Saturday, May 31, 2008

Students of the Gifted Land

I had two meetings scheduled with students in two different schools. The first was at Adolf Reiswann Schöle, on 29 May, ( a Higher Secondary School as in India, but has only the 11th & 12th Grade) - they call it, the Gymnasium. About 2,600 students are enrolled here, though not all of them need to come every day, as they have their practical trainings in their place of work. We could meet students from various subjects : nutrition, health, bakery, florist, dentistry, and even hair dressing! There were many other subjects, with separate class rooms, all of them well furnished (to the Indian standards, they looked elitist--not for Germany), with plenty of teaching aids. I could speak to the boys and girls from the the Health Section. The students here must choose their line of study by the time they enter the Gymnasium and for getting any job, a minimum of the 12th grade with other statutory education is required. Let me explain with an example. How many hair dressers do you know who have been trained for at least two years in a professional school for Hair Dressing? In Germany, one cannot work in a salon if the person has not got a Certificate, and has done the required practical trainings!
On 30 May, we went to a School of Nursing, attached to the St. Vincenz hospital in Limburg. There were about 25 students. In both the schools, the students were very enthusiastic and interested to know more about India. Many of them know India only from Bollywood movies, the technology and the booming economy as projected by media. They have no idea of Indian villages. And that was my main task. Ms. Jennifer Poidatz, the Country Rep of CRS India, had just sent me a mail on the previous day with some suggestions on what I could do in my various meetings. Her tips came in handy. On both the occasions Mr. Wieser and Fr. Norbert did a bit of assistance by translating and explaining things in German.

Wading through Skyscrapers!

Wednesday, 28 May : I woke up early after having spent not a very good night on the bed, got ready, checked through mails, and then had a quick breakfast. It was 9.30, and the Smitkas were there to take us to the Central Railway Station in Hamburg. Our train was to leave at 9.24. My bags were bulging with the lunch packets and water-bottles they had given us. The ICE 75 took us from Hamburg to Frankfurt via Hannover and Kassel. We reached at 2.10 p.m and Mr. Wieser was waiting for us at the platform. We were among the skyscrapers of Frankfurt. (Well, the tallest skyscraper in FRA is ready for sale! Any takers?) Soon we dropped Fr. Susai at the residence of the African Mission with the priests there and we departed for Elz, a small little village of about 8,000 residents, close to Limburg. In the evening, at 7.30 we had an arranged dinner for all the Board Members of the Norbert Mission, following which we had some presentations and discussions about the project Norbert Mission supports in Purbo Bhanjhapara in Malda district. The discussions went on till the sun set--that was at 9.50 ! And after the visitors left, we, i.e. Ulrike, Wieser and me discussed about the plans for the rest of my stay and went to bed.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Better than Venice?

I think, these two days (26 - 27 May) are going to be the only two consecutive days, I will be doing very little business. Meanwhile I found that I can get access to free internet in the hotel where we stay. So, I caught up with most of my mails bending for the last few days. At 10.00 a.m we left for a sight seeing tour of Hamburg. We traveled by several underground trains, by bus on a guided tour, and even we had a very entertaining afternoon on a boat ride guided by the captain himself. Well, if you thought that Venice is the best "Water City", now there is competition! Venice has about 1,000 bridges, but Hamburg has more than 2,200 bridges! You can imagine how much of water flows through this city which is a home to over two million people. It has the touch of modernity with the flavour of ancient cultures (mainly Gothic) spread all over the place. One of the longest iron bridges I have seen is in this city. The city is building a second largest sea port of Europe (next to Amsterdam) covering over 81 sq.kms. With a simple lunch and a grand dinner at an Italian restaurant which gave us splendid recipe to subscribe to our palate, it was a wonderful evening which ended with a long walk. (Surely required for digestion!)
On 27th, Tuesday we traveled to the ancient city of Lubeck, further north on the Baltic Sea coast, covered by rivers Trave and Elbe, is an UNESCOs heritage site. The city claims to have the remains of the ice age! You can still see the immaculate splendour of the middle age sculpture, the Brick-Gothic style which is peculiar to Lubeck, and the mixture of people from many parts of the world. Once we reached Lubeck by car, we walked through the day visiting many monuments and churches of ancient days, and ended up with a grand lunch at Dominsus, a Greek restaurant provide excellent cuisine. We enjoyed a very sumptuous lunch that was provided by the Greeks running the restaurant.
When you walk through the streets you can also find the remains of the Reformation era, every church tells a story of the Catholic-Lutheren and Calvinist developments. Looking into the churches you can see how the structrues and systems have been changed due to the change in faith of the people. I was repeatedly told that these churches have been either taken away by the government as monuments or / and have poor attendance from the church-goers. I believe there is a scarcity of faith that needs to be rejuvenated by a very saintly person. We need some Francis Xavier to come to preach the Word of God to these people once again!
With a visit to a Benedictine Monatery and mass at the monastery in Nutesche we called it a day. We had dinner at the home of Smitkas and we returned at 9.25 and the sun had just set!


