Saturday, February 14, 2015

Clash of the cultures

Every time I visit a country new to me, there are countless learning experiences along the way. I not only learn about the traditions and values of another group of people unlike me, but I also learn a lot about myself along the way.
This journey to Kenya was no exception for me. My first few days threw me into culture shock in a way I haven't experienced in some time. Perhaps it was partly because I was living with a Kenyan this time when often I am somewhat removed from the culture when I stay at my own apartment or hotel. Either way, I was really challenged to take a look at my own values and let go of some of my ideas of how the world should work.

A few things I observed:
(1) We may both be speaking English but that doesn't mean we are going to understand each other.
Accents and word meanings differ from America to Kenya and the result was obsessed hilariously through befuddled conversations.
Take the time Sarah asked me if I'd like a cocktail while we were at the supermarket at 12 pm. "No, thanks," I said, "I don't drink alcohol this early in the day." Come to find out that a "cocktail" in Kenya means a mixture of different types of juice.
Or take the time Sarah asked Esther if she wanted some hot [the "o" pronounce like the "o" in "coat"]
Esther: No, I don't drink whole milk.
Sarah: I'll warm it for you.
Esther: No, I don't drink whole milk.
Sarah: I'm going to boil it so it'll be hot.
Esther: It's whole milk, though.
Sarah: I'll warm it.
(This goes on for some time)
Esther: Oh!!! I meant "whole", W-H-O-L-E!
Sarah: Ohhhhh!!
(Uncontrollable laughter)

Other fun translations:
Boot= car trunk
Bonnet= car hood
Rubber= pencil eraser (yes, there was an interesting conversation with this one, too)
Biscuits= cookies

(2) A schedule is a loose suggestion and "being on time" is relative

Whenever a Kenyan said, "I'll be there soon" or "it won't take long", they would usually arrive at their destination 2-3 hours later. For this American who thrives on organization and schedules, I had a lot of heart work to do in letting go and letting God. There were a few times when God really used it though. Being a few hours late ended up being exactly what was needed.

(3) Sleep is not a daily necessity (only occasionally needed)

Kenyans love to party and have a ton of energy. We would stay up late and get up early daily. Esther and I took naps every day but Sarah didn't seem to need them.

(4) One person's "honesty" can be construed by another as "blunt".

Being someone who is pretty sensitive when it comes to words, it took some adjustment for me to process statements by Kenyans in the proper way. They are straight forward people with great hearts. They can really tell it like it is. I was really grateful for this, though, as it really opened doors for us as a team when Sarah would ask the hard hitting questions.

I could see God use every cultural experience for His good and my growth throughout our trip but, boy, am I glad to be heading home to some familiarity! I just pray that God reminds me of what I learned so I can adapt the things I've seen work well in Kenya to my own culture.

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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jesus had 12, I have 11

Jesus speaking of His disciples: John 17:6, 11-12, 14, 20-21 “I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
I experienced a profound lesson this week at work as I struggled to lead and mentor my 11 staff, amidst a divisive time of low morale. God moved in miraculous ways as we sat around a large table on Wednesday and talked about gossip and how to respect one another. It was beautiful to see these young women open up their hearts, while listening wholeheartedly to one other do the same.
It was the next day that my devotion was focused on building disciples. The reflection time described Jesus' parting words in John 17 about leaving His own 12 disciples to go and spread the good news to the world about what they had learned firsthand from Jesus himself, our Savior.
It blew me away to see the parallel in my own life. God chose those exact 12 men for Jesus to lead and love, just as He chose these exact 11 women for me to teach and love. Jesus saw potential in every one- He knew these would be the ones to tell the world about Him and start the movement. Throughout His ministry, they were foolish, weak, baby believers. By the end of their lives, they were bold, courageous, strong, faithful martyrs for God. It is because of them that I sit here today writing this, reading a Bible, and knowing who Christ is. Jesus knew those exact men would be the ones to do it.
I also want to see the potential in each of my staff. I want to look in their eyes and not only see what's there, deeply rooted in their hearts now, but what can be. I want them to believe in their potential and to see themselves how God sees them.
I want to continue to be a part of their growth as they process this life, sharing what God has done for me and what He wants to do for then. God has placed them in my life for such a time as this and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world.

