I ended up going to Kolkata (Calcutta, India) and Darjeeling for my 10-day travel period for my study abroad program. I had hoped to see some of the Himalayan peaks, but it was bad weather so we just shivered in the cold grayness of Darjeeling. It was kind of like Juneau in that respect.
Still, it was an interesting time. From Kolkata, we took a 12-hour train ride, traveling by way of the mouse- and cockroach-infested sleeper class to a Northern West Bengal station called NJP. After waiting for more than an hour for our four-wheeled vehicle of people to fill up, we left NJP for Darjeeling.
The five hour trip careening on up through muddy roads was quite serene, even though we couldn’t see out of the blanket of white clouds. A little after the five-hour mark, we finally entered the Darjeeling area and were immediately greeted by a massive protest. We had known there were peaceful demonstrations going on in the area, but we definitely were not expecting them to be our welcome into Darjeeling. A few hundred old women followed by a smaller group of older men filed passed our now-stationary vehicle shouting “Gorkhaland! Gorkhaland! We want Gorkhaland! Justice! Justice! We want justice!” Then they repeated these chants in their Gorkhali language.
Apparently, a lot of people in Northern West Bengal want their state of Gorkhaland separated from the rest of West Bengal. I don’t really blame them as the two regions are separated completely by climate, culture, religion, ethnicity and language. Additionally, Indian people can be quite racist toward the more East Asian-looking people. I’ve heard Indians describe people from the Northeast as being “chinky-eyed.” So this was not all new to me.
Because of lack of visibility, our options for trekking went out the door, so we instead visited local cultural sites: Buddhist and Hindu temples, a Tibetan refugee Center, Gorkha War Memorial and others. Also, we stuffed our faces with Tibetan momos (dumplings with chicken or cabbage, a spicy red sauce and a broth). After four days of waiting for visibility and spending too much time and energy buying gifts for people, we said goodbye to Darjeeling. It had been nice to get out of the heat for a while, but the feel had become quite lethargic overtime, which is what all that gray does to a person.
We went back to Kolkata quite disappointed that we hadn’t had the time of our lives in Darjeeling and were adamant about somewhere sunny and nice. I was really kicking myself. It seemed I had wasted this one opportunity to really travel India by going to a place that just seemed like a Tibetan version of Juneau. I’ve always considered myself to be more of a beach and jungle kind of a person. Because of mountains of schoolwork, I had not given enough thought to planning.
Safely back in sunburn territory, we sulked over our plates in a small Kolkata diner called Super Chicken. Behind us, two other foreigners (one British and one American) were having a discussion on volunteering. The girl said something about Tanzania, and I found my opportunity to meet some new people. “What were you doing in Tanzania?” I spun around and blurted out. That led to something more interesting, the American guy was born in Cuba and was raised in Miami. He was a real estate agent in South Beach, but came to Kolkata to do charity work. He started up his own NGO in a small area of the slums there. He currently helps 19 families.
On a previous trip, he had volunteered with Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s charity) and had a very negative reaction to what he experienced there. He witnessed nuns washing needles with cold water before using them again, using expired vitamins, electroshock therapy as punishment on women and mentally handicapped people, no experienced medical staff on hand (a doctor reportedly shows up once a month and doesn’t touch patients) and people lying around for hours on soiled cots prevented from learning or doing anything so that, in his opinion, the charity could maintain the shocking appearance to visitors in order to continually gain donations. Additionally, the nuns refused his offer to install hot water for showers for the sick and refused offers to bring in playing cards, games or books to entertain the dying. The organization also refuses to disclose to the public any financial details of their operation. He shared a number of disturbing photos and stories on his Facebook page. He and others with similar experiences were interviewed by Forbes of India. It was quite eye opening to hear all of this. In response, he opened his own charity, Responsible Charity, funded by friends and boasting full financial transparency.
We went to the slums with him on our second day back in Kolkata and helped him distribute fans to 14 families. It was amazing how warmly these efforts were received. At one point we entered a shack, stooping because of the low ceiling, to give a Muslim family a fan. They had a ceiling fan that was rickety and slow —it was abysmal in that shack. The grandfather, a gray-bearded man, burst into tears as he hugged us and kissed our cheeks, the common greeting in this Muslim area of the slums. I had to hold back tears myself. The American informed me later that the man was most likely in his dying days because of lack of available funds for surgery. Outside the shack, he pounded on a heavy cement and brick wall topped with barbed wire, “This is where the Missionaries of Charity keep themselves locked up, in this compound. They throw biscuits out of that door right there, like they were feeding animals.”
That night, we settled on a rooftop bar to watch the momentous Cricket World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka. India won. The streets of Kolkata went insane. People were shouting “India!” and throwing fireworks, dancing in the streets, waving Indian flags while standing atop speeding motorcycles.
The week prior had been a Hindu festival called Holi in which celebrants throw and smear colored powders on each other. Now, in celebration, the people repeated the festivities. We, now four Americans and two French, smeared with red and yellow paint, stumbled through the throngs of wild Indian cricket hooligans.
And for a while we half-shared their excitement. Until we noticed, “hey, there are no women here” and the girl with us started to get grabbed from all directions by men of all ages. So, we got out of there before our own masculinity would create an international scene.
Also, within these Kolkata days, we met some boys that played cricket with us (I played poorly, as I do in most sports) and we went to the Kalighat Temple where they sacrifice goats daily (we got to see that morning’s row of decapitated goat heads . . . mmmm).
Two days later we returned to Pune, where I continued my internship work.
• Lott is a Juneau resident and University of Alaska Southeast graduate who enjoys traveling to exotic locales to learn and volunteer, he was in India spring of 2011.