Dehradun is a small-medium sized city of five hundred sixty thousand located in the state of Uttarakhand in the northeast of India near the Himalayas. According to our local contacts the city has undergone a massive and rapid expansion in the last 20 years that has totally changed the dynamics and landscape of city. The introduction of more people, more cars, more buildings, and simply more stuff has led to over-crowding, loss of green spaces, terrible traffic (although it doesn’t even hold a candle to Delhi), and a change in the city’s personality. It changed from a somewhat quiet, peaceful town into one with much of the hustle and bustle of a bigger city.
One of the things I appreciate the most about Dehradun is that it is not a tourist destination and that foreigners seldom travel to it. Although it may be somewhat selfish, I’m really glad that we are getting the chance to experience real life in India without all the catering to tourists. I think it makes for a better experience overall and contributes to a better understanding of the culture.
We are fortunate to be staying with a fairly well-to-do family in one of the better neighborhoods of Dehradun. It is readily apparent from the fancy gates and walled off yards that we are staying in one of the nicer communities in town. Behind the exterior wall is a neatly manicured patch of grass and a tile landing that serves as a patio and carport. Our rooms are simple, yet have everything we need. The guys share one room while the girls share the other. The bathrooms are also simple yet have two huge perks – western style commodes (not squatters!) and hot water for the bucket showers (if you remember to turn on the boiler and let it warm up first). Our accommodations have everything we could need and are really quite nice. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting, but I am very pleased at this point. One thing that is perhaps a bit unusual is that throughout the house there are no decorations on the walls – which is odd as back home almost every house is decorated with family photos, wall art, or some other adornment. Of course, there are other small oddities such as the periodic power outages and the large filtered water dispenser in the kitchen that we have to use for our drinking water but apart from these small details, it would appear that this aspect of life in India isn’t all too different from back home.
Our CFHI local coordinator, Mayank, has made the first few days in a Dehradun really easy to adjust to. He has been super helpful in showing us around town, playing taxi driver, and helping us find our clinical sites. Granted, it is his job to help us adjust, but he really has done a great job of giving advice and pointing us in the right direction.
Transportation in Dehradun is simultaneously lots of fun, somewhat terrifying, and totally unforgettable. Option #1 for getting around town is the vikram – a 6 seater, petrol-powered rickshaw that follows a set route (although the routes seem a bit arbitrary some days) around town. For a mere 7 rupees (10 cents) you can have the pleasure of cramming into the vikram with 7 or 8 other people and navigation the traffic laden streets of Dehradun (we set a personal record the other day with 13 passengers on one vikram). Option #2 is a private auto-rickshaw. Now, these will set you back 100-200 rupees (50 if you are a local, however they love to take advantage of the foreigners) but you get the luxury of taking a straight path and don’t have to share your seat with at least 2 other people. Once you get past the jumble of limbs, heads, bags, and other body parts that are hanging out the sides of the rickshaws, they really are a fun way to get around town. Of course, these things would never be allowed in the U.S. …… but, as I’m slowly learning, just about anything goes in India (where the rules are made up and the laws don’t matter – much like the points from Whose Line Is It Anyways). Unlike any other country I’ve visited I’m shocked by the types of vehicles on the roads – you can find anything from people powered rickshaws to horse drawn carriages and modified 2 cylinder scooters to Porsche’s roaming the roads. It isn’t at all surprising to see a camel drawn cart merging into traffic with rickshaws, semi-trucks, bicycles, and luxury busses. The juxtaposition of past and present is striking. Despite all the chaos on the roads, there are hardly any accidents, people don’t seem to mind the crazy, and nobody gets road-rage (although it would be hard to tell from the amount of horn blowing). It really is a wonder how any of it functions at all.
Looking back on the first week, as a group, we all found it rather odd that we weren’t taking more pictures of our surroundings and life in a Dehradun. To some extent we are already used to it. After spending 2 weeks in Nepal (which was equally as shocking and different from home in so many ways) the dust, the noise, the chaos, and the general day-to-day activities are old hat. We are no longer timid about crossing the street in front of 30 moving cars, horses, and motorcycles. Getting our fruits and snacks from carts by the side of the road is normal. Having to fight and haggle over every price is just part of living (although it does get old after a while of paying the “white man’s price” and fighting for the local price). Having traveled to developing nations in the past, life in India is on par with a lot of things I’ve already seen and lived. Naturally, there are some differences, but the overwhelming “culture shock” isn’t there – which is something I’m grateful for. It has given my companions and I more time to spend on other activities, ask better questions of our hosts, and put our efforts into understanding the life/culture/healthcare in India rather than work on adjusting to a different standard of living. With this being said, I’m really looking forward to having a chance to dive into the landscape of healthcare in India in future posts.