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Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Mother Teresa of Calcutta

Volunteering at Mother Teresa Mission in Kolkata

October 23, 2010

This morning I went to the Mission of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Where she lived and prayed and where she was dead. I decided to go because 3 of the 4 girls that share my room are volunteering there. Woke up at 5.20am, because at 6 there’s Mass. It’s not compulsory, but I didn’t know where the place is exactly, so I preferred to go with them. But I didn’t like it much. The homelie was about suffering, that is needed to be purified from sins. The priest said that sometimes he is asked why children suffer, if it’s because of their parents’ sins. Or for sins from previous lives. I didn’t understand what he replies. I guess he doesn’t know the answer. Because of this idea the monks whipped themselves. What’s the point in doing so? Suffering to be saved? Because you don’t want to go to hell? So someone should behave properly so that he/she doesn’t end up burning? One should do it because he/she knows that it is the right thing to do, not because he is afraid of consequences. In my opinion.

Anyway, I’ve just eaten a crepe with banana and chocolate. Not a bad life.

I went to the mission because I wanted to see how it works. They sent me to a place that hosts people with disabilities, physical and mental. For the first hour I washed clothes (have they enquired what my favorite hobby is?), not something I like, but it wasn’t difficult, I had to rinse them. Then they sent me to wash the floor of the room where the guests sleep. They throw water to the floor, with bleach, and sweep with a broom. Then ather buckets of water to rinse, and again the broom. I finally used one of those Asian brooms, that have always fascinated me since the first time I visited China.

At 10am little break with chai and biscuits, then we went to the room where they eat. I helped an elder lady to eat her curry rice with a baked apple. It reminded me of the apples my grandmother cooked for me. She didn’t talk, so I told her some stories. When I tried to sing some songs she reacted strangely, probably she didn’t enjoy my singing, so I stopped, afraid that she would fall to the floor screaming and tossing and turning to show me her disappointment.

Now I’m here, near my hotel. I don’t feel like doing anything. Well deserved relax. Mosquitos are at work. I don’t know if I’m going back to Madre Teresa Mission tomorrow too. I shall see how I wake up. Have a nice Saturday Night.

On the Darjeeling Mail

On the Darjeeling Mail

The never ending trip from Darjeeling to Kolkata

October 22, 2010

In India trains have names. Mine, number 2344, is called “Darjeeling Mail“. How cute is that?

I left yesterday at 10am from Darjeeling, on the Toy Train. Three hours of the slowest travel I’ve ever done, a bit boring I must say. The train was incredibly slow. I could run faster. Probably because it passes through people walking on the street, or because it is supposed to be a train that you take to enjoy the view. But it only made me sleepy without allowing me to actually sleep because it was whistling all the time.

Darjeeling Mail

Once in Kursong, I had two samosa for lunch, fried onions and two more sweet things. Then jeep to Siliguri and rikshaw to JNP. I arrived in JNP at 3pm, my train was at 8pm. So while waiting I had another chai with a sweet, I tried to go to the toilet (urinal = a hole in the floor that drives your pee outside, on the back of the restaurant, where they keep the vegetables), but it was too sleepery, I wasn’t able to stand while taking off my trousers.

There was a guy fixing shoes outside of the station, so I took advantage of the extra time I had to try to fix my boots. For the third time. Apparently they need more than just glue.

While my boots were busy with the guy, I patched my socks, that had two holes on one side (when there’s a hole on the big toe I use the sock on the other foot so it doesn’t bother, until another hole comes, always at the big toe, and so I decide to patch them).

I’m writing from a café in Kolkata. An amazing iced coffee has arrived for me. It’s unfortunate that there is no internet connection, I could stay here for hours, with this nice air-con. I will need to go to an internet point to copy this post onto the blog (back in 2010 wifi connection wasn’t so widespread as it is today).

Back to JNP… While I was working on my socks a curious crowd gathered around me. It was hot but not too much because it was raining, and I was under a platform roof with a nice breeze, very pleasant, and that group of people staring at me didn’t bother me at all, on the contrary, they made me laugh and I was in a good mood; it’s nice when people take an interest in you.

While I was waiting I kept reading “Filth”. I am starting to like it. It still makes my stomach hurt, but I’m curious to see how it ends.

I had some curry rice at the fast food by the platform, and like most times I wasn’t able to finish it. Two boys that were looking from outside the restaurant came in and finished the rice in two bites. It’s so sad to see these hungry children that eat our leftovers. There were many in the station, they even got on the train before it left. India is not that poor, why can’t they do anything to help them?

