Sunday, February 25, 2007

India Blog
Place: Kolkata
Date: February 4, 2007

Taking the Bus to India
On January 29th I took a bus to Kolkata. I came here for the book fair (which I discovered was postponed after I arrived) and for my friend Tuni’s wedding reception. (Tuni is another Fulbrighter that I met at the orientation in Washington, D.C. She will be coming to Dhaka in mid-February.) I chose to take the bus instead of a plane because a) it was much cheaper and b) I had not seen any of Bangladesh outside of Dhaka.

The ride was very long (12 hours), but the scenery was lovely! Bangladesh is really very beautiful outside of Dhaka! It is very flat (the entire country is basically a delta) and there are rice paddies lined with coconut and mango trees everywhere. I am going to see if it is possible to rent a motorcycle when I get back, because I would love to take a weekend trip to the countryside. Sadly photographs from the bus were not possible…

One interesting thing that I noticed as we were leaving Dhaka is that the entire city is surrounded by brick factories. My friends had told me this, but it was quite a sight to see. You see flat land, rice paddies, coconut trees and then gigantic smokestacks spewing pollutant into the air! Bricks are the cheapest and most common building material here. It is unfortunate that there is not a more environmentally-friendly way of making them though!

The Indian Border Crossing
After about eight hours on the road driving at a breakneck speed (we actually ran over a dog on the way because the driver would not slow down), we arrived at the Indian border. This was definitely the craziest border crossing that I have ever done. We got out of the bus one kilometer from the Indian border. Our luggage was unloaded and we went into the bus station to get a sticker to put on our bags. There were a bunch of rickshaws outside of the office which we took to the bus station next to the border. The rickshaws were free, but all of them ask for baksheesh if you are a foreigner. The bus people somehow transported our luggage to the second bus station. At that bus station, we handed over our passports (a very scary moment) to a guy who went to get them stamped with the Bangladesh departure stamp for us. Then, one of the bus people asked me for a 100 rupee departure tax. (Which, I discovered on my way back, I had actually paid already as part of my ticket. Not knowing that the first time, however, I handed over another 100 rupees which I am sure the guy deposited in his wallet.)

After we got our passports back (whew!) a guy picked up my suitcase and started walking toward the border indicating that I should follow him. He carried my luggage inside and asked for baksheesh. We stopped outside of this very old building that looked like it could fall apart at any second. There were large cracks in the walls, the outside was stained by water, and the window panes had all been broken. Three guys in plain clothes were sitting on the steps of this building. They asked us for our passports. I was not sure that I wanted to hand over my passport to someone sitting outside a ruined building, but everybody else started doing it, so I gave mine away as well. They took it, sat on the steps, and filled in our departure forms for us.

When the form was done, one of the guys led me and my suitcase inside. There I met the customs officer who asked me if I bought anything new in Bangladesh. I explained to him that I lived in Bangladesh and was just going to India for a wedding. After scrutinizing my passport for a few minutes, he let me pass without opening my bags.

Then, inside the building-that-could-fall-apart-any-second, I had to give my passport over to a guy who handled foreigner. He wrote my name in a little book along with an explanation of what I was doing in India, then he stamped my passport and pointed to the exit. I went out and another man picked up my suitcase and carried it to the Shohagh bus station on the other side of the border (and again, of course, asked for baksheesh). Finally, after everyone passed through, we all loaded onto the bus and continued on our way…

I Finally Arrive in Kolkata
The ride was lovely, but extremely long. The man at the Shohagh bus office told me that it would be a ten hour trip, so I told Tuni that I would arrive at 5pm. Unfortunately, the trip actually took 12 hours. We did get to the edge of Kolkata in 10 hours, but because of traffic and all the additional stops (every passenger wanted the bus to drop them off at a point along the route that was closest to their house) it took two hours to get to the bus station in town. I felt terrible when I arrived because Tuni (who had the flu!) and her husband Clay had waited two hours for me! Now that is a dedicated friend!!

