Rain to Wash the Sweat Away

Well, I can happily say that I was wrong about my evening walks. They can, in fact, go past “hellos” and smiles.  A few days ago, I met a nice man who owns a small shop in town, and he knew some basic English, so we visited a little bit before I kept walking.  Then, down the street a little bit farther, I saw two young women and a girl who was maybe 4 years old.  The two women were trying to get the girl to say hello, which eventually she did, and then she came and shook my hand.  I said “its nice to meet you!” and she got a big smile on her face, and yelled goodbye at me as I kept walking.  Anyway, there’s a little side note.

 

This last week or so has been quite busy.  Last week I worked on a lot of different spreadsheets, and reviewed various ledgers, cashbooks, and vouchers.  I keep thinking I’ve seen every kind of book that VSSU keeps, but then they give me something new too look at.  The amount of bookkeeping and paperwork they do is insane.  I wish I could take pictures of all of it, but it wouldn’t do it justice.  Priyanka and I also did another branch visit last week to a town called Kakdwip.  That visit was quite nice, but we were late because of an absolute torrential downpour.  When we got off the train in Kakdwip, it was raining pretty hard, so Priyanka suggested we wait under the platforms for the rain to stop.  As we were waiting, the metal roof covering the platform opposite from ours collapsed and water flooded the platform.  My jaw just dropped. I knew it was raining hard, but holy crap.  Anyway, after about 20 minutes, it did stop raining, and we went to the branch office, but because we were late, we were only able to visit one women’s group.  But they were a very nice group, and to compensate, in the afternoon we also went and visited some individual clients in the market which was really great and something we haven’t done too much of.  The clients we spoke with in the market had various businesses including a shoe shop, a stationary shop, a pharmacy, and a vegetable stand.  All in all, it was a productive but tiring day.

 

Last week was also a lot of fun because on Thursday, Mr. Mondal arranged for us to visit the Sundarbans, which is the largest mangrove forest and largest deltaic region in the world.  The Sundarbans extend through Northeast India and Western Bangladesh.  We left early on Thursday morning, because getting there is quite an adventure.  We first drove for about an hour and a half to a small town called Ramganga.  Then we walked through the Ramganga market and arrived at a dock which extends into a river, where we boarded a very rickety ferry to cross over.  When we reached the other side, we hired a motor van to drive us the rest of the way.  I think I’ve explained what a motor van is before, but to remind you, its basically a motorized tricycle with a wooden palette bolted to the back.  We rode the motor van for about an hour and a half through absolutely gorgeous countryside and villages until we reached our first destination: The Crocodile Project.

 

The Crocodile Project has been operating for about 30 years, and they are essentially a crocodile nursery and preservation organization.  They have dozens of different enclosures for crocodiles of different ages, and they care for them and nurture them until adulthood, when the release them into the wild.  I’ve seen crocodiles before, but never quite that close, so it was a really enjoyable visit.  After the Crocodile Project, we just wandered through a small town and down onto another dock that gave a pretty great view of the Sundarbans.  There isn’t really much to do, but it is still impressive to see, especially when you realize that this is the largest area of this kind in the world.  After taking a few pictures, we began the journey back to the office: motor van, ferry, walk, and car.

 

Last weekend was also somewhat of a special occasion.  In honor of the mid-point of my internship, I spent the weekend in Kolkata.  Because VSSU operates on a 6-day work week, that involved me taking Saturday off work.  I took the train into Kolkata on Friday night, and met Anders, another current Wooster student who has an internship in Kolkata, who I had arranged to stay with for the weekend.  My train got in at about 9pm, and after we met at the train station, we started making our way toward the end of town that he stays in, but stopped for dinner at a small bar along the way.  By the time we made it to his building, it was almost 11pm, and I was exhausted, and I was asleep not long after.

 

Saturday, Anders and I spent the day exploring the city and having some fabulous transportation mishaps.  I found a few new books to read, since I’ve been going through my reading material pretty quickly.  We walked through new market, which was enjoyable if stiflingly hot.  We tried to visit a temple, and that’s when the metro confusion happened.  I won’t elaborate, but lets just say we ended up at a bar, not the temple.  Saturday night, we also met Amit, a Wooster alum, and his family for dinner.  This was the second chance we’d both had to meet Amit, and we had a great night visiting, eating, and catching up about what each of us had been up to the last month.

 

Sunday was a low-key day.  I woke up a bit later, Anders and I went and found some laundry soap for me (that’s how remote my village is… I haven’t been able to find laundry soap.  To say I am excited to have truly clean clothes again is the understatement of the century), and then we finished a movie we had started earlier in my visit.  At about 11, we headed out, me with all my stuff, because I was going to have to go straight to the train station later.  We were supposed to meet a friend of Anders’ for lunch, but after a little confusion and some delays, I just had to head straight for the train station.

 

When I arrived at Lakshmikantapur station at around 5pm, I had quite a surprise waiting for me.  I walked out of the station, knowing that someone from my office was supposed to be there to pick me up and drive me the 15-20 minutes back to the office.  What I saw instead was one of the guys from my office on a motorcycle, waving at me.  I think I audibly said “oh holy shit” as I crossed the road (but don’t worry, he didn’t hear me!!), because motorcycles absolutely terrify me.  I tried to stall for a few minutes by talking with him, but he doesn’t speak English very well, so after I minute I got myself (very clumsily, I might add) onto the motorcycle, along with my backpack that was heavy with my new books, and my tote bag at my side.

 

I was a little (ok, very) tense throughout the ride.  Lakshmikantapur is relatively small, but very busy, and so we were weaving in and out of traffic and going over potholes at a speed that made me mighty uneasy.  But eventually we got out of the crazy traffic and onto a country road, which was more manageable, but that just meant that we started going faster.  As we were driving, another guy who works for VSSU drove past us and said, “how are you?”  All I could get out was “hi!” without screaming.  But, eventually of course, we made it. My legs had completely turned to jelly out of nerves, and so I fell as I got off the bike, but I’ll try and let that one go.  While this ride would be absolutely routine for anyone in my office, it was actually quite scary and momentous for me.  The only other time I’ve ridden a motorcycle was in Kenya, and it was with one of my friends sitting behind me to talk to me and calm me down, so that was ok.  This was definitely different.  It’ll take a few dozen more rides to get me comfortable on a bike, but maybe someday it’ll happen.

 

Anyway.  This week, again, has been busy.  Priyanka and I have visited two more branches, Kulpi and Mathurapur, and both visits completely exhausted us.  Today was Mathurapur.  We left the head office at 6:30 this morning, and took a motor van to the train station.  We arrived in Mathurapur at about 7:30am, and then took a manual van to the office to meet the branch manager.  We spent the morning visiting three different women’s groups.  Two of them were really interesting; they use their loans collectively to invest in a handicrafts business that they run all together as a group.  The other groups we’ve visited use their loans individually to support their businesses, and while obviously the collective scheme wouldn’t work for everyone, it is really neat.  It means that the women have much stronger bonds with each other and are genuinely interested in seeing one another succeed.

 

At about 11, we went back to the branch office and spent a couple of hours looking over various ledgers and books in the Mathurapur office.  The branch recently lost one of their three employees, so things were a little chaotic, but still more or less in order.  We ate lunch there with the two branch staff.  I must say I was quite proud of myself during the meal; I was able to successfully get all the bones out of my piece of fish in relative darkness because the power was out.  I normally choke on several bones each time I eat fish here, so this really was a small triumph!  After lunch, we checked the loan register, and then it was time for Priyanka and I to head back to the main office.  Transportation was a bit of a mess, but about 2 hours after we left Mathurapur, we made it back.

 

As a side note, the weather was horrific today.  This morning it was absolutely blazing hot and sunny, and then as we were riding on a manual van to visit one of the groups, it started pouring rain.  We had to get off the van and go sit under the eaves of an old abandoned hut until it stopped.  As we got back on the van, it started again, but this time we didn’t stop.  I tried to think it was just a little rain to wash the sweat away, but it all just seems to pile onto my skin to make me completely disgusting.  All day it went between scorching hot and raining, so Priyanka and I were gross to say the least by the time we made it back to the office this afternoon at 4:30.

 

So there’s the run-down of the last 10 days or so.  I think I’d be remiss in ending this post though without mentioning how much better I’ve gotten to know people in the office these last two weeks.  Something just kind of clicked last week, and I feel very much a part of the office group now.  The period of awkwardness and tiptoeing around me because I’m a foreign intern is over, and I am so thankful.  There was a cookout in the office last week, and everyone stayed late visiting and eating.  I had a chance, with the help of some of the English speakers in the office, to get to know some of the people who only speak Bengali better, which was fantastic.  My supervisor, Darpan, and I are definitely closer now, which is nice.  He’s actually quite the jokester and seems to take great joy in attempting to freak me out about snakes, even though I’ve told him repeatedly that snakes don’t scare me.  Priyanka and I have gotten closer through all the branch visits we are doing together, and the fact that we are both close in age.  I’ve also been getting to know some others in the office better, and I have had really great conversations with people that in my first couple of weeks I barely spoke to.  I just keep thinking about how hard it is going to be to say goodbye with my time here quickly dwindling.  But for now, the strengthened relationships are fantastic, and I hope I continue getting to know everyone better and better, so that I have no choice but to come back and visit sometime soon!!

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This was one of the funnier moments of my summer so far. Mr. Mondal called me into his office, and I assumed it was to talk about an application I’d been working on for him, so I grabbed my laptop.  When I walked into his office, he said, “No, no, we will do that later. Now you will have your palms read!” We walked upstairs, and sure enough, he had a palm reader there waiting for me. Definitely a fun way to take a 20 minute break from work!!

 

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A home as seen through the trees in the Sundarbans.  You can see the pond that they use for bathing and washing, as well as saris drying on the line.

 

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Checking more cashbooks against vouchers!

 

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The cookout last week at the office.  This isn’t everyone in the office, probably about half are still washing up and such for dinner.

 

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A small temple in the Sundarbans.

 

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Mr. Mondal and I on the motor van on our way to the Sundarbans.

 

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In front of the VSSU head office.

 

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This is a motor van!! I’m so glad I finally got a picture so I can fully convey exactly what one is!

 

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Women’s group in Kakdwip

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Women’s group in Mathurapur with the branch manager.

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I didn’t know that crocodiles eat whole crabs, but they do!

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Women’s group in Mathurapur

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Women’s group in Mathurapur with the branch manager and Priyanka in the back.

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Me in the Sundarbans.

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Abandoned boats in the Sundarbans.

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Crocs on crocs on crocs!!

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Stepping out of the Wooster Bubble

Two years into my college experience, I am used to feeling pretty comfortable on a daily basis.  I know life at the College of Wooster.  I know the quickest walking routes to class, at least one professor in every department, and how to make the perfect salad in Lowry.  I’m aware of almost every event that happens on campus, and have perfectly budgeted my flex dollars for the past three semesters.  Every morning, I get a small, dark coffee with skim milk in a reusable mug from the C-store.  I’ve got it down.

Last week, I moved in with my cousin, Janet, in Lakewood, Ohio and began my APEX Fellowship internship with Literary Lots, and I think it’s safe to say I feel pretty uncomfortable on a daily basis.  I do not at all know life in Cleveland.  I do not know the quickest driving route to Ohio City where I work, more than five people in the greater Cleveland area, or which grocery store is the most cost efficient – actually, where is the grocery store?  I do not know what’s happening around the city, and let’s not even talk about budgeting my real money.  This morning, I tried to make coffee but realized I forgot coffee strainers.  I do not have it down.

But this is real life, and I couldn’t be more excited! I wish Google Maps gave out frequent flyer points or something, because I would be reeling them in hourly, but with that I’ve discovered some really interesting neighborhoods, boutiques and coffee shops.  Since Strategic Urban Solutions, the company I am interning with on the Literary Lots project, is based out of Chicago, we do not have a home office.  The best part about that? I get to work in artsy little coffee shops around west Cleveland, and it’s really interesting! Last week was my first week of work and a holiday week, so it was a little scattered.  However, I got to work on some event planning for Literary Lots community events.  We’re hosting a few family movie nights, a coffee and cereal breakfast event, an ice cream taste-off starring local ice cream vendors, and a taco night based on the book Dragons Love Tacos.  All of the events are tied to a children’s book, and one of the things on the top of my to do list is to make sure I read all of the books that my events revolve around!

We’re currently looking for local businesses to sponsor events – whether in the form of a monetary donation or goods, and I have always been bad at asking people for money.  Dance team carwashes and candybar sales for the athletic boosters were a few of my least favorite high school activities.  My sales pitch went something like this: “Would you like to buy a candybar to pay for my completely unnecessary fourth outfit for dance that I am going to wear one time and never even think about again? Oh, and don’t feel like you have to because you totally don’t… Thanks! Sorry for bothering you!” However, when I walked into the one coffee shop with a sponsorship letter and explained to the manager what I was there for, I didn’t hate it, and I didn’t have the world’s worst sales pitch either! When it’s something I actually care about and actually think is worth donating money too, asking for sponsors was no problem.  And for the most part, the managers were very responsive to my requests.

Being an education minor, I have encountered extensive research that shows that summer vacation is detrimental to learning for children of poor families.  While middle class and affluent children spend their summers at the library, zoo, and other enriching activities, many children, including those in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, do not have access to these resources.  Literary Lots, however, is offering educational programming in August, right before the school year starts again, that is free and available to all.  Additionally, our events happen at all different times of the day and week so that even working parents can bring their children.  Do I think this project is going to fix all the problems with inner city education? Of course not.  But do I think this project is going to be an awesome experience for those children who attend events, get them excited to start school, and provide them with some really fun summer experiences? Absolutely.  So yes, being out of the Wooster bubble is uncomfortable at times, and I have already had to leave my comfort zone, but I am loving it.

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Start with a smile, and go from there

Rather than give a day-by-day account of what I’ve been up to like I have in previous posts, I thought I’d just write a little bit about my cultural experiences so far this summer.  And not even so much purely cultural, as just what I’ve experienced when I’m out and about…. Well, as “out and about” as I can get in this village.

 

The first few days I was here in Ullon, I went on evening walks with the two other interns that were here.  However, their last day here at VSSU was just the end of my first week, and after they left, I stopped going for the evening walks.  Part of that was due to the weather; it is undeniably monsoon season here, and going for walks wouldn’t always be the most enjoyable experience, and would undoubtedly result in muddied pants and shoes.

 

But this week, after several continuous days of rain, I realized I hadn’t left the building in a few days, and I was going a little stir crazy.  Luckily, at 6pm, the sky was more or less clear, and the worst of the mud had dried, so I left everything on my desk except my handkerchief (read sweat rag that I don’t go anywhere without!), and set off.  The other thing about walking with the two other interns, is that they always liked to walk on this road that leads straight out from the VSSU gate.  The road is nice, and there are pretty views of the fields and trees, but it doesn’t go through the village.  So, I walked out of the VSSU gate and instead of going straight on to the road, I turned left.

 

The village is really very pretty, as I think I’ve said before.  After not having left the building for a few days, it looked absolutely glorious, and I relished the simple feel of the rocks poking through the bottom of my extremely worn tevas, and the beads of sweat forming on my forehead and upper lip.  I enjoyed walking and seeing people out and engaging in their daily activities.  Collecting water.  Riding bikes.  Carrying palm leaves.  Shooing cows and goats along the path.  Yelling at kids.  Zipping by with 4 people on a single motorcycle.

 

And while the walk is relaxing, it’s not like strolling along on a trail in the US.  I have to fight my instinct and walk on the left side of the road.  I have to jump over big puddles and muddy patches, while also avoiding all the giant spiders I see scurrying around.  There are cowpies everywhere that I have no desire to step in because of the little holes in my flip flops.  Then there are the actual cows that come charging at me when a motorcycle drives by and spooks them.

 

But the most interesting thing about walking through the village are the looks I get from the people I pass by.  I am sure they are used to having westerners, white people, walking around.  VSSU is a small but highly regarded organization, and I know they have visitors on a regular basis.  But maybe they don’t always walk around alone.  Lets be clear, I’m not being unsafe, I won’t go out alone after dark, but I also have no hesitation about going out on my own during the day.  Anyway.  The thing about most Indians is that they have no problem staring; its not culturally inappropriate here like it is in the states.  They will stare at me, make eye contact, and hold that contact until I break it.  It can be disconcerting, but it’s also very interesting.  I’m sure they’re all wondering why I’m just wandering, but they assume (accurately so) that I don’t speak Bengali so no one asks.

 

I found myself thinking, “Don’t speak, just smile.”

 

This might seem obvious, but sometimes with people staring at me, my instinct isn’t to smile.  My instinct is to look away and try to avoid anyone else’s glance.  But instead, I look at the people who are looking at me, and I smile.  And 95% of the time, they smile back. I didn’t realize it before but they seemed anxious at my presence, and when I smiled, they visibly relaxed, their shoulders releasing and their brows unfurrowing.  I am not evil.  I am not here to do anything strange or wrong.  I’m just here; I’m here to learn.  And I’m trying to enjoy their lovely community.

 

So I continued walking and smiling, and I kept having the gesture returned.  The next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, I kept going for walks when work was over.  I saw some new people, and some of the same people.  One of the guys from my office stopped me while he was riding his motorcycle home because he assumed something was wrong because I was out and walking around.  I told him I was just going for a walk, and he smiled, said that was good, and rode off.

 

And even though it’s only been a few days of these ritualistic walks, people have started smiling at me before I have a chance to smile at them.  Slowly, a few of the children even started to yell “Hello Madam!” in my direction as I walked past.  I smile, wave and say hello back, and they dissolve into a fit of giggles, covering their mouths with their hands.  I carry my smile a bit farther as I walk past them, wondering what they are thinking about me, this strange white woman, walking for no apparent reason down their road.

 

And my thought changed slightly. “Start with a smile, and go from there.”

 

Being honest, its not like most of these interactions can go much farther than smiles and quick greetings simply because of the language barrier.  But that doesn’t mean that my level of comfort walking around the village won’t improve, and hopefully, it means that everyone else’s comfort level at having me in their community improves, as well.

 

It is a very interesting phenomenon, being a foreigner in a small community.  I experienced a lot of the same things in the small town I spent a month in when I was in Kenya.  People go out of their way to make you comfortable because you are a foreigner, a guest.  During our branch visits, people will pull out their best plastic chairs for me to sit in, while they sit on the floor.  While I know it’s rude to decline their generous hospitality, what I really want is to be sitting cross-legged on the floor with them.  It’s similar at meal times here.  Because I am a foreigner, I am always brought a fork or a spoon.  This is one considerate offering I am happy to ignore, because people seem to greatly enjoy the fact that I can eat rice, dal, and fish with my hands, just as they do.  But there is an initial assumption that I cannot.  Again, the same thing happens when there is limited access to a fan.  People will take care to move the fan so it is blowing directly on me.  While this gesture is greatly appreciated, everyone around me is sitting in the same heat, and so everyone should benefit equally from it.

 

Seeing how I can live and work in a foreign culture while on my own was one of my primary reasons for wanting to participate in my internship and the APEX Fellowship program this summer.  I’ve been very fortunate and have had several chances to travel abroad, but never on my own, and to me, this summer was designed as a test for myself to see how well I could adapt and immerse myself.  I know that in the two months I am here that I will be able to (and have already) made some wonderful connections, but that I probably won’t be able to forge truly deep relationships in such a relatively short time.  The best I can do is put myself out there, see what comes of it, and try and learn from every moment.

 

I will start with a smile, and go from there.

 

*I’ve put a few more pictures below of the last week or so, I hope you enjoy them!*

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A group meeting in Dhola, where a woman has opened a savings account with VSSU for the first time.  This woman, in the blue sari, is illiterate, and has therefore used her thumbprint (which you can see as the purple spot on the paper) as her signature.

