Photo by Joshua Berman. He and his wife, pictured above at a health clinic in Ghana, served three volunteer assignments while their honeymoon.
A Guest post from Joshua Berman http://joshuaberman.net
Have you ever thought about volunteering abroad during your honeymoon? Joshua and Sutay Berman did exactly that during their 16-month round-the-world honeymoon to 16 countries (here's a map of their route). They served as volunteers for three months in an Indian tea-growing village, two months working with Sri Lankan tea farmers, and finally, two months supporting Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana in Accra. From their past experience, they knew the benefits of approaching a region as volunteers. As Joshua writes, volunteering would only increase their chances for unplanned encounters and shared adversity—both surefire relationship strengtheners (or relationship killers – they were aware of the risks!).
After several months traveling in Pakistan and northern India, the newlyweds' first volunteering adventure began in Calcutta, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, where they had to report for duty before traveling to their work site even farther north. The following is an excerpt from my book about this experience, Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon (Tranquilo Travel Publishing, 2016).
When Sutay and I met—via mutual friends from our respective U.S. Peace Corps experiences (I’d served in Nicaragua and she in The Gambia), we got engaged pretty quickly, in a matter of months. We began planning a wedding, then suddently canceled the reception and diverted the money to a plane ticket fund. We applied to serve as professional volunteers through American Jewish World Service, and eventually completed assignments with local non-governmental organizations in India, Sri Lanka, and Ghana.
The following is an excerpt from my book about this experience, Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon (Tranquilo Travel Publishing, 2016).
Reporting for Duty in the City of Joy
Our host organization in Calcutta had made reservations for us at the VIP Hotel in the northeastern outskirts of the city, near the airport on the desolate Kaikhali More. It had been chosen for its proximity to Jana Sanghati Kendra headquarters, which was still several public bus rides away.
It was a bizarre setting to begin the second phase of our honeymoon—volunteering for three months among tea workers in West Bengal. We settled into our room at the VIP just as the monsoon season got under way. It was damp and warm, but somehow homey. And it was temporary, one of many stepping-stones to get to our site assignment and begin our task.
We’d set the ball rolling months earlier, before we’d departed the U.S., when I asked Sutay one morning, “What about volunteering?”
What better way to approach a region as new and enormous and complex as India or Southeast Asia than by working with a host organization already established and trusted in the community? Volunteering would increase the chances for unplanned encounters and shared adversity—both surefire relationship strengtheners (or killers – we were aware of the risks).
Also, during our extended travels, volunteering would give us the excuse to take a break from constant movement, for short periods anyway, so we could experience a country as more than mere clients, customers, fares, and marks. It would give us a chance to learn customs and a few bits of languages, and to make friends with people we would never meet otherwise.
We had looked at our options for short-term volunteer opportunities, then submitted applications to American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit international development organization based in New York City with ties to grassroots organizations around the world. In the AJWS Volunteer Corps, our professional skills—those of a nurse and a writer—would be matched with the specific project needs of a host organization. Somewhere.
They searched for a proper placement among the many organizations in their network and eventually decided to place us with Jana Sanghati Kendra—the People’s Solidarity Center—a human rights organization based just north of Calcutta.
Calcutta, the one-time capital of the British Raj, officially Kolkata, or “Cal” by hipsters who live there, was at one time known as the “Paris of the East” for its trade in herbs, teas, and spices. Calcutta is an uber-city sprawled along the Hooghly River, which flows downstream into the tiger-inhabited Sunderban swamps and the Bay of Bengal. It is a medley of styles, cultures, cuisines, languages, and politics, and it has produced India’s greatest literary giants, classical poets, and revolutionaries. Chief among these is Rabindranath Tagore who wrote, “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
I had also read that, in the last fifty years, so many rural families had inundated Calcutta, it had grown to be more famous for its decline into mass urbanism and slums than its short reign as a colonial jewel.
Yet, our hotel was removed from the wonders and problems of this great city. We were so close, yet so far. We looked out our room window at an empty urban landscape and swollen, gray clouds.
If we hadn’t already, Sutay and I had now officially veered off any semblance of a tourist trail. No more backpacker hangouts, international Internet cafes, or banana pancakes for breakfast. And this was just the beginning, a week-long orientation in the relative luxuries of the VIP Hotel before heading to our work site farther north. We still had to travel fifteen hours by train to get to India’s tea belt. We wouldn’t have any fellow foreigners with whom to swap stories there, but we would have an apartment, a car and driver, translators, and a task to perform
But first, Cal.
