Tuesday, 13 December 2011


"Occasionally, on those nights when we were all reading together, a train would thunder by, shaking the house and rattling the windows. The noise was thunderous, but after we'd been there a while, we didn't even hear it."

- Jeannette Walls, from "The Glass Castle"

Saturday, 19 November 2011

A Prayer.

Lord, sow joy where there is none. In places of indescribable darkness and despair, shine Your light.. Lord, give them the peace only You can give.

Tell them I miss them. 
Tell them I wish I could go back sooner. 
But it's not me that they need, it's You. 
Always more of You. 

Prabhu Yeshu, Lord Jesus, only You have victory over sin, illness, pain, sorrow, selfishness, greed, hatred. You alone are Shristi ke Swaami, Destroyer of Evil. 

Jai jai Yeshu, jai jai ho!
(Victory, victory be to Jesus, victory, victory!) 

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Miss Anderson, I miss you.

sesame toast and chai! 
How to make Indian Chai
as learned from Mary Anderson, honorary chai-wallah 
of Dui Number Rail Gate, Dum Dum Cantonment, Kolkata 

  1. Bring to boil equal parts milk and water
  2. Add a few cloves, cinnamon sticks and cardamom
  3. Add 2-3 handfuls of tea and 2 handfuls of sugar 
  4. Strain before the tea gets bitter 

Saturday, 22 October 2011

"And so they compel me now, 
my heart-thoughts, to try for myself
the high seas, the tossing salt streams;
my heart's desire urges my spirit
time and time again to travel, so that I might seek far from here a foreign land."
"The Seafarer", Exeter Book Elegies 

Friday, 7 October 2011


I fondly remember how shocked many of my friends and family were when I told them about the packing requirements for the Trek, which consisted of the following:

My faithful travelling companions: these bags have taken me from Italy to India! 
Speaking of faithful travelling companions, I haven't introduced you to my placement partner, Thomas Bell.

During our time in India we traveled in pairs (or in Paige, Oliver and Vanessa's case, a trio!) to our placements every day. Thomas is from Texas, and had recently graduated; his coming to India was a long and  grace-filled process that I don't think he expected. But nevertheless, I am certain that it wasn't a mistake and that God brought him there for reasons none of us might understand.

Left to right: Mary, Leah, Thomas, Vanessa, me! On the roof of our apartment. 

When Thomas and I said our goodbyes to the children and youth of the Promod Nagher slum they had bought us both goodbye gifts- they were these beautiful framed coloured glass pictures that had a layer of glitter behind the image, and sealed in a plastic frame with a cardboard backing. The one they gave me was an image of a vase of flowers, and Thomas was given one of the Taj Mahal, considered a lasting monument of love. 

When we were packing, nether of us thought to pack it in our carry-ons...and to our dismay when we opened our bags at debrief in LA, both the frames had shattered into little pieces, and the glitter now lined both of our bags.

I kept a few pieces of the glass and cleaned out the glitter as much as I could after that.
I've used that backpack a couple times after Kolkata, and still, despite my efforts, there lie traces of glitter lingering on the lining of my bag.

It's gotten to the point at which I pull a shirt out of my bag, and I'll be wearing glittery clothing all day.

I used to be annoyed at the fact that I would be constantly shiny (Leah, this reminds me of that time you asked all of us whether we'd prefer to have flowers or glitter come out whenever we farted! Ahahahaha)
but now I appreciate the glitter, because it reminds me not to forget that I went to Kolkata and met those wonderful children that gave me that gift.

As the weeks go by and schoolwork piles up, Kolkata starts to seem like a far off and hazy dream. During a Skype conversation last week, Thomas mentioned that sometimes it feels like we never went. The thought terrifies me, but sometimes it does feel like that. And I don't want it to.

