Picking Wedding Suits in Kanpur

Jitendra and Lucie had already reserved a room for us in Kanpur just a few doors down from their wedding venue. We were the first international guests to arrive (we were keen ok?!) and when we called Jitendra from Lucknow he eagerly explained that he would meet us at the hotel the next day (he also told us the maximum amount it should cost us for a rickshaw ride from the bus station to the hotel... we paid twice that).

Kanpur is Uttar Pradesh state's largest city, it has a population of roughly 6 million people and is nestled on the banks of the holy Ganga river. Kanpur was once a major British military station and was the site of an important siege during the 1857 Rebellion against British rule. Today Kanpur is a large industrial city and consequently quite polluted. Most trains heading west to Delhi pass through Kanpur and there is very little respite from the railway, rickshaw and pedestrian traffic that jams up the city's streets. Unlike its neighbour Lucknow's rich Mughal history there are few major draws for tourists. One of Jitendra's first words to us upon arrival were: "Welcome to Kanpur. India's ugliest city!".

I met Jitendra in February 2005. He was an exchange student from India coming to study under my supervisor in Montreal. Due to visa problems he was arriving a month into the winter semester and my supervisor had given me the task of making sure he got settled in and got all his paperwork filled out etc... I still remember him holding tightly onto my arm as we shuffled down the icy streets of Montreal with him exclaiming "be careful Emlee I don't have my health insurance yet!". When he announced his engagement to the beautiful Lucie 4 years later (a French exchange student) we promised that we would be at the wedding. The four of us were 10 days early for the wedding, but there was lots to do, as the only foreign baraatis (invitees on the groom's side), we would have to make Jitendra proud.

Jitendra's sister Jyoti had already reserved jewelry and clothing for Antonia and I, but the men had a multitude of different outfits that had to be made for them. Within 2 hours of arriving in Kanpur, Jitendra had already had already whisked James and Yann to the tailor's. Our only instructions regarding apparel was that "we do what's traditional". Admittedly, the "Indian suits" that Jitendra had been talking about, were not exactly what we expected, but we made sure that James and Yann had the full 3-piece suits and we even got to customize the embroidery and beading. Yann almost chose the eggplant colour, but I convinced him to get the navy blue so that he could wear it in Canada!? After placing the rush order on the suits, there was another fitting, this time for the "pyjama kurtas", these are long cotton tunics and matching baggy pants. James and Yann picked out matching ones with flowery embroidery (selected by Antonia and I). Now, with a little bit of experience, Yann and James had started becoming selective. The process of picking the shade of off-white and the weave of cotton was painfully slow. Antonia and I had to be brought in to pick the embroidery. Jitendra left us with a shopping list of accessories and outfits that had to be purchased in the next few days for various ceremonies. Dress shoes, pointy shoes, dress pants, dress shirts, sandals, jewelry, bangles... That same evening we would begin our shopping. The fun was just beginning.

Loving Lucknow

We left Kolkata in an air-conditioned train car. Not because Yann had given in to getting one, but because we couldn't get anything else. We had a date with James and Antonia in less than 48 hours who were arriving from Southern India and we didn't want to be late. I was (as any normal human being would be) relieved to know that I would get sleep on the 22 hour train ride, since I certainly hadn't had any in Kolkata. We had spent two nights in a non-ac room with intermittent electricity (read intermittent fan), next to the festering public washroom and a drunken guest who stayed up all night with the door open and no shirt on. When we arrived in the room we had an argument over who would get the bed next to the filthy wall and who would have the bed covered in crusted instant noodles (I ended up with the noodles because at least I could identify that they were noodles, unlike the stains on the walls).

We arrived in Lucknow in the evening, one day before James and Antonia's plane was landing at the Lucknow airport. This gave us time to 1) Find a hotel room and 2) Eat meat before we turned exclusively to vegetarian fare (actually, we are big meat eaters in India, but Lucknow's famous Mughal-inspired cuisine is heavy in the meat department). Finding a meat-filled meal was an easy task, as henna-dyed bearded men watching over their huge cooking pots called for us to visit their respective restaurants. Finding a hotel room was unusually difficult. For a long while it seemed like our only option was a rooftop room/sauna, the only room left in a hotel known to take foreigners. We visited dozens of hotel front desks before we finally found one that would take us. It was pricier than we wanted to pay, because all of its rooms were air-conditioned (but that made it easy for me to be convinced). We were worried that James and Antonia would think it was too expensive at 800 rupees (about 20$CDN). But by guaranteeing their presence the next day we were able to bargain the rate down.

