Bula! From Fiji

I met T. Jay and Crystal, also students from K-State when we entered the study abroad program and all chose to attend James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. Despite being nearly strangers, we figured it would be fun to travel together to get there and make our journey there an adventure. In order to get from Kansas City to Townsville, this required six flights, so we decided to take a break for a few days to explore Fiji and then another quick sight seeing tour of Sydney.

8 February 2003:
Bula!
We have finally arrived in Fiji after 18 hours of traveling. The flight to Fiji was the most uncomfortable ride I have ever been on where I was sandwiched between two guys for eleven hours straight. The plane was huge and completely jam packed. Every seat was taken and mostly by college students on their way to study abroad in Australia. Our flight arrived in Fiji at 5:30am and we finally left the airport a little after 7:00.

-cabinA short drive took us to turn at the McDonalds, down a long eroded street and then dirt road to the Club Fiji Resort. We checked in and were lead to one of the furthest cabins on the land (room 24). It’s small, no air conditioning, no phone and no TV – it’s the most rustic we’ve ever been and it’s perfect.

Crystal and I showered the plane off and sat down near the beach to write in our journals. A guy raking the sand stopped to talk to us, his name is Neeko and it turned out he is the activities everything person. He talked us into snorkeling today after breakfast (which really didn’t seem like breakfast since we have been awake for so long).

We met up with Neeko at 10 and he took us on a boat straight from the bay our cabin is on out to a reef. The boat had water in the bottom and a fish swam around inside of the boat, Neeko said he caught it yesterday. The reef, coral and fish were all beautiful, it makes me look forward to learning to scuba dive when we get to Australia. The schools of teal and silver fish that shimmer in the light were my favorite.

After snorkling we showered, yet again, and headed to the center of Nadi for some shopping. The stores are pretty much the same as many islands I have been to, and sellers follow shoppers harassing for a sale. One guy stopped me on the sidewalk and started a conversation. Initially I believed him to be another shopper until he insisted we go with him to a particular store. I dunno if T. Jay wanted to or if he didn’t know any better because he followed him, and we followed T. Jay.

kavaThe guy lead us straight to the end of the store and instructed us to take off our shoes and sit on the mat. We then participated in a kava ceremony in preparation for trying the drink. Kava is made from dried and ground kava root, then mixed with water in a ritual fashion. Everyone in the circle took turns sipping the drink, it really didn’t taste like much – water with a powdered substance in it. It made my tongue numb for a minute and I supposed if you drink more it causes a high effect.

From where I am sitting, looking out across the bay I can see the sleeping giant. Another traveler, Canadian named Murry, pointed it out to us. It really appears like the ridges of the hills are an outline of a man from head to toe. So far, I love Fiji. The people are friendly and the environment is beautiful. It is fun observing the birds, their calls and the unique vegitation. I don’t know what’s planned for tomorrow, I do know as long as we are in Fiji it will be wonderful.
-giant

Beaches, Temples and Whores – Oh My!

By this time in our Indian travels I was as accustomed as I could get to standing out in the crowds.  I did my best to be respectful of the culture, be polite and not act as though my values were better than what I was observing around me.  I was also feeling more comfortable and safe in my foreign surroundings, even with a language barrier I was gaining sense of who was trustworthy and who was trying to take advantage.  We had been cautioned before the trip and learned a lot during the month about Indian men – not all Indian men are this way!  We had been told when walking in crowded areas to cover our chests so they wouldn’t be grabbed, one of us could have also used a warning about watching her behind as it got slapped by a man on a moped.  We studied the disparities between the laws to provide women with rights/protection and what actually happens with Indian marriages, abuse of women and trafficking.  http://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/grassroots-for-women-children/

Not only do some Indian men look down upon females in their own society, we learned how Indian men judge American women to be promiscuous.  We get this reputation since American television and movies display women as highly sexualized and dressing provocatively, while Bollywood films don’t contain even a kiss.  While we drew onlookers where ever we went, I tried not to even consider they viewed me as a whore simply for being an American.  The only time this idea of how Indian men view American women came blaring with sirens was on our last weekend in West Bengal.

Our final excursion from Kolkata, during the month in India, was to Puri for beaches and temples.  Our instructor traveling with us from the U.S. was exhausted from the month’s adventures and hosting the students so she sent us with our Indian tour guide Amrit.  He had traveled with us on another trip to Darjeeling and on some sightseeing around the city. (https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/one-weekend-not-long-enough-darjeeling/).  “Come, come please.”  He would scurry us along like his little ducklings down sidewalks or through the train station “Come, come.

Our hotel in Puri was right on the beach and ocean fun was exactly what we needed after sweltering in the Indian summer temperatures.  It was slightly confusing for a group of American girls to prepare for what to wear to the beach and for swimming since India is modest and Indian women keep covered.  While many of us had bathing suits, we all kept clothed with pants and shirts for our water recreation.

Amrit reported there to be a dangerous undertow right off the shore and hired 3 lifeguards for protection.  These men were no Baywatch studs, middle-aged and scrawny, these lifeguards wore shelled cone hats tied to their heads in order to specify their hired rescuer status.  The guards stood over the American girls in the water and quickly put a hand on their bodies, even with no legitimate threat of drowning.  Once I saw this happening I chose to only dip my toes in so I could avoid unnecessary wandering hands.

