Titagarh Leprosy Colony

Today (Thursday) is typically the day we get off from work, so we signed up to visit a leprosy colony organized by the Missionaries. After hearing the inspiring but horrific story of Damien sometime in these past few years, I was really prepared for the worst; but in the end, it was a much more uplifting experience that I expected.

Leprosy is still stigmatized, and the connotations or thoughts conjured up by the disease really do the people inflicted with it a disservice. Of course there are terrible cases of leprosy that go undiagnosed or untreated for far too long, but as the brothers running the facility today, all of the patients in their care have their illness under control (in other words, there was no risk of any visitors ever being infected). The severity of the leprosy varies widely across the patients, but as we saw, there really isn’t a big need for outside help because the patients do a very good job of running their own lives and maintaining the compound.

We saw most of what they do at the colony, and it was an eye opening experience. Aside from simple cleaning/feeding tasks, many patients help make goods that the Missionaries of Charity are able to use. The coolest part of what we saw was the loom rooms where they make many different cloths including the dressings for the patients’ wounds that are changed everyday and the sari’s that the Missionaries wear.

I think most of us were expecting to do a normal day’s work at the colony, but as I’ve said, there wasn’t much for us to do. While that caught us (at least me) off-guard, it is probably better that way. How would you feel more dignified: watching some outsider come and do chores while you sat in bed all day, or by proving your ability to work and provide for you and yours?

I *heart* mangoes (this one’s about Kolkata)

So now comes the post where we’re in India. The keyboard I’m at right now doesn’t want to type apostrophes correctly right now, but I’ll try to manage.

Wifi is very hard to come by here. This is relevant only because I had typed up a blog entry while we were on the train from New Delhi to Kolkata, but I haven’t been able to upload it. Parts of it will get retyped here.

Our journey begins in the Istanbul’s Ataturk airport. Our flight to Abu Dhabi went off without a hitch, and Ashley parted ways with Marissa and me as she was on a different flight to New Delhi. Again, no problems there – Ashley got bumped up to first-class and I’m sure forgot aaallll about the separation of the Three. We convened again in the New Delhi airport where Ashley had slept for a few hours waiting for us to get through customs and all. For those who care, the US Dollar is worth around 44 Indian Rupees. This means that things are very cheap in India. After the currency exchange, we took the metro to the New Delhi railway station. India’s adventures begin here – as does the blog entry written while on the train:

Up until this point, India seemed like any other industrialized nation we’d been to. You might have head about Indian trains, or maybe you haven’t. There is a wide range of seat classes to choose from going from the air conditioned first-class cars to the tightly-quartered sleeper class. Ignoring the advice of everyone we’ve talked to who has experience visiting or living in India, we chose the sleepers for our 24+ hour train ride to Howrah station in Kolkata.

After sitting in the station for 8 hours (getting from the airport to the railway station was waaay easier than we’d expected), we boarded the Poorva Express #12382. This is where we are now (note: we’re actually at the hotel right now, but this part was written while we were on the train, remember?)

This train is everything I had hoped it would be and more. To be clear, it is not for those wanting a relaxing mode of transportation. It’s loud, cramped, and grimy. But after traveling through the developed cities of China and the beautiful Istanbul, I’ve been wanting something more like this.

I think we’ll take a taxi to the Mother House once we arrive in Kolkata tomorrow afternoon. It’s 21:15, and I’m going to go back to reading. G’nite.

G’morning! There were about 20 monkeys walking the railings just now. Oh the things you’ll see.

End of the train blog post.

All in all, I loved our train ride here to Kolkata. We did end up taking a taxi from Howrah station to the Mother House – the HQ of sorts for the Missionaries of Charity. We arrived there at around 20:00, so they were closed, but we knew enough to try and find Sutter Street.

