Thursday, June 7, 2018

Some of the Final Adventures

Today was our last full day here in Kolkata. Since Thursdays are when Mother Theresa’s Homes are closed, the entire group went site seeing. This was extremely exciting not only because we got to do some more site seeing of this beautiful city that we have been serving in for three weeks, but we were finally all together again. We’ve had some sickness making its way through our group, but everyone was finally healthy and ready to go on an adventure today! This adventure included spending the day on the Ganges and walking across the Howrah Bridge.  The Ganges is a very sacred river in the Hindu faith, and it was quite an honor to be able to see it today. The river is considered to be very pure, and many people bathe in the river because of this belief. However, the river is one of the most polluted in the world. Thousands of tons of garbage and waste is dumped into the river every year, despite the river being sacred and even granted person-hood status by the Indian Government. Even though it was the most polluted river in the world, it was absolutely gorgeous. The sight of the river while walking over the Howrah Bridge was breathtaking. The bridge spanned across the entire river and allows for people to walk over the river and see the beauty that it still holds.

After this wonderful and sunny morning we went back to the Ganges later in the day to go on a boat ride! This was a surprise our leaders had planned for us, and we were all really excited to be taken on the Ganges. However, right before we went to get on the boats, the skies opened up and it started pouring. We took cover under a couple of trees, since not a single person had an umbrella or rain jacket. We must have looked absolutely ridiculous to the locals walking around with their umbrellas. Then we decided to try and take cover under some awnings. We went one way, found out there were no awnings in that directions, and then had to turn around and walk even further to the covering near the train tracks. Needless to say, every single person got absolutely drenched, and we were unable to go on the boat ride. This was because, along with the downpour, there was also thunder and bolts of lightning streaking across the sky. Despite all of this, I was happy to see everyone in the group was happy, laughing, and joking about how we looked like drowned rats. Even as we attempted to wait out the storm, we all took the time to enjoy each other’s company and reflect on the already wonderful day we had. We eventually decided that waiting out the storm was pointless and we made for the road to try and grab taxis home. Hopefully the rain holds off tomorrow and we can do these boat rides then before we go to the airport instead. All in all, I think this was one of the more fun and silly days that the group has had here in Kolkata.

Now as we all pack up to come home there is a sense of melancholy in the air. There will be no more days touring Kolkata, time spent with the Mother Theresa Homes, and no more card games at BMS. Though we are excited to come home and share the absolutely amazing, terrible, inspiring, and beautiful stories we have from Kolkata; I think we are all pretty sad to be leaving this amazing city. As well as the wonderful people who have shown us how to take action to make a change, how to love and care for those discarded by everyone else, and how beautiful of a city Kolkata truly is. I know personally, I have been changed by this trip and hope to carry on the legacies of the wonderful charities and volunteers we worked with these past three weeks. I am also excited to bring back the wonderful and beautiful stories that show the world how amazing a city like Kolkata or a river like the Ganges is, despite the bad press they get. Our group will truly miss you Kolkata!!

