BootsnAll Travel Network

Archive for January, 2009

« Home

The Calcutta Diaries: A Volunteer’s Experience

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Not feeling well, but I will attempt to make some efforts to write something here…

Well, basically I’m sick from exhaustion and pollution.

The doctor more acurately described my condition as ” the combined effect of pollution poisoning and overwork”, and I would have to say I am in complete agreement with him.

The cure? Well, the obvious one would be to leave this city, but that is unrealistic, as I have things to do here. So the alternative is to take some much needed time off and rest, trying to stay indoors as much as possible, and drink hot tea and lemon and honey.

When I went to Bihar several weeks ago I was actually quite unwell, in a state of exhaustion from ther hectic Christmas season and the demands of Daya Dan–and as my Norwiegian friend, Sessel, said to me one day , “Even living here is a full-time job!”. I also had a chest infection and was coughing I figured the cure would be the clean air of Bihar.

The air in Bihar was clean, but unfortunately every night I slept in a tiny, airless adobe room, and for company there were 3 other people sleeping in it as well. Sleep did not come easily with the ninety year old grandmother muttering away on her pallet a mere foot and a half away from my own cot. Every once in awhile I would awake to her sitting up, crouching over me, blessing my forehead or telling me that they weren’t feeding her(they were).

Back in Calcutta, before I left for Bihar, the entire population of the city heard my coughs and shook their heads…everyone told me that it was obvious I was sick not due to the air quality, but due to the sudden “cold front” that had come with the short-lived calcutta winter.

“Cold front? What cold front?”, I asked, completely confused as to the nature of what defines cold to a Calcuttan native.

Because it was not cold. It was not, even slightly, chilly.

Only on two nights did I need a blanket that I had stupidly bought in preparation for this much talked about and maligned “winter”. The rest of the time I slept in a pair of cotton pajamas and sometimes not even that.

When I would tell my friends that it wasn’t cold, they would stare at me in disbelief. Maybe they did not hear me, for everyone wore hats-the sort you wear skiing-and mufflers and turtlenecks and earmuffs. They wore all of these with pride, like a badge of honor, the more they had piled on, the better. Men walked around in lurid hot pink fake fur vests and women piled on sparkly, glittery vests and puffy grandma cardigans.

I awoke every morning, tried to manage wearing a pashmina scarf for a few hours…and would end up sweating profusely and end up taking the damn thing off eventually.

It is due to this “throat uncovering”, this complete disregard for the Winter of Calcutta, that my Indian friends say that I now am sick.

But I have a different theory. I think it was exhaustion, combined with the increasingly noxious air of the city during it’s short “Winter” that was my downfall.

For as soon as it was a tolerable temperature to me, in other words, not so hot that one was drenched in sweat, but a nice normal, mid range temperature,  the entire population of the city not only donned mufflers and earmuffs, they decided to burn hot oil in large drums on the streets.

The large drums began to burn as soon as it was slightly dark outside, and continued throughout the night. The drums served as heat for the street residents, as well as, for some unknown reason, the city’s officials decided to re-tar the streets for several months every single evening.

Every morning I awoke to noxious fumes in my room and a terrible, painful cough.

So I went off to Bihar, hoping a change of scene would do me good.

And it did in some ways, although for many, Bihar does not rate in the top twenty of places one must visit when in India(which is the main reason I went there!).It is..poor…dangerous..and so on. The main place people go in Bihar-Westyern people-is to do their Buddha-thing, their pilgrimage and so on. However, small villages do not rate high on the average traveler’s list.

I arrived at the village exhausted from the work of the orphanage, and told everyone I was going to take a nap.

I was  exhausted from the train journey (which was a night train, a sleeper car, except I got no sleep as I was in a compartment full of Indian men who looked at me like I was from another planet. I was forced to spend the entire evening awake, pretending to read Shasti Tharoor’s “India”, drinking cup after cup of milky chai, and day dreaming of the moment I would finally get some rest..)

Anyway, back to telling everyone I was going to get some shut eye…

“Fine”, everyone said. ‘Good Idea”, everyone said.

I then went to a small room, where I was given a rope-cot and I laid down on it.

I was not alone. Oh no. I was accompanied by all of the women of the house , whop sat on my bed, squeezing themselves onto it like sardines, inching their way onto it until they were taking up the majority of the cot, forcing me to twist my long body into strange contortions so I could fit on the space left for me.

I laid there. They watched me. And they talked. Loudly.

It was decided that I should sing a song to enliven my resting time, and I had to wrack my brain in the middle of all of my wasted-ness to figure out an appropriate song to sing.

What do you sing to a group of muslim women, who are cloistered in their house, never go out, and who will, no doubt have the entire village singing the song you sing for years to come?