My neighbours on the train bought a snack of puffed rice, parseley, onion and something else I didn’t recognize. Maybe dried fruit. Before we went to bed a drag queen passed by giving blessing, at the price of 0.20€. My neighbours asked to be blessed. In the morning the same lady came again, followed by other women. But the trip was almost over, and few people asked for the blessing this time.

Arriving in Kolkata

6.40am and you can already see children playing cricket out of the window.

We arrived at 7am in Kolkata, only one hour late. It’s not too bad, if you consider that the Australian girl arrived in Darjeeling on a train from Varanasi that was 17 hours late! Before the train stopped some guys jumped off the train and walked on the empy rails. It’s something I’m not used to, but apparently it is commonplace here.

Out of the station I immediately fell in love with the town. There are these yellow taxi that make me feel like I was in a movie from the 40s. And the decadent buildings increase the vintage feeling. I love it.

Kolkata yellow taxi

It wasn’t easy to find the hotel, because the metro wasn’t working, but I did. I have a room with loads of windows, a bathroom that is not smelly and with running water, a terrace where I can wash my clothes. I couldn’t ask for more. A girl told me there are bed bugs, but I will live with them, never mind.

So the first thing I did was washing underpants and a t-shirt (I didn’t wash everything because I didn’t want to spend all day washing) and I went out. My hotel is in Sudder St, where all the cheap accomodations are. I walked North, I passed by the BBD Bagh, a lake surrounded by beautiful colonial buildings, palm trees and families that live under a plastic bag.

I walked a little bit further North, with various stops to take in breath and sugars. I stopped in a restaurant where a gentleman wearing a hat opened my door and the coffee cost me 0.70€, a fortune here! but it had air conditioning, and I was the only customer, with three waiters only for me, that stared at me for the 30 minutes that I was there. In another restaurant a couple of hours later there were 5 waiters for me, only customer again. I am expecting diarrhea at any time, because I keep having ice drinks, that I should avoid, but it’s too hot and I’m constantly thirsty and these smoothies are too good. I had a crepe for lunch. Not that good.

Further North, I walked past a district specialized in straw statues covered in mud with the shape of a woman with her tongue out, a necklace made with men heads and a man under her feet. I found out a bit later walking by a small temple that she’s a goddess. I think it’s Kali. I read somewhere that she is a widower and very angry.

People stop me to ask to take pictures of them. Or of their shops or their friends. Only once it was me who asked to take a picture, of an old man who was ironing on the street (it was probably his job), with an iron that he was heating next to him. He gifted me a beautiful shy smile.

I like the people. They seem nice and only one man was rude so far, he licked his lips while walking past me.

And I love the city a lot. Some buildings would be amazing if they weren’t falling down. People still live inside. According to the Lonely Planet the owners don’t care about renovating them because tenants only pay R1 (= €0.16) per month. And the contrast with the other colonial palaces that have been renovated is quite striking, and the people sleeping on the street. People eating on the street. Bathing on the street. Pooping on the street.

I found out with my malaria pills that it’s Friday today. I thought it was Thursday. When you travel days are all the same and you get confused sometimes.

It’s 10pm and sidewalks are full of naked children, women and boys sleeping on the pavement. In the afternoon I walked by a luxurious hotel and from the window I saw some well fed (too fed) Indian men relaxing in the lobby. Isn’t there a way to distribute a little better the riches of the country?

Encounters

Encounters

Tales of fellow travelers met in Darjeeling

October 20, 2010

While I was walking here I was already thinking on how I would start this blog post: “I’m sitting on the terrace of my hotel, drinking coffee and enjoying the view on the hills around Darjeeling”. Instead I’m sitting in the lounge with other travelers, from the window you can’t see absolutely nothing due to a thick fog, and they brought me tea instead of coffee.

Nevermind. Yesterday morning was very stressfull. All because I was trying to buy a train ticket to Kolkata. I started at 8 am at the train station (there is only one train that leaves from here, the Toy Train, working since 1881, the true train station is at 3 hours drive from here, or at 7 hours of Toy Train), where I was told there were no tickets available until October 21. I hoped to be able to leave yesterday or today at maximum, so I wanted to check internet, because sometimes the train stations can only sell a certain amount of tickets, and you can find more on the web. But the website was not working, so after an hour I went back to the station and I bought a ticket for the 21. Then I went back again because I forgot to buy the ticket to Kurseong, so I’ll try this famous toy train, and from Kurseong I can get on a jeep to the station of NJP. In the meantime I also stopped at the Post office because the packet that I had wrapped the previous day for some reason couldn’t be sent the same day, and I was asked to go back the next day between 9 and 9.30 am. They guy arrived at 10.30, “Sorry I’m late”. Yes, thank you. The office was open and 9, but there was nobody. The first clerk arrived at 9.15. The other emplyees between 9.30 and 10. Can’t really complain about how things work in Italy…

So, as an Australian girl (with a strange name that I can’t remember) made me realise yesterday, it’s interesting how the travelers days are busy when you have silly things to sort out, like buying a train ticket, go to the post office, get a visa.

