On Wednesday’s flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kolkata we were all pretty exhausted from the early start in Melbourne. Sleeping was made impossible due to the pilot switching between a torturous combination of dim mood lighting versus interrogation-style spot lights. This seemed to go on for hours and when we finally touched down in Kolkata it seemed like we had met our fate when the cabin crew announced that everyone should cover their faces and proceeded to spray a white, gassy substance everywhere. Given that we’ve lived to tell the tale, I’m hopeful that this was some kind of DEET and malaria prevention and that we’re not going drop dead next week.
In Kolkata we’ve been staying at the Bodhi Tree guesthouse and it’s amazing! The staff are so friendly and the rooms are filled with an eclectic mix of arty pieces, carvings, prayer flags, lanterns and wall hangings. It’s got a Balinese kind of vibe and the dim lighting is so peaceful to come back to after the craziness of the city.
We arrived for the start of Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival celebrating the birthday of Lord Ganesh who is widely worshiped by Hindus as the god of wisdom, prosperity and good fortune. I know him as the remover of obstacles (and I have a little Ganesh at my front door) so it seemed very appropriate for the start of our journey! During the festival, temporary shrines (pandals) are set up for worshippers to make offerings to the idols and at the end of the 10-day festival there’s a mass-emersion of idols at Indian beaches. It’s really humbling when you see people who appear to have so little celebrate life and give thanks for what they have. A huge lesson in gratitude.
I love the sounds and chaos of the city – the smell of incense, waft of sewerage,
stalls of street food, and constant traffic horns! It’s been so much fun trying new dishes every day. My favourites so far have been masala chai tea, dal makhani (black lentils, butter and cream) and Gulab Juman (deep fried, spongy dough balls soaked in syrup). And there was a really yummy, savoury pancake-style bread that was delicious for breakfast too! I’m not great at ordering food though, even in English. Apparently, ‘we’re going to share’ also sounds like ‘I’d like a kingfisher beer’?!
My first impressions of India have already challenged some of the assumptions I had made about travelling here. Yes, the men do stare but everyone stares at us – women, children, goats! There is so much negative Western media about India but I have found that people are just curious and interested in what we’re doing and that’s a feeling I share for the people here too. We’ve had a few paparazzi moments already, posing for some family photos and we were also stalked a few blocks around the New market area by men keen to become our tour guides and take us to their shops. We managed to lose them eventually and I guess we’ll become much assertive over the next few months here.
On Thursday we caught the metro and spent time orientating ourselves with the city, and today the Bodhi Tree organised for a driver to take us to some of the sights around Kolkata including the Victoria Memorial, Mother Theresa’s Motherhouse, New market and the Indian museum. In between stops we walked along the Beautified Bank Of Ganga River where heaps of couples sat cuddling on chairs by the river bank – so cute. Jeya placed her hand in the Ganges water but neither Georgie, Bec or myself were that game and were quick to pass her the hand sanitiser. Later that afternoon whilst we waited to meet our driver, we were caught in a monsoon torrential downpour – clearly we should have put our hands in the Ganges and the universe made up for it with a drenching cleanse. As I waded through calf deep water to get to the car, my thong washed of my foot and started floating away down the street. As I hopped over to get it, luckily Bec was able to rescue it for me and we jumped into the taxi dying of laughter. The owner of our accommodation told us that monsoon season use to run from June – August, however climate change has meant that the monsoon season now runs into September. We haven’t even started placement yet and I feel like each day is filled with Social work learnings – white privilege, spirituality, climate change.
Despite being covered from ankle to neck at night, the mossies found a juicy area under my chin to feast on so I may have to step up malaria prevention to a full body suit this week.