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The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Sunday, October 26th, 2008

I’ve been wanting to describe for my readers what it’s like to walk down the street–say, a fifteen minute walk down my street to the bakery I go to everyday–so that they can get a sense of what this place is like on a real, intimate level.  What follows is my attempt…

Imagine it’s lightly raining.

It’s not raining hard–it’s not even sprinkling–but its a misty, light rain. It’s almost as if someone is occassionally shaking their hands off at you and the water droplets are landing on you.

You’ve left your hotel, you are walking down the street.

You have to pay attention to where you are going–there are many things you must avoid stepping in, such as fresh spittle mixed with red betel-juice; feces; fetid food;trash;broken manholes; and gutters full of putrifying urine and a cloudy film which you imagine to be typhoid or cholera.

You start our walking down the narrow sidewalk as it seems safer than the street and it’s crazy traffic–but the sidewalk proves impossible, as it’s crowded with people actually camping out on it and people trying to do business.

You’re trying to get out to the street but you are distracted by the sights on this narrow strip of sidewalk. On just this one tiny piece of concrete real estate, you see:

A man, wearing only a checkered gray and blue cloth around his middle, like a diaper, sitting on a front step and chipping off the step he is sitting on using only a blunt hammer;

A woman, beautifully dressed, with gold jewelry, lying on a cardboard pallet, holding a new born infant, her other child calling out “Auntie, auntie” at you and motioning that they are hungry;

Two beautifully dressed women walk by, one is wearing a sari of radiant yellow silk, her hair perfectly oiled, her makeup carefully applied. Both are by your standards enormously fat, but here in India, in Calcutta, they are considered desirable and healthy;

A Muslim man, wearing an immaculate white skullcap and a blue long tunic that seems to change color to lavender in the light, beatinga stack of neatly arranged old Time magazines with a bunch of sticks–possibly to get the street dust off ?;

A man busily working at an impromtu “counter” which looks to have been hastily made from found bits of this and that, fixing–or is he taking apart?– cell phones and putting them back together again, while a line of young men wait;

A man, crawling on the sidewalk, legs bent in a strange contortion, banging a metal bowl for change. He grabs your leg, he has a strong grip, he won’t let go..he’s wailing now.

You’re cursing yourself, you’ve promised not to give money on the street, yet..he is suffering, he has no place to go…you somehow get the strength to not give him anything, you pry his fingers loose, you keep walking.

You know that if yu give him something, you will give to know that it will not help allieviate anything but your guilt, so you keep walking.

You switch over to walking in the street for awhile.

The street is awful to walk in–it is, in fact, quite dangerous. People are hit by cars all the time, as brakes do not seem to be used here.

What are used here are horns. Everyone is blaring their horn at you, at everyone else, at rickshaws, at dogs, and the noise is deafening.

You’re walking as close as you can to the side of the road, to the parked cabs that line the left hand side of the street, but still, sometimes you must stand sideways and pull your feet in so they are not run over, the traffic comes by so close to you.

People are walking in the street along with you. Men don’t step out of the way for you, they don’t move aside–it is you who must move aside for them, as you are a woman.

Men also hold hands if they are walking together–no, they aren’t gay!–they just do that here. You see, men don’t pick their wives, they are chosen for them. They do not always feel close to them. They do choose their male friends, though, and so this peculiar custom of hand holding is just a way of demonstating their friendship.

You’re sharing the road with rickshaw wallahs and bicycles, too.

The rickshaw wallahs, if they see you, ring a tiny bell in their fingers–that’s their way of getting your attention, telling you you can get a ride. When you first came here, you’d look their way, start a conversation, you were distracted by their thin bodies, their shoeless feet, their sunken cheeks.

Now you give them the “namaste” sign (palms folded together, accompanied by a little bow) and nod your head “no”. You don’t need a ride–and they already know that you are the tourist who pays Palik, the rickshaw driver down the road, when you want a ride from a rickshaw.

The rickshaw drivers that are full of passengers are generally carrying fat–or plump–Indian women, well dressed and carrying packages; schoolchildren; or packages.

You’re looking at those tiny men carry those enormous women around when you almost get run over by a bike carrying over one hundred chickens, all white, hanging upsidedown, from the handlebars and bike frame. The chickens are alive but not moving, they are numb, on the way to the chicken market.

It’s back to the side walk, now. The street has become to busy to walk in.

Is it raining still? What just splashed on your face? No, that’s not rain, it’s water..someones dumping water from one of the rotting apartment complexs above you. Well, let’s hope it’s water. Don’t think about it.

Here’s a man pooping on the street, right in the gutter. Don’t look.