 

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Me visiting 1st and 2nd grade students at the VSSU school this week.

 

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A women’s group in Dhola.

 

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Rina, a women’s group in Diamond Harbour.

 

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Rina women’s group in Diamond Harbour.

 

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This is by far my favorite picture from my internship so far.  When most Indians take pictures, they are straight-faced and solemn looking.  I had asked at the beginning of the meeting if it was ok for me to take pictures, and I snuck my camera out in the middle to catch this image.  The women were laughing and joking with each other, and this picture much more accurately captures the spirit and energy of the meetings than the somber looking posed photos.  The woman on the right is holding her VSSU passbook, which is how VSSU clients keep track of their savings deposits and loan payments.  This is definitely one I will be putting on my wall when I get back to Wooster!

 

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A meeting in Diamond Harbour.  On the far left is Mr. Sur, VSSU’s program manager. Next to him is one of the community organizers for Diamond Harbour.  Second from the right is the Diamond Harbour branch manager, sitting next to one of the women who is a client of VSSU.

 

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I was laughing uncontrollably in this picture.  This is Mr. Mondal, the CEO of my organization.  After showing me some of his old photo albums, he had me stand up and we spent at least 10 minutes taking a huge series of selfies.  It was a great moment.

 

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The gorgeous view from my window in the guesthouse.

 

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At the ceremony for the 5th anniversary of VSSU’s Oceanic Library, the embarrassing scene where I was asked to speak and sit on the panel of dignitaries.

 

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In front of the VSSU head office.  On the far left in the white shirt is Darpan, my supervisor.  The two interns who were here my first few days are in the middle, and I am on the right.

 

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Halfway Through the Summer

Hello fellow Scots! Yesterday was officially the halfway point in my internship and summer in D.C.! It’s really amazing how fast time flies. I feel like I have accomplished and seen so much in just 6 short weeks, but there is a lot more on my to-do list so I am thankful my experience is not over yet. The past two weeks have been pretty busy for me- I have gone from 1-2 pieces a week to 3 and I also have been busy with some intern events and tours of WETA.

On the set of News Hours with Jim Lehrer.

On the set of News Hours with Jim Lehrer.

Last week, the other interns and I got to tour the WETA production studio and see how things work “behind the scenes.” Let me tell you, it is complicated. Like thousands of buttons and dials complicated. I think I’ll stick to a keyboard. Can’t mess that up too much. It was neat to see the production staff working on sound edits and streaming videos from PBS and all sorts of fancy things. We also got to see the set of Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and News Hour with Jim Lehrer. The guy giving the tour explained the cameras used to tape and how to zoom and pan and how the prompt screen works. It was really cool to learn about the TV side of WETA.

I also got a tour of the WETA building I’m working in (a little late, but still really helpful). My boss walked me around and showed me all the departments and explained their roles. On the 2nd floor of the building is the WETA radio studio and I got to see a woman recording live- she was explaining the songs that were playing.  The room has two massive sound proof doors and tons of buttons and dials and screens, just like the TV studio. Some seriously expensive equipment.

After the staff picnic, the other interns and I had talked about getting together for lunch. I emailed everyone and we found a day that worked for everyone. It was a lot of fun- we got lunch down the street from work and had a nice time talking. We are planning to all get together again soon. It’s really nice to finally know some other interns in the office.

Tomorrow will be the end of week 6 and I have decided to take next week off (for a few reasons- Thursday is 4th of July, it’s the only week with no intern events scheduled, I want to explore DC and also visit friends in Philadelphia, and I just want to take a little vacation!). I’m looking forward to just relaxing and it seems like the perfect time,  right in the middle of my summer in D.C. Taking next week off means I need to have 3 posts ready to go up next week so I am working hard to get those done by tomorrow. Back to work!

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Seven day work weeks

Friday was a day sitting at my desk, but it was a welcome break after the long days spent visiting branches.  I’ve really enjoyed the branch visits so far, but they are tiring.

 

Anyway.  Since Mr. Mondal had asked me to look into grants that VSSU might be eligible for, that is what I spent a vast majority of my day doing.  That might sound a little dull, but it was actually really interesting because most of the organizations that I was looking up are doing fascinating work of their own.  I even jotted down a few organizations that had fellowships that I might be interested in in the future.  In the afternoon, Darpan and Mr. Mondal talked to me, and said that the review of the deposit ledgers that I had done the previous day was really good because I actually found a couple of things that needed to be fixed.  Apparently going through the ledger with a fine-toothed comb did some good, and I think it helped me earn a little credibility within the office, which is great.  They asked if I would be willing to go through more ledgers in the future, and I said that of course, I would be happy to.

 

And that’s about all that happened Friday, but Saturday was quite busy.

 

I woke up early, and Priyanka and I left to visit the Dhola branch.  Priyanka is another young lady working in the office who has only been with VSSU for a couple of months.  She had actually never visited any of VSSU’s branches, so the visit was bound to be an adventure for both of us.  We walked for 20-30 minutes to a spot where we could catch a motor van (which can be more accurately described as a four-wheeler with a wood palette bolted on the back to sit on), which we then rode for about 10 minutes to the bus stop.  After asking a couple of questions, we boarded the bus to Dhola, which was an hour away.  The bus was quite crowded, but luckily, after a few minutes, Priyanka and I were both able to get seats.

 

When we arrived in Dhola, Salam the branch manager met us, and after quick greetings, we started walking.  Dhola appears to have one main road with a few shops, and then the village dissolves into small brick and mud pathways that wind throughout clusters of homes and fields.  We walked for another 20 minutes or so to the site of the first women’s group were supposed to visit.  When we got there, the women were very kind and gave Priyanka and I plastic chairs to sit in.  Priyanka started out translating things for me, but that was making the conversation go pretty slowly, so she just said to ask any particular questions I had, but that otherwise, she would give me the summary of the conversation later. I said sure, and so I listened and observed as Salam conducted the group meeting and as Priyanka talked with a few of the women.  The second and the third groups we visited proceeded in much the same way.  However, both the second and third groups also had women come and file the paperwork to open a savings account, which was neat to see. It was also really interesting.  Several of the women who signed up were illiterate, and so Salam pulled out his ink pad, placed their thumb on the pad, and then put bright purple thumbprints in all the spots that required a signature.  Isn’t it kind of scary that those women have enough faith and trust in Salam and VSSU that they will give their consent on a form that they can’t read?  I think its pretty amazing and shows the kind of trust that communities have in VSSU.

 

The other interesting thing about Dhola compared to Namkhana was the apparent differences in income levels.  Compared to Namkhana, Dhola was quite poor.  None of the homes we visited had electricity, and they were all mud houses with thatched roofs.  Some of the homes in Namkhana had electricity, and there were plenty of concrete houses around, too.  Many of the children in Dhola, and notably some of the older children, didn’t have much in the way of clothing.  There were many indicators that Dhola was in a lower economic bracket, and while it was sad to see and realize, it also makes the commitment that the women have to saving and borrowing to bolster their businesses that much more impressive.

 

After visiting the three branches, Salam walked Priyanka and I back to the bus stop and we said our goodbyes.  We took the bus back, and because there weren’t any motor vans in the area this time, we walked all the way back to the office- about 45 minutes- in the sweltering noon sun.  When we got back to the office, we were both completely drenched and gross, so after we quickly checked in with Darpan, we both got cleaned up.  Then, thankfully it was lunchtime.  I hadn’t eaten dinner the night before because I wasn’t hungry (I think it’s the heat, I’m almost never hungry here), and Priyanka and I had left before breakfast was served.  So I hadn’t eaten in almost 24 hours, and I sat down to a big plate of rice, dal, and vegetables.

 

As soon as lunch was over, most of the office headed over to the Oceanic Library, another project led by VSSU.  This library is just that, a library to be used by the community, but it is also home to a teachers college, and a livelihood-training program.  The library was celebrating its 5th anniversary, and to honor the occasion, there were speech and debate competitions for local high schoolers and cultural performances.  The event also served to inaugurate a new computer lab, donated by READ India.  As we entered the library, myself, Mr. Hossain, two regular VSSU volunteers, the President of VSSU’s Board of Directors, and a representative from READ India were all escorted to the first row of seats so we could view the festivities.  The event started, and because it was being conducted completely in Bengali, I had no idea what was going on until, much to my surprise, all of us that had been placed in the front row were escorted to a new table that was covered in white table cloths and flowers, and facing the audience of some 200 people.  I was mortified.  I was just there as a guest, hoping to see some cultural performances.  Yet they had me sitting up on this panel, between Mr. Mondal the CEO of my organization, and Dr. Purkait, the President of VSSU’s Board of Directors, who also happened to live and work with Gandhi for three years.  Boy did I feel out of place.

 

My embarrassment continued as some women who work at the school presented each one of us with flowers and put a bindi on each of our foreheads.  Then embarrassment turned to horror as I realized they were asking each of us that were sitting on this panel to speak to everyone.  Good lord.  I barely knew why I was there, and I was only familiar with the basic functions of the library, I was certainly not prepared or qualified to say anything to the audience, nevermind the fact that I don’t speak Bengali!  But sure enough, eventually the microphone got passed to me, and I stammered out something about being grateful to get to share in the celebrations and being so honored to have been invited, before I quickly handed the microphone off to someone else.  Embarrassed, I sat down, and tried unsuccessfully to disappear into my chair.

 

While I couldn’t understand what was being said, I sat and listened to a couple of hours of speech and debate contests that the local high schoolers were participating in.  It was very neat to see each of their confidence as they got up and recited their speeches and debates, and wonderful to see the support they were given by their competitors, families, and community members who came out to watch.

 

At about 4pm, Mr. Hossain and I quietly slipped out of the event.  Mr. Mondal, who had left after all the introductions, had invited us both to come to Kolkata with him in the afternoon.  We accepted the invitation, so we got in the car with Mr. Mondal and began the three-hour drive to Kolkata.  I had taken the train here initially, so it was nice to be able to see another transportation route in the area, and to get to drive through some new towns, some of which VSSU has branches in.  We arrived in Kolkata at about 6:30, where we quickly met one of Mr. Mondal’s friends for a soda and talked.  He was a good acquaintance to make; he worked in the development sector for 30 years, including working for Oxfam and DFID.  Definitely a good name to have, I was thankful that he shared his contact information.  After saying our goodbyes, we left so we could move on to the real reason for our visit.

