Thursday, May 29, 2014

International Menstrual Hygiene Day at Durbar

Today we were invited by the DMSC community to their International Menstrual Hygiene Day program. It was sponsored by Durbar and put together by Amra Padatik, which translates (I believe) to "The Foot Soldiers" and is the organization of the children of sex workers. The reason for the Menstrual Hygiene Day was to decrease the stigma that menstruation has within the Sonagachi/Kolkata community, and stress the importance of using pads/tampons versus some of the other dangerous/potentially harmful practices.

The program was amazing, I loved it! There were over a hundred attendees, plus people meandering about watching as they walked through Sonagachi. When we first arrived to the event, the entire second row of women got up and were insistent that we take their seats, which was so sweet. We began to refuse, to be polite, but I think in the end the politer thing to do was to accept their offer, so we sat. The program began with a skit, which was in Bengali so I have no idea what it was about. But I did catch the word "tampon" in there, so I assume it was about menstrual hygiene.
Next Dr. Jana, the PI of the Sonagachi Research Institute, and some other doctors stood and spoke, presumably about the same topic though it was also in Bengali. Dr. Jana is sort of like our fieldwork advisor. He is the one who approves our research proposals (which are due tomorrow!)
And then the Amra Padatik dance group took the stage and we were treated to a beautiful performance. I couldn't understand the words in the song, so for me it was kind of like interpretive dance. I loved it.
After awhile it became dark, and the mens' program started. I believe the band was made up of Babus, which are fixed, regular clients of the sex workers who often live with them and act as second parent figures to their children. After awhile, Phillip, Beth and Anjali got up and began dancing in front of the whole crowd!
And before I knew it, Pintuda (our interpreter, an amazing individual!) was encouraging me to join them. I said no at first, and then I thought further...when would I ever have a chance to dance Indian style in front of 100 sex workers and their families on International Menstrual Hygiene Day in a red light district in India? So... in I went!
I am so thankful to be here and to be relishing in these experiences. At one point before I went in to dance, an older woman put her arms around me from behind and was holding onto me while I photographed Phillip, Beth and Anjali. Then when the next song began, she pushed me onto the dance floor to encourage me to dance! The women here welcome us with open arms and I'm in awe at their willingness to share their experiences with Durbar and as sex workers. Today I sat next to a woman who is one of the project directors, and even though she speaks little English she tried her best to hold conversations with me throughout the entire event. And even when we could not communicate, we would point and laugh and smile and nudge each other. When we went to leave tonight I waved to her and she put her hand out and held onto my for a long time, not letting go as I was walking away!

I cannot WAIT to dive in with our research proposals. I was originally planning to work with the LGBTKH project, but I changed my mind at the last minute and chose to work with the Targeted Intervention Projects. These TIPs are the research interventions that Durbar is seeking to implement among the DMSC community. They include HIV/STI education and tracking, monitoring all 49 red light districts across Kolkata, implementing a customer care center (yes! A clinic set up specifically for educating and disseminating information to the clients of the sex workers. They are finding that this keeps the HIV/STI rate down). The really cool thing is that these customer care clinics are run by the Babus! It's such a group effort, everything in the DMSC. It's amazing.

Tomorrow we meet with Dr. Jana to discuss our research proposals, and then we have class in the evening.

I've come down with some type of sickness. Luckily no vomiting or diarrhea ( doesn't exist here in India!) but I do have a fever and a very sore throat. The chemists (pharmacists) here are interesting - you don't need a prescription for most things. I was able to obtain a Z-pack (azithromycin), cough syrup with codeine, and some cough drops. I'm also drinking lots of honey-lemon tea, and resting as much as possible. Luckily we had yesterday off, so I rested on and off for pretty much the entire day and this morning before we went to the event.

Cross your fingers that I wake up tomorrow feeling better! Nomoshkar (Goodnight)!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014


It's Tuesday morning in Kolkata, and it's raining again. It's rained the last 2 days as well. I find the rain here to be enjoyable and also not so enjoyable. It definitely cools the weather off and breaks the heat some. However, it adds to the mugginess. And when it rains, the smells outside become overwhelming to me. We were told to wear close-toed shoes when it rains, because all of the dog and cat feces and urine become mixed in with the rainwater that floods the streets. I of course forgot my close-toed shoes. But I like to live life on the edge. ;)

