Monday, March 22, 2010

Emersion to the Villages

@ The Brothel - HIV-AIDS Testing
Part of CINI’s programs is to conduct free quarterly HIV-AIDS testing for the sexual workers in various parts in West Bengal. I was invited to observe this testing day to one of its registered brothel near Pailan. We stopped in a small community by the highway and entered a narrow passageway by foot, almost concealed from the main highway. I was led into a small structure with 2 adjacent small rooms for the doctor’s office and laboratory. So this was it, the CINI Health Clinic for sex workers. I was welcomed by the 3 staff inside the clinic. The blood technician was doing her rounds of HIV AIDS testing in her room with all her testing gadgets – surgical gloves, syringes and needles, and vials for the blood. While doing her task, another project staff gave me a free demonstration on how to use female and male condoms using a wooden model of a HUGE male sex organ (I don’t know if it’s the standard size or the biggest one, I’ll have to find that out…ooops censored X). Took pictures of the demonstration but erased it afterwards because I’m afraid that my mom might see them when I get back home to the Philippines, yikes!
(Note for picture on top: Condom dispenser found in the CINI Health Clinic)

After that, I was whisked by the peer leader (‘mama-san’ in Japanese language) to the rows of dilapidated square quarters at the back of the clinic and I was surprised it is already the brothel! The Brothel looks like a rundown, war torn shabby tiny cement ruble structures. Beside these structures are piled garbage areas where I saw barefooted children (sons and daughters of the sex workers) playing with some garbage particles. At the corner, there is like a compound with quarters for the single sex workers and those with children and ‘dada’ (a big brother, who acts as their marketing/sales officer, otherwise known as the ‘Pimp’) have separate structures. They said they pay for the space or room for doing sex work out of their proceeds. Since CINI operated its clinic in the area, there is quite considerable degree of increase in the purchase of condoms by sex workers. They became more aware of the health risks involved in their profession but the business continues because what else can they do for a living.

There are around 76 sexual workers, ages from 20-55 years old (but I saw some who look like between 15-18 years old) registered in this brothel. Some came from other states and some grew up in the same community brothel. Felt sad thinking about this way of living but this is the reality. Seeing the children’s eyes full of hope and their smiles full of energy for life, made my heart felt depressed for awhile by the thought of what their future might become.

Now is not the season for sex business. August – October are the season period because of ‘Durga Puja’ holiday, where people celebrate their goddess of energy ‘Durga’ or ‘ sometimes called ‘Lakshmi’. Celebration is like that of Christmas. Colorful lights across the streets, beautifully adorned ‘Pandals’ and workers happily receiving their holiday pay are main attractions of this season. Many tourists come to enjoy the festivities for the whole month of September, and as such businesses are flourishing. Therefore, more businessmen come in to the brothel for relaxation and more pleasure.

@ Sundurban - Community Visit
CINI has an affiliated community organization in Sundarbans, the place is famous for the Royal Bengal tigers and boat ride. Sundarbans is a huge fishing area divided by Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. It is a very quite remote and peaceful town with tribal fishing villages along the coast of Bengal. We rode a car all the way to Sundarbans for 4 hours and ate ‘Muri’ along the way. Muri is composed of puffed rice cooked in heated sand, which after cooking, it is shifted from the sand and topped with roasted peanuts. It sure is a crunchy snack that can be eaten anytime of the day.

