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Better late than never . . .

Flood drills are fun

Practicing bringing in the injured during a flood

We went to another village in the afternoon, and after our meeting with the SHGs, we were invited to observe the community's annual disaster-preparedness drill. The younger adults and older children were the ones who were most involved, but the older people and young children were active onlookers. They practiced bringing injured people in to shelter and bandaging and tending to them. They also practiced crossing rope bridges above flood waters, and rescuing people who were drowning. While both boys and girls participated in all these activities, the boys particularly enjoyed playing drowning victims, conveying their distress with vigorous flailing and loud gaps for air. The atmosphere was one of intent concentration coupled with the relaxed feel of an afternoon off. Everyone seemed to be serious about their tasks at the same time that they were happy to have a diversion.

Crossing the rope bridge

From Puri we went to Calcutta, en route to Dumka in the state of Jharkhand. We had about half a day in Calcutta both on our way to and back from Dumka, so my impressions of the city were brief, but Calcutta makes a strong impression in only moments.

It begins as you approach the city from the airport, turning off the new, modern highway onto an unpaved, pitted road. Buildings are liberally graffittied with the hammer and sickle symbols of the Communist Party that has consistently governed the state of West Bangal, of which Calcutta is the capital. (The city has actually been renamed Kolkata, but that change doesn't seem to have really taken hold outside the country, so I've decided to use Calcutta to minimize confusion.) The vast majority of cars are Ambassadors, which haven't changed in design since the '40s, and they lend the city an anachronistic charm.

Calcutta is a bewildering pastiche of charming, horrible, beautiful, ugly, modern, archaic, rich, and impoverished. A huge, posh, modern steel and glass shopping mall stands across the street from an enormous pile of garbage. Well-dressed shoppers file into the mall as a thin woman of indeterminate age sifts through refuse right across the street. People live on the street in a way that we don't usually see in the US -- I saw people cooking their meals over small, smoky fires; bathing out of buckets on the roadside; brushing their teeth -- living their lives totally in public. I saw people praying at sunrise on bridge the spans the Ganges. I saw men pulling rickshaws. I can't even remember half of what I saw at this point because it seems like every time I turned around I saw something that struck me.

Much of the rest of my memories of the trip are like that. I remember moments, or pictures, or brief sensations. The fragrance of the tuberoses in the huge necklaces of flowers we given when visited the office in Calcutta. The sheer size of the cavernous interior of the Calcutta train station. The incredible sweetness of the milky tea served on the train. The roving musicians on the train who kept me from sleeping for more than a few minutes at time. The rustle of the brooms of the small boys who crept through the cars collecting trash and soliciting coins for the service.

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