Friday, May 29, 2015

Heat Wave & Lala Day

One thing I must address first this morning is the deadly heat wave that has gripped India over the past week or so. Over 1500 are dead now. Many people in our group have been contacted by people in the US about it. We knew that it was very, very hot but we didn't really realize that there was such a dangerous heat wave because all of the warnings here in India have been on the news and in the newspapers, which we don't have access to or can't understand. So when parents started emailing us links to news articles in NY Times, etc. we knew that this was a big deal. 

For me personally, it's a little bit scary because I am looking out for the students. I always hope to find a good balance between keeping the students safe and healthy and also not hovering over them and allowing them some autonomy. But when it comes to health or safety, I can't help but go into Didi mode and urge people to drink more water, remind them to fill their bottles as much as possible and make sure that everyone is resting enough in between activities. 

Yesterday we were walking to Durbar's offices and people carried in front of us a dead, what I assumed to be homeless man on a stretcher. He appeared to be so thin and frail. His life extinguished due to heat. Our families are worried abut us, and I am worried about us too. But we are so lucky to have access to as much clean water as we could ever want. Air conditioned bedrooms and living spaces. Access to shade inside buildings throughout the day. A million people here in Calcutta do not.


On Wednesday I took with me a photo of Sam and I to Durbar, where members of Komal Ghandar (the cultural performance wing) and Anandam confirmed his death. Up until then, I had been hoping that perhaps it was all just a big miscommunication. That perhaps we were talking about different people. And during our sessions, every time the door opened I sort of expected to see him walk through. I imagined that I would scream, "SAM!" and hug him and explain the entire thing. 

But no. They saw the picture, nodded and said, "Yes, Samrat dead". And so, it is confirmed. It is true. Sam is gone and I will not see his face at Durbar again. 


I have a lot to write about that's happened this week, but I guess the most salient right now is last night's International Menstrual Hygiene Day, which was hosted by DMSC (Durbar) and Amra Padatik (Children of Sex Workers). The event is basically a chance to educate sex workers about what the menstrual cycle is, the purpose of it, and the importance of menstrual hygiene. There are many myths surrounding menstrual cycles within the community, and improper hygiene can lead to sickness for themselves and others. 

When I agreed to give a short speech at the event, I figured I would be sitting in the crowd with the group and then I would just stand up and quickly say my piece. Instead, at the beginning I was invited to come and sit on stage as an honored guest. I was given a rose to pin on my kurti and sat with the executive committee of Durbar. I was slightly mortified to be sitting up there (literal stage fright!) but also felt extremely honored. 

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We attended this event last year as a group as well, but this year there were a few differences. For one, the program took place in a different district within Sonagachi than the one last year. That meant we had to ride a bus from the central Durbar office in order to get to the event. Last year I only ever rode the metro and used taxis and tuktuks. Never had I taken an Indian bus! There's a first time for everything :)

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The program was lovely overall, although we could not understand most of it because it was in Bengali. From my vantage point on stage, I could see everything, which was fascinating. SO many sex workers and babus (fixed, regular customers of sex workers). The crowd extended extremely far back into the allies, which explains why the speakers were so loud. 

Here is the text of the speech that I gave after the doctors and Durbar members spoke:

"Nomoskar. My name is Kristen Smith and I am from The United States of America. I am here by invitation to learn about Durbar, for which I am very thankful. First I would like to say Thank You to Dr. Jana, the Executive Committee, DMSC and Amra Padatik for inviting me and the other students to this informative and important event.

Since my arrival to India one week ago, I have seen the color red in many places. Red bindis, red vermillion, red bracelets and beautiful red saris. It is clear that the color red is a significant color here in India. 

But also the color red is significant to women all over the world. It is the color of blood, the blood in our bodies that keeps us alive. When babies are born, they have the blood of their mother. So in some ways, blood is life. It is something to celebrate. A woman's menstrual cycle is a sign that our bodies have the ability to make new life. It is not something to be ashamed about and it is not dirty. 

By properly practicing menstrual hygiene, we are not only keeping ourselves healthy, we are showing respect to our bodies, all women, and to the source that made our bodies the way that they are. 

I wish you all very good health. Dhonobaad." 