Since her family was in town, I planned on just grabbing a hotel near Park Street. When I arrived, however, she generously invited me to stay at her aunt’s house for the first night and then at her family house for the rest of my stay. It was great because I got a taste of living in Kolkata!

Sightseeing
Unfortunately, Clay and Tuni were both a bit under the weather for the duration of my stay. Consequently, I saw many of the “tourist” sights on my own. I went to the Victoria Memorial in the Maidan which was really beautiful. They also had an interesting exhibit on the history of Kolkata. Calcutta (as the British pronounced it) was the original capital of British India. The name “Kolkata” comes from the name Kali. Kali is a Hindu goddess and the consort of Shiva, the God of Destruction. There is a temple, Kalighat, built in her honor just a couple of blocks from Tuni’s family’s house. (More on that later…)

I tried to see some of the ghats (places used for Hindu ritual bathing) along the river, but access to the water was restricted. I then headed toward Park Street where I found the lovely Oxford Book Store. As it happened, my friend Niladri (another Fulbrighter, but an Indian who went to the US, whom I met at the Darjeeling conference in December) invited me and Debjani (current Fulbrighter in Dhaka whom I also met at the Darjeeling conference) to a book event at the store that night.

I Meet Some Famous Authors
Since the book fair (which is a HUGE annual international event) was postponed at the last minute because of a problem with the traditional venue (it was traditionally held on the Maidan, but for environmental reasons the authorities wanted it moved elsewhere), many of the book events were rescheduled to smaller venues. This event at Oxford was one of them.

The theme of this year’s book fair is Australian literature, so the three authors who were at the book event were all Australian. They were: Margo Lanagan, a writer of science fiction short stories, John Zubrzycki, a journalist who wrote the book The Last Nizam which I am reading now, and Tom Keneally, Booker Prize-winning author of the book Schindler’s Ark which was turned into the film Schindler’s List. Each of the authors read a passage from his or her book and then the moderators and audience asked them questions. Afterward there was a book signing (I got signed copies of all three books, but unfortunately they only had paperbacks!)

Since it was such a small event, we got to talk to the authors. As I was in line to have Tom Keneally sign my book, the woman in front of me introduced herself to him. She said she was a Fulbrighter in Kolkata. I exclaimed, “You are kidding! All of us are Fulbrighters!” (Debjani and Niladri were behind me in line.) Tom was very surprised and started chatting with us. He joked about how he was “bringing the IQ of the group down.” We all had a chuckle and a lovely conversation with him. I invited him (and Diane, the other Fulbrighter) out to dinner with us. Diane accepted, but Tom said he already had plans with the other Australians. We got the feeling that if he did not have a previous commitment, however, that he would have gone out with us. He is a very fun, down-to-earth guy and seemed to really like us!

After the event was over, we went to a restaurant on Park Street and had a lovely dinner together. We decided that we had so much fun that we were going to do it again two days later when Kirin Desai, another Booker Prize winning author of The Inheritance of Loss, was coming to Oxford to speak.

So sure enough, two days later we showed up for the Kirin Desai event. Sadly, Niladri got last minute tickets to a play he had been wanting to see so he couldn’t join us. Diane was apparently at the event, but we never found her because the Kirin Desai event was much larger and the press were everywhere. Debjani and I did see Tom Keneally again, however! He and John Zubrzycki came for the event too. We spent quite a bit of time chatting with them after the event. (I also got my copy of The Inheritance of Loss signed, but the press were pushing everybody aside to take Kirin’s picture so we did not get to speak to her.)

Again we went out to dinner, this time at an Italian place just south of Park Street. Debjani invited some friends that she ran into at the book signing and Tuni and Clay also joined us. We greedily devoured the pizza and all of us were happy for a small taste of home since we have mostly eaten Asian food for the past several months. (I did tell Debjani about the American food at the American Club in Dhaka though, and I think that she might come visit me just to get a real cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake!)

