(Tuesday) We arrived in Kolkata and took a train to a Christian orphanage in rural West Bengal. Kyle volunteered at the orphanage for five months several years ago. We sipped earthy-tasting chai on the train, served in thin, clay cups and enjoyed the constant flow of vendors traipsing through the aisles, selling random items from shoe soles to hair comb cleaners, shrimp keychains to boiled eggs, and novels to women’s cotton printed “finger socks”.
“Boro Sir” (“Big Boss”), the orphanage’s director and pastor, greeted us on arrival and Kyle impressed me with his fluency in Bengali. The resident children huddled shyly, staring at us with big, brown eyes until one was courageous enough to say the magic words, “rrrobot dance?”, setting Kyle off into a routine of skillful hilarity, accompanied by sound effects and the raucous laughter of 21 children.
I was introduced to Saraswati, the orphanage’s cook, who recognized me from our wedding photos pinned to Boro Sir’s office cork board. Kyle translated her comment that, to her, I looked more beautiful that evening after a day of travel, wearing an entirely blue cotton salwar suit that cost $15, than in our wedding photos where I wore a $1,500 silk gown.(Saraswati trying on my sweater in the dining area.)
Saraswati made us Knorr tomato soup for dinner, made of barely whisked powder, which left chunks so big I at first thought they were fresh tomatoes. Although her Indian cuisine is exceptional, Saraswati has no sense of what Western food should taste like, how to prepare it, and finds it repulsive. When she made toast to go with our soup, she turned up her nose at the smell of the yeasty bread and then asked how you are supposed to tell if the toast is done when, peering in to the toaster, “it’s all red inside!” Immediately we saw a need for change and began a mission to convince Saraswati and Boro Sir that we prefer Indian food over Western; I ate big pieces of green chilli and talked incessantly about how much we love spice and how we ate so much Indian food in Delhi that we are getting fat (one of the orphanage kids, Nundini, confirmed this).
This was also the first day of our anti-chicken battle. Soggy plastic bags of raw chicken are stored in a fridge that is, frankly, disgusting and is frequently thawed by power outages. Chicken sits in there for days and days and, when it’s ready to be cooked, it is cut up on the floor. The pieces are fried, and whatever is not eaten will sit on the table for hours and then reappear several days later, smothered in a different seasoning. Kyle has gotten sick from this many times in the past, so we decided that I’m pure vegetarian and that I’ve influenced Kyle to follow suit. As a result we were constantly hassled about becoming vegetarian Hindu, but teasing is certainly better than food poisoning.
Exhausted, we tried to settle into our room in an abandoned wing of the orphanage, coming to terms with the fact that we’d just sleep in layers of clothes as we had not been provided blankets or sheets.
But this was the beginning of a much bigger battle: the Battle of the Boltas – our fight against the orphanage’s infestation of impressively, terrifyingly enormous bright yellow wasps with 1-inch dangling legs (“boltas” in Bengali). We were busy clearing our room of mosquitoes when a bolta came charging at us out of nowhere. We ran in frantic terror towards the opposite side of the room when another appeared. The first landed on the knock-off Pokemon curtains and, when we went to kill it, we realized the curtain was alive, crawling with boltas!(Someone else’s photo of a bolta.)
We fled to the other guest room in the same wing, intentionally ignoring a dead bolta on the ground, and slept in blanketless peace.
In the morning (Wednesday) we choked down a breakfast of mustard oil-with-two-eggs-floating-in-it but only managed a couple bites of muesli that tasted ten years old and soaked in chemicals. (Oh, how we missed Thapa’s parathas, those delicious, fried Indian potato pancakes). Kyle took to scheming how to surreptitiously dispose of the chemical muesli. He bought us time by scooping some of my muesli into his own bowl to look like I’d been eating mine and that he just hadn’t got to his yet. Then he took is bowl into the kitchen and held stern eye-contact with Saraswati, asking her about the wellbeing of her children, while blindly but furiously scooping the milky chemicals into the garbage. She didn’t notice. When he binned the remainder of mine, however, she did notice but, in Kyle’s words, “her disapproving glare was easier to stomach than that muesli would have been.” Every morning after we were careful to sneak into the kitchen silently and, before anyone could notice, scarf down toast and sickly-sweet jam. Afterwards we were “too full” and of course had to refuse offers of muesli.
