Thursday, July 17, 2014

So Many Little Things

Last night, as happens many nights, I dreamed I was in Calcutta. I was standing on the side of Sarat Bose Road at sunset. I was waving to someone in a taxi, who was driving away from me. I don't know who it was because I never saw their face but in the dream it was someone I knew. I turned to walk towards Rashbehari Avenue. I passed the house where Nirmal works his other job, but he wasn't there. I passed the man who sells the street food on the corner. I passed Tamarind restaurant and nodded at the doorman. That's where my dream ended, but I woke from it and felt a sense of comfort.

I've been having some weird and bizarre Calcutta dreams too. Despite the fact that I'm no longer taking malarone, the vivid, scary dreams persist. So this short and simple dream that could have been a real memory was gladly welcomed.

This is how I've been overcoming my jetlag, which I'd say is about halfway back to normal by now:

One of my favorite artists is Brian Andreas. Check out his website here and his facebook page here. What I really love about his beautiful prints and words are that they're usually applicable in a variety of situations and lives. This is one I've been enjoying lately:
Copyright Brian Andreas
Right now when I see this print I think of so many little things that I remember and appreciate and don't want to forget. Good or bad, so many little things.

The way the air became thick with moisture in the minutes before a monsoon thunderstorm hit in the evening. The hysterical laughter that emanated from our apartment living room and into the main stairwell in the evenings. The roof of No. 5...the stairs that lead up to the landing, with a busted wooden door that lead to some mysterious place we never explored. Sitting on said roof at night, hoping you could see at least three stars through the polluted and cloudy air. Sitting on said roof in the daytime, watching the entire apartment buildings' underthings and clothes flap in the breeze on the many clotheslines strung from post to post.

The lift in our building that required you to slam both doors in order for it to operate, so all day and all night you could hear, "Bang! Bang!" two slams as people used the lift to come and go.

The dust and dirt that settled into every crevice of my body, so that showers became treasure hunts and my scrub down game is now out of this world. Blowing my nose after a particularly long taxi ride through the city and it coming out entirely black. One cab ride in particular caused me to have black snot for 3 days straight... I don't think any of us will ever forget that taxi ride (for any classmates reading, it was the one to Anjali's Auntie's house in North Calcutta when we got stuck in rush hour).

The tiny geckos that infiltrated our kitchen and apartment building. We heard they may eat mosquitoes, so once the monsoon hit we didn't mind their squatting.

The way I perfected the "space stare" in which I walked and stared off into nothing, so that in my peripheral vision could still scan for bricks that stuck up in the sidewalk but so that I didn't make eye contact with any of the people staring at me. When I felt like I wanted to be invisible.

The orange, white and green flowers painted all over the city on crumbling walls and next to's the symbol of the All India Trinamool Congress, the state party that rules West Bengal. The entire time I was in India, I'd mistaken that symbol for something that it wasn't - I thought it was the symbol for the Communist Party of India (CPI) which doesn't even make sense, as I know what the communist symbol looks like.

The man on Sarat Bose who sold Laura mangoes and always tried to double her order. The boys playing football and cricket in every side street and every alley - their pause to let pedestrians pass by unharmed. The phrases that teenage boys would spit at me in English and then laugh about with their friends as they walked by.

Sitting crosslegged on the floor at Sunshine during the evening, and within minutes the store flooding full of international customers. Watching Akash and Imran and Sanjay pull out bags and bags of garments, taking one piece from each bag to float in front of the customer, leaving piles and piles of samples all over the floor as people chose which print, color, or style they wanted to purchase.

Soft blankets from Nepal. Cool marble tiled floors. Chicken burgers and ice cream with chocolate sauce. Sitting in the windowsill there, staring at the intersection below flood as the monsoon reached Calcutta.