It was a huge relief when James and Antonia exited the airport (the last two). We had decided that they had missed the plane, but had received a positive ID of two "white people" on the plane from another passenger. We had been locked out of the airport waiting room due to the arrival of a politician on their same plane, and we had been lying on the hot pavement outside for almost an hour when James and Antonia finally exited. The airport billboard displayed a temperature of 47.6 degrees Celsius. Antonia described getting off the plane and thinking that she being blasted by the plane engines before realizing that the heat was simply the ambient air. Welcome to the Northern Plains ... in June.

The four of us decided to stay an extra day in Lucknow before heading to Kanpur for the pre-wedding preparations. Yann and I had already spent the day visiting Bara Imambara, Lucknow's epic Mughal shrine and we felt that James and Antonia couldn't leave without seeing it. We lined up back-to-back activities for the next day but spent the evening relaxing in our air-conditioned rooms sharing stories of our past weeks' adventures (James and Antonia in Southern India and Yann and I in Bangladesh).

Our first morning started with breaking in James with a road side breakfast. Yann and I had decided long before leaving for India that we would deal with James' relative travel inexperience with baptism by fire.

Baptism by fire (from Wikipedia entry) :" Today, it has entered the common vernacular to describe anyone doing something "the hard way" for the first time, particularly if training is necessarily insufficient to fully prepare one for the experience (as is the case with battle)."

We picked a busy street stall and ordered four breakfasts. The food was good and hot and Yann and I settled into our smug "see that wasn't so bad" attitudes until Yann spotted the dishes being washed out of the corner of his eye. He mumbled under his breath for me to look over. The dishes we were just using were being washed in a stream next to a huge pile of medical waste, including dirty needles. It didn't take long for James to recognize in our faces that something was wrong. I had brief moment of fear when James noticed the dishwasher, not because our dishes were washed in medical waste, but because I thought James might strangle me. But the situation was just so absurd that we had to laugh. Thus started out first morning together and our failed attempt at making James see the harmlessness of eating street food. We spent the morning visiting the former Residency of the British Resident General in Lucknow. the former British complex where thousands of soldiers and civilians spent almost 3 months under siege by "mutineers" during the first Indian uprising against British rule (1857). It is an interesting sight as one tends to sympathize with both sides of the battle, the hundreds trapped inside the crammed complex dying of disease and cannon fire and the Indians taking up arms against oppressive foreign rule. The sight itself is known as "The Residency" and has a museum on sight as well as the preserved ruins of the former residency buildings. The grounds are beautifully tended to and we might have lingered longer outside if it hadn't been almost 50 degrees. In the afternoon Yann and I waited outside the huge Mughal shrine, Bara Imambara, while James and Antonia visited. They described a similar experience the one we had experienced the previous day: being the only foreign tourists, posing for dozens of photos with Indian tourists, signing the guestbook on the request of the complex security guards while they looked over your shoulder to make sure only good things were written, taking off your shoes to enter the shrine and then burning them on the hot rooftop stones, resisting an attempt to be assigned a mandatory guide for the "Labyrinth"... All and all a fantastic experience. In the afternoon we made us of our "Lucknow Tourist Pass" and visited the smaller Chota Imambara, the Clocktower, the Jama Masjid (actually non-Muslims weren't allowed in this one, but we peered through the gates). A pair of rickshaws carrying foreigners seemed to garner a huge amoutn of attention and locals waved and yelled out hellos as we passed them. We were sort of surprised by the amount of attention we got, which was quite unusual compared to other Indian cities we had visited. Other than the heat, we had quite a perfect day, ending with a bowl of kulfi-falooda, a local specialty. Kulfi-falooda is ice cream (kulfi) covered in orange vermicelli noodles (falooda). Actually I'm not sure what the final verdict was on this dessert, but the four of us seemed to agree on our love for Lucknow.

