Volunteer in KolkataVolunteer in KolkataVolunteer in KolkataVolunteer in Kolkata

Alison Hay was volunteering in Kolkata for our Women’s Empowerment Volunteer Program. Below is a mail Alison wrote to her friends and family back in Aberdeen about her experience in Kolkata and volunteering abroad for the first time. This is Part 1 of a two part blog.

Dear all – I’m not sure when I will next get access to the internet, so here is the latest.

Calcutta is an amazing city.  As the visitor books state, ‘you don’t see Calcutta, you feel it’.  Every sense is alive, the smells range from spices, marigolds, incense, to smells not so pleasant, the colours are vibrant and the sound is mostly of constant talking. There is no western influence here what-so-ever, and not many tourists so no information to help me.  Calcutta is everything you expect of India and more….
Rhidi, my contact, has been wonderful.  I live in the flat opposite her family and I go across to eat wonderful food with all her family.  We have access to a driver, a cook and a cleaner, a bit embarrassing really!
Calcutta is a city of 14 million people and I’ve yet to see another white person.  This makes me feel conspicuous to say the least!  Yesterday I went out on my own for the first time and lasted 20 minutes, not only was this because I was white, but the pavements are full of (mostly) men either cooking street food, cutting hair, having a wash, women washing clothes or just gazing.  I’m just not used to the amount of activity on the streets.  As for crossing the roads……………..with difficulty!  There are no road markings, no such thing as give way and the one way systems change direction at certain times in the day!
The Charity I am volunteering with keeps me busy in the afternoons.  I am involved in a couple of projects, one including menstrual health.  After discussing some of the issues, it transpired that this would only be part of the awareness session, I would have to go to the basics on reproduction.  One lady thought that her period was sent from God!  The Charity is located in the slum area, and I have never in my life seen so much rubbish.  Think, ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ or those documentaries you have seen.  The river is surrounded by rubbish, the streets are piled high with rubbish.  Children play in the rubbish, beggars are searching the rubbish along with dogs and who knows what else.  This is probably the most shocking sight for me.
This morning I went to Newmarket, which is a very old and famous market.  Luckily I went with my Servant, I mean, ‘Assistant’!  As soon as I stepped out of the car I was surrounded by men trying to sell stuff.  They followed me all around the market.  At one point I felt I was from the days of the Raj, white woman shopping with my, ‘assistant’ carrying my shopping (he insisted).
This weekend I go on a Jungle expedition to a national heritage site which is the only place now where the Bengali Tiger survives.
I must go, my Driver awaits!
Best wishes to you all,
Alison