Monday, January 31, 2011

On second thought, Christy Smith and Discovering Deaf Worlds

Christy Smith at the Rehabilitation Center for Children in Kolkata, India

As you read in our blog of India, one of our days in Kolkata was spent at the Rehabilitation Center for Children where we worked on a scroll panel with the kids after watching and listening to the work of the artist, Karuna. Also in attendance were several deaf young adults from a nearby school. Working with them was an American volunteer Christy Smith, also deaf. At first meeting it would be difficult to know that Christy is deaf as she speaks as well as signs and is an easy conversationalist. Christy also came with us to Prayrona 2 when we handed off our digital cameras to kids from the school to photograph their 'world' in the in the Dakshindari slum. Sitting side-by-side in our rented truck, Christy had spoken to us a little about her work and her plans to go back to South America. She and I talked briefly about the difficulty of traveling and maintaining a personal relationship (my advice, take your partner with you!).

It is only now, back at home, that I can decompress all of the wonderful memories of Kolkata and one of those is meeting the extraordinary Christy Smith. I knew she had been the first deaf participant on the reality television show, Survivor, and that she competed in the Amazon. I knew she had been volunteering for many months in Kolkata at a deaf school (and I think it is also an orphanage). I knew also from Rosalie of Empower the Children that Christy had traveled around the world for a year raising awareness on issues of the deaf. I did not know that she had co-founded and sits on the board of directors of Discovering Deaf Worlds. In fact, to quote from her bio on Discovering Deaf Worlds:

A graduate from Gallaudet University with a B.A. in Criminology and Sociology, Smith has held positions as an American Sign Language teacher for various elementary and high school Deaf Education programs, a discovery coordinator and counselor with the Aspen Camp School for the Deaf, facilitator for the Colorado Home Intervention Program, and as a motivational/public speaker across the country.  She created a children's television show called Christy's Kids: Challenge Yourself after surviving 33 out of 39 days as a contestant on CBS’s Survivor: The Amazon (2003).  Smith is currently pursuing her Masters of Science degree in Secondary Education at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Pretty impressive! So here's a shout out to Christy - and if you have a minute check out the work of Discovering Deaf Worlds. Here you can see Christy on YouTube talking about why she decided to go on Survivor: 

Monday, January 24, 2011

Empowering the Children - after the volunteers

Now that we are all back home I expect that the volunteers will all be unpacking not only their suitcases, but their memories of India. As you've read we had a very busy week learning about education, empowerment, friendship and the human spirit. I want to thank Rosalie for teaching us about slum life and the richness of its inhabitants and for sharing her 'kids' at all the Prayrona schools and at Prabartak, planning our programs and making sure we were all happy! When Rosalie's kids are smiling and happy, Rosalie is happy, so I think she had a fabulous week too! Also, thanks to Ashit for keeping an eye on us (and the drivers) and for translating and always being at the end of a cell phone in case we needed him. And Reena, teacher extraordinaire whose smiles and hugs are of the long-lasting type. Maura Hurley, brought her friend, the maker of scrolls, to RCFC and translated this ancient art for the volunteers as Karuna sang. Her daughter, 'mini Maura,' thought up the program at the pre-vocational school for teenage girls and participated with us as well, along with Maura. Always smiling, Maura's kind heart and translation skills regarding not just the Bengali language but the culture were much appreciated.
We plan to post photos of the art of the vocational schools soon and hopefully anyone will be able to purchase hand embroidered saris, note cards and table coverings and help continue the work of Rosalie, Shelley and others in Kolkata.  Visit for background and information on these programs - updates are coming to the site as Liz, a college student from Chicago and ETC volunteer, completes her stay in India with Rosalie. Chelsea has remained in India too until mid-February to work with Rosalie.
Finally, thank you to all the volunteers Barry and Andrea, the "Pattys" (Patti and Patty, actually), Gary, Kira, Willson, Tate, Chelsea, Caitlin and David for your hard work, patience and flexibility. Hope to see you all again soon at our reunion with Rosalie when she returns to the US for the summer.
And after India? There are plans in the works for Ecuador (I will post some info from last year's trip), maybe Vietnam? And certainly a return to India in 2012. I will also be occasionally posting news about volunteer opportunities both local and international. It's been wonderful, we will do it again, but 'tata' for now!

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Saturday, we had to get ready to go, and finally to say bye for now. We packed first thing after breakfast, spent a few minutes with Mrs Smith, and after Jeannie settled some business with Ashit, we headed to the internet cafe. Some of us did some shopping there, and then we went over to the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street for a little browsing and some cappuccino. I bought a copy of "If I Were Rain," a great book about the slum kids of Kolkata.

When I got back to the Fairlawn, Mrs Smith and her daughter, Jennie Fowler, were sitting at "the boss's table" talking, and I took the opportunity to get a picture with them. When I showed the shot to them on the camera's screen, Mrs Smith said to me, "You're a good-looking fellow, you know. You're on my list; a bit down on the list, though." I was thrilled to make the list at all. Then she stood to walk over the her waiting car, to go on some errand, I imagine. Jennie took her one arm, and a nurse stood by to take the other, but instead of reaching for the nurse, Mrs Smith grabbed me around the waist and pulled us towards the car. As we started off, she began to skip and sing a nursery rhyme! Jennie just laughed, and away we went. When we got to the car, I helped guide her onto the back seat. I said that I'd miss her, to which she replied, "What are you, a Russian, pining away?" Then I kissed her on both cheeks, and she said "I'll miss you too, David." Wow! Then she pinched my nose between two knuckles, and took her leave on that note. One of a kind, that one.
So here I am now, looking at snow again and missing Kolkata and its memorable people. Our return flight had its assortment of hiccups and near misses, but it all worked out in the end, a lot like Kolkata traffic. It's so hard to capture this place in words or photos, but I've taken a swipe at it in this blog. If you want the whole amazing picture, book your ticket!

