Category Archives: volunteering globally

Stranger in a strange land…

I wake up at 5 AM, I’m used to that at Udayan, that’s when the girls awoke and the sound of their morning ministrations and singing was my alarm clock.  I have bags to unpack and I am now very hungry.  Making my way to the kitchen I am confronted with the huge refrigerator and lots of prepared foods – frozen, boxed nothing like what I’ve had for sometime.  In India, marketing is a must each day or things spoil so the luxury of freshly prepared foods is going to a challenge.  I make a note to get over to my organic market today and make some vegetarian dishes for the family.   I am really feeling lost – there is just so much in this kitchen to deal with. The microwave is remarkable to me as is the freezer -all these gadgets – it’s as though I’ve been away for years, not months.

modern conveniences, or kitchen culture shock!

I take Jacques for a walk and notice a can of soda someone has tossed on the ground, it looks so out of place, everything is so quiet, too quiet and so pristine. I scoop to pick it up and throw it out and then it hits me – in Kolkata I never would have done this, there would be too much to clear away!  The streets here look so beautiful, especially after the newly fallen snow. Yet it is lonely, impersonal, there is no sign of life, no people, no music wafting in the air no scent of spices cooking. Unused and overlooked.  The solitude and insular nature of this life is a stark contrast to life in Kolkata. I am missing the daily dialogue and the interest in the life going on around us. You may be walking alone, but you are never alone. The entire city is one family, very communal. Here it is segregated into your job, family; one may be part of the same village but living in a different area is as though you lived in a different part of the state.   In Kolkata it all meshed and in one day whatever you did your world merged  –  many of the same faces appeared, and even strangers reached out to help.  Work, play the daily chores all bring (it seems) the communal nature of life in India into the fore.  I felt like I lived with the whole world, everything was interwoven like the  colorful intricate tapestries they create.

some of the younger gang

a side street in Kolkata

My body is in this world but my mind is split in two worlds.  The constant blare of the TV, invasive and jarring is a reminder of  the lack of natural environment.  In Kolkata, especially at Udayan, I was one with nature and the elements in India, totally immersed in the children, art and the culture. It feels very artificial here – air conditioning and heat   are like barriers- I want to open the window all the time, even in the snow, rain and cold to let life in.  I have all the conveniences, yet it is like living in an Ivory Tower.

My cell phone rings jolting me out of my musings about the nature of my two worlds. It is my sister, just in for a few days from California.  Will I come into New York and meet her for dinner?  Of course I say, I haven’t seen her in 3 months and we always make time for each other, even if it is for just an hour or two.

Waiting for Metro North I observe that no one on the train platform makes eye contact, I see bored, stressed and depressed faces, no smiles, no interaction. Then the train comes rumbling in and the crowd exclaims that it is just “so crowded!” I chuckle to myself, I definitely have a new perspective on little things, having taken the trains in Kolkata, this one seems nearly empty…the fact that there are seats available, that no one is leaning, sitting or sleeping on me – wow- even the bathroom (which I never would have thought of using before my time in India) looks sparkling clean.

As I ride the taxi uptown to my meet my sister I am marveling at how perfect and serene the streets of Madison Avenue look, with buildings gleaming, and how orderly the traffic is . Even though I traveled to and from the same destination while working at Udayan so many times, we couldn’t go a mile without asking for directions on many a street corner. Street signs were not to be counted on and sometimes the only way I knew where I was going was by landmarks – the same fruit stands, or the way a street curved, or the stream beside the road – these were my road signs.

A landmark to the road towards Udayan

Outside New Market in Kolkata

After dinner we walk back to Grand Central together and then we say goodbye, but even though it is only 10 PM  on Saturday night – the height of travel  at the station on a weekend, I ask Cindy to stay with me.  I actually feel unsafe – this place seems sketchy. Cindy is incredulous – “are you serious” she asks.  Yeah, I am and I never felt this way in Kolkata – even though I was traveling alone, I felt safe and at home.

When I am finally seated on the train, I close my eyes while listening to my Bengali music and I can see the faces of the class 10 boys as they sang on the bus, or the beatific face of the musician who gave a concert in Jaipor.

posing at sunset

my musician friend from Jaipor

I must keep the fire burning in my heart with my music and the photographs of the children, so I can bring myself back to the special place I have just left.  And I will continue to write as I did in India and create some of my own collages – after all I’ve had the best teacher, the children of Udayan and their bright smiling souls.

Always ready for the camera!

"my girls" and dorm-mates for two months

These are the greatest teachers I’ve had in my career, and I hope my work will          be as inspired as these are. Namaskar…..



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Filed under art, art students, artists, Bengali, celebrations, commuity, creativity, dancing, Delhi, Agra & Jaipor travel, food, homeward bound, India, India social life, modern kitchen conveniences, music, student painted paper collages, teaching, the children, thirst for learning, travel, volunteering globally, world service

Flying through the air in a chair…..