By morning I took a tour of the walled compound. It is comprised of several buildings, painted royal blue and yellow, and is complete with a vegetable garden, fire pits for cooking, a water pump, laundry lines draped in bright clothing, and loads of tropical fruit trees. The old dog, Laloo, slept curled up in the dirt courtyard and ducks waddled around in a perfect line.
That day a shipment arrived from Compassion International. A team was met with great excitement, delivering school supplies, hygiene items, and handmade quilts for the kids. It was enjoyable for me to see the receiving end of donations from the West, as I’ve witnessed my own dad faithfully send donations for years to a project that is probably a lot like this one.
In the thick evening air, we took a bicycle ride down a nearby farm road. The grass fields, bright green, sung cricket songs; some people cycled home from work, bundled up; other people were still at work, hoeing their harvests of potatoes, carrots, and wheat; men bathed in a little stream; goat herders guided their animals down the side of the road; and the jungle in distance framed the farmland. Hoping not to see them, we scanned for dangerous elephants in the jungle. We passed through a village of mud huts and thatched-roof cottages, the air filled with the sounds of children playing after school, baby goats bleating, water pouring from well pumps, and sudsy clothes being smashed on pavement squares.
On our return, the children were studying so we went to our guest room to rest. One big, bolta came buzzing out of the woodwork. As soon as we killed it another appeared. This inspired the creation of what we simply called “The Tool”, handy for wasp smashing, spiderweb destruction, the hanging of laundry, and just general arthropod-related self-defence-tefence (rhyming and adding a ‘t’ in Bengali means ‘and the like’). It is made of a big wad of toilet paper bunched onto the end of a broom handle, wrapped tightly in packing tape.(Kyle’s use of The Tool transforms him into a man-witch. See adjacent shadow.)
We spent the rest of the evening frantically chasing and killing boltas until we realized it was a hopeless case. Little Indrani informed us that if they bite you they cause massive swelling. Great.
We reported our plight to Boro Sir who was completely blasé about it: “Here in India, if we see one of those, we just kill it,” completely ignoring the fact that we had been killing them for two-hours straight and there was still a steady stream. He sent Saraswati with an aerosol can of insect poison, which not only made the room completely toxic but brought dozens of angry, suffocating boltas into the open. Now we had two reasons not to stay in that room.
But both guest rooms were infested, so our only option was to sleep on unpadded, wooden benches outside our room in a big, concrete, warehouse-like space. We slept like that for two painful nights, waking frequently to relieve our aching joints. The only upside was that we got to experience what the resident children are accustomed to. On the third night, we had the good fortune of finding a thin, twin mattress which we laid horizontally across our two benches so our shoulders and hips had padding.
The next day (Thursday), we made progress on the food front – Saraswati cooked a fantastically delicious rice meal with yellow dhal, cauliflower and potato curry, and a mixture of spinach and julienned beets. The meal was followed by what Saraswati calls “milk coffee”, which is Nescafe instant coffee added to hot milk with two heaping tablespoons of sugar. The alternative is “red coffee” which is actually green tea…with two heaping tablespoons of sugar. Neither drink is really coffee, but according to Boro Sir’s rural sensibilities, it’s vital for digestion to consume a some sort of hot drink after a meal.
In the evening we listened to Boro Sir discuss the declining work ethic in rural India. The government gives 100 work days to “BPLs” (below poverty line) who would normally be doing hard farm labour. These government jobs are easy, quick, and pay extremely well, causing an overall decline in work ethic and a shortage of farm labourers. India cannot subsist without farm labourers, but why would you work dawn to dusk tilling a field by hand when you could cut a small patch of lawn in an hour and get paid more? The rest of the 265 days are spent sleeping all day and drinking, said Boro Sir, problems that destroy communities and families. He says that the government is “spoiling India” in its attempts to improve it.