Rebecca Holland '18

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Tour of Kolkata

Thursday morning most of our group went on an incredible tour of Kolkata. The tour was a photography tour that is led by a man who owns the company Calcuttaphototours, and he has been doing this job for over 10 years now. He lives and has grown up in Kolkata and could never imagine living in another place. Also, he is a National Geographic photographer and started this business because he was upset with the name Missionaries of Charity has deemed Kolkata as the city of the “death, dying and decayed”. He wants to recognize the fact that these negative aspects do exist, however, he wants to show the beauty of Kolkata and its people. He built a relationship with all the people of the places that we walk through so that they understand why this tour is happening. He tells them that the tour is to show people coming in the beauty of the city. He does not want to put the local people on display for tourists—they are humans and have their own private stories.
                We started off learning some history of Kolkata and India in general and how this special place came to be. I strongly believe that when you are working or visiting an area it is important to know the history, qualities and beauty of the place you are in to form your opinion afterward and respect the space you are an outsider to.
                India was colonized by the British in 1612. The British had been trading with the country since before that, particularly for their spices. Other countries had trading relationships with India but the British actually took land ownership and the country over politically. They then held power in India (and what would later have been Pakistan) until 1947. This is why the city used to be Calcutta. That was the British name for the city while the Indian name is Kolkata. Also, Calcutta was the British capitol of India until the early 1900’s when they moved it to Deli. This explains why Kolkata is full of British architecture like the Victoria Memorial; it was built to honor the Queen after she has passed away in the early 1900’s. The Indian fight for independence from Britain led by Gandhi and his nonviolence strategy. He used boycotts, marches and food strikes to pressure the British government for independence. They received it in 1947, and then a few years later Pakistan broke off into its own country. The Portuguese were here in the beginning to use this area as a trading ground but would burn down each market after they were finished each time so no other people could discover this place to trade. The Portuguese presence when they came over was one of the beginning times that people started converting over to Christianity.
                This walking tour took us through various neighborhoods and streets that are very different. One street in particular is an ethnic enclave of immigrant workers and this street is bustling from early in the morning onward as wages are earned per hour. The food here is made cheap and can be eaten quickly so that men working can get back to their jobs. While here we are freshly made naan. The over was a hole on the top and they stick naan in the side to cook while sitting on top of the oven. The second food we has was Doll Porra which is a fried dough ball from a lentil paste, hallowed with herbs inside, which was also made in front of us. We had Chai (tea) and this was given to us in small clay cups. These are used to reduce the use of plastic and trash on the streets as once the chai is drank the cups can lay on the streets and dissolve away as water comes into contact. Neighborhoods have different tones, colors and foods depending on the area you are entering.
                We learned about and visited many different temples and all the different religious practices that encompasses Kolkata’s unique essence. The first was the Buddhist Association of Kolkata where we learned that Buddhism was the most popular and practiced religion in India until Hinduism came, and now it is the minority religion. Hinduism religion has many different practices people can choose to follow. For example; there is a section of Hinduism that practices cannibalism. When bodies are cremated sometimes there is flesh left over and people who follow this practice eat the remains. There are also Hindus who do not eat potatoes or anything that has roots in the soil because if you eat the root then it is killing everything. Secondly, we visited a Zoroastrianism Temple. In this religion you used to have to be born into it with both parents being in the religion but now only one parent has to be because people sometimes marry outside their faith now. In this temple they believe fire is the most sacred thing and that when you die you cannot be cremated, have a ground burial or water burial. This is because as stated fire is the most sacred force and if you use it for cremation they consider the human impure and fire is pure. Instead they practice a sky burial which is where bodies are put into open structures where birds can eat their flesh and once the body has decayed bones drop down into lower areas where the soil can be replenished. This is then completing the full circle of life. In this area there are only around 600 practicing, so they do a lot of activities together, such as education teachings. After this we entered 1 of 2 Chinatowns in Kolkata and went to a Daoist Temple. Lastly on our 4 hour tour we visited the fanciest synagogue in all of Asia. There are only 20 Jews left in Kolkata when they started with a population of over 4,000. This is because they all left India when there was a new Indian Government and they were worried and at the same time Israel was created that year and they wanted to go back to their homeland. Because of the few numbers in the area currently, the synagogue is maintained by Muslims who light a candle every Friday and take care of the beautiful structure.
                In a paradox worded beautifully by our tour guide, “Kolkata is the second chapter of the book that has been ripped out and chucked at you. As Kolkata remains the same, people will come and go. People will either love it or hate it and it by no means is here to try and impress you”. This tour was an incredible experience that speaking for the group who attended this tour, has impacted and further grown our appreciation and beauty of this place.
                Apologizing for the delay in post this blog was on track to be posted Friday but since then there was some medical complications and I was unable to post. But I am recovering now and still taking in the last days we have in this special place it has been a privilege to work in.

Micalea Leaska ‘18

Monday, June 4, 2018

Cherishing the Little Moments

Many of my mornings during our time in Kolkata have been spent at Daya Dan—one of the Missionaries of Charity, which is dedicated to girls and boys with varying mental and physical disabilities. After a quick and sweaty ride on a bus then a tuk tuk (that are now becoming routine), I leave my shoes at the door and ascend to 3rd floor to get to work. 

After our daily tasks of bed-making and laundry, we basically have the rest of the morning to hang out with the girls until it is time to assist in feeding at lunch. This “in between” time is by far the best part of the day for me and yet at times, the most challenging. Beyond the more obvious issue of a language barrier, some of the girls are young and feisty and seemingly couldn’t care less about a volunteer that will come and go after a mere 3 weeks like so many others before them. Alternatively, other girls sit in their wheelchairs, slumped over and contorted, with blank stares on their faces and drool dripping onto their bibs. It can be hard to find a way to connect. 

