Boy, it’s been a long time since I had a chance to write a post. Last time we talked, I had just explored the soft underbelly of late night Calcutta, at least the part of that underbelly owned by crazed taxi drivers named Manoj.
I survived, but barely.
Calcutta was a challenge for me. I languished 5 nights in the 233 Park Street Hotel, 4 of those fearing food due to the Community of Molecules that took up residence. However, on my last day there I managed to hire a driver and car to cart me around to see the place. I’m still not sure what to say about Calcutta. I did not feel good there. The poverty and urban decay got to me. I tried my hardest to get past it, to find the beauty that I want to believe exists every where. But …I just couldn’t find it there. Victoria Hall showed what the British could build back in the time of Queen Victoria.
Mother Teresa’s House inspired a sense of what’s possible. Watching people bathe and drink from the Hooghly River (a branch of the Ganges) reminded me of so many National Geographic stories. The green parks that housed many sports clubs, mostly cricket and football, gave the city a welcome respite from the dilapidated buildings, and desperation (at least as I projected it) of the people living on the streets. Every taxi ride required an intense negotiation (“you foreigner, you pay double!”, drivers actual demand after dismissing the legal meter reading). Few people I met spoke English well enough to get my basic intentions across. The two highlights of my stay in Calcutta was the hotel staff, and the visit to Mother Teresa’s House. So let’s talk about that one for a bit.
The place where Mother Teresa performed her near saint-gaining work sits on a busy congested street not far from my hotel at Park Circus. The day of my tour, we arrived at her main building, Mother Teresa House, at 12:15p, just in time to find out that it was closed from 12-3. My driver, the one who the hotel had said was a “good tour guide”, said he knew nothing about that. Still, I did get to sit in the room with Mother Teresa’s tomb, which gave me a chance to meditate on what I knew of her life and spirit just a couple feet from what remains of her. Encased in a solid white marble tomb.
I learned that she managed to create a world wide enterprise, with 517 missions in more than 100 countries (cite). I had no idea how entrepreneurial she and her organization was, ignorantly I thought her work was focused in Calcutta.
So, here’s a conundrum I have this journey: how to deal with beggars. One of the signs in Mother Teresa’s House asked that visitors NOT give money to the beggars who sat outside the door, showing you the way to the House’s door. Giving money to the beggars also created weird feelings for me. On the one hand, what was 50 cents or even, cumulatively over a hundred of them, $50 to me? On the other hand, I heard time and again how the young mother holding a crying baby at the window of my tuk tuk, beseeching me for just a few rupees, would not, in fact, get much of that money. She likely worked for someone who “ran beggars”, and took most of the money. And then the sign in Mother Teresa’s House advising me to NOT give money, for reasons not explained there. My life’s purpose is to relieve suffering and raise dignity, so I took that advice to mean that giving beggars money will not increase their dignity. Of course, not eating that day doesn’t either, so ….this remains a conundrum for me. My policy in the US is to give $1 and a genuine smile to pretty much anyone who asks for it, without wondering how they will use the money, just because I don’t like ignoring people in dire straits. And I don’t want to have to think through this every time! But in India, heeding Mother Teresa’s request, I just gave the smile. Still not sure what the right thing to do is.
I also liked the Indian Museum because of its extensive collection of old Buddhist statues and art. It also had an astonishing collection of stuffed animals (elephants, gorillas, tigers, lions, chimpanzees, etc.) all, it seems, collected by British explorers in the 19th century. Kind of creepy, actually. See my TripAdvisor review here.
One last note on Calcutta. I bought a SIM card for my phone here, but it never worked. Evidently, after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks the government passed laws requiring about as much vetting for a phone that the US requires for buying a gun. Background check, passport and visa check, and a 3 day wait. Well, for some reason, the guy that took my info at the store didn’t do it right, or at all, so my number never worked. I’ve grown accustomed to using GPS for navigating around new cities, so this kind of put a crimp in my game in Calcutta. And in Delhi too. After several (predictable) false starts in booking a room in Delhi, I found one that was willing to send me a driver. However, also predictable for India in general, they weren’t exactly speedy about arranging and getting back to me, so the end result was that I left Calcutta with no idea what awaited me in Delhi. All because I didn’t have a working SIM card. Sigh…
I’m glad I went to Calcutta, but I have no plans to return.
Here are some more pictures of my time in Kolkata: