Life in Kolkata (my summer with Suas)

Minus the noise

Way back when, Akhila asked about the job I did in India this year. also asked me to write about my experience & so here it is. Enjoy. Questions welcome in the comments.

My experience in Kolkata

Life changing stuff.

For the past four months, Clare Herbert has been living, working and sweating in Kolkata (Calcutta), India with Suas Educational Development. Here, she reflects on life in Kolkata; replete with challenges, opportunities and life on every corner.

Kolkata is a crazy city.

Living there, I experience daily sensory overload. The smell of spice, sewage and rotting rubbish, the intensity of the heat and humidity, the smog and pollution, the colour and contrast of beautiful saris against vibrant streets, and the disparity between rich and poor, as children beg outside five star hotels.  And what a soundscape: incessant beeping, people chanting, drumming, shouting, the fans whirring overhead and cars that sound like my rattly old lawnmower.

It’s a real assault on the senses. Overwhelming at times. Kolkata is not a tourist spot – this is real India. One of the fastest growing economies in the world, a meld of cultures, religions and classes. There are 15 million people in a city the size of Dublin – life in all its complexity and contradiction unfolds on every street corner.

Before my trip, I knew this in theory. Experiencing it in reality was very different.

I worked with Suas Educational Development, as a coordinator on their Volunteer Programme. Each year, about 90 young volunteers travel to India & Kenya to work as teaching assistants and to develop their understanding of global issues. My role was to design and deliver a ‘Global Perspectives’ program to allow the volunteers to connect their micro experience of India (e.g. struggling to teach in an over-crowned, under-resourced classroom) with broader development issues like inequality, poverty & gender. For most of the young volunteers this was their first experience of life in the developing world and it could be overwhelming. My job was to facilitate their learning and questioning of the complexity and contradiction in our world. And, of course, manage the volunteer program on the ground and ensure safe completion by all involved.  I knew the experience would challenge me and I wasn’t disappointed.

View From the Bus

The monsoon rains were the worst in a decade, a change of government after 37 years meant an undercurrent of political tension and we managed what our doctor described as an ‘epidemic’ of illness. Organizing ‘Global Perspectives Week’ in a city where it takes two hours and six forms to get a SIM card was, to put it mildly, a challenge. I grew tired of being constantly watchful and always being watched. Red heads are a very exotic species in India.

My patience, my resolve, my preconceptions and beliefs, my friendships, my future plans, my skills as a manager – everything was magnified and challenged by Kolkata’s intensity.

Living in Kolkata, there are daily reminders to keep things in perspective. As I sit here and type, there are people sleeping in puddles all over the city. These people shiver with the cold, dress in rags, have empty bellies and no clean water to drink. Children don’t go to school, women are considered less than men and most agonizingly of all, there have no way out.  That can’t help but break my heart.

I worked with organizations on the frontlines of changing all of this. They worked to educate Kolkata’s poorest children; first generation learners who live on the street and sift through rubbish dumps looking for things to sell for a meagre income. They come to school hungry, wet and exhausted.

The volunteers there embraced these students warmly and worked tirelessly so that they could learn a little more, laugh a little heartier and begin to imagine a better life for themselves. It wasn’t easy. Educational disadvantage is messy and complex. Change is painstakingly slow and challenges abound.

But, I am inspired to continue to be a part of that change. I’ve been both humbled and inspired by the commitment, dedication and passion I’ve seen. I’m incredibly grateful for all that I’ve learned, seen and experienced. From here, I have a responsibility to make a difference.

Suas are recruiting for 2012 volunteers. More information can be found on

Clean Streets