Thursday, October 28, 2010

Allahabad - it ain't all bad =P

Before venturing forth and leaving Varanasi, I'm warned by the friendly bus driver, deep inside a jubilant smile, "Allahabad is dirty city, it congested and full of faces friendly." With mixed feelings, I take the local bus and am surprised to find it not only operating at a functional speed, but not overcrowded either! I'd seen footage and heard horror stories of buses being packed to breaking point, with people forced to stand in the aisle for long journeys.

The town of Allahabad itself is like a subcontinental Penang. It is famous throughout India for food, producing 'pure desi ghee' as well as being home to hundreds of hawker stands and outdoor eating stands. The locals love butter, and don't be surprised to find a full stick in your soup. My tomato soup tasted more like butter and boiling water. Nightfall is no a time to party here, it's a holy city. After dark activities are limited to eating vast quantities of food and staring at westerners or 'goras.'.

 It is rarely seen by western eyes, and as such visitors should expect even more goggle-eyed disbelief to come their way. In the week I stayed here, I saw no other westerner. Not one. The town is difficult to navigate, but a little Hindi opens a lot of doors. I'm very thankful for that rushed lesson I had on a Varanasi rooftop, just a few days earlier. The cycle rickshaws in town, although plentiful, are among the most uncomfortable in all of India. The bench width is fine, but the length is narrow and will have you leaning forward just to keep balance. Your knees will cradle the bicycle seat, putting you in an uncomfortably intimate position with the driver. If you feel self-conscious, exchange names.  They seem to take it all in their stride though, no doubt used to the conditions. Your spine will feel each bump on the road though, and every lurch in traffic will have you reeling in pain.

A hotel that costs $25 a night has room service 24/7 - a bargain! Although you shouldn't eat all your meals in the hotel room, late night ice-cream snacks proved a real mood booster as I struggled with conjunctivitis and the lingering touch of Mother Ganga. The day after bathing in the sacred waters, I awoke to acute pain in both my eyes. I found that itching only made them worse, and it took the chemist in Allahabad all of three seconds to conclude I had pink-eye, or as they say in these parts - 'Madras Eye.' I've never had this condition before, and boy is it irritating. I feel blinded most of the time, and whenever I take my sunglasses off in public, people recoil in a mix of horror and disgust.

Allahabad is famous for nearby Sangam, which is perhaps the holiest site in all of India for Hindus. Yes, it surpasses even Varanasi in terms of mass-pilgrimage. It is here that three holy rivers meet; Ganga, Yamuna and a third mystical (underground) one named Saraswati. The pathway to the riverfront is lined with people from all walks of life, from hustlers to holy men, beggars to buffaloes and everything in between. Sadhus sleep in the shade, sharing their patch of grass with dormant dogs and begging babies.

 There are more beggars on the riverfront than I've seen in all of India. They run the gamut from young and old, disfigured to desperate, and downright dismembered. Amputees are a-plenty, and I also see a man whose face appears to have been hacked off with a butter knife, his eyes are gone and in their place is bright pink flesh. I feel bad of course, but as I can't help them all out, I mutter a quick 'maaf kariya' to those who miss out and find a suitable vessel for my river journey.

A boat ride on the river is best done in the morning, when the weather is cool and the crowds have yet to congregate. Whatever price is quoted to you is at least 5 times the going rate, but what you end up paying comes down to your own bargaining skills and perseverance. The magnificent 'Allahabad Fort' is best viewed from the river, as you can see it in full without your view being obstructed by trees. My boat driver tried to talk me into drinking from the river, even when I explained that I got conjunctivitis just from swimming in it. My explanation involved vigorous hand gestures and winking my swollen eyes. He seemed confused, offended and finally angry but I didn't care, I'd never see this man again and it wasn't worth risking my life for him to keep his cool. A western man died from drinking the water just last year, and besides, when it came time to ask me for yet another baksheesh, he'd dropped his murderous stare and was all smiles once again.
Once you're out in the water, if you're lucky you'll be taken to a real priest or holy man and not just another schemer. This so-called holy man tried to trick me into spending 500 rupees, just for chanting a few magic words and tossing some coconuts aside. What's worse is he didn't tell me the price upfront, heavens no, he waited until he'd completed his 'ceremony.' I paid him 50 rupees and told him that 'ripping someone off due to the colour of their skin wasn't very holy,' I don't think he understood it word for word, sadly =P

