Can ONE week REALLY change your life?

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.

Initial Impressions

DSC01399My 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.

pigsThe 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.

crecheThe 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.

woman cooking in slumWe 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….

hope hospitalOne 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.

holi festival calcuttaMy 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.

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Guest Post: Love sick or Puppy Love

Guest post written by my friend Kieran from The Long Acre Blog! :)
 
So, of recent weeks, a change has come over me. A change we can believe in? Perhaps!
 
Was i hungry? No. Tired? No. You been eating too much sugar again, kid? No, no, but maybe yes and no…
 
Could you call it love? Hmm, getting warm maybe… Because that’s almost certainly what it felt like, to me anyways. Let me explain.
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Doesn’t matter if you’re black or white

No, this isn’t a post about the late King of Pop, or some insightful post about racial oppression. This is, in fact, a little more light-hearted, although perhaps not as cheesy as those struck by cupids arrow may desire.

Valentines day is always cheesy. The soppy poems, the chocolates, the public displays of affection. Turns out I have not seen the half of it, and neither have you, unless you are currently residing in Korea that is.

With D-day fast approaching, the streets of Korea appear to be over-flowing with an array of overly cheesy gifts; ranging from florists selling fake flowers (why, oh why would a FLORIST sell fake flowers?! My  mum would be appalled!) to every 7-11 and corner shop selling tacky bouquet shaped packets of Ferrero Rocher, wrapped in tacky, multi colored plastic, truly horrific.

This would all be bearable if we were reassured it will all be over come Monday. Alas, Korean marketing companies have really tapped into their soppy, doting population by creating not ONE but THREE holidays.

Valentines day, on February 14th where girls hand over cheesy gifts to their boyfriends, March 14th, “White Day”, where the boys repay the favor but usually handing over much more expensive gifts and April 14th, known as the ever tragic “Black Day” where all the poor single ladies convene at a local noodle joint and devour black noodles to mourn (or in an ideal world celebrate) their singledom. 3 months, 3 days, 3 (Korean) holidays and an overload of cheese.

On that note, if you are feeling a little adventurous this Valentines day why not EMBRACE the cheesiness, and create or invest in these unique gift ideas. Enjoy!

 

Some heart shaped Cheddar for your loved one?

A bit of... hard wood??! (Also known as a cheese board!)

 

Some Cheese and crackers, love?

I LOVE CHEESE,Oops I mean YOU!

Extra Cheese...purleaseee

Strawberries in my toast?!...You are a KEEPER!

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FREE HUGS SEOUL

I have now lived in a country for over 4 months and have not participated in a FREE HUGS day. This is a new record for me. What in the world is FREE HUGS I hear you non believers ask? Well you can read the full story here but let me give you a little summary.

The FREE HUGS campaign was started by Aussie native Juan Mann (a pretty fitting name, I’m sure you will agree) a few years ago. He wanted to share the love and spread happiness to strangers simply by giving out hugs to people on the street. It sounds a little strange, sure, and a lot of people say “but of COURSE hugs are free , who in their right mind would PAY for a hug” but this strange concept has made its was around the world to every city large and small and has brightened up millions of people’s lives.

The man who started it all

Spread the love

How do I know this? Well it has brightened up my day on a number of occasions and has even spurred me on to give out other things for free such as 500 hand-made cards on Valentines day. Giving out the free hugs is ten times as rewarding as actually getting one. Seeing strangers run up to you with a big grin, then embracing them in a big bear hug is something very special. It will make you smile, laugh and maybe even cry. I can remember hugging one old woman in Dublin who said she had not been hugged in years. This is a very sad thought as everyone should be hugged, in my opinion, every day.

My first free hugs experience was at a couchsurfing event in Edinburgh, Scotland. The weekend, dubbed “Edinburgh Rocks” included a world music night, bbq, scavenger hunt and game sin the park. Then on the final day I was told we were doing “Free Hugs”. I was totally new to the idea, laughed at the idea of it but was excited to see how it would pan out. To this day it is one of the best, most rewarding, most memorable few hours of my life. It helped that the 40 or so other couchsurfers were full of positive energy and love for life and that Scots loved receiving our hugs.

Free Hugs in Edinburgh

Valentines Day, Dublin Free Hugs

After such an awesome experience I organized a FREE HUGS day in Dublin, the first of many followed by “Free Hugs for Christmas”, “Free Hugs for Valentines Day” and “Free Hugs in the park”…all a great success. The next summer, while in Toronto I jumped at the chance to give out free hugs at “Pedestrian Sunday” in Kensington Market and a few weeks later found myself standing outside DEMF, Detroit Electronic Music festival giving out hugs to party goers and homeless people alike. Lastly, I had the opportunity to give out free hugs in Hyde Park in Sydney earlier this year, another awesome day out.

So now Korea, my love, its your turn. I’m interested to see people’s reactions and I really hope they wont be too stand offish as I realize hugging culture is not as big in Asia as it is in say Europe or America. So, if you fancy spreading some joy come along to FREE HUGS HONGDAE this saturday! :)

Free Hugs Toronto

Free Hugs...coming to a place near you!

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Dear North Korea

Dear North Korea,

I don’t think you know me, but I guess it’s about time for a formal introduction. My name is Janet, and I moved in with your lovely southerly neighbour 99 days ago. It’s, I’m not ashamed to admit, the second longest relationship I’ve ever had, and it’s going strong.

We are in a bit of a love-hate relationship which can be testing at times to say the least but I’m in love and that is the bottom line. SK has found me the first job in my life that I actually immensely enjoy, a boss I actually get on with and best of all an awesome pay check at the end of each month.

SK is motivating me to be all that I can be. SK is helping me to learn a new language which before our tremulous relationship I would have never deemed possible. A language with a new alphabet, letters I find hard to comprehend and sounds I’m still unsure if my mouth will produce.

Through our whirlwind relationship, I  have made some of the most amazing friends I have ever met. People that make me laugh for hours on end. Be it dancing on tables, drinking foul Korean liquor by the bottle, climbing mountains, or simply kicking it in  Geumchon, they have made my time here nothing short of amazing, never a dull day with my munsan girls.

Don’t get me wrong, SK does have problems too. Like eating dog meat (really my love, there is no need for it), producing a foul smelling dish in the form of Kimchi, and constantly confusing me in culture and etiquette classes. However as the famous saying goes, sometimes in life, opposites attract.

The first week of our relationship was a rollercoaster. I was unsure if it would work out. I was unsure if the language barrier would keep us apart and our cultural differences would prove to much of a climb to get over. However, 99 days in I can honestly say…I’m in love. Life is great here and I would like it to stay that way.

I need you to back off your younger brother and start showing human decency. Stop fighting for heavens sake! I thought you got all this tension and fighting out of your system when you were both children over 50 years ago. You’re a grown man now and need to start acting like one. Stop shouting and start talking. Listen. COMPROMISE. Show a little compassion and maybe you guys can resolve this 50 year hatred and be friends again, be family again, the way things should be!

Hope this letter finds you well,

Janet

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