Kolkata 2010

August 24, 2010 – Two Leaps Away

It seems like so much time has elapsed since my feet first touched American soil, and I walked out of LAX airport surrounded by my friends and rushed into the arms of my family.We returned home, and I spent a week staring googly-eyed at the luxuries contained within my very own house, the treasures that lined the roads we walk and drive on! Everything warranted a double-take, every concept had taken on new angles to explore and marvel at; I wanted to bring my Indian friends back to this strange place with me, and have them stand next to me as I watched their reaction to this new world, to see how they would feel about it all.

Now I am here in Washington State, brought back to a city devoted in my mind to studying, to nit-picking my way through long-winded texts and memorizing the answers to scientific queries; to the college social life and its weekend activities. I no longer feel merely one step away from my experience in India; here, after two transitions, I feel a giant two leaps from the city that has such a hold on my heart.

Olympia, the city I live in during the school year, rushes in to fill the holes left in my life after this trip. The familiarity and comfort of my old life, my old routines and my old mindsets threaten to cover me once again, to smother and let die all of the truths I learned this summer. I was afraid, for a short while after first arriving, that it might succeed because it’s so much easier to go back to being me, the me that can maneuver the twists and turns of my college world with ease.

But Kolkata is so much stronger than what I give it credit for. It bursts out with fury and passion in places I’d thought it had been forgotten. Its colors line the walls of my room, in the shape of a sari, much as its presence shows itself in the linings of my mind. The bright orange jumping out from the wall is forceful in announcing itself, as is the unyielding existence of the God I encountered in Kolkata. He is still here with me – a sentence that should read as common sense, but which becomes surprisingly difficult to remember when the pace of my day speeds up even just a notch.

I have hope that what my time in Kolkata taught me will not let me rest comfortably until I have figured out some way to go and do something about what I’ve seen. God is very skilled at convincing people to do what he has planned for them!

July 25, 2010 – Forced Feedings and Firsts

Elisa's Story

May and I have been serving at Daya Dan, a home for physically handicapped children. We help to wash them, feed them, do laundry and play with them – basically anything to help the Sisters and love on the kids.

Last Friday we were helping to feed the kids when I noticed one of the Sisters feeding a young boy. She seemed to be shoving food into the child’s mouth even when he was crying and choking because he didn’t want to eat or because it was really hard for him. Although it looked incredibly painful and terrible, it was necessary for him to get nourishment to grow.

As May and I were walking home we talked about the significance of how God puts us in situations where we are uncomfortable, in pain or stubborn because he is giving us opportunities to grow. I think that is what this trip has been for me, uncomfortable, painful, but full of opportunities to grow.

Ryan’s Story

The Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Theresa, have several locations throughout Kolkata. Their largest is named Prem Dan, and serves both men and women who have some sort of physical or mental ailment. I’ve had the opportunity of working there for a week now.

My first day I was running around and wasn’t sure what to do. When time came for dinner, I was standing near the food, waiting to help serve someone who couldn’t serve himself. The patients kept motioning for me to move, and one who knew a bit of English said something about a line. Ok, I thought, so I was in the way of their line for food. I moved and they promptly lined up.

But then the most incredible thing happened. When food was served, they just passed it down the line, like a giant bucket brigade, all the way out the door and into the courtyard. They fed the men who couldn’t get up to feed themselves. Only when everyone behind him had food did the patient in line claim his plate. The man at the head of the line was the last to eat.

It was awesome to see men who have so little still serving others. It made “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” concept real for me. Since then I have noticed how much of a supportive community Missionaries of Charity has. Everyone who is able is given responsibilities suited for his capabilities, and they all help each other out. These people aren’t helpless; they’re some of the most industrious people I’ve seen.

If everyone on earth lived as simply, generously, and responsibly as these people, then there would probably be no need for war, or even any legal system at all…

July 20, 2010 – Fast Unraveling

Recently, it seems only one thing has been on everyone’s mind. This thought grows and shrinks in its urgency, depending on mood or level of homesickness, but it’s definitely there, tumbling around the insides of everyone’s head: “How is it our last week in Kolkata?!”

The answer is simple math. We’ve been living in this city day after day, suddenly week after week, and now the bubble has burst and we have to face the fact that in six precious, unimaginably short days, we will be gone from this place.

It isn’t as if we were ill-prepared for this reality. No, in fact we’ve been warned as a group from the very start about how time will carry on without consideration of our desires (oftentimes, working in the opposite way, making six days seem like eternity). Deanna has also been very good about keeping us on our toes, telling us often, “You have four weeks left!” and then, “You have two weeks, don’t give up; keep pushing in!”

But it seems no amount of talk or proactive planning can prepare enough for the moment we are currently entrenched in. It’s frozen in motion because we are thinking about being here constantly, but it flits through our fingertips each time we try harder to grasp each day.