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Farewell, Kolkata. You served us well.

Our last day in Kolkata already? In some ways it feels like we've been here for ages and that home is so far away. In others, we feel like we are just getting settled in and used to a certain way of daily life.

We enjoy our day, knowing these memories will last a lifetime. Mina and Marlene take us to St. Paul's Cathedral first. Its lovely with its white exterior against the light blue sky. It is small inside and it doesn't take us long to walk through it. We admire the stained glass and take same pictures then head out to drive to the Indian Museum.
The Indian Museum is large and we admire the architecture more than the artifacts. Again, the white artifice is attractive, especially against the blue sky on this warm day. We walk down aisles of statues and ancient coins, archeological relics and fossils, and feel that this two hundred year old building hasn't changed much in all those years. The long dank rooms hold the same dusty dark wood cabinets as they did years ago, crammed with thousands of old animal skulls, fossilized shells, and rocks. The signs are still in handwritten painted script, mounted above each cabinet, like "Crocodylus palustris" and "Homo Sapiens." It reminds me of the office of Indiana Jones.

After climbing two huge flights of stairs twice, Mom is exhausted. It's been a long week for both of us. We are ready to go home. Our last stop of the trip is a delicious meal at The Park Hotel. It is a five star hotel and we are treated by Mina and Marlene to Biryani, Papad, spinach rice, Lamb shanks, spinach rice, and molten cake. It is the perfect note in which to conclude our adventure.

We'll miss the daily unpredictability of staying in a new country and the entertainment of observing a unique way of life as we drove through the heart of the city. Most of all, though, we will miss our newest friends, Marlene and Mina, who showed us the hospitable, caring, fun, friendly heart of the Indian people.

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

God smiles through children's eyes

As I prepare for my second and final day with the Missionaries of Charity, I feel apprehension about facing the tasks in the orphanage, excited about seeing my new foreign friends, and sad to be leaving it all so soon.

I arrive at a quarter to six in the morning and know what to do this time. I walk straight upstairs to the chapel and remove my shoes before finding a seat on the mat. Before I do, I stop on the stair landing in front of the chalkboard that bears that morning's quote by Mother Teresa, “I ask you one thing: do not tire of giving, but do not give your leftovers. Give until it hurts, until you feel the pain.”

It is exactly the encouragement I need to face the challenge of today. I am selfishly nervous that it will be harder than my first day. I pray that God shows me something special today, something only for Him and me. I ask for guidance and focus and ask that my short time here make a difference. As always, He blows me away with His answer.
Mass begins as last time, with the usual prayers and songs. The Italian priest speaks this morning in a way I feel is meant only for me (God's first answer to my prayer.) He talks about loving until it is difficult and then loving through difficulties. I remember why I am here and why so many have come before me and will come after. Each of us plays a valuable role in the lives of the needy and we all must take up our crosses.

I feel lighter as I walk to the breakfast room. I hug Judy and say hello to Jose. We have a good forty minutes to chat. I meet a new volunteer from Tokyo who, upon learning I am from the Bay Area, proudly shows me his pictures from his recent trip to Stanford and Berkeley.

It is finally time to travel to our respective homes to work. I exchange contact info with Judy and Jose and hope we keep in touch. They are lovely, good hearted people and have truly made my time at the orphanage more enjoyable. We hug and say goodbye.

Today when I arrive at my home, Gabby is not there so I go ahead and grab an apron and say hello to each of the kids. They look a lot more like kids to me today than "children with disabilities." It's amazing how quickly one can see beyond disabilities when one has a chance to get to know each child individually. My heart is light and grateful to have one more morning with these beautiful smiles, sweet laughs and comforting hugs.

This morning is more relaxed than Wednesday was and I find that I have a lot more time to spend just sitting and playing with the kids. There are less volunteers and less crying so there is less stress. I make a point of spending at least ten to fifteen minutes at a time with each of the children who aren't getting as much attention.

