Kolkata Blog #1: First Glimpse

Posted on Posted in Contributors, Gold Contributor, Participant News

Name: Sinead Noirin Walsh
Aiming for: Gold
Location: Kolkata (India)


Kolkata is an indescribable place. Nevertheless I will attempt to illustrate my experience in the city of joy and hopefully encourage you, the reader, to undertake a similar journey. If I succeed it will be an eminent success as for me, going to Kolkata was one of the greatest decisions of my life. Having completed my prerequisite fundraising for the HOPE Foundation, packed enough medication to cure any remotely foreseeable illness and fastened my all-important Rosary beads and angel ornament to my bag, I set off for my very first taste of being a solo traveller. I thought I’d feel more grown up than ever but in fact I felt like a child who lost their mom in a supermarket. Regardless, I eventually found other HOPE volunteers in the airport and 23 hours later we were in Kolkata! Upon arrival I met an Indian man named Gora who would be our coordinator during our stay. He drove us to our accommodation in a little bus. It had no seat belts which was rather noticeable once we were enclosed by crazy Kolkata traffic. Strange tiny yellow cars with no sides on them called autos, colourful hippie-style buses, rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, trucks overcrowded with people on the backs of them and vehicles that had dead chickens hanging off them were just some of the sights that went whizzing past us. Every locomotive never stopped beeping. There also appeared to be no lines on the road, everyone just drove almost on top of each other! Beyond the circus of traffic outside my window, I could already catch a glimpse of the poverty of Kolkata. There were street people living under sheets of plastic on the side of the road. Elderly people who ought to be on pensions were carrying heavy boulders on rickshaws. Child labour was evident also. In a different area, I saw tall buildings advertising female sex work. It was only the beginning but I could already tell I was in a very different world. Despite the heat and the chaos of the city, I was very eager at the prospect of helping these poor people. Throughout my first week I had orientation, which meant that I visited the various projects HOPE had set up in Kolkata. The most shocking areas that I visited were creches in Chitpur and Bhagar. Chitpur creche was in a slum area. When I first arrived there I remember thinking that it was what one envisages hell to be like. The houses (which were smaller than an average bathroom in Ireland) were crowded right next to each other. We had to walk in between them to get to the creche. There were so many flies and it smelled like something rotting. As I walked I tried not to look at the people inside their houses but it was impossible as there was just so many people everywhere. One little boy held my hand and asked me for money. Another tiny baby wearing only a string for underwear came dancing up to me and hugged my legs. Everyone stared at us as we walked through, some laughing, some glaring. When we got to the creche, it was not like the creches I was used to in Ireland. Instead it was a small room, overcrowded with the smallest children I had ever seen. I sat on the ground in between them and we played clapping games. They were absolutely adorable! The other creche was in a dump area called Bhagur (see pictures below). Outside the window of the bus, I saw mountains of grey rubbish with hogs living on them. There were small children wearing minimal clothes, carrying plastic bags bigger than themselves who were searching in the rubbish for anything they could use, eat or sell. As they were searching there was a continuous line of large trucks coming in and dumping more and more rubbish. Next to the dump there were small hut-like houses where the HOPE creche children lived. Some of the other children living there ran after us holding our hands and saying hello as we walked through the village. Even now whenever I see materials being wasted, I think back to these children. It really showed me how imperative it is to look after the environment. In that first week, I never experienced culture shock so intensely. It was like literally being in shock. I couldn’t really connect to the reality of what I was seeing in front of me. Regardless, I was excited to get my schedule and begin really working in my projects.