Day 1 Part 2
Wake up with no bearing on time. All I know is I’m in India and there is light pushing through the blinds on the windows. I don’t want to check the time and I don’t want to open the windows. I’m scared. I unpack my clothes hesitantly, considering the option to ride right back to the airport and flee. I conclude to give it a day then make up my mind. As I shower, concern over water safety hits me. I cut open my finger earlier and I’m worried the wound will draw infection from the water. Not much I can do at this point as I’m already wet. At the front desk I am told Sudeshna has left a message for me. The bellman repeats her words verbatim, reading from a note card, then calls her on his personal cell phone so I may speak with her. She sounds amazingly kind and tenderly concerned for my well-being. She offers a few pointers for navigating through the city then I set out for the day with my backpack, water, sandwich, journal, spare t-shirt, and roll of toilet paper.
The streets are wild. It’s just past noon and I’m walking down a major street in Kolkata, India. A moving traffic jam as far as the eye can see. Horns honk out of boredom, not necessity. I cannot hear myself think. School children cross the treacherous streets with ease. I scamper behind the human shields like a coward. Try as I might, I cant figure out any systemic approach with which they all drive. Smog is palpable, chalky. 1950’s taxis struggle down the road. Their sputtering engines are one collective push toward the future while gasping their last breaths’. The streets are saturated with people; more people per square meter than I have ever seen. Sidewalks are restaurants, bedrooms, and laboratories. I am surprised, however, not to see any open sewers as I have read about. Little balls of dough fry in large woks of oil. A man smears orange paste onto a palm-sized green tobacco leaf. Shop after shop after shop of seemingly useless merchandise line the streets. A family works in a dry-cleaning shack while their infant child sleeps on a pile of unwashed clothing. Most men have bloodshot eyes. I cant tell if it’s from pollution, misery, or hashish. I plow through the streets with manufactured purpose, trying my best to emanate a confident attitude. I am full of fear. Some locals look at me with puzzlement. Most don’t even notice me. I know it’s a long walk to Mother House but I repeatedly become concerned about having missed my street. No street signs. I use addresses on businesses as markers then realize each side of the street has it’s own separate numerical logic. Often times there is no logic at all. I ask for directions. The first person stares at me with confusion then walks away. Second person kindly directs me onward.
A.J.C Bose Rd. Been walking for twenty minutes now and the smells seem incredibly confusing: spice, incense, frying oils, then engine degreaser and rubber; only blended slightly at the edges with a layer of burning rubbish.
A young man has his motorcycle disassembled on the side of the road and men stand around bidding on parts loudly. Women wash clothes in the stream of busted hydrants; sometimes it seems the water just bubbles right up through the concrete of the sidewalk. Homeless sleep anywhere and everywhere. Men squat in circles; engaged in heavy discussion. Narrow alleyways seem to lead to certain demise. The overwhelming blaring of car horns has now been sifted into white-noise by my mind. A puddle under an overhang catches my attention. As I walk over, drops of liquid fall on my head. Has the building itself pissed on me? A quick wipe and sniff from my head indicates I’m in the clear. Men jump out of crammed shanties in awkward ways. There is no stiffness of the limbs with these people. More engine degreaser heavy in the air. I pass a goat, tied to metal railing, and we stare at each other cautiously.
Check out B.M.S guesthouse as a possible landing place after my current hotel reservations are up; decent and close to Mother House. Arrive at Missions of Charity HQ and knock on metal gate. I expect a small eye shaft to slide open for a cursory check of danger. Instead the gate opens and a small woman stands in front of me dressed in a white sari with light blue trim. She looks up at me and beams a radiant, welcoming smile.
Courtyard waiting area at Shishu Bhavan. Two overly amicable Korean men say hello. A girl my age is writing in a journal. I get excited and interrupt her to start a conversation. Teresa from D.C. She has piety and devotion in her eyes. We exchange stories and are quickly joined by Ashley from Canada. Quit her job and is on a similar, although more religious, journey as I am. Teresa is on The Path as well but she is merely on an extended leave from her employer; one U.S. Homeland Security. Wow. I wouldn’t expect spies in training to volunteer at Mother Teresa’s charity. Lydia from Spain joins us. She’s just on vacation for a few weeks and decided to spend a part of it here. What the fuck? I think back to my vacation days back in The States and what I spent my time on – certainly nothing as altruistic as volunteering in a 3rd world country. We talk about our journeys’ so far, about all being nearly the same age, and our unified pull towards something more fulfilling in life. I try to keep my thoughts focused on the beautiful moment and away from flirting with the cute girls. Ashley gives a small monologue on the kingdom of heaven and how Jesus has blessed her. I get uncomfortable and wish she would talk about philosophers instead of messiahs.