I end up sitting with one boy almost thirty minutes because I feel a connection with him. He smiles the most and lays quietly on the mat in the middle of the room. I exercise his arms by moving them up and down. I am addicted to this boy's smile and find that God has answered my prayer from that morning. He is showing me who He us through this boy's eyes. Awhile later the German volunteer, Hilda, who has been here for a few months, tells me that what I am doing is exactly what he needs since he has asthma. Lifting his arms alleviates his discomfort. He starts laughing and moving around more. She said this was always a good sign. It was a beautiful moment that I won't soon forget.
I move over to the boy I had fed two days before, whose body was so contorted that he could only sit and cry for hours. I pray God will give me strength as I attempt to bring him some comfort today. I hold his hand and stroke his head over and over for a long time. After about ten minutes he is so quiet and still that I feel this amazing peace over us. I can't describe the feeling. It is the grace of God I feel on the floor in a dirty orphanage in Kolkata. I ask Him to take this child out of pain soon.

As I look around the room, I observe the beautiful sisters and Indian helpers who love these children as their own. They hug them and pick them up and cuddle them and tease them. They are a family.

The morning passes quickly and I am ready to go but will miss these little faces. I look at Hilda hugging an older boy and one of the sisters kissing another and I think they are in wonderful hands.

The evening is a stark contrast to my morning, as the driver picks me up to meet with my mom and Marlene across town at the shop. We plan to go shopping at the mall for souvenirs and genuine Indian fashions. We know we're in the best hands with stylish Marlene. We go to the Forum, which looks like a typical western mall, complete with country music playing in the background. We have fun trying on various outfits until each of us has about three bags full of clothes. Mom and I find kurtis (long tunic style tops) which come in bright colors and matching leggings. We are looking forward to wearing them in the states and plan to wear our finer ones to Grandpa's memorial service. He would have loved seeing us in them.

After a long evening, we get home late. I still can't get used to the fact that it takes an hour to get anywhere in town. I have been awake since five AM and
driven across town four times, which means that I have been in the car almost four hours. I fall asleep quickly, dreaming of our impending final day before we fly home.

Sent from Samsung tablet

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Sisters, Sisters, never were there such devoted sisters