View from our roof of the rain clouds rolling in on Sunday.
Nirmal, the caretaker has two young daughters. Their names are Kumkum and Lalita. They are beautiful and smart and curious and I am already in love with them. Kumkum is 8 and Lalita is 6 (or 4...I have trouble remembering my Bangla numbers!) The other day I gave them each a decorated envelope containing the four coins from the states. I taught them how to say "quarter", "dime", "nickel" and "penny". It was fun to teach them, and they were perfect students...slowly rolling the English words off their tongues, rolling the R in quarter, so that it sounded more like "corrrtor". Nirmal and his wife and kids live a floor above us, so I get to see Kumkum and Lalita often. I showed Nirmal my blog and he thought it was really cool, especially that there was a photo of him on here (shaking the flowered tree). When he saw the list of countries that have visited this blog posted on the wall near the door (we're up to 11 so far) he inquired about how to read the list, so I went through the name of each country with him, slowly sounding out the English letters/sounds. He enjoys learning new words in English, so I teach them to him and in return he teaches me Bangla words/phrases. He likes to hear my pronunciation and chuckles at my inability to roll my Rs/even wrap my head around the sounds he's making! 

In our first class TJ told us that the language barrier is one of our greatest assets here, because we are forced to rely on facial expressions and body language to communicate. This is so true, and now I see... my interactions with Kumkum and Lalita, who speak little English past the "Halloooo!" they yell when they see me, are based purely on gestures and facial expressions. It reminds me of a CSNY quote from their song Wooden Ships. "If you smile at me, I will understand. 'Cause that's something everybody everywhere does, in the same language".

I love to smile at them, and they love to smile at me. Sometimes that's all we do, is stand in the stairwell and smile at each other. And this makes me feel at home here.

I'm off to shower and start my day. Hoping for the continued cool weather, but it would be nice to not be soaking wet today!

We waited out a downpour yesterday under an overhang in the central terrace of this apartment complex in Sonagachi.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

First Class

Here's a page of the notes I took during our first class with TJ, our professor, tonight (you may have to click to make it bigger):

WHOA, right? Who knew that by taking an international social work course, we'd be talking Marx, capitalism, bartering and translating... (those last two were on other pages). It was a lot thrown at us in 2 hours, but I soaked it all in as best as I could and hopefully will have more time to process it tonight. Right now I'm sitting in the living room with Kris, Beth, Anjali and Sandra and we're debriefing after class while Phillip and Anna make everyone dinner. 

We're talking about sex and work and what work is and all of these abstract ideas... my head is spinning a bit. We also talked about "rescue vs. revolution" in terms of international social work. I hope I can come back and write more after I've processed the ideas a bit. -- I had to come back and add that all 8 of us ended up having a really deep conversation around sex, sex work, the phrase "all sex is work" and how sexual assault fits into that. I can feel us becoming closer as a group, and I think we're going to be able to continue to have really great and productive conversations.

Today it rained for the first time since we got here. It was glorious and rainy/cool all day and by cool I mean, the high was only 91. I stayed home today while the others went out to the big mall to get vegetables from the big grocery store (versus buying them on the street...we're hoping the ones in the big grocery are safer for us to eat and won't make us sick). Staying in was kind of nice, I watched a documentary and just relaxed...really for the first time since I got here. I actually forgot I was in India for a second.

Tomorrow we're heading back to Durbar. Temperatures are supposed to be a bit cooler this week, and apparently the monsoon season isn't too far off. 

Miss & Love,

Saturday, May 24, 2014


Today was a much needed day off. It's 6:30pm here and things are winding down. The sun is already set (it sets early because it rises so early) and we are catching up on some reading before our first class tomorrow.

This morning was a lazy morning for me. I got up early and showered, and then was able to get in some pleasure-reading for the first time since grad school started last August! I'm currently reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. It was a birthday gift from McCaila back in April and I am just now having a chance to start it. It was really nice to lounge on the bed reading with the bedroom flanked in sunlight. With the AC on, haha. We are so, so lucky to have AC in our apartments.

Around 1 we set out to see one of the biggest tourist-y things in Calcutta, the Victoria Memorial Hall and Gardens. Built in 1901 in memory of Queen Victoria, the hall is enormous and sometimes referred to as the "mini Taj Mahal". It's a "memorial and period museum of medieval and modern Indian history". The inside was beautiful, no photos allowed, but was a big museum of Indian history, indigenous tribes and British colonization. It actually felt a bit strange to be there.

After we walked through the museum, we went out to the gardens. A young girl came up to me, smiled and asked to have her photo taken with me. I said yes, asked her her name, shook her hand, etc. I told her that I loved her shirt, and she spoke English well and thanked me very politely. I've decided that until I have time to process things in class and debrief, I'm not going to refuse a photo with a child. It's not me, and right now trying to balance everything is just... I've decided to just go with my gut. She was so sweet, and I love all children.

