Although Will Dart is only 18, he writes like a seasoned travel pro
and has experiences to match. The recent graduate of Harbor Springs
High School spent part of his gap year traveling to India, where he
volunteered in an orphanage in Kolkata. He plans to study journalism
in the coming year at the University of Oregon.
Following is his report from Kolkata.
By Will Dart
India is really, really, really hot.
That was my first thought as I stepped out of the airport in Kolkata.
And its true: the Indian heat can be more than a little
uncomfortable. It has a sort of weight to it it almost presses
against you. In fact, it feels sort of like Kolkatas 13 million
inhabitants are all breathing on you at once.
For most of the duration of the 12-hour plane ride, Id been doing my
best to mentally prep for the coming experience. I should have just
watched the in-flight movie, because, as it turned out, there is no
way to prepare for your first time in India.
Try and imagine the insanity of a street in Kolkata. Well, the reality
of it is at least 50 times crazier than that. Colors, noise, people,
cows, cars, motorcycles and rickshaws all blended together into a
deafening wall of competing sensations. The combined effect is
somewhat akin to getting punched in the face in a good way.
I should probably mention why I was suddenly wandering down a crowded
thoroughfare on the other side of the world. I had come to India to
teach and care for the children at a small orphanage, where Id be
living for three months. Why? Well, basically I wanted to help out and
globe-trek a little in the process. And why not, right?
THE ONLY VOLUNTEER
The orphanage is located on the outskirts of Kolkata, just a few miles
away from the Bay of Bengal. The orphanage itself is a large two-story
cement building painted a shocking shade of sky-blue, to the obvious
delight of the orphans. There are 10 boys who live there with the
orphanage director, a hilarious man named Mithu, along with his mother
and a helper named Taku. For the first two months of my stay there, I
was the only volunteer. In fact, I didnt see another westerner for
The orphanage is run by Bulbulir Basa Welfare Society, a small
charitable organization whose mission is to help the poor and
disadvantaged residents of Kolkata. In addition to the orphanage, they
also operate a free medical dispensary and a youth center for poor and
The boys were all between the ages of four and 12. Some of them had no
parents, while others had parents who were simply unable to take care
of them; and they all had many brothers and sisters. Most were rescued
from the streets of the poorest areas of Kolkata, particularly the red
My day-to-day activities usually involved walking the kids to school,
teaching them English, playing games, flying kites, helping with
homework, reading to them and making sure that none of the boys were
trying to jump from one bunk-bed to the other with the ceiling fan on
(their favorite pastime).
Communication with the boys, as with many Indians, was fairly easy as
the older boys spoke English and could relay what I was saying to the
others (though I still managed to learn a bit of functional Bengali).
I ate basic Bengali meals - poori, chapatti, rice, curries, dahl and
potatoes. The boys referred to me as uncle, and, when I wasnt
sleeping, I was usually surrounded by them.
One boy in particular, four-year-old Gullu, occupied most of my time
since he couldnt yet go to school with the others. I was tasked with
teaching him functional English but, thanks to his short attention
span, he never got much further than adorable phrases, and for some
reason could never tell the difference between a turtle and an
The boys always wanted to hear about life in America: weather, sports,
music, food, holidays, movies, cars and, most of all, Michael Jackson
(I tried my best to teach them all the moonwalk). For some reason,
they loved to hear and tell ghost stories, and they were all
thoroughly convinced that the orphanage was haunted. Naturally, they
all got really into Halloween.
Besides staging impromptu dance contests with the kids, my favorite
thing to do at the orphanage was kite-fighting on the roof with the
oldest boys, the inseparable Bablu and Rahul. Let me just say one
thing about kites: we Americans are doing it all wrong. Bablu and
Rahul, with the help of my expert string-holding, would send hand-made
kites up into the stratosphere to engage in duels, the aim being to
cut the other kites string (I still have no idea how thats
possible). A variation on the game is kite vs. hawk, which is
completely and totally awesome.
The area I lived in, called Thalkurpukur, was very tranquil compared
to most of Kolkata, which was a blessing since I probably would have
gone insane otherwise. It was quite nice, much more like a jungle than
a major city; water buffalo grazed outside the orphanage as thunder
rumbled in the distance, a constant fixture in the rainy season.
Thalkurpukur was also host to some interesting fauna, and by
interesting I mean terrifying. Twice I crossed paths with a snake
that definitely could have swallowed me whole, though luckily there
was always a group of delicious-looking stray cats nearby to distract
I sometimes went into the city with Mithu on the back of his
motorcycle, which, in addition to providing me with numerous
near-death experiences, gave me a chance to see a lot of Kolkata. I
tried the street food and the famous Bengali sweets, both of which
exhibited tastes that we dont really have words for in English.
I was also lucky enough to be there during Durga Puja, an enormous
festival which celebrates the goddess Durga. The entire city is
enrobed in lights, and elaborate shrines are set up all over Kolkata.
Another prominent aspect of the festival: deafening fireworks. The
louder and more numerous, the better. Extra points for setting them
off outside peoples windows when they least expect it.
Culture-shock really wasnt an issue. True, when it comes to foreign
cultures, Indias is probably among the most foreign, and there are
many aspects of it that could be considered shocking. But I loved it.
The people of Kolkata did things differently, but often it was in a
way I found refreshing or, at the very least, highly interesting. The
Bengalis are an extremely friendly and joyful people, and they had an
interesting habit of following violent arguments with instant laughs
and smiles. Unless I was with a bunch of other Americans, I never
attracted too much attention, which was surprising, given that my skin
tone renders me almost luminescent.
Three months seems like an extremely long time, especially if youre
18 and the longest youve been away from home was at band camp. But
after I got into the swing of things time started to fly by, and soon
enough I was headed back to Michigan. Too soon, actually. I hadnt
really prepared for the leaving part of my adventure, and I definitely
wasnt ready to say goodbye to everyone, especially the boys. I had
spent a lot of time with these guys; they had become like 10 little
brothers, and leaving them was difficult and Im man enough to say
that, yes, I may have shed a tear or two. I do miss them quite a bit.
It truly was an amazing experience, and Im thankful that I was
blessed with the opportunity to see some more of the world, meet some
wonderful people and help out a bit as well. I dont want to get
overly cheesy here, but Ill just say this: those short few months
genuinely changed my life for the better. The orphanage and its
children will remain a large part of my life, and I hope to return
many, many times.
If youre interested in volunteering at the orphanage or sponsoring
a child, you can visit Bulbulir Basa Welfare Societys website at
bulbulirbasa.terapad.com for more information.