There is no better way to start my day than with God so I don't pass up the opportunity to go to mass with the Missionaries of Charity today, even if it is at 6 am. I wake up before my alarm, at 4 am, and wait for my driver to arrive. He picks me up and we make the drive in only twenty minutes since there is no one on the streets at this hour. It is a huge change from the normal traffic congestion.
I arrive at the small chapel at thirty minutes to the hour so I quietly step into the long narrow room and sit with the other foreigners on the floor mat. The sisters fill the left and center of the room in their white saris with blue stripes. This is my first mass and I am a little nervous. I spend my time alternating between prayer and observing the people around me. The room is silent and there is a crucifix on the wall in the center. Foreigners continue to trickle in, each one kneeling and making the sign of the cross before they enter. For a second I feel guilty that I have disrespected the sisters by not doing so but then I remember that God knows my heart and that is more important than what others may think of me.
I look around at the sisters waiting patiently for mass to begin. Some of them have probably been waiting for an hour. I admire their humble service and daily dedication to prayer and God's service. It could be tempting to feel unworthy or less than adequate but I find my heart lifted by the fact that while some sisters are in prayer others are sleeping. This makes me smile and remember that we are all simply human and that God is delighted by each of us, regardless of how we worship Him. I will meditate on this often throughout the mass.
I discuss this with Jose later that morning. It is a beautiful thing when you can admire aspects of each person's worship, even if it is different than your own. I love the exuberant worship at my own church – the loud passionate singing and the freedom to use my body freely through that worship experience by lifting my hands, moving to the music, or even dancing. At the same time, I appreciate the reverence that exists on the chapel this morning. Jose says that each of us connects to God so differently so it's great to observe other types of worship to find what helps you connect with Him best.
Mass begins and we go through the motions of the service- standing and sitting, reading scriptures, and singing. The women's voices are beautiful. I wish that they would sing more often but mostly they do recitations of Scriptures and prayers. The hour goes by quickly. I am trying so hard to keep up with the actions that by the end I don't even recall what they talked about. I know God understands my heart.
After mass I have breakfast with Elizabeth and her son Noah from Idaho, Judy from Australia and Jose from Spain. It's the first day of volunteering for me and Jose so the veteran volunteers give us helpful tips as we eat bread, bananas and drink "mill tea" (aka chai). They tell me not to take anything personally if the sisters yell at me. They have a harshness of tone when directing volunteers, I'm told, and I'm encouraged that I will inevitably do something wrong but that it will be okay. I am grateful for the warning. The girls also tell me where to go to connect with the party who will walk to the Shishu Bhavan home with me. We all part ways and I find a new ally, Gabby from Mexico City. She has been working in Shishu Bhavan for three weeks so she proves a valuable resource. She tells me what to expect and that people will guide me through the process. She tells me that every day is different. Working with disabled children requires a lot of time and patience. Since everything takes so long to do, time will go quickly and a schedule does not exist. Feeding can take up to an hour depending on which child you are working with. There is some physiotherapy and singing, as well as nap time. I will be involved in all of these things.
I ask her if the children are treated well and she provides a poignant answer. She says that I must remember that the Indians who are working with these children have been working with them for years. They are not as careful with the children as someone like myself might be. This does not mean that they care less, just that they are more comfortable and used to these children. They also know what each child is able to do and they may push them more than an outsider may deem acceptable, since they don't know what that child is capable of. I observe this firsthand shortly into my shift. It is one of the more awful things that I have seen until I hear why it is done. Two of the Indian women take a boy and tie him to a bearing column in the middle of the room so he is standing straight with his back and legs against the wall. They shove a desk in front of him so he will not move. He cries and cries and I feel sick. They walk away and I walk up to him and try to comfort him with touch. I don't understand why they're doing this to him but I think it must be a punishment of some kind. A sweet lovely Sister walks over to me and puts a chair in front of him. She tells me to sit and comfort him. She tells me that he recently had a stroke and his legs are weak so he must be forced to stand for at least 15 minutes. This strengthens his legs. She tells me to massage his hands and arms since those have also been affected. She says that sometimes this brings comfort. She again reminds me that it will only be 10 minutes more and then they can untie him. While I still don't entirely feel comfortable with this practice, I have a better understanding and pray that this therapy is effective. I am so grateful when the 10 minutes are over and he is free.
