Some of my more recent adventures can be found at the official AIF Fellowship blog: An Akanksha Campout. Enjoy!
Early in November, I was invited to accompany friends from Pune to their hometown for Christmas. Which is how this year I celebrated a Calcutta Christmas.
To be fair, my holiday began in Pune. As I mentioned on the 23rd, I attended an Akanksha sports day at our Matoshri English Medium School (MEMS). The children normally have an outrageous amount of energy. Divided into teams and locked in fierce competition, the energy carried through for hours. It was fun to be reminded of my own elementary school days, when sports day included roaming around the schoolyard, playing tug of war, racing, and eating frozen treats at the end of the day. The MEMS sports day operated on a slightly smaller scale (due to lack of space and equipment), but the infectious energy and joy was the same.
Although I came with the intention of helping out, I spent the morning and early afternoon watching the events and cuddling with children. Some of my favorite moments at the school will be sitting on the ground with a child pressed on both sides, two in my lap, and one hugging my neck from behind. Christmas cuddles!
Christmas Eve was a normal day filled with anticipation. I went to the office, as usual. I felt the travel/holiday excitement hit me, and I listened to Christmas music for the first time this December while counting down the minutes till 5pm.
Christmas morning began with a jarring awakening at 3:15am. Direct flights from Pune to Calcutta are not common, so my departure time was a brisk 5:55am. Having scheduled a cab for a 4:15am ride, I dragged my sleepy self out of my nice, warm bed and shivered my way through a barely warm shower.
(Please note that I use the traditional spelling for the city – Calcutta – as opposed to the current spelling, Kolkata. As far as I can deduce, the situation is much the same as the Mumbai/Bombay, Pune/Poona divide; people understand you either way, and it’s more of a personal preference. However, I am sticking with the traditional spelling because that is the version that my Bengali friends use. Andddddd not gonna lie – I love the alliteration of the phrase “Calcutta Christmas.”)
I was particularly curious to see what awaited me in Calcutta after spending my summer in Dhaka. The state of Bengal originally consisted of what are now Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Indian state of West Bengal. In 1947, the Bengal region was divided into the Indian West Bengal, East Pakistan, and West Pakistan. The separation was to create individual areas for the Muslim and Hindu populations in the region. Then, in 1971 East Pakistan separated from West Pakistan and became Bangladesh. (A great name – it literally means the country of Bengali. There is great pride in the Bangla language there.) There is a ton of history between 1947 and 1971 that I am not covering, but it is a fascinating and tragic period for the region and worth looking into if you’re a history buff. I had no prior knowledge of the regional turmoil in Bengal until my stay in Dhaka during the summer of 2014. The Liberation War Museum in Dhaka is an excellent stop for the Bangladeshi perspective on that time, and I began to explore the history after my visit there in June.
Calcutta is certainly more similar to the architecture and atmosphere of Bangladesh than Mumbai, Pune, or Delhi. Watching the city unfold before me during my cab ride from the airport to my friend’s house in the posh Park Street area, I was struck by the classic look of the city. This may sound stereotypical, but Calcutta looks the way I imagined an Indian city: the narrow streets, the old fashioned taxis, the flow of people. I fully admit that this bias might be based on my summer in Bangladesh, since I received my acceptance into the 2014-2105 AIF Fellowship during my stay in Bangladesh. There are definite difference between Calcutta and Dhaka; infrastructure in Calcutta is better maintained and the city is cleaner than my memories of Dhaka. I enjoyed the contrast, and I am fully happy with my decision to explore the Bengal region further.
Christmas day was a time for reunions, chatting, and feasting. After arriving at my Fletcher friend’s house, we spent hours chatting. As with my Goa weekend, I found the Fletcher conversation to be thoroughly refreshing and informative. I then popped down to the metro and traveled to my AIF co-fellow’s apartment for a Christmas feast of bruschetta, pumpkin soup, chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a delicious variety of cakes and cookies. I had several AIF reunions while also meeting new friends. Conversations meandered as we lazily ate our way through the early evening. Holidays away from home are never easy – somehow, it doesn’t quite feel the same without family and snow – but I am incredibly grateful for the network of friends I have in India.