Ham and Burger do not Make Hamburg!

We really would have met with some problems as the connecting train that we were to take at Dortmund (as we traveled from Aachen to Hamburg) had left on time. Due to some major repair works on the platform, our train had been shifted to another platform, and the number of that platform had been changed! Well, with just 10 mts gap, it was really some sort of a mess to plough through the crowds in Dortmund, with so much of luggages. Well, we got in just a few seconds before the Inter City Express departed. Sr. Claudia had given us our lunch, well packed. We had that and relaxed a while. At Hamburg when we reached at 16.12, we were recieved by Mr. and Mrs. Smitka, friends of Fr. Susai. We were taken to the Catholic Academy in Hamburg, which also has excellent rooms for guests (known as Michaelis Hof) for our stay. We will be spending the next three nights here. The Smitkas took us for dinner to a nearby hotel (I asked for some tuna preparation... but it was not so good) and they prepared a good agenda for our next two days, which involved a lot of sight seeing. We went early to bed as the Smitkas departed for their residence.

Amazing Aachen

23 May : Sr. Claudia took us inside, showed us a study room that had been converted into a bed room with beds for me and Fr. Susai. We were offered coffee and snacks. Then Sr. Claudia showed us every corner of the house, and taught us how to use each item... and we were given a key to the main door of the house too, so that we can go out and come in at any time! It is then dawned on me that, Sr. Claudia was alone in the house, and all the other sisters had gone out for some meeting two days ago. We celebrated mass at 6.00 p.m and then we prepared some dinner, and I helped her with the dishes after the dinner was over. Claudia had been in India in early nineties. During the next days she was very much interested in knowing more about West Bengal, about Raiganj, about the projects we do here, and how our programs benefit people. She was involved with various spiritual ministries besides working in a hospital for almost ten hours each day. And how does she travel each day to the hospital-- a distance of ten kilometers? Just by bicycle! I am edified... and me and my staff should learn from her, what it means by hard work! She leaves early at 6.00 a.m for some Spiritual Exercises in the parish, comes by 8.00, rushes through her breakfast, and leaves by 8.45 to reach the Hospital, and there she works till 6.00 p.m. and then travels back by bicycle and reaches at 7.15, has a wash, goes through mails, goes for prayer, takes her dinner and does other personal readings.... it is late at night before she hits the bed. Amazing for a woman in her late 40s?!
On 24th Ms. Tawa Caspers and Mr. Muller came to visit us as planned. And they were with us throughout the day. We took time off from our discussions, and went for a visit to the Cathedral in Aachen, surrounded by market places, touched the hot springs sprouting from the ground, and had a pizza for lunch. We did not use the tickets provided by Sr. Claudia for sight seeing in order to save the money for the sisters, and we used the car of Mr. Muller.
The sisters who had gone for the meeting returned along with two other sisters in the late evening of 24th.
On 25th morning, we had a grand mass with Sr. Maria playing the guitar. We had good breakfast intersperced with plenty of laughter and fun. By then it was time for us to leave. Sr. Claudia reached us by car to the Station and placed us carefully in the train. We said "Good Bye" to this amazing old city called Aachen, which still has the scars of bombings of the Second World War left on many of its buildings.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Helping Hands