 

Mr. Mondal’s spiritual mother, who he just calls Mother, is ill and lives on the far side of Kolkata.  He wanted to visit her, and invited Mr. Hossain and I along for the ride.  We arrived at the Motherhouse about an hour later, and to my surprise, the door was opened by Bonani.  Bonani is a part time employee of VSSU, and apparently the other half of her time is spent working at the Motherhouse.  She escorted us in, and we all sat down on the floor for a few minutes, while Mr. Mondal went upstairs to meet his Mother.  It was great to hear Bonani speak about her other work and to see her in another environment.  She really is a very sweet lady just around my age, so I was glad to see her.  After a few minutes, Mr. Hossain, Bonani, and I went upstairs and met Mr. Mondal and his mother.  Again, all the conversations were taking place in Bengali, so I am not sure what all was said.  In the end, Mother blessed both Mr. Hossain and I by touching our heads, faces, and shoulders, and we all came back downstairs.  Bonani served us mango and water as a snack.  At this point, it was almost 11pm, and before we left, Bonani and Mother were kind enough to give me two copies of Rabindranath Tagore’s famous work, Gitanjali, which is a collection of poems.  Bonani gave me her personal English translation, which was incredibly sweet and generous, and Mother gave me a copy that was written in both English and Bengali.  Many people have asked me if I’ve read Gitanjali, so I am excited to have my own copies now so I can read it.

 

Bonani walked us back to our car, and after saying goodbye, we drove away.  After about 20 minutes, we stopped briefly for some dinner (fashionably late, a midnight meal!) and reached the VSSU office around 2am.  Exhausted, I quickly showered after a very long day, and collapsed into bed.

 

I woke up on Sunday morning, and as it often is on Sunday’s, the power was out.  VSSU does have a generator, but as it is not a workday, they do not use it on Sundays.  So, in the heat, I did some laundry, showered, and had breakfast.  I spent a couple of hours on Sunday working on an application on Mr. Mondal’s behalf for a fellowship he is applying for.  The rest of the day I spent reading, writing in my journal, and napping.  It was a very relaxing day, which was nice, after the incredibly long day Saturday had been.

 

Yesterday, Monday, was another day spent in the office.  In the morning, I continued working on the fellowship application for Mr. Mondal, and in the afternoon reviewed another deposit ledger.  I met with Mr. Mondal for an hour or so toward the end of the day, and he pointed out some changes he wanted to see on the fellowship application, and we agreed that we would meet this morning once I had made the adjustments.  With that, the day was over.  I spent some time in the evening catching up on emails that I hadn’t sent on Sunday because the internet was off, read a little bit, and that was the end of another day.

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Summer’s Soundtrack

I don’t even know how to start this post.  I guess with this: I’m feeling much, much better.  Not perfect, but there is no comparison to how I was doing last weekend.

 

Seriously, I don’t know how to start…. Hmm.

 

Well, Monday was actually pretty low key.  Mr. Hossain, the man here working on his masters degree, and I were supposed to be going to visit different branch offices of VSSU each day this week.  However, early Monday morning he found me and said we were not going to be able to do a branch visit that day because he had some paperwork due that he had been unable to finish on Sunday.  With my supervisor gone this week to a conference in Goa, I wasn’t sure what to do with my day.  Darpan, my supervisor, told me to talk to Nilanjana, the head of finance in the office, if I had any questions, so I asked her if there were any little jobs I could work on throughout the day.  She didn’t have anything for me, so I spent the day reading more reports, finding academic articles on microfinance, and when I was really out of ideas of ways to use my time, researching graduate schools.

 

Tuesday was WAY more exciting.  Mr. Hossain and I were up very early, and we left the VSSU office at 6am to go visit the Namkhana branch office.  To get to Namkhana, a VSSU driver took us to the Lakshmikantapur train station, which is about 20 minutes away, where we then caught a train to Namkhana, about an hour from Lakshmikantapur.  We arrived at the Namkhana station around 8am, and were greeted with the smiling face of Ramen, the Namkhana branch manager.  He can’t be more than 25 years old, but Ramen runs the most successful branch of VSSU: Namkhana has a remarkable 100% repayment rate among all of their loanee’s and they have since Ramen has been in charge of the branch.  Anyway, as we left the train station, we got on what Ramen called a “manual van,” but its not anything like a van.  It can more accurately be described as a very large tricycle, and on the back, rather than having a seat like a normal rickshaw would, it has a wooden palette.  The person you hire pedals it, and everyone else sits on the palette while you travel to your destination.  I’ve seen these used mainly for transporting animals and bags of rice, but they work for moving people around too! So we climbed on this manual van, and rode it until, to my surprise, we reached a large inlet.  I didn’t know, but Namkhana is actually right on the Bay of Bengal.  We jumped on a ferry and crossed the inlet, where we got on another manual van.  After about a 10-minute ride, we got off at what seemed to me like a random point on the road, but turned out to be the home of one of the VSSU clients.  It was hard for me to keep up with what was happening during the visit to Namkhana because Ramen doesn’t speak English, and clearly I don’t speak Bengali.  Mr. Hossain was able to translate for me, but it was still a bit of a challenge.

 

The first place we visited was one of VSSU’s women’s savings and loan groups.  We sat in on their weekly meeting, which is held in one of the member’s homes.  This particular group, Ganga group, has 12 members, but two of them had already repaid their loans in full and were not in attendance at the meeting.  The ten other women sat cross-legged on the floor, while Mr. Hossain, Ramen, and I all sat on a bed in the corner of the room.  We watched as all the women made their payments on their loans and Ramen collected and counted the bills.  After that was completed, Mr. Hossain and I spoke to each woman briefly, learning a little bit about her, her family, her life, and what she has used her loan from VSSU to accomplish.  It was very neat to hear about how resourceful and creative each woman is, often despite extremely difficult circumstances.  One woman ran a very successful artificial hair business, and earned 30,000 rupees (about $525) per month, which is a very high income here, to support her family of nine.  Another woman has five children, and although she is now a widow, she hasn’t missed a single payment on her loan, and is still able to independently support her family with the 4,000 rupees (about $70) that she earns per month, even though that puts her family well below the internationally recognized line for extreme poverty.  Another woman was married when she was only 9 years old (yes, NINE!) and now runs a successful snack shop.

 

Watching the women interact was fantastic.  They are clearly all close friends, even though they have widely ranging levels of income, family situations, and backgrounds.  From the few short observations I was able to make, I could see that this was clearly a supportive environment, and that they also had a very good relationship with Ramen and VSSU as a whole.  All the women had been given the opportunity to visit the VSSU headquarters, and they said they really enjoyed that experience.  What I also thought was remarkable about their group (and I later found out was a standard thing with the women’s groups), was that, when their group formed in 2006, only 2 or 3 of the women were literate.  Now, as a result of their involvement with VSSU and each other through their weekly meetings, they can all read and write.  Truly wonderful.  Even though VSSU’s aims are financial on the surface, because of the structure of the organization and its operations, they are able to achieve much more than just increasing the earning power of their clients.

 

We took a few pictures of the group, and then the three of us thanked them, said goodbye, and left.  We went to two more groups that were very similar, although the second group of women was considerably larger.  That group numbered 19 women, but the stories and their experience with VSSU were very similar to Ganga group.

 

After the third visit, Ramen asked, through Mr. Hossain, if I would like to see the beach.  I hadn’t really thought about it, but I said if it wasn’t too far out of the way, sure, I’d love to see the beach!  So we hopped on a bus, and about 15 minutes later, we arrived in Bakkhali, a small town right next to Namkhana.  We walked for about 10 minutes, and then we were at the beach.  Being India, I was expecting the beach to be covered in trash, and while there was some garbage, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it might have been.  We walked down to the water and I just cracked up because the women swim in saris.  I can barely walk in a sari, let alone swim in one!!  I went down to dip my feet in the water (come on, I have to be able to say I’ve waded in the Bay of Bengal!), and Ramen and Mr. Hossain thought that was really strange, but I did it anyway.  I laughed out loud when my feet hit the water- it was hot.  Not warm, but actually hot.  I don’t know what I was expecting, it was about 110 degrees out yesterday, but I still was caught off guard.  Anyway, we all took some pictures, walked back to the bus stop, and took the bus to the branch office, which we hadn’t visited yet.

 

The Namkhana office occupies the top floor of a branch office of the Bank of India.  We walked up the external staircase and into the main room of VSSU’s branch, where we saw the two other employees of the office, collection officers, busy writing down the day’s deposits in the books.  We sat and cooled off for a few minutes (I’m telling you, it was ungodly hot, I was more sweaty than I care to describe), and then Ramen, Mr. Hossain and I sat down to lunch.  Yet another whole fish.  I am gonna be so good at eating whole fish by the time this internship is over.  But I’ll never be as good as Mr. Hossain and Ramen… they both ate the head. I don’t think I can or want to get to that point.  Anyway, after lunch, we talked about the branch office a little bit, and then killed a little bit of time before our train back to Lakshmikantapur left at 4:30.

 

On the train ride back, I had to fight to stay awake; it had been a very long hot day in the sun.  By the time we got back to the head office, it was 6pm, 12 hours after we left for Namkhana.  I managed to read a little bit, and then I passed out for the night.

 

Wednesday, Mr. Hossain and I visited the Lakshmikantapur branch, which is only a 15-minute drive from the head office.  We met the branch manager in town around 8:30.  This visit was markedly different from Namkhana.  Rather than visiting women’s lending groups, we visited individual savings clients.  We were not in a rural setting, as in Namkhana, but rather right in the middle of the teeming Lakshmikantapur marketplace.  Lakshmikantapur is quite something.  It is loud, dirty, and smelly.  But it is vibrant.  There are people everywhere, all rushing to get somewhere, or buy or sell something.  There are virtually no paved roads; they are all muck and mud, so even just walking down the street is an adventure, trying not to slip in the mud or land in a puddle.  But despite all of that, for some reason, I kind of like it there.  I’m not totally sure why.

