Calcutta Volunteer Work with BaalDan.org

Trip Start Mar 29, 2007
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Trip End Sep 30, 2009


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Monday, November 26, 2007

Wow...where to start.  The past 4 days in Calcutta (which is now called Kolkata but I prefer the former name) have been amazing.  When I first decided to make the move to India, I knew I would have plenty of opportunities to give back to the community via charitable work, but I didn't know I would be doing it with a friend from Dallas...Tanya.  Our mutual friend David introduced me to Tanya last March at a fund raiser dinner she was hosting in Dallas for her newly created charity...Baal Dan.  Please check out her website for more information on the work she's doing and if you like...contribute to her cause if you can.  Anyway...Tanya was planning a trip to Calcutta in 2007 and we've kept in touch via email ever since so I could make plans to meet up with her there and help her out with her cause.  Much of what I have below I have plagiarized from her website blog...sorry, but she tells a much better story that I could. :)

Thursday 22-November:
On Thanksgiving morning, instead of eating turkey and watching football, I climbed aboard a Kingfisher Airlines flight to Calcutta from Hyderabad.  The two hour direct flight was uneventful and at the airport, Tanya had her driver Dennis waiting to take me into the city to my hotel.  First impression of Calcutta...dirty.  Probably the dirtiest city in India I've been to.  The air is so thick with pollution and dust you almost have to swim through it, the traffic is horrible, the street-side begging is worse than Hyderabad and the entire city just seems to be in an overall funk.  Dennis reminded me on the ride into the city that the Indian State of West Bengal (of which Calcutta is the capital) has been ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front for three decades, making it the world's longest-running democratically-elected communist government....and I can't help but wonder if that fact has kept many Western companies out of Calcutta while other cities in India (e.g. Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Pune) have thrived with the influx of Western businesses.  The city has a very interesting history as it was capital of India until 1911 under the British Raj...and if you really are interested in reading more on the history of Calcutta, click here.

First stop was my hotel which was directly in the center of the city on Sudder street.  After an hour of driving, we reach the Fairlawn Hotel.  My first impression...this hotel is like taking a step back in time...especially when you get into conversations with the English owner...Madam Violet (or simply Vi).  The original building itself is over 300 years old and has undergone several renovations over the past 3 centuries, but the charm is right out of the British Raj period.  If you're looking for 5 star comfort and cleanliness...then don't stay here.  But if you're in need of a charming hotel with a friendly staff at the best rates in Calcutta, then consider the Fairlawn.  After unpacking a bit, Tanya and her friend from Dubai (Apu) pick me up from the hotel where we walk over to the New Mall shopping area to pick up a few things for the orphanages which Tanya and Baal Dan has decided to sponsor this year.  This mall is a labyrinth of alleys and narrow passages with literally hundreds of individual shops selling everything from children's clothes, to silver jewelry to rum-balls (Tanya seemed to like the rum balls a bit too much).  :)  As Apu and Tanya had been shopping for the the past 36 hours, speak Hindi and have a good one-two punch for getting what they want, they were far more prepared than I was for how to deal with the vendors get the prices down to an acceptable amount.  Apu was definitely more aggressive with her approach to haggling and Tanya played the sympathy card a bit more...but I'll be damned if the bi-directional approach didn't work and we got some great deals.  After spending close to $400 USD on pants for over 200 orphans, we attempted to walk back to Dennis and the car at the Fairlawn which was a interesting experience to say the least.  Given that I had been in town for little over one hour, I had made the incorrect assumption that Apu and Tanya new their way around town...but oh how wrong I was.  After walking around for over 30 minutes we finally found the Hotel Fairlawn and Dennis just a block away from the New Mall....ugh.  

After finding our car, were were off to the a show that the Loreto Sealdah school was hosting to celebrate their 150th anniversary of educating the children of Calcutta.  The Loreto school is one of Tanya's key target schools that she tries to help and it turns out that during our visit to Calcutta, they were having a huge celebration and presentation in honor of their 150 year anniversary.  The pic's I'll post won't due it justice...but it was definitely a special presentation...so special in fact that the Governor of West Bengal (Gopalkrishna Gandhi) attended and spoke to the entire student body.  There is a good article here on the performance which describes in much more detail than I can.  The program was a little long and after a busy day of traveling and shopping, we were all beat.  But we had one last stop to make.

