There is so much to say about my last two weeks in India and I don’t even know where to begin. First of all, thank you SO much for supporting me and allowing me to have this incredible, eye-opening experience. I am so grateful for all I saw, for the people I met, and the lessons I learned. Life changing in many ways although I am still processing so much of it.
India is definitely a challenge and not for the faint at heart. I fully admit that I am so glad I had been (and lived) in China first because there are some similarities so therefore, seeing the things I did (and smelling the things I smelled) were not as shocking to me.
Throughout the next few blogs I write, I hope to change a bit of your mindset and perspective on India as mine sure changed throughout my time there. While I do not recommend traveling to India on your own (go with a tourist group, locals, or an NGO like my experience) in order to get the REAL India experience, I will say that I felt very safe and the people I got to know are beyond lovely. I did not go out at night and most of the time I was with other people, and fortunately, there are SO many people around that it would be hard for something horrible to happen without someone noticing and helping. As you know, I the organization I worked with focuses on at risk women some of which have been trafficked, but unfortunately, those incidences happen behind closed doors or in villages – hence why we don’t see those things happening out in the open.
As I am still jet lagged only arriving to Prague yesterday, I first want to focus on the project itself and a bit on the city, Kolkata. I worked with Vision for Empowerment which is a photography workshop stemming from the organization Made By Survivors which is a jewelry making business employing Indian/Nepalese women who have been at risk of trafficking or other forms of domestic abuse/violence. They are actually opening up another center in Thailand as I type this. Sarah Annay, an amazing photography based in St. Augustine, Florida, started the VFE workshop last year and is now going every year for five weeks to educate young women ages 15-20 (although open to anyone) in the basic skills of photography. The idea is that if they grow to love photography and want to make a career of it, then Sarah will find another NGO they can partner with to further develop their skills and find work in India. However, that is a lot easier said than done. The main issue is that photographers are almost all male and it is extremely hard to get into the industry as a female. We had an Indian translator (the languages are Bengali/Hindi in the region I was in) – she has a huge desire to become a professional photographer but twice she has been asked for her personal photo when applying for jobs, only to be turned down when she refused.
We had ten young girls in total join the workshop through various NGO’s they are a part of – a few of the girls live in shelter homes connected to those NGO’s. They would travel as far as two hours (as early as 45 minutes) to come to this workshop everyday Monday – Friday from 10.30AM – 4PM. Sarah led them in many activities from photography basics to camera knowledge to photo excursions to photo journaling – and then naturally stretching, singing, and dancing always occurred at the beginning, middle, and end of class. It was the best and brought us together so quickly. We had a mix of girls being from all different religions, ages, backgrounds, and education. It was very eye-opening but I couldn’t help but notice how similar we all are in so many ways no matter the life situations we find ourselves in. And all of them are so beautiful! Their light and souls shone brightly in my eyes – I am not sure they could even see that in themselves. I tried to capture that in photos when I could.
We held the workshop at a really nice school in the south part of the city – about 45 minutes from where we were staying. It’s very high – tech and they focus on teaching kids how to recycle, clean, dream, and speak English. The women in charge (yes, women!) are amazing and so well spoken. While it is a great school, unfortunately the area is quite poor and hard to witness at times. Sarah has a few weeks left and will finish with an amazing photography exhibition of the girls’ favorite photos for anyone to attend and buy their work! So sad to not be a part of that, but cannot wait to see what they showcase.
Kolkata (Indian spelling, Calcutta – British spelling) is a city of 10 million people and honestly, it felt like that:) Always busy, noisy, bustling – honking is a very normal thing to convey ‘I AM HERE’ versus a sign of being rude. There are no traffic rules – staying within the lines does not exist and neither does red lights (well, sometimes). But wow, I was exhausted at night just from it all. Thankful for a nice place to go back to at night – we stayed at a flat rented by MBS. Ironically, it feels too quiet now in Prague. 🙂 Fortunately, I did not get sick – well not badly anyway – I ate only cooked food at restaurants and did NOT drink the water. However, there is bottled water everywhere and I did try some street food – again, cooked – and not too bad! My favorite dish was a mustard flavored fish cooked in banana leaves – it was the BEST fish I have ever had in my life.
Honestly, the city is very overwhelming at first as you can imagine. But as time goes on, I did start to notice and see the beauty within it. So many beautiful vivid colors in their clothes and their buildings, lovely amazing people (most who speak English!), so many religions all in one place which creates this deeper soul in the culture, fascinating history, and their simplicity of life. I so admire people who live with just what they need and don’t seem to desire anything more. I used to think people must be so jealous of Western societies and how they live – but now I don’t always think that is the case. Everyone wants freedom, respect, love, and community, but I don’t think everyone always wants MORE stuff.
Kolkata is a city of community. They are a collective society and thrive on being together as a unit. Statistics show that Indians in general have longer life spans due to not being as lonely – they are always around one another and welcoming people into their homes for food and shelter. Even if they don’t have the space which is typical….
This quote sums it up nicely. Think of India like the States – made up of many different ‘states’ or regions that are vastly different from one another in culture, food, people, religion, history, and landscape. I used to think of India as one big scary dirty place that many never want to visit – but my mind has sure changed in that regard. And again, I hope to change your mindset as well throughout the next few blogs. Just give me some time…
“Calcutta is not for everyone.
You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi.
You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay.
You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place.
But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.”
– Vir Sanghvi