After 20 straight hours of go-go-go, I crashed for the night. Around 2:30am, I had an unpleasant awakening of intense pain. My left ear was throbbing so hard that my teeth ached. The left side of my throat radiated pain, and my lymph node was the size of a tender golf ball. Somehow exhaustion won out over the pain, and the intensity had diminished somewhat by the time I awoke in the morning. However, I was feeling sick, sluggish, and overall not too happy. All I could think about was how painful an earache would make my return flight to Pune and how awful it would be to be sick during all of my upcoming travels. Fortunately, my friend’s father came to the rescue and recommended an over the counter antibiotic that I started right away.
I had made plans to meet a German friend for some morning sightseeing, so I dragged myself out around 11. We meandered our way to Victoria Memorial, chatting and taking in our surroundings as we walked. She is currently based in Darjeeling for research, so it was extremely interesting to hear about life in the mountains. Victoria Memorial is a stunning building, and I enjoyed the site even through my haze of illness. It is curious to see how many remnants of the British remain and characterize Calcutta.
Afterwards, we headed to the India Museum, the oldest museum in the country (or so I was told). We had been warned that the museum was a bit strange and perhaps best experienced while under the influence of something strong, so our curiosity had been peaked. The museum is indeed very trippy. The exhibits remind me of the set up of New York’s Museum of Natural History, with large diorama-esque cases that depict animals in their natural habitat. These examples of taxidermy are not stellar, and the pulled facial features, with their glossy eyes peering in different directions, walk the line between hilarious and downright bizarre. The material itself was normal, but the execution was indeed rather creepy.
My second lunch in Calcutta was a plate of vegetable momos (dumplings) and vegetable thukpa (a clear soup with thin noodles). The warm broth soothed my throat and aided conversation, but afterwards I returned to my friend’s house for a 5-hour nap. I awoke to meet my host, my friend from Pune, and some of their school friends and devour an egg-chicken kati roll. Kati rolls are sinfully delicious. Imagine an oily, thick pita bread (but better) with a layer of egg that wraps around veggies, chicken, and a tangy hot sauce. The paper it was wrapped in was completely soaked in oil, but the taste made it 100% worth the clogging of my arteries. The heavy meal sent me back to bed for another full night’s sleep.
Thankfully I woke up on Saturday feeling exponentially better. After another massive breakfast prepared by my friend’s mother – who is the kindest women and who managed to feed me a week’s worth of food in 3 days – I ventured out for a quick solo trip. I made my way up to New Market, a famous destination for shoppers. I wasn’t in the mood for shopping but I wanted to try to capture the bustle with my camera. After getting an annoying amount of attention from shopkeepers in a short period, I gave up and bee-lined my way to the exit. I did snag a couple of cheap scarves on the street to protect my throat from the cool breeze.
Breaking away from the crowds, I wandered along Park Street, marveling at the various Christmas decorations while keeping my eye out for the Park Street Cemetery. It was a bit further away than I had anticipated, but walking through the gate made all of my direction inquiries to bemused shopkeepers and policemen worth it. The cemetery is just breathtaking and a nice break from the crowds of Park Street. The tombstones are memorials that stand taller than my 5’6” build. Crows dart from tree to tree, cawing and snapping their beaks. Some of the tombstones date back to the 1700s, which delighted my American sensibilities. (Seriously, I always get excited to see history that predates the independence of my own country. It makes me giddy to imagine having such a long history.) It was, needless to say, very cool.
I then went to lunch with my friend and his father. The hospitality of my friend and his family cannot be stressed enough. They were amazingly kind and welcoming during my stay. I am blessed to have so many incredible friends, here in India, at home, and abroad!
After lunch my friend joined me for another jaunt in Park Street Cemetery, followed by a visit to the Mother’s House, the home, workplace, and tomb of Mother Teresa. Reading about her life and connecting her work with the history of Bengal was a humbling moment. Regardless of all else, she truly worked for the poor of Calcutta during a tumultuous and difficult time. The pictures of that time period are sobering; I cannot imagine what it was like to live and work in Calcutta during those years. Although I am not follower of any particular religion, I said a prayer and sent appreciation for the path that led me to her tomb that day.
My last day in Calcutta was a quieter affair. There were many conversations, and I went to Howrah Bridge for a walk with my friend. We ate a late lunch with his family, and then it was more or less time for me to head to the airport.
For all of my travels, I am a cautious traveler and always try to give myself extra time. While I was in a cab heading to the airport, I received a text from the airline: “Your flight is rescheduled to 20:10.” (The original departure time being 19:30.) Not too bad, I figured. I would still arrive in Pune before too late.
