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July 13, 2008- Hindu temple visit, Clay figure sculpting area, and botanical gardens
Today we went to a Hindu temple in Kolkata. It is Sunday and so eerily, the streets were deserted until we got to the temple where things were hopping! Hindu temples are dedicated to certain gods in the main temple but then this one had subsidiary small temples dedicated to other gods. There were many people and we were trying to figure out how to be the most respectful and so we took our shoes off since we saw everyone else was barefoot. There was a cow napping right in the midst of all these people. I know cows are sacred here but I just can’t get over seeing them just hanging out all over town.
We were in a taxi and suddenly there was a traffic jam where everyone came to a screeching halt. I thought that there was an accident or something, but no, it was just a cow and a calf hanging out right in the middle of the street. I could probably live here my whole life and not get used to that! I also saw a herd of goats in the street being herded by several people. We have been told that if the goats are tagged red, they are on their way to slaughter. It is just so incongruous that in this modern city with modern commerce happening, livestock is in the streets.
Four of us decided to hire a car for the day since it was our day off. It was only $10 per person and that way we wouldn’t have to haggle over prices with cab drivers all day and also, it was air-conditioned. I read back through some of my blog entries and I noticed that I talk about sweating a lot. I will try to stop doing that because there really isn’t ever a time where I am not sweating so you can just assume that anything I am writing about, I was sweating profusely, copiously, dehydrationally the whole time. But the last thing I will say about it is that while at the temple, my brown pants were completely soaked through except for on the pockets so it either looked like I had water thrown on me or that I had peed myself. People were definitely staring at the icky American!
As we were going back to the taxi from the temple, we were absolutely bombarded by beggars. They were pulling at our clothes, tugging our arms, and yelling things in our faces to give them money. I feel so sad for them but it is super scary to have random street people pulling on you in every direction from little kids to old ladies with no teeth. We got in the taxi and they were beating on the windows and trying to pull the windows down with their hands. The driver was yelling at them but they just kept banging on the car over and over. As we started moving, they eventually started fading away. I have said this in other entries but I really just don’t know what to do in this situation. They are obviously in complete poverty but you cannot just get out your wallet and start passing out money. They were pulling on us without our wallets out, I can’t imagine what it would be like if our wallets were in front of them.
Next we went to an area of Kolkata where they make sculptures for a festival that will be in October. After the festival is over, they throw the sculptures (made first from straw, then covered in clay, and then painted) into the river. These semi-naked people were absolutely amazing artists and you could even look at the straw bases and see which god it would be. They were all sculpting the same gods but everyone on the street was doing different sizes of them. My favorite is Ganesha, he is the god who has the head of an elephant and is there to remove obstacles. Their sculpturing areas were super small and I am not sure how they can stand to be in these tight spaces with itchy straw and clay mud. There were people of all ages as artists too and there of course, were still many motorcycles buzzing by us honking constantly while we walked down this tiny alleyway.
The botanical garden was on the other side of a huge river, not the Ganges but I can’t remember what it was called. It reminded me of the Ohio River running next to Louisville, it was that big. The bridge over it is a very modern, new looking tension bridge that looks exactly like the bridge in Charleston, SC or the Bay Bridge over the Chesapeake. Again, it is so bizarre to see this giant, modern bridge here where you also might see livestock being herded across it. The botanical garden was definitely off the beaten path (actually we have seen very few Western tourists at all except for at the Mother Teresa house) and so we got to see some different areas of Kolkata. More than once on this taxi ride I saw my life flash before my eyes as we zoomed head on toward buses and other cars. Our driver had been Patrick Swayze’s personal driver in the early 80s when he was here filming the movie “City of Joy.” He had pictures of himself with Patrick Swayze, which was hilarious.
At the botanical garden we saw the world’s largest Banyan tree. This sounded exciting at first since we were told it was almost a kilometer around, but Banyan trees are like Aspen trees and they are all one connected organism even if they look like hundreds of trees. So really, it was a grove of Banyan trees, which was still cool looking because they went their roots down from their branches instead of roots coming from the ground up.
After that we went back to the hotel (I am still pretty sick with a cold and got the chills on the way back which should tell you that something is definitely wrong with me!) and sat out by the pool at a table. Suddenly, it got very dark (it is monsoon season here) and we had to rush to a covered table where the sky commenced dumping rain like I have never seen. This was my first tropical shower (except for in Florida) and this wasn’t just a shower, it was buckets and buckets of water and I am pretty sure that our hotel was struck by lightning because it was the loudest crack I have ever heard, especially since we were sitting outside on a covered patio.
Obviously, Kolkata has had more cultural visits than Delhi and we have gotten to see more of the city. Tomorrow we go to a boy’s private school so it will be interesting to see if their teaching methods are more of the same or more innovative since they might have fewer students. One thing that I have definitely noticed here is that they are VERY un-PC about discussing people with special needs. First of all, there is no law that people with special needs must be educated to the same degree as anyone else. I heard someone say that they have “spastic schools” but I am not sure what that really means. We have a special education teacher in my group and she asks every group we talk to about what they do with kids who have “special needs” and nobody really even understands the question because it is outside their realm of comprehension that these people can learn too.
I kind of feel like in terms of SpEd, India is where we were like 75 years ago or something. My principal roommate went to a seminar conducted by the American Consulate for principals yesterday where a person was there trying to convince principals that people with vision or hearing impairments can still learn. It is just so interesting. The last few days though I have gotten to forget that I am hear for educational reasons because we have had so many cultural events, which I suppose, are educational too. I am starting to think that one of the main reasons that India is turning out so many engineers, scientists, and doctors is that they are really only education the elite who have money or resources to get themselves to school.
Last night, the group (I didn’t go because I felt like crap and I am so sad I missed it) went to a free school in a slum area where teachers are volunteers and if they weren’t there, none of these slum kids would get any education. I know that there are huge discrepancies of wealth in the American system and that we have a huge dropout rate in urban areas, but everyone at least has access. It might not be equal but there is still access to an education, even if it is a crappy one. If we were only educating the middle class and above, we would probably be churning out amazing kids constantly too, more than we already are. I have to remember that the students in the US who go to MIT from our schools are just as amazing as the kids who are going to the prestigious universities here, and those are mostly the kids we are meeting.
Well, I better end this post before people’s eyes fall out. It is pouring rain, I am sick, and it is our day off, so I have had time to write more!
Sorry so long!