So far, I’ve learned to take joy in the little moments and breakthroughs with them. I’ll share a few of these stories with you below. 

~On my first day at Daya Dan, I was told to feed lunch to Moumita—a sweet girl who is wheelchair bound and has limited motion in her arms and legs. She can’t communicate verbally with anyone in Bengali or English, but she has her eating strategy down to a science. When she’s ready for a bite, she’ll tilt her head up and to the left, opening her mouth really wide. She won’t hit this position again until she has fully finished the previous bite. Once we made it through all of her food, I brought her to her bed and placed her into it with the help of one of our amazing trip leaders, Alicia. As I was saying goodbye and thanking her for making my first time feeding at Daya Dan so easy, her hand slowly crept up and held mine against her face. She looked straight into my eyes and formed her now signature Moumita grin where she smiles so hard that she squints.

~During last Saturday’s weekly trip to the park, I played with Jyoti—a 6 year old girl with a super cute, but serious face. I’ve come to learn that she’s quite independent and likes to do things on her own. Around Daya Dan, she has her own way of getting around by catapulting herself off of her knees in a frog jump like motion. But since she has a hard time walking upright, she was in a wheelchair for the excursion. She grabbed my hand while I was next to her and started smacking it against things, such as the bench I was sitting on or a nearby pole. She is small yet very strong so it started to feel a bit malicious over time. When she switched it up and hit my hand against the tin wheel of her chair instead, Alicia pointed out that she may be trying to make music. I realized that she was keeping a pretty steady beat. I sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” along with her beat and she stared up at me fascinated, which was a change from her serious demeanor. I continued to sing for as long as her hand led mine and she eventually cracked a few smiles and even let out a few notes herself. 

~The first time I met Radhika, she was sleeping on the floor in the main room of Daya Dan during playtime. One of the sisters soon came over and abruptly pushed her upright. She explained that if she sleeps now, she won’t sleep when they are supposed to later and she will most likely moan, keeping other girls from sleeping. She suggested that we get her moving in order to keep her awake so Alicia, Becca (another student on this trip) and I took turns walking her around the room. She reached about 7 laps when her legs started to give so we sat her down. As Alicia and I made attempts to talk with her, sing to her or touch her, but she did nothing in response besides sticking her fingers into her mouth and staring off into space. She would occasionally look at us, but her head moved so slow, as if she was stuck underwater. I was ready to give up. However, when I stood to stretch my legs, she looked up at me and held my hand as if afraid that I was going to leave. I reassured her that I wouldn’t, but she used my hand to pull herself up and we went back to walking her around the room.

There have been many instances during my time in India when I’ve questioned the purpose of me being here. Besides lightening the burden of laundry, how am I serving these girls during my brief time at Daya Dan? Although there are multiple ways to answer this question, I think the main reason is to show the girls that they are loved. Whether they were given up as babies or taken away from families who couldn’t take care of them and/or abused them, we are here to give them the extra care and compassion that they deserve. 

It’s little moments like I described above that will stick with me after the trip. My hope is that these brief interactions bring them happiness in that instant and an overall sense of feeling loved as volunteers cycle in and out. Little do they know how much these moments will mean to me for years to come. 

Amanda Fitzpatrick '18

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Not Everybody Sees Everything

“You can tell what people see when they’re traveling by what they’re taking pictures of,” said our tour guide, Manjit, on our way back from our incredible tour of Kolkata this past Thursday. “Some people are taking pictures of the fruit, others are taking pictures of the architecture…” he said with a smile and a gesture towards myself (I kind of have a thing for awesome architecture). “Not everybody sees everything.”

I thought about this statement for a bit as we made our back to Baptist Missionary Society from an unforgettable morning – not everybody sees everything. From a tour guide’s perspective, by this he meant that he takes note of what people are enjoying and what people aren’t. For example, if a group is constantly taking pictures of architecture, he’s not going to give a ten minute speech about mangoes (which, by the way, are absolutely delicious here). He can assess the situation and then adequately decide how best to continue the tour. However, I viewed this statement in a different light; in quite a literal sense, actually… not everybody sees everything. Which is true, of course. How can one possibly see everything? With all the people, colors, sounds, and smells, the overload of Kolkata’s sensory input while just taking a walk around the block is enough to last a lifetime. So what’s the important stuff in all of this? What am I actually absorbing and not just brushing to the side? What do I choose to take pictures of? What do I see?