However, within 30 minutes another message came: “Your flight is rescheduled to 20:50.”
After checking in and going through security: “Your flight is rescheduled to 22:30.”
At that point, I started getting worried about a potential cancellation. I knew it wouldn’t be the worst experience – I could always get a taxi back to my friend’s house – but it wouldn’t be ideal. I was fortune to meet a couple on the same flight as me, and we went to find out more information. Winter travel in the north of India is fraught with delays and cancelations due to bad weather. Even though Calcutta is in the east side of the country, our flight was delayed in Ahmedabad or Delhi – it was hard to get a concrete answer. The desk at the gate quickly became a scene of frustration and much anger. I sat back and watched, somewhat amused, somewhat worried. After lots of yelling, we were given a free dinner, as per Indian flight rules. (If a flight is delayed more than 2 hours, the airline must provide a meal. Not too bad, if you ask me.) Concerns over taxi availability in Pune arose, which worried me the most. The couple that I had met was extremely gracious, and offered to help me get home.
After some tedious airport hours and a drowsy flight, we arrived in Pune after 1am. My new friends and I grabbed a taxi, and they dropped me at my place before heading to their home. I got home after 2am and was too wired to sleep right away. I finally faded off to sleep around 3:30 and managed to sleep through two alarms before rushing off to a normal day at work: chai, meetings scheduled and canceled on the same day, venting over still not having the right data from schools, and a simple lunch of idli sambar. And thus the week begins, with a Pondicherry adventure beckoning on the horizon.
The school that I work at most often had their sports day today. It was fun to see the children channel their unbelievable energy into activity. The sports day was slightly different than the event I remember from childhood – mainly due to a lack of space and equipment here – but the general excitement was identical.
I enjoyed the day. I spent a good majority of the first few hours sitting on the ground covered with children. Literally. I usually had 1 kid on both sides of me, 2 kids in my lap, and another hugging my neck and leaning on my back. They are cuties!
Goa is the smallest state in India (measured by area), but it is by far the most recommended places that I’ve been urged to visit thus far. Especially given its proximity to Maharashtra, many of my colleagues and friends here in Pune have highly spoken of the beach/party atmosphere in Goa. Even getting from Pune to Goa is rather easy; you can take a plane, train, or bus. Despite all this, I didn’t have any real plans to travel to Goa before last week. It was in the back of my mind as a destination, but I hadn’t taken any plans forward.
But when I got a message from a former classmate from Fletcher, saying that she and another classmate would be visiting Goa, I figured it was the best opportunity I’d get. With the help of my coworker, I booked two overnight buses. Honestly, I was rather nervous about traveling alone overnight in a sleeper bus, but it turned out to be one of the nicest public transportation experiences I’ve had on a bus. Sleeper buses are wonderfully convenient for overnight travel, as beds replace chairs. Curtains cover your bed, and it’s relatively easy to close your eyes and drift off to sleep. In fact, I didn’t feel too tired either day after my bus rides. Which is MUCH better than I can about Mega Bus’s overnight bus from Boston to Philadelphia.
My friends and I spent Friday walking between beaches in Goa, eating delicious seafood, and enjoying the time for Fletcher conversations. Friday nights should always end with sipping drinks and staring out at the sea. (If only!)
I also spent quite some time riding pillion on a motorcycle. We managed to fit all three of us on the bike for short trips. It’s really quite fun. I’m seriously considering motorcycle classes back in the US…
Saturday was saved for sightseeing. We woke up slowly and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with lots of coffee. There is something glorious about sitting in a hotel, coffee in hand, just staring at the lush, green atmosphere and enjoying a wandering conversation with friends. Those kind of slow mornings remind me of so many places and so many delightful people – Heather in Guatemala, Katie and Mollie in Colombia, Stephen and the family in Puerto Rico. It’s a mixture of mildly humid heat and the bitter taste of black coffee. I’m glad to have a morning in Goa to add to this collection of holiday mornings.
