Monday, June 3, 2013

Leaving India...for now

I can't believe I will be flying from Mumbai to Istanbul tomorrow morning, bringing my time in India to an end.  As feared, the time flew by too quickly.  I will cherish every moment spent here and I look forward to returning as soon as possible for another adventure.

At a quick glance back, I can easily say my time spent in Calcutta was the most challenging and the most rewarding.  Far exceeding any expectations I had, my experiences at Mother Teresa's hospice at Kalighat will always remain with me.  I will forever be humbled and grateful to have been in the presence of the men that I cared for there. My interactions with the Sisters of The Missionaries of Charity were pleasant and I do have great respect for them and for the work they do considering the circumstances... even if I didn't always agree with them.   Beside the men we cared for, my greatest respect is for my fellow volunteers from around the world, most of them in their 20s.  It was such a privilege to work side-by-side with so many young people that were giving so much  of themselves.  I was amazed at the amount of patience, compassion, dedication, thoughtfulness and initiative that I witnessed every day.  There were a few older folks too who were just as impressive!  An extra gift from this experience is some new and very special friends from Australia, Singapore, Chile, Spain, New Zealand and the U.K.  We all feel a very special bond and will no doubt see each other again...either in Calcutta or elsewhere.  I'm actually meeting up with a great guy from Barcelona when I am in London next week.  And, I need to mention, one more time, my amazing new friends Nina and Suresh in Calcutta.  I will be forever grateful to them for their kind hospitality, care and friendship and I so look forward to the next time we can be together.

I thoroughly enjoyed my week off between the volunteer gigs when I visited Varanasi, Delhi and Udaipur (a new favorite).

My time in Ahmedabad, while not as rich an experience, was time well spent.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many of the members and staff of SEWA and was thrilled to be able to make even a small contribution to this incredible, inspiring organization.  The opportunity to spend time with these women and to hear them tell me their stories is another unexpected gift and was a true honor to receive.  I was able to write copy for a brochure outlining SEWA's incredible work in the Surendranagar district in the desert of Gujarat, as well as consulting with them about SEWA's museum and its website.  They were very pleased with the work I was able to accomplish in such a short period of time...and I was just thrilled I was able to get it done!  

I'm currently in Mumbai.  What a sprawling city!  I made a list of everything that I wanted to see and, in two and a half days, managed to get it all done for the most part.  I really wanted to visit Annawadi, the slum near the airport that is the subject of Katherine Boo's extraordinary book, Behind The Beautiful Forevers (being adapted for the stage for England's National Theatre by David Hare), but didn't have time.  Mumbai is a great city...a real mix of old and new.  It's impossible not to think of the devastating terror attacks that this city experienced in 2008.  I visited the Taj Hotel and Leopold Cafe today... two of the sites that were attacked.  #neverforget

I'm feeling very sad leaving India, but I know I will continue to return and I will definitely be back to work at Kalighat, which makes me happy.

So I'm off to Istanbul, the only city that falls in both Europe and Asia!  I'm super excited to explore the city as I've only been in the airport once, in 1984 (and for those of you that don't know that story and want to hear it, just ask).  Then to London for visiting friends and seeing some theatre before returning home on June 15.  Wow, I can't believe it!  I'm actually excited at the thought of being back home as well!  It will be amazing to see Bob and everyone else...and Mom, I know you'll finally be able to breathe a little easier!!

I better make the most out of the next two weeks!  


Thursday, May 30, 2013

Ahmedabad and SEWA: Part 2

I was supposed to spend two days in Radhanpur, one to visit the new museum that SEWA has opened and a second day to meet with local artisans.  We arrived at what is essentially a SEWA compound.  The Hansiba Museum is the focus.  SEWA opened the museum last year to showcase the local embroidery artwork of their members.  It has two floors but currently only the first floor is complete and open to the public.  There are several other buildings including a large hangar-like building where the artisans work and a series of meeting rooms.  We started with a brief overview of the museum followed by a wonderful tour.  The embroidery work is remarkable.