* A Sadhu is the 4th stage in an ideal Hindu cycle (pictured below is the real deal). The wandering ascetic, is required to give up all material possessions in pursuit of becoming closer to God. They have a fondness for smoking hash, and usually their only (other) belongings are saffron robes, a walking stick and a small begging bowl. They have been known to eat bodies that wash up from the Ganges, and spend a great deal of their life walking.

There are pretenders afoot though, such as that fake on the boat. These cheats and hustlers have stockpiles of cash, don't think twice about ripping off tourists and are no closer to God than you or I.

Taking a dip in Mother Ganga ;)

It is 5am and the city is still, but stirring slightly into life. The sun has not yet awoken from its slumber, and almost immediately I get lost in the giant labyrinth that is the old city. Dressed in only board shorts and a towel, I look everywhere for a ghat, the descending steps that make their way into India's holiest river. Instead I meet a Sadhu, one of India's wandering holy men, not to mention a Varanasi staple.

I remark to him upon the similarity of both our styles. We both have long shaggy hair, scraggly beards and are dressed in little to nothing, him a glowing orange robe wrapped snug around his midsection and myself in the aforementioned board shorts. He just smiles though, bows his head slightly and presses his palms together to say, "Namaste." A traditional stance/greeting found throughout India, and not just with the holy men.

He opens his eyes slowly, and in a voice befitting a wise prophet, he asks in perfect English, "which country are you from?" I tell him Australia, and when I do he does what everyone else does in India - he mentions cricket. He is disgusted with the 'underarm incident' and asks me about Shane Warne's apparent lack of morals. He stops mid-rant, interrupted by the yelp of an animal in distress. It appears my tour of the temple is over, and we spend the next five minutes collecting lost puppies for their tired mama. I find a tiny puppy, black and white but shivering with the cold, her eyes are closed firmly - perhaps not yet open. I place the puppy amidst long lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, do doubt canine for 'thanks.'

I make my way to a nearby ghat, with directions from a bemused German backpacker. Last year a western man died after drinking water from the Ganges while swimming, so any effort to bathe in these polluted waters is met with disbelief. I think I'll stick to the shallow end. With all the remaining notes in my pocket, I buy floating flower pots in which I can light a candle for each member of my family. The kids push me to buy an extra pot for Lord Shiva, and as it's his city, I decide it's the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into oblivion. The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of the sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims too. They have all brought soap, complete with little soap dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing. Step by slippery step, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, the colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. I hear the sounds of people yelling from the ghats, and look back to see a concerned party of pilgrims pointing to a 'no swimming' sign, but alas it's in Hindi.

Bathing on the ghat is an out of body experience. You just feel so disconnected with the world you know, at least I did. The feeling was akin to being lost in an alien land, left behind as the spaceship takes off. Taking part in this ritual, something that has been going strong each day (60,000+ pilgrims) for thousands of years is something I had to experience. I couldn't leave India without doing it, regardless of any hazardous health aspects.

I may have got conjunctivitis the very next day, but who's to say they were connected at all? Even if they were, it was still worth it =P

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hindi Helps

I've decided to learn Hindi.

I'm not going to bother learning how to read and write Sanskrit, as I'm only in the country for a couple of months. I would like to learn conversational Hindi though, as I doubt I've been anywhere in the world where such a slim minority of people spoke English - it's refreshing!

My teacher's name is Chris (see pic), who also teaches me how to cook samosas and a few Indian culinary classics on the side. When my first lesson begins, I'm embarrassed. I don't know how to say hello or goodbye, just 'go away!' Out of shame, I write down a couple of pages full of expressions and phrases that I'd like to learn if possible. I think that when spoken, Hindi sounds similar to Japanese.

