Blog 3 Kolkata Tour India 2013.
On 25th of January the India 2013 PWB team landed in Kolkata- after an almost alien Indian train experience. We took the ‘Doon ‘ express, a train with 3 tier air conditioned carriages as the lowest class tickets available, 4 stops and only 32 hours to travel the width of India! I didn’t even have enough time to do my many tasks lined up for the epic journey. Our journey began with free food from the trainline, which began as a blessing, but to be woken consistently every 4 hours for exactly the same food every time was tiresome yet appreciated. We managed to play some games- pull up competitions on the top tier beds, mimicking and guessing games with minimal strange looks for the amount of noise we were making. It’s times like this when you realise you’re travelling with the circus!
We arrived to the onslaught of chaos present in Kolkata culture- Howrah station at 7pm in the evening- we headed straight for our new home for the month; hotel Maria. A fantastic hostel filled with musicians and other travellers and we realised our love of noise and activity would be shared- plenty of space for early morning stretching or lazy lie-ins after a session of late night juggling on the roof! Hotel Maria is situated in the middle of Sudder Street, a road lined with hotels, hostels, tourists from all over the world and many places to eat and plan the next part of your journey. In the mornings we are greeted with Smiles from Sunny at my favourite breakfast place ‘Curd Corner’- the porridge is as good as the Grins! Along with the other daily hussle and bussle- Newspaper man with his cute puppydog eyes that makes you want to buy 10 papers from him everyday, the local man selling his bamboo flutes and violins- only knowing 2 different songs one of which is ‘my heart will go on’ from titanic- which is not the best thing to have stuck in your head all day! Random one-off fireworks light up the sky, with Wedding processions passing the hostel and dogs and cars making noise throughout the night- I’m lucky to be living on the roof where a bit of distance from street level allows a peaceful night sleep and ready to work in the mornings.
Kolkata, “Sin City”Akhtor named it, Akhtor is our contact with the first NGO that we work with ‘Los Ninos de Topsia’. As we move around the city I do get a sense of the wheeler dealer feel to the place with old men playing cards in the street and seeming like everybody is trying to sell you something…but this is also followed by many surprises turning down quiet little lanes with beautiful buildings, structures and small parks.
Starting our project with Los Ninos was a real eye opener for us all on the tour, noisy and very excited children in a small confined space. The journey getting there was always an adventure… ”The Tuc-Tuc Challenge” On the first day Akhtor accompanied us…10 in one Tuc-Tuc, hanging off the sides and sitting on laps, silly but fun! With Akhtor’s help we soon figured out the Taxi/Tuc-Tuc system, which from the outside looks crazy but of course has a system, which included roads changing direction half way through the day, which tested my brain power a little.
Los Ninos is located in Topsia, east of the city centre. “The area of Topsia in Kolkata was, until recently, portrayed on city maps as a blank space, marked only by the words “Liable to inundation.” “Parts of Topsia have developed into a dense mesh of high-rise buildings, so close together they can scarcely breathe.” (People Without History. Seabrook and Siddiqui 2011)
These buildings are mostly illegal structures with many converted into shops or factories on the ground floors. It is here that we dutifully follow Akhtor along lanes and rubble to a block of flats with a narrow dark staircase up to the rooftop where we find Los Ninos. The NGO provides a space for lessons, homework and creative play, the idea being to help supply a basic education to reach a school level and then to support the child whilst at school.
The children here have very little but make up for it in buckets of attention and love. It really was a pleasure to work with these children who are surrounded by waste, recycling and toxic smells. We just visited for one week and shall leave again, this is their reality. “The poorest district in Topsia is an elongated island between two canals of waste water, about a kilometre in length. There are two parallel rows of huts each overlooking a polluted waterway, the smell of which is so overpowering you can taste it.” (Seabrook and Siddiqui) Here is where we walk the children back to, at the end of the workshops, back to the slum hand in hand, not only for comfort but also, safety in numbers. Kika, an amazing lady from Spain, who began the NGO explains that they have had problems with child kidnappings for the organ donor market. In the past month 7 children have gone missing, shocking. All these thoughts are racing through my brain as we sing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” on the way back to their homes.
All the more amazing on show day! The children were dressed in their bestclothes and really made a great show for themselves, their families and the whole community of Topsia. Performance with Yo-Yo, Plate Spinning, Ribbon Dancing, Juggling, Flower Sticks, Acro and a group Song, all this in less than a week with the children. I believe Topsia and our time there will be ingrained in our memories for life. A longer project here would be amazing but the issue is space, Kika has already had to move several times to accommodate the amount of children.
Growing amounts of people is something we are all getting used to here in the Megatropolis, a population of over 14.7 million and counting. Anke reminds us the population of this city is larger than the entire population of Holland. The street is where all life seems to happen, living on top of each other, washing, cleaning clothes, plates, eating, drinking, sleeping and toileting, a real experience to witness.
The next project we worked with was through Hope Foundation an Irish run charity which has been working in Kolkata for over 17 years and has many projects all over the city ranging from homes, schools, hospitals, 24 hour help for both vulnerable children and adults. Hope Foundations mission is:
“The holistic care and development and protection of human rights of severely underprivileged children/persons in India.”
One of the charity’s projects is working in conjunction with Kolkata Police, setting up and running Nabadishas. This is the name given to the project, providing a safe space for street kids to go to and receive a basic education, with both formaland non-formal education. The centre has a real youth club atmosphere; the teachers are very friendly, helpful and work tirelessly throughout the day. A well run inspirational team.
We have two sessions one in the morning with the 2-10 year olds and another in the afternoon evening session with 8-16 year olds, all are very polite and interact well with each other and us, and really appreciate given a chance to play and perform to each other. A show off at the end of each workshop has been a great platform for these children to shine and show us not only what we have taught them but other skills such as dance routines, Hip-Hop moves and a super fast hand clapping game which we all attempt to play along to.
Again we are only with the Nabadisha briefly for a week but progress has been very fast and all have enjoyed the sessions. They have had many interactions with foreign volunteers…but never a circus before! Tomorrow is show day and we are all excited to see what will be created. For us we shall perform select parts of the show due to dwindling light and health of some team members.
Time for a well earned weekend off, where we shall have a chance to take stock of all we have seen, smelt and shared so far. An explosion for the senses, for those that have never been to India before it has been a fast learning experience. I find I often fall asleep with flashes of all the faces, colours, sights and sounds I have been exposed to throughout the day, many smiles have been shared, but it is only the beginning!
Thank you all for the support messages and love. Andy&Livi