Special Six: A first glimpse of Puducherry

I used to think Pondicherry was a part of Tamil Nadu until I filled in the visa application. I realized that it was a union territory of India, and now known as Puducherry. What drew me to the city at this point in time was Auroville. However, during my stay, I did explore parts of the city, especially the heritage part and the French colony part.

The following are the special six glimpses that I enjoyed:

(1) Staying at Maison Perumal:

Maison Perumal is a lovely boutique hotel in the CGH Earth chain of hotels. Located on Perumal Koil street in the heritage part of the city, it has a lovely ambience and provides the experience of staying at a 150 year old Chettiar house, with its lovely inner courtyards and swing. The little restaurant in the hotel offers a limited menu of what it claims to be authentic Tamil cuisine. I did enjoy the food there and tried out some dishes that I had only read about but not tried before, like ‘vatha kuzhambu‘ and ‘ilaneer payasam‘. Since ‘vatha kuzhambu‘ is not a variety of ‘kuzhambu‘ (a tamarind based gravy dish) that we make in Sri Lanka and I had only come across its mention in Tamil Nadu and not other states of India, it was a lovely experience to try this meal with its complex flavours of bitter, sour and spice. Apparently, the berries are soaked in buttermilk and sundried before the ‘kuzhambu‘ is cooked. In short, the stay at Maison Perumal was a lovely experience – akin to a heritage home stay with traditional meals.

(2) Mahakavi Bharathiyar Memorial Museum:

It was while browsing online for places of interest in Pondicherry that I came across the Bharathiyar museum. I was initially surprised as I thought the poet had lived in Tamil Nadu. I read a little bit more on the museum and I understood this was the house that the famous poet had lived during his years away from Tamil Nadu from 1908 – 1918, when he had escaped being arrested by the British for his writings. I visited this museum as the first place to go to after I had checked in at my hotel. The reason being that my mother had made me memorize several of his poems during my childhood, as she was a fan of his work and often quoted him in her writings.

The museum was in a quiet residential street and looked as if it were another house on the block. The inviting little home is being managed and maintained by the Government of India and visitors can freely visit the premises, where some of his handwritten pieces are being kept. I looked at the handwriting and tried to envision what sort of a person he was behind that famous image of him with the white turban, black coat and large mustache. His writing seemed to be so precise and neatly written as if he were someone who thought well before putting his thoughts on paper. Not like someone who scribbled their thoughts on pieces of paper as an idea came to his or her head. Or perhaps, it was simply that the pieces of writing on display were his final drafts after he had gone through the creativity phase. Even so, it was so neatly written and evenly positioned that I wondered if he had been someone who had wanted everything well organized at his home and in his personal life. His writings are full of being fearless and courageous and being an empowered individual who contributes positively to society and somehow I guess I associated this with being a person who was non traditional or rigid. Not being a handwriting analyst, perhaps his handwriting did indicate this adventurous spirit.

There is also a library with all his works under one roof, which is open to researchers and school students to study his work. Apparently, Eswaran Dharmarajan Koil Street, where this house is located was also home to many of the famous scholars of that time (the pre-Independence era India). The museum was within a couple of minutes walking distance from Maison Perumal. I also understood that there was another museum within its vicinity dedicated to Bharathidasan, a poet and contemporary of Bharathiyar and who changed his name from the one given by his parents so that he could express that he was an ardent follower of Bharathiyar.

(3) Puducherry museum

The small museum has a few interesting galleries, that is worth visiting for. I liked the Chola and Pallava Dynasty sculptures as well as the French India colony gallery, with pieces of household furniture and utensils recreating the homes of the colonizers during that period.

(4) Sri Aurobindo Ashram

Sri Aurobindo’s life seems to have taken many a turn before he embraced spirituality. Having studied at Cambridge University, he worked for the Maharaja of Baroda and as a Professor of Baroda University from 1893 – 1906. He quit his job after the partition of Bengal and moved to Calcutta to engage with the Nationalist movement. However, it was about this time that he started engaging in yoga and by 1910, he decided to quit politics and moved to Pondicherry to pursue his new spiritual pathway. His experience with yoga led him to develop a practice called the Integral Yoga. In 1926, he founded the ashram with his spiritual collaborator, the Mother. The ashram is currently run by a trust and is open for visitors as well as members.

(5) Eglise de Notre Dame des Anges

I visited this church on Surcouf Street in White town simply because it looked pretty in the photos I had seen of it on the web. The church was founded in 1738 and is one of the oldest churches in Pondicherry. It is also the only church in India that apparently has masses in French, English and Tamil.

(6) Coromandel Cafe

While I was quite happy with having all my meals at Maison Perumal, I am glad I did go out for dinner to a restaurant within the French colony. This cafe and restaurant is at La Maison Rose on Rue Romain Rolland. While the ambience is glitzy and meant for specials, my friends and I just walked in for dinner after having explored the neighbourhood. Fortunately for us, there was a table in the crowded restaurant. Why I have included this cafe in this special six list is because of their food. It is delicious and worth a visit, if you are visiting Pondicherry.

There are some places you visit that makes you think you want to revisit the place and there are others, that you are sure that you will not visit again, unless work brings you there. I enjoyed my brief time in Pondicherry/ Puducherry but it is not a city that I would want to revisit the next time I visit India. That is also because there are so many places in India that I have long wanted to visit and I have only visited a handful of them so far.

Auroville – a brief glimpse

Nearly three years after my last travel outside of Sri Lanka, I considered traveling again. However, unlike previous times, when I would consider places I had wanted to always visit and choose one from the list, this time, I wanted to choose differently. I wanted to go to a place that I felt perhaps might give me a sense of peace and perhaps an interest to stay longer in subsequent visits. In the last few months, I had been looking at places which might be ideal for meditation or simply a retreat. I came across Auroville during one of my web searches. The concept of Auroville attracted me.

“There should be somewhere on earth a place which no nation could claim as its own, where all human beings of goodwill who have a sincere aspiration could live freely as citizens of the world and obey one single authority, that of the supreme Truth.”

Who wouldn’t be interested in learning more about this lofty vision created by Sri Aurobindo and The Mother in the 60s?

I initially thought of staying within Auroville to experience what the place was like. However, given that it is a long drawn-out process to apply for and be allowed to stay within Auroville and the fact that I couldn’t stay for long away from home at this point in time, I decided to stay in Puducherry and visit Auroville to get an initial glimpse and feel for the place.

Hiring a three-wheeler, I visited Auroville with a couple of friends and learnt a little more about the place at the visitor centre.

The city was planned to have a 5Km diameter with a population of 50,000. In 1968, 5000 people from 124 countries participated in the inaugural ceremony.

From the visitor centre, we were allowed to walk up to the visitor viewing point of Matrimandir, considered the soul of the city and a point for silent reflection. The city was designed as four sections: industrial (north), cultural (north east), residential (south, southwest) and international (west).