 

VSSU’s savings plan is fascinating.  They recognize that a major problem for Indians, particularly low income Indians, is that they do not have the same access to conventional banks as we do.  This is very obvious, and also extends to their lending philosophy.  But it’s difficult to save for many reasons.  First, many individuals are not saving large enough sums to even have a bank account.  Second, going to the bank regularly to deposit means losing valuable income earning time during the day.  VSSU has overcome these two major challenges with their daily and weekly savings plans.  Any person can opt for a daily deposit savings scheme, which means that a VSSU collection officer will come to their home or place of business daily to collect their savings, which can be as little as 10 rupees (about 20 cents) per day.  Each time they deposit, they receive a deposit slip.  VSSU’s collection officers work 365 days a year to make these plans possible and help low-income individuals overcome the barriers to saving.  Saving is crucial for people with low and unstable income because it helps combat unexpected expenditures that arise like medical bills or a death in the family.  Even saving the equivalent of 20 cents per day can add up and help a family get by through an unfavorable circumstance.

 

So this is what we witnessed.  Mr. Hossain and I walked around with Nitya, the Lakshmikantapur manager, as he collected the daily savings deposits from his clients.  All of the people we visited are business owners, and we saw everything from a Coca-Cola wholesaler, to a small rice shop, and a street vegetable seller, to a pet shop owner.  These individuals, again with vastly diverse income levels, have all committed to saving a small amount every day, which shows a lot of discipline and planning for their future.

 

We visited clients all morning, and then around noon, Mr. Hossain and I came back to the main office.  After lunch, we both started working on the tasks that we accumulated while doing the visits.  I started writing out all the dozens of case studies I had collected both in Namkhana and Lakshmikantapur, while Mr. Hossain continued working with his data for his thesis.  This is how I spent the afternoon, and when the day ended around 6:30, I went upstairs to air out my always oven-like room.

 

I spent the evening reading and journaling.  But I also realized that I hadn’t listened to any music since I’d arrived in India.  How strange.  I’m not one of those people who would say “music is my life,” but I do love it.  I listen to music getting ready in the morning, at the gym, and as often as possible while doing homework.  I love that different music has the ability to calm you down, motivate you, or bring about certain memories or emotions.  So for the first time since being here, I turned on my iPod, and listened to a playlist I had actually made especially for this summer.  It’s funny how a song can mean totally different things at different times in different situations.  I often associate music with a certain event or time in my life.  For example, Shakira’s Waka Waka.  That song has always reminded me of a class I took my freshman year at Wooster, Peace Studies, when a group I was in for a project had to pick a song that represented our topic.  We picked Waka Waka, and it quickly became our group’s theme song.  We hummed it in meetings, and we played it at our presentation.  Then I listened to Waka Waka as I was flying into Kenya for the first time last fall, and now that song brings a mix of memories of both Peace Studies and Kenya, and both blend together in a very unique way.  All of a sudden, that was happening with all of the music I was listening to, sitting on my bed.  All the associations I had with particular songs are now morphed with the views of rice paddies, the feel of sweat running down my forehead and cheeks, and smell of the night’s curry being cooked down the hall.  It made a one-of-a-kind, multi-sensory soundtrack for my summer.

 

After I turned my iPod off for the night, feeling great after a busy day and some time listening to all my favorite music, I laid down, and promptly had a praying mantis land on my stomach.  After a quick freak out and relocation of that particular insect, I went to sleep.

 

Today, we did not do a branch visit, but rather stayed in to catch up on other work.  I spent the morning finishing all my case studies, and I was quite surprised with how long it took, even though I wrote more than 40 of them.

 

A bit of a side note… yesterday I got a text on my Indian phone saying that I had to register it by providing a copy of my identification and a letter of residency in India.  I had those papers, and this is a standard procedure, so I wasn’t too bothered.  That is, until I found out that I can’t register in Lakshmikantapur, but that I have to go all the way to Kolkata, more than two hours away, to do this.  And the texts I was getting said if it wasn’t done in two days, my phone would get shut off.  Great.  So after a phone call last night to Anders, another Wooster student currently doing an internship in Kolkata, I sent him a copy of my passport and residency letter, and he said he would try and register it on my behalf, so my phone won’t get shut off (it’s the middle of the week and I can’t very well take a day off to go to Kolkata just to register my phone).  Thankfully, he was kind enough to use his lunch hour today to go take care of my issue, and it should keep working as long as I’m here.  Thanks, Anders!

 

After lunch, I got to do something new- checking all the most recent deposit ledgers (which are giant handwritten books here- no computerization in that particular system!) to make sure all of the maturity dates and payouts were calculated correctly.  While this isn’t exactly a tough task, it was a good way for me to familiarize myself with all VSSU’s formulas for payouts, etc.  After a few hours, I finished the review, and then went into Mr. Mondal’s office. I’d talked to him this morning, and he said he wanted my help writing a short book (40-60 pages or so) about VSSU and it’s history.  Since I had finished all my other work for the day and there were still two hours of work left, I went into his office to ask where I should start.  Boy did we get off track.  We ended up looking up the Wooster and my house in Alaska on Google Earth because he wanted to be able to visualize where I’m from.  It was pretty hysterical, especially when he thought Alaska was Florida.  Anyway, after we finished that little digression, he told me that yes, he wanted me to work on the book and he made a couple of suggestions of where to start.  He also said, however, that whenever I have finished my tasks for the day and still have time to kill, he wants me to research grants that VSSU is eligible for through American organizations such as USAID and the Ford Foundation.  Yikes! Those are big organizations with, I’m sure, lofty requirements, but I’ll do my best.  If I find anything, I’m supposed to start working on an application on VSSU’s behalf; I’d say that’ll keep me busy for a while.

 

And that brings us to now, 8:30pm on Thursday, and just about time for dinner.  This week has been flying by, which I think is a good sign.  I’ve learned a lot this week and had some great experiences, and I can’t wait to have them continue through the remainder of this week, and into next.  I’ve attached some pictures below, hopefully they’ll give a little look inside what I’ve been up to so far!

 

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The street in Ullon village, home to VSSU

 

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VSSU’s monthly feeding program

 

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Some of the women of the Ganga group in Namkhana

 

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Some of the women from the Mamonesha Group in Namkhana

 

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L to R: Ramen, me, Tapati, Jamina, Bashanti, and Panchani (the leader of her women’s group) in Namkhana

 

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Fishing boats on the inlet in Namkhana

 

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Urmila, a rice vendor in Lakshmikantapur market

 

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Me in the VSSU office (trying!) to show the Spot the Scot logo while reviewing the deposit ledgers

 

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A woman walking her cow up the street in Ullon

 

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It’s not always sunshine and rainbows, but there’s always tomorrow

Alright, I’m warning you, this is going to be a bit of a soul-baring post, so if you don’t want to hear it, just tune in for the next update. I’m kind of surprised I’m posting some of this at all, but I guess it’s all a part of the experience, right?

In the US, a Saturday morning for me usually means sleeping in a little, taking a few extra moments to enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, and maybe even watching an episode of something I missed during the week on hulu. In India, Saturday is a workday. Yesterday morning, I got up just as I had on each of the previous days, got dressed, and went downstairs to work. I spent the morning reviewing a bunch of documents my supervisor, Darpan, had given me. They ranged from spreadsheets detailing how VSSU calculates their interest rates to reports on VSSU’s performance by outside agencies. And so I passed the time familiarizing myself with VSSU in this way, learning bits and pieces of new information about my host organization along the way.

1 o’clock. Lunchtime. Normally, lunch is served upstairs in the dining room, but Saturday was both the end of my first week with VSSU and the last day for the two other interns, Shreya and Jit, and in honor of this special occasion, we had all been invited to Mr. Mondal’s, the founder and CEO, house for lunch. His beautiful cement house is just a few minutes walk down the street, so Shreya, Jit, Mr. Mondal, and Mr. Hossain (a man here doing work for his masters degree) all walked there and were greeted by his wife. They had us sit in the bedroom for a few minutes until lunch was ready, as that was the only room with a fan. When we were told, we walked down the path and to another room with a table, and four plates, heaping with rice and three different kinds of vegetables. Now, when Mr. Mondal invited us, he said it would be “a simple meal of rice and dal (lentils)”. Not so. After we sat down (the four guests sat at the main table, and much to my dismay, Mr. Mondal and his wife sat a small table behind us) they continued bringing more dishes: more vegetables, dal, two kinds of fish, chicken and dessert. It was an incredible amount of food. And the fish. Oooooh the fish. It was a whole fish, maybe 3-4 inches long, scales, fins and all. And it was sitting in a dish in front of me. It is rude to refuse food, so I knew I at least had to take a few bites. It really wasn’t that bad, but certainly something new for me, and I tried not to think about all the scales, and undoubtedly, little bones, that I ate. After being absolutely stuffed to the gills, we all walked back to the office around 2pm, after a longer than usual lunch.

The rest of the afternoon I spent reading case studies of VSSU clients, and coming up with my own list of questions to ask clients, as Mr. Hossain and I will be starting our branch visits on Monday. Just as I was wrapping this task up, Shreya, Jit, and Mr. Hossain said “Samantha, come, we are going boating!” I was completely confused about where one would go boating here, and so I asked what their plan was. Apparently, VSSU owns paddleboats that are held up the canal a ways (there is a canal that runs past the VSSU office and several kilometers beyond it), and these boats are free to use. So off we went. It was about a 20-30 minute walk, as a large portion of the path was mud and puddles. We got there, split into two boats, and had a very enjoyable time paddling around as the sun set. As it was finally getting darker, we decided to walk back, which took quite a while as it was dark and now nearly impossible to see the mud, which we inevitably got stuck ankle-deep in several times.

