Chicken Pox in Kerala, India: What do you do when your child gets sick abroad?
By Fiona Baker
The Bethsaida Hermitage, Kovlam, India
When we landed in Kerala, India, November 2010, we couldn’t understand why our five-year-old daughter, Aida, was so irritable.
She normally enjoys flying and travels well. We were staying at the Bethsaida Hermitage Resort, Kovalam, India, which is an ayurvedic retreat directly on the coast in the southern Indian state.
The hermitage was conducive to calm, with its delicate crescent-shaped beach and inviting pool. It was frequented by a remarkable number of squirrels that darted back and forth as if on a runway, in the early morning light.
The hammocks on the coconut trees and the glistening pool surrounded by frangipani trees, laden with flowers, and with endemic birds circling overhead, instantly regenerated our spirits. There was a serenity that was integral and uninterrupted in our place of stay – Bethsaida has a peaceful and perfect charm.
Abhyanga (Four-handed) Ayurvedic Therapy
My husband and I started to enjoy the experience of traditional ayurvedic therapy offered at the resort, and welcomed the relaxing moments we spent as our cares were massaged away with traditional four-handed massage termed, “abhyanga.” This is where two therapists work on the massage at the same time, mirroring each others’ movements.
It was a wonderful enveloping sensation which is unlike any other therapy. My husband was glowing as we rejoined each other at the ayurvedic reception. For a moment, it seemed that my daughter had also found tranquility, although this did not last long.
Aida Gets Chicken Pox
Not long after returning to our room, Aida started to develop a temperature. I noticed how clammy her skin had become as she struggled to stay awake. She was restless and angry. Though unwilling at first to quench her thirst, I encouraged her to drink. An “Indian summer” took on a new meaning as the spots appeared steady and fast.
Fortunately, I had brought the Tylenol, reserved from our premature encounter with a “previous bout” of chickenpox.
This lowered her temperature enough to allow her to slumber. Some observably aggressive behavior that resulted in lethargy and sleep was punctuated with some starts and night sweats.
My husband and I sighed with relief as we went out onto the balcony to take a breath and reaffirm our love for each other.
The night sky was crystal clear and the sound of the waves lapping against the shore punctuated the silence as Aida slept soundly in our stately mahogany bed which was cloaked with a mosquito net to trap aberrant flying insects. As we lay in bed, we awaited the following dawn with anticipation, wondering just how the chickenpox would develop or stabilize during the night.
On awakening, the small red dots of the previous day had become much sorer than previously. They had spread across the back and the dots had quickly become raised with the centers full of clear fluid. Aida seemed fine in herself and her temperature was now normal. She did not seem tempted to scratch, which was a blessing, but I checked her fingernails and cleansed her hands with ayurvedic soap, to prevent infecting the rash.
As there was no room service, we had to venture to breakfast. We covered the spots up as much as possible with a long-sleeved shirt and headscarf pulled tightly behind the ears. Like a little pirate, Aida sat down for breakfast.
Reactions to the Resort
It wasn’t long before we were approached by Aida’s newly found Danish friend who, prepared with her coloring books, started to sit down at our table. At that point, the responsibility of being the mother of a child with a childhood illness took hold.
Interestingly, the mother and father rapidly took away the child, to have her hands washed, and raised the question of “how” chickenpox is spread – whether by bodily contact or through the air. As the parents and child backed off, my daughter visibly dissolved and there came a number of looks, glances, and stares angled at the red and fiery bumps.
A PR manager from the Hermitage approached us about changing rooms which we could only imagine would put us under surveillance, as our new room allocation was to be close to the reception.
We allayed any fears the manager may have had and promised that Aida would not enter the swimming pool. The manager assured us that “Bethsaida is a home away from home” and we smiled wondering what would have happened, had we had something more serious.
The Healing Effects of the Neem Leaf
Our waiter spoke to us of the virtues of a green leaf which he pulled from a bush next to us. He said the leaf would take away the heat from the rash, and would quickly calm and reduce the number and intensity of the blistering eruptions.
We made it our priority to search for the leaf by taking a local bus from Bethsaida to Kovalam beach where there were a number of ayurvedic pharmacies.
With an outstretched hand, I offered up the leaf for scrutiny. The doctor smelled the leaf and promptly disappeared to the rear of the shop. A lady suggested a cooling aloe vera, red sandal and kasthurmanjal gel, which I promptly purchased, as it was one hundred percent natural. The doctor reappeared and handed us a bag of leaves which were actually quite different from the leaf I had offered up by our waiter.
He introduced this leaf as Neem and said that the leaf should be laid on the sheet for Aida to lie on. There was no charge for the leaves and we left, gladly accepting them. Our next call was to a café which we had read about in the Lonely Planet guide.
On our way there, hawkers were haggling with us along the beach. One lady called out from behind us that coconut oil would solve the problem – but, at the time it seemed more of a rouse to get us to buy than anything else.
Much later, though, I read about the antibacterial effects of coconut oil and the apparent abundance of properties. I felt I had done her an injustice by ignoring her.
When I entered the café, I picked up a “Yoga for Health” magazine and turned to an article on the value of the leaf, known as “neem.” I read that for thousands of years, ayurvedic medicine has used neem for skincare and to treat skin disorders, as the “neem leaf relieves redness and itching of irritated skin and can lighten scars.
Many healing properties of Neem
I looked at the remarkable list of properties that the neem leaf has which are: antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal properties. I started to sing the praises of ayurvedic medicine and when I returned to Bethsaida Hermitage, requested that a woman place the leaves correctly on the bed sheet to maximize the benefits.
While I was keen to test the value of the neem leaf, Aida was more cautious about lying on the leaves and reluctantly lay on bed near, but not on top of the leaves.
While I urged her to move onto the leaves, I later understood that the atmosphere of the living plant to cure particular diseases, was probably enough to have a profound effect on the chickenpox. My daughter nodded off with the power of the miraculous neem leaf and a sure measure of Tylenol.
A Celebration of Friendship
My husband kicked back on the balcony, while I ventured to the pool. The glistening water seemed to confirm the quenching of a child’s thirst and as I glanced around me, I realized that the whole of my life had become a celebration of nature – of plants, and the wonders of the beauty of the surroundings.
To be enwrapped in nature and to experience its curative benefits, was to explore what is truly meant by an Indian experience. The parents of the Danish girl were taking photographs to promote their yoga studio in Denmark on the beach, and as they approached me, it seemed that they had mellowed toward the chickenpox. They suggested that Aida join them for dinner.
When Aida awoke from her afternoon slumber, the spots were already starting to crust over, and no new bumps had appeared. We celebrated the return of a childhood friendship over dinner amid the joys of nature. With a sigh of relief, we could now turn our attention to continuing our discovery and celebrated the power of neem.
As a lecturer based overseas, Fiona Baker has traveled independently around the world. She is now traveling with her husband and 5 year old and is learning what it means to travel as a mother – a whole new world of experience.