using the samples to test for both Brucella and BVDV. Samples will come from organized and unorganized farms, the veterinary clinic at Madras Veterinary Hospital and a giant cattle shelter in the center of Chennai known as Pinjrapole.
Yes, cattle shelter.
You’ve gotta click on this picture to see just how many cows there are…
When the city started to urbanize, and people weren’t allowed to keep cattle within city limits anymore, they were forced to either move or release the cattle out onto the streets. Many chose the latter. Pinjrapole takes in all of these cattle, and as such has a population of about 3,000. Imagine driving through a city, passing fruit markets and clothing stores, and suddenly stumbling upon a little side drive with an arch over it reading, “Pinjrapole Cattle Sanctuary.” It seems to be nothing special, but behind a set of iron gates lies a huge stretch of land with an assortment of cattle and buffalo, both male and female, just wandering around right in the center of Chennai. You’d think they’d all be skinny and fighting over resources, but they were some of the best looking cattle I’ve seen yet. Turns out, Pinjrapole is funded by private charitable donations and is run by a religious group called the Janeists which believe that all life is sacred (including insects). Therefore, the cattle have access to plenty of food and water, big buildings for shelter, and grazing land. There is even a small veterinary hospital and a milking barn where recently calved females are milked by hand and the milk sold.
Three legged mom and her calf
One of the most noticeable differences between Pinjrapole and a big organized dairy is that there is no limit to which animals are accepted. There are bulls EVERYWHERE. In the US, most cattle are bred by artificial insemination and only a few farms actually keep bulls due to the danger they pose when handling them. In India, a lot of breeding is done the same way…but not here. While we walked amongst the freely ranging cattle, I was able to spot at least 50 bulls that had no problem getting within 5 feet of us. When you’re used to avoiding bulls in the US, or at least being cautious around them, it’s nerve wracking to turn your back on a 1,800lb intact male just wandering around. Luckily, most of the bulls have learned to live in harmony and only a few fights broke out while I was there. A few times, a bull would come charging out of nowhere to mount a female standing nearby, but otherwise they were relatively quiet. There was even a bull barn where about 20 bulls were kept in tie stalls, lying right next to each other.
You mess with the bull…you WILL get the horns
It was quite the experience. I’ve never been amongst so many cattle in my life, except in big US dairies where they are all set up in individual pens or tie stalls. The cattle here would just follow you around as you walked through Pinjrapole like a pack of dogs, looking for hand outs. Many of them were very sweet and would come over to be scratched. Calves hung out in little calf parties and mooed at you as you passed. Surprisingly, they were all horned…with big, pointy horns. In the US, all dairy animals are dehorned shortly after birth. There were even water buffalo, standing off in their own little cliques and staring at you as you walked by. Buffalo always look pissed. They stop whatever they’re doing and just STARE, daring you to take one step closer. They make strange honking noises and like standing in the mud. They’re very bulky compared to cattle and have skin that looks like hippo skin; rubbery and hairless. And they’ve got ‘tude.
Taking blood samples at Pinjrapole turned out to be quite the challenge. It was easy to get milk samples; we simply went to one of the cow barns where the recently calved females are kept and gave tubes to the milkers who squirted some in and handed it back. All of the cows are milked by hand, and unlike the US, the cows are allowed to keep their calves with them when they are very young. When the calves are older, they’re booted out of the barn to socialize outside, but are still let in to drink from mom before every milking. I thought that that was one of the coolest parts of the whole process. As soon as the milkers showed up, a group of calves would assemble outside the barn door and stare in. The workers know exactly which calves belong to which cows, even without the use of neck chains or ear tags or numbers. They would go over to the door and let in the calf that belonged to the cow they were just about to milk. The calf would come shrieking down the aisle, find its mom in an instant, and start drinking as fast as it could before the workers shooed them off. These workers are tough guys. They work the grounds in nothing but bare feet, what looks like a sheet wrapped around their nether regions and a tshirt. They’re all small, skinny men with rough looking skin that don’t take shit from the cattle. These guys probably weigh 100lbs (their lower legs are like sticks) and yet the cows do whatever they want. They just sharply shout out “hey!” and whack them on the back with pieces of palm stalks which obviously can’t hurt much, and the big animals lumber away. They brave the horns, getting body checked, run into and stepped on. And they know all the cattle well.