After that though, it was like all hell broke loose. Every time we rounded a corner, a new family was turning to me and pointing and then gathering around me saying, "foto, foto!" It was a bit overwhelming. I could have said, "No, thanks" but they all seemed so excited to see me, and so smiley, and I naturally just smile back, and most of them were so polite. I didn't mind when it was women, children, or families.

But when it was just guys/men... that was a little weirder for me. Look at this awkward photo (Phillip took it with my camera while another guy took one with his):

To me, it felt like they were more excited to see little old, sweaty me than this beautiful old historical building/gardens that they came to see. It looks like they're posing next to a statue or something.'s me.

There were also a ridiculous amount of people who just snapped photos of me as I walked by, or who posed a few feet in front of me (and Phillip, Beth and Muxuan) and took the photo so that we were in the background. I'm starting to feel like I am here and on display...Kris and I were saying the other day that we feel like it's a parade when we walk down the street. It's overwhelming a little bit, and sometimes I want to stay at home rather than be the spectacle that I feel I am when I am just walking down the street.

I took some other photos while we walked around the gardens:

After we left the Gardens we were walking along the sidewalk and there was a tour group of middle school students. One of them said Hi to me and we started chatting about where he was from (Agra, where the Taj Mahal is) and where I'm from. At first he thought I was from the UK, but then when I said America he said, "Oh WOOW! Hey! Guys! She's an American!" Then the rest of the group was with me and the chatting continued. He really seemed like such a sweet kid, so polite and just excited to talk to me. So I asked if I could take their picture. I thought they were freaking adorable:
Just a group of middle school boys, excited to be talking to an older girl! Hehe. The one who originally approached me is the one with the white sunglasses. They were a really sweet group of kids.

Afterwards we explored some more and ran some errands, came home and have been reading up for tomorrow's first class.

Take care & Much love.

Friday, May 23, 2014

DMSC: Orientation Day 2

Yesterday was Day 2 of Orientation. We traveled on the metro by ourselves this time to the area known as Girish Park, which is near Sonagachi. Riding the metro here is so crazy. There is absolutely no concept of personal space, or a personal "bubble" (of which I am finding, I'm quite fond of and miss at times...) The metro is jam packed with sweaty individuals, myself included, and usually we're packed in so tight that I don't even need to hold on to anything because I'm sandwiched so tight!

At the end of Day One and during Day 2 we were able to hear about some of the projects and special branches of the DMSC. For example, we spoke with USHA, the bank that is run by and for the sex workers. We also spoke with the LGBTKH sector called Anandama that represents LGBTKH sex workers and advocates and supports them. Here, the K and the H are added on. K means Kurthi and means "receiver" and H means Hijra, and is the official "3rd gender" of India. I have not researched it quite enough yet, but as I understand it, it is not just a man who dresses in women's clothing. It is a man who embodies both genders equally. Recently this became the official 3rd gender, making India more progressive than the US in that regard! Hijras can now choose H for their passports, census, driver's license (do they have those here? I'm not sure...especially based off the driving, hah). Here's a link to an article if you're more interested. I took a picture with the Anandama guys because they were so fun to talk to! And also because they asked for a photo of us, so I asked for one in return.

We also met with several sex workers and were able to hear about their experiences in the field before the DMSC was formed, and then after the DMSC was formed. It's amazing how much fear, violence and insecurity (housing, $$, food, etc.) were a part of their daily lives before Durbar was formed, and how different it is now. Their quality of life... One of the last women to speak to us told us about how when Durbar was being formed, they realized they all needed to stand in solidarity. Even though they were fearful, they stood in front of their brothels, not knowing if a policeman would come and force himself without a condom, or if someone would come and brutalize them. But they stood anyway, to be a united force. This made me tear up... what a strong group of individuals. I'm in awe of them.

We also spoke with one of the doctors who is running a few research studies about HIV and other STI rates. What Durbar has achieved from a public health perspective is nothing short of phenomenal. That is why their successful intervention is being replicated all over the world. The structure of the DMSC is very clever. There are peer educators, who have 60 women each that they keep up with, check in on, etc. There is 1 outreach worker for 4 peer educators (and therefor 240 sex workers) and they oversee and provide support and guidance to the peer educators.

I've figured out a way to get through the metro ride - MUSIC. As long as I am holding onto my phone tightly or have it zipped into my backpack, I feel safe enough to be able to plug my headphones into it and listen to music (plus, many people have headphones on the metro). What I'm saying here is: It's okay, Mom! I'm being safe and cautious! Hehe.

