Friday, 27 June 2014

A Daily Commute

From a combination of fatigue, laziness or hunger it has taken me more than three weeks to get around to writing anything. Last year, though far from prolific, I had a couple of blog posts and at least a few days written into my diary about my time in the big KK. Now, as my fourth weekend in the City of Contrasts rolls in, finishing school early, I have the opportunity to open a word processor and type.

I still maintain that to understand anything India has to offer it has to be seen, smelt, tasted and felt. Anything less than this will not do it justice. I firmly feel that a visual representation of any city is a very poor explanation of how it imparts its soul, and Kolkata is definitely a powerful example of this affect. What more can you expect from a city where four major languages exist and the weather is more fickle and changeable than even Ireland's, where we laugh about it hailing one moment only to be followed by blistering sun.

One could certainly be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed by day to day life in Kolkata, but I have found that life here is like saidar, it is better to surrender to the mania and to guide from within it's turbulence, fighting with it will only burn you out prematurely...and god knows this city is tiring enough as it is.

My daily commute begins with a five minute walk down and well cared for street. Irregularly, minor diggings and road works occur on and otherwise well paved and tidy street. Sometimes even a traffic jam might happen on Ballygunge circular road, though the BMWs and Audis tend to dart around the lined up jeeps and yellow Ambassadors. On the next street over, Hazra road, we get an auto-rickshaw, or tuk-tuk, for anything between three and six minutes, depending on the drivers disposition towards The Blues Brothers-esque  driving stunts.  Ya just gotta be ok with the possibility that you might die. I've described the behaviour of traffic here like that of cyclists at home, everyone is out for themselves and to hell with the correct lane to be driving in. Traffic lights are only kind of adhered to.

A short walk around a corner and down a street lined with hot food and fruit stalls, facing newspapers being sold on the ground, we often buy a Kolkata famous chicken roll. Three feet away is a chai stall, and another few steps carries you to the underground metro station; a shockingly modern mode of transport for Kolkata. Given the difficulty transport normal presents in India, the metro is a miracle, though not without its problems. Though the metro is extremely efficient, punctual, tidy and regular, since we have been using it there have been two occasions where it has stopped running. The first time there were two suicides during the same run, during which the driver had to continue to the terminus anyway as there was nobody available to replace him. The metro was running again an hour later, little manages to stop movement in Kolkata. The second time the electricity to the power lines to the metro stopped, leaving the tram stopped in a tunnel and the passengers needing to be evacuated. I'm certainly hoping that these problems aren't regular occurrences but it seems that people throwing themselves in front of the metro is a common enough thing.

Leaving the metro station can prove to be a hazard too. Two days ago, when the monsoon came full force, I unwittingly stepped onto the moving escalator only to find myself in a scrum to get off the steps as they reached the end. The crowd that had accumulated at the exit the metro was ambivalent to the crushing affect it was having on people coming off the steps. It took ten minutes for people to realize the problem and turn off the escalator. During that time people had to mill their way off the steps or, in on case, hand their baby to someone at the top and try and run back down the moving stairs.

The one thing that strikes with India is that, although exceptionally polite and hospitable, everyone seems to be in a rush to help themselves. There is little excuse mes or allowing someone to go ahead of you, or slowing down your vehicle, or even reversing to alleviate a blockage you've created. After climbing the stairs out of the station, huffing and puffing, we round the corner and walk past a few stalls and men sitting at blankets with tools laid out for sale. Our second tuk-tuk of the day awaits us then, for which there is a scramble even when there is no rains. It takes about fifteen minutes of quick acceleration, even faster braking and shouting and joking. Narrow turns around an littered with fruit and veg stalls, with children climbing on a broken wall in the corner. One particular lady keeps her stall open even during all but the heaviest of the rains. The alley opens up onto a street, which in turn opens up into a wide road, only made narrower by more stalls. Rivers flow into the gulleys from taps and men and children sit by the curb washing. Our tuk-tuk speeds uphill towards our school and we pay 8 rupees each for the 10 minute journey. Across the road are a long line of shacks where rubbish is brought to be sorted and children roam in the nude, men with their bellys exposed and women with their faces covered, it is a Muslim community. Outside our little blue school a man sells coconut.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Sentiments of Departing Nabadeep

As I near the end of my summer journey to India I've had time for some reflections, some melancholic some cheerful. Over the space of the last three months I have been delighted, awed, shocked, pleased, interested, exasperated, pissed off and, importantly, informed. Any of you who know me in person will soon learn what it means to have an iron stomach; while I adjusted my innards to dietary  changes you will have to don a similarly iron gastric lining in order to endure persistent unwitting cliches. While I have harbored little sympathy for those refined sob stories narrated daily on the streets of Dublin by people my own age littered across Grafton and Westmoreland Street and my heart of stone rarely spared a thought for the homeless on O'Connell Bridge or Temple Bar, I am undeniably opposed to the exploitation of the victims of circumstance I have seen in Kolkata and, I hope, have been softened to equally worthy causes on the streets of my own home city. My characteristically stoneniness should, at the very least, be critically assessed which, to date, it has never been. If I am to be so unmoved in my relentless dismissal of the human beings whom have made the streets their abode then it is my duty to know why I deem it to be so. And if, in my search for a reason, I find my logic to be failing and the scenarios here and at home to be worthy of similar virtue and care, then I will make amends.

