At the end of March I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Kolkata for one week to see The Hope Foundation’s projects with street and slum children. Most of my friends and family know how hard I fundraised to make this opportunity a reality, but many of you don’t know the enormous effect it had on me. I know it’s a long post, but a LOT happened, and my ONE WEEK in Calcutta has heavily influenced a life-changing decision in my life.
My initial impressions of Kolkata (previously Calcutta) were not what I imagined them to be. In the past whenever people mentioned Kolkata, images from the movie Slumdog Millionaire would come to mind; I imagined the streets to be full of beggars, young children walking around aimlessly, people knocking on car windows looking for money. This may have been a very naive and ignorant view, but that was what I imagined the city of Kolkata to be like. On arrival I was shocked, but in a different way to what I had imagined. I guess for people not well-travelled or the younger students on the trip, arriving into one of the poorest cities in the world could have been jaw dropping. However, and perhaps to my detriment, my extensive travels in Africa have toughened me up to the extent that very few things truly shock me these days.
The city of Kolkata was a lot quieter (although FAR from quiet…beep beep, beep BEEP!), a lot cleaner (although again, far from clean), and a lot less congested than I thought it would be. When you think of India, you think of people EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. So my first thought on arrival was, “Ehhh…where are all the people?!”
Being with a young school group, staying in a hotel, and travelling everywhere by private bus – I sometimes felt I wasn’t seeing the real Kolkata. I knew there was more out there, but I felt I just wasn’t able to see it.
Settling in – Something will ALWAYS shock you.
The two things that did shock me to the core happened after a few days in Kolkata. The first was the slums. I have never been in a slum before and everything about it was just awful. The lack of space, rubbish everywhere, pigs running around and sniffing through dirty water and rubbish, the overcrowding, the smell, the lack of access to adequate sanitation – you could see small children squatting to go to the toilet on the side of the road, or grown men just leaning against a wall or railing in broad daylight. It seemed few of the kids were in school as most were running around the slum, half-dressed, playing in the dirt or minding younger siblings. Everything about the slums made me feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic and just sad that people still have to live in such HORRIFIC conditions. You literally have no idea how awful it would be to live like that, with so little possessions, and little hope for a brighter future.
At first, even the HOPE projects within the slums couldn’t help take away this feeling of hopelessness. On arrival at the crèche/coaching centre, we found up to 30 kids in what seemed like a very small room. As it was nearly 40’c outside the room was very hot and stuffy, and I couldn’t believe how many kids were taught in that tiny space each day.
However after sitting down and interacting with the kids and seeing the incredible way the HOPE staff managed the student’s time in such confined space, it was truly inspiring. The students in this room were the LUCKY ones. They were learning, singing, smiling and laughing. They were getting an education which will lead to a brighter future, which is something kids NOT in the room will find extremely difficult to accomplish.
The coaching centres may be small but compared to the rest of the make shift building in the slum, they are actually quite spacious. Plus they also serve the community in more ways than one, as they double as health clinics in the evenings and at weekends. These rooms are little pockets of gold for the children and their families that live close by.
The second thing that shocked me was going on Night Watch. The HOPE Night Watch team is a team of 3 people (a driver and 2 ‘watchers’) that patrols the streets of Kolkata in a make shift ‘ambulance’ each night looking for abandoned or sick children or adults that may need urgent medical help. Driving through the streets of Kolkata at night was eye-opening. Suddenly, as if they had come out of nowhere, I could see that there were people sitting and lying on thin sheets of plastic everywhere. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. I don’t think I imagined there would be so many people living and sleeping on the streets. Or maybe I thought it was just individuals rather than WHOLE FAMILIES. It was really sad to see small children and babies curled up next to their mother with nothing to protect them.
We stopped off at Howrah station and it was a real kick in the teeth to see all the people outside the train station, essentially homeless, with nothing to protect them from the elements. It was terrible to see how late these young kids were staying up, way past midnight, running around without supervision, without protection and most likely with very little to eat. We even saw a new-born baby, probably only a few weeks old, lying on the cold ground next to the mother, who was fast asleep. Anyone could have taken this baby. It was frightening to see, to witness, to know that people must live like this just to survive. We have SO much, and still complain, while these people have SO little, and yet still do not beg or ask for hand outs. While the night watch team did hand out donated clothes sent over from Ireland, each person who received something was SO unbelievably grateful and happy to receive something as worthless (to us anyway) as a baggy secondhand t-shirt.
These were a few of my favourite things….
One of my favourite things on the whole visit was The HOPE hospital. I think it is an amazing place, and while one should be sad going around a hospital, I found myself smiling and found the experience really uplifting. You realise how lucky these children are, how great they are being cared for, and know there is a lot of hope for them to have bright futures. I actually found it very difficult to leave the hospital…either I wanted to stay there with them, or I wanted to take them home with me!
Meeting little Ganesh, the 4-year-old boy who was found by the night watch team in December severely malnourished and near death, was heart wrenching. But then hearing firsthand the enormous improvement in his health over the last 3 months, and getting the chance to play ball with him and watch him sitting up in his colouring was quite an emotional moment for me.
Visiting some of the homes such as Kasba, Tollygunge and even the drop in centre (Tollygunge Nabadisha) was a really uplifting experience and in a way reminded me of my love of children, my love of teaching and how being in an office can be hard for me as I am so far removed from the actually people we are trying to benefit.
So, can one week trip REALLY change your life??
I have always felt one should ‘Do what you LOVE and LOVE what you do’. It’s now time I started listening to my own advice.
My 7 days in Kolkata were TRULY LIFE-CHANGING, but strangely not in the way I originally thought. I thought I would return home with a renewed passion for working with a charity and for progressing my career in the Humanitarian field. However what actually happened was that my week in Kolkata made me re-evaluate my career choice, and my priorities in life. It made me realise I belong in a classroom and not in an office. Working with kids and not with computers. My biggest passions are working with children and travel so it’s time I combined the two and ‘lived the dream’ so to speak.
I hope to return to Kolkata someday, with the Hope Foundation, and dedicate my time to working on the projects, working with the children and sharing my passion for life. HOPE is an amazing charity, and the people who work for HOPE are true angels in disguise. If you ever get the chance to visit Kolkata, make sure to look up The Hope Foundation. Who knows, it could change your life too.