In the summer of 2011, four SFU Health Sciences Co-op students, Martyna, Silvia, Lindsay and Christine went on an INCREDIBLE 4-month work term to India. Working with Destiny Reflection, an organization whose goal is to empower female victims of human trafficking to become self-sufficient through dignified employment. Their blog series, SFU Health Sciences Takes India!, captures some of the experiences on their life changing journey.
When I found out that I was one of four students hired for this internship/volunteer opportunity in India I was ecstatic, so unlike most people I was not modest about it and told everyone. I am pretty sure that at least half the staff at SFU Harbour Centre were aware that I was going to Kolkata. I told everyone from professors to students to security guards and cleaning staff. My brother and friends got it the worst when I rubbed it in that they had to return to university in the Fall =).
Many people were supportive and thought that this would be an experience of a life time, as it has turned out to be. Others were reluctant and feared that I would not survive in Kolkata. Every single individual that I spoke to who either lived or travelled in India told me the exact same thing, “you will either love it or hate it, but there is no in-between”. Friends, who were simply looking out for my safety, described stories that made me cringe. Everyone suggested that I cut of my blonde locks and become a brunette. This would help me blend in and less people would be tempted to touch my hair; or at least it was recommended that I wear a head piece. Others warned me about the aroma of garbage and the heat which is apparently inescapable. The last piece of advice was keep your hands in the motor vehicle at all times. A friend of a friend who travelled to India a few years ago got a limb chopped off when she stuck her hand out a car window because a desperate individual was after her silver bangle.
I don’t doubt that situations such as these have occurred to others. Around the world inhumane acts happen on a daily basis, such as those we are trying to counteract at Destiny Reflection; human trafficking for the means of sexual exploitation. However, the last two weeks in India have been very positive, hence people should not fear coming to Kolkata. Kolkata is very noisy, and you have to dodge traffic (I personally think it super fun, and get a kick out of it). Sometimes the polluted air gets stuck in your throat and you have a chalky flavoured cough; and once you step outside you are drenched in sweat from the humidity. But there are wonderful things that overshadow these environmentally unfriendly mannerisms.
Overall people here look out for you, especially women and the educated young men. On multiple occasions men have offered us their cabs because we looked confused and evidently lost. Others have helped us communicate with our cab drivers, and offered up seats when we were falling over on the rusted barely operating buses. We have our own personal traffic man that stops all the bolting cars while we cross the street to get to work. If it was not for him, one of us would have been in an accident at this point. As far as I know, no one has spewed inappropriate remarks or made me feel uncomfortable; although we do get stared at all the time because we are foreign women that are unaccompanied by men and very fair-skinned. In these cases, we either ignore the stares or we wave at the individual. This often brings a smile to their face and they wave back.
People in the Gariahat neighbourhood have realized that we are visiting for some time, and some have gotten to know us. For example the same taxi driver pulls up to our house every morning knowing our exact destination to work. The guy at the Tutty Fruity ice cream Shop commented on where Silvia and Lindsay disappeared to on the one occasion that Christine and I went out for a bite without them. The kids that live in the apartment buildings two blocks down recognize our faces and always greet us in English by saying “hello” and/or doing a little dance for us when we walk by. Even the less privileged children, whose families live under the overpass and beg as the only means of survival, have figured out our work schedule and the approximate time we pass under the bridge on our commute home from work. We have learned to always carry some food in our bags to share with them.
So for anyone worried about going to Kolkata, don’t be. People here are friendly and are almost always willing to lend a helping hand. The kids here are remarkable and have such a positive outlook on life even though they have so little. Shame is a huge component of Indian culture; therefore, if someone is being disrespectful others will call them out on it.
Hence, an important life lesson that I have learned from this experience is that there are misconceptions about many countries that are traveled to around the world. You must experience the destination yourself to form your own opinion and find your own truth.