Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Brickfields

The Brickfields

There are many different stories to tell from our three weeks here in India. Thanks to our leader, Allison Cleary and St. Michael’s long-time engagement with this part of the world we have met and participated directly with many different groups, from an organization finding alternative work for women who formerly worked in the sex industry (FreeSet Global); to a man who has developed a boarding school for more than 300 street children. Along the way we have played with children, cared for the dying and worked side by side with women who have changed their futures. And the nine of us all got to know each other better--students and teachers, fellow travelers and caring human beings. This is an amazing country, big and beautiful with a vibrancy and activity, along with the human suffering, that strikes you every day. And, as deep as the poverty is, there are people striving to change it. Here is the story of the Brickfields.

On a street in Kolkata today I passed a pile of bricks being carried on workers' heads into a building. The bricks were stamped with the word FRIEND. Bricks are used everywhere here, for houses, buildings, roads and walls. In the state of West Bengal the bricks are made by hand, south of the city in encampments called brick fields. A brick field consists of an owner, some managers and the workers—very poor people from small villages in northern India. These migrant laborers spend 8 months living on the brick field site before returning home during the monsoon. Crowded into low-slung buildings, the families work all day under baking sun to dig the mud, compress, stamp, fire and stack the bricks. The bricks are fired in tall kilns, their cylinder smoke stacks dotted eerily across the vast empty landscape . A family is paid by the number of bricks produced. Children work with their parents in the raging heat, carrying bricks and digging mud. Although child labor is against the law, the the owners explain that they pay the family, not the children.

Into this world steps the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre with a program to provide three hours of educational instruction for the children of the families – children that would never attend school. In the early morning, teachers from the area, found, chosen and trained by the Social Centre, instruct students. The goal is to give these kids enough “joyous education” that they can continue somewhere else as the families  can rarely return by choice to the same place.

The children meet with their teachers on a blanket under a tree or in a piece of shade. For our visit the kids were crowded into a small room to escape an early morning rainstorm. Parents joined the children in watching and clapping as children presented interactive songs. One young girl recited a poem, with her teachers beaming next to her. We sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider Climbed up the Water Spout,”  and led the packed and mixed group of students in a rousing session of Hokey  Pokey – “you stick your right arm in and you shake it all about….”

As we stuffed into this crowded room, sitting knee to knee with students, feeling the sweat of humidity and humanity, the hope that this glimpse of education can bring to these children was shining bright.

It’s been a great joy to be on this trip and witness this and other special moments with a fabulous group of students. Thanks to my fellow travelers, Saint Michael’s and Allison for the trip!

Staff assistant, Richard Watts
Kolkata, India

June 7, 2016

Monday, June 6, 2016

Wheelchair, brother!

After volunteering at Prem Dan for a week or so, and overcoming the awkward "I'm useless" phase, I developed a daily routine. First of course, was the laundry. I, along with the other various volunteers, would make my way to the roof where we would hang the clothes and bedsheets to dry. Without a doubt, something about the drying system would change from the previous day--mostly just so that the men in charge could tell you that you had done something incorrectly. Although unpredictable, even this was a part of the routine.

After laundry, I would head downstairs, and to the next building. Here, I would clean mattresses and dress the beds with fresh sheets. Of course, I had to be precise with my "French corners". Else, I would be told to start over.

Then came chai time for the residents. These men are serious about their chai, understandably so. I've even seen two of them argue a bit over who gets which cup. After distributing a few trays of chai, came the most important part of my day at Prem Dan.

