Monday, December 30, 2013

Love and Lepers, Happiness and Compassion

"If  you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
 ~ The Dalai Lama

I'm writing from my third annual "Loads of Lepers" work retreat here in Anandwan, Maharashtra, in mostly-middle-of-nowhere India. It's near Nagpur if that helps - maybe not. OK, it's not called Loads of Lepers, but I have so much affection for the people here I think I can get away with calling it that. Stories are accumulating and I've been procrastinating and the non-results have been frustrating if not illuminating.

This year I'm back to working with lovely Mousie doing basic wound care in the old folks home. They're a beautiful and sorry lot, depending on your mood and when you look. Pretty filthy place, understaffed, short on resources, some very sick people, some who have died since we've been here. But when people are in a good mood and laughing, the old women sitting in the sun and doing each other's hair, it can seem like everything is OK in the world. Both divergent views are true, simultaneously.

There is one room near the (only) nurses station for patients who need extra care, and when Mousie and I walk towards the door I get a little knot in my stomach. One old fingerless beauty of a guy looks like he's 80 years old and needs his mangled foot bandaged daily. Another younger man looks relatively healthy but recently had about half of his foot amputated. Pictures not coming - thank me now. They didn't leave a flap of skin for some reason, so the end of his foot looks like beef brisket. (I don't know where the bones went, but you can't see any.) Another guy had such congested lungs that he sounded like an animal whenever he made a noise. He was kind of out of his head, and in typical Indian fashion, when he wouldn't stay still for bandaging, another patient was yelling at him and slapping him in the face. That's not helpful, Rocky. The next time I saw the old man he was tied to his bed because he was flailing around so much. The following day: passive and docile. And the following day: an empty bed. The nurse indicated by waving toward the sky that he was gone.

In the afternoons I'm spending time again with beautiful bed-bound Jyoti, 25 years old, radiant, smiling and with crippling arthritis. She lays on her back all day every day with her legs pulled up into a fetal position for 11 months a year, only going out for toilet and shower. When we come we take her out for wheelchair rides to the chai shop because she and I share a love for chai and ice cream. I discovered on this trip that I'm able to pick her up myself and put her in the wheelchair. These rickety crap wheelchairs with hard plastic wheels are rough and I'm tense as I push her along the street. Jyoti has taken to calling me Father, (I'm Father #2 and she's Daughter #1) and I earn that name at the chai shop. Like beleaguered fathers everywhere, she asks for something and I act perturbed and then give in. In fact, I've never NOT given in. You want it, Daughter #1, it's yours. (What wouldn't I give her, I wonder?) And I have to buy some bribes for Baby, the powerhouse of an attendant who rules the roost back in the old folks home. Now Baby is calling me Father, and today Oogi Moogi, who has to be 10 years older than me, also called me Father. I've been called worse.

Today is yet another good day, lovely people, to be thankful for what we have. We had LOADS! The lucky among us have Loads of Lepers.

Too much love,

The annual eye camp was in full swing when we arrived. Something like 2,200 people were given free cataract surgeries this year, curing or preventing blindness. Mostly I like it because of all the colorful grandma's! (It is getting hard to ignore that I'm the same age as a lot of them...)

Helping Grams to her seat.

With 3,000 people in Anandwan, and all of them insisting on food every day (the nerve,) kitchen work is a big industry here. Most of it only looks about as complicated as this, though.

We visited the weaving factory, which is a combination of hand-woven fabrics, like this guy's, and machine-made, in the following photos.

Monitoring his weaving machine.

The machines just mechanize what the old looms do manually. The two layers of thread running through the machine alternate up and down, KAH-CHUNK, KAH-CHUNK, KAH-CHUNK, while a bobbin holding thread whizzes back and forth sideways. Mesmerizing and deafening.

This is one of the adorable deaf girls.

She tagged along with us on the tour of the mill.

The workshop, where they're working on a big order of three-wheeled bicycles with hand-cranks for people with leg problems.

I imagine she still says "Moo!" even though she's a water buffalo. They milk these gals and make some great yogurt from the milk.

Walking through the nursery area, maybe the quietest and prettiest area in Anandwan.

A couple of people are volunteering in the nursery, and apparently this resting-against-a-tree posture is not uncommon.

Handsome guy. He looks like he should be holding a scimitar.

This lovely man speaks perfect English and would be great to talk to, but he's deaf as a post. I heard him calling out the other day and saw that he'd fallen out of bed and couldn't get up. He had somehow ripped the skin off the back of one hand. He summed it up: "Bad luck!"

Leprosy attacks cartilage and can result in the sunken face look that this man has.

Some of the volunteers getting introduced to the old folks home for the first time.

Poor, wretched creatures having to carry their own firewood... oh, hang on - those are volunteers. Nevermind.

Anandwan is 65 years old. Some of the buildings have been painted since then.

One of the vision-impaired sweeties.

Sweet kids!

Two of the deaf girls.

I don't know how to spell the noise I make when see a cute kid. Something like an enthusiastic "UH!!" So cute.

Two deaf beauties.

On a silent walk with the group on our meditation day, every Wednesday.

Late afternoon light.

A man and his two adorable kids relaxing on the bench near our guest house.

My boss and wound-dressing mentor, Mousie, tending to the wounds of an ancient old guy with about half a foot remaining. He really moans and whimpers when his wound is cleaned. It's hard for me, and I rub his shoulders and hold his fingerless hands, for what it's worth.

This is the guy who sounded like a bear when he made any noise, from all the congestion in his lungs.

Lovely Jyoti, now 25, still smiling and beautiful. The sty on her right eye seems to be getting better.

We call this wing of the building "the dark side" because it's so dingy and dark, with windows only on one side of the rooms.

The long corridor in the dark side. The other wings have rooms with windows on three sides.

I wasn't happy to see my friend tied to his bed, but he was out of his head, so I guess it was necessary. I think this was the last time I saw him.

I went to town to buy some supplies and told this very funny guy that he was a good salesperson. He said, "Will you write it down?" So I wrote him a reference on the spot. "Prakash Arjun is an excellent salesperson!"

The hip-hop dance group that performs with the Anandwan orchestra. I spend a lot of time with Prasad, in the glasses. He speaks English pretty well, helps with translations, and comes out with me and Jyoti.

I really like this photo. It's taken with the HDR setting - High Dynamic Range.

One of my favorite ladies. Her foot is so tiny, and I don't know where the bones went, but the end of her foot just wobbles, held to the rest of it with flesh alone.

Jyoti at the chai shop, our favorite destination. Shachar from Israel has been bathing her and changing her diaper (not easy, I'm told!) Jody is from England and is holding chai for Jyoti to drink. Jyoti's legs can't straighten and she has almost no use of her arms and hands.

I'm getting used to being treated like a movie star. In fact, if it's not too much to ask, I'd like it to continue when I come home. Come on people - I'm not home that much.

This young woman can't use her arms, but sews greeting cards with a needle and thread, using her feet. Hard to imagine. The card in the lower right is one of hers.


Shachar and I didn't have proper white gloves for tea, so we had to settle for surgical gloves. I need them for wound care and she needs them for poop!

Two of the grandmas sit for a chat.

(The End)