Gateway of India

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Broken Badger in Bombay

We arrived in India on April 15.  Those days were full of jet lag, overwhelming traffic, amazing food, and the most intense sights, sounds, and smells we had ever experienced.  The thrill of relocating half way across the world was exhilarating and terrifying and exhilarating.  In those heady days right after our arrival, we soaked up as much as we could, and woke up ready for more.
And then exactly one week after we arrived, after going for MONTHS without any back issues at all (Todd really thought his sciatica had completely resolved), while Todd was getting ready for his first Monday at work, he reached down to pick up a towel from the floor in the bathroom, felt something pop in his back, saw stars, and literally dropped to his knees in pain.  And from that moment forward, we’ve added another aspect to our experience here in India that we couldn’t have anticipated: navigating the Indian medical system.

After that moment, I saw Todd experience what I’m pretty sure was the most excruciating pain he’s ever experienced.  Keep in mind that this is a guy who’s endured his fair share of pain: he played ice hockey through college, had a man hole cover get dropped on his toe when he was kid, has had a few surgeries over the years, and has an ER file that he’s more proud of than his school transcripts.  And also keep in mind that this husband of mine downplays ever ache and pain he has, believes in “mind over matter” when it comes to any ailment, and goes to work no matter how much I may protest.  And ALSO keep in mind that we had just relocated to India SPECIFICALLY for this amazing job opportunity at Reliance.  One week in, and he was NOT about to take even a moment off of work if he could avoid it.  So, after that moment, Todd grinned and bared it, and headed to the office, and has every day since.

Meanwhile, I did the only thing I could do, and got busy with trying to figure out who to call, where to go, and how to proceed with getting him fixed!  At this point, a random connection through an email forum with another expat led me to contact Hiranandani Hospital here in Mumbai.  I anxiously called their appointment desk with the intention of trying/hoping to get an appointment with one of their pain specialists.

This is the point where I need to explain that while English is spoken widely here in Mumbai, that doesn’t always mean that it is easily-understood-English, especially to my virgin ears at that point with only one week of boots on the ground.  Through some miracle and with an abundance of patience on both ends, the kind receptionist comprehended my request and secured Todd an appointment....for that SAME DAY, as opposed to weeks down the road that would have been the case in the States!  AND I received a very helpful SMS (text) message on my mobile (cell phone) to boot confirming the particulars right after hanging up.

And so began our journey through the complex landscape of hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, and procedures in this new home of ours.  Along the way, we’ve had the most astonishing experiences that have literally stopped us in our tracks, especially when compared to our experiences in the States.
  • As I mentioned, it is commonplace to secure same and next day appointments with specialists, and most often those appointments are later in the day (late afternoon/early evening) so as to avoid conflicting with most people’s work schedules.
  • The cost of services is miraculous, especially being accustomed to the US health care system and its accompanying costs.  Here, we have paid:
    • $12 for a consultation with not one, but two, advanced pain management specialists;
    • $20 for a consultation with a leading orthopedic spine surgeon;
    • $110 for an aMRI; and 
    • $275 for a full blood chemistry, 3 ultrasounds, an EKG, a 2D carotid doppler, and 2 x-rays (thorough investigations are completed in order to clear a patient for surgery).
  • We have been met at the front door of the hospital by Todd’s pain doctors, as well as called and SMS’d physicians personal cell phones.
None of these experiences have been because we are expats.  These experiences  are universal to the system in a country that has deemed it appropriate to provide more accessible healthcare to its citizens.

So, as “temporary” citizens of India, we find ourselves gearing up for a surgery that we hope will address Todd’s pain.  Yes, I said surgery, that Todd will have here, in India.

Essentially, what Todd has are degenerative disks in his spine which have led to sciatica pain - shooting/stabbing/burning/tingling sensations that radiate down his leg into his foot.  Because the disks are bulging, the canals where his nerves travel are compressed,  thus causing the issues.  We imagine that something back there slipped on that day in April, shifting the pieces and parts around in such a way that his body just could not handle.  Prior to that, the previous discectomy he had in 2000 had completely fixed the sciatica pain he had at that point, and the more recent sciatica pain had been very manageable with an occasional steroid injection over the last couple of years.  In fact, after consulting with a surgeon in the US just six months ago while living in Maryland, he was told that his condition was not severe enough to even warrant surgery at that time.  So, imagine our surprise when the MRI here in April showed a much different story, one where the disks had degenerated significantly enough in that short period of time to require surgery in order to address the pain.