This trip has been unflinching. India is an incredible country, Kolkata is a shocking city. Daily you are repeatedly exposed to events I have taken to titling "a conversation worthy daily event". Everyday the taxi driver will try to rip you off, the sales assistant in a stall will make warm hearted conversation with you, the supermarket staff will find your groceries worthy of uproarious laughter and the kindness of strangers will overwhelm you.

Today was, in essence, no different to any other day in Kolkata, but I feel my fluctuating mood caught the details in grand relief, standing out as silhouettes decorating the backdrop of my imminent return home which, despite my best efforts, I have found hard to prevent my thoughts from fleeing from the present to. Today I woke up about 9am. My teaching partner was calling me to come shopping; we had told our teachers that today we would, in some modicum, return their favor of feeding us all summer long. We walked from our door and jumped into an auto-rickshaw, which took us ten minutes down the road to the market. Or use of autos for this journey is fairly lazy and has become cause for remark amongst the drivers, who chortle every once in a while at our unwillingness to walk. Collecting some veg from the wooden stalls that line the street, enough to feed 5 people for 3 euro, my teaching partner returned to the house to prepare the potatoes while I headed down the road to the supermarket to get the chicken. When we offered to cook a meal for the teachers it wasn't long before we realized how limited we were in terms of meat. India is known for not eating beef, no Hindu seems to eat it. Muslims will not eat pork for religious reasons also, but neither will the Hindus. Pigs are rarely farmed animals in India and their flesh in considered to be parasite infested and unclean. Mutton is actually goat, not sheep and lamb is not popular. That leaves us with chicken or fish, and seeing as I do not know the fish by their names I have not ventured to buy any of the street hawkers. Instead I stuck with reliable, if a little boring, chicken.The chicken was fried, the potato was mashed, and mayo was added to veg to make a creamy addition to the dinner. Whether or not my teachers meant it when they said they loved it, I don't know, but I sure as hell have missed buttery mashed potatoes.

Throughout eating I caught glances of my students making faces at me as I ate my food. Tongues were stuck out and grins pulled. One girl darted her head from one side of a pillar to another from across the room. Simple childishness can really be enough to cheer an exhausted me up. That being said, my energy levels were much higher this morning than they were over the last few weeks, thankfully. The kids received about half an hours teaching without protestation today; after that we were resigned to games of hide and seek and dancing for the next two hours. The end of our afternoon coaching was greeted with demands for "five more games, no uncle ten more games!", which it broke my heart to refuse. The children repeatedly told us that we were not to go home this weekend and to come back on Monday. Initially when starting our placement I felt that one of my biggest issues this summer would be bonding with the children and I put a lot of thought into making my company as fun as possible for them. As much as being a good teacher, I wanted to be a good friend. The preemptive goodbyes today definitely make me feel I was successful in that regard at least.

We went for an omelette and tea for lunch before heading on to the evening coaching center. A side route between two houses leads us down behind the audi service station near our school and out the back of the evening centre. A narrow bumpy path has been across a man made body of water, exposed only due to the high temperatures and low rainfall levels, led to the back of the centre, a small stone shack far from suited to the numbers that cram into it every day. This coaching center has received mixed feelings from me. On the one hand the beauty of the area overwhelms me everyday. The man-made bodies of water litter a simplistic village. Rugged tar mac is outside our door, running onto a narrow concrete path. To the side of the path a pair of simple backless stone bneches border one of the ponds. A little further along the path a wife and husband sell fried foods from a stall outide their home. In one of the ponds, along a dirt path between tall grass a pond, more symmetrical than the others men often wash and bathe on the brick steps into the water. Our teacher told me it is clean rainwater and regularly used to swim in. It is about 50 meters long and as wide. Today, when the sun began to set I rested my feet in the water. The crescent moon hung in a cloudless sky above. Bats whirled above and my serenity was shattered by a snake at my feet in the water. The men washing nearby laughed at my start. I headed back towards the training center, got some fry with my partner. Gathering up my stuff and leaving I am again struck poignantly that we do not get the same warm goodbyes from as many students in this center as we do in the other. Climbing into the car is a poignant act, and my mood is low when I get in the door at home.