I am only there for four hours but is the longest and most difficult four hours of my life. When I first walk into the room of 30 children with disabilities I am a bit overwhelmed. I have no idea what I'm expected to do, let alone how to interact with the kids. I watch Gabby walk right into the middle of this circle of children, giving each of them affectionate squeezes on the arm or tickles. I am comforted to know that I can be free with touch and decide to just let my heart lead me. I follow Gabby in making the rounds, squeezing their arms and smiling. Some of the children respond immediately with smiles and I fight back tears. I don't cry all day, which surprises me. I'm so grateful for God's strength and joy. Mostly, I can't stop smiling.
All of the children are gathered in circles and the volunteers sing. As they sing, they move each child's arms up and down as part of their therapy. They motion for me to do so as well so I grab the arms of two girls and move then to the music.
Shortly after most of the children are moved to the middle of the room for physiotherapy. Some of the children are equipped with leg braces or eyeglasses. They put on a music tape that repeats for hours with songs like "Mary had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". We take the kids for walls around the room and exercise their extremities. I am impressed at the extent of the therapy that they actually do. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to witness physical therapy and use the few exercises I remember to help some of the kids.
One little boy is adorable. He is about five but looks three. He is decked out with little eyeglasses that are tied to his head like eye goggles and fitted with two braces on his little legs. He stands alone, hanging on to the edge of the crib so I grab his arms and we walk a few slow steps at a time until he is tired.
Soon it is Snacktime and I am handed a cup of liquid that smells like animal crackers to feed the child that I am sitting next to. I find it very challenging to get all of the food in this child's mouth without spilling it all over the front of him. I'm sure that everyone is thinking, "Poor dear. Clearly a newbie." Little do I know that this is easy compared with the second child that I will try to feed. This is not my specialty. I'm much better at hugging! I look over at the German woman next to me who is feeding her child and I am amazed at the incredible love and connection that she has with her. I swear that every spoonful she gives that child is full of love. This girl looks her in the eye and trusts her completely. I can tell that it is a very challenging child to try to feed because of the lack of ability to open her mouth on her own. She just smiles and touches her head, feeding slowly and affectionately, as if she is the only girl in the room.
After we finish, the bell is rung for volunteers to take a break. We go upstairs for tea and biscuits. I sit next to Gabby and she tells me that this German woman has amazing stories to tell. She tells me that she knew Mother Teresa 25 years ago and that she comes here to volunteer two months out of every year. She has been doing this for the past 12 years. I am amazed at the heart of this woman. When she comes to sit down next to us I am eager to hear some of her stories.
She tells me that she has eight children, four of whom have been adopted from other countries. She says that she went to an orphanage in Peru with the plan to adopt a child, she found a six week old baby there that she decided to take home but stayed on at the orphanage as a volunteer for a bit longer. One day she decided to take each of the thirty orphaned children out into the sun for 15 minutes individually. One of the children was a one and a half-year-old girl who had been found severely beaten when she arrived at the orphanage. When the German woman brought the child back in from outside, she would not stop hugging her. This woman felt that she had chosen her. The little girl was unable to laugh, sit, or talk and was assumed to be handicapped. This woman's heart went out to her and she asked if she could adopt this child. They told her that she was not adoptable since she was handicapped. This woman pled with them and eventually adopted her. She said by the end of two weeks this little girl was laughing and sitting. By the end of six months, she walking and talking. All she needed was love. Now this young lady is 33 years old and a member of a true family.
As this German woman describes the story, her eyes fill with tears. I look around and I see everyone's eyes are wet. What I find the most beautiful is that she took the chance on one person and made a lifetime impact for that girl. I am reminded of just how important it is to focus on one child at a time. We can make a large impact that way.
The rest of the morning goes much more quickly as we feed the children lunch. I end up feeding a young girl whose body is so contorted that I have to hold her head and face it toward me each time I put in a mouthful of the split pea soup. Meanwhile I have to hold her legs and arms down so they don't interfere with the feeding.
My hand and arm are exhausted by the end and I feel terrible for this girl who is so uncomfortable.
After putting the kids to bed, we are done for the day and I'm ready for a shower and nap. I am so grateful for the gift of today, even though it was difficult. I learned a lot about myself and am grateful to see myself continue to grow.
I actually feel excited to go back and do it all again on Friday.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Volunteerism: Where new friends gather