Back in the car with Dennis and this time it's off to an orphanage for girls run and lead by a group of Catholic nuns.  The ~30 students at St. Vincents were in the middle of their dinner when we arrived, but they were more than happy to chat with me and Apu while Tanya talked business with the nuns.  The girls ranged in age from 6 to 18 and were very happy to have guests to chat with.  A couple of the girls commented that my hair style looked like David Beckham which is a comparison I'll be happy to accept.  These were some incredibly intelligent girls...one was already in university and another who was 16 who could speak 7 languages fluently.  We chatted a bit about their daily life and here's how it goes day-in/day-out for these girls:
6AM:  Wake up
7AM:  Breakfast
8AM:  Morning mass
9AM-Noon:  School 6 days/week
Noon:  Back to the church for lunch
1PM-3PM:  More school
3PM-5PM:  Study
5PM-6PM:  Free time
6PM-7PM:  Evening Mass
7PM-8PM:  Dinner
8PM-10PM:  More studying
10PM:  Lights out...bed time
Brutal schedule, but these nuns know that a little discipline is good for the girls and the girls benefit by getting off the streets, out of abusive homes and getting a quality education.  Very cool to meet these girls and I only wish I could have been there when Tanya brings their goodie-bags to them.  Tanya, Apu and I were famished so we managed to grab a quick dinner at a recommended restaurant before I headed off to my hotel to pass out.

Friday 23-November:
The next morning I got up a little early and visited the Mother House...which is the headquarters of the Missionaries of Charity which is best known as the relgious order started by Mother Theresa to help and aid the destitute of Calcutta.  After that, I met up with Apu and Tanya at the Loreto school where I helped do some merchandise counting...Tanya had over 50 blankets and an additional 3000 pieces of underwear (panties, tshirts, socks etc.) delivered to the school that also needed to be counted and paid for. I got to spend some time playing with the street children who were still recovering from the big concert the night before.  After that, the three of us, along with Mrs. Marceline (school teacher) and 3 helpers piled into Tanya's car and a school bus lent to us by the Loreto School to go to a giant chaotic wholesale market called "Bagri Market". Apu and Tanya  tackled buying toiletries (over 2000 soaps, shampoo sachets etc.) while I went in search of toys.  I was on my own and ended up in the 5th floor of a building that was sketchy...but there were deals to be had and I managed to find some good stuff for the kids.  We had all of that delivered and then went out for round two in the Bagri Market.  I went with Mr. Marceline in search of school writing supplies...and we ended up having to wait nearly 1.5 hours as our merchandise (thousands of pens, pencils, crayons, erasers, etc) was delivered, packed and hauled back to our bus.  The girls came back with more toiletries, umbrellas, school bags, basketballs and other sports stuff, lots of toys, boy's shirts and countless other items.  

After the market we ate a very late lunch, and then got to do something that Tanya refers to as her "renegade feeding program".  We met up with a couple local volunteers and all piled into Tanya's car along with 40 boxes of chinese fried rice with chicken and bags of chocolate cookies.  The local volunteers directed us to one of the "not-so-nice" areas of Calcutta where there were literally hundreds of street children playing, sleeping and walking around.  After finding a quiet corner, we piled out of the car and within a matter of seconds, we were surrounded by kids.  It was a bit disorderly, but we went through 40 boxes of food and cookies quickly and then walked around a bit to see how these kids live.  It was pretty intense...but also very rewarding to see the immediate reaction and benefit to giving these children some warm food to eat.  When I asked Tanya why she doesn't do more renegade feeding programs...she explained that just feeding these street kids does not do much to help to "teach them how to fish" or create a better future for them.  These children are known street dwellers and their mothers might have 5 or 6 kids, they don't go to school and probably never will, so they too might stay on the street and continue to have more kids thereby creating the same problem generation in...generation out.  Every case is of course complicated and unique but she's definitely more interested doing what she can to invest in programs where these extremely poor children and orphans are actually in the care of someone responsible and are also going to school....makes sense to me.  As Apu was flying back to Dubai, Tanya and I said good bye to her and I know we'll miss her excellent Hindi skills.