Just being near the ocean and out of the city of Kolkata was wonderful.  We spent all afternoon breathing in the sights and sounds of the beach for a change.  As with so many beaches there were people who approached trying to sell something.  Some of us bought necklaces, massages and even rides on a decorated camel.

View from The Pink House

During our stay in Puri there was a restaurant down the beach from our hotel called “The Pink House.”  The eatery was a patio area covered with a thatched roof.  They served fresh fish and had a mural of Bob Marley on one wall.  From where we ate there was a picturesque view of a gate towards the ocean.

Beyond the beach in Puri, we went into the market area for shopping.  And getting the chance to be tourists instead of students for the weekend, we chose tourist type activities like taking a boating excursion on Chilika Lake with over 200 dolphins living in it.  Our boat of caucasian females quickly became the attraction on the lake and while our cameras were aimed at the surfacing dolphins, the other boating sightseer’s had their cameras pointed at us.   http://www.go2india.in/orissa/satapada.php

Our other tourist activity was visiting the temples and ruins around the area.

Sun Temple

Raja-Rani Temple

Udayagiri Khandagiri Caves

Monkeys at Udayagiri Khandagiri Caves

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During our stay in Puri we were invited by Amrit’s friends to come for lunch.  I don’t remember thinking too much about the invitation before we arrived.  We arrived at an apartment on the beach where there was a small kitchen with a cook preparing our meal.  We were chauffeured into a bar area with swinging doors and crab netting hanging from the walls for sailor themed decor.  Our hosts encouraged us to sample the Indian beer and mix drinks however we desired.  Finally a chance to relax with a few beverages and my new fellow student friends, or so I innocently thought at first.

As we settled in and began socializing with our hosts my curiosity lead me to wonder why we were really invited over?  Turns out Amrit’s friends were two well-off men from the city staying at their beach apartment where they travel to on weekends.  The men were likely the same age as the fathers of most of the students in our group, and both admitted they were married.  One man proudly stated the apartment is off-limits to their wives.  At this point I quietly put down my beverage and tried to reserve my judgments for the remainder of the visit.  Did these men think they had won the jackpot with eight promiscuous American women in their bachelor pad?  Did they think I was a Pretty Woman who stepped out of American Pie to act out my Basic Instinct?

Though I sensed it to be odd, nothing happened during lunch to confirm my suspicions.  However, Amrit scheduled another meeting with these men before we headed back to Kolkata the last day.  This time we were to meet them at their country club.  When we entered the building, we were greeted by Amrit’s friends and some head people at the club including a president and manager.  Confusion set in, in my mind we were just students, nobody important enough to draw attention from important people…

Our group moved upstairs to a room where we would be eating lunch.  Us students observed the room quickly and looked at each other, the bathroom and closet as you entered the room along with two headboards nailed to one wall indicated this was a hotel room.  The furniture had been cleared out and large clothed tables had been put in place for the meal.  More guests began filing in and man after man introduced himself to us, soon the men out numbered our group of female students.  Similar to the meeting before alcoholic beverages were encouraged, except this time most of us declined.  Concerned by the hotel room and all male company, one of the girls asked Amrit to clarify what “country club” meant to Indian’s.  He informed us that Indian clubs sometimes have golf, pools, tennis and other sports along with rooms to stay (sort of like buying a timeshare to a hotel/resort.)

During the meal we did our best to make small talk with our hosts, some of the men hardly spoke English or were very difficult to comprehend.  Finally when the visit was over we all made our way out to our awaiting vehicles.  One of the hosts from the country club came running out after us to ask if everything was okay because he had seen a trail of blood.  All of us looked around assuming it was unrelated to us, except the last student to get into the vehicle.  She hadn’t realized she was bleeding despite a heavily dropping cut.  It wasn’t until the country club was in the rear view mirror when she finally explained what had happened.

Before we had left the building, one by one we used the restroom and then trickled outside towards the vehicles.  She was the last student and regrettably none of us realized we had abandoned the buddy system and left her inside.  One of the male guests from our lunch tried to corner her and kiss, she reacted in a haste and somehow managed to cut herself on the door in her escape.

Five years after my travels to India I am still trying to understand what that lunch, with grown men in an empty hotel room was all about.  Their intent in the invitation was unclear.  I feel conflicted between what my obvious fear was during the day, and not wanting to unnecessarily judge a situation to be negative out of fear.  I guess part of me just wants to hang on to hoping people I encounter are honest and sincere towards me.

Puri was quite an adventure.  The Indian beaches and temples were worth the trip, though, we were not American whores.

This post is part of a series I am writing about my month abroad in Kolkata, India to study the social welfare systems.  Feel free to look back on previous posts – here are a few:

https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/my-indian-summer/

https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/step-one-assimilation-to-traffic/

https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/lessons-in-love-the-mother-teresas-homes-kolkata/

https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/when-it-rains-it-floods/

Abode of Peace

Rabindranath Tagore was a name I had never heard of before visiting India.  Not that I know all of the Nobel Prize recipients, or have heard of all the top influential poets, and I definitely don’t recognize every major historical leader’s names.  After stepping foot in Kolkata, it’s impossible to ignore the name Tagore.  He was a philosophical and spiritual leader through his literature and later through his University and world traveling.  His influence in West Bengal is undeniable, though his lessons in music and poetry continue to ripple throughout the world.