Given that visitors are not allowed beyond the viewing point of Matrimandir, without prior approval, I did not have the opportunity to see any of these areas of the planned city. Nor did I gain an understanding of what the city dwellers considered the ‘supreme truth’ as we never met any of the residents. However, I did see some of the products manufactured by the industrial section of Auroville at the shops at the visitor centre as well at the craft bazaar at Puducherry.

The one km walk from the visitor centre to the viewing point was a lovely walk through the woods along a pathway, that had benches placed thoughtfully along the way for those who might want to rest a little.

At the end of the pathway, one came to the viewing point of Matrimandir. It was a golden orb in the distance, which did not evoke anything in me. After some time gazing on the orb, we decided to return to the visitor centre.

I guess I am glad that I choose to do this mini trip to first see if Auroville would be a place that I would be interested in staying for a longer period. My first glimpse of the place gave me the sense that the city had been envisioned in the idealistic 60s cultural context – that of a commune living, which was closed off to the outsider. To what extent the original vision was still being upheld, I have no idea but the current residents are very particular about the place being closed off to visitors. I instinctively felt that this place was not a place that I would want to live in, even though its principles of equality and humanity appealed to me.

Back at the visitor centre, I revisited the wall with the quote that I deeply resonated with ever since I came across it in a translation of Bhagavad Gita, as I was recovering from my road traffic accident back in 2005.

A letter to my sister

As I walked through the door of your house today and saw you lying peacefully in your coffin, I could not take it. There have been many funerals that I have been to over the years, and some that of close relatives as well, but nothing has hit me as hard as it has been to be at your funeral. It felt as if you were just sleeping and that you would get up any moment and the past week would turn out to be a nightmare that never was. That you would continue being the big sister to all of us.

Our parents are elderly and they have been losing many memories of their lives. However, to this date, they are able to clearly recount stories from your childhood. Even if they are less able to remember that of the rest of their children. I grew up understanding that you were/ are very special to them as their first-born and because of your leadership personality since you were a toddler, you grew up giving them direction and advice on many aspects. And, especially more so in their elderly years. As I see them crying over not being able to see you or hear you anymore or having you advicing/ bossing them, I wish you could have realized the key role you had in their lives.

For me, personally, you have always looked out for me and been there for me, in my times of need and I especially remember the days you looked after me, when I recovered from my accident. You always treated me as the little sister who needed your care. So much so that I did not realize the support and care you needed, in your time of need. I regret that I did not take more time to be with you, especially in the past year, when you grappled with your frustrations over having lost your leg and adjusting to a shift in life from being the key decision-maker in the family and at your school to having to become dependent on others for your basic needs. While you chose to see that as being a burden for others, you didn’t realize how much your family loved you and wanted to support you to face your challenges.

You were lucky to have met the love of your life and to have experienced a blissful marriage with your life partner, over the last 24 years, and to have his family embrace you as a core family member. When we, your own siblings, were not able to be with you to look after you in the aftermath of your surgery last year, your husband and his sisters were there for you each day that followed till the day you took your last breath. I wish you had been able to realize the deep love your husband has for you, even in the pain you were going through this past year, and how much devastated he is now that you are no longer with him.

The students and teachers at your school are in shock and I understand your students will be speaking at the testimony service tomorrow morning. They have said that you were the backbone of their school. I always knew from my teen years that you were an exceptional teacher. During the time when I had had to shift countries and schools, and my grades dropped drastically, I remember one evening when Appa had been scolding me over my Maths grade and insisted that I could not have my dinner till I solved a problem that he had set me. You had just finished your A/Ls and was at home on a break and you couldn’t bear to see me crying and bravely challenged my father that you would take over responsibility for my Math grades over the summer holidays. That summer, not only did you help me catch up with my Maths but also ignited the love for numbers and mathematics in me so much so that I became the top student in Maths for my remaining school years. I have always told Amma that you were the best teacher that I have ever had. So, I was happy when you finally decided to teach. It felt the perfect vocation for you and your students bear testimony to that. Even after your teaching career and your career as a Vice Principal of your school was disrupted due to your health last year, I was hopeful when you started returning to work on a part time basis a few months ago, after having been fitted with an artificial leg. We could feel a positive shift in you.

So, it was unsettling when you were re-admitted to the hospital five days after your birthday, and we found that your sugar levels were at very high levels not only because of your flu but also the possibility that you may have stopped taking your medication a few months ago on your faith in divine healing. Especially as you never shared this with anyone. I can’t imagine how you were able to be so positive, so cheerful, so full of plans for everyone while you must have been experiencing a gradual decline in your health and were in pain. All I know is when I visited you at the ICU last week, I felt differently to how I had felt last year. Last year, I simply prayed for you to come out of ICU and be brought back to us healthy. That was a non-negotiable ask and prayer. This time, I felt your pain and realized your frustration and I sensed that you did not want to be at the hospital even though you were unconscious the whole time. Even though I felt some anger initially that you did not realize how much you meant to us and were not using your strong willpower to fight for your precious life. However, this time, I had prayed for God to do what was best for you. And you breathed your last yesterday.

When I think that I will not be seeing you again, talking to you about Amma or Appa, and especially when I see Amma suffering because she can’t see or hear your voice again and that this pain will never go away till her last breath, it breaks my heart. However, I also feel that you are in a better place. You seem to be at peace. In the past, whenever a close relative has passed, we have always been able to sense their presence for at least a few days. With you, I don’t sense you here. I hope that as per your belief that Jesus would take you with him, that you are there in heaven and in peace. And even if I may not have said these words in recent years to you, and it is too late to say them now, I want to say that I love you and am grateful to God that I was born your little sister in this life and the years we have had together.

Financial Management Skills – a must have skill for all

This year has been one of those turbulent years, when continuous changes kept taking place amidst a lot of shocks and surprises. And looking back at 2021, I am truly grateful that I am still standing at the end of the year and even more thankful for the life lessons I learnt.

On the last day of the year, I wanted to share one of the life lessons that I learnt this year: Financial management is a skill that everyone needs to consciously build. This is especially more relevant for women.

I had thought I was reasonably financially savvy until this year’s events forced me to reconsider the way I was managing my finances and to start looking at options. As one friend put it, ‘from an extremely conservative financial management style at one end of the spectrum, you are now looking at the other end and you need to proceed slowly.’

What was my extremely conservative financial management style, it was simply to make sure that I stayed roughly within the limits of expenditure that I had set for myself each month and to transfer my savings into fixed deposit accounts as soon as they reached a certain limit. I thought this was enough to safeguard against shocks as well as prepare for eventual retirement down the line.

Due to the heavy medical expenses of both my parents, moving to a rented apartment etc., there was a dent in my savings that made me think again on whether this was the right way to save. Especially the fact that while I was able to face this year’s shocks, if I had to face recurrent shocks for a few years, I would be drying up my retirement savings and there would be nothing left to weather the shocks in my old age. And this had me reading up on different options, reaching out to friends who had tried out some of these options.

