Tuesday, November 18, 2014

From Fear to Familiarity

I think it's fair to say that I was pretty transparent about how afraid I was to go to India. In the light of that pre-trip honesty, I have to say that I loved being in Kolkata. I loved it. I loved the city. The traffic. Rickshaws and buses, yellow taxis and overloaded semi-trucks careening around each other with seemingly no objective other than to add to the noise and chaos of the already crowded streets. I love the multiple uses of car horns to suggest movement, imply movement, and demand movement. I love that pedestrians weave in and out of this tempest with fluidity and ease, whether burdened with packages, talking on the phone or holding the hand of a small child. Kolkata streets are filled with acts of boldness and bravery at every turn. I hardly walked anywhere and still managed to narrowly avoid being hit by numerous vehicles because of my defence mechanisms that kept me from stepping into the oncoming traffic without eye contact with the driver of whatever vehicle was bearing down on me.  The trains are beautiful and loud, with people teeming out of the windows and holding onto rails and leaning out the doors casually, as if just leaning on a stationary street corner instead of being propelled through crossings and over land at break neck speeds. The every day coming and going of people and vehicles would be an endless source of entertainment for me. I could watch it for days.

I loved the light and the colour of the streets. The beautiful women in whatever economic class, wearing saris of brilliance, their vibrant colours adding to the muted tones of the backdrop of the streets. Even in the darkness, the colours of the lights and the taxis and the people are not diminished. Streets look like elaborate sets from Bollywood movies and despite the crushing poverty in and amongst the elite, everyone has a role to play in the drama of day to day life in a city of over reportedly 14 million. It's as if nearly one out of every two Canadians were to descend on an ancient city for a week. The numbers are staggering. Everywhere you look there are people. Working. Begging. Shopping. Selling. Drinking tea. Making street food. Delivering parcels. Banking. There's not a corner of the street where I ever stood on my own.

I was afraid that Indian people would be severe. Their dark eyes and brooding looks were in my mind,  for no particular reason other than assumption, menacing and threatening. I felt that I would be hassled and harassed, my personal space impeded and my privacy intruded upon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Though it's true there were stares and second glances at our group as we travelled, the moment eye contact was made, it was often followed by a shy smile or a reserved tilt of the head. My assumptions could not have been more wrong...not shocking by any means, given how little I knew about India before landing there.

When I arrived in Mumbai, where I was to meet my team, I was late. My flight having been delayed out of London Heathrow for over 90 mins didn't leave room for errors in making my connection that was already flashing "Boarding" as I ran down the concourse. I hustled through the line at security, delayed by the fully dressed woman in front of me trying to get through the scanner with her bag in hand. I tried to be patient as three people gestured and explained to her the process of x-raying her belongings and going through the metal detector with little extra on over her sari. She began to methodically strip down, blocking the metal detector and with no apparent time constraints. I began to shift back and forth on my feet and eye the line up beside me, for males only, that was only two people deep and weighed in my mind the risk vs reward of jumping into that queue. I stayed in the female only line and received a series of four different stamps and one handwritten star on my bag tags, obviously for model behaviour, and dashed down the last set of stairs to the gate entrance. Unfortunately for me, the gate entrance was actually the entrance to a bus TO the terminal where my flight was now closing and although I was sure I could make it, I was at the mercy of the gentleman admitting people through. I explained to him that I was trying to make the flight to Kolkata and he seemed genuinely disinterested. At this point, I wasn't even frustrated. It was about 2 am I believe and I just resigned myself to having to trot back to the beginning of my journey and rebook a ticket for a later flight, hoping to meet up with my team at some later point, when this lovely man, motioned for me to come back up to the podium. He scanned my boarding pass, pointed me towards two others standing near by and said that a van was coming for us. I turned on my phone and received a text from Seth, on my team, and he asked if I was close, that they were closing the gate and he was boarding. He assured me they would send a van for me in the morning and that I would be met at the airport in Kolkata with no problems. I told him I wasn't worried, which at that point, I wasn't...but that there was a teeny hope that I would make the flight as they were sending us on a van. Little did I know that the ride to the other terminal was lengthy and involved crossing out of the airport secured grounds into the adjacent slum (at which point, I may have regretted ignoring Amanda Lindhout's suggestions on kidnapping and ransom insurance....) and back around yet another terminal, waiting for a plane to back out onto the tarmac in front of us, and finally up to our waiting plane. I boarded with the two others and was never so relieved as to hear a friendly voice, coming from the sweet face of OneLifeUp's Melanie, asking if I was Shelly. I nodded and she smiled and I proceeded to my seat where I promptly offered up a prayer of gratitude for travelling mercies.  The three hour flight to Kolkata provided me with a two hour and 48 minute nap that was long overdue and we arrived safely. Another team mate, Mandy, sitting near me, introduced herself and I followed her to where the others were collecting their luggage. I was thankful for not having checked luggage as I would assuredly not have had it arrive with me, given the connection. We proceeded to a bus and our hotel and given our early morning arrival, were afforded a few hours to shower and rest before heading out for the day.

Laying on the bed in my room, I could hardly imagine that I was in India. Driving to the hotel felt vaguely familiar as Kolkata to me was reminiscent of Addis Ababa, teeming with people and representing all stages of development from pre-industrial revolution ox carts to modern, glass sided office buildings towering above.  Everything in the city seemed in some stage of decay or construction. It wasn't always apparent which was which.

Suffice it to say, arriving safely was a good start on the week ahead. I felt my confidence building as I recognized the traffic and sounds, industry and architecture of a previous British colony and the opposing influence of years of communist party rule.  I realized that my travel experiences were culminating in a lack of culture shock and that that would settle my fears far more than any verbal assurances I could give myself. In a lot of ways, Kolkata felt like the stage of a familiar play with new characters. I couldn't wait to experience the story that would unravel.
The Mother House - where Mother Theresa worked...just outside my hotel window, barely 20 ft away.
I woke to singing and prayers each morning, which is a beautiful way to start a day.

The Monument to Queen Victoria, built after her death. It's impressive, incredible and expansive, elaborate and beautiful.
Quite the memoriam to Queen Victoria.

Jaishree and Melanie of OneLifeUp.org. These women are beautiful inside and out...friends from the first moment we met.

The meticulous grounds of the Queen Victoria Monument.

Just one of a million fascinating doorways in Kolkata.

Early morning, women come to the street for water to haul to their living quarters, wherever they may be.

School girls hold hands and walk to school in Kolkata.

Yet another fascinating doorway.

These construction workers were hauling cement, I thought by hand, to the site down the alley
next to our hotel.

Then, they proudly showed their skill at balancing heavy cement mix on their heads.

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