The car was a four wheel drive with a very loud horn! It soon became apparent that I was not going to get any much needed sleep on the 3 hour drive south to the Sunderbans. It was fortunate that we had been in India for sometime by this stage as this particular driver was crazy! Seriously the worst so far. I don't know if it was exhaustion but I was not too bothered by the near death experiences because I knew it would be fine...at least we got there quickly without actually killing anyone. I have to say though this guy left hornboy for dead, he should probably just buy a siren. I had to laugh though the horn did have a tone to it to suggest it was dying from overuse.
So after several hours we arrived at a very large ashram in the Sunderbans. Sunderban literally means beautiful jungle and is a series of mangrove islands that lies at the mouth of the Ganges and is the home to the Bengal tiger.
We were made very welcome at the ashram and were greeted by many of the staff and the Swami. I have to say from the moment we approached the ashram I had a strong sense of unease, initially I put it down to exhaustion. There was little time to rest on that first morning we first met with the Swami who explained the religious and other philosophies of the ashram and where given a tour of the temple. After the initial introduction the tour began, we visited the schools, food manufacturing and science laboratories. There was so much to take in but I felt like a walking zombie. After a delicious lunch of local seafood and delicacies we were given time to rest. Our room was modest but met our needs, we shared 2 very firm (read rock hard) single beds with much needed mosquito nets. The bathroom was simple with cold running water, bucket for a shower and a western/squat toilet in one. After crashing for a few hours we were up again. We went to visit many more of the ashrams training and manufacturing initiatives, they really do have an exceptional set up. Dinner was not until 8.30pm and I was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. The food was great though; Sam and Ray particularly enjoyed it. After dinner we went straight to bed... oh sleep!
The next day we woke early but I was still unable to shake the intense feeling of unease. Breakfast was great and included jalebi to dip in puffed rice. I have never seen Sam eat so much, his appetite seemed insatiable.
Our first stop for the day was another branch of the ashram further south into the Sunderbans. We had a tour around the school and facilities there. Hunter found the most interesting part were the enormous hay stacks of rice. I showed Hunter how to open the husk to expose the grain of rice. You forget that children brought up in cities don't always know where their food actually comes from.
I have to admit this unease that was with me quashed my sense of adventure. It was suggested we take a boat ride to one of the other islands but I gave Ray a very intent stare that said decline or you will die in your sleep - suffice to say no boat ride was had. I hate being such a party pooper but I was really very edgy.
Sam made one error on our tour. As we walked around the island the person pointed to a structure we came across by the water, I had an inkling it was a crematory and my suspicion was confirmed. Sam walked up to it and proceeded to stand on it to admire the view across the water with both the guide and I saying "no- get down" eek... uncomfortable.
After lunch we headed back to the main ashram and the tour continued. We had some free time in the afternoon and I spent some time sorting out our luggage, as I was sorting it all out I soon realised the silver Tibetan jewelery I had bought in Darjeeling was missing. I checked and rechecked everything but it was not there. Ray was very unimpressed and I was worried he was going to make a fuss and start interrogating until he found the culprit. There was no lock on the door to our room so anyone could have been responsible. We asked the guy who bought us our tea if he had seen it but the language barrier was prohibitive. Soon we had everyone up in our room including the swami. We were very cautious about saying it had been stolen but rather misplaced. Needless to say the jewelry did not show up.
The next morning we were to have breakfast before we headed back to Calcutta. Once again the food was piled on and Sam thankfully ate his share as well as much of mine. The swami joined us for breakfast and presented us with an array of gifts including a book and many religious icons. He even gave us a silver bracelet to replace the one that had gone missing.
Overall the hospitality at the ashram was flawless and the knowledge gained from touring their facilities extremely valuable, though I was more than ready to move on.
