September 01, 2009
Questions answered but more raised
Well, I begin this last post where I began my first, in my bedroom in New York. I could say that I don't know where to start, but, seeing as I've already begun, I'll say that I don't know where to end.
I'd first of all like to express my dear, dear thanks to the department and the donor for allowing me to have taken this trip. I can't tell you how much I appreciated you selecting me before I went to India, but now that I've gone and returned, it is be impossible to adequately show my appreciation for the countless laughs, contemplations, interactions, relationships, and memories the trip has inspired. It will be an experience I remember for the rest of my life, and who knows yet what type of effect such an experience will render in me as a person.
I can say already, however, that from my first day in India and throughout the trip, I've felt more and more like a citizen of the world. This association is not encouraged enough in America. I've begun to question where my responsibilities lie, as an individual, towards my fellow person. Where do my commitments lie to myself, to my family, to my community, and to humanity as a whole? I obviously don't know the answer, but I'm immensely thankful for having experienced the necessity of the question. Thank you so much. I can't wait to present my project on October 2nd, and hopefully clarify what all my ramblings are really about.
I must mention that in between paragraphs there's been a pause, and I've had a conversation with my father about the trip, and now I know I'm going to say. I'll begin by mentioning that a fantasy of mine has always been to write a story, short or long, and the trip has given me an idea for one. The topic of that story would be living in wealth in Calcutta, and the social contradictions that I think one would have to reconcile in order to do so.
The Friday night before I left, I had dinner with a friend of a friend of my father's, a successful Calcutta businessman. We ate the members-only "Saturday Club.” The club, with tennis courts, a large lawn, and a pool, is located right in the heart of the city, just off of Park Street, one of the city's ritziest drags. During the British Raj it was apparently a British Club that excluded "Indians and Dogs." The club’s existence, which I was perceiving in the midst of my experiences volunteering, seemed somehow absurd.
While eating, the man asked me what my first impression of the city was. I told him of my first night and morning, and how horrified I was initially at the poverty I saw. He laughed as if I had fallen for a common trick played on foreigners. "Well, you in America live one way," he said, "and this is just another way people live." My first responsive thought was that at the present moment we were living just as we live in America, but as I continued to think on his comment, I found that I believe it to be true only to an extent. While I certainly have not had a chance to understand much of the culture of Calcutta that could presumably qualify or explain some of the poverty, I feel personally that despite everything, even the happiest beggar should not have to live in a pile of garbage. I'm sure the man I ate with would agree, but the simplicity with which he dismissed my reaction to the poverty really bugs me. It leads me to feel that he either ignores it or has long ago reconciled himself with it as a fact of life, and moved on. I think is is a reaction really common and probably necessary among most people in Calcutta. I find this totally interesting, and would love to know more about the history of the upper classes in Calcutta in relation to the poor. Next time.
But now to relate all this to my project. Through interviews, books, observations, and about two hours of writing a day, I've been thinking a lot about the spatial mechanics of CRAWL and the Daya Dan house. I've written about the numerous difficulties CRAWL incurs at Sealdah station in trying to establish a sense of order. CRAWL's lack of its own space leaves it exposed to the same hazardous environment as the station's homeless. There are problems with the police, the weather, the commuters, the drug addicts, the bullies, and the station in general. All of these factors prevent CRAWL from establishing the order it needs to work at its most effective capacity. The environment causes volunteers and workers to make mistakes. Supplies are often forgotten. An errant photograph has kept us banned from Dum Dum Station after three appeal attempts. Looking at all of CRAWL's problems in public space, one can see the advantages of its plan to buy its own space near Sealdah station and run a wound care dispensary and a soup kitchen.