Before, you can only reach Sundarbans by riding a boat. Now, there is already bridge connecting the island to West Bengal’s District 24 Purganas (South). Missed the boat ride, but it was interesting to see that most of the houses are made of ‘Mud’ as walls with Rice ‘Straws’ or stone ‘Bricks’ as roof. CINI Director said the typical village families start their homes with rice straw roof, as the family progressed they replaced it with real ‘bricks’. So, houses can be a social and economic status symbol in the villages where scheduled caste system is practiced (Don’t ask me to write about this part, way beyond my understanding or capacity to understand since I’m from a casteless society). In every mud house there are piles of hay stock for their animal feeding and roof replacement. A small pond can also be normally seen in front of their houses where they can bath and wash their clothes. Vast farm lands of crops like chili and wheat and rice paddies can be seen along the long road going to the community we were supposed to go. Sundarbans is one of the producers of best chilies in India.
CINI established a sister organization in the community called Baikunthupur Sishu Seva Kendra (means Woman & Child Health in Baikanthupur Village) in 1978. The organization has been operating for 30 years or so, a little bit younger than CINI but they have similar work and services. Went to take some touring around Sundarban’s river dock and saw boats arrived with people climbing up the dock and placing their goods on the rickshaw vans waiting along the dock’s catwalk. Two women were sorting out fishes dried out on the dock’s platform. I smelled ‘fishy’ when I got home because I accidentally stepped on the small fishes lying along the dock. I didn’t know they were left to dry under the sun for some villagers’ food supply. The best part is my lunch with the people of BSSK, the CINI Director and the Assistant Director who graciously permitted me to travel with them to Sundarbans. My lunch was composed of shrimp cooked in curry, fish (one was fried and another was cooked with aloo and red chili), 2 vegetable meals and tons of desserts: mishti doi, rasgula, and tomato chutney. I almost pigged myself out there.

@ Reproductive Health Training
It was a rainy day when the team held their ‘Dai’ Training. ‘Dai’ is a Bengali term for “Midwives” or the person who assists birth delivery. However, these ‘Dai’ women are not registered or trained in medical field unlike the midwives. They were just born and called to deliver births in their respective villages. They are mostly old village women. “Dai” women practice proper way of birthing method…

It is sad to know that most of the village people do not go to clinics and hospitals because they are afraid to be cut or given medicines they are not familiar with. They are used to traditional birthing methods and herbal medicines that may not be hygienic and consequently create health problems and even deaths for the mothers and their babies. Consequently, there are more unregistered births in India than we can imagine. Thus, these kids born in the villages may never go to school due to lack of personal registration papers.

This program in training these “Dai” women is to create awareness on them that there are appropriate and hygienic procedures in assisting birth deliveries and to encourage them to refer expectant mothers to go to hospitals for proper facilities and methods in birth delivery. Since, one cannot control village mothers to whom they will go for delivery, these ‘Dai’ women are taught the proper and hygienic way through the RHT (Reproductive Health Training), a joint project of CINI and West Bengal Government. Twenty-Nine ‘Dai’ ladies attended this particular 3-day training and this is the 2nd batch conducted by CINI. They were all cheerful, active, and eager to learn the proper ways of child birth delivery.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Unforgettable Gatherings in CINI

Rabindranath Tagore’s Bday Tribute
May 15, 2009
This happened after a month in my placement. Never knew I could sing Bengali Song that easy. My Bengali Music Teachers were awesome and patient and very appreciative that I could easily learn to sing like a Bengali.
This is a regular celebration in CINI. As do all Bengali people, they worship Rabindranath Tagore with all their hearts because this world famous poet happens to be from Bengal. There is a mystique aura in Kolkata that I have experienced myself. I never knew I could write poems from the heart until I came to this land of most cows and romantic poetry. Despite walking side by side with cows along the narrow village roads, seeing men in skirts, smelling unending cues of garbage and exchanging smiles with small children with tattered clothes (sometimes without it) barefoot from the deep well carrying heavy tin water jars, I could still find solace to write such heartfelt words into love poems. I wonder if Tagore upon writing his love poems felt like I did in my dreamy state of writing.
Anyhow, I performed a song number of one of Tagore’s love poems during the program tribute. I felt it was my baptism of fire because they would surely send me back to the Philippines if I had disappointed Tagore’s fans. Fortunately, I passed with flying colors. My heart soured around the campus for several days with their unending praises for my brave singing stunt in front of about 100 CINI staff. Thanks to the CINI International Manager who patiently assisted me in my singing lessons. Bengali people indeed are very appreciative people!