"Brother! Wheelchair, brother!" Like clockwork, I would hear this from the small corner wall in the front of the sitting area. Every day, this resident would summon me to assist him, and I would happily oblige. Once I had grabbed the wheelchair (carefully selecting of course, because this gentleman is very particular about his wheelchairs), I would wheel it up to him on his left side, aligning the rightside footrest underneath his left leg. Despite my attempt to help him, this man persistently demonstrated his strength by getting settled in the chair by himself. I would put his blanket on his lap, and his two liter Sprite bottle--reused as a water bottle--after that. We'd go up the ramp into the main building, and into the bedroom. Then a left turn, a right turn, and we were at his small bed. He would place his blanket and water bottle underneath his pillow, while I removed his sandals (after learning he struggled doing this himself, I added it to my routine). Once he was ready, we'd continue on our way. His next stop was the shower, where he would need assistance reaching his back, and putting his tan, striped shirt back over his head. Once he was clean, we would head back outside to his small corner wall. After getting comfortably seated, he would say, "tea time, brother!", as if it were happening at a different time that day.

I would then head off to get my chai and biscuits, but the rest of my day isn't worth mentioning compared to my fifteen minutes with this man every day. I never learned his name, nor did he learn mine. But, we would exchange small, shy smiles upon my arrival and throughout the day. Through our simple interactions, I learned about a different kind of love, and that everyone deserves this basic human expression. It's not the kind of love that one has for family, partners, or even friends. It's the kind of love that says, "I care for your life, because I care for life itself."

Indeed, I have come to love this man.


Sunday, June 5, 2016

Procrastination at its finest

Well I began this post about FreeSet about a week ago but a rat ran by me while I was outside typing so I ran and never looked at the post again so take 2 on this post....

FreeSet is an amazing organization we get to work with during our time here in Kolkata. We got to tour around FreeSet bags and apparel and see the start of the new building they want to open. Freeset's mission is for women to live free. To do this they take women who work in the sex industry and give them jobs with FreeSet as long as they agree not to go back to the streets. They offer children day care so that the women have no reason to miss work.

FreeSet offers the women who work for them counciling on how to manage the money they earn and move on from there former lives. They encourage the women to stay where they live even after they leave the trade so that a new girl won't take her spot.

The new building they are opening is called the "incubator." The incubator is a place where people can start a new business. If a new business may not have the means to get their own workspace the incubator  will provide them space and materials to start there their company. They would also be able to hire the women who work in the bags and apparel section do to work for them. This incubator building is located on Sonagachi. Which is the biggest red light district in Kolkata.

Allison, Andie and I all got to see Sonagachi from the top of the building. When you walk by the street there is just a group of men sitting at the end trying to get other men to go down the road. There are prostitutes down the Main Street that we noticed walking to the metro. These women weren't all given the choice to work in this industry, they were forced to. Slavery is still a huge issue in the world and FreeSet is an amazing organization working to end this problem.


Friday, June 3, 2016

A little bit of lotion

My Bengali is very limited.  I know some random words that are useful when riding in a tuk-tuk or carrying laundry to the hot and sunny roof to dry.  I know simple phrases that allow me to meet the women I work with at Prem Dan and learn their names.  But that is about it. I cannot hold conversations and for the most part cannot understand what many of the women try to tell me and the conversations they try to hold.

There are multiple women that I have come to know and that I greet every hot and humid morning with a "Shuprobat! Kamin achin?" (Good morning! How are you?): the woman that sits by the laundry sinks in the morning, the woman that likes to help us volunteers carry laundry buckets up the stairs everyday, the massis that joke with us and the one that told me my nose ring was on the wrong side of my nose (Indian women get the left nostril pierced, not the right).

But the women I know the best are those that ask me for lotion.  Most prefer for me to rub it on them, and a few just ask me to put some in their hand so they can do it themselves.  The two women who sit in the corner like me to rub lotion on their arms while they try to hold conversations with me and laugh and hold my hands.  The woman at the middle table with the long silver hair likes it on her arms, her back and her legs and tries to ask me questions everyday.  The woman with the walker that sits on the ledge on the side likes it on her rough-skinned feet and in between her toes.  Everyday she asks me the same question.  I answer them all with smiles, "yes"s, some head tilts, and a few "bhalo"s (good) here and there.  I desperately want to know what they are saying.  More than anything I would like to have conversations with these women and to not have to respond with my commonly used phrase "ammi Bangla janni naa".  I don't know Bengali.

