The Sambhavna Clinic: a Foodie’s Paradise

First, let’s define what I term here as foodie. At UNC, a foodie is a student who not only is interested in food politics, the economy of food and questions related to food and health but is also actively involved in raising awareness about the highly corrupt field of American agricultural economics. Foodies lead a healthy lifestyle, buy local, organic if possible, and will never set foot in (or at least they shouldn’t) Wal Mart or Target. Foodies are anti-corporation, alternative, subculture, liberal, open-minded, angry and idealists all at the same time. Foodies want to change the way meat, milk and vegetables are grown and sold in the US. Foodies are the West’s new rebels and reformers.

OK, maybe I’m exaggerating. But you get the picture, right? Trust me, foodies, including me, have at least some of these characteristics.

Foodies are attracted to nature, to the traditional and simple way of producing food, to the traditional, ancestral cultures who did things right. And that’s when we get to talk about India and the Sambhavna Trust clinic in Bhopal more specifically.

I have discovered that people in India have a different relationship with food than back home. Maybe because I am a woman who watches her weight, I see this difference more clearly? Back home, women count calories, punish themselves if they have sweets and chocolates, starve themselves, lose weight but then often gain it all over again. They enter the dark web of self-consciousness and shame of their body, a web that’s really hard to disentangle from. Men stuff themselves to build muscle, work out to build muscle, exercise to build muscle… You got it, they’ll do anything to build muscle. I never thought this lifestyle was healthy but I didn’t know of any other food paradigm I could possibly live in.  Coming to India, accompanied with my keen interest in an alternative lifestyle and a different way to understand my body opened a completely new door to me.

People here view food differently. Food is neither a punishment nor a crime. It’s a blessing. And food is not just nourishment for the body; it’s also a source of fuel for the mind. And it heals. People don’t eat for their body to survive; they eat so that their body and soul could thrive. Although their meals are high in carbs, and it is in good form to eat A LOT, a traditional Indian meal is conceived so as to have an adequate amount of protein, fat, minerals, spice…etc, all that your body needs to function properly. Traditional cultures have this ancestral knowledge of the body, its needs and what food would suit it best. They have conceived cuisines that combine spices, herbs, carbs, vegetables, and proteins (all local of course) in order to fuel the body in the optimal way. So you see, food is both an art and a carefully studied science and that’s because people here love their body, respect it, listen to it and understand it. People here don’t self-deprecate, hate their bodies, and starve themselves (we’re talking about most Indians, not the rich westernized Mumbai elite.) There is no yo-yo phenomenon where people lose weight, look like sticks, but then gain it all back again.

The Sambhavna Trust Clinic has taken food science one step further by researching the medicinal virtues of fruits, plants and herbs. To what extent can herbal decoctions, tinctures, infusions, poultices help reestablish your body’s balance? It’s all about using local, homemade, traditional sources to remain healthy and cure yourself. After all, that is what your body deserves. Why stuff it with medicine and chemicals that induce side-effects? Don’t you think that side-effects are a good enough indication that this is not the proper way to treat your body? Sambhavna has a huge herbal garden in which are grown over a 100 plants that are known to have medicinal value in Ayurveda, India’s thousand-year-old traditional medicinal system. Eg: you’re constipated? Then instead of taking a laxative pill, why not have some tamarind or prunes? You have bronchitis? Then a decoction of Atibala leaves will help decrease the symptoms.

Are you still surprised when I tell you that the yoga doctor, Dr.Shruti is the one who knows the most about nutrition and what your body needs? OK, so does the ayurvedic doctor, Dr. Rupa, but that’s her job. Food and the mind’s welfare go hand in hand and that’s why the yoga prof knows so much about what to eat, when, and how to make the most of your food.

So, I call this place a foodie’s paradise because everyone here is passionate about health. But not the western way, by stuffing yourself with messed up chemicals. They’re passionate about health by ensuring that their bodies and minds are healthy, by eating healthy food and reestablishing their balance if anything goes wrong through herbal, earthy, local medicine. Going back to the source. That’s what what we need in the West.

No More BHOPAL!!

December 2nd, 1984. Union Carbide. MIC gas explosion and leak. 20,000 deaths and still counting. Gas tragedy. BHOPAL

I arrived in Bhopal exactly 2 weeks ago and I have begun my volunteering internship at the Sambhavna Trust Clinic. Sambhavna is 10 minutes away from the Union Carbide plant that was responsible for the gas tragedy. Sambhavna specifically aims to provide medical care for gas victims. Free. Sambhavna is also a very activist NGO. Not only does it treat patients, but it also does research on the tragedy, from the legal, environmental, human, health and social standpoints. The clinic also has the biggest collection of documentation on the chemical disaster and thus attracts journalists, researchers, activists and students from all over the world on a regular basis.