CINI 36th Anniversary
February 1, 2010
This was a fun experience for me. I felt the members of community of CINI are very close to each other. CINI people from other branches came to celebrate this event in the CINI head office, my placement. Almost all female staff wore their best sarees and men wore their best suits. It was like a star-studded affair with bollywood actors and actresses.

The Program was graced by a Minister of West Bengal. There were speeches at the first half given by some prominent government officials and CINI Directors and the second half was given to the invited cultural dancers and singers. Socializing and relaxing with CINI Staff and Officers at the CINI garden yard was a treat because they were so sweet and friendly. Again, I was given a considerable amount of attention and praise for wearing a pink sari for this special occasion, “Beautiful!” the Director exclaimed upon seeing me and commented I should have worn a Filipiniana Costume like Imelda Marcos (the famous former First Lady of the Philippines in 1960-1990) in puffed sleeves! The ladies, on the other hand, commented I look like a “Doll” wearing the pink soft sari (ears flapping!). The best part of the program was the morning snacks and lunch. Awesome food! 

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Colours of Holi

Holi is a Hindu celebration on the changing of seasons from winter to summer or spring, whatever. Yes, the winter is officially over here in Kolkata. It is also fun filled activity for their Hindu god, Krishna who is fond of throwing colors to his followers. Holi is a regular annual event where residents in the CINI campus organized activities for the day with their families, friends and CINI guests. This paint throwing and fun celebration is a whole day affair. 10 am in the morning is the official start of the fun where different artificial colors, in powder or in liquid forms, are on display for everyone to use. There are different kinds of how to color your neighbors face and body in the Holi way. One is the famous one called slapping but not slapping too hard because it might cause some injuries. Slapping is good for making handprints on your neighbor’s bare thighs, legs and arms. Another is throwing the powder on the hair or at the back of your neighbor. This is great for having nice powdery color effect on your hair, good signature art for the hair and creates nice reflection under the sun. The third one is called massage. This will create a long lasting color stain on your neighbor’s face for a great Holi look and classical Holi expression. Pour some colored powder on your palm and massage you neighbor’s face, on the cheeks, forehead, arms, legs or neck. The forth one is the splashing water-based liquid colors using a bottle or a plastic water gun from kids. All you have to do is snatch the water gun from the kid and replenish the content from a bucket water based colors provided along for the Holi then aim to your intended victim, pull the plastic trigger and wham! A nice color splat on your neighbor’s face or clothes. The next and last one is through the bucket itself. When there’s no more color powder and water gun available, all you have to do is lift the bucket filled with colored water and pour it over the unsuspecting neighbor nearest you and there he/she goes with colors all over and shaking the water off from his/her unrecognizable self like a wet dog.

Holi at CINI was so much fun and all kinds of methods above were successfully utilized and demonstrated with expertise and precision. We played a short game sitting in circle in the garden and I was able to share my bollywood dancing moves to my fellow colored and unrecognizable alien-like entities. Sure did able to practice VSO’s motto, “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives…”

Now the most difficult part of Holi, I realized, was the washing off of the colors before the lunch time gathering/picnic. It took me hours of scrubbing, using 4 kinds of soaps, 3 kinds of shampoos, tons of water and strained muscles, just to make myself look normal again. It wasn’t enough, I still have red and blue colors all over me. Well, I can’t miss the sumptuous Holi lunch. Thus, I went on, stopped and was shocked to see that all of them were looking normal again, as if nothing Holi had happened to them. It was so unfair and they refused to tell how they were able to do that. Still, I’m not going to give up investigating, I can find ways I am sure.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Living a Healthy Life vs. Living an Abundant Life

I would exchange anything most valuable in my life for a Healthy and an Abundant life. However, the reality is that the two lives seemed to be poles apart at the same time can be synonymous with each other that some might deduce that the two lives can live as one in harmony. In my point of view, I am still confused since living abundantly would mean living indulgently with all your vices and desires to the fullest extent that may later on be your downfall.

