Sunday, 31 July 2011

India: Journey & Arrival

Friday was a bittersweet day. I woke up at 5 am to skype Dad before he went to bed for the night. Went back to sleep for a couple of hours, then Christine and I met up and went shopping for everything needed for a fabulous brunch! We brought it back to her place so we could enjoy a (several course) brunch while Josephine finished packing and they cleaned out the rest of their things before their move home. We said our goodbyes in the afternoon and Josephine walked me to the tube station with my bags packed for India! It was hard saying goodbye to the Merlina's.  Being away from home and family, you really need some close friends that you can count on and share stresses with. These two have been that for me. We have only known each other a short time, but we have gotten to know each other and all got on really well. It was only a goodbye-for-now as we are already planning our reunion, hopefully in April.

On to the airport I went. My flight was from Heathrow that evening. I met up with our trip leader, Alison, as well as two others, Tamara and Mark. We were travelling as a team sent by Impact Teachers. They are the teaching agency I have been working for and also run this charity which does work in India and Africa. We took a 9 hour flight from London to  Dehli, then had a couple of hours lay over before taking the 2 hour flight from Dehli to Kolkata. Most of the layover was spent standing in line for the transfers security check. As we are standing in line I see a shadow out of the corner of my eye. Then I notice Alison is looking around too, so I ask, "Was that a mouse?" Yes. A mouse had run under the podium thing where the lady was checking passports. Welcome to India! Mouse aside, the Dehli airport was very clean and quited modern, which eased my mind since I knew I had an 8 hour layover there on the way back.

Beginning of a week of Indian food
We boarded the plane and there was an announcement but all I caught was "spray" and "harmless" and didn't realize what was happening until the flight attendants walked throughout the cabin spraying air freshener around everyone. This is a first. We had already had 2 meals on the first flight and before the next meal we would be getting on this flight they handed out the typical peanut airplane snack - but with an Indian twist. They were spicy fried peanuts. They packed a punch but were quite tasty. Finally, around 4 pm, we arrived in Kolkata. The first thing that hits you is the heat and humidity. It feels like you have walked into a sauna. And it would not stop feeling like that for the next 8 days. We found our luggage and got in line to change some money into Indian rupees. Indians don't do regular queueing, so just as Alison was about to reach the counter a man barged right in front of her figuring his transaction was going to be quicker so he ought to go first. Starting to think chivalry does not exist in this country. We finally get the money and Alison counts it to find the guy has tried to rip us off about 500 rupees. And again: Welcome to India!

Taxis outside Kolkata airport
We head out and meet up with Pastor Daniel and Diana, who are our contacts from the school we will be visiting. We leave the airport and now our next two senses are accosted (remember we already had the heat). Now it is the smells and the noises. We find a taxi and jump in to go to the train station. The ride is about an hour and is unlike any other car ride I have ever taken. I decided that if Mom ever comes to India she will definitely need a sound and light-proof helmet, otherwise she would never survive this cab ride without having a jammer. I take a video because I just cannot believe it. On the road there are taxis, cars, buses, auto-rickshaws,motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, animals, and all are going at the same time, all are honking some kind of horn, and all seem to think they have the right of way. There is a hierarchy involved that we slowly learn over the course of the week.

We somehow survive the taxi ride without even hitting anything and are at the train station. We get to wait in the "first class lounge". Which basically means we are away from the beggars and people sleeping on the platform and there is a fan and possibly some air con. I look in the bathroom and think, if this is first class then I may be holding it all week. We are advised not to accept any tea, biscuits or bananas from strangers as they like to lace them with drugs that will make you drowsy so they can steal your luggage. I may also be fasting for the week.
On the train
Pastor Daniel shows us to some food that is safe and after our snack it is time to board the train for our 12 hour journey to Bihar. We are in A/C 2. Tier 2 with air con, yes! The other cars that are not A/C pretty much look like cattle cars and are jammed full of people. We settled into our little cubby space with 2 bunks on either side and a curtain closing us off from the aisle. We played some games and tried to kill some of the small cockroaches. In the middle of our game the curtain opens and a man stands there and says "housekeeping". He points to the floor so we pick up our feet and he sloshes some detergent on to the floor then wipes it around with a black sponge mop and leaves. A few minutes later a couple more housekeeping men come and ask us to fill out a survey about the cleanliness of the train. One of the final question asked about the cleanliness of the team, to which Tamara responds "Yes, you look clean, I'll give you a 5". The train offers a "Western" toilet and an "Indian" toilet. The latter has two raised bits you stand on and then a hole. Both of them offer little space between you and the tracks that you can see passing underneath.  Lots of snoring and blasting air con made for little sleep, but at least we could lay down here and rest our weary bums after the long flights.

With Claire, at the school
In the morning, we arrived in Bihar. The station was overwhelming. Bihar is one of the poorest regions in the country, and this was very obvious as soon as we stepped off the train. I immediately had a boy who looked about 7 tapping me on the arm and holding out his hand for change. Another child about the same age was carrying a tiny infant along the platform. Dogs were running around and people were sleeping everywhere, including some old men who were little more than skeletons. We walked through the station to where more representatives from the mission school were waiting to drive us to the school. Driving through the town and along the country was unbelievable. Garbage everywhere. Livestock and children wandering along the roads, hard to describe. I ended up taking many videos on my camera just because I knew it would be so hard to describe some of the things I ended up seeing this week.
Yummy lunch

We arrived at the school and were greeted by many kind people who we would be working with over the week and who were there to provide any comforts possible. They were really amazing people. The school has had some buildings and toilets built recently through the Impact charity. When we arrived, the 'governement power' was not working, but the generator was going. We had lunch and a shower. Which washed off the sweat, but started sweating again as soon as the cold water was shut off. Not exactly ideal, but was nice to refresh a little. We got a little walking tour around the compound and a bit through the village nearby. Then a lovely dinner was prepared for us and we got to relax before our busy week working with the teachers was to begin. Ended the day exhausted and over heated but excited to be in India.

It didn't take long for the village children to catch wind of us

Playing with village children

Fav shot, at entrance to school

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