Here are the most helpful phrases I now know (the spelling may not be correct, but it's an attempt at phonetics);


Hello - Namaste
Please/Excuse me - Kripiya
What is your name? Aap ka naam kya hi?
Nice to meet you - Aap se mil kar accha laga
My name is ... - Mera naam (Fry) hai
How are you? - Aap kase hain?
                 * I'm very good - May bhaut acha ho
                 * I'm OK - May tik ho
                 * I'm bad - May acha nahi hu.

Some helpful ones for dealing with vultures trying to rip you off are;

How much will this cost? - Kitneka hai?
That's too expensive - Bhaut mainga hai.
That (price) is funny! - Majak kar rahi ho!
Are you a comedian by trade? Kya aap majakiya hai?
Do I look like an idiot? - Kya mai chutiya dikh raha ho?

Save these insults for the wankers that deserve it ->

Go away! - Jao!
Fucker - Chootia
Go to hell! - Bahall mi jao!
Vulture - Gid.


Although Hindi is only the mother tongue to around 20% of the population, a great deal more speak it and through travels in India, particularly in the North, you will find it to be the most commonly used language. It's great for conversing with locals, and on my last night in Varanasi I am able to thank the hotel staff in Hindi for putting together a going away party for me. It caught me by surprise as I'd only been staying there for around a week, but as they told me "you are family, family will not go away without party." Once again I'm humbled by the sheer friendliness and hospitality of Indian culture, you can bet your bottom dollar this wouldn't happen at a 'Holiday Inn.'

The whiskey bottles make their entrance, and the staff members or 'family' as they constantly correct me, become rowdy and joyful in the presence of the amber fluid. There are 8 of us in total, drinking on the rooftop, but 9 glasses are poured - one for Lord Shiva (see pic). I meet a girl from Sweden, on her third trip to Varanasi. She tells me that she returns to the same guesthouse each time, so it can't just be me who thinks this place is wonderful. She tells me that the next time she comes here will be her last time, "it breaks my heart to leave each time." The city has an addictive feel to it, and the more time you spend here - the more you find to see.

I feel I have made some true friends in Varanasi, and not just people hoping to part me with my money. I exchange e-mails and hugs (Indians are not fond of handshakes or personal space) amidst sad farewells. I promise to return one day, and intend to do so. A week in Varanasi just opened my eyes to the place, and I feel there is much more to see. It's always good to discuss English Literature with those who appreciate it too, like Sandeev pictured below (right of picture). I pass on my copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Beautiful and Damned' and he promises to let me know how he finds it. A true character, with a tendency for hasty proposals with the fairer sex, I'll miss him most of all.

Nothing left to do now but swim in the Ganges!

Bonkers on Bhang

It is my third day in this city as old as time, so I figure it's about time to try the local specialty - Bhang.

Bhang, like hashish, is a preparation of cannabis (both buds and flowers) that for some reason is government authorised. There are many outlets in which you can procure the substance, in either baked form or lassi (most guesthouses will whip one up for you, calling it a 'special lassi'). I find a store in town and start things off with a Bhang lassi. Although I am promised it will taste like a milkshake, it tastes more like clumps of dirt mixed with salted milk. It is absolutely disgusting, but the ominous shade of green is at least promising.

Not satisfied with the gross green shake, I decide to try a cookie as well, and am delighted to find that the baked goods come with a government authorised stamp - my type of souvenir! Despite being packed to the brim with bhang, the cookie itself is actually quite sweet. It's somewhere between shortbread and sugar cookie. The stores attract a lot of hustlers, trying to sell everything from opium to magic mushrooms, but I'll stick with the green stuff for today. Indian policeman look fierce, and clutch AK-47s with a casual elegance - talk about intimidating!

The result of mixing both baked good and lassi leads to an inevitable bed-lock, but not until many hours later. I am left with an hour or two of sobriety, in which I seek out a cinema to see the much hyped 'Dabangg' that everyone seems to be talking about. At three hours long, with no subtitles and completely in Hindi, I find myself enjoying the film immensely against all odds. It was a star vehicle for the much admired Salman Khan, a well known Bollywood star revered by locals, with a fondness for beauty queens both on/off the screen.