Yet my dinner Friday night inspired me to understand CRAWL's public presence in a broader social sense. CRAWL always has spectators. They are old and young, men and women. From their dress one can tell that they come from many different professions and income levels. Some stay for a minute--others for an hour, but all simply stare. At Sealdah station I often walked around with three or four children hanging on my arm. I got many different looks from the surrounding people, none of which were readable to me. I wondered what the Indians thought, looking at me. Did they approve of what I was doing? Did they think I was a stupid tourist? Were they offended that I was helping out their poor people, in their station? After all, walking around with homeless children, one becomes more than a tourist: one is a tourist making a statement. That statement is NOT an accusation blaming the Indians for ignoring their poor; it is a statement that these poor are being ignored. It is a statement implicit in CRAWL's actions, and it garners different reactions.
Sensing my own conspicuousness from the perspective volunteer, I felt all of the aforementioned self-consciousness. But since my dinner on Friday, I understand that CRAWL's pubic visibility is doing a social good as well. It does not matter what the spectators are thinking when they look, but simply that they look. CRAWL's activities at the stations bestow the conspicuousness of foreign tourists onto the homeless people they treat. Illuminating their plight is necessary, because despite their ubiquity in the city, homeless people are so regularly relegated to society's margins. Thus CRAWL's activities become not only personal or charitable, but demonstrative. I do not mean to say that they assume any sort of a didactic tone, but they simply provide something to be seen by the people, and thought about.
I came into this project with a main question: how are children’s aid organizations in Calcutta able to protect children from the harsh conditions of the street. Volunteering with CRAWL and Mother Teresa has revealed two distinct answers. In the case of Daya Dan, one could simply remove the street, and all the hazards with it. The children at Daya Dan were found alone and naked on the streets, and the sisters bring them into an enclosed, secluded, and protective space where they can be cared for and rehabilitated. Behind the walls and fences of Daya Dan nothing can threaten them. Their time is structured and uninterrupted. Mother Teresa offers these children complete protection from the streets by placing them in a different environment.
In comparison with the kind of care at Daya Dan house, CRAWL’s efforts seem ineffective. Yet one must look at Daya Dan both from within and without. Daya Dan does not have any sort of public presence. Located in a small alleyway, the Daya Dan house is unassuming and secluded. No one sees the type of care given to these children. A more public Daya Dan would allow people to see an alternative to leaving their disabled child abandoned. Instead, the parents who abandoned their children (and all parents like them) will never see their children again. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity is renowned not for this convent-like privacy, but rather for the opposite instinct, which is to take the streets. Indeed, the sisters are seen in public, as all of them must leave their house and serve the community. But the children remain behind closed doors. Many stay within the Missionaries of Charity system for all their lives. They move from house to house, and with a generally shorter lifespan than those without mental disabilities, never return to the streets. It is not this insular protection alone, but the Missionaries’ of Charity dual functions both on and beyond the streets that earned them their enormous presence in Calcutta as well as their fame around the world.
But CRAWL is a much smaller organization, with no donations other than volunteer fees, and no government sponsorship. As the organization begins the process of acquiring land, it must first reevaluate how it perceives itself as an organization. CRAWL must know what it sacrifices by moving into its own space. There is a reason why some of the wounded we treat have said they prefer CRAWL to the Mother Teresa dispensary, in a small building right across the lot. It is because CRAWL offers a different kind of protection than Mother Teresa. It is the protection of the attention, affection, and general care with which CRAWL treats the station community. It is the protection of knowing that on Saturday and Sunday mornings that someone will come to you to help, rather than you having to go to them. It is the protection of knowing that an organization doesn’t care about the environment you live in, because all that matters is your person. CRAWL expresses its protection through the love (this is my first time using that word) it brings to these communities. It is a love that is willing to make spatial compromises and suffer many inconveniences in order to serve street people in their homes. One can argue against this policy with theories of creating a dependence among the homeless or enabling them to continue their lifestyle, but I will choose to look on the bright side. By operating in public space, CRAWL builds personal relationships and creates greater public awareness.
