This is it – our last day in India. Dr. Nachiar, one of the founders of Aravind, picked us up to visit the Eye Camp, an hour outside of Pondicherry. I said that it was sure to be a big turn out once they knew she would be there, but she smiled, and said no, they were coming to see us. Little did we know what she meant until we arrived. Huge printed posters in English and Tamil announced our arrival, along with thanks to the “Bill Gates Foundation” (sic). The crowd was enormous. Politicians from all corners had descended, and were all waiting for us at the gate of the local school. Much handshaking and bowing greeted us, and a massive amount of picture and video taking. We felt like big celebrities, but weren’t quite sure why.
Once the initial greeting finished, we began our tour of the Eye Camp. This town has been hosting them for more than 30 years. These monthly eye camps allow local populations to receive screening and a host of other services. It takes place at an elementary school, with the teachers and administrators serving as part of the volunteer staff. There is an almost carnival atmosphere to the event, with children playing and attendees chatting with their neighbors while they stand in line.
The flow is the same system we saw at all the hospitals, starting with registration and blood sugar tests, and moving through refractory, glaucoma screening, cataract screening, and all the other stages of the well-care eye visit. Those thinking they have a cataract come to the camp with a bag of overnight items, as they will be transported from the camp to the hospital that afternoon. Both the transport and the surgery and stay will be free of cost. Anyone found needing glasses can pick out their frames and have the glasses made right at the eye camp. They bring an extensive selection of lens strengths, along with frame styles to the camp. There are also prescription eye medications available, if needed.
After our tour of the Eye Camp, we were seated on a dais for a short program in our honor. Many speeches followed, including one from the local businessman who started it all 30 years ago. He has nine children, and began his philanthropy when he was poor. Now his adult children help sponsor the monthly eye camps, and are all highly-respected members of the community. The visit ended with a lovely ceremony where we were all given gifts. We then had our pictures taken with some of the recipients of hand-cycles donated by the same family trust.
Back to Pondicherry for lunch, and then our last ride to Chennai to meet our planes. Our driver took us on a different road this time, one that winds along the coast. We passed vast salt fields, and areas affected by the tsunami. We also drove close to the temples of Mahabalipuram, an extensive archeological dig that unearthed a series of shrines carved out of the living rock more than 1,200 years ago.
We arrived in Chennai and said our goodbyes, both to each other, and to India. We all experienced an incredible organization in action, along with the background culture that has formed Aravind. What an amazing trip.
Pottu varan (“Goodbye” in Tamil) –