This afternoon is the first time I'll be on my own since arriving in India. Mina rides with me to Motherhouse (otherwise known as Missionaries of Charity) where I will be registering to volunteer this week. I am always nervous when I go to a new place, especially in a foreign city. I'm very thankful that Mina is there to help me find my way.
We have to leave at quarter to two to get there in time for my 3 o'clock orientation. It takes that long to drive through the traffic from one end of the city to the other. Luckily, we arrived a little bit early so I can find my way. The first place we stop tells us to go down a little bit further. We arrive at the mother house and Mina tells me that the driver will pick me up after he gets Munu and my mom in the evening, about three hours from now. She smiles at me and pinches my cheek and leaves me to it. I walk in and ask one of the sisters where to go for registration. She tells me it's down the street about 10 minutes walk. Oh dear. If Mina and Munu knew I was about to walk alone down a busy Kolkata Street, they would probably never leave my side again. As I walk out of mother house, I see a young blonde walking toward me. God's providence again. I asked her if she is coming for registration and she answers yes. Courtney from Chicago becomes my new ally and take the walk together. She is a 22-year-old who is here for three months, working with a local Christian church. She tells me that she got "the call" from God at age 13 to do missions work so she is excited to finally be here. This is her first time overseas and she tells me she is not culture shocked yet, even after two months in Kolkata. As we talk for the next few hours I think she doesn't quite realize that the emotions she is going through are usually attributed to culture shock. I encourage her that when she gets back home to the states, she may find it more difficult than she realizes.
We talk easily because the common ground of Christ always brings people together. It's refreshing that God's church is all around the world.
Once we arrive at the correct building, the only people are sisters and a few homeless women seeking refuge from the heat in the cool outdoor gathering place. We wander a little and stumble upon a Spaniard named Jose. He has arrived to the city only thirty minutes ago, after a 14 hour train ride. He looks very tired but is still energetic and tells us excitedly about his travels so far through all of India. He has started in the north and is working his way down south. He has traveled quite a bit over the years so he and I have fun swapping travel stories. He is looking forward to working in the home for the dying at the missionaries of Charity. I am impressed as this is not something I think I could do. Courtney says the same. Courtney and I will be volunteering in one of the orphan homes instead.
We talked for about 30 minutes before the registration process get started. We see people start to trickle in. There are Chinese, Brits, Australians and New Zealanders, Americans, and Canadians. By the end of the orientation I will have met all of the English-speaking ones. I am in my element – meeting new people and trading travel tales. Telling my tales makes me reflect on how many places I have been blessed enough to go visit in my thirty one years. It has become so much more than just checking a place off of my list. I feel that each place I visit brings me closer to God and to understanding His people. As these volunteers discuss the places they have been, I am able to relate to them and our conversations go on for hours.
It's finally time for the orientation to begin. Dan from New Jersey begins his diatribe about convent rules and expectations. He is funny and to the point. He tells us about each of the 10 homes that the missionaries of Charity run across the city of Kolkata. I wish I had time to volunteer at them all. Each home has different requirements. Some only allow male volunteers, some only female volunteers, some only allow you to volunteer if you're staying for long periods of time etc. There is a home for the dying, a nursery for babies and toddlers, and multiple homes for handicapped children and adults. They tell me that since I am only there for a couple of days that I should not volunteer with the young children since they become attached two people and they want to limit the amount of goodbyes the children must make. I completely understand and volunteer to work with the children with disabilities. Many of them are not fully aware of what is happening around them so they do not become as easily attached. Also, I will mainly be going laundry and cleaning so will have limited interaction with the kids. Each shift is only four hours long so I feel a bit spoiled to only be spending a short amount of time there. I pray that God will use me anyway. The day starts with mass at 6 AM and then a small breakfast where all of the volunteers and sisters can eat together and talk. Shift starts at 8 o'clock and ends at 12. We are reminded that this is a convent and respect and quiet are expected.
I admire these women who live here and give of themselves selflessly every day. They work Monday through Sunday with a day of fasting and prayer on Thursdays. Courtney and I talk about The sacrifice it must take to make the decision to go into nunnery. We talk about how each of us have asked the question of God for ourselves at at least one point in each of our lives. Courtney was married once very young and it was a bad marriage. Afterward, she questioned whether or not she were meant to be married. Thankfully, she heard God tell her that marriage would be a part of her life and so now she waits.
I get my first real taste of the Indian pace of life. We sit and wait for an hour before we and register and choose our house. I continue to use the opportunity to get to know my fellow volunteers. I meet Judy, a hospice nurse from Australia, who has been saving up for 10 years to do this. She is going to work at the mother house for six weeks in the home for the dying. Her bright and energetic spirit impresses me. I cannot imagine doing that type of work for that long. She is actually excited to do it. She says that she uses her silliness and sense of humor to bring joy to people in the last days. She is beautiful.
I meet Elizabeth and Noah, a other and son from Idaho. They are traveling together and volunteering for his school projects. He is about 19 or 20 years old. He has a younger brother and Elizabeth tells me that the three of them travel often together. They recently got back from a trip to Mongolia, where they lived with no electricity and no running water. I can see that humility and compassion in her son already. I'm grateful to know that some children grow up with this kind of mentality instead of entitlement.
It's finally my turn and my name is called. I meet Sister Margaret, who has a smiling face, even when she's not smiling. She is quiet and small and kindly says, "Welcome" and asks where I will serve. I tell her and she writes my name on her little calendar under Shishu Bhavan, the home for children with disabilities. Hence me a card with my name on the dates that I will be serving, along with a small charm with Mother Teresa's picture on it. She tells me, "God bless you" and sends me on my way.
I wait for Courtney, who will walk back with me to the place we originally met, where my driver is expecting me. We have decided to volunteer at the same house but we will miss each other by a couple of days since she is only volunteering once a week. We part ways and I sit down to wait for my driver. I can't wait to begin work.

