A Week In Kolkata

Written By Amiah

Namaste to all you parents, friends, pets, and other miscellaneous mystery readers!

My name is Amiah and I have 18 years under my belt, soon to be 19 years during our student directed travel week in April. I’ll be your blogger for this week, and by the end of our Kolkata experience I will update all of you on our final days here since we’ve been here a week today. I hail from Georgia, but living in that climate for the first presumable 1/5th of my life has not prepared me for the intense humidity and sun we’ve experienced in Kolkata. Delhi was chilly most days since we came at the end of winter, Varanasi couldn’t decide how much sun we needed day by day, but Kolkata has been consistently humid and sunny. It’s nice weather, don’t get me wrong, we just can’t go anywhere without a full bottle of water. We’d all be taking cold bucket showers every day if our nice dorms at Baptist Missionary Society didn’t have AC units to cool us down as soon as we return to the shelter of our rooms, and a nice hot water heater in our own bathrooms. To summarize our observational experiences here so far, I would equate Kolkata to a perfect mix of both Delhi and Varanasi. This city houses similar metropolitan and urban scenery of Delhi, while still managing to include the same quaint crampedness you find when it comes to being in close vicinity to many varieties of restaurants, specialty stores, sights, and people. Speaking of Kolkatan restaurants, as I write this, I’m on the verge of entering a stage 3 food coma, and so is everyone else in the group. I welcome it whole heartedly, because what caused it was the best soup, salad, dumplings, rice, noodles, fish, moose, ice cream, and tea I have ever had at the only restaurant in Kolkata that has earned a Michelin star. No exaggeration. Everyone else in the group seems to agree when it comes to the majority of their dishes, although I do believe that Owen, who guided us to this heavenly food place, has had the opportunity to experience even grander journeys of flavor when he was invited to eat at one of the best restaurants in the world: Central, in Lima, Peru. More on our experience later, since I will now be guiding you all through our Kolkata experience, day by day. I hope my descriptions of our daily life in Kolkata is as immersive to you as it is reminiscent to me!

Like our departure and arrival to Varanasi, we traveled to Kolkata by an overnight train. We were dropped off by van in front of the station, and immediately greeted by a very curious and sweet little girl, and as we entered the station, a huge crowd of families waiting for their own trains. Kari, our first transportation guru, did a fantastic job of guiding us through the station blindly, and took us to an AC waiting room via intuitive wandering. Our group then split up in search for dinner and train snacks, which we were in no real rush to find since our train was delayed by 3 hours. “By what?”, you might ask. Who knows. Maintenance, other delayed trains, cows… it didn’t matter too much to us since we got a good amount of time to rest on solid ground, sustain ourselves with food items, and talk about Varanasi. In the end, our train’s platform was never posted, but we trusted a local man’s word and found our way without any dire need for a rush. The ride was much like our first one, but shorter and familiar. To my utter disappointment, the morning chai-seller only yelled “Chai! Chai!” instead of “CHAI MASALA CHAI! CHAAAI CHAAAAAI MASALA CHAI!”. It was much funnier the first time around. Once we stopped in Kolkata, Kari led us to the exit and we got into two different taxis. We all noticed and discussed how much of Kolkata has British influence, from its architecture to its yellow tsunami of cabs. Traveling over the Howrah bridge, we got to see just how big Kolkata is, stretching across the entire visible length of the Hugli river. We arrived at BMS, the Baptist Missionary Society, and to our delight the first things we saw were a lush lawn and garden, and a little cafe just for BMS residents. We relaxed in our rooms for a bit, the girls setting up in a 6 person room, while Owen and Zevi, Rebecca and Adam got their own rooms. To our delight once again, all of our rooms were equipped with soft beds and pillows, nice bathrooms, a hot water heater, ac units, fans, and an electric kettle for tea. We set off once again to get lunch. Despite our desire to recover from the train ride, we were all hungry enough to trek through the dense streets of Kolkata to make our way Nizam’s Kathi Kebab. This restaurant started as a street stall in the 30’s, and is famous for creating the first Kathi roll. They are certainly worthy of the history, as the rolls were the perfect balance of crispy, juicy, and well seasoned. We returned to BMS in cabs hailed by Kari, but I kept them waiting for a minute or two as I tried to buy a mp3 player and memory card for about 4 USD. What a steal! It doesn’t work without being charged at the same time, and I had to slowly convert all my music onto the memory card, but I’m just grateful I can listen to my music now. We got back safely, and enjoyed a chill rest of the day which ended in a much needed night of sleep. That was our Thursday night, and Friday morning.

