Please, Please, Tell Me I Shouldn't Worry...

Kolkata Travel Blog

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This morning was my first day as a volunteer at Mother Theresa’s. Christine changed from the orphanage she’s worked at for the past 2 weeks so we could work together at Prem Dan, which is long term care facility for adult men and women with serious, but not terminal illnesses. We met at Mother House along with several dozen other volunteers, at 7:00AM where we had chai, bananas and bread, said a devotional prayer then divided into groups according to which facility we chose the day before. Christine and I then followed a half dozen other people who had volunteered at Prem Dan for awhile and knew the way there. We walked down one winding street after another for 40 minutes. I thought, if I take my eyes of the people leading this little parade I’m done for, you‘ll never hear from me again. As we crossed railroad tracks we came upon a slum that we were told was among the worst in Calcutta. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, it’s like that but on a much smaller scale. As we went through the worst part of this section we walked alongside a high wall and came to the entrance of Prem Dan. Walking through the door one couldn’t help but be amazed by the contrast.  Prem Dan, like other homes of Mother Theresa, is immaculately clean and beautifully maintained, no doubt due to the high level of donations worldwide. International familiarity with Mother Theresa--her ’brand’ if you will-- as a Nobel Prize winner for her tireless work with the “poorest of the poor” clearly pays dividends for the charity. While it’s impossible not to have sympathy and compassion for the people here at Prem Dan, some of whom have very serious diseases, including mental illness, tuberculosis, and AIDS, along with dozens of other less marquee diseases, the feeling one gets is that of gratitude for there being such a remarkable facility available to those who need it most.  Yet you can't help but wonder how these "lucky" 150 or so patients at this facility made it through the front gate while the millions of others just outside the high walls were not as fortunate.

The group of volunteers was divided among men and women and the men were then directed to the laundry area. This consisted of a covered outdoor room about 40 feet long by 10 feet wide with a long concrete bench with a half dozen washing stations on one side and 4, 3 foot square and 3 foot deep concrete tanks for rinsing on the other side. I was assigned to first tank-rinsing duty which meant I retrieved clothing thrown in the tank by the guys washing on other side. If you’ve ever seen the warm up, or shoot around, at a basketball game where all the players more or less shoot at will, that’s what this was like. Pants, shirts, underwear, you name it, came flying from all directions into my rinse station. It was strongly suggested we roll up our pants as high as we could and to wear a rubber apron and I understood why as soon as we started. I rinsed along side a local volunteer, a 5 foot tall, 20 something who yelled the same phrase in a sing-songey voice, over and over and over again, that apparently annoyed the washers on the other side as much as it did me because half of the clothes they threw over to our tank hit him in the head. Each time he looked surprised and annoyed. I’m thinking, soooo, you’re really not making the connection between your annoying behavior and getting hit it the head with soapy laundry, eh? Are you sure you’re not really a patient here? When the laundry was done, we formed a bucket brigade scooping the used rinse water out of the tanks and helping to scrub and rinse every sidewalk on the grounds. No wonder the place looked so clean when we got there.

We had our mid morning chai, banana and biscuit break in a nice pavilion by the vegetable gardens and parakeet cages and it was a great opportunity to meet the other volunteers. I talked quite a bit with Umberto, a young, unemployed hedge fund analyst from Florence, Italy who is studying for the CFA (chartered financial analyst) and wants to move to Hong Kong because it’s such a nice city. I said, you live in Florence and you want to move to a “nice city”? But I get it, I mean, Florence isn’t exactly the financial capital of anything, much less at the level of Hong Kong. He’s taken time off his job search to pursue a spiritual interest here in India. I guess that’s what unemployment does to some people. Then there’s the three people from LA who are going to Pepperdine Law School. One of the guys is in his last year and has accrued close to $250,000 in student loans and has absolutely no job prospects.  Another Asian guy was from Toronto and was with his friend from Madison, Wisconsin. As with many situations, everyone has a story and connections were made quickly and genuinely.