I spent a couple of hours relaxing, and the four of us all had dinner, and then at 10pm, we headed back out. Last night was Kali puja, or a worship ceremony for the goddess Kali. We were invited to come by Mr. Mondal and Darpan, so we all went out together, after Shreya instructed me on how to properly dress and cover up for such an event. We didn’t have to walk far to stumble upon the festivities. The music was blaring, and to my surprise, there was dancing. As in fist-pumping, jumping, and screaming dancing. Then the fireworks started going off. I was completely shocked; it was not what I was expecting at all. However, Shreya was clearly uncomfortable, and she pulled me aside and told me they were all drunk, and sure enough, I saw a bunch of bottles on the side of the road. We all headed back after that.

After the long day, I said goodnight to everyone and came back up to my room to take a much needed bucket shower. I was half undressed when I saw the largest spider I have ever seen under the sink. It was roughly the size of a tennis ball, and attempting wildly to climb up a web that was barely supporting its weight. I completely freaked out. To say I am not a spider person is an understatement. There are tons of bugs here, and all the others I can handle. Crickets? Fine. Cockroaches? No problem. Spiders? No thank you! I’ve gotten pretty good about the little ones while I’ve been here, and I’ve even figured out how to get rid of the jumping ones that are hard to catch, but I wouldn’t have known what to do with this huge thing even if I wasn’t afraid of it. So I quickly put my shirt back on and ran downstairs to Shreya and Jit, and explained what happened and asked for help. Shreya came with me, calmly asked for a piece a paper, grabbed it, and that was it. I just looked at her. I hadn’t known if it was poisonous or not, but she assured me it wasn’t and went back downstairs. It took me several minutes of inspecting every corner of my room to calm back down enough to finally get in the shower, and eventually, bed.

Then, there was today. I woke up, and it was HOT, and I mean HOT. And, it was only 7:30. Oh goody. I decided to do my laundry before it got too hot, and after I finished that I showered. I then sat down to do a few things on my computer. It wouldn’t turn on. Crap. I finally got it on, but after about 5 minutes, the screen flickered and it turned off again. I tried to turn it on… nothing. This is when I kind of lost it.

Alright. So I’ve been feeling a little lonely and homesick since I arrived at VSSU. I can’t quite explain it. This place is phenomenal, and I worked really hard to make this all happen. And yet, right now, I want nothing more than to be home and give my mom and dad a big hug. It feels a little ridiculous because last summer in India I didn’t have a problem. All fall semester when I was in Kenya, I was completely fine. But now, after being here only a week, I wake up each morning with tears in my eyes. Of course, this summer is a little different. I am here on my own. I am the only non-Bengali speaker. It is hotter than I can describe in words, and my skin has broken out like never before because I am constantly sweating. There are bugs everywhere. The power goes out frequently, which means no fans (there’s no AC, so the fans are really my only saving grace). And I guess all of this coupled with only getting to visit home for a couple of short weeks (and I was working 14 of the 20 days I was home) and knowing I won’t see my family again until Christmas has just sent me over the edge. During the day when I’m working, I’m ok. It’s when I wake up in the morning and when I am alone during the evenings. I know its just culture shock, and I know I will adjust. But sometimes it’s hard to put that in perspective. I desperately want to make the most of this opportunity, but right now my brain is shifting my focus to wishing I was somewhere else. Anyway, I think you get the basic idea.

So when my computer refused to wake up, I called my mom. It was 9:30am here and 8pm the previous night in Anchorage. She answered, and I just managed to get through “Hi, how are you?” before I started crying. And I mean really crying. I choked out what happened with my computer, and finally told her how lonely I’ve been (I had been trying to keep everything under wraps… so much for toughing it out). The computer was really just the straw that broke the camel’s back. So much of the work I’ve been doing here has been on my laptop, not to mention it’s my biggest way to keep in touch with people at home. After describing what my computer was doing (and not doing), my mom wasn’t sure what was wrong or what to do, so she suggested that I call my dad the next morning US time, as he was out of town on a business trip and probably already in bed. Then, we just talked. Me talking about why I’m being so emotional. Her telling me what’s been going on at home since I left (by the way mama, I can’t wait to sit next to you next summer on that flaming pink bench with white flowers that you just painted, so we can visit, and drink tea and other beverages). Finally, after about 45 minutes, we both agreed I had burned up enough minutes on my phone, and tearfully, I said goodbye.

And then, even though I had calmed down while we were talking, I just sat on my bed and cried. Again, I can’t totally explain why. I guess it’s just a little bit of everything. After about a half an hour, I splashed some water on my face, took a few deep breaths, and went out to try and buy more minutes for my phone. Unfortunately the shop was closed, and by the time I got back to my room again, I was drenched in sweat. My room really isn’t any cooler, but I sprawled out under the fan, and slowly, I cooled off. I decided to sit under my fan and read for a while, and in a couple of hours, I finished the book I was reading. Somewhere in this series of events, I ate lunch, and was actually slightly hungry because I had missed breakfast. I went out again to see if the shop was open to buy more minutes. No such luck. Again, I came back and read, this time starting a new book. And then, inexplicably, I started crying again. I just laid on my bed, drifting in and out of sleep, tears mixing with sweat and rolling down my cheeks. As quickly as the tears came, they left, and I tried a third and final time to buy minutes for my phone. Apparently that little task just wasn’t meant to be accomplished today.

I came back into my room once again and decided to soak my feet and keep reading, since my feet and ankles have been incredibly swollen since I’ve been here. As far as I can tell it’s just from the heat and the 20-25 bug bites on each foot. Finally, it was after 5:30 here, which meant it was late enough in the morning at home that I could call my dad. I dialed his number, wished him a happy fathers day, and then asked him to excuse the emotions as I told him what the problem with my computer was. He listened patiently, and then told me to try and turn on my laptop. I did, and slowly, it came back to life. Halle-freakin’-lujah. He said what I described was probably just problems that came with heat and told me to make sure my computer was always sitting so the bottom could vent, and to turn it off every once in a while so it can cool down. Since the temperature is hovering around 100 here, just turning it off is about the best I can do. I told him about my day and that it was actually pretty cruddy. He, just like my mom, was very helpful at saying things to calm me down and simultaneously remind me that they are both there to help with anything I need. So, after a little chitchat, I announced that my computer had been going strong for all of 15 minutes or so, and I said I would be in touch in another day or so to make sure everything was still working.

I quickly checked my email and then shut my computer back down. I went down the hall and saw Mr. Hossain, who invited me to come and sit in his room a visit for a few minutes. We had tea (because when its 100 degrees outside the natural choice in beverages is hot tea… but I guess I can’t really get any hotter, so why not), and visited for a bit. At about 7, I left his room, and he suggested that I go up on the roof, as it is cooler. I didn’t know the building had roof access, but I quickly climbed the staircase that he pointed to while he stayed in his room to work, and when I saw the view, I was stunned. You can see for miles from the roof. Rice paddies, roads, houses, palm trees, lights, the moon… everything. It was truly gorgeous. I stood up there for quite a while, just walking around and taking in the view, when one of the staff members came up and offered me a “snack”. This is a ritual that cracks me up. Every day at 6 or 7, we are given a snack. Except its really the size of a meal. Today, it was an “egg roll”, which could be more accurately described as every type of vegetable I’ve ever had in India with about 20 different spices, all rolled up into a fried pita-type thing. It was more than I would have at many meals in the US, but it was delicious, so I ate it, knowing I would not need dinner when it was served at 8:30. As I was finishing the egg roll, Mr. Hossain also came up to the roof, and we continued talking for a while. The beautiful view and a little conversation was just what I needed as a little distraction from the rest of my day. After a bit, we both came back down to our rooms, agreeing to meet at the office at 6:30 tomorrow morning so we can leave for our branch visit before it gets too hot. Tomorrow we are headed to Namkhana, which is about an hour away.

I don’t know what else I could possibly say about the last two days; I’ve pretty much given a minute-by-minute description. Am I still homesick? Yes. A little lonely? Probably more than a little, but yeah. Am I still glad to be here? Absolutely. Will tomorrow be a new and better adventure? Undoubtedly.

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And the Adventure Continues

“We live in a world full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures that we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.”  -Irving Wallace

I think I have finally settled into my routine here in D.C. I have more or less figured out the bus and metro schedules and am navigating them relatively well (with my less than perfect sense of direction). In fact, a few people have even stopped and asked me for directions! I’ve found the best place to buy groceries, a few nice jogging routes, and some decent (and cheap) places to dine out.

The Washington Monument (unfortunately, under construction) on my evening run.

The Washington Monument (unfortunately, under construction) on my evening run this Wednesday.

This past week has been quite busy at the office. I have published a few new posts and yesterday, I attended an intern lunch with the VP and COO of WETA. He explained his role at WETA and we were able to ask some questions. I asked him what he thought were the most valuable skills for a rising senior to have as they get ready to enter the “real” world, aka the job market. He had some insightful answers, saying that internships were definitely a great place to start. He also said that making as many contacts and networking through them is a great way to spread the word that you’re looking for work. He talked about the importance of leadership qualities, being able to motivate people, and how helpful it is to have strong writing and reading skills. He was an English major and spoke to the many qualities of a Liberal Arts education (yay, Wooster!).

I also got to meet some of the other interns and we are planning to get together next week for lunch to get to know each other more.

I also had a good meeting with a Wooster alumni, Jason Weingardt ’12, who told me about his recent post-grad experiences. He had some helpful suggestions on how to utilize your senior year more to prepare for post-college life. Thank you APEX for arranging these awesome alumni interviews! In the next few weeks, I will be meeting with 4 other Wooster alums to talk about their experiences.

The local history blog is going well and I am looking forward to more visits to the Historical Society and even to some museums to get more ideas about possible topics. I do spend a lot of time in my little cubicle (well, it’s actually quite spacious), but I have been exploring a lot too! I really feel that my writing is improving a lot throughout the process of writing posts,  discussing edits with my boss, Mark, and doing revisions before the final draft is published. The first week of my internship it was a little hard to get my brain into “writing mode” but now, it’s coming much easier and I am constantly reminded why I love writing.

