Kolkata - the City of Joy, and it really was!
Nov 25th. Arrived in Kolkata around 9:30am. So funny, the train was supposed to get in around 7am according to the timetable, but as Mahindra told us, ever since he has taken it, the train has never arrived before 9am...sometimes as late as 11am! Aah... the Indian train system (actually it has never let me down to date, so i have no complaints!). In recent years in India, there has been a growing movement to revert away from colonialism towards state-specific independance, which has meant many cities are changing their names to their state language hence Kolkata is the new Bengali name for the city previously known as Calcutta!
Got into fab yellow cabs, reminiscent of NYC (sorta!) although these guys are all the traditional Ambassador make! Off to the Hotel Victerrace. First impression of this, our last city on our whistlestop tour of magical India, is - fabulous! For some reason (many residents of this splendid locale blame the film "The City of Joy"... with Patrick Swayze) Kolkata gets a bit of a bad rap. Also interesting how there are so many of these "public announcement" type signs everywhere, some of them feel good; but some of them with pretty startling statements e.g. Say no to child labour and yes to school!!! Walked around for ages trying to find the one that said "Infanticide is immoral"....seriously! But couldn't remember where I had seen it! So apart from the City of Joy thingy, not entirely sure why people are so hard on Kolkata, apart from those who say the constant influx of refugees here from other parts of the country increases the already large poverty problems this city faces. However, the locals like to think of themselves as the "intelligentsia of India. What Bengal (the state here) does today, India will do tomorrow". (again thanks to RG for this insight!).
Hotel was just dandy.... quick drop of the bags then a bunch of us headed off to the Indian Coffee House ('member I went to one of these in Bangalore!). Hilarious to read the description in our guides (lets just say they make it sound quite posh; then experience the reality).. hmmn a tad different shall we say, but had a great time all the same, and great chat! Oh dear... break up time is coming! We headed out for dinner at Peter Cat, a fab restaurant on Park Street (see how we know our way around already!). Lindsay and Ewan were heading off later that evening for their flight to London so there was a slight pall on the proceedings! There is definitely something about spending nearly three weeks with the same people.. ok, ok the word I'm looking for is not 'tension' hahaha, more like attachment! It's easy enough to become connected to people when you only spend a few days with them (or is that just me?), so you can imagine after three weeks living pretty much in each others pockets, its kind of sad to say goodbye to this bunch!
But, it had to be done, so after a fab evening, we headed back to the hotel lobby where we said our proverbial goodbyes - and had our team photo taken! Poor guy at reception had to take 11 different photos as we all passed him our cameras, one after another.. but he did a brillo job! So a fond and tearful farewell to Lindsay and Ewan. Tomorrow we would say more goodbyes as people headed off in new and different directions.. and then there was me, faffing around trying to decide my next port of call. I had thought about (aka talked up a good game!) staying in Calcutta to volunteer for a while. Ahem.. that was before i took my detour to Nepal and Tibet so i didn't have too much time left in India before heading off to Sri Lanka to meet up with my brother and his soon to be wifey, Ms Helen Patten! Soooo.. I would have to decide what i was up to over the next few days!
