Margreet and Neil Simpson from Dunedin travelled to India recently to catch up with their daughter Sandy, son-in-law Anthony, and granddaughters Olivia and Hanna. It turned out to be a life changing journey!
Excerpts from their trip diary follow. Anthony has set up a small manufacturing business called Common Good (https://www.common-good.world/people) which employs 14 local ladies. Most came to Kolkata hoping for a better life and good jobs so they could provide for their families and educate their children. But it didn’t happen and life is very tough.
The money these ladies are now earning at Common Good is enabling themto provide for their families and is giving them new hope for a brighter future,
The Simpson’s Trip Diary: Part One: Kolkata
We arrived in Kolkata in the evening after an uneventful journey on Singapore Airlines. It was fantastic to be met by our daughter Sandy and granddaughter Olivia. The drive to their place was our first experience of the noisy and frenetic Kolkata traffic. We didn’t get much sleep that night as we were jet lagged. There was also a lot of street noise from fighting dogs and the rubbish being collected in hand carts .The early morning call to prayer for Muslims came via loud speakers.
Once up it was great to meet everyone. Their house (which they have named Kolkata Castle) is very large and on 3 levels so there is plenty of room for the three families and two other adults who live there and for us as well. Our room, like all the other bedrooms, is really light and airy with comfortable beds. There is a bathroom on each floor with Western toilets but no hot water so you need to boil the kettle and fill a bucket. There is a pulley system for the cold shower.
Mid-morning we went to the local market. It is awesome that Sandy knows her way around the myriad of alleyways and has a good grasp on speaking Bengali. The fruit and vegetables all looked really fresh and it was fun choosing what we wanted and learning about some we had not seen before.
There are little pocket shops in all the alley ways – an electrical shop, jandal repair shop and a barbers shop for men to have a shave. It only costs 5 rupee to have a shirt ironed! (10 cents NZ).
We stopped for delicious eggy bread and a cup of chai (Indian tea) at a local food stall. The chai was served in eco-friendly clay cups which are disposable. Afterwards we ventured home with our purchases and played board games with the girls. They have changed so much this last year and are confident young women now. India is a great life experience for them.
The next day the temperature was again pleasant. Down to 16 deg C overnight and up to 26 C in the daytime. We enjoyed reading up on the roof top garden. It has great views over the streets and has a large BBQ and a big marble table that Anthony designed and built. Josh has also constructed a vertical aquaponic garden.
At midday we were taken to meet the local ladies in the workroom who were busy making wrist bands for World Vison and loving the opportunity to earn a living wage. They are also learning to sew, and have informal English lessons. It is a very happy atmosphere down there.
The following morning we were off to the Marble Palace by metro. The train was literally jam packed but commuters are very polite and it is a very cheap and fast form of travel.
This large 19th century mansion is still used as a residence by descendants of the original owner – Raja Rajendra. It is famous for its magnificent marble floors and walls and contains many sculptures, items of Victorian furniture, and busts of Kings and Queens. The premises also include a lovely garden, a lake and a small zoo.
We picked up Hanna and Liv from school and had a late lunch at Raj Restaurant, one of their favourite places to eat dosa. These crispy Crepes are made from rice and dhal batter with a savoury potato filling and are served with dipping sauces. They cost 99 rupee each, which is less than 2 NZ dollars.
The effort being made to clean up the streets of Kolkata is really noticeable. Rubbish is collected regularly and chlorine powder is sprinkled alongside the gutters each day. People are also starting to wear helmets on motor scooters and at petrol stations you can see signs saying “No helmet, No petrol”.
The following day we were invited to visit some of the vibrant ladies employed in the small manufacturing business. They live under a bridge on the edge of a polluted canal that drains into the Hooghly River.
In one of the dwellings we sat on the floor of their 2M x 2M tarpaulin covered living- room. We were made very welcome and were served a portion of kachori (curried chick pea sauce) and luchi (soft bread).This was followed by thimble-full of hot, sweet chai with biscuits. Fresh coconut completed the morning tea! They greatly respect Anthony for the work opportunity being given them. It was an emotional and humbling experience for us – the poverty impossible to describe.
We were invited into a number of the other dwellings to share chai and enjoy the comical Bengali banter between Anthony and the ladies and other family members. There is a great sense of community here and hopefully with help some of these people will have more of a chance to effect better choices for their families’ futures.