Anyway, yesterday we were riding home and I was listening to music and processing the day. It's a lot. I'm definitely overcoming the culture shock a bit, but it's still hard to accept that your daily life is witness to such poverty. Everyone asks me how I'm doing with the heat, but no one realizes that it's not the heat or jetlag that's the hardest (for me) to become accustomed to. It's the fact that I have literally stepped over homeless, sleeping men in gutters (only when absolutely necessary, of course. I usually just walk around but sometimes there are space issues). There is a family that sleeps and lives on the corner that we must round to go to the other apartment. Phillip and I have taken to never walking on the sidewalk as we round that corner, because that feels like an invasion of that family's space and home. The dogs and cats are a lot... there is a family of pups who live near the Girish Park metro station, where we travel to get to Durbar. I saw the smallest puppy today, he's so tiny and he's always sleeping. All of these dogs... so many dogs, it's unbelievable. My eyes started tearing up, and I'm not even LIKE that! It really is kind of Sarah McLaughlin ASPCA commercial-like. They all have flies all over them and are dirty and some are maimed. *Sigh. It's really hard to see animals suffering.

It's really hard to see all of the suffering in general. It hurts my heart. I understand that this is a reality here, and I grew up insulated in my own little suburban neighborhood with bicycles and ice cream trucks and big beautiful public schools and "night night treats" (small before bed snack). But how does anyone ever get used to seeing so much poverty? Right now it feels as though I will never get used to this. It's a lot. But not to worry, I am processing/debriefing/engaging in self care each day in order to not become so overwhelmed that I can't function! But still, it's very hard, especially the children. I have a weak spot for children. I have a feeling I'm going to get so many "Oh, don't take the world on your shoulders, you can only do so much" type of comments. Please... refrain. Just understand the struggle for me and feel that for me. I don't need advice, I just need to know that whoever is reading recognizes and respects my struggle with this.

Last night we took it easy after our long day. Watched a bit of the Hunger Games on our television here, we all made separate dinners and just relaxed. Through Google Phone I was able to talk on the phone with my mom before bed, which was so nice. I made my first Indian dinner of Chana Masala (chick peas cooked in a Masala sauce) and Paranatha bread, which was soooo delicious.

I do want to address the skin color blog and all of its responses at some point. I have received by e-mail some very insightful and interesting comments, and I want to address it all, but now is not the time. It's 8am and I need to shower and get my day started.

Oh, I took some more photos of doors yesterday. I'm finding that they're my favorite thing to photograph here...

Also, bonus photo: the bathroom at the office in Durbar. Luckily, I packed a whole 24 pack of Charmin extra soft, which I'll be taking with me each day. :) The buckets are for rinsing.

Orientation Day 3, here we go...

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee: Day One

Yesterday was our first visit to the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) and to Sonagachi, which is the name of the "red light" district in North Kolkata. It's an area of about 8 (correct me if I'm wrong, classmates) city blocks that are filled with brothels. And the DMSC is the collaborative (sort of like a worker's union) that is run by and for the sex workers.

In the Western world (particularly in America, which is really all I can speak for), we have a lot of varying views on sex work. In the US we more commonly call it "prostitution", but sex work is a much better term that you all should start using! Sex work is real work. It is an exchange of services for a fee. Despite your personal beliefs about sex work, we should all be able to agree that sex workers have the same human rights as anyone with another profession, and they deserve the same quality of life. Some are trafficked into sex work. For some, sex work is an intergenerational profession that is passed from mother to daughter and on and on. Some choose sex work because they know it will bring in the most money for their family. No matter what brings a woman (or man, for that matter) to choose sex work, the individual and their choice must be respected

Please take a moment to read this, which is posted in all of Durbar's offices and buildings, before you go any further on this blog post.

We received an orientation from Dr. Jana, one of the doctors at the clinic at Durbar. I think it will help if I explain a bit of the back story about Durbar, as I understood it from yesterday's orientation, and borrowing some from the website:

In 1991 the Indian government began an HIV intervention in Sonagachi with the sole purpose of lowering HIV and other STI rates. After a few years, it became apparent that the sex workers themselves did not see HIV as their biggest problem - they had other issues such as harassment/violence from police and the community, their children being kicked out of schools for being children of sex workers, the women not being able to use a bank or get loans because of the stigma surrounding their work, and a general sense of stigma and disrespect that caused them to have a lower quality of life.

In 1995 the DMSC was formed. To take from the website:

"This is a forum exclusively set up and managed by sex workers and their children with the objective of creating solidarity and collective strength among the sex worker community and other marginalized groups.
Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee [...] took over the management of STD/HIV Intervention Programme [...] After taking the full control of the intervention programme, DMSC started replicating the basic principles and guiding policies of 'Sonagachi Project' in other red light areas in the city. The organisation took special initiative to reach an increasing number of sex workers. The basic approaches what Sonagachi adopted can be summed up as three 'R's': Respect, Reliance and Recognition. That is respect towards sex workers, reliance on them to run the programme and recognition of their professional and their agency. In practice the Project focused on translating this approach into a relationship of mutual trust and rapport between the community of sex workers and the staff members of the Project."

