Traveling is exciting, regardless of where you’re destined. And doing it solo is even better. Lost in the clouds, disconnected from the mayhem on the ground, unable to retrieve and send emails, with no possibility of being located, flying is an escape. Your own thoughts become louder, your worries lightened, your emotions escalated. Your view- a thick canopy of clouds, offsetting the light of the sun, breaking at times to give you a peak of mountain ranges, lush green valleys, and slithering rivers- harkens a romanticism, an optimism, not possible when strapped to the ground.
FINALIST 2010 YOUNG TRAVEL WRITERS SCHOLARSHIP
Often, taking red-eye flights between the East and West coasts of the US, I found myself lost in that romanticism, believing that the destination would bring hope, life, joy, and possibility. That’s the allure of travel, even in today’s era of frenzied schedules and overstuffed airports. It’s a raw, simple belief that travels add to you, whether somber or celebratory; each journey gives you greater depth, exposing you to new views, peoples, scents. I’ve always enjoyed flying, and especially flying solo.
I shared these sentiments because in the past year I’ve had the opportunity to travel for a cause bigger than myself and my journey. Then, the destination was as alluring as the trip there. My optimism was higher than usual; my belief that this trip would only deepen my faith in humanity stronger; and my hopes, greater than I had ever foreseen for myself.
Fighting disease, though, was not something I had planned on doing. Fighting a disease in cities not too far from my birthplace was something I had certainly not imagined. Yet, what transpired was a series of fortuitous events, the generosity of strangers who supported my travels, and an experience that has rooted me in the communities I engaged with. No longer is travel just a childlike excitement of the unknown and unfamiliar. Rather, something of a trip home, you could say.
Polio is a water-borne virus that damages the nervous system, leaving many behind handicapped. Only about 1500 cases are left in the world, varying from year to year; it rarely gets much attention in the press, at glitzy global governance meetings, or even at public health forums. Forgotten in the western world as a disease of the ‘30s and ‘50s when polio wards operated at full capacity in the west, today polio resides in four countries- India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. The bulk of the cases originate in India and Nigeria.
I found myself in one of the high-risk zones for polio in India last year. The experience left a dent in me. I realized that we can travel to build schools, offer microloans to struggling entrepreneurs, help farmers grow stronger, sturdier crops, and set up efficient, leak-proof irrigation systems yet it carries little importance when you’re lacking health.
Polio attacks children under the age of five, crippling them for life. Its power resides in its ability to permeate populations without showing sings of the virus; up to 500 children can be carriers of the virus without showing any debilitating limbs, making it difficult to control.
Standing in the center of town, a loud, chaotic road, like many in Uttar Pradesh, India, our team of two Rotarians and me (a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar) worked alongside a young, boyishly handsome UNICEF volunteer, a gentle and serene public health worker, hidden beneath her niqab, and a local Muslim cleric who whispered details of the campaign in Urdu to me.
Signs draped city buildings, roundabouts, street lights, corner shops, and even rickshaws- all calling families to come to polio booths on National Immunization Day, a monthly occurrence in the high-risk zones of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, India. A stream of yellow jackets (worn by polio volunteers) clogged the streets, leading many to come out of their stores, homes, schools, curious, wondering why a group of foreigners had descended on their neighborhood.
The rickshaw-wallah chanted, sitting atop a massive loudspeaker, “Polio mitao! Aaj polio mitao!” (translated as “Erase polio! Erase polio today!”). We followed behind- a stream of school children in neatly pressed uniforms, a flock of local Rotarians in bright yellow garb, volunteers and representatives from UNICEF, WHO, and a few idle goats and dogs. Culminating at the base of Jamma Masjid (the central mosque), we chanted together, “Polio mitao!” and echoed words of hope and optimism to the burgeoning crowd.
But the gritty work takes place on the following day when hundreds, or rather thousands, of children are vaccinated. Shaky wooden tables, the front of a paan stand, or a barbershop serve as the polio booth. Parents and siblings bring little ones to be marked and vaccinated. Two drops, amounting to 60 cents in USD, makes up one dose of the vaccine; yet many of these children will have to be vaccinated five, six, seven, and maybe 10 times to ensure immunity. Their pinkys will be marked several times, stained in black to indicate that they’ve received the oral vaccine. Afterward, a young UNICEF worker will make a tally mark on her sheet; pencil and paper- a simple approach to keeping account of the number vaccinated.
The children’s faces vary: some tremble, nervous; others cry; and some smile wide, the reward enticing them closer. As I handed out stickers, whistles, paper masks, and such, children swarmed around my legs, tugging from every angle, demanding their share. The whistles we give create more than just noise; as children share them with one another, they also share the vaccine, left on the edges of their tongue.
These are the images that remind one to believe in a common humanity, in a motive larger than yourself, in a purpose greater than your career path, in an optimism that even the world’s evils can be conquered. Yet, the virus is relentless, the environment unhygienic and disease-friendly, the local government indifferent, the morale of health workers waning – a tough battle even for the most persevering. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a partnership between UNICEF, WHO, Rotary, CDC, and the Gates Foundation, started in 1988, over 20 years ago. The total number of cases has dropped significantly: whereas 125 countries were afflicted by polio before, today only four are and 99 percent of children are safe from the virus.
Yet, in pockets of the world, the virus is still lurking and the possibility of it spreading (as it has in Africa) worries the health community. This is why a group of Rotarians from Southern California travel every year to the polio-rife neighborhoods to boost morale, urge governments to provide clean drinking water, monitor the progress of the effort, and of course, immunize some children. I was honored to be a part of that team.
Few journeys though take you beyond the frequently visited sites. Beyond the Mughal relics of Delhi, the majestic forts of Agra, the regal palaces of Jaipur, you find gems – the young girl who works in a school for underprivileged though she herself is orphaned and living on a modest means; the Rotary volunteer who’s been building schools in the front of his home for children who would otherwise never have a chance at an education; the health worker who walks with such vigor and enthusiasm from door to door; the young female doctor who works at a clinic in an impoverished neighborhood, employing the use of the few medicines she gets; the residents of the small town who care for you, feed you, and provide you a place to stay. They are the real sights to see.
Health is fundamental to all, regardless of class, creed, color, or religion. That’s what my travels to India have taught me in a very real sense. It’s not merely a case of feel good altruism. It’s a core belief that health ought to be granted to all and that’s why I voyage from my new home to my old.
That romanticism and optimism of the journey carries with me as I weave the alleys of these polio-rife towns, as I converse with frustrated locals, as I witness the effort of the largest army of volunteers in global health. That’s a beauty worth traveling great distances to see and partake in.
(If any are interested in learning more about the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, please visit www.gpei.org or Rotary International’s End Polio Now campaign on www.rotary.org. Rotary welcomes volunteers so inquire at your local Rotary Club about the polio eradication effort and any teams that may be going to India for a National Immunization Day.)
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