What’s funny is that I’ve only been in Kolkata, India since 6:30 am this morning (6:00 pm M.S.T.) and in trying to get my first blog update “on paper” just 4 hrs since my arrival, I’m already at a loss with where to begin this thing.
I guess no better starting point then my arrival to Dum Dum Airport in Kolkata where it was identified that me and another guy’s luggage didn’t make the transfer from Delhi. Hard to really find a positive in that situation, but I am able to when considering I wasn’t the “other guy” whose lost luggage contained his wedding suit and some other stuff needed for his ceremony tomorrow. Maybe I was little more at peace with the situation as well because of the airport encounter I had with some Tibetan monks too. There’s just something about those guys that just makes you feel good. Sure, I don’t have anything but the clothes on my back right now along with my electronics in a day bag, but after seeing the rags many Kolkatans were wearing en route to my hotel a little bit later, it put things in perspective for me and I realized I was in no position to complain. I was told at the airport that my bags should show up within the next 2 days so we’ll see what happens.
Of course the “pre-paid” taxi counter was closed when I arrived to the airport, which was the best way to avoid getting ripped off by a taxi or at least it was the best way I knew at the time of how to avoid it. After getting charged 4x the regular fare (800 rupees instead of about 220) and having a conversation with the hotel clerk about it, I am now a little more knowledgeable of how to avoid getting taken advantage of with respect to taxis. As an FYI, for any of you looking to visit India and in need of taxi services, pick a metered car (I didn’t), ask them for a price chart and pay them 2x plus 2 rupees of whatever is shown on the meter. The reason you ask for the price chart is so you can see what the cost will be to get to a certain area of town. If you don’t refer to this chart and compare the prices on that with what is shown on the meter then you open yourself up to the taxi just aimlessly driving around and racking up the meter. Last tip…buckle your seat belt and get ready for a ride. When the taxi driver told me he has been in about 100 accidents, it didn’t surprise me at all after about 5 minutes of being in the cab with him. Traffic here is absolute chaos, yet mysteriously organized as if everyone has a “sixth sense” that gives them the ability to maneuver around just about anything, whether it’s a group of wild hogs, a rickshaw, or a yellow taxi playing “chicken” with you. If driving in Kolkata was a video game, there’s no way I’d make it past the 1st level and that’s taking into consideration how good of a player I was in "The Paper Boy" for Nintendo.
Style of driving and nature of traffic aside, my taxi ride really gave me the 1st opportunity to get a feel for the reality of what my circumstances are going to be for the next 4 months and to say I felt like I was on “Mars” would be an understatement. Of course I knew things would be different here; I mean it is India and Kolkata has been labeled the home of “the poorest of the poor,” but it’s one thing to read that and another thing to actually SEE IT. I used to say there’s no limit to one’s imagination, but when reflecting upon what I imagined Kolkata to be and what it actually is, I’d have to say a person’s imagination is indeed limited. It might be able to provide a couple brush strokes to the world you think exists somewhere else, but in no way will it come close to capturing the entire painting.
Later in the afternoon on Wednesday, I ended up going to volunteer orientation for the Missionaries of Charity at the Shishu Bhavan, which in addition to being the volunteer center is also an actual orphanage. Orientation basically consists of all volunteers providing the dates of their available service, the Sisters going over a few ground rules (i.e. don't give anything to beggars on the streets) and listing the different centers we could volunteer at and us, ultimately, selecting a place to volunteer. Of some of the places I as a male had the option to volunteer at they were Daya Dan, Nabo Jibon, Prem Dan, Kalighat, and the Gandhi Welfare Center. Both Prem Dan and Kalighat are homes for the dying and chronically disabled and I’ve been told Kalighat is where the most severe cases are prominent and this is where Sister Mercy Maria assigned me upon asking her to put me wherever the greatest need was. On a side note, Sister Mercy Maria is the volunteer coordinator for the Missionaries of Charity and just like the Tibetan monks, she too, had a glow of just pure goodness that is tough to really put into words. In the brief conversation I had with Sister Mercy Maria she also mentioned how beautiful Montana was and that she was a big fan when passing through awhile back of the no speed limit law. Yet another example of how small of a world we really live in. As I understand it, my responsibilities at Kalighat will consist of such things as preparing food and feeding people, washing dishes, doing laundry, bandaging wounds, and last, but not least, just loving on people really. My volunteering there will begin this Friday from 8am to 12am and I’m pretty sure that this is what my daily volunteer schedule will look like for the next month.
Of course, one of the great things with traveling is the diversity of people you get to meet and so far I’ve had the opportunity to meet volunteers from Seattle, Boston, France, Indiana, Portugal, and England. Can you believe I was the only person from Montana? J Once orientation was complete, I tagged along with a group of volunteers to get more familiar with the area, particularly Sudder St., which is where I will be trying to set up more long-term accommodations since it is here where most volunteers for the Missionaries of Charity stay given the close proximity to the Mother House and other volunteer centers. Sudder St., just like anywhere else in Kolkata that I’ve seen so far, is still extremely crazy with people and activity. Given the high tourist population this district is characteristic of it also attracts a lot of beggars and I had my first beggar encounter while eating with some other volunteers at a local vendor. As hard as it is to say no to these beggars, we’ve been advised by the Sisters to do so since in many cases the beggars are asking for things not because they don’t have access to basic necessities such as food, but instead, because they know it’s an “easy buck.” You still can’t help but feel bad when ignoring the beggar requests, but I’m sure with time, this is something I’ll grow cold to and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Total cost of my meal by the way, which consisted of a hearty portion of vegetable/egg and noodles along with some tea was .50 cents! I think I’ve found my “Taco Treat” of Kolkata!