On Saturday morning at Sealdah two things happened that I found of great importance not only to myself personally, but to my conviction that CRAWL can be a successful organization. While I was walking with the kids to the water station, a man walking by me smiled at the sight, and gave me a pat on the shoulder. It is the only sign of approval I’ve gotten on the trip, but it validated my work. Secondly, after we had finished food distribution, a ten or eleven year-old girl who we had fed (and who I noticed had to deal with a pestering 16 year old boy) came up to me on her own volition and just gave me a hug for about a minute. She came back three more times to do the same. By meeting the children in their own communities, they feel comfortable enough to extend affection to us. Her hug was the moment when I, and hopefully some of the people watching, realized that she was not a homeless kid or a beggar, but merely a little girl who just wanted a hug. And how can one ignore that? I can’t tell you what that moment and that realization means to me.
I’m thrilled that my project idea actually fit so easily into CRAWL’s organizational situation, and that I was able to see and learn so much. I can’t wait to share my work with you on October 2nd. Though my questions have not been fully answered, merely having a perspective and a direction with which to observe the organizations has been so interesting, and has led to many of broader social and historical questions which perk my interest even more. It is the first “field work” that I’ve ever done. I look forward to continue thinking about my project, whether that means for the October presentation or in future work. I came home yesterday having acquired for myself a new perspective on the meaning of being human, which I think is the most one can ask from any learning experience. I’ll never forget the trip, nor that traveling to India was an opportunity afforded to me by the U of M. Thank you so much.
August 27, 2009
Rain finally in Calcutta, but is CRAWL eroding?
After many delays, I've finally gotten my interviews with the heads at both CRAWL and the Mother Teresa Daya Dan House. The two interviews had two different effects on my perceptions of the organization. My interview with Sister Christalata at Daya Dan made me reevaluate some of my misconceptions, while my interview with Subhamita and Kakoli Biswas at CRAWL mostly confirmed many of my observations.
I'll briefly delve in to the interviews before talking about more recent news at CRAWL. First, Daya Dan. Photographs of Daya Dan in its small, concealed alleyway would give the impression of an inconspicuous fortress. The building has few small windows, and is made out of pure concrete. It is unlike most of the other buildings in the area, which are amalgams of the different levels added over the years out of different materials. Daya Dan in a clean slab, 3 stories high and quite long, with a high fenced-in driveway. And much of what I saw on the inside reinforced the place's sense of isolation. The kids do not go outside, except on occasion to the small balcony or on the roof. Even there, with the high fencing, one feels a bit like a prisoner. The organization is extremely confined, and thus can run on a disciplined schedule. Every day is planned with meals, therapy and prayer. Volunteering there consists of participating in the feeding of the 35 kids in a small kitchen, and sitting with them in the small play area. Maybe one wants her hand held, or to be rocked back and forth. One does not break a sweat at Daya Dan; though comforting some of the children can be stressful, all of the activities are extremely sedentary.
My interview with the Sister, however, revealed that the house does much more than take care of children. They open a wound care dispensary Tuesday and Saturday mornings, where people from around the neighborhood can come in to get their wounds treated. They also hold a slum school for the neighborhood's slum children in a semi-hidden room on the second floor. Both the wound care and school are in separate sections of the building from the kids. I also leaned all of the 9 sisters who reside at Daya Dan, and every sister at Mother Teresa in fact, must participate in a project on the streets. Every day two sisters go out to different slums around the city and see what people need, which they can then come pick up at the house.
There seems to be a pattern at Daya Dan, where the sisters will go out into the neighborhood to find people, who must come to the house to receive help. In this way the house acknowledges that one must engage with the streets, while still using their fixed space to their advantage. The sisters are able to give aid in their own environment. I think it is this kind of mixture between street-space and building-space to which CRAWL aspires. My impression of Daya Dan as an isolated establishment has definitely reformed.
My interview with CRAWL clarified much of what I already knew. I had heard that the organization had been formed by volunteers at another organization called SMILE which also feeds the kids at Sealdah station, but during the week. SMILE's other project, however, took place in the founder's home neighborhood, and CRAWL was founded to do the same. The founders wanted to give aid in their own communities, with the school in Khardah and food and wound care at Dum Dum station. They also filled in for SMILE at Sealdah, feeding the kids during the weekends.