Making a quilt and sailing the River Hooghly

Friday, our last day, was another busy one. We first went to Prayrona III where we were to do a project with the kids - some really little ones. In fact, Rosalie was a bit concerned that they would be so taken aback at the sight of all these big, white people (whom they seldom, if ever, see) that they would burst into tears. She had us bring candies and toys to soften them up, and by and large it worked. There were some quivering lower lips here and there, and a lot of apprehensive stares, but once they saw what we were going to do, they warmed up and had fun with it. The project was managed by our friend Sandy, who spent part of the week with us. We started with squares of white fabric, about 8" on a side, and glued a strip of rickrack across one end. Then we had the kids make thumb prints - little tiny thumb prints - in different colors and patterns on the square. We then used black sharpies to draw details on the colored thumbprints to make them into ladybugs, centipedes, birds, trees, and anything else we could think of. It was fun to watch recognition dawn on the kids' faces as the spots of color became identifiable bugs and plants. As a final Indian touch, we had the kids glue sequins onto the squares. The results were surprisingly good. Sandy collected all the squares and will sew them into seven quilts that she will take with her to the Scottish partner school that raises funding for the Prayrona schools. Sandy told me that she merely mentioned to some Indian acquaintances that she was going to sew all these squares together, and then next thing she knew, twenty women volunteered to help her. This kind of volunteering is contagious.
After we were finished and said our long goodbyes to the kids, who were by now smiling and reaching for our hands, I went outside to where the cars were waiting. Four teenage boys were playing carroms on a board set up on the sidewalk. This is a game my siblings and I played endlessly as kids. I exclaimed "carroms!" as I approached them, and they all paused and smiled that I knew the game. Then, in Calcuttan fashion, one of them stood aside and asked me if I wanted to play. Of course I did. I quickly felt sorry for my partner across the table, as my shooting skills have decayed dramatically since my prime carroming days. These guys had the moves - it's all in the finger flick. The other team cleaned my clock by running the board. It was all good fun.
We went to the house of the teacher, Champa, for lunch. She is a gracious host. She lives in a quiet (yes, really!) neighborhood of Kolkata in a beautiful, airy flat. The dining room is central, with bedrooms, kitchen, laundry porch and small shrine room off of it. On one of her balconies, she has a garden of potted flowers. It was nice, and interesting, to see this kind of home, after seeing homes in the bustee, which can be no more than 10' by 10' and house eight or ten people. Of course, there are palatial residences in the older colonial neighborhoods. One of these, which though still privately owned is partly open as a museum, is the Marble Palace, which we saw on the day of our city tour. A quick note on that: it is a large, marble house, with cavernous function rooms in two stories that enclose a central courtyard. It is in rather neglected condition. The owner, a wealthy potentate, assembled an eclectic collection of European and other art, none of it of particular note that I could determine. However, there are marble statuary, enormous cut-glass chandeliers, furniture, clocks - you name it. One of the interesting things is a grand piano, the first in Kolkata, according to our guide. Kira, Chelsea and Caitlin, going to use the facilities, ran across the owner of the house preparing to do her work-out, and had a conversation with her. She was very curious about them. But . . . back to our day.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Photoshoot in the bustee

Thursday, we went to Dakshindari, the bustee (the slum neighborhood) where Prayrona II sits, at the end of a narrow alley. Reena, who teaches there and at the other Prayrona schools, told us that the kids had been waiting for us for months. When our plans to visit were finalized last March, she told the kids that we were coming, and they were so excited that Reena wished she hadn't told them so early. Waiting is a hard thing for kids! So were arrived, all the aunties and uncles, to lend them our cameras and follow them around the bustee while they snapped away. I had two little girls with me, Sabana Khatun and Sabrale Khatun, and after a couple of quick demonstrations about standing still and pushing the shutter release all the way down when shooting, off they went. At first, they were clicking on the run, and we got a number of great shots of feet, sky, and headless persons. But they got the hang of it very soon. All told, they took nearly 200 pictures of vendors' stalls, mini-factories, old people, babies, families, kitchens - everything you can imagine, and many things you couldn't. I noticed that the bustee was cleaner than it has been in the last two visits, and I came across a crew actually shoveling a pile of garbage into a truck for disposal. The two shutterbugs tussled over the camera a couple of times, but it went very smoothly. We have done this outing twice before, and Reena prompts the kids before we get there, so they knew what kinds of things to photograph. At first, it was just the three of us wandering around, but word travels fast in the bustee, where so many, many people live in close quarters, and we soon had a posse following us. I don't know how many kids came up and eagerly said "hello," and "where are you from?" Visits by westerners to the bustee are rare, and we were both a curiosity and a pleasure for them, I think. Everyone is friendly and smiling when they see the kids with the cameras. One man stopped me and asked, "Can you train them?" If these kids were not in school, they would be working to support the family. It is a measure of how well Reena has worked with the parents to get their support to be asked the question that this man asked me. They do get it - they want their kids to get what the school can help prepare them for - a life better than laboring in the slum, or as a servant in a well-off household. The kids have self-esteem and self-confidence, especially the kids whom I have seen now three times in three years. The ones who were so little three years ago are now noticeably self-possessed. When I look at them, and then at the little ones eating their healthy lunch and laughing and smiling at us, I'm confident that they are in good hands, and that our visits and support is making a difference for them. The photo is my friend (and self-possessed young lady) Saboo.

“The connections we make in the course of a life - maybe that’s what heaven is.”