If you want to see a short video clip of part of my speech, you can click this link here. You can hear the Bengali translation after each paragraph. My translator was so kind and we joked afterwards about her trying to translate properly so that the women understood my analogy/metaphor. Lala = red. Nomoskar = Hello/Greetings. Dhonobaad = Thank you. 

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The best part by far was that at the end they gave me maxi pads to hand out to the sex workers! That is one thing that I never expected to do in my lifetime!

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While I was very honored to be given the opportunity to be a part of the ceremonial handing out of the maxi pads, there was also something that made me uncomfortable. As soon as the other members of the Executive Committee began handing out the maxi pads, a photographer (with a Nikon, might I add, heh) noticed that I was still sitting. He pointed to me and said to the woman in charge "Didi! Didi! Didi!" (sister) and then said something in Bengali which I assume was, "Give her some to hand out so I can take a picture". Because then when I started to hand them out he took about 400 photos of just me handing them out. It felt very...'Melinda Gates with a brown baby in her arms'. 

I truly don't deserve any recognition or praise - it is because of the very hard work of those at Durbar and the sex workers that all of this could happen. I wonder where those man's photos will end up. On the flip side, if he is a photographer for Durbar, perhaps those photos will be used in a way that will provide legitimacy to the cause and elicit money or resources. However, as a white westerner, I definitely do not deserve to be the face of any event put on by Durbar. I don't know...just thinking out loud. 

So much more to write about...Kalighat Temple with Nirmal and his family, special morning time with the girls, etc. I'll be back soon. For now, wish us luck and good health for the heat we will experience today. 


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Amar Bondhu Mara

I have a lot to write about what we did on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. But for now my heart is stuck in one spot, so I must write. It's 7am and the rest of the house is sleeping. Juma is in the kitchen preparing food for the day. My instant Nescafe with double toned milk and three scoops of sugar sits on the coffee table in front of me next to my water bottle full of blue colored water because of the added Gatorade packet. My eyes feel swollen and puffy and I have a slight headache from all of the crying yesterday. I keep asking the ultimate useless question: why? why? why? 

Amar bondhu mara. That was my primitive attempt at explaining to Nirmal in Bengali, "My friend died". 

Last year one of the members of Amra Pradatik (translation: "We are the foot soldiers"), which is the collective of children of sex workers at Durbar, became pretty close with a number of us in the class. He called himself Sam, which I'd always known was short for something but I didn't know what. He hung out with us whenever we were at Durbar's central office because he lived on one of the top floors. He was bright, funny, seemingly happy a lot. He was always joking around, but we had some serious conversations as well. He really wanted to move to The States. There were no opportunities for him in India, he said. 

I once showed him a $1 bill and he was so fascinated that I let him keep it and he said he would use it when he got to America. Sam became a good friend while we were here last year, and I was really excited to see him when I got back to Durbar. I even had a few pieces of paper that we wrote on together last year to show him. 

I'd emailed Pintu last fall to send a message to Sam to say Hi and Pintu delivered the message and then wrote back for him. On Monday and Tuesday Pintu was out on holiday, so I tried asking others at Durbar about Sam, but no one seemed to know who I was talking about. I kept saying Sam, with a hard S. I didn't have a photo of him on my phone, only my old phone with my pictures from India last year. I asked the secretary, the front desk lady, the head of Amra Pradatik, but they just couldn't figure out who I was talking about. 

Yesterday, they finally did. The head of Amra Pradatik asked me to come into his office, where some of the members of Anandam (LGBTKH org.) were. They said, "Samrat." And then "He's gone". I said, "Oh, where is he? Where did he go?"

"No. Gone. Dead." 

"What? Dead? What? Dead, like dead?" 

"Yes dead." 

"What happened?!"

"He was hanging by a rope. Killed himself." 

I was sitting in a chair in Amra Pradatik's office and my eyes started to tear up. The head of Amra Pradatik said, "Don't cry. This happens in India." But I couldn't help it. 

I was ushered out of the office and on the way back to the group, they were telling all of the women who'd been trying to figure out who I was trying to find. When they said his name, they all looked down and jutted out their lips at me. I was taken back to the room with all of the students, where I tried to resist going because I was crying and didn't want to make a scene. But the women ushered me there to sit down and rest. I let myself have a good, loud cry for 5 minutes or so. One of the students was so kind to pass tissues. I was just in such shock.