Not surprisingly, it turns out that SMILE has had similar problems to CRAWL's. At Sealdah station, they were also not able to deal with the drug addicts. They have had to end their wound care program all together, and now only give out food.
Is it inevitable that CRAWL will too have to relent? Yes, CRAWL is seeking its own space by the station so that it won't have to, but what if the drug addicts just cause too many problems with the station? Our station projects are in constant jeopardy. With the loss of Dum Dum, we cannot risk losing Sealdah too. But giving up wound care would mean losing the heart of the organization. Anyone can, and people do, walk around handing out food individually. Sitting for wound care is what allows the creation of that stationary (though temporary) space in which a sense of community is achieved. This, I feel, is by far the best aspect of CRAWL's organization.
Two of the CRAWL volunteers are going to Dum Dum station as rogues unassociated with CRAWL, and handing out food and taking care of wounds anyway. The will to help this community (which maintains a personal relationship to some of the CRAWL staff) transcends the bureaucratic nonsense forbidding us from helping. Yet at the same time , giving similar help to the people as individuals rather than as an organization undermines the latter body's importance. With CRAWL seeming in danger, I am forced to ask myself: what does CRAWL really DO? How is the organization not only doing a deed, but meeting a need? Were it to fail, can it be replaced simply by individual efforts?
These are the questions that I may leave with, not knowing how the situation at the stations is resolved. I will think on these for the next few days, and have more to say in my last post.
Thanks very much!
August 22, 2009
"A Fine Balance"
Just when I was begining to think that volunteering with CRAWL was becoming routine, the organization has suddenly found itself in a predicament. If you recall, we operate at three locations: a school in the small village of Kardah, the larger Sealdah train station, and the smaller Dum Dum station.
Keeping the school operational is a non-issue, since CRAWL owns the space. The train stations, however, are more complicated. As I've mentioned, though we've operated with the stations' permission, we are subject to the arbitrary will of the station police and administration. Usually this is only an inconvinience. For example, Sealdah station doesn't like that we treat drug addicts, so they often force us to move our location of treatment away from the station wall to the parking lot. Yet I realize now that dealing with these incoviniences preserves a fine balance between us and the station. If we do not make a scene neither will the police. The balance is preserved, and we are allowed to remain. Yet as happened yesterday, the fine balance can falter under the most minor of misunderstandings.
For some reason, yesterday morning at Dum Dum station the police were clearing the small square where we normally work. They were shooeing all of the sqaure's inhabitants-- the vendors, the rickshaw drivers, the homeless people, and us. As this was happening, one of the volunteers was about to take a picture of a rickshaw driver. A nearby policeman soon accosted our volunteer, thinking that the picture was being taken of him. Though the volunteer showed him that there were indeed no pictures of him, the policeman took him over to where a group of other policeman stood. A big ordeal ensued, with the CRAWL's director stepping in to help him (thank goodness she was there that day). The result of all this is, however, is that CRAWL is forbidden to work at Dum Dum station anymore.
Apparently this has happened once before, in the May, and CRAWL was obviously reinstated. Yet the assistant stationmaster had already refused to reinstate us when our director spoke to him. We will try the assistant's boss, but having to cancel the Dum Dum project looks like a possibility.
This raises a lot of questions. First of all, how will the organization replace this project? Will they go to another station? Will they allocate more attention to the school? But what if the balance at Sealdah station was broken as well? Could the organization still exist with only its small informal school in Khardah? The school is not so established. It has about 30 students and is located in an abandoned building. And besides, as a long-term volunteer mentioned, it is the station projects and not the school that gets volunteers. People come here to see Kolkata, not Khardah.
All of this raises what is probably the central question of my trip. That is: it it really possible for a mobile organization to survive in such a harsh and unpredictable environment? Ultimately, CRAWL is just like the people it treats; it is without a home. In Kolkata, individuals and families on the street must struggle to survive from day to day. CRAWL's whole purpose is to give these people some consistency, a guarantee of help. Yet it appears as though CRAWL must itself suffer a similar hardship. My posts likely convey that every day at CRAWL has been different, presenting both new obstacles and new rewards. While this makes for an interesting time, how can an organization guarantee anything under such circumstances?