Monday we went to the first vocational school of Empower the Children: Praroyna 1 or in english, Inspiration 1. And let me tell you, each and every one of these girls has a light inside of them that shines brighter than anything you’ve ever seen..inspiring all who have the honor of looking into their eyes and having that immediate connection. As soon as we got there it we were greeted by their beautiful smiling faces along with a sign that read, “To Our Loving Volunteers, Welcome” (not in that order! but beautifully thoughtful none the less)
Each time we visited one of the Praryona schools we worked on a project with the students. At P1 we made small bags (that resemble a clutch purse back at home!) All of us students, volunteers, teachers, and Rosalie gathered in one of the two rooms of the school and saw that each of the girls had already embroidered a piece of fabric with their names along with one of our names. After we found our partner we sat down together with a needle, thread, a pencil, another piece of fabric, and decorative ribbons and beads and made our one of kind, priceless clutch!
My girl’s name was Ruma and she was so sweet! Very patient with me and my lack of sewing skills; I took forever to do 10 stitches and finally she so kindly looked up at me and gave me a “I’ll take it from here” kind of look.
I felt so special, so happy, so honored! to have been given this purse. It holds so much meaning for me! It was something that we worked on together, a connection that we shared that no one will ever be able to take away from either of us no matter what happens. We laughed and laughed even though we barely spoke any of each other’s native language. It was truly a beautiful thing!

Last night in Kolkata...

WAAAHHHH!!!!!! We are all so sad to say it was our last day in Kolkata today! We visited one more Praroyna school, this time working with the 2 and 3 year olds (just my style!!) Rosalie was nervous that the children would not only be a bit intimidated by us (big, white strangers can be scary if you've never seen anything like them before) but would also not cooperate exactly with the project. Thankfully NONE of this was true! Aside from the one or two that got upset, they were all so accepting and happy to see us. They also did wonderfully with the quilting project we had. Another volunteer, Sandy, will be sewing all the squares together to make a quilt to send back to the school in Scotland that funded these lessons. We used ink pads and used their fingerprints to make all matter of fauna and flora. They enjoyed it and we had a blast (especially Kira and I who were still playing with the kids as the other volunteers were packing up!) Then we had lunch at one of the teachers houses. Champa was incredibly hospitable and it was so cool to see someones actual house here in India. Then we had a three hour boat tour (deja vu?) which was another interesting perspective of the city. After dinner at a cute Italian restaraunt ( and the irony of our final meal in INDIA being ITALIAN was not lost on any of us) Kira, Willson, Tate and myself went to the home of Methab, a friend of Rosalie's, where he and his sister-in-law gave us henna tattoos. Once again, these people wanted nothing but to make us comfortable, give us tea, dessert or whatever we wanted! Indian people are so generous to their guests, it is a true lesson to Americans on how to be a better host/hostess. Champa said "You are our guests, when a guest comes it is like God coming to your home. And because you are here to help destitute children, it is even more so" How many people can any of us in the US say we know that would share that sentiment??? Our henna is absolutely gorgeous and we are all so happy we had the opportunity to have it done!

And tomorrow we are off :( We are so sad about leaving this beautiful place and leaving behind this experience. It's a bit too hard to write about now because, to be honest, I'm a bit in denial about leaving. Perhaps once I'm back home and can wallow in it a bit it will be easier!

Rockin at the Fairlawn

Wednesday night was the party of the season at the Fairlawn Hotel. Mrs Smith, the owner and manager of the hotel since waaaaay, back, turned 90 on Wednesday, and no effort was spared on the celebration. All she wanted was a toy boy, and whether she got one I can't say. She did enjoy "juicy kisses" from your correspondent, who enjoyed them too! The evening started with the corniest magician you can imagine, and yet it was funny and engaging. He did a particularly amazing stunt that involved a box with a door on one side being set over an assistant's head, which, after opening this door to show the man's face inside it, was run through with a dozen or two fakey-looking knives, to exaggerated gasps from the crowd. To everyone's horror, he opened the door to reveal a mass of criss-crossed knives where the assistant's face should have been. The door was closed, the knives dramatically removed one by one, and the box was lifted. And there was the assistant's remarkably bloodless head, firmly attached to his neck. What a hoot.
Then we had a very nice speech from Jennie Fowler, Mrs Smith's daughter, into which Mrs Smith interjected her saucy commentary. Our girls, Kira, Chelsea and Caitlin, sang an a capella medley of "Isn't She Lovely" and "Happy Birthday," which was beautiful and delightful, and had everyone enchanted at how wonderful they were to serenade Mrs Smith. Then the band fired up, and we all realized that nobody there needed even half an excuse to get to the dance floor. For a mature crowd, these old English ladies had some moves! The dancing went on nearly non-stop until the band quit, hours later. The staff was eventually pulled onto the floor, too, and danced along with us. I think the liquor cabinet was bare by the end. To our amazement, all of these dancing crazies were there at breakfast, none the worse for wear. I'll admit it took me some time to revive. And Mrs Smith, 90 years young, stayed for the whole party, and had this toy boy's undivided attention for a while to boot.

David continues . . .