His family’s home is now a museum in Kolkata which we got to tour early in our travels to India.  Several weeks into our excursion we took a train to Bolpur and Santiniketan.  Tagore and his family traveled this same path many times as Santiniketan was their family’s second home.  Tagore’s father actually gave the name to the town with the translation meaning abode of peace.

Visva Bharati – Banyan Tree

Rabindranath Tagore built a school, which grew into a university in Santiniketan with the principle of learning with nature – or utilizing outdoor classrooms.  He named his school Visva Bharati and aimed at joining India with the world in arts, languages, philosophy and literature at his campus of banyan trees.  Not far from his university was another Tagore treasure we got to witness.  It is a river gorge with picturesque trees and red sandy earth, a scene Tagore used to treasure to escape to write.

Visva Bharati – Sewing House

Tagore’s Prayer House on campus

Banyan Tree

Tagore’s River Spot

Rural Bolpur, West Bengal

Rural Bolpur, West Bengal

In Bolpur, our group of students met with women who participated in micro credit programs.  Our teacher translated their statements and our questions to discuss how the system works and how it has helped them.  The women appeared to be full of pride to talk about how they are given a small loan in order to create a business and better their family’s

situation.  The women work to repay their loans within a year – making small payments.  Their yearly loan amounts range depending on their experience with the program and what they intend to do with it.  Some women purchase goats and sell their milk, some women use the loan to purchase supplies for making crafts or sewing clothing.

Although micro credit is intended to empower women and allow them an opportunity to create an income for their families, many women reported how the money they received as a loan went directly to their husband.

We were welcomed into the villages in Bolpur, women excitedly greeted us and proudly displayed their business ventures.  The energy of happiness was all around despite how it was apparent that everyone had so little.  The huts didn’t have running water or electricity, they had very little space, privacy or personal belongings.  Yet, the smiles shared between the residents of Bolpur and their foreign visitors exuded joy and contentment.  

A documentary film crew creating musical masterpieces from intertwining musicians from around the world also ended up in Bolpur & Santiniketan.  “What About Me,” has been shared as a series on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday.  One of the film makers and world traveler, spoke highly of the people of this community.  In the below clip he talks about how he thinks when people are good, friendly and kind enough to reach attainment they are reincarnated and sent to Santiniketan.

Grassroots for Women & Children

If you examined the laws in India you might consider the country to be progressive in human rights, finally putting person equality before cultural traditions and religious justification.  As a society with its own history of discrimination, we can understand how the attitudes don’t immediately change once a law is put in place and it often takes decades for perception to shift and acceptance to find its place, even then there are some exceptions.

So why is it that despite laws being in place to protect the rights of women and children in India, there is still such blatant disregard for their welfare?  The Child Marriage Restrain Act was established in 1929, yet there are still too many cases of children under 18 being arranged to marry.  This is only one of many issues – human trafficking, child labor, infanticide, and the exchange of a dowry.

A dowry is one representation of why women are not valued in Indian culture, it is a gift or form of payment a women’s family must pay to the family of her future husband.  Although dowry became prohibited by law in 1961, it is still common practice in India.  A daughter being born does not benefit her parents at all, she is seen as needing to pay off a debt from a previous life.  The daughter will be taken care of then a dowry raised to marry her into another family where she will help to take care of her husband’s parents – not her own.  Since a son is valuable in terms of meaning and future roles he will play for the family, a boy is what Indian parents want.  Because of this view gender selection has begun to curve the ratio of male to female in India.  Infanticide happens with poor or rural families who cannot afford to care for a girl, and aborting a female fetus occurs with couples who can afford the prenatal care and want to avoid the stigma of a girl.

The dowry perpetuates the idea of women being less than men and leads to so many other problems.  Despite the laws being established to protect rights, the laws don’t appear to be enforced for the welfare of the women and children.  Beyond corruption in the systems and the desire to hang on to how things have always been, slow progress is occurring because of the lack of knowledge women have.  Most Indian women believe they are nothing without a man, either their dad, brother or husband.  They don’t know what their rights are or where to get help.  They are born into a world where they are looked down upon simply for being a girl and limit themselves accordingly.

One of the field trips our group went on in Kolkata was to an organization creating changes with their grassroots effort.  Child in Need Institute (CINI) focuses on empowering women with the idea if you can help the mother you can help the child.  They have centers throughout Kolkata serving different purposes.  CINI focuses on the health of the mom’s and their infants, educating them about nutrition and conducting support groups.  Health workers act as a first means of contact going door to door in villages and slums to provide basic health needs and resources, then can help support mothers and children in getting in to the CINI offices if further medical assistance is required by nurses or doctors.

We toured one location during a time when there was a free health clinic.  Hundreds of bright-colored sari adorned the women gathering with their wide-eyed infants.  They weighed babies, obtained supplements, and met with nurses or doctors for medication.  Another CINI location we visited was in the middle of the city, it was designated for street children.  Kids could go there for safe overnight shelters or attend evening school.  Even though the Child Labour Act has been prohibiting this practice since 1986, many children work as child laborers and miss out on gaining an education.  CINI provides education to help reintegrate children back to regular schools within 6 months to one year.  Making this program even more impressive is considering the behavioral problems some children have from both trauma and the need to be independent to survive on the street.