It was May 23, Friday morning : I got ready quickly and updated number of my blogs with pictures and had a quick breakfast. By then Evelyn was waiting to take us to her home. We took our luggages from the Suhm's and went to Evelyn's. She thoughtfully arranged some sandwiches--each according to our taste--and stuffed our bags with bananas, apples and some gifts, for the way! What a wonderful and thoughtful woman she is! I admire the way she manages to run her home, office and yet take time for us. Thank you Evelyn! Your husband Peter is really a gifted man!

Evelyn placed us in a train traveling to Koln where we were to take a French Train traveling to Paris, and get down at Aachen. The travel went perfectly well. We were received at Aachen by a feeble but strong woman, a sister, Claudia. I shall say more about Claudia later. She put us in a bus and she traveled in her bike (for Indians, bicycle), and caught up with us soon. And we walked a short distance to reach the convent of the Helferinnen Sisters, in Aachen!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Exploring Home and Out

A large Pipe-organ at Gengenbach (above) Gengenbach seen from Chappalle (above right)

On Wednesday, we woke up late, had breakfast with Karl, and then Evelyn dropped us with Fr. Joseph in the parish. I shall call him Jose. He is a very fine man from Kerala, and has spent already five years in Gengenbach. He was happy to see some Indians here! In the morning after some friendly chat we walked around Gengenbach, with its ancient richness. One important place that we visited was the Mother House of one of the Benedictine Monasteries where the sisters are very old, and they are making lots of religious articles of excellent quality for sale. But they seem to not have much sale, although they get occasionally many bookings. Evelyn picked us at 12.30 for lunch, and then we went to a Chinese restaurant nearby. I had very hot chicken briyani with red chillies! Others took more bland diet. In the afternoon, we walked up to the nearby hill, walking through the many vineyards that surround the little town, to the Chappalle (Chapel). By the time we returned it was four in the afternoon. And later Evelyn took us to her company where we could see how the Active Ingredients for making some important tablets are being made. As many areas of the company are restricted for entry we could see through the glass. At other places we could get in with protective gears. Evening we had dinner at Karl's and watched the Champions League Football Final, before we went for our sleep.
Variety of candles prepared by the nuns (above) a portion of the pharma company Evelyn works (above right)

On Thursday, there was a grand celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi. We participated in it. It was really grand and lots of people from various christian denominations had gathered for the mass and the procession. It was interesting to note that for celebrations people do come to the churches although at other times the churches are barely half-full. I also noticed that the Churhces are not fully utilised for religious purposes, specially in places of pilgrimage, to attract people to religious faith, although the same churches are being utilised as places of heritage and picnic (e.g. the Freiburg and Straasburg Münsters). I think the church in Europe needs to pay more attention to using the people's visit to these places of public visit into faith-building platforms.
We had a more quite evening and the Vespers at the Church, followed by a sumptuous meal at the home of Peter and Evelyn. (photo: vineyards of Gengenbach)

Being a French - For a Little While!

The boat crosses through a movable bridge! (above)

On the banks of Rhine - crossing into France (above left) The trams in Straasburg, France (above)

Outside the Strassburg (above left) Münster Hotels and homes on the river in Straasburg (above)

