Greetings! I just returned from India a few days ago, and my head is still reeling! Granted, part of that is probably the jet lag. You can read all about why I went to India right here, but in this post, I wanted to let you know exactly what we did while over the two weeks that were gone.
You can also view some of the initial photos on my Instagram account, but I’ll be posting a lot more soon. And for additional photos, you can visit www.facebook.com/thelearningtea or @thelearningtea on Instagram. These were the good folks, and friends, I was traveling with.
Monday, July 13
Flight from Atlanta to Mumbai. Super long, but nothing too exciting. The most thrilling part was picking out my last US meal at the Newark Airport. I went with cool, fresh and regional—a lobster roll, iced soda and then Jamba Juice for dessert.
Tuesday, July 14
We arrived in Mumbai that evening. There we stayed at a Hare Krishna ashram, which is more like a hotel with a temple area attached. But it was safe, clean, had hot water and AC! And we also received a 4:30 a.m. wake up call to come down to the temple. We sneaked down to watch for a few minutes. Boy, they sure were spirited at that time of the morning!
Wednesday, July 15
We were only in Mumbai overnight and then flew to Kolkata. That morning before our flight, we walked to the nearby mall to find some kurtas and things we could wear for more dressy occasions, if needed. And, luckily, they had a great coffee chain there called Cafe Coffee Day which would become a mainstay on the trip.
The night we arrived in Kolkata there was a massive rainstorm. It’s monsoon season after all. So, it took us a long time to get a cab at the airport because a lot of the cabs don’t even come out in that type of weather. Some aren’t powerful enough, don’t have windshield wipers, or just don’t want to mess with it. And by the time we got close to the hotel, our friendly cab driver said he couldn’t take us down that street. It was flooded. So, he helped us get our luggage to the curb, waved goodbye, and we walked the last couple blocks—water about 6″ deep in some places, squeezing our toes to keep our flip flops on and carrying our luggage when necessary. I’m not going to tell you what could’ve been in that water…
There in Kolkata we stayed at Fairlawn Hotel, a favorite of ex-pats and foreigners. It has a really interesting history and no, it’s not quite as nice as the photos make it out to be. 😉 But tons of kooky character! Even the story on the website doesn’t do it justice, though. It’s very British Colony, down to the way the staff dresses, the breakfast served, and the pictures of William and Kate and other British icons on the wall. Really interesting. Kudos for the window AC unit, too. I would not have made it otherwise.
Thursday, July 16
One of our stops on this day was to New Light, an organization in the Red Light District I’d been eager to visit. Though other programs also work there in the slum, they are the only holistic organization working with kids of all ages whose mothers are sex workers, and also the mothers themselves. They also just opened a space for boys, who get very little attention around the world overall.
New Light provides a safe place for them to come and actually get some sort of education. It also simply gives the kids another place to be during the day instead of on the streets or near, sometimes in the same room, where their mothers are working. Sometimes the moms bring the kids, and sometimes the program has to make contact with the moms to see if they can attend. Sadly, not all parents want their kids to leave that situation for a different or better life. New Light works with 55 kids currently, out of approximately 2,000+ in the Red Light District. Katrell wanted to speak with their director to see if now or in the future, they had any girls that would be candidates for The Learning Tea program.
For more about New Light, watch their segment on the Half The Sky Documentary which is on Netflix streaming. Based on the book of the same name, it’s an incredible documentary about how women are treated around the world and what changing that treatment could do for our world. This segment is with actress America Ferrera, and there are about six 30-minute segments in the film.
Friday, July 17
We went to conduct an interview for a potential Learning Tea scholar. It was hysterically interesting and fun. We went into another slum where this candidate lives with her mother. The father passed last year from asthma. (Incidentally, they lives beside a glue factory.) She was 17, and giggly sweet. She also had fantastic grades.
And when we were walking down the paths to her house we started amassing a following! People staring (staring isn’t taboo here) and smiling and waving and walking behind us to see where we were going. We sat in their little shack with the girl, her mother, her aunt, a local contact and a neighbor. The neighbor was just curious, I think, since he left about halfway through with no explanation. It was a bare clay-ish room with a small table, four blankets and a cabinet. A couple of the other neighbors popped in out of curiosity. And they had to close the shutters on the windows because the little faces kept looking in and staring!