I meant it with every fiber of my being when I told my teachers I will sorely miss my time in India. I believe it has given me so much. I may not be 100% but I am significantly more sure about the direction I wish to leave my life, about the directions I should be applying my thoughts, ethical and practical, and I certainly have a stronger desire to do than before I left. My sense of fairness is more refined and a desire to do by others has certainly been sharpened. Above all I have grown as a person, loved the experience, loved the children, been passionate about performances and projects I would never have anticipated been a part of and made close friends with people I would have never met otherwise in my life. It has been an exceptional experience. It has been exhausting and painful and times, but nearly always interesting, delightful and rewarding. The trials were the heat, the exhaustion, the roads, and the children. The rewards were other volunteers, my team, the GP, the children, the children and the children. I would not trade this journey for the lost phone, lost wallet, the broken electronics, the parties missed at home, all regrettable but this has been the greatest experience of my very pleasant 22 years of this planet. Right now though, I miss home and I want my bed. I may tear up on Friday when I say goodbye, but I will probably also tear up in Dublin airport. Kolkata, it's been incredible, I hope to see you again soon!

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Food, food, food.

Sitting on a wooden bench under a corrugated iron roof of a small wooden stall, in a line of similar stalls on the side of the street, a sparrow alights to my peripheral. It flies away to a, still bright, overcast Indian sky. It is replaced by the everyday hustle and bustle of people, rickshaws, taxis and dogs, rushing back and forth in the morning air. By 8 or 9 am every morning these streets have become a manic scene for all the senses, predominantly sound. I turn my gaze away from the street as my attention is called back by the shop owner handing me my omelette and my cup of chai. I turn over 15 rupees for my breakfast. Both pieces are delicious.

On of the dominant topics of precaution that arises when one is departing for India, at least in my experience, is the insistent caution surrounding what and where you eat. Warnings of avoiding western dishes, avoiding un-peelable fruit and vegetables, avoid meat altogether, and the never ever ever eat the street foods rang in my ears prior to departure like alarm bells. Anyone who knows me, knows I love food. I may be a bit unusual in what I deem to eat due to health choices, but I am never religious about my choices. I like food, and lots of it. As a result I have eaten pretty much everything I was told not to eat before I came, and it has been one of the most incredible experiences my pallet has ever undergone. Spices expertly applied, beautifully fried vegetables, tender cuts of gorgeous meat and an amazing array of options. True, sometimes the food one encounters on a day to day basis should be skipped over with haste, or can sometimes be just plain grueling (not even I particularly want to see my chicken killed and eviscerated in front of me.

The streets of Kolkata are readily stocked with any sort of fresh foods you could want. Stalls line the roads with fresh fruit and veg in abundance and even chicken and fish is only a small walk away. A kilo of onions costs the equivalent of about 20 cent but, unfortunately, without a good fridge they go bad in a few days. The stalls hold chillies, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, mangoes, bananas, peppers, apples and countless fruit and veg I still don't recognize the name of flavor of, eight weeks into the programs. Eggs are one of the more expensive items, at about 5 rupees, of about 3-4 cent each. I have yet to brave any of the street fish or prawns, but I intend to coming towards the end of the placement. And the chicken...let's say its impossible to find fresher.

Dinners out in Kolkata are equally comparatively cheap to home. A fine meal in a swanky restaurant may set you back about a tenner, but it's perfectly possible to get exquisite food for less than a fiver if you simply walk a little further down the road and are willing to dispense with the exceptionally fancy decor. I've eaten lamb in most conceivable manners, fried or grilled, stripped in sauces or on the bone and in a gravy. Chicken dishes can be from mild sweet and sours to chilli riddled dishes that have made my face go red. The veg dishes can be a little risky I've found, most of them have something called "paneer" in them, which seems to be something like cottage cheese...not up my street anyway. The noodles and rice dishes, which I try to stay away from, are equally fantastic and, for the first few weeks, buttered or garlic naan bread was staple at our tables. It goes without saying that me being me, have eaten gluttonous amounts of food and have even had to grin and my waiter responding to my order being "too much" for one person, a statement he coupled with massive dishes. I attacked both statement and evidence with zeal.

