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:
(This one comes mostly written, because taking pictures during the following drama took a backseat to getting through it. I think you’ll understand. I have, however, stolen some shots from various sources that mostly accurately depict my experience.)
The 14-hour move from my room in Bali to my room in Kolkata was one of those adventures that I will recount to my grandchildren some day, with boring smugness, as I bounce them on my knee.
Setting the scene: I’m in Bali, which – despite my first post – has a LOT of appeal. Friendly, beautiful, easy-going, clean air, and if you look for it, the kind of paradise you have in mind. Before that I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 2 months, which had similar qualities other than proximity to an ocean. In fact, my last 4+ months in SE Asia have been, in retrospect, very relaxing.
As I looked toward India, I sensed something different was on the horizon, and honestly, I am dubious about this next leg, from a “relaxation” point of view.
Tuesday, Feb. 14, Valentines Day and my Dad’s birthday (Happy Birthday again, Dad!), Marlen, my Bali innkeeper, offers to take me to the airport and everything goes well.
(As an aside, I enjoyed the entertainment of being in the passenger seat with Marlen. She drives between 8 and 18 mph, bursting ahead then braking and wobbling randomly, so watching the reactions of drivers around her is worth the price of admission).
I get to the airport early, check-in goes smoothly, I get my emergency row window seat, and it turns out I’m the only person in that row. Plane leaves on time and flies through fluffy white South Pacific clouds with mysterious green islands below. I’m feeling content.
Arrive in Kuala Lumpur, easy. Long-5 hour layover. Strange that they have NO power plugs available in the airport, this being the age of electronic devices with meh batteries. But I find an unused plug in a booth for a future ATM machine, and plug in.
(Another aside, an alarming portion of my meager luggage is allotted to electronics. I have chargers, adapters, USB cords for every situation. This provides an opportunity to be neighborly when a fellow traveler, a man traveling with his little daughter and wife, gazed covetously at my set up. His iPad was dead and he needed to power it up just enough to make an important phone call at his destination. So I rummage through my bag of accessories and pull out the right assortment to let him power up in the plug next to mine. We ended up having a fun conversation about family, work, and travel. He was Pakistani, his wife was English and converted to Islam, and they were living in Adelaide, Australia. I just think it’s cool how easy it is to connect with people of such diversity, and all while we’re waiting for 21st technology to power up, sitting on the floor of a distant airport.)
Anyway, back to the story, which is taking a long time to get to…. So I eat dinner, ordering the dish in which I recognized the most ingredients. It’s the only restaurant in this international terminal, which is odd, but the dish was tasty. However, lurking in that bowl of curried chicken, tofu, noodles and whatever else was a sinister Molecule, or perhaps a whole community of them, just waiting to get to work.
As we prepare to board the flight to Kolkata (“Calcutta” is SO colonial, don’t you think?), I sense a change in the air. An intensity, a competitiveness, as everyone starts to crowd the front of the gate, elbowing each other for position. The Malaysian counter clerk, clearly used to this, says in a very loud and authoritative voice, “You must move back behind that line. You will not get on the airplane until you do.” She said this no less than 8 times. I counted, but I might have missed a few as I was getting jostled as people tried to appear like they were accommodating her, but decidedly not giving up position. I, for my part, had been told by this very counter clerk to stand near the front since I was boarding first, given my emergency row seating assignment.
My sense of dark foreboding grew.
The flight itself was okay: 4 hours, mostly I slept. But there WAS one thing that rankled. – by itself, no big deal, but things were starting to accumulate. India is 13.5 hours ahead of San Francisco time. That .5 gave a slight nudge to my already increasing sense of impending disorder. So when they announced the time in India, it was… odd. Meanwhile, about halfway through the flight, I noticed ominous gastroenterological rumblings. The community of Molecules from dinner was starting to make its move.
We land, on time. For this second flight, I’m in the aisle seat and as soon as we land, the guy next to me – who held quarter for neither personal space nor deodorant – jumps up and pushes over me. The woman in front of me blocks me by putting her arm over my seat, apparently to clear a space for her husband to get out, which was totally unnecessary; no one was going anywhere until the doors opened. Furthering the slow demise of my usual Zen-like composure: the Molecules are in full operation now. It was just a matter of time….
We get off the plane, and I make my way to the Visa Upon Arrival station. I’m expecting no problems, I have the confirmation email on my phone, ready to show to the nice friendly welcoming man behind the counter. Except he’s not nice, friendly, or welcoming. He’s surly and judgmental. He wants that email printed on paper. I have no printer with me and, spewing disgust, he barks, “We have no printer here, stand over there!” Well, I would have, except the Molecules have other ideas. I excuse myself.