My nice little work space!

My nice little work space!

Yesterday, I published a piece about General Robert E. Lee’s daughter, Mary Custis Lee and her arrest in 1902 for defying segregation laws on an Alexandria, VA streetcar. Alexandria and Fairfax County were the first places within the state of Virginia to adopt streetcar segregation. Although Miss Lee’s arrest was the 6th one since the law had been enacted, the incident got a lot of nationwide attention because of her status as the daughter of the Confederate General.

Today, I am working on a piece about the Wanderbirds, a local hiking club founded in 1934. In the days before internet and cell phones, the club was a kind of modern day social and dating organization, and despite the increased technology of our society today, the club is still planning weekly hikes! Pretty cool that the tradition has lasted so long. The Wanderbirds post should be up next week on Boundary Stones.

Only a few more hours of work and the weekend is here! I am hoping to go on a bike ride along the George Washington Memorial Parkway (which passes by Arlington Cemetery) and go to the Dupont Farmers’ Market again on Sunday. Thanks for reading!

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Bureaucracy, Wooster bonds, Trains, and Chai

Yikes.  I don’t even know where to start.  I guess because it’s the first couple days of being back in India, a lot is happening all at once.  So let me start with Tuesday morning….

 

I woke up and called the American consulate to see if the information I had received from the FRRO about my registration was correct.  They really only confused me more.  After a few more phone calls with the FRRO, my level of frustration, slight concern, and confusion hit a max and I got in a cab.  I had been given the address of an alternative FRRO office, however, the main office said I really didn’t need to go there, but if I wanted to I could.  Apparently, Lakshmikantapur (the town where my internship is) is not in the jurisdiction of the main office, and that is why they suggested I go to this other office, in Alipore.  Since at this point, I really had no idea what was going on or if I really needed to register or not, I just went.  Except the taxi driver couldn’t find it.  We drove around the area where it was for at least half an hour, until finally we found the right place: it was a giant police compound.  Excellent.  He couldn’t drive his taxi in, so I got out and immediately got a lot of confused and amused looks from the police and military members walking through the compound.  After about 10 people waved me over to them, and each one individually pointed me to the tallest building near the back of the complex, I walked up the stairs of this massive building.  If I hadn’t had so many people tell me that was where I needed to go, I wouldn’t have believed it.  As I rode the elevator up (it had a grate for a door) I could see each level, and they increasingly made the building appear bombed out and like it should be up for demolition.  There were huge piles of broken bricks on one floor.  Another floor had a pile of broken furniture in the middle of the hallway.  Still another had stacks of lumber.  But, when I reached the 7th floor, I was pointed to a small room where three people sat at desks with huge stacks of paper surrounding them.  I told them briefly why I was there, and the woman at the first desk waved me over.  After further explaining my situation, she said that there was a slight mistake on my visa (not on my part!).  Apparently, I should not have had to register, but they forgot to make that note in the appropriate place on my visa.  Since I am lacking that notation, she went ahead and told me to register anyway, and thankfully, I had all the paperwork she asked for.  However, her office did not have a computer or anything of the sort, and so she did not give me any official documentation, but instead told me I would have to come back to the office in August, right before my departure from India, and at that time, she will give me an exit permit.  Oi.  It sounds kind of like a disaster waiting to happen to me, but I didn’t really have another option.  So we picked a day that I would come back (August 5th in case you were wondering) and I took down her name and office number.  Hopefully when I go back everything will be ok!

 

After that little visit, I headed back to my hostel, had a quick snack, and settled in to my book just as it started pouring.  After a while, I realized how gross I was and took a shower and put on some fresh clothes because I actually had somewhere to go that night!  There are actually several Wooster alums living in Kolkata, as well as another current student doing an internship within the city, and one of the alums, Amit, and the current student, Anders, and I got together.  Amit was kind enough to invite us to the club he and his family are members of, and we sat for several hours eating and visiting.  I’d never had the opportunity to have a lengthy discussion with any alums from the College, so it was a very enjoyable night.  There is something about Wooster people, they are just so darn friendly and helpful, and I am so proud to be a part of that group.  Anyway, after getting dropped off rather late back at my hostel, it was time to turn in because I knew the following morning would be eventful….

 

It was internship time! I got up quite early (5:30- eew!), packed, showered, called my parents, had breakfast and checked out of my hostel.  I took a cab to Sealdah South Station, which is where the trains leaving for local- not cross-country- destinations depart.  I bought my ticket (which, amazingly was only 15 rupees, or about 25 cents) for the two-hour train ride to Lakshmikantapur, on the Lakshmikantapur local train.  The train was supposed to be leaving within the hour.  But an hour came and went, and I didn’t see my train.  I went back up to the booking desk, and nothing was wrong, it just turns out the train wasn’t supposed to be leaving with in the hour after all.  But they told me it would arrive at 10:56 and leave again at 11:02, and that’s exactly what happened.

 

As soon as the platform number posted up on the display board, I hustled over to that platform and waited for just a couple of minutes before the train arrived.  As it was pulling in, the crowd started pushing like crazy to get to the edge of the platform.  And as the train slowed I could see why.  While there are seats on the train, only the lucky few get one, and the rest of the people are packed in like sardines in the aisles, in people’s laps, and hanging out the doors.  As I was waiting, I had purposefully stood next to a couple of women who looked about my age, thinking that if I needed to, I could probably ask them a question, as they most likely had at least minimal English skills.  As the train stopped, both women started running along the train, and for whatever reason, I did too.  And I’m glad I did!  Nothing was wrong, they had just spotted the women’s only car (which I didn’t know existed) and got in the front of the line.  Fortunately for me and my 70 lb backpack, so did I.  I can’t imagine having made that 2 hour trip in the monsoon standing up with that backpack on.  But I did have people in my lap and stepping on my toes the whole way.

 

What also started to concern me was that, as I started paying closer attention, the train barely came to a complete stop at each station.  I started counting, and each time, the stop was for between 10 and 20 seconds.  And I’m not exaggerating.  Since I didn’t know which stop was mine, that made me a little nervous.  But finally, I just asked someone, and she said that Lakshmikantapur was the last stop, so not to worry.  Whew.  And sure enough, it was, and we arrived right on time: 12:45.

 

When I got off the train, I walked toward the booking desk just like my contact at my organization told me to do, and while I was still walking, someone called out my name, told me they were with VSSU, and we walked down through the market to the car.  The man is extremely friendly, and it is one of my top priorities to find out his name again… because I already forgot.  Once in the car, we had about a 20-minute drive through Lakshmikantapur town (which I was told has about 50,000 residents) and then we got into the country, which is just stunningly gorgeous, lush, and green.  We wove through palm trees, banana trees, mud huts, cows, and rickshaws, until we finally came to the VSSU office, a building I have seen so many times on their website I couldn’t believe I was actually in front of it.

 

But in front of it, I was!  The VSSU compound is huge and consists of several different buildings, but this particular building holds the headquarters office on the first floor and guest rooms on the second floor.  I will be spending a considerable amount of time in this building; I sleep on the second floor, and work on the first.  I was led immediately to the office of the CEO and founder of the organization, Mr. Kapilananda Mondal.  Although he was in a meeting, he stopped, gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and then invited me to sit and have chai with the three men he was meeting with.  The three men were quite something.  They are business people from Kolkata, and they were just visiting for the day to begin the plans for starting the first rural insurance program in this district.  They had visited VSSU before, and they had nothing but praises for Mr. Mondal and his organization; they repeatedly called him a saint and went on and on about how he had defied all the odds to create and keep up this organization.

 

After we finished our chai, I was shown up to my room.  It is actually a fairly spacious room with two twin beds, a desk and chair, and a bathroom the size of a closet.  I was told that most of the time this room will just be for me, but that occasionally, as other women come through for a day or two, they will be placed with me.  But my favorite part of this room is the windows.  One entire wall consists of four different windows that stretch from the height of my knees to the ceiling, and they look out on the most spectacular view of fields, rice paddies, and palm and banana trees.  It is just absolutely gorgeous.  Quickly, after I looked around the room, I was led off again for lunch.  I ate with the three visiting men from Kolkata, and it was quite interesting to hear about the work they are planning for this district (it will be a range of life, accident, and health insurance which has never been available before).  When we finished eating, I had a little down time and did some unpacking and getting settled in my room.  But I couldn’t quite tell if they wanted me to come back down to the office or rest, so after about 30 minutes, I brought my bag with a book and my laptop, and went downstairs.

 

Mr. Mondal called me into his office and we had still more chai as he showed me a powerpoint presentation about VSSU.  They really are an incredible organization that does a lot more than microfinance (which is what I am working with while here), but rather than spell it all out here, I would encourage you to check out their website (vssu.in), and I am sure I will elaborate more on bits and pieces throughout my internship and subsequent posts.  After he finished showing me the powerpoint and I asked a few questions, I went back out to the intern office area (there are two other undergraduate interns here from West Bengal, and another man visiting who is working on his masters thesis, but they all leave within the week) and sat for a while.  I met the other interns, and while I wasn’t given anything to do, it was interesting to sit and see what everyone else was doing.   There was, of course, more chai, and then another staff member showed me another similar, but slightly altered powerpoint about VSSU.  I also had the pleasure of meeting the office dog, Buloo, a stray that the office has adopted.  He is pretty darn scraggly, but very sweet.  I love dogs, so I’m glad there’s one around that I can fawn over a little bit!  After about an hour, I was able to connect my computer to the internet (yay!), and checked my email and the news for the first time in several days.  And before I knew it, it was 6:30, and everyone was headed home.  So I came back upstairs to my room, finished unpacking, and started writing this post.  Dinner is at 8:30, and it is a little strange (to me at least) because they leave plates and food in the dining room, and I just sat by myself and ate quickly since there was no one to visit with, and then I headed back to my room.