Mother Teresa Missionaries of Charity has stable homes around the city. Yet CRAWL fills in the some of the crevices between the Teresa locations, instead going to the people rather than have the people come to them. It's quite true that many of the wounded and homeless are incapable of travelling to a medical dispensary or a hospital. CRAWL is one of many organizations trying to fill a niche unoccupied by Mother Teresa's. It is Teresa's degree of establishment in the city that ensures its success. The Daya Dan house is able to run under a strict schedule and with few volunteers. CRAWL ventured out to help those that Teresa couldn't reach, yet in doing so, exposes itself to the same vulnerabilities as anyone on the streets of Calcutta.
CRAWL is able to operate under a fine balance. When the balance is maintained, the organization has agency; it can enable the sort of sense of community I wrote of in previous posts. But it is a fragile situation, and CRAWL has little experience, no clout, and ultimately, no control. If the balance is disrupted, we fall. CRAWL has decided to exist on the street and so must deal with the struggle of survival.
A possible solution? One of the co-founders, Nancy, wants to buy land to open a dispensary near Sealdah station. Owning a location should give some much-needed stability to the organization. But for an American to buy land in India is a process. Will CRAWL be able to hold out for that long? And if she can purchase the land, how will that alter the character of the organization?
The differences between Mother Teresa and CRAWL are presenting themsleves more and more clearly. My final week of experiences, as well as my interviews with the staff of CRAWL, Mother Teresa, and (hopefully) SMILE--the organization from which the founders of CRAWL seceeded--should answer some questions, while inevitably raising others.
August 17, 2009
a good day
I had a great day yesterday volunteering with both CRAWL in the morning and Mother Teresa's home for disabled children in the afternoon.
So far this trip I've been noticing a lot of flaws in CRAWL's procedure, many relating to their inability to cope with the environment around them. I've noticed that their lack of a fixed location coupled with factors such as the station's beggars, the police, and a difficult commute for some volunteers leads to a lot of instability within CRAWL's operations. But I also mentioned that on a good day, despite all these hinderances, CRAWL is able to create a sense of community, compromised between itself and the station's homeless. Well, yesterday was a good day.
It was so good because it witnessed the collaborative incolvement of the station's community in directing CRAWL's program, an effort suggesting that my theory of a compromised community was not total mumbo-jumbo. Numeorus members of the community did their part in helping themselves by helping us. They helped keep the beggars and drug addicts away from our area and helped keep the children organized in line. Basically, they prevented the chaos that frequently frustrates our opeartions.
Two members of the train community were especially helpful. One was a mother of one of the children who patrolled the line and who even accosted a man who was quite high and who would not leave us alone. This was great to see, because so often the mothers are actually the ones causing the problem. They cut in line to get for their children, or scream and yell, or hit their kids. To see a mother actively work with us rather than, as is usual, merely passively consent to their child's getting food, was really encouraging. The mother also inspired some other women to join her. In order to build a community for children, parental participation is neccessary. It was great to see that we could inspire such support.
But the real secret weapon to our sucess yesterday came from a young boy, about 14 or 15 years old. Many of our problems stem from an inability to communicate with the stret community, both because of language and just because we cannot fully relate. But our communication problems were solved by this boy, who, to the utmost irony, is deaf and mute. In fact, we call him Deaf Mute Boy. I also call him The Enforcer. The boy is endlessly sweet, and using only body language, is able to keep nearly all of the children in check. He holds the line, tells us who has already receieved their portion and who needs extra for an absent sibling. He even reminds me to wear my backpack around my front side.
Deaf Mute Boy is our bridge to the community there. Everyone--adults and children alike--respects him. The fact that he respects us makes our job so much easier. It suggests that we are not imposing our presence on a foreign people, but that they indeed want to create the feeling of a community, compromised, between us. Even better, it suggests not only that the people will accept our help, but that they want to get involved in helping themselves. And this, after all, is the real goal.