Back. So we left off at the railroad crossing on the way to Kharmagachi. We did make it, and contrary to what my senses told me, I did not have any teeth shaken loose on the washboard roads. The drivers were constantly lost, stopping to cross-examine pedestrians along the way and arguing between them, until we finally got to the village. Shelley received us in her house, and then we walked to the vocational school. I can't believe how much improved the girls are as artists! Thanks to Michelle Marx's generosity, an art instructor comes three days a week to teach them, and the lessons have clearly made a difference. Their pieces are beautiful. There are delicately designed and painted cards, and hand-stitched saris and other fabric pieces. I couldn't resist one of the saris - it has a beautiful pattern with peacocks on a red silk cloth. I might even wear it myself. Not to the office, probably. We dawdled there for a bit, and then wandered down a lane into the fields. Along the way, a woman came out of one of the houses and told us (!) that we were coming in. So we did. Within minutes there were plastic chairs collected from several of the neighboring homes and set in a circle in their swept-dirt courtyard. She offered us lunch. Caitlin, Chelsea and Kira started some games with the little kids, and soon we had a crowd watching and laughing with us. It was a great spontaneous party.
From there, we went to a field where some older boys were playing cricket. We were shown to a line of plastic chairs, and shortly after, dancers and drummers came to do a performance of traditional dance and music for us. Some of us had seen such a performance last year in the small enclave in the village where these dancers live. They are of the untouchable class, and are segregated even within the small village of Kharmagachi. This time, though, we had at least 300 people from the village, perhaps more, standing behind us watching the dance. The drummers, all men, face the dancers, all young women, who are positioned in two lines of six or so girls each, one line behind the other. As drummers play, they turn slowly counter-clockwise, and the two lines of girls, arms entwined, perform intricate dance steps that take them in a circle so that they remain facing the drummers in a kind of orbit around them. There are several dances that we saw, each with a different beat and different dance steps, but all following this pattern of turning in a slow circle. After a few dances, they pulled us out to dance with them. Oh my! I did manage not to step on any of these tiny girls' toes, and even managed after a few orbits to get the dance step down. Our audience of several hundred laughed and hooted in delight. They mobbed us like we were rock stars after we were done. I am so happy at the progress that the girls have made with their sewing. Their work would sell quickly at any shop in the U.S.
On Wednesday we went to the Rehabilitation Center for Children (RCFC) in Kolkata. This is a remarkable place where kids with orthopedic disabilities come for surgery and rehabilitation. Most of the kids here have club feet or other leg deformities. If they are under the age of three, their mothers can stay at the hospital with them. Since many of them need several surgeries to correct their conditions, they stay for several months, and can stay for up to two years, at no cost to them. They have a terrific guy who makes the prostheses that the kids need in the hospital's own shop. He works with very old machines and plastic sheets to form custom-fit braces for the kids. This is a happy place, believe it or not. The kids are well cared for. Rosalie arranged for a scroll-singer to be there. She is from a caste that paints scrolls, consisting of many panels, that depict events, myths, jokes and other stories. These singers used to travel from village to village and sing the stories as they rolled through the scrolls to tell villagers of news and to entertain them. There are scrolls and songs that depict the great tsunami of a few years ago, and the events of 9/11. There is also the story of the wedding of the fishes, which ends with a greedy fish devouring all the others. In the age of the internet, this is a vanishing art. We are lucky to have seen this performed. Afterward, we each worked with one child to create a panel that depicts something from their daily lives. I worked with Ramesh Das, a disabled orphan boy. The instructor explained in Hindi what we were going to do, and, at first, Ramesh sat very still, just looking at the paper. I thought that perhaps he didn't understand, but finally he began to draw. As I worked on the border of the panel, Ramesh drew a smiling boy, and then a peacock, all with a blue pastel crayon. I thought he was done, but he grabbed one color after another and added detail and outlining to his figures. In the end, they were colorful, fanciful and full of life. He lives in an orphanage for boys, mostly deaf, run by a British man. A volunteer, Christy, had brought Ramesh to RCFC for the day. When she saw his drawing, she asked me if I had done it, or helped him do it. It seems that Ramesh had never responded much to efforts to draw him out, and she was amazed at what he had done. I got a hug and a smile from him when Jeannie took a picture of the two of us.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

'I Love a DANCE!'

We have been busy busy busy these last few days and they only get better with each one. Tuesday we took a loooooong car ride to a village called Karmagachi outside of Kolkata (I have yet to reference the driving scene here in India because as we've all agreed, you really won't believe what we tell you!) Though long, the drive was well worth it when we met Shelly a woman who runs the vocational school associated with Praroyna school. We saw the work of the girls there which were exquisite hand made cards using dried leaves, paint, fabric and other things as well as hand embroidered saris and handkerchiefs; all gorgeous. Then we had a bit of time before the dance program they had scheduled for us, so we decided to just wander the town a bit. As usual, we caused quite a scene. As we walked down this dirt road people greeted us and then began to follow us. We looked like the Pied Pipers of India! So many children came out to just walk with us. Then we were invited into the home of one woman. Imagine seeing 15 strangers walking down your road and feeling compelled to invite them all in AND find them all chairs(she had everyone in the house bringing out every seat they could find) We realized it would be a bit odd to sit in a circle and not actually be able to converse with these people, so Chelsea suggested we play a game with the children ( in a household compound of probably 20-25 people..we had a gaggle of children there to play with us!) We taught them duck,duck, goose (which they took to VERY well) and even simon says. We had to leave after that to see the dance program (which was scheduled for 2 which in India time means 3:30). We walked to the field, still followed by at this point I'd say a quarter of the village, and were seated in chairs. The dancing and drumming was incredible to see. I've had the opportunity to try a few different types of ethnic dance and was thrilled to be able to get up and try their dance as well; in fact our whole group did(including Willson, who drummed!) I was exhilirated and sweaty and on that amazing adrenaline high you get from dancing in a field feeling so much joy!
Wednesday brought us to Rehabalitation Center For Children. This hospital is for children from other states in India who have orthopedic deformities and need surgery, physical therapy or both. Children over the age of 3 do not have a parent staying with them. I can't imagine being just 4 or 5 years old having major surgery and not having my mom there with me! But as is the norm here, they don't feel sorry for themselves and they are happy to be taken care of and getting the help they need. Their sense of community, of family, is astounding and so amazing to me. The project we did with them is based on the ancient art of patas (painted scrolls) that are stories told through song while unrolling the scrolls. We had one of the few remaining patua's (folk artist) demonstrate this art which is dying out due to television, the internet etc. I was really taken with this; I so enjoyed hearing her sing the stories. I may not have understood, but it was one of those things where the story transcends the language barrier because of the artist. We then were paired up with a child and they were to draw one scene from their life while we decorated the border. Rosalie said the children did so much better this year and really opened up to us. They are just amazing to watch when they are able to do something fun that is totally in their control. My little girls laugh will stay with my forever.
Wednesday night was hotel proprietor, Mrs. Violet Smith's 90th birthday party here at The Fairlawn. It was a TREMENDOUS party, but I'll spare the gory details. Chelsea, Kira and I sang a song for this incredible woman and I was so happy to be part of her legendary story!
Today we visited the slums of Kolkata. Each of us was paired with a student from Praroyna 3. We were sent out to explore their 'neighborhoods' and handed them our own cameras to take any and every picture they wanted of their space. It was such a unique experience to find ourselves in a place that is basically polar opposite of how we in America live our day to day lives. My little girl never stopped moving, and at times got a bit more ahead of my than I liked, especially considering that, yes again, we had quite a following(I could not even guess at the number of hands I shook or times I answered the question "Madam, what is the name??") The pictures will be made into a book for each child to, as Rosalie said "See their homes in a different light." I feel so lucky to be a part of this because it will truly make a difference to these kids, which is Empower the Children's main goal; Help these kids build the self-esteem they need to truly succeed in this world, because if it's lacking they know no better than to beg or find worse ways to feed themselves and their families.
I am very sad that we have just one full day left here in Kolkata. I am not at all sad to return home, but their will be an absence in my heart for some time as I have learned so much about not only these people, but myself, and also about how I want to continue to make change in any way I possibly can.