Following the tour we were served lunch.  And, just by chance, Ella Bhatt, the octogenarian  founder of SEWA was there for some meetings, so she had lunch with us.  After all of the reading I had just done about the organization, I felt like I was meeting a real-life heroine /superstar.  She was quite warm and welcoming.  One of the young women I was with, Jinalben*, was really star-struck by her.  It was very sweet to see.

* Note - they add a suffix to most people's names: "ben" (sister) to the end of most women's names and "bhai" (brother) to the end of most men's names as a term of endearment. So I was always referred to as "Jimbhai."  (The "h" is silent.)  The second young woman that was with us was  Bhagyashree.  I added "ben" to her name and was quickly corrected.  Her family is from a higher caste and they do not add the suffix.  Who knew?!

After lunch we meet for a while discussing the museum's website and possible advertising opportunities to explore.  This time it was them frantically taking notes!  They were super appreciative, which was nice.

There were some local artisans working in the work space, so we  were able to start my interaction with them then, rather than waiting to start in the morning.  The next several hours I spent sitting on the floor listening to these amazing women tell me their stories.  It was really the highlight of this part of my trip.  They loved talking to me (with Bhagyashree interpreting) and they said they wanted me to stay longer and teach them English - they are so sweet!  They think that being able to speak English will really elevate them to the next level.  They all laughed at each other's stories and we had a great time.  

One women, Raniben (a 22-year member of SEWA), told me this story:

Some SEWA staff was taking a group of their members to exhibit their work at a conference in Washington, D.C.  This was a huge deal.  Most if not all of the women had never been away from their families or their village.  Now they were going to board a plane for America!  They were all very excited and SEWA helped coordinate getting visas for them.  Shortly before they were to leave the visas arrived, but there was a problem with Raniben's and they needed to resubmit it.  They didn't tell her so she wouldn't worry.  A few days before they were to leave her visa had still not arrived.  They contacted the visa office and wee told it would arrive on a certain day...the date they gave was the day after they were to depart for Washington.  So the SEWA office changed Raniben's flight for the next day, but they decided not to tell her until the day before the rest of them were leaving!  So the day before the group was to leave they were all together talking about how excited they were to be leaving the next day.  Then Reemaben, the head of SEWA said, "well, we are all leaving tomorrow...except Raniben. You will be leaving the day after tomorrow and meeting us in Washington."  She then told her about the delay with her visa.  She burst into tears!  How would she ever get on a plane and travel to the U.S. all alone?!  How would she manage?  She didn't even speak Hindi (they speak Gujarati in this part of India), much less English?  She was illiterate.  She couldn't even sign her own name (she just uses her thumbprint as a signature).  She said there was no way she could go.  Reemaben told her she could do this, she would find people who would help her...she could do this.  

The next day the group left for Washington... without Raniben.  After a full day and night of crying, Raniben thought that if Reemaben told her she could do this, then she would try.  To make a long story short, she made it to D.C.!  She met a guy at the airport who was going on he same flight and spoke Gujarati and English.  She made her way through customs (and used her thumb print for her signature!).  She was met at the airport by her SEWA sisters and fell into their arms crying...this time it was due to her happiness for having made it.  While in D.C. she sold all of her embroidery work that she had brought with her and for a much higher price than she ever imagined.  Now she feels she can do anything and gives all of the credit to Reemaben for telling her she could do it, for telling her she could get on that plane.  And she now has such joy in telling this story, and it was a true honor to hear her tell it to me.

After several hours of stories, we decided I wouldn't need to spend the night and we could return to Ahmedabad that evening.  So, after another harrowing ride, this time in the dark, we made it and I was back in my comfy hotel room.

Over the next week and a half, I worked on writing copy for the brochure and, via email, worked with Bhagyashree on some ideas for the museum and the website.  I finally submitted my draft to Reemaben this past Tuesday.  She had two changes, eliminating two small sections.  Other than that, much to my surprise, she was happy with what I had done.  Between the brochure copy and the work on the museum, they all seemed very pleased with my contributions in the end.  It was a huge relief.  I'm just so happy I was able to help the amazing organization and it's members, even in a small way.  