They were all such precious people, and it was sweet to see the mom bragging on her daughters school accomplishments. Everyone was, actually. The girl tutors other kids near the house, and wants to be a college professor. We were served chai and cookies, and chatted for a while about the program, requirements and life in general. They asked a few questions in broken English, and I think they’re very excited about the possibility of her being in the program and getting a free college education.
We were cut a bit short in the interview by the spotting of a spider, no joke, the size of my hand! It was quite funny and frightening. First frightening and later funny. But next, the girl’s English tutor invited us over since she was late to the original party. So we went over there and more of the girls family, aunts and cousins, came to this part. Then we got a second course of Sprite and sweets. Hospitality is HUGE here, and they will make sure you’re past stuffed when you leave them. Here we spent another hour plus going through a lot of the same things, and also more reciprocating questions as best we all could. Then the crowd saw us to our taxi, and our faithful driver for the week Zakir, and we were off again. Overall, it was a several hour process. Katrell said they’ll be talking about the white women who came to their neighbor’s house for years to come!
Unfortunately, school has already started in Darjeeling. So, if this girl decides to participate in the program, it might be a year of her staying at home before school. We’re not sure what will happen at this point, but it was such a pleasure to meet her, her mother and her community. Katrell nick-named them the “super women” because it was group of strong, passionate women who made up her community. They were a great example for this girl.
Kolkata is so strange, such a dichotomy. I’ve never seen, heard, smelled or imagined such filthy conditions. It is so very sad. But at the same time, the people are so sweet and giving and helpful. The cookies, sweets and Sprite purchased for us cost that family A LOT of money they didn’t have but they ate none with us, and wrapped up what we didn’t eat to take with us. I’m not even sure some if some of them had ever tasted those things themselves. But their effort and hospitality was humbling.
Saturday, July 18
We started to feel the jet lag finally, and just visited a few stores and caught up on things like email.
Sunday, July 19
This morning we were on a hunt for a graduation gift for one of The Learning Tea girls, and ended up with some pretty, gold earrings. And I found my favorite US coffee chain at one of the malls, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, so I was able to partake of my beloved iced tea and cold coffee drinks for a while. (The water is filtered at places like that.)
In the afternoon Stephanie and I visited the Victoria Memorial and Mother Teresa’s house. Victoria Memorial is in honor of Queen Victoria and displays a lot of the country’s history, especially under English rule. It is a big tourist place and many Indian people from all over come to see it. In fact, it was quite crowded because it was both a Hindu and Muslim holiday, so a lot of people from outlying villages were there.
Under no circumstances am I exaggerating when I tell you that Stephanie and I now know what THE BIGGEST CELEBRITIES IN THE WORLD feel like. We received far more stares and pointing than the rest of the week combined. It was insane! People wanting pictures with us or trying to take our picture as we walked by. Following us around the area or trying to brush up against us. Seeing us and stopping in their tracks. Making sure their friends saw us. Too funny. We tried to smile and wave and make comments to a bunch of them, and they just loved it. Really crazy. And I’m like a foot taller than everyone, and really pale, so I’m easy to spot. But just so you know, I’m a big deal in India. (Note: I have not received the same treatment since getting home.)
Next the two of us went to Mother Teresa’s house, where she worked, is buried, her small museum is held and the work continues. They don’t allow you to take pictures inside except of the grave area, but everything was simple and clean. “Clean” definitely stands out in this city! There was also a Spanish church service going on while we were there. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to volunteer on this trip. Everything takes forever here, compared to our Western pace, so I was sad we didn’t have more time there. But so glad we got to see it.