Kids, Kharmagachi and Curry

We have been SO BUSY! And right now I have only about 15 minutes to post before getting ready for a memorial service for Norman Douglas Hutchinson. A famous painter (including Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family), we met Norman and his beautiful wife and muse Gloria at the Fairlawn last year. Sadly, he passed away last June. Tonight's Anglican service will be held at the 'Old Mission Church,' the oldest church in Kolkata. So, you are getting the short and sweet version of the week so far!

On Monday we visited a vocational school for 14 and 15 year old girls. Here they learn to embroider and sew so that they can get jobs. The classes are after their school day. They are also given terrific self esteem boosts through drama and music. Each volunteer worked with a student and we sewed a small bag on which the girls had embroidered both our names. Afterwords the girls entertained us with a performance from their Christmas drama (an Indian story, not a Christmas story, it's just performed at Christmastime). Kira and Caitlin sand and signed 'Love Grows" and we all had great fun!

On Tuesday we traveled for 2 1/2 hours to the village of Kharmagachi where we visited another vocational program aimed at empowering the girls and helping them, with employmemt. We will post pictures soon so you can see their beautiful sewing and embroidering and hand painted cards. You can also place orders if you like something. One of our volunteers from last year, Michelle Marx (who happens to be my cousin!) funds both vocational programs. Thank you Michelle, the girls are doing great things and the school in Kharmagachi has more girls (and even a few boys) than last year. Women from the village performed traditional dances for us. Afterwords, we all danced with the women and Willson even took one of the large drums form one of the men and played with the 'band.' It was a lot of fun! Hundreds of villagers were there clapping and laughing and photographing US! More on Kharmagachi later!

On Wednesday we went to the Rehabilitation Center for Children. Here is a photo of Kakali sitting next to Karuna who is holding one of her beautiful scrolls. These kids are mainly from the state of Bihar and can be in the hospital for surgery and physiotherapy for up to 2 years! Many had club feet and leg deformities. Children 3 years-old and younger can have their moms, but those older are on their own. The hospital is like a family and the children have art and music programs organized by Rosalie regularly. Here, Karuna from an artists caste showed us how she paints traditional scrolls. Made up of many panels, the scrolls can be up to 18 feet long. Each panel is sung as the artist unfolds the 'story.' These can be news events, religious stories, stories about marriage. She had a scroll about the tsunami that devastated Asia a few years ago. We then each took a child and they drew a single panel about something in their lives. Many drew their family and home or sports and other activities they liked. The volunteers colored the borders and the panel was glued to a piece of sari. Some of the students who participated were boys from a school for the deaf. Their volunteer teacher Christie was on Survivor Amazon several years ago! She is American, she is deaf, and has been here for many months volunteering for a school for the deaf. She has traveled the world raising awareness for the deaf community.

THEN, we were invited to a wonderful 90th birthday celebration for Mrs. Smith at the Fairlawn. A magician, music, dinner - it was so much fun and we danced till nearly midnight!!!! Her daughter Jenny Fowler now manages the Fairlawn. Jenny did a fabulous job putting the party together and guests, friends of Mrs. Smith, were in from around the world. Kira, Caitlin and Chelsea sang 'the Stevie Wonder version' of Happy Birthday beginning with "Isn't she wonderful" and there was not a dry eye in the house! Willson danced all night, singing along to the music, even ABBA which I am SURE he never heard before! However, he did know all the words to "I Will Survive" from watching the Replacements so many times I think. Tate is out official team photographer and I hope she can post some photos of the event. The rest of older folks danced all night too!

Today we went to a slum school and did a photo project with the kids. Here is a photo of everyone in the group - except David who took this picture. In the back, from the left, we have Patty, Kira, Chelsea, Caitlin and Gary, in the front, Tate, Willson, Andrea, Barry, Patty and me, Jeannie. And of course all of our beautiful, smiling children! On the top photo a few of the little girls dressed up for the occasion open small gifts brought by another volunteer Sandy who created the quilt project we will do with preschool kids another time. But, right now, I am out of time! Many of the volunteers are posting on Facebook, but we also hope to have some pictures posted here soon.
I am at Raj's Internet cafe on Sudder Street and Kira and Caitlin and Chelsea are here shopping for gifts (nice idea for people waiting for computers). Chelsea just bought a phone as she is staying on in India for another month or so. Gotta run!