The rest of my time here has been spent exploring the city, avoiding being out too much in the intense (dry) heat, eating and sleeping!  I'm very excited to be heading to Mumbai on Saturday for three days of exploring that city.  I'm also feeling a bit sad as that will bring my time in India to a close.   I'll try to post from Mumbai before I leave for Istanbul.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Ahmedabad and SEWA: Part 1

I've been in Ahmedabad for two full weeks now.  I came here to do some volunteer work for SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association).   This an organization that has been around for almost forty years doing amazing work with poor, uneducated women workers in Gujarat State in the desert area of northeast India.  My friends Karen and Sally do some work with them and when I decided to come to India, I asked them if they thought there were any volunteer opportunities for me with SEWA.  Karen kindly spoke with Reema Nanavaty, the woman that runs the organization, who said she would be very happy to have me come and do some work with them.   Originally I told her I could spend two weeks.  She asked if I could stay longer, so I upped it to three weeks, not even knowing what I might be doing.  

We were in contact via email prior to my arrival and Reema gave me a few ideas of what she might want me to do.  The first thing she wanted me to do was to teach theatre as a means of communication to the local women (99% of which do not speak English).  I told her that wasn't really my thing.  I expressed that I really wanted to go out and visit a few of their projects in the different village.  She thought that was a good idea and said that I could then help write some brochure copy for them in a "Western voice."  This is something that they don't really have and would be helpful to them when attending conferences, both in India and abroad, to explain what kind of work they are doing.  I don't consider myself a writer, by any means...but I thought of it as a learning experience and would do the best I could.

I arrived at 4:12am on March 13th after a long overnight train ride from Udiapur.  A car was waiting to take me to my hotel where I was able to shower and get a little rest.  Reema had emailed me and requested that I be at her office at 11am that same morning.  It was about a 25 minute walk from the hotel.  It was 110 degrees out at 10:30am when I set out.  I made it to the office on time, even after a few wrong turns and having to walk over some railroad tracks (and not at proper crossing) I took the small elevator to the third floor and saw the open door to the office, but no one was around.  I stuck my head in...not a soul.  So I sat down and waited.  Eventually people started to show up.  I was taken into a conference room (that had A/C) and finally Reema came in with an associate and sat down to chat.  She had decided that she would like me to write two brochures, one on SEWA's work with salt farmers in the Surendranagar district and one on SEWA's museum in Radhanpur.  She also requested that I help work on the website for the museum.  She then dispatched me to the desert (leaving the next day) for four days to visit both areas.  Then she was off to meetings and I was left with the associate who was going to start briefing me on SEWA's nearly 40-year history.  She brought in books and pamphlets, papers and reports...all for me to read.  She then started giving me a review of certain aspects of the organization.  I was taking notes like crazy!  We did stop for lunch, which they served me and I ate, alone, in the conference room.  In all I spent about seven hours being briefed and taking notes.  I was told to be back at the office at 9am the next morning, with whatever I needed for the next four days as I would be leaving for the desert directly from the office.

I arrived the next morning and soon I was taken off to SEWA Bank for a two hour meeting to hear about the development and programs of the bank.  Then I was taken to the main SEWA Greeting Facility and given a tour.  Then I was taken to the SEWA Training Facility Center, where they train women to sew and embroider.  Then back to the office for three more hours of meetings (including a long one with some visitors from South Africa and Japan).  We finally left for the desert at 6:30...only an hour later than originally planned.  It was a three hour ride.  I was in an SUV with the driver, two SEWA staff members and three women with two children in the very back (we stopped at some point and dropped them off).  The driver was crazy and kept looking in the mirror and fixing his hair.  We had to stop twice to try to fill someone's prescription, once for gas and once for a tea break.  When we needed to stop for gas, the station was on the other side of the four-lane highway.  No problem!  There was a break in the median so the driver just turned in and started driving the wrong way, against traffic.  Fun times!  By the time we got to the SEWA Community Center, it as late and I was very tired.  They showed me where I would be sleeping for the next three nights, a metal frame bed with a thin the middle of the conference room.  There was a bathroom around the corner.  No worries, I wasn't expecting much.  They have a cute old security guy who sleeps outside, in front of the door every night.  He brought me water and dinner at 10:30pm!  He sat there and just watched me eat (and he did that at every meal for three days).  The food was good, just too much of it.  I finally got to bed around 11:30 and actually had an okay night of sleep.