All of the flavors in a Banana Leaf mini meal. The commute to Durbar on the metro: "1 to Girish Park". The repetitive, colorful prints on kurtis. The smell of our apartment when Juma was cooking in the kitchen. The smell on the roof. The smell of the blanket I slept under. The smell of perfume that ended up making its way to the US, lingering on everything in my carry-on and overstaying its welcome. The smell of fresh, hot paratha. The smell of Lalita's hair when I was braiding it. The smell of a top from Sunshine that hasn't been worn or washed yet.

The taste of "Real Mango" juice from Big Bazaar. The taste of Nescafe instant coffee. The sweetest, ripest, juiciest mangoes. The taste of veg fried rice from Pick & Carry (or Pack and Carry...or Pick and Curry...or whatever it's actual name was). Coffee from Banana Leaf. Chai from Banana Leaf. Halwa from Banana Leaf!

These memories are all compounded by the gratitude I have for the many people in Calcutta who made my two months there a marvelous adventure and a constant learning experience. Who experienced with me a hysterical calamity of errors and frustrating mishaps. Who brought to my attention things I may never have seen or thought. Who laughed with me on the roof or in a plane, cried with me in a bed or on a stoop, who clasped their hands and nodded, "Namaste" at me, who kindly combed my hair in the hospital when I was too sick and attached to too many tubes to do it myself. Who found the irony, humor, or anguish with me in so many situations ranging from cab rides to trips to the South City Mall. I am thankful for it all, and I have love for each of you.
Copyright Brian Andreas

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


I've been wanting to write. I must have started this entry 8 times, and every time I delete it before I hit the second paragraph. In fact, I'm already resisting the urge to delete this, only one sentence in. The prospect of trying to describe returning to the US and readjusting to being here is daunting and makes me feel overwhelmed. How can I do any of it justice? So many reunions with family and friends, a whirlwind first few days back during which I ate whatever I wanted (mostly items that weren't readily available to me in Cal), slept at odd hours, and was regularly flipping through the photos on my phone that made me feel some immediate sense of comfort - my laundry drying on the roof of No. 5, photos of me with women from Durbar, Kumkum and Lalita reading me a Bengali children's book, Laura and I at Sunshine, with the backdrop of colorful stacks of clothing and scarves all the way to the ceiling behind us.

After the novelty of being back in The States and having access to anything and everything I conjured up in my mind wore off (Wawa coffee, Chipotle burrito bowl, Old Bay wings, the novelty of walking into an air conditioned pharmacy and knowing where every single thing would be, etc.) and after the hugs were given and time marched on as I spent time with my family, I settled into where I am now. A sort of limbo where I wish I was in Calcutta, but I don't. I miss all of the things that were familiar to me there, but I'm also glad to be here in Dewey Beach for the week, where familiar is an understatement, as barely anything has changed since my childhood.

Obviously, my bones and heart ache to be closer to the Rey family. Though since my arrival in the US, I feel even closer to them. I was able to get the letter that Nirmal wrote to me translated word for word. A huge thank you to Meenakshi, my former coworker and friend, who's brother-in-law's cousin was able to translate it word for word for me. The translation blew me away and made the gears in my heart lock up as I was reading it. One of the sentences said, "We cannot give anything beyond our love and if we could have had Kristen to stay with us, we would have been very happy." I told Laura that I thought my heart would burst, and I still feel that when I read the letter. While I was there Kumkum and Lalita taught me a song/hand game called Zim Zam Zoom. At the beach this week I taught it to Kylie, and we were able to take a video of us doing it and I sent it to Laura, who will show it to the girls.

I have photos of reunions with family, I attended a beautiful wedding 3 days after I got home at the most grand and opulent venue in Wilmington, and I have so much more to write about. Sadly, my time at Starbucks on Rehoboth Ave must come to an end, because my laptop battery is about to die.

Bottom line: It's overwhelming to adjust to life back in The States. I can't decide this is harder than it was to acclimate when I first arrived in Calcutta. Maybe that was overwhelming on a sensory and cultural level for me, while this is more overwhelming on an emotional level. I have much more to say about this, and I will as soon as I have more reliable wi-fi.