After consulting with three top surgeons here in India, however, we were stumped.  While all three recommended surgery, they all suggested different procedures.  In what I fully realize is a feeble attempt now at making a long story short, we finally settled on Dr. Bhojraj at Lilavati Hospital in Mumbai who will perform a lumbar laminectomy with discectomy.  From what I can gather in my internet research and in talking with various people here, Lilavati is one of the best hospitals, and Dr. Bhojraj is likely the best spinal surgeon in the city.  Ultimately, we knew we found a winner when we discovered during our first appointment with him that his son is a graduate student at UW-Madison.  We’ll take all the Badger love we can get, even if it is once-removed!

So, Todd is scheduled for surgery this Tuesday, 2-July.  He’ll get admitted to the hospital on Sunday, we assume to control all the in- and out-puts prior to going under the knife.  Unlike his surgery in 2000 which was a minimally invasive keyhole procedure where he went home the same day, this will be an “open surgery,” requiring a week-long hospital stay.  He’ll recuperate at home then for 2-3 weeks, and then will hopefully be able to return to the office at the end of July, with a 3-4 month total recovery time before he’s completely back to normal.

I’m not going to lie, we’re both pretty scared.  Todd’s had a few surgeries over the years, but this one seems...well, different: it’s an open surgery with more chances for infection and a bigger incision, the hospital stay is longer, the recovery more intense, and it’s happening so very far away from home.  Overall, the stakes just seem...bigger.

I’m confident that Todd is in great hands with Dr. Bhojraj, and we’ve got a great support system here with our friends at Beverly Park where we live and Reliance where Todd works.  More importantly, Todd wants to feel better and be able to live this adventure to its fullest, so I’m certain that this motivation will drive a successful surgery and his recovery forward.  With that said, we certainly could use all the positive thoughts and prayers we can get our hands on.

While we don’t usually post about our aches/pains/ailments on Facebook, I’ll probably put up a few status updates in the coming week since it’s the most efficient way to get word out to our family and friends about how he’s doing.  As a bonus, I hope to capture and pass along some good zingers he’s likely to utter coming out of anesthesia.  No matter what, we’re going to keep things positive and look on the bright side of life until “the surgery in India” is nothing but a distant memory on our journey.

~Todd & Mel

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Bombay Paperie in Fort & Baskets in Mahim

Note: I posted the pictures and accompanying text below on Facebook earlier after debating with myself about which format to post or Facebook photo album.  I thought I'd mimic the same photos/text from the Facebook post in a blog post here, and share it this way as well for comparison purposes.  I think there are advantages to both options, but would love to hear any feedback you may have about which format you prefer or think is better, especially since I'm new to the "blogosphere"...  Thanks, in advance, for any input.


Another day, another adventure last Thursday with Dee, Judy, and Inez, this time on a "paper chase" to the Fort area in Bombay, and then a scavenger hunt in Mahim for baskets.

The Bombay Stock Exchange is in the historical downtown area of Mumbai on a beautiful tree-lined pedestrian street.

Surrounded by mobile tactical units and lots of armed police that are just beyond the periphery of this photo, we remembered that the Indian financial market exists in the same scary world that every other financial hub does too.

And then we found our destination: the Bombay Paperie, right across the street from the Stock Exchange! Dee and Inez visited last week, and after lots of arm twisting (NOT!), they graciously accompanied Judy and me so we could check it out.

The Bombay Paperie is committed to preserving the ancient crafts of paper making by hand and dying.

You can read more about what they're all about here:

Pick a color, any color! 

Many of the hand-made papers, none of which are made from trees but rather cotton waste, are printed on with hand carved wooden blocks.

Cards, tags, statues, lamps, containers, jewelry...the Bombay Paperie is keeping traditions alive by finding new and creative uses for these beautiful papers.

Look for these fun creatures to make their debut at Dee's craft center in an upcoming Mumbai Mobile Creche activity with the kids!