I am starting to cling to every interaction I have with the folks at my placement with desperation – overjoyed at how truly they know me and I them, but terrified at the prospect of only three more days with them, at saying goodbye after such a uniquely powerful emotional connection has been formed in such a short time. Four weeks! “Four weeks is nothing in the grand scheme of things, isn’t it?” I find myself thinking.

It’s easy to let myself sink into this mindset, especially when faced with the thought of how the relationships between me and my newfound friends will survive in the future (as Facebook friends? maybe a letter or two?). But even I can’t deny how much God has changed my eyes and the hearts of those around me in four short weeks.

Although my mind is at the moment constipated with thoughts, opinions and new realizations, and it seems like I’ll have nothing ‘figured out’ by the end of this trip, the change is there and waiting to be unraveled, bit by little bit.

I’m coming to understand with great clarity the differences between short-term missionaries (as we all are on this trip) versus long-term missionaries, people who have the opportunity to change something more widespread than just their own hearts and mindsets while on their journey with God.

It’s exciting, terrifying, daunting and electrifying to be learning about giving everything up for the sake of the poor and the oppressed – especially from those who are so committed and faithful to the charge. We have met many awe-inspiring and determined people here who are striving to share their passion with us.

July 13, 2010 – Thread Connexions

The two things I love most about being here in India are: eating the juiciest, most succulent mangoes every morning for breakfast (I’m in fact encouraged to eat them every day – a good source of fiber), and visiting my placement four days a week.

Shannon and I set out each morning on an hour-long commute involving a train, the metro and a cycle-rickshaw, and end our journey in a slum called Mullahati, where the three-story building that houses our placement is located.

The organization we work with is called Connexions, and describes itself as “a project where young women from the slums receive training and job opportunities…The women, whilst being paid for their craft work, are increasingly self-sufficient. Their self esteem and dignity are built up and they are empowered to improve the quality of their lives.”

In real terms, Connexions is a place where girls and women come to learn the skill of tailoring, putting it to use by hand-sewing blankets, bags, scarves, baby slings, even kimonos! All of these are made mainly from layering well-loved, recycled cotton saris and sewing them together in the traditional Indian method. This results in goods with colors that dance, and patterns that spin and swirl across the fabric in true Indian form.

The women also attend an English class, a general knowledge class (on topics like nutrition or geography) and a weekly prayer meeting. More importantly, many of the women have described Connexions to me as a family, a place to share joys and sorrows and to lean on fellow co-workers.

I have experienced this thrumming sense of vitality on-site. Every day when five o’clock rolls around, I search for one more thing to do before it’s time to go, just one more story to hear from one of the extraordinary women who run the place before leaving its safe haven.

Shannon and I spend a lot of our time at Connexions teaching the women who are in charge about Microsoft Office programs and website design, and teaching the English class. However, we spend the majority of our time laughing at the women’s feisty teasing and drinking chai with them.

Today they let me fold their beautiful blankets with them. As we worked together, touching the cloth made with so much care and skill, I could only see the beauty of things in Kolkata.

Jesus is somehow so evident in this place and in the women who make a living here. He is here in their empowerment and in the opportunity to be in charge of their own lives, and he is especially present in their bonds of strength and endurance in the face of poverty.

He is reflected in the surface – in the splendor of the colorful, draped saris, and he is there when I go deeper. Whenever I see the sureness of a girl’s hand as she threads a needle through the blanket, he is there, lifting her from the chains of injustice and oppression and providing a better life.

July 6, 2010 – Sunday Banquet

In the morning before going to their placement, Steven and Mallory were exploring the city when they happened upon a chai stand where they attempted to speak Bengali with the owners of the stand.

As they were sipping their chai, they heard a voice from a rooftop shouting down to them, asking them questions about where they were from and why they were here. A seventeen-year-old girl named Rosemary and her mother were peering down curiously from the roof, bidding Steven and Mallory to come inside their home.

Rosemary and her mother, Mrs. Das, served them more chai and biscuits, and enthusiastically questioned them about life in America, who their favorite Bollywood actor was, and what their birthdays are. Since that first meeting, they have been invited back many times and have become practically family. Mrs. Das even jokingly berated her own son about Steven, saying, “I have a new son, you better behave!”

Yesterday, the Das family invited Mallory, Steven, and I to their house for lunch after church. Based on our former interactions with the family, we knew to expect a substantial amount of food, but were ill-prepared for the banquet that they had cooked for us! Delicious chicken buhni, pork vindaloo, dal, cavalier (a fish egg dish) and rice were heaped onto their plates at regular intervals by the ever-hospitable Mrs. Das, who kept an eagle eye on our plates to spoon more, and more, and more food for us to eat.

The sheer volume of food that ended up in our stomachs by the end of the meal was certainly something to talk about, because all three of us came away with tummies as round as watermelon! We’ve been eating Indian-style (with our hands) for a good week and a half now, but according to Rosemary and her mother and their persistent laughter, Steven has yet to master the technique.

