Monday, March 4, 2013

City of Joy

Kolkata, West Bengal, is known as the “city of joy” after a book's title. By Dominique Lapierre, the book is based on two wealthy foreigners who come to serve the poor and find purpose in their life through living in Kolkata slums. The third biggest city in India, with some 15 million people, this eastern city was the British capital in India before it was moved to Delhi in 1911. West Bengal is ruled by a communist party, which has caused this bustling city to lag behind Mumbai and Delhi from ten to twenty years. Everybody gets different impressions after being in a city for a couple of days and my impression was this: Kolkata is a mixture of modern Mumbai, crazy Guwahati, and British and historic Delhi. I loved Kolkata.

I spent the days before the mission being a tourist. I walked ALL around Kolkata. From the Victoria Memorial to the Howrah Bridge to Park Street, I spent my two days in Kolkata wasting no time. A few highlights: I took a tour (with Calcutta Walks, a tour group I highly recommend) called "Confluence of Cultures." We walked through the old and small alleyways of Kolkata, taking a good look at everyday life and also focusing on the 15 plus religious and national cultures that can be found in Kolkata. From Chinatown to a Jewish synagogue to an Armenian Christian area, we walked through Kolkatta’s melting pot. On top of this, I also saw monuments once established by the British, such as the Viceroy’s home, the High Court, the Writer’s Building, Park Street and the very famous Victoria Memorial. I saw Howrah Bridge and the flower market. The flower market is such a confusing place. Thousands and thousands of flowers lie in piles waiting to be sold for religious reasons, or for pleasure. The color of the flowers mixed with an odd combination of a trashy smell and a flower smell makes you dizzy. You cannot get anywhere without stepping on someone’s foot and bumping into someone's shoulders. The flower market in some weird way represented India well: The massive flower piles combined with the piles of trash were about finding the beauty in all the brutality.

This woman owns an authentic Chinese store dating back to her  great-grandfather.
Armenian Christian.
Jewish Synagogue.
Victoria Memorial. 
Howrah Bridge
Flower market

 Operation Smile Medical Mission

101 patients! With a team from approximately eleven countries, doctors, nurses, and volunteers came together to help West Bengal. Missions are always a reminder about how each state in India is almost a different country. On missions, the patients and their families tend to come from small villages. In some states, the people are shy and never can look you in the eye. But West Bengal was different.

As part of my role, I help out with the screening process (making sure the kids are eligible and healthy for surgery) throughout the week. Most of the families see me first as I guide them through their health exam. The families were so warm. They wanted me to sit down, to hold their babies, which I have NO problem doing whatsoever. Looking back on the mission, I felt that I had a baby in my hand the entire time.


I got particularly close to two families. Both of them invited me over to their house for dinner, but unfortunately I had to decline as they lived a couple of hours away.

One family came in on the last day of surgery hoping to get her cleft lip repaired. The baby, six months and six kilograms, was right on the borderline of surgery eligibility. Fortunately, the baby had eaten earlier that morning, so she could get surgery at 5 in the afternoon, which was a couple hours after the last patients would be finished. After lots of discussion about the baby and the time the surgery would be done, she was approved. It took some fighting.

I gently took the baby from the mother’s hands and walked the baby into the operating room. When I walked out without a baby in my arms, the mother touched my feet and kissed her hands and said thank you with tears in her eyes. This is a sign of EXTREME gratitude and respect. You usually do this to an elder who is very respected. I was so embarrassed and mortified that she did such a thing and I attempted to rebound quickly. Little moments like these throughout the mission make you realize how hard having a baby with deformities like these can be on a mother. A mother just wants the best for her baby, and that is a universal fact.


Finally went to Agra

From Kolkata, I flew to Delhi where three other nurses and I got a driver to see the Taj Mahal and other monuments in Agra. I had heard so much about the Taj Mahal but thought that the magnificence of the tomb was probably over exaggerated. However, I was proven wrong. Very wrong. The Taj Mahal is an absolutely magnificent, unbelievable, beautiful structure. Not only does the history add to the incredible beauty of it all, but the architecture of the structure takes you by surprise no matter how long you look at it. 

Just to have a little history lesson: the Taj Mahal was built by Shah Jahan, the King of the Mogules. He built this tomb for his second wife, who he was believed to be madly in love with. He promised her that he would build her something great (I mean, she did have fourteen children and only half of them lived). When she died, he did not leave his home, the Agra Fort, for two years because he was so depressed. And thus, the Taj Mahal was built. 

So, I finally saw one of the seven wonders of the world. And I am so glad that I did. The marble gleams right when you enter the compounds, and I took so many photos because I could not believe I was there looking at such a place. 

A must do at the Taj Mahal: THE Hurkie

Beautiful engravings of the Taj Mahal.

The artwork found on the Taj Mahal is a main reason for why it took twenty two years to build. 
The Agra Fort. 

A view of the Taj Mahal from the Agra Fort. 

Agra Fort. 
Learning how the workers of the Taj Mahal did the engravings. 

Celebrity on page 3:

To conclude, I would like to say that I made it on page three of the Calcutta Times, which is one of the most read newspapers in Kolkata. I went to a music venue called "Some Place Else" with some friends and a week later, I hear that my name is now Erica. The photographer did not ask for our names, nor did we know he was photographing for the Calcutta Times. The photo above me are my two friends, whose names are not correct either. Ohhhh India! 

Sending smiles from India,
Hannah Dobie

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