When we woke up on Saturday, only a few of the group were early enough birds to discover that from 7 to 8:30 am, we are served complimentary breakfast in the cafeteria below our rooms. Finding breakfast for the rest of us was easy enough though, since restaurants of all kinds line nearly every street of Kolkata. Once lunch time rolled around, we walked to what we were told was a mall. I envisioned an open courtyard situation at first, until Rebecca told me “It’s really nice… you’ll see”. Was it ever! The outside of Quest Mall had fantastic geometric, three dimensional paneling, and none of us expected what we walked into. The mall was stunningly pristine, fantastically designed, and wondrously spacious. Hands down, it was the best mall I’ve ever seen. The group felt somewhat under-dressed for the occasion. We wandered the mall’s five floors for hours, and tried to stop ourselves from buying too much since the prices were not as forgiving as things we would find on the streets. It was on the fifth floor that Owen discovered Yauatcha, Kolkata’s only restaurant with a Michelin star. Keeping the Dim Sum restaurant in mind, we returned to BMS once again and slept off our day.

The night before, I wasn’t feeling too well, and unfortunately that feeling multiplied itself overnight for me. I wasn’t able to attend our plans for that Sunday, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. While the group experienced a day with a local theater group, I enjoyed breakfast and lunch at BMS and read peacefully in the garden, refilling my mug of tea every once in a while at the cafe fifty feet away. As recounted to me by Charlotte:
The group arrived at the theater, and was welcomed by both the adult staff and many excited kids who attend lessons at the establishment. This outing counted for volunteer hours since the first three of their hours there were spent playing with the children, who were very happy to learn some American games and play with people from across our Earth. After all that physical activity, the group had a nice long break for lunch and coffee with the program directors, and discussed life for the students and teens who attend the theater. After the break, the group had some fun times and deep talks with the teens who take classes there. Both my group mates and the Kolkatans our age got to ask each other about life in our respective hometowns, comparing and contrasting day to day life. After a long and tiring day for the group, I was feeling good enough to go out and eat dinner with those who felt willing enough to go out to eat. We went to a Chinese food place two minutes away from BMS, and almost everyone’s food was profoundly spicy. We finished as much as we could with the vain help of water, but our break from Indian food was in no way an escape from the spice. Some of us hopped across the street to get some dessert from a cake shop, then we went back to our beds and prepared ourselves mentally to wake up early for our first day volunteering at the Mother Theresa home.

Making it out of bed at 7 am on Monday, we ate breakfast at BMS and followed Rebecca to the main Mother Theresa house. We sang a few songs, said a few prayers, and the group was split up to go to our own separate volunteer areas. Kari, Olivia, Rebecca and me chose to help at Shishu Bhavan because the pharmaceutical dispensary there was said to be in most dire need of volunteers. Owen, Zevi, Georgia, Charlotte and Adam chose to go to Prem Dan, the home for the dying and destitute. My job, and every other volunteer’s job who chose to help as the dispensary, was to read the list of medications on a patients chart, find the correct mg amount and dosage for one month, package up each medication, then label it and put all the gathered medications on a table to be given to the waiting patients. It’s been relatively self explanatory and logical work so far, but trying to find each medication in the building and deciphering the often hieroglyphic writing of the doctors is quite a challenge. The mothers there have no issue helping us find the medications though, and always seem to know where even the most obscure medicines are. We were told upon arrival that they usually have no volunteers at the dispensary, which makes me wonder how they got everything done by twelve in the afternoon most days. The four of us and four other volunteers from a different group, eight people in total, were able to dispense all the medications before 11:30 am most days, so I can only imagine that with no volunteers the mothers were being forced to close up early without having served everyone. At Prem Dan, the work was much more ‘in your face’. Caring for people with extremely painful conditions, helping the elderly complete simple tasks that they are not capable of doing themselves anymore, and acting fast in situations of injury are only some of the ways my group mates were challenged emotionally and mentally while volunteering at Prem Dan. During the first half hour of their first day at Prem Dan, Zevi and others witnessed an elderly man fall down a flight of stairs, and Zevi acted as a first responder by grabbing a wheelchair for him. Most of their physical work at the retirement home was work meant to free up time for the mothers in the house, such as cleaning the floors, bed sheets and clothing, preparing food to be served, and cleaning other parts of the building. Besides these menial but necessary tasks, the volunteers at Prem Dan were also expected to help feed those who could no longer feed themselves, provide them with massages to ease their physical pains, talk to them and entertain them in a multitude of ways, and help the patients reach a state of peace as much as possible. It takes a special kind of person to be able to stay positive and happy for people who are suffering or dying, even when you are sympathizing with their pain. After our first day of volunteering was over, we returned back to BMS and discussed our plans for Agra and our week of student directed travel in April. I’d rather not share what activities we’re interested in so far since none of them are set in stone, but I’m sure we’ll finalize our plans soon enough. We went out to eat dinner after our discussion as per usual, and went to sleep early again to prepare for our second day of volunteering.