After being farewelled we hopped back into the 4WD for our hazardous drive back to Calcutta. Though we had left the ashram the unease that had been with me the past few days continued to plague me. I think it was because we where so far from home and we were in such a remote area where nobody spoke English that I felt completely out of control. Even though we had been off the beaten track in Kerala I did not feel the unease I felt in West Bengal and I have to put it down to the fact that I must be far more spiritually sensitive than I previously realised. About half way into the trip our driver picked up another passenger from a crowded village. We then headed even further into the wilderness down narrow roads and through thick jungle, I knew this was not the way we had come so the unease intensified. Ray saw this in me and began to question the driver and sought to reassure me that it was simply the back way - don't know how he figured that out! I don't think I have every prayed so fervently in all my life. We soon crossed a few train lines and came out of the jungle onto a more busy thoroughfare where our extra passenger alighted. Gradually the scenery began to change and the villages became more like towns and then we arrived into the city. By this stage the anticipation on arriving at the hotel was unbearable but the Calcutta traffic continued to impede out progress. After several sweltering, bumpy and noisy hours we pulled into the hotel drive way. I could not get into the lush air conditioned lobby fast enough. The sense of relief that the last couple of days was over was immense.
Now personally I don't think I am too precious when it comes to roughing it for a few days, and really who can't survive a hard bed and cold showers for a few days. Also, I tend to find "nice" hotels overpriced and overrated. But as I walked in and was greeted with a cool wet washer I knew it was so worth it. We ended up booking the Taj as we had no lead on where to stay in Calcutta at a reasonable price so we called ahead and booked as we knew we could get a reasonable rate and not have to book two rooms for the four of us.
In terms of service the hotel was seriously one of the best if not the best I have ever stayed at (I don't mean to sound pretentious but I have stayed at enough 5 star hotels to know what to expect). We were upgraded to a large suite where the four of us would be more comfortable. It was so great to sleep in a soft bed with even softer pillows and stand in the shower for 10 straight minutes...ooo luxury.
Soon after settling in I checked my emails and there was a note from my co-author Kathy to say she had received a royalty cheque and we would be getting another in a few weeks...So I had no hesitation in allocating the money to our stay and a massage as well... aah money well spent!
Oh quick plug... keep an eye out for our new book "completely lost for words" which should be in bookstores soon.
Our first day was one of laziness and recovery. We had room service for both lunch and dinner and the kids enjoyed watching the TV and the discovery channel for the first time in 6 weeks (although we have a TV in our apartment I have never bothered to switch it on).
The next day we thought we had better get out and about and try and tee up some appointments. In the morning we went to the new market as I had heard that Calcutta has the most beautiful fabrics in all of India. I have to say I had noticed that the Sari's and Salwaar Kameez worn by women in West Bengal were particularly vibrant and beautiful. But upon entering the indoor market we were immediately approached by a man insisting he could show us the best and he kept pestering me as to what I wanted to buy. He kept flashing some dodgy looking id insisting he was a government guide and every time he tried to lead us one way we immediately turned the other. After about 20 minutes he got the message and took off. The market in Calcutta certainly was not as laid back as Darjeeling and perhaps even more pushy than Delhi. The initial prices quoted where so inflated and unrealistic I could not even bother to start negotiating. I hate to sound completely negative but the I was over it... over the haggling, the pushiness and misrepresentation. We ended up buying Hunter a few colourful bangles and headed back to the sanctuary of the hotel.
The next day we had organised to meet up with the wife of an Indian friend of a friend in Australia (does that make sense). Binu (the guy) was in Kerala and was due to arrive back in Calcutta just as we where leaving. So he kindly organised for his wife Deena to show us around some of their projects and initiatives. She picked us up with her driver in the afternoon and we headed off to visit a couple of the slums in which their team was active in providing education food and support. The two slums we visited were so different. The first was known as sick lane. I guess you would call it an organised slum in that it had a leader and there was a sense of community and the family structure was strong. We were introduced to the leader and shown around the community hall. The people living there were wary of us and were hesitant to interact. We had chai with the slum leader which was served in tiny disposable clay pots which were discarded on the ground when empty. They seemed to nice to simply throw away and not reuse but I guess it is better than plastic.