The following day (Friday) I had my first bucket bath before a day with the kids. Kyle heated a bucket of water by draping a big, ancient heater coil – with a disintegrating cord patched up with electrical tape – into the water over a bamboo switch, which we are pretty sure is actually usual for corporal punishment. Kyle tested the water with his hand and experienced what we feared would happen but never actually expected to happen. The ramshackle heater had electrically charged the water and Kyle got shocked.(Squeaky clean to play with Prodrika.)
With the sun rise the next day (Saturday), we took a local train to a nearby town called Bishnupur, the Temple City, to visit a very old auntie (all older women are aunties) that lived at the orphanage when Kyle stayed long-term. Her nephew, Ram, guided us to her place and Auntie and Kyle joyously reunited. She’s nearly blind, but lit up when she felt our faces with her fantastic, wrinkled hands (“Khub sundar!” she said. “Very beautiful!”). Her home is one, single room, equipped with everything she needs, even a Western toilet which is situated right beside her bed. The room is blue from floor to ceiling and is decorated only with cobwebs. It seems our visit was just what she needed as she talked and talked with a big smile and cried when we gave her hugs and kisses and held her hands.
The tour was exceptional. The first stop was a shrine to Jagannath, the “Lord of the Universe” in Hinduism. The temple is attended to by a bonafide prince, the last son of the region’s king. He was a perfectly normal guy – an English teacher, who explained to us with disgust that his students “don’t know ABCs, don’t know consonants, don’t know alphabet, don’t know bowels”.
We also saw a shrine to Kali, goddess of destruction and creation, which depicted a shockingly violent scene. Kali had cut off her own head with a big, silver blade which she held in her right hand, while she held her severed head in her left. Blood spurted out of her neck in streams, caught in the mouths of common people and consumed. Blood they missed dripped over their bodies. People flocked to this temple and laid down offerings at the feet of Kali. The walls of the temple were lined with paintings of gods one of whom, interestingly, was Jesus. Boro Sir later explained to us that since Hinduism is a religion of many, many gods, it is easy for Hindus to accept Jesus as one of their gods; accepting Jesus as the only god is a different story.(A carved, terracotta temple.)
We met Ram at the train station. Our train was due at 11:20am but didn’t arrive until 12:10pm. We waited and waited in the hot sun and tried for variety in our conversation with Ram, but for the whole hour, all he wanted to talk about was “sea beaches”, how much he loves them, and which ones are the best. He claimed to have been to every sea beach in India and told us that his favourite one is in Chandipur. He went on and on about it, raving about how silent is it and how there are no people, despite its unsurpassed beauty. We, ourselves, felt tempted to go until we told Boro Sir about it that evening. He shattered our vision and sent us into hysterical laughter with three words: missile test site.
Saraswati fed us a gigantic bowl of Maggi (spicy, fattening instant noodles) that evening and, twelve hours later, another bowl for breakfast (Sunday). Kyle gave a talk at the church on enduring trials and difficulties. James 1:2-4.(Church.)
We walked the kids to a nearby park after church where we played on the playground, looked at sad, caged animals, ate ice cream, and I painted the girls’ nails pink and blue. By the end, they were clinging to me; I finally felt like I’d bonded with them. Or maybe they were just terrified of the insane, India traffic we were leading them through without the safety of sidewalks.
That night – our last at the orphanage – we dreamt of a bed with a full mattress. Still, we were sad to leave the next day and wondered about our role there in the future. Kyle has spent much time there in the past, but the atmosphere has changed: there are fewer children, different children, all new staff, and a lot fewer smiles than there used to be (including from Kyle as a volunteer). We experienced great frustration in that we came to make the kids smile and to encourage them, but the circumstances completely exhausted us to the point where we only had energy to be with them for a couple hours a day. Even the orphanage’s dog, Laloo, died of old age during the last night we were there. What we expected to be a joyous week of laughter, playing, and rest ended up, instead, leaving us exasperated and exhausted. We pray for the orphanage, its direction, its staff, the children there, and that they find the funding they need to return to full capacity so everyone can smile again.(Us, most of the kids, and some random strangers at the park.)