It’s a bit of an adjustment working six days a week and unable to venture out much on my own, so when Mr. Das, the CEO of BJS, said I could join them on Saturday for Financial Literacy Training at one of their branch offices, I was ecstatic. A visit to the branch to meet some of the borrowers and a road trip- woohoo! The branch is 50km (about 30 miles) away from the main BJS office, which meant new ground and new sites to cover! I met at the BJS office where a driver picked us up at 10:30am.
The 50km journey took three and a half hours. Yes, HOURS. First, there was horrific traffic getting out of the city. We were jammed in between trucks and auto rickshaws as we tried to weave our way through traffic. The staff insisted I take the front seat so I could enjoy the view, which was incredibly generous since there were five people crammed in the back. I got a front row seat for the action, which enabled me to snap a few pictures with my iPhone, but over the course of the journey up and back, I thought we might kill about six people. And that doesn’t count the even larger number of animals I was convinced would become roadkill. Amazingly, all life remained intact (at least to my knowledge).
As we drove out of the city, it started becoming gradually more rural, but that didn’t mean wide open spaces and fewer cars. Roadside shops, stands and homes dotted most of the route, which meant people… and LOTS of them. The driver went as fast as the traffic and road conditions would allow, which translated into speeding through stretches where only bicycles, motorbikes and pedestrians shared the pavement, as they were much easier to maneuver around than cars and trucks. People literally leapt over to the side as we raced towards them, demonstrating a clear size hierarchy. When we were head-on with a truck or bus, we straddled the side of the asphalt to let them pass. Private cars (which we were in) even seemed to outrank taxis in this transportation caste system. So if you were a taxi, auto rickshaw, regular rickshaw, motorbike, bicycle with cargo, bicycle without cargo or just a simple pedestrian, you’d better WATCH OUT.
And then there are the animals. I was very excited to spot my first cow, which was just standing on the side of the road. “COW!” I wanted to exclaim, but I managed to keep my enthusiasm to myself. I wasn’t quick enough with my phone to take a picture, but that was of no concern… there were plenty more cows (and chickens, goats, ducks, dogs) to come. Oh the dogs. There are scrawny mutts everywhere. I saw cows being walked by caring owners, while dogs were chewing on themselves as they stumbled across the road. At least they obeyed the honking horns and moved out of the way so as not to get hit. Small goats also walked roadside, and we nearly made pate out of a line of ducks crossing in front of us.
A small respite came about three-quarters through our journey when we stopped to take cha . We timed it JUST right, as not two minutes after we were under the awning of the tea stall, the sky opened up and dumped rain. It’s the end of the monsoon season, which turns everything gloriously green, but also makes the muddy roadside a mess. I love the romantic notion of breaking one’s journey for a cup of tea, however, so the muddiness didn’t “dampen” the experience. The cha wallah (tea vendor) went through the ceremonious boiling of the tea, then the adding of milk and sugar, followed by straining into tiny cups. They’re more like shots than cups, but it’s just enough steaming hot, sweet and creamy goodness to keep you going. So there we lingered for about 15 minutes to wait out the downpour. When it slowed a bit, we hopped back in the car to finish our journey.
Three and a half hours after starting this adventure, we arrived at the branch office. First thing on my mind: bathroom. Second thing on my mind: lunch. I was a little nervous about the washroom situation, but it wasn’t bad. They had a squat toilet, which thankfully I got used to in Japan so I wasn’t spinning around in circles trying to figure out which way to face. It wasn’t a flush toilet, so I used the little bucket and scoop to pour water down (thank you, Thailand). Mission one, accomplished. Next up, thankfully, was lunch. It was 2:30 and I was starving.
Someone from the branch made lunch for us, which included a heaping mound of rice and small dishes of chicken, fish, shrimp and dal… all swimming in a wonderfully different curry sauce. Then Mr. Das says to me, “You are ok eating with your hands?” “Sure, I can do that,” I replied, a little hesitant. “Just kidding. I asked them to bring you a spoon. It was a joke, but boy you are flexible!” He laughed, very amused, and I joined him. The food was delicious, although I think it had been sitting out for a while. Stomach don’t fail me now.
There were about 40-50 women- all current BJS borrowers- who showed up for the Financial Literacy Training. They were enthusiastic, vocal and eager to learn. The topics were pretty basic: want vs. need, insurance, breaking the cycle of poverty and saving money in a safe place (i.e. the bank). It was given in Bengali, but I got the gist of it from the Powerpoint and videos, with my co-worker filling in the gaps. I thought, “Some people in the US could actually use this!” One of the videos showed a woman, devastated, as she told her daughter she lost her savings. My co-worker leaned over and said, “Insects ate her money.” I’m sorry, did you say INSECTS? Apparently there are a few species that eat paper money. Who knew?! Moral of the story: save your money in the bank where bugs won’t eat it for lunch. Solid advice.
We were there for about two and a half hours before starting our journey home. The thought of all the potholes and swerving was a bit overwhelming, but I hopped in the front seat (they insisted) and we made our way back the way we came. Darkness fell and I thought that would bring less traffic, but that wasn’t the case until we were actually back in the city. Life carried on with people walking and biking in utter darkness, visible only by oncoming headlights. I closed my eyes to ease the stress, opening them when we made another tea stop. “Do you want to take tea?” Mr. Das asked. Of course!
I made it back to my guesthouse around 8pm, exhausted from everything I had taken in. It was hectic and loud and stressful and my neck was sore, but I plopped on my bed, smiling at the absurdity of this one amazing day. Game on, India.