Kolkata

I arrived in Kolkata at 4AM, thanks to a budget red-eye from Bangkok. Luckily, a nice young Indian also returning from Thailand chatted with me throughout checkin and after we landed, offered to give me a ride to my hostel. Well, when he saw the address of the place I’d booked, he and his friends agreed it just would not do. “It’s outside of the city, even! You can’t stay there!” So we drove around in his friend’s chauffered car, while they frantically looked for a place for me to stay. I ended up at The Capitol, on Sudder Street.

The place was gated, and although we called ahead, the night watchman wouldn’t come out to open the gate. In India, apparently, you just honk if you want something. And if you don’t get what you want, you just lay on the horn until something happens. Finally, the guard came out to open the gate. It was about 5 by this time. He checked me in, and noted the 24-hour policy–you check in at 5, you check out at the same time. Wonderful.

Then he led me to the room and turned on the lights. I went to close the door. He asked for bucksheesh, with a demanding, yet ingratiating air. One might call it unctuous. Why should I give you bucksheesh, I asked, you just did your job? “I help you a lot,” he said. “I open the gate, open your door, turn on the lights.” How about, no; no bucksheesh for you, bro? He didn’t believe me, but eventually I just closed the door.

The next day, when I was trying to use the wifi, which wasn’t working, he knocked on the door and said he was here to check the wifi. I let him in, but kept the door open. He carefully shut the door, then said, “I stay up all night for you.” Thanks, I guess? He reiterates, and opens his arms for a hug. I ask about the wifi, he’s still trying to signal me for a hug. Then, he bolts the door, turns around and tells me it’ll be our secret. Tries to get me to sit down on the bed. I’m standing, repeatedly asking if he can go see why the wifi isn’t working. I unbolt the door, try to usher him out. He asks, can we drink some beer later? I tell him I don’t drink beer, he doesn’t listen. I finally force him out, and bolt the door. A few minutes later, another worker comes back and fixes the wifi as I watch him warily. Later that afternoon, LurkMan comes back, and after I crack my door, attempts to shove two little paper cups of beer into my room and force his way in. I DON’T LIKE BEER, I reassert, and lock the door again. I moved the next day.

Watch out for people on the street that say they just want to talk to you, or meet you. They’ll just use you as an ATM–Oh, give me 200 rupees and I’ll go get us this-or-that–or take you to shops, then tell the shop owners to charge you high prices, so they can get commissions. I fell victim to the first of these scams, but not the second. I was directed to a sari shop, where a number of saris were displayed for my perusal. When I wouldn’t take their price, they tried to chide me down. Don’t take any price from someone in a small shop in a mall-type enclosure. Saris–the very fanciest you can buy on the street–shouldn’t cost more than 1200 rupees or so.

Obviously, always take metered taxis, or buses, if you know where you’re going. Google Maps is well-integrated into the Indian bus system, and it will tell you a number of buses that go where you’re going. The buses drive along the road, absolutely stuffed with people, and a hawker yells out where it’s going. You can ask this man, and he will either motion you up, or direct you to another bus. You pay at some point during your ride, or, if the bus is too crowded, as you exit. The fare is between 8 and 12 rupees, less than twenty-five cents. They run until midnight.

There are seats delineated for “Ladies” and for “Seniors”, if you are either of these and there is an able-bodied man in your seat, you can boot him. There is also a small, sweaty berth opposite the driver. It’s directly over the engine, or gear-box, or something hot, and it’s a funny little bench. I’ve never had any problems with groping on the bus, but I’m sure it’ll happen sooner or later.

All of the vehicles are beautifully decorated. Brightly painted, with symbols and text over a vivid background, it’s enjoyable to watch as you walk around, and often dodge out of the way of. The buses tell where they’re going along the side, as well as their route number. Trucks often have painted shoes on the side or back to avert the evil eye, as well as the hilarious epithet “Blow Horn”, usually in rainbow lettering. Above the brake lights is a delicately hand-painted “Stop”. Rickshaws, or what I would call a tuk-tuk, often have personalized things written or painted on them, for example, “Hello, my friend…” or “Single and Happy”. And they all lay on the horn. There’s no reason for so much horn.

A motorcyclist drives into the middle of a crowd of women and children, then just slams on the horn until they disperse. Uh, that was your dumb move, buddy. There are continually loud noises from every sector of Indian life–horns, fireworks and firecrackers, wailing, singing, prayers…
I don’t understand why lodging is so expensive in Kolkata. I could barely find a place less than 1,000 rupees a night. That’s like $20! And for what? A damp bed in a dismal hole with one light and a fan? I bailed. I did buy a couple saris though, from a local shop. It’s best if tourists buy things from pre-marked sellers, and by that I mean NOT STREET HAWKERS. That way, you know you’re being charged just the same as Mrs. Sanjay.

I definitely don’t feel as hungry in India, probably because dahl and chapatti tend to stick to your ribs more than sticky rice and tofu. I only ate street food in Kolkata, and didn’t suffer any bad results. 20 rupees gets you a tin plate, with a serving of dahl, sometimes curd, some pickled vegetables, and as many chapatti as you want. They’ll also refresh your dahl. Dahl is like the refried beans of India–lentil mash. Chapatti is a type of flatbread. There are many types of flatbread in India, especially in the North. In the South, you apparently get rice instead. Curd is semi-solid yogurt. I try to eat it every day.

So, I decided to buy a train ticket. And I wanted it for the same day. Well, the train was full-booked, but in India, they reserve a small amount for foreigners, I think it’s called tatkal? Anyway, you can’t book into the foreign quota anywhere but at the Foreign Tourist Bureau. It’s open 10-5 in Kolkata, across the Ganges from the train station. What you do is, take a bus to the train station (tons of them are going), then take a ferry across the river, then wait ~2 hours in the sweltering tourist office to book your ticket, then voila! you’re done, if you’re lucky. The good news is, ticket booking goes in order of numbering you receive on arrival, so if you had other stuff to do, you could go do it, and come back.

And don’t be intimidated; everyone I spoke to was actually very polite, if extremely intimidating, and spoke understandable English.

If I were you, I wouldn’t go to Kolkata. Pro tips: lie, all the time. No, this is not your first time in India. No, this is not your first town. Don’t make friends with any strangers, EVEN WHEN THEY TRY TO GUILT YOU ABOUT BEING SUSPICIOUS! Why do you think we’re suspicious? Oh yeah, ‘cuz we’ve already been ripped off. People who want to help you will help you, they don’t need some grand entree. A drunk man escorted me to the bus station at 10PM. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “I just want to help the girl travelers and volunteers. I know you have a lot of trouble.” He went on to say that his wife had died of cancer 2 years before. As I jumped onto the bus, he pressed a card into my hands, “If you have any trouble, if anyone bothers you, you just call me and I’ll try to help. Just remember, KK! Ask for KK!”

More tips: Always ask the price first. EVERYONE knows numbers in English. Don’t get ripped off. Don’t buy on the street, it’s too much of a hassle to try to haggle. Take the bus; if you sit in the women section, other women and girls will talk to you. This is a good opportunity for communication. Don’t go out at night, past 9PM. Don’t make eye contact with any men. Don’t answer people who call to you. Don’t give bucksheesh, India already has government service tax. So many warnings I could give. But you’re smart, you got it!

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