On the streets there is an array of food stalls that would miserably fail any sort of health and safety strictures at home, but produce some of the nicest food I have had over all. Chow mein seems to the running favorite with the children in my class but for me it is outclassed by the fried foods and the chicken and veg rolls. Bagies/bajies are a fairly commonplace equivalent of a chipper. Onion, potato and spice, eggplant, and pumpkin are available outside the door of one of my schools, deliciously fried in horrible unhealthy oil and comparatively healthy chickpea batter, all for two rupees a piece. I've eaten more than enough to leave me with a unsettled, greasy, stomach. Next on my list of favorites are the omelettes. Every lunch time between school a local shop serves up, after some chuckles at my attempts at communication with people who speak no English, an omelette and tea. The tea is spiced, differently in each place, and sweetened with sugar. It comes in small cups, but at this point myself and my teaching partner have established we want bigger cups when we order. The omelette is fried with salt and chillies, before this trip I would never have thought to combine chilly and egg but it is a delicious combination. On occasion, if we manage to brave the possible miscommunications, we have managed to order some delicious veg or potato currys. TAlso available were egg or soya currys, both of which I have avoided since my first sample. Finally, in the world of fast food, the rolls are running favorites. Sold from the same stalls that dish out different types of fried chicken and vegetables, the rolls are by far the best, but definitely not paleo. Dough rolled into a circle is fried to form a wrap and, depending on your order you can have veg, egg, chicken, or any combination of the three. The egg adds bulk to the roll as the two are fried together, and the soft texture of potato in the veg roll adds beautifully to the crunchy red onion, the chicken is fried in a spicey sauce. The whole thing is the covered in a chilli and mustard sauce, but these can vary depending on the stall in question. Chillies are an option always worth considering.

Overall, the flavors I have experienced since coming to India have consistently impressed me. While everything, even the jam, is spicey or sweet or both they are never overpowering flavors. Chillies adorn most meals, more noticeably the Chinese meals, but it is never at the expense of the richness of the tastes. The diversity of tastes in one meal alone is enough to make you wish you could order another meal, and it's safe to say my Bengali cookbook will get substantial use at home, if only the mangoes tesco sell could live up to those here! I hope it's not a running trend for Indian foods at home, because I know the Chinese dishes in Ireland are definitely not up to scratch after dining on them here.

Monday, 29 July 2013

In the Sundarbans, Day Three

This one will be brief.

My second nights sleep in the Sundarbans was less fantastic than the first nights. I had been savaged by the mosquitoes and my bites itched all night long. I woke up at least three times, every couple of hours. Despite this I felt well rested and prepared for the day, if a little scratchy. We woke up about 8 to head down to the Ganges and enjoy a boat journey up the river delta, away from the sea. I had stocked up on fruit the night before, but I forgot to bring it with me so my breakfast consisted of a not so pleasant packet of biscuits that tasted like toast that had been buttered two hours ago and left to harden, yuck! I munched on them all the way to river, through the village and my conversation and China with the Indian student I mentioned in my previous post, across the muddy river ridges, and down the red stone slope leading to the boat dock. Climbing onto the boat, I claimed a seat and finished my last one. I was definitely looking forward to the lunch on the boat we had been told was on the way later.

After everyone climbed on, managing to not slip and fall in, the boat revved up and started to move. Spinning to it tail it looked like we were stuck, at first. The Sundarbans team told us about their last boat trip, the boat had gotten stuck in mud and no amount of shoving managed to release it until time had decided to let go of its hull. Fortunately for us, the boat didn't remain stuck and we cruised out into the middle of the river. Unlike the Sundarbans the team the week before, we wouldn't be on the boat for quite the same trip they had. They had spent the entire day on the river, getting off at intervals to walk amongst the mangroves and into the wildlife reservation. We simply didn't have the time for that trip today, but we would be spending the next couple of hours seeing some beautiful natural scenes on one of the globes most iconic and famous rivers. As the boat drifted upstream and the river grew wider we sat to the front of the boat, facing the oncoming merging of two deltas. Music and easeful conversation fed the peaceful atmosphere. Unlike the other groups trip the week before, the sky was overcast but, thankfully, no more than a drizzle passed our way. A beaming sun could have either been beautiful of horrendous, with us being exposed for a number of consecutive hours so we definitively got the safest of bets in terms of the weather.

Conversation rolled around teaching schools, home, inappropriate jokes and food. I supposed it's extremely unlikely to stick a bunch of Irish lads on a boat and not expect the conversation at some point to turn to food, we just miss our beef too much! A couple of hours upstream we are gifted with lunch on the boat, curry, prawn, mango chutney(jelly), chicken and rice is our fantastic fare for the day, and we are happy out. Munching away, tea follows the food and a rotation of pretentious stances on the fore of the boat adds some fantasticly posey sensations to the afternoon. A couple of hours sees us returning upstream again,but not before jokes of a log, mistaken for a crocodile create roars of laughter on the boat. On returning, we clambered back out and up the red brick dock. Back to the Sundarbans accommodation and to pack for our trip back to Kolkata, some fond farewells left us leaving a fantastic weekend and a fantastic group of people until GP Week.

Delayed Blog post on GP week to come!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Experience in Hinduism

On Saturday the 6th I woke up, aware that I was late waking up. We had a field trip planned for the day, to a temple called Belur Math, a good deal north in the city. I was up and showered immediately and out the door for a taxi. For a few reasons, we decided a taxi all the way there would not be the best mode of transport, so we had opted to get a boat down the Ganges from one dock to another. Our taxi took us as far as a dock at Babu Gath, a route that took us throw a wealthy district of the city. Despite knowing and seeing the type of wealth that exists in Kolkata, it is still bizarre to notice the change in environment from different levels of affluence. While the area we are living in is definitely not lower class, there is still a strong juxtaposition between it and the area we drove through today, which would have only been upper middle class. Even here the contrast between rich and poor is visually present, beside beautifully cared for parks and grand buildings, men sit and scavenge on the streets, cutting trees and chopping wood; a dismal reality of the discriminatory roll of fate for a person born in Kolkata.