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Location:Motherhouse, Kolkata,India

Crocodiles, tigers and birds, oh my!

Five am Sunday morning and we are up! Excitement and anxiety fill our minds as we prepare for a long day ahead. We arrive downstairs to meet our tour guide and driver and our hearts stop for a moment. Their car looks like it belongs in a parade. The Volkswagen Bug lookalike is painted all over with various pictures of animals, symbols and colors. The look is completed by floor to ceiling floral upholstery. Add a peace sign and this baby is ready to roll back to the 70s. The driver can't fit the walker in the trunk but he says there is very little walking so we shouldn't worry. He uses the typical Indian phrase, "it's no problem." Munu has walked down with us and the look on her face shows worry. She and our guide have exchanged numbers so she tells me to call if we need anything. She gives me a very serious look and watches us drive away.
Our guide is an energetic 19-year-old. He tells us the schedule for the day: three and a half hours drive with tea break in two hours. Once we arrive at our destination in Sundarbans Tiger Reserve we will get straight onto the boat and stay on the boat most of the day. We will then catch a ferry to the village where we will take a rickshaw to the watchtower. From there visitors often catch a glimpse of a Bengal tiger in its habitat. Then he says we will leave at around 7:30 PM to get back to Kolkata at 11 PM. It is going to be a long day but Mom and I have high expectations for what we will see on our journey.
Mom and I enjoy the sights as we get further away from the noise and crowds of the city. We see so much green everywhere and the sun shines a bright orange in the sky. We drive for some time with this beautiful scenery, every once in a while being interrupted by a small village or town. It's fun to see the various inhabitants carrying loads of hay or cauliflower on their bicycles or rickshaws.
Our driver on this journey is even more reckless and aggressive than the drivers we have had in Kolkata thus far. Even I have anxiety. He comes so close to hitting bicyclists and dogs that mom and I stop looking ahead and try to look out the sides of our windows instead. We stop a few times so that the guys can get out and relieve themselves on the side of the road. Mom and I just sit and wait patiently for our turn at a real toilet. When we finally reach the "Chai stop", Mom and I go to the toilet, which is a genuine Indian toilet in the ground. The tour guide orders me a chai. I love chai and this one does not disappoint. It is sweet and thick and delicious. I decide to have this as often as possible while I'm here in India.
When it's finally time for us to move on to the road again, we drive an hour more to our final destination. We see water ahead and get excited to finally get on the boat and see some animals. Mom and I only have to walk a few yards to the end of the dock. However, when we arrive there we look down to four flights of very precarious steps. There are no railings and their are sheer drops on either side of the stair flights. The anxiety Mom feels is palpable and she says, "I can't do this." Considering the fact that we had driven 3 1/2 hours to get here I don't think it very likely that we should leave right then. The tour guide comes and grabs Mom's arm. He calls for another guy from the boat who grabs her other arm. She leans on them heavily for each step and they walk her very safely and securely down every flight and onto the boat. We are seated comfortably on a bench under an overhang on the boat and are introduced to our crew. There is a boat driver, the tour guide, our own cook, and an assistant to the driver. All this for only two of us. Mom and I feel like what we had paid isn't nearly what they deserve. We are really impressed with the care that they take with us all day long. Shortly after leaving the dock, it is teatime and we are served Puri. This includes round puffed tortillas (almost like sopapillas) with a side of vegetables soaked in spices. I like it but my mouth is on fire by the end. We barely finish the food on our plates and they pile on more. Meanwhile, we are floating on the river and admiring the dense mangrove forests along the banks. Our tour guide lay down on the bench and goes to sleep. Mom and I enjoy relaxing and conversing and taking in the beauty of the jungle. We get to the reserve about an hour later. We stop at a dock and the tour guide gets out with our passports to ask permission of the Bangladesh government to