The biggest investment that I made after reading up and consulting friends was to invest in a comprehensive health insurance. It might be surprising that I had not thought of this as a basic step before but all these years, despite the hospitalization expenses incurred during my road traffic accident, I was able to manage well within my income and during the last five years, my workplace had a medical insurance coverage so it did not seem a priority for me. With my parents’ medical expenses and my role at my workplace being phased out in December, I realized that the time one needs health insurance coverage is in-between jobs and more so, after their retirement and this is the period that most insurance companies don’t cover. After going through various health insurance packages, with the help of an insurance broker, I finally selected a health investment package that would cover me till the age of 70 years and which would transfer an investment amount that should help with any health expenditure beyond 70 years. Some of my friends said that they would not think of getting such a package because who knew whether they would live up to 70 years or whether the company would still be there at that point. I guess that was my previous stance but I have come to realize the key point, ‘what if you do live beyond 70, wouldn’t you rather be independent and self-reliant regarding your expenses, particularly health, than having to rely on others?’ As for the company still being there, that is a risk that one needs to take and thus it is important to select a company that has a good record.

The second investment choice I made was to invest in some shares on a couple of companies. Nothing big at this point in time, just small investments to let me understand better how one should invest in stocks. Again, following a friend’s advice, I reached out to a stock broker to help me navigate my way around. I have just started with IPOs, choosing to invest small amounts in companies whose company profile and annual report interests me.

My third investment choice was to simply diversify bank accounts so that I could try out a few of the different fixed deposit packages. I guess I am still relying to a large extent on my financial management habit, but moving slightly out of my comfort zone of only having one service provider to trying out different packages with different banks.

There are sure to be other options for better financial management practices. I am still on the initial stages of the learning curve and will be actively reading up on such practices hereafter. However, the key purpose of my sharing a key lesson that I learnt this year regarding the need for diversifying financial management practices is because most of the women that I spoke to had absolutely no idea of the options not even the conservative approach that I used to rely on previously. I think it is important for all women to understand financial management practices so they can make informed choices that best suits their needs.

Here’s to your broadening your understanding of financial management practices and making wise choices in 2022!

Decisions around elderly care

It’s been a tough week, where my siblings and I had to face the inevitability of old age and what it entails for the elderly.

Up until August 2021, no matter what the situation of my mother’s health was, she continued being the decision-maker in the family, the glue that held our dysfunctional family together and continued making our house a home for all of us.

With her collapse, both physically and mentally, our stability was uprooted. The fact that I was able to fully focus on work previously was because I did not really get involved in any household decisions or responsibilities. My mother looked after them all, from basic chores, bills, food supplies to house maintenance etc.

Following her treatment for COVID and diabetes, she was discharged on September 3rd with the movement in her legs and arms regained as well as her speech restored, though she was not able to speak much and it was with great effort that she did so. When we left the hospital, she was still not able to lift her head up since her vertigo had increased with her recent illness. Her legs were also too weak to hold her up. So, she was mostly confined to her bed though she managed to get up to use the bathroom a couple of times each day, with my support. A week into my full time home care of her, she started declining again. I was worried that it was due to her limited fluid intake. I had been trying to increase her fluid intake with great difficulty and had managed to get it up to 1000 ml per day (inclusive of all semi-solid meal intake). The fact that she took only about 25ml at a time increased the difficulty and I had to continuously make little doses of different nutritious fluids and give them on an hourly basis to make up the daily 1000ml target. Back home, she started complaining about the tastelessness of those nutritious drinks such as ensure, diabetasol, vitagen and I had to continuously try different mixes or insert these powders into a few spoons of soup. It was particularly difficult in the nights as that was when she seemed to struggle the most from her limited fluid intake and initially, I had to continue giving the fluids every hour in the night as well or else her face would start getting numb, especially her mouth, and then her hands and legs. It was at such times that I guess my patience as a carer was tested a lot. Especially since I was also tired after the stay at the hospital and had not really had a proper rest or time to recover. I remember once that a nutritionist had adviced me to give stuff she liked, no matter the nutrition content – things like pudding or jelly, that would encourage her to take in more food. I had told her one night that some friends had sent boxes of jelly that evening and I would make some for her the next day. It had somehow reached her mind and at midnight, when she woke up and asked for a snack, she specifically asked for jelly. I replied that I had to make it and would do so in the morning and in the meantime, to drink something else. Since she looked very disappointed, I mixed the jelly powder with water and put it in the fridge to set. Half an hour later, she woke up again and asked for jelly. I replied that I had put the jelly in the fridge to set and it was still a liquid. She said that it was ok to give her the jelly water. I gave her a little to taste. She wanted more. Since I was quite exhausted and not in a mood to argue further, I gave the whole jar to her, thinking it was at least some form of fluid intake. She drank it all. At moments like these, you realize that your responsible parent is more of a child in her elderly years. During the day, no matter what I tried to tempt her with, she wouldn’t take in much but at nights, her requests used to be difficult to meet ones and especially ones, that she would not be able to intake any way due to her swallowing and chewing issues. I had a request for rice and curry one midnight and pol roti another midnight, despite the fact that she has not had either for years. Since her meals have mostly been soups and porridges, I had stocked up on those and my brother and I mostly subsisted on instant noodles and other stuff ordered through ubereats. So rice and curry was not available. Anyway, the next morning, I cooked rice and made a vegetarian curry with a couple of vegetables that was there in the fridge. She refused to eat it during the day and after much coaxing, tasted a couple of spoons and said it was horrid. I felt like all the times I might have given my mother trouble as a toddler, being a picky eater, was coming back to me now, when our roles were reversed.

However, I had managed to get her intake to around 1000ml per day, when she started reducing her intake on September 13th. By evening, she completely stopped intake of fluids and would shake her head when I offered anything. She was no longer talking to me as well. By morning, I was so frustrated that I told her that I had had enough and was not going to take care of her anymore but to just drink what I offered then and I would call my eldest sister to deal with her thereafter. Still she did not respond.

My eldest sister, who used to be basically the second in command, when it came to family decisions and was instrumental in supporting my mother with my recovery, when I met with a road traffic accident back in 2005, was herself a patient this year. She had neglected a wound and the fact that she had diabetes contributed to the situation escalating to the point that she had been taken to the hospital in an unconscious state back in April 2021. The doctors at the hospital had declared that if we were to save her life, her leg needed to be amputated followed by a strict control of her diabetes. My brother in law and we had consented to the amputation as we felt that my sister’s life was more important than a loss of her limb. She was just beginning to come to terms with her limited mobility and was being fitted with a prosthetic leg and undergoing physiotherapy to get her used to that leg, when my parents became ill. As initially, there was a COVID situation involved with my parents, we had requested that my sister or her husband should not come visit as she was in a fragile health as well and we were keeping her in a bubble till she regained her health. However, with my mother not responding to me at all, I spoke to her and she decided to come and see my mother. On September 14th, she came with my brother in law in her wheel chair, but my mother was not responding to her beyond nodding her head or a brief yes, whenever my sister called ‘Amma’.