When our taxi left us off on the side of the Ganges, between us and the dock lay a small thrown up market, customary of India. Temporary wooden shacks selling hot foot, drinks and cigarettes. The boats on the river are a commonly used, and cheap, mode of transport, so it makes sense that shops would spring up around the docks. Wandering through the stalls, a bigger one stands at the back where we buy our tickets up river for five rupees. We are told there is no boat that will take us all the way to Belur from here, but we can get a train from Haora, and a boat to Haora. We strolled down a wooden gangplank onto a large metal block sitting in the water, which served as a dock. When the boat rolled in, people clambered on and off; in true Indian style there was absolutely no concept of a queue, those who climbed first alighted first.All aboard, we were a smaller crowd than had gotten off, Haora was a central point of transport so I imagine it exports more than it takes in from these smaller stations. Haora bridge loomed out in front of us, a huge white metal structure stretching from bank to bank, and the boat rolled into the station. Getting off the boat was less of a struggle than getting on. We walked back up a very similar gang plank, had our tickets checked, and out an archway to be faced with a impressive red brick structure, dotted with fine arches and white stone columns. Haora train station surpassed Heuston in architecture and size. Between us and the station stormed no less than a hundred yellow taxis. We made the venture across and bought our tickets. With some time to spare, we bought some food and wandered towards our platform. Often when I am here, I am struck by the beauty of the small things in Indian culture. In most train stations I have seen there is an abundance of seats, nearly always entirely occupied. While there were seats available here, whole families sat on the floor together, a blank strewn beneath them. The simplicity of sitting on the ground is a very standard practice in India, and I find it a soothing image, complacency in simplicity, that is lacking in my home life.

Our train journey was about twenty minutes long in a very empty train, I still feel cheated out of of my genuine, manic, Indian train journey, but I'm sure I'll experience one before I leave. Getting off the train, the ground of the station was fine marble, the walls were a clean white paint. A tall archway and porch led us out to a similarly fine courtyard, which led to the street. One thing about India remains consistent 90% of the time, the streets are mayhem. Taxi drivers attempt to reel in your custom by flattering you or starting conversation, fruit stalls try to call you, rickshaw's only kind of try to dodge you. Walking in Kolkata is not meant to be a complacent experience. Down the street and across the road a much grander arch way led us into a wide avenue. Tall walls flanked a cobbled road. Here, at least, road traffic didn't bother you. On the right hand side, trees and stalls stood. A couple hundred meters saw us into the main temple complex. The ground was a smooth paved stone. Small and large gardens stood behind low fences, well kept from care and respect, they were totally untrodden. All the buildings seemed to be made out of the same pale pale yellow, almost white. To our left, its porch canopied by tree branches, stood the museum. To the right stood toilet facilities and a place to leave your shoes. We headed straight for the main temple as, unfortunately, beyond 6pm, visitors were only allowed here. Thankfully, it was the main reason we were here, although it would have been nice to wander down the steps at which the river lapped, or to view some of the other temples.. Looming tall on our left was the main temple. An impressive structure, the roof was arrayed with squared domes and spires. Below them stood decorative balconies in arches. The main door was close to 20 foot high, above which a finely carved circular design, similar to that often seen on the Indian flag, dominated.

Inside we took seats on the black and white marble floor, cross legged. We were in a long hall, revered in atmosphere and grand in design. Silence hung powerfully in the air, condemning inconsiderate noise. Above and around us a stone balcony shaped a rectangular viewing space over the prayer area. To our left and right columns, stretching at intervals the length of the hall, rose to support the ornately carved balcony. Beyond the pillars finely carved double doors, at separated from each other by about 8 foot, stood opened up onto the raised dais surrounding the temple, looking out to the gardens that bordered the area. I took a moment in my seat to breath deeply and appreciate to peace of the place. Soon, a bustling began, and the crowd sitting at the back of the temple began to move up, so we followed. Men in white kurtas and trousers had begun to arrive in the temple space, they were monks we thought, to prepare for the service. They rolled out mats between the rows of pillars; one for men, one for women and, later, a number closer up for the monks. From midway up the hall, on the men's mat, I could see the idol in the box at the centre focal point of the hall. I had, mistakenly, thought the statue for that of a man in remarkable stillness. The statue attracted specific worship over the course of us awaiting the prayers. People lay down in front of him and chanted before returning to their seats. These people were an inconsistent ebb and flow that continued almost until the beginning of the prayers, it included a number of the monks. For a time now, I closed my eyes. Light was beginning to fade and I thought the prayers must begin soon. A good time, I thought, to attempt to meditate.

