“Does she have a ducky band?”
“She says she has been waiting here for a long time.”
“Does she have a ducky band?”
“She says she waited yesterday too.”
“Does she have ducky band?!”
“She says she also has abdominal pain… What to do?”
“Varte! Does she or does she not have a ducky band?!”
“Then tell her she has to wait in line like everyone else!” I say with as much calm as I can muster after having this exact same conversation 8 times in the last three days.
Varte, my translator, does not want to be the bad guy. No one likes telling a 60 something lady with a swollen goiter on her neck that she has to go to the back of a line 200 people long to get reading glasses, then wait in another equally long line if she wants her neck looked at. But that’s our job. I guess it pays to have an MD when you volunteer at a once a year health clinic in northeast India. But neither me or Varte do, so we get to be the bad guys that tell old ladies, who have probably never seen a western doctor before in their life, that because they don’t have the ducky wristband that says a doctor wanted them to come back in, they can go wait in the sun for 3 hours. How did I end up here?
The trip didn’t start like this. When my parents and I arrived in steamy Calcutta, our first three days were spent at the Hope Home orphanage/school hanging out with and teaching the cutest kids I have ever met. I usually hate kids but these guys were so open, nice and genuinely excited to see you every morning that even my cold lump of a heart thawed a little. They are so different from kids in the USA. American kids are spoiled and because they have no idea how bad it can be they take their privilege for granted. These kids either grew up in about as bad as it can be, and remember it, or they see it often enough on the street outside that they take everyday in Hope Home as a blessing. When my kids are born they are coming here for a year.
Arriving in Darjeeling (unfortunately not aboard the Darjeeling Limited), our second stop, was preceded by a careening 3 hour car ride up through tea plantations dotted across 45 degree slopes on roads only wide enough for a single vechile at a time. The road ended in town crammed with Tibetan refugees and 3x the population it was designed for. The concrete and corrugated aluminum structures that line the narrow roads are built literally one on top of the other and most looked so precarious it seemed a stiff breeze would blow them right off the mountain. Though the Himalayas were not as close I thought they would be, waking up to an unobstructed view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, wasn’t too bad.
Next on the itinerary was the stay with Jimmy Singh, the retired Indian general with 50 years of service under his belt. This was been the part of the trip I had most looked forward to, here was a high ranking Indian military officer who had served during the entirety of the Cold War! And here I was! A fresh International Relations graduate with a diploma from the mighty Beloit College. What debates we would have! We didn’t actually the General in person until our fourth day, when we left his estate for our stay at his farm house. By this point I was practically salivating. Three days of looking at portraits and photo albums of him during his victorious campaign against Pakistan and the astonishingly large collection of ceremonial sabres that adorned his wall had only peaked my interest.
And he didn’t disappoint. In fact it quickly became a apparent that this tall, distinguished Sikh had probably forgotten more since he woke up that morning about world affairs than I had learned in what I though was four years of rigorous study. I ended by just listening, slack jawed as he told about how the world actually worked. How China gave Pakistan nuclear technology but that wind patterns on the subcontinent make using a nuke impossible without the fallout blowing back, how India had almost invaded Tibet before Mao had entrenched himself and how to negotiate with a Thai officer. These were just a few of the areas covered.
The trip from Gen. Jimmy’s idyllic farm house near the Nepalese and Bhutanese borders ended with us in the forgotten northeastern state of Manipur. Our arrival coincidental coincided with one of the areas biggest events of the year- the annual free health clinic. This clinic is held by Jewish Voices Ministries International, an incredibly efficient Zionist group that is both trying to bring Jews to Jesus and unite the lost tribes of Israel. The Benne Manasha, a Jewish tribe that lives in the hills close to Sielmat, my current home, have been genetically identified as belonging to one of these lost tribes, hence JVMI’s interest in Manipur. The hospital hosting the clinic belongs to Bibles for the World, my current employer and host. And since my actual work for John Pudiate, BFTW’s vice-president, couldn’t start until after the clinic, I find myself, pockets stuffed with multi-colored wrist bands and Sharpies, shoving old ladies to the back of a bamboo fenced line.
As I watch the poor woman angrily waddle away, I find myself thinking longingly of the possible projects I will be working on in weeks to come. Projects which, hopefully, will not involve yelling “reading glasses!?” questioningly into the uncomprehending faces of polite locals. John has given me some ideas but nothing set in stone. I could be coordinating with Doctors Without Borders, I could be organizing getting multivitamins to school children, I could be investigating a pre-pay electrical system that uses generators and solar cells, or it could end up John realizes I’m completely incompetent and has me raking leaves for 3 months, but I’m hoping for the former.
Well, that’s not for another three days, when this clinic finally ends and after my parents leave. Right now its thirty minutes until the clinic closes and I can’t even see the back of the line.