Nov 26th. Up early today to say our fond farewells to Mahindra, the worlds best tour guide! Such a sweet man; he taught us so much about his country. He was genuinely passionate about us understanding how and why they do things here the way they do, and really wanted us to get a taste of authentic India! I think I almost drove him mad over the last few weeks, asking question after question! Hey, I admit it! I am a complete travel geek! So when I quizzed him about issues surrounding the caste system, how women are treated, why certain customs are still undertaken today.. you know, general stuff like that - he was very patient and did his best to explain it to me! !! Helen and I had a wee cry as we said our goodbyes to him.. yup, we are pathetic! So what do girls do when they are feeling low - yup, you guessed it! Go shopping! You can always shop in India.. no matter where you are! After a potter, we decided to have a wee bitta culture so visited the Victoria Memorial, a beautiful marble building with formal gardens that everyone in Kolkata seemed to be enjoying! There were so many families there, picnicking and generally just hanging out (ok, not in this particular shot - round the back of the building, that's where the crowds were, trust me)! Afterwards, taking a taxi home, we saw these two boys hanging out after marching with their local band downtown! Do like this shot! Back to the hotel, then a bunch of us attempted to see a Bollywood movie! Ahh of course how silly are we! You dont show up 40 minutes early for a film in India. Uhhh try at least 1 1/2 to 2 hours early and you are lucky if you get a seat! Movies are magic in this country.. and Kolkata is no exception. So with no luck there, we decided it was time for Western food (only my 2nd time eating Western food for dinner since I arrived in Asia in June.. not bad eh!) and a slumber party, watching TV in Liv's room! As we waited for our order to arrive at Pizza Hut, a strange phenomenon unfolded in front of us. About six or seven of the staff began to line up, then music from a band called Blue? (no idea who they were!) blared from speakers around the restaurant, and then we were given an impromptu singing and dancing routine to the lyrics of this apparantly well known band (think they are British?). It was absolutely fantastic! The staff were totally into their routine - in fact they "gave it laldi" as we say in Scotland (110% for effort in the US ?)...This is truly one of the most interesting things about Indian culture. These people have absolutely no qualms about performing in public; you dont see any nerves or awkwardness, in fact they seem to thrive on it, but not in an overdone, false way. They just seem so delighted to sing and dance for an audience! Completely unabashed and delighted with themselves and their standing ovation (well, the four of us stood and clapped; some of the other diners must have seen it before and seemed more interested in their deep dish pepperoni pizza, but hey, what can you do!). Another fun evening!
Nov 27th. Can't find my notes on today for some reason (ok i hear the sighs of relief, thanks!) but know we visited the famous Kalighat temple in town, situated right next to Mother Teresa's home for the destitute and the dying. Mother Teresa specifically built this home here, the city's most important centre of Hinduism, in the knowledge that many of the poor specifically came to this temple to die. The temple itself was a hive of activity. Like most temples in India, you must take off your shoes (yes, there is always a wee man willing to look after them, for a price, for you!). For anyone who is in any way squeamish about where to put their feet (when you are not wearing shoes!), especially when you are shown the area where the sacrificial goats are killed, its a bit dodgy. But as everyone is in the same situation, what can you do! There are so many pilgrims here, you need to "ask/pay" for a volunteer holy man to show you around, and actually we were so happy to have him, otherwise we would have been squished to death!!! such were the frantic crowds, waiting to see the dramatic monolith of Kali, the black goddess and form of Shakti (the female principal of divinity). Lotsa good stuff about Shiva going into a frenzy after his wife Sati died, and Vishnu chopping the body into 51 bits but enough of that! The tour ended with us receiving yet another tikka and a red dyed bracelet tied around our wrists and the usual request for a donation to the temple, to help feed the poor. If you don't offer enough, the priest has no qualms about making you feel bad and how if you give more now, your next life will be oh, so much better! Needless to say, we were all wimps..! So yet another interesting day in this fair city!
Nov 28th. Ingrid left at 4am this morning (did i even wake up to say goodbye - how rude of me, i can't remember?). Helen and Liv were leaving this evening and most of the others had already gone, so i had one last night in the nice hotel, then i was heading over to Sudder Street tomorrow, also known as the skanky traveler section of town to hang out till i decided on my plans! Breakfast at Blue Sky Cafe (we were fast becoming regulars there.. then what to do girls do when they have eaten and shopped? Go for pedicures of course! Lets just say I had to double my poor mans fee for taking care of my paws after 9 months of walking around in grotty flip flops... he was a saint. I felt like something out of Lord of the Rings; he, however, made me (or at least my feet) look beautiful again!! Ahhh..soft feet! Afterwards we treated ourselves (haha do we ever do anything else?) to afternoon tea at Flurry's, a very posh and hip cafe-bakery where all the trendy Kolkatans come to hang out, drink tea and look good! Lets just say im a picky customer and my scone could have sunk a ship it was so bloomin' hard.. but then, my family are good ole sconemakers so its a hard act to follow! Back to the ranch.... couldnt believe i was saying goodbye to Helen (going back to England) and Liv (to Melbourne). My two wee pals, leaving me! Sad, sad stuff but had to be done, so packed them into a taxi, and headed back to what would be my last bedbug free night (yup, more on that later!).