For close to half an hour I had my eyes closed. It takes about half an hour for my knees to ache from sitting cross legged, a time I have actually been trying to improve on. Anyway, the ache tends to run away with my serenity and I opened my eyes. The sun had set more, but light still clung to the atmosphere. My eyes took time to adjust to the artificial dim from above us. The monks had grown in number, they were now dotted with orange amongst the white kurtas. Still, pilgrims lined up the pray before the idol until the sound of melodic drumming and strumming accompanied total darkness outside and the chanting began. At irregular intervals a ringing punctuated through the chants. The unified voices from around me washed over and, closing my eyes again, briefly, goosebumps rose on my arms. While not everyone in the room was chanting, the hairs on my arms said the sound came from everywhere. Male voices, presumably due to the dominance of the monks, seemed to make up the majority of the sound. The sonorous ascension and decension was repetitive and moving, sufficiently so to ignore the discomfort in my legs, which had spread to my hips. The chant continued for about 20 minutes, at intervals I observed and closed my eyes to let it wash over me. At the far end of the hall, in the idol's chamber, a monk led the procession. He waved a clutch of candles rhythmical and synchronized with the chants bowing before it.

At the end of the first chant I climbed to my feet and left the temple. Despite the peace I had felt during the chants, a semblance of intrusion remained, and our group felt it was time to leave. The peaceful air hung on the darkness outside, and we climbed back down the steps to leave.

On a highly contrasting point with the sentiment of the evening, alighting from the steps, one of our group discovered his shoes had been stolen from outside the temple while we sat in prayers, a real kill to the sanctity we had felt that evening.  

Saturday, 6 July 2013

In the Sundarbans, Friday 28th and Saturday 29th

This post is partly sourced from a diary entry I made on Saturday the 29th of June, a day after arriving in the Sundarbans accommodation.I am going to edit and finish it here, hopefully making it a pleasant read from whatever I can salvage from my scribbles and recollections.

The Sundarbans.

After more than a little confusion, regarding transportation, and a squashed car journey, reminiscent of my childhood holiday car trips, we arrived in the Sundarbans yesterday afternoon. It is a stunning landscape. I hardly believe I have ever been anywhere as rural, or as naturally captivating as this region, about 150 km south east of Kolkata. The Sundarbans stretches east into Bangladesh, and covers the same area, roughly as Ireland. It is the natural habitat of the famous, and rare, man-eating Bengali tiger. I'd be lying if the hopes of seeing one, or a crocodile or snake didn't grab my fancy.

Due to it's rurality, we decided the best means of travel to the region was by a hired car. At about 8am I was woken up, we were due to be collected by 9am at Ruby Hospital. I was going to be pushed for time and a shower was out of the question. I was up, dressed and eating pronto. A scurried bit of final packing saw me rushing out the door, rushing back for my glasses whilst colliding with cartons of drinks and, to my later dismay, leaving behind my flip flops. Outside, on the street, we make a few final purchases of water, chocolate and similar long distance travel necessities, then hop into a rickshaw, which takes us as far as Kasba New Market. It is only five minutes away and situated on the main road, but we have to hop out here to get another, horribly expensive 5 rupee rickshaw going the opposite way down the main road. Another quick journey and we are on the other side of the messiest roundabout I have ever seen in my life. Ruby Hospital roundabout makes the Arc de Triomphe look like a baby could navigate it. Out of the rickshaw we see no sign of our hired transport. A phone call tells us we need to get a taxi to Garia junction, and before long we are staring at unknown rural roads. I had incorrectly assumed the direction of where we were going but are reassured by the group in a taxi ahead of us we are headed in the right direction. The taxi leaves us out, under a bridge at a taxi rank. The ground is dry dirt, and the area seems to have spawned a market. We are directed to Gariahad Junction; two minutes and a flight of stairs later we are overlooking the area. It took my until I saw the terminal to realize Gariahad Junction is a big train station, the market being an offspring to the traffic of pedestrians from the station.We can see no sign of anyone and nother phone call sends us back, confused, to where we started, Ruby Hospital. Finally, we have found our car. It was definitely not made to fit the ten of us, but we squeeze in nonetheless and try to deal with it in good humor. We eventually settle on the most comfortable combination we could think of, with the minimal sacrifice to foot blood-flow,  and we are off.