For now, I'm off to continue my jetlag recovery and cuddle up to the best niece in the world. I'll be back with more thoughts soon.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

On My Last Day.

I woke up this morning, checked my phone and felt immediate, crushing sadness. I’d overslept my alarm and missed seeing the girls off to school. Kumkum and Lalita leave by 9:30am. I felt immediately nauseous, knowing that they don’t get home from school until after 3:30 and my taxi was set to pick me up at 2:30 to take me to the airport. So much sadness and anger at myself for letting myself oversleep the alarm and frantic anxiety at figuring out how I could somehow relay my love and goodbye to them.

Laura woke and knew that I'd missed the girls- my biggest priority of my last day. She made us freshly brewed coffee and silently sliced us each one of the freshest, ripest mangoes. When she handed me my bowl of diced mango it lifted my mood a little and my gratitude to Laura for the kind of friend and human she’s been, especially over the last week, was embodied in that simple breakfast.

After that I kicked into productivity mode and worked my way through the checklist of things that I needed to accomplish. Pick up the 3rd of my 4th rabies shot from the chemist. Pack EVERYTHING. Write notes, say goodbyes, figure out some bank/ATM stuff. I went to the chemist around the corner to buy the injection… in India you buy shots or injections from the pharmacy (chemist) and then take the actual solution to the doctor, where they inject it. I got back to No. 5 and stepped into the old school lift. Slammed both doors and pressed the 4 for the very last time. Sweat was pouring down my face after the walk and the sadness that’d been weighing on my returned. I thought to myself, “I would do anything in the world for Kumkum and Lalita to be standing in front of the lift when it stops on the 4th floor.”

And do you know what?

My wish came true. It made no sense. It was 12:30pm on a Tuesday. They should have been in school. But here they were, as the lift reached the 4th floor. And the lift gate was all that separated me from them. I slammed open the doors, “Kumkum!! Lalita!!” Tears immediately sprung into my eyes. I turned and realized that Nirmal and Juma were inside of the apartment, waiting for me. They were all waiting for me to return.

I went inside, sat down on the couch and didn’t even try to stop from crying. I asked Nirmal, “Why aren’t the girls in school?” and he said, “No school this side, today your departure date.” Which led me to believe that he’d pulled them from school early in order for them to be able to say goodbye. Later on our way to the airport he confirmed, “Kumkum and Lalita no school today. Is no holiday. But no school their side because Didi, sister, Auntie Kristen is leaving today.”

Nirmal and Juma let the girls stay home from school today because today’s the day I was leaving. That is so powerful. It’s beyond quite what I can comprehend. The power of relationship that I have with the girls and with that family runs so deep.

We said our goodbyes over the course of a few hours. Precious hours that I would never trade for the world. Kumkum and Lalita helped me pack my bags. They played with the stuffed monkey I have. They played “Zim Zam Zoom” with me over and over and over. We high-fived and shook hands while staring and smiling at each other over and over and over.

I’ve never packed so haphazardly in my life. Everything is just thrown into my bags, except for the breakables that I was careful to put in my carryon. But I don’t even care about the mess I’ll deal with when I get back into The States. Because those 3 hours were solid. Possibly one of the best series of moments in my life. When it was time…when the cab came, Nirmal became emotional and I did as well. He told me again that I’m always welcome, that I am a part of their family, that I come and stay his side forever, that I am didi (sister) to Kumkum and Lalita. That if I ever need anything or if I am coming to Calcutta, I should call his Indian mobile.

Remember the broom that he bought for me a few weeks back? He’d thoughtfully wrapped it in newspaper and packing tape for me early this morning, so that I could easily get it through security. On the wrapping he left a note, written in Bengali. One side says, “Inside this package is a broom” and signed his name and the date (presumably because security would then believe that it was legitimately a broom a not some type of weapon?)

