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

May 27

June 2

June 3

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


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. 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.

My Indian Summer

Yesterday I caught myself wincing from the sunlight when I had forgotten my sunglasses.  It reminded me of the summer I opted not to wear sunglasses.  This was an intentional thought I had in preparation for traveling to India.  I wondered if it may be inappropriate for me to wear a luxury item in this part of the world where so many people went without basic needs being met.  Prior to the trip I even wondered if going without some lenses might help me fit in better with the non-sunglasses wearing Indians.  How quickly one can learn that a minority will stand out regardless of what they are wearing on their face, and a minority with light skin is regarded in a sort of freakish celebrity status in West Bengal.  The irony of forgetting my sunglasses yesterday is that today marks the fifth year anniversary of arriving in Kolkata for my Indian summer.

Within two minutes of reading there was going to be a program studying in India I had determined I would apply to attend.  Along with seven other students, I was chosen to study the social welfare systems in Kolkata, West Bengal.  It wasn’t until after all was set in stone, I began learning about what I had signed up for.  My stress was high as the days led up to the adventure.  I believe part of my anxiety was knowing I was in for a life changing experience; I would witness things I had never imagined and be in more unfamiliar territory than ever before.

Feeding monkeys in Puri, Orissa

I was accurate with my worries.  I had never felt further from home.  Clothes, food, traffic, language, and everything seemed unrecognizable at first.  After about a week and a half I was exhausted thinking I wasn’t even half way through the program yet.  Our group of eight went through fun then turbulent then close again stages having to spend so much time together.  Despite being diverse in age, background and interests, we were all an important contribution to the group as a whole.  The sights, sounds, people and culture I witnessed during this month deeply impacted who I am and how I think about the world.  I feel so fortunate to have been able to travel to India and get an up close look at the systems in place to help an impoverished population.  One of the most important lessons I learned is that even people lacking resources have a lot to teach Americans about traditions, values and happiness.

In the next month I will be posting stories, photos and links to the agencies I visited while in India.  It’s been five years of reflection which I am overdue in sharing.  During that trip I felt a great desire to do something with the information I was gathering and become more of a resource to those individuals who had made such a great impression on my life.

(left to right) Colleen, Julia, Michelle, Kate, Natalie, me, Jesi & Abbey

Seven years ago…

Seven years ago I would have been preparing for my Euro-backpacking adventure with my roommates. We each committed to the trip years before and despite some conflicting life courses we were able to pull it off. We each loaded our packs and unloaded several times narrowing down to a handful of select outfits which we would wear on a steady rotation for the next four weeks. Our itinerary began with flying into London, then a flight to Amsterdam. Between there and our scheduled flights home was completely spontanious. Our adventures were influenced heavily by the advise of fellow travelers who made suggestions of “must-see” and “skip that – it’s overrated” locations. I’d like to think I am still spontaneous and I know the enthusiasm for travel is still present, however, the priorities on my pocketbook prevent me from living how I did seven years ago.

The following is an e-mail I sent home from some forgotten internet cafe in Amsterdam:

Hello All,

I have already lost track of time and have no idea what todays date or the day of the week is. I keep calculating the time in Kansas and I am blown away thinking about what I would be doing if I were at home right now, instead of drinking my 6th beer at the Heineken factory, I would have been getting ready for work (just an example from yesterday.)

We flew into London on Tuesday, even though it was a 7 1/2 hour flight it went by really quickly. We each had our own TV with about 12 channels to choose from, plus I slept alright for most of it. We found our way with only a few wrong turns to our hostel in Westchester called Wake Up London. Wednesday we toured London on a double decker bus. We saw all the sights there are to see just passing on the bus, and also took a ferry ride. That night we saw a musical at the Queens Theater, it was great but I was so exhausted that it was hard to enjoy it. David Schwimmer had a play going on in the theater right next door that we could have gone to and I think that I saw something about Val Kilmer in a pay there too.

For the past two and a half days we have been in Amsterdam, crazy city – I love it!! I could spend a year here just watching the people and studying the prostitutes – no joke!! We visited Anne Frank’s house yesterday morning and then took a tram down to the Heineken Brewery, I don’t think any other museum could live up to that. Along with your ticket in you get three free drinks and a free gift ticket. JoJo, Sheila and I met two Canadians, a young married couple from LA and a med student from Oklahoma. We used far beyond our three free tickets in drinks each! All of us went out to dinner and then the guy from Oklahoma met up with us to walk through the red light district last night.

There is a huge selection of prostitutes, it was kind of how I expected it to be, but I guess I had never thought about the “clients” in the business. It was bizzare watching men walk out of the small doorways and then the curtin would open back up again and the prostitute would be ready for her next sale. We found a coffee shop/bar across the canal from a busy red light spot. We started analyzing the business and timing how long people go in for. We had so many questions to ask about this business, and the longer we sat there the more questions we came up with.

I have so much else to tell you all, but my time is running out on the internet. We are leaving for Berlin tomorrow and I will try to make time to write again soon.

Love – Holly