The lotion is my small way of communicating. I can ask if someone wants any with one small Bengali word.  I try to put as much kindness as I can into massaging their frail limbs and dry skin.  I have discovered who likes lotion where and who just wants me to sit with them and listen to the Bengali I cannot understand while I massage their arms.  It is the most intimate thing I have done in the time I have spent with Mother Teresa's homes; more so than helping women get dressed or go the bathroom.  I try to imagine the stories they are telling me or the things they ask me.  I try to imagine their pasts and the paths their lives all took that led them to reside at Prem Dan. But for now, the lotion speaks for me.  It is the words of kindness I cannot speak and the thread that allows me to make silent connections with the lovely ladies of Prem Dan.


P.S. I can't write this post without a shoutout to this incredible group for putting together the best 22nd birthday I could have asked for. Thanks for the chocolate cake, the card, the banner, the Taylor Swift, and the embarrassing tiara.  I love you all and I wouldn't have wanted to spend a night on a rooftop in Kolkata eating french fries with anyone else :) 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Letter "C"

Today I'll be focusing in the letter C due to our inner teachers we have all been channeling recently.

Calcutta, the old (British) way of spelling this city name. Calling it Kolkata references back to the Hindu goddess Kali.

Chai, the drink of revival when everyone goes to tea time at their service sites with Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa). Don't forget the biscuits!!!

Cheeselings, a snack if you were to combine cheese its and goldfish. We've had amazing snacks like cool unique Lays and cookies too. Mnmnnn

Children not kids. Kids are the many goats seen around the city people use as sacrifice or meat to make dishes called mutton. Children are the rambunctious souls we see who love learning. After a full day of work in order to help their families survive, they go to school. Ages range from 5-16 and as many as 50 kids cram into a 5x8 classroom . Their eyes still light up when we teach them the hokey pokey or simon says.

Cars, I can't imagine how people get their drivers license here. If you think crazy drivers in NYC are crazy, think again. Those car horns never stop. NEVER EVER. YOU HEAR IT IN YOUR SLEEP

Chacos. The common type of sandle worn by volunteers as well as Keens and Birkenstocks. Many other types of similar shoes are worn for walking and exploring. Also because sneakers are just too darn hot. Yet blisters are common no matter how comfy the shoe due to us being constantly on our feet!

Compassion. Mother Teresa taught us to love one another even the poorest of the poor. We continuously practice compassion for not only for the most in need but all humans we come across.

Cold. A feeling we never have experienced during our time here but thank goodness for the air conditioning.

Chill. When we do have time to chill, we fill it with reflection, eating snacks or catching up on journal time or blogging and reading too.

Clothing. We all bought some great clothes whether they're gifts for home, Hareem pants (elephant pants) or some Kurta shirts. We always love a good visit to Sunshine, the market where we shop shop shop!

Clock, our time difference between here and home is 9.5 hrs ahead we sometimes get our times and malaria meds mixed up!

Community. We know the importance of community at Saint Michaels. We know the importance of the FreeSet community, Brother Xavier's, Loretto and Mother Teresa. What the most important question is: how will we incorporate these communities back into our daily lives once we return?

Character. Everyone has specific traits and personalities. We learn a lot about character including the people we work with, the people we see on the street,  our fellow new friends/volunteers and even ourselves. We have met some great characters along the way that will become cherished memories.

Color. The colors on the buses and the trucks carrying goods, they're beautifully decorated. Not to
mention the changing  of colors of our shirts from all the sweat stains. Icky yet worth it!

Class. I think of the small classrooms we help teach in and I think of how the children walked us back to our ride home. They stopped and waved goodbye. This stop at the end of the alley made me pause and think of the reality that they may never leave their small impoverished towns.

