Are we really in India?

I had been dreaming about India for months, but after dire warnings from other travelers I had also been mentally preparing myself for poverty, filthiness and noise. We arrived in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) fairly early and booked a prepaid taxi with two other backpackers that happened to be on our flight (plug for Jet Airways: great service, great food, luxury for a brief two hours). Exiting immigration we weren't greeted by any touts and the man at the exchange counter told us advised us that his rate was terrible and that we should change our money once we get to the city (advice that proved true).

Driving through town in our retro yellow taxi we took in the sights, the colors and the sounds as best we could hoping we would quickly arrive at the hotel and have the chance to explore the gigantic city. After checking in at the Salvation Army Guest House on Sudder street, right in the centre of the city's backpacker district, we grabbed our guide book and started a walking tour of the area. Yann and I don't do "walking tours" very well, whoever is in charge of navigating spends most of the time with their head in the guidebook while being berated with "are we going the right way?"s. We have actually never completed a walking tour, inevitably getting lost and too frustrated to retrace our steps. Our first day in Kolkata was no exception, although we had an better excuse than "poor map reading skills" for our exhausting 6 hours of walking. The first ten minutes of our walk went smoothly, we covered about one city block stopping at pretty much every food stall we passed, buying samosas or Indian Party Mix": peanuts, dried peas, fresh onions and coriander mixed with spices wrapped in a piece of newspaper. As we continued down the main street we noticed a huge number of people entering the subway, lined up at the museum, walking along the street. It didn't take long before swarms of red t-shirts, red face paint and red hammer and sickle flags started appearing. We had heard of Kolkata's general strikes, put on by West Bengal province's ruling Marxist Communist Party, and we had just stepped into the middle of one. We joined the crowd, following the flock of sheep dyed red for the occasion. We were quickly surrounded by crowds of mostly men eager to have their photos taken happily waving their fists or their flags. The mood was extremely festive and people stopped to talk to us and invite us to their respective villages (people were busing in from all over the province, we concluded that must be the reason why we were so interesting to people). After spending the entire afternoon with the crowds we finally arrived at Victoria Memorial (the next stop on our walking tour) after closing time, so we paid a few rupees to roam around the beautiful grounds at sunset. We spent out next day in Kolkata arranging for onward travel. The first task was getting our first Indian train tickets, a half-day process. We seemed to only be allowed to buy tickets from the "foreigners ticket office" sitting right next to the regular "Indian ticket office". Although painfully slow, the service is excellent and instead of waiting in queue for 2 hours, you sit on couches in air conditioning and wait for your number to be called, all at no extra charge. The rail network is incredibly huge, but once you have it figured out (with the help of the handy rail handbook) its quite simple. Ticket prices are based entirely on distance and the class in which you travel. Yann and I, as well as most other backpackers, seem to travel long distances in sleeper class, the lowest of the bed classes. We bought two tickets for the "Darjeeling Mail", leaving two days later and heading to the famous British hill station. Our next task was to obtain a travel permit for the province of Sikkim, a small province nestled in between Nepal, China and Bhutan. We got our permit the same day without any hassles.

With a few days in Kolkata we wandered the city streets and of course visited the markets. We sampled lots of food, so much bread, so much oil, so many carbohydrates, so heavenly! We also witnessed some of the worst poverty we have seen throughout our travels in Asia, entire families living in makeshift cardboard homes on the sidewalk, people sifting through garbage for small bits of plastic or metal. The Sudder St. backpacker district appears to be one of the worst areas in the city, more than likely due to the presence of so many foreigners with pockets full of rupees. One crazy morning in Kolkata was spent at its most famous temple, Khalighat. Here, according to our guide/priest over fifty goats a day are ritually beheaded as offerings to the goddess Kali. Anywhere within about a kilometer of the temple, foreigners are quickly scooped up by one of the many "priests". The priests "volunteer" to escort you through the temple, packed with thousands of devout waiting patiently to enter. You are whisked to the front of the queue where you madly try to follow the rituals that are being shouted at you by your guide, including throwing some flowers and yelling out prayers as dozens of people fight for a glimpse of a statue of Kali. You are then blessed and given the opportunity to donate to the temple, which feeds hundreds of needy people everyday, whether we were actually giving money to the temple was impossible for us to figure out. As you leave the temple your volunteer priest stretches out his hand for a "modest tour guide fee". Ours was apparently a little too modest, and we were guilted into coughing up twice what we had originally offered. We also had to leave a small tip for the young boy who guarded our shoes as we wandered through the temple barefoot! We didn't feel cheated though, without our priest we didn't stand a chance of understanding what was going on. We left Kolkata by night train after 3 action packed days. We took off installed cozily in our tourist cabin, comprised of 4 Frenchmen and the two of us. Kolkata felt special to us, not only because it was our first Indian experience, but because it defied almost every preconceived problem we had prepared ourselves for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

coucou a mes deux amoureux,

Alors, pas facile, en voyant tout cela on peut penser que malgre tout, la vie que nous avons, est bien aise par rapport a eux. Vous etes jeunes , vous pouvez vous mettre de visiter ces coins-la, mon oncle
Raymond est tout essoufle seulement qu'a lire vos aventures et a moitie mort seulement a penser ce que vous mangez.

Je vous embrasse tres fort et on vous aime beaucoup beaucoup, beaucoup.

La plus fine des matantes.