Monday, March 22, 2010

Into India

Out of my hotel window at the Paramount Hotel
Me waiting at the train station...from Nepal to India

Kata and I stayed at the Paramount Hotel (a quite elegant hotel on a garbage strewn alleyway) in Calcutta -- which is known as Kolkata in India.
Our trip to New Market -- the shopping "mall" near our hotel -- was exhausting but interesting. To improve the ambience of the mall, the developers included a slaughterhouse and meat market attached to it. When you reached the shops adjacent to the meat market it was nearly impossible to breathe much less shop.
Women in Bondage at New Market, Kolkata, India.
Recycling Center in Kolkata
Had only read about pull rickshaws until Kolkata

Be Indian, Buy Indian
Beggar kids in Kolkata ...they are a fun bunch and we ended up joking around with them every time we were in New Market.
Adorable begger lady... later on I gave her a bracelet and she giggled at me whenever she saw me
Post -- Into India -- Feb 11, 2010 Exploring Transportation

I left Bhairahawa by bicycle rickshaw on February 8th and have been exploring Indian modes of transportation for the past three days. They still have people pulled rickshaws in Kolkata!! Have never seen them before... lots of them pulled around by muscular wirey little Indian guys.... must have muscles of steel!!

A quick review:

Day One

Bicycle rickshaw from Bhairahawa to Sunali (border of India ) 1 hr
Bus from Sunali to Gorakpur train station 2-3 hrs
Sitting in train station as featured attraction (only white person) 3 hrs
Overnight train from Gorakpur to Delhi 17 hrs

Highlights and Lowlights:

Loved the rickshaw ride... felt like a queen on my mobile throne because along my entire route people stopped whatever they were doing to stare and wave and yell “Hello!” or “Namaste!” I spent the hour smiling and waving and greeting them back.

Found out at the border town that Nepal can no longer be “Visa extension central” for tourists in India. Until recently could exit India when your Visa expired, run up to Nepal and get a new one, and return to India the same day. Now, if you exit India you have to stay out two months before returning. This is causing a GREAT STIR amongst travelers who have actually been living in India (some for years!) and getting their Visas extended as needed... they have houses and businesses in India... and now it seems they are going to have to stay away for two months each time their Visas expire.... saga to be continued.

Gorakpur train station is not the best place to hang out for three hours (especially when moving around requires lugging my backpack, etc. around). No place to sit for first hour so squatted on metal support for sign. The place was teeming with (very colorful and diverse!) humanity (as well as dogs and one cow that lazily wandered through the gate munching on garbage). I was marveling at the craziness of the place when I heard a voice calling “Hello! Hello! Remember me??” Sitting a short distance from me was a girl with her mother and grandmother. The girl looked slightly familiar (MOST people look slightly familiar... I’ve met soooo many!) She proceeds to tell me that she knows me from when I visited Pokura last year for my Himalayan trek... “in Lakeside, remember??” To make things even stranger, she tells me her husband is a French paraglider teacher... I asked if she knows Daphne (Irish volunteer that loves to paraglide)... she tells me she and her small daughter are close friends with Daphne and, in fact, Daphne had told me about this woman and her daughter!! Small world......

Pahar Ganj is always an experience but after a heavy rain it is incredible.... located close to the train station Pahar Ganj attracts lots of travelers to its narrow, winding streets (on which you can buy most anything from souvenirs to necessities to illegal substances). After a rain (and helped along by the road construction they are currently doing) the streets become muddy, slippery swamps. I checked into the Metropolis Hotel (verrrrrry upscale for my usual lodging as I’m meeting Kata, a first-timer in India from Hungary) and immediately headed for FOOD (I was famished! Had eaten very little in last 24 hours). Walk into the restaurant and order only to have the waiter say, “I remember you from last time you are here!” (TWO YEARS AGO! Incredible! Although I DID remember him because he was such a sweet and adorable waiter).