We ventured down the road from the Paperie toward Horniman Circle Gardens and passed the St. Thomas Cathedral.

The cathedral was completed in 1718, and was the first Anglican Church in Mumbai. According to Wikipedia, the name of nearby Churchgate Station refers to this church. One of the gates in the Fort that the East India Company built to protect their settlement was the entrance to the St. Thomas Church. It was called Churchgate, and that is why the whole area towards the West of the Church is called “Churchgate” even today.

Crossing the street, we headed toward this historical building.
This is one of Todd's major competitors....Croma, not the cow!

In search of some mid-day sustenance, we found the Starbucks, right next to the Croma. This was the first Starbucks to open in India, and is now one of several in Mumbai. Honestly, it was probably the coolest Starbucks I've ever been in. After a quick refuel, we were on our way to the second part of the day's adventure.

We've found that a lot of the "adventure" here comes from hearing about something that you want to try/visit/find (a store, a market, an item for which you've been searching, etc.), and then going on what can sometimes be a wild goose chase to find it. So, with Inez determined to find some baskets, and being armed with "sort of" directions from a shop owner we visited the day prior, we headed out of the Fort area and up into Mahim where we were told there was a basket market.

And indeed, there was. Nothing fancy, just some craftsmen and women on the side of the road. Thankfully, Judy's driver got us to where we needed to go, and we found exactly what Inez was looking for. These are the kind of baskets that you'll often see at markets filled with various produce. Some of them, like this basket, had metal strips added in the center to make them stronger.


You don't have to be much of a photographer when you have amazing subjects with which to work!

In process...

Finished product.

This little friend followed us along as we checked out the market.

A treasure from the Paperie adding some color and texture to our living room...

And one of those amazing baskets adding some warmth to the corner of our kitchen.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Mind the Gap

Another school year is coming to a close in the States, but It’s the beginning of the school year here in India.  However, at present time,
  • 4% of Indian children never start school;
  • 58% don’t complete elementary school;
  • 90% don’t complete secondary school.

We witness this education gap every week when our troupe of expat volunteers from Beverly Park ventures to a construction site in Belapur to work with kids at a Mumbai Mobile Creche.  While the parents work on the construction site, the kids go to the day care and receive some basic supervision and care throughout the day.  On Tuesday’s, we spend two hours with the school-aged children.

Most of these kids have never attended a formal school, nor will they ever.

The kids come running, smiling from ear to ear, when they see our cars arrive.  They shake our hands in greeting and say, “Good afternoon, Ma’am.”  They’re favorite song right now is “Head and Shoulders,” so we sing it, then we sing it again slooooooowly, and then fast - their favorite (“Now fast, please, ma’am?!”).

We have a feel now for the kids who have been regulars, so we try to break them up in to groups based on their levels, and do rotations to different stations: colors, shapes, letters, numbers, and a craft.  Our focus is on English vocabulary, letter/number sense/recognition, and fine motor skills while having some fun along the way.  We provide a snack, and coach saying “please” and “thank you.”  Our time finishes with more songs, and a story or two.  We’re noticing more behavior issues, but struggle to address them because of the language barrier.  It’s a good thing that “the teacher look” is a universal sign for “knock it off.”

Puja has told me so many stories.  We laugh and smile, but I can’t understand her Hindi and she barely understands my English.

Sanjoni comes every week ready and eager to participate, but last week barely smiled or participated.  She clearly didn’t feel well.

Priti is one of the oldest boys to whom everyone looks up, and he finished our session last week by reading a book aloud to the whole class.  Everyone clapped and cheered for him.

Datta was so proud when he found the letter “d” in our letter search before the bigger boys in his group, and clandestinely held on to the “z” while his group was putting all of the letters in order so that he could triumphantly place it at the end, because it’s one of the few letters besides “d” that he really knows.

This week, a new boy whose name I can’t remember kept switching places in the snack line so that he could get more crackers to put in his pocket for later.

Our merry band of volunteers loves these kids, searches all over Mumbai for materials and resources we think will be useful, talks about them in between sessions, wonders how they are faring in the rains, and worries about whether or not Sanjoni is feeling better.  We keep going back each week, but...