Darjeeling

Two nights ago, when I was trying to read, a 60 yo Indian man started to talk to me and didn’t stop for a few hours. He had some interesting stories to tell, but he was drank and after two hours he started to repeat the same stories and making the same questions. A former gurkha soldier, now retired; he says gurkha are renown for their respect towards their senior, for their obedience, honesty and for being good fighters. Every tribe has their own army. He his Hindu and his wife was Catholic. She died 11 years ago. He never forgave her the attachment to her family, that ruined her. She suicided for the dishonor of her brothers that couldn’t pay some debts they had. He has two daughters that he hasn’t seen for 5 years because they fled with two men. In his culture the fiancé should introduce himself to the father of the girl and ask for permission to see the daughter. There’s surely more that he won’t tell me, but surely he was sad. And it’s not surprising that he always carries with him a bottle of whiskey and one of gin (that he offered to me too).

The Australian girl, that has been in India for about one month, told me about the sexual obsessions of some Indian men. They always find a way to touch or brush against you, your butt and tits, even in an empty room. She was traveling in a train when the guy selling chai did some indecent gestures; one night she woke up and saw the man on the bunk opposite hers that was masturbating looking at her. It made me laugh, but it must be disgusting. Marco told me that they have some perversions, but I thought he was exagerating, as he got sick of this country. I was expecting long looks and brushes, but not like this. The Australian girl talked to an Indian girl, and she replied that with them it’s the same. But Indians can shout something in Hindi and put them in a difficult position, while if a foreign shouts in English few people would understand. Well, we shall see what I will witness.

Today I’ve decided to do absolutely nothing. I exchanged “The forgotten garden” with a novel by Irvine Welsh, “Filth”. I was curious, it’s the first novel I read by this author. But I don’t like it. First of all it’s written in the Edinburgh slang, that I don’t understand. Second, the descriptions are too strong, they make my stomach ache. I am going to exchange it again as soon as I find something better (the good thing about these backpackers places is that often they have small libraries where you can exchange books).

There’s a Belgian guy who bought a motorbike for 300 euro in Delhi. He’s driving around India with that. Then he’ll fly to China, where he’s buying another motorbike that he wants to drive to Europe. Apparently a foreigner can’t take a motorbike outside of India, so he has to go to China. It must be an amazing experience, to drive across all these countries.

Michelle, from South Africa, was also with us last night. I was fascinated by her way of talking. How she articulated. Like with Jay, the Dutch model, my attention was caught by the movement of her lips. She gave me the name of a yoga school that with a month course gives you the opportunity to teach yoga all over the world. At “only” 2,000 USD. Only? I was actually hoping to spend a fraction of that. No yoga school for me I’m afraid.

I’m getting into local habits. This is the forth day I’m wearing the same tshirt. Because I can’t wash my clothes, I’d rather not get them dirty (=not wash). I don’t think I’m stinking anyway. Or maybe I’m getting used to my smell. In a few days I’ll start blowing my nose in my scarf! Last night I dreamt I was home for two days and I realised I could use the washing machine. What a nice feeling…

This morning I took everyone to the small restaurant for some potatoes and fried bread.

A few days in Darjeeling

A few days in Darjeeling

October 16, 2010

11.20am It’s raining. And I’m lost. I don’t really understand the layout of the streets in Darjeeling and I can’t orient myself.

1pm Finally I found a way. I came to visit another Tibetan refugee camp, founded in 1959. “Tibetan Self Help Centre”, it’s called. I bought a blue warm shawl made by the women that live here. I love it. I will probably use it as blanket. I can see myself in my living room in Italy watching a movie staying warm with my shawl and dreaming of Tibet…

A poster reads:

Tibet will never die

Because there is no death for the human spirit.

Communism will not succeed because man will not be a slave forever.

Tyrannies have come and gone and so have caesars and czars and dictators.

But the spirit of the man goes on forever.    

