Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Its the final countdown


There were several times during the last 70 odd days, where this song was requested (we could plug in an mp3 player into the audio system in our bus). There was always a mixed reaction when the request was made and many times there was overwhelming disapproval, but when we were rolling into Chennai, where we would say our goodbyes to a large part of the group, there was not a peep and even a few tears.

Now that we have left Calcutta behind, and have begun the last leg of our India trip, I can’t get this tune out of my head.

10 days left — and for all intents and purposes, we have left India already. We arrived yesterday in Darjeeling, which was part of Nepal until India Independence (or around that time), and the people here not only look Nepalese, but they speak Nepali. There are prayer flags everywhere and even the architecture changed dramatically. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We spent three days in Calcutta, and I feel at this point, I could argue with Ajay as to where the real soul of India lies. I put my bets on Calcutta.

We were all dreading arriving in Calcutta. Everyone had the impression that it was a really run down, dirty, impoverished, malaria infested city with little appeal for a three day visit. But from the moment we arrived at the train station and stood in line for our prepaid yellow cabs, we realized that this was a very special place. Aside from the many tourist attractions, including The Mother House (the first hospice Mother Theresa opened to help the dying poor of Calcutta) and all of the subsequent charity homes founded by her, the Victoria Monument, India Museum, Marble Palace, the Howrah Bridge (The third longest cantilever bridge at the time of its construction in the world), various markets and modern shopping malls and endless other gems, there was the vast city itself to explore and appreciate.

The Mother House

Victoria Monument

Calcutta lives and breathes its poverty and its riches. There are such multitudes living in each sphere that one really does not bother with the other. They seem to live in complete harmony (or at least it seemed that way to us). Our hotel, the Comfort Inn (no, as you’ll note from the pics, not at all related to the U.S chain) was situated in what I can only call a moderate slum of Calcutta. When our yellow cab dropped us off in front of it, we were more than a little skeptical of what we would find inside. The exterior was crumbling and the storefronts on all sides looked worrisome, but within an hour we were settled in our pleasantly appointed room on the second floor and started to discover the neighbourhood.

Doesn't look too comfortable does it?

As each day turned to night on our street, the sidewalk converted to a makeshift hostel for the large number of people who call this home. Street people’s laundry hung from electric lines and children bathed from the flowing tap in the street. Friendly card games were ongoing on the sidewalk, and in the morning, you can watch men getting shaved by the resident barbers on street corners, shoes being shined, more bathing, and meals being prepared by street vendors. Rickshaw drivers slept in their rickshaws. There were small fires on the sidewalk to keep warm or to heat up chai. At all hours, someone is digging a ditch or moving bricks around — all in what looked to us, like perfect harmony. We walked through their makeshift homes on the way to and from all of our activities, and there was never a feeling of being unsafe. In fact, they hardly noticed us. If we needed information they were more than happy to help, otherwise they let us be and we tried to do the same.

For that reason, I really have no pictures of these phenomena or the people we saw during our short visit. It just didn’t feel right to intrude on their privacy.

Just a short walk from our hotel (less than 1k) was a very modern Calcutta street (Park Street) with shops, restaurants, banks and modern middle class Indians shopping, sipping cappuccino and eating fancy pastries. Two worlds side by side. It was so interesting and so India.

This fancy bathroom fixture shop was actually on our street with people sleeping on the side walk out front.

For me it was the best way to end our trip in this incredibly diverse country. The city is so real. No pretensions. What you see is what you get.

We boarded the second-class AC (air conditioned) sleeper train at the new Kolkata (Calcutta can be spelled both ways) train station at around 9:00 pm headed for Siliguri. This was not like any other sleeper train Marc and I had been on and at first I was very apprehensive. There were no cabins, just six beds facing each other (three and three) and then another six beds all the way down the car. During the day, one bed on each side is lowered so that three people can sit, and at night it turns into a massive dormitory. Most Indians board with an overnight bag, but the 10 of us had all of our backpacks and duffle bags, day-packs and snacks for the overnight journey.

Did I mention there are no racks for luggage? Or that Indians seem to be in a huge panic to board trains and like to push and shove from both ends of the car? Or that we were not all in consecutive bunks and that there were at least three Indians that would be sleeping with us?

You can't tell, but Rosie is on the bunk on top and I my bunk is under Marc. Just to my right, there were three other bunks for Anja, Bob and Jeremy!

It took about an hour, but we managed to shove 80% of our luggage under the seats and convince three Indians to switch seats so we were all more or less together. The other 20% of our luggage somehow transformed into pillows or foot rests. Once we finally got comfortable, and killed a couple cockroaches, most of us remarkably fell asleep and slept more or less soundly until 7:00 am when we got organized for the escape from the train, with all of our luggage without being trampled by the Indians.

At this point, having arrived in Siliguri and having met our jeep drivers for the trip to Darjeeling, I am not sure any of us knew how perfect it was to have experienced this overnight train at this particular moment, and to have visited Calcutta as our last major Indian city. Within hours, we had left everything we knew as India behind. The scenery changed, the people had changed, the temperature had dipped 20 degrees, and even the language had changed.

10 days and counting. It’s definitely the final countdown.

(As a footnote, the Dragoman truck we have been waiting for since the beginning of the trip has finally been released from customs in New Delhi. Since the truck’s papers are in Al’s name, he needs to be in New Delhi to sign them and drive the truck to the Nepalese border to pick everyone up for the last three days of the trip. Since we are flying to Singapore from Siriguli and will not be crossing the border into Nepal with the rest of the group, we had to say farewell to Al in Calcutta. He is an amazing person and a born leader and we will really miss him. I know there will be many times once we are on our own organizing our way through Singapore, Malaysia etc, that we will wish we had Al along to help us problem solve and get things done. We will miss his great stories and his way of getting results in the most stressful situations. And, of course, his signature statement “No worries guys? Cheers!”)

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