Thursday, October 14, 2010

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.

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