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!!
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!!
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.
Checking more cashbooks against vouchers!
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.
A small temple in the Sundarbans.
Mr. Mondal and I on the motor van on our way to the Sundarbans.
In front of the VSSU head office.
This is a motor van!! I’m so glad I finally got a picture so I can fully convey exactly what one is!
Women’s group in Kakdwip
Women’s group in Mathurapur with the branch manager.
I didn’t know that crocodiles eat whole crabs, but they do!
Women’s group in Mathurapur
Women’s group in Mathurapur with the branch manager and Priyanka in the back.
Me in the Sundarbans.
Abandoned boats in the Sundarbans.
Crocs on crocs on crocs!!