Volunteering at the Mother Teresa center has also been going well. Though all of the kids' activities are kept in extremely limited quarters, its possible that this is done not only out of necessity or pragmatism, but out of forging a place where learning is integrated with the other daily functions of life. They sleep and eat next to where they learn, pray and conduct physical therapy. The sisters live in the house, and so become part of their community as well. Though obviously the Mother Teresa center is very different in function than the CRAWL school, there are some similarities.
I always felt personally removed from the school, and that the school itself was removed from the community, the village of Kardah. But I realize now that this is only because I do not live in Kardah. CRAWL has a living quarters in Kardah, and when this is filled (only girls can live there) there is a great sense of community fostered between the school and the volunteers. A girl who recently left had been to many of the kids' homes, and knew many of the people around town. While she was still here, we volunteers ventured away from the school into the residential neighborhood, to play soccer in a small muddy field. However, that no one lives in Kardah now results in a feeling of removal, like we are merely substitute teachers rather than volunteers wanting to interact. But now I realize that the school can be more successful if CRAWL has volunteers living in the community it is serving. Though in an earlier post I mentioned that living and working in the same place causes complications in maintaining one's "professionalism," I understand now that these complications are indicative of a feeling of community. Like many things in Calcutta, it's a mixed bag.
August 13, 2009
the past week
Yesterday was a good day. I registered to volunteer for Mother Teresa for a week and a half at their Daya Dan house for physically diabled children. I would have liked to work at their Gandhi School, but I could not give them the 1-month minimum commitment. Surely volunteering at Daya Dan will provide a complimentary experience to CRAWL, perhaps revealing the remedies to some of CRAWL's problems, or perhaps suggesting that CRAWL's policies in fact reconcile some of Teresa's issues.
Yesterday was also productive in that I began to read a book about the Teresa houses, and I also scheduled interviews for next week with two of the founders of CRAWL. A third interview will be conducted via phone once I return home, with the American founder Nancy Chrzan. While I am thinking much on the organization's present state, these interviews should tell me about its past and its future plans. I've been hearing rumours of CRAWL's big future goal--a clinic at Sealdah Station--that would completely alter the nature of the organization.
I've found so far that the organization has many problems, much of it having to do with its lack of its own space. CRAWL doesn't really have a set "location." It is a mobile and a commuting organization, treating the homeless in the lots outside of two train stations and conducting a school of of an abandoned building. It has no formal office or warehouse. The volunteers have to commute with the food, medical supplies and play supplies on their own. There are a few long-term Indian volunteers who bring most of the supplies. We short-term folks bring a minority. But without an office, the commute becomes challenging. Trains in Calcutta are no joke; one can barely fit on the train one's self, let alone bring a few bags. The commute causes many issues. Invariably something is forgotten. Sunday there was no food, soap, or coloring books. Saturday there was no toothpaste. Friday, no vitamins. Crawl operates in both very public and private spaces. People and supplies travel from private homes to the sites and back again. There is no supporting infrastructure to back up the rough transition from private to public space, and so forgetting supplies becomes unavoidable, to the frustration of all involved.
Operating at these public train stations, CRAWL is subject to the elements. Whether it be rain on heat, angry mothers or the Sealdah Station drug addicts clamoring to get a scrap of the children's food, CRAWL must fashion order out of this chaos. This often proves quite difficult. We operate very conspicuously, and so beggars crowd around us while we are trying to find the children sleeping in various areas of the station. Thus, it appears to the Station managers, who do not like us anyway, that we are supporting these beggars.
These complications breed inconsistancies. We may have to relocate to another area of the station. Someone may give food to a beggar just to get him to leave us alone--always a bad decision, I think. Unable to control its environment, CRAWL is prone to dissembling. When this happens, the simple and contained tasks of giving out food and treatment run awry.
