taxi ride from airport
I arrived Friday at 9:00AM at Calcutta Int'l from Delhi
on a very enjoyable flight. Kingfisher Airlnes really goes the extra mile to take care of their passengers; delicious breakfast, attentive service (by gorgeous flight attendants) CNN, even a nice pen. I could've used that the other day when we were landing in Delhi and I was handed immigration and customs forms. Bringing a pen was one more small detail I didn't take care of. It was only a few minutes after landing that Christine and Katie, my two trusty tour guides, showed up. It wa so nice to see them. Their calmness with the chaos of Calcutta as our cab driver sped through the streets, five vehicles deep and bumper to bumper, reassured me that I was in good hands.
taxi from airport
Either that or I was going to die in a tragic accident because they were so oblivious to all the potential dangers. They seemed fine either way. My first day in Calcutta was spent taking care of housekeeping types of things: checking into my guest house, getting malaria medicine and a cell phone and learning my way around the area, each involving a story of its own. There are a regular cast of characters in our area, all trying to hawk their wares or scam us westerners. There's the flute guy who carries a satchel of bamboo flutes and playes jngle bells, the newpaper vendor who folds one newpaper into another and charges you for both. The ten year old boy with a name tag that reads, Hello Lassi. Lassi is a milk-yogurt type drink with a big dose of either salt or sugar mixed in.
taxi from airport
Everytime the girls or I walk by him we yell, Hello Lassi! and he runs up to shake our hands. He works at his family's smoothie stall and he's actually a fun kid who has befriended Christine and Katie during their time here. There's a sidewalk barber resting on his haunches as he cuts the hair of his customers while they sit on a box. Sometimes he provides a shave too. Then there's the grandmother holding a naked baby who begs you to buy her baby milk from the vendor she's standing near, only to then sell it right back to the vendor and splitting the take with him. And everyone and everything, including the dogs, are pink. Two days ago was Holi, a religious celebration where people throw handfuls or balloons filled with colored powder--pink, blue, or green--at each other, whether they want it or not.
the famous Hotel Maria
Unfortunately, even a religious festival has a dark side. Street vendors sell powder with very high levels of mercury and lead and several people died from toxic exposure. One 10 year old boy was even beaten and thrown into a bonfire when he lit it ahead of the scheduled time. My guest house, the Ashreen, is down a narrow alley that's flanked by street vendors selling fresh vegetables and fruits, clothes, tailor services, fruit drinks, and various sidewalk people like the barber, then off another even narrower alley. This city seems to be a maze of alleys that all look pretty much the same; strewn with garbage, piles of bricks everywhere, beggars, mothers giving their naked little boys a bath, men taking pail baths and brushing their teeth, and the constant rush of motor scooters, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, taxis, and bicycles just barely missing you as they speed by all honking their horns as a warning to move out of the way.
the outside of their cell
Admittedly, at first it can be unnerving walking even short distances because of the possibility of getting disoriented and lost. I think this amused Christine since I was never more than about 500 feet from her hotel, The Hotel Maria. Believe me when I tell you that the term "hotel" is used in only the loosest sense. Everyone stays in guest houses which are small hotels with about a dozen rooms. Mine is relatively luxurious and cost $16 per night. It comes with a shower--with hot water--and a western toilet, plus a large banyan tree just outside my window on the second floor that is home to hundreds of crows, all squawking at the tops of their lungs from sunrise to sunset. If the crows don't wake you the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers around the city at 5:00AM will.
the inside of their cell
Christine and Katie's accomodations are spartan by any standard with an almost Turkish prison-like ambiance and costs them $2 per person per night. But they seem perfectly comfortable with it all and enjoy the camaraderie of the other guests, all of whom seem to be just like them; young people from all over the world with little money and a desire to travel. Last Friday afternoon while Katie was at Mother Theresa's orphanage Christine and I found a small "pharmacy" so I could get my malaria medication. It was a sidewalk stall that sold pretty much anything you could think of and while the "pharmacist" seemed to know his stuff he didn't quite seem to grasp the concept of preventative medicine. He explained the dosages of each of the medicines once it's been determined you actually have malaria.