On Tuesday, 20 May, we decided to go to Straasburg in France for an outing! I think, this is going to be the only outing day for me in this trip to Germany. All other days are going in meeting people and talking to them.... although I have not made many breakthroughs this time. I think we did a good job at Freiburg. Today, for the journey, we are four: Fr. Susai, Matze, Johannes and me. We left at 10.00 a.m by car, crossing the black forests, reaching the Rhine that separates both the countries, and then crossing into France! It was almost an adventure. Once we reached Straasburg, we took a tram for our visit to the famous Strassburg Münster. Waaw! What a splendid sight. There were thousands of visitors as it is also holiday time in the schools. We walked a lot along the brook that is well developed for Aqua-tourism, with moving bridges, blocking bridges that increase or decrease water levels for the boats to travel smoothly, with running commentary.... beside other modes of transport which also give you commentaries in multiple languages. I have a lot to write. Oh yes, I cannot forget standing beside the piano used by Mözart himself in one of the churches, preserved as a heritage. We had lunch at a 150 years old restaurant Güber. There was something about this restaurant, because, many great people had frequented this place during their visits to Straasburg. And we were having lunch sitting on the same chairs and table used by Helmut Köhl ! What a privilege! Still more - we got all our food free! You know why?
Almost two years ago Evelyn had visited this hotel and on that day the wine served was not cold enough. Evelyn had written a letter to the hotel later, and the hotel management had sent a complimentary letter promising two plates of Flammenkochen free whenever this letter is used at the restaurant. And we had carried this letter. That did the work even after two years! We were pampered with more than what we could, besides desserts, coffee, plenty of food in different categories, and they wanted to give more! We had no place in the stomach. All this was done by the Manager himself, so that we did not even have to pay tips! (I cannot imagine if an Indian restaurant would do this.)

Colorful glass art in the Münster(above) -- The Münster (center) -- The Piano played by Mozärt (above right)
Before we left, we had some fun time. There were many artists on the roadside painting pictures and caricatures of people. I got a caricature done of myself. Ooh! What a fun to laugh at your own self! Just for a day, it is a great fun to enjoy yourself. With a good dinner spread for us at Evelyn's we went to bed quite late.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Power of a Man and a Woman !

What can a man and a woman can do together? They can make the best and the worst. We have a case for making the best of life in the form of Karl and Gabi Suhm. We spent the night of the Monday, 19 May at the home of the Suhms. They are very affectionate people and generous with their resources. I had stayed in their home the last time too. The family of Evelyn, Matthias and Johannes had joined us for dinner. And I had good rest till 7.30 a.m. till Tuesday, as I could feel that my body is beginning to relax from the toils of Raiganj.
I must come back to the Suhms. They are also very hard working people. Karl and Gabi have built a personal museum of minerals collected from all over the world... must be costing a few millions of Euros. You name a country, Karl shows you immediately the minierals found in that country and shows you pieces of them. They also have a passion for garden as they work together to keep their garden as one of the best in the area, with lots of stone works, variety of small cactus, and plants from many other parts of the world. They have a showroom from which they sell some of their collections. Well, do not think that they have done it in a day. It has taken them 55 years of patient endurance and perseverence to reach to this level. Congrats Gabi and Karl ! We admire you for the wonderful work you do to preserve the minerals of the world.

This is Freiburg

It has been raining since the time we came.... and has been getting colder too. The weather has not been so good to us. But we must move ahead. After a small breakfast (stomach is still full from yesterday's meal), we left Geislingen at 9.45 and we reached Loffingen by car. Matthias was accompanying us. From Loffingen we traveled through the black forests, crossing Neudstadt, we reached Freiburg at 12.05. Johannes Becker was waiting for us. We had enough time to walk around the Pedagogical Department of the Freiburg University besides a 20 minutes of wonderful piano music played for us by Johannes. At 1.00 p.m. we met Professor Haug, a tall man for German standards (too tall for India!), we had lunch together in the Mess. The food was good. I went for some Thai dishes. Fr. Susai was not keeping well, so he chose to have some bland diet, whereas others had typical German dishes. (Pictures : Freiburg from the Münster, traveling on a local train , the outside of the Pedagogical department of the University of Freiburg)
We had range of talks--from experience of Matthias and Johannes, poverty and development in India, some world politics, and Professor Haug's plan to come to a developing country to voluntarily serve for about one year.