From start to finish I enjoyed the film. The lack of subtitles was actually a good aspect, as it was one less distraction in this visual masterpiece. The film contained lots of violence, plenty of humour, manic musical numbers and an abundance of romance although no kisses were shown on screen. Even television is censored, with all swear words eliminated, making most Eddie Murphy movies feel almost alien-like. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, blending elements of martial arts movies alongside freeze frame camerawork found in The Matrix. The cinema experience was much the same, although there was an interval during the film and samosas/veg burgers were offered as well as the usual popcorn/soft drink staples.

I stumble out of the cinema, feeling full the effects of mixing together bhang products. I hail the first tuk-tuk that appears, and don't even bother to negotiate a price. I hand him the hotel card, and do my best to keep from passing out in the backseat. When I fail to do so, the potholes in the road and screeching halts common with Indian road conditions, jolt me back into reality head-first. Even though I am dropped off right next to my hotel, I still manage to wander off and get lost in the dark streets of the old city. I'm not sure if there's been a power cut, or if my eyes are just failing me when I need them most.

Once in my room, I fall asleep instantly only to wake several hours later. I could have sworn there was a little street kid rummaging through my bags just a moment ago, but I attribute this to either nightmare or hallucination. I'm beyond hungry at this point, and although I have no idea of the time I venture forth in search of food. I'm nearly out of the door when I am stopped by concerned staff. Apparently my eyes are so red that they can tell, even in the dark. It is nearing 2am and I'm in dire need of food. Rather than risk the unsavory streets after dark, the cook offers to whip me up something in the kitchen. I'm very thankful as due to the time, no restaurants would be open anyway and the best I could hope for would be Masala flavoured twisties. I order an Indian breakfast for the second time that day, and eat like it's a race.

Bhang is fun, but don't mix the two. Either/Or should be the rule, and my bet is to go with the cookie - it doesn't even taste awful =P

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Temple Tidbits

Holy Cow!
The guesthouse I'm staying at may have been recommended by tuk-tuk drivers seeking only a hefty commission, but none the less I am very happy at Pashno Guest House. The food is outstanding, and ordering an 'Indian Breakfast' at a family run hotel is always a treat. For only 60 rupees, I am fed authentic home cooked meals. Curry in the morning? Heaven! My only complaint is that their coca-cola shipment is running late, which is hardly their fault. They're also very protective of the people who stay here, and warn 'enlightened tourists' (those exposed by bhang lassi and baked goods), not to venture out after nightfall. With frequent power cuts in the old city, and many dark and foreboding alleyways - getting lost is a real possibility.

After a delicious breakfast curry, accompanied by deep fried bread (poori), I begin my first full day in Varanasi with a tour of some of the city's more famous temples. The guesthouse owner, Chris, is all too happy to share his wisdom with me, as well as dispelling some myths on Hinduism at the same time. The first temple we stop at, is known for housing Shiva's penis. A marble specimen about the size of a bar-fridge - no wonder Indian women believe Shiva to be the shining example of a perfect husband. It is perhaps also understandable, that many practice yoga in their spare time.

The next stop is 'Durga Temple,' known also as the monkey temple due to the hordes of macaques that congregate within temple grounds. Chris warns me not to make eye contact, or smile at them, as both are considered signs of aggression and could provoke an attack. I find this excruciatingly hard, as my natural instinct is to laugh heartily at everything they do, they are after all comedians of the animal kingdom. I am told that on Thursdays and Sundays, there are even more monkeys here as a mass feeding frenzy occurs when pilgrims pay their respect. Backpacks have been known targets of the monkey criminals, and to avoid drama there is a strict no camera clause.

The next stop after the tour of big temples, 4/8 of which are open to foreigners, we visit Banaras Hindu University or BHU. It is a huge university, easily the biggest I have ever seen. The campus grounds themselves stretch out 5.5km², but this is just one of many campuses. It is considered the best university in all of India, as well as the largest in Asia, so it's little wonder that it is known in circles as the 'Oxford of the East.' I soon learn though, that in order to learn or takes classes in Varanasi, you needn't enroll here for a semester. Many guesthouses offer lessons in; cooking, Hindi, yoga, sitar, etc.

