Monday, October 4, 2010

Krazy Kolkata

I touched down at Kolkata airport overflowing with joy. I have wanted to go to India for as long as I can remember and when I got off the plane, I couldn't contain my joy. My mother had warned me that the airport 'looked like a tin shed from outside, and was no better inside.' Perhaps I'm just used to airports in third world countries, but I honestly didn't think it was that bad. Although the lack of an ATM, and my lack of any kind of currency was troubling, I soon learned that in India 'there is always a way.'

My first impressions of the city, and of India in general are LOUD!

Every vehicle, and there are many, makes a sound. It would appear upon first impression that the devices emitting sound, are the most looked after aspect of any engine. From the ringing bells of the rickshaw-wallah, the ever present and always different bicycle horns, to the incessant blare of the city's taxicabs. This place is noisy.

Another thing that strikes me right away, perhaps every visitor, is the poverty. While I believe Africa outnumbers in the sheer volume of beggars, the squalor here is unmatched anywhere else. In the cab ride from the airport to hotel alone, I spot people of all age groups relieving themselves by the side of the road. Numbers 1 & 2. I see makeshift tents comprised of nothing more than garbage bags and resourcefulness. They are duct taped to the walls of buildings. Some of the side streets are ankle deep in trash. How the people inside manage to sleep at all baffles me.

The taxi driver and I swap cricket statistics, while he confides in me the secret to Dan Vettori's success - 'his kind face persuades the batsman to underestimate him.' About halfway through the journey from airport to hotel, he goes back on the price we agreed upon. It seems that charging me ten times the going rate is not enough, and he tries for fifteen. He rubs his fat gut and tells me he's hungry. I think to myself that he could do with going on a starvation diet. I also notice he is sporting a Nokia e71, the same make and model of phone that I have in Australia. I like to help the less fortunate, and plan to order double what I can consume in every restaurant I visit, in order to share it with the poor. I don't like bullshit though, and find it sickening that this bastard is taking advantage of the poverty his country is known for, in order to squeeze out a couple of bucks. I choose not to reward his disgusting greed, and end up paying him much less, just to teach him a lesson. He drops me off by a hotel mentioned in the guidebook, but as soon as I enter the reception, I am told point blank there is a strict 'non foreigner' policy in place. Oh well, at least they didn't bullshit me when I asked why.

I find a rickshaw and together we search for a hotel that admits my type. I ride for 20 minutes across town, terrified for the most part due to wheels sliding in monsoon rain, and get my first lesson in Indian road rules - there are none. Cars jostle for position and vehicles of all size and disposition weave in, out and around each other. While back home there are two lanes on a normal road, these memories are best left behind. When my driver decides to execute a U-Turn with speeding cars on either side, I decide to close my eyes and hope for the best.

Once I find a hotel, I quickly shower and head out again to attack the city. I'm engulfed by a mob of people, demanding to know 'where this foreigner is from.' I was warned that people would stare, but nobody told me about being prodded and poked. None of it is malicious though, I think they're just genuinely curious and find it hard to express in English. The first thing I do is search for a book on Indian folk tales. Fairy tales are the first stories we are told as kids and I honestly think they reveal a lot about a culture. Take our own for example, often a poor girl is saved by a rich handsome prince. Maybe we don't realize it, but we're teaching our kids to value money and status above all else. What if the prince turns out to be an arsehole? We never find out! We're just left with a 'happily ever after.'

I buy a book with 16 different folk tales. From this collection of tales I believe to have picked up on some Indian cultural values.
* Generosity is encouraged, while misers are deplored.
* Although still very much a patriarchal society, the opinions of women (especially old) are very much respected. "The house that has a wise lady in it will always prosper." - Haribai, daughter of King Dheema.
* Intelligence and clever wit are both prized more than brute strength or bravery.
* Hard work is cherished, so too is the idea of freedom.
* Respect the elderly, as they are wise and all knowing.
* Education is prized, but there are limits to knowledge.
* Equality. as a healthy dialogue between a King and his subjects appears frequently.

Finally, perhaps most importantly in the case of this particular book;
* In good vs. bad, good will always triumph.

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