I head for the airport in Kolkata after a full day visiting friends and saying goodbye, one of Shamlu’s staff has accompanied me as it is the middle of the night .  The air is hot and very humid even though it is now midnight, and I am wearing my sandals.  We say our final farewell and I am off to the lounge to wait for the flight to Frankfurt.

Farewell party

I am thinking about what a friend of mine said long before I left for Kolkata. “Stacey, be aware of your reaction as you board the plane to return to the US”. I thought he meant that I would be grateful for the amenities but I was very wrong.  As I boarded the plane I felt like a visitor from another planet.  First there was the issue of my sandals, not exactly travel gear when heading home to winter.  I make a note to change into the pair of sneakers I’ve stashed in my carryon, then attempt to settle into my seat.

The gentleman seated next to me has already put on his traveling socks, adjusted his seat and is almost asleep – that is until I try to work to remote for my seat and end up with my legs and head going in two different directions. I can’t get the hang of all this technology and resolve to put my reading glasses on to consult the manuel to figure out the myriad of various seat adjustments.  This goes on for awhile and I’m almost ready to sit upright for the duration of the flight to Frankfurt when a hand reaches over and grabs the controller from me. With one swift thumb move, I am laying flat and my feet are where they’re supposed to be. My seat mate has taken pity on me (or more likely wishes to have a night’s rest) and done the deed for me.

I feel slightly stupid but I am tired so I gratefully fall asleep – until the meal is served and I can’t get the seat upright. On with the reading glasses and out with the manual, I am studying it seriously, I feel this must be an intelligence test until the flight attendant swoops down, does the thumb trick and there I am whipped to seated position for the meal. It is lovely, but there are too many utensils for me to deal with, all this silverware  – I’m used to a fork at most and my right hand.  Everyone else has turned on their personal entertainment devices – forget that – there’s no way I’ll get the hang of the video menu, my music on my trusty iPod will have to do. Besides, I haven’t seen television in two months, what’s another 16 hours?  Then I remember Ron’s little warning – “note  your reaction to the plane as you embark …..”  I realize then that he wasn’t saying I would be grateful to have all this technology and luxury, he knew I would be bewildered – a fish out of water, and he is correct.   I have such a different mindset and I wish to remain in this lovely trance of simplicity. I am most definitely overwhelmed.

Cuddly bear, waiting to lick me for a giant welcome home

We land in New York and it is reverse culture shock.  I am relieved to see my husband, all smiles and am excited to head home to see my kids and Jacques, my wonderful dog.    As we load the car I walk to the left side of the front seat and he asks me if I’m going to drive – NO! I say, then realize that that’s the driver’s side, we aren’t in India anymore and we drive on the right. Ah…think I’ll avoid driving for a while.

As we head home I am in awe at  how orderly everyone is on the road,  there are traffic signs which everyone (almost) obeys.  I am used to going with the flow in Kolkata , not always knowing what street I’m on, this is so… easy.  Hmmm, I never felt that way before while driving home from the airport.

Everyone is waiting for me, I plop down as soon as I’m inside the house to allow my dog to lick me until I am fully slathered, my kids coming in one by one, looking at my clothes and me like I’m an alien.  I kind of feel that way – there’s snow outside, tons of it, something I haven’t seen in over a year, and all this furniture. I sit on the floor for a while and chat with them.  This is going to take some time for sure.  I move the luggage upstairs and once again am jolted by the sight of my bedroom (huge by my current standards) and bathroom – aya baba – the shower is as large as my bathroom had been at Udayan. Rick says “I know you’re tired, you must be in another world”, how true, how true….. I am exhausted and fall asleep forgoing dinner.

Snow! Jacques and I are ready to play...

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Leaving Udayan, and hanging the show!

morning chores, the little ones

some of my "flowers" in the morning sun, last day

It is Monday and I am moving my bags out of the room looking around for one last time. The girls come into the room early in the morning to help take my bags and speak for a while. We sit around and talk about life, my home, family and when I will return. They tell me that they will miss art so much and our time talking, laughing and even some of the “tutoring” I have tried to give when they had exams.

As we march down the steps, the KG girls and some of the older girls are basking in the sun and they rush over to hug me, hand me flowers for my hair and stuff notes into my hand.  I take more pictures and my heart is aching, I can’t imagine being away from them for so long. I miss the long days that never seemed long enough, I was never so happy than as when I taught all of them . The “exhaustion “ at the end of the day was a good one, not tiresome at all and there was always a spring in my step no matter how early the day began. I always looked forward to what the new day would bring and I received the gift of enlightenment from the children each moment I spent with them.