I then called our family doctor and he asked us to bring in my mother immediately to the hospital. So I brought her back to the hospital. The rapid antigen test for both my mother and I was negative. However, as she had a high fever and her pulse oximeter reading was 88 , when it was taken at the OPD, they wanted a PCR also done. So temporarily, Amma was admitted to the isolation room at the entrance of the COVID ward. They immediately put her on a drip, upon learning that she had not had any fluid intake for the past 24 hours. Her blood sugar this time was 400, a huge increase when compared to the critically low amount when she was previously admitted. They did a number of tests and said that she had an infection, which they were trying to find the source of. The PCR test result came out negative and she was moved to the regular ward room. The nurse who was helping to clean up my mother and change her clothes, before the ward move, asked me about a wound on my mother’s left toe. I said I had not noticed it but that she had kept saying that she had sharp shooting pains in her left leg followed by numbness over the past few days. The doctor asked the surgeon to have a look at it as they thought that it might be the source of her infection. They also put her on an antibiotic course.

She was by now back in her senses, and somewhat aware of her surroundings, and able to recognize me again. She also was able to speak a little with a lot of effort, but I was the only one able to understand her as her words were muffled and running into each other.

At this point, the doctor was saying they were ready to discharge my father as they had done all they could to bring down the keratin levels and he was able to talk and sit up a little, but not get up or walk. We were told that we had to strictly maintain his diet and other factors to ensure that it didn’t increase and require another round of dialysis.
Given that I was at the hospital with my mother, and my brother had already been stretched trying to manage his work on reduced hours, daily visits to the hospital to take care of my father’s medical bills, laundry and other needs, we felt that we were not able to give the attention and care my father needed at this time especially as his condition needed close monitoring, which my mother had previously done. So we explored a few nursing homes and explained to him that it was a temporary move and that we would shift him back home once things were set up. My father agreed to it but on the day, he was discharged from the hospital and transferred to the nursing home, he asked me not to leave him at the nursing home and to visit him frequently.

It was a difficult moment because taking the decision to move him to a nursing home was in the first place a difficult decision that my siblings and I took as a family. We didn’t initially want to do that but we recognized our limitations and realized that my brother and I could not provide him the critical care he needed at the moment. It was not a simple matter of getting a male attendant to be with him and ordering out meals. There was so much more involved, the right diet and meal plan according to his dietary restrictions, medications and injections to be given at the right time in the right doses, constant attention to his needs. My father is also quite a difficult and demanding patient to manage, and my mother’s neurological issues had worsened because of the stress and lack of self-care that resulted from her hands on care of him during the past few years. My brother and I needed to return to full time work, after some time off in the past few weeks. Both our workplaces had been supportive and even though it was a critical time at work for me, where I was responsible for a few key initiatives, my line manager and team helped to take forward some of the work. However, there was some key work that I had to work on myself during the coming couple of weeks and it was the same for my brother. So we could not provide that hands on attention that my father needed. We also needed time to sort out how his different requirements could be addressed from a home care setting and organize them.

The staff at the hospital we were at, were very critical and offended though. One nurse came to give my mother her regular antibiotic injection and started demanding me in a hostile manner why I was sending my father to a nursing home and why I could not look after him. She then repeatedly asked if I was working and whether there was no one else at home. I understand that in the Sri Lankan culture, it is not a practice that people accept. Care of elderly parents are the responsibility of the children. However, I think each family situation is different and the different complexities that go into making difficult decisions is something only that family will be able to understand. The nursing home we selected for my father’s temporary stay is attached to a private hospital and has 24 hour doctor support, nursing staff and attendants to look after my father. He has his private room, with air-conditioning, and a large TV. Relatives have taken turns to visit him each day and when he spoke to my mother and I over the phone yesterday, he sounded happy and also in much better health and clarity of mind than he was during the one month stay in hospital and previously at home.

I have been with my mother in hospital this week, during her second stint this month, and trying to get the doctors to examine and address underlying issues than simply addressing blood sugar fluctuations and pressure fluctuations. Yesterday, I requested the family doctor that he bring in Amma’s neurologist, who treated her when she originally had a pontine infarction back in 2006. I also requested a diabetic nutritionist so that I could consult her on a suitable meal plan that addresses her nutritional necessities, while considering her eating style and restrictions and health issues. Finally, I requested that a specialist have a look at a couple of wounds, that I am cautious of after my eldest sister’s experience. From loss of consciousness to slow understanding of environment, my mother has now improved to the stage where she is able to talk coherently to me. She has also started taking an interest again in what my siblings and I are doing and asks us about our work and has started encouraging me to work from the hospital. I actually started working part time from the hospital today. Over the past few weeks, when her condition was critical, she was not in any state to think beyond her immediate pain and discomfort. However, what we are trying to address this week before we return home is to ensure that she is able to sit up and move about a little, despite her vertigo.

There will be a period of adjustment to our new normal – with both parents requiring close attention and care. Hopefully we will be able to ride through this storm as well and emerge at the other end.

Reflections during a stressful time

The world collectively has been facing the pandemic since 2020 and many have gone through and continue to go through some stressful times because of the virus.

All these months, I thought I was taking as much precaution as I could to keep my elderly parents relatively safe even though I continued to go into work for most of this time. I was focused on business continuity at work, humanitarian response and working on the strategic plan for the next three years and trying to facilitate staff wellbeing initiatives.

August 2021 changed this perspective.

First, my 77 year old father had another return of his cellulitis, which has been a recurring visitor for the past two years and each time before we admitted him to the hospital, they would do the rapid antigen test and only admit him after the result turned out negative. This time, on August 18, our neighbourhood hospital was full so his doctor asked us to bring him to another private hospital that he visited. It was with great difficulty that my brother managed to find an ambulance to take my father to that hospital and there, they immediately did the rapid antigen test. This time though, the result was positive. The hospital immediately turned out my father and brother out of their premises. My father was completely immobile by this time, was confused and unable to speak and this hospital turned him out onto the road. For the next couple of hours, my mother and I tried calling all the private hospitals to check for space to admit an elderly COVID patient with health complications. Every one of them stated that they do not admit COVID patients. They only had interim COVID centers, in partnership with star hotels, that allowed for isolation of the patient in a hotel room. Medical treatment was not provided at these hotels/ interim COVID centers and the patient was expected to be able to fend for themselves. Further, they did not accept elderly patients or any other patients, who needed medical treatment. The ambulance that had dropped my father at the hospital had left and it was another two hours, before we were able to get that ambulance back. It was night time, and curfew time was approaching, and we had no choice but to bring him back home. After a sleepless night, where my mother tried her best to get my father to have something to eat and drink, we decided that it was best to move him to the government hospital that his doctor had suggested, as he was in urgent need of medical attention. So the next morning, my brother took him to the nearest government hospital, admitted him to the COVID ward and returned home. What he found in his subsequent visits to the hospital was that my father was not being treated for cellulitis and continued to remain unresponsive. So we pleaded with his doctor to get him a space at the private hospital in my neighbourhood, that we always go to, and we managed to get him transferred to this private hospital in a few days.