Because of the efforts Child in Need Institute, and other programs like it, has made towards bettering the lives of women and children there is hope for changing the culture in India.  With women coming together to gain confidence in how to do things and knowledge of how the laws protect them, attitudes will turn.  And with the next generation of youth pushing to gain an education, they will be different.

Much of the beauty and intrigue of India lies in its cultural and religious practices.  Their dances, food, and tradition are uniquely Indian and should be valued and preserved as such.  I wonder, is it possible for India to maintain their rich traditions and religious practices while omitting the inequality?  Maybe as the women take power…

If you are interested in learning more check out the Child in Need Institute’s website.  They accept donations to continue their work and proudly contribute 90% of donations directly to the women and children – greater than average for an NGO.  http://www.cini-india.org/

This post is part of a series written about my travels to India as part of a social welfare class.  Feel free to look back through previous posts about my experiences or return to see what’s been added.

One Weekend Not Long Enough – Darjeeling.

Darjeeling was our first escape from the madness of Kolkata.  It was a much-needed break from the heat to be up in the Himalayan Mountains, to hear nature instead of honking and to be away from the congested population of the city.  We had only been in India for about a week and I already needed a vacation from my travels.  

This was to be our first of many train rides in India, we left on a Thursday evening for an overnight train.  A group of caucasian women stood out no matter where we went, however, the trains always seemed to bring out the most obvious and uncomfortable gawking.  For example, waiting for the train we entertained ourselves with a simple game of UNO, which drew a crowd of men hovering to watch.

On the train our group shared two sleeper cabins, these were not private cabins, rather to the isle.  The cabins contained two blue, school bus style bench seats facing each other.  Above each bench two additional bunks would fold from the wall and attach to each other with chains, creating a total of six beds.  We knew to be aware of theft on such public trains and for this reason used our backpacks as pillows and kept all valuables in a tight grip for any measly slumber we might have gotten.  Somehow my travel mates were always accommodating as I snagged the top bunks – climbing three beds high – on each sleeper train we rode.  In the morning there would always be one or two travel-mates who wouldn’t have slept at all and observed the creepers who came by to gawk at us, strolling back and forth through the open isle.

Following our first train adventure it was a three-hour drive up the mountains to get to Darjeeling.  Though it was overcast for much of the weekend the scenery was beautiful, already it was evident how much friendlier the people seemed by smiling and waving.  On some mountainsides you could see tea plants covering acreage and I wondered how dangerous it must be to work those fields.  

After an overnight train and 3 hour drive we arrived in Darjeeling.

After checking into our accommodations we explored the town, shopped and relaxed.  Most of us purchased scarves and wore them frequently the remainder of the trip, as well as saving some for souvenirs for family members.  Some bought jewelry, books, and tea to bring home, we visited an internet cafe and enjoyed macaroni and cheese for dinner with beer.  Some of the girls were thrilled to order mac and cheese and devour something similar we could find back at home, it was a let down since India doesn’t really have our American taste for cheese.

One early morning we woke up to journey to a location called Tiger Hill, it is a spiritual sight to witness the sun rise.  Only 11 km from Darjeeling, I read there are over 400 taxis used on busy days to drive tourists to the sight.  We had to park far from the viewing location and hike up the remainder to join the crowd of spectators.  From this high point in the Himalayas, Mount Everest is visible, although on our morning it was too cloudy yet still crowded with spectators.

When the sun was well risen, our group of light-skinned women once again became the attraction.  Tourists to Tiger Hill were requesting us to pose in their vacation pictures.  Of course with a language barrier there was no way for them to explain to us what the relevance was in having pictures with us.  I wondered whether they were hoping we would be of some celebrity status back home or if we were really that much of a novelty to be seeing in person.  Whatever it was, I declined posing in pictures.  My travel mates who accepted ended up getting lines of people waiting for the next shot.

Posing for Indian tourists’ pictures.

Our whole class on Tiger Hill

After the shopping, relaxing, admiring the animals and visiting Buddhist temples in Darjeeling it was difficult to leave.  I regained my ability to take a deep breath and then it seemed we were headed back to Kolkata again.

On our way back down the mountain to get to the train we were invited to visit a tea plantation for lunch and a tour.  We met the manager and his wife who lived on the property, they showed us their factory and around the crops.  I was lost in the process of how tea is made and instead focused my thoughts on the workers who take care of the field.  On our tour we stopped at one location in the crops where hundreds of women were picking leaves.  They strap a bag to their head which rests on their backs and fill the bag 20 to 26 times per day, six days per week.  The workers make very little in take home pay, though the company provides housing, health care and schooling for the children of the workers.  Consider how far your tea traveled next time you brew and who may have contributed to your cup?

 When I returned home from India I was asked many times whether I would want to take another trip back.  Without hesitation I’d answer “I’ll go back to Darjeeling.”

When It Rains – It Floods

The following is an account of an event from exactly five years ago today during my journey to India.  Since the anniversary of the start of the trip I have been posting stories from this adventure, this is the sixth.  I understood Kolkata would be unique from anything I had ever experienced, different language, culture, traditions, food, clothing etc.  There were also other surprises I never anticipated and Wednesday, June 13th, 2007 presented one of those shocks.

