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September 2003

Magical India

Om symbol.

By Sue Willis.

Last year Sue Willis and her daughter Joanna journeyed from Sydney, Australia to Kottakkal, Kerala India to experience the wonders of Ayurvedic medicine. Their trip was not without a few surprises.

On the 29th May 1998, one week before her 18th birthday, my daughter Joanna fell from a fourth floor balcony and became a quadriplegic. Last November, somebody mentioned to me that there was a place in India where they treat people with paralysis and other illnesses using Ayurvedic medicine - oil massages and herbal medicine. According to all the information I received from Australia, Singapore, Thailand and India, this place was the best in the world for this kind of treatment.

Our trip was the first time we travelled with Joanna in her wheelchair.

We flew with Singapore Airlines from Sydney to Singapore. The airline knew in advance that we were travelling with a wheelchair with 12 pieces of luggage, 150 kilograms, which was not easy. I took medical supplies for four months, but you can get everything in India. The only thing you do have to take with you is a commode (if you need it for showers and toileting). All the rest can be bought there (catheters, etc).

We were seven people travelling together, so I had plenty of help. We transferred Joanna from her chair to the airline wheelchair, which was small enough to fit in the aisle. The flight attendants helped to lift Joanna to the small chair and then to the airplane chair where she sat on her Roho air cushion.

The trip took eight hours on the plane, plus three hours at the airport and two hours in the taxis. The Singapore taxi driver lifted Joanna into the large van we used because of the luggage. We stayed in Singapore at my friend's house for a few days so Joanna could rest.

After a good rest, my daughters Fiona, 21, and Joanna, 20, and I flew from Singapore to Trivandrum (in Southern India) with Silk Air, which used a smaller airplane.

One very important tip: Joanna always traveled on the center row next to the aisle and I sat next to her but separated by the aisle, on the window row. This allowed me to use the aisle to check and empty her bag, prepare her meals, etc. Also, people sitting next to her could move in and out of their seats using the other aisle and without disturbing her. Joanna took her special cutlery and cup (she cannot move her fingers but can use special forks and spoons).

After four hours, we arrived in India and it was scary. Joanna was carried on her chair by four flight attendants down the steps from the plane (there were no gangways from the plane). At the airport, Fiona pushed Joanna and carried her large backpack. I carried the passports, money and bags and looked after the 12 pieces of luggage. There were Indians everywhere, each taking pieces of luggage, passports, all talking at the same time, not a word of English, and I was not sure if they were helping or robbing us.

At the Trivandrum Airport, there was a taxi-van (booked from Australia), with an English-speaking driver who took us to the hotel. We were at the best five star hotel, pre-booked for three people and with "access". Well, we had to lift the chair about 20 steps. The room had only two beds; they added an extra bed, so we couldn't fit the wheelchair between the beds. The bathroom was inaccessible. The only good thing was the food. We stayed there for two nights, as I wanted Joanna to rest between every lap of the trip.

Then, we got up at 2 a.m. to get a taxi at 5 a.m. to the station, and then by train to Calicut. I still don't understand how an Indian travel agent in Australia recommended us to go from Trivandrum to Calicut by train. It took 10 hours. I had to ask people at the station to carry Joanna into the train and help us to carry 12 Bags over the rails about 200 meters. But we did it! And all I can say to others is: DON'T DO IT. There we were, Joanna on a hard seat, the luggage all over the carriage, and we couldn't get out at the station closer to the hospital because the train only stops for two minutes, while in Calicut it stops for five minutes. I desperately asked anybody on the train to help us. I was so afraid somebody would walk out with our luggage (most of the stuff was necessary for Joanna). I was also afraid the train would start, and I wouldn't have time to go down. Also, I had to find somebody strong enough and willing to carry Joanna down in his arms.

We finally got to Calicut, and a pre-booked taxi was waiting for us.

Then, we traveled for one hour by taxi though small roads, where everybody drove as they liked, without any rules. It was really frightening. And there were houses, people, dirt and more people everywhere. And so poor! I started to think that I had made a big mistake bringing Joanna to that place.