The Whirl of Kolkata

We have been so busy over the last few days that no one has had a chance to get down the street to the internet cafe to write. And it has been so intense an experience that I have to sit and think a minute about what we did on each day. So, in (somewhat) brief . . .
Monday we visited one ot the Prayrona schools where there is vocational training for young women. The group who met us were between 14 and 15 years old. They greeted us with a daub of dye on our foreheads, and a namaste. We were paired up with the girls, and the task for the visit was to make a small bag - a simple design with a foldover flap that is closed with a snap. The fabric was already cut, and the interior piece was chain-stitched with our names and those of the girls. The girl I worked with is named Rani, which means Queen. The idea was that the girls would stitch the first seam or two, and then we would stitch some, and so on. Rani and I laid out the pieces of material, and I drew some guide lines for us to follow with our stitches. She started, and did the first two seams. The it was my turn. It was a simple stitch. I figured I could rattle right through it. Rani held the material tight to make it easier for me. Well, I am not a seamstress. On my first stitch I pushed the needle through the cloth and, apparently, into Rani's finger. At least I think that's why she yanked her hand back. After two more painstaking stitches, she took the thing out of my hands and resumed her work. It turned out very well. I was a little afraid that she was getting tired of my ineptitude, but she was thrilled when it was done, and smiled ear to ear at how pleased I was with it. (I will post a picture of the two of us - forgot to bring my SD card with me to the cafe). We all finished our bags and posed for pictures, and then the most amazing thing happened. The girls, it seems, also perform plays and skits. With almost no prodding, they got up and acted out a little play for us, a comedy. Even though we couldn't understand a word, we could tell when a comic character would appear, and they laughed and giggled along with the rest of the girls who watched. They also danced for us. It is remarkable how self-confident these girls are, particularly in this culture where girls are expected to work. From sewing school they will go on to learn tailoring, so they can design and make clothes. Rosalie says that they are being taught to be self-reliant, and we could see it in everything they did while we were there. In Indian fashion, it took as long to say goodbye as it did to do the sewing, but I was rewarded with a big hug from Rani.
On Tuesday, we went to the village of Kharmagachi, about a two and a half hour, hair-raising drive from Kolkata. Through the city, then its outskirts, then through acres of cement factories and steel factories, and finally into flat countryside planted with mustard, we drove over potholed roads, playing chicken with oncoming traffic with every car, truck, pedicar and bicycle we passed. And our drivers felt that no car on the road should remain un-passed. At one point we stopped at a railroad crossing. Stay in line? Not on your life. On either side of the tracks, behind the crossing gates, the cars and trucks lined up like the linemen on a football field. When the gates lifted, it was nose to nose vehicles. But in some kind of well-understood ballet, the drivers pushed their way around each other, and we were on our way. Every kind of transportation seems to work that way here, from driving to walking down a sidewalk. There are just so many people! Everywhere!
[More to come . . . have to get ready for a memorial service for someone we knew from the Fairlawn, the artist Norman Douglas Hutchinson, who died last June. His widow Gloria has asked us to attend, at the Old Mission Church, on Dalhousie Square.]

Monday, January 17, 2011

Day 3..."Time flies when you're having fun.."

Can't believe it's only day 3 here in Kolkata. Yesterday we had a 10 hour tour (cue Gilligans Island theme) that was, to say the least, awesome. First stop was the flower market. It was dirty and crowded; and it was beautiful and fun. As Kira mentioned we keep referring to Kolkata as a city of extreme contradictions. The extreme poverty contrasted not only by the 'beauty' of parts of the city but most certainly the happiness that most of the people here convey naturally. They are friendly and obliging and usually just want our attention. And on that topic.....
By the middle of the day we started calling Chelsea our 'celebrity'. Locals around town would walk right up to her and in whatever way they could make a comment about her hair (which is dark but unlike theirs EXTREMELY tight curls) and then they would want a picture with her! This was endlessly entertaining to me to see my friend getting asked for 'snaps' with people! But then I began to realize that as we were traveling through these places they were not just looking at Chelsea...but at all of us. And then they were asking Kira to take pictures with them...and me...and many others in our front of monuments and landmarks! The fascination with the westerners is flattering, I think, because it simply comes from not being familiar with people that look like us on a regular basis. I had several boys following me around (and through) the Jain temple we visited and then had a girl tell me "you are looking so good!" and then asking to introduce me to her sister..surreal.
Today was by far my favorite (so far, of course)We visited Prayrona's vocational school for young and teenage girls to learn stitching and sewing. We were paired up with a girl (my friend was Puja) and we stitched small hand bags that they themselves embroidered our names with theirs on. They helped us stitch the bags together which for some of us was such a challenge; they make it look effortless! Puja also once told me 'No' when i asked if she wanted me to take over stitching for a moment(I, of course, laughed) After stitching our bags they danced for us and Kira and I sang and taught them a song called Love Grows that we sing with the children at our daycare using sign language and they loved it! They also sang to us You Are My Sunshine, which had Kira and I in tears by "You are my..." It was just a moving moment being with these girls who have so little and yet are very clearly so happy with what they do have. As we left they kissed and hugged us so much I thought my heart would fall out of my chest. To top that off, as we idled in our van before leaving a whole group came and opened our back door kissing and hugging us again! We really felt BETTER than celebrities because of this. They are so happy to have us visit them and spend time with them. Many of us expressed a feeling of sadness and even a resistance to leave the girls because in this little time we began to feel so much for them.
And at only day 3, the fact that I feel so incredibly blessed to be having this BEAUTIFUL experience only makes me anticipate the next 4 days more<3