It’s not enough.

It’s inconsistent.

We barely scratch the surface.

These kids ARE the education gap in India.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Home Sweet Home - Beverly Park 400709

When someone dear relocates, it’s really not until I can stalk see them in their new digs either in pictures or in person that I can truly understand their new reality.  I’m a visual learner, and those pictures in my mind are what allow me to make connections and relate to someone else’s experience.  For me, knowing other’s surroundings makes a difference.  What can I say?  Call me nosey!  I prefer “informed.”

I guess it might be a lame excuse for sharing pictures of our own home here on the blog, but we thought that giving a peek in to our happy abode would shed some light on one aspect of our expat life in India.  Consider this post one third of a “House Hunters International” episode where you already know the outcome.  At the very least, I know my mom will get a kick out of these pics!

Beverly Park exterior
Beverly Park is primarily inhabited by employees of Reliance and their families (when the latter chooses to come).  There aren’t very many expats here working in the same Reliance Digital retail branch for whom Todd works; many of the folks here are doing contracting/consulting work with Fluor or Bechtel for Reliance, or are part of the HUGE 4G project that you’ve probably heard Todd mention along the way.  Expats here come from the States, the UK, Canada, Australia, and Germany, to name a few countries, along with Indians who have moved here from other parts of the country to work for this very large company that has it’s “fingers” in many different areas of the economy.  We’ve grown to really appreciate the fact that we can have a very “Indian” experience whenever we go out to shop, for dinner, to explore, and sight see, but then get this very “international” experience and perspective on our home turf by interacting with the many expat friends we’ve made here at Beverly Park.

Overlooking our Kopar Khairane neighborhood in Navi Mumbai.
Honestly, there is a huge advantage to living in a complex like this when undertaking an international experience, especially here in Mumbai.  Some very veteran expats might say that it’s a cop out (you should live in a flat amid the locals), but - hey - when you’re dealing with a THOUSAND things EVERY day that pull you out of your comfort zone, having your home be “easy” is one thing we’ll take without question.
A view of the walking trails, pool, tennis court, and club house.
That white building just below that taller hill in the background is a
mosque from which we can hear the call to prayer five times a day every day.
While Beverly Park is run by a large international serviced residences company, the employees go out of their way to make sure the residents feel at home.  Most of the  staff with whom we interact on a regular basis know us by name, and we enjoy having conversations with each other about family and day-to-day comings/goings.  On site, there is a pool, tennis courts, walking trails, work out facility, and little theater where they will occasionally do a “movie night.”  Recently, a “restaurant” was added that is open 24/7 and serves three meals a day, plus take-away during the rest of their non-meal hours.  For just a couple hundred rupees, we’ve enjoyed some pretty tasty dinners, and have been grateful to have that option since 1) we don’t yet have gas service set up for our cooktop, as a very lengthy process is involved for setting up propane service due to security issues in India; and 2) we’ve heard that getting around and access to grocery items can be more challenging during the monsoons, set to start in about 2 weeks, so having an on-site source for meals will be crucial.  If there is a problem (such as sitting with no power like I did for 30 minutes earlier today), a quick call to Guest Services results in a very helpful maintenance person coming up and rectifying the situation.  We’ve got some creature comforts too, including A/C, satellite TV, internet (albeit VERY slow until 4G comes along...Todd says it’s AT LEAST as blazin’ fast as AOL 5.0...), full size refrigerator, convection microwave, and in-unit washer/dryer (well, actually, those are on the balcony...).