But then we arrived at Arya Vaydia Sala Hospital, Kottakkal, Kerala. There we had a whole unit: bedroom, living, dining room, kitchen, shower room, toilet and treatment room. The place was clean and the people nice and warm, but it took us two weeks to be able to get used to living without a fridge, no European food, the heat, dirt and the poor conditions of the people.

The hospital is the most beautiful thing you ever saw. Itís very primitive. They have their own farm, and the water comes from wells. They dry the rice on the ground, and everything is done by hand. The people there are very high caste, educated and spiritual. They dress so beautifully, too. The only drawback is that they stare at white people. When we took Joanna out, they walked in front of us, walking backwards to stare.

They don't use wheelchairs in India, except in the hospitals. Itís hard and dangerous to go out and walk on the road because the drivers don't care about pedestrians. It took us two weeks to get used to the heat, the rats, the dirt and pollution. By then, Fiona went back to Australia, and we stayed on our own. To transfer Joanna from bed to commode to chair eight times a day, I had to ask everybody (patients, cleaners, visitors, etc) to help me. And I had to ask by signs, as they don't speak English.

Then, Joanna got very sick with diarrhea and vomiting, but there is Ayurvedic medicine for everything and she got better. The food was bad. We could not eat the canteen food, so we started to cook our own. Iím not a good cook. But there we were living on potatoes, noodles, rice, tomatoes and onions. No fridge, but we had a kitchen. Indians are very warm and compassionate people, and they share the little they have. The lady from the next room started cooking for us, and it was nice. Then, one of the German patients told us that for less than US$2 a lady would cook, shop and do the laundry every day. We only had her the last day and it was great.

To avoid getting sick, you have to boil the tap water for 10 minutes. There is a market that sells vegetables, but you have to remember that in India you must boil it, peel it or forget it. You can eat bananas, but not grapes; cooked beans, but not raw salads; boiled water, but not the bottled water from the shops. We did that and we were OK. We then started to see the real value of Indian lifestyle and appreciate everything we saw - the people we met and the way of life, and we loved it .

Kerala is the best-educated place in India. Most of the people speak English, and the hospital is in a farming area, away from everything, and the least populated place in India.

In the hospital, you get in close contact with the Indian people. You are safe, with the best accommodations, and, on top of that, you get good treatment. I think that intensive massage can only do you good. Joanna, did not get any movement back, but she can feel a lot more. She feels stronger and healthier, and for both of us it was the best experience we ever had.

I have lived in Argentina, the U.S. and Australia and travelled to Europe and Singapore, but never have I had an experience like the one we had in India. At the end of six weeks, Joanna surprised me when she said, "Mum, I don't want to go back to Australia". She has lots of friends in Sydney, and I always thought that she would prefer to be with them rather than travelling with me, but she said, "Here people don't have anything and everybody is content and kind while in Australia everybody whines about nothing". It's true that people in India are very spiritual and they look content and peaceful. Christians, Hindus and Muslims all live in peace together. Nobody is cranky or in a hurry.

In the hospital, 60 percent of the patients are from overseas: Germany, Scotland, England, Canada, the U.S., Arabic countries, etc. They are very interesting people, and we made a few close friends there. All the hospital staff are Indian. The accommodation is for the person to be treated and his family. The treatment is four weeks of intense massage. I saw people that were perfectly healthy now but only three years ago could hardly move because of arthritis. We are going again next year. Some people keep on going year after year for rejuvenation treatments.

The hospital is located in the middle of the best part of India. There are cultural shows at the temple where you can enjoy real Indian shows, music and lifestyle. You can live a simple life, without the comforts you are used to, and you will learn that you don't really need them.

We came back from Kottakkal to Calicut in two taxis. They are very small and look like old Morris cars. The taxi seats are high, so there is no way you can transfer. They had to pick Joanna up, and it was hard to seat her in the car. But itís better to book the taxi there than from Australia, as it costs a lot less. The hospital will book the taxi, and they also have a travel agent for the airfares.