It was difficult to come up with a song that was not religious, not about sex, not about drugs, not about anything much at all. (Try it yourself. You’ll be surprised that you immediately think of Madonna or your countrys’ National Anthem or The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine…)

Finally I began to sing an American song, the one with the simplest content I could think of.

It was:

“Someone’s in the kitchen with Ida

Someone’s in the kitchen I know.

Someone’s in the kitchen with Ida,

Strumming on the old banjo.

He’s playing…fi..fie..fiddly fie fo, fi fie fiddly fie fo….”

And so on.

(It very well may be about sex or drugs or someones nationalistic athem, but at least it wasn’t obvious!)

The song met with great success, and in fact, drew a large crowd of extended family memebers(all women and children of both sexes) and babies and even a few chickens into the two door ways.

After singing a few more songs, which included my poor rendition of Patsy Kline’s I Go Out Walking After Midnight, It was finally decided by all of the women that perhaps I could actually take a real nap.

They did not go away entirely, but they lessened in number dramatically, leaving me with about seven children and 4 women. This did not include the ninety year old grandmother in the cot next to mine, who would occassionally complain loudly about getting her lunch or reach out and grab my leg.

Apparently for proper napping, certain things must occur.

1. Hot-and highly caffienated-chai must be drunk in copious quantities.(But first, the cow musty be milked for the milk in the chai, of course..)

2. Blankets-of every weight and variety-must be layered on top of one, so that you are like a mummy, and cannot move, except to somehow get one arm out to hold yet another cup of chai.

3. A Bihar-oven,kind of a large clay pot, full of red hot coals–which must be stirred often to make sure it is piping hot!-in placed on the floor, directly under your poor roasting body, just inches away from your poor behind..only a fragile jute netting separating your backside from severe burns.

4. Every door and window-any chance of air whatsoever- is sealed tightly, so that, in the room, the air becomes thick with smoke and lack of oxygen, and if not due to fatigue, one falls not neccessarily asleep, but more like passes out because they are, in fact being cooked.

All this is done under the watchful eyes of several children and women, who watch everything you do and never stop talking.

And this was just the first afternoon.

Sleep turned out to be impossible in Bihar.

This was due to several factors, most important being that No one with my skin color had ever been there, ever..and so everything I did was fascinating, from sleeping to eating to going to the bathroom(but that is another story).

Secondly, I had come for the big village festival, which take splace severy single night and most of the day for a week, and as a guest of honor I had to be there for all of it.

So when I finally was on my way home from Bihar, I was looking forward to sleep, blissful sleep, in my very own hotel room. Alone.

When we finally arrived back in Calcutta(which is yet another story , as there was a mad rush for the train and I got swished behind a metal door and then lifted off the floor by the crowd, head touching the ceiling..while my friend who was with me was robbed of everything in his pockets and barely managed to hold on to the handle in the doorway of the train as it was moving..) anyway, when we finally got back, we got off the crowded train with relief and then quickly realized that we could not swallow the thick stuff that was supposedly air..

….and by the time we got over Howrah bridge I was coughing again, choking down the polluted air, trying to hold a mask over my face in hopes it would filter out some of the horrible black stuff. They say one day in Calcutta is equal to smoking 40 cigarettes, but I feel it must be more.

So that was several weeks ago, and now my “pollution-sickness” has turned into a bout with bronchitis( no, no it’s not TB, I got the tests done, you worry warts!) of which I probably will not recover until I am safely at home in California, breathing in colorless air and resting properly.

Which I am trying to do, but I do have to go back to work at some point, even if its only for a week!

In spiter of the pollution, I have to say that this is the most favorite of places I have been in the world. I know. I actually think it’s better than Paris, than Santiago, than Mexico City, than Panama City, than Geneva. It’s got wait, it’s got everything, yes, everything, all at once. It hits you oveer the head and gives you no choice but to buck up and deal with yourself and everything else around you. I love that. There is no real escapism here-it’s all out for everyone to see, the best and the worst.

However, I adored Bihar so much that I have decided to go back again before I leave.

I’ll keep you all posted…


The Calcutta Diaries: A Volunteer’s Experience

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

From a journal entry before I went to Bihar…

It’s 5:30 am, and I’m up, awake, and sitting in a tiny hole-in-the-wall coffeeshop that serves coffee that tastes like water and porridge at this early hour.

I’m up so early because the street-or, I should say, alley-under the windows of my room is being worked on and it’s very noisy. Actually it was worked on all night, and I pretended I was fine with it and that it wasn’t bothering me because I had no choice in the matter.

But now that it’s daylight, and as I have a choice, I’ve left the room and wandered to this little place, hoping to rid myself of my grumpiness and that the coffee will give me a jump start to what promises to be yet another long day at Daya Dan.

My porridge has arrived. It’s mostly boiled milk, with some bits of oats in it and I cover it with a thick layer of honey to sweeten it. The coffee comes, clear brown in color(you’d have to drink 10 cups of the stuff for it to take any effect) and I stare out the grating covering the window into the street.