Then, my 71 year old mother started having a low fever. My brother and I were fully vaccinated but not my parents. We had registered for the home vaccine service for the elderly, who had mobility issues but though my father used to get up each day and await his vaccination, they didn’t come until after he was admitted to the hospital. Learning that my father was infected, they said that it would be better not to vaccinate my mother at this time as she might also be infected.

Since it was a low fever, and the state that the hospitals were in, we decided that Amma should stay at home in isolation and rest. I bought a pulse oximeter and monitored her oxygen levels regularly and it was normal. Then, suddenly, on saturday, Aug 28th, morning, Amma had difficulty getting up. It took her two hours to activate her hands and feet and mouth, but she slowly got up. At times when she struggled to move her hand or feet during those two hours, I would suggest she not try so hard and to rest a bit. She would insist she needed to get up to make me a cup of tea. When she did finally get up, she asked me to help her go to the kitchen, where she made me a cup of tea. I wanted to take her to the hospital that day but she refused. For anyone who knows my mother, s/he will be well aware of her stubbornness and determination once she makes up her mind. I therefore called for the home PCR test service and had her do the test, so that in the event we needed to take her to a hospital, at least delays related to COVID testing would not be there. The whole day, she was able to walk around the house and do her usual stuff so I decided I would closely monitor her and decide the next day, on whether to admit her to the hospital. That was a mistake. On Aug 29th, I woke up later than usual around 6am and checked on my mother and apart from her breathing, she was not moving at all. I tried calling her and tried moving her hands, there was no response. Her eyes were wide open but she did not see me nor was she present. That was the scariest moment of my life. My brother asked me to make her some sugar solution but she was not drinking it. The PCR test result was emailed to me around that time and the result was positive.

Then began the next round of nightmare. Since the private hospital that my father had been transferred to was full, and no other private hospital admitted COVID patients, we decided to take her first to the same government hospital that we had taken my father first to. As I was in shock, as well as the fact that it was usually my mother who packed things for anyone’s hospital stay, I just pushed some stuff of my mother’s into a bag and took it with me in the ambulance. I thought I would be able to come back home, after admitting my mother at the ICU, and prepare better what needed to be taken both for her and me. My brother-in-law called the government ambulance service set up to take COVID patients to hospitals and they came in promptly. We faced some difficulty in getting her down to the waiting ambulance, as the trolley wouldn’t fit in the lift, and my mother’s hands and legs were totally stiff so we could not make her sit in the wheel chair initially. Eventually, we managed to transfer her to the wheel chair, after I coaxed her into bending her knee. At the hospital, after the check-in processes, I was told to take my mother to ward 15A, the point where the COVID admissions were done. There, the doctor who checked my mother’s blood sugar exclaimed it was critically low at 47 and immediately administered a glucose syringe and put her on a saline drip. By this time, she had gained consciousness and even though she was able to say a few words, she was not able to move. The first word that she said was ‘hungry’ and asked me for some food. I did not have any with me and I did not want to leave her in that public, overcrowded area unattended to go in search of the canteen. I asked the staff there for something and they were kind enough to give a juice box. Eventually, we were allowed to go to the COVID ward for women and she was given a bed. The ward had four sections. One large space with around 12-15 beds packed together, a small enclosed space with 3 beds, and a medium space with a couple of beds and the rest of the patients on the floor. Amma’s bed 19 was in the small enclosed space next to the washrooms. On bed 20, there was a woman who was connected to an oxygen cylinder. A little while later, another elderly woman was brought in for bed 18 by her son and an attendant, who promptly left after depositing the totally unresponsive elderly woman on her bed. In the meantime, I was trying to request the few staff there for a pamper because I had not come prepared and my mother was asking me to help her to the bathroom and she could not move. The response given was that they were in the middle of shifting to a brand new ward so all supplies had been moved to the new ward and they did not have any here. It was hours later before the attendant taking care of an adjacent patient, gave me a pamper for my mother and helped me to change her clothes and sheet. No one really came to check on the patients, though nurses seemed to take the pulse oximeter reading at least twice a day and blood checks. The family members caring for the patients were the ones distributing food parcels, water, fitting in the oxygen cylinders for their ill family member etc. The food that was given all three times was rice with curry and it was not considering dietary restrictions or issues that the patients might have. For example, my mother has been on a semi-solid diet for a decade or so as she has difficulty chewing and swallowing and she was not able to get up at this point due to her paralysis. I had kept the straw from her earlier juice box and used it to give her sips of water or tea from time to time. The patients on the beds adjacent to her were either totally unconscious or semi-conscious and not in any position to feed themselves but no one minded that, and simply left the food by the bedside table. It went untouched and thrown later, when new food packs replaced the old ones. I kept mentioning to the rare nursing staff that passed by that the unresponsive woman would need a drip, as she was not in any position to take in food or drink but there was no action taken until the next afternoon. The elderly woman was not even blinking her eye, even though they were wide open and there was no indication that she could hear. So, until and unless a family member or a paid private attendant was with a patient, especially one who was elderly and was not in a position to take care of themselves, their condition declined and some to critical levels.

I also realized how important it is for a close family member to be with the elderly patient. Throughout that day and night, I constantly interacted with my mother which gradually brought her out of her state of confusion, brought back some movement to her hands and feet.

There was no day bed for the carer, given that it was already an overcrowded ward with patients on the floor. I managed to get hold of a plastic chair and wedged it between my mother’s bed and the unresponsive neighbour’s and that was where I spent an uncomfortable night, sitting up. Yet, at that point, I was more worried about my mother’s paralysis and the fact that no doctor was addressing it beyond sending her for a CT scan. The bright lights were all on throughout the night and the hospital staff were very loud, using mikes to address the patients from their so-called safe cubicle. They had this habit of calling patient names, expecting the patient or the carer to go and pick up medicine packets for the patient. So, if the patient was not mobile or did not have a carer, she would not receive her medicines. Around 9.30pm that night, a new patient was brought in a trolley and since they could not take the trolley around to the large space, where there were some free beds, the ward doctor on duty told the attendant to ask my mother to move to the other space. They had no idea that my mother was paralysed and the attendant was insisting that my mother get up and walk around the corridor to the other space. I put on my fighting mode and told them that she was not moving anywhere. Finally, they brought a wheel chair and asked the patient on the trolley to move to the wheel chair and she was wheeled to the other area. The staff on duty was annoyed with my stance though and told the attendant to move my mother to the floor at the entrance of the ward. Again, I stood my ground and said that she was not moving anywhere that night and that as medical staff, they should be sensitive to a patient with neurological issues and who had come in paralysed and suspected to have had a stroke. They finally left us alone.