We changed the air tickets. Instead of traveling from Kottakall to Calicut to Trivandrum to Singapore to Sydney, we went Kottakkal, Calicut, MumBai, Singapore, Sydney. In Calicut, they lifted Joanna in her chair between four people and up the stairs into the plane. They didn't have a small wheelchair, so from the door of the plane they carried Joanna in arms to her seat, and they gave us business class because it was closer to the door.

It took one hour to MumBai (Bombay), then we caught a taxi from the domestic to the international airport. Again, we had to find somebody to lift Joanna to the taxi (it was a pre-paid van that can be booked at the airport.). Everybody wanted to help for a tip. I was giving 50 Rupees (US$1.50), which is too much (remember that at every stop there are over 10 tips to pay), so 20 Rupees is enough. About 3 pm we arrived at the airport and we had to wait until 1 o'clock in the morning. I was scared, if Joanna went disreflexic, I don't know what I would I have done. We waited in the transit area, where it's safe. There were no beggars, and it was not so hot.

There we were, Joanna and me sitting in front of two trolleys full of luggage, and I was thinking what would happen when I had to check in.

There was a Indian lady travelling with four children who came to ask us to come with her to the "child room". I thought it was a place to change babies nappies. It was a room with four beds and a toilet. The lady gave us one bed and helped me to put Joanna on it. I was so relieved! After travelling all day, we had to wait until 1 a.m. and then the four hours to Singapore and another hour in the taxi. Being able to lie down was just great. I was so afraid of disreflexia and pressure sores, and that bed was all we needed.

Then, they wanted to charge me for 110 kilogram excess luggage weight. I asked to speak with the manager, but they just didn't want to know. "You must pay", they said. I ended up saying "OK, all those Bags contain stuff that Joanna needs. I don't have the money to pay for the excess, so the only solution is for you to keep the stuff, and we try our luck and travel without it".

They finally let me go. You cannot say in India that a disabled person needs extra stuff. It doesn't matter. Access doesn't matter either. Quadriplegic people are just sent home to vegetate. But, if you make sure that the airline is notified in advance of the extra luggage itís OK. My travel agent notified Singapore Airlines for the trip to Singapore and India, but not for the return trip. You have to ring Singapore Airlines in India and let them know.

Also, make sure that you confirm your flight in advance. I nearly went to MumBai the day the travel agent booked me in, but there were not seats from MumBai to Singapore. In India, you have to check everything yourself.

Then, we flew to Singapore, and it was a shock to see everything so tidy, so clean, the traffic so orderly and silent. We saw all that, and still, after all the difficulties, we missed India. It Doesn't matter how clean, tidy and organized Singapore and Australia are, there is something in India that makes you want to go back.

Travel tips

And my best advice is: don't go anywhere else in India except Arya Vaydia Sala Hospital. You'll be safe - the hospital is like a hotel, and the massage will do you good and make you stronger.

It is very affordable and they have the prices on the Internet. The hospital is in the prettiest part of India, and it is not a tourist place. You'll be in close contact with the real Indian life. If after that you want to see India, which I doubt, you can always go after the treatment, which will take four weeks.

Not only the massage is important but also the herbal medicine they provide for everything else. Joanna had an ear infection, which usually takes a long time to cure with antibiotics, but in India she got cured in two days with a special oil. UTIs got cured with herbal medicinal water. Also fever, upset stomach, sore throat, diarrhea and nausea. Even a mark that looked like a bed sore, got better in one day with a special cream. Joanna never had a bed sore before, and when I found that red spot, I was really scared. How would she travel back to Australia? But with an Ayurvedic cream, she was perfect the next day. She came home looking so healthy. Her skin was perfect; she even put on a bit of weight.

We loved it so much that we'll be going back, although next time with less luggage, and my husband and Fiona to help me.

More information

You can learn more about Arya Vaydia Sala Hospital by visiting their web site or emailing them to discuss your medical conditions.

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