Now, nearly 20 years later, DMSC is a collective of over 60,000 members across the Indian state of West Bengal. They have their own bank, where they can take out loans and achieve credit. They advocate for themselves. The entire collective is run by the sex workers themselves. Dr. Jana told us yesterday that there were two solutions to the sex workers feeling as though they had no power. Number one was to reduce the power of the clients. But they have money, laws will not change overnight, etc. Number two was to empower the sex workers. Ding Ding! By the sex workers running the collective themselves, sitting on the board, and making decisions, it puts the power into their hands. The whole goal of DMSC is collectivization and empowerment.

There will have to be a part two to this, where I explain the programs that are offered by the DMSC and describe the rest of our day yesterday (which was 115 with the heat index, by the way!) For now, I must go shower and get ready for Orientation Day 2.

If you have any questions about sex work or are confused, please don't hesitate to leave a comment. :)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My White Skin

In racism class this year, we had to write a paper about the first time that we realized the color of our skin. Because I have been able to deconstruct my story, I'll share it here without shame.

When I was in elementary school, I came home one day and said, "Mommy, why are the black kids the ones who are bad in class and get in trouble?" This has stuck with me for many years, and my mom and I have discussed it as recently as a few years ago. My 7 or 8 year old brain was making a simple observation: that the children of color in my classroom were misbehaving (or perhaps they were being punished for misbehaving more, making it more apparent to me). I can't go back in time and analyze this further, it just is what it is.

My entire life I've been privileged by my white skin. I've never had to worry about anyone making assumptions about me, being followed in a store for fear that I would steal, I've never had to worry about finding make up in my color or hair products that would work for me. I have never been harassed about my race. Assuming that I procreate with another white person, I will never have to warn my children about the dangers of systemic racism. I can get angry and have people listen to me instead of attributing my anger to misconceived notions about the color of my skin. The list goes on.

I was never challenged or made aware of my privilege until I got to college and began taking courses in sociology and racism. I made it 18 years without ever having once to think about the color of my skin. Certainly I thought about it, but I was never made to think about it. My white skin has afforded me that luxury.

In India, my white skin grabs attention. People stare, point and gawk. Some of them take pictures of me with their phones. Sometimes when we're in a cab, the driver of another car will stare at my for so long that his car begins to swerve until he looks back at the road. My blonde hair and green eyes probably only further this phenomenon. Today at the mall, almost every child I saw tugged on their mother's kurti and pointed me out. At one point, we were in the food court and I felt a tap on my arm. A young girl asked, "Excuse me Auntie, could we please take one photo?"

My immediate reaction: yes. She was a child, and I love children. She was adorable, reminded me of the children I've babysat and my little cousins and I've had such little interaction with children, I immediately said yes. Her mother snapped some photos on her phone and I smiled at the little girl and said, "I want a photo with you too!"

Afterwards I bent down and asked the little girl her name. I believe she said "Mitra" but she was shy and speaking quietly. I noticed the beautiful Mehendi (henna) on her hands, and asked to see them. I cupped her hands in mine and told her how beautiful it was. She hugged me (hugged me! A complete and total stranger, but that's how happy she was?), and I stood up and told her mom, "Your daughter is beautiful." She pressed her hands together as if she were saying a prayer, nodded and smiled. I nodded back, and then went back to my table.

I told Phillip and Beth about what had just happened and Phillip said, "How does it feel to be the exoticized one?"In the mall as we walked around I noticed that all of the advertisements featured white people. Here are some examples:
This model is literally wearing Indian style clothing. And she is fair skinned and blonde haired.
Phillip, Beth and I talked about it and Phillip said that he doesn't see it as things being "Americanized" but more "Westernized". I can see that - there are white people in GB and all of Europe in general. I've noticed that in all of the childrens' clothing sections, there are large sections of shirts that have English phrases on them "Mommy's cute boy" or "I am COOL" and then small sections that are more traditional Indian clothing. It seems as though everything is moving in the direction of being more Western, which is sad because the culture here, in my view, is beautiful and interesting and I would hope that it could be preserved as much as possible.

But back to the story about the photo with the little girl. What makes it so exciting for a child to see a woman with white skin? I remember Hillary once telling me that if I ever went to China with her, people would want to take pictures with me because of my light skin and blonde hair. My first thought is that it's just uncommon to see white skin here in Kolkata (I did not see one other white person during our entire trip to the mall. Actually, come to think of it, I've only seen one other white person outside of our group since I've arrived.) But - it is deeper than that. There is an admiration there, for my white skin.