The KG girls playing before school

The five boys who are to help move the artwork and hang the show with me are waiting, prompt as usual. there seems to be a slight mix up as to the car and timing and the fact that with the driver and Swapan there are 8 of us plus my luggage. After a very late start we are on our way to the framer and are trying to beat the clock – we only have from 3 – 7 PM  to get all the pictures hung. After many road blocks and u-turns we arrive at the framing warehouse. I meet with the director as the remaining frames are wrapped and then descend to the work room where the boys are waiting. We have a problem. I am shocked to see that we have 40 framed pieces to cart and there is barely room for the passengers and my luggage. What to do?!  We hail a taxi to take the boys and I go with the art and one of my boys , we will meet at the Palladian Lounge and then move the work up to the gallery and begin the hard part – placing and hanging the work.  Antara is waiting for us, thank goodness – she is always there with a smile and guiding light and hand – she “finds” us after both taxis are lost, and leads us to the Lounge where we start the process of readying the work for the show.

the exhibition hanging crew

After record time, we have hung all the paintings in 2 hours and we are wiped out. The boys have a snack and I sit on the couch too excited and overwhelmed to eat. It is an amazing sight to see – all the collages hung in this grand room. This is the first time I’ve seen all the work together in one place.  The children and I kept working for art’s sake  and I sent the finished pieces to the framer in batches, never realizing how many there were. My students have been very prolific producing over 40 works including some unframed mounted pieces as well. We have printing beautiful greeting cards from the digital photos I took of each collage and I know they will sell.  Happy, exhausted and a bit nervous, we all say goodnight and I tell the boys I will see them on Wednesday. Now I must get some rest as I will have to return tomorrow with Antara to price and label each piece.

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The last night, exchanging addresses, more gifts and tears..

our last night hanging out in my room

on top of the world, after cleaning the art room

It is Sunday and I must clean up the art room and organize the materials so that they can be stored and used when there is supervision. The girls come over to work a little more and then to sort out al the ephemera. they are very efficient so we have time to play a few Bengali songs and dance. The room is empty and sad looking – no more colorful papers gracing the laundry lines to dry, no more ribbon and papers piled high, just an empty room with many good memories.

We leave for lunch and bask in the sun. Soon it will be the boys’ turn to wash the floor and clean the bathroom that we have used to wash brushes and palettes.  It currently looks like a Jackson Pollack painting  and that won’t go over well with the staff. After a huge effort , the room is spic and span. The boys then ask for pictures to be taken and to watch some of the pictures I have taken in slide show format. Then I am asked to give them my address and phone numbers, and I give them sheets of paper to list their addresses and names so that we can keep in touch. I want to know if they’ve past their board exam so that they may continue to study at the next level school.  Many of my very best budding artists will not be at Udayan when I return next year, and they make me promise to ask Swapan to call them when I am there so that they may visit on a Sunday. The boys also ask if I will visit their new schools and I of course say yes.

Soma, hamming it up with Tara watching

Off to the girls‘ dorm, I have promised snacks and an afternoon movie on my laptop if they have done their studies.  They claim they have and so we settle down to watch a Hindi movie that I cannot understand except that I think it’s a love story with strange segues of singing and dancing. It is very entertaining, the girls are engrossed in the movie and I am enjoying being with them and watching their expressions. The movie is nearly complete when I am called downstairs by some staff members and they inform me that the girls have not done their studies and must start now. Needless to say I am mortified (way to make a good last impression) and tell the girls to “bus” (stop).  I explain what has happened and speak to them about being upfront with me and anyone else – studies come first and they know that. They are teenagers, but the timing, as it is my last night, was regrettable.

I go off to the room to pack and clean the place for the next volunteer, and dismantle all the garlands and drawings they’ve made for me. I’m working at snails pace, I don’t want to leave them yet I have to.

After dinner the girls come in to have the last of my stash of snacks and to help pack. Some are crying and most are very solemn.  I tell them that they will see me on Wednesday for the opening of the art show, and that I will return if Reverend Stevens will have me.  Teaching at this school has opened my eyes and my heart.  I know I have found my place and can’t imagine not having the privilege of being with these children again.

Everyone has my address and numbers and the girls take papers so they may pass list their contact information.  I play some Hindi and Bengali dance music and we have a little dance party before it is time for bed.

farewell celebration , we finished the big clean up!

last dance

I am walking on the green to get something from the dining hall and my “group”of boys call to me from their dorm to please wait. they are carrying something very gingerly and hand it to me telling me to be very gentle. I open it and it is a three dimensional collage of a church in Kolkata made of found materials and some papers from the art room. I try to get the words out to tell them how precious this is and that I will frame it and cherish it forever, but I can’t without crying. Finally I get a grip and speak with them. They then have a list of their addresses and phone numbers and it’s very long. I am so moved and so sad, I will miss their faces, smiles and their questions, especially when they shout from their windows “auntie, painting class today, oh just one more!”

"My" Urmela

“My kids” have blossomed and I’ve watched this as I’ve watched the garden growing larger each day and the flowers bursting with color. It is nature’s way of showing the passage of time and with that comes the end of the first chapter of my best adventure ever.

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