Anyway, I knew that I was not going to let my mother stay in that ward another night. I sent a text message to our family doctor, explaining what had happened, and to help transfer my mother as well to my father’s hospital. The next morning, he informed me that he had made arrangements and to collect the transfer letter from the hospital and bring my mother over. My brother collected the letter and handed it to me. The ward doctor that morning was a young and friendly one but for some reason, she was hesitant to approve the transfer and kept saying she was waiting for approval from her higher-ups. As the clock ticked by and it became afternoon, I stepped up my queries and tried to identify the bottlenecks for the approval process. I understood that the transfer of a patient from a COVID ward of one hospital to another required the approval of Ministry of Health and that our ward doctor was waiting for this approval, as they had not been able to get in touch with the focal point at the health ministry. Knowing that waiting for them to get the approval was not going to work, I reached out to colleagues who had contacts at the Ministry of Health and finally got the contact number of the focal point. I sent him a text message, as I was told that he was usually too busy to answer phone calls. A colleague suggested that I insist to the ward doctor that as my mother’s guardian, that I was making the call to transfer her to a private hospital and that we are waiving off any of their responsibility. I argued with the ward doctor and a colleague of hers for some time, before they finally agreed to approve the transfer. They said they would only give the discharge card and nothing else. I said, ‘fine’ but I wanted the discharge process to happen without any further delay as I was calling for the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I received a response from the Ministry of Health focal point stating ‘approved’ for the hospital transfer. I showed that response to the ward doctors but they were already angry with me that they said they did not care what approvals I got as they only accepted approvals that came from the official process. Finally, around 8pm, we reached the private hospital on the same road, where we lived.

From the point that we reached the private hospital, utmost care was taken of my mother by the medical staff and within a few days, she had recovered. The doctor said that he could discharge her on friday, September 3rd, as her paralysis and COVID situation was addressed and the balance of her recovery from severe dizziness and under-nutrition was something that required long term recovery and attention at home.

So over the weekend, I transformed my room to better fit in my mother and threw out all the other furniture and any of my miscellaneous collections. Until she is completely recovered and able to walk about on her own, I am going to continue closely monitoring her condition and coaxing her to take in normal levels of fluids and semi-solid food. From 300ml daily intake on friday, I have managed to increase her intake to 750ml today. While this is still not acceptable levels, considering this is what comprises of her total nutrition intake, at least this is progress for someone who is averse to food and drink.

It is almost like taking care of a child, because every hour or so, I have to coax her to drink 50ml of some nutritional drink (as she doesn’t drink more than that at a time). She has started walking from the room to the bathroom with my support, in the mornings, when she feels a little better.

On my part, it’s been more than a week since I have slept properly or eaten normally. Since her sugar levels seem to be dropping very low during nights and she becomes numb, I need to continue giving her a little drink (Ensure or Vitagen) every hour or so. When I dose off at times, I suddenly wake up at the slightest sound, afraid to face what I did last saturday – an unresponsive, paralysed mother.

I am not who I was a week ago.

Why I decided to write this experience down is not only to get this off my chest, but also to share this with friends and colleagues who keep asking me how I am doing. I am not someone, who talks about my intense personal experiences. I write about them.

Also, I felt it might be useful to share some of my learning with others out there, who have elderly parents with health complications, as well as the rest of those who are observers of people going through similar difficulties:

(1) If your parents are not vaccinated, and your doctor has not adviced them not to get the vaccine, then do push your local vaccine services to vaccinate them at the earliest. This might reduce the severity of COVID effects on them, should they get infected.

(2) Do keep a bag ready at all times, not just for your elderly parents, but also others in the family. In the event of an emergency and you need to rush into the hospital, what are the items that you will need at hand. During the emergency, you have no time to think as you will most likely be in somewhat of a shock.

(3) Do be with your parent, should they be admitted to a COVID ward in a non-responsive state. Without your attention and care, they might not make it back.

(4) For those friends and colleagues, who want to help, please don’t call the person who is going through this until and unless you can offer concrete support. For example, some of the helpful calls I received from colleagues was related to talking to my family doctor, re-emphasizing the need to transfer my parents to the private hospital, another was regarding bringing my mother’s pressure medicines as the government hospital asked me to give the medicine to my mother, but did not provide me with them and I was not allowed outside of the COVID ward since stepping in with my mother. Other helpful messages that was appreciated was text messages with a warm thought or a specific question regarding how I was managing my meals etc, that I either responded to when I had a minute or not, but still the thought was appreciated. The least helpful and annoying calls and messages from well-meaning friends was calls in the middle of when I was experiencing nightmarish situations such as arriving at the government hospital, being in an overcrowded ward, trying to get some help for my mother and a friend called and asked me, ‘are you ok now?’. This same question was repeated over a number of times before I asked a colleague to inform all colleagues not to call me at the hospital as I was not in the headspace to respond to them. This is a particularly long section of advice but important. Please try to place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you want to be called by someone and asked, ‘are you ok/ now?’ when you are busy dealing with a nightmare?

I was not ok and I am still not ok.

I know I will pull through this, and will do what I can to support my mother’s recovery. My father is still at the hospital undergoing dialysis and on oxygen support, as he contracted pneumonia. He didn’t recognize me when I went to say ‘bye’ before leaving the hospital with my mother.

I will be returning to work tomorrow, and working from home for the rest of the month. I sincerely don’t wish to talk about what I am going through personally at work or with friends outside work. So, I have taken the time to write this down to share what I am going through now.

Hope my friends will understand and respect my wishes. I know all of you mean well but I am conserving my energy for what matters the most to me – my mother’s recovery.

More stories from Yongning…

During my week in a remote village in Yongning, Ana, our host, took my friend, Yuan and I, to meet her elderly neighbours. We asked to hear about their childhood and younger years in the village, and the lifestyle they experienced as part of the Mosuo community. On one of the days, Ana took us to meet one of her relatives, a 76 year old woman.

Photo credit: Yuan Li

“I was the youngest in my own big family. My happiest period was my childhood. As my elder sisters and brothers did all the work, I did not do much at home. I used to often ride the horse to the market at the cross road in Yongning, shop with my friends, have a bath in the hot spring and participate in wrestling matches. In that time, women could even wrestle with men.

I came to live here with my partner’s family, during the period that the government encouraged one wife and husband. My small family separated from the big family around 1974. My husband’s family gave some farmlands and we built a house, with the help of two families. This was the hardest period of my life as I had to raise my children on my own. During that period, the country lacked food so it was difficult years. My husband was not good at farm work but he could do some small business. He passed away twenty years ago.

