the queue (if you could call it that)

Two weeks in, and I have yet to step foot inside a hospital.  Well, ok, I did walk into the Apollo, but more on that later.  For now, let’s just say the mood is ambivalent.  I’ve been writing poems, and I think some interesting things are coming out, but they’ve mainly been about the initial frisson of arrival, the spectacular differences and the struggle of bridging cultures.  Nothing yet about “medical tourism”.  All the contacts I have either don’t get back to me, or are in meetings, or want me to send them emails…  But, as India teaches you, you have to keep pushing – with a soft fluidity as well as a vigour.

University of Madras

 

 

 

 

The staff at the University of Madras have all been gracious and welcoming.  I have a room set aside for me on the rooftop of the main building, which overlooks Marina Beach and fills up with the sea breeze.  They’ve also continued to reassure me that the extent of my involvement at the University is up to me; that my poetry-writing is the priority.  We’ve organised a few things though, all at the University’s English Department –

  • Poetry Reading – Thursday 3rd November, 1pm
  • Creative Writing Workshop on Embodiment – Monday 5th December, 10am.
  • Lecture/discussion on Recent Australian Poetry – Tuesday 3rd January.

Apart from the Uni, all my contacts with people have been accidental.  I met a lovely guy from Hyderabad who was staying at my hotel, who shouted me lunch (“it’s our duty”) and asked me what I hate about India the most, and what I love.  For the record, I said its poverty and its strength.  Which made me wonder about the relationship between the two…  While I was at my room at the Uni, Syam Sudhakar waltzed in to meet me.  He was actually at the Queensland Poetry Festival in 2009 (I was there in 2008 and 2010!) – he’s a fine poet, too – while we were chatting, he got mail, a copy of a journal with two poems of his in it.  Oh, and I was also (gently) harrassed for money by a group of hijras, laughing as one of them took my hat and wore it…

Approaching the Apollo Hospital, Chennai

 

 

 

 

 

Anyway, so, as I was saying, I did walk into the Apollo Hospital the other day.  I took a long, tiring walk to Thousand Lights (a few suburbs away from my hotel) to get a sense of what this renowned hospital is like – who goes there, what surrounds it, etc.  At a distance, I thought I saw it, but it was actually a luxury hotel – oops, Andy, don’t get carried away.  Apollo is of course a large medical complex, and it clearly has some money behind it, but it looks more like a standard country hospital.  The main difference being the huge crowds.  Hundreds of bikes and motorbikes are out the front.  Autorickshaws cruise the exit for customers.  Families wait in groups outside.  In the waiting room, it’s hard to move – dozens and dozens of people sit, stand, lie, pace, all without much apparent distress or frustration.  I can’t imagine everyone would be seen on the day they come.  But it seems accepted that this is just how it is.  In the corner is a sign that directs “international patients” to a separate cubicle.  Which reminds me of the time I went to a doctor in Kalimpong, West Bengal, three years ago – I was rushed to the front of the (albeit small) queue, and felt acutely relieved and ashamed.

The other thing I’ve noticed is the number of gyms here (which I didn’t notice in the north or centre of the country).  Wondering what that implies…

Oh, and where I’m staying – Sangeetha Residency in Mylapore – is pretty good.  It’s got all the basics you need and the buffet breakfast is part of the deal (mmm, idli…).  The choice you have to make is between a room with a window onto the inner car-park, which makes it feel like a cell, and a room that overlooks the road, which is almost always a cacophony of vehicles honking (and now that it’s Diwali, so many crackers and fireworks exploding through the night, which makes the air look like a thick fog and sounds like a small war!).  I prefer the latter.  You may prefer neither.

And below, some important places for Deepawali – temple, and a shop for fireworks…!

not your typical…

No, this is not your typical writer’s residency.  It’s in India.  So, having been in Chennai – the bustling, matter-of-fact capital of Tamil Nadu – for just over 3 days now, I’m still adjusting.  Having done a few residencies in the last few years, I’d gotten used to the idea of just turning up and sipping coffee while writing, then going for relaxing walks.  Not that I thought it would be like that here…  I think I was just so focussed on the content of my project – the personal and inter-cultural dimensions of “medical tourism” – I’d forgotten that travel always implicates the traveller.  You are no neutral observer.

A few examples.  I was on my way to an internet cafe when a man, about 60-ish, approached me, and started walking with me.  He said he worked at the airport and recognised me from when I arrived – he gestured to his lower lip to where my facial hair is, then stooped over to imitate my posture, smiling.  We chatted in broken English for a while, until he stopped, leaned towards me, and whispered “can you help me?”.  He had a bag from an eye hospital and a print-out of the costs of some procedure or prescription, running to the thousands of rupees.  I am not proud to say I gave him a tiny amount, then refused when he pleaded for more.  I still don’t know how to feel.  I can still hear him saying “I don’t ask anybody!”, then myself saying “but you’re asking me…”.  I still don’t know how I feel about how I responded, or even what exactly happened, or what problems this man has, if any.