It makes me uncomfortable when I think about it for too long, but I guess the things that make you feel discomfort when you think of them are the things most worth thinking about.

India was colonized by the white British. This means that the British barged into this country, told billions of people that they were now in power, and then took over everything, changing the way things had been for centuries. In the late 19th century, it was because of choices the British made that tens of thousands of Indians died of hunger during a crop famine. Yet, even after all of that, there is something in existence... some systemic, worldwide message: White is good, beautiful, and best. Today in Spencer's (sort of a grocery store plus Target) I came upon some skin lightening deodorant. It actually whitens your underarms. There's also a large array of lotions, sunscreens and other skin lightening products. Many women walk with umbrellas, I'm told, to avoid their skin becoming darker.

I recognize all of this. I don't deny my privilege or the luxuries I've been afforded in life solely because of the color of my skin. Accepting this as reality is one thing...but what is the next step? I may not be able to refuse a photo with a 7 year old girl just to prove a point that she probably wouldn't even understand yet - that would probably just been seen as rude. However, reinforcing that I think she is beautiful and complementing her Mehendi was the best I could do. The question is: What else?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Grocery shopping and our first cooking adventure

Today we went grocery shopping. I've had an interesting relationship with food lately anyway, so this was a bit of a challenge for me. But this is what I ended up with:
Lots of ready-to-eat meals... I'm not really sure what most of them are, bahaha. I do know that "aloo" means potato. The paratha is a kind of bread that I can cook in a pan and use to scoop up the masala or chana. Everyone eats with their hands here, which I find pretty enjoyable and fun. I also grabbed those digestive biscuits because it says "high in fibre" and without being able to eat salads, fresh veggies or fruits, I am really, really desperately in need of some fiber... enough said. ;-)

I also bought, for the first time in my life, milk in a box! Plus some "Cup Of Noodles" which are flavored with Indian spices. One is masala and one is pani puri.

I also found a tiny container of Nutella!!! It's the small things that remind me of home that are nice. And, if you know me well, you know I squealed when I saw the box of Red Bull. It's kind of necessary during this jet-lag adjustment period anyway.

I think I paid a total of $16 US dollars for all of this. Crazy.

Tonight the other apartment came over and we all cooked an amazing Indian meal. Anna knows how to make uttapam, which is like a doughy pancake with mango chutney (?) in the batter. Anjali and Kris made some amazing other dishes as well.

Anna making Uttapam. She's a wizard at it!

This was our amazing spread:
Complete with Mango Juice :)
Later after dinner, Anjali made us homemade chai tea, which was soooo good and the perfect cap to our night. We sipped our chai and talked about the black/white binary, the dynamic of our program and classes and university in regards to privilege, and the institution of marriage.

Our discussion about marriage as an institution was really interesting. Some people hadn't really thought about it before. Others had feelings about the institution and what it means and where it comes from, what it's based off of... For myself, my view is more based on the fact that I fall on the LGBT spectrum, so the fact that in some places I cannot legally get married is problematic for me if I want to have children and be able to share custody with my partner. Or be able to file state taxes together. Or be able to have rights in general. Anyway, it was a good conversation and it's a shame that I'm too tired to expand upon it.

It's 12:30am here. Goodnight!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday, May 19

Yesterday after watching the sun rise, Phillip, Muxuan and I went on a walk around the neighborhood at around 8am. Not much was open because it was Sunday, but it was really nice out...not too hot yet. The sun begins to rise here at 4am and is up by 5, so the ever present heat is intensified by tenfold by about 10am.

On our walk we stopped by Deshapriya Park, where there was a children's cricket league practicing and playing. Deshapriya Park is really lovely, it's a big square patch of grass with a walkway all the way around, with beautiful brick walls that enclose the park and a few cemeteries/statues.

From Deshapriya Park we made our way down Sarat Bose Rd. and explored a few side streets. We came upon a huge Sunday market where people were selling tons of fruit, vegetables and meat. We saw live chickens being slaughtered, which was... a lot to see. And smell.

We also found a man selling lychee, and Muxuan was extremely excited because lychee is very common in China, so she bought a bunch for 70 rupees (about $1.20). The man selling the lychee was super nice, we chatted with him for a few minutes. 
Now's a good time to mention that I don't take anyone's photograph (at least an identifiable one) without first asking them.

The fact that we are in a post-colonial country is incredibly evident when you look at the surrounding buildings. I haven't taken any good photos of them, but the style and structure are so colonial, yet...a bit battered. My cousin Kate would have a ball here, I'm sure she'd be able to identify which buildings are colonial and whatnot. What sticks out the most are the colors. They are sooo vivid and beautiful!

