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.

5:11am
Hotel Circular, Kolkata
Room 44

I didn’t sleep well last night. I think I’ve really only slept well twice on this trip. I am not kept up by noise or heat, but rather my mind.

During the day in India, the traveler’s mind is so busy. You have to constantly spend tons of mental and physical energy on navigating the world around you. It is hard to turn that off at bedtime.

It takes energy to walk in the streets here–avoiding potholes in the sidewalks, switching from sidewalk to street when one is blocked, not bumping into people or tripping over debris, guessing what drivers are going to do so you don’t get hit by a car or motorcycle or auto-rickshaw, responding to people begging or selling something or catcalling, wiping sweat from your face and neck, not stepping in poop or standing water, reading signs and billboards, trying to remember where you have already walked and how to get there again, plus how to get back.

It’s exhausting to the body and mind. And that’s just getting to wherever it is you’re going! Once you’re there, you still have to do your work or your activities before you repeat the whole process again to get home.

As we talked as a team last night, some of them said that they feel guilty over their lack of emotional response to this place. Despite seeing people in poverty and pain, there is a certain stuntedness that some of them feel. It’s hard to imagine not feeling something deep and unsettling when you see a naked, pre-crawling infant on its stomach, sucking on the heel of its sleeping mother, but that’s what is happening here. Some of the team sees these things but doesn’t feel troubled or devastated, and that bothers them. Devan, who exhibits a lot of wisdom from day to day, suggested that those who feel emotionally frozen might not feel much until they return home and begin to recognize just how much cleaner, safer, and wealthier our part of the world really is.

I agree with her. With all of the energy spent moving through Kolkata, I suspect that the traveler’s mind and spirit are purposefully locked down by the body, which can only handle so much stimulation.

I suggested that nothing makes you realize the permanence of someone else’s discomfort and misfortune like your ability to remove yourself from it easily.

We have an easy out from the difficult things we see here. We just have to get on a plane and fly for about 15 hours, and it’s done. We’re gone. Most of the team will never return to Kolkata again, or any place as destitute. (Or any place as vibrant, to be honest.) Our ability to just get up and leave may be the thing that affects us the most.

We can learn from that. It applies to many more things than leaving the heat and poverty of Kolkata.Because I am an educated White woman with a decently-paying job, I can leave a lot of painful situations. I can choose a new doctor if I don’t like mine. I can quit my job if it becomes unbearable for some reason. I can leave a relationship that becomes abusive, move to a different apartment if mine is moldy or badly managed, return to being the racial majority on the rare occasions when I find myself a situational minority (like I am here). I can get help from the police if I need it, no matter where I am.

I am privileged in a million ways by my circumstances–money, education, race, nationality, faith.

When we come face-to-face with a lack of privilege, what we have becomes so much more obvious.

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