But when successful at finding those who need food and treatment around the station, and if the conditions permit a little patience for the needy to wait in a short line, CRAWL can create something good at the stations. What I think it can do is to briefly create a community out of compromised spaces. The location of their services--the lots in front of train stations--exist as liminal spaces, existing sandwiched between the mobile spaces of train tracks on one side and the street on the other. The homeless live in their own small sleeping communities around the station. But when CRAWL brings these people together in one small area, it seems that a new community is created. It a compromise between the tracks and the street, between the volunteers and the homeless, between the station and the organization. But it is a compromise that, however briefly, can support communal institutions. In different areas of the lot there is created a "bath house" where the kids are washed, the "dining hall" where they are fed, the "hospital" where the wounded are treated, and the "playground" where the children play. At the organization's best, and for a brief duration, CRAWL is able to forge a sense of community compromised within the harsh streets of the city. It is the slightly removed character of the space beside the station that allows for CRAWL's community to exist.
August 06, 2009
(shift doesnt really work on this keyboard, so sorry, no caps)
so, a brief update. there's more to say about the content of the project, but i'll save this for the next blog. this one is just to say that the structure of my time here and of the project is shifting a bit. I am going to try and form more of a comparison between the mother teresa organization and crawl, and so in order to make the same types of observations i am making at crawl, I will volunteer with mother teresa briefly as well. because crawl's hours are from the early morning to the early afternoon, i should have some time to spare to volunteer at teresa's later in the day. i also think there are many published books about the teresa house here, so those can be of great help.
since teresa's is the preeminent volunteer organization of the city, and operates totally differently from crawl spatially, it should serve as a great basis of comparison, allowing me to evaluate crawl with a wider perspective. the biggest variable, however is in size. teresa's is a huge organization compared to crawl. when i question whether crawl's projects could be executed successfully on a much larger scale, seeing how a larger organization works may give me the answer. I've found that considering they're dealing with street people, crawl is a very community-based organization. they serve the same groups of people, and so have come to know many of the children and their families personally. if one were to expand the size and scope of the organization, that sense of community may be jeopardized.
anyway, that's all for now. I'm having a great time. the volunteers are all very nice, and the children are all so charming. of course, this charm is mixed with tragedy, and makes for a very interesting experience each day.
thanks so much,
August 04, 2009
First Few Days!
Well now, so much to say. It is now Tuesday Night. And since I arrived in Calcutta late Sunday night, and Monday and Tuesday are CRAWL's days-off, I will not start the volunteer work until tomorrow. However, from my experiences and my conversations with fellow volunteers, I've learned and experienced many things that are both interesting and applicable to my project.
CRAWL works on a weekly schedule that consists of 3 main different sites. There is an informal school Wed, Thurs, Friday mornings and a pre-school on Wed, Thurs, Friday in the early afternoon. Both of these are in Kardah, a village 30 mins from the heart if the city. There are also the two other sites: the Dum Dum and the Sealdah Train Stations. At Dum Dum, Wed, Thurs, and Friday mornings there is wound care and food duistribution for the needy. Saturday and Sunday mornings outside Sealdah, one of Calcutta's largest train stations, there is wound care for the street people and activities for street children. This is the organization's busiest project.
Walking around Calcutta these past few days, I've already learned of some of the spatial complications facing the organization. What I've noticed is that for us volunteers, the line between volunteer and tourist, between on-duty and off-duty responsibilities, and between working and living is extremely blurred. And I believe that this confusion is actually a spatial issue. It stems from the close proximity between the Sealdah Train Station--where the organization often works--and the Calcutta Lodge--where many of the volunteers (myself included) reside.
I believe that the heads of CRAWL chose the Calcutta Lodge as our place of residence precisely because of its nearness of only a few blocks from the train station. Its nearness is extremely convinient for walking. But our presence as both workers and residents of this small area has caused complications in terms of our relationship to the street people. For the people attending the organization's projects are the same street people that we find in the neighborhood, and our conspicuousness while working has translated into recognition, and even familiarity on the street. The homeless recognize the volunteers, and ask for help every time they see us. And this puts us and the organization in an intersting bind. To give or not? And of the other five volunteers, all have given. One man in particular with a bad skin disease has recieved his last four meals from indidicual volunteer purchases.
