Sunday, March 16, 2014

Varanasi to Kolkata

My train from Varanasi to Kolkata was delayed by 8 hours and instead of leaving at 8pm, the Chambal Express departed just after 4am. To pass the time in the station, I struck up many conversations with people, including looking at an Indian wedding photo book from a photographer, being invited to Patna to stay with a college student, and making some side Rupees by selling glow stick bracelets I originally brought to give away but found that grown men will happily pay for them if given the chance. I sold them all out and had people follow me asking for more. I was never good at selling things, but around midnight, I turned into Ron Popeil (young kids, Google him). With my new found riches, about $3, but a lot in India, I was off to grab a nice cold lassi or two. After that, I still had four hours left and looking around, I walked up the ramp that leads from the concourse to the train platform and took out my ukulele. Originally just playing for myself in the corner of the ramp, I noticed some people lingered and stayed to listen. So, I did what any natural showman would do and turned around and belted out a few songs.  It was after the second song that I put down a few Rupees in change in front of me so people would know I was playing for money. People soon followed, dropping change and adding to the small pile. I should say, sometimes I sing with a lot of fervor and I guess the locals weren't used to that style. I soon had a crowd five deep on all sides, many with cellphones in hand pointed straight at me, recording bits of Radiohead, Willie Nelson, and Beirut.  It was my 6th or so song in when I noticed it was hard for people to get up the ramp because it was filled with people listening to me. A commotion was heard coming down the ramp and it was a police man. He cleared a path with his club and he yelled something at me and waved his club. I took that as my cue to exit and I picked up my meager earnings.  The rest of the time waiting was slow and exhausting but at 4am, I found my sleeper bunk and woke up in Kolkata.
I arrived at night and found a guest house near Sudder Street. In the morning while eating a masala dosa and finishing my third lassi, a young German backpacker walked into the restaurant and we struck up a conversation. He was 20 years old and on the 5th month of his 7 month trip around Asia and Europe.  At 3pm, I had my volunteer orientation at the Mother house on AJC Bose Road.  It was buzzing with young and old volunteers and people from all over: Japan, Spain, France, Korea, Italy, etc. I met Eric from Oregon, Victor from NYC, Christina from NYC, and Kiersten from Topanga Canyon. We all made fast friends and had a field day on our day off Thursday. Playing Frisbee in Maiden Park and watching a cricket game was a lot of fun. We all got along so well, you would've thought we'd known each other for years. 
The next day I went to mass at 6am with the girls.  Partly so I could walk with them that early on the streets and also curious to see where Mother Teresa went for mass. After that, we had a meager breakfast from the sisters that consisted of plain bread, bananas and chai tea. My first place of volunteering was Prem Dan, a home for the destitute and the dying. There were about 200 men and women there and they were separated. My jobs included bagging coconuts, serving water and lunch to the hundred or so men of all various ages and ranges of health, and cleaning up. I shook a lot of hands, danced and told one man I'd get him a rosary. Still looking for one! That lasted from 8-12:30, I came back to my guest house, cleaned my clothes in a bucket, set them out to dry and closed my eyes on my bed for 20minutes. Awaking, I took off for Kali Ghat, my next place of service and the original home started by Mother Teresa for the destitute and dying. This was different, 48 men, most of them in ill health and very old and close to the end. I shook hands at first but also massaged the ones sore from arthritis or age. Feeling their papery hands made me wonder what these men had gone through in their lives that lead them here. I'm not gonna lie, it was pretty emotional for me seeing them. I held one frail man against my chest for what seemed liked 10 minutes or more. It seemed he hadn't been hugged in years.  Massaging tough feet, bony legs, and helping another take pills was all part of the job. We served them dinner, cleaned up and I left feeling like I had done some good, even if it was soothing worn out hands. There's a reason you're not allowed to take pictures in the homes. Many are tough places to see and not all happy. But we try to make them so. I'll be here for 4 more days, many stay weeks or even months volunteering.  Maybe that'll be me someday. Okay, long one this time, thanks for reading and I'll detail the other volunteer places and my time at Holi festival for the next installment.

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