But then, as I'm sitting in my ergonomically-designed chair, one of 500 others, in the air-conditioned lecture hall listening to my professor talk about Anglo-Saxon culture and the analysis of Medieval poetry, my mind drifts and I begin to see Kolkata again. I can feel the sticky heat, smell the exhaust, and taste the chai again. I see the traffic congesting into a mass of swirling, chaotic vehicles, and can hear the ever-present honking. I feel the floor of our apartment rumble as the train blows by, and the taste of the dhaal and rice Supriya made for us.

I miss these three like crazy. Keah, Jaya, and Beena. 
I'm reminded of the grace and love our Indian friends showed us endlessly, and the children I played Stella-Ella-Olla with roughly a hundred times. My heart aches as I remember and wonder when I'll go back.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011


Left to it's own devices, a yam after 6 weeks. 
My dear friends, it is time for me to introduce you to my now close acquaintance, Reverse Culture Shock. Like his brother Culture Shock, RCS finds extreme pleasure in plaguing those who have spent significant amounts of time away from their home environment. His favourite pastimes include inducing baffling feelings of apathy and passion, spontaneous fits of hysterical sobbing, and an overwhelming sense of helplessnes.

At debrief in Los Angeles, one of my teammates Megan had purchased some henna and we were all furiously applying it all over our bodies the night before we would return home. I think in part we did it just because it was fun, but also because we wanted something to show for, a physical marker, (because in actuality we really hadn't changed much physically over the 6 weeks except maybe partial weight gain on my part) for our time in Kolkata.

Care of Megan McFeeley!  It means "trust" in Bengali. 

As I returned home and time passed, the henna on my arm and hands faded with each shower. I was terrified, because I thought it represented the fading away of my experiences in India. I didn't want to forget. And so as my henna faded I tried desperately to hold on to anything that reminded me of Kolkata. I started doing my laundry in a bucket again and hanging it to dry secretly in my room. I steeped myself in Indian-inspired films and music. I started eating the same breakfast we had every day in Kolkata: buttered toast with bananas (which, by the way is actually delicious).

First-class breakfast, right here. 

When you come back from a culture that is vastly different from your home culture, things that used to seem normal will have become alien. Things like that stack of clean, freshly laundered towels sitting in the bathroom start to seem ridiculous (who on earth needs more than one really?), and the sheer variety and quantity of the food available in your fridge is just mind-boggling.

You try to reconcile what you've experienced and seen with what you used to consider mundane, and Reverse Culture Shock's sneakiest partner in crime, Guilt, comes crawling up to settle in your lap for an extended (and unwelcome) stay. You start to feel guilty for the strangest things-- a closet full of clean clothes, multiple taps in your house that give you clean, safe water with a simple turn of a knob...I came back and stared down everything in my bedroom with noncommittal, dismissive eyes. I felt no sense of ownership to anything in my room after living with 15 others and sharing everything together.

But I've learned that guilt can only get you so far when it comes to motivating someone to take action for the injustice they might've seen halfway across the world. Beating yourself up doesn't ever have a positive outcome. You end up beind a sullen killjoy who refuses to partake in any part of our "indulgent, excessive livestyle" and though at first friends will sympathize and listen, eventually you'll just have to move on.

And I don't mean move on in the sense that you forget. Don't ever forget what you saw, who you talked to, drank chai with, how you ate with your hands and wiped with your left, and sweated buckets the first two weeks you were in Kolkata. Remember how faithful God was despite everything. I write this in part for myself, for my friends that prayed for me back home, and those of you who I cried with and lived with for 6 weeks. Please don't forget.

"Out on the farthest edge, 
there in the silence, You were there.
My faith was torn to shreds,

heart in the balance, and You were there.
Always faithful, always good. 
You still have me, 
              You still have my heart completely."

-Gungor "You Have Me"

Monday, 5 September 2011

Not pretty.

Women's cart on the train. Sardines, anyone?

Once, our director Joel told us, that there is hardly anything to "like" about the city, but that there is so much to love about it. I never really understood what he meant by that until I left India.