So, it was pretty necessary to have them around at all times for protection, and to help us attempt to collect blood. Unfortunately, even though most of the cattle are docile when free or when being milked, they do not tolerate being restrained. When we attempted to get blood from the girls in the milking barn, Dr. Grooms almost lost an eye. Without a chute, it was just asking for somebody to get impaled or knocked over. Even with the cattle handlers’ help, it was a task that nobody wanted to do. So, we settled on milk samples only.
Note buffalo staring
Getting samples at the vet clinic was a lot easier. All of the cattle there were brought in for some other reason, and so were kept in chutes and were generally easier to deal with. We all took turns drawing blood and collecting milk, and obtained histories from the owners about their cattle with the help of a translator. English is the second language for most Indians, but there are still many people who do not speak well enough to converse. While at the large animal clinic, we saw a variety of things that we will probably never see in the US. There was a steer who was clipped by a shareauto (a large auto rickshaw) and needed his lip stitched up, a jaundiced cow with anaplasmosis (tick disease that causes anemia), a cow that aborted from Brucella, etc. And tons of GOATS. When there was downtime from the cows, I made my way over to the small ruminant ward and did a few physical exams on the goats that were brought in. I was even allowed to take blood from a grumpy buffalo. Check that off the bucket list.
Dr. Grooms demonstrating proper blood drawing technique
This dude made my day…THE EARSSSS
Once we have collected samples, we are also in charge of running a battery of tests on them (for you science people: Brucella ring test, Rose Bengal test, tube agglutination, PCR, IDEXX SNAP for BVDV). There is an older lab up on the 2nd floor of the vet school with separate rooms for virology, bacteriology, etc. Each room has a big hood for working under and all are air conditioned (woo hoo!). As I expected, there wasn’t much use of aseptic technique…no gloves were worn and many instruments were washed simply with soap and water. For the tests that we’re running this isn’t much of a problem, but it still gives me the heebie jeebies to be handling milk that is probably infected with Brucella without gloves. Many of the cows did end up being positive for it.
And that pretty much sums up the type of work that we will be doing during the weekdays here in Chennai. We have a few trips planned to visit farms in far away areas, but otherwise most of the work will take place here.
Besides seeing lots and lots of cows, we were treated to a huge thunderstorm a few nights ago. It’s summer here in India, but it doesn’t rain nearly as much as it does in lovely Michigan. When it does rain, it’s more of a monsoon than a storm. Usually I can tell from the changing humidity and the wind that a storm is coming, but when the humidity is always high and there isn’t much wind, it sneaks up on you. After the rain started, within five minutes the puddles on the ground were more than ankle deep. The thunder was LOUD, and lightning flashed every minute. I felt bad for the many commuters on motor bikes. The rain water was as warm as a bath so it wasn’t at all unpleasant. And the storm cooled the temperature a little bit, which we were all grateful for.
Over the course of our time here we’ve gotten very familiar with a certain street dog which we’ve named Zeus. Zeus is fit, charming, friendly…and a little racist. He only likes white people. I’m guessing at some point he was whacked or yelled at by the Indians around him, because he always follows our group around and barks at anyone who comes near. He even barked at Mutu, our caretaker, who is very gentle and never yells. Zeus lives under a truck at the corner of a street near our house, and always pops out when we walk by. At first, he followed us only about 100 feet. Now, he follows us into the vet school, and actually ran around the track with us when we went for some exercise. He even followed us home, much to our caretakers’ dismay. Sorry…we’re vet students…couldn’t help it. We attempted to feed him some granola bar, but he turned his nose up at it. Must be more of a rice and dosa kind of dog.
Not all the street dogs are quite so friendly. While walking with Chrissy one day, we were approached by a tan and white dog who came over and followed us for a bit. When she put her hand out for him to smell, he jumped up and tried to bite her. Lesson learned. Not all street dogs are as cool as Zeus.