Cows. Not like the cows from Vermont. More like the revered animals that roam the streets whenever they please.

Courage. The women who escape the sex trafficking life (Sonagachi) and find places like FreeSet to make a sustainable life for themselves. That takes courage.

Chance. Many of the organizations we work with give children a chance to have a normal life. Something we all take for granted too often.

Change. Like Mahatma Gandhi said: Be the change you wish to see in the world. We know our work won't solve everything but our experiences in India have changed us for the better. What we do with that change will truly show how we want to change the world.

CeCe. Your blogger for the day.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Sitting on a red plastic chair while a crow caws outside the open window

Saturday 28 May 2016
I Am Sitting On a Red Plastic Chair While I Hear a Crow Caw Outside the Open Window 

Knock, knock, knock.
Knock, knock, knock. Knock...knock.
Doby, the laundry man, knocked on our door at precisely 6:55am.
"Hello, Good Morning, Do you need any laundry?"
He says this with a smile, and I immediately respond with one back to him.

          This is the typical scenario that occurs at the same time each morning in our room here at BMS (the place we are staying for those that may not know). While this interaction takes less than a minute, it is one of the countless interactions we have here each and every day. As we have become a bit more comfortable with our sites, the people we work with, navigating the streets, we have started to notice how most things in Kolkata are routine. They are crazy, zany, and wild - yes - but they are also quite comforting - and even rather special - at the same time.
  • Toast with butter and jam, and the one single hard-boiled egg for breakfast. 
  • Also, the servers switch off oatmeal & Corn Flakes in a "two-days-on-two-days-off" pattern.
  • Taking the red bus to Howrah station with Liam and Mo as the money collector yells out "Howrah! Howrah!Howrah!" and we each pay him 8 rupees.
  • Holding hands and walking the same paths through each room with the gentlemen Mo, Liam, and I work with at Nabo Jibon.
  • The infamous "tea time" break at 10:20am sitting on those brown benches.
  • Telling the tuk-tuk drivers "Elliot Corner" as we proceed to get in and whiz past a bike-rider, a taxi, a person-drawn tuk-tuk, a  and twenty-four other tuk-tuks. 
  • Seeing the corn lady sell corn at the same exact corner sitting on the same exact tin bucket.
  • Ending each night with group reflection at approximately 8:32pm sitting in Kelancey's (Kelsey, Andie, and CeCe's) room. 
  • Looking over at someone, seeing them smile, and thinking "Life is Absolutely Beautiful."
For me, writing a blog post is something I have found unusually difficult and remarkably challenging to do. I only have a limited amount of words and phrases to summarize my thoughts and feelings in addition to the general summaries of our experiences here in Kolkata. I mean, I find myself capable of writing extensively about an array and assortment of different aspects about our days and what we are doing.

It is however, safe to say we have all been touched by countless moments. But I have started to appreciate is the magnitude of the moments varies greatly. Personally, I have found great beauty in the simple, ordinary actions, events, and conversations that take place over the course of our days.

I keep a journal, and I write in it any chance I get. There are thousands of little things that happen every minute, every hour, and every day here, and I want to be able to remember as any as I can. The small, ordinary details of our days are the things that tend to slip our long-term memory, but they are the moments that can touch us in the most unexpected ways. Life is not always made up of great, momentous events, but rather it's the small, every day actions and events that allow us to keep doing what we do.

I was flipping through my journal just now and stumbled upon a short passage of what I wrote four days a ago:
             "Every day you pick up a new, small detail that you never noticed before. It could be             something rather large and highly visible, or it could be something tiny and minute, a small fraction of a 'thing.' But either the case, it is something you never noticed before...But now you do, and that is pretty cool."

Till next time,


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Uncle Messi

May 28th 2016

       Brother Xavier's is one of the many destinations that we as a group have visited since landing in Kolkata. Brother Xavier's is a vocational school that takes in children from the streets of Kolkata and educated them in subjects such as math, biology, chemistry, and the culinary arts such as baking. When we first arrived, children swarmed all around us; very shy at first but once we began dancing, singing, and reading with them, they were dragging us all around showing us their beds, books, and insisting we play games with them, which we obviously did. While playing a game of chess with a young girl who didn't really know how to play the game correctly but understood that once you passed a piece, you could take it, Tyler and Mo were singing and dancing to a group of girls who had smiles from ear to ear listening to the beautiful voices of the two young men in front of them. Meanwhile Richard and CeCe were surrounded by children amused by funny faces, city's and states in a book about The United States, and when each other's birthdays were.
      We also got to interact with the children when they were outside on the courtyard playing soccer, basketball, riding bikes, and playing catch. One girl in particular, Pinky,  was very interested in soccer or FĂștbol here in India. We began just passing it back in forth and then juggling back and forth to each other. Pinky would begin juggling and then throw it in the air and watch Uncle Messi juggle. She watched in amazement, following the ball where ever it went and when I gave it back to her, the biggest smile went across her face. After a while of juggling the young girls who surrounded Nick, Pinky and me began chanting "Uncle Messi!!". Surprised... Yes, but fitting. We juggled for the whole time, even though Pinky couldn't keep the ball up, she kept trying and by the end of the day, she was able to juggle 3 times in a row. It was beautiful watching the joy juggling a soccer ball brought to a young girl. Excited to go back tomorrow afternoon and pick up where we all left off.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

25 May 2016

I'm struggling to start this post, because I don't have a vocabulary adequate to describe this modestly complex city. I'd prefer to show pictures, but sadly I don't take pictures, and even those would fail to show what I see when I look at the very same landscape as the photographer. So, I'm stuck with words, but I'll do my best.

We stay in a quiet hostel, where we eat our meals, and recover from our mornings volunteering at Mother Teresa's homes. It's a nice place, and essential to our sanity and well-being. As soon as we walk out the gate onto the street, everything changes. We're greeted with the daily symphony of tuk tuk and taxi horns, and overwhelming smells. Within seconds of exiting the gate, we too become a part of the pandemonium. We walk rapidly, and cross the streets with a little aggression, as one must. Pedestrians seldom heed the warning of oncoming vehicles, unphased as a motorcycle flies by with centimeters to spare. From time to time we'll catch a tuk tuk to take us to where we're going. Whether it's tricked out, blasting Indian club music, or bare bones simple, the tuk tuk joins the perpetual race to anywhere that is Kolkata traffic. Weaving in and out of larger vehicles and inferior tuk tuk's, the driver is determined to get us to our stop, and pick up the next person.

On our way to Prem Dan, the house that I volunteer at along with Andie and Richard, we eventually come to a railroad crossing. The traffic halts ever so briefly as a train passes. As the last car goes by, it reveals a micro community centered around Park Circus Station. We do not cross the tracks here--we turn and join the people who are walking on and along them as a part of their morning commute. Vendors have set up shop on the boarding platform, next to those trying to catch just a bit more sleep from the past night. Between the tracks and a wall that separates the station from small, tightly packed homes, children play cricket, and men wash themselves to begin the day. There are dogs searching for food, competing with crows that have the advantage of flight. As we continue our walk towards Prem Dan, we're approached by women and children asking for food or money. Some are in genuine need, others have ill intent.

Despite the mayhem, and dark things that I observe, I can't help but see beauty in this city, and the people in it.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Surprisingly a lot of rain

Oh no. Here I go. It's my turn and all of the posts have been so great and I'm giving it my best shot.

We type this fun blog on our little iPad here so there may be a lot of spelling errors.

Who am I? I'm CeCe '16 and I go to Shanti Dan (a home for young girls with a range of disabilities).