The three and a bit hours definitely weren't as torturous as the cramped conditions would have led you to believe. Almost immediately outside of Kolkata City, the landscape changes to an irregular spacing of villages and towns, and inconsistently developed roads, running through forested and remarkable areas. The staring drastically increases, which drives home the knowledge of the inward nature of these communities. We are an even more bizarre sight, even drawing some verbal exclamations at times. The serenity of the natural regions we passed coupled with a quiet phase in the car, allowed some time for peaceful thought. I had a reflective moment, staring at the inland bodies of water and the vivid green foliage flicking by me, a recognition at the improvement in my mood, and an ability to go with the flow that I have been aspiring towards for the past year. It was an extremely pleasant realization, one I doubt I would have achieved without Dan Millman's writing and this trip. As the beautiful scenery flicked by, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, depending on the state of the roads, an easeful mood settled on me.

It was with this sense of peace that I observed the oddities of the journey as interesting but not bizarre. Entering one of the towns, the traffic slowed to a halt, then advanced to a crawl. Rounding the corner of a street lined with stalls, we came to a similarly lined junction. The combination of the permanent street narrowing stalls and a nonchalant bull was creating a bottle neck. The bull did not receive a second glance, unlike us, and had an uncaring nature that, for some reason stands against my, probably misinformed, impression of bulls as aggressive animals.The next village on was in the midst of a large market. Sacks of fruit and veg filled the stone tiled town square. Further beyond, the towns diminished to villages, which decreased in size rapidly.Huts began to be the, irregular, dominant form of abode. They lined the streets and they hid back in the tress, ranged in size and material, some seemingly made of mud. Hidden away in foliage and mud a path led, around a pond of water, to the door of one brown wooden, single story structure. The roof was brown thatch. It seemed like a relatively large home. A woman stood at the door, staring out to the road as we drove by. The body of water, despite the algae, held an air of peace. Standing, up to his chest, in the water, an elderly man cupped water in his hands, lifted and poured it over his balding head. The grey of his beard stood out, wiry and strong like himself, in the creation of a simple representation of life.

A few turns off main roads took us down smaller and smaller streets. The size of the roads indicated to us we were getting close to our destination. Here too cows lie and stand in the street, and a vehicle has no choice but to go around them. Here, open fields loom to both sides, presumably cultivated for farming. Soon enough the compound looms out in front of us. The iron gates in the 6 foot walls stand open, and we immediately hurry to stretch our legs. The building is much bigger than I had anticipated, white and red stone manor, with gorgeous balconies dotted over the three storey structure. I have a little time to take it in before we are greeted by the Sundarbans team and are brought inside. First on the agenda is lunch, which was delicious. Sundarban prawns, potato curry and mango chutney make for an incredible meal. An after lunch nap is well received, and about 4 o clock we are woken up. As the Sundarbans team live in very close proximity with the children they teach, and have a field in the grounds, they regularly play sports with the kids after school. As the guests, we were invited to play football. A glance off the balcony at the field reveals children and saturated brown statues running after a ball. The field is covered in mud from the recent monsoons. Realizing what I'm in for, I resigned myself to a faceful of mud and headed down to the field. Within ten minutes we are all covered in the foulest smelling mud imaginable. Afterwards, we rinsed off under an outdoor pump, and a hose. Once clean enough to enter the house, I climbed the stairs and had a shower, fully dressed, and then further washed myself and my clothes, to no avail. I still smelt, there was still mud in my ears and my shorts were rank, but I was delighted for the fun of the game. After showering we headed into the local village area, which constituted a few dozen stalls selling the necessities, such as very fine chai, fried foods, groceries, clothes and phone credit. Sitting down to munch on vegetables, deep fat fried in chick pea flour and mustard oil, and a glass of some deliciously spiced and sweetened tea in the simple surroundings was a simple pleasure. That night, back at the house, we had dinner. Afterwards we shared stories and played some games.I was introduced to an interesting young man from Delhi, who was also doing placement in the Sundarbans. Conversation led to travelling and my interest in Tibet came out. He informed me that, were I to travel to Dharamsala I would get direct details from Tibetan exiles about their treatment in China, I am incredibly excited at the prospect of meeting with some of these people and hearing about their experiences. I don't think it's an opportunity I'm going to pass up.

The next morning is slept in until the afternoon, and after lunch we are taken on a easy walk, for a few hours, along the shore of the Ganges delta stream. Here, at points the river must be about half a mile wide, and I guess it must be wider again upstream. Seeing a river this size has never happened before, except in my mind, and I'm brought back to the thoughts of rivers I've been told about in fantasy books.The insurpassability of natures flow of water is often used in fiction to create a barrier, and there I could see why. The river's flow, while apparently slow, was probably far stronger than it seemed. I mused that, if one were to swim it, they would probably have to aim upstream, simply to reach their counterpart across. Walking further upstream the river does indeed seem to get wider. At one point it becomes very manageable to walk down the levee to the river's edge. A small fishing boat sat on the edge, the waters mildly lapping it to a casual rock. Out on the river, a number of such rowboats were in evidence, each bearing no more than two people.

