Different Types of Sickness

Drafted 1 April 2011

I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the food situation here with my host family. It was never that balanced of a vegetarian diet and it feels like, over the course of March, it has only gotten worse. Mamta is fanatically vegetarian, and if it wasn’t for the chai we consume she would (and by extension, us) be vegan. I’m okay with vegetarianism, but vegan is hard enough to do right in the States, and it sure isn’t being done right with my host family.
A typical menu with my host family:
Breakfast is usually a chapati1, either stuffed with yesterday’s leftover rice/potatoes, or fried with jam that the volunteers pay for.
Lunch is usually dal with rice. The dal, if it has beans in it, is the only protein I get all day. Often it doesn’t have beans in it. Then it’s just a watery soupy spiced mixture that I dump over my rice and I go without protein.
Dinner is usually subji (vegetables) and chapatis. One common example of this is cabbage, potatoes onions, and peas, spiced and oiled.

I’ve also noticed over the course of the month that the portions have gotten smaller and smaller. She’s cooking the same amount of food for seven people that used to be cooked for five. There are nights where I want seconds, but I’m afraid that if I have seconds, someone in my host family will go hungry.

As much as I do like Mamta, I don’t think it’s appropriate for someone to make their living off of hosting volunteers. I also think that she remains too poor to do this. Volunteers shouldn’t be doing things like paying for their own beds, they shouldn’t be buying the fans for the whole apartment. They shouldn’t have to settle with only 1/2 a cup of vegetables for dinner because seconds means someone else doesn’t eat.

And, I mean, it’s an experience, that’s for sure. Not a healthy one. My body has decided that I’m too unhealthy to menstruate2, I sleep so much more because I simply don’t have the energy, my hair hasn’t grown (no, really – and it falls out a lot more too) in the two months I’ve been here, and my immune system isn’t nearly as good as it used to be.

Thursday, Betsy, Ellis and I went into New Delhi For An Actual Meal. We went to a restaurant that I’ve eaten at before and Betsy and I indulged in a “Baja Chicken Burger” which gloriously included both ham and chicken.
And then Betsy and I, either due to bad meat or because we haven’t had meat in god knows how long, were violently ill for the next twenty four hours. The kind of ill where your nausea bounces back and forth and it’s a gamble which end you want to aim towards the toilet. The kind of ill that, when drafting this entry, I felt so weak that I could only write a paragraph at a time before I had to put my head back down.

I’m only somewhat better today (2 April). Still not 100% in the digestive system. Probably closer to 60%. But I ventured out to get multivitamins at the chemist and spend a bit of time at the internet cafe to indulge what’s going on in my head.
I love India. If I had the opportunity to move here after graduate school, I would. But I would have a lot more control over my diet if I did that. I hate that I’ve paid for food that isn’t healthy. I hate how weak I feel, how my joints hurt like an old women. I hate that eating meat may or may not result in me being violently ill.
And this transitioned into homesickness. I rarely get homesick. Not even as a wee one at summer camp. But I’m a lot more vulnerable to it when I’m sick. It doesn’t matter where you are, if you’re sick all you want is the familiar. Ginger ale. Saltiness. Chicken Noodle Soup. Your Mom, if possible.
Food is such a huge part of my social life back home. Wanting chicken noodle soup and ginger ale shifted into wanting to go out to eat with friends and be reasonably assured that I wouldn’t get sick as a result. I miss baking. I miss having a friend over, cooking dinner and splitting a bottle of wine over conversation. I miss the dinners I used to have with my ex-boyfriend, where he’d cook dinner and I’d throw a dessert together. I miss food that is safe, that I don’t have to worry about. I miss salads. I miss meat. I miss having a balanced diet and exercising regularly and feeling healthy. Because I don’t feel healthy. I feel old and brittle and feeble. My muscles, while not completely gone, could not handle the weights they used to be able to. I haven’t gained or lost weight that I can tell, but probably only because my body has gone into starvation mode and god knows how long it will take to get my metabolism back to normal.

I thought about all these things and did something strangely assertive for me: I emailed the director of the volunteer programs in Faridabad about the food in my host family. I was actually frustrated enough that I typed it all out on my phone, as I was in no condition to go to the internet cafe yesterday. She gets a chunk of change (here in India) for hosting us, one that is better than many of the salaries I’ve seen advertised. And with that, she needs to support herself and her two boys, pay off medical and legal bills… I get all that. But she also needs to feed us, and feed us well enough that we don’t get sick over malnutrition.
Within ten minutes (oh, Blackberries) he had responded saying that he’d talk to Mamta about it and it’d change. I have no idea if it will, and my stomach is still in no place to indulge in it for the next few days if she does.

Hand in hand with the sick-induced-homesickness came the realization that I am only halfway through my trip. I so rarely think about the big picture. I’m focusing on the fact that I leave for Rishikesh on the 7th, and then after that I only have two weeks left of my project before Nepal. On a day-to-day level, I don’t think about the fact that I have almost three months left of travelling before I’m home. When I do, the thought is exhausting. Even more exhausting is thinking that it’s really only a brief break at home. That I turn around in three months and go back abroad, for even longer of a time.

I have so much further to go before I see who I am at the end of all this. Before I can turn back and look at my self and my changes and really think about it and processes it all.
I feel so old. And tired, both in the scheme of things and in this present moment. I have maxed out my energy for this internet cafe excursion and need to go back for a nap.


1 wheat flour based unleavened bread also known as “roti.”

2 Not pregnant. But I haven’t had a period since late January and I can really only attribute it to my diet.

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3 Responses to Different Types of Sickness

  1. Erin L says:

    If you have access to safe water, pick up some ORS (oral rehydration salt) packets the next time you’re at the chemist. It’s good to have them on hand for an emergency.

  2. Pingback: Introducing… the host family | mis·trans·la·tion

  3. Pingback: On Volunteering | mis·trans·la·tion

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