I feel very privileged to be a part of the Sambhavna clinic for the next 2 months (well 6 weeks now) because the work they are doing is extremely valuable for the community. Sathyu Sarangi, the head of the clinic, is actually very well known in India. He is the one who heads all the projects and meetings and keeps the staff active and motivated. The clinic has various medical cabinets, Ayurveda doctors, allopathic doctors, a yoga doctor, a lab and health workers. Although Western medicine is available here, the clinic prefers to offer Ayurveda treatments simply because that is what the community prefers. The Indians have been following the Ayurveda book of medicine for thousands of years and this system is trusted and well-integrated in their culture. Who said Western medicine is better anyway?

Speaking of Western things, we also are not allowed to use chemical-based products here because the water system is connected to the huge garden in which herbs with medicinal value are grown. I had to chuck away my shampoos, creams, and all the other chemical stuff that we are so used to back home (soap, laundry detergent, makeup…). Instead, I’m using ayurvedic soap, almond oil for my hair, diluted lemon juice as a face wash, and garlic as an insect repellent.  I really like this alternative lifestyle because it gives my body a break from all these chemically-conceived products that we as westerners are so used to. I’ve always wanted to detox, and this is the perfect chance to do it. Also, the reason why I take this alternative lifestyle so seriously is because one of my projects at Sambhavna is about medicinal plants. The other project is at the Orya Basti school. So let me describe to you how I spend my days here and what work I do exactly.

In the mornings, I volunteer at a school in one of the slums near the Union Carbide factory, the Orya Basti school. This community has been hit hard and Sambhavna is the one who opened the school for them. I teach the kids English and we play games during lunchtime. I’ve been doing this for two weeks and I really feel like the kids know me well now and like me.  As of next week, I’m starting a health project with them about medicinal plants. They have a huge garden around the school that we clean every Saturday and because the rainy season is starting, we are going to turn this forlorn garden into a medicinal garden, kind of like the one we have at Sambhavna. But there is no point in planting a garden if the children don’t know the value of the plants they’ll be growing. So I’ll be working with 2 other staff members and we will be educating the children on the value of each plant and how they can use it when they get sick. I’m excited at the prospect of being part of this project because teaching children self-care is extremely fundamental. Waterborne illnesses, diarrhea, TB, vomiting, are all sicknesses that occur often because of the highly MIC-contaminated water that these kids from the slums have no choice but to drink. By growing this garden, the children will learn how to take care of themselves and hopefully the knowledge will spread to the rest of the community. Children are influential, not only because they represent the future adult generation but also because they can influence their elders. I also do drama (interactive theater, hollllerrrr) with the children on certain days of the week and we’re preparing a play on Diarrhea, Vomiting and Malaria. EXCITING!

After school, I bike back to Sambhavna to continue on the medicinal plant project. And yes, I said bike. The school is a good 25 minutes away by bike and it’s too hot to walk it during the day. I could take a rickshaw but it would be expensive to do so twice a day from Monday to Saturday. So Devakar Sir gave me a bike! To be perfectly honest, I was really afraid to use it at first, because several times I have to bike on some major busy roads that are very chaotic, but I found some shortcuts to avoid the major roads. I also realized that once you’re part of the chaotic system it’s really not that bad. It seems scary looking from the outside, especially as a pedestrian, but once you’re on a bicycle, scooter or rickshaw, you’re part of the traffic flow and with a bit of firmness, a bell and a mean look, you usually get around just fine.

The medicinal plants project consists of compiling a database of all the plants of Sambhavna’s herbal garden and documenting their medicinal properties. A past volunteer started this work already, and I’m classifying all the information that she found in a format that would be more accessible to the general patient. It’ s quite hard to read all these scientific reports about plants and extract the essential information,  then to translate it into simple English, but I really enjoy doing this kind of work. I’m very passionate about using natural ways of curing oneself rather than resorting to medicine that is really harsh on the body and creates a ton of side effects. It’s a long process but I hope that I’ll have done enough plants so that we can put some of the info on Sambhavna’s website.

Then, when I’m done with work, I either do some yoga (the yoga doctor showed some positions that are particularly beneficial for asthmatics) or some jump rope and then I watch Mad Men with Emily. I also read a lot. I just finished Le Parfum by Suskind and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Anyway, y’all this entry is long enough so I’ll just stop here and keep you updated in later posts. Don’t expect me to update as much as before because my days are pretty much the same and also because the connection is not very reliable.

