Wow – this has been quite a week! I will attempt to recount it here for you – I hope I don’t forget anything!!!
We arrived in Kolkata on Oct 22, a Thursday, in the morning. We went to visit the Shaw family, and we stayed at their house. On the drive to their home, I couldn’t help but stare out my window and look at all of the new things I was seeing… I was absolutely struck with amazement that everything I was seeing was exactly what India looks like in documentaries and photo essays. For example, the very first thing I saw after leaving the airport was a man carrying bricks on his head. I saw cows roaming freely down the road. I saw piles of garbage in empty lots along the road. I saw people relieving themselves along the side of the road.
I know I’m using the word “road” a lot – but that’s where the action happens! The “homes” here are just like you hear about (very small, very simple), but let me just say now – there is NO WAY you could ever understand what they are like until you see them…! They are literally small rooms, usually open to the elements to varying degrees, with a board sticking out of the wall at about thigh hight for a bed. That’s it. So, you can see why there are so many people on the streets – there isn’t really anywhere “home” to be…
That was my overall impression of Kolkata – on the surface, it was exactly how I’ve heard it described, but in reality, I don’t know that it’s possible to really “get” what it’s like until you see it in real life for yourself. It’s hard to imagine something so incredibly different from anything you’ve seen before.
Something that really stood out to me and, I must admit, surprised me was how beautiful and bright the women’s saris were. First of all, with the exception of a few younger girls at the malls, every woman wears a sari. I’d wondered, since they are so beautiful, if they were used only for special occasions or if they had “plain” ones for everyday use, or if they really wore the beautiful saris everyday. Well, I discovered right away that they DO wear absolutely beautiful saris everyday. These saris stand out especially because everything is so very dirty there – even the plants are covered in dust/dirt. Somehow, the saris always seem to be perfectly clean and vibrant.
The first thing we did (after dropping our bags at the house) was go over to see the new children’s home that they are opening. The home will house children that are already involved in the ministry at the train station – a program that helps street kids who are addicted (usually to glue, I gather). I prefer to let people explain their own missions, as I’d hate to get a detail wrong or not do the work justice, so here is the link to At the Well Ministries. You can read all about the train station ministry, as well as the red light area ministry (that I’ll get to in a minute!).
It was great to see the children’s home and all the work that’s gone into making it a great place for children to establish a life for themselves away from the streets downtown!
After the kids came home from school, we all went out for dinner together – to a Chinese restaurant! The family lives in Chinatown, so that explains the Chinese food… 🙂 It was SO yummy! For dessert, we got quite an interesting-looking ice cream with some fluorescent sweet noodles on top… It was yummy, but I wouldn’t want it everyday! 😛
The next morning, we went to see the Kalighat area (the area around the Kali temple), which is where the ministry to the red light area is. Our first stop was a tea stand – the tea is a milky chai and was so yummy! It comes in the little cups and you just throw them away after you use them (I kept a couple!).
Walking down the street, we saw many interesting things. For one thing, there are people EVERYWHERE – it is a very crowded city (country, actually!) and there are literally people everywhere. There were all sorts of fruits and veggies for sale, along with lots of items for worship at the Kali Temple.
We took a walk around the Kali Temple, though we didn’t go in or anything. We saw the alter on which they still make animal sacrifices everyday. We also saw the goats tied up waiting for their turn someday soon. It was quite an experience to see this in person.
We also saw, on the same block, Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying Destitute. We went inside to request permission to visit with the women. While waiting, we were standing in the men’s room. The room is a bit smaller than a small gymnasium, and fits three rows of simple cots. On each cot is a thin and elderly man, some lying quietly and some crying out in pain and misery. However, with all of the death and depression in the room, the first thing my eyes caught sight of upon entering was a 20-something white man sitting on a cot holding a man who was crying out loudly, just supporting him and hugging him from the back, for as long as he needed it. Another young man was massaging the back of another dying man. When we left about 15 minutes later, the men were still at it – just showing love to the desperate and dying… It was a beautiful sight in what could be a very depressing place…
We got permission to visit the women’s room, and found ourselves in another room exactly like the first, except with women instead of men. I held hands with a few ladies and asked their names, etc. It was a neat experience to be there because I kept thinking about all of the nursing homes I’ve been in and I realized that while the medical care in a nursing home may be better than what these people were getting, but the LOVE and COMPASSION shown to the people here FAR SURPASSES anything I’ve witnessed in a nursing home back in North America.