After BHU I visit a silk shop, knowing full well the 'butter me up with chai' routine, I still manage to leave with a tailor-made silk shirt and two silk saris for less than $40. The silk shirt is a ridiculous red, and I am warned to stay away from bulls whilst in India as they will no doubt charge at me. The salesman shares with me a story of his own about Varanasi, involving a bathing widow who would hobble down the steps of the ghat each day in order to say a prayer for her husband.

Each day for about two weeks, he would notice this elderly woman trying her best to bathe in the sacred waters and say a prayer for her dearly departed husband. She was feeble, and broken with age, which meant the only way for her to make it in the water and out again was with outside help. After watching the spectacle many times, he asked her why she did it, she replied simply, "I bathe here, and say a blessing for my husband. When I am in the water, it is as if he never died. He is beside me, watching me."

The same woman also contracted bronchitis, as she continued to bathe in the river during the Varanasi winter. A sadhu noticed her declining health, and pointed to some dirt and dust along the riverbed, suggesting she ingest it. She dismissed this as crazy talk at first, but after a week or so without change in condition, decided she'd give it a go. She was cured the very next day, but the sadhu was never to be seen again. She went to different ghats all over town, asked other sadhus if they had known the man, but nobody knew who he was. That same woman bathed in the Ganges daily for over ten years, before dying.

It is stories like this one, not guidebooks nor sightseeing trips, that paint a picture of a place. The story might have been part of an elaborate scheme to part me with my money, but I don't think so. For one, I had already made my purchase when he told me the story. Secondly, the Benarsi are a proud bunch who love to share their culture with outsiders.This man, salesman or not, did just that =)


It turns out sleeper class wasn't so bad. I stretched out in comfort for all 14 hours, and although there was no air-conditioning - the gentle breeze from the open windows was a welcome relief. I was also surrounded by generous people, who treated me to a multitude of snacks purchased from the platform, but through the windows of the train. I tried char grilled corncobs (a bit like chewy/burnt popcorn), pints of chai, bhel puri, various chaat and a spectacular curry for lunch. The prices were astounding, with snacks all costing less than 5 rupees. Lunch was also a steal at 50 rupees.

We reach our destination in the late afternoon. Varanasi is a holy city on the river Ganges. It feels more Arabian than Indian and the walled city feels more old testament than new. I quickly learn that to die here is not a sure fire passport to heaven, nor is it an easy escape from the cycle of rebirth - both are common mistakes. To die during a special time of year is though, with fifteen special days each year that are determined by astrology. It is known as Pita Pak (unsure of spelling) or the 'festival of the dead' and during this time, the doorway to Nirvana is open - and the cycle of rebirth is no more.

Temples are scattered throughout the old city, alongside some buildings as old as four or five thousand years. I'm not surprised to learn that Varanasi is one of the most ancient cities in the world, and has had consistent inhabitants for thousands of years. The residents are very proud of their city, and with good reason too. In Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva gave the city to his wife as a honeymoon gift, giving it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' A festival is held during February/March each year, coincidentally landing on Valentine's Day. The town is awash with drunken lovers, and Bhang lassi flows freely.

I take a boat ride at sunset, which is a must-do when in town. The ride lasts about an hour and is a bargain at 200 rupees, after heated negotiations. The rickety boat ventures up and down the river, and I spot pilgrims and ghats along the way. I spot a skull floating beside the boat, dislodged from its former body and bobbing up and down in the murky muddy waters. I'm already having second thoughts about the promise I made to myself that I would bathe in these sacred waters.

The burning ghats are a sight to behold, with bodies burning in full view of bystanders. The dearly beloved gather, while their deceased relatives lay aside, belching out fumes from beyond the grave. Surrounding the mourners are the pilgrims, who bathe on the steps of the ghats each day. It's not just a spectacle, but a ritual thousands of years strong. There is no sign of anything modern here, and I doubt that things have changed much over the centuries.