On Tuesday, volunteering went smoothly since we had more of a clear idea of what we would be doing. After our work was over, we returned to BMS and relaxed in our rooms for a while before we were to meet in the front yard for an activity a 1 pm. I took a short nap, and woke up a bit later to see Olivia and Georgia wearing nice scarves around their head. I didn’t know what it was for at first, and still didn’t get why they were wearing them until I came outside later on to join the group in our activity. Their heads had been shaved! I was definitely surprised in the sense that they hadn’t told anyone about their plans (except for Adam who attended their barber session), but I’d known since the beginning of the trip that Georgia had been planning to rid herself of that attachment before the trip began, and that Olivia was interested in doing it with her. I commented to both of them before the activity began how impressed I was with their courage to give up something so fundamental to their lives, and how cool and exotically beautiful they both looked. The activity began by splitting us into two groups. One group was meant to share a story with someone from the other group, who were meant to be the worst listeners possible while the story was being told. I paired myself with Georgia, and I felt terrible acting so rudely to her as she tried to tell me about a story about a dance competition she was in. I didn’t look at her once, I impatiently sighed, interrupted her with irrelevant questions, and once she realized what the activity was about I couldn’t hold in my laughter and neither could she. I felt awful even though she knew what was going on. Luckily, we were paired up again in a part two session, and I got to talk to her about her day leading up to going to the barber shop. She told me that she “was scared watching Olivia get her head shaved first, but once [she] was in the chair she felt totally calm”, and when I asked what led up to her decision, she told me “I was going to do it before India, but it just didn’t end up happening. I told myself I would do it during the trip instead, and when I mentioned my plan to Olivia a week ago, she was on board to do it too”. Both Olivia and Georgia tell me that their main reasoning was to “rid themselves of attachments”. We’re already without wifi devices and the comfort of our homes, family, friends, and pets, so what better way to do it than by removing a physical part of yourself that so many people use to hide behind? I definitely hide behind my hair sometimes, both metaphorically and literally. Coming up with pros or cons to shaving my own head is hard for me, so I’m not sure I would be affected positively or negatively by shaving my own hair. Excuses excuses… That night, we all went out with Adam to Sudder Street to find a restaurant to eat at. Instead, we found a huge open market with stalls lining the streets around it. We wandered around for a bit and bought some clothing or supplies we were in need of, then ended our roaming by buying some street food and ice cream. We got a really nice picture of all of us as well, standing in front of one of the only indoor stores with our ice cream. We walked back home and had some very deep spiritual and historical discussions on the way back, which continued into the night.

On Ash Wednesday, we volunteered in the morning again and looked forward to sleeping in the next day. We all ate lunch at the Baptist Missionary Society to save time and money, and after we did that we all met up at 3:30 to go visit a Synagogue in Kolkata’s ‘China Town’. We made our way there and were welcomed immediately by it’s owners and caretakers, who allowed us to take pictures of it’s recently updated architecture and art since there was no one attending service during our visit. We were treated with chai tea and given information to read about the history of the Jewish community in India. Zevi, Rebecca and Adam told us a bit more about Judaism and their knowledge of it, then once we felt like we’d seen the Synagogue and it’s history thoroughly, we left and decided what to do next. Some of the group wanted to get food as soon as possible, and some of the group wanted to go back to BMS and rest before getting food. I wanted food ASAP, so me, Charlotte, Owen, and Zevi split up from the group and took ourselves on a little adventure to find food. We walked for a while and passed a few restaurants, all of which looked a bit too suspicious to eat at without feeling negative effects. Eventually our wandering led us to a very crowded street, where the only shops in existence were specialty electric stores and assorted lighting shops. We turned around and went to the main road, deciding to just go back to BMS to get food on our familiar main road, but flagging down a taxi took a bit as well. We found a few empty ones, but they kept abandoning us because there was too much traffic to turn around, or they didn’t want to meet our price, or some other unintelligible excuse. Luckily, we ended up finding a taxi that understood where we wanted to go, and ended up being driven back to BMS on the route that we had first came to Kolkata by. Long story short, we ended up walking 10 minutes to eat Dominos pizza. It was very tasty, but complete trash in comparison to what we would be eating on Thursday night.

