Thursday, June 11, 2015

Adventures in Bariupur

Wow. I have never in my life experienced anything like the 36-ish hours I spent in Bariupur, West Bengal for a conference of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). In attendance were sex workers from all over India. Many of them were presidents or heads of their organizations or collectives. 

I should back up and first explain how the day started... the morning that we left for Bariupur. It was only me and three other students, who form the research team that is looking at policy surrounding LGBTKH rights in India and the efforts of the Durbar-affiliated group Anandam to repeal Penal Code 377 (the law that makes homosexuality in India illegal...punishable by a minimum 5 years in jail or a maximum of life in prison...).

After not getting much sleep the night before, we all woke at 7am. The plan was to meet Pintu, our coordinator and translator, at the Kavi Nazrul metro station, which is about 6 stops south of our place. From there, we would travel to Bariupur, about an hour away from South Calcutta. 

We took the metro to Kavi Nazrul, all along figuring that Pintu had arranged for a car or taxi to pick us all up. Why I still expect these things, I have no idea. 

Because what really happened is that we stepped out of the metro station into a suburb of Calcutta and walked a ways until we found a tuktuk (3 wheeled auto) that would take the FIVE of us. FIVE.

First of all, tuk-tuks fitting 3 people and a driver is a bit of a squeeze. Most ideal would be two people in the back and no one up front with the driver, because the seat is so small and the steering wheel is directly in the center. So in this tuktuk it ended up being the 3 girls (me, Kelly, Kendra) in the back and Sam and Pintu up front with the driver. With all of our backpacks packed for the night. We were crammed so tightly into this tuktuk...I asked Pintu how long of a ride and he said 30 minutes. Great. 

We were also told that there would be no access to filtered water in Bariupur, so we had to bring lots of big liter bottles for ourselves. So those were all also crammed into the tuktuk, with our backpacks. 

After a 30 minute ride in that tuktuk, we got dropped off. Only to get on another tuktuk. For another 30 minutes. I think I may have blacked out most of the second ride because I was so tired, so hot, and so sweaty. 

When we finally reached our destination the tuk tuk just pulled over in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by farms and cattle. I had my photo taken in front of the sign for the Children's Home (where the conference was being held) but couldn't even manage to smile after such a commute. 

In this photo you can see over my shoulders a dirt path. We walked that dirt path all the way to the entrance to the grounds of the DMSC Children's Home (this is the home/school where the sex worker's children can attend). 

When we got there, we were given the morning breakfast that everyone else had already eaten. Rice puffs, luchi (sort of like a fried dough/bread) and aloo (potato) with gravy/sauce.

After some food and some rest we joined the conference. There were about 50 women in a room, discussing strategies in order to increase funding for their HIV programming. Apparently the government of India claims that HIV will be entirely eradicated by 2017, and so funding for HIV programs will be cut at that time. The women were discussing Facebook and twitter use in order to get the word out and raise funds. 

Later in the day we were told to go rest. While we were in our room (they were so kind to give the four of us a room with two double beds. I know that people slept on the floor in order for us to have beds.) we took a rest and then TJ showed up! We'd all been laying on our beds, in various states of undress due to the heat, when he walked in with his documentary camera (not shooting...haha) and say, "Hi!" Then we chatted with him for awhile about politics and he taught us out to play Euchre. 

After that Pintu told us that we could take a walk around the property. There were lovely lakes that we could see. He said the scenery would be very beautiful. So we took that opportunity to go for a walk.

On the way we met the cutest goats.

This little guy was very interested in my camera:

We continued down the path until we eventually came across the beautiful lakes. Pintu was right. It was a stunning sight. 

It was so relaxing to sit in silence. We realized that for the first time in weeks, there were no honking horns to be heard. All we could hear were birds chirping. The silence was much appreciated, and we sat for a long time, quietly chatting. 

After that we went back to our room to relax. It was SO HOT. The heat index was near 120 and there was no luxury of air conditioning. We were sitting on the floor, the coolest place in the room, when a most terrible thing happened. 