I awoke to heavy rain and crashing thunder that morning, it was close to monsoon season although we thought we would be returning home before it started.  My usual routine would be to head down to breakfast with which ever travel buddies happened to be hungry and was startled to peer over the balcony.  What was, the day prior, our floral sanctuary of a courtyard was now a swamp of dark dirty water.  Going down the stairs to the ground level I wondered if my eggs and warm cereal were even worth the effort on this day.  I waded through shin deep water to step up to the cafeteria area and reach my friends.

 

As an assignment for the program I was reading May You Be The Mother of a Hundred Sons by Elisabeth Bumiller.  In it she describes the flooding on the streets during the monsoons.  Naively I assumed since the book was published in 1991, drainage systems would have corrected the problem.  Wow, was I wrong.

Days before this Jesi, Natalie and I set appointments for the morning to get massages as it was a day off of classes, and we were encouraged by our instructor to try out the Indian style of massage.  We wondered whether everything would be closed down anyway.  We were assured cabs continue to run and businesses stay open today.  Following breakfast we began the trek out to the main street, the usually noisy and bustling traffic had slowed to only the larger vehicles to manage the dingy water.  Shortly after leaving the gates of the Ramakrishna Mission I chickened out.  Considering how dark the water was and knowing the condition of the sidewalk to not being able to watch my step I knew I would be clumsy.  Further, having observed for weeks trash, human and animal waste all over the streets of Kolkata and then feeling things brush up against my legs in the water I couldn’t see…  the princess in me had to run back up to my room and immediately shower.  

By the evening the flooding had resided and while the streets were wet, water was not standing everywhere.  At yoga some of the local women informed us the flooding is normal.  They stated later in the monsoon season it will sometimes rain like it had that morning and continue for three days.  When it peaks all traffic stops and including trains and planes.

It was shocking to witness a whole city underwater and to think at a fairly regular rate in the summer time the whole population grinds to a stop to wait for the water to reside.  Maybe it’s the equivalent to when Kansas City has a blizzard or an ice storm and waits for the plows to clear or precipitation to melt.  The difference between Kolkata and Kansas City when it comes to natures interference is the number of individuals without appropriate shelter.  

I was privileged on June 13, 2007 to escape the waters to an air-conditioned third story room.  I wondered where everyone else went though?  Where do the families who live on the streets go when it floods?  What does the already impoverished conditions of the slums look like with tainted liquid?  How many people have to sit and wait it out with their feet soaked in the standing water I was scared of being in?

While I can’t repair the drainage for the Kolkata, at least I can be more patient when nature interferes with my plans at home.  Remembering most importantly: I am safe and it will pass.

On a somewhat humorous note, Natalie and Jesi did brave the conditions to attend their massage appointment the morning of the flooding.  Two days afterwards both girls had rashes covering their bodies, mostly their legs.  Natalie and Jesi continually checked  their skin for improvements and frequently found it to be spreading more.  They resorted to calling it their scabies and were thankful when it eventually went away later in the week.  Exactly what it was or what caused the rash is unknown.  We assumed it was probably a reaction to the tables or oil at the massage place.  Whatever it was, I was happy I chose not to go.

 

Turning 25 – My Indian Birthday

The experience of being in India, seeing the sights I was witnessing and learning life lessons through submersion in a foreign culture was an uncomfortable challenge.  I didn’t regret deciding to go, even when I was sick to my stomach, sweating through my clothes and barely making it to the toilet – even the second, third or fourth time this occurred.  One moment that was really hard for me was calling home on my birthday.

My boyfriend (now husband) didn’t answer his cell phone the first time.  After several attempts I finally got connected to hear he had just gotten off the boat with our friends at Lake of the Ozarks.  My friends hollered in their “hello’s” and “happy birthdays,” then they got off the phone to drinks and card games while I hung up the phone to cry.  The previous few years and the years following I spent with those friends at the Ozarks on or near my birthday, and at that moment in my humble Indian room all I wanted was to be at the Lazy Days in Condo with my friends.

Credit to Jesi for the pic.

Lucky for me the lonely feeling passed as I shared my 25th birthday with 7 new friends and created some unique birthday memories I, nor they, will forget.  It was no secret to the group, my instructor and I had some issues the week prior to my birthday.  Seemed the heat and stress of organizing the travels had gotten to her and somehow I became a target.  I will give her credit for making me feel special on my birthday, even if it was sort of as an apology.

Our instructor told us Amitabh Bachchan was her heart throb growing up in India and one of the biggest movie stars in India. Following my trip to India I have seen him talked about on Oprah as he is the father/father-in-law of India’s hottest Bollywood couple or India’s equivalent to Brad and Angelina.

Monday, June 11th, 2007 was a break in classes.  Our instructor took our group to a mall – a seven story dizzying paradise of shoes, perfumes, sunglasses, candy and jewelry.  Our agenda was not to shop, we were on a mission to catch a Bollywood film in the afternoon.  The movie theater was on the top floor of this westernized oasis; at the concession stand they offered egg rolls, veggie burgers, ice cream and more.  We had assigned seats like you would going to a concert or sporting event.  The movie was called Chenni Kum and starred Amitabh Bachchan, it was a taboo love story about an older man falling for a younger woman.  The movie was easy to follow even in Hindi, and maybe we didn’t catch all the same jokes, though we were laughing the whole time.

Credit to Jesi for the pic.

