July 20, 2024
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Journey to the City of Joy

Kolkata leaves its indelible stamp
on a student volunteer

By W. Woodruff Hales

Vacations Magazine: Journey to the City of Joy
Caroline Hales

(Scroll down to see a slide show.)

Someone once told me that India was an "assault on the senses," and I would say that's as accurate as it gets. Not in a bad way or a good way, but in India's own unique way. When people ask me how my trip to India went, the first word that comes to mind is "intense." This is followed by colorful, amazing, exciting, intimidating, intriguing ... the list is endless. From start to finish, it was a true adventure.

Every year, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, sends a small group of students and one faculty member on a service trip to Kolkata, India, often referred to as the City of Joy. It was something that I had known about since my first year at the university. I always wanted to go, but I wasn't sure if I would get the opportunity.

My dreams came true during my senior year, when my application was selected. I was fortunate to have my younger sister, Caroline, a sophomore at Wake Forest, share this experience with me. In late December 2010, after a semester of planning and fundraising, it was finally time to embark on this journey that none of us would ever forget.

Most of our Wake Forest group was delayed arriving in India, due to flight trouble. As a result, Caroline and I, along with another student, Joanna, were alone as we received our first impressions of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta.

It started as soon as we walked out of the arrivals hall. It was around 1 a.m., but our internal clocks were so off that we had no clue what time it was. When the automatic doors of the terminal opened, we were hit in the face with an indescribable smell -- not bad, but not good either. Our ears were assaulted by the constant honking of horns, while porters both official and unofficial tried their hardest to solicit us. Cars snaked through the airport with no regard for established lanes. In the midst of all this we found a man holding a paper sign, "Wake Forest Delegates." We chuckled, as we weren't sure we really qualified as delegates.

After about five minutes of trying to explain why there were only three of us, and not the 11 he was expecting, we headed to his van. Along the way, we passed a '90s model Jeep with a sign reading "Police" taped in the front window. I'm not sure that I would stop if something like that attempted to pull me over on a highway.

We zoomed through the deserted streets to our hotel, and I began to notice what looked like sandbags on the sidewalks, only to realize that they weren't sandbags at all. They were people sleeping on the street. This was our first taste of the poverty that consumes much of Kolkata.

Approximately 20 minutes after we left the airport, we pulled up to a gate on Sudder Street, one of Kolkata's busiest tourist avenues. The driver honked and pulled into the portico at the Lytton Hotel. Caroline, Joanna and I immediately went to bed, hoping to adjust to India Standard Time. The next morning, we woke to the sounds of city life and the relentless horn honking that made its way through the windows and walls of the hotel.

After breakfast, we explored Sudder Street while we waited for the rest of our group to arrive. Venturing out of the hotel was intimidating at first, but what we saw was what I expected it to be: loud and colorful, with the occasional beggar and tons of shopping stands. At one cart, a man carved and arranged exotic fruits into the most beautiful fruit salad I had ever seen.

The rest of our crew arrived that evening, and we all made our way down the block to the Blue Sky Cafe, which would become our go-to restaurant in the city. It had an amazing atmosphere and was never boring, so we ate most of our meals there. Blue Sky is geared to tourists, but it has an awesome selection of Indian cuisine as well as some Western dishes that were great for when we were feeling homesick.

Up to this point, India was exactly what I had anticipated, and I started to feel comfortable there. The experience had been intense so far, but nothing had really blown my mind. Little did I know what was to come.

The next day we headed for the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa. Most of the order's sisters live in the house, and it's where all volunteers meet each morning for an optional Mass and breakfast before they fan out to the various Missionaries of Charity homes, which care for the orphaned, the sick, the dying, the homeless and others in need.

As we walked through a residential area on our approach to the Mother House, we encountered smells of human waste, simmering curry, burning trash, car exhaust and fish sitting out at a market. "I could turn my head another way if I saw something disturbing on the street, or hold my ears as horns constantly honked," says Emily Earle, a City of Joy team member. "But no matter what I did to try and cover the smells, they still found their way to me."

But it seemed as if every color of the rainbow was in front of us, too: the neon orange sari of the woman selling the fish, the green plants growing in alleys, the violet towel of a man bathing in a fountain, the myriad hues in a streetside vegetable stand. Around one corner would be a man butchering animals for food, and 10 feet away, another man would be throwing feces against a wall. Then we would see a child herding goats down the street. We took all of this in while dodging speeding rickshaws, cabs and mopeds. By the time we arrived in the peaceful courtyard of the Mother House, we were all in a state of shock, I think.

