I finally made it into Kolkata proper the other day! All I had seen of it until then was the airport and the drive from the airport to our village. It is both very similar and very different from Mankundu. Similar in that Indian cities seems to have much more in common with each other than with American cities, at least in my current opinion. Very different in the huge number of people, and in the extreme gap between wealth and poverty. There is a definite gap in Mankundu also, but no one here could afford many of the luxuries that Kolkata has to offer. We went to a pristinely clean, air conditioned mall in which almost every store had designer goods. This was my first experience with the wealth that exists in some Indian cities, and the stark contrast between this and the expanses of slums that we saw along the railroad tracks on our way in is startling. Even just outside the mall, there were beggars on every corner with missing limbs and little clothing.
Despite the shock of the wealth gap, I had a really great time in the city. It took us about 40 minutes on the train plus a 30 minute taxi ride to get to where we were going. I’m still amazed by how cheap everything is here. The taxi was only about 40 rupees each (1 dollar equals about 60 rupees).
We went to a movie theater with AC in the afternoon, when it was too hot to be outside, and watched Mad Max, which I would definitely recommend! The strangest thing happened though- halfway through the movie, it stopped for a commercial break! I asked the people around me if this was normal, and they said it always happens during Indian movies. It is meant for you to buy more snacks and go to the bathroom without missing anything, which I guess is a pretty good idea, but I think they could’ve timed it better! It happened mid-sentence during a very climactic scene. I also saw my first Bengali movie this week, and the same thing happened during that, except rather than commercials, a black screen came up and then a voice reading as white text appeared on screen: “Smoking causes cancer.” Nothing else. Not a “sponsored by” or other statistics or explanation, nothing. I couldn’t help but start laughing, which got me some funny looks.
After the movie we got Subway, which was strangely different. I had a paneer sub, which tastes sort of like a cross between cheese and tofu, and is cooked or fried in spices. It was delicious, and I think I should write to Subway and tell them to bring it to America! Even the potato chips, which I would expect to be similar anywhere, are strange. The Lay’s flavors include Magic Masala, American Delight (which I think is similar to sour cream and onion, but I haven’t tried it yet), and Spanish Tomato Fiesta. It’s funny how they worry so much less about stereotyping here than in the US.
Another place we visited was the New Market, which is a huge outdoor market where you can buy anything and everything. As soon as the vendors saw that we were white, they swooped. They quickly realized that we were not typical tourists, however, as the other volunteers showed me how to bargain and told me to never offer more than a third of the original price. I felt uncomfortable doing this at first, because I felt like I was cheating these people out of their living. But when I saw how quickly the prices dropped after you started bargaining, I realized that they had been trying to cheat us. A typical conversation went something like this:
“How much for this scarf?”
“That is way too expensive! How about 100?”
“Ok special price, 200, just for you.”
Seeing them cut the price by half or more with me hardly trying proved to me that they were still making a good profit on our transactions. They would also offer us “discounts” (aka taking off some of the huge markup) when we told them we were students, NGO workers, living with locals, and pretty much anything else we said.
As the death toll reaches 1100 people from this heat wave, I am extremely grateful for the fresh water we’re provided and the one room in the house with AC! We spend most afternoons huddled in the cold, trying to escape the scorching afternoon sun. The only problem with having some AC, though, is that leaving it feels like hitting a solid wall of heat and humidity.
In order to escape the heat for a bit, we have planned a trip to Darjeeling. Since it is in the mountains, it is a lot cooler up there. We will be leaving tomorrow instead of this past weekend, as originally intended. I mentioned this trip in my last post, but we decided to postpone it for a few days for the following reasons.
First, our holiday was moved to next week instead of this week. I was surprised at how spontaneously these things are planned. There was a lot of confusion about which week we were taking off, with each person saying something different, and I asked someone how the students would know which days to come. They replied that since the kids don’t have clocks or calendars, it really doesn’t matter to them. They will simply show up when they see the teachers walking to school. This struck me as odd, coming from an American school system where taking one day off that wasn’t scheduled at least a year ahead of time is huge news (especially for U of M!). In a way it is refreshing, though, to have a culture that is so spontaneous and carefree about things like schedules. I suppose these families have enough other things to worry about.
The second reason that we postponed our trip is that the tutorial where two of the other volunteers and I work is having its yard paved. This means that they will have to shut it down for a few days because of the wet cement. The workers began bringing materials yesterday, laid the brick foundation today, and will begin paving tomorrow. The funds for this project came from a previous short term volunteer from America, who used a crowd sourcing website to raise money. It will really be a huge improvement, and could not come at a better time, with the rainy season less than a month away. The schoolyard was previously just dirt, which became an unusable mud pit during the monsoons. Once the pavement is complete, the next step will be to add a metal roof and gutters over the yard so that it can be used for playing and having community activities during the rainy season. Even though I came after the project was planned, I am really glad that I am able to be here to see it both before and after. Sometimes it is hard to understand the impact that small donations can have without seeing the changes in person. Hopefully I can find a similar cause to take up remotely after I leave Human Wave!