Here’s a dog, walking along as if it knows exactly where it’s going..a orange-y brown dog, all muscle, navigating its way through the traffic.

A man walks by, a platter of candy on his head, offering you to buy some. It’s white colored and sticky and seems to be incredibly white in the middle of all this dust and grime. It’s pristine.

A tiny woman–or is it a child–scurries by, absolutley filthy, carrying a baby whose legs seem to have been broken. She’s asking you for money, you give her nothing.

The shops have spotted you now, and the owners have all run out to pester you…

“Have a look, have a look”, one says.

“Buy something, Buy something”, another says.

“No looky charge, Madam. Silk, Silk.” says the man selling overpriced saris.

Keep walking. The last bit is the hardest, that last bit where you have to walk through a bit of street that seems to have been designated as a neighborhood toilet.

Ah, the smell is fouler than it was yesterday. You had thought the rain would have cleaned it up a bit. It didn’t.

Cover your mouth with your scarf, keep walking. God, it’s so bad you could pass out. Be careful where you step now, there’s urine everywhere, there’s feces everywhere.

A woman is doing her washing near it.

 Another woman is preparing a meal. She is preparing some sort of reddish curry looking thing and chopping up some sort of whitish meat–is it a cow’s stomach?–right in the gutter, carefully putting the scraps into the cooking pot.

 Two dead rats are being eaten by crows.

Another rat scurries by a man who seems to be a holy man, entirely naked, sitting under a tiny shrine of sorts near all the refuse and urine filled gutter.He is surrounded by marigold and jasmine flowers that have all been strung together.

Jasmine and urine blend together. The smell is overwhelming. Keep walking, you are almost there, almost to the bakery.

Made it. You’re by the bookstores now. You glance up–strange how one never looks up in this city, one is so busy looking down to make sure one isn’t stepping in anything gross..

Looking up, you notice how all the buildings are falling apart. What did this place look like when the British were here? It looks as though now one has maintained anything since they left. It’s all rotting, covered in mildew and mold and falling in on itself–yet people live in those buildings.

The bookstores’ owners have seen you, they are trying to pull you in. But you’re not interested–a few days ago you discovered the famous Oxford bookstore, only blocks away, that is clean, cheap, and has any book you want without dealing with bargaining. You keep walking.

Did I mention everyone is staring at you? Yes, everyone. Some people laugh, some people point, others attempt tiny conversations. You haven’t had a scrap of privacy since you closed the door of your hotel room and walked out onto the street. You’re an object of curiousity.

Just as the car exhaust is realis really beginning to hurt your chest, and that annoying little pollution cough is starting up again, you’re at the front door of Kathleen’s, the bakery you love.

A armed guard opens the door for you and you are greeted with a blast of air conditioning.

 The place is full of plump Indians, all standing around eating meat turnovers and iced little cakes. There are no chairs-one stands and eats one cake after another.

You get a few hot pastries, filled with vegetables, heated up and put in a box. Then you choose an iced cake–it all tastes like wedding cake, but who cares? It’s comforting, it’s sweet, and it’s freshly made everyday, so you won’t get sick (you hope). You choose strawberry cake today.

“Yes, yes, memsahib. We see you lucky tomarrow?”, says one of the owners, a man wearing a spotless white punjabi.

“Tomarrow, yes.”, you say, and turn around again, walking back through the streets to your hotel, where once you are in your room you will wash your face, hands, feet with disinfectant and drink some cold water to overcome your nausea so you can eat your pastries and cake.

You sit down at the little table in your room just as the Mosque’s call to prayer begins. The loudspeakers seem louder today. It’s so loud yo can think of nothing else, so you just listen and stare out the window, watching the rain come down on plastic tarps and rickshaws and people.

Life looks misty and fuzzy and you can’t concentrate.

Finally, the call to prayer ends, the rain dies down for a moment, and you begin to eat your melting strawberry cake, while pondering if you will actually be able to remember everything you are seeing here in India.

You won’t. It’s still fuzzy and muddled and mixed up, one scene blending into another.

And that’s only fifteen minutes in Calcutta.


The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

I’ve got so much to write about that I doubt I will be able to get it all onto the blog, but I’m going to attempt to at the very least write a few choice bits. Here goes…

My stomach is better. Or should I say, the extreme pain is gone when I eat anything. Unfortunately, my bowels are far behind my stomach. They just can’t seem to acclimate to this place. I may have to accept that this may be my state of health the entire time I am here.

The main advantage to being under the weather this week was that I actually went out and did stuff–looked around my neighborhood and the city a bit more and actually had the energy level to socialize a tiny bit.

