Ode to the City of Joy: Reflecting on a Life-Changing Co-op Term

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Ode to the City of Joy: Reflecting on a Life-Changing Co-op Term

By: Kali Penney | Health Sciences Co-op Student
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In fall 2008, Kali Penney went on a three month journey as a volunteer Co-op student working with Sociol Legal Aid and Research Training Centre (SLARTC) in Kolkata, India. She worked along side SLARTC, and other organizations in their geriatric and adolescent health, human trafficking and rights and HIV/AIDS fields.

My final entry comes to you from my living room in Vancouver. After wrapping up work at Destiny, traveling around South India for 3 weeks, celebrating Christmas back in Calcutta and spending a few days in London on the way home, I am finally back in Canada and able to reflect on my Co-op semester with a little perspective.

My final weeks of Co-op were spent working with Destiny, helping them run their office and working with the girls one-on-one as well as in a group. This was interesting for me as I got to hear most of the girls’ stories and learned why each of them was now living in a shelter home. From being kidnapped and escaping trafficking at age 7 to running away from an arranged marriage at 15 to leaving home at age 16 after being unable to bear the constant abuse, these girls all had a story. What was most impressive to me was their strength and determination. They were all making a small income now and many had very definite plans for their own futures.

The girls

My last day of work at Destiny involved a lunch party with a home-cooked Indian meal of chana masala, rice and samosas that I had made the night before. Suffice it to say, it was the worst Indian food I’d eaten during my entire trip, but no one complained. I think they figured it was the thought that counted. I said goodbye to the girls and promised to Skype them from Canada.

The exercise workshop with the girls at SLARTC was my final work commitment and I was a little apprehensive as to how it would go. I had no translator this time around and wasn’t sure how many people would come. When I got to the SLARTC centre there were only 4 girls there and I was having trouble explaining to the manager of the centre that we needed a larger room. Finally a girl showed up who spoke a little English and the next thing I knew we were headed out the door, into the heart of the slums. We picked up kids along the way, younger siblings and school friends of the girls, and by the time we arrived at our destination we had a group of at least 30 people. We went into a building, climbed up 5 flights of stairs, and emerged on a huge rooftop terrace that gave us a great view of the city and had lots of room to run around. The next 2 hours flew by as we played different running games and taught each other yoga poses and exercises. This workshop was definitely one of the most fun experiences I had in India.

After the workshop it was off to the airport to pick up my boyfriend who was flying in to meet me in Kolkata. Once he arrived we stayed in town long enough for him to meet my friends and have a family dinner at Smarita’s house and then we were off on a 36 hour train ride across the country. We spent the next 3 weeks seeing as much as we could of India and loving every minute of it. Well, almost every minute....some of those train rides are a little taxing, to say the least. We shopped in Mumbai, cruised along the seaside on a scooter in Goa, went houseboating in Kerala and bicycled around Pondicherrry in Tamil Nadu. We ate amazing meals, met people from all over India, heard wonderful concerts and saw things we’d never see at home. When we got back to Kolkata at Christmas we were exhausted and looking forward to getting home but it was still hard to leave.

My scenery

Coming home to Canada was a relief in many ways. My friends and family are all here and eager to hear about my adventures. I am back in my own house with all the luxuries I left behind 4 months ago, although it took those 4 months in India for me to consider them luxuries. Hot water, space, a closet full of clothes, wireless internet, food that isn’t curry, silence; I missed these a lot while I was away. My last few weeks in India I was thinking constantly of all the good things I’d be coming back to in Canada, and yet now that I’m here, I realize that I also left a lot of wonderful things behind. My Indian friends and family, warm weather, delicious food, stores open late all the time, the reassuring noise of honking and yelling, unbelievably cheap prices. Saying goodbye to everyone in India was hard and it’s still hard now knowing it will be a long time before I see them again.

All in all, my international Co-op experience was great. My advice to other students who are considering doing a Co-op work term in India? Do it! There are easier places to travel to and definitely easier places to work in, but India is unique, amazing and definitely life-changing.

Beyond the Article

Interested in learning more about International Co-op? Visit the International Co-op Website. Read the first three parts of Kali’s “Ode to the City of Joy” Series:
Ode to the City of Joy, Part 1: Arrival in Kolkata, India
Ode to the City of Joy, Part 2: Learning Indian Lessons
Ode to the City of Joy, Part 3: Getting Comfortable in Kolkata 

Posted on February 22, 2011