The entryway.
We do our best to never wear our shoes in the house in an effort to avoid tracking greater Mumbai in to the house.
The Maid's Room.
Uh...yah, we use it store luggage.
View of the hallway from the entryway.
That's a pass through to the dining room above the counter.
Full size fridge decorated with Sconnie swag, water bottle, rice cooker, toaster, microwave convection oven.
That little door goes to the balcony where the washer/dryer are. 
In-unit laundry!
Spare bedroom awaiting guests....hint hint!!!
I promise I won't make you iron...
Dining room.
Living room.
Living room.
Master bedroom.
There have also been a few “quirks” with which to contend, but that’s just part of the “Hey, we’re not in the US anymore” learning process.  The mattresses are all very thin, so we discovered after talking to a friend that we could request a “Western style” mattress...thank goodness!  Like many non-US countries, each water source runs on it’s own geyser (a small water heater), so you have to remember to turn it on about 10 minutes before you want hot’s different, but far more efficient.  We’ve got a dehumidifier that runs constantly, and we empty it at least twice per day!  Tap water is not at all potable, so we only consume bottled water, and a filter connected to the kitchen tap allows us to wash/rinse dishes safely without having to use up the bottled water.  Power, as we understand it, is a lot more reliable now than it was even a year ago, but we still lose it on occasion.
His bathroom.
Note the geyser in the upper left corner.
Her bathroom.
Note the bottle of water...We always have a full bottle ready for teeth brushing.
In the grand scheme of things, especially when you consider the intense and extensive poverty that is all around us, these “quirks” are just different ways of getting things done at best, or minor inconveniences at worst.  Either way, we consider ourselves very fortunate to have made our home here at Beverly Park.  We’re looking forward to collecting some treasures along our journey in order to personalize it a bit more.  In the meantime, we hope you enjoyed taking a peek.


Todd & Melissa

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Week of 19-May-2013 in Review

A Note to our Family & Friends:  Facebook is a great forum we use often to post things as we go, but when there is more to share, it just isn't that convenient.  And I've had many people suggest that we start a blog to chronicle this crazy adventure in greater detail....  So, I'm finally getting this venture up and running.  I don't pretend to be a great writer, and certainly have a lot to learn from some other out-of-this-world bloggers out there, so I trust that you'll all bear with me as I get my feet wet and see how this goes.  Thanks for your interest, and off we go with Blog Post Numero Uno!

Once again, our expat adventure in India proves to be UH-mazing...

Evidence #1: Last weekend, I battled my first I-should-probably-see-a-doctor-illness here in India.  This need became apparent after Todd asked me one morning what I thought about the drums/horns/singing/fireworks for the wedding celebration taking place below our window from about midnight to 1am, to which I replied, “What wedding?”  The amazing thing about being here is that you can see a doctor for next to nothing (650Rs = $12), and he will actually make a house call.  Then, after the good doctor has written his prescription for antibiotics, a decongestant, and pain reliever, the couldn’t-be-nicer-staff here at Beverly Park sends a nice boy to run out and fill the prescriptions and deliver it right to our flat for another 150Rs = $3.  Two days later, I was as good as new and ready to tackle what comes our way next.

Evidence #2: I ventured back to the construction site on Tuesday with the expat group from our apartment complex to spend the afternoon with the kiddos.  I posted about this previously here and here on FB if you're wondering what that's all about.  We're doing our best to try and give the kids a modicum of exposure to very basic English (shapes, colors), number sense, and letter recognition.  We've got about 20 li'l beans who have been coming, and we'll have to see how stable/transient that group is over the coming weeks.  These kids come running when they see our cars pull up, and have smiles on their faces the whole time they are with us, despite the fact that they only speak Hindi and we only speak English.  Honestly, I think us volunteers may get more out of the experience than the kids!

Evidence #3: Jalebi...  Enough said.

Evidence #4: MONKEYS!!!

Evidence #5: When stores are opened here in India, they really know how to do it right!!!  An auspicious beginning is a MUST!  I know Todd thought this was just about the absolute coolest thing he's ever been a part of.

Evidence #6: A table of expats sat next to us when we were out for dinner last night.  It’s almost impossible NOT to clue in to other expats, especially Americans, because day-to-day we really are sort of few and far between. Shamelessly, we listened to their Midwest accents, and then made guesses about where they were from....Chicago?  Detroit?  Our friend, Brian, took the initiative to go up and introduce us all, and found out they were from Cincinnati.  Close, but no cigar...oh well.  Regardless, we struck up a conversation, found out that they are HUGE OSU fans (sad, I know :), at which point we yelled “Go, Badgers!” true Big 10 camaraderie fashion, we exchanged contact info, and Todd and I have an invitation to join in on their tailgating fun this Fall.  Granted, it will be in the middle of the night here, but - hey - it’s football!!!

Stay tuned for more next week!


Mel & Todd