Since Kata hadn’t seen India at all yet (she arrived at 3 am or so), we spent the day wandering the muddy streets, shopping in and small shops, haggling and joking around with the shopkeepers and having an absolutely delightful time! (India hint number one: KEEP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR and when in doubt, LAUGH!)

And then, small world event #3, I hear “Hello, Carol! Remember me from Kashmir??” I turn to find one of our stoner shukura (gondolin) drivers from Lake Dal ... the one I called “Baseball Cap” who sold snacks out of his boat. Turns out he now has a small shop in Parj Gangh (which he showed us)... invited us to come back later to relax but time slipped away and we didn’t make it back. Next time.

Day Two:

Taxi ride to airport at 7 am (before even the chai shops open) 1 hour
Wait in airport (NEW domestic airport... impressive!!!) 1 hour or so
Indigo Air flight to Kolkata (what we call Calcutta) 2 hours
Taxi ride to hotel 2 hours
Walk to “New Market” area for food and shopping Minutes

Highlights and Lowlights:

Taxi ride .... The taxi ride was definitely the lowlight of the day (although “New Market” and the “meat market” were definite runners-up!”) “Fixed Fare” cabs cost 370 rupees... so we had some guy offer us a “deal” of two for 300 rs.... except when we got to our bargain cab, there were two other passengers already in the cab (who had EACH paid 350 rs each... so I guess we did the best bargaining of the lot!) The guy explained that they were paying more because their hotels were further away and assured us it was “natural” to load four of us in the cab (yeah, normal for HIM who’s making 1000 rs on a 370 rs ride!).

Long story, short. The cabbie dropped the first guy off after about an hour at his hotel. Then he proceeded to stop at numerous other hotels trying to find a place for the second guy (at a hotel, of course, that would give the cabbie a kickback... “just 5 minutes, just 5 minutes!”) This went on for more than 30 minutes until Kata finally told the guy just to stay at the same hotel we’re staying at for 400 rs a night (Hotel Paramount, 33/4 Free School St, Kolkata 2229-0066... REALLY basic --bucket bath, no hot water, fairly frayed around the edges, but with TV! quite a few others nearby with hot water etc for 700 rs or so) Our cab mate agreed and we ended our taxi journey after two hours on the road. And then, of course, the cabbie insisted that I give him “a tip to feed his child”.... no... didn’t happen.

New Market ....Again, we were STARVING by the time we got there, so headed out to a local restaurant recommended by our hotel guy... it was delicious... and on to New Market -- a fairly new looking huge 3-story building jam-packed full of stalls with vendors hawking wares of every shape or form. Now, in some circumstances one might consider this bliss; but when you’re the only two white people there (and seem to have $$ signs flashing on your foreheads!) it’s a nightmare.

We had somehow picked up a “personal shopper” at the mall’s entrance who so kindly showed us to all the shops that gave HIM kickbacks (who evaporated into thin air after Kata tried on numerous shirts at one of his favorite booths but didn’t buy anything -- because the prices were exorbitant!!) We were also shadowed by a mother and baby beggar team asking for milk money, a deaf kid that seemed happy to show us around everywhere and wasn’t too push because he couldn’t talk (and didn’t seem to know sign language), and a young girl selling hairbands (not sure WHAT her gig was). Walking through the mall was like walking down a narrow alley at a county fair on crack with both sides being manned by hyped-up carneys desperate for their next score. Funny for awhile; nerve-wracking thereafter (and keep in mind, this is only Kata’s second day EVER in India.... freak-out time!)

The mall was divided in two... one side retail goods, the other a meat market/slaughterhouse. The meat market was pretty much done for the day, but I wandered in to take some bloody photos (meat markets being among my personal favorites for photos) and did so until my battery went out. By which time we were both exhausted and wanted to go to our hotel, but we had to: first, find the WAY out (dragging our mother and child, deaf kid, and hairband girl with us)... second, get past the carneys on crack trying to sell us “best quality pashminas of every color,” “top quality silver and gems,” and other indispensables (such as flutes, woven shopping bags, egg white whippers, etc, etc)... We managed eventually and headed to the nearest beer shop.