Thee next day about twenty women, all in beautiful saris, showed up and sat around the long table (we moved my bed into the corner).  They also brought in two interpreters, one was a 14-year old boy.  This was all for me!  We spent the entire day (at least 8 hours) in a marathon meeting where each of the women told me their story and the work they now do with SEWA.  It was an amazing day, but I started to become overwhelmed and worried about how I was going to get this all in my head and in notes and produce a document that would be helpful to them.  By the end of that day I was exhausted. And I still had three more days of this!  I knew I would never be able to accomplish all of what Reema was hoping for in such a short amount of time.  Surprisingly they did have wifi, so I quickly emailed Reema to alert her of my concerns.  She replied and said we would discuss what might be possible in the time I had after I got back from the desert.  Umm...okay.

The following day I was taken out to the salt pans where the workers harvest salt.  I had a different interpreter with me today.  It was the same crazy driver...and we stopped and picked up his small (5-year old?) son, who,came along with us.  He had brought his wife, son and daughter to the center the night before to meet me...I think he was trying to get me to give him money...but that wasn't going to happen.  I wasn't a tourist and he wasn't my hired driver.  He worked for SEWA...they were paying him.  At the end of each day he would come to me to say goodbye and then just hang around and watch me typing my was all too obvious and I just wasn't going to give.  Anyway, we drove to the desert that is part of what is known as "The Little Raan of Kutch."  I love that name.  If I were a musician, that would be the name of my band.

It's a scorching, relentless environment.  Totally flat, not a tree in sight, just endless stretches of blinding white.  It was actually the very last day of the salt harvesting season so none of the actual SEWA members were there working.  There were laborers there closing up the wells and taking in equipment for the season.  But I was able to see how the work was done and the harsh conditions that face the women and their families when they are working there.  I also saw some wild ass that like in this area.  There is a sanctuary that you can visit to see them.  Since I didn't have time for that, I was very happy,to see a bunch of them along the drive.

My last day in that part of the desert was an all-day meeting with more of the women.  Again, fascinating and actually fun to be with them, but the expected end result was still freaking me out a bit.  I left the next morning and we drove to a location half-way between Ahmedabad and Radhanpur, which was my next destination.  I was dropped off there and picked up by a new team of SEWA employees.  There was one older women and two very nice young women (one who went to college in California) and, thankfully, a new driver...although he was a total lead foot and even frightened the young women who asked him to slow down.  We saw three terrible accidents on the way to Radhanpur.  

To be continued...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Heading West

I had about a week from the end of my volunteering in Calcutta to the start of my new volunteer job in Ahmedabad, so I made plans to visit Varanasi, Delhi and Udaipur as I made my way  west.


I clearly remember being young and reading a long article in National Geographic magazine about Benares (as Varanasi was then known as) and being totally fascinated by it and always hoped to visit it some day.  In 2008, on my first trip to India with Bob, we did visit it for a day along with our then new friends (who are now our dear friends) Jo, Doreen, Djenane, Maggie and Wendy.  We arrived late at night and after a few hours rest at Hotel Buddha, we got up and made our way to the ghats for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges with our frazzled tour guide, Kalpana. The light, the sounds, offerings of candles and flowers floating, the men, women and children bathing, praying, swimming, washing clothes... it was magical.  We also visited an akharas (wrestling arena) with a bunch of men wrestling in the mud, which I think I enjoyed more than anyone!

For this trip I planned to spend three days.  I took a sunrise boat ride my first morning and it was as wonderful as I had remembered, it was just different being alone, but not in a bad way.  All the memories of my first visit came rushing back and made me smile.  I missed Bob and the ladies, but it almost felt like they were there with me.  That evening I took a sunset boat ride to Dasashvamedha Ghat to watch the evening aarti (evening prayers).  This is the main ghat where each night there is an elaborate ceremony and boats pull up along the edge of the ghat to watch from the water and hundreds of people watch from the ghat itself.  It was great to see it from the water (I returned the next evening on foot to watch it from the ghat side).  It was pretty amazing with live musicians and singers, priests, billowing incense, twirling flames, sweeping fans and conch shells being blown.  A real treat for all the senses.   

It was extremely hot while I was there (111 degrees during the day), so for my second and third days I got up early both mornings, just before sunrise, and took long walks along the ghats.  It was so peaceful...but not for long.  With each passing minute devoted Hindus come to the edge of the Ganges.  From every conceivable doorway, alley and corner people make there way down the ghats to the river's edge.  There are also "burning ghats" with funeral pyres.  I witnessed two bodies being burned on pyres.  And on my last morning I saw a dead body, all bloated, just floating down the river.  Some young boys were swimming nearby and one started to swim out to the body.  I was happy to see him stop half way there and turn around.  I had heard about bodies floating in the Ganges, but this was my first time actually seeing one, so I now know it's not just a tall tale!  I did the same walk my last two nights as well.  The light is amazing at both morning and evenings and there is a never ending "spiritual buzz" about the's hard to explain.  It's a place that probably isn't for everyone, but it's a place I happen to love and hope to visit again.


I left Varanasi and took an overnight train to Delhi.  The train departed and arrived a few hours late. If you read my last post, you will know that with the help of Nina, Suresh and Suresh's sister Poonam, it was arranged to have a car pick me up and take me to see a few sights that I wanted to visit.  I only had the one day as my train for Udaipur departed that evening. I first visited Delhi in 2008 and this was my first time back.  One place I wanted to visit that I wasn't able to the first time was the Baha'i House of Worship, aka The Lotus Temple (as it is shaped like a lotus).  It was designed by Iranian architect Fariburz Sahba and completed in 1986 and seats up to 1,300 people.  The driver took me there first.  It was as beautiful as the photos I had seen.  A gleaming white marble lotus flower surrounded by well-kept green lawns and nine pools.  It was very hot and you have to take off your shoes well before you get to the temple so they had rolled out jute mats to walk on as the stone walkways were so hot.  Once you are actually at the temple, they hold you in a small group (thankfully in a shaded spot) and a guide tells you about the Baha'i belief (the Baha'i sect originated in Persia and is based on a view of humanity as one single race.  The temple is a place for silent prayer, meditation, reflection for any and all religious faiths). The first guide spoke in Hindi then a tall, young dark-haired American guy with a scary permanent grin on his face gave a frighteningly upbeat version of the talk...never once letting that wide grin leave his face.  It kind of creeped me out.  Anyway, then they let you into the silent hall.  I was really interested to see it for it's architectural uniqueness, but there really was a wonderful sense of calm as soon as you entered that was just as interesting.  I think the building is a complete success in many ways and certainly one of the most unique buildings I've ever visited.  I am so happy I was able to finally visit it.

After that I went to Poonam's for a quick freshening up, quick nap and delicious lunch.  Then it was off to central Delhi for a drive up and down Rajpath to see the President of India's residence, the Parliament building and India Gate.  Again, places I had visited before, but loved seeing again.  Then it was off to e train station for my overnight train to Udaipur.


I arrived in the morning and a car was waiting to take me to my hotel.  Udaipur is a lovely jewel in the hills of Rajasthan.  My hotel, Madri Haveli, is a 300 year-old heritage hotel.  It was absolutely beautiful.  My room was amazing and the have a rooftop restaurant with gorgeous,views of the city.  I spent hours up there just relaxing and taking in the view, watching the sunset and listening to the peaceful sounds of the city.  There is even a view of huge City Palace and the lake with it's "floating" palaces.  

