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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Rotary Foreign Exchange Program - Part 3

My own experience with hallucination came with a Malaria-induced fever. My temperature rose to 105 degrees. I lay freezing and shaking in a sweat-soaked bed, with my host family out of town. I was given some pills by a visiting doctor, and a recommendation to take them along with water. I couldn't get up to get the water though, or remember what the pills were for or where I left them or what time to take them. A fellow exchange student stayed with me and kept me on track. I remember laughing at the thought that I might die in India of malaria... and I was the only one of the exchange students who bothered trying to avoid it. We all got pills back in the US... Big ones... They made you sick for an entire day, and you were supposed to take them weekly. I kept at it for three or four months. No one else could stand them. I came down with the crazy chills and fevered hallucinations about a month after stopping.

Perhaps I had displeased the mosquito gods. I thought about my copy of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, and how I had used it to kill hundreds of the pests inside the mosquito netting of my last bedroom. After securing myself inside, I opened the book to a random page and slammed it shut on each one until I could sleep in peace. After two months, the book, a meditation on universal oneness, was gorged with blood splats and parasite carcasses.

Nayda, my friend from British Columbia, contracted typhoid fever at one point. She made it to an actual hospital where conditions seemed at least sanitary. Her hair fell out in clumps and doctors fretted over her prognosis, but she made it through without having to be sent back to the States. Visiting her at the relatively posh medical facility, I thought about the queues at the Mumbai street clinics, where people waited for days to be seen by a nurse. I wondered how many poor souls died while waiting in line, and if the clinic had a method for disposing of their bodies. And did their method resemble my mosquito technique?

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Honoring the gods was part of everyday life for Indians. Statues of Ganesha adorned every store and the entry of each house. A culture of constant tribute pervades. Small dishes of food, grains, spices, burning sticks of incense and coins are all left before the elephant-headed god... prayers that his wisdom will grant them blessings. This was impossibly different for an American like me, someone who had never even seen the inside of a church!

The religiously observant did embrace me on one point: vegetarianism. A practice considered pious, and usually only honored by women and the elderly, vegetarianism is a central tenet to Hinduism. Even though I came at it from a different angle, grandmothers always smiled at me when they heard I abstained from eating meat... as if I was helping keep their tradition alive in the face of Western dominance. I was nothing like the non-violent Jains of their world though... if they would have seen my copy of Siddhartha, I think their smiles would have vanished as swiftly as they were given.

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