More Sight-Seeing and the Incident of the Dirty Feet
While seeing Tuni, Clay, Debjani, and Niladri were definitely the highlights of my trip to Kolkata, I did do a few other “touristy” things while there. I tried to go to the Indian Museum, but they would not let me take my (small) camera bag inside. (In fact none of the women were allowed to take even small purses in.) I was not about to check several hundred dollars worth of electronics, my wallet, and my passport, however, and it was too much stuff to carry with me, so I ended up refunding my ticket and going to the New Market instead. The New Market was actually a bit disappointing compared to Dhaka’s New Market. Kolkata’s market is MUCH smaller and the variety of wares was not as good. Walking around the streets of Kolkata was quite nice though, as they the decay of the old British style buildings is actually quite beautiful. They also have man-pulled (on foot) rickshaws, water pumps on the streets, and old, British-style taxi cabs. Plus, there is a fabulous little tea shop called Flurry’s on Park Street which had great brownies and tea!

On another day, I did go to see Kalikhat. As the story goes, as Shiva was carrying Kali’s dismembered body over the city, one of her toes fell down from the sky and the people erected a temple to her there. Tuni really wanted to go too, but Clay had caught the bug that was going around so she stayed home. Instead, I ended up going with two of the servants from Tuni’s mother’s village house. (They came up for the wedding reception.) When our cab pulled up, a priest offered to show us the temple (for a fee of course).

He took us to a place in the Kalighat market where he told us to leave our shoes. I was not at all happy about that, because the streets of Kolkata are really disgusting (they are used as toilets and trash receptacles.) Most holy places in the east do not allow you to enter with shoes, however, so I took them off thinking we were at the entrance to the temple. Sadly, we were not, and I had to walk through the market in my bare feet. When we got to the temple, I was annoyed, because most of the people there (foreigners and Indians) were wearing shoes!

Apparently only the priests are allowed to see the Kali statue, so I only caught a glimpse of two of her three bright orange eyes when the crowd parted a little. After “seeing” Kali, the priest took me to the bath. It was a very gross little pool of extremely filthy water. There were people bathing in it, however, as is Hindu tradition. At the pool, the priest asked me to write my name in a book. He then asked for a 2,000 rupee ($50) donation and showed me the list of all of the other foreigners who had donated that amount. I am 100% positive however, that the last 20 tourists to come to that place did not donate 2,000 rupees (which is a ludicrous amount for India – my whole trip only cost $200) and that the “priest” if that is what he really was, just added the amount in after the people left. I gave him 20 rupees and then, annoyed, went back to the market to look for my shoes since my feet were by that time black and sticky.

When I found the shoes the woman there wanted to charge me for them and then she wanted to charge me for water to wash my feet with. (So that is why I had to leave my shoes at that particular place!) I took my shoes and washed my feet with the small cup of water. Then I went to the nearest water pump and some nice Indian boy pumped for me while I cleaned my very gross feet a second time. The whole situation annoyed me, especially since if I had gone on my own I never would have taken a “guide”.

On My Way Home I Pass Through a Protest
After a week in Kolkata, I was ready to go back home to Dhaka. I opted for the day bus again instead of the night bus because I wouldn’t be able to sleep on the bus (especially since the driver uses the horn every 30 seconds) and so at least in the day time there is a view to distract me. On the way back, we ran into a bund (strike). The protestors were blocking off the bridge that we needed to cross to continue our journey. After waiting on the road for an hour, we all got out of the bus. Coincidentally, there was another Shohagh bus on the other side of the strike line, so after some conversation (and probably some baksheesh) the protestors let the bus people move our luggage (and us!) to the other bus. After thus switching places, we finally continued on our way. I took some photos and video footage for you that I will try to upload later…

After a 13 hour drive I finally arrived in Dhaka. Ahhhh…. It is good to be home!

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