Sunday, March 25, 2012

4 days of Kolkata awesome!

My flight from Delhi was at 5:50am (ouch) so I arrived to Kolkata just after 8am on the 15th. I was welcomed at the airport by Hemley Gonzalez, originally a friend of a friend in Miami, who became a friend of mine via emails and prepping for this trip. He runs a charity here, doing incredible things for some very destitute, down on their luck families. We first drop my stuff at the hotel, and head straight for some chai :).   We take a nice long walking tour of the city, and eat a delicious lunch, masala dosa, before reaching the area he has ‘adopted’.  It’s a slum on the slopes of a bridge embankment, where the land is not owned, so technically they are all squatting, with threats of displacement by a future overpass.  The area is a shantytown of dark and tiny plastic and bamboo huts, with dirt step paths about 2’ wide between them. A few men, but mostly women and children are around, cooking, cleaning, making shoes. As a normal part of such life, many times the parents make pennies, so the children are put to work to make ends meet. Hemley’s goal is to end that cycle, give a future for the coming generations by helping out the families with basic necessities, and also paying the tuition (and books and uniform,etc) in written exchange that their kids go to school. Sometimes though, the kids may already be 8, 10, 12, and with no prior studies, if tossed into their age appropriate grade they can immediately be years behind the luckier children. His main goal is to start a school, a preparatory school, where these children can do a year there first, be taught basics, so when put in a standard classroom their chances of being alienated are much less.  

Hemley from Responsible Charity- check it out!
We cross over some piping and make our way to the first home. We’re invited in with obviously affection: “Heeeemmmmlllleeyyyy!”  I’m brought in and told to sit, no doubt a friend of Hemleys is a friend of theirs.  We’re offered drink and kindness, and this is repeated as we make our way through. Im actually struck by how absolutely gorgeous some of these girls are... they need to get discovered!!  Everyone needs and is asking for something. What Hemley has taken on is very much an uphill battle, 28 families under his wing, and mannnnny manny more waiting. Im in awe. 

The homes start right at the edge of the bridge.
The roofs of the homes... obstacles for our project!
After we board a packed merchant train and talked about what we’d seen. It’s daunting to say the least, but little by little things can change. The project Im helping with, adding some natural light in the houses during the day, is a good start.:). Out at his house we have some wine with his friend Santosh, also very involved with the charity, but talk gets much lighter! I try to stay awake, but my 3am wakeup wasn’t having it. I must nap! We order dominoes pizza after (a treat here:/ ) and 4-5 more friends come over.   Im sooo tired at this point, my nap succeeding in only making me more tired, and I'm dreading small chat.  I was completely surprised though, the friends were sooooo cheery and fun and took me in as if I’d been around forever. It was comfy and silly and energizing, easily giving me a second wind!  Something came up about my birthday being soon and they ALL were yelling that I must stay and celebrate here. That was sooo wonderful and unexpected--- guess i have plans now!!! wooohoo!  Santosh is my neighbor back in the city, so I got my first motorcycle ride home! 

New pals :)

Oreo ride! 
The second morning we went back out to the bridge houses (for some reason I don’t like to say ‘slums’... it’s got such a negative connotation to it :(. These are their homes, regardless of permanence or legality or basic functions... so I’ll call them homes.)  We assessed a bit more the current project (more on this once we get officially started!), and got our gameplan together.  We had our idea in place, but needed to see what materials were available, so it’s off to the market.  But first, a detour. Hemley and I hop on the motorcycle w/ Santosh, and we (yes all three!) drive to a special pharmacy. Among maaaannny things, Hemley provides medication to any of his families with health issues, and one boy was out of his pills for thalassemia.  Nothing is easy here, the place didnt have the supply:/  Luckily the guy agreed to bring them to us later. So now off to the market.  We spend at least three hours there. Think Home Depot size, but a zillion different vendors for each different section all crammed in, with rows about 1/10th the size ;). It was quite an interesting /mentally exhausting task trying to get what we wanted... not to mention we hadn’t eaten so were starving to boot. Nothing is simple!!! 

Having the wood cut for our mock up!

We got a few things to make prototypes, then headed to Santosh’ house around 4:30, where his mom (yay mom!) had lunch ready for us! yuuummmm! We all felt the need for a drink after our day, so made a toast to our imminent project success :). One drink led to another, more friends arrived, and the next thing you know it’s a party!!!! Quite a fun one I’d say :)  There was guitar playing, sing alongs, dancing, and at one point, we even tested out our sample materials for some fun with sheet metal:) 

Looks like happiness :) 

Our shirts made a rainbow!!!! LOVE!

Testing out our theory...