As mentioned, Saturday and Sunday were Muslim and Hindu holidays. Evidently Hindus have a zillion holidays, though, which I can respect. 😉 Zakir, who is Muslim, said his holiday, Eid, is kind of like a Christmas where they give gifts and celebrate joy and love of their families. The gift of choice is clothes so everyone walking through the streets looked fresh and clean and pressed. For the Hindu one, all kinds of little chariots and floats appeared on the streets. He said there will be some sort of a parade on Monday. But, sadly for us, these holidays slowed us down a little because some of the people we were hoping to connect with are off or celebrating or have closed business. Overall the streets were less crowded with the holidays, though, and that was nice. Otherwise, there is a huge mass of people around. Well, let me amend that—after 10 or 11 a.m. when the stores open. Prior to that, you have your run of the city. As a night owl and typically late sleeper, I can respect that too.
Monday, July 20
In the morning and afternoon we had meetings with the Glenburn tea company, where Katrell sources her tea for Dr. Bombay’s. Their office headquarters is there, so we met with the heads of the company, and then the people that package their tea. These people know their stuff! We talked packaging and marketing, and our love for this popular little plant. (Though I didn’t tell them that, due to my Southern roots, my experience was mostly of the iced variety. But I’m becoming a believer.)
We’d hope to make a couple other stops in Kolkata, but due to the holidays and people being out of town, it didn’t happen. Both were to jewelry producers. One is a friend of Katrell’s, but he was in the States. The other was the fair trade jewelry that Katrell sells at her tea shop. Oh, and Glenburn wanted to take us to the tea auction, but it was postponed to later in the week as well. That would’ve been really interesting, I’m sure.
The overnight train from Kolkata to Siligury was…not an experience I’d like to repeat, well, ever. First of all, I started getting a fever and nauseous about an hour before we left. So, sitting at the hot train station and then getting on a non-air conditioned train for 11 hours wasn’t fun. Luckily, I was able to get on and sleep for a lot of the time. But all I can say is that visiting the bathroom on multiple occasions was terrible, or whatever word is worse than that. I don’t know how I didn’t throw up from the smell alone, but by God’s grace, I held it together—or at least in. Sleeping was definitely my best friend that night. I felt a lot better about halfway through the ride. Sadly, when I woke up, I learned Stephanie got really sick during the train ride, and was that way for about 24 hours. We think it was our dinner the night before, but aren’t really sure. But it passed for both of us, and didn’t spoil the trip.
Tuesday, July 21
After arriving in Siligury, we caught an SUV to Darjeeling. This was about a five-hour drive. The first half is still pretty hot, but the latter half is when you start making your way up the mountains and it gets cooler and really beautiful. Thank goodness for better weather! It was stifling in Kolkata. About the same temps as Atlanta, but the the smog and pollution trap it all and it’s insanely hot. Also, not a lot of air conditioning to top it off—or cold drinks.
Finally we arrived in Darjeeling! Darjeeling is located in the Himalayas, with an altitude of around 7,000 feet. As such, it’s just above the cloud lines, which is pretty crazy to think about. (Atlanta sits just over 1,000 feet above sea level.) In the mornings it’s clear and you can see Mount Everest and K-2 off in the distance, and then the clouds settle in over the town throughout the day. But you’re always looking down into some cloud, so it often appears kinda foggy. It usually feels damp, too, as do all your belongings. And it’s pretty remote so there aren’t any train systems or airports there. It’s also a walking town. There are cars there, of course, but no organized transit system. It’s actually a lot like walking around San Francisco with all the steep inclines but with more switchbacks and small streets, and a lot of dogs. It takes your lungs a while to adjust, and I picked up a bit of a cough there, which I think is due to that. Or it could be lung cancer from all the smog and fumes in Kolkata.
Meeting The Learning Tea girls that night was pretty fantastic after seeing their pictures on the walls at Dr. Bombay’s for the last couple of years. They are the cutest things. All are about 5′ tall and 70 pounds soaking wet. Stephanie is 5’4″ and quite petite, and still seemed to tower above them. But after the prolonged travel, it was hard to hold a good conversation with them all on that first night. The three of us were so tired, and even though the girls all take English classes, their speech is still a little broken. But we were their center of attention, so they literally just sat there staring at us and giggling until we asked them questions. So, coming up with a series of questions on a foggy brain was hard! Needless to say, it was an early night. 😉
Wednesday, July 22
For the next couple of days, we saw some of the girls in the morning and all of them at night. They all go to school six days per week, and their days are pretty long. That’s common there, even with them all spread across multiple colleges. Katrell always jokes that even though they are in the program because they are focused on education, she wishes they’d skip class while she’s in town to hang out more! 🙂
Most of the people don’t differentiate breakfast from any other meal, so instead of the traditional rice and veggies, we went for breakfast each morning at Sonam’s. She’s a friend of Katrell’s, and boasts “the home of real coffee.” This is a funny but true statement because it was the only place we went with US-type coffee instead of it being more watered down like tea. And it was definitely more of the breakfast items we were used to, so it was really nice to start the day. A lot of travelers and ex-pats frequent the place, with it’s three tables and 4.5 rating on TripAdvisor.
During the day on Wednesday we went to meet with one of the ladies that sends Katrell girls for the program, Rada, and checks up on them while she’s away. She’s with an organization called Hayden Hall, which I believe is Catholic run, and focuses on giving women in the town skills for meaningful and alternative labor. They also have a retail store, which we found some beautiful souvenirs in! And then we visited the women who were weaving rugs and textiles for the store, learning the craft. We also visited their nursery where rows of sweet little babies were sleeping. Their moms were the weavers. When they put in hours to learn the art of weaving and get paid to do this kind of work over manual labor or sex work, they also get a safe place to take their kids. It’s part of the trade-off. And there were positive messages all over the doors and walls about hygiene or the way people should be treated or women’s/worker’s rights or faith, so it’s a very good place for them to be for multiple reasons.
That night we took the girls to a Bollywood film—and we ALL loved it! The three of us didn’t understand a word, but if we needed, one of the girls would translate the storyline in our ears. But it was really easy to get the gist. It was a really fun experience and distraction.
Thursday, July 23
We mostly ran errands, for ourselves or the girls. We also went back to Hayden Hall to see one of the girls teaching as part of her volunteer hours. As part of The Learning Tea program, the girls have to volunteer 15 hours each month at another program. Their projects include medical clinics, vaccinating dogs (there are dogs everywhere on the streets—and Katrell knows most of them by name!), geriatric programs and things like that. This girl, however, volunteers almost every day at Hayden Hall, teaching the elementary kids. She is in the teacher’s training program for her college degree, and also had numerous of her own craft projects to show us. Anyway, the kids were so cute, and she does a great job with them. Hayden Hall brags continually on her.
Thursday evening we went to a Rotary Club meeting, where Katrell is an honorary member. In fact, she is the only female they allow. It’s totally a boy’s club, but she’s proved she can hold her own with them. Her grandfather was in Rotary and she’s kept the tradition here in Atlanta. But it shows you overall how women are valued when they aren’t allowed to be part of the only Rotary chapter there. However, they were all very kind to us and asked Katrell how were program was going, etc. It was quite interesting to attend. Never thought I’d go to India and hear, “We need to be more careful with the money because there’s not a lot of money left over in the kitty.” I almost laughed out loud.
Thursday night was a family meeting to go over what the girls were learning, how school and life were going, changes that needed to be made, etc. We also thought up a job responsibility for each girl as related to the program. They giggled each time their name was called, and seemed excited to be a part of the action. Some of the tasks include sending more frequent photos, accounting, medical reporter, grades/school/extracurricular reporter, and things like that. And very exciting, we were there to celebrate the FIRST college graduate in the program! She graduated from teacher’s training college, and is going to apply to be a part-time teacher as well as enter a master’s program. Since she’ll still be in school, she’ll remain in the program and at the house. It was really fun to see her excel, and a good example for the other girls as well, though they all have their own aspirations and accomplishments. They’re each in extracurricular activities and winning awards and doing great things there. They will change the face of Darjeeling. And as they are all from very poor or modest backgrounds—almost all are orphans or parents of tea pickers—they are the first in their families to go to college. I think only one or maybe two girls have both parents. And all are from the lowest caste, so their options in life would be extremely limited otherwise. They thanked Katrell, and us, over and over again for helping to provide for them. Stephanie is in charge of a lot of the fundraising efforts here, so it was great for her to meet them and vice versa.