But on the other side of the paper there is a long note, written in Bengali characters. Nirmal read it to me before I left, but his English is somewhat limited. I got the general idea of the note, but I want to get it more thoroughly translated. On the way to the airport I carefully untaped the note and put it safely into a folder. I save a lot of things in life - you can ask anyone who’s lived with me. I still have old tshirts and ticket stubs from high school.  I've been trying to purge some of that stuff... But this note will be kept forever.

When it was time to go downstairs with my bags Nirmal put me and the girls and all of my bags into the lift, as that’s all that would fit. We made our way out to the sidewalk in front of No. 5 and my heart felt like it would burst. I was simultaneously sad to be leaving this family but I felt so much gratitude and love and thankfulness that they’d kept the girls home from school to see me off that I couldn’t really feel the sadness. My heart wrung itself dry watching Lalita try to drag my bag from the stairwell to the sidewalk.

Kumkum held my hand while we waited for the taxi. She just stared at me with her enormous brown eyes. I stared back, our usual form of communication through facial expressions. I felt the seriousness that filled her eyes, and her tiny sweaty hand squeezed my big sweaty hand. The cab finally pulled up. Nirmal took a few more photos on my phone of me and the girls. And then my bags were going into the trunk.

I turned to Juma. “Dhonobaad,” I said through tears, my hands clasped. “Thank you for letting me love your girls.” I asked Nirmal to translate that for me, but he couldn’t quite get what I was trying to say. I like to think Juma understood.

I knelt back down to the ground. “Shundohr,” I said to each girl, and kissed the tops of their heads. “Auntie Kristen,” said Lalita. Kumkum just smiled and stared at the sidewalk.

“Ami tomokay bhalobashi,” I said.

“I love you too!” piped Lalita’s tiny voice, and my heart melted and I knew that I had to get into the cab at that moment or else I wouldn’t. Thankfully, Nirmal got into the cab with me. We were able to talk for awhile about the girls, about Kumkum and what's going on with her in school, and about his hopes and dreams for the girls as they grow older.

After picking up Laura at Cafe Coffee Day in Girish Park, we made our way to Apollo, the hospital where I spent 5 days after the rat bite and fever. After a quick #3 rabies injection at the ER (where they totally remembered both me and Laura, including the doctor, and asked after each of us) we headed up to the 4th floor…my home base. The minute we walked through the doors and within view of the nurse’s station, they all smiled and pointed and started talking! They totally remembered us. The head nurse came and took my hand, asked about my health, etc. We explained that we were there for the last test result and they sent us in the right direction. I just found it so sweet that they all said hi to me, wished me luck on my flight and with my health. Thank you, didis.

We got to the airport in Cal and Laura dropped me with my bags. We hugged and at that particular moment, after just saying that I was okay with leaving, I felt the strongest urge to get back into the cab with Laura. I’m glad she’ll get some time to herself to enjoy the city and work at Durbar.

As I went through security, with my HUGE wrapped broom that is sticking out the top of my backpack (I’ll have my mom take a picture when I get to Newark) they almost didn’t let me through with the broom. And I threw a hissy fit! I actually started crying and telling them that a dear friend had given it to me. I showed them Nirmal’s note and the man only spoke/read Hindi, so I made him find someone who could read Bengali. The woman read the note and then looked at me and said, “Who is Nirmal?” And I said, “He’s my friend. He was the domestic worker at my apartment.” (trying to make the connection with the broom) and she said, “And…he gave you… his broom?” I almost had to laugh but instead I just said, “YES!” and then after some more tears, she finally okay’d the broom and I could have hugged her.

The flight from Cal to Bombay was uneventful… I slept a little and ate a veg meal. Now I’m in Bombay and waiting…my flight boards in 30 minutes.

I’ll update once I’m stateside!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

My Last Night

It's 2:46am India time and I'm not asleep yet. I leave tomorrow...technically today. So much has happened in the last 55 the last 7 the last 2 days. Tonight Laura and I made a list of everything I need to do tomorrow before heading to the airport. The list is daunting, but it'll get done. It hasn't really hit me that I'm leaving. Tonight was my last night and Laura and I went to Tea Trove with a friend and had pizza and tea. Then we spent a few hours talking on the roof...before "heading to bed" aka perusing Facebook and nibbling on chocolate bars for an hour instead.

