Calcutta (Kolkata), India
That's how I feel being back in north India...surrounded once again by chaos, crowds, incessantly beeping horns, insane traffic, touts, beggars, homeless children...Calcutta is in-your-face, nonstop! I'm definitely back in India! Everything here has been a bit of an adventure...
I arrived after flying from Kochi to Bangalore to Hyderabad to Calcutta, at midnight, and astonishingly my bag made it AND my airport pickup was waiting for me. He took me to my hotel, where in an email we agreed on a room that cost 350 rupees...but when I got there they said that the room was 500! I was pretty angry...they knew I was stuck, since I was a woman alone with all my luggage and couldn't exactly go out into the streets in the middle of the night to look for another place. Annoying! 150 rupees isn't that much money, but it's the principle of getting