Nov 29th - Dec 3rd. AAhhh... the joys of Kolkata! So many experiences as i whiled away my time here. Moved into my new abode, run by a lovely Sikh family. However, as I later realised, I would be sharing my attractive space with some mice, quite a few bedbugs and of course, the man next door, who seemed to cough up a lung every few hours, it wasn't the most salubrious of dwellings (but hey, I was only paying 100 rupees (about $2 a night so not allowed to complain, even tho' that's more than other travelers i met were paying - what!!!), so I counted the days before I could hightail it out of there to my last country on this world tour - Sri Lanka. Yup, I made my decison and its official! I am a loser! Just a big talker, that's me! Felt bad about not volunteering here I have to admit, especially having met so many incredible people who were doing it for up to a year; quite humbling actually as these folks were so inspiring yet very quiet about their work. I did have such high hopes. And I am being totally shallow i know. It is relly no excuse, but I'm kind of knackered, definitely running out of money and I'm almost at the point where im ready to go home! I suppose that is no surprise as ive been on the go for nearly 14 months (with a short stop back in Boston) but that's no excuse for my lack of good will towards others, so i do feel quite the bad samaritan here!
So, I spent my last few days getting to know Kolkata a little better. Being in the same place for a while, you get to recognise the regulars and they, you! So began hanging out with some street ladies a little, chatted to them most evenings for a wee while, then they realise you are a soft touch (I sound cynical here but its true!) and then managed to pull a fast one on me...more than once too (yes, Im useless!). They don't ask for money, just that you buy them rice and flour for their family instead. Made sense to me! But once you have bought the food, and say goodnight, they turn around and sell it back to the store keeper... at a discount to him, but still its cash to them. OK not so great but what can you do? These people still need money... but apparantly this little scam is quite the racket here, and only certain families are allowed to "do business" on this part of Sudder St. The women called out "sister, sister" every time they saw me, and said they would pray that i met a nice man on my travels. Hmmn, thanks for that, ladies!
Did some more exploring on these last days; St. Pauls Cathedral erected in 1847. Lovely building. Park Street aka the Scottish Cemetary - gorgeous place. A haven from the busyness of the streets; so quiet and lush and green, loved it here! Described as one of the city's most haunting memorials of its imperial past, it has a ton of obelisks, headstones and pavilions, dedicated to both well known figures as well as young women, who came here to be with their husbands and died very young. Also saw Indira Ghandi's statue, near the Maidens.
Met my pal, Shahil, a young lad with a smooth tongue, who invited me for chai, every day, when I passed his stall on Park Street, until I finally acquiesed (don't worry mum - he was about 12 and didn't seem like a serial killer)! What a giggle, as we sat talking, his two pals arrived and sat behind us, texting him on their mobile phones. I think they were all about 20 but as we chatted, Shahil decided (as he practised his English) to announce his undying love for me! I couldn't help it - I burst out laughing and said "ahem, thanks very much, and by the way, are they your pals sitting behind us?". After a bashful silence, Shahil turned around and gave his pals the look of death...then we all had a laugh about it and sipped some more chai together, chatting about life in India for young folks today!! Ahh.. to be young again! After we were chai-ed out, the boys very kindly walked me back to Sudder Street, afraid i wouldn't be ok walking around on my own (eh, thanks boys but I have managed so far!). But very gentlemanly of them, I have to say!