I spent some time just wandering the hilly city, went for a boat ride on the lake, ate apple pie at the German bakery and lounged around my palace of a hotel.  One morning I hired a car to take me to two nearby towns to see a complex of 108 Hindu temples (no photos allowed) and another 11-century temple complex, the Sas-Bahu Temples.  It was well worth the trip.  I visited the City Palace Museum and Bagore ki Haveli, an 18th-century palace that is now a museum of arts and crafts.  

I really loved Udaipur and highly recommend it for any couples... it's a very romantic place!
I departed on an old, slow train that night for Ahmedabad.  It was more than an hour into the trip before it gained enough steam to turn the air conditioning on.  There was just one young Indian woman and me in the compartment (could have been up to four people), but it was still crazy hot! and uncomfortable.  Eventually the AC did come on and made things a little more bearable.  i was eventually able to fall asleep.  I arrived in Ahmedabad at 4:12am and was picked up and brought to my rather luxurious hotel for some real air conditioning and a real bed.  Ah!  It was so nice.  More on my time in Ahmedabad later...

Friday, May 10, 2013

New Friends

I want to write something about my wonderful new friends Nina and Suresh Chandra.  These are the folks that I rented my apartment from for my time in Calcutta.

I should take a step back... when I made my decision to leave my job I had asked our dear friend Sunita to arrange a dinner with her friend Tonuca, who has a home in Calcutta and spends time there each year.  Actually, back in 2008 when Bob and I were planning our first trip to India we had a meal with Sunita, Tonuca and Tonuca's Mom.  They provided us with many great tips that we took to heart and followed.  I asked Sunita to get us together again to talk about my plans and to see if she might have any advice or ideas of where I might find accommodations other than the bed bug and cockroach infested budget hotels around Sudder Street (aka the backpackers area).

We did get together at Sunita's house for a lovely (and lively!) dinner.  Tonuca very graciously said she would make some calls to some friends that might know of someone who may have a room or apartment to rent.  I believe it was just a few days later when Tonuca was e-introducing me to Nina, a friend of her cousin Priya.  After a few email exchanges things were set for me to rent the flat next door to Nina and Suresh for the two months I would be in Calcutta.  I can't tell you what a load off my mind that was knowing I would have a safe, clean place that I could come home to each night to be alone, prepare what I wanted to eat and not have any pressure from anyone and not have to worry about bugs, noise, extermination fumes, dogs barking, etc.  And I kept telling myself i would  have a place to come home to and cry if I needed to!

So, I was to arrive on March 11 and I received an email from Nina saying Suresh would pick me up at the airport.  Wow!  That was so nice and unexpected!  There is nothing like arriving in a foreign country (especially India) and knowing the first thing you won't have to do is deal with 100 men asking you if you need a taxi.  It is such a relief to walk out and just hear your name or see someone standing there with your name on a sign.  Nina had sent me a photo of Suresh that she had taken at the breakfast table that morning so I would know what he looked like.  This was really the first of MANY wonderful things they did for me.  I originally just thought of myself as a tenant, but they treated me as a welcome guest.

When I started my work at Mother Teresa's I was so busy that sometimes a day or two would pass without me seeing them despite the fact that they live right next door.  I saw Nina one day and she asked if I was eating enough.  I said I was and said, "You sound like my Mom."  Immediately after I said it I realized it might have sounded harsh.  I didn't mean it to.  I felt bad.  She was naturally concerned about me.  Shortly thereafter I got sick and boy did Nina jump in and take amazing care of me. I was very dehydrated and had a bad cough (probably from all of the pollution I took in while walking back and forth to work). Nina arranged for a doctor to come to the apartment (and Suresh took time to drive Nina and I to the doctor for a follow-up visit), she took great care in being sure I took the right medicine at the right time.   She insisted I only eat home cooked food which she brought me everyday.  I really don't know what I would have done without her.  As I got better, she invited me over for tea and toast and/or lunch many afternoons.  It was really great.  We had some wonderful talks.  One day we watched "Revolutionary Road" on TV.  She borrowed my copy of Katherine Boo's book, "Beyond The Beautiful Forevers," which she enjoyed as much as I did.

