Rasham and I arrived in Kolkata (Calcutta) at a little after midnight, then the 16th of January. Unlike most all countries I have been do where you have to deal with a savage pack of venturous swindlers trying to overprice a taxi fare into town, the Kolkata airport had a prepaid tai system where we went to a booth and gave our address and a receipt with the appropriate fare was given in return to take to the taxi booth.
The taxi’s were all these giant old yellow cars from what looked like the fifties and as we were driven down a complex series of back roads, I felt as if the bottom of the car was going to drop out from under us as it rattled along. The maze of dark streets held a smoldering mixture of wild dogs and trash, twisted trees and sleepy police men guarding flimsy gates. The streets were fertile and organic and the buildings were antiquated dilapidated structures but still being used.
The main backpacker hub of Kolkata seems to be a place called Sudder Street. Along with Sudder St, the area seems to incorporate a series of other streets that have the same feel and a market which has everything from vegetables to shoes.
The streets are an effusive blend of every human demand and its compliment and result. Trash, urine, feces, cows, dogs, rickshaws, hair trimmers, chai makers, shoe shiners, fruit vendors, pedestrians, cars, urinals, goats, trees, rats, and beggars all whirl around each other in a dance that is so unregulated, it maintains an almost beautiful organic harmony. I have no problem in saying that I love the symbiosis of the streets here and I feel as if Kolkata must still have all the magic it has ever held.
But just as in China, Rasham and I walk the streets saying to each other “I can’t wait to bike though here!”
As we walked down the street, several people asked to have their picture taken with us.
On our second day in Kolkata we went for a long walk to find the flower market and ended up passing through a number of markets in a wonderful exploration of some back alley parts of the city.
After a four or five hours we jumped on a random bus which cost 5 rupees each, and ended up not to far from our hotel. The journey culminated in a great exploration of the sights and smells of Kolkata. Because of the number of photos I would like to share, I am going to put half of them in the next post so that those of you receiving my posts by email wont have trouble viewing it.
People ply their trades in a variety of ways on streets of Kolkata. Some make and sell samosas and fried pancakes, some sell fruit or shampoo, others shine shoes, some prepare beedee nuts and it seems as if every corner has a chai vendor.
As we walked through the fruit market it became clear very quickly that not many foreigners had ventured this far. Everyone was staring at us and “hello”s seemed to be coming from all directions. Numberous people asked for their picture to be taken or jeeringly pointed at their friend, who hid their faces bashfully. Unlike many places in the world having your picture taken by a foreigner did not seem to offend these people but was more considered a token of friendliness and was usually greeted with a “thank you”.
Indian food is packed full of spices and in the markets huge quantities of coriander, turmeric and cumin were piled in sacks around vendor’s eager to sell.
Later we came across and man and a woman with an ornately decorated cow in a small alley. They seemed to be deeply concerned about something and eventually all three of them walked off together without noticing us.
After our third night in Kolkata we awoke early in the morning and took a taxi to the train station. We had to be in New Delhi the next day to meet Rasham’s group. The train station held the expected chaos of thousands of people, many of them completely destitute, milling, sleeping waiting and begging and trying to make a living around the station. We went to our platform and waited for the train to arrive.
We got into Delhi about 3 hours late and so we went straight to the hotel where she was supposed to meet her group. Her trip was organized through a group called the Himalayan Institute, a group I increasingly have grown to dislike the more I have heard about them. Despite having to pay them $300 just so Rasham could meet them in India instead of use her plane ticket that they undoubtedly redeemed money for canceling, we recently learned that they paid millions of dollars in out of court settlements to try and silence more than a few women who were raped and sexually abused by their founder, Swami Rama.
When we arrived at the hotel we found out that the institute had exceeded their promised tour size of 100 people and had somehow managed to pack over 140 people into their “Spiritual Pilgrimage” to Allahabad and Kudjaraho. I felt slightly sick when I saw the large number of people in lobby and watched a group wealthy men meet in the hotel restaurant with the tour organizer, Marge, unlike the people out on the streets of India, these people avoided eye contact and held stern faces. It was almost as if I could feel them calculating how they were going to net the most out of the non-refundable $5,000-a-head gross profit they had just received from their 140 person tour group in a country where things cost basically nothing.
This was no spiritual pilgrimage; it was an exploitation of one. I could help but contrast the 11 person group I had first traveled to India with against this monstrous concoction.
With sad faces Rasham and I kissed goodbye outside the hotel just before Marge walked up and told us that this was the third world and we were putting ourselves in great danger by showing affection for each other. I felt bad for letting Rasham take off with what seemed like such a negative vibration, but at the same time I think Rasham and I both felt that she should at least explore the first few days of the tour before judging it completely. Sadly, I watched her take off in the bus and walked back to where I was staying.
We have plans to hopefully see each other in Allahabad but we weren’t able to determine when or where.