Two things shocked me to the core on one of my first days in India.
I had never been in a slum before and everything about filled me with sadness. The lack of space, rubbish everywhere, pigs running around and sniffing through dirty water and rubbish, the overcrowding, the smell, the lack of access to adequate sanitation - you could see small children squatting to go to the toilet on the side of the road, or grown men just leaning against a wall or railing in broad daylight, relieving themselves. Everything about the slums made me feel uncomfortable, claustrophobic and just sad that people have to live in such horrific conditions.
Unlike most people I know, I was not travelling in India to 'find myself' or to do a yoga course or to party with the cool kids in Goa. I was not trekking, nor backpacking. I was in India with work, as a PR representative for The Hope Foundation, an international NGO based in Ireland. I wasn't meant to get carried away by what I saw, I wasn't meant to be moved to tears. It wasn't supposed to change my life. But that is exactly what happened, in a way.
Within minutes of sitting down and interacting with the kids at one of The Hope Foundation's many education projects in Kolkata, and seeing the incredible way the HOPE staff managed the students time in such confined space, I was truly inspired. The students in this room were the lucky ones. They were learning, singing, smiling and laughing. They were getting an education which will lead to a brighter future, which is something every kid outside the room will find extremely difficult to accomplish. These rooms, these tiny creches inside of the slums, are essentially little pockets of gold for the children and their families that live in such horrific conditions.
While I slowly adjusted to what life in the slums must be life, nothing could prepare me for Kolkata at night. While I had been told countless times about how many people lived on the streets, there is no way I could have imagined, not in my worst nightmares, what I was about to see.
As we drove slowly through the dark, empty streets in the HOPE Night Watch ambulance, I slowly started to see row after row of bodies, lying down on thin sheets of plastic. I could see mothers, daughters, lone men and small children all sleeping on the streets with no protection. It broke my heart to see such small innocent souls lying on a street corner.
I even saw a new-born baby, probably only a few weeks old, lying on the cold ground next to the mother, who was fast asleep. Anyone could have taken this baby. It was frightening to see, to witness, to know that people must live like this just to survive.
One of the strangest things about visiting a place like Kolkata, is that buildings normally known for one thing, such as a police station or a hospital, have a totally different feel here. The HOPE hospital, for example, filled so many people with joy rather than sadness. I found myself walking around the corridors smiling, moving from bed to bed, learning about the great progress these kids were making and how many children's lives had been saved.
We met one little boy who had been found by the HOPE Night Watch team the previous December. He was severely malnourished and near death at the time. We were told about the enormous improvement in his health over the last three months, and even got the chance to play ball with him and watch him sitting up in his bed and colouring. It was quite an emotional moment for me, seeing this sweet little boy who had essentially been left to die. So many of these children would not have survived had it not been for The Hope Foundation, and that was something to be eternally grateful for.
My seven days in Kolkata were life changing. I saw things I will never forget. I learned a lot about myself, but I learned even more about others. Mainly, I realised that everyone must see Kolkata through their own eyes; to witness the colour, the laughter, the smells.
Only after you have seen it for yourself will you see a city that is struggling every day, yet remains so full of HOPE.