 First off, India is crazy. I studied abroad in Beijing last year and I keep relating it back to Kolkata. It's loud, noisy, polluted yet so interesting with surprisingly nice people regardless of our foreign status. Today it's about 4 in the afternoon and I'm sitting in a thunderstorm. Currently I look out from the wifi hotspot and see a man climbing a bamboo ladder trying to cut back the dead palm tree leaves. The biggest difference beteeen here and home, everything is so much more simple. Maybe a little riskier but simple in this "beautiful chaos" as Mo called it.

I hope this picture shows up....much more difficult on this thing than expected (look to the left for the palm tree guy)

Some of the things we've done include seeing Kaligat temple named after the Hindu god Kali. She's
the goddess of distraction and if you do a quick google image search, she'll have her tounge hang  out is depicted as a black figure, quite scary actually. Interestingly enough, Kali is destructive but also helps depict a sense of renewal.

This is exactly what I feel volunteering Kolkata Has done to us, it makes us renew ourselves in our ways of thinking, our  ways of life and the ways we experience in the world.

Even though we haven't been here long...my group at our volunteer house Shanti Dan, already welcomed new volunteers. Only 3days in and we're the veterans. It's mind blowing to think about and meet all of the people that come through to help this amazing place.

Let the laundry and heat continue as we venture to FreeSet tomorrow!

I'll leave you with a picture of one of the many cool types of transportation in Kolkata

Sunday, May 22, 2016

(Day 3 in Kolkata and the group still doesn't know I wasn't suppose to be here.....shhhhh)

       Third day in Kolkata and this is the second day of service at our respective sites. I'm at Nabo Jibon, which is a long (feels like forever) but beautiful journey near the section of Kolkata called Hadwah. This journey is where you see the true lives of those living in Kolkata. In the city it's crowded people, cars, bike, and over 10 modes of transportation, the best being the tuk tuk (rickshaws). But in the outskirts where Nabo Jibon is, it has less cars, people and a more toned down lifestyle. Nabo Jibon is a house that welcomes handicapped and mentally ill men 16 and up mostly those who "graduated" from Daya Dan, which the house for young boys under 16. What Tyler, Liam, Ben (our Australian friend), Cole I(our from from Vanderbilt), and I do is simply play and hangout with them like our family. We message their feet, backs, and hands, play soccer, or simply walk around or wheel them around. Some guy already wants me to buy him a watch, he really wants a watch.  He's very persistent about that watch, like we drew a picture of a watch in my hand and a paper of what a watch looks like and wrote in Bengali (which is yet to be translated) the specific watch he wants. 
      Houses such as Nabo Jibon are what Mother Teresa wanted to build for those who were shunned by family and kicked and had no placce to go. What the brothers there
 do and what we do as volunteers is take care of them and love them for being people and not not people who simply "lucked out". This being the third day, we learned so much in so little time. During our voyage between the inner city and the outer "borough", we get to see those who are truly impoverished. They don't live like the poor who makes ends meet by selling all types of things or food in the city where mother house and all the other houses are located. No, they can be categorized
as what is known as the untouchables.

       These people live in clay or mud huts that are almost the size of a bathroom and there are hundreds of thousands of huts there. During the morning hours of our bus ride there we see people burning trash, drinking dirty water, collecting trash bags full of metal, bottles, and cans. This is just to make the means to eat, let alone eat for the next day if possible. This is a 30 minute glimpse of extreme poverty that occurs during a day-to-day basis for these people. This 3rd day in Kolkata was an eye opener; and you literally open your eyes because you're just baffled by how much is going on, the craziness of the buses and street life, and how we don't know where we're going so one 
little distraction can make us lose our step  and be lost. So we have got to keep our eyes open for our stop.

       I have a lot to write because we're just chillin' for the night and it's a lot to take in here. But Kolkata is the city of never ending car horns and "beautiful chaos." Just three days and everyone
 loves this city already (including Allison even though this is her fourth time here). Mohamed out.