The Jana Sanghati Kendra office occupies a cramped, converted home in a residential area in the northern outskirts of Calcutta. Anuradha Talwar, the director, greeted us at the door. She had a commanding presence, a strong voice, long black hair, and a flowing sari as she led us inside. The office had low ceilings, cluttered desks, ancient computers, file cabinets, and shoeless workers buzzing between rooms.
Img by Joshua Berman. Birpara, India, working to support tea workers and their families as part of their volunteer service for American Jewish World Service.
Anticipation buzzed between my wife and me as Anuradha picked up a piece of paper to read a description of our assignment. We sipped our tea and listened as the next chapter of our trip was revealed to us:
Joshua and Sutay will be placed in a small town called Birpara to work in the plantations nearby. They will be studying the nutritional status of tea plantation workers who have just recovered from a long period of closure, leading to hunger and starvation deaths. Sutay could focus on the nutritional status of women and infants who have gone through this crisis. Joshua and Sutay will have a couple with them, Sarmishtha Biswas and Debasish Chokraborty, who have already done some work in the plantations. This couple will work with them as translators and local guides. They will also help with the study. It would be best if all four persons stayed in one house for security reasons. The volunteers will be required to travel to the plantations and back, generally by a hired car/motorcycles, as public transport is almost absent in the area.
“Are they here?” I asked, not even attempting to pronounce the names of Sarmishtha and Debasish, the two most important people in our new lives. Anuradha smiled and ushered us into the next room.
A short, jovial woman, dressed in a bright green shalwar kameez and yellow scarf draped low across her front, stood to greet us. Sutay wore a similar outfit, a burgundy and white shalwar kameez topped by dark shades and African-style tiko head wrap.
“I am Sarmishtha,” she said. She and Debasish had just come back inside after smoking a cigarette on the patio. Sarmishtha was friendly and talkative, with a smoker’s laugh and confident, liberated ease. Her hair was short and her eyes brown. Debasish was reserved and serious, a slim man with a beard and glasses. He shook hands firmly and silently.
“There should be no smoking in your house,” said Anuradha.
“I agree,” said Sutay, taking a stand, though we were both unsure of cultural norms around this.
“That will not be possible,” Sarmishtha said, laughing at the silliness of such a thought.
These were our first impressions: Sarmishtha, a brash, stubborn, care-free, and independent woman; and Debasish, a mellow, scruffy, thoughtful man who didn’t waste words. We’d get along just fine.
We spent the next five days commuting to the JSK office by bus and working nine to five in the office with our new colleagues, mostly composing the survey questionnaire we would use with the tea workers. We also got to know each other a little.
Photo by Joshua Berman. Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka, where the couple completed their second volunteer service working with tea farmers for American Jewish World Service.
Debasish and Sarmishtha were both born and raised in Calcutta and had known each other since childhood. Debasish ran a small fishing cooperative in the south. It was one of several risky, labor-related ventures he was into. Sarmishtha lived with her extended family. She showed us photos of her new niece, and one morning she sang classic Bengali music to us with a stunning voice, then laughed when she realized people in the office were listening. She and Deba, as she called him, had a relaxed, brother-sisterly ease between them that made Sutay and me instantly comfortable—even though we still didn’t want them to smoke cigarettes in the house.
In the evenings, my wife and I lounged in bed at the VIP, watching movies, listening to the rain outside, and breathing the mold. By the end of the first week, we’d had enough of this routine and decided to get out and finally see downtown Calcutta. Sarmishtha and Debasish had already departed for Birpara to secure an apartment and prepare for our arrival, so we were on our own in the big city.
We also thought it would be smart to squeeze in a date night before shacking up for the next three months in small quarters with our translators. You’d think our entire trip would feel like one long date, especially as newlyweds with no children, but like anything that continues for months on end, the length and routine of traveling eventually chipped away at some of its exotic romanticism. Routines become routines, even while traveling. So going out for the night in Calcutta was about more than just dinner. It was about keeping the sense of adventure and unpredictability of it all. Ten years down the road, settled in a deeper routine with children, this would be much more of a challenge. But on this night, all we had to do was launch ourselves into the city around, then react to its stimuli—as a team.