The hall is now full of first time volunteers. It is loud and full of life. Languages from every corner of the world are heard. Majority of the volunteers are Korean. Gus, a cute girl from Connecticut, gives the English speech about rules and options for volunteering. I realize it will not be as I imagined; no in and out privileges. We work six days a week until our time is up. A man outside the compound climbs up a rickety bamboo ladder to a mess of wires, on an electrical pole, and begins fumbling about. He has no sign of affiliation to a utility company, nor anything official, to indicate he might be allowed to do this. Our group is the last to be called to register. Lydia sits close to me as we speak to Sister Mary Mercy, the head Sister, and discuss volunteering options. Sister Mercy’s sales skills are highly advanced. With a kind smile and firm approach, she has me commit to stay through Christmas and even participating in the holiday play. I laugh at myself on the inside. All the sales training I received back in Silicon Valley USA can’t compete with the effects of an honest heart; the key is innocent intention. My mind bounces back and forth between the Sister’s graceful cadence and the woman next to me who has her leg pressed to mine. Even in a place like this, full of devotion and sacrifice, I still find myself thinking about sex. A sense of guilt stings my mind. Ashley says she is going to adoration after we finish registering and I assume that is a local bar. I make an unabsorbed drinking joke then realize adoration is a type of mass. I don’t think Ashley appreciates my alcoholic humor. I walk with the girls back toward Mother House, where they are all going to adoration, then continue on back to my hotel alone.
It is a forty-five minute walk back. The sun has already set but it is no cooler than it was at midday. The sun felt defeated during the day; diluted through the thick smog. Now it has given up all hope and ran away. The same unpredictable mixture of odors bombards me on my walk back. Inside grimy parts / repair shops, ancient looking mechanical devices achieve symmetry with their masters. The machines are fifty years outdated but mastered by these craftsmen in a way that first-world technicians can never achieve. Poverty forces dedication. Multiple pods of men play cards while circled around parked scooters. Clusters of 20 scooters parked every 10 meters. I pass the same goat, tied to the same metal railing, as I had hours earlier on the walk up. I venture through traffic now bravely, not relying on locals to clear a safe path. Through an opaque, soot lined window I see a fitness gym with Indians inside working out lethargically. How can they possibly breathe deep enough to work out with all this pollution?
Back at the hotel, as I’m getting into the shower and passing the mirror, I notice a layer of dirt on the small of my back where my underwear line would have been. Even my sweat is polluted. At dinner downstairs, the kind bellman, Rozario, comes to check on me. Rozario is slow to speak, carefully choosing words and over-emphasizing syllables in the wrong place. His mannerisms seem overly dramatic but his eyes are placid and intently focused into mine. There is no hesitation in him. For the next twenty minutes he gives a narrative on the life and work of Mother Teresa. He says she originally came to teach geography, but when she saw what was happening on the streets, she couldn’t help but take action.
Children are undesirable for many reasons here, especially baby girls he tells me. They were literally thrown away in garbage dumpsters and grew up with no one to care for them. At the time she was still Sister Teresa, and she picked them up out of the trash. I feel myself tear up as he repeats this sentence. Sister Teresa picked them up out of the trash. The older kids were most problematic. Especially at night, with no supervision, they would run wild in the streets; harassing, stealing, and fighting. Sister Teresa started a free school after 4pm to give them somewhere to go in the evenings called Shishu Bhavan. Most came for the shelter and meager amounts of free food. Slum to slum she walked to get her children and bring them to Shishu Bhavan. Rozario is Catholic, as are most in this hotel, and he grew up blocks away from the school. Rozario takes great pride in telling me this story, especially at having attended Mother’s funeral, along with fifty thousand other admirers. The Indian flag was draped over her coffin. He repeats this fact with stern hand gestures and a deep stare. He wants to make sure he has told me this story because he says many don’t know the truth.