Clambering back up the embankment, we walk away from the river and down an open track lined with tall slim trees. Either side of the walled path the ground dropped away three or four foot to an open, flooded, field, presumably used for growing rice. It's not long before the children, who have been following us since just before we climbed down to the river, are joined by more, and some adults. We are decidedly a bizarre sight and the children are joined by a small number of adults. Unlike the impression I would develop at home, there is no animosity in the staring. The children are friendly and excited, if a little shy. Rarely, in this country, have I encountered open vehemence. We may be an oddity, but we are greeted with warm hospitality in the majority of cases, and the friendliness does not end in the Sundurbans. For another half an hour, we wander back through farmsteads. Bales of hay, semi-clothed children, women in saris, goats and cows regularly permeate the area. This place, though sparsely populated compared to Kolkata, is absolutely alive in a way rural Ireland does not compare. On our way back we returned through the village. At this hour, 4pm, nothing is open. The shops and stalls will not start selling until dark, so we head for the house. On the way there we encountered a snake, so no crocodile or tiger so far, but still pretty cool!

That evening, I took another walk into the village with one of my teammates. The peaceful air led to a lovely relaxed conversation. We had a wander, a chai, bought some fruit and headed back for dinner. That night there was a thunderstorm, and on the way back we were caught in the downpour. After the heat we have experienced so far in this trip, it was utterly refreshing to be caught in it. That evening, after eating I watched the lightning in the distance. There was something comfortingly serene about being there, sitting on the floor watching the light blossom in the sky, through an open window. I was definitely a little disappointed when the rain stopped. We hit the hay relatively early that night; in the morning we would be taking a boat trip on the Ganges. I am aware that the size of this post grew a lot more than I anticipated, so I will leave the boat trip to another post. And so ends my first longer post, hope it was up to scratch!


Tuesday, 25 June 2013

A View From a Bengali Rooftop

A pensive mood descends as I gaze from a Kolkata rooftop into the distance. Clutched in my hand rests a comforting heat of a soothing cup of brew. Despite the non-Kenyan origins of the tea, it still has a homely, welcomed, aspect I find extremely relaxing. My other hand rests on the knee of my left knee. The foot is pressed, bare, against the rough concrete wall circuiting the rooftop, which rises to my seated shoulder. It leaves my perspective clear to the distance with a plentiful view of Kolkatan urban sprawl.Sprawl is thoroughly the most appropriate word for the disarrayed, mismatched collage of living spaces, so far removed from the uniformity of suburban neighborhood in Ireland. "A City of Contrasts", as it was dubbed by a good man I recently had a few conversations with, is title which expresses many of the elements of life in this particular concrete jungle, and the architecture is simply one area where this is quote is proven. In fact, it is simply the tip of the iceberg, below which looms the continued, and far more expansive trend of diversity for which India is renowned.

At this height, it is note-able that no two buildings resemble their neighbors, outside of their need to expand upwards, rather than outwards, atypical of such condensed city living environments. The need for greater living space in a smaller area stimulates the growth of three, four and five storey accommodations. Our own building looms four floors up, not including the rooftop, however I do believe that our landlord is close to unique in owning the entirety of the building. Architecturally, there is very little outward similarity in the edifices, not even the location of the windows or relief designs. While certain designs may resemble each other, or be similarly located, it is rare and even rarer that they would be both similar and similarly located, nor do the balconies and frontal structural designs share and commonalities. The size and shape of the buildings themselves lend the idea of mismatched jig saw pieces, not fitting in in size or shape.

The differences lay open the truth to the Indian inequality, which permeates all areas of life here. The condition of the building, a perfectly kept, yet gaudy purple, building stands proudly opposite of me, its neighbor is in disrepair, flaking yellow paint and streaked with mould. This may be indicative, but on its own would not lay indication of the true depth of the inequality in urban India. To understand that, you need to walk the streets and experience the sights and smells, observe the living quarters of those who own little more than a few garments and a shack of wood, from which they sell fruit or sweets. These shacks operate as stalls, and at night the erection of a mosquito net makes them a bed. Even these are wealthier than those with no livelihood but salvaging, whose children rum in the streets, delightedly, in the nip, from their shouting mothers, or the children who carry their younger siblings in their arms to tempt guilty feeling into a few rupees.

Contrasting this knowledge against the view in my horizon, rising over a dusty barrier which seems to separate any level of Kolkatan life from its economic superior, loom the flashing lights of a trio of skyscrapers, perhaps close in spectacle and display amongst similar glass structures in New York. The dusty horizon, to me, represents the stark divide of the lives of the rich from the lives of the many in Kolkata. The skyward bound monuments and their less, but still substantial, powerful brethren, flanking either side, climb to heights in a city where basic human rights are denied to the common people. The divide, physical and metaphorical, is conjured up as a chasm, insurpassable by the mundane tools allotted to the average citizen, and forbids the overlapping of societies dependent on each other or, more truly, on itself.