My arrival in Kolkata, India was badly planned. Being dropped off at this huge intersection of highways, in the middle of rush hour, where no taxis or buses were stopping (as I had been told by the person who dropped me here) wasn’t part of the plan… Or was it?
It all started in the Maîtree-express: the train going from Dhaka (Bangladesh) to Kolkata (India). I had to leave Bangladesh on a visa run. The idea of travelling to India seemed like a good one, especially since I wouldn’t have to fly and India was an unknown country…a good excuse for new adventures!
So I was sitting on the train, riding along the fields and across the rivers on a 7 hour journey. The excitement was growing as much as the fear. There weren’t many white faces on the train; only five Europeans on board, and the rest were Indians and Bengalese, traveling for business or medical reasons.
I had noticed earlier a man, sitting a few seats behind me, who seemed to be from the French Caribbean Islands. I spotted him in the queue waiting to get stamped at the immigration crossing point. We engaged in a conversation that ended later in Kolkata. His name was Loïc, and he told me he was going to be picked up by a driver. His visit to India was related to his studies and he was to interview people in different places for a French Bengalese man who had offered him a little cash and places to stay in exchange.
The full story wasn’t very clear.
As for me, well, I had no plans other than to get a new visa and explore the area. While still in Dhaka I got advice from different people who had been to India on where to stay and what to do.…
Despite the advice I was given, I did not book a hotel, I did not even look at a map of Kolkata and I had no idea where or how far the centre was from the train station I had arrived in. Loïc kindly offered me a ride to the city and explained the situation to the driver, who said it wasn’t a problem.
We set off, travelling through the streets of Kolkata in a classic yellow ambassador cab, looking through the window, watching the street nightlife. We soon realised there had been a misunderstanding with the driver because we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the city centre. When we queried it with the driver, his English suddenly became very bad and he didn’t seem to understand what we were saying.
What could we do?
Well, we started laughing about it for a bit, when the driver pulled over to the side of this multi-lane road that was intersected by four others; a huge junction with quite a bit of traffic.
So as I watched Loïc and the car driving away, I tried to figure out where I was and how to get a bus or a cab to reach the centre. The side of a huge highway intersection wasn’t the best place for that so I crossed over and started listening to what destination the guys in the buses were screaming, while at the same time waving at every cab. Thirty minutess passed, during which time I hadn’t figured out which buses were going where, and no cabs had stopped.
I was screwed! I had tried my best but nothing happened. I couldn’t even find someone who spoke English.
I was staring at the total emptiness in front of me, lost in my thoughts, restructuring all my plans, when a guy passed by on a scooter. My eyes rolling from right to left, I was looking at him riding his bike and he was looking at me. I think the expression on my face made him stop. The truth is he stopped partly for this but he was also picking up his wife. He came to me and asked if I needed any help. He kindly helped me to try to stop a cab but his efforts were helpless.
He asked me if I could wait a little longer there, explaining he would take his wife and child back home and come back to give me a lift to the city.
Of course I said yes. I was not going to refuse an offer like that in my situation. So I waited, hoping that in the middle of the unbelievable situation something good would happen.
But was he really going to come back?
Well, twenty five minutes later he finally showed up. I hopped on and off we went, riding toward the city, introducing ourselves, talking to each other about many different things; where I was coming from and what was I doing in India, to the gay marriage situation in India. He also asked me where I would be staying in Kolkata. I told him I hadn’t booked a hotel and asked him to drop me in Sudder Street (the only advice I could recall) which I understood was the tourist street with many hotels offering reasonable prices. He looked at me and said it was a nasty place; most of the hotels were dirty and the people staying in them were even dirtier. He said he knew some better places. As we reached our final destination, he took me to a church/chapel where I could stay for a reasonable price.
I wasn’t very confident about staying in God’s house. Nothing against religion – I respect people believing in something. I just believe in karma; and myself. Being here made me feel a little misplaced.
Anyway, I explained to Vishnu there was no Internet and I needed it for work. He kindly took me to another place, which was again a sort of chapel, but this time Internet was available.
Since it was getting late, I decided to check in and figure things out the next day. I dropped my bags and asked Vishnu if he could give me a ride to Sudder Street so I could see the place for myself. That was it, I was finally making it to this Sudder Street that everyone had been telling me about, whether good or bad!
Okay, so this was the headquarters for the drunk and the ones who came for any spiritual voyage making them forget the invention of the shower and the importance of being careful (especially in India with malaria and other silly diseases). Needless to say, if I’d checked in to random hotel, I’d probably be sleeping in a shared room with one of these nasty friends.
The chapel did not seem like a bad idea – it was clean, they had a garden and it wasn’t that far away from most of the cool places. And of course, buses, trams and auto rickshaws were stopping by the chapel. I spent a week in this place, where I met interesting and weird people. How do you define weirdness? And who really is weird?
It spent a nice and interesting shared time with others, but I had trouble applying for a new visa in Kolkata. I got some information advising it was much easier to get it from Delhi.
I couldn’t spend more time hanging out in Kolkata knowing this wasn’t the place to get a visa for Bangladesh, so I booked a train for New Delhi and was on a 17 hour journey across North-Eastern India. The train was quite nice but the price of the travel including the food and water was a joke. You wouldn’t even get 2 meals in a European restaurant for the same price.
The plan was to spend the night on the train and arrive in New Delhi in the morning… next thing I know, I woke up on the train, supposedly thirty minutes away from our arrival, and the first thing I could hear was someone speaking in English saying we had been delayed. Nothing serious, only ten hours!
It’s India; you have to be very relaxed. I mean if a cow has decided to sleep on the rails, no one is going to touch it since it’s a holy animal. You just have to wait for the animal to move on!
This time, the good news was… I had booked a hotel in advance.
When I reached New Delhi I quickly understood the city had been wrongly named. It should have been called Scam-city since everyone seemed to be trying to rip you off. Despite this problem, the city is quite nice and I met some really interesting people; exploring the old Delhi was very nice. I applied for my new visa and during the processing time I decided to visit the Taj Mahal. Very touristy. It was interesting going on a cheap tourist bus (the one for tourists from India, not Europeans). Again, I was the only white person. I found it quite fun this way… just exploring, getting lost without marks.
When I got back to Delhi, I got to the embassy of Bangladesh to collect my passport. Denied of my multiple entry 6 months visa, I asked politely for a 2 single entry 2 months visa so I could go and get the stuff I left back in Bangladesh and visit the places I hadn’t been to yet.
A week and half later, I was back on board the Maîtree-express, departing from Kolkata to Dhaka. My bag was filled with 3 litres of Old Monk Rum hidden in two 1.5 litres coke bottles, ready to re enter Bangladesh. The Muslim country I left a few weeks ago where alcohol is not really permitted except at the duty free airport and the UN shop reserved only for the diplomats… I was ready for some new adventures, riding the bumpy road of a fun life full of memories.
The best part of it… it’s free!