This post is part of a fifteen-day series covering my trip to Kolkata, India in May 2013. Some entries have been slightly edited for length or content, but they are mostly copied directly from my journal.

Hotel Circular, Kolkata
Room 44

The routine at the Mother House has changed a bit since I was there in 2001. Instead of eating breakfast in the courtyard near the entrance, we met this morning in an interior room. There are many more volunteers than the last time I was here, but that may be explained by the significant differences between May and July in terms of heat.

The entry alley to Mother House

The entry alley to Mother House

We haven’t yet gone through orientation (which is now held down the road at Shishu Bhavan), but we were issued day passes to work at Prem Dan and Shanti Dan. Only one problem: the Shanti Dan volunteer group took off without waiting for the new volunteers, so four of us (Mandy, Heather, Taylor, and me) ended up helping with odd tasks around the Mother House. Mandy shredded old copies of passports with scissors, Heather made envelopes from scrap sheets of paper, Taylor worked on object lesson materials for a catechism class, and I wrote in a ledger the months of the year–two times on every page of the ledger, a page for every day of the year. I got through September, and my fingers are sore. That’s not much to complain about, of course. Sitting under a fan all morning writing APR MAY JUNE JULY AUG SEPT OCT NOV DEC JAN FEB MAR while chatting with the girls, a white South African originally from Zimbabwe who identifies as a new convert to charismatic Catholicism named Rita, and Sister Mercy Maria was not exactly harrowing work. We were back at the hotel and done with lunch by the time the Prem Dan group arrived back at the hotel, red-faced and exhausted. They’re eating lunch now while I journal in my air conditioned room and wonder how fast bedtime might be able to get here. I am, to understate things, very tired. But there is still much to do: volunteer orientation at 3pm, and some of our group needs to change money, and I was hoping to buy some water for each room. I also really want to call home. I want to hear Ruthie’s voice and tell her I miss her. I want to know how Grandpa Joe is doing, and I want to let them know that there is a bad storm heading this way, but we’ll be safe.

Restaurant Menu

Restaurant Menu

I regret not bringing a laptop with me. It turns out that we have wifi in the lobby, and the team all has iPhones, so they’re contacting family and Facebooking and e-mailing, and I feel cut off from the world. I would have done things differently had I known.


The worst trip leader I ever had had a rule. A stupid rule: One question per person per day. His intention was to cut down on stupid, unnecessary questions, and while I don’t believe the axiom that there are no stupid questions, I definitely believe there are stupid strategies for reducing them.

I remember being so frustrated by his policy on the days when he enforced it. “What city is our connecting flight out of?” I’d ask, and he’d reply, “is that really what you want your question to be? Is that information that you need to know?”

Later, someone would use up their question on something he deemed important, but then they would be out of luck if they wanted to ask what time we’d be having dinner or when we would next visit an internet cafe.

If there is any place in the world that justifiably warrants the asking of a lot of question

s, it’s here in Kolkata. Newcomers in this city are overwhelmed in every way imaginable–sensory and emotional overload are just two things they are dealing with.

I hope my students aren’t frustrated, though, by my occasional inability to answer their questions. I want them to ask, but I often don’t know the answer because this is India, and so few things are set in stone here. I’m also depending on a 12-year-old memory of this city to get me around, and I don’t necessarily know where to find a bank or whether or not an iPhone’s imessage system uses texts, or what day of the week the volunteers go to Titagargh (the leper colony outside of town). I would love to be able to answer every question, but I can’t. Or sometimes I’ve already answered it a dozen times, and everyone should know the answer by now. I don’t want them to be upset by my lack of answers, but I hope they also realize that in India, nothing is ever simple, plans can always change, and part of surviving here is embracing the unfamiliar sensation of true flexibility under pressure.