I have six children – three sons and three daughters. My eldest daughter passed away. Her son is now 28 years old and lives in the city. He may not come back to the village. My second daughter, who lives with me, also has a son. Her partner has a small store in the village. My youngest daughter works in a hostel near Lugu lake. Of my three sons, two live with me and one with his girlfriend’s family. My middle son is a carpenter. My youngest son works at home. He has a son but based on Mosuo tradition, lives with his mother. Since we have no one working in the government departments, we have to find other ways to earn money.

I used to manage all the money for my family before. Now, each child keeps the money they make. If there is a need in the family, they will contribute. For example, my youngest son sold the family’s farmland near Lugu lake and saved the money in his bank account. When the family was in need, he withdrew the money and gave it to the family. It is transparent and honest. The brothers and sisters have a good relationship so there is no problem. The best way of living is the big family life. It is much easier, living with siblings. Everybody in the family can help raise the children especially when they are little.

Life is hard for women here but we are much better psychologically, compared to women of other ethnic groups. We have more power and can make decisions within the family. Regarding public affairs, the leader of the village calls for a meeting. Each family will send one person to attend the meeting, depending on who is available to attend it. There is no strict rule on who attends. My youngest son usually attends these meetings because he can express himself well.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude and love to Nancy, aka Yanan, for translating the interviews from Yuan and my visit to Yongning in September 2013. Thanks to Yuan and Ana, for arranging the trip and hosting, as well as carrying out the interviews.

Stories from Yongning continued…

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. What made me want to go to this remote part of China was the presentation on the Mosuo community, that my anthropologist friend, Yuan, had made. Yuan presented the Mosuo, as having a matrilineal society where children stayed with their mothers and there was no word for father or husband in their language. I wanted to understand better this community, which was fast losing its identity in the homogeneity promoted through the patriarchal structure of the rest of the country. I convinced Yuan to undertake a collaborative project, where I would write the human interest stories and she would interview people as well as take some of her renowned photography. So in September 2013, Yuan and I visited this remote village, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, and stayed with Ana and her family. Ana took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

On our first morning in the village, Ana suggested we visit an elderly 91 year old neighbour. The sky was overcast with clouds as we made our way to their compound. After the introductions were made, and the little stove was lighted up to heat the water for tea, Ana spoke to the 91 year old in Mosuo language.

“I was born in the year of the mouse. I have three sons and two daughters. My first partner was a horseman, who worked for the rich Chief’s family in the village. Usually, one man from each family had to live in the Chief’s house and work there and one woman had to go help when they needed. I lived in my own house but had to go to the Chief’s family home to help when there was a big celebration. My family was very poor then and almost had nothing but we still had to pay taxes to the rich Chief’s family. Now, it is the happiest time as there are no taxes any more and there are several subsidies to help us raise pigs and other livestock.

My first partner had to travel a lot outside of the village for work so he was hardly there to help me. He passed away young, 5-6 years into our marriage. My eldest son and daughter were born in my first marriage. My three other children were born later.

I raised my family alone, without any help from extended family members. It was very hard to raise the five children alone, especially during the period when there was lack of food due to the country experiencing natural disasters.

I inherited the house from my mother. It was a simple house. My second partner helped to rebuild the house. I helped my partner build the house, carrying one child on my back. We did not have enough timber then to build the roof. We could see the starry sky, when sleeping inside the house. When the new government brought about a one husband-one wife policy and encouraged the husband to help the wife, my second partner came to live with me. This was after our children had grown up. Previously, the man had to help his own family, which was his mother and sisters. My second partner lived with me for 5 years, when I was around 50 years old, before he became sick and passed away.

I am proud that all of my five children have a good education, which is not common in the village. My eldest son was a chief policeman before he retired. My son and his family live in Lijiang.

My second son also had an important role in the local army. He lives with his family in a small town nearby. My eldest daughter was the village doctor. She passed away young. She had three children, who I raised. Two of my grandchildren graduated from university and work outside the village. My granddaughter lives with me. I have three great-grandchildren.

My youngest daughter graduated from middle school and she has a small business in another town nearby. She also has three children, all of whom completed university and all three work in good jobs.

My youngest son refused to go to middle school and is a farmer. He lives with me in the village. He is the only child who is in a traditional Mosuo marriage. A Mosuo marriage is simpler than the normal marriage. Only one big family with the same blood ties live together and raise children together. Every family member supports each other. The normal marriage is more complicated as two different families join to become one. The relationship with mother in law or other in laws is so complicated. One thing is better now than before. A man is allowed to help his partner in many ways, for example, raising a child, building a house etc. Before if a man did that, the man’s family might not allow him or other villagers might laugh at him. I am a little worried that the third generation may not have Mosuo marriages any more, since they have partners from the Han ethnic group. It is very difficult to find a partner from Mosuo ethnic group if they work outside the village.

I sent my children outside the village because there are more opportunities and a better life outside. It is too hard to live in the village. All my children, who live outside, have a good family and life. I do not need to worry about them. I could go and live with my children but the family name will be ended, if no one lives in the village.  Only my son and granddaughter, who are staying in the village, have a hard life compared to children living outside.

My youngest son and granddaughter take care of the farmland and animals. We grow rice, some corns and other plants and have 2 horses, 2 buffalos and 18 pigs. I manage all the income that we generate in the village. My children living outside the village manage their own income.

Usually men are not as diligent and thrifty as women, so women manage family income. If there is a wedding or funeral, it is usually women who decide how much money or what kind of gifts will be sent to the related family. The men will go to that family to help with the wedding or funeral arrangements. If the village needs to build a road or a ditch, the villagers will have a public meeting first to decide which family can help which part. The men engage in the public affairs, especially in village renovations and development. Also, men usually decide how many buffalos to buy or sell and manage them.

In my spare time, I like to go to every family in the village and visit them. Now I cannot walk to visit them. Soon, I will pass the control of the income and household management to my granddaughter in the near future, rather than my youngest son. I think women are usually good at managing finance at home and not men.”

Note: It was a bit of a difficult process initially, as Ana had to translate what was said in Mosuo language into Mandarin for Yuan and Yuan had to translate it into English for me. We soon realized that this was not going to work, especially if we did not want to waste the elders’ time so we agreed that the English translation would have to wait till we were back at Ana’s home. However, for different reasons, that translation never did happen during my stay in Yongning. I recently was going through the photos I took during the visit and felt it was a pity that the stories of the elders we spoke to would go undocumented. I reached out to Nancy aka Yanan and asked if she could help me by translating the recordings for me. Nancy, a very generous and kind friend, has been translating the interviews for me this month. I have tried to piece together the interviews in a story format.