Kolkata, India has inadvertently attained the reputation of being the city of the “dead, dying, and decaying” and nothing more; that’s all people see. And while we are doing great work with the Mother Teresa’s homes whilst being here, in addition to collaborating with several other fantastic organizations, the mere presence of these charities contribute to the inevitable stereotype. Well, having been here for two weeks, immersing myself in the culture as much as I possibly can, I feel confident in saying that this city is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

As Manjit had put it, you can tell what people see by what they’re taking pictures of. This whole trip, I’ve been looking through my viewfinder trying to find something beautiful to snap a picture of. Little did I realize until now that there is beauty all around me. It’s in the smiles of the workers at BMS and the Traveler’s CafĂ©. It’s in the babies I take care of at Shisu Bhavan. It’s in the collaborative effort to clean the Mother House in the morning. It’s in the temple song the kids at the Loreto school so happily sing. It’s in the people who are on their fifth year of volunteering at Freeset. It’s in the coexistence of religions throughout the city. It’s in the blend of languages spoken by many. To be honest, it’s even in the constant honking that persistently rings in my ears as I cross the streets.

At Brother Xavier’s New Hope School, I played basketball with a few of the kids. We had a blast coming up with new sets and trick shots to try. Playing basketball for the past three years at Saint Michael’s has taught me a lot, both on and off the court. And even though these kids have never been to America and probably don’t even know what Vermont is, I see the same lessons manifesting themselves here. After several games, I sat down and talked with one of the girls I played with. She told me that she wants to become a professional basketball player and travel the world by playing abroad. She knows that it’s going to take a lot of hard work and she’ll keep roughing it out on the court with the boys, but that’s her dream. I’m not sure if it was because I could relate to her journey of growing up and wanting to play basketball at the next level or because I share her desire to see the world, but I was so touched that she shared that with me. Because dreaming is beautiful. And it exists, here, right in Kolkata. And some believe only death can occur.

So, while others may choose to see poverty when they think of Kolkata, I choose to see beauty. Not everybody sees everything, and I’m not sure if I will be able to see everything, but I am so excited to see what beautiful moment my camera captures next.

Samantha Delaney ‘19

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Making the Best of the Situation

     Just when we thought weaving through the Kolkata streets on a tuk tuk was as wild as it could get, this past Tuesday the Loreto Schools sent a large bus over to pick us up from BMS. That was simply mayhem. As sweat dripped down the sides of our faces on the steamy bus, I took in the sights on our way to Sovabazar, the red light district. There, we would go visit our last MAC, which is a term for the pop up schools placed by the Loreto School. They must be referred to as MAC’s because if they are called schools the government would shut them down.
     Stepping off the bus the 104 degree weather felt like a breath of fresh air. Following a new teacher, we walked to the MAC for children’s whose parents are involved in the red light district. In Kolkata, children who have parents in the red light district are not allowed to go to schools because their parents partake in something that is “illegal.” This creates an ongoing cycle, as forms of prostitution are their only way to survive and provide for their family.
     Women lined the streets as they looked for customers and children wandered as their homes tend to be occupied by different men. We stepped into the one room MAC where we all introduced ourselves and the 12 students did the same. Over about a half an hour we taught body parts, the alphabet, and numbers, while making sure to include the hokie pokie and head, shoulders, knee’s, and toes.
     Jumping back on the large bus, all the students happily joined us as we headed for the organization’s center. There, students learning to be bakers made us delicious pizza and many of our questions were answered.
     The Loreto School, in simple terms, is constantly making the best of the situation. We learned that the MAC we had visited hours prior is the only MAC that has two sessions in the day as those students have no other choice but to be on the streets for the day. While some students disappear and teachers know there is a possibility some of the students will be forced into involvement in the red light district, they hope by getting them off the street for five hours, those chances will lessen.
     The other four MAC’s our group visited last week have two hour sessions five times a week. These schools are mostly for children who are child laborers. In this situation, teachers also know that when not at school, some of the children are child laborers, working in restaurants, sweat shops, really anything. There is not much the teachers can do about this because if they stop students from working they will not be able to get food on their plate at the end of the day. By the students having some source of education, the teachers hope to, what they call, “mainstream” these children into government schools. This would then end the cycle of child labor and these kids may one day become educated parents, who could hopefully get jobs and provide for their families.
     The Loreto School has taught me an incredible amount in just my three visits there. While teachers know they are not ending the issues of prostitution or child labor, they are making the best of the situation for each of their students.