When I return, he resumes his reproach but also produces a blank sheet of paper, and asks me to write all my information from my email on this piece of paper. Fine. I do it and take it back to him. He grudgingly looks at it all and then his face lights up with fresh indignation: “You have not put your exit flight down!” Well, I hadn’t booked it yet, and told him so. “What? Why not? You need to have an exit flight!” Me: “Well, I don’t. Because I’m not sure where I’m going after India. So what can we do about that??” (The grasp on my Zen-like composure was growing ever more tenuous at this point. I WILL own that those are the rules, that I should have printed the email, and that I was supposed to have an exit flight, but….I didn’t. I just didn’t. (I wasn’t worried, though. I’ve been traveling enough to know when certain rules are unnecessary to follow; it just takes some resolve to push back against the bureaucracy! And so I pushed.)
He eventually stamps my Visa in my passport, and says “You have to leave by March 9! Welcome to India!” THEN he smiles. I thank him obsequiously, thinking only of getting back to my new favorite place in India, the second booth on the right in the men’s room.
Once I have my Visa stamped, the rest of the immigration process is easy. In fact, no one wanted to talk to me. “Why are you here? You HAVE a Visa!” Fine. I move on. Thanks for the warm reception.
Now, when I began this journey, I realized that landing in a strange country alone would not be ideal. I’m a social guy, and probably not the smartest traveler (too naïve, I suppose), and I get lonely. So I’ve mostly been able to arrange for someone to pick me up at each new airport. Usually that’s someone from the nonprofit I’m going to be working with, but, as with Bali, even just a trusted taxi driver holding a sign with my name on it makes me feel better. I tried to do that here in Kolkata, but it kind of fell apart. The Executive Director of the nonprofit I was going to work with emailed me shortly before I left Bali – after I’d booked everything – that she had to go to New Delhi and couldn’t meet with me. At all. I did get a recommendation for an area of Kolkata to get a hotel, so I checked TripAdvisor and got one. And I asked the hotel to send someone, or at least arrange for a taxi driver to show up with a sign with my name on it. I WAS arriving at 1am, after all.
Well, all of that fell through, so I end up coming out of the airport terminal, at 1am, in Kolkata, with no one to meet me. In my pocket I have a credit card, an ATM card, and about $80 in Indonesian rupiah. I see an open currency exchange window and hand over my rupiah. He shoves it back and barks, “We don’t take rupiah.” (Tip to you travelers: Always carry $50-$100 US currency for emergencies!) I find myself starting to explain to him that the rupiah is a legitimate foreign currency, and that the Indonesian currency crisis of 1997 is WAY behind us, and then realize that he just… doesn’t… care. Fine, where’s the ATM? “Over thatttaway.”
Let’s review: It’s 1:30am on a Saturday night in the Kolkata airport, a surreal empty cavernous place with eery, low fluorescent lighting. I sat 4 hours next to a stinky man slumping on my seat as he slept, I’ve been gruffly “welcomed” into the country, I’m all alone, I have no local currency, and I’m exhausted. I have a community of malevolent Molecules in full production mode wreaking havoc in my gut. And now I’m facing the increasingly daunting task of getting to a hotel that I have never seen, in some random part of a city I don’t know. Still, I’m breathing, so I smile to myself and think, “Remember, you PLANNED all this. Man up!”
I spot the “PrePaid Taxi” stand, which is also the Kolkata police booth, and I ask if I can use my credit card to pay the fare. Nope, of course not. Only cash. Right. I trudge over to the ATM. Well, at least I’ll have cash soon, I think. Card in, run through the routine, paper spits out, “Can’t complete transaction.” I try again. Same thing. I try twice more, same thing. Grrr…. I step out and I see only one other ATM, outside the terminal, across the dark street, through a group of at least 40 shadowy men standing around. Sigh…. I head out, dodge the chaotic traffic at the pick-up lane, and with full pack on my back, and defense abilities down to 10 points, I make my way through this throng of sullen-looking men. I think they were taxi drivers waiting, but still, dark thoughts surged through my tired brain. I step into the ATM and shove in my card. Run through the routine, paper spits out, “Can’t complete transaction.” I try again. Same thing. I try twice more, same thing. GRRR.