Love this Indian bag Helen bought when she was living and working in Kolkata before she started traveling around India! It was great to get her input on the best places to visit; she did a great job and was quite chuffed to show us around and of course we were delighted! One of the places I really wanted to see was Mother Teresa's "Mother House" so I headed out to go to mass one morning at 6am. Met and chatted to some lovely nuns and volunteers. There was a huge mix of people working at the mission; gulp, guilty feeling returned due to lack of volunteering effort! Returned to hotel (tad strong description for my wee room!) and chatted to owners about strike going on right now. Local farmers angry with TATA steel corporation taking over good agricultural land instead of buying up barren land to use for new factories. Ongoing fight in the Kolkata assembly erupted with desks and chairs thrown; the newspapers wrote about their disgust at the failure of parliament to come to an agreement on this and other current political problems in the province (yup, im reading the local papers!).
Finally got to a Bollywood movie -yah, Dhoom 2 the big blockbuster! As i waited to get in, a gentleman sitting with his family asked me "Excuse me, madam , could you tell me which fair country you are from?". That is the typical way most questions are phrased here - very polite. I explained I was from Scotland and enjoying my time in Kolkata. After looking very puzzled, he asked if i was going to see Dhoom 2. I replied, yes, i was very excited to see my two favourite Bollywood actors, Aishwarai and Abishek, in this new film! But after quizzing me and realising i knew it was a Hindi film and i didnt speak Hindi, he sat looking at me completely puzzled, then related the whole tale to his wife when she arrived with the rest of their family. I just smiled .. its not hard to understand a Bollywood blockbuster. You always get a little drama, lotsa action, and of course, full blown singing and dancing routines - and the odd bit of romance too! I loved it!!! Funny enough, I was the only Western person waiting to get into the movie! I was delighted - you gotta love being one of the locals!!!
Last day i pottered, had farewell chats over breakfast with Cyril (amazing Irish guy who works with the homeless in the city's train stations every day), Collum (also Irish, who works with the dying at Mother Teresa's in Kalighat), and Chris (Swiss-German who had previously worked with NGO's in Tanzania and Denmark before coming to Kolkata for a while). Hmmn... see why i feel such a heel! These people are truly incredible and inspiring. Also met up with Michelle and Leigh, two hilarious English girls who had been in India for 5 months and been seriously sick about 15 times. They couldn't wait to leave and definitely couldnt believe i had never been sick here (yup, the only person who comes to India and puts weight on - thats me!!!). Said my final thanks and got hugs from Sirikantin and Samsi, who have worked at the Blue Sky Cafe for years. Such sweet and lovely men, were very good to me, and definitely didnt look their ages - Samsi was 46, with three children, yet he didn't look a day over 26, I mean it (well, apart from his moustache of course)!!!
My flight was really early so I left my wee hotel at 3am... my last hurrah in this wonderful, magical, incredible country of India. This was the place I was most excited about visiting; in a way most nervous about too (before I came!). What I found when i arrived was so much beauty. From the incredible, wonderful, totally different landscapes, the south with its backwaters and tropical lands to the north and its dry deserts and mountains, i loved it all. And then there were the people; their friendliness, their curiosity and desire to find out everything about you, their need to practise their English, to share their passion and pride for their wonderful country with you and their desire to know if you love it as much as they do! The people of India could not have been kinder to me - I would like to think I could be half as hospitable to people visiting my hometown as these people were with me. I smiled from the minute I arrived to the day I left. Of course it goes without saying that there are also many, many reasons to cry at the poverty here, the street children born into awful, immeasurablely sad lives, the issues surrounding womens rights and the lack of opportunities for them, the caste system and its complicated unfairness. One cannot ignore these very difficult aspects of Indian society. But I have to speak with my heart and although there were times when it felt full of sadness, there were more times when the kindness of others brought the smile to my face! I truly love this country and know i will be back again..and again....and again!