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Prabatak Home

Yesterday we went to Prabartak Home. Rosalie's 'kids' couldn't possibly give out any more smiles and greetings of 'hello' and hand shakes if they tried. We were each attached to one of kids and traced their outline on large sheets of paper. They each looked into mirrors to draw their faces and used pastels to color in their clothing, etc. Some were very excellent artists, others needed guidance, but it was truly a hands-on activity, a sharing of our skills in every way. Tate took wonderful photos of each person holding up their self portraits. These visits help build friendship and self esteem for people who are otherwise abandoned by society and family. Our presence shows that people care, especially as several of us are back from last year (when we took everyone on an outing at Millennium Park). There was a new boy at the home who at first looked shy/afraid and was hesitant to participate. The others encouraged him, taking his hands and guiding him. By the end of the day when the kids were playing drums and singing, this boy was laughing and dancing. It is truly a family, not an orphanage, as explained by Rosalie and as witnessed by the volunteers.

The City

I've been looking forward to this day. We set out with Mr Ritwick on a tour of Kolkata. Since it's Sunday, the traffic (and the accompanying din) were significantly less than usual, but the crowds at some of the places we visited were in full force. We went first to the flower market, at the Kolkata side of the Howli Bridge. We got there at about 9, but the market had been humming since 5AM when the farmers start arriving by train at the station on the other side of the river Hoogli and wheeling their flowers across the bridge. It's a long alley where the vendors set up, strewn with wet flower stems and petals. The small booths display masses of flowers - in long ropes, in garlands, and in decorative arrangements. Most of the flowers are bought by retailers, who then sell them primarily for use in worship. Men with huge baskets balanced on their heads plod through the crowds. Running off the alley is a maze of narrow paths through shacks and buildings, where there are even more vendors. It's so crowded on these dark lanes that it is difficult to maneuver, in fact, difficult to make any forward progress at all. In the midst of this maze is a dilapidated bath house that still has amazing tile work inside. And on the other side is a ghat, or a kind of landing, on the river. Here, people bathe, do laundry, cook and eat. The riverbank itself is covered in garbage, and the place has an aroma that you don't quickly forget. But in front of you is the broad river, about 700 meters wide, and the expanse of the Howli Bridge nearly overhead, which is one of the busiest bridges in the world. It's hard to describe the quality of the light; the sun is out, but there is a haze in the air - maybe the river, definitely pollution and dust - that tints everything in a pleasing way.

In the afternoon, we visited a Jain temple. The Jains are a minority religion in India that follow strict anti-violence
principles. Our guide told us that some even wear dust masks over their mouths to guard against the possibility of accidentally swallowing a bug. The temple is a jewel box of mosaics, inlays of stones and small mirrors. In the center is a garden with statuary, curving walks and plantings. In the main temple building is an altar. In front of the temple is a statue of a plump and proper-looking fellow, who was an accountant who directed the construction of the temple complex. Respect at last!

We were a little worn out for a big restaurant outing after the day of touring, so we stepped across the street from our hotel to the famed Blue Sky Cafe, which is a gathering spot for backpackers and other like-minded animals. It's busy and noisy (mostly because of the waiters screaming orders and questions at the kitchen) and you never know who you'll end up sitting with or talking to. The staff consider it ordinary to ask diners to move between tables in order to keep the maximum number of butts in the maximum number of chairs. Tonight, it was three anime-looking Japanese people, who when they left, were replaced with two pierced Dutch guys who were knocking around Asia for a while. They just looked for cheap air tickets and went. One of them mentioned to Patty, one of our group, that he had gotten a cheap ticket to Buffalo. She told him that there is a reason why tickets to Buffalo are cheap. We left him considering this thought.

Oh, Calcutta! (that is..Kolkata)

So far Kolkata has run the gamut on adjectives for me; Fascinating, astounding, beautiful, sad and least of all enlightening. I knew going into this experience I would see and hear things I never had before and Kolkata has not dissapointed! The Fairlawn Hotel is truly incredible. Not only are we here in another country, but you step through the 'doors'(because truly there aren't doors you step right from the garden terrace in to the front desk/sitting area) and you feel as though you've traveled through time. In business since 1936 there are knick-knacks, pictures, statues, books and the list goes on and on of things collected over the decades. I've been up and down the stairs 50 times and still find something new everytime. I could talk all night about this place..perhaps more next time!
Our first full day here, we met Rosalie who opened the Preyrona School here in Kolkata that we will be working with. She has opened a total of 4 schools now in her 11 years here and is a true character while being SO inspirational. Her thoughts on the beggars here really solidified an idea in my head that I was uncomfortable with until I heard her words: "If we give them the money, or the food we're telling them that it's ok. They need to go to school and be educated. It's our fault they continue to beg." (I am paraphrasing, so hopefully I don't offend the lovely Rosalie) Agree with her (and I) or not, this opinion has stuck with me. Rosalie took us then to Prabartak a home for mentally challenged adults. These people were pure joy. Overjoyed to see us there, they welcomed us with 'Hello, hello!' , handshakes and huge smiles. We did a project where we helped trace their body's and they drew themselves on it. I helped a man named, Arjun, who when we first arrived brought out a picture he had drawn and my jaw hit the floor. His artistic skill level was INCREDIBLE, so far beyond my capabilities and had such a lovely style. After he then knocked my socks off when he drew his own face in perfect detail (moustache and all) I found that he is not only an artist but a musician playing the tambra drum while they sang and danced for us ( we even sang 'We Shall Overcome' with them, which they know in English, Hindi and Bengali...phew!) Then I recieved a souvenier I never could have purchased here. Arjun disappeared and came back handing me a paper rolled up. I opened it finding an amazing drawing of a Hindu diety; I thought he was just 'showing off' but when I attempted to return it he said "No,, you!" Which if you know me you know the tears were on the edge of my eyes before I could say thank you (Dhana wad). I think we spent almost as much time saying our goodbyes to them as we did on the project. I could go into detail about everyone of them that touched my heart, but we'd be here an awfully long time :)
So much more to tell but I'll save it for tomorrows post. I will say this; I feel like in this city I can't open my eyes wide enough to take in all there is to see, open my heart to feel all there is to feel because it is so incredibly powerful, but my eyes are as wide as can be and my heart is bursting for this country and its people!