Following the movie we ate at a restaurant in the mall appropriately named Starstruck.  We were able to order pasta and garlic bread for lunch then devoured Baskin Robbins ice cream, resemblance from home which was much needed then.  My instructor even bought a cake for after dinner, I brought my own candle (a scented, stress relieving one I brought from home) down to the cafeteria.

This is the fifth post in my series about my adventures in Kolkata, India five years ago.  Feel free to look back on previous posts or check back for on-going recollections from places visited and lessons learned from this trip.

May 23 https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/my-indian-summer/

May 27 https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/05/27/step-one-assimilation-to-traffic/

June 2 https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/06/02/india-maintaining-sanity/

June 3 https://inspiredlivingkc.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/lessons-in-love-the-mother-teresas-homes-kolkata/


Lessons in Love, the Mother Teresa’s Homes – Kolkata

We toured several Mother Teresa’s Homes in Kolkata.  The five homes we toured reminded me of the Ramakrishna Mission, our temporary home in Kolkata, in the way that outside the walls of the center were bustling crowded chaos and inside was a friendly, peaceful sanctuary.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa

The first home was private although what we could tour was Mother Teresa’s tomb, a museum and artifact area and also a peak into her bedroom.  I thought it was a perfect way to start the day since it provided us with her background, turns out I never had much of an education on who she was before then.  Seems that most of my history lessons in school related to war and left little room for the world’s charitable heroes.  It was enlightening to learn about her purpose and drive to help everyone in need, especially in a culture where “untouchables” were ignored so easily.  What amazed me most in the museum was the poster of locations of Mother Teresa Homes around the world – including the United States and as close to my home as Denver, Colorado.  She unconditionally loved and taught others how love can help transform people’s lives even when they are poor, when they are hungry and when they are dying.

“Live simply so that others may simply live.” – Mother Teresa

Looking into her bedroom I reflected on how she lived so simply, a clear indicator of how she was unselfish and entirely devoted to serving others.  Mother wore the same blue and white sari each day and repaired her own sandals rather than purchasing new, she had artwork on her wall made by her own hand, small bed with a thin mattress, quaint wardrobe closet, desk and table.  The room was smaller than my first college dormitory and was located at the top of the stairs centrally located in the building.  Feeling a sense of her spirit in this way helped to prepare me for the rest of the tour.

“We cannot do great things on this Earth, only small things with great love.”  – Mother Teresa

The second home we saw was an orphanage and center for people to come and get medication they could not afford.  At first I noticed the music coming loudly from the upstairs of one of the buildings.  When we walked in there were bright colors and blown up beach balls hanging from the ceiling.  Past the entrance a large room held rows of cribs for infants.  Upstairs was the room the music was playing, boys around the age of two were running back and forth across the room in fun.  Most didn’t seem to notice or care about the visitors at the gate and a few curious little ones came to check us out.  In other buildings were children with mental and physical health needs.  It appeared some of the kids might have had developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy and hearing or sight issues.  These children ranged in very young to around twelve years old, the room had rows of both cribs and beds.  Some children had severe needs and were completely crippled and immobile, these were difficult to witness.  I found myself wondering how each of these children came to live at this Mother Teresa’s Home.  Had their parents tried to care for them and what circumstances led to their decision to leave them?

Upon leaving this home, we waited outside the gates for our transportation to arrive.  A pretty little girl in tattered clothes with a big smile came up and started begging my classmates and I for money.  Having discussed what we all felt comfortable doing in this situation, as it happened so frequently, we opted to give food.  I first observed Jesi giving her a granola bar; the girl took it and placed it behind her back to move on politely to my next classmate.  Julia offered her another food item and again the girl placed it behind her back to step over to my next classmate in line.  A man came by behind the girl and took the food from her hands, I assumed this was her father.  While we were getting into the cars it appeared this girl’s parents were irate with her, maybe for not getting enough from us or for it not being money.  They came to the vehicle window and spoke in an angry manner towards us and the girl.  This situation was upset me to think how parents would exploit their children in this manner. I felt like it was a fitting time to witness this behavior, and realize how many of the children living in these homes being loved may have otherwise ended up begging on the streets like this little girl.

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”  – Mother Teresa

The third home we toured was for the dying and destitute adults.  It had volunteers from all over the world who would help with cleaning, cooking and feeding responsibilities.  Men were responsible for going out and picking people up off the streets and taking them to this home.  All of the patients, including women, had shaved heads, many appeared mentally ill and some were incredibly frail.  Two long rooms separated males and females, each room with a long path down the middle and cots lined up on either side.  It was uncomfortable walking around not assisting in any way, all I could do was offer a smile to the woman as we passed.  The way we toured felt like we were visiting a zoo and walking through an exhibit.  These conditions were not comfortable and not dignified by Western standards, however, the alternative of dying alone and unloved on the streets of Kolkata are worse.  The fourth home was no less depressing, it was specifically for mentally ill and handicap adults, although there was one young male patient appearing very young and out-of-place.  His collarbone projecting through his body and I couldn’t help wondering what kind of future lie ahead for a boy like him.