 I have only been in the city since early evening, but it has been a wonderful introduction. I can't wait to explore it in depth =)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sleeper Class

I find a reputable travel agent and book my train for Varanasi. Although the journey itself is 680 kms, the price is less than 300 rupees including service charges. I am told the trip will take just 9 hours, but have been told by others it could take as long as 15. The train is called the 'Howringi Express,' and all AC compartments are fully booked - I will have to take sleeper class.

I had been warned about sleeper class in the past, but the lack of air-conditioning was worrying enough. Kolkata was sweltering, and I expected Varanasi to be no different. The train doesn't leave until midnight, so I have a little more time to wander the city streets and soak up the atmosphere. I am chased by a pack of stray dogs for a few streets, which would have been good fun if not for the possibility of rabies, until a late night diner comes to my rescue outside a local eatery. He shares with me a secret on the Indian psyche, all creatures have a right to life - even vicious street dogs.

He goes on to tell me that if anyone dared kill them, there would then be a mob of people chasing down that same person. No wonder India has more vegetarians than the rest of the world combined, there's also a great deal more respect for all living creatures (Jains even cover their mouths to avoid inhaling insects by mistake). After a cheap dinner of Dahl and roti for 15 rupees (less than 40c), I intentionally get lost - for the purpose of finding someplace new.

Before long I find myself in the city's Muslim corner. This fact is evident by the open-air slaughterhouses, with many hungry dogs looking on with interest. The smell and sight of death is overwhelming, particularly after spending time with peace loving (and predominately vegetarian) Hindus, so I opt to walk a little further. I get the feeling that this part of town sees few travelers, as before long I have a crowd of people following me. They jostle in position, push and shove in order to get a better view of the westerner in the midst. The braver ones approach me, asking me where I'm from and shake my hand.

After asking if it's alright to take a picture of an eye-catching Mosque, I soon have a group of street children acting as tour guides, showing me their neighborhood and practicing their broken English. They disregard a 'Do Not Enter' sign and show me their pride and joy, a larger than average aquarium, home to several species of fish. There is no light, so I can't quite make out all the fish that they are squealing excitedly about, but I feign a great deal of interest for their benefit. When it comes time to go, the kids ask me for an autograph. They extend their hands, and some even indicate their foreheads for my scrawl. I comply, bemused, but opt instead for paper and ink. I've never given out autographs before, so I don't know quite what to write, but their smiling faces and jubilant attitude tells me I have done well enough.

I make my way to Howragh train station with an hour to spare, only to find that my train has been delayed. When I ask for how long, I am told "I don't know, maybe an hour." I'm apprehensive about sleeper class, and wonder if it's just a name. Howringi Express, show yourself! Release me from the clutches of death. This train station isn't just third world, it's fourth or fifth - I'm losing it. When it finally shows itself, it's over two hours late. I don't care though, I'm just so happy to be leaving this hellhole, the station and not the city.

The compartments are a little stuffy, but apart from that it's not so bad. It's more comfortable than any plane ride I've been on, as instead of just a seat, I'm given a full bench to stretch out on. We are stacked like sardines though, with 8 benches per compartment! Luckily though, this section of the train is not overbooked and there are just three of us where there could have easily been eight. My fellow travelers provide me with chai from the passing wallah, but don't allow me to pay. It is almost 3am, which is no time for pleasantries or small talk. It's time to sleep.

Goodbye Kolkata, I'll miss you :(

Getting to know Kolkata

It's my third day in Kolkata, and although I still feel like a complete outsider, (and perhaps always will) I feel like I'm getting to know the city a little better. I do feel though, that I could live here for ten years and never get used to it. I'm becoming aware of more scams though, one being the cycle-rickshaws.

When you approach them, they are so happy to see you and for a chance to rip you off. I reason though that these men are poor (many don't even own their own rickshaws but rent them and make little to no money), and their prices are still remarkably cheap. For example, it costs just $1 to go from one suburb to another, definitely not breaking the bank! What annoys me though, is that in their pursuit of cash, they will say they know where they're going even when they don't. Sometimes they'll stop in the middle of nowhere, with your view undoubtedly obscured by trees or buildings, and tell you that your destination is just around the corner. I fell for this once, but from now on will not leave the rickshaw unless I'm certain.

