After the mini drama at immigration, the rest of the flight went well. The flight out to Dubai was an interesting one. Upon notifying the airline steward that my tv wasn’t working, I was moved to a new seat where I could watch one of the many films that I have missed at the cinema and been looking forwards to catching up with. However, whilst my new seat had a working screen, it also had a very talkative 82 year old, who didn’t stop talking for four hours. He was a fascinating guy though, who continued the Cold War theme of late, having been a V bomber pilot. He took great pride every ten minutes of showing me on the map where he had been stationed and the many stories which came with them!
After a stop in Dubai, I then headed towards Kolkata. Arriving after only an hours sleep was not ideal, but the e-visa system was surprisingly simple and in under an hour I was in a taxi with Jan, a screen writer from the Czech Republic, heading towards the centre of the city. It took over an hour to get to the backpacker hub for under three pounds. Life just got cheaper.
Kolkata mostly lived up to expectations. Its roads are clogged, with a total absence of any rules and as for the horns – well I had been waiting for them since leaving Addis, but upon hearing that unrelenting noise again, I quickly got a headache. Then there’s the air pollution. I doubt they see the sun in Kolkata. You see the pollution in the air and feel it in your lungs. It’s also true about how overpopulated it is. There is nowhere where you can be alone. There are people everywhere. The very rich walking alongside the very poor.
The caste system is also fully operational. I had a similar reaction to seeing some of the nomadic tribes in the Danakil region of Ethiopia as I did seeing the tana rickshaws. Although illegal everywhere in India, there are still men, with no shoes and consisting purely of skin and bone pulling people around on carts. Apparently some have been allowed to continue, because its all they’ve ever known. At night many sleep under their carts. Its incredibly sad that families have been unable to escape this life due to the lottery of birth.
One thing that did surprise me, however, was the total lack of hassle. India was full of it on my last trip and after Ethiopia I was looking to see how they would match up. But Kolkata was relatively relaxed on that front, even if the rest of the city is as mad as anything on every other category.
My accommodation was particularly fantastic. For two pounds I had a large room with two beds. What a deal I thought. That was until I picked up the smell just before going bed and then tracked what street my room backed onto. I didn’t like what I identified. The streets communal toilets were about ten metres away. Walking to and from my hostel, I had to hold my breath and there I was now having to sleep in the vicinity of it. I like to think of it as a welcome back note from India.
Kolkata is fundamentally a sight in itself. I walked the streets, sat and drank chai every few hours and ate at street stalls with dubious hygiene standards, all whilst watching the world go past. It was beautiful and yet an assault on every sense and a challenge to what I understand of common decency. I did, however, go to some sights.
The most notable being the Victoria memorial. Built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, it is a monster of indulgence and the absolute personification of colonial rule. Name any building in the world and it will give them a run for their money. I also, quite randomly, wandered past Kolkata’s horse racing course. With lots of people going in, I thought I’d have a look inside. Again, like much of the rest of Kolkata, it shows the signs of the empire everywhere you look. The grandstands are glorious. Unfortunately, all phones and cameras were banned so I can’t share any photos of them. As for the races? Well I was excited as I sat at the top of the stand with a thousand or so others, about to watch my first live horse race to find out that there was no race, but instead everyone had paid to watch the racing from Bangalore on the large screen, which is just behind the starting post. Thinking about it I suppose it’s logical as unlike in the UK, there are few betting shops. If you want to bet, I guess you go to the main place that allows it and that’s the race course! I left after one race, with the meet in disarray as the horse who everyone thought had won ended up being called as second.
I left after a couple of days. Although, there was more I wanted to see, the idea of mountain air got the better of me. I decided on the bus and was relieved to be back in the Indian bus stations. A hive of activity, but also as friendly as anywhere can be. It was amazing watching men balancing sometimes as much as a bed on their heads and then climbing up onto the roof of double decker buses. Incredible.
When the bus finally did leave it bumped its way for twenty one hours along terrible roads before finally reaching Siliguri. I don’t know how it took so long. It should have been twelve hours but somewhere along the line it took a further nine. I must have slept well, because I didn’t notice to much of a hold up, other than the three hours getting out of Kolkata. By far the highlight of the journey was a man who turned round to me and said:
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“What is life?” he then said quite seriously.
The strange thing is he wasn’t the only one with such a question. An older man had earlier asked me after the where are you from question, ‘what do you think are the most important values in life?’
Both had me absolutely stumped and I relied upon every inch of my primary school training to turn the question on them instead – “What do you think?” and then nod in agreement at what they said. I love that wonderful formality to the Indian people. It never helps but raise a smile.
After a final three hour jeep journey, I arrived in Darjeeling, breathed, and collapsed in a heap.