“Joy is strength.”  – Mother Teresa

The last Mother Teresa Home we visited was my favorite of the day since we were able to really interact with the children in the orphanage.  The nun who showed us around was an obvious favorite of all the children in the yard since they all called to her and ran towards her when she was in their sight.  She took us upstairs to where there were infants and toddlers.  In one crib there was a tiny baby whose legs were so skinny it looked like her diaper would easily fall off.  The toddlers were all friendly and jumped into my classmate’s arms.  One older girl tapped my legs and waved hello.  I knelt down to talk to her, she spoke a little English and was able to tell me she was 14 and couldn’t walk because of problems with her back.  She told me she enjoys painting and pointed out a friend in the room.  I asked her if she attends school at the Mother Teresa’s Home and she looked at me funny and replied no, as if I should have known she wouldn’t go to school.  That made me wonder a little more about the homes and what happens to the children, especially if disabled, as they grow up and “age out of the system” as we might put it in the United States.  At the end of the visit we passed out candy to children in the yard which Julia had brought from home for a special occasion such as this.  We played for a while, some were able to communicate their names and gestured requests for what they wanted us to do with them like spin or go down the slide.  It was a necessary to end that day on a positive note.

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” – Mother Teresa

The lessons I learned from one month in West Bengal I will continue processing for the rest of my life.  And the people, the children and the conditions I witnessed in the Mother Teresa Homes was a day I will never forget.  I felt a deep sense of compassion for everyone I saw.  My judgement about this day was related to the Western standards for quality of life and how these homes were lacking, of course this was dismissing the fact that these homes far exceed the quality of life these individuals would have on the streets of Kolkata.  And my sadness was about these individuals not having the same opportunities a lot of the world takes for granted.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”  – Mother Teresa

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This post is the fourth part of my series about my summer traveling in India.  I went with a group of students to study the social welfare systems in Kolkata, this month marks the fifth anniversary of the trip.  I will continue posting about our adventures, programs we toured and paradoxes we struggled with this month in reflection of the trip that influenced me so greatly.

India – Maintaining Sanity

This is the third post regarding my travels to West Bengal five years ago.  I am pleased to be submerging myself in photographs, writings and videos I captured while I was there as well as revisiting and viewing new literature, movies and other media related to India.  Ultimately, the country is so big, the regions vary greatly and the population is huge… my perception cannot be taken for truth.  However, I do feel an obligation to share my experience as India has influenced my life so greatly.

My last posting about India related to the traffic and while I did my best to paint the picture of chaos it is something you cannot imagine until you are in the middle of it.  Beyond the traffic there is the confusion of poverty and wealth, beauty and disgust, enlightening ideas and pure nonsense everywhere I turned, then heat – heat – heat over it all.  I was over stimulated with new sights, sounds and smells, and disturbed by contrasting values and foreign systems.

My sanity – besides having seven new friends who related to my dismay – lay in the accommodations we stayed in throughout our trip.  The Ramakrishna Mission near Gol Park was my oasis.  It was my safety and quiet from the perplexity which existed outside those walls.  The entrance on a side street took you into a courtyard where the walls became a barrier to the honking craziness.  The energy of anxiety melted into a calm entering through the gate.  The courtyard was filled with flowers and the occasional kitten with her momma.  The evening chants and bells were a peaceful reminder to slow down and take the whole experience in.  The pots planted on our first day contained sunflowers, the Kansas state flower, feeling like an welcoming home.

Our rooms were modest, two roommates sharing twin beds.  Our bathrooms had real toilets and while our showers didn’t get hot water, wouldn’t have wanted a hot shower in the heat anyways.  There were days I showered 3 times do to perspiration.  Making friends with some Australian girls we learned not all of the rooms at the RKM had air-conditioning, I was beyond thankful we did.

We ate most of our meals in the dining room at the RKM, it was all traditional Indian food with some options at every meal.  For breakfast, as one of my travel mates recently reminded me, we ate cereal flakes with warm milk and eggs cooked to order.  Our stomachs quickly grew sick of the foreign meals so we attempted to consume as much yogurt as possible to try to calm this.  The yogurt was served plain with the clear liquid, most of us added four and five spoonfuls of sugar in to make it edible to our pallets.  At dinner our plates would arrive with three or four separate piles of food items with rice and naan on the side.   The entire month I had no idea what I was consuming other than knowing it was the vegan option.  Vegetables never looked familiar and even when my instructor put names to what I was eating, I never seemed to retain the words.

The very best food from the RKM kitchen was when they offered mangoes.  The mangoes were the freshest, sweetest and most juicy mangoes I had ever tasted, even to this day.  Now I am not sure if they were that good because they are the best mangoes in the world, or if it was simply because I was so in desperate need of something sweet, slightly familiar and not tainted with Indian spices.

At risk of being called a sheltered Midwestern/American girl… I needed quiet, inviting flowers and air-conditioned evenings with occasional mango slices in my yogurt to maintain my sanity during my month in India and the Ramakrishna Mission was just that kind of place.

 

Step one: Assimilation to traffic.

Our flight arrived in Kolkata just after 5AM.

Prior to departing the United States we had learned about the extreme weather conditions we would be dealing with traveling to India in May.  Tripadvisor.com had this to say: “April to June, Kolkata is at its hottest. Its humid, the sun is blazing, and it’s almost impossible to sightsee during the daytime. After June the rains set in, and more often than not the heavy monsoon rain floods the streets and throws traffic out of gear. However, if you can brave the rains and the humidity, Kolkata during the monsoons is a unique experience. But be prepared to wade your way through water back to your hotel.”  Careful consideration went into packing to determine what clothes would feel light for the weather, yet cover enough skin to be mindful to respect Indian culture.  (Following our study abroad program the school recognized the timing and flipped the program to traveling in December instead.)

