I just came back from some of the most incredible five days of my life. I have had a pretty fantastic year filled with travel – by the time I land back in the U.S. on May 22 I will have conquered eleven countries on four different continents in nine months. And still this past week was one of the most life-changing and memorable weeks of my entire adventure.
I was given the opportunity to visit Kolkata with a friend of mine who lives in Bangkok, and who has family friends who live and work in Kolkata. I am in the middle of finals, so the decision to go was really because I was eager to visit the non-profit organizations that our hosts work for, and despite all my travels, India was still a country that made me a bit nervous about traveling to. So all the more reason to go! It’s funny though, because most people don’t go to Kolkata as a final destination. So when I mentioned that I was traveling to India, specifically Kolkata, most people asked, but where are you really going? And exactly as I was warned Kolkata itself is a dirty, dilapidated city, that is plagued with poverty; it is inescapable. The thing is though, that once you see past the poverty, the dirt, and the grime, there is so much to discover in Kolkata, and so much hidden beauty. I could write pages about how amazing the trip was, but I will summarize my trip into two parts: the high and the low.
The low point of the trip was the morning of Day 3. We had just come from an incredible (and very early) morning visit to the Mother House, where Mother Teresa lived, died, and from where she did her incredible work. Learning about her story, seeing pictures and reading quotes which give a glimpse into her life was truly incredible. She started the organization the Missionaries of Charity. By bringing a focus to the poor and destitute in Kolkata she did something that no one in his or her time had braved to do.
Afterward we went to visit a temple in Kolkata, home to the goddess Kali, who symbolizes war, death, and destruction. She is also the god associated with Kolkata. From the moment we started walking to the temple, I didn’t have a good feeling. There were people everywhere screaming at us, trying to get us to go this way or that way. It was mass chaos, and there was a frantic and frightening energy. We walked through the gate past a few guards with huge guns. As we walked in one man warned us, quite bizarrely “Just do this one thing for me, go in and don’t involve anyone else in your experience. And do not take off your shoes.” Well we noticed that everyone waiting in line had no shoes on. We circled the temple to get an understanding of our surroundings and where we should line up, and passed people who looked half-dead, lying on the floors everywhere. It was overwhelming.
We finally decided to take off our shoes, but knew to carry them in because if we left them outside they would be gone by the time we came back. But as soon as we touched our shoes a woman came over screaming and frantic telling us “No! no! no!” She truly looked insane, and would not let us pass. After much confusion and anxiety, us three girls finally decided to leave. We walked away – I was in the worst mood and just didn’t know what to make of the whole experience. Depressing? Sad? Frightening? Unnerving? Disturbing? There was something. That night when talking to our host, she explained that the temple is known for its heavy and dark atmosphere, and that they usually warn people about going there. As recently as November, a child sacrifice of an eleven year old, was reported at that temple. That was definitely my low.
I have two highs. The first was our visit on Day 4 to an organization called Freeset. Freeset works by building relationships with women in the red light district Sonagachi (home to 10,000 women who work in prostitution). Just as a comparison, 20% of users in Thai red light districts are foreign and only .01% in Kolkata, so 80% of users are local in Thailand and 99.9% in Kolkata.
while in Thailand 80% of customers in red light districts are natives, in Kolkata 99.9% are natives. This leads to a huge stigma of women working the line. As a result, women who would want to leave sex work, find it difficult to find work elsewhere. So freeset provides employment for women who are coming out of prostitution or trafficking. Freeset makes bags out of jute (typical of India). The company actually gets 90% of its profit by filling custom orders; for example, to many grocery stores, including Whole Foods. So next time you are at a Whole Foods check the bags there, and see whether they have a small Freeset label.
Our visit started with Freeset’s devotion time. The organization is Christian based, and at the beginning of each morning all the women and staff come together and have worship time. It was in Bengali so of course I didn’t understand anything; but it was a beautiful and touching moment. All of these women, dressed in their incredibly beautiful saris, surrounded by the employees who care so much about them and their children, joining together before the start of the day. Throughout our tour we saw over and over again just how happy the women are there, but also how dedicated and down to earth the staff are. It is incredible to see an organization that really is just as amazing as it sounds on paper. Even more impressive is that Freeset is a business and fully sustainable.
The second high of the week was talking with, and spending time with our hosts. They are a young couple both working with human trafficking organizations. They are well-educated, intellectual, fun, relaxed, down-to-earth, and have created a life in Kolkata doing this incredible work. As someone who is completely unsure of what to do in the future, it was incredible to see such an example of a couple who are individually pursing their passions. They took the time to talk to us about their work, and to give us advice for the future, and helped us to see a different side of Kolkata. The week also included a bit of sight seeing, and observing the many sights to see in Kolkata – when you look beyond the intense pollution, you notice incredible european style buildings, and beautiful colors all around the city. The whole week was really an incredible way to end my semester in Asia!