Sutter Street is where we’re staying. Hotel Maria will probably be our home for the remainder of the month as it’s cheap (450 rupees each night for all three of us), clean enough, and on Sutter Street (aka Volunteer Central). On this street are many, many hotels, restaurants, and little shops catering to a volunteer’s every need. I don’t have any pictures yet, but I’ll try to grab some to help all of the things I will describe throughout the month make more sense.

After arriving on Wednesday night and getting situated on Thursday, we walked back to the Mother House – about a 20 minute walk – to register so that we could start working. Unfortunately, they had cancelled registrations for Friday, but they said that we could come back Saturday morning for a temporary registration until Monday came around (they only do registrations on MWF). Saturday morning we began what will be our norm of waking up at 5am in order to make it to Mass at 6am at the Mother House. After Mass, we headed down to the volunteer room for a breakfast of chai, bread, and a banana. It might not sound like much, but don’t worry, we aren’t going hungry. The food they give us is just enough. About 100 volunteers gathered in the room, and after a quick brief from Sister Mercy-Maria (who’s from Texas), we headed out to our first day of work at Prem Dan.

Prem Dan is a home for mentally-handicapped men and women. Our first day consisted of doing laundry, washing the floors of the compound, helping the residents with regular hygiene (shaving, cutting hair, clipping nails, etc.), serving them water/chai/lunch, and the cleanup after that. It’s simple stuff, but it needs doing.

After our first day, we hopped on a rickshaw back to Sutter Street (ssooooo much fun), and I went at attempt #1 to buzz my hair. The guy who cut my hair really didn’t understand that I wanted a buzz, and it took a half hour of him giving me a normal haircut for the Tibettan guy dyeing his hair from dark brown to blonde to inform the hair cutter what I wanted for us to find out that his buzzer was broken. He then tried to cut my hair really short by hand. I was freaked out at first because he really went at it once he realized what I really wanted and that he had wasted a half hour. Hair was coming off left and right, but he did a fine job in the end. I remedied the look yesterday by getting a real buzz with a #3 clipper. I like it. I also have a mustache. Facebook profile picture coming up soon. Saturday night we went to sleep around 21:00 figuring that early mornings mean early nights.

On Sunday, we went to Mass in the morning – I will leave this out of my posts from now on as we’re doing this every morning – and I split from Ashley and Marissa as I had signed up to work at Nabo Jibon. Nabo Jibon is a house for mentally-handicapped boys, and street kids come in to wash and eat on Sundays. Working there was similar to Prem Dan, except with kids. The work done by the Missionaries at their homes is not glorious. It can be fun at times, but that’s not really the point. I met some cool people at Nabo Jibon, and we went to lunch after getting back from work.

It’s odd how some things become commonplace while you’re traveling that would normally seem so out of the ordinary at home. One of these things is the extremely wide range of people you meet. Since traveling in Istanbul and Kolkata (ignoring China and Singapore because I really can’t remember that far back), I’ve meet people from the US, Canada, Spain, Sweden, Britain, Tibet, Argentina, France, Poland, Japan, Dubai, and Australia. Some of these people are doing one-off trips to India, and many other are doing what we’re doing, that is, long trips around the world.

We went back to work at Prem Dan today, and we registered for reals this afternoon at 15:00. Registration is a simple orientation by a long-term volunteer and your placement amongst the many homes that the Missionaries run. All three of us got our first choices! Marissa will be at Shishu Bavan working with handicapped children, and Ashley and I will be at Kalighat. This home is for the sick, destitute, and dying. It is where Mother Theresa did much of her work, and will no doubt prove a challenge and a privilege through the month.

So much more has happened in the few days that we’ve been here, and I’ll try to communicate more as the month goes on, but it’s not the easiest thing to do here.

In closing, I love mangoes more than anything else right now (a little bit of hyperbole is good for you, deal with it). They are God’s gift to Indians. Words cannot express my love for mangoes. Mangoes are the reason that I’m stopping this blog post right now. Seriously, we have three in our room waiting.