Oh, Kolkata, Don’t Cry for Me…

Santa looks a lot like the Bhagwan

Santa looks a lot like the Bhagwan

I’ll be the first to admit that I get a little twinge of fear every time I enter a new country for the first time: the Great Unknown, full of great unknowns. I’ll also admit that Kolkata (Calcutta) has never been at the top of my list of destinations, though India certainly has—for a long time. The fact that I have been to so many countries over so many years, and never once to India, is a testament to something—probably my budget. There’s no quick cheap way to get to India; but that’s changing.

My flight to Kolkata from Bangkok was only a little more than $100 OW. That’s not bad, about the same as the price for the visa (yes, they still have those, regardless of the length of travel, and not available on arrival). I may likely exit on the same budget airline, which also flies to/from Chennai, for about the same price. Or I may exit from Sri Lanka, or Bhutan, or Bangladesh, all neighboring countries.

But those nagging little fears are not all irrational. You just never know some important things when you enter a country for the first time, little things like: 1) Will my debit card work in the ATM’s? 2) Will the WiFi be any good? 3) Will I get sick from the food? 4) Will I be safe? Then there are more specific questions related to this particular night, like: 1) Will I be able to find my hotel? 2) Will my flight be late (it arrives after midnight, on New Year’s Eve)? 3) Can I charge my camera’s battery (initial efforts with a new charger have not been good). It all played out something like this:


Backpacker Digs: Sudder Street, Kolkata

Backpacker Digs: Sudder Street, Kolkata

–Flight arrives 11:30 pm, ahead of schedule. I guess Air Asia just assumes they’ll be late.

–Pass Customs and Immigration no problem.

–Insert my little plastic stiffie into the ATM, no luck. It gives me a number to call, yeah, right, Strike #1.

–Change precious cash for rupees.

–Book pre-pay cab into town. The guy is slow to return the last 100 rupees, take note—plausible deniability. It’s cheap, though, only about $5-6 .

–We leave the airport, so far so good, time 0:40 a.m.

–Midnight through Kolkata in throes of NY celebration is a riot, wish I could take pics.

–Taxista has no idea where my ‘guest house’ is. We drive around asking directions over and over.  We call, but it doesn’t help my brilliant driver much. Finally I spot the guesthouse that driver is speeding past. It’s 2:00 am. I give him an extra $1.50 for the runaround. He seems happy with that. Petrol must be subsidized.

Making street food in Kolkata

Making street food in Kolkataand over. Finally we call, but doesn’t help much. Finally I spot the guesthouse that driver is speeding past. It’s 2:00 am. I give him an extra $1.50 for the runaround. He seems happy with that. Petrol must be subsidized.

–Reception acts like they’ve never heard of me. I’ve got confirmation on my laptop screen. I finally check-in. WiFi doesn’t work; “server is down,” yeah right. Strike #2.

–Try to charge camera battery, no luck, jiggle with it, green light turns red, should mean it’s charging. This is good, best news I’ve had all day, in fact.

–10:00 am I set off walking with no map and not much plan, just a tiny hotel map on my laptop screen. Temps are cool, refreshingly nice. India’s a trip.

–I head loosely in direction of Sudder St., Kolkata’s Freak St, KhaoSarn Rd, Jalan Jaksa, Calles Santander or Sagarnaga, you name it. They’re all the same: cheap flights and digs and grub; local groovers hanging out with international groovers, smoking hash and talking trash.

–Pass US consulate, note address. I eat street food for ten rupees; it’s good.

–Pass Citibank, insert stiffie into ATM, doesn’t work, Strike #2.5. Will play my Citibank ‘private client’ hand if all else fails, see if it’s worth the paper it’s printed on.

New Market, Kolkata, India

New Market, Kolkata, India

–I stumble into Au Bon Pain with free WiFi, they want phone # to confirm code. Staff helps, thx, check e-mail, and find exact location of Sudder Street. It’s not far.

–Rewired I head on to Sudder St. It’s not much: a block or so with a dozen guesthouses, half a dozen eateries, a few travel agents and one hash dealer. I buy rail ticket for continuing journey Jan. 3, all wait-listed from Jan. 4-8, about like I figured, so I’m in. Damn I’m good, fist-pump for the soul.

–I stumble back toward hotel, get lost, ask directions, finally find it, somewhat chastened. It’s 3:00 pm.

–Eat more street food, good again. I could get used to this. I’m scared to eat too much of any one thing, don’t want ‘Delhi belly’. They like to get their hands all over the food, and eat it that way, too.

–Still no WiFi at guesthouse, no surprise. I do have TV, though, with several US rerun channels, so catch up on my (second) lost decade ’95-’05, ‘West Wing’, ‘Boston Legal’, etc.

–I go out at night, but too scared to walk too far, scared of getting lost, that is, no fun at night. Guest house had no business card, so I carry a bar of soap with custom-printed plastic package. I eat more street food, arguably the best in the world. I pass out to the world, one tired little puppy.

Christian church in Kolkata, India

Christian church in Kolkata, India

Day 2

–I want to see city center so head toward Salt Lake. I see several Christian churches on Bose Street.

–I never find Salt Lake, but do find city center. Salt Lake must be new business district, my misunderstanding. There are lots of old British buildings in center.

–Say a prayer, then insert my little money-maker into Bank of India ATM. It works, only 10K limit—less than $200—but that’s OK. I don’t need the money as much as the certainty and the positive cash flow. Get lost again, so finally look at my laptop map. I’m way too far north.

–I stumble into the ‘New Market’. It’s nice, but a hassle from the touts. I don’t need help shopping.

–Go back to Sudder Street, and buy a SIM card, figure I’ll need it. I argue with staff over how many free minutes I get, same guys that sold me the train ticket. They’re more interested in hanging with white chicks, I think.

–Go back to Au Bon Pain; new phone # works for msg, but can’t log on to Net. I guess you only get one freebie.

–I wash some clothes and watch TV at hotel. I think they’ll dry in time.

–Go out again at night. I find a cyber-cafe nearby, figure to return the next day. God provides.

Day 3

They keep the old trams running in Kolkata, India

They keep the old trams running in Kolkata, India

–Head out early to try to take some pics for first time in Kolkata. I have a mental map by now.

–Still no luck at Au Bon Pain. I go back to hotel, pack up, check out.

–Go to cyber cafe, guy says they’re closed until 1400.

–Walk around, take more pictures, return to cyber-cafe little before 1400, people already there. Previously friendly guy now seems hostile, informs me WiFi will cost twice the use of their on machines, so I use theirs, catch up on e-mail. I inquire the cost, then make a print. Place is hectic. I leave, guy charges me extra because print had a splotch of color. He’s an a**hole.

Counting yellow cabs in Kolkata, India

Counting yellow cabs in Kolkata, India

–I gather my bags at guest house, catch taxi to train station. It’s a riot of people rushing around. I finally catch my train, right on time, claim my lower berth in sleeper-class cattle car. It’s a riot, too.

–Freeze my ass off all night. Finally get into Varanasi in the late morning. I buy onward ticket to Agra in advance. Like I say, I’m getting good at this. Taxista knows right where my guesthouse is. WiFi works. I’m in, Trinity.

Kolkata is better than I expected, and it’s better than the slum it’s often depicted as.  This was the capital of British India, after all, a fact often forgotten in the modern Delhi-centric India of today.  If I can handle Kolkata, then India should be no problem. It’s a mother.