Finally, we called it a day and took the tram to the city centre, to the apartment of Johannes. Leaving our baggage there, we went to see the Munster of Freiburg. It is under repair, and yet we managed to climb up to a close distance from the top most point which has been restricted for visitors. We could also see the way the bells rang at 4.00 p.m. We saw the 16 bells of the Church, with the largest of them being as heavy as 7,000 kilos! (picture on the side) We had our train to Offenburg at 5.00 p.m., from where we came to Gengenbach by train. Evelyn was waiting for us to receive us at the station.

Celebrations in Geislingen

We traveled on Saturday 17 after a breakfast at Sonnenhof, to Geislingen. It is almost 300 km South of Frankfurt. We had Edith to drive. Edith is so wonderful because, she had the energy to drive the distance without any problem although she is 70 years old. We took about 2.30 minutes to cover the 300 kms. On arrival in the afternoon, we were greeted by Leonie and Bettina and her family. We had a grand celebration at the Gasthof in the evening to celebrate Edith's birthday. It was 11.00 p.m. when we left the hotel. I and Fr. Susai were put up at the apartment of Matthias. We had no time to relax and so went to bed immediately. (Photos below : with little Lukas and in the house of Mrs. Rose)

The Sunday was more relaxed as we had not much things to do. We went for the mass at 8.30 and then we proceeded to Rose's home. The last time I visited Germany Rose was away. I began to admire at the strength of this aged woman who lives alone, and has no children and husband. She owns a large van in which she spends most of her days on the banks of Lake Konstans. She had come this time just to meet me. When I looked around the house, you begin to wonder if it is really a house or a museum. She has cups, plates, wooden art, tables, chairs, carpets .... all being preserved for over 100 to 150 years! And in the house you are left with no space as the tables, windows, doors and every step is decorated with pictures, art and every fine thing you can find. Even some of the wine in her home was more than 100 years old! We had a brunch that day... which meant, we began our breakfast at 10.00 a.m. and it went on till 5.00 p.m. with lots of fun, jokes and laughter. Then we moved to Leonie's home as Evelyn and Peter, with their son Julian were to return to Gengenbach. I and Fr. Susai sent some of our luggages with them. With a piece of pizza for the night, we went to bed early.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Perfect Landing

Life has suddenly changed! We came smoothly from Kolkata to Frankfurt with a very brief stop-over in Dubai. As I expected the EK 547 from Kolkata to Dubai had all its 320 plus seats fully booked. I slept a lot more than I did last year, besides watching some comedies . Fr. Susai kept waking me for meals. One thing I noticed for sure : the services of Emirates Airlines had remained the same; and that made up for the long haul between Dubai and Frankfurt on EK 047. We reached Frankfurt 10 minutes ahead of our scheduled time. The immigration and customs went without any hitch. So, we were out in no time to be welcomed by Evelyn. For the night halt we came to Bad Nauheim where we were greeted by aunt Edith. She lives in a single room apartment all by herself. Our stay was made comfortable by arranging at Hotel Sonnenhof. We were just given keys by aunt Edith, and we did not see any hotel staff until the next morning at the breakfast table. Once we left our luggage at Sonnenhof we decided to go for a walk as the sun was still out at 8.15 p.m. Bad Naueheim is a small little town of about 20,000 people, with natural springs (which gives the name “bad” to be pronounced “baad”), health clubs, restaurants and parks. Aunt Edith took us to the most important spots of this little town : the homes of Bismarck (the iron man of Germany), Elvis Presley (great Rock star), and the Beneke Institute (Beneke was the person who researched on the medicinal qualities of the natural mineral waters (artesian springs) that are found in the area. The springs are well maintained, with Spas, inhalatorium and health clubs surrounding such. The municipality was sprucing up the town for a big Fair to be held in 2010, and so lots of repair works were going on in the town without giving much trouble to the people. As we were walking back Evelyn proposed that we must taste apple wine that is exclusive to the region. And so we stopped on the market and joined large crowds of people enjoying their drinks and dinners at the beginning of the weekend. At a restaurant, the ladies serving us proposed that we have "Flammenkuchen" for the dinner. It was prepared with garlic, onion, lettuce, cheese, butter, tomatoes, bacon etc on the roasted bread specially for us as we were guests! We got back to our hotel rooms at 10.00 p.m. We decided to call it a day as we need to quickly adjust to the time zone change. (Pictures from top: Homes of Elvis Presley, Bismarck, and one of the natural fountains)