The one time it did happen though, was also an exceptional stroke of luck. I was on my way to see the Indian Museum, which although I found later - turned out to be pretty lackluster (the best part was a baby with many limbs floating in a jar). I was told by the wallah that the museum was 'just around the corner,' but when I ventured forth it became clear that I was just in a local slum. Although this may not sound like a bout of good luck, it was for two reasons.

#1 - I got to try authentic Indian cuisine. Without a tourist in sight, my meal of 'Bhel Puri' was only 10 rupees (25c) and absolutely delicious. A mixture of different fried snacks with puffed rice and garnished with tomatoes, onion and coriander. I doubt they would have had many takers from the west, as the whole stall screamed E-Coli and food poisoning - but alas, none for me!

Although delicious, it was hardly filling so I strolled for a while longer and found a chaat stand. Like anywhere else, 'Samosa Chaat' is a messy eating experience in Kolkata. It doesn't look appetizing in the traditional sense, more like somebody spewed in a bowl and handed it to you, but it is more than just delicious - it is something that can never be replicated outside of India. The perfect souvenir, if only temporary. 

#2 - I meet Norman (see above), a self-appointed guide to all of India and not just Kolkata. I feel blessed to have met him so randomly, as his insight and points of interest ended up being perhaps the highlight of my time in Kolkata. He dismisses the Museum (too right) and instead suggest a visit to Mother Teresa's tomb, which is just a short walk away. I am kicking myself for not researching Kolkata further, this should have been at the top of my list!

Stepping through the gates of the complex, the feeling is unbelievable. Norman had warned me that there would be vibrations on my skin, almost like electricity, but I chalked that up to good salesmanship. When I step through the gates though, and see the room in which she lived in before moving to live among the poor, I am overcome with emotion. I feel her presence in every corner of the building, and learn in detail of her life and work through literature provided free of charge.

When I visit her tomb, I shed buckets of tears. This was something I never expected, and something I still find hard to explain. I'm a bit of an emotional robot, so shedding tears at a ferocious rate for a seemingly unknown reason, takes me by surprise to say the least. One of the sisters by her tomb side vigil comes over to sit with me, she says nothing but simply smiles at me with sympathetic eyes. She must see this sort of thing all the time. This woman devoted her entire life to the poor and helping others, she is the definition of selfless. Her tiny bedroom, with just a bed and desk as contents, would have been luxury compared to where she would inevitably move to, among the poorest of the poor. There are so many wonderful quotes that paint a picture of the kind of person she was, but I believe this to be the best and most succinct - "if there are poor on the moon, we will go there." She wasn't kidding.

The Government of India must have also thought she was a saint, as when she was nearing the end they asked her what she wanted. She asked for only one thing, "Let there always be a place kept vacant for the lepers and children." They implored her to ask for more, as she had done so much and asked for so little, but her response was simple, "I don't do politics, I ask only from God."

I leave her tomb, clearly shaken and Norman shares with me his own personal experiences with the late saint, "when she touched me, my skin was alive with vibration - she's such a sweetheart!"

We walk away in silence, and my head is a million miles away. You can't help but feel like the most selfish human being alive, no matter who you are or what you do, when you compare her life and work to your own. Away from the holy site, Norman changes his tune quickly and tries to sell me something illegal. I'm not really in the mood for mind altering substances, as my brain is doing back flips, but am none the less intrigued by 'Black Bulldust.' I have never heard of this before, but am told it comes in the form of a paste, which is made into balls to form a sort of candy. It is made from the combination of male and female cannabis seeds, which are smashed together. It is like acid, but as Norman assures me 'from nature only.'