To Kolkata on the Maitree Express

We had a whirlwind trip back to Dhaka. Two things happened to cause this:
1) We missed the train
2) We boarded the bus with no money left
How we got into this situation was a series of bad luck and possibly bad decisions.

We arrived in Chittagong on a Friday evening, expecting to buy train tickets to Dhaka on the night train leaving the same day. There were no tickets left in any class, on any train to Dhaka until Sunday. We didn't want to wait until Sunday, we didn't want to take a night bus, so we spent a night in Chittagong with the intention of leaving early the next morning on an express bus to Dhaka.

That evening we forgot to go to an ATM to withdraw money, by the time we realised it, the banks were closed. Luckily we knew of an ATM in the train station, we would head there the next morning and find it to be out of order.

We had just enough money to buy bus tickets to Dhaka and have a few hundred Takas left. Then we got a little bit risky: we decided to make a stop half way to Dhaka to visit Buddhist ruins. We would need enough money to hire a taxi to and from the ruins and get back on a bus to Dhaka. We quickly did the math and it seemed like we would make it, just. Everything was going according to plan, we got off in Mainimati and hired a taxi to the site of the ruins. When we arrived we were made aware of the item we had left out of our calculations: admission cost. The cost of two tickets to see the ruins was more than what we had left in our pockets. In fact we were now doubting whether we could even afford the taxi back to the main highway.

Now, standing outside the gate to the ruins, we decided to meticulously break down the cost of getting back to Dhaka. Things weren't looking good, getting in to see the ruins was definitely a no-go. We made an attempt to have our secret stash of American money exchanged, but the rate we were offered was so ridiculous that we passed. In retrospect we probably should have just exchanged the money, but the ticket seller was being kind of an ass, so we didn't want to give him any money.

We concluded that we couldn't afford a taxi back to the highway, so we would have to walk. The rickshaw from the highway had taken quite a while, but our driver had gotten lost, so we thought it wouldn't be too bad. And our map showed the highway as being quite close, so we set off. After at least 30 minutes of walking we didn't seem to be anywhere near the highway, it appeared that the scale on our map was way way off. After more walking we flagged down a rickshaw and got him to drive us as far as 10 takas would take us. This left us with only another 20 minutes or so to the highway. From the side of the highway two business men helped us flag down a bus to Dhaka which somewhat stopped for us. We hopped onto it as it was still moving. Being a "local" bus, and not a fancy direct bus to Dhaka, we didn't have to pay much for the ride to Dhaka, we just had to stop every few minutes to pick up and drop people off. We ended up in Dhaka with about 300 takas, enough for 2 admission tickets to the Buddhist ruins.

In Dhaka, we booked tickets on the Maitree Express to Kolkata, the only Bangladesh-India train, reopened in 2008 after being out of service since partition. Even though it was slower than the bus, we wanted to take it. We had actually timed our departure from Bangladesh to make sure it fell on one of the 3 days a week on which the train ran. After a confusing discussion with the ticket salesmen we settled with "snigdha" class tickets:

"What do you mean what is snigdha class?
"Well, sir, would you be able to explain to us the difference between Seat Class, Snigdha Class and Chair Class?"
"Snigdha is Relax Class."
"Oooooh I see, Relax Class, we'll take two of those!"

The name Maitree Express is a bit of a misnomer. A more suitable name might be "the slowest possible way of getting to Kolkata from Dhaka other than walking". The train was almost empty, there were probably less than 50 passengers. But the train had the capacity for over 200, which meant that the break scheduled at the border had to be long enough to accommodate that many passport checks. The entire train was processed in less than 30 minutes, but we then had to wait about 2 hours in a stuffy waiting room in 40 degree weather. Which I suppose is better than waiting in a customs line for 2 hours in 40 degree weather. I don't think the train actually ever went much fast than 30km/h or so, but we had big reclining seats and air-conditioning (snigdha class = relax class), so other than the border crossing we were comfortable. We had reported at the train station in Dhaka at 8am and we didn't arrive in Kolkata until almost 10pm. The train station where we arrived did not even figure on any map of Kolkata, we exited the station to a dark empty parking lot. We had no idea how far we were from the city nor was there anyone in sight to help us. We eventually spotted a taxi that got us to our trusty hotel on Sudder St for a very reasonable price. We settled into our filthy, 200 rupee accommodation ready to tackle India for the second time.