Acts of service in a city as poor as Kolkata feel like a drop in the bucket of the work to be done. My time was short and my days working with street children left me feeling more helpless than helpful. I was fortunate to meet four new friends, but we were all feeling a bit restless about our minimal impact.
On my first day at the street children project, we were caught in monsoony style rains and soaked to the core. We decided to dry off at a nearby cafe getting to know each other and commiserating about our poor volunteer experience. As we bonded, God found an opportunity to speak to us….in a perfect way. If I were God, and wanted to get the attention of the five of us, I couldn’t have devised a more better plan to make a connection. Across the coffee shop from us sat a Western-looking woman in a fabulous Indian dress that we admired as she sipped her latte. She read the paper and relaxed with a sense of style and grace. We were curious about her and sure she had an interesting life story. When she rose to leave, Bubbly responded to our prompting and jumped up to ask where she bought her dress. We had to know. In less than a minute, the woman sat down at our table and shared her tales as a Brit living in Italy who makes an annual visit to India to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s mission. (One more reason I love traveling to exotic places is the way you meet the most interesting people doing the most ordinary things.) As she left, we were armed with all of the information we needed to get involved in Kolkata in exactly the manner we had hoped.
As we learned, each afternoon at 3:00, volunteers from around the world arrive at the Mother House to serve the poor. The program is organized with the idea that whoever is needed will come…no preplanning…just show up for one day, one year, or forever. We registered on Saturday for a Sunday visit with about 30 others from locations as far as Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Korea. Many young people were present which shouldn’t have surprised me, but did.
Since we were only available for one day – as I was leaving and the girls were returning to the street- we were placed in one of the approximately seven mission locations by a gentle nun who felt we could best be used to help sick and dying women. We arrived on Sunday at 6:00 am, participated in mass with the sisters, ate bread, and walked to our center. As I sat on the cement floor of the simple chapel, I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in the mission where Mother Teresa prayed, ate, served, inspired the world…and chatted with friends. Her tomb is at the mission now and I was happy to see that the area was a place of silent reverence in a quietly humble neighborhood. I loved when the priest ended the mass as they always do by saying “let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord” and the reality was that everyone walked out of the chapel in the direction of true service work.
I am the first to admit that I am not a good nurse….lacking maternal instincts, unaware of the needs of others, can’t look at blood or wounds….stressed by problems that don’t have solutions….so when I entered the mission, I froze…just for a second…and then followed along as I watched everyone else jump in and selflessly get to work. The women at the mission were found by an ambulance that roams the streets looking for women who have critical conditions and live without resources to provide for their care and comfort. There were women covered in wounds and skin diseases, missing limbs and eyes, people with severe mental illness and women crawling from place to place. At the same time, the space was pristine and filled with a simple sense of love. After weeks of roaming the streets of India, I understood that this home was a godsend for the women with conditions that were likely far better than their homes.
Our morning included wiping plastic mattresses, washing and ringing bedsheets, rubbing lotion on the women, serving lunch, cleaning up, and helping guide people to bed. There was a gentle work-buzz in the air from the nuns, volunteers, and staff. Watching a group of young nursing students as they cleaned wounds and addressed ailments showed that their patience, empathy, and concern were indeed divine gifts. This work happens every day with women from around the world working together to serve the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa’s local impact is truly amazing! With opportunities in childcare, orphanages, healthcare, and on the streets, I know I will volunteer at Mother’s mission again in my lifetime.
Since Dani, Sylvia, Bubbly, and Katie had been living in primitive accommodations for over a week, they decided to upgrade for the weekend to a two-star hotel with a hot shower. I joined them on Saturday night and it felt like a slumber party complete with snacks, giggling, and pampering. Katie oiled our hair and provided Indian styled head massages. After five weeks, a bit of girl-bonding felt good. I haven’t shopped much in India, but with Katie’s bargaining skills, my suitcase is officially stuffed beyond capacity. We socialized, shopped too much, complained about the program, ate great food, and shopped some more. What the first days lacked in the feeling of “giving” were compensated by the feeling of fast friendship. Traveling with two people who had an understanding of both Western and Indian culture, along with the ability to speak Hindi, opened many doors that are closed to tourists. Prices were cheaper and answers to questions were more direct. Shared experiences have a great way of forming fast friendships that would otherwise take years to develop. I feel lucky to have shared Kolkata with this fantastic group of women.
On Saturday morning, I took the local train downtown. From door to door, I will complete thirteen flights, four train rides, one bus, and endless rickshaws, metro trains, tuk-tuks, and taxis, but I think this was one of the most crowded and memorable I have experienced. I was on the women-only car and gained a new appreciation for feeling like a sardine. There were eighteen (I counted) women sitting and standing in a seat area designed for four. It was hot and a bit chaotic as women haggled to get off at each stop, but there was a shared sense of fun. One woman sang and others joined her. A brave man squished on the car and sold some earrings to the packed house. Women carried packages on their heads and passed mosh pit style to get the biggest packages off the train. These Indian experiences are becoming commonplace, but I just love each and every one of them!
I recognize that my posts about Kolkata are all over the place…guilt about the poor…too much shopping…loved it…disappointed….in love with India…perplexed…not sure. Well, I guess that gives you a window to my soul because I’m a bit confused about how I feel, too. I have experienced such a wide range of emotions in India that I have yet to think about. I think I will plan on time to process and prepare for my reverse culture shock and reentry woes when I arrive home. Or…more likely, I will unpack my bags, get on “the el,” and start exploring my home city!