After our break, but before serving lunch we helped in any way we could, such as massaging patients, helping them to the bathroom, and shaving them.  I was assigned shaving duty.  This may sound like the easiest since it's something I've done to myself thousands of times, but it was far from it.  I was even given a new razor blade, a double-edged, like our fathers used to use, but when I lathered up my victim's face and tried to draw the razor across it, he immediately winced and  said something that could only have meant, Stop it you stupid idiot, you're tearing my whiskers out of my face!!  It took me at least 30 minutes of trying and he still had patches of whiskers all over his face as well as a nice collection of nicks and cuts.  Just as I was trying to convince him that a bloody face covered in patches of hair was the latest fashion statement in the west, the boss of the volunteers came in and politely took the razor from my hand.  He was remarkably efficient, if not forceful, as he firmly held the guy's head and swiped the razor across his face a half dozen times resulting in an amazingly clean shave.  I looked at him like, ooooh, wow, I'm sooo impressed.  I do all the dirty work, and with a swish, swish, swish, this guy the thinks you're the patron saint of barbers.

I took my shaving kit outside to find another hapless soul with a two day growth.  Hopefully word hadn't yet gotten around about my shaving skills.  One actually waved me over and I sat down and looked at him.  Not too bad; no mustache, no beard, just a touch up job.  As I reached into my basket I immediately felt the razor slice into the inside of my thumb leaving an inch long cut that bled down my hand.  It was the same razor I'd used on the first guy, the one with all the nicks and cuts, and I quickly got a sickening sensation in my stomach that I'd been exposed to a contagious disease, specifically AIDS.

I quickly walked over to the infirmary, grabbed the volunteer boss and told him what happened.  He said, no problem.  But it's the razor I used to shave a guy, I stressed, and again he said, no problem.  As my pulse quickened and eyes widened I said, but I cut the guy shaving and it's the same razor!!  He paused and looked at me and asked which guy.  Before I answered, I wondering if my life was going to change with the next words he spoke.  I told him it was the same guy that he finished up shaving for me, and he said, oh, no problem, he's not the one with AIDS.  Temporarily relieved, I asked if he's the one with anything.  Again, no, he's not, it's not a problem, he said.  He explained how volunteers often become very fearful of catching something here at Prem Dan--a very reasonable fear considering the gruesome appearances of some of the people around here--but he said it simply doesn't happen.  He said he's been volunteering there for 10 years and has never caught more than a cold. 

Lunch was quite the process.  A half dozen large aluminum bowls, about 3 feet wide, filled with steaming hot rice, stew, or watermellon were rolled up and our job was to grab two tin plates from the stack, move through the line as the Sisters filled them with food and serve them to the men sitting on the floor or the grounds outside.  Indian style eating is done with the right hand, since the left hand is reserved for bathroom duty.  It was an amazingly efficient process and within 20 minutes, all the men were served.  At that point we began collecting the dirty tin plates and water cups of those who had just finished and carrying them over to the laundry area for washing.  After cleaning up and making sure everything was again spotless, we helped those who needed it to their beds for an afternoon nap or to the bathroom. 

Christine and I left Prem Dan at about 12:30 and hailed a tuk-tuk to take us back to Sudder Street where we relaxed over lunch with Katie.  She'd actually just recently gotten up and would be getting ready for her shift at the orphanage in a few hours.  Despite Volunteer Boss' assurances, which I believe, I can't quite shake the feeling of how life can change in an instant.  No problem, I was told, but I'll never forget that it could've been. 





kimdemko says:
Funny to read your blog about this exotic place a world away as I sit and listen to Lucy barking.....we're enjoying the story as it unfolds.
Posted on: Mar 21, 2009
jbm12940 says:
There - you have a comment now! Take care of our girl.
Posted on: Mar 21, 2009
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