Saskia Wills's Scrapbooks

My Indian Adventure: Volunteering in a Mental Health Hospital



Puja Puja Puja

Finally the time has come to celebrate Kolkata's biggest festival, Hinduism's answer to Christmas: Puja! It celebrates the most important goddess herself, Durga Puja, who has 9 arms, crazy witch hair and rides a lion. I don't pretend to understand the Hindu mythology behind it, especially as I don't speak Bengali and my most valuable reference is the Religion section at the start of my Lonely Planet guidebook. But from what I do understand weeks of planning, building and buying culminate in each settlement erecting a temporary castle structure called a Pandal along the main road from countryside to Kolkata. Once inside, the focal point is a representation of the beautiful Durga and her lion with other goddesses on either side. Over the 5 day celebration, Hindus host community competitions and swap presents and worship. The festival culminates with locals descending on the brightly lit road in their new glad rags to Pandal hop, from one colourful structure to another.

I was...

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It's the weekend! Oh wait..

I've nearly finished my first week at Antara (I work Saturdays) and I've got into my routine now:

Breakfast is at 8.30am even on Sundays(!) Which involves bread and peanut butter that I brought. Not too exciting but at least I'm excused from eating curry.

I visit a ward from 9.30-12 then 2.30-4 meeting my volunteer coordinator each morning for a brief. Lunch and dinner are normally rice and dahl (a lentil sauce) with as many other carbs as they can fit in, potato curry and chips for example. Due to my milky complexion I also get something a bit like cucumber.

This means my evenings are very long, and none of the girls living in my block speak English so I spend a lot of time alone. I'm currently researching for travels after my internship finishes and will start planning my trip to Argentina soon so I have plenty to amuse myself with. Also I'm planning to initiate a table tennis tournament to bond with my Bengali neighbours.

I've been spending most of my time with the...

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From West to East

I always knew it was going to a great adjustment coming from the comfort of the Surrey suburbs to an impoverished hospital run mostly by generous but insufficient donation. The change slapped me straight in the face as I arrived through the terminal and driven tumultuously through noisy Kolkata. The only signs of wealth amongst the rubble buildings and cycle-rickshaws were the stamps of commercialism, whether that was the Vodafone sign on every available wall or giant billboards advertising the latest skin whitening product. In fact, one of the patients asked me what moisturiser I use in an attempt to understand my milky complexion.

After a few days, I feel much better adjusted to the food, heat and time zone. I'm learning my way around the faces on the wards with activities such as bingo and cards. I've also been welcomed by the only other milky complexion on site, Aunty pat. She took me to church and the mall on Sunday and invited me round for tea and cake this afternoon. And...

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The visa has finally arrived!

Several weeks after my planned departure date I am still faced with the feat of packing for a 4 month adventure. The reality that I will be living out a backpack for the foreseeable future and that I'll be switching a spritz of perfume for mosquito spray has quickly become apparent. My visa has finally arrived, allowing me to start my 13 week voluntary post at a mental health hospital 30km outside Kolkata, 1 week after my intended start and 3 weeks after my flight from LDN (I originally had plans to spend 2 weeks in Thailand).

It turned out for the best though as in the last few weeks I have managed to secure a placement in the UK for my return.

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The End

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