It was an interesting experience because, in contrast to our Western dining expectations, the family served us (their three guests) our meal prior to eating lunch themselves. Instead of eating the meal together, as we would have done in the United States, Rosemary, her mother, her father and her brother sat across from us and watched with great pleasure as we ate the food they had prepared for us. It made the intensity of their generosity even more apparent, as they refused to eat this feast with us, instead choosing to honor us even further by waiting for us to finish eating before beginning themselves.

As a group, we have encountered the famed hospitality of the Indian people many times on this trip, and still scarcely know what to do with such kindness. It is heartwarming to receive so much love from people we have only interacted with once or twice. They are dually showing us the depth of their compassion and the beauty of their priorities in life, sharing their often finite resources with us for the simple sake of welcoming us with open arms.

June 27, 2010 – The Tetris Fit

We’ve been in Kolkata five days, and only now am I starting to fall into the rhythm of the city.

Its first impressions on me have been hard to move beyond. This is mainly because Kolkata is a city of insider-knowledge, and we are in every way foreigners – reminded with every stare, every wrong turn, and every sale jacked up 100 rupees past its normal price.

Kolkata is a city for the senses. It assaults your nose with a hundred different scents within the span of a twenty-minute walk throughout the city, most of them unforgiving and harsh, The smell of laundry soap fills the air as we walk past men bathing in water cascading from a pipe in the sidewalk and onto the street; children giggling as they splash their younger siblings who scream in delight; women slapping their laundry straight on the pavement and kneading it with vigor.

Within a two-step distance, the smell of a sewer will drive out any lingering sense of freshness; and just past that, a chai stand emits thick smoke and a spicy smell, with its teapot full of sweet, spiced tea resting on smoldering coals, and its inevitable clump of brooding men, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and arguing with gusto.

Above and among all of this is an incredible amount of smog, compressed pollution floating in the sky, in the air, in our eyes, in our mouths! It comes from the vicious horde of taxis hurtling up and down every street; from the buses, ruling the streets by sheer mass, leaving streaks of black fog behind them; and from the daring auto-rickshaws, which dart as nimble fleas between other cars on the street.

Imagine this: chaos and madness on the roads, where cars conform only to the giant game of perilous Tetris that sees each vehicle swerving madly into any and every open space. And always, the persistent honk that never stops.

But the most jarring thing about this amazing city is its capacity for poverty. There is true poverty here, real poverty. We have all seen people (and animals) living on the streets, bodies clearly wasting away.

While Deanna, Benita, Steven and I were walking the streets near our first Kolkata home, we encountered countless families living their lives on the sidewalks – the very ones we were covering with foul mud. They were pushed to the side and anonymous, sleeping on cardboard pieces in the glow of street lamps. And today, when Jane and I were taking a chai break near the train tracks, a small child cradling the skinniest baby I have ever seen walked up to us, motioning with her hands for us to give her food.

I am still figuring out how to see Jesus in the people of Kolkata as I walk the streets and see the desperation and hopelessness all around. Tomorrow we begin our work at our placements. I am certain that will help open our eyes as to how to truly help.

June 22, 2010 – Beyond the Grumbles

Here we are, all types of students from locations scattered across the United States, gathered at a beautiful rest house for missionaries within a pocket of Bangkok. All of us are growing a greater knowledge of each person’s individuality and interests by leaps and bounds each day, but especially helpful in this endeavor are the times we are let loose on Bangkok like the pack of curious American teenagers we are, with one thing on our minds: food!

Thai iced teas, sweet, cold and invigorating are drunk from a plastic bag with a straw; pineapples, as sweet as they were intended to be, deep yellow and juicy; salat and rombutan, two fruits most of us have never encountered, are ooh-ed and ah-ed over for their strange, spiky red or brown outsides, and tangy, succulent insides. Noodles! Soup! Rice dishes!

All of these delicious foods are here for us to enjoy and savor while we are in this fascinating city. However, with all of these wonders available to our taste buds, being on this Trek and in Bangkok means we have had to give up parts of ourselves that seem fully ingrained in our lives back in the United States. We have been asked to fast from family and friends, from the internet, from girlfriends and boyfriends- from coffee, even!

This seemed like quite a mouthful to me at first glance, but when I took a deeper look at what God calls for us to accomplish by fasting, I realized how much more is at stake than what can be achieved by simply abstaining from something. Isaiah 58:6 reads, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?”

This is the type of fasting all of us on the Trek are here to undertake, the one God has chosen for us this summer. He has instructed me to think beyond the insistent grumbles and complaints my mind loves to create when I dwell on all that I am leaving behind this summer, and he is coaxing me to think about how I might carry out his idea of fasting, which Isaiah 58:10 says is to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.”

Perhaps this is a call to take a break from the culture of materialism we are used to and see what a different part of the world looks like; or maybe even to jump from a place where justice is cultivated to somewhere it is not, to see what should be done. I’m not sure what God has in store for us this summer in Kolkata, but whatever it is, I will be deepening my understanding of what God really had in mind when he called for the fasting of his people.