One day I left to travel and see the world. Ready to conquer it, or be devoured by it. Since the day I was born I had dreamed of having the guts to do so. I burned the bridges behind me and, with no planned route but with one year ahead of me, I bought a ticket to Bangkok. I ended up writing and illustrating eight travel diaries, painted six large paintings on a remote island, made 56 drawings in colour of every country I visited, lived the good life in Tokyo with the money I earned from making caricatures on the street, and in Calcutta I created this graphic story of 45 drawings. I experienced far more in that one year than I had in the previous 37 years combined. It is as if someone had compressed everything a common and simple person as myself was meant to experience throughout their whole life into a single year. Love, heartbreak, loneliness, landscapes, rainfalls, sunsets, jungles, deserts, wealth, poverty, misery, glories, tragedies, hopes, and despairs, as well as that strange sensation of feeling alive every minute of the day. The past disappears, you do not know if there will be a future and, if you are not careful, the present slips through your fingers like sand. 

I returned home after a year. In fact, I never went back, I just passed through. The drug of the trip has been injected into my veins, and I know that sooner or later the craving to stop in some corner of the world will pass. Meanwhile, I continue to follow the ‘dealers’ who traffic tickets for planes, buses, boats that sail on rivers, elephants that cross jungles, or camels that cross deserts.

One travels not to gain something, but to lose everything. It is not about learning either, but about unlearning all the nonsense that is taught to us that, now, you ignore how you once believed it. You discover that maturity is found in pure innocence, and you recover the inner-child who they tried to kill with the great lie that Santa Claus does not exist. Until one day you find out that this is precisely one of the few things that do exist… and Santa Claus is not just one person!

You recover the excitement of seeing the world through the eyes of a child who does not understand anything of what he sees or what surrounds him, but he enjoys it for this very reason, because everything is new and surprising. And the only way you will allow someone to kill this excitement is over your dead body.

There are no coincidences, only causalities, and from a distance you can observe all that has happened as a perfectly entwined web so you could experience all you had to experience, if you know how to let go. In one of these webs, I met a Navarre woman in Bangkok who was returning from Calcutta with an overdose of energy. She told me about Mother Theresa, so I bought a ticket to Calcutta to live first-hand one of the kitsch myths of the 20th century.

There I discovered that the real Mother Theresa has nothing to do with the image the media spits out. If you have never left your house, I do not recommend this is your first trip you take. There are things that, to endure them, even if just visually, one must have learned certain life lessons.

I was lucky. At Calcutta’s shabby airport, as soon as I arrived, an English woman of fair skin and very blonde hair was also waiting for her luggage, along with the six other foreigners that fate had brought together: ‘Wait a moment!’, she said, ’Take a deep breath!’, she breathed deeply, ‘Aaaaaah, it smells of India!’, she exclaimed as if she had just had an orgasm. I understood what she meant. I had already travelled around India for three months on a previous trip. Indeed, this is a feeling that all those who have been entrapped by India have felt at some point.

I arrived and settled in the Salvation Army on Sudder Street for 50 pennies a night. On this street I lived for a month among purulent beggars, abandoned children, rats, and monsoons that turned everything into an improvised Venice of mud and floating waste; with a fauna of tattooed and pierced travellers, volunteers from all types of backgrounds, nerds, adventurers, and more than one soulless person. 

I am unsure how in the midst of this environment I could have been so happy… but I really was! I made friends I would give my life for. Travellers and volunteers of a human dimension rarely found in life. I am no one to speak of Mother Theresa’s work, but you eventually end up loving that tiny woman and her ability to run all that. I spent a month there as a volunteer, not due to my charitable soul (which I do not believe I have), but rather a journalistic urge, so to speak.

Mother Theresa began her work in 1952. As the legend goes (and I believe it), she was walking through the miserable streets of Calcutta, when she saw a woman agonising, still alive, while rats were feeding on her, not even waiting for her to die. Her intention was to give the world’s poorest people the opportunity of a dignified death. The Hindu priest of KALI GHAT (temple of KALI, Goddess of Death and War) offered her some rooms. Mother Theresa could be criticised for merely putting a plaster on a cancerous tumour, but one must start somewhere. If anyone should be criticised, the focus should be on the highest spheres of power and on the karmic and religious prejudices of the Hindu society.

