Life at 6,000 ft starts early. In theory, the sun rises over the lower Himalayas at 5am, but in these post-monsoon days seeing the sun is more of a gamble. Clouds often blanket the hills and those who wake by 5:30 begin their chores in a fog. But on clear days the fog lifts, laying Kanchenjunga bare, its hard ice peaks seemingly soft as foam. An oxymoron in itself. The world’s third largest.
Today it is sunny. By the time I get up 6:30 the sun floods my wood-paneled room, completely erasing last night’s chill. Here, at cloud-level, Darjeeling town knows nothing of the prickly Indian heat that oppresses most of the country. Only once you descend one of the roads that wind spiderlike down the hillside does the cool air give way to a climate that can be enjoyed without a pullover.
I wear fewer layers today because I know I will be following the downhill road that leads to Marybong, a community in which most families live and work on one of Darjeeling’s famed tea estates. Locals will tell you that Darjeeling grows the best tea in the world–far superior to that of Assam in particular–due to its high altitude that is optimal for tea growing. International bodies seem to agree, as Darjeeling tea has been branded in the same way that Champagne and Cognac are branded. Names that describe a product inseparable from its place.
At 9am Manoj-daaju is waiting outside our Darjeeling office with his signature compact yellow car. “CHHIP car!” he announced when I first met him. When we first met I had also wondered how such a tiny car could survive Darjeeling hillroads punctuated by potholes and steep inclines. But during numerous field visits over the past few weeks I witnessed the yellow car prove its dexterity and, more importantly, its tires’ traction. Indeed, Manoj-da and his yellow car are as much a part of the Comprehensive Health & Hygiene Improvement Program (CHHIP) as Arunima (education coordinator and co-AIF Fellow), Priscilla (project officer), and I (project manager) are, because they have been with CHHIP since Mike and Denna Matergia created the project a year ago.
Over the course of the hour-long drive I shed my external layers of clothes. “Garam chha,” I point out in my elementary Nepali. It’s hot. Manoj-da confirms, “Garam chha!” Priscilla laughs in the backseat. Buddhist charms and pictures of Manoj-da’s guru-ji hang from the rear-view window. They sway back and forth as Manoj-da swerves to avoid a pothole or oncoming car. “BaaTo raamrochhaina,” he says. The road isn’t good. I look out the window at the large brown patches marring an otherwise green landscape across a valley — the aftermath of recent landslides, Darjeeling’s premier natural disaster, which have erased whole chunks of mountains.
Satyam, one of CHHIP’s School Health Activists (SHAs), greets us when we arrive. CHHIP has three programmatic components: 1) a health education curriculum for primary school students 2) health monitoring and basic primary healthcare services, and 3) improvements to the school health environment. SHAs are the driving force behind all three components. Recruited from the communities themselves, the SHAs implement the interventions. They are teachers, health workers, advocates, confidants, and agents of change.
Satyam introduces us to the school’s principal and teachers. Soon all of the primary school children are lined up. Priscilla, Manoj-da, and I monitor and assist Satyam as he screens each child for vision problems. A child stands at a line drawn in the dirt 6m away from a tumbling E chart. She covers her right eye and reads aloud the direction of the Es as Satyam points: “Up, left, left, right, up, down.”
By the end of next week, CHHIP’s four SHAs will have finished screening all of the primary school children at CHHIP’s seven partner schools. They will then refer any children who do not pass the vision screening to an Ophthalmologist based in Darjeeling town. They will follow up with the child’s caregiver to ensure that the child receives proper care. If necessary, they will even accompany the caregiver and child to the healthcare provider. They will counsel any hesitating children and parents, and help caregivers problem-solve around any barriers to the child’s treatment. These things will all happen at the frontline. Back in Darjeeling, Priscilla, Arunima, and I meet with officials to make sure our children gain access to the Government of India’s Free Spectacles Program.
By 4:30pm, an hour before sundown, we have arrived back in Darjeeling. While holding my stomach I think about how sometimes the motion-sickness inducing drive out to the community and back can be more physically exhausting than implementing the actual health interventions themselves. Before heading back to the office I ask Manoj-da to pull up to a cliffside restaurant. We order cups of chai and plates of Darjeeling’s most delicious food attractions: momos (Tibetan dumplings).