Our coordinator, Mousumi, and put her hand on my arm. "These things happen here. Do not cry." But I couldn't stop the tears. 

Sam committed suicide 3 weeks ago. I can't believe it. 

So many thoughts racing through my head.

What was he thinking when he did it? 

What could I have done? 

Did he know I was coming back? That probably wouldn't have made a difference anyway. 

I'm so sorry that you were hurting so badly Sam. I am so, so sorry. My heart is broken.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

Where Ever You Go There'll Be Sun, Sun, Sun

Saturday was a big day. Both for the group and for me. We left the apartment at 11am to take the metro to Park St. On the way to the metro I took the group into one of the stores on Rashbehari Ave. Last year I would stop into that store and became friends with the shop owner, Mr. Gupta. At the end of last year he asked if we could be pen pals, so we have been writing back and forth all year. 

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He didn't know I was returning, so he was very excited to see me! And meet all of the new students. After that we continued on to the metro and the students got their first experience on the Calcutta public transit system. It went well for the most part - one student became extremely hot and felt very faint, but we all worked together to cool off her neck and I had her sit on the floor of the metro. Some of the women sitting nearby gave us some advice as well, which was much appreciated. 

I've been taking my role as T.A. very, very seriously. I think the group probably thinks I'm a little nuts, because I'm constantly counting them, everywhere we go. There's 12 of them, so it's a little nerve wracking, at least for now, to make sure that everyone is making it where we're supposed to be going. We don't have Indian mobiles yet, which adds to the stress a little bit. So far so good, though. 

We made our way out of the metro station and up to Park St. From there we walked to Sunshine, the store where we always buy kurtis and pants and presents for people. It was SO good to see Akash and Sanjay. Imran was away, visiting his family but he'll be back this week. This year was a total repeat of last year - just piles and piles of clothing and students went through and chose outfits that they wanted. 

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And Akash, in the middle of it all, helping with sizing and colors and styles. He's so helpful. And it was so good to see him after a year!

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He also sent a gift for my niece, Kylie! He wrote on the bag -

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It's a toy tuk-tuk! The kind that when you pull back, the wheels spin and it moves forward. I found it in the store and was going to buy it but Akash said, no, this is my gift for your niece. So sweet. 

After Sunshine we headed over to Fairlawn to the Beer Garden for food and some Kingfishers. It was really nice to relax under the trees and put some fuel in our systems. 

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This is Neha, Kate and me.

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Kingfisher selfie!

After we got back it was about 5:30pm. Around 6:30 I joined Juma and the girls to take a walk to Deshapriyo park. All I could figure out was that we were going to get ice cream. It was so nice...I'd only ever been to D. Park during the daytime. But at night, the whole park is full of families sitting in the grass because the open space allows for a slight breeze. So we got our ice cream pops and sat down. The girls wanted to play games, so we played tag, monkey in the middle, a fun game where Juma tied her sari around our eyes and we had to find the others, and we also played with these little bouncy balls that I brought for the girls. On the way home, I carried Lalita on my shoulders and she freaked out because she liked it so much. She kept calling me "hati" which means elephant in Bengali ;-)

When we got back, the girls were exhausted from all of the running around (as was I) and as we sat on the roof before bed, Kumkum fell asleep in my lap. Lalita had been playing on my phone (the Endless numbers game that Kylie likes, Kels!) and she took a photo:

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I meant to mention that when I first arrived, the Roy family presented me with a lovely gift. Here's a photo of it:

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The girls are VERY excited that there are two little babies as well. They call the one with yellow hair Kumkum and the one with purple hair Lalita. Haha. I have these displayed in my room on the shelf for now. :) 

It's 10am now, and House A is getting ready to make a trip to Cafe Coffee Day for frozen coffees. And then the whole group is heading to South City Mall to do some grocery shopping and to check out the other stores. 

I hope everyone is well!

Oh, one more thing. My mom sent some frozen ice pops for the girls to try. The kind we had as kids every summer. They packed easily because they're just liquid in a plastic tube. I stuck them in the freezer when I got here, and last night Kumkum and Lalita got to try them for the first time. I told them they were from my Ma (Bengali equivalent of Mommy). They looooved them!