As of today, Mother Theresa’s work includes 638 shelters in 123 countries. There are several aid houses in Calcutta, I am unsure how many (as a journalist I am quite inept). There are some for people with tuberculosis, disabled children, abused women, people with physical and mental deformities, dying people, lepers, and the entire repertoire of atrocities caused by misery.     

In the month I worked as a volunteer I only visited the PREM DAN, PREM NIVAS, KALI GHAT, and DAYA DAN houses. Not enough time for anything else. Life was intense in Calcutta. I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to attend the 6:00 mass at Mother House. Breakfast at 7:00 with the rest of volunteers, and at 7:30 I began my shift until 13:30. From 4:00 until 6:00 I taught Spanish to four sisters who were going on a mission to South America. Then, I wrote in my diary and made the drawings that compose this book, until 1:00. It took me some time to find the right perspective for those portraits. I wanted to portray the patients of the shelters I worked in, but the respect those people deserved stopped me. It was not easy. I not only wanted to embody with lines and stains their dignity and human burden, but also their terrible circumstances; their bad karma, as they understood it. I began sketching with fear and I could only make cheesy, or in the best of cases, politically correct drawings.

But I was lucky. For three days I suffered a strange fever, and under its more or less delirious effects, experiencing the illness in my own skin, these drawings began to pour out, with much more punch. Catching ‘something’ while volunteering is almost mandatory. What I caught was nothing. My roommate, Alex, caught a fever with vomiting and diarrhoea that made him lose seven kilos in three days. Others returned home with malaria or purulent diseases of unknown origin.

I think these drawings reflect quite well the reality experienced there. Some volunteers, when they saw them, began to be conscious about everything around us, and which our sight, always selective, disguises in order to endure whatever the vision presents. After having walked through the pitiful streets of Calcutta, always dirty and surrounded by human misery, there comes a time when entering one of Mother Theresa’s houses is like entering an oasis of peace, cleanliness, and abundance of food.

The raw reality of a human being is hidden behind each drawing, which is why they are all are titled after the person’s name (when it was known, as many could not speak). To the left of the drawing we have the name of the house where they were cared for, and to the right, the date on which they were drawn. Some of these patients have died since then. I feel a special kind of pain for the children, one killed by tuberculosis and the other by malaria.

The drawings are not in chronological order, but according to the different houses I visited. The initial drawings are on the left side, the sketches I made in my diary to later create the final drawing.

One day, while portraying one of the patients in KALI GHAT, the house of the dying, he passed away as I was drawing his mouth. It was a heartbreaking moment I doubt I will ever forget. I got used to sketching those skeletal bodies. I learned a fair amount of anatomy, since the bones were exposed and the veins stood out clearly.

Another day, while I was shaving, I noticed that the bones of my face were as prominent as theirs and I could see the veins on my forehead throbbing. I was alarmed. I took my shirt off and saw that my ribs were shockingly visible. I took a piece of paper and a pencil and drew this self-portrait. I had been travelling for six months, I had left weighing 85 kilos, and now only 60… I had finally gotten rid of the excess weight the Western society stuffs you up with!

The day I visited PREM NIVAS, the lepers’ shelter, 15 kilometres from Calcutta, I met Yoko, a Japanese girl who also wrote and drew in a diary. I was fascinated by the meticulousness and preciseness of her trace, especially considering that at age 32 she was drawing for the first time. Our love for travelling and drawing led us to the inevitable: we fell in love. Her drawings are also included in the book, although she only worked in DAYA DAN, with the children.

This book intends to be an homage to all of Mother Theresa’s patients who, with nobility and dignity, not resignation, teach and give you much more than you could ever give back. Also, to all the sisters I met and who devote their lives to this cause. To the volunteers who pour their heart into the work, to Marlies (from Navarra), to Julian (from Burgos), who is already hooked on Calcutta, to the travellers Carmen and Eduardo, to the mystic Oriol, to the incredible Lorraine from Australia, to Alex and the unforgettable conversations we shared…

And of course, to Yoko, the sweet Japanese girl… Because it is not every day one finds love in a leper house in Calcutta.

Lluïsot, 26 March 2000

Self-portrait of the author