At the Mother House, the male students were assigned to volunteer at the men's wing of Prem Dan, a home for mentally disabled people who had no means of making it on the street. While some of the other homes served as places where residents could get back on their feet and eventually live elsewhere on their own, these men and women would probably never leave Prem Dan.

Prem Dan is located next to one of the worst slums in Kolkata, about 100 feet from one of the run-down commuter rail lines. But the complex of buildings surrounds a lush courtyard, providing a bit of an oasis. When you walk in the door, you are greeted by patients whose smiles turn into big grins when you stop to shake their hands and give them a simple "Hello! How is it going today?"

We were always greeted with a "Hello, brudda!" from all the patients, who referred to each volunteer as "brother."

We met Fredrick on our first day at Prem Dan. Fredrick was a long-term volunteer from Kolkata who was preparing to go to school to become a Catholic priest. Fredrick immediately became our mentor, showing us what to do and where our assistance could most be used.

Every morning, we would help with the laundry -- hand-washing, hanging and folding the clothes. We washed hundreds of bedding sets and clothing in a series of water basins that progressed from the soapiest to the cleanest. Then we would take the loads to the top of the building and hang them on clotheslines. The view from the roof was serene and peaceful, and the colorful fabrics drying on the lines were the tangible results of our hard work.

The more able patients would help with the laundry and show us exactly how everything should be done. The items were hung according to category. We would go to drape a bedsheet on a line and hear, "Hello, brudda! Sheets over here!" It didn't take us long to learn the ropes, and the laundry process soon became routine.

After laundry everyone would get a cup of piping hot chai tea and a biscuit, or what we would call an oversize cracker. When you hand a man his tea and biscuit, and he looks up at you, smiling and nodding with gratitude, all 10,000 miles it took to get to India are 100 percent worth it.

After teatime we would head downstairs to wash the floor of the courtyard by throwing buckets of laundry water onto the stones and sweeping the water and debris into the storm drains. There's no shortage of water in Kolkata, and the faucets on the streets run constantly.

Then it was time for lunch. Five days a week, the meals for residents were prepared at Prem Dan; the other two days, they were donated by one of the two five-star hotels in Kolkata: the Oberoi Grand or the Taj Bengal. We passed the food around to the patients and helped feed the ones who were not able to nourish themselves.

After lunch, we would wash the dishes and set them aside for dinner, then head back to Sudder Street and meet the women for lunch. They spent their days at Shanti Dan, a home for mentally ill and disabled women. We shared our stories, fascinated by each other's experiences in the different homes. At one lunch, we learned that the women took the Shanti Dan residents to the Kolkata Zoo.

After a morning of volunteering, we would explore Kolkata. With a population of more than 15 million people, it's India's third largest city behind Mumbai and Delhi. We saw reminders of British-era Calcutta, when it was the capital of India under colonial rule. The Victoria Memorial, for example, is a white marble edifice that opened in 1921 and was dedicated to Queen Victoria, also Empress of India. It's now a museum housing exhibits that illustrate the British presence in India.

On one of our last days in the country, we woke at 3 a.m. to catch a flight to New Delhi, landing at the shiny, modern Indira Gandhi International Airport, quite different from what we had arrived at in Kolkata. The city has a cosmopolitan feel, too. As we drove around the government district, the Delhi metro whizzed overhead and then dove underground at the next block to continue its journey through the capital, far superior to the old metro that rattles its way under the streets of Kolkata.

From Delhi we made the five-hour drive south to Agra, where we toured the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal. The Red Fort lies in the shadows of the Taj Mahal but is equally a gem. The stunning citadel offers a glimpse at the life of the Mughal emperors.

The Taj Mahal is every bit as beautiful as it is made out to be. The towering marble structure is covered in ornate inlays that are simply mind-boggling when you think of the time and craftsmanship they took to create.

After we left the Taj Mahal, it was homeward bound for the 2010-2011 City of Joy team. It took nearly 24 hours of flights to get us from Delhi to Winston-Salem.

I think about India every day. I feel I may think about it every day for the rest of my life. It was truly a unique and humbling experience, and I see myself returning in the future, to witness how this amazing country may change. India is a beautiful, colorful and exciting destination that one should not miss the opportunity to explore.

The Vacations To Go Grant

Vacations To Go established the Vacations To Go Grant in 2008 as a scholarship for Wake Forest students participating in international service trips. Alan Fox, chairman and CEO of Vacations To Go, is an alumnus of the university, located in Winston-Salem, NC.

There are two portions to the grant: a need-based scholarship to help students with travel expenses and a photojournalism assignment that pays a stipend. The student awarded the photojournalism assignment for this service project, Woody Hales, traveled to India in winter 2010.

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