The second slum we visited was under a bridge/flyover. We were informed before we arrived that it was very different from the first in that there was no structure and the family unit was virtually non existent meaning that the kids would be more up front and perhaps a little uncouth (not that we could understand what they were saying). On alighting from the car we were immediately greeted by lots of excited children wanting to shake our hand and know what our names were. We carefully stepped our way with them through the garbage and under the bridge. I have to say if I was told that while in India I could choose between seeing the Taj Mahal or the slum under the bridge I would choose the slum... no competition. There is nothing better than seeing and understanding how a large part of the world lives.
Unlike the sick lane slum where simple huts were constructed the bridge slum was all open plan living with only a few curtained off areas. There seemed to be a real mix of people under that bridge from the grubby outgoing children to the beautifully groomed and quiet natured women. One woman I met named Farita seemed completely out of place; she looked immaculate aside from the lice visible in her hair and she spoke enough English that we could manage to exchange names of her children and for her to invite Hunter and I to sit in her "house". There were very few men under the bridge and the one or two that were there were clearly under some chemical influence and some where visibly preparing a kind of drug. The family structure is virtually non existent under the bridge and many of the husbands are permanently absent.
Although there was garbage leading up to the bridge the actual space where the people lived seemed surprisingly orderly. There were even a couple of old posters of the Taj Mahal pasted to the pylons that held up the bridge. When it was time to leave we gingerly picked a path back through the tip/toilet and where fondly farewelled by all the children. I think they enjoyed the company and change of scenery as much as we did.
After visiting the two slums Deena showed us a couple of the sites as she explained about the work her and her husband were doing in Calcutta rescuing women and children and trying to make a difference. They are really amazing people. They just go out there and do the work with no excuses as to why the task is too hard or too big; everyday they are making a difference in peoples lives.
On our tourist jaunt of the city we took in the Howrah bridge which is one of the largest single span cantilever truss bridges in the world. It is constructed entirely of riveting without a single nut or bolt. From the bridge you get an amazing view of the Ganges and the hundreds of Hindu's bathing in the purifying holy water.
We then headed to Mother Theresa's organisation. I have to say I really did not know what to expect but the first thing I noticed was what a prominent "tourist" attraction it is. I saw more white people there than my whole time in India. We headed in and took off our shoes and the first place we where lead was to Mother Theresa's tomb which is decorated in flowers spelling out a different message from day to day. Next to the tomb a service of sorts was being conducted so we very quietly slipped out after signing the visitors book and receiving a miraculous medal like the one Mother Theresa handed out by the thousands. While we were there we looked through the museum and got an understanding of how simple her life really was. All her earthly possessions were displayed in a small cabinet and you could see the white stitching on her clothes which had clearly been repaired numerous times.
I am really glad we took the time to see the place where she lived and worked. It was an oasis in the city with a lovely peaceful ambiance.
Deena then invited us to her home for tea; call me a sticky beak but I love going into homes in foreign countries. Her apartment was not unlike our own in Delhi in fact it was remarkably similar. Deena served us tea and the most delicious food. We learned about her family history and her arranged marriage. She gave us a book to read called One Act of Kindness which is a kind of Biography about Binu and Deena's extended family. I am about a quarter of the way through the book and I have to say it is an amazing read. The faith and the work that this family and The New India Church of God do in reaching people is nothing short of amazing.
It is unfortunate that we were unable to meet Binu and hear his perspectives and stories also but we are sure that our paths will cross at some stage.
The next morning we prepared to head back to Delhi. We had cancelled our train ticket for the 24 hour journey home and opted for a slightly more expensive 2 hour flight.... totally worth it.
Sam and Ray made the most of their last buffet breakfast with eggs, waffles and bacon. While I made the most of the baked yogurt and fruit... YUM.
As we were checking out the room service guy presented us with lunch boxes for the trip home (in exchange for personal positive feedback- which he did deserve). He was a funny guy, always showing up with extra food which we did not order and refusing a tip, in the end all he insisted on was giving us very clear instructions on how to fill out the email feedback form and the spelling of his name. We will of course oblige - in fact happy to.
So after a quiet and on time flight into Delhi we got through the airport in record time and were soon on our way home.
We are all looking forward to a couple of quiet days in our apartment to catch up on work and life before we head to the ashram on Friday...
I will upload some more photos soon
Keep in touch xx