We also learned recently that the word “chai” actually means tea. So when your Starbucks barista asks you if you want chai tea, they’re really asking you if you want tea tea. Dr. Mohankumar tries to correct people at home, but I doubt many people will catch on.
Speaking of America…I could really go for some pizza. I read back to a few posts ago and laughed at myself. I’m not sick of the food, but I could really use some cheese, and pasta sauce, and hamburger…Dunkin Donuts…the gym… I’ve had enough bread and rice for a lifetime. In general, I definitely have a new appreciation for America. Everything in comparison is so clean, quiet, organized and efficient. But there are also a lot of things I love about India. The freedom to walk around without a cellphone and without a strict time schedule is great. The friendliness of the people, the animals, the flowers and scenery can’t be beat. They’re just so different.
Our caterers have started to incorporate mangos into our meals. Apparently there are over 50 varieties of mangos. I’m used to the one kind they sell at Meijer (which I don’t know the name of). It’s the orange one.
The last thing that I’ll comment on before I upload this giant entry is the wall paintings on the streets. A lot of the streets are lined by stone walls which separate the housing areas from the main road. The walls are painted with pictures of gods, animals, people spearing buffalo…random stuff. But this one wins the cake. It is the most ridiculous painting ever.
Pegasus vs. Unicorn…wtf?
>To start off this post, I want to give you all a little taste of the Indian driving I referred to in an earlier post. I tried my best to capture the organized chaos that is driving in India, and show you just how many forms of transport can be seen on the roads. This video is a bit tamer than some of the stuff I’ve seen when I didn’t have my camera, but hopefully you’ll get the idea. Notice how no one uses the lanes, everyone uses their horns to tell where they are going, and how close motor bikes come to being smushed. The little yellow cars are the auto rickshaws, a very common form of transportation in India.
***For some reason I can’t get this video to upload, so you’ll have to check back.
That brings me to the title of this post. Today, while walking with Chrissy to the vet school for a brief run, I saw what might be one of my favorite sights of all time. Before I go there, let me just say that running 3 miles in India is like running a half marathon at home. I. almost. died. I’m hoping to keep up the habit of exercising while I’m here, and my group has even agreed to start our little “Club Fitness India” and do floor workouts in the morning in the spare room. Meals are so carbohydrate rich that we’re all a little worried about our waistlines. It’s going to be difficult to keep weight off, especially considering that it reaches 100 on most days and my body just isn’t used to running on pavement hot enough to cook an egg.
Back to the goats.
As many of you know, I am a huge goat lover. Ever since spending 4 years of my life working with Boer goats (meat breed) at UMASS Amherst, I have a soft spot in my heart for the beasts. They’re the dogs of the ruminant world, always following you around, looking for food, attention, or something to jump or poop on. I simply love them. I hope someday to get a (group of goats is a band, not a flock) of about 4-5 goats and use them as mini lawn mowers. Goats love to eat weeds and all manner of foliage and can mow down a lawn in no time. Plus, they give you fresh fertilizer, free of charge!! And, their meat is lower in calories and fat and higher in protein than beef and pork. They have a high feed conversion ratio and don’t have huge horns that need removal. They pose no threat to humans, unlike cattle, and can have from 1-4 babies at once. Basically, they’re amazing. Below are some pictures I captured of a Boer goat in a rickshaw with a bandaged leg.
Yesterday (day 3) started as most days do at our hostel, with coffee and breakfast.
I learned from Dr. Mohankumar that my luggage was finally in Chennai, but that the airline refused to deliver it. He said that he would go to pick it up on his way home from Madras Sunday night, but I literally could not live in my green Michigan State shirt and black capris anymore. I told myself when I came on this trip that I was going to try and become more spontaneous and free spirited from it, and as such would try to be a hippy and let things go. However, I thought 3 days without luggage and 5 days in the same clothes (washed, thankfully a few times) was hippy enough and volunteered to go hire a taxi pick it up myself. Plus, I needed my malaria meds. Dr. Mohankumar was fine with that and arranged for the university van to take the group of us to the airport.