Leaving Home

There are too many things that we take for granted.. and then we end with untold misery. The last time I visited Europe, I had the problem with electrical appliances I carried. This time I am better prepared. I am carrying a special switchboard made by electrician Mr. Mrityunjoy (we fondly call him Don). He did it really quick, so that I can have it on time before I leave Raiganj. I purchased a new pair of shoes in Kolkata as my old ones were worn out. Fr. Sarto, the regional forum director, and a friend of mine, (like an elder brother to me) came to the airport, dropped me and left. The formalities at the airport – check-in, emigration and security check—all went smooth. Once ready for departure, I called up my sister and wished her and her family. I made a final visit to the loo. Oh! It was as dirty as ever; no automatic water dispensers, no toilet papers, and was filled with stench. When I came out I saw several disarranged chairs lying in awkward positions. I arranged many of them in order. I began to wonder. There are tens of people working in the airport. Why no one bothers to arrange the chairs and discourage people from disarranging them? Why should the toilets be as bad as they are? Kolkata can not want to an international airport, if it cannot provide minimum standards. In Kolkata, there are lots of people opposing privatization of airports. For once, I wont mind privatization, if it brings better facility and cleanliness in all places. It is time to depart on the longest journey of my life and leave home!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Preparing for a Long Journey!

As I prepare myself for my visit to the Western part of the world, this year it has been really a tougher times with several audits scheduled, projects just taking off, and more projects needed.... it has been a harrowing time for me. Every night I have been hitting the bed, dead-tired, feeling almost, there is no tomorrow! Do the right thing, do it today, do it now. The Community Care Center will have just started off when I return in the middle of June, it would be the beginning of monsoon, the local government body (panchayat) election results would have been announced, and some new staff would have joined, while a few would be in other positions.... still more the new Human Resource Policy of SWI will be in operation. With too many things in mind, I need to get across to things, as just a few more hours are left for me to leave for Kolkata.... the first stage of my journey--mere 400 kilometers that will consume 12 hours of journey! (That is little more than the time I will spend flying from Frankfurt to Seattle!)

Gruppo India Supports High School Education

Gruppo India and Social Welfare Institute have joined together once again for support for the higher education of tribal children in the districts of Malda, North Dinajpur and South Dinajpur. The two had supported almost 200 students last year; and this year too, they have come together with a pledge of about 200,000 rupees put together. SWI will match the grants of Gruppo India on a 40:60 basis. Sr. Thankamma SDS will do the scrutiny of the applicants, and the scholarships will be issued in the last week of June 2008.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Care Centre for HIV Patients

People living with HIV will soon have a better place to go-- "Aashar Aalo", a Community Care Center (CCC) for People and Children living with HIV / AIDS. Social Welfare Institute will begin the CCC in Malda town 325 km north of Kolkata. The HIV patients will be able get access to free board and lodge and medical assistance during their stay at the CCC. A counselor and group of nurses and out-reach workers will help them and their families in accessing the Link Anti-Retro-viral Therapy Center at Malda District Hospital and will also help the families and the persons with HIV to live a better and more normal life. Initially there will be 10 beds available, and the place will be used as a short-stay home for the patients.

The CCC will be inaugurated on 1 June 2008, and Fr. Markus Mardi will coordinate the day to day operations. The fund support for the program for the next four years has been approved through an agreement signed between the CBCI Commission for Health and Puthumai A. Nazarene on behalf of the Social Welfare Institute. SWI was finding it very difficult to get a place in Malda for keeping the patients due to stigma and false notions among the people. However, a place has been identified and the recruitment for staff is already being done. Generous people may voluntarily support the cause of the CCC through donations to SWI as we will need more support for initial capital costs in setting up.