But let us define first the two lives. Being healthy means free or away from illnesses, allergies and injuries while abundance means enjoying all the things, privileges, benefits that life can offer. Being healthy also would include mental as well as physical thing. Living healthy can be maintained by eating the right food (take note, ‘Right Food’). Eating RIGHT food may not be the food that you want to eat at your preferred time and day. Living healthy would also mean not doing things unhealthy but you sometimes crave to do something before you die like lighting a cigarette after a grueling meeting with hard headed colleagues, or eating roasted pork with gusto after starving in a vegetarian swamp for 12 months or indulge in mixed drinks with no umbrellas at some cocktail bars after having debate with your parents on whether or not you have chosen the right girl/boy to be with for the rest of your life.

Abundance may mean material as well as psychological thing. However, one cannot satisfy material and psychological wants at the same time. Having material things in an abundant manner may be quite contradicting to having psychological satisfaction at the same moment. Having material things, I believe, would just induce more longing to have more material things, thus creating psychological need for more satisfaction or higher level of satisfaction that can sometimes be straining to the person and other significant people, if not indulge in immediate future. Some obstacles along the way of having the need satisfaction may also create violent or mental discomfort that can be perilous to the significant others or hazardous to one’s own self.

Therefore, I conclude it is dangerous to your health to live abundantly. Hope I did set the record straight or have I confused you further?

Again, I therefore conclude that living a healthy life does not mean living life of abundance. You cannot have all you want if you want to live healthy until you die.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Solar Eclipse in Kolkata Today

Amazing scenes of solar eclipse

Taken at the Rooftop of my office early this afternoon.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Indian Holiday

Nothing could have prepared me for my Indian Holiday.

All of us, generally want to celebrate this very special occasion with our loved ones and friends. Eversince the beginning of my waking life, this season has been about me and my loved ones and my friends back home in the Philippines.

During my childhood days, Christmas was a very happy and exciting holiday to look forward to. It is beautifully adorned Belen, Christmas trees and lights (some with Santa and his reindeers) everywhere on the streets, stores, houses, gardens, buildings, shop. Gifts from Santa, who secretly put my babydoll (would sooner that expected became a 'rag' doll) wrapped in fancy ribbon and paper underneath the Christmas tree. It is a sock full of candies hanging by the wall near the Christmas tree. A feast of my favorite food (Aroz Caldo, Roasted Pig, Fried Chicken, Spaghetti, Cakes, Apples and Grapes that only come in special occasions during those times, etc.) set on the table upon waking up at midnight of the 24th December. It is waking up at 4am to attend early morning masses consecutively for 15 days before Christmas. It would mean party invitations from neighbors and classmates. Christmas school programs which I get to dance with my school crush. It is the singing of Christmas Carols during the dead of night with my neighboring and special *wink* friends. All these memories I could fondly remember now that I am far away from home.

When I grew a little bit older, Christmas became a headache to me. It is buying gifts for my godchildren, nieces and nephew and for their parents (who can’t bear having no gifts from me). Organizing Christmas Programs in the office and arranging Christmas bonuses and gifts for insatiable employees. Being a perennial skeletal working force and slaving until near Christmas eve or, if not, having endless and intermittent calls from my boss (the vice president of hypertension) when I am on holiday leave making it a working holiday (might as well did not file for leave!). Having small parties and exchanging gifts with friends who almost all the time cannot remember my constantly changing size and favorite colors. Getting belly problems for days from Christmas until New Year from drinking mixed drinks with no umbrellas. In spite of these, I could fondly remember them now, the happy faces of all the children and adults I celebrated with during this special season.

I have set my mind to have grand Christmas and New Year Holidays in India despite of the absence of beautifully adorned Belen, Christmas trees and lights. In the Philippines, Christmas can be felt as early as the last week of September when people start to feel the “-ber” fever. People are now clamoring to buy gifts from malls and shops on Christmas sale. Christmas trees and lights starts to appear on streets and stores, sometimes confused with Halloween decorations of November. The excitement and anticipation of Christmas bonuses and gifts are strongly contagious than the so-called “pig/swine flu” virus. Never felt this kind of anticipation and excitement in my placement in Kolkata. Never seen Christmas trees and lights in the neighboring houses nearby, not even in neighboring rooms of my campus, the office itself is totally barren of even just a small tinge of Christmas thrills. Not even for my sake! Can you imagine that?!