A little later we went by underground metro across town to an American cafe which is a favourite haunt here. When riding the metro you learn what it must be like to be a sardine in a tin. It is every man for himself in the packed carriages. Despite the crush other commuters are polite and friendly. Once off the metro we used an Uber taxi to get to the restaurant.
We had bagels and cinnamon scrolls for lunch. They were delicious and we really relished having a good coffee.
That Friday we boarded a local bus to go for a tour of Freeset freesetglobal.com/ which was another humbling experience. They work closely with Anthony’s enterprise. We sat on the ground with 250 women for morning devotions and singing and then toured the factory where they make top quality jute bags and t-shirts.
The factory is situated in the heart of the red light district and it offers alternative employment to women trapped in the sex trade.
The bus ride was an experience in itself – they speed through the traffic and constantly try to pass each other while incessantly honking their horns. You cannot waste time boarding or getting off, as they wait for no one. But it is a verycheap and fast way to get from one place to the next.
After a few days in Kolkata we were off to Delhi and Agra for a guided tour and to visit the Taj Mahal.
Part Two: Our Tour to Delhi and Agra
We flew to Delhi with IndiGo Airlines. It was an interesting experience checking in. We had to do full Security and Customs clearance for a 2 hour domestic flight.
We were booked into the Hotel Royal Plaza, a comfortable older style hotel. After arrival we enjoyed wandering around the streets to get our bearings before eating a light snack at the hotel. The decorative evening lights were very pretty and created an ambient ‘Las Vegas’ atmosphere.
We woke up to a very smoggy morning, At 7 am the temperature was only around 11 deg. C. When we asked the concierge where we could get medication to relieve Neil’s cold symptoms he pulled out a box of medicines for us to choose from!
Our city tour started at 9 am. Our young, very friendly and knowledgeableguide told us just to call him Singh. Our driver was very skilled at negotiating the frenzied traffic.
We crossed the city into the walled gates of Old Delhi and travelled by man-powered rickshaw through the packed market place. The spice market that has been there for centuries was especially fascinating.
Singh took us up a dark dingy stairwell to a roof top overlooking a courtyard. It was a real eye opener to see daily life going on in such deplorable living
conditions.Our next stop was the Jam Mosque built in1656 by Shah Jahan who also built the Taj Mahal. Then we drove past the Red Fort (1639) whose walls are 2KM long but this was unfortunately closed for an upcoming celebration.
In the afternoon we went on a tour of New Delhi visiting the Qutab Minar; At 72 metres high it is the tallest brick built minaret in India and an amazing structure considering it was built in 1193. This memorial is set in attractive gardens and is a very popular family gathering place.
During a drive through the Embassy area we requested a stop at a roadside pharmacy. We were amazed to be able to purchase cold medication andnasal spray for the princely sum of NZ$1.50.
The highlight of our day was a visit to the Sikh Mosque called Gurudwara Bangla Sahib. After removing our footwear and donning head scarves, we had to wash our feet and hands before joining a huge queue to file through thismagnificent gold embellished place of worship. There was a massive fish-filled pond in which the faithful bathe. It was a very peaceful and serene environment.
The Sikh community provides three free meals every day for anybody who is hungry. We were led into a giant dining room where more than a thousand people sat on the floor in rows eating a substantial meal served by volunteers.
In their very busy kitchen we saw how the food is prepared in giant urns heated by fierce gas burners. There were also industrial machines mass producing chapatis, which were cooked on a massive adjacent hotplate.
On our return to the hotel we spent time reflecting on the mind blowing sights and sounds of this day in India.
The next morning we were picked up from our hotel for our trip to Agra. It would be very complicated to negotiate your way around the Delhi Railway Station, Over a million people travel on the trains from this station each day.Thankfully our guide took us right to our seats.
We departed Delhi by Gatimaan Express (chair car) for the 2 hour trip to Agra.Due to thick fog the train arrived 2 hours late. Another guide met us to take us to the Taj Mahal.
The Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World built by Shah Johan from 1631 to1653 to enshrine the remains of his beloved queen Mumtaz Mahal. This huge marble monument reflects the sunlight and changes from brilliant white to pink depending on the time of day. It is totally symmetrical from all directions. Its visual impact far exceeded our expectations. It was a truly amazing experience.
Then followed a visit to Agra Fort on the banks of the Yamuma River. This immense fort was the seat of power for four generations of Mughal emperors.
