Come swim in the sea of humanity

Trip Start Aug 21, 2004
Trip End Mar 03, 2005

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Flag of India  ,
Monday, December 6, 2004

It's all about how you wear your smile. Disregard the stories you hear. Forget what you have read. The way you wear that smile (if you've got one at all) will determine the outcome of all your encounters. Long before I came to India, I decided that it would be an amazing experience AND that I would have a great time. Since I made that decision long before I got here, I knew that any obstacles that I might encounter as I travel I'd fully equipped to deal with. The warmth and genuine interest of humanity has presented itself full force, and I feel lucky to swim in the current. It's actually a difficult feeling to explain; yes, of course, there are people here who want to rip you off (if you let them) but the whole of the population is real with their intent (good or bad) and friendliness. I only experienced a similar motivation-free interest when I was in Cambodia and a few smaller villages elsewhere in S.E. Asia. It's intoxicating to feel this warmth from so many people. I walk down the street just beaming, and people smile back when I say hello or simply nod their head. All this stress and weight I felt after traveling in S.E. Asia (and worrying about India) is melting. I feel that passionate enthusiasm to explore my environment, and learn. I guess I hardened my heart a bit, and was expecting the worse from the touts or whoever, when I arrived here. Simply saying "no" and walking away has proved to be an effective method so far. Here's highlights of an encounter to give you an example:

Upon arrival to the airport, I buy a ticket from the prepaid taxi booth to reach Sudder St., the Backpacker's hub. The ticket clearly states, "pay no more". As soon as I walk out of the airport, a guy grabs my ticket and walks me over to a line of taxis. Here's what happened next.

Tout 1 "Hello Mister, I'll take you to the Princess Hotel, good value".
Ari"Oh, No. I have to meet my girlfriend at Hotel Maria. She's waiting for me."
Tout 1"Oh, your girlfriend! Is she a real beauty?"
Ari"Yes, she's gorgeous, and she'll kill me if I'm late!"
Taxi Driver"Ok. Hotel Maria, but it'll cost 50 rupees extra because of the traffic jams".
Ari Silent.

So we drove for over 45 minutes, and I'm thinking,
"I'm not gonna pay him a single extra rupee. I know he's trying to rip me off." After almost an hour, I started thinking,
"This sure is taking forever. How would a few extra rupees hurt me?" No, but it's a matter of principle! If I let him get away with it, everyone will!" So this debate went on in my head for a while. When we actually got to the hotel, I simply walked out of the cab and said thank you. That was a lot easier then I thought it would be!

An initial impression of Kolkata (and India) is hard to give. Since I arrived just after sunset, the city was covered with a thick haze of pollution. Buildings everywhere were crumbling, and the streets were just packed with traffic. Gone are the S.E. Asia ways of the motorbike; here the automobile reigns. Most of the taxis are Ambassador Classics, and since I know nothing about cars, my guess would be that a lot of them are at least 50 years old. Kolkata does have a metro system, but I didn't have a chance to use it. At night, the city was dark and full of shadows, much like how I'd imagine San Francisco in the 1940's or London at the turn of the 20th century. (I guess that analogy in my head will do you no good) By day, Kolkata is a much different organism.

After several cups of Chai and a hearty Bengali breakfast, I headed to the railway tourist booking office. There are tourist quotas on all trains in India, and in Kolkata the quota is 6 foreigners per train. Needless to say, it can be hard to get a ticket, but I was lucky and only had to spend one extra day here. Kolkata is not a bad place to get "stuck" either. It is India's second largest city and (for me) seems to be a great place to acclimate to Indian culture. I've given up on trying to learn much of the language. (aside from the mandatory Hello & thank you) That's because each state in India has it's own language, and there are over a dozen states, so unless I was staying put in say West Bengal, Gujarat or Rajasthan for more than week, it would be rather pointless. Aside from English, the Indian currency, the rupee, has fifteenother scripts on it! So English is the second language throughout India, and more people speak it here then anywhere I've been in S.E. Asia. (and speak it well, too!) Another breath of relief for me is the lack of a "backpacker scene". In Thailand, especially Bangkok, the backpackers dress alike, eat alike, and pretty much do the same things. It's very much a hive mentality, and they all wear those stupid looking Thai Fisherman pants! Yes, I know they're comfortable, but they don't look good on anyone expect maybe 2 people out of the thousands that wear them. In India, the handful of westerners that I've met either dress like they would at home, or dress like Indians. (Mainly girls wearing Saris) Most importantly, there is just a different mindset among the travelers I've met here. I had a discussion somewhere in Thailand about which country has the "most traveled" populous, and I said it was probably Israel. The Israeli's just hit the world head on after they complete their army service. Someone else said it was the Japanese, which surprised me because I saw very few Japanese backpackers. Apparently, when Josh left for Japan, they sent all their backpackers to India! There are more Japanese in Kolkata than any other foreign nationality. I even ran into a Japanese guy I met in a market in Northern Laos!

I slept like a rock the first night here; all this weight I had held in my head floated away and I rested like I hadn't for weeks. I met Gwil & Natasha at the railway office and then again on Sudder St. Since the three of us had the same agenda for the day, we walked up Chowringee Road towards the Hooley river. We spent the afternoon wandering along the different ghats. A Ghat is basically a set of stairs that leads to the water. All the bathing, washing of clothes, food and animals, and general bathroom activities take place at the various ghats. The first ghat we approached had a strong smell of human feces and it was pretty amazing to see people scavenging through the piles of refuse and crap looking for anything of value. Somewhere near the burning ghat (where the bodies are cremated) we took pictures of these kids who just flipped out when we showed them the images on the LCD of our cameras. A large number of "grown-ups" gathered further up the steps to see what all the commotion was about, but didn't really say anything. We were all curious about the burning Ghat, and as we walked by, a gentleman started to explain what was going on and told us we could come in. Unfortunately, some rather crazed guy wouldn't shut up as this man was trying to explain things to me, and a crowd started to gather, and we thought it would be best to leave since we were in the presence of grieving families and dead bodies. Yes, I did see my first dead body ever, an elderly woman, who looked to be resting quite peacefully. She was on a small platform of sorts, decorated with thousands of marigolds and other flowers and surrounded by her family. It was only a glimpse that I caught, and I didn't dare try to snap any pics. I will definitely find the burning ghats when I get to Varanasi. After a day wandering the streets of Kolkata, we had a sumptuous meal near Sudder St. and I retired to bed early (again). I've spent the early part of today looking for some warmer clothes, and just absorbing the images, sounds and smells of the city. Tonight I'll board a sleeper train for Varanasi, India's holy city.
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