He didn't seem to understand why I didn't want to get to that point and that I'd much prefer something that would prevent it in the first place. We went back and forth like this at least 3 or 4 times before Christine asked for a 5 week supply of Chloroquine, which is what she uses, and we were on our way. Next we stopped at a cell phone shop, of which there seem to be thousands, so I could buy a disposable cell phone. After I bought it I was directed around the corner and down an alley where I was told I could buy a SIM card and prepaid minutes. The security process necessary to use an internet cafe or buy a cell phone in India is really a pain but understandable considering the amount of terrorism in this country. We were even "wanded" with a handheld metal detector before we entered a restaurant.
on the way to Victoria Memorial
Not only is a passport required but in some cases a thumbprint, photgraph, verifiable hotel bill proving local residency, and signatures on all photcopies are too. Despite these precautions, I've seen military guards with World War II era, bolt-action rifles guarding banks. Shocking considering what terrorists have available to them. After the phone guy in the alley asked for my passport he explained in Bengali to a young boy that he should take my passport and photcopy the first page and the visa. This explanation took three tries before the boy nodded that he understood and ran off down the dark alley, passport in hand. I immediately regretted handing it over to him and flashed back to my being robbed in China. Despite my being reassured several times by the phone guy the kid seemed to be gone an awfully long time.
Christine in front of Victoria Memorial
Sensing my anxiety he went looking for the boy and came back 15 minutes later waving my passport, like, see?? I told you everything would be fine. Saturday Christine and Katie suggested going to the flower market on another side of Calcutta. We took the Metro, Calcutta's subway, 4 stops down and emerged street level to total chaos. Never in my life have I experienced such a sensory assault coupled with the confusion of having no idea where we were or where we were going. The suffocatingly hot air--it was 100 degrees that day--reeked of urine, frying food, burning coal used in the cooking stoves, human, dog, goat, and cow shit, and incense, bus, motor scooter, and bicycle horns along with everyone constantly yelling assaulted our ears, thousands of people all walking in different directions, the traffic, the spit; regular and red.
Red spit is from chewing on leaves wrapped in a variety of herbs and spices called paan, that provides a stimulating, caffeine-like kick, but rots out gums and teeth. It's absolutely everywhere and looks like someone got punched in the face and spit out a mouthful of blood. Even walking on the sidewalks was an effort. Every sidewalk in this city is under construction and is a broken ankle waiting to happen. Dogs, of which there are thousands and all look the same, lie on the sidewalks along with the homeless. You can't determine if either are dead or alive. It was total pandemonium yet seemed to make perfect sense to the people who live here. Living in organized chaos is their way of life in their section of sidewalk, or alley, or 5 foot wide shop.
It seems like there are a million ways for people to get sick, injured or killed every minute of every day. From 3 year olds playing in 15 foot deep construction ditches filled with water to simply trying to cross a street. The diseases that thrive here; dysentery, typhoid, malaria, malnourishment, parasites, you name it's here. We must have asked a half dozen people, including Calcutta policemen, how to get to the flower market. Two blocks down Mahatma Gandhi Road and turn left, a security guard told us. A shop owner pointed and said, go down that street over there and turn right. Another cop told us to go down a narrow alley and follow it for awhile, you'll run right into the flower market, he said. They were all wrong. One more turn and we literally would have gone in a circle.
We walked mile after mile until Katie asked a local, a nicely dressed businessman, where the flower market was and he personally walked us the half mile to the market, explaining that all the flowers are delivered at 4:00AM and by now, at 3:00PM, they may all be gone. We got to the flower market and while I can't say it was worth the trip, it was quite a sight. Dozens of vendors selling long strings of marigolds, and a half dozen other kinds of flowers to locals. The marigolds are harvested every morning by farmers outside the city and brought to the market first thing in the morning. I'm not sure what the significance of the marigold is in India but they're all over the place. Saturday night Christine, Katie and I got together with Erika, Sassa, and Sassa's father, Jousee, for dinner.
Erika and Sassa are from Finland and have become good friends, hotel mates and fellow volunteers at Mother Theresa's with the girls in the short time they've been together in Calcutta. Sassa's dad was in Bangalore on business and stopped in on his way home to see his daughter and Erika, and to meet for a dad's dinner at a local restaurant with us. Conversation was easy and fun, and we all enjoyed talking about the differences between Finnish and American societies, and, of course, Barack Obama. The Finnish are very optimistic about our new president as would be expected for a country as staunchly socialistic as Finland. For example, while the cost petroleum doesn't vary much between the two countries, the cost of gasoline does; Finns pay over $6 a gallon, most of which is taxes used to support their social system.
Their income tax rates are also significantly higher than those in the US. Yet Jousee and most Finns are very satisfied with the system as it is. I'm not sure we Americans can say the same.