When they had guests, they invited me to join them for a meal at their home or to the very beautiful Calcutta Cricket and Football Club, of which they are members.  One night they invited me out to dinner with a group of friends to a wonder Chinese restaurant.  They could not have been more gracious, warm or hospitable.

I had to make arrangements and book several train tickets.  Nina called a travel agent she had used and arranged for me to go meet him at his office where he booked all of my tickets.  She also took time to take me to Tonuca's cousin Priya's beautiful fabric shop.  I really wanted to meet Priya as she is the person that put Tonuca in touch with Nina about the apartment.  So Nina and I ventured out on a very hot afternoon to see Priya and had a lovely time.

The morning I was leaving Calcutta I needed to leave for the train station at 6:30am.  Nina woke up early to make me breakfast, which was so sweet of her.  Suresh got up as well and they both took me to the train station.  Really unbelievably nice of them to do.

When I was traveling from Varanasi to Udaipur, I had to travel through Delhi.  I arrived early in the morning and departed again in the evening, so I had a day to spend there.  Well, Suresh's sister Poonam lives in Delhi.  I had met Poonam in Calcutta as she was visiting when I arrived.  So, in their typical generous fashion, Poonam's invited me to come to her house to rest during the day.  She arranged for the car and driver to pick me up at the station and to take me to see some sights that I wanted to see.  In between, he brought me to Poonam's where I cleaned up, rested and she prepared a wonderful lunch.  Again, the generosity of this family was just overwhelming.

I have been amazed at how lovely and caring Nina and Suresh (and Poonam) have been to me.  I'm not sure what I would have done without them.  They helped make my stay in Calcutta especially wonderful and I will never forget that.  They really made me feel like part of their family and I will be forever grateful to them for that. 

I look forward to seeing them again either in Calcutta or in New York (their daughter Kiran lives in Brooklyn with her husband Doug and is a wonderful artist) and some way try to repay them some of their kindnesses.  I certainly now consider them my wonderful new friends and miss them and their city already.

Thank you Nina and Suresh!!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Last Day at Kalighat

Today was the end of my two months of volunteering at Nirmal Hriday, Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying and Destitute.  The time has passed so quickly, yet I feel like I've grown to know some of the patients very well, which made for some tough goodbyes. 

The man in Bed #11 laughed a lot today, which was so nice to see.  He also pointed out the small lump under his right nipple that has been bothering him.  He's been showing it to me for two weeks now.  The nurse and sisters keep telling me it's nothing.  Marcus, the volunteer doctor from Australia, believes it may be cancer and would normally do an ultrasound and biopsy, but the likelihood of that happening here are pretty slim.  Pilar, the Spanish volunteer that does some physical therapy with the patients, mentioned the lump to Sister Teresina again today and she promised to have the doctor look at it when he comes in tomorrow for his weekly visit. I just hope they are able to find his family and he is able to go home and see a doctor there.  When I told him it was my last day, he said he wanted to come with me.  I just rubbed his head one last time and looked into his eyes and said goodbye... he knew he wasn't coming with me.

Hamit was feeling so-so today.  He didn't want any biscuits when I brought them to him, which was unusual.  I gave him short massages every time I could get away from other duties today.  I wonder what will happen to him... I think his wounds will heal, but will he ever regain the strength to walk on his own or will he ever get out of there or be transferred to another facility?  When the time came to say goodbye, I called Sunil over to translate to be sure he understood me.  When Sunil told him, he looked up at me with big, sad eyes and said, "stay."  It broke my heart and I tried not to cry.  He then pretty much shut down and didn't want to talk about it.  I leaned over and gave him a big hug, rubbed his head, said goodbye and walked away, fighting back tears.