Much love to all my friends reading me,


A week in Dharamsala

Dharamsala is by far the most beautiful part of India that I’ve been to to date I arrived here on the 27th at night and I’ll be here until it’s time to go to Bhopal, on June 5th. Dharamsala is in Himachala Pradesh and is cozily nestled in the Himalayas. We’re about 1700 m above sea level. I actually didn’t expect the weather to be this nice, because I had taken the bus from Amritsar, less than 6hours away where the temperature was around 35-38. It’s 25 degrees on average here!

I’ve had a marvelous experience in Dharmasala (actually, I’m staying in Mcleod Ganj, that’s where the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan refugees and all the backpackers stay). This place is surreal. I don’t feel like I’m in India anymore! Tibetans are a majority here, but there are also lots of travellers/backpackers. The location is also impressive. Every morning I have breakfast at a rooftop cafe from which I can clearly see the snow-capped Himalayan mountains. Because it’s summer, the smaller mountains are green and lush, filled with evergreens and inhabited by monkeys. I’ve really never visited a place like this and I can’t compare it to anything I’ve seen before. I’m used to the Quebec forests, the Minnesota lakes, and arid Omani rocky mountains. Never before have I seen lush greenery so high in altitude and snowy mountains towering over smaller yet still enormous, greener mountains.

I’m staying in a quiet, modest guesthouse with a great location. I have to climb a huge flight of stairs to get to my room but it’s worth it because the views are amazing. I was staying with two French women I had made friends with on the bus from Amritsar but when Chex, my friend from UNC,  joined me from Delhi a few days ago, we moved to another room. We were going to go to Manali, where the views of the Himalayas are even clearer and more impressive, but Chex got sick, so we decided to stay put.

Life here is great! I’ve met great people and made new long-lasting friendships with some backpackers. It’s absolutely wonderful to have the chance to be exposed to the kind of fun, interesting, and adventurous people you meet here. So inspiring! Mcleod Ganj is also very active on the Tibetan issue. A lot of cafes raise money to help Tibetan refugees. Every night, I’ve been going to a concert, a dinner or a film screening about Tibetan oppression by the Chinese and learning more about the Tibetan cause. On my second day, I actually volunteered in a cafe that raised money for Tibetan women who make handicrafts for a living. I also bought a really nice wallet made by these women. I love buying things with a story and I encourage you to do so, too. Rather than buying mass-produced, branded things that everyone has and that conforms to a uniform look, why don’t you spend some extra money on something that is produced and traded fairly, something creative that will empower a community? While at the cafe,  I learned how to make mochas, lattes and lemonades, which was great. I also have been to a conversation class, where volunteers help Tibetans practice their English. Our conversations were very interesting. I’ll be going to the session again today. You can see that there are so many things to do here!

Unlike Jaipur, Chandigarh, Udaipur or Amritsar, Dharamsala’s achitecture is quite plain. The town really developed when the Dalai Lama fled from Tibet and took refuge here in 1989. Then, many Tibetans followed him and have settled here; they now constitute the majority of those living in this town.

The architecture may not be spectacular, but as I said, the location is breathtaking and there are so many things to do. I find that talking to Tibetans, volunteering, as well as reading in cafes that have amazing views are definitely worth a longer stay here. It’s a nice way for me to relax a little before I embark on the the next big chapter of the summer, volunteering in Bhopal!

I’m really sorry that I’ve not been posting much for a while now, but I haven’t really been giving the Internet much of a priority. Instead, I’ve been reading quite a lot. I just finished The God of Small Things, and the Alchemist and now I’m reading The White Tiger. Its another book set in India, which is why I’m reading it. It’s quite funny actually. I also caught the Buddhist fever here and I bought a book entitled What Makes You Not A Buddhist! Interesting huh? I’m also in the process of posting some pictures, and I will comment more extensively on some, so that you can have a small taste of what my adventures were like in different places. I hope you’re still enjoying the blog!

Quick update! Jaipur-Chandigarh-Amritsar

Hey everyone! I haven’t had much access to the internet the past few days but I will post pictures and tell you all about my adventures soon. I decided to stay 2 extra days camel-trekking around Puskar to see rural Rajasthan with the French and Argintinian guys I met. Then together, we went to Jaipur and that was yesterday. Last night, I took a sleeper-train to Chandigarh, in Haryana. I arrived really early, so I toured the city for about half a day (there isn’t much to see except for some amazing Corbusean and Louis Kahn architecture here and there) and I left for Amritsar late afternoon. I am now settled in my room and will be ready to continue my adventures. I plan on staying in Amritsar for 2 more days then I’ll head to Dharamsala for a few days and then Delhi again! I will meet Chex there 🙂 and hopefully we’ll go to Agra together. As you can see, time flies and there is so much to do!! Stay posted everyone, updates are coming soon 🙂 Much love, Steph