Yesterday was HOT. Hot even for India. It was so hot, that you would sweat sitting down, sitting still, in light clothing. Even the Indians were sweating and wiping their brows with hankerchiefs throughout the day. That made me feel better…it wasn’t just the weak composition of us whities that was making us sweat so much. I felt like Moe Sizlack from the Simpsons (eh? anyone? oldies?). Unfortunately, the van was not air conditioned.
The ride to the airport is close to one hour, especially when you leave around 2:45 and rush hour has begun. We zipped through the city regions and over a particularly smelly river where I noticed many cows and other animals lounging under the shade of bridges (our cow count is now about 50). A few homeless were among them, sprawled out and napping. Eventually, we arrived at the airport unscathed. When attempting to retrieve my bag, there was a tense moment when a few men tried to cut in front of us, but we held our ground. Dr. Mohankumar had warned us that just like with driving, lanes and order don’t necessarily matter to the people of India, and they may just decide to cut you in line. Luckily, Dr. Grooms is tall enough to seem intimidating, even though he’d never hurt a fly.
Despite these apparent lack of Western manners, the Indians are probably the nicest people I’ve ever met. I thought that the difference between the east coast and the Midwest was noticeable, but this is a whole ‘nother ballgame. Although they may seem shy at first, all of them will smile and wave back at you if you smile or wave to them. If you ask them for help, they will readily answer, or find someone who can. Sure, they may stare…but who wouldn’t? While everyone around is decked out in sarees and light airy clothing, we walk around with the sun bouncing off of our pale skin wearing unforgiving cotton and denim. We stand out like the sorest thumb.
The Indians also love to have their picture taken. Fathers will push their sheepish little girls towards us and motion for us to take pictures. Little boys will run up, giggle and pose for the camera. They thank us for the pictures, even though we’re the ones who are happy to take them for the memories.
They’re also extremely genuine. Although they may laugh at some of the things we do, they really are happy to have us around. Whereas in the US, someone may act glad to see you to your face and later talk condescendingly, the Indians show you exactly how they feel. If they’re pissed, they’ll yell and gesture. If they’re happy, they’ll smile and laugh. Last night, we attended a ceremony for the college where the announcer called out, “we warmly welcome our foreign visitors,” and a crowd of 100 men and women cheered for us. They are the most welcomingpeople.
Back to the airport. After receiving my bag and hugging it, I decided to buy some sweets for everyone for coming along for the ride. My American companions are the best support system. I learn more about them and like them more each day. A little sweet shop called Cricket Sweets was outside the airport, and the woman at the counter gave me some pieces of what she thought we’d like. I had no idea what the desserts were and was hoping they weren’t literally crickets. Cricket (the sport) is very big in India, so I banked on the name relating to that and gave the dessert a taste.
It was a block of something yellowish that was sweeter than cake, with a soft texture and smell reminiscent of movie theater popcorn. Mmm…calories. So much for that run.
On the way back to the hostel, our driver decided to take us to a few extra stops, free of charge. We drove to a Snake Park, which is literally, a park of snakes. It was a zoo just for reptiles, with snakes, crocodiles, alligators and turtles on display. Above each of the snake cages was scrawled either “venomous” or “non-venomous.” The zoo was in very good condition, and all the animals were kept well. The only thing which set off a red flag was a group of spotted deer which were kept in confinement on the property. Although the deer seemed to be part of the zoo, we wondered secretly if they were being kept as food for the gigantic reticulated pythons. Poor Bambi.
The next stop on our way home, however, proved to be the best. A little ways off the main drag, a giant beach stretched on for miles down the coast.
The beach is where many fishermen and their family make residence, and where they keep their animals and sell their catch. We drove down a small road bordering the beach, and were amazed at all of the little shacks where the families lived. It looked to be a very poor area, but everyone was out running around and looking happy. Mothers washed their children on the beach with buckets of water, and groups of boys played cricket. I was even more excited to be at the beach when I noticed how many GOATS there were, running around in the garbage and eating things here and there. Crows would follow them around, landing on their backs and stealing from them.