After our walk, we came back to the apartment and relaxed in the living room for awhile. Yesterday was a day of rest. Oh an I had a great conversation with Nirmal the caretaker (half of which was lost in translation! He he), and required me to draw for him. I was trying to find out the name of the tree that he'd shaken the yellow flowers from (you asked, Mom):

I'm not entirely sure if kolkalful (which is my phonetic spelling) is the word for "tree" or is the type of tree that the flowers came from, but it took us about 10 minutes to come to this. I kept saying "tree" and he kept telling me how to say "three" in Bengali. It was quite the conversation and laugh when we finally figured out what I was trying to ask him.

After that, I went and took a four hour nap, woke up and FaceTimed with Kelsey and Kylie! Kylie sang a rousing rendition of Let It Go from Frozen and Kelsey also showed her on the globe where I am. "Dats a long ride!" she exclaimed. So cute... I miss her, I wish I could hug her. She gives the best hugs/cuddles.

Later we went to dinner at Tamarind, a really nice restaurant nearby. I got super adventurous and got a dessert I'd never had before. It's called Kulfi Faluda - the reason I got it is because in Cambridge in Inman Square there is an ice cream place called Christina's. One of the flavors that they offer is "khulfi" and I never really knew what it was, but it was my favorite flavor. I got so excited to see it on the menu last night! This is what it looked like when it arrived:
It's kind of like a super frozen ice cream with pistachios, a sweet sauce, and vermicelli noodles on top. An interesting combo, but it was good! 

Paying the restaurant bill was a challenge. Actually paying for anything is a challenge. Because of the exchange rate and inflation, rupees come in huge denominations... so it's really hard to tell what you're paying for something (in dollars) unless you pull out your phone and use a conversion app, just to get a sense of how much you're spending. Last night we had to use a piece of paper and write everything out. In the end this is what it looked like:

And then we still ended up being wrong, and had a few hundred rupees left over. It's so confusing...we try so hard. I'm sure we'll get used to it once we wrap our head around what each denomination is worth. This is what I need to remember: 

50 rupees = .85
100 rupees = 1.71
500 rupees = 8.53
1000 rupees = 17.07

Oh, I should also mention that I started adding to the "Favorite Photos from India" tab on the blog.

We are just starting our day - it's 9am here. I woke up at 7 and couldn't go back to sleep. Kolkata wakes up very, very early. As Phillip (and Frozen) would say "The skyyy is awake, so I am awake!"

Today we need to go grocery shopping. And perhaps some more exploring. Orientation at Durbar is on Wednesday!

I'm feeling a little homesick this morning. Love to everyone.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Late Night/Early Morning

Beth, one of the lovely ladies on our trip, had the misfortune of having Air India lose her luggage during her flight here. She arrived with only toiletries and no clothes! Luckily, Auntie Kumkum took us to a big mall, where we were able to buy some outfits and she was able to stock up on essentials until the airline locates her luggage. Having the airline lose my bag was probably my biggest fear, but Beth has taken it in stride!

Right now it's 6:30am here... and we haven't really slept yet. Another student, Sandra, arrived at 3am this morning, so myself, Beth and Phillip went with Nirmal, the caretaker, to pick her up and to inquire about Beth's luggage. Auntie Kumkum suggested that Phillip and I go because he is a male, and because we are firm with our words! We weren't able to get the suitcase, but luckily her name is in the system and they claim they will deliver it to our apartment when it arrives. Please keep your finger's crossed for Beth!

On our way back from the airport, the sun was beginning to rise. It rises here very early, starting around 4am. We dropped off Sandra to her apartment (there are two apartments for us 8 students, they are very close. Just around the corner from one another). Nirmal then walked Beth, Phillip and myself back to our apartment. When we arrived, we noticed a man and two women...the man was shaking a tree so that the yellow flowers would fall off and the women were picking them up and putting them into little satchels. Some people here use flowers to make wreaths to sell, or for prayer booths dedicated to deities. Nirmal went over to help the man shake the tree and we were able to gather some flowers for ourselves.
That's Nirmal in the tan shirt and glasses. He's the best! He travels with us, answers all of our questions, and is very, very sweet. He is the caretaker of the apartments where we are staying, and he is up at all hours of the night in order to accommodate us. We appreciate him very much.

By the time we got up to the apartment it was near 5am. Phillip and I headed to the roof with our big cameras to capture some sunrise photos. The view from our rooftop will never get old. There are so many buildings and things to look at.
So, now it is very early in the morning and we've only had about 2 hours of sleep last night. Yet, for some reason my body is not tired. I'm caught in a limbo.. I know that it's around 9pm EST, so my body is no longer in EST mode, but it's not quite in IST (Indian Standard Time) yet either. I need to work on this so that I can be fully functional when we begin our orientations next week!