(see above a photo I took on our bus ride to Sovabazar on Tuesday!)

Isabelle Risse ‘20

Monday, May 28, 2018

Life-Long Learning

Have you ever been in a crowd packed so tight that your feet almost come off the ground completely? Me neither, until yesterday. I now know what it’s like to be inside a can of sardines, but on the surface of the Sun and also all of the sardines are moving.
Am I being dramatic?
Not as dramatic as you think, to be honest.

We loaded ourselves into a metro car that we definitely did not think we’d fit into or ever get out of and rode it 7 stops to the outskirts of the city where we were greeted by a gentle, giant man named Brother Xavier, and got into a van. We weaved through traffic until after a while the smog was clearing, city buildings were shrinking to small stone homes, and the road was turning from pavement to dirt. We stepped out of the van and through a gate to a path lined by smiling children waiting to greet us, and into a colorful oasis built on the principles of education, equality and opportunity.

 "If we cannot find peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other" - Mother Teresa

Brother Xavier's school has 300 students who live there during the school year, and about 600 students in total. The opportunities presented to children at no cost to them or their families is unlike anything else in Kolkata. 75% of his students continue on with studies at a college or university after they graduate, and the students leave the school with supplementary education either working in bakeries, as beauticians, book making and binding, wood-working, and other skills which expand the possibilities that lie beyond their school years. When we met some of the students in the school's summer program, all we did that day was play, talk and hang out with them. But I think there is more to it than that. While watching a volleyball match between some students, I learned about the aspirations of one boy to pursue a career in engineering, and about how he dreams to provide for his future family in the way his father couldn't. I learned on a long, hot walk of the facilities that almost all of the food at the school is made or grown by the students and employees themselves. Through chalk drawings alone, I carried a full conversation with a child with whom I do not share a language.

Some of these nuanced interactions may not seem like much, but I am realizing that educating ourselves on the lives and circumstances of others is essential if we want to accomplish anything in this world, and that the idea of 'service' is more fluid that I think. Service is easy to digest when you can see the impact; building a house, serving a meal, painting a mural, cleaning a building, etc. That visible impact is not always so clear in our work at the Mother Teresa homes and in the schools we have visited. I am starting to feel that intangible piece of the service we do- the responsibility to each other which Mother Teresa stressed. I think we can all agree that educators provide a crucial service to this world, but not until now am I really recognizing that allowing oneself to be educated can also be a service. We are physically here, being of service to those we work with for these three weeks in Kolkata- but why should it end here? The lessons I am learning from people who may not think they are teaching, the perspective I am gaining from discomfort, and the humanity I am finding in places I didn't know I could is what will allow me to be of service well beyond my time here, I hope.

-Nichole Ciccarelli, '18

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Without Sight

Two days ago, the group was working with the Freeset organization, cleaning and moving furniture from one building to another.  Once we had moved all the furniture out of the first building and cleaned it, we loaded it onto a small cart, which was then biked over to the other building.  A few people in the group walked along with the furniture and biker to the other building.

While waiting for that small group to return, so that we could load more furniture, the rest of us were standing outside in a small alleyway.  There were people walking by left and right, motorcycles whizzing by, and dogs running every which way to find food. At one point, a blind man walked through this small alleyway, passing right by a few members of our group.  I did not really think too deeply about this at the time, as it was a very quick, passing moment, but in the few days since, I've been thinking about it quite a bit.

I simply cannot imagine being blind in the city of Kolkata.  Not that I can imagine being blind anywhere, but in Kolkata, this feeling is amplified - with the all cars, the people, the bikes, the bumps in the road, and just the overall chaos.  Organized chaos, in a way, but chaos nonetheless.

So that got me thinking about how different this city would seem if I was blind, or if I was missing any one of the five senses.  But especially sight.  This city is chalked full of things to see, whether it be a child running around with no clothes on, looking too small and thin, or a game of cricket happening in the middle of the street. Or maybe even seeing a seemingly random cow walking down the street next to you.  I think it would be extremely difficult to experience all of Kolkata without sight.  But even smell or hearing too.  The honking, the yelling, the call to prayer, the sound of slapping down and chopping fish.  The smell of burning trash, street food, raw meat laying out in the heat. All of these aspects seem so essential to me, as they all work together to make Kolkata what it is.  All of your senses here are on full alert and it is nearly impossible, at least for me, to imagine not experiencing any single one of them.

- Kalli Opsal '19