Thursday morning, we were all going to sleep in and recover from waking up early since we didn’t have to volunteer that day, but me and most everyone else ended up waking up before 8 am and getting complimentary breakfast anyways. We had another meeting earlier in the morning to organize our group plans more efficiently, since not everyone has a clear idea of what we’re doing day by day. By the end of the meeting, we all decided to go see a Bengali movie with subtitles at the Quest Mall, and eat at Yauatcha, the only restaurant in Kolkata with a Michelin star. Before we went to the movie at 2:45 pm, me, Rebecca, Zevi and Olivia decided to go to a post office and ship back clothes and other items we didn’t need to make space in our bags. It was quite the process, filling out shipping information, watching a guy wrap our packages in fabric, sewing it together, using red wax to seal each edge, and once our packages were finally ready to be processed, the computer station we were meant to go to shut down! After a bit of waiting, it restarted and we were able to send our packages safely. Expect a strange looking box in a month or two parents…

We made our way back to BMS and dressed up as much as we could since we felt so under dressed at the mall our first time there. We made our way to the 5th floor and went into the movie with no expectation for what a sad story we would be witness to. We knew three things about the movie: it had English subtitles, it was set mostly in Kolkata, and it was about the transgender community. A summary of the plot: Porimal, known as Puti, is a woman trapped in a man’s body. Her first love, Subhash-da, betrays her by accepting marriage with Puti’s own sister. Puti runs away from home and joins a ghetto of eunuchs, singing at traffic signals to earn money. There she falls in love with Madhu, a delivery boy with a Chinese restaurant who also plays the flute in kirtans. Puti feels that the dream of having sexual reassignment surgery is too expensive and dangerous to achieve, but Madhu supports her dream and they eventually elope to get away from the controlling and abusive group of eunuchs that hold her down. They both try to find a home with Madhu’s family, but they accidentally discover Puti’s secret after her wig comes off. Horrified as being outed during Madhu’s flute performance, she runs away without her phone and disappears without a trace. Madhu tracks her down to the original area here he first met her, an discovers that she has been publicly tortured and humiliated by the group of eunuchs who initially used her to beg for them. The police stopped the mob from killing her and put her in a cell alone, but with the idea in her head that she had nothing left to live for, and that Madhu would never search for her, she hung herself in her cell. I think that by the end of the movie we all expected an emotional but happy ending, which we were not granted in any way. Instead, we were faced with the reality that Puri was so often plagued with such abusive family situations, treatments from society, and rejection when it came to the families of those they love, that she was pushed to restart her life with a new body and brain by ending her own current life. After such a heavy movie, we tried to collect our thoughts and relax a bit before going to Yauatcha. I think we were all in a low energy mood after witnessing the harsh reality of what so many transgender people have to go through in their lives, but we enjoyed our experience at Yauatcha all the same. Most of us ordered a six course meal, which ultimately only cost as much as $15-$20, whereas the extraordinary meal would have easily cost at least $100 in the states. We started with a drink, then were given soup, salad, two different kinds of dumplings, rice, noodles or meat, and lastly, a desert. I got an orange chili drink with ice, which was perfectly sweetened, and the chili only hit you once you swallowed. My soup was a perfect consistency, and my salad didn’t need any dressing since the added lotus root was flavorful enough. All of our dumplings were a perfect balance of juicy and dense, but most of us only ate one or two since we were already getting full. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to take any food out of the restaurant since we could steal the recipe or write a bad review if the food went sour. I barely touched my rice, which was amazing, in favor of eating as much of my fish as I could. I don’t even remember what it was, but it melted in my mouth and I wish I could have bought a bottle of the black bean sauce they put on it. Lastly came desert, which was all topped with a chocolate print out of the restaurant name and some little flecks of gold, meaning I’m at least 0.00001% gold right now. Pretty cool. After the meal we all had very intense food babies, and waddled out of Quest Mall looking well dressed and pregnant. We took tuk-tuks back to BMS, and now here we are. Well, here I am, writing this as everyone else is getting to sleep early and digest their food babies. I’m so full… but by God it was so worth it.

Thats all we’ve done so far in Kolkata! I hope I was able to take you through our daily life in a way that was both interesting and immersive like I hoped. As I said, I’ll be updating you all on the final days of our stay here in Kolkata very soon, and until then, just know that we’re all doing well and are excited to see what else different parts of India have to offer. On Sunday, we will be getting on a VERY early morning flight to Delhi, then a train to Agra. By then, our roles will have switched, and you can expect to have a new blogger for the week.