I bid Norman goodbye, and will be forever grateful to this man and my own dumb luck. I make my way to Howragh train station, to find out some facts about train travel to Varanasi the next day. It is incredibly daunting the first time around, there are people everywhere and upon first appearances, it resembles a refugee camp more than a train station. After spending some time here, I decide that it is in fact hell on Earth. The food options are limited, the ground is littered with rats and garbage. The smell of human waste is overpowering. This is a stifling and unforgiving environment, I figure to hell with it - the travel agent can get his commission fee of 50 rupees. I just want to get the hell out of here.

Right next door is a shanty town, or as the locals say 'a colony of untouchables.' There is no footpath and the ground itself rises and falls with the change of each season. I prefer it though to the chaos of the train station, the comparison is like chalk and cheese. I head back to my hotel, stopping along the way at Anand Vegetarian Restaurant (Chittarangan Avenue). The guidebook says it is the best vegetarian restaurant in Kolkata, which I think is a pretty big statement. The restaurant's logo is 'a tradition of hospitality and luxury,' and is highly regarded among locals. The food is fine, even fantastic by home standards, but despite this I find myself yearning for the humble 'Veg Roll,' found on street level throughout this fine city.

Kolkata after dark

Blue Sky Cafe (Sudder Street)

I've heard great things about this cafe, from the guidebooks that recommend it to the travelers that frequent it, so I thought I'd try it out. I haven't had a bad meal in India yet, and the trend continues within this fabled haunt of backpackers. The clientele is a 50/50 mix between locals and foreigners, which is always a good sign. The prices are very reasonable. I'm able to buy an elaborate feast for myself and three different beggars, all for under 200 rupees - $5! I buy way more than I could possibly eat, which allows me to try a little of everything whilst sharing the food with those less fortunate. This place does decent western food too, for those who grow weary of Indian food. I haven't hit that wall yet, but I'm not ruling it out just yet (ask me in six weeks).

After dinner I don't just head to any pub, I head to Super Pub, which is located nearby (Mizra Ghalib street). Its an old style pub, with all waiters dressed in formal attire. A 650ml Kingfisher 'super heavy beer' is only 95 rupees and the air-con is heavenly. It is dimly lit inside, without even a window, but all of this is welcome after slogging it out in humidity all day. It is seemingly popular with Indians only, as apart from that chap in the mirror, there isn't a westerner in sight!

After a few 'super heavy beers,' I find myself stumbling back in the direction of Sudder street. Once there, I'm offered Manali Cream in a matter of seconds. The hustlers and dealers descend upon me like vultures on a carcass, it must be the long hair and beard. Like my Dad says "if you look, dress and act like a bum - what do you expect?" Most offers seem dodgy, and the dealers themselves look it. I remember reading in Lonely Planet, that being found in possession of even a little hash can land a foreigner in prison for years. My new 'friend' and king of the hustlers, Salim, offers his own advice - "guidebook is out of date. It's no problem, just don't smoke on street."

I decide not to partake here, as there are eyes and ears everywhere. Manali itself seems like a better bet. Just as I walk away, I hear a soft plop on my left shoulder. I glance to see fresh bird shit. It is warm and watery, with a fetid stench to boot. I can't remember the last time this happened to me, but know it is considered to be a sign of good luck. Maybe a sign from above that Salim is trustworthy? As if reading my thoughts, the man of the moment appears again with a moldy piece of newspaper he picks up off the street. He wipes vigorously, takes me to find some source of water and begs me to reconsider his previous offer...

On the way back to my hotel, I search in vain for some more street food stalls. I am in the wrong area, so I hop on a rickshaw and head elsewhere (Park street). As I disembark I am accosted by a man who wishes to share with me his sad tale, which concludes with him pulling back his shirt to reveal crusty sores, nasty infections and maggots boring into his skin. He tells me about problems with his wife, and his inability to feed his family, all of which he introduces me to. I buy his family dinner for less than $1. If you visit India and don't help out at least one person or family, you'd better have a damn good excuse. Lack of funds won't cut it, but perhaps having no heart will do the trick. The man's name is Sanu, and he writes down his MySpace address for me, telling me he did a documentary film on the street food of Kolkata for BBC. No wonder the veg rolls are so good here, this guy would know!