Thursday, October 13, 2016

Kolkata, India: Vibrant Streets, Hard Stuff, Freedom Businesses

Summary and Highlights:

  • 2 weeks spent mostly in Kolkata visiting some friends from Christchurch, NZ who shifted there to study & start some "freedom businesses"
  • A few days in Darjeeling, a town at about 2200m near the Nepalese border, which is famous for its' tea & cooler climate
  • Volunteering at the Nirmal Hriday Home for the Destitute and Dying setup by Mother Theresa
  • Learning about and seeing freedom businesses & organisations in action: Freeset, SariBari, Kolkata Arts and Loyal Workshop
  • Next stop - Kathmandu Nepal, with a months trekking near Everest and briefly assisting with the Himalayan Foundation Nepali teacher training programme before heading home...

Vibrant Streets Assaulting the Senses - The Morning Walk

It's 7:30am on a Sunday morning near Sudder Street in Kolkata, India.  We're just stepping out of Hotel Galaxy, our guesthouse, onto the asphalt lane to walk to the Metro Station. On our left, we pass the 5 or 6 bright yellow 1960's style taxi cabs that always line the street early in the morning. There's colourful graffiti on the walls behind them.

The smell of urine wafts up from the walls and open urinals on the side of the road against the building to the right.  Up ahead, there's already of crowd, mostly guys, eating breakfast & drinking cha (spiced milk tea). We join them for our daily order of a couple of chappata breads and amazing spiced bean broth, perching on planks setup on the side of the lane.  You need to put aside all your western manners, as you share a plate and delve into it with only your right hand which is soon covered in curry.  The chapati is still toasty hot, after being cooked over the coals within the top of their small, round upright cooker.  Incredible to watch & delicious to eat!

Our lane, with the street urinals on the right, quite a step up from the usual against the wall pee!

The corner cha walah (milk tea guy) on the left, with the morning chapati with bean/potato curry guy on the right...

Street food!  Our Chapati guy in action, freshly cooked over hot coals (5 Rupees per chapata)

Cha in the traditional, recyclable clay cups (5 rupees)
We've been so impressed by the lack of plastic
waste here, often using leaf plates, clay cups, re-usable plates,
filtered water - love it!

Just a couple of meters across the lane, the cha wallah pours out his next steaming brew through the filter into small round clay cups.  Soooo good!  We smash the clay cups onto the gutter underneath us as we finish, before heading round the corner. The theory is that the clay eventually finds it's way back to the river it originally came from, as the rain washes it down the gutters (

We walk past shops opening up, other food stalls, a herd of goats heading to a market somewhere, while continuously telling the taxi guys we don't want a ride.

It's currently the Hindu Durga Puja Festival, so at night, Kolkata is cranking! The streets are lit up with lights, speakers erected blaring out music at ear shattering volumes down the lanes, communities competing with their stage-like setups. This is their equivalent of Christmas.
As we near the museum corner, we pass by the street people, some still asleep, their shelters setup on the footpath.  Some are bucketing water over themselves from the handpump.  We see them every morning; sleeping, children playing, eating here on the footpath.  This is just a small group, in comparison to some of the many large slum communities living beside the railway tracks or banks of steep sided canals here.  A daily reminder for us of the stark realities of the disparity between rich and poor.  Between those entering the malls and nice shops and those living on the streets and slums, or selling themselves to make ends meet.

What you can't hear from the words on this page is the constant tooting of cars and buses as we walk.  It's virtually impossible to have a conversation with Miri, as we dodge cars, motorbikes or hand drawn rickshaws, people yelling and music playing.  This is a colourful place!!!  We pass by other sections of food stalls, with their amazing egg rolls (like kebab wraps), yogurt lassies and lime soda vendors, clothes, belt and bag vendors before taking the steps down into the underground Metro.

Ricki, a friend of our friends at a Puja Pandal (makeshift stage & idol)
Many, many people ....

Hard Stuff

Kokata has the largest red-light district in Southern Asia, Sonagachi, a square kilometre of densely populated homes and brothels.  Some estimate that there are 10,000 women in the trade here, with 20,000 men passing through every day.  Some women can face up to 20 men per day. Our walk with Freeset took us through a very operational, in your face area with one main purpose: "The Trade".  Very explicit! There's men lining up, waiting their turn, bargaining the price for the women, while she stands there waiting.  Women waiting on the sides.  Faces often very devoid of hope.  Ocassionally one would smile as they recognised the lady from Freeset. 

