left India early.

I know some of you know, most of you probably don’t, but I decided to head back to the U.S. two weeks before originally intended.

Part of my decision was practical.

For one, money was dwindling and it was more fiscally responsible of me to dip out early. Also, I was set to arrive on the 23rd of March and then start work on the 25th – which left me approximately 2 days to overcome jetlag, review my notes on D.C. history, and emotionally decompress after a very long 5 months in Asia.

These were two glaring issues I was aware of from the get-go, but India’s famous Holi Festival was happening on March 17th and I just couldn’t bare the thought of missing it. So, despite all logic, I booked a flight home for the last possible day I could remain in India before absolutely needing to get back to D.C. for work.

But then I got sick. Really, really sick.

It started with me just feeling kind of off. I was tired, grumpy, and didn’t seem to have much of an appetite. Unusual. My muscles and joints were also very sore. I thought it had to do with my sitting at a desk all day and never exercising so I joined a gym and went to a yoga class. I found I could barely hold my own body weight, and could only last on the treadmill for a few minutes before feeling faint.

I assumed I was just out of shape. Which I was. Yet, I could tell something more was going on.

A week after all these symptoms started, I hit a wall. And by hit a wall, I mean that I started puking on a Monday night and didn’t stop for about a week.

I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink. I don’t want to go into particulars about my bathroom adventures, but let’s just say that I was unable to keep anything down.
I was absolutely exhausted. Walking the 4 flights of stairs up to my apartment left me heaving. I spent my days laying in bed, watching movies, but even then I had to pause the movies every hour so I could take a nap.
Initially, I thought this was the result of an allergic reaction. I’d accidentally eaten something with cashews and figured that had triggered my illness. But when it persisted, I knew it was something else.

My Indian flatmate finally persuaded me to go to the hospital. At first, the doctor thought I had dysentery and put me on antibiotics. However, when my tests came back he told me that I had a nasty strain of e. coli that could only be fought by getting injections in my hip twice a day.

Lovely.

The only thing that’s worse than being sick is being sick abroad.

A father/daughter duo who asked me to take their picture while in Varanasi.

After hearing the news, I trudged upstairs to the pharmacy to get my first shot. I was really homesick at this point. The smells and noise and madness of India – all of which I loved up until this point – had started to annoy me. All my hours in bed left me feeling lonely, and all I wanted was my mom. I desperately missed familiarity. I missed “normal” life.

I purchased my medicine and walked over to the area where they administer the shots. I noticed that both beds (there were only two as it was a small hospital) were occupied, though each was curtained off so I couldn’t see who was in there. I then realized that there were red footprints leading to the first bed, and what looked like pieces of brick at the entrance.

The curtain was drawn back and I peaked inside. Lying on the bed was a young man whose arm looked brutally disfigured, there was more brick all along side him, and a pool of blood surrounded the area.

I literally gasped and jumped back. How those bricks came to be in the hospital, I have no idea, but it was clear that the young gentleman had been in a construction accident and that his arm had been seriously injured.

Suddenly all my emotions exploded and I started crying and couldn’t stop. I wanted familiarity. I wanted normal. This was not normal. This was not okay.

My tears immediately drew some attention. Why is this white girl here and why the hell is she crying?

A nurse quickly pulled me into the second curtained area and administered the shot. I cried throughout the whole thing. I think she thought I was scared of needles. I had no idea how to explain how I really felt.

Over the next few days, I visited the hospital every morning and every evening to get my shot. The blood and bricks had been cleaned up by the next morning, but I noticed that the bed sheet I had to lay on looked dirty and used every time I went.

This isn’t meant to be a commentary on the quality of health care in India. I think there are a lot of really amazing hospitals and doctors out there. I felt like I was in very good hands throughout. It’s more about how different the experience was. No clean bed sheets. No nurses wearing gloves. Though I do not believe every hospital in India is like this — some are much more hygienic, some are much, much less — I can guarantee that this would never happen at any hospital in the U.S. We place a very high value on sanitation.

However, though at the time I longed for the sterility and orderly standards of an American hospital, and cringed every time I lied down on that dirty bed, I later came to realize there was a real lesson to be valued from my experience.

You see, what I love about traveling is that it pushes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to rethink your values. For example, I’ve learned that I don’t need a whole wardrobe of clothes. I can survive with a backpack. I can get by without WIFI, a hot shower, or a western style toilet. Sure, I’d prefer those things, but they’re not utterly essential to my wellbeing. They’re privileges. And most people in the world do not have any access to those privileges. Like the privilege of a clean hospital bed.

Before I left that first night, I saw the guy with the busted arm checking out at the pharmacy. He seemed fine, barely phased, and more concerned with trying to get his money out of his pocket with just one arm.

I, on the other hand, was still crying. I tried to stop as it was rather embarrassing – his right arm is destroyed and he’s placid in appearance; I got a shot in my hip and I’m bawling – but I couldn’t.

Streets of Varanasi
Streets of Varanasi

I was upset that this was his normal, that he wasn’t more disturbed by his injured arm and hospital treatment. Judging by his appearance and the location of the hospital (East of Kailash, the neighborhood where I lived and where the hospital is located is mostly inhabited by farmers), he was most likely poor and of a low caste, and thus not afforded the privilege to seek out and receive medical care in a big, expensive, and super clean hospital. Assuming he works in construction, I’d also bet that he sees, or perhaps experiences, injuries like this on a somewhat regular basis. The thought of which really upset me.

I don’t want that to be anyone’s normal.

Eventually I cried myself all out. I got better after a few more visits to the hospital and spent my final weekend in India having a crazy last hurrah with my friends. Then I flew back to the U.S. to live my privileged, white girl life. Where all the nurses wear gloves and there are no bloody footprints in the lobby.