 

I took a quick but refreshing bucket shower, killed a few of the spiders in my bathroom, and then called my mom to let her know I had managed to figure out the train system and arrived safely at my internship site.  Not 5 minutes after we hung up the phone I was curled up on my rock-hard bed, the fan running on high, the geckos chirping in the corners of the room, and I drifted off to sleep.

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And I Smiled

(This post is painfully long… I just started writing and this is what came out.  Feel free to skim!)

 

Sensory overload.  Nostalgia.  Sweat.  Mercifully, fans.  Tea.  Taxis.  Smiles.

 

This is where I am now, but allow me to backtrack…

 

Thursday was a blur of packing and pretending I was ready to get on the plane.  While this trip has been quite carefully planned, my time at home was such a whirlwind that everything sort of snuck up on me.  But there it was, Thursday, and mere hours before my flight.  I spent several hours packing and making one last run to Wal-Mart before showering.  When he got off work for the day, my dad, mom, grandma, and I went out for my last dinner in the States until August, and last meal at home until Christmas.  I gorged on all of the things I know I won’t be able to have while in India: berry cosmos, fresh Alaskan halibut, salad, and pie.  It was a delight, and after some conversation and chatting, we headed back to the house so I could grab my luggage.  After quickly taking off my blouse and jeans in exchange for a kurta and leggings, I grabbed my backpack and we were out the door.  At the airport, I gave several hugs to each of my parents (I had said goodbye to grandma at home), and attempted to offer some reassuring words about how careful I would be and that I would call when I arrived.

 

First stop, Chicago.  I had about a six hour layover, and after some initial confusion, made my way to the international terminal, and was able to grab a sandwich and make last phone calls to my parents and a couple of friends before it was time to board.  At our gate, there was an additional security checkpoint, and as I was standing in line, I realized that I was the only, and I mean the ONLY, white person; everyone else was, by appearances at least, Indian.  Then, as I was next in line for the additional security checkpoint, I left a little space between the woman being screened because she was displaying her passport, which is obviously sensitive information.  The man behind me, however, took that gap as a sign that I wasn’t ready, and walked in front of me.  Then I remembered.  I’m on my way to India, surrounded by Indians, and being in a line simply doesn’t work the same way.  Its more of a silent, only slightly orderly, process of pushing your way to the front of a crowd in order to accomplish whatever you are attempting to do.  So I waited for the man to be done, showed the security guard my passport and ticket, had the first genuine realization of where I was headed, and I smiled.

 

For the 14 and a half hour flight from Chicago to New Delhi, I sat next to a lovely woman who now lives in Indianapolis but was born and raised in Hyderabad, India.  We chatted throughout the flight, and as we got off the plane, she gave me the information of her family, who now lives in Pune, India, in case I got into any trouble and needed help.  Even though Pune is across the country from Kolkata, the gesture was much appreciated, and reminded me of the many wonderful people I have already had the privilege of meeting in India, and the many more that I know I will meet this summer.  And I smiled.

 

Arriving in Delhi, I had to go through immigration, claim my bag, and clear customs.  The processed continued as I rechecked my bag for my last flight to Kolkata, went through security (and the division between men and women in the security area that still perplexes me), and then made my way to my gate for my final flight.  On my way, I absorbed my first visual reminders of India: café coffee day, maaza mango juice, the infamous Indian head bobble, and the screen of my cheap Indian Nokia phone.  And I smiled.

 

The flight to Kolkata was uneventful; it left on time and thanks to my previous 36 hours of travel, I slept through a vast majority of it.  As the plane landed, we were ushered off the plane and not down a jetway, but rather down a set of steps and across the tarmac.  We then boarded a bus to baggage claim, which, in typical Indian style, was packed until the doors could barely shut.  I waited a little nervously as everyone’s bags started coming out, until eventually, there were only about 20 people left waiting for their bags.  Thankfully, my backpack eventually made an appearance, although it was the very last bag to come off the belt.  Quickly, I made the promised phone call to my parents to let them know that I had arrived and had all my belongings, and then I jumped in the line to reserve a pre-paid taxi.  There was a little confusion in finding the taxi that I had been assigned, but soon enough, I was on my way through the streets of Kolkata.  And I smiled.

 

Although it was dark out, there were many familiar sights, sounds, and smells.   The shops that are so close together they might as well be on top of each other, the never-ending honking of taxis, cars, and motorcycles, and the faint, sweet, hot smell of the air.  After about a 45-minute taxi ride where I alternated between fascination while watching the sights go by, and fighting my increasingly heavy eyelids (40+ hours of travel can do that to a girl), I arrived at Fairlawn Hotel.  We found it without a problem, and when I walked inside, a man at the front desk quickly got me signed in, handed me my key, walked me to my room, and turned on my fan and small air conditioner.  It was about 9pm at this point, and so I unpacked my bag, took a quick rinse off shower, and called my parents again to let them know I had made it to my hostel.  After drinking some water, I gave in to the beckoning of my single bed with its one, thin blanket.  And I smiled.

 

My first morning in Kolkata was, in a word, hot.  Regardless, I got up, showered, ate breakfast downstairs at my hostel, and embarked on my first task for the summer: getting a train ticket to my internship site in Lakshmikantapur.  I took a taxi to Sealdah South Station, where I was told I could purchase the tickets.  But after wandering through the large, crowded, and steamy station for a few minutes and standing in a couple of different lines, I learned that booking tickets in advance is not possible.  I was looking to purchase a ticket for Wednesday morning, but was instead told that the trains leave every hour for Lakshmikantapur, and that I should just come ready to leave on Wednesday.  After that, I knew I needed to find a Vodafone kiosk to get a West Bengal simcard, rather than the one I have from Karnataka, which doesn’t work here.  But I forgot that it was Sunday, and any shop that could have helped me was closed.  So, unsure of what to do with the rest of my day, I went back to my hostel.  As I was walking in, I saw an older woman sitting at a table, and I smiled at her.  She saw me and waved me over, although she was sitting and talking to another woman.  She introduced herself as Mrs. Smith, the owner of the hotel, and the woman she was chatting with was a guest at the hostel, an American woman named Madeline.  Mrs. Smith is hysterical.  She is a 92 year old Albanian woman who married an Englishman, and that marriage is how she came to own the Fairlawn hotel.  She now spends her days “managing” the hotel, and I gather that this mostly consists of chatting with the guests and keeping up her impeccable appearance.  I sat and chatted with the two women for a while when another guest, an Englishwoman named Amanda, came and joined us.  The four of us talked for a while, and it was very interesting to learn about each of them, but I’ll spare you the details.  Before we all parted ways, Mrs. Smith asked me what I was doing for the rest of the day.  I told her that I was hoping to find a tailoring shop because I wanted to have a three-piece suit (the traditional women’s clothing in India) made.  She told me where to go, and before I knew it, I had ordered the perfect polka-dotted outfit.  And I smiled.

 

When I came back around 3:30, I was exhausted (I blame the jet lag and heat) and collapsed into my bed for about an hour.  When I woke up, there was a torrential downpour outside, so I decided to go downstairs to the lobby, had some tea and spent some time reading my book.  One of the men who works at the front desk saw me there, and he knew I’d been having some trouble with the wi-fi, so I brought my computer down so he could take a look.  He wasn’t able to identify the problem either, so he was kind enough to let me use the computer behind the desk.  After sending a few emails, I ordered veg noodles for dinner and continued reading my book.  At about 7:30, I went back up to my room and did my first load of bucket laundry since I’ve been back in India.  It was so hot in my room that my clothes were dry in a couple of hours.  I was once again reading my book when I got a call from Amit, a Wooster alum who lives in Kolkata.  We decided to meet up on Tuesday night, and I can’t wait to meet another member of the wonderful Wooster family.  And with the promise of seeing a friendly face in the following days, I drifted off to sleep.  And I smiled.

 

Then came this morning.  The morning that I was supposed to go down to the foreigners regional registration office (FRRO).  I called my mom to check in, showered, ate breakfast, got my paperwork in order, and was out the door by about 8:45.  Because I am in India on an employment visa, I have to go register within 14 days of entering the country so that the FRRO, an Indian government office, can process my paperwork and give me formal approval to stay in the country for the duration of my visa.  So, this morning I took a taxi to get all of the formalities out of the way.  When I arrived at the office at about 9:15, it was closed, and the security guard told me they opened at 10.  He could see I was incredibly hot (it must have already been over 100F), so he opened a waiting room for me and turned on a fan.  About an hour later, I signed in and met with one of the government officers.  He took a look at my visa and then told me that it wasn’t necessary for me to register at all.  He continued by saying that if my visa was for more than 6 months then registration is necessary, but since my visa is limited to 6 months, I didn’t need to register.  This confused me greatly because last summer I had the same type of visa and did have to register.  But I clarified, and he reiterated that it wasn’t necessary and I wouldn’t have any problems during my stay in India.  So, as it was barely 10:30, and I was prepared to spend all day in that office, I wandered out and for whatever reason, took a taxi to South City Mall.  South City is a very fancy mall, and I knew that there was a movie theatre there, and I was curious if there was anything worth seeing.  I got to the mall at around 11 and ended up seeing “Now you see me”, which I knew nothing about, but was actually pretty enjoyable.  After a quick stop at a bookstore to pick up some additional reading material, I left the mall and took a taxi back to my hostel, and arrived around 4pm.  While my jet lag hasn’t been bad at all, I am still pretty tired, and it is definitely a combination of jet lag and the heat that I haven’t even remotely adjusted to yet.  So, with that, I’m in for the night.  I spent some time writing this post, and will have some dinner and then need to work on my own journaling, which I’ve neglected so far.

 

These first couple of days back in India have been interesting.  I’ve been reminded of the reasons why I wanted to come back to India, and the challenges this place presents for me.  Although I’ve had two full days here, I feel like I haven’t accomplished much except riding around the city in various taxis, since I was unable to purchase my train ticket and was told it is unnecessary for me to register at the FRRO.  It’s hard to make too many judgments yet though, because I haven’t begun my internship, which is really why I’m here.  So until then, lets just say that I’m here and looking forward to the next stage of this adventure.  Next stop, Lakshmikantapur!

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