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Journey to the motherland

Meredith Stewart shares some of her first trip to India in September 2016, and love for this fascinating country.

India is a place that captures my heart and soul on so many levels. Each time I visit I learn more about myself and views of life, and a part of me remains behind. India has so many layers to discover that I think it would take a lifetime to be able to answer the question “What is India like?”

The moment I landed in Kolkata (nicknamed the City of Joy) on my first trip in 2016, I could feel the healing energy amongst the noise, smells, heat and beeping — there was a sense of calmness and a welcoming embrace.

From the ride in a taxi that looked like something out of the '80s TV series Taxi, to our driver arguing with a police officer about my overweight suitcase, I quickly became familiar with the phrase “This is India”.

Carole my Gizzy travel companion and I were greeted by Daniel Gee, an inspiring Kiwi who along with his wife Ana and their three children have made India home. They have created learning and employment opportunities for local women through Holi Boli Fashion and Brightstar (Play and Learn) early childhood centre.

The next morning I am on the back of a Bullet motorbike (the Indian version of a Harley) seeing the sights of this metropolis of over 14 million people that is the capital of West Bengal.

Kolkata is a mixture of the old and the new; in places it felt like I had travelled back to Queen Victoria's time.

The Queen Victoria Memorial stands out against beautiful green scenery. This large marble building was built after Queen Victoria died in 1901 and I felt a sense of emptiness inside it. Surrounding the building, which houses a museum, are majestic gardens where people relax and young couples are allowed to meet and court.

Next up was a 12-hour train journey to Sambalpur . . . and an experience like a scene from the movie Lion, with people sleeping on platforms awaiting trains that can arrive on time, 12 hours late or maybe be cancelled. This is India.

Carole and I boarded the sleeper train with Daniel and soon became accustomed to the culture of Indian trains, and using a cramped toilet while the train is moving.

We were greeted in Sambalpur by Ana with a warm smile. I was excited to spend time here as this is where my fundraising for India began. As an early childhood teacher, it was also a wonderful opportunity to gain more knowledge about a new and unfamiliar education system.

We spent five memorable days with the ladies from Holi Boli and visited schools as well as early childhood centres.

The village of Bhalupali, Sambalpur isn't a tourist destination, and provided an opportunity to explore more intimately a different culture and way of life.

Wherever I turned there was something new to discover, from the homes to the weekly vegetable and spice market, where the aroma lingered for days. A trip in Holi Boli's trusty van took us along a bumpy dirt road in 40 degree heat to the jungle, to have a delicious home-cooked meal.

Mastering the art of breaking roti with just your right hand and eating with our fingers soon became second nature. Samosa served on a green banana leaf is also a normal, everyday food here.

Wearing traditional clothing made for me by the Holi Boli team, I was immersed into a different world which captivated the soul. Soon it began to feel like home.

The language barrier was not an issue, as the international language of a warm smile and kindness from those I met, both young and old, stays with me even now.

After five days it was time to begin the journey to Rajasthan, where a new part of India awaited me and there were more life lessons to take on board.

BULLET RIDE: The best way to travel in Kolkata is on a Bullet motorbike . . . sightseeing with Keith, my guide. Pictures by Meredith Stewart (or companions)
HOLI BOLI FOUNDERS: Ana and Daniel Wilkinson-Gee, from NZ, have made Sambalpur their home. The founders of Holi Boli Fashion and Brightstar early childhood centre are empowering women for a brighter future.
PLAY TIME: It was a life-changing opportunity to work alongside local teachers and children in Sambalpur — learning new languages and ways of teaching, and to share in the fun and laughter as we played.
MAJESTIC GARDENS: The Queen Victoria Memorial in central Kolkata is surrounded by 64 acres of gardens and beautiful green scenery.
WARM SMILES: Village women in Bhalupali use the many water pumps alongside their small, narrow streets to do washing and collect water daily for their homes. Their warm smiles greeted me every day.
ROAD CONGESTION: Cows greeted us regularly on a ride through the jungle, as they were being moved to different feeding spots.
VILLAGE LIVING: One of the very basic houses in Bhalupali. With no power, running water or toilet facilities, washing and drinking water is retrieved from the many pumps that line the small streets.
SENSORY OVERLOAD: The senses are overloaded with the colour and smells of so many foods and spices.