So, to rekindle this excitement in my mind, I went to south city mall, bought small gifts for the malnourished children confined in my campus’ infirmary center. Amazing, without knowing the exact number of kids confined in the campus, I bought exactly the same number of gifts for the children out of my greed to actualize my simple act of charity. It was a heavy stuff for me to bring home to the campus, I would have been very happy if ‘Rudolf’ (Santa’s reindeer) was around waiting outside the mall with his band of rickshaws. My gift-giving was a solemn ritual but I didn’t miss the looks of amazement of the children and their mothers upon receiving the gifts. It is a rare moment for them to receive gifts at this season since they have no idea what Christmas is all about. Anyhow, Christmas spirit and joy of the season will be in their hearts forever.

As promised to my dear friend, Mabel, I went to Jharkhand and spent my holidays with the Holy Cross nuns and other volunteers assigned in Hazaribag. The Holy Cross Hospital is situated in the outskirts of the town of Hazaribag. I was picked up by the hospital’s ambulance from Koderma train station. It was icy cold temperature inside the isolated building in the middle of the forest. I cooked Italian “with Indian chili flavor” pasta for the sisters and we ate it for dinner. It was a huge serving, some sisters did not or can’t manage anymore to eat their usual dinner of dhal, veggie and rice after eating my gigantic size pasta. It was very nice Christmas treat for me. There was an evening mass, followed by dancing and music and finally eating Indian fruitcake with lemon tea. I could have worn my new salwar kameez which I brought from Kolkata, but one of the staff forced me to wear her new saree. So there I went on with the midnight party on my borrowed beautiful saree, swaying and singing with other sisters in their tribal Christmas songs and music instruments.

In between Christmas and New Year holidays, I extended my work with my organization’s Jharkhand office. There, I met and talked with the extended family of my placement organization. It was a joy meeting them, they are such gentle souls. I was picked up by a car from Hazaribag town to Ranchi office and ferried back again to Hazaribagh after my official business. I was accompanied by Mabel who all the day long went shopping to Big Bazaar while I was slaving myself at work. Meeting wonderful people in the holiday continued on until my New Year celebration.

The were many “New” things on my New Year experience. This is the first ‘new year’, that I spent in India (though this is my second ‘new year’ to spend outside the Philippines, my first one was in Hong Kong in 2008). My first to spend new year in a deep tribal forest with an Indian family. My first to have a “bonfire” new year with a lot of lovely guys and lovely girls! My first to be swarmed with kisses on the cheeks and bear hugs from the lovely guys! (oh-lala, it’s raining men!) My first to drink whiskey! My first to dance with “Bollywood’ music until wee hours in the morning with gang of Bollywood Indian dancers! My first to eat homemade and delicious ‘cold’ beef meat in the heart of India! My first to sit by a ‘bonfire’ with thick fog and dark trees surrounding me! My first to sleep fully clothed in my day dress (without changing to my pajamas) with 2 lovely volunteers at the early hours in the morning until full sunrise! And finally, my first to receive a ‘tribal painting’ from a renowned tribal artist of Hazaribag (a friend of Andy) as a new year’s gift.
As I said, nothing could have prepared me for the adventures gained from my great Indian Holiday! Thanks to Mabel, Andy, Efren, Sangita and all the wonderful people I met along the way.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Life In Pailan

Pailan (pronounced as ‘Poilan’) is 2 hours away from Howrah and Sealdah Train Stations. It is 3 hours away from the Airport and 1.5 hours away by bus and taxis from the City Center of Kolkata.

In other words, Pailan is located in the outskirts of the City of Kolkata!