After we left there, we stopped to pick up a drink and were surprised that the vendor invited us into his house/sitting room to drink our beverages. I’m glad we did stop to sit, because as we were chatting, the man and his wife came inside for a bit, and then their son, his wife and their one month old baby came in. They had just come back from a dedication service for their new baby, and they did a few rituals (eating something that actually looked a bit like communion, and tying threads on each of their wrists, etc.). It was a neat private moment to be able to witness!
We continued our walk through the streets and we ran into the rest of the team that ministers in the red light area. We started walking to the small room the team rents for their ministry headquarters. On our way, we got coconut! They cut it open right in front of you, and then give you a straw. After you drink the water out, they cut it open more and then you scrape the jelly part out and eat it. I didn’t care too much for the jelly part, and wouldn’t bother having another one, but it was definitely a neat experience!
(this is Sandra’s picture)
After the coconut, we took a short tour around the block in a rikshaw. The coolest feeling was when the man picked it up and put it down again – the ride was very smooth, and a lot of fun!
(this is Sandra’s picture)
Then we went and had prayer together over our outreach time, and then we went on outreach! The outreach in Kolkata is very different from what we do in Bangkok. For one thing, the women are just as modest as every other woman in Kolkata, except they may wear more makeup and/or have a fancier sari. They also don’t dance in bars or anything, they just stand at the end of their lane (on the main street) and wait for customers. The brothels are down narrow lanes – when you enter the brothel, it is essentially a thin, dark hallway with several tiny and barren rooms. The “bed” is literally just a board about thigh high (so that belongings can be stored underneath) covered by thin and flat blankets and a small pillow. The women may have televisions, photographs, and other personal items, but they all have to fit inside of a room that is about the size of a large bathroom (like, I have been in bathrooms at some people’s houses that were actually larger than the rooms I saw at the brothels).
We said hello to several girls (“hello” as in, had shorter conversations with – not literally just “hello”…) and went to visit one woman in her room. We sat on her bed and floor and talked for quite awhile (with our hosts translating for us). She told us that these prostitutes get paid 50 rupees/hr during the day, and 100 rs/hr during the night. That’s pretty much nothing, in the scheme of things. She has a boyfriend who lives with her in that tiny room, and he drives a taxi, but most of the boyfriends and husbands are far too lazy to actually work and are quite content to let the women bring the money in. This lady has two children who, I believe, live in “the village” and are attending school. She asked us to pray that they will get great marks so that they can go on to university. This is the main prayer of every woman – that her children will do well in school so they can go to university and make something of themselves. Similar to how the Buddhist ideology of “this is where I was born, so this is my lot in life” makes the girls here in Bangkok just accept their situation as their fate, Hindu reincarnation teaching reinforces the same idea – the women are stuck in their place and cannot/should not bother trying to move up. It’s hard to imagine actually accepting such horrid circumstances as your fate and actually being okay with that… It’s a very different worldview.
For the rest of our week in Kolkata, we spent a lot of time with the family – hanging out, chatting for fun, discussing real issues, learning from each other, etc. I spent a day working with our hostess, helping to edit and format a document and also teaching her how to use Excel to track their finances. It was a really fun way to spend the day (okay, I admit… I am a bit “different”, I know, but I really do enjoy editing things!).
We also went shopping, and I got a few gifts for people, as well as a kameez and scarf, and a sari for myself. I need to have the blouse made when I get back to Canada (the sari comes with extra fabric to make it), so hopefully I can find someone to do that for me… I’m not sure how to go about finding an Indian seamstress, but I figure in a multicultural area like ours, it shouldn’t be too hard… ?
We also ate lots of yummy Indian food, too!
I know I’ve forgotten to write more, but it’s late and I still have to go back and add a few pictures to this post, so I’m going to stop here and resume again tomorrow (probably)!
God bless, and have a great day!