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.

5:48am
Hotel Circular, Kolkata
Room 44

Why can’t I wake at home with this kind of energy at 5 in the morning? Well, it would probably require going to bed at 8 or 9 every night like I’ve been doing here.

I like my routine, though. I wake early–usually before 5–but don’t get up until 5. In the mornings, I read, journal, track the budget, take a few pictures of the scene outside my window (this morning a well-groomed cat is on the rooftop across from me), pray, dress, and go downstairs to read on my Kindle for a while before we leave for the Mother House.

I saw this cat every morning at 5.

I saw this cat every morning at 5.

Mornings, since yesterday, will be for volunteering. Lunches are supposed to be independent, although we generally end up at the hotel restaurant. Afternoons vary. Yesterday we met and walked to Park Street–it was a horrible walk from our hotel to Park, but not bad once we got onto the main road. Walking back at dusk in the crowds was a nightmare that I’ll do anything to avoid for the next week or so. It was absolutely horrible. So many people, no room on the sidewalk, cars nearly knocking our arms as they rushed by, weaving in and out of crowds. Walking in Kolkata is kind of exhausting, but walking on AJC Bose Rd at dusk is a nightmare.

After dinner (generally at the hotel, but last night at Flury’s), and any team debriefing we plan, we go to our rooms somewhat early and go to bed.

My evening routine is simple. I shower in cold water, not even thinking about turning on the hot water. I do a bit of laundry in the buckets in the shower–usually whatever I’ve worn that day, and definitely my bra–and hang that to dry in the bathroom. I don’t have much room for hanging things, so I don’t want to end up with a ton of laundry to do at once.

I’ve also taken to washing my shoes at night. It seems wise, when I think about the poop and dirt and refuse that I walk through daily. I use a separate bucket for shoe washing and try to avoid too much contact with all the stuff that is on the soles of my sandals.

In the shower, I scrub my feet well. I’ve been nursing a popped blister from a few weeks ago and am finally going without a bandage on it, because it’s healed enough now that I don’t think of it as an open sore.

I also read in the evenings, after I journal, if I can stay awake. Usually I can fall asleep pretty quickly, even if it’s only 8 or 9.

It’s a good routine. There is so much that is outside of your control out there, and I like having a little bit of a routine and some predictability over the few things I can control.

I’ll admit that having a single room has been a major blessing to my introverted self. Having time to myself is healing and grounding. I was uncertain of it at first, but now I’m convinced that this is the only way to go.

***

7:59pm

I’ve had a relatively easy day. Emily and I road the 166 bus from Bose Rd (near Moulali) to Shanti Dan with some other volunteers that I’m enjoying getting to know. Eileen and I have a lot to talk about, from Kolkata to eczema.

At work, I felt a little bit more settled. I knew better what I should do–I made beds, cleaned the floor, brought water to women, helped some women use the bathroom, peeled several papayas with the other volunteers, served lunch, peeled boiled eggs.

Yesterday we got to help the women with meditation, but no luck today. I guess it’s not on the Saturday schedule. It was such a surreal experience when we did it yesterday. Sister Benedicta, the nun in charge, said that we would “help the women meditate,” but we had no idea what that meant. After tea break, Emily, Mina from Japan, and I were sent upstairs into a building we hadn’t been in before. A group of about ten of the most cogent and physically capable patients were already there, and we went with them into a room lined with blue cushions on the floor. The room was empty aside from the cushions lining two walls, floor-to-ceiling curtains on the opposite long wall, and a painting of a giant-eyed Jesus propped next to some flowers.  There was a red lightbulb high on the wall, and after all of the women were seated, a mashi closed the door and turned off the lights. Because the windows are covered with curtains, the room seemed almost pitch black. Of course, it wasn’t total darkness. Our eyes slowly, slowly, slowly adjusted to the room. The mashi played quiet, soothing music from a CD player. The ceiling fans blew the air so fast and hard that it was really quite comfortable. The women were silent. One wanted to leave and was allowed to. The rest sate quietly, a few leaning on each other, a few leaning on Mina and Emily.

I had no idea how long this meditation period was supposed to last. I had no idea if I was supposed to be doing something or not. I couldn’t see a thing–not even Emily right beside me, to see if she was okay with what was happening.

What happened was my most peaceful moment of the trip. Aside from a few guided meditation tracks I’ve done online and the meditation portions of my yoga DVDs, I have have never done any meditation at all. I found it both odd and soothing to sit in that darkness. Knowing that I was surrounded by women with a range of emotional and mental disabilities, and that they were all silent and at ease gave me permission to become quiet and receptive to the moment. I kept my eyes open, despite an inability to see anything at all. When the face of Jesus, directly in front of me, came to visibility, I gasped. It was as if I was looking at a Seeing Eye puzzle for the first time or like I was joined in the room by someone who hadn’t been there previously. I can’t lose sight of the symbolic nature of the set-up: we were unable to see each others’ faces, but as our eyes adjusted, we saw this painting of Jesus.

I turned off my criticism of the painter’s interpretation of a white-skinned, doe-eyed man. I was satisfied that the women were not being forced to participate in this, and that the ones who were there wanted to be there. I didn’t worry about the time or how long this was supposed to last, although I did want in those moments for it to last all afternoon. (I did think to myself that it was good that I didn’t need to use the bathroom.)

I don’t remember the last time I felt a deep connection to my own spirit (whatever that is) than in that moment. In some ways, it felt like those intense moments of devotion at the front of a church stage when I was a teenager, seeking God. I question so many of those moments based on, well, a lot of things, but I also know that certain aspects of those experiences have determined my ability to stay a Christian, as I don’t believe everything about them was forced, false, or contrived.

Yesterday’s meditation did not feel contrived. It felt quiet, and it felt important. I wondered how I could get in touch with that–whatever it was–outside of the conditions themselves. Can I integrate a meditative practice in my life at home? How would I go about doing that?

I was, needless to say, disappointed to learn that today there would be no meditation. I doubt there will be any tomorrow, either. I’ll look forward to Monday.

It’s time to do some laundry and get to bed. I showered in the afternoon, after lunch, and then stayed in for the rest of the day. It was a great choice. I feel cool for the first time of the trip. It was a good chance for me to read, read, and be alone.

I haven’t been able to write down everything about the trip so far, but I’ll try to reflect tomorrow on Shanti Dan’s overall ethos, and how I feel about the environment there. I also need to tell you about the mashis Nirmala and Rajkumari, both of whom have become the closest things to friends that a person can make with a stranger who doesn’t speak the same language, comes from a drastically different background, and won’t be there after another week.

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