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From Calcutta to Okefenokee

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December 2005
From Calcutta to Okefenokee

By PAYAL KHURANA

As you drive down the 1-95 highway through Georgia, the Okefenokee Swamp is an interesting side-trip just 20 minutes from Exit 3. The ‘Gateway' to the Swamp is the quaint town of Folkston. The finest bed and breakfast there, a winner of many awards, is the Inn at Folkston. The owners, Roger and Genna Wangsness, chanced upon this old house on a visit to the Okefenokee Swamp, and fell in love with it. When they purchased it in 1997, it was 75-year-old heart-pine bungalow and had been home to nine previous owners. It is now a beautifully restored inn with four rooms, each having individual themes ? Hanna's Norway Room, Micheal's Lighthouse Room, Sarah Jane's English Garden room and India's Oriental room.

India's Oriental Room is a cool white and terra cotta red room, with beautiful Persian carpets. Reminiscent of India and all things Indian, this room has many oriental artifacts, which Roger and Genna collected on their travels in the East. "We named the room after our granddaughter, India Brown. Our daughter Bijali was born in India. The room has a large library on and about India, including the Bhagwat Gita."

Roger and Genna's tryst with India began in the ‘60s, when they were working as Peace Corps Volunteers in Asia. Genna was posted in Iran, and Roger in Bangladesh. "We were allowed one vacation during that time," remembers Genna. "I went to India overland with two other Volunteers. We got on an oil tanker for the ride across Afghanistan. We had a very interesting ride, three women in the front seat with the driver!" The next two weeks passed in a blur of sightseeing ? Delhi, Calcutta, Goa, Bombay, and Agra! Roger had visited the country two years earlier, when he traveled by bus from Lahore to Amritsar. He has pleasant memories of his stay in a houseboat in Srinagar.

"Roger and I met in the Peace Corps in Iran, after he was transferred there from Pakistan," recalls Genna. "We got married there in 1967, stayed another four years, and then returned to the U.S." By 1977, the couple was living in Washington DC and had two children, Alison, 9 and Brian, 5. They realized they wanted more children, and decided to adopt. That is how Bijali came into their life, all the way from Calcutta. Genna remembers the day they saw their daughter's photograph for the first time. She was a small Bengali girl, living with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. "When we saw Bijali's picture, we thought she looked sweet. Although she was seven years old and we had planned on adopting a baby, we decided to bring her into our family."

The Missionaries of Charity arranged for Bijali to fly to the US accompanied by a flight attendant on Pan Am Airlines. She was welcomed into the family with a flurry of excitement. All the relatives and friends brought toys. "She was overwhelmed, since she never had so many things all at once," smiles Genna. "She did not know how to play with everything. Bijali and Brian became fast friends and played games together."

On Bijali's part, she had to adjust to a completely new way of life. She had to learn to speak a new language and accept a family environment. "I will not say that it was easy for anyone," says Genna. "I think as young parents, we were not prepared for the changes she would bring into our lives." Bijali had developmental problems, most likely caused by poor nutrition and other factors. She attended special education classes throughout her school years. "But we all stuck it out, and today she is a mother herself, works and lives nearby," says the proud mum.

At the time when Bijali had first come into their lives and when the adoption was finally formalized, the Wangsness explained to her that they did not know what had happened to her parents, and that they were now her parents. "At that point she said she knew what happened to her mother," recalls Genna. "We were completely surprised, since she had been unwilling to discuss anything of her past, even though we had brought in someone who spoke Bengali. She said her mother had been run over by a train, and had a gash in her head. Bijali had tried to cover her up, but some men took her mother away, and she never saw her again. She was found by the Missionaries of Charity, abandoned on the Calcutta railway station."

Today Bijali lives in Folkston with her two children, India and Terence, and works in a security company. Roger and Genna would like to return to India someday, along with Bijali and her children. Her daughter India, now 13, is curious about the country. However, Bijali remains aloof about her birthplace, claiming that she has no desire to return. "But I think everyone would benefit from a visit, so we continue to talk about the possibility of going one day," says Genna.

Do they get many Indian guests? "Yes, we have had Indians visit us," says Genna. "Last year, a Sikh family from Atlanta, parents and two children, stayed in the India Oriental Room. We enjoyed their company as much as they enjoyed staying with us. We talked a lot about India. We would love to have others come to visit."


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