Many of these women have been trafficked here against their will, typically with the knowledge of their families, who are faced with the temptation of one less mouth to feed and an income from the city.  They are then typically held in the bondage of debt, heaped with ongoing expenses that they will struggle to ever repay.  Some are here "by choice" for the work, because it's the only job they can get, perhaps their mother or grandmother was also in the trade.

In contrast to this, we dropped in to visit a family who work for Freeset.  There are now a few women and families in the same building who work for them, as word has spread.  We sat on the bed and waited while they brought some Cha tea from down the road and biscuits to share with us, as we talked with their talking parrot.  This was a real privilege being able to enjoy their hospitality.  A snippet of hope amidst some hard situations.

The night walk through this area was really moving for us.  But we're equally inspired by the amazing people, passionate about giving these women FREEDOM here.  Freedom of choice.  They're involved in some daring stuff.

For more, check out: or  in NZ  or  We recently read a book called Sold (by Patricia McCormick) and have had recommended "The Locust Effect" by Gary A. Haugen

The Re-Occurring Theme of Freedom

Freedom.  It's a word that's often used in these parts with the people we know.  For good reason.  It's something we too often take for granted in our worlds of choice.  It's also been a word that we've felt has re-occurred for us time and time again over the year in different settings, whether it's been in the Refugee Camps in Greece, talking with our friends living in Turkey and their journeys with religion, our friends in Myanmar - some who have relatives that have sought refuge in NZ, those trapped cycles of poverty in Phnom Penh and here.  It is something that the people we have spent time with have taught us to be very grateful for.  It's gift that many don't have the privilege of enjoying and we live in hope that, as we "love our neighbour as ourselves", that they will experience greater freedom also...

One of the reasons we came to Kolkata was to visit friends, 3 couples and families who have recently moved here from Christchurch, NZ.  They're passionate about seeing healthy, caring communities with thriving relationships, something they were also passionate about seeing in NZ.  In their new community a key need is choice of employment for the many families that are struggling. They're living within close proximity to 3 different slum communities.  So, they're in the midst of starting up some small businesses to offer a degree of choice and opportunity to some of these families.  We've been super inspired hanging out with them and meeting their local friends while we've been here.

The local Canal, our friend's local neighborhood community, notice the longdrops, slippery banks and makeshift houses.  Our friends summed up the situation like this: "while the clean water gets pumped to the rich
people in southern Kolkata, the southern Kolkata crap flows back past these guys and out to the river...."

The other side of the Canal.  It was a real privilege to share a Cha (Milk Tea) with a couple of families here.  

As our time to head back to New Zealand draws closer, we've been challenged with how our experiences over the year will change how we live in NZ.  Will they just be amazing experiences that will fade into distant memories and photo books in the bookshelf?  We'll need some accountability to this from our friends and whanau back home.

Thanks for reading our blog and journeying with us!


Andy and Miri

Photo Essay's


Darjeeling, a hill town in northern India bordering Nepal is known for it's cooler temperatures, views of the distant Himalayas (occasionally anyway), Darjeeling Tea, Tenzing Norgay's home, Tibetan Refugees, many bording schools and amazing MoMos.  We took the overnight sleeper train and 3 hour crazy jeep ride (think packed in, winding steep roads, carsick ...) to Darjeeling for a few days.

Darjeeling clinging to the hills

View from the guesthouse window over Darjeeling

Local markets

Monkeys, many, many monkeys

streets lit up for durga purja, with street vendors doing their thing

Our favourite morning momo and chai and lunchtime egg role street vendor

Morning momo's, mmmmmm!

Night sleeper train (3x3 open cabin)


The bright colours of Kolkata traffic

Daal & rice - getting in there with the fingers

Incredibly industrious, we saw hand powered grinders on the footpath, hand pulled rickshaws, irons heated from
small coal fires uncreasing shirts, and this old singer sewing machine mending clothes.

Sudder Street

Street food in action

Our favourite Lassi vendor (sugared yoghurt drink), delicious!

Many, simply sleep on the footpaths, making it their home

This street had truly incredible creations for Durga Puja!  Made out of bamboo, paper, mud etc...

Mother Theresa's Kaligat Home for the Destitute.  We were privelaged to volunteer here for a couple of mornings.  Some volunteered here for months.

Street life from above

As you can see, the locals always use the footpath, as did we :-) 

The end :-)


  1. Great post and pics guys. Looking forward to catching up with you both on your return to nz. Travel safe

  2. Great post and pics guys. Looking forward to catching up with you both on your return to nz. Travel safe

    1. Thanks for your kind words Bron! sorry, just seen your comment, will see you soon in chch!

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