Work and play!
Third morning I discovered my new breakfast regimen: a nutella banana pancake, made by a guy named Sunny with just such disposition, at a hole in the wall eatery (you’d be lucky to fit 5 people, 6 max) called ‘Curd Corner’.  With a cup of tea, it’s like a little slice of heaven:) 

Nutella banana deliciousness!
Santosh picked me up and we headed to the primary school that he and his girfriend’s charity looks after. When we first arrived, we (there were 5 ‘white people’) were quite the distraction .  At one point I even asked if it was okay to go back in because the kids blatantly disregarded their workbooks when we entered.  He says yes, this doesn’t happen very often so it’s a treat for them.  In fact, so much so, that the school decided to just give them a free day the rest of the afternoon!!!!!  So we played games! It was fantastic!  It reminded me vvveeerrry much of my experience in Honduras as a 17 year old, with all of them saying hellllllo and wanting to shake/hold hands, sometimes getting quite frantic and even pushy in order to get in close. The big difference being that I had no vocab to say whoa whoa, be nice, slow down, take turns!   At one point they were able to pull me to the floor and I had a momentary image of a mass doggy pile in which I suffocate since I dont know how to say get off!  I obviously need some Hindi/Bengali lessons! hhah!  

They were excited to see us!
Sooo sweet!
Our last game was a sort of simon says, where music was played at random lengths, and when it was cut out you had to freeze. If you moved, you were “out”.  Forget running, this was the most exhausting thing ever, not to mention there's no ac so sweat was just pouring!! Super wonderful experience!  All the kids were dismissed then, but one little boy (must be teacher’s son) stayed.  We sat and went through cue cards, images of objects, and I told him the english word, then he’d look through the word cue cards and match them to the picture. He had a knowledge of our alphabet, but still was having trouble sounding it out.  We did this for more than 1/2 hour and within such time there was such an improvement!!! And he was enthusiastic about learning!! One-on-one time became sooo critical in my mind! I’m def gonna try to do more of this, less of crazy kids piles.  I do love the fun, but actually seeing a kid learning was super exciting!

Big kid :) 
Afterwards I was dreaming of a nap, but since we were already in a far part of town, I tagged-along w/ Santos for some errands. Time slips by, as always, so we had to go straight from there to our friend (my new friend) Mimi’s for a party. (oh my gosh day threeee!). Im sooo exhausted (how old am i??) but really want to make an appearance.  It was the same as the first day--- incredibly welcoming and inclusive. It was also exactly like any college party anywhere-- too many shots and not enough food= drunk crazy puking hilarity!  I was not in a state to keep up, but thoroughly enjoyed the show!  At one point I just knew i had to sleep, so went in the spare room for a nap.  Santosh took pity on my and took me home early! 
Wonderful fun! and yes, those are tequila shots! Oucchh!
Fourth day begins before sunrise--- the best time for Kolkata (less people + less cars = less noise and pollution). Santosh picks me up for a real Kolkata tour, via motorcycle! :)  We checked out the Victoria Memorial and the cricket grounds, which still had a fog on them as the sun was coming up.  It’s before six am but they were decently crowded!! People play cricket on Sundays, it’s ‘just what they do’!  

Sunrise on the Cricket fields
Next we were going to pass thru some Sunday only street markets-- the first of which was a ginormous clothing market, then a pet/flower/anything market, again mass packed super early. I guess it’s like the early bird garage sale-ers... get the good stuff while it lasts :). The pet part was a bit hard to see, and any animal lovers need not look at the pics :(.  Super cute bunnies and puppies- squished into little tiny cages :(. PETA would have a hay day.  We were just exiting when our tour had a small hiccup.... the bike sputtering to a stop!  I quite enjoyed the affair, watching/helping as Santosh worked to fix the bike, and crowds of people gathering to either watch or help! At one point there were 8 men and 5 children around! haha! We pushed the bike along to where there might be an auto shop, but it was still before 8 so no luck on it being open.  I don't think Santosh was having as much fun as me, but here at least he had some space!  As he fiddled with it, I made buddies with the cutest little girl whose curiosity outweighed her shyness, and she ended up sitting right next to me in only her skivvies and a toothbrush.  We played ‘take picture-show image-giggle uncontrollably-repeat‘ until walaaaa, the bike is working!! Good job Santosh!!  

Santosh and fans fixing the bike :) 

How adorable is she???!
Back to the tour, we go to Dakshineswar temple, still relatively quiet at this time. We stand at the edge of the water, watching crowds bathing/ praying in the ‘holy water’ (for me it’s ‘holy shit’ don’t swim in there!) until our boat arrives!  This is a really neat little experience: Its sitting room only (floor- not chairs), chugging along the Hugili river, fishermen out and about, the sun beating down (thankfully not too hot yet), some other passengers in their sunday’s best. It takes about 20 minutes to the other side where we dock at Belur Math temple. This place was quite serene, with great peaceful energy about it.  I actually like it better than the Taj.  I sat inside and meditated (i’m not doing this nearly enough!), and then imitated the others, sipping and rubbing the holy water on myself.  Santosh says I shouldn’t do that again...who knows what kind of ‘holy’ that water really is! We boat back across the water to a now bustling, commercialized temple.  Its incredible how many people visit these holy some cases I think even spoiling the peace it's so packed! He’s right... everything is muccchhhh better in the early morn! 

