India - Day 1
After a slightly turbulent four and a half hour flight to Kolkata from Singapore we touched down just after 8.30pm local time (11pm Perth Time). A bus took us to our hotel and while we were waiting for it to arrive we started to get a taste for the hustle and bustle of the "first city in India to have wi-fi" (according to the billboards). "Vintage" taxis "honked" their way around the airport terminal and there was the constant movement of people. All the luggage (including 10 boxes of donations) was boarded onto the mini bus. Over half of the bus was filled, and then the 12 members of the Riverview India Impact trip, weary from a long day of travelling, boarded.
The traffic conditions on the way into the city were far removed from what we are used to in Perth. Traffic lights are a mere suggestion to the impatient drivers, cars, motorbikes and autos overtook our cab on the inside lane while tooting their horns. There were amusing things being advertised on the billboards. Everything from plywood to IVF!
When we arrived at our hotel, "Eslplanade Chambers", we were greeted by lovely men who willingly unloaded our cases and boxes and took them into the hotel. Then we met in one of the rooms, enjoyed a cup of "cha" and discussed the events to occur tomorrow, our first day.
Karen started the day with a devotion based on Micah 6:8:
"He has shown you mortals what is good, and what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
We were challenged to be God's feet and take His good news into all the places we were to visit during the course of the day.
The first experience of the day was walking to the train station. We negotiated dangerous footpaths, sleeping dogs, and stalls selling all manner of goods. After being reminded that absolutely no photos could be taken in the train station, we were provided with a token to allow us to enter the station platforms. When the packed train rolled into the station we pushed our way on for a quick journey to the stop nearest Freeset.
The sensory overload continued after disembarking. We walked through narrow streets amazed at the sights and snapping photos of women washing garments on the kerbside, men being given a haircut on the footpath, and artisans building floats for a forthcoming parade. Eventually we arrived at Freeset in time for their daily time of devotion. We found a place to sit as inconspicuously as possible and slowly all the workers filtered in. Before long over 200 children and adults filled the Freeset courtyard. It was great to see Alyxa and Caleb with Jeshua. The service was not in English, but we recognised the tune of one of the songs. Everyone was obviously enjoying themselves as they clapped along, and laughed when the animated worship leader made some cool moves.
As everyone went back to work, our group split into two smaller groups and headed off on a tour of the Freeset complex which was a hive of activity. Each aspect of the beautiful bags and T shirts that are made from scratch there, are the responsibility of different teams comprising the Freeset crew. Each detail is meticulously coordinated. Each person is patiently trained to capitalise on their strengths. The love, peace and freedom was palpable throughout the buildings, and when it came time to buy some souvenirs we all went into a shopping frenzy.
We'd all worked up quite an appetite, but we were soon satisfied by a delicious lunch at "Ricky's". It wasn't far from Freeset but there was a major road to cross and that's not a task for the faint hearted!! There were no utensils, only our right hands, but we didn't mind because the food was finger lickin' good.
After lunch we headed back across the crazy traffic, past people sleeping on a patch of footpath and people washing themselves in front of pipe outlets into the street. Our next stop was Alyxa and Caleb's apartment. Although sparsely adorned, it was comfortable and peaceful. We had the opportunity to pray for this beautiful couple who are obviously greatly appreciated by the members of Freeset
From the haven away from the madness of Kolkata we headed to the centre of Sonagachi, the heart of the red-light district to hear about the liberating work of Sari Bari. We had to be escorted into the complex, and while waited for our contact to arrive we enjoyed a delicious ice cream at a beautiful little cake shop. Sari Bari is run with a similar intent to Freeset, but they make some different products including hand sewn quilts, scarves and different types of purses, all from recycled saris. They have not been operating as long as Freeset but they are making equally impressive changes to the lives of women trapped in modern day slavery.
By the end of this visit we were all quite tired, thirsty, and in need of some "processing" time. As we walked back to the train station we saw more sights of abject poverty that challenged us. There were a couple of funny moments, firstly when we brought the centre of Kolkata to a standstill while we were taking photos of each other! The second funny moment was when we boarded a packed train and somehow Meena and some of the girls in our team ended up travelling in the men's section! The men were perplexed about what to do and Meena and the girls quickly moved when they realised!
We were able to reflect on these things after our delicious dinner of chicken biriyani and associated condiments, followed by gulab jamuns bought for us from the cake shop by Rykie.
After a jam packed first day of action and getting to know each other, we finished off with the highlights and lowlights of the day. We were so grateful for the volunteers who have sacrificed their comfortable Western lifestyles to serve the poorest of the world's poor - people who feel like they're invisible to the world. The love they passionately share is building relationships with those who find it challenging to trust anyone. Leanne summed up the day beautifully by saying : "I'm just where I needed to be today".