The city grows like a river, from the sprawling outer suburbs sketched out in thousands of tight thin streets that flow like streams, pouring into the great beating heart of Kolkata.
Ferrying to the bank from our cruise chip, the Ganges Voyager II, we board our coach, which feels almost as wide as the street. For the next thirty minutes, my eyes never leave the window—an amazing lens exposing the chaotic and beautiful drama that changes by the second outside. The city is waking up, and with every city block, the crowds and colors and noise all intensify.
Home to 17 million humans, Kolkata is only India’s third largest city, but only after I have arrived can I even begin to comprehend the sheer magnitude of this vast urban epicenter.
Now the traffic is four, five, six lanes across—a river of traffic, reminiscent of the Ganges that carried us here—a river of cars and people and tuk-tuks and yes, even cows. No matter all the honking horns and people shouting and trucks belching smoke—there are big white silent cows standing in the midst of it all, unbothered, considered holy in Hinduism, left alone to navigate the big city, untouched by it all.
Our destination is Mother Teresa’s House, tucked into one of the endless alleyways of the city and marked only by a humble hand-painted sign: The Missionaries of Charity.
A nun, dressed in the well-known white and blue-striped saris of the Missionaries of Charity smiles at me, welcoming me to this quiet space in the midst of such a noisy city. Other nuns walk past, some with their sleeves rolled up, working away—washing laundry or carrying bundles of food. There is a quiet certitude all around.
The nun tells me she is from Spain and smiles again, asking my name.
“We will pray for each other,” she offers, and I smile back. Our Uniworld group is given exclusive access—ushered through one courtyard and into another, where we remove our shoes and enter the orphanage.
Children’s music plays overhead—a joyful melody—while downstairs, a squadron of volunteers feed the youngest babies, gently putting spoons to the babies’ mouths. In total, there are 54 children living here. Upstairs I count 54 beds, lined up with precision. Some kids are napping, others playing, a few staring at me with shiny black eyes. One of them latches onto me.
I confess I got a little choked up. It did not seem fair—travel often reminds us just how unfair life is. But the children are definitely happy—they are eating, they are going to school, they are healthy. Many of them are not orphans, technically, but brought here to be cared for if their parents cannot support them. This is just one of the great legacies of Mother Teresa, who built this orphanage to accommodate the many abandoned children of Kolkata.
She is considered a saint now, beatified by the Catholic Church, though she was considered a saint in her lifetime by the thousands upon thousands that she helped, just like these children that I am playing with now. When we are done, some of us dip into the cool and quiet chamber that houses the tomb of the world’s most famous nun. It is white and plain, with a simple rosary laid out on her grave, right over her heart. Two nuns are kneeling, lost in deep prayer.
We have not come to fetishize the poor, or to self-congratulate our own charity or contribution. Most of us know that no matter where we come from in the world, the issues of poverty are universal. Perhaps the tomb of Mother Teresa brought us here, but it is not the real tourist attraction. Rather, it is her fundamental notion of total and unconditional charity, made real by her own hands and life. You can feel it here, in this one quiet spot.
I don’t think anyone can truly appreciate the magnitude of Mother Teresa’s life without seeing Kolkata in person, and I don’t know any other river cruises that visits an inner-city orphanage as part of the journey—but Uniworld does. Mother Teresa is part of the story of Kolkata—not a story of despair or hopelessness, but a story of sharing and the innate love that all of us have in common.