let us through to the reserve. After they do, a special Sundarbans tour guide boards the boat and we keep driving until we finally arrive at Sundarbans. It is incredibly quiet here. There is not a boat nor animal nor person anywhere for miles. It is such a stark contrast to the noise of the city that has kept us awake at night. We almost feel that we could sleep now. I ask when we can go into the forest and we are told that this is "in the forest". I realize that I completely misunderstood the tour description. I feel incredibly disappointed but want to make the most of our time. Mom does her best to stay positive and reminds me that even if we see nothing else it is worth it. We drive for miles and hours before we see a single animal besides a bird. All of a sudden our Sundarbans tour guide tells us that he sees a water monitor lizard up ahead. This is exciting as I have never seen one up close before. It is very large for a lizard and I certainly wouldn't want to get too close to it. Seeing it on the shore from the boat is just fine with me. Mom is so excited and takes lots of pictures. We feel a little bit hopeful that maybe we'll see a couple of animals after all. It's probably another thirty minutes before we see another water monitor lizard but it is just as exciting.
Our regular tour guide who drove here with us has woken up by now and we have fun getting to know each other. He is funny and reminds us of my cousin Austin so we get along really well. Munu calls sorely after to check in and make sure everything is going okay.
Soon enough we see our most thrilling sight yet- a crocodile only a few yards away. I have never been that close to one. We can see his face and his tail. His body is camouflaged by a tree. In the binoculars we can see every scale and discoloration. It is a rare sight to behold. The boat driver turns around a couple of times so we can pass it and take pictures again. It's exciting to see but I also feel nervous about being so close to it and am quite happy when we decide to move on.
We are served lunch at about 3 o'clock. Is consists of more vegetables like peppers, cauliflower and potatoes. There is eggplant and fried fish. It's a delicious meal.
After about five hours on the boat we are ready to go. I can tell Mom is fading and my cough is starting up again. I ask the tour guide if we can skip the rickshaw. He says yes and tells us we can just do the watch tower. After hearing how many steps there are, Mom says that she does not want to go. I tell the tour guide we'll skip the watchtower as well. We know by the time the boat gets back to the dock and we get in the car will still have three and a half hours to drive back. It will be nice to get back earlier. We don't regret it, even though our tour guide gets a phone call saying that there was a tiger sighting from the watchtower later. Mom and I laugh at the irony but know we made the right decision. We'll just go to the zoo to see one.
Our drive home feels a lot longer than the ride that morning but God protects us and we are grateful. We stop at the "chai stop" again for one more bathroom break. Luckily, it's still a little light outside so we can use the outdoor toilet. Mom uses it first and squeals as she accidentally puts her hand on a spiderweb. Now it's my turn. I walk in and see a giant spider hanging above the toilet. It has a bulbous body like a black widow and definitely looks dangerous, not to mention just plain creepy. My fear of spiders grips me and my chest feels tight. I feel I am between a rock and a hard place. I have to use the bathroom because we won't stop again for two and a half hours but the terror of knowing that giant spider is above me and may fall on me any minute terrifies me. I am gripped with fear and am about to have my first panic attack in India. Mom takes over and looks around for options. There is a curtained stall next to this one and Mom peaks in. There are two bricks in the middle of the concrete floor and a bucket. She tells me just to go in there. I walk in and decide to just do what I have to do. Thankfully, I realize that there is a drain and this is a second toilet. Relief!
We piled back into the car and ride the remaining few hours back to Kolkata. We hit a bicyclist and the car in front of us hits a puppy and we pray more and more that God will just get us home in one piece. He does and, by the look on Munu's face when we arrive, she's just as grateful as we are.
I think that's enough adventure for one day.

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Location:Brahmo Samaj Road,Kolkata,India