Beer Shop.... Buying alcohol in India is very odd in some places. Sometime you simply walk into a store and buy your beer or whatever. Other times, however, you must go to the “lock up” wine shop. These stores have a small entry area that is barred off like a PRISON from the sales area where the alcohol resides. There is a small hole through which you order and pass your rupees and, moments later, receive your change and bottles wrapped in newspaper. The country is teeming with closet drinkers who slink into the lock-up shops to make their furtive high-proof purchases.

We, of course, had the lock-up guys laughing and loving us by the time we purchased our vodka (first trip to window) and beer (second trip to the window within two minutes... we told them we had already finished the vodka and now needed beer...)

Hotel Home Returned to our hovel hotel, drank our beer, met artist Ondi from New York, and went to bed (I watched a National Geographic special about the horrible diseases of India... not a good idea! and a BBC special about a girl that got thrown in an Indian prison for smuggling drugs... another not-so-good viewing choice!)

Day Three

Taxi ride to train station 30 minutes
Wait at train station 2 hours
Train ride from Kolkatta to Shantiniketan (Shawn-teeny-kitten) 2 1/2 hours
Bicycle rickshaw ride train station to school campus 15 minutes
Bicycle rickshaw ride campus to well hidden Chinese (heavily-
influenced by Indian) restaurant 15 minutes
Long lunch of chowmein and noodle soup and Manchurian something 2 hours
Bicycle rickshaw ride back to our room (in “visiting faculty” room --
sleeps three.... my poor friends will have to put up with my
snoring.... but all have to contend with the voracious mosquitos) 15 minutes

Highlights and Lowlights

Lodgings Kata, Ondi and I are in the special triple room (as compared with the dormitory)... three beds with hole-y mosquito nets (and these mosquitos mean business!.... my legs are already bitten and itchy!!) Squat toilet, can carry hot buckets up from downstairs, no towels, no toilet paper (and we forgot to buy some... so depending on small packs of Kleenex from home)

Town Walked into town... met an amazing man that makes musical instruments... tiny single-stringed banjos from coconuts, drums, and guitars. He performed while we watched and shot video and photos and danced a bit... until the crowd of locals got too large to be comfortable any longer.... moved on to.... chapati man!

Chapati man ran a small restaurant and sat and made chapati after chapati after chapati while an ancient man made chai for the customers and another man served the food. The chapatis were delicious and the potato-y food they served to eat with it scrumptious! Lovely time making friends and shooting photos.... and then on to.... boob man!

We got some cough medicine, mosquito coils and I found the coolest batik hankerchiefs... while I was there, Kata looked at some shirts at the stall across the road...and while the young shopkeeper was showing her the shirts, he grabbed her boob! Now, what was he thinking!?!? She probably would have bought the shirt... instead he got a good slap and lost a customer! Sexual repression is a serious problem here if people are sacrificing their livelihood to squeeze a stranger’s boob! Freaked Kata out, of course... (although I had warned her that some of the young girls had had guys grope them with some regularity) ... never a good thing to be accosted by strangers!

Returned “home” to find a few artists had arrived (including Marisa, a lovely fun lady from Argentina/London, that I know from Bodh Gaya and her daughter).... will catch up with their details tomorrow.

Till then.... gotta go escape the mosquitos as best I can... I’m currently sitting out in the hallway using my computer while it’s charging, my FLIP video charging via my computer, and my camera battery charging. Thought my phone was broken but took the battery out and put back in to resuscitate it.... thought my FLIP was broken but the NEW batteries I bought are defective.... thought my camera batteries were ruined but I think the electric current in Kolkata was weak... I’m turning into a regular techno-whiz here!!

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