The air off the Himalayas brings a cool breeze at night and last night I was actually so cold that I put on practically all the warm clothes I brought with me. My face and my body are filthy and I find that no matter how hard I scrub, I keep wiping dirt from every section of my body. Perhaps it is because I bathe in cold water and use bottled water for certain sections of my body. I do not trust the water here no matter what anyone says. Indians claim that they run drinking water at certain times during the day, but I would not dare drink it. Only a few days here and I already can decipher through the massive amounts of manipulations and lies and attempted manipulation.
In fact, when I came off the plane after 30+ hours of traveling without sleep, I did not even bother dealing with touts or “more money, more money” for my taxi ride. I simply got the police involved and then felt comfortable with what I had written as a price for the 35 kilometer drive into the city. Walking the streets of Kolkata is something I can’t get used to even though the traffic here is not nearly as bad as the traffic in Beijing or other parts of China. There is no order here and you can visibly see the lack of respect for life. No lanes are drawn in the roads and where there is room for three lanes, five or six are formed. Cars are insanely fast and slam on the breaks only centimeters away from accidents. Lights are practically nonexistent and people make mad dashes across the streets, missing buses by a mere second. I generally do as the Indians do, but my method does not detract from my worries, as I do not want to end up in a hospital here.
Stepping into a hospital here is like stepping into the 1940’s and adding your worst nightmare: all of the most horrifying diseases, uninterested doctors who view themselves as gods, needles a quarter inch wide, blood and feces all over mattresses, red spit all over every wall, bed pans filled with urine, feces, bananas, and biscuits that cats eat from and men and women crying in pain and begging for money. I might add that this was a “good” hospital I visited.
I have not met the nuns yet or signed up for my volunteer pass and I wont be meeting them today because Thursdays are the day off. I only got a chance to go to two hospitals (I actually described the better of the two, the second I’ll leave out for the time being) because I met one of the volunteers. I am actually in the same hotel. I was first planning on staying in a hotel that charged 5 dollars a night, but I figured I should be thrifty and so I am in a hotel for 2 dollars a night. Next door to me I have two women that have been coming long before Mother Teresa died, the type that volunteers refer to as “dinosaurs”. I sleep in a room that is half the size of my NYC closet on a wooden bed. My lock is a padlock and this was at one point a peeping tom’s room. My pillow was disgusting so my new pillow case is a t-shirt I brought with me. My shower, which is shared by all of us, only runs cold water and I’ve started using a shampoo that is preventative against lice. I am sure to get them, especially because I will likely choose to work with disabled children tomorrow. I have a window overlooking Sudder Street, the backpackers district, and I am thankful for earplugs that my friend Serena gave me. Although my original plan was to avoid eating street food and go to places like The Blue Sky Café, which has been reported to be the safe choice for food, my gut instinct has told me otherwise. For one, I did not come to India to be with backpackers and secondly I would prefer to avoid popular western hangouts in light of the recent attacks in Mumbai and the six other attacks over the past six months. Kolkata reportedly officially has 15 million people here, but other reports claim that in fact there are 30 million. It is the second most expensive city in India and only 40 kilometers from Bangladesh. If you get my points, you can understand why I do not want to be in popular places.
My plan today is to go back to the two hospitals and pick up my tailor made clothes. The clothing I brought was completely inappropriate even though I brought the most loose fitting clothes I could find. I already got several proposals and poked a few times. I plan to start the day by drinking some sizzling chai tea with ginger (it is some of the most delicious tea I’ve tasted) on a tiny stool in the middle of a street and doing as the Indians do by throwing their clay cups onto the street and crushing them below their feet. I plan on avoiding the beggars on Sudder as they are part of organized crime and realize that they receive more money by begging than they do by working. I plan on passing the meat market which has a horrendous smell, that is tolerable only because it reminds me of Africa, with unrefrigerated meats hanging, rats squatting and plenty of insects crawling all around.
I certainly feel alive and am aware of every moment. I feel God, I feel joy and confusion and I am so happy to be here in this place I will call home for the next month.