Kolkata is not a pretty city. 
There are some parts of it, to be sure, that are pleasing to the eye, pleasant to smell (though not often), and delicious to consume (Bengali cuisine is incredible. Seriously.), but I realized after I left that there is little that I actually "like" about the city. I didn't like how sweaty and crowded the women's cart was. I didn't like how I was virtually ignored in conversation whenever there was a man present. I didn't like the unwanted attention, the stares that I received as a foreigner. I didn't like how it rained every single day without fail (if it hasn't rained before 3pm, it WILL rain!). 

There are lots of things I don't "like" about Kolkata. 
But there are so many things I fiercely love about the city. 

I love how, on the women's cart, I can walk-- or more like shoved-- on, and sit across an Indian woman and sit unnoticed for roughly 2 minutes before they actually realize I'm a foreigner. Due to my dark(ish) skin, dark hair/eyes, and the fact that all the women on my team wore saalwars, I didn't stick out as much as my fair-skinned and blue-eyed teammates (which, by the second day in Kolkata, certainly was an immense blessing). 

I loved the fact that because I was ignored I could sit back and listen, truly listen, to what was being said. And when I did say something it meant more due to the fact that I'd thought about it more. 

I loved that when it poured rain and I'd forgotten my umbrella, I could just enjoy the fact that it wasn't sweltering hot, and just enjoy the rain drenching my thin cotton saalwar top and hair. 

You can't do anything half-heartedly in Kolkata. 
It just isn't possible. You have to put everything into every step, every sentence, every movement, because if you don't, you'll be swept away (both figuratively and literally). 

It's a city that is fierce, relentless, overpowering and determined. 
You can't help but feel this never-ending energy that runs through the city. 
At turns hospitable and rude, charming and shocking, jumbled, noisy and crowded...it is a city of paradox. 

But Lord, it is Your city. Though so many things about it break Your heart, You still oversee and have a plan for each individual, each person in the teeming 18 million that make up Kolkata-- Lord You see each of them and love them with a love that we'll never understand or truly comprehend. 


Shuulei holding her younger brother, me, and her two friends.

After 3 years of planning in conjunction with Celebration Church, one of KCM's most fervent dreams came true! A small medical team travelled from Celebration Church in Denver, Colorado to serve the people of the slums alongside KCM. It was a 3-day program, each day dedicated to the 3 slums KCM works in (Durgan Nagher, Promod Nagher and Baghmari). 

As the medical team worked away, the rest of us interacted with and played with the slum children who were standing around watching. The members from Celebration Church had brought bottles of bubbles, sidewalk chalk, balloons, and construction paper, and the kids went crazy! It was amazing to see what little things could bring them such joy. 

I was sitting on a plastic chair off to the side resting for a bit when I noticed a girl in a pink dress, along with two other young girls, standing beside me. By that time I had learned a little Bangla (Bengali) and was fairly comfortable trying it out. 

"Tomar naam ki?" I asked the girl in the pink dress. (What is your name?) Her face registered surprise as she replied, "Shuulei." (After this she excitedly rambled on for a bit in Bangla...I think maybe she was saying she was surprised I could speak Bengali, but I'm not entirely sure..) 

"Tomar boyosh kotoh?" (how old are you?) 
"Aat!" (eight) 
"Amaar naam Phoebe." (My name is Phoebe) 

After this brief exchange, we spoke for a while in whatever Bangla I knew and the English that she could understand. We talked about the randomest things....our favourite colours (hers was laal - red, and mine neel - blue) and our favourite flowers (hers were roses and lotus, mine sunflowers). As we talked I was constantly surprised at her maturity; she was such a young girl but carried herself with such dignity and grace. When the other kids started popping the balloons she reached over and grabbed one, chastising them with a firm voice. (I'm not sure what she said but they stopped after that!)

In all of 20 minutes, we'd managed to cover our ages, family members, favourite colours/flowers/foods/animals as well as commenting on my saalwar and where I'd bought it. 