I also personally prepared for the overcrowded city I would encounter once I learned Kolkata’s population reaches just over five million people.  I have had several occurrences of mild panic attacks in areas that have been dense with people.  It is especially bothersome when people are moving in various directions as opposed to one or two directions like a New York City sidewalk.  In the past my method of dealing with this anxiety has been to either freeze or flee.  I froze in the middle of LAX customs baggage claim in a rush to get to a connecting flight.  I stood still holding my breath waiting for the crowd to clear before gathering my belonging to move along.  My backpacking buddies hung onto my clothes as I fled through the pack of Tour De France observers after watching Lance Armstrong finish his seventh win on the Champs-Elysees.   I think they appreciated my panic in the moment to be some of the first to get back to the subway after the race.  Needless to say, I knew fleeing nor freezing would be helpful on this trip and I mentally prepared myself to cope with the densely populated city.

The thing I hadn’t given much thought to and quickly realized my American ideals needed to adjust, was the traffic.  Since we arrived so early in the morning neither the heat nor crowds were out in full effect yet, however, straight from the airport I began learning how different the streets would be in India.  Here is my list of the top six items required for assimilating to Kolkata traffic.   

1.)  Any and all modes of transportation are acceptable on the road.  Cars, cabs, trucks, buses, rickshaws, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles and people all share the streets.  Some vehicles are very nice, while most appear to be on the verge of breaking down.  The rickshaws can be motorized with a driver in the front and row of seats in the back, they also can be the seats pulled by a man on foot or on a bike.  As if the types of vehicles to look out for on the roads weren’t enough there is also the occasional cow meandering through the streets.  The cows are sacred, they do not belong to anyone and are not to be disturbed.  Crossing the street was like watching a reality game of Pacman.  People would jump out in front of an aged bus and yellow cab, then have to weave through a scooter and a bike in the next step.  The chaos took some getting used to.

2.) There are no apparent traffic guidelines.  While lanes are drawn in some places they are typically not used, especially when it came to high traffic areas.  Imagine your five o’clock rush hour commute with three lanes of traffic and cars inching their way bumper to bumper.  In Kolkata drivers would pile in six vehicles across in a quilted pattern, cutting each other off in an emergent push to get to the front.  Scooters, bikes and rickshaws squeezing through the gaps of the larger vehicles to create an illogical network of haphazardly moving parts.  Only this wasn’t rush hour – this was everyday, all day.

3.) American ideals of standards for vehicle safety needed to be dismissed.  The taxi cab speedometer appeared to be out of service for the last decade as they jumped around relating to the bumps in the road rather than an accurate reading of speed.  In America we caravan groups of people traveling from one location to the next, in India everyone piles in together.  It wouldn’t be rare to see a group of eight riding in one cab, all on top of one another in the front and back seat.  I’d even seen whole families riding on a scooter together, mom carrying baby on the back and dad with tot on his lap.  No car seats, no helmets, and no seat belts.

4.) The honking.  Every driver honks about everything, it seemed like  honking was the secondary language next to Bengali in Kolkata.  I found myself video taping rides through the streets because I never felt I could describe the chaos and the noise to my friends and family when I got home.  I wanted to make them suffer through the recordings so that they could minutely relate to the annoyance I had suffered during the trip.  Saving my sanity was the fact that the mission where we stayed drown out most of the sounds from the streets and the evening meditation chants gave me an alternate focus for my battered ears.

5.)  The need to be aware of the mad cab drivers.  Our group of students frequently chartered vehicles for planned excursions and day trips.  These were set up by our instructor who grew up in Kolkata and was able to make arrangements speaking Bengali.  There were also opportunities when we had to utilize cabs to ride from the airport, train stations or to more spur of the moment outings.  Our instructor was able to communicate locations to cab drivers even when we all didn’t ride together, other times it was up to us to find ways to get to where we wanted to go without any language assistance.  Some drivers couldn’t understand our requests and were illiterate as well, resourcefully driving us around until he was able to coax a pedestrian who could read to help tell the driver where we wanted to go.  Very few drivers could speak English, and one who did I will never forget.  I got into his taxi with three of my peers from a train station returning to the mission late into the evening.  We probably should have jumped out of his car after he struck another car with his hand yelling at the other driver in a jam leaving the parking area.  Based on his questions, it felt as though the hate he had towards Americans he would be taking out on us.  The car we were supposed to be following with our teacher and peers was no where in sight, in fact the usually crowded streets were empty and it was frighteningly quiet with this mad driver.  

6.) No women allowed.  Women do not drive and they do not help.  In India a car is really a luxury and most people who can afford luxuries can also afford drivers.  There are always exceptions, this is not a rule, it just is very unique to eight female students who together drive eight cars.  I noted how women do not help because there was one small bus we rode in as we visited sites in a rural area of West Bengal.  The bus was in rough shape and needed to be pushed in order to get it running.  By the end of the day our driver left the headlight out in the dark just to prevent it from completely breaking down.  Although us tough girls offered to help with pushing we were always denied, even if it took several minutes to recruit enough men to get the job done.