As usual, I’m finding it hard to hang out with the backpackers and take part in the backpacker scene. I’ve found this to be the case all over the world, wherever I have been. Sometimes–on a rare occassion–backpackers surprise me, but for the most part I find them a little embarrassing.

I’m probably going to get nasty comments on the blog now. Oh well.

But back to why I find backpackers embarrassing. Look, it’s just that they are so completely inappropriate sometimes, walking around with navels showing and partying. They make Westerners look bad, and unfortunately they don’t make a lot of attempts to blend in.

It’s’s as if they value Indian culture and it’s more Eastern approach to life more than the Western ways of their own country, at least spiritually anyway. But then they show absolutely no respect for the societal expectations that come along with that. At that point, they seem to revel in being Western and all the exceptional priveleges they get because they are, well, white.

But not all of them. I’ve befriended a few lately who I think are lovely people, and they are respectful of this culture, too.

Mostly though, as usual I find myself preferring companions who are in one of three categories: older travelers, say over 60 years old; travelers who are not actually traveling, but have a specific purpose, such as long term volunteering; and locals.

Locals here are a bit tricky. There are many social codes to follow here, so being friends with Indian men is absolutely out of the question. (Although many Western women seem to break this code and think the men actually want to be friends with them, it almost always leads to sex. Western women are thought of in one way only here. I have heard some very sad stories of late on this subject.)

This leaves Indian women as possible friends, but then again as I am a Westerner, this too comes with expectations. As I am not hanging out with wealthy people, any poorer person befriended would, of course, have expectations which would be understandable under the circumstances. Favors would be required at some point, as that is the basis for how people get by in this place.

So, outside of the Indian women I work with at work, making friends with Indian women is out of the question. I just don’t want to get that involved. I already have that kind of reciprocal relationship set up with plenty of people in Panama amongst the Ngobe, and that’s about all I can handle.

I have managed to meet several people who are volunteering long term here and befriended them. Long term volunteers are always more interesting–they aren’t going back home to their desk job in two weeks, they are more interested in the culture, and they tend to be more spiritually inclined.

You simply have to have some kind of spiritual belief to survive here if you are going to be here for more than a few weeks.

You need it to get through not just your workday, but all of the moments that come up unexpectedly and would otherwise cause you to burst into tears at the state of humanity.

You need some kind of spiritual life here to survive, otherwise this place has no continuity, no shape…it’s just an endless parade of confusion and darkness.

This place continually brings me to my knees.


I am not kidding.

I have prayed here more than any place or at any other time in my life.

I have prayed for myself, because I was so numbed out by all the visually disturbing things around me.

I have prayed for whatever the nature of Christianity is–that it grow, develop, change into however it was to start with originally instead of what corrupt people continually try to make it–another excuse, another road to get more power.

I have prayed for people I do not know but who I have seen in the street, just that they receive some comfort–anything–to make their suffering a little bit easier.

I have prayed for  the people back at home, that they would come to this place just once, even if for a week, because it is the kind of place that changes you so dramatically, so rapidly, that you can’t go back to who you once were. And so many people I know would benefit from the experience of being in a place like this–it would take them out of their small concerns and into what it means to be more of a citizen of the world.

So I’d have to say, out of all the places I have been, this place has basicaly made me rely on God.

God is my main companion here.

God is such a no-no. God is such a dirty word in our culture. Generally the people who use this word don’t mean the God I am talking about. They mean Power. It’s just another way of one person trying to be powerful over another. Even the state of disbelief is used to have power over another.

When we hear the word “God”, we immediately make it mean something. Usually that something has absolutely nothing to do with what God is, but more with who we are and what makes us feel powerless or powerful.

The God I’m talking about is totally different. This God is just as revolted and probably discouraged as we are about the state of humanity. This God is really, actually love.

It’s bad to discuss God on your blog, I’ve been told. Why?

Look, I’ll tell all of you that I am here in what very well may be one of the darkest places on Earth, and if I didn’t have God–or some spiritual belief–I do believe I wouldn’t make it out of this place alive.

I’d die of sadness–or at least, some part of me would.

God seems to be the only one I can have a conversation with who understands the darkness I am looking at and can somehow inspire me to keep moving along in a positive direction. Otherwise, I do believe I’d splinter into a million pieces and disappear.

I came here thinking that I would discover the wonderful Bengali culture as well as be of some help in what I knew was a desperate place. And yes, I have found the Bengali culture to be interesting, but it doesn’t actually distract me too much from the larger picture here of poverty.