Agra Fort is built in red sandstone and has magnificent palaces, halls for public and private audience and beautiful gardens. It was built by Emperor Akbar on the West Bank of the Yamuna from 1565-1573. It had an outside moat filled with alligators and crocodiles; and a dry inside moat patrolled by underfed lions and tigers. This may well explain why, as a fort, its walls were never breached!
We trained back to Delhi at 5.30 pm, this time arriving on time at 7.30 pm. Ithad been yet another wonderful day.
Our last day in Delhi was a cruisy one. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, walked to the market this morning then lazed around at the hotel pool before a very late departure on the overnight train back to Kolkata.
We were supposed to arrive at 10.15 am on the Wednesday but our train was delayed and we did not arrive until 2am on Thursday after a journey of 23 hours!
Fortunately we slept well but the journey became very tedious when there was such a big delay and no information was given as to why.
However the meals were good and service great – there was even one Western toilet! Thank goodness we had a guide keeping in phone contact with us so we had some idea of what was happening. But we were very relieved to finally reach our destination.
Part Three: Back in Kolkata
We made the most of our last two weeks in Kolkata knowing it would be quite a while before we would be able to catch up with our daughter, son-in-law and granddaughters again.
By now we were confident enough to travel around the city by ourselves using local transport and were able to find our own way to local cafes and the market where we went to get supplies for dinner. We chose 2 live chickens at a roadside stall, completed our shopping, and returned 15 minutes later to pick up our fully processed but still warm chickens!
Meals at Kolkata castle are delicious and nutritious. Everyone takes their turn at cooking each week and visitors like us are also very welcome to volunteer their services.
We wanted to treat our family to a short holiday .They were keen for us to shout them a few days at the Park Plaza Hotel where they looked forward to lounging around by the swimming pool and being able to have hot showers.
But our stay turned into a nightmare! Two weddings and a conference caused chaos and was fast ruining our planned relaxing weekend with Sandy and family. The pool was closed because of the functions and builders were erecting a roof top stage well into the night. Mind numbing music was driving us crazy. We kept having trouble with room cards not working and towels etc. which were a dingy grey rather than white. After a very average breakfast we made an executive decision that we could not stay.
Anthony and our NZ travel agent went to work to get a refund for the next two nights and this had to be approved by Expedia as well. It was a monumental exercise but they did achieve it in less than 4 hours and managed to transfer us to ITC Hotel .It was one of those travel experiences that you talk about for years but fortunately it was able to be sorted.
ITC Hotel was a magic hotel. Breakfast was delicious and it was such a delight to see the girls and Sandy and Anthony enjoying a couple of days of luxury – hot showers, the pool, and TV are such a treat for them these days. We stayed at the hotel until checkout time to enjoy the facilities until the last moment!
The following day after lunch we took a taxi to Mother Teresa’s house. The traffic was almost at a standstill and it took about an hour to get there. This nun really was a very special person and well deserved the awards she received – finally formally being pronounced a Saint in 2016 – 7 years after she died at age 87. She worked amongst the poorest of the poor providing them with food and medicines and started schools for children brought up in the slums. She also expanded her work to many places throughout India and other countries as well.
Later that week we caught the train to take a tour through Sari Bari. This is a company that produces beautiful bags made from vintage recycled cotton saris. Each item is unique and hand stitched by a woman who now has freedom from the commercial sex trade (https://saribari.com/).It has the name of the woman who made it stitched inside.
It was quite a different feel walking through the red light district – a tense and charged atmosphere. Sandy warned Neil not to smile at the street ladies in case he was propositioned!
The 10th of February was our 44th wedding anniversary. Neil, in a romantic mood, brought a dozen red roses to celebrate. – at a cost of approx. $1.20NZ.
One event which we really enjoyed watching was a huge children’s Art competition. The street was blocked off and tarpaulins had been laid down for them to sit on. There were hundreds of participants; and parents lined the pavements to watch.
The children were divided into age groups, were given a topic and then had do a drawing related to that. Sandy said that in India children are taught how to draw specific things, so they probably have less licence to be creative in their art. There was also a section for children with disabilities. It was really kind of Sandy to lend some of the kids from the canal coloured pencils so that they could take part.
On our last evening in Kolkata we took everyone out for dinner at Mocambos, which is a popular restaurant about 7 stops away by Metro.
Then we had a quiet day packing up. We gave all the ladies who work at Common Good a farewell gift of a mat for their houses – we will miss their noisy chatter and friendship.
It had been a very memorable trip. But it was good to get back home again. We will never again take our luxurious life style for granted!
By Lyn Potter. Read more by Lyn here.