This problem cuts at what I predict to be the heart of the organization: community involement. I believe that the CRAWL may see itself (at least some of the volunteers do) as an alternartive to Mother Teresa, which houses hundreds of volunteers. While Mother Teresa has a specific location where street people can seek treatment, I think CRAWL's montre is to come to the people who cannot really transport to a specific place. Following this concept, CRAWL's operations are spread at main sites within the community. Yet being so close creates issues of self sufficiency for the street people. Of course, CRAWL wants to encourage people to seek help rather than to wait for handouts. But it seems that spatial issues between work and residence have been producing an opposite effect.
Is the top organization even aware of these problems? Do they see it as a problem? Do they plan to reconcile it? How does Mother Teresa's compare spatially to CRAWL? And where does CRAWL see itself situated both geographically and figuratively to the street community?
All this and much more to say and learn over the rest of my trip. Now that I'm settled in, I expect to be blogging more frequently. Sorry if this post was too long, please let me know.
July 29, 2009
First Post! My waning days in NY
Well here is my first post. It is Wednesday afternoon, August 29th and my plane leaves for Delhi from New York Saturday, August 1st at 5pm. It’s a direct flight to Delhi, and a two-hour flight from there to Calcutta. A representative from CRAWL—the NGO I am volunteering with—will meet me at the airport, and drive me to the hotel at which I’ll be staying.
While the organization’s headquarters, the school, and the female residences are located in Kardah (a short train ride from the city’s center), I and the other male volunteers stay in a hotel which is right in the city. I have been emailed pictures of a room there, and it doesn’t look too bad. I may even have my own bathroom! Experiencing the daily commute from the city to the Kardah site will certainly add perspective to my project, allowing me to better understand the distances and boundaries, both literal and figurative, between the organization and the city.
CRAWL runs two main services: the school in Kardah and medical aid in the urban slums. I intend to experience both, and observe how these two services, differing in both content and landscape, interact within the organization. Presumably, offering both education and medical assistance requires two distinct orientations or philosophies regarding the best ways to help the communities. For instance, education largely deals with the future, while medical treatment deals with the present, which for some may be too late. Why did the CRAWL decide to offer both? How do such varied operations affect the organization, its structure and the people it serves? Are the children aware of the organization’s services in the city? Are they encouraged to give back to the urban poor? Or are they shielded from these gritty activities, involving bodies and environments that are not protective and supportive, but exposed, vulnerable, and degrading?
Each time I think of the organization, the ideas feel fresh, as more and more questions come to mind. Of course I really can’t know what to expect, and preparation can only go so far. However, I get excited nonetheless, hoping that present thoughts can give some shape to future experience, though it appears to me now as amorphous and opaque. I intend to just dive in, keeping in mind a base of questions I want to ask, but understanding that other questions will inevitably arise and attract me.
There is more to say, but I’m about to watch a movie. The film is called Born Into Brothels (2004), and it's about child prostitution in Calcutta. It won the 2004 Academy Award for best documentary. I assume it will give me a visual idea of the city beyond the images I’ve garnered through reading novels and guides. So I’ll let you know how the movie goes.
Talk to you soon!
May 13, 2009
Hello from Caleb
During the month of August I will be traveling to Calcutta to volunteer with CRAWL Society, a group that teaches literacy to underprivileged women and children. While volunteering, I plan on studying how children's aid organizations such as CRAWL interact with Calcutta's city space--to what extent are these organizations refuges from or potential reformers of the city?
As Nancy asked for information on the visa and flight, I have received my visa, and have not yet booked my flight. It seems likely I will be leaving August 1st and returning August 30th, but I am still waiting for my parents to discuss it with me. They don't seem to have the same sense of urgency I do, but hopefully I'll have the flight reserved by the end of this week.