The poverty here–it’s different, somehow. The darkness here–it’s different, too.

It’s all out in the open.

At home we have horrors, too–but we keep them locked away, out of sight.

Here, the kid gets beat on the street right in front of you.

Maybe because it’s so out in the open is why I find the heaviness of this place so oppressive and why no matter what I think about, all my thoughts run back to these dark places and scenes I have seen on the streets.

I suppose, too, that that’s why I find myself praying so much in this place.

A new friend recently told me, after hearing some of the things I had seen that day on one of my walks around this city, “That you have to look for the joy here, because it’s harder to find than all the evil.”

I do see alot of joyful moments–street children playing a game of impromtu cricket; a man laughing, holding a wiggling puppy; a group of beautifully dressed women in candy colored saris dancing…but I have to say that I think not only is the dark side of life here harder to not look at, it’s kind of what I came to look at.

A book I am reading at the moment started out with a fascinating question:

‘People always ask: why is there evil in the world?, when perhaps the more important question is: why is there good in the world?’

It then goes into this theme on a much deeper level and examines why some people strive to be good and do good, while others lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate. I, just like everyone else, have had plenty of people in my life who have lied, or manipulated, or just done things that were completely selfserving.

This book’s point of view is that when we do these kinds of things–lie, cheat, steal, manipulate–even if it’s to protect ourselves–that this contributes to the evil of the world. That it even, in a sense, helps it grow. That it sustains it.

It’s a fascinating book, and it’s kind of reversed some of my thinking. I remember just a few weeks ago I was lamenting on this blog why there was so much darkness here and in the world at large.

Now, I’m thinking in reverse: why are there people who have a desire to put themselves into the midst of this gloom and do something about it? What makes people want to do good things? What makes someone good, or have the desire to be good, while someone else lacks that desire? Why do some people feel attracted to “helping professions”, for example, while others feel attracted to “hurting professions”?

I’m reading another excellent book right now that has a great deal to say on this very subject–but in a more down-to-earth, tangible way– and I would suggest you all go out and read it.

It’s called “Banker To The Poor, The Story of the Grameen Bank” and it’s the story of Muhammad Yunnus, who set up the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh to lend small sums of money to the poorest of the poor. You’ve no doubt heard of him–he won the Nobel Peace prize in 2006.

His book has dispelled many myths I was carrying around that were taught to me in my Western culture about the poor, the poor’s capacity to take ownership in what happens to them, and how one can change the system by starting with the havenots.

It also talks about how desperate poverty makes people do terrible, dark, and even evil things.

It’s a brilliant book and a hopeful book, and I think the very sort of book that people should read.

On the first page is a wonderfully brilliant quote:

” All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

–Edmond Burke

Ah, this trip brings me to tears everyday when I think of who I was, just a year ago, living my small life, and who I am now, trying to live fully in a world that seems to challenge me to be 100 times the woman I once was.


The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Friday, October 24th, 2008

The rat hole has been repaired in my room.

I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment that due to my efforts it actually was patched up.

You see, here in India everything is falling apart. Everything is full of rat holes. Rats ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008
A general update... I finally "gave in" and started taking Cipro. There was no choice, as my bowels had decided that I could not leave my room safely and I was feeling worse and worse! Yesterday I stayed in my room most ... [Continue reading this entry]

Women On the Road Interview

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008
hey everyone, I've been interviewed for the women's travel site "Women-on-the-Road" about my travels and how volunteering has changed me and my life. If you'd like to read it, please scroll down to "Travel Sites I Visit Often" on the right hand ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008
I have to apologize for not blogging...but, quite frankly, up until very recently I haven't had time--and I haven't felt that well, either. I last blogged that I was working full time at Dany Dan--but despite their need and also my ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Monday, October 13th, 2008
From my journal entry October 7th, 2007 I am exhausted. Today was my first day at Dany Dan, a home for autistic and mentally retarded children in Calcutta. Actually, this home run by Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity has kids with everything ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Monday, October 6th, 2008

It's been an incredibly full day today.

I started the day out looking around for a different hotel--which was more difficult than you might think.

Going into dive after dive, with cockroaches crawling about and rat poop in the hall way did ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Sunday, October 5th, 2008
October 5th, 2008 I am reeling. I am a mix of moral ambiguity and a strange feeling of exhiliration. I've just returned to my hotel, and run across the street through pouring rain to the internet cafe to quickly write a post ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

October 5th, 2008

The heat and humidity have killed off any desire I have to eat anything. It is so humid that I find it hard to drag myself out of bed and get dressed.

Added to this is my frustration that ... [Continue reading this entry]