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Right now the heat index outside is 117. Let today's adventure begin!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Reunion with the Girls

Last night I went to bed around 3am, and this morning I woke up at 9:30. Nirmal and Juma were in the apartment - Juma was cooking and Nirmal sat on the couch with me and we caught up. He told me about the girls and their schooling. I showed him the picture that Kylie drew of India and he was very impressed and absolutely loved it. He asked all about my family (ma, baba, chot - mother, father, little sister). Then I got to see Juma! It was such a joyous reunion. Unfortunately, my gift for her is in my checked bag so I will have to wait to give it to her until my luggage comes in.

After my reunion with Juma, I grabbed the doll and a few dresses that I brought for the girls and headed up to their apartment to give it to them. They yelled and whooped when they saw me coming up the stairs! Lots of laughing and hugging and smiling. They absolutely love the doll, and we played with it for over an hour. They were very enamored with the fact that it has earrings and a nose ring. They even added a bindi to her forehead. I'm so, so glad I was able to find them a doll that looks like them!

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The girls love to take photos on my phone. I think they took about a hundred while we were together this morning. And videos too. They love to take videos and then rewatch them a billion times and laugh at hearing their own voices. 

While I was up there Juma fed me a delicious lunch of rice and dahl with spinach. Lalita, the little photographer, took this photo.

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I really wasn't sure what size the girls are in dresses, but I picked out a few simple sundresses at Gap Kids and Old Navy. Luckily, each of the girls' two dresses fit them perfectly! I kind of guessed on the sizes, but I got Kumkum a size M (8) and Lalita a size S (6). They're also pretty tiny for their age, so hopefully these dresses will last them a few years. 

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The girls always speak to me in Bengali, as if I know what they're saying, and then look at my expectantly. Then I speak to them in English and they look at me, all confused. But then we all smile and I say one of the 10 words that I know in Bengali. And then we all laugh. But you know, it's really easier to communicate with someone without any words than you think it is. It's a lot of gesturing and showing by actions/hands, but it works. When I left they kept asking, "What time?" and pointing to my watch, asking what time I'll be back for them. When I left, they immediately ran out of their apartment to go show Baba (their daddy, Nirmal) their new dresses and doll. 

If you know me or have talked to me in the last year, you know how much I have been looking forward to seeing the girls. They make my days so bright. They call me Auntie Kristen, or Didi (older sister). I've been looking forward to this moment for so many months. I'd been able to speak to them on the phone throughout the year, but nothing compared to seeing their little faces light up when they saw me walking up the stairs to their home.

My heart is so full. 

My Family Is Your Family This Side

After a full 36 hours of travel, I am here at No. 5 and settled into the couch next to one of the other students, Audrey, whom I traveled with. I'm connected to the Wifi, enjoying the AC, and trying to unwind my brain and body from the process of traveling.

I flew with Sam and Audrey. Here's a picture of us from Newark, when we were still clean and well rested. ;-)

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The first leg of the flight was uneventful. 15 hours in one seat...yikes. I watched Wild, Foxcatcher, and Bridesmaids. When we landed in Mumbai there was some confusion because our ticket was in 24 hour time. Basically, by the time we realized that we needed to board at 6pm, it was already 5:30 and we were still in the 'international' airport, and needed to be at the 'domestic' one! We ran to the shuttle and were told that we would need to go get a taxi, ASAP. So we sprinted to the taxi counter and finally got into a taxi with a guy who spoke no English and we were trying to tell him that we were going to miss our flight. 

Also, along the way we'd met a friend named Jose from North Carolina who'd never traveled outside of the country before and needed some guidance. He was going to Bangalore/Mysore for a yoga retreat. So, he was along for the ride. Here's a picture of us in the taxi...after racing through the airport and running up and down the rows of taxis trying to find our prepaid one. 

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We somehow made the flight to Calcutta. Unfortunately, our luggage did not. Hopefully our bags will be put on the first flight to Calcutta tomorrow and we'll have it by the afternoon. Luckily, I packed an extra outfit and some facewash (thanks for the reminder, Mom!)

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I had some really interesting meals on the flights this time.

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Dinner was lamb with potatoes and veggies. A roll, salad, and some sort of rice pudding type deal. Oh, and a whiskey on the rocks. Hehe.

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Middle of the night snack was sandwiches. One had cucumbers, carrots and mayo. The other was just bread and cheese. Hah. 

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Breakfast was an omelet, some sort of breaded pouch with spicy cheese inside, fruit, a croissant and a muffin.

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Dinner on the second flight was heavenly. Chicken in some kind of sauce, rice, and palak (spinach) with corn. A salad, roll and some sort of custard/cake dessert. I love that this meal looks like the Indian flag ;)

When we finally got to Calcutta and realized that our bags didn't make it, we had to wait awhile to be picked up my Nirmal. It gave us a chance to do an "after" picture. Yikes. 

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When Nirmal arrived, it was such a happy reunion. Lots of yelling and hugs and happiness. 

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On the ride to No. 5 Nirmal called Juma and the girls and put me on the phone. All 3 of them were yelling my name! Nirmal said, "Tonight my girls no sleeping because Kristen is coming! For 10 days they say, 'Kristen today?' and I say, 'No, 10 days'. Then the next day, 'Kristen is coming?' and I say, 'No, 9 days'." cute. They tried to stay up for my arrival but they fell asleep around midnight before I got to the apartment. I'm really looking forward to our reunion tomorrow morning! 

When we got here, Nirmal gave me the most beautiful gift from him, Juma and the girls. I'll post about it tomorrow with a picture. When he gave it to me he said, "My family is your family this side". And it's true. I almost feel like I've been reunited with family members. I'm also very lucky that I get to sleep in the same bedroom and even the same bed as last time! It very much feels like coming home. 

And with that, I'm going to sign off. It's been a whirlwind and although my brain is on an adrenaline rush, my body is starting to fade. Tomorrow I'm off to Durbar to meet with Pintu, the coordinator there, so that we can plan next week's DMSC orientation for the students. Everyone is here now, and it's time for the adventure to begin!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

It's Finally May 20th!

The day has finally arrived. All of my bags are packed. Gifts carefully wrapped in tshirts and tank tops. 48 granola bars are lining my suitcase. My iPad is charged and loaded with Pitch Perfect and Bridesmaids. My first dose of Malarone is in my system, and my phone is loaded with songs to listen to on the Metro.

It feels strange and surreal that in 36-ish hours I'll be in Calcutta. I promise to update as soon as I can! I am anticipating a very, very happy reunion with Nirmal, Juma, and the girls. Also looking forward to getting the students settled in the apartments. And I definitely can't wait for a Mini Meal from Banana Leaf!!

Talk to you all when I am India-side!!

Thursday, May 7, 2015

2 Weeks!

In two weeks I'll board a plane to return to Calcutta!

I started preparing today with a trip to Target to drop off my Malarone (bring on the crazy dreams) and Azithromycin prescriptions. Of course I had to call Aetna to get it all straightened out, since the Malarone is for more than a 30 day supply. While at Target I picked up a few trip-related wipes, toothpaste, deodorant, two sports bras. I came home and got my "India Bag" out of the closet that has all of my kurtis and leggings from last year.  

This year my role will be very different. This time around I am responsible for working out all of the logistics for 11 MSW students to ensure that they have a smooth, fun, educational trip that is hopefully as destabilizing and amazing as it was for me last year. 

Although my job is super different this year, I still want to experience all that Calcutta and India has to offer, while leaving the smallest footprint possible. 

Auntie Kumkum tells me that my "fan club" at Bepin Pal Road is eagerly awaiting my arrival, and I can't WAIT to see them! I've been collecting little things throughout the year that I thought they might like. When I picture seeing Nirmal at the airport on the 21st my heart explodes! 

My original plan was to do a bit of traveling after India with Sam, one of the students on the trip this year. We decided today that we won't be traveling to Kathmandu, Nepal because of the terrible earthquake they experienced last month. We don't want to be in the way and Kathmandu just isn't ready for tourists yet. 

Now we may go to Thailand after India...unless I am offered a job that begins earlier than August 1st! So much is up in the air. I'm really looking forward to ironing out the details of the next 4 months of my life.

Until then - 
Let the packing begin!!