To get downtown we boarded a city bus, which took us to the commercial mayhem of Sudder and Park Streets, giving us a long panorama view of Calcutta on its way through traffic. The sidewalks were crowded, the walls dotted with hammer-and-sickle graffiti.
We splurged on a “continental” meal of chicken and pasta at an overpriced, air-conditioned restaurant. We walked between bookshops and parks, tea stands and monuments. Mostly, we wondered at the sheer activity on the sidewalks. These were not merely spaces for people to walk. Calcutta sidewalks are also used to bathe, cut hair, clean teeth, run businesses, beg, and sleep. Near the subway entrance, a dark-skinned shirtless man crouched over a beehive he had brought from somewhere outside the city. A swarm of bees circled his head comfortably as customers handed him containers that he filled with honey and chunks of honeycomb.
After walking for a while, it was time for a drink. Birpara, where we were headed in a few days, was a dry province and we knew this could be our last chance for several months to sip an adult beverage. We stepped into a bar with a karaoke stage and a handful of customers, and bellied up. I had a beer and Sutay ordered rum and pineapple juice. Mine was cold and bitter and perfect. I was pondering its perfection when I saw Sutay’s head lurch forward. Her fingers met her lips and came out with a wriggling cockroach that she threw onto the bar.
She’d forgotten to check her straw.
The bartender looked over with a noncommittal head waggle and a smile. Then my sweet, lovely wife did something I’ll never forget. She put the straw down, lifted her glass, clinked it to my bottle, and drank her drink, the roach trying to pull itself from the sticky puddle of juice on the counter.
Perhaps some instinct should have made me disgusted with my mate’s actions, which some would deem unsanitary. But I saw the exact opposite—Sutay’s utterly practical behavior proved she would be a decisive and thrifty mother to my children, unwilling to waste a drop of precious resources (in this case, alcohol that had probably killed any germs from the roach anyway).
One drink was enough, and after a day of nonstop sounds, smells, and sights in Calcutta, we decided to call it a night. Rather than hire an expensive taxi to the VIP Hotel, we decided to try our luck on the Calcutta Metro Railway. We were standing on the sidewalk, searching for the subway entrance, when a short, bespectacled Good Samaritan on his way home from work stopped to help us.
“I am Pradeep,” he said. “You will follow me.”
He guided us through various tunnels and turnstiles, blocking for us as we pushed ourselves into the rush hour crowds and boarded the train. Pradeep got off after a few stops, leaving us with instructions to stay on till Dumdum, the last stop.
That’s when we realized we had taken the wrong line entirely! Pradeep probably had no idea where the VIP Hotel was and had given us instructions just to save face. Who knew. Most of the train was empty by now and Sutay and I emerged, quite alone, from the Dumdum station into a drop-down monsoon downpour. We could barely hear each other as we shouted about what to do.
Picture my wife and me holding hands and running through ankle-deep rainwater outside the station, then leaning on each other, the water knee-deep now, dark andwarm, sucking and pulling at our shoes. We jumped aboard a hand-pulled rickshaw whose driver pulled us out of the station area and deposited us in a taxi area. We got into a car, still lost, soaked, vulnerable, and being driven through Dumdum, a Calcutta neighborhood named for a bullet factory.
Sometimes the unknown of travel is romantic, mysterious, and subtle. Sometimes it crashes out of the sky and squishes between your toes, reminding you that you are far, far from home—and that anyone who squishes along by your side is someone you should keep close for a long time.
Img by Joshua Berman. Birpara, India, working to support tea workers and their families as part of their volunteer service for American Jewish World Service.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer, travel columnist for The Denver Post and author of six books, including Moon Nicaragua, Moon Belize, and Colorado Camping. His articles have appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, and Yoga Journal. His latest book, Crocodile Love, recounts the mishaps, quests, and encounters of an extended, round-the-world honeymoon, eight months of which was spent as volunteers with American Jewish World Service. Joshua has served in AmeriCorps, the U.S. Peace Corps, and as a volunteer firefighter. He is currently a full-time Spanish teacher in Boulder, Colorado, where he and Sutay live with their three daughters. Find him at: http://joshuaberman.net or on Twitter @tranquilotravel.
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