The last patient I said goodbye to was Swapon.  He was actually feeling much better today and seemed to be in a great mood.  I had mention to him yesterday that today would be my last day... so it wasn't a surprise to him.  I was so happy to come in and be greeted with such a big smile. Sunil and I put him in a wheelchair and move in into the open room.  I keep adjusting him every time I walked by and he said, "up!"  I asked a new volunteer Julian, a strapping young med student from California here on his first day, to help me carry him and put him in Pilar's massage chair.  When that was finished Julian and I moved him back into the wheelchair.  A little later he asked me to straighten out his right arm that is bent at the elbow.  He actually started to move his arm on his own, which I had never seen him do before, so that was very exciting!  I fed him biscuits, snapping them into small pieces and dunking them into a cup of water to soften them... just enjoying our time together as much as possible on this last day.  After lunch he was back in bed and I went over to say goodbye.  Again, I was greeted with a big smile.  First, he needed to pee, so i got a urinal and helped him with that.  We then said our goodbyes, l kissed him on the forehead and got up and waved goodbye.  Still holding back tears, I looked back and he was still smiling.  I waved, turned and walked away. I will always wonder what will happen to him.  How will he live out the rest of his days?  He's only in his 40s. I hope to return to Calcutta next year and while I don't want to find him still at Kalighat, I do hope to find him somewhere else... happy and in a comfortable place with caring people around him treating him very well.  I would do it myself if I could.

I came here to Calcutta to help those that are suffering and in need.  I gave it my all and it was an amazing journey.  I wish I could have done more.  I hope to be able to come back regularly, maybe two weeks a year, or whatever i can manage.  This place, while far from perfect, will always be special to me and the men that touched my life will always stay with me.  I wish them peace and love.  Goodbye, for now.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Bed #20

The young boy with one arm is in Bed #20.  For the past three days I have assisted the nurse when she changed his dressing.  It actually takes at least two people to hold him down.  I always take his head and right arm while one or two other people take his legs as we try to hold him still while the nurse tales long tweezers and begins to pull out live maggots from the open wound.  The boy screams and moves around the entire time, even after the nurse has given him a caramel (I guess that only goes so far as a pain killer).  I do my best to try to calm him by holding his hand (very tightly) and speaking to him gently.  As I'm in close proximity to the wound I have an up close view of the entire procedures and actually count the number of squiggly maggots that she is able to extract.  It must have been 30 the first day and nearly as many these past two days.  The iodine soaked gauze is helping to bring them out, but it's still taking time.  It's really an amazing site, and gross when she drops one on the bed and it starts to wriggle away before she snatches it up and drops it into the little bowl of iodine to join the others.

Again, I surprise myself at how closely I am able to watch and not be squeamish.  Bob asked me in an email yesterday how I handle the intense things I've been seeing and if I ever got sick from seeing something terrible.  Very good questions.  I have not gotten sick and I've seen some pretty gruesome things.  And I'm not sure why that is as I usually avoid looking at anything like this on tv or in movies, much less in real life.  But I knew coming in to this that I would be in circumstances like this and I made the decision that I wanted to be as involved as possible.  I need to be strong for the patient, for the nurse that I am assisting and for myself.  This is all changing me in the most profound way...or bringing out sides of me that I really didn't know I had in me.  Pretty extraordinary stuff.

This Saturday will be my last day volunteering.  I can't believe the time has passed so quickly.  I've learned so much about myself and about life in general.  I will miss the patients, some of the staff, many of my fellow volunteers and the nuns very much.  It's going to be very difficult to say goodbye to many of the patients, especially knowing that it is very unlikely I'll ever see them again.  They have taught me so much and touched my life in unimaginable ways.  I will always be grateful to them.

I hope to be able to return to Calcutta next year to volunteer again and meet a new group of patients and volunteers that I know will enrich my life yet again.