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Into the great wide open

Believe it or not, this post is coming after the end of VP 11 in Kolkata. Somehow, the summer has come to an end, somehow 12 weeks have passed, and somehow I find myself back in the same house as the beginning of June….full circle. Most importantly, all volunteers completed the programme safely, everyone left either for Dublin or off on their travels around India in a happy and (mostly!) healthy state. It is really very hard to believe that the programme has ended, it has literally taken over my life since I took on the role in March. It is hard to remember what those first few weeks were like, getting to know everyone, sussing out personality types, getting hopelessly lost, battling dehydration and flood waters in equal amounts…..you don’t notice the summer slipping by, you don’t notice the strong relationships you are forming, and you don’t notice how familiar you become with the city and the way of life. As myself and Kat were moving our stuff over here the other day, we remembered how on our second or third night in Kolkata, we were hopelessly lost  coming back from Park Street. Now it is all so familiar. I still don’t always know where I’m going or where I am but I certainly came to feel extremely at home in Gariahat and around the city.

It is genuinely hard to process everything that has happened over the past few weeks and the emotional rollercoaster it has been. I have been hugely challenged on a personal and professional level and have met some fantastic people along the way. We had our close out party with the staff and teachers of  Sabuj Sangha last week, which resulted in a very band rendition of Amhran na bhFiann and some questionable dancing. I knew the volunteers would be emotional leaving their schools and the children, but what I was no expecting was how upset the teachers were saying their goodbyes. Fully grown men wept into their hankies, the women teachers clung to the volunteers or else cried into the end of their sarees….the emotion in the room as overwhelming. For me, that spoke volumes about the team and the bond they had formed with the schools and communities as a whole and not just with the children. Whenever I question the value of volunteering or the impact someone can have in 10 weeks, I will forever think of that room and the genuine affection between the volunteers and their teachers. Surely so much positivity must be a good thing. Olivia said to me last week, that once you know the world is like this, you can never forget it. You never do forget these experiences and for me the best part of the role was being part of an experience that will shape and influence peoples’ perceptions, opinions and ultimately the way they view themselves and the world. There were frustrating times, exhausting times, stress, worry, anxiety and chaos, but essentially it was a great experience and one that will take me many months to process so I can realise its full benefit to myself.

Many of what I have seen this summer has massively challenged me, and I know that my mind will only let me process a certain amount. The poverty is truly overwhelming, and I could never get used to the number of people sleeping on the street, empty eyed children tugging on your sleeve in railway stations, emaciated men sitting staring into space beside the sheet of plastic that is their home, women cooking up their families meal on the same bit of pavement that is their bedroom, sitting room and play area.  I saw a hundred sights every day in Kolkata that gave me new appreciation for my life and the opportunities that I have…all bestowed on me by the lottery of birth.

Tonight myself Kat and Clare are taking the night train to Darjeeling for some mountain air, tea drinking and a hike or two. I am so looking forward to seeing more of the country, exploring more of the diversity and complexity which make India tick. Although I will only scratch the surface in 2 weeks and will spend much time travelling the vast distances between A and B,  it is a great opportunity to see some of the India that lies outside West Bengal. I am hoping to touch on mountains, culture and beaches during the two weeks and if I manage that, I shall be a happy woman!

I have grown very fond of Kolkata. There are days where it makes me want to tear my hair out, with the fumes and the beeping and the bureaucracy and being jostled and shoved at every turn (I can only imagine how peaceful Dublin is going to seem!!). But it is a fascinating place. Chaos and harmony exist in perfect union. There have been moments during the summer when I have wanted to get on a train and just leave (normally days when I had something important to get done and was being thwarted at every turn), days when I got into rows with dodgy taxi drivers, many, many moments when I was certain that the end was nigh as a bus hurtled towards my rickshaw, moments (mainly yesterday) where I wanted to scream in frustration while trying (and failing) to book a train ticket, many moments where I stood in torrential rain trying to get transport and wondering what on earth I was doing there instead of being tucked upstairs in Kehoes with a nice pint. But through all of this, I felt very alive.

One of the things I will really miss about Kolkata is the ritual of chai. Chai stands dot every street and are the centre of social and street life; people congregate not only to have a brew or a snack, but also to have the chats, catch up on gossip and people watch. I spent many happy hours sitting on a wooden bench at the chai stall down the road from Kalyan, people watching and drinking cup after cup of hot and sweet chai. Chai tastes different at every stall, some times it is more herby, sometimes spicier, some times sweeter. In the midst of all of the chaos and stress, you can always find a chai stall to sit back for a moment and watch the glorious torrent of city life pass you by. In fact, given the hectic and non stop nature of the last few weeks, my chai breaks became very important times during my day, times to take a few minutes to myself while also taking part in a ritual practiced by millions of Kolkatans every day. You also never know what will happen while you are at a chai stall….I have been photographed and quizzed about Ireland, I have witnesseed heated and passionate debates but best of all, I have seen a cow in full ceremonial glitzy dress tied between a motorbike and a police van.

Kolkata is already gearing up for the October festival of Durga Puja. Enormous  structures are going up all over the city, where effigies of the ten-armed Goddess Durga and her entourage will be on display for 10 days. People will come to worship Durga, there will be much merriment, new outfits will be worn, schools and businesses will close and then the festival will end when the images of the Godess will be submerged in the holy Hooghly river. Spirituality and religion are intertwined through everything here, street side shrines containing images of various Gods and Goddesses are commonplace, and people stop to make an offering or make puja at these shrines. Stall holders in the market, taxi drivers, shop keepers, house holders, all have images of Gods and Goddesses on display somewhere and will very often thank the Gods when they make a sale or get a fare, for example. The man I bought my saree from turned to the images of the Gods in the four corners of his shop  and thanked them for my custom. Market stalls and produce are regularly blessed. While waiting in Kalighat metro station last week, I got to watch many sharply dressed commuters stopping at the shrine to the Godess Kali in the station and paying brief homage before trotting briskly off to their work a day lives.

I have to sign off now as I am heading for a final Kolkata lunch with the coordinators. I look forward to the next few weeks of the freedom of travelling, of new experiences, beautiful sights, challenging times, dodgy transport, new people and incredible food! I look forward to having the time to absorb all that has happened this summer, and ultimately I look forward to coming back to Ireland. Much and all as Ireland may frustrate me at times, it is still home and I miss the open spaces and sea air of Wicklow, as well as missing my friends and family more so than I have on previous trips (think I am getting old!!).

In conclusion, here are some of the things I will miss about Kolkata….

Chai

Street food and the ritual that goes with it

The colors…sarees, flower stalls, kurtas and fruit stands

The energy of the place

The food!!!  A different type of curry for every day

Delicious and cheap fresh fruit

…..and what I will not miss so much!

Mosquitoes (have about 10 monster bites at the moment)

Sweat

Beeping, beeping, beeping, beeping

Begging children and families on the streets

Traffic

Fumes

Believing certain death awaits with every rickshaw/taxi journey

Dodgy taxi drivers trying to rip you off and then not bringing you where you want to go

Endless staring

Despite my love-hate relationship with this city, I have become accustomed to her quirky ways, and I will undoubtedly miss her in my own way. Kolkata has not uprooted Africa from its special place in my heart but she has, without me even noticing, staked out her own and very unique place somewhere within me.