Suddenly she grabbed my hand, and gestured off towards the main road of the slum, saying something in Bengali enthusiastically. Eventually I realized she wanted me to visit her home, and so I followed her across the slum, stopping at one of the small homes along the road. Stepping on bricks laid at intervals across the mud path, we arrived at her doorstep and took off our shoes to enter. 

I walked into her home and she led me to one of the bedrooms, the walls covered with images of Hindu gods and goddesses, one large bed in the middle of the room and a few shelves lining the walls. She took out a photo album and pointed to the people, saying "Me." when we got to a photo of an adorable, chubby-cheeked toddler in traditional Indian clothing. We laughed as I tried to guess who she was pointing at, and I unofficially met her entire family through the photo album. 

As we left her house, we walked back to where the medical camp was set up and as we made our way there she pointed at things at random, naming them for me. 

She pointed at a tree we were walking under. "Bhaat tree."
"Ooh, naam....bhaat?" (Ooh, name...bhaat?)
"Haa, bhaat tree." (Yes, bhaat tree)

We walked past a flock of chickens and they started squawking when we walked by.

"Muurgi! Chickens." I laughed.
"Haa! Muurgi!" She agreed, laughing with me. (Yes! Chickens!)

We walked in silence for a while, and then suddenly she asked in English,

"Do you love God?"

A million things ran through my head. Was she referring to the God I loved and served? Or was she referring to the hundreds of other gods Hindus worshipped, often lumping Christ into a kaleidoscope collection of higher beings? 

"Yes," I said simply. "do you?"

I had no idea what her response to that might be. I held my breath and waited as she looked away briefly, contemplating my question. 

"Yes." she said suddenly, looking straight at me. "I love Him very much."

That was the first day in Kolkata, in which I realized I didn't want to leave. 


Rana, Prasanta, me, Keah, Beena, Thomas, Shaji 

A huge part of the Global Urban Trek and my trip to India was to partner with a local ministry. I was placed with KCM (Kolkata City Ministries), and had the immense privilege of working with these wonderful people. KCM exists to serve the urban poor in Kolkata; by providing schooling, planting churches, as well as projects to serve slums such as medical camps in which people can receive free medical care. While I was there I travelled and and spent a lot of time with one of their staff in particular, Keah.

Keah travels every day to Baghmari, a slum in northern Kolkata consisting of around 250 families. Though it's quite an established slum (with paved roads, brick walls, and electricity in each home) the living conditions are still deplorable. Four years ago, KCM transformed a small house into a school for 20 children, the 6 x 6ft building doubling as their church's meeting place as well. Today the building has expanded to double it's size to accommodate their students and church members.

On a normal day, Thomas, Keah and I would take the train together to Baghmari at 10:50AM each morning, after devotionals with all the KCM staff. Keah and I would brave the women's cart, which, as I'll write about later, is an adventure in itself for the North American commuter!

At Rainbow School, Baghmari's school/church, I would get to help Keah instruct informal English and math classes. Thomas would teach them Sunday school songs, and I would fold origami and draw them little sketches of each other. Though the kids mainly spoke Hindi, it was remarkable how quickly they would pick up new concepts. Rahul, a 12 year old boy with which Thomas built a close relationship with, learned how to multiply within a few days. We communicated with our hands, broken Hindi/Bengali/English, and our laughter.

Check out KCM on Facebook!

Why "Dhonno Bahd"?

From our team to you, Kolkata! We thank you. 

Dhonno bahd means "thank you" in Bengali.

Apparently as North Americans in Kolkata, we would say 'thank you' way too much (force of habit!): after bargaining, after being handed our bag of mangoes at the market, after receiving change from the seller, and once again when leaving the fruit stall.

I think we amused many a local Kolkatan by our constant usage of this phrase.