As we moved away from the little fishing village, we came upon the main part of the beach where thousands of people were hanging out. Men on horseback cantered their horses around and tons of street vendors had piled onto the beach to sell food. This was when I began to realize just how many people are in India. At that beach alone, there had to have been about 3,000 people. Further on, a public swimming pool was overwhelmed with people. I tried not to think about what kinds of things would be living in the water. Did I mention it was hot yesterday??
Eventually, we arrived back to the hostel and prepared for the evening’s festivities. As I mentioned before, last night was the closing ceremony for the university’s celebration. We were cordially invited by the college staff to attend. At the ceremony, awards were given out to students for winning a variety of contests held during the celebration, including musical chairs, candle lighting, ping pong, balloon bursting, running, human wheelbarrowing, etc. Many, many veterinary students were present, and the crowd were seated in two different sections- women and men. The young ladies all wore sarees of various colors which were more fancy then everyday wear. I found myself wishing I had a few, since they seemed so much cooler and practical than what we were wearing. The men wore slacks and button downs or collared shirts. Unlike in the US where the ratio of females to males in veterinary school is about 9:1, about half of the veterinary classes in India are made up of men .
After the ceremony, we were invited to eat with the dean in the upper floor of the converted gym. The lower floor was reserved for the female students to eat, and another building designated for the men. We discovered, very quickly, that for special occasions…fancier food is served. And for some reason, food is considered fancy when it is EXTRA SPICY. Before putting food on our plates, one of the men turned to us and said “you may want to go easy on the spice.” They turned on all the fans and gave out extra water. I felt like I needed to apologize to my digestive tract.
Halfway through dinner, we were again gifted with a power outage, and the entire gym went dark. The girls below us immediately started screaming before a multitude of cellphones were pulled out to light up the room. I have no idea where the girls hide their cellphones…no one seems to carry a purse. Sarees must have secret pockets.
We concluded the night by watching a concert with the rest of the students. Once again, female students were on one side, and men on the other. The ladies danced with the ladies, and the guys with the guys. It was very reminiscent of the time I attended my cousin’s orthodox Jewish wedding and the dance floor was divided by little potted plants. If only the Indians could attend an American concert or dance…they’d be horrified. In India, the pursuit of the opposite sex seems to be a slow, modest and respectful process, rather than the in-your-face “hey how you doin'” that goes on in the US.
Halfway through one of the songs, Jeremy was convinced by a group of male students to come dance. Being the good sport that he is, he gave it a try and went to sweat it out amongst the mass of them. We knew that we’d probably soon be targeted as well. Annnnd we were.
The girls were so excited to dance with us and pulled us readily into their circle. We attempted to follow the leader and bust out some moves that we remembered from the Jai Ho music video (Slumdog Millionaire). I’m sure we looked as ungraceful as we felt, but it was fun and the girls were thrilled that we participated. We found out later that a fight broke out among some of the male students who had been drinking, so we had to leave the premise earlier than expected.
Rickshaws are glorified go-karts with tiny little go-kart motors that start up when you pull on something that looks like an E-brake. The drivers vary from skinny, wily old men to chubby bristly fellows. Most of them add their own personal touches to the rickshaws in the form of pictures of Ghandi, the elephant god Ganesh, or their family. They are usually pretty honest, but some of them have deals with local businesses and actually get commission if they bring tourists to the shops. So, to get that commission, they often pick you up and promise to take you somewhere, but then go driving all over Chennai bringing you to their friends’ shops. Luckily, our friend Mutu at the hostel arranged the first rickshaw for us and we picked wisely on the way home.
Riding in a rickshaw is AWESOME. They can’t go very fast, but they can squeeze in between cars and buses and whip around corners. They have no windows or doors and stay very cool. You get so close to other rickshaws while driving that you could literally reach out and touch them. If I could, I would totally buy a rickshaw and bring it back to the US. And I’m putting a goat in it. Ohhhh yeaahhhh.
>Let me begin this post by stating…that the Indian head bobble is real.