I step back out into the chaos. No other ATM in sight. So I go back to the terminal and am told by a very edgy military type, “You can’t go in there!!!!” This is not regular security, this guy has a machine gun, so I decide to not argue with him. Without smiling he ushers me rather forcefully out back into the dark night. Sigh…. Then, random guy – the first nice one I’ve met – tells me to go down to door 3C to get back in.
At this point, I have no money. No way of getting money. And no way of getting to my hotel. And of course the Molecules were happily making themselves home in my gut, with my favorite place in India unreachable. Things are looking not too good.
A solution existed, I just hadn’t found it yet. I mean, it was inconceivable to me that I was stuck in this airport like some Tom Hanks character. Thinking maybe I could do some bartering with the PrePaid taxi clerk (the fare was only $2.50), I start to go back into the terminal, and more military types stop me. Where’s my ticket? Well, of course, I don’t have one. I start to explain myself to the man with the machine gun, getting a little more didn’t go anywhere, but a man, Manoj it turns out, overhears me. “I’m a taxi driver, I’ll take you.”
Now, I’ve read all about opportunistic, smiley “taxi drivers,” and my antennae were in full buzz. I step away from the men with machine guns and approach this man. “You’re a taxi driver?” “Yes!” “You have a real taxi car that you use for the PrePaid Taxi service?” “Yes!” “I don’t have money, but I can get money at the hotel I’m going to.” “Okay!”
The only reason I go through with this, through the throng of shadowy sullen men, into an equally shadowy sullen parking structure, popping along like the naïve relatively rich (but cash poor!) big white foreigner that I am, was that I had seen him go up to the PrePaid Taxi window, where the drivers go to turn in their receipts for fares just completed. This is how they get paid. Customer pays the service money and gets back a receipt with the taxi number on it. Taxi driver delivers customer and customer gives this receipt to driver, who then exchanges it with the service for cash. I like this system, and the fact that I had just seen him do this gave me just enough confidence to follow him out into the dark. His motivation was twofold: He could negotiate a bigger fare than he’d get with the PrePaid service, and he didn’t have to wait with the throng of shadowy men for his turn for a fare, which might not come for hours. I decide to use this leverage to my advantage, and it sort of worked. We finally get to his car and am relieved to see it is a full-on metered taxi cab. Phew! Then I say, “OK, how much?” He says 600, I say 400 (which I knew was double the PrePaid fare he would have gotten). He says okay. Of course, halfway through the ride he says 200 more because it’s night or we stop here. Fine, whatever, 200 rupees is $3; I am NOT going to get myself abandoned in Kolkata, at 2am, with overzealous Molecules at work, over $3.
The ride was quite exciting! I had no idea a taxi could drive so fast, honk so incessantly, or veer around cars, trucks, dogs, beggars, and trash with such nimbleness! After the third red light he blasts through, I ask, “Don’t you have to pay attention to red lights?” He laughs, “What red lights?” Check mate. With such powers of denial, life would be much easier. I search for my seat belt. No seat belt.
After about 20 minutes of driving to a hotel neither he nor I know the precise location of, we show up in “Park Circus,” which is where it is supposed to be. The directions the hotel gave me didn’t mean much to Manoj, so we start going back and forth across and against traffic, and as we pull over to think about it, we stop right in front of the hotel. I blink at the good fortune, not sure what to make of it. We pile out of the car – leaving it illegally parked, of course – and the nice man at the hotel check-in counter says, “Yes, we’ve been expecting you, but no, we have no cash for you.” Taxi driver Manoj looks at me. I look at him. Awkward silence ensues.
Well, I decide, let’s go find an ATM! Manoj is up for the hunt, so we pile back into the taxi and start driving around Kolkata at 2:30am looking for an ATM. Now ATMs in Kolkata are not the same as ATMs in the US. They are hidden, they are often in very dark corners of random buildings, they work maybe sometimes (evidence: airport ATMs), and they are fickle. By fickle I mean they each have different limits and they each hand out cash in different denominations.
It takes us 15 minutes and 5 ATMs to get 1000 rupees. His fare was 600. So we drive on back to the hotel, and I ask the hotel clerk for change. He says, “No problem!” and pulls out a wad of cash. This, the same hotel clerk who 15 minutes earlier said they had no cash. Hmmm…. I pay Manoj, and I even toss in an extra 100 rupees ($1.50) for driving me on spec and showing me such a good time.
Manoj takes off. I’m shown my room (which is fine). And… I eye the bathroom.
Welcome to Kolkata!
Update: To show you how far my brain had shut down through all this, I found $50 US in my pocket after all of this was over.