Jaya Prakash Narayan

This moved me a lot. It’s something I probably will never be able to fully understand, what it means to have to abandon your house and your country. There are about 350 people in this village. A lady explained me that the youngest go away, to work or study around India. Only the eldest and children remain.

5.40 In the guesthouse, watching English football on TV. With an American, from Vermont, and two British. Someone else is playing guitar. I am already sleepy. I bought a milk tea to take home today. It’s weird, to prepare it you use only milk, no water. You boil the milk, add a teaspoon of tea and a lot of sugar, mix for a couple of minutes. I’m adding a cup of tea to my image of myself on my sofa in a couple of months…

October 17, 2010

8.20am Breakfast in a cool local restaurant with fried bread and chilly potatoes with milk tea. 30 cents. I like it. And I’m full. Today it’s not raining. But cloudy. I need to wash my pants. Here they have a weird way of talking on the phone. They keep it close to the ear while they listen, but when it’s their turn to talk, they bring it in front of the mouth. As if the mike didn’t reach it if it was near the ear. I noticed the same way to use the phone in Nepal.

What I am doing today? I might go to the Observatory Hill and then I can have a huge latte in that coffee shop that I saw in the shopping centre. It’s more than 2 months since I’ve had a latte or cappuccino. I deserve one.

3.35pm. It has started to rain. In 30 minutes there’s a movie, Knock Out, a bolliwood movie that I would like to watch at the cinema. While I wait I can drink a milk tea with two Indian sweets super sweet and very good. This white cake with pistachio is made with wheat and sugar. I hope they are selling popcorn at the cinema. There are no foreigners in these local restaurants, only in places recommended by Lonely Planet.

4.05pm The movie was in Hindi, no subtitles, so I came to Glenarys for a tea and internet, if possible (you never know if the connection is good). There’s an amazing view of the hills around Darjeeling from here, covered in tea plantations and hidden by low clouds.

There’s a seat on the train to Kolkata tomorrow. But I would like to stay a bit longer and take the “toy train”, a tiny old steam train. I would also like to visit a tea plantation, I need to go to the post office, so yes, I’ve got some things to do!

8.05pm Let’s see how the weather is tomorrow. Because if it keeps raining, there’s no point in me staying here. After 2 days in Darjeeling I am starting to find my bearings. Tonight I was able to come back to the hotel without getting lost. What confuses me is that the town is on two sides of the hill. It’s confusing that the hill is on your left while going down, then you turn left and the hill is to the left again…

I ordered a banana pancake for dinner. Yesterday I started to take the malaria pills. About time. I bought a wool hat today. I would have enjoyed it in Annapurna, it was so cold there! In a few days I’ll be in the heat and won’t need it, but it’s a nice souvenir. I like to buy things that will remind me of this trip once I’m home.

There are a lot of people today in Darjeeling, in spite of the rain. Some of them are drunk. It’s the main day of their festival that lasts 10 days. Many had a red tikka, larger than usual, with big pieces of powder, on the forehead. There are many Indian tourists, and Chinese.

October 18, 2010

1.30pm. Darjeeling Post Office. I’m looking at the guy who makes the packets. He’s quickly and meticulously sewing my packet. First he wrapped it in paper, than covered it with a white cloth that he’s sewing.

darjeeling post office
Sewing my packet with so much love

4.20pm It’s raining a lot. Manuel is out there somewhere. He’s from Perugia. The second Italian I’ve met in these two months around. He’s a professional photographer. Why couldn’t I also sell my pictues? Why is it I am not good at anything?

This morning we went to see a tea plantation. Harrods sell their tea. The factory was closed, but a lady showed us how it is made. Well, she tried to. At the end we simply had a cup of tea for 30 cents (very expensive, usually it’s only one third of that!). But it was nice walking among the tea trees. I had never seen them. They are tiny.

We had some delicious momo for lunch, and a sort of huge gnocco filled with meat. It’s the same restaurant where I had breakfast yesterday. We met there this morning, with our fried bread and potatoes. He’s going to Sikkim next, more to the North. This region has a bit of autonomy, and you need a special permit to go there, that is free. It must be nice, you can see the highest mountain in India, and I also thought of going there, but I’m getting tired of mountains and bad weather (forecast says weather will be bad for 10 more days).

ristorante darjeeling
My adoptive family and favorite restaurant in Darjeeling (it’s all here, a kitchnette and two tables for the guests)

We met a guy while we were walking, and when we told him we are Italian (following the usual list of questions) he told us his granfather fought in Italy during WWII, with the British army against the Germans. They were called Gurkha. Gurkha is the name of the people from this corner of the world (between Nepal and Northern India), from which comes Gurkhaland, and Gurkha were the Indian soldiers fighting for the British. They were renown for their courage and strength.

Gorkhland

There’s a nice sky, surrounded by clouds and a stripe of yellow light at the horizon.

Today I was in the usual café for 3 hours for Internet, having only a piece of chocolate cake and some tea. Will they hate me? But here they don’t mind bringing you the bill as soon as you are finished if they want you to leave, so I believe if they say nothing they don’t mind me staying there.

Anyway, for your reference, here it’s 7pm and in Italy it’s 3.30pm.

India Culture shock

India Culture shock

October 15, 2010 4.30pm

A traffic light. Men brush against me on buses and on the street. Everyone finds a reason to make the initial price higher. Yes, I’m in India. I’m not sure about the time here. I miss Nepal already, how they treat foreigners. In the last bus I took I couldn’t let an elderly woman take my place, because I was the guest and I had to remain seated.

On the bus to Kakarbhitta this morning there was a mad man. With girlfriend and daughter. He showed me his calf and threw a fist in the air to show me his strength. He asked me to go to his home. Sure. And he offered me to take his daughter. In exchange of my camera.

confine india nepal
I rented a bike with driver to cross the river that separates Nepal from India

There’s a shop near the gas station! Wow, it feels almost like Europe. Not even in China are gas stations like this.

8.15 pm Tower View Hotel. They are heating up the water so that I can shower. I’ll wash taking the water from a basin. Ok, it’s not the end of the world. As long as it’s hot. Because it’s quite cold and very humid here in Darjeeling. 2134 m above sea level, home of tea. It’s in West Bengala, a region that seeks independence (they call it Gorkhaland or something similar). It’s not really India yet, it’s a mix of Nepal and Tibet. They actually speak Nepalese, I believe. And people is kind (I’m not expecting Indians to be rude, but a bit more annoying yes).

I’m super tired and I’m looking forward to go to bed.

A lassi to remember

A lassi to remember

Sometimes when I am at home I make myself a lassi. It’s a delicious drink made with yogurt and fruit that I discovered in India.

I prepare it for myself because, as many Indians reminded me while I was there, it’s “24 hour power”. If you feel low or are a bit tired, lassi is a powerful boost. Or it might have had a sexual connotation, as if to say “you can now have as much sex as you want, 24 hour no-stop”. Whatever they intended to say, lassi takes me back to the incredible trip I had in that colorful country.

I actually had my first lassi in Nepal, in Janakpur, that being a border town has many similarities with India. It was delicious, topped with pistachio. I still remember it. I was attracted by a small group of people surrounding a man that was serving a yellowish drink in tall glasses at a street corner. At the time I didn’t know it was the first of a long series of lassi.

I had lassis basically everywhere, but a few are still in my memories. One of the best lassi was in Varanasi, in a place quite famous (was mentioned in the Lonely Planet), a bit difficult to find like everything else in the labyrinth that is Varanasi. But if you walk around town you surely stumble upon it sooner or later. Calling it “famous” makes me smile a bit, because to the western reader that has never been to India, the word “famous” can evoke the image of a posh place, like a western ice-cream parlour, but this one was just a tiny shop along the road, with a guy sitting on the floor mixing and mashing the lassi in some containers. “Blue Lassi Shop” was the name of the place (I remember it now because I found the picture and renamed it with the name of the shop). I don’t remember if here you had the option of banana and plain lassi, or only banana. But I remember very well that I always had banana. The best.

Than another great one was in Jaipur (or Jodhpur? can’t remember). This was actually a true shop, where you could sit down and enjoy your lassi. And you could choose among various flavours. It was very hot in Rajasthan, and lassi was a life-saver.

One lassi made me sick. I was in Kolkata and bought one by a street-vendor. I forgot to ask to have no ice; I knew very well that tap water in India is absolutely to avoid, but because I didn’t want to be impolite, and had survived one month in Nepal without getting sick, I drank it. Big mistake. I was sick in bed for about one week. But this sorrowful event doesn’t undermine in the slightest the beautiful memories I have of Kolkata.

Because I have shared many lassi-moments with other persons, lassi also reminds me of the people of India. They are very curious and like to talk to foreigners and hear their stories; for this reason they can be a bit annoying, chasing you with questions, quite often the same ones; but for this same reason they are very welcoming, they invite you to their house and to their wedding; and this is how you should approach lassi and India: with an open heart and mind, and you will be rewarded with the best of the experiences.