It is where cows and goats and dogs and other animals travel freely along the narrow village roads. It is where one can find ‘M-I-S’ (Men In Skirts) confidently walking in pairs or in groups, holding hands and fingers intertwined. It is where village women wearing old and torn sarees and small children walk briskly to fetch water from the deep well and carry big water jars over their heads. Finally, it is where my campus called CINI is located. CINI stands for Child In Need Institute. As the name implies, the organization is into Health, Nutrition, Protection, and Education for Children, Adolescents and Women in ‘need’. Been around for 35 years has made the organization an institution in the NGO world. Creating an impact to the organization as HR Consultant, I presume, would take years to notice or would be having minimal visibility due to the huge size of the organization with several branch/projects offices all over some states in India, which requires me to take official trips. But off I work creating some small ‘changes’ to the organization’s HR.

Life in Pailan is very laid back and peaceful, the same as the people around. Morning walk to Dayam Ashram (A Jesuit Meditation Center) of 20 minutes was never boring in Pailan. For many months I have been here, walking the same road going to Dayam Ashram, I still receive unfamiliar stare and gaze from the people I passed by. While some greet me out of nowhere and smiles at me, saying ‘Saw you again’. After many months I have been here, I am still being asked, “Are you from Korea?”, Nope. “Japanese!”… Duh???!

Every morning, this laid back volunteer (me!), tried so hard to wake up at 5:30am and do her 20-minute morning walk to Dayam Ashram. In 10 months she had been here, she managed only one week of complete morning walks from Monday to Friday to the Dayam Ashram chapel to attend morning mass with Jesuit seminarians and priests. In most of the weeks, it was 2-3 times morning walks. Funny, these seminarians and priests wonder where she is when she’s not around for long periods. At first, these guys were skeptical why this lone female specie keeps coming to their exclusive and peaceful morning prayers. Trips to Delhi, Seminars and Tours prompted them to ask her where she had been and why she was gone for too long…hmmmmnnn, missing me already!

Yoga, Music Lesson, and Language Lessons often brought me out of Pailan a few evenings in a week. Bengali music lessons were done only 3-4 days in a month while language lessons are every Mondays and Fridays/Saturdays. Yoga class is more flexible, one should attend 12 times in a month any day of the week, once in a day. Other nights in Pailan were spent dinning in neighbors’ houses and eating out with some friends in some food shops near Pailan. My Indian classical dance lesson (scheduled every Friday) was stopped after my first few lessons due to the successive trips to Delhi and other parts which caused my teacher some headaches and blood pressure why I am always not around…My teacher asked, ”Verona, are you really interested to learn Indian dance or not???”…ah…err…maybe we’ll talk when I get back from my yet another trip to Delhi. My teacher never called me again.

Every weekend is a Market Day for me. I keep my diet on fish and vegetables. I only eat Chicken when I didn’t see how it suffered just to be eaten by hungry humans. Buying chicken in Pailan is a gross experience. It is killed in front of you by wringing its neck or banging its head on the stone wall and slowly peeling off its skin out with its head and feathers (urrrrghhh!). This is how they show that your chicken is fresh and good to eat. Hmmn… I’d be happy eating fish the whole year! Fishes and shrimps are quite tasty and very fresh in the market. Enjoy so much buying prawns and tasty fishes. One can get so much for a 100 rupees weighed in a manual and metallic and rustic and old fashioned weighing scale. I never thought this type of weighing scale existed at this day and age. But I like it a lot seeing it for the first time, the symbol of Justice came to life!

Cooking is another wonderful experience. I found out I could cook tasty food by myself or maybe it was just an imagination because nobody’s here to cook for me. Anyhow, cooking and experimenting recipes was such an exciting and novel thing do in this ever peaceful environment. Never knew that my Pasta would taste heavenly with just loads of tomatoes and a few pieces of shrimps. Thanks to Andy and Vincent’s recipes of culinary arts of cooking pasta.

By and large, living in Pailan had showed me how simple a life can be. Simple things always bring joyful thoughts to my ever joyful soul. Will miss Pailan and its laid back daily life dearly.