Stories from Yongning

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. With me, was an anthropologist friend, Yuan, who specialized in minority ethnic groups. Our purpose for this visit was to better understand the Mosuo culture as the community was said to be following matrilineal practices and was at times, referred to as China’s last matriarchal society. We wanted to talk to some elders in Mosuo villages, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, to understand how family life was structured when the elders were children so that it would shed some light for us as to what matrilineal practices were still continued. We were hosted by a Mosuo family and our host, Ana, took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

During one of these walks, we visited NA*, an 87 year old Lama. When we entered through the doorway, we saw N* seated in the courtyard de-seeding the family’s pumpkin harvest. I noticed that dried pumpkin seeds was usually what was offered with tea in the homes we visited. After Ana introduced Yuan and I, she explained that we were interested in hearing his life story.

N* agreed to talk to us and asked us to be seated indoors, while he cleaned up and joined us. Once we were seated by the hearth, N* narrated his life story.

“I started training to be a Lama since I turned 11 years old. In my younger days, it was a usual practice for each family to have 1 or 2 children study to become Lamas. My elder brother also studied it. Becoming a Lama would reduce one’s time of service with the rich Chief of the village’s family and Lamas are respected more than the normal villagers.

Initially, I went to the temple in the next village and trained with a Senior Lama for a year. I lived in the Senior’s home and helped served the Buddhas through cleaning, preparing food and sacrifice. Other trainees usually had to do some housework for the Senior Lama. I returned to my own village after that as the village belonged to a high level temple so that I could continue my learning. I studied under the Chief of the village and temple and helped raise pigs for his family for 3-4 years. It was a duty of my family to have one or two family members serve the Chief’s family. The Chief’s family approved my learning to become a Lama. Since a Lama of high position in Sichuan province asked the Chief for a person to serve him, I was sent as a gift to the Tulku (someone similar to the Dalai Lama, but without the high ranking) to serve the Tulku for four years. After serving the Tulku, I asked to continue my studying in Lhasa, Tibet. The Tulku approved it. My village Chief’s family asked me to serve another Tulku in Lhasa, who was one of the sons of their family and my same age, who had gone to Lhasa earlier. I was not keen to continue my life of serving someone but I had no choice but to accept it. I was 20 years old when I walked to Lhasa, studied there for 9 years, and I walked back home. I served the Buddhas in Lhasa by cleaning the temple, preparing sacrifices etc. The Tulku and I had a different learning path. My study was much simpler than that of the Tulku.

After returning home from Lhasa, I was able to live with my own family, though all Lamas lived in the temple in Lhasa. In my family, there was my grandmother and her six children. My grandmother’s brothers had passed away. After my return from Lhasa, my mother asked to be separated from the large family and she and two of her sisters left to start another household. I moved with them. Two of my mother’s sisters and her brother stayed on with my grandmother.  In my family, the members ask for my opinion first. Also, when having meals, I am given food first.

I did some religious work for the villagers and went to the temple, if there was a religious event. I received some income or food for the religious work that I did for the villagers. I usually kept the income. If my family needed help, I would give some money to support them.

While serving the villagers, I could not refuse anyone requesting help. While I did not have to do any heavy farm work, I helped to take care of young children at home or do some housework at home. I also helped villagers when they were sick, or they had a wedding or funeral, or when a baby was born. I help to give names to the babies.

Once I chose this way of life, there was only one way for me to go. Whether I like it or not, I have to keep continuing on this path.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude to Yanan Yang for translating the interview recordings of our visit from Mandarin to English, that helped me piece together NA*’s story. A big thank you to Yuan for organizing the visit and carrying out the interviews. And, a lot of gratitude and thanks to Ana, for hosting us and linking us with the elders in the village and translating from Mosuo to Mandarin what they spoke.

Milford Sound with Southern Discoveries

While planning for my visit to South Island in 2018, I had wanted to stay at least a night or two in the Milford Sound area, but I had to choose between that or a visit to Stewart island, another place that was a priority. So I balanced both by choosing a day trip to Milford Sound from Te Anau and an overnight on Stewart island.

I actually overslept the morning of my Milford Sound tour, due to jet lag and having forgotten to turn on the alarm on my phone. I woke up to knocking on my cottage door at the hostel I was staying at in Te Anau. Quite disoriented, I opened the door not quite understanding why there was someone knocking on my door. A flustered woman said that my tour bus was at the gate to pick me up. I asked her if she could ask them to wait a few minutes for me to get ready. She said she would convey the message but they might not wait. True enough, minutes later, when I made it to the road, I didn’t see any bus. They had left. Terribly disappointed since I was only in Te Anau that day and I had very much wanted to visit Milford Sound, I decided to walk to the Southern Discoveries office and check if there were other options. The staff on duty was the same one that I had met the previous evening, when I had stopped by the office to clarify whether I would be picked for the tour from my hostel or whether I had to come to the office. She calmly replied, “no problem”, when I had explained what had happened. She checked what other tours were going to Milford Sound and when I found out there was one leaving in 2 hours, I was really happy. Without any fuss, she issued me my tickets and asked me to be at the office in two hours. That interaction, the calm and professional manner of the staff member with the right touch of courteous and kind made me like the Southern Discoveries tour operators even before my tour had started.

I decided to get my caffeine fix for the day and went to the nearby Miles High pie shop for an apple pie and coffee.

This time, when the coach bus came along, I was ready and I settled into my seat at the end of the bus to enjoy the scenic drive.

The bus driver stopped the bus in Eglinton Valley and suggested we take a short walk along the boardwalk and admire the views. While there were lots of people on our bus and other buses, since people kept walking, it didn’t feel as crowded as it actually was.


Mirror Lakes


At the Tutoko Suspension Bridge

I guess the best way to explore Fjordland National Park would be to have your own vehicle to drive through and where you could take time to hike along some walking trails off the road. The driver did stop at a few points along the way, as photo stop points, but with just enough time to stretch your legs, take in the view for a moment, click some photos and get back on the bus. So at the Tutoko suspension bridge, we didn’t have time to walk down the forest trail to see the chasm waterfall. To reach Milford Sound in time to embark on the Milford Sound cruise was the key factor that prevented us from having much time at the stops but at least, we stopped at some points along the way.

The driver/ guide was also recounting stories along the way of places we passed and the story about how Thomas Gunn swam the river to reach the nearest settlement to get assistance for survivors of a helicopter crash was impressive.


We made it in time for the Milford South lunch cruise and I had a quick lunch so that I could go out onto the deck and enjoy the landscape we passed.


Starting with a view of the Mitre Peak, the cruise was a beautiful experience of Milford Sound.





Despite the cold, I stayed outside through almost the whole cruise, not wanting to miss the sense of happiness I felt whenever I am out on a boat and on water and can smell the sea air around me and the feel of the wind and water lashing against my face. Only during the last segment of the cruise, I decided to go in for some hot coffee.

The return drive to Te Anau was uneventful, without any stops along the way, nor any story narration. I ended the day with a lovely walk around the waterfront in Te Anau.


Milford Sound is a must visit place for any traveler to the South Island.

What was your experience of Milford Sound, if you have been there?