I’m watching a man across the street. He’s there every morning that I am-his routine is the same, day after day.

He’s ridden up to a spot across the street on a bicycle.

It’s a black bicycle, heavy, almost industrial looking, covered in dirt, dust, and grime. Only it’s silver handlebars show any glint of it’s original color.

On the front are hanging two filthy woeven plastic market bags-the kind poor people use around the world to store rice and then get converted into shopping bags and sleeping mats-and each bag hanging heavily from a handlebar, completely black and thick with a layer of grease.

On the back of the bike, on either side, are two plastic drums, the type people catch rain in or store gasoline in, and they are the size of large trash cans, bright aqua blue in color, a color not found in nature. They are streaked with dirt and dust and oil, and at the top of these rests another container, a jimmy-can, also black, with the top cut off.

The man gets off the bike. He’s wearing a pair of knee length lavender- gray shorts which must have started out as a totally different color but have faded from daily wear; a short sleeved black button front shirt that is much too small, and a maroon and brown headscarf is wrapped around his head. He’s clean shaven with short cropped hair, and his skin is almost black in color, his teeth are stained red from betel-nut juice. The whites of his eyes are very bright against his very dark face.

He moves, swiftly, as he does every morning, unloading his bike of it’s containers and bags.

A burlap cloth that was wrapped around his shoulders he removes and places on the ground.

The moment the cloth is on the ground, the man is surrounded by a group of dogs.

One dog is especially beautiful, large and well built, muscular, looking somewhat like a beefy cross between a Golden Retriever and a Pit Bull. It wears a red collar and it’s muzzle is grizzled. It’s obviously the head dog of the pack.

The second dog is one of the most unusual dogs I’ve ever seen on my travels. It almost looks like a particular breed, but as it is a street dog, this is probably impossible. It’s a female, chocolate brown in color, shorthaired(almost hairless) with a thin, Greyhound like body, erect ears and seems to be the sort of dog Egyptians would have owned at the time of the Pharoahs.Her eyes give her a strange look, as they are exactly the same color as her coat, making her look like a dog from another time or world.

The third dog is a black, scruffy looking dog, with large, blunt square-looking ears that look as though they were cut off to look like that. She’s recently had puppies and she’s obviously still nursing them. She’s got a flower garland around her neck-the kind Hindus use on their statues and shrines, as well as on the occassional cow- and the garland is made of white jasmine flowers, red hibiscus flowers, adn yellow marigolds. She’s also been painted-or smudged, anyway-with orange and red paint, right in the middle of her forehead.

The last dog in the pack is very old, white and black, with almost no hair to speak of, one eye blue and the other brown, long floppy ears and a limping gait.

The man spreads the burlap cloth on the ground on the street and proceeds to dump each bag and container out on to it. Each container is full of trash and debris, food waste he has collected from the street.

He methodically sorts thru each pile of debris, creating four piles of edible trash from the enormous mound of trash. While he’s doing this, he’s hardly looking down, instead, he’s talking to a neighbor who also lives on that same section on the sidewalk, a man wearing a faded blue and white lungi and a bright white shirt, his torso and head wrapped in a hot pink and magenta scarf, drinking hot milky chai from a clay cup.

The four piles are not the same in size-two are larger than the others, I realize. Each pile has a few chicken bones, alot of rice, old bits of chapati and samosas, leftover bits of curry and streetfood…

He’s finished sorting the trash. He motions for all the dogs to come to him, and they sit quietly, tails wagging.

This food he’s sorted into piles-why, it’s for his dogs!

The dogs all line up at their place-the head dog and the dog who has had puppies take the two largest piles of food and the two smallest dogs take the the small piles of food.

I watch this man do this almost every morning- picking thru trash, starting at 4 am, collecting bits of this and that, trying to give his dogs the choice bits from the street, before the professional trash pickers come along and sift thru it all, or burn it looking for metal and bits of plastic.

Crows arrive, perching on the bike. They are large, greyish-blue, beautiful creatures, with large eyes.

The man screeches at them, shaking and waving his arms, scaring the off. Then he watches his dogs finish their meal.

Then, he loads up all his bins on to his bike again, folds the burlap around his shoulders, and rides off again, for one last foraging attempt before the city wakes up.

His dogs lie on the piece of sidewalk they share with him and wait.


Quick Update

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009
Well, I only have minutes, here. So, first let me apologize for all of the typos in the most recent entry..I tried to fix it, but ended up losing part of the entry, so you'll have to bear with me! Oh ... [Continue reading this entry]

The Calcutta Diary: A Volunteer’s Experience

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009
I've just come back from a whirlwind trip from Bihar. But before I write about that, I'd like to write about my last day with Mitun, the boy I would like to adopt from Daya Dan. We went to the ... [Continue reading this entry]