This will be explained in more detail later, but I’m going to first attempt to get out all that has happened today so I don’t forget. I’ve been utterly overwhelmed with culture.
The day began with everyone drinking coffee, having a breakfast of omelletes, dosas (bread), vegetable curries and mango juice boxes.
Being a foodie, this was quite possibly the best thing for me to wake up to, so my spirits were already high (even though it was the ungodly hour of 7:45). Unfortunately, so was the temperature. The weather was already at a hot and humid 85 degrees and would most surely reach around 95 by the middle of the day. It was so hot, in fact, that I washed my one pair of clothes in the sink and found them dry within about 15 minutes hanging from a clothesline on the roof.
I haven’t yet come to grips with the fact that I will be perpetually sweaty whenever I am outside for 6 weeks. I get a false sense of confidence when sitting inside our nice, air conditioned rooms. “It’s cool, I can totally hang outside for 2 hours. I could even go for a run.”
Whoever invented air conditioning deserves the Nobel Prize. Within about 5 minutes outside you’re craving icecream, Slurpees, Popsicles…for your body to be encased in an iceberg… it’s just too damn hot (milk was a bad choice).
Anyway. After breakfast, Dr. Mohankumar took us on a tour of the Madras Veterinary Hospital, which was only a short (yet perilous) walk from the hostel. Crossing the street can literally seem like taking your life in your hands, since the aforementioned traffic never slows and pedestrians are never yielded to. In fact, we would later be told that many drivers even speed up or play chicken when they see women or white people. When I asked if it was because they didn’t like us, I was met with quite an opposite response; “no…they like you too much.”
Never knew that almost flattening someone was flirting, but hey.
The hospital was a lot like what I expected, but still took me by surprise. In a country where many people barely have the money to buy furniture, there are still a huge number of individuals who own all variety of animals; cats, dogs, buffaloes, chickens, lizards, goats, horses and of course, cows.
As you probably know, the cow is a sacred animal in India which cannot be killed for meat. They are strictly used for dairy. Cows must die of natural causes, even if they are deteriorating rapidly or could really benefit from euthanasia. This includes male dairy cows, which in the US are slaughtered as veal. Our group began a “cow count” to keep track of how many cows we meet on the street or at the hospital. We expect it will be up to 1,000 before we leave. In some cities, farmers have even been banned from letting their cows roam, as they often cause traffic jams. Still, we saw plenty on our first day in the busy Chennai.
The hospital was complete with everything that American veterinary hospitals have, besides CT and MRI. There were X-ray, ultrasound and ECG machines, arthroscopy, surgery suites and even a grooming salon. The waiting room was filled with people holding their pets and milling about. Many of the animals were thin or had sores or skin lesions but seemed to be cared for. It’s understandable that in a land where many people don’t have food, the animals will be a bit thinner. At first I felt awkward walking into exam rooms and taking pictures, but the people just didn’t seem to mind. Another major difference between the US and India…India isn’t trying nearly as hard to keep up appearances. Everything is what it is.
We visited all of the wards, including but not limited to large animal, theriogenology, gynecology and obstetrics, fluid therapy, orthopedics (most animals come in from fractures from guess what?? crossing the roads), parasitology and cardiology, where a Doberman was being walked down the hall. Diagnosis: Dilated cardiomyopathy??? I’ll never see a Doberman again without thinking that since finishing 2nd year.
Many of the rooms had pictures of common conditions seen for each species, including Rinderpest in cattle (eradicated in the US), intussuception from parasite infestation, dystocia, mange, etc etc. Owners often restrained their own animals, and the vets and technicians circulated between them all. Many soldiers brought in their working dogs and stood with them while they were being examined. It was a lot more personal and hands on then American veterinary clinics. The large animal clinic was especially cool, and we were able to witness some doctors from Malaysia pulling a retained placenta on a cow and inspecting a buffalo.
There were so many things to see in the hospital that I’m sure I’m forgetting things, but that seems to be the trend on this trip so far. Just too much to see!! It’s like walking into a Friday’s or a Spencer’s Gifts or Filene’s Basement and trying to find just one piece of bare space. India is a huge moving billboard of colors, animals, people, noise, smells, EVERYTHING. There is no quiet to be found.