Friday, July 24
Friday morning we took oodles of pictures with the girls before saying goodbye. Then it was off to Glenburn Tea Estate. Um, GORGEOUS! (Be sure to look at these pics!) They had invited us their to be their guests after our meetings with them! Katrell went to the estate six years ago on her first trip to India to see where her tea came from, and has been back one or two other times, but has never stayed there.
It was an hour and a half drive, down to about 3,000 feet above sea level. We each had our own suite, and I took two showers on that first day because I finally had hot water and such lovely accommodations! And the tea estate manager, Parveez Hussain, was our personal guide. Super sweet guy, passionate about tea and rock music. We were also able to go out to see the tea pickers in action. Sheesh, that is hard work! They made it look so easy.
Darjeeling is home to 87 different tea manufacturers, just FYI.
Saturday, July 25
Saturday morning was a tour of the tea-making process. Really interesting, as I don’t know all that much about tea. Glenburn is highly reputable in the world of tea, since they’ve been in business since 1859! They also do a great job in the way they treat their employees, including a health clinic, employee savings and matching program and basic first aid training. They also hold jobs for members of the employee families, and even provide a small school for the more needy employees. We were also able to tour the clinic and school. The children were absolutely adorable, and you can see a video of them on my Instagram account. So glad that all the children of the workers are given an education.
That afternoon mostly consisted of the three of us meeting and brainstorming. Each evening, dinner is held community-style for all guests. So, there were a handful of others there besides us—a family of four, a couple and a man traveling by himself. There are only eight guest rooms in the estate, I believe. It was interesting getting to know the other guests as well, and learning about why they were there and who they were. The meals were all multi-course and amazing.
Sunday, July 26
Sunday morning meant saying goodbye to start the trip home. Yes, 42 hours in travel time combined. It was hard to leave such a beautiful place, but we were all ready to get home as well. It was about four or so hours down to the closest airport, Bogdogra, which is a military airport. Definitely not the friendliest place on the trip.
From there we flew to Mumbai, arriving around 8 pm. Our flight out was at 2:55 AM. We were ready to board just to fall asleep, but I’ll tell you, the Mumbai international airport is the most gorgeous and interesting airport I’ve ever been in! If I’d been more awake, it would’ve been incredible to walk around. It was like something out of a movie. In fact, they should’ve film a movie there. It’s incredible. That flight was about eight hours, and then we arrived in Frankfurt.
Monday, July 27
God bless America, it was good to be home! And God bless our efficient systems. Definitely missed that…and the ice, A/C and fresh fruits and veggies. (Also note that THREE people vomited in our vicinity during this 42 hours! In Bogdogra, a little boy threw up just before boarding. In Mumbai, a man behind us on the plane threw up AS we touched down and in Chicago someone threw up just before boarding. I have no idea what that means, but it was weird and got funnier as we got more tired.)
- Atlanta to Newark: 2 hour flight, plus a 2-hour layover
- Newark to Mumbai: 15 hour flight
- Mumbai to Kolkata: 5 hour flight
- Kolkata to Siligury: 11 hour train ride
- Siligury to Darjeeling: 5 hour drive
- Darjeeling to Glenburn Tea Estate: 1.5 hour drive
- Glenburn to Bogdogra: 4 hour drive
- Bogdogra to Mumbai: 5 hour flight, I think
- Mumbai to Frankfurt: 8 hour flight, with a 2 hour layover
- Frankfurt to Chicago: 8 hour flight, with a 2 hour layover
- Chicago to Atlanta: 2 hours
Total transit time over two weeks: 72.5 hours, not including some of the early waiting at airports and train stations, or trying to find cabs. And when you spread it over just two weeks, it felt like we were always on the go.
So that’s the gist of the trip! Thanks for reading and hanging in there with me.
I definitely have more respect for Katrell now, not only in what she’s doing to help these underprivileged girls, but just the sheer amount of effort it takes to get to them. But then you see Darjeeling, and the beautiful smiles on these girls faces, learn about what their accomplishing, and it makes it worthwhile. Please visit TheLearningTea.com for more info about the program.
It was an incredible journey, and one that I’m still processing. Definitely more thoughts to come!