Hello! from Kolkata! =)

My first post of the trip!
Tate, Willson, and I are relaxing in our room after a beautiful day in Kolkata.
We woke up around 6:30 am to shower and get ready. It's quite a routine filling my glass with bottled water to rinse my toothbrush, always remembering to leave the faucet off, then washing my hands with soap and faucet water to only reach for the anti-bacterial hand sanitizer -LOL. The Fairlawn Hotel itself is just beautiful. As you walk down its driveway you are greeted under the owner's, Mrs. Smith's balcony that connects to the main lobby where every part of the room is painted a bright jade-like green. Even the wicker chairs match! Hanging all over the hotel are strings of white, green, and red lights to accompany the (fake, but beautiful!) hanging fruit on vines. The lobby leads into the dining area where breakfast is served. Today I had the sweetest pineapple I've ever tasted along with perfectly poached eggs, toast, and tea. We then packed up and got on a mini bus for a 10 hour tour!
The whole day was just incredible. A city of contrasts is how we keep referring to Kolkata, with all of its beauty you will see the exact opposite as well. It is truly astounding and all I can do at this point is JUST EXPERIENCE. Words cannot describe how thrilled I am to be here and about the things we'll be doing the rest of the week!!

Tata for now, darlings ;) . . .

Friday, January 14, 2011

Back 'home' in Calcutta

Smooth flight to Delhi, a little delay with our connection but by 2AM we were snug in our rooms at the Fairlawn Hotel. Up at 8AM, awakened by the dhobi washing clothes outside our room. Quick shower, a good morning to Mrs. Smith and John Fowler in the breakfast room and by 9:30AM settled in for tea and breakfast with David. The whole crew was up by 10 (OK, I had to wake up Willson, Kira an Tate) but by 11 we were briefed on our week's activities by Rosalie. Today we will go to Prabartak Home for disabled adults and do an art project with the residents, or, as Rosalie puts it, her 'kids' aged 20 to 30. They are to draw a full size piece of art depicting themselves, with assistance from the volunteers. This project and accompanying photos will be included in an informational book about the various Empower the Children projects here both to enhance the self esteem of the children and at the Preyrona schools and to educate others about life for the less fortunate in Calcutta.

I am so excited to be here not only with the volunteers, Gary and Patty and David back from last year, and our new volunteers Caitlin, Chelsea and Barry and Andrea, but my kids! To see Willson and Kira sitting at breakfast is almost surreal. They are doing so well. Kira is just about the age I was when I first started escorting orphans adopted by Americans from India. Willson says it is just as he expected: the noise, the traffic. He is also already blogging!

Our last volunteer Patti arrives this afternoon and tonight it is dinner at BBQ on Park Street. Later we will post some photos.

First night and day in India

Last night we got to our hotel the Fairlawn and just taking that 30 minute bus ride there really gives you an idea of what Kolkata is like. During the night you can hear the wild dogs outside fighting and the sound of traffic. After our first night we woke up at 10:00 for our first meal which consisted of fresh Papaya, toast, tomatoes, sausage, eggs, and tea. We then gathered to hear our plan for the day and went off in our own directions. Today we are visiting a home for disabled adults and do art projects with them and take pictures. We have a veru busy week ahead of us and I can't wait.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The night before departure

I think we are all set for our departure tomorrow. The storm appears to have spared JFK from its worst, and I'm all packed, watching the Killers at Royal Albert Hall on Palladium, sipping the last wine I'll drink for the next ten days. From now on, it's Kingfisher beer in the cool garden of the Fairlawn after our days working with Empower the Children projects.

Dakshindari is the slum in Kolkata where we will be spending some time, doing projects with the kids who are fortunate enough to go the Preyrona School that the foundation supports. The school is down a busy, narrow alley, not far from the rail line that runs through the slum. Sixty kids, from 5 to 14, attend the one-room school where they receive education, a nutritious lunch, and loving attention every day. "Preyrona" means inspiration, and these kids' stories are just that. In a place where simple survival is the goal of every day's efforts, these kids have a shot at something more. This is my third trip here in three years. Things don't change much, but there is one way that this is a good thing - I see many of the same kids, still attending the school, when the risk of them falling away is so high.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Getting ready for Kolkata, India

Here are beautiful children at Preyrona School in Kolkata welcoming our Humanitarian Travel Abroad group in 2010. Once again, I am getting ready for a week in India volunteering with Empower the Children. This year, our group consists of 12 people. This includes my daughter Kira and our youngest traveler, my 13 year-old son, Willson. We have artists, photographers, social workers and lawyers on our team. We will complete art and photography projects that go overseas to donors who provide free lunches to these children who attend school in the slum. In addition, we will learn about traditional scrolls and create our own memories at the Rehabilitation Center for Children, visit the residents at Prabartak Home for mentally challenged adults and travel to Kharmagachi to learn about vocational programs aimed at low caste women. There will be plenty of touring, shopping and eating delicious Bengali food as well. I am looking forward to wishing Mrs. Smith of the Fairlawn Hotel a very happy birthday too. I first stayed at the Fairlawn in 1978 and I think Mrs. Smith has aged much more gracefully than I have! You can view the hotel at It is an historical oasis in the heart of 'Old Calcutta.'