After the vet hospital, we made our way to the “games day” which is part of the vet school’s celebration. Students and faculty competed in events such as the 100m race. Dr. Mohankumar decided to show us his stuff and ran barefoot to take 2nd place in the 40-50 year old man faculty race.
Lunch followed, which was again delicious. Lunch is often the biggest meal of the day in India, with breakfast and dinner being equally sized. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging about and playing cards until another veterinarian and native, Gowri, came to take us shopping (woo hoo!). She was an amazing guide and gave us lots of fun facts about India on the way. Our one male group member got dragged along, but was quite a good sport about it. On Tuesday, there will be some sort of ceremony that requires more proper dress, so Dr. Mohankumar recommended that we get saris or some other formalwear. We went to exchange money first, and then headed over to the shopping mall.
Let me just say, I never expected to see so many patterns and color choices in my LIFE.
The store was chock full of all sorts of fabrics which could be tailor made to fit you. The sarees and chudidars ran anywhere from about 100 to well over 1,000 rupees. 43 rupees equals about 1 American dollar, so…you can do the math (my brain is off, it’s summer). Our experience was even completed by the power going out twice while we were shopping, which is apparently very common in the summer time since everyone and their mom is using the AC.
In the end, I was able to buy a beautiful brown and blue chudidar set, three pairs of earrings, 3 scarves and some underwear (necessary….still no luggage) for $30 American. Totally makes up for the fortune I spent in the UK on candy. There will eventually be a picture of me in formal wear…but for now I’m keeping you all in suspense. I’ve eaten too much Indian food and I probably wouldn’t fit.
Anywho. After shopping, we returned to the hostel for dinner at 8pm, proceeded to play another game of Egyptian rat slap, and then started our “antisocial” period for the night where everyone begins blogging. And that takes me to where we are now.
Back to the head bobble.
In India, when people are talking to each other, you will occasionally see them doing the motion displayed by the clip from Outsourced (above). They just throw it into conversation, and I doubt even they know they’re doing it. It’s somewhere between a “yes” and a “no,” but they never quite make a decisive enough motion to tell. So you just sort of wonder, “what does this mean?” “Are they annoyed at me?” “Do they not understand me?” We asked Gowri about it, to which she laughed and looked perplexed for a second before smiling. As if she realized she did it, but didn’t realize that it was strange to anyone else. Like when I say “rotary” or “carriage” (rather than roundabout or shopping cart) and people pause and look confused for a second trying to decipher it. I wonder if when Americans fist pound it’s equally as strange.
Turns out, the literal meaning of the head bobble is “okay.” It’s the Indian lovechild of yes and no. The head bobble is my favorite thing about India so far…I was even treated to a private bobble when I asked our server if I could have black rather than sweetened coffee in the morning. I had to restrain myself from asking him to do it again.
So to conclude this post, I also wanted to give you a list of fun facts that I learned about India today.
In the wise words of Gowri, women are both respected and not respected in India; they can be looked up to and treated like a goddess, but also ignored and walked on. Most marriages in this area are arranged, unlike in Northern India. If Indians date, they often hide it from their families so that they do not disgrace them if they are destined to be wed to someone. There are MANY babies, and the population is booming.
In the North, every bride wears red when they marry. In other regions, including Chennai, the bride can pick whatever color she wants. I can’t even imagine not only picking the fit and style of the dress, but the color too. Being as indecisive as I am, I’d be dead before I completed the mission.
The caste system still exists in many areas, and the status of a person is often determined by their names. Doctors will sometimes change their names to one of a higher class so that more patients will come to them.
Some Indian breeds of horses have ears that tilt in odd directions, and make them look quite distinguished.
Alright, well that’s all I can think of for the moment. I think my brain needs some sleep to recharge, and it’s currently 12am in India. Time to dream of curry and dosas. My malaria meds haven’t yet kicked in to give me any good lucid dreams, but maybe I’ll be lucky tonight and I’ll really taste them. Goodnight.