In line for the boat, with the bathers/prayers to the side!

Approaching Belur Math...and my purple hair :)

Dakshineswar Temple

Back on Sudder street, it’s pancake time.... then remember how-to-be-a-girl time! There’s going to be a wedding later, a muslim one, so I need some proper attire! New outfit + nail polish + eye liner + lipstick + earrings = $9 total.  I could be much more into this shopping thing for these prices!!!!!  I thoroughly enjoy taking forever to get ready....sometime you just need to feel pretty! :)   Hemley, Santos and I take a cab out to the school (the bride-to-be is a teacher there) and wait around for a few other guests to arrive.  In this meantime there’s another photoshoot with some kids... and this time the elderly ladies even join in.  I love that the camera can link people who don’t speak the same’s endless entertainment!  


Looking sharp!
Our group, about 8 of us, walk 20 minutes to the ceremony site.  We’re taken in to where the bride is, and as a foreign guest, I’m given WAYYY too much respect, told to sit next to the bride!  As soon as I find an opening I sit on the floor with the other women!  The men leave, and we women readjust our circle on the floor. We’re served some snacks and Im always served first. Unsure about respect in refusal, I just keep smiling and saying thank you although I want to say noooo nooo, go first! It’s very solemn in this space and some pictures are taken but it’s a bit awkward-- the bride is not happy.  Turns out it’s an arranged marriage, and I suppose I’d also be a bit nervous to be ushered off to my new home and new hubby for the first night!  We were moved then to the dining tent, women only still, and served biryani, a very traditional muslim meal of rice and meat with delish spices. I knew it was custom here, but hadn’t yet eaten with my hands yet so that was also a neat experience...  I kindof like it. I think of it like what I was told about saying thanks...why waste time with silverware! :)

Santosh poses with the ladies-- they all work at the school
Hemley showing the bride some pics.. she's not impressed! 
Seconds please!!
Then the groom arrives, quite contrary to his bride, with a big ol’ hoopla of a celebratory entrance!  Loud live music, dancing, being pulled out of his decorated car and carried thru the cheering crowd!!!  Hmm... he seems happier about his future evening than the bride ;) hehe

The groom's entry party!!
We say our goodbyes after and head back. We three stop for a drink, but I go for a milkshake instead, no more alcohol for me!!! I head home with intention to write, but am passed out by 8pm :)   Today was awesome :) 

Beers for the boys, chocolate banana lassi for me!
These first four days have been just wonderful for me. Im learning so much about this place, these people, both the rich and the poor, and have been completely welcomed by both. Santosh has adopted me almost as a sister, like my own personal tour guide with a wonderful heart, I just love him already. Hemley is a constant inspiration. It’s one thing to be sympathetic, it’s another to change your world.  I’m massively impressed with people like Hemley, that can come to a place like India (4 years ago for him), see the massive need, and actually change your life around it.  He now lives 6 months in Miami fundraising and the other 6 months here.  I’ve seen his pictures and read all over his page, but you really just don’t know what goes on until you see it.  Even myself, having some experience w/ slums and third world poverty, it’s always a shocker.  It’s my opinion (has been since 17) that everyone should see such life firsthand, as it not only makes you much more thankful for what you do have, but opens your heart to real people, kind people, good people, who work as hard as the next but without the same reward. It reminds you that you never know ones’ story, so you should never judge.

Here’s the link to Hemley’s charity if you want more info. The next mini project (not so mini, about $2.3k) is to provide each family with a water filter. Diseases and health issues from polluted water is the #1 problem around here, myself included, suffering mucho stomach problems. :( Im drinking only bottled water, so it seems just the small amount of bad water used to wash the dishes or clean the food is enough for trouble! Having an in-home filter could make a big difference. If you can donate, great! If not, feel free to spread the word :) 


  1. Hemley is amazing! Being willing to completely change your life, in order to help change the world is the most unselfish, noble thing. I am so impressed and inspired! I think it's so awesome that you are getting to be a part of his project too. Not only are you having fun and experiencing life in other places in our world, you are helping make a difference, spreading your joy, happiness and love for life and people all around. You will be so blessed by all you are doing and by all the memories you will bring home with you someday. Sending you love and a big huge hug~Mandy

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