So far, there's 7 of us here and the 8th student will arrive today. So far the group is getting along great, and I am really looking forward to the discussions we'll be having during class and when we are out in the field.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Malarone Dreams and Sidewalk Sleeping

From the first day that I started taking the Malarone (pills to prevent Malaria) I've had the most vivid, strange nightmares each night. I wake throughout the night with a start. The nightmares are always about people that I care about, and I get several throughout the night. Even when I take a small nap I get a bad or very vivid and bizarre dream. It's strange to wake from a nightmare and then realize you are also not in your own bed, bedroom, or even your own country. I just googled "malarone nightmares" and apparently it is indeed a side effect of the medication. Had I known this, I would have brought some sort of stuffed animal to cuddle with at night. ;-)

Last night as we walked back to the apartments from the coffee shop, it was around 9pm. I noticed that many people - men, women and children - were readying their beds on the sidewalk to prepare for a night's sleep. Some of them have crude wooden boards on risers upon which to lay their bodies, with a small pillow and their belongings stuffed underneath. Some just have a thin mat to lay on the sidewalk. This morning when I woke at 5am from one of the nightmares, I went to the living room where I could access wifi and text my friend who I'd dreamed about. Once I heard back from her that she was okay, I went to the roof and was surprised to find that the sun was rising - and with it, the sidewalk sleepers. I leaned on the balcony rail from 5 stories high and watched as they slowly rolled their mats. Some of them went to the street corner and used a water pump to wash their faces, arms, and legs and feet.

I didn't expand upon the sights during our ride through Kolkata at 2am on the night that we arrived here. It was a 30-45 minute drive through all parts of the city to get to our apartment. Although we were jammed into the van and jetlagged beyond belief, I was sitting near the window and the view was a lot to take in. We passed many small huts made of tin or aluminum siding, and once we reached the actual city streets, there were so many people sleeping on the sidewalks. We passed a building that said "Nursing Home" in English, and outside there were about 30 older adults, laying on thin mats and sleeping on their backs. As we drove through the streets I saw so many people sleeping on the sidewalks. It struck me so hard.

When I lived in Boston I saw homeless people, especially since I worked in Harvard Square and many of them congregated there (potentially because there are more tourists there who are willing to part with change). In Philadelphia my original field placement was with a shelter for homeless women. But here, there are so many that it is overwhelming. They crowd the sidewalks in certain places. I literally stepped over an entire family last night as we rounded a corner on the way back to our apartment. I don't want to assume that all of the sidewalk sleepers are homeless - perhaps some of them are just keeping watch over their sidewalk shops. But either way, it's a jarring sight.

What does it feel like to step over a family of homeless Indians while wearing $25 Reef flip flops? It feels wrong, disjointed...weird. I'll elaborate on this more when I can process it a bit more.

Friday, May 16, 2014

First Foodie Adventure

We decided to venture out into the neighborhood for some coffee and a snack. We ended up at a place called The Banana Leaf, where they serve really good coffee, tea and snacks. I ordered the 2 vada, which are sort of like very doughy donuts that come with chutney and a yogurt based sauce (since the chutney is spicy). You can tell how yummy it was by the fact that I was already 3/4 of the way done before I remembered to take a picture:
And then Phillip ordered the "Family Dosa". A dosa is a long roll of extremely thin bread. When he ordered the Family Dosa, he was planning on eating it all himself. And then when it arrived, the entire room laughed at us and someone even took a picture of us! This is why:
We ended up canceling two other orders of food and all of us helped Phillip eat the "Family Dosa". Still cracking up about that. 

The whole reason we went out in the first place was to get some coffee to help us fight the jet-lag and stay up past 10pm.  When the coffee came, I had no idea what to do, because this is what it looked like:

Luckily, Anjali has been to India many times, so she knew the trick. You pour about half of the tall cup of VERY HOT coffee into the shorter bowl, and swirl it around for a minute so that it cools off, then you drink it. Then, repeat until you've finished all of your coffee. And by the way, it was probably the best coffee I've ever had in my entire life. I've never tasted anything like it!

We have the next few days to relax, adjust and get acquainted with our area of Kolkata. Tomorrow we venture out to find a bank to exchange money, and hopefully check out some more street markets so that we can buy some super cheap clothing that is culturally appropriate for us to wear (and much more comfortable temperature wise). Right now it's 11pm and it's still 101 degrees with the heat index!

Most of you are just starting your afternoons, but I'm going to try to go to bed pretty soon. Hope you're all having a wonderful day!