Saturday 24-November:
Saturday November 24th...a day I will soon not forget.  A small yellow school bus is rattling down a dusty road. There are 75 kids and 5 adults crammed into this 40-seater bus which is slowly ambling its way down a dirty road filled with potholes in the middle of nowhere. There are kids crammed into the aisle and each kid has at least one another kid on their lap. The kids are all singing loudly (and I mean Very Loudly) Hindi pop songs. I am standing up the entire time, Tanya and another volunteer are crammed into a seat and they each have a kid on our lap and at least 3 children piled at their feet sitting on the steps of the bus. The children are all in their best dresses and everyone on the bus is sweating profusely. I have no idea where we are going, how long it will take and what is supposed to happen today.  Tanya had told me that last year she had rented out a luxury bus and the kids loved it...this year the orphanage was supposed to take care of it, but they did not...so we're stuck with the short yellow bus.  Everyone is laughing and as we narrowly miss other cars, rickshaws, bicycles and cows. At some point in the journey, some kid yells, "Plastic - Plastic!!", and a well-prepared older kid pulls out a small plastic bag which is passed quickly over heads and seats getting to the child who requested it just in time for her to puke into it. And then suddenly there are more calls for "Plastic! Plastic!" the bags start circulating, and pretty soon more and more kids on the bus are throwing up one by one. Finally "Our Puke Bus" as I affectionately called it, finally comes to a sudden halt outside an unassuming little park.  The doors of the bus burst open and we all tumbled and squeezed our way out - sweaty - drained and smelling like "plastic plastic".  But then the kids squealed in delight as they saw the "amusement park" and immediately scattered in all directions to start playing.  Tanya and I surveyed the area dubiously. By American standards this "amusement park" is probably a bit bigger than your average Dallas apartment-complex playground complete with one rickety swing set, a rusted merry-go-round circa 1930, a slide, a "tower" with stairs, and a small pond (complete with murky green water) and paddling boat. We drove for over an hour to get to this? But for these kids this could have been The Magic Kingdom.  As soon as we got there, someone asked Tanya if she had arranged snacks for the children.  She replied that she hadn't as the school had told her everything would be arranged.  As there was no facility in this "amusement park" to buy drinks/food...Tanya and some of the older school kids climb back aboard the Puke Bus in search of snacks.  I had no idea any of this was going on as I was in full scale "play mode" spinning kids in the merry-go-round, pushing kids on swings, playing badminton, etc.  After not seeing Tanya for like two hours, the bus pulls back in and there she is in a bus loaded with snacks.  Turns out she had to visit a small village about an hour away, then within that village visit 6 small shops to purchase enough snacks for over 100 kids.  Bu the time she got back...I barely had to heart to tell her that snacks were provided after all and that we had them about an hour ago.  The rest of the day we played, we sang, and the kids slurped up chai served in little plastic cups and we had so much fun. We went "boating" (again I use the term loosely) and both Tanya and I got a workout pushing the kids around on the creaking, rusted, in-need-of-WD140-merry-go-round (the kids called it hullabaloo).  Tanya sang every nursery rhyme she knew, played chase and numerous other games and by the time 5 pm rolled around we were both covered in dirt, sweat and we were exhausted.  I think I actually said to Tanya that I don't think I have ever been this dirty before.  It was a fantastic day and I have so many great memories. Little Priyanka trying on my sunglasses and shoes and flirting with me.  Tanya's two hour shopping trip that wasn't necessary.  It was getting dark when we got back on the bus to leave and unbelievably it seemed like there was even less air and space in the P.B. than in the morning. We all smelled awful but luckily there were no more puking incidents on the bus ride home. However... the girls did sing Very Loudly nonstop for the entire ride - the loudest kid I think was sitting directly behind my head. They sang everything from Hindi pop to the Hare Krishna mantra to Celine Dion's "My heart will go on..." One girl fell asleep on my lap and another in Tanya's for the entire ride.  When the girl on Tanya's lap finally woke up...she had dueled all over her shirt.  Nice.  Tanay and I got off Puke Bus at New Market area - Very Happy, Very Tired and Very Dirty.  We head straight to my hotel where I get cleaned up while Tanya went shopping for clothes to change into.  After a couple cold Kingfishers at my hotel's "beer garden"...things finally seemed back to normal.

Sunday 25-November:
The next day was my last day, so Tanya "lent" me her car and driver so I could visit some of the sites of Calcutta.  We visited the Birla temple which was amazing and the the Victoria Monument as well.  I really wish I would have scheduled my trip one week later as then I could have attended the India-Pakistan cricket match at "Eden Gardens"...one of the largest, most famous cricket stadiums in the world.  The last day was indeed leisurely and a great way to end a busy Thanksgiving weekend.

Best of luck to Tanya and her charitable work with Baal Dan...I'll definitely be helping her out again when she visits in 2008.
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