The City No Longer Forsaken

"They will be called the Holy People, the Redeemed of the LORD; and you will be called Sought After, the City No Longer Deserted." ~Isaiah 62:12

Monday, September 10, 2007


Christine and I arrived back in Tokyo yesterday evening. India was absolutely wonderful.

We arrived at about two in the morning. Our best guess for a hotel that might accept us without a reservation was wrong, but the taxi driver kindly delivered us on the front step of a hotel that would. We payed entirely too much in terms of Indian money for only three hours of sleep, but since that was only $40, I suppose I am not entitled to complaint.

The streets in Kolkata (Calcutta was changed to Kolkata in recent years, so that's where I'm talking about when I say "Kolkata") are worth describing in full. Most of the sidewalks are covered with people sleeping, bathing, using the wall as a toilet, eating, etc. So, you pretty much walk on the streets, along with everyone else. Being a white person in that part of Kolkata, everyone knew exactly where we were going and would shout "hello!" and, if they were a rickshaw driver "Mother House?!". Rickshaw drivers and bicycle riders use bells and motorcycles and taxis and autorickshaws and any other kinds of cars use horns to let you know they are there. If you aren't sure someone knows about you after blaring the horn, it is also permissible to lean out the window and shout. Needless to say, we got back into downtown Tokyo and could only remark, "How quiet it is! And how clean!" But I loved the reality of Kolkata. I loved how vibrant and active the streets were.

It turns out we had perfect timing in terms of volunteering. Almost all the volunteers come on Thursday, because it is the day off for volunteering. We started on Friday with pretty much everyone else. We had lots of different houses to choose from...some for children, one for the dying, some for battered women, others for mentally handicapped...Christine and I decided we did not want to choose, so we asked them to send us wherever the need was greatest. We ended up at Prem Dan, a home for the sick and mentally handicapped, which I am convinced was the best place we possibly could have ended up.

Mornings were spent handwashing a pile of laundry about four feet high. We scrubbed sheets and clothing in large tubs of cool, soapy water, then ran them through two sinks to rinse the soap out, finally wrung as much water out of them as we could and then hauled them up to the roof to dry. These were truly joyful times. We usually had about fifteen volunteers working all together, and the group was very multicultural. I immediately found myself in the center of it, being as how at least two thirds of the volunteers seemed to be from Japan or Spain. At one point, I found myself sitting at a tub with a Japanese girl and a Spanish girl all at the same time, and my poor brain nearly exploded, but it was also really cool to be able to help people start relationships across a language barrier, and my Spanish actually came back again after a couple days of explaining (in very careful, slow, articulate Spanish) that I had been living in Japan for a year, and so Japanese came out whenever I tried to speak Spanish. What was really funny is that it's the most basis words in Spanish that I can't remember. It took me days and days to be able to say "si" instead of "hai", and I kept forgetting words like "what", "then", and "tomorrow", which really confused the poor Spaniards.

Laundry was followed by a tea break (I love chai so much!!!), and then we would go in to serve lunch to the patients.

My first day, this was the most stressful part. The nurses speak only Bengali. The patients speak only Bengali or only Bengali and Hindi, with the exception of maybe one girl who knows a couple simple phrases. This meant that I would do something like start carrying food somewhere, and the nurse would just say, "No!". I would freeze, trying to figure out my error, and eventually someone would grab me by the hand and pull me somewhere different. I tried to take all of this as a much needed lesson in humility, but was very drained by the end of the volunteer time.

The next day I decided to avoid the food and actively seek out patients in need of love. My first day, this meant a younger looking girl who was curled up, very firmly asleep and feverish. I tried to help her sit up to eat, but she kept sinking back to the bed. So, I prayed, sang to her, and kept pressing the spoon to her lips. Eventually, one of the nurses came over, spoke to her harshly in Bengali, and then she started eating. We managed to get several bites of food into her and about a third of her cup of water. The next day I looked all over for her and could not find her. I asked Cara, who had been with us the day before, to let me know if she saw her anywhere, but began mentally preparing for her death, or at least her move to one of the more "dying" type houses. About halfway through lunch, Cara came and said, "There she is." To my great surprise, she was sitting in the "mess hall" with the other patients, a nearly clean plate in front of her. I came over to her and greeted her and touched her, and her skin was cool to the touch, no more trace of a fever. It was a wonderful surprise!

The rest of our volunteer days, I spent a lot of time sitting with a girl named Sonali. Sonali had twig like arms and legs and barely responded at all when I came and took her hand. She tended to spit up any food we could get past the barricade of her lips. For the first time in my life, I would have done anything for a needle so we could have started an i.v. and gotten some nutrients into her. Everyday we made some effort to feed her, but it didn't go well until they started bringing us something like watery oatmeal. Even then she would manage only three bites and then need to lay down and rest again. I fell deeply, deeply in love with Sonali and always spent an extended period of time sitting with her, holding her hand, singing to her and praying. By the end of my time there, she was still really weak, but her eyes opened a bit more often and she seemed to move around a bit more. I'd like to think she's getting better. But it's weird that I'll never know for sure.

So, that was pretty much life in least the cliff notes version. I don't even know if I've managed to process everything for myself...there's still so much to think about, and many more happenings and conversations. For now, I am back home. I had the day to show Christine a little of Tokyo, tomorrow I'll start work registering people and passing out pamphlets at Hongo, and Christine goes back to Seattle on Thursday.

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