I'd felt pretty apprehensive and sad about leaving up until a few days ago. Calcutta will have a place in my heart forever. There were crazy things that happened here - really hard experiences and sights and sounds and feelings that will stay with me forever. But more importantly, Calcutta gave me more than it took from me. It gave me perspective when I needed it the most. It gave me exposure to a phenomenal organization of sex workers. It taught me more about myself than I ever expected to learn. It introduced me to a family of which I'm now considered a surrogate member.

Yesterday Nirmal and Juma cooked Laura, me and the girls an amazing lunch. I wish I'd taken a picture. Afterwards we watched a Bengali movie with them and I made them all matching family bracelets...and Nirmal learned how to make one. I love when we learn from each other - it's one of the most rewarding experiences.

No more time to write...maybe more reflections while I'm waiting at the airport tomorrow. Now is the time for sleep. Not looking forward to leaving, or this flight, but looking forward to seeing my family soon... and eating the biggest steak in the world, with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli (or grilled veggies).... HINT HINT, MOM! ;-)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

And Then There Was One

Our class officially ended last Sunday, and people began flying back to The States on Monday. As the group got smaller and smaller some people had requests for the one thing they wanted to do before they go...dinner at Banana Leaf, hanging out at Sunshine, lunch at Tamarind, etc. All of our usual spots. On Monday Kris, Sandra and Beth got on their flights. On Tuesday Anjali and Muxuan. And on Wednesday Phillip, my roommate left for the airport. Watching his taxi drive away was kind of surreal. I've never had a brother, but I'd say that on this trip Phillip came the closest thing I'll ever have to one. I learned so much about myself from my interactions with him and I'm so thankful to have had him as a roommate. Phillip also taught me something else. We joke about "selfie-itis" or whatever it's called (Poppop: a selfie is when you take a picture of yourself with your phone!) and I can see how some people may become seriously obsessed with selfies and their body image. However, the amount of selfies that Phillip and I took together made me happy and feel more confident about myself! Well, except for the silly ones. Ha.

I've had a few days now to process the fact that the class is over and that I'm the only one left here in Calcutta aside from Laura, our TA. I have many feelings about the class, the research, Durbar...I don't know if I can write as eloquently as I'd hope about it, so I'll hold off until I can organize my thoughts better. However, I do know that this has been one of the most phenomenal, destabilizing, beautiful experiences of my life.
The whole group on day one of orientation
The monsoon has officially hit Calcutta. The other night we were riding in a cab to go to dinner and the streets were so flooded that it was like riding through a river!

The monsoon causes extremely heavy rains, usually in the afternoon for a few hours. But sometimes it rains all evening and causes the streets to flood.

On Thursday Laura and I joined two friends to go swimming at Calcutta Swimming Club. It was beautiful, and we had such a lovely day. Lunch at the club, swimming for a few hours, afternoon chai and then a few games of pool. It was such a strange difference from my usual days in Calcutta of walking everywhere, taking the metro, sweating to death, etc. Maybe sometime I'll write more about the dichotomy of some of my experiences here. I feel like I'm putting off writing about a lot of things, but it's just because I want to do certain subjects justice when I write about them.

My flight home is officially booked. I leave Calcutta on Tuesday evening and arrive in The States on Wednesday morning. I am finally beginning to feel a tiny inkling of readiness. I also want to clarify that no, I am not going to Thailand to work with elephants. My body has really been through the wringer, and I'm still taking a lot of medications. My immune system may be compromised, and it's probably not very safe to travel to a rural area of Thailand to work with wild animals...who knows how far the closest hospital is, if something were to go wrong. I'm still not allowing myself to feel the sadness about not getting to work with elephants... so that will come later.

For now, I am relishing all of the moments until my departure.