Who is  responsible for the health of the Indian people?  What happens when someone’s social circle can’t help or support him (or her)?

Example two, a little less significant.  Just after this encounter, I popped into a little supermarket to buy a few supplies, and thought I may as well buy a few oranges as well.  Only after I got back to the hotel, did I notice the sticker on them – grown in Australia.  Does India actually need Australian oranges?  I don’t think so.  I don’t either.  But they’re here.

Anyway, here’s a few photos that somehow reflect my first impressions of Chennai – well, of Mylapore anyway, the suburb where I’m staying.  The traffic is a self-organising cacophony, the people are gentle and subtle and (for the most part) leave you to your own devices, it’s hot as hell (an overnight low of 25 is considered “pleasant”), and the locals love their little oases (the beach, parks, AC restaurants, the mall…).

view from outside my hotel window - 12-hr shoe stallelection booth under a fly-over, Chennai

 

 

 

 

 

the river is rising

A quick post from an air-conditioned internet cafe in Banglamphu, Bangkok, two metres away from a coffee machine (I wasn’t planning on finding one, I just must have a Melbournian magnet for them).  Bangkok and other parts of Thailand are facing the worst floods in decades.  The Chao Phraya River here is swollen and heavy – banks, jewellery stores, hotels and a few other businesses are quickly building little 1-2 foot high concrete barriers, or building barriers with sandbags at the storefront.  You step over them to get inside.  Unsurprisingly, no-one seems put out or panicked or angry about it.  It’s Thailand after all.

My hotel – Bhiman Inn – is a modest, reasonable small-ish mid-range joint about 10 mins walk from Khao San Rd.  Luckily.  That infamous strip is everything I’ve heard and worse.  Neo-colonial consumerist brothel.  Staff hold up signs that say they don’t ask for ID; every few steps someone is offering to sell you something (though they do tend to back off when you say no…); men of all ages and backgrounds walk around blankly arguing with their Thai “girlfriends”.  Fascinating to walk down, but I wouldn’t want to be there.

Bangkok is a mystery.  All cities are of course.  But this one feels experienced in presenting itself and hiding itself at the same time.  The typical pan-Asian concrete blocks and advertising hoardings, franchises, footpath traders, sizzling food-stalls, dogs and cats and motorcycles and more makeshift powerlines than you can imagine.  Pedestrian traffic-flow is smooth, polite and calm.  As are the roads.  And the parks are mysteriously meticulously clean.  There is a long history of cross-cultural engagement and tourism here; people of all backgrounds are here; Thais rarely bat an eyelid at outsiders, they just go about their lives.

I’ve visited a few temples, parks, the National Museum, bustling streets and back-streets, and missed a few things.  It’s only a 2-day stop really, so there’s not much I can see or understand in that time.  Today, I’ll try to find the Forensics Museum (!), and prepare for Chennai.  Speaking of medical tourism, an ad in the Bangkok Post (english-language) Classifieds offered breast enlargement, liposuction and other procedures, and said foreigners are charged the same as Thai people.  One of Bangkok’s local tourism magazines devote an entire column to medical travel.  How visible is it in India?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS I found the Forensics Museum.  Truly fascinating on many levels – gruesome to the point of stomach churning, but haunting, mysterious and just plain odd.

“medical tourism” from the inside…

In October this year, I’m travelling to India to find out what “medical tourism” is all about. You may now have visions of me in surgical robes, nervously waiting to be anaesthetised, but no, this isn’t a kind of “method acting” in poetry.

Asialink (along with the Australia Council for the Arts and the Australia-India Council) have been generous enough to grant me a 3-month literature residency, based at the University of Madras. This is an opportunity to draw together into poetry two themes that have long fascinated me – the human body and how we experience it, and India – the interplay of ancient tradition and globalised entrepreneurialism, as well as its vigorous energy and sheer complexity.

My plan is to write portrait poems of people who are in some way involved in what is commonly called “medical tourism” – the travel of patients outside their home country to access medical treatment. This treatment ranges from cardiac surgery to dental work, orthopedic surgery to reproductive technology, gender reassignment surgery. They travel for many reasons – personal, legal, technological and/or financial (to obtain treatment that is too expensive at home). There’s a huge and growing amount of literature on the broad social impact of this very complex phenomenon, but very little in terms of personal stories.

I’m interested in talking with doctors, nurses, cleaners, and other ancillary staff, but also with patients and their families – both Indian and non-Indian. I’m also interested in talking with people who may have had experiences with the medical systems of other countries – Thailand, Malaysia, South Africa, for example.  How do two cultures interact around one human body? What are the emotions, contingencies, complications, victories, insights and relationships that are brought up?

If you or someone you know is planning to travel to India any time between October 2011 and January 2012, please contact me through this blog. Any comments on my project, suggestions for reading or other contacts are also very welcome.