Right before we left for the airport, my team and I stood on the roof and, in unison, shouted at the city at the top of our lungs. Sort of as a farewell I think. For some of my teammates it was a chance to finally tell the city what they truly thought about it.

I wanted to thank the city for all it had taken away and given me.
So I thought it would be fitting that I named this blog "thank you", in memory of the last thing I told the city. 

A Letter Home

"Be thou my vision, oh Lord of my heart."
- Mary E. Byrne

(June 28th, 2011  10:07PM)
Dear Mom, Dad and Sean,
You'll probably get this in about 2 weeks, by which time I'll probably have sent an email during our mid-project retreat in Digha. I've arrived safely and have been at our apartment for about a week now. It's a spacious and comfortable place with more than enough treated water for cooking and drinking. We just started cooking and marketing (grocery shopping) for everyone each day; a girl named Mary and I cooked tonight. We made Indian-style fried rice, potato curry and tomato stew. There are 15 of us in total, with 2 staff workers and 12 students. There are 4 guys and 8 girls, and we all get along really well. We live on the 6th floor of an apartment next to the traintrack of the main railway running through Kolkata, so trains blow by every 15 minutes all day/night except for the hours between 12:30am and 3:00am, when there are no trains.

I love my placement, which takes me back and forth between 3 main slums across the city. At the one my partner Thomas and I visit the most is called Baghmari. We teach at Rainbow School, which doubles as the slum's church meeting place as well. The people we work with here are amazing in their faith and dedication to bring a piece of God's kingdom into the darkest of palces.

We were told yesterday that Baghmari was notified that their land was going to be taken from them and their homes demolished to make room for some high-rise development program. These families, 4 or more in each house, live together in a space smaller than my bedroom. They have one bed, a shelf or two, and maybe a closet for their clothes. And yet, when we visit they never hesitate to offer us sweets and drinks, and give us the best (and only) seat in their house- on their bed. The hospitality of these people is incredibly humbling, and their faith despite everything they've been through is just so awe-inspiring.

It's been incredibly challenging adjusting to the weather, culture and people of Kolkata, learning how to use public transportation, and learning Bengali. Watching my every gesture as to not offend, and watching local women to see how they carry themselves, sit down, and communicate with others. The culture here is very different from North American culture: women suffer so many more injustices and inconveniences than man, and in general are ignored for the most part in such a patriarchal society. On one train with roughly 20 cars, only 2 are reserved for the women.

Living communally and in such a drastically different environment has both encouraged and forced me to be more self-aware: as a result, here I am so much more aware of my own weaknesses and shortcomings. It's amazing that, when I'm stretched and challenged, though it's uncomfortable, I know it's bringing me closer, one step at a time, to where God wants me to be.

I know you're worried for me but I've been praying that though there's little communication that God will give you peace in your hearts, because He's constantly providing for all my needs, whether physical or spiritual.

I love you all and miss you so much!
I hope this letter reaches you safely.

Love always,

Memories in no particular order



After a day in Kolkata, 6 flights of stairs and getting caught in the monsoon: collapsing with relief and contentment under the ceiling fans in our apartment, spread-eagle, paying no attention whatsoever to how bedraggled we might look or what other people are doing in the room.

Mary: "Chai? Chai anyone?"

Mary, our own chai-wallah/jukebox ("Do you know that one that goes 'wouldn't it be nice if we were older'?!").

Going to Sarah for all our physical ailments, despite the fact that she is not a med student. "How do you know all this medical stuff?"   "I only know common sense stuff!"
Going to Hannah for all our physical ailments, because she really is a med student. Consulting the huge manual she lugged to Kolkata. Her praying over our fevers, sore body parts, aches, pains.

Cramming all 14 of us into the common room for dinner, corner to corner.

Debashish cooking us that huge pot of rice and never knowing what to do with it after.
"Let's make sweet rice!"
"But raisins are so expensive..."

Leah befriending that shopkeeper.
"Oh you brought another friend!"

As you think of random fond memories in Kolkata, please post them below!