The power went out. Completely.

That meant that the lights and overhead fans went off immediately. And there we sat, in a room, with the stillest, hottest air that you could ever imagine. 

We ended up stripping down to the most we could bear (bare? hehe). I had to remove my leggings and kurti because I just didn't think I would make it otherwise. So there we sat, in our underwear, trying to pretend we were all just in bikinis. 

Each minute felt like 30. Sweat didn't drip. It just pooled on our bodies. I was laying on the floor and my entire stomach and chest looked like I'd just stepped out of the shower. 

It was the hottest I'd ever been in my entire life. We barely even spoke. We all just lay there on the floor. Trying to sip water. Trying to be still. 

Eventually, a generator was connected and the lights came back on, though the fans only worked at half speed. We were brought a snack of rice puffs, tomato and cucumber. 

And then Pintu came to the room to tell me that there would be a small party downstairs with the women before dinner. At this point it was probably about 8pm. He used the phrase "drinky drink"...haha. 

And so when it was time, we went downstairs. We were served thin plastic cups of vodka (the brand was called "White Mischief...") mixed with water and salted ice cubes. The women really wanted us to drink up! And so began the party. 

This is us with our White Mischief drinks and Pintu, the best coordinator and translator ever. Also, this is what my hair looks like after I have experienced mild heat exhaustion and produced two liters of sweat. 

Then the women put on music and the dancing began! During the middle of this, the power went out again. Which was quite an excitement for all of us who were tipsy from the White Mischief and the heat. 

Sam continued to dance despite the power issue. His headlamp was all that was needed. ;-)

Once the power returned, the dancing began again. 

If you had told me two years ago that one day in my life, I would be drinking and dancing with a group of sex workers at a conference in India, I would have laughed. But that night, with lots of dancing, lots of drinking, and lots of hugging, it felt like the most normal night of my life. Despite the women wanting to take 5 billion photos of us and with us, it felt like a normal night with friends...friends who speak a different language. Smiles go a long way when you don't share language. 

We finally ate dinner of rice, dahl (lentil soup) and boiled egg that night at 11pm. During dinner one of the sex workers came over to me, Kelly and Kendra and told us, "My father only has 1 daughter. That's me. But now, he has 4 daughters." And she pointed at the three of us. 

After that we all went up to the roof and fell asleep on the concrete for some time while each of us took a turn taking a cold shower before bed. 

That night I barely slept. The mattress absorbed every degree of my body heat, making it feel as though I was laying on a heating pad. Tossing and turning wasn't an option, as it produced more sweat. So I lay next to Kelly, both of us as far away from each other as possible in order to not share body heat, both of us still. I was able to sleep for short periods of time throughout the night, but then my body would wake and I'd need to take a sip of water. I have spent many nights at girl scout camps...camping at lake houses in the summer, sleeping on the ground in backyards...but never, ever in my life have I tried to sleep in such hot conditions.

In the morning we all showered the sweat we'd accumulated overnight and joined the women downstairs for Day 2. Pintu translated for us what they were speaking of. There was one quote that I found highly amusing, as did everyone else. The woman speaking said in Hindi, "The government did not care about cancer. And then the Maharaja got ill with cancer, and the government began to designate money for cancer. Right now the government does not care about HIV. Perhaps the answer is to give the Maharaja HIV." A funny, but sad joke which implications need not be explained. 

Eventually, it was time for lunch and we ate our last meal in Bariupur before TJ drove us home. It was an eventful overnight trip for the four of us. Something of great interest, beauty, confusion, fun, and extreme heat. I'm so thankful that I was able to participate in the conference, even if only for one day. 


Amanda McGrath said...

WOW. What an experience. These stories, your stories are so amazing to me. It is so hard for me to picture the lives of people living halfway across the world. I love being able to glimpse into the lives of these workers and their children through your words. It is extremely eye-opening.

Raeford said...

Kristen, I hope you write a book someday. When I read your blog, I feel like I am experiencing all of this with you, it's incredible. Thank you so much for sharing!