Mid-morning we tested our mettle with the public transportation as we traveled down to the historic old city of Panjim (Goa’s capital). The highlight of the old capital was an absolutely delicious lunch of Goan food: chicken vindaloo (Goan style), masala fried fish, pork sorpotel (spicy chopped pork), rice, and bread. To compliment the food (and cool my burning tongue), we sipped feni, a Goan liquor made from cashews, and Limca, a sweet lemonade soda that is very popular here in India. To round out the meal, we shared bebinca, a layered pudding cake, and two bowls of a creamy pudding (I sadly didn’t jot down the name, and Google search is failing me at the moment). So say that we were stuffed is an understatement.
We meandered around a little and then made the journey (this time via ferry, bus, and auto) back to the hotel. After a short rest, we went to Chapora Fort for sunset. The fort itself is famous for a scene from a Bollywood film. We quickly found a nice vantage point and claimed our seats. What we did not anticipate was the smog that blocked the sunset into a vague, hazy pink-orange glow. Even without a clear sunset, the conversation and relaxation more than made up for the view.
Sadly, after dinner, I had to head down to Panjim for my overnight bus back to Pune. It was hard to say goodbye, but it made me excited for future Fletcher reunions – two more in the next few weeks!
So happy holidays to all! I’ll be spending my Christmas in Kolkata with AIF fellows, Pune friends, and a Fletcher classmate. Certainly not a traditional holiday, but I am looking forward to it nonetheless.
It’s that precarious time, when things starting morphing into a new normal and I start falling behind on documenting the new surprises.
But! I do have a new official blog post to share: A New Normal.
Because I finally have some pictures of the brightest smiles in Pune!
I don’t know how to say this without subscribing to a cliche, but here goes: there is a delightful sense of joy and lightness within the Akanksha team. There is such dedication. It is amazing how many of my coworkers tell me how they switched from jobs in the private sector to Akanksha and how now they cannot see leaving. There’s something about this mission that entices people to give this NGO their all.
Not to say that everything is unicorns and rainbows and pixy dust. There are varying ideas regarding what is best for our students. People have different methods of approaching logistical problems. I notice the same barriers that box in other development NGOs (both domestic and international) at play in Akanksha – lack of funding, staff turnover in schools, the overwhelming struggle to combat a lifetime’s worth of problems. Education can carry students further than they might imagine, but the daunting mountain of obstacles they must overcome in the process remains a massive hurdle that Akanksha does its best to recognize and address. Yet one organization cannot solve the ills of a city or a society.
We are actors trying to make a difference in a limited sphere of influence.
However, there really is something about this mission that fuels people here. So many have experience in the classroom; there is an honest and earnest belief in education. And there is such excitement about learning. The passion is real.
As a young professional, it is encouraging to see an organization so dedicated and hardworking also embrace joy and playfulness at its core:
Sometimes the best plans are those that never come to fruition.
My plans for my birthday weekend changed again and again since touching foot in India. My first idea was to travel – to spend the day exploring in some new, exotic locale. The sobering realization that my birthday was a) on a working Saturday and b) that I would need to present baseline data from our centers meant that traveling was not in the cards for this year.
Earlier in October, resigned to staying in Pune, I contemplated keeping my birthday a secret. I thought that given the turbulence of the past year, a quiet day could be put to use. The age of 25 brought about many changes. Taking a moment to reflect quietly would be a good idea, I figured. Last year I was told (not unkindly) that if I wanted something to happen for my birthday, I’d have to make it happen. This year I wanted some time to myself I decided, time to learn about myself.
As Saturday approached, I realized my self-set deadline for my side project, a case study on mobile money, was looming and I had yet to incorporate any of the new information I needed to conclude the study. Forget relaxing, I started thinking. I’m going to be writing this thing all weekend!
And as life often goes, whenever you decide on one path, another unexpectedly pops up and whisks you away.
My birthday included several surprise cakes, roses, a lovely cafe visit, some very potent drinks, and numerous kind wishes from people scattered across the globe. Given the lack of notice, it’s amazing that anything happened at all. I was fortunate to have a Halloween party turn into a birthday surprise at midnight, and I was even more fortunate that birthdays are such a honored event here in India.
The best part of the day was hearing from people. I am extremely grateful for the technology that now exists. I know that even a few years before I began going abroad communication was incredibly limited. Being able to chat with friends and loved ones from so far away is incredible.
The hectic pace of Friday night and Saturday’s work day provided the prefect contrast to the remainder of the weekend. After rushing here and there, celebrating, eating vast amounts of cake and Indian food, I enjoyed curling up in bed and snuggling in with my current read, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. (So glad I’m reading it now, after trekking Nepal!) A quiet end to the weekend is the perfect way to usher in a new era of my life.
But still, I figure that some reflection is indeed due. In keeping with the spirit of this weekend, I am veering away from the serious and instead focusing on the positive. There is so much to be grateful for today.
I am grateful for:
- Friends, both old and new;
- The beauty of sharing moments with others;
- Encouraging comments on the case study draft;
- The opportunity to be in India;
- Learning new things about the world, myself, and humanity;
- The realization that the past can be the past but it need not be the future; and
- Knowledge that today is a new day.
So while it is a bit sad to say goodbye to the first quarter century of my life, I welcome the start of a new age and the continuation of life’s adventures.
I’ve been seeing this article, Dear World, Let’s Stop Giving Our Crap to the Poor, going around the Internet recently, and I think it highlights an important concept that should be widely considered.
The author describes her experience bringing a donated iPhone to a NGO worker in Kenya. When they attempted to use the phone in the field, “it wouldn’t hold a charge for more than 10 minutes. The phone was junk.”
She also raises a crucial question that many people – especially in the Western world – should keep in mind: “Why do we give others – often those in service to the poor or the poor themselves – something we wouldn’t keep or give ourselves?”
Why do we think that it is acceptable to give our old, worn-out goods to others? Why do we assume that these goods are wanted regardless of their condition? The author of the article cites the typical logic: something is better than nothing. But let’s be real – something isn’t always better than nothing. That logic becomes degrading when the donated gifts are computers that take 20 minutes to start up. Phones that cannot hold a charge. Chairs that teeter and tip over. Keurig machines missing parts. Clothing with stains and/or holes. Clown paintings. (I have seen each one of these items come from donations. For real.)
How are these items useful to anyone?
Donation boxes – whether to people or to organizations – should not serve as garbage cans that boost egos. If you are going to donate, donate something that will meet a need beyond clearing out your closet.
The author of the cited article is not advocating a complete halt of donations, nor am I. Like the author herself, a large portion of my closet is secondhand, and I have secondhand electronics that work just fine. The difference lies in the quality of the goods: “There’s nothing wrong with used or second-hand. It’s often my first and favorite choice. Many organizations and ministries depend on used gifts. But if we give used, it should be our best…I am saying if we give it away, it should be something we would use ourselves.”
This is not a new phenomenon. Dan Pallotta’s Uncharitable provides an interesting perspective on donations, the organizational structure of nonprofit organizations, and society’s expectations from the label “nonprofit.” Whether or not you agree with his ideas, Pallotta will force you to reconsider why development – both international and domestic – is treated the way it is. Reasoning behind why NGOs tend to veer away from innovation and risk will become a little clearer. It is a provoking read, and it illuminates a perspective that is just a bit uncomfortable – it pushes at Western cultural norms around NGOs.
After working/interning/fellow-ing in a total of six nonprofit organizations, I can attest to the reality of the practice of donation dumping. The things that I have seen donated would astound someone used to, well, functional items in the work place. Again, how helpful is an old computer if it takes 20 minutes to start up? There is a limited amount of work that can be done on such an old device. Scenarios like this are one contributing factor that hinders the work that NGOs and NGO workers can realistically do. Our mission statements are big enough; we don’t need to fight with our workspaces as well.
This was particularly evident when I interned at a refugee resettlement agency. People and companies would give boxes and boxes of goods. But these goods would be a mishmash of American commercialization, a hodgepodge of articles that formed an abstract painting of household goods. Useful items were few and far between. You can’t send a newly arrived refugee mother home with half of a Keurig machine and expect that these incomplete pieces of machinery will help her settle into her new home. You just can’t.
I now see the same mentality emerge here in India. Things are just given. We need more than that. We need thoughtful giving. We need conscious citizens who both want to help and are realistic about the difference between second-hand and trash.
We need more thought because we can do better.
I have many more words to say about the past four days, but pure exhaustion has muddled my brain. On a whim I bought bus tickets to Mumbai and spent Wednesday evening until Saturday afternoon with a bunch of crazy and motivating AIF co-fellows. It was a jumble of debauchery, exploring, and coming to understand a little more of the kaleidoscope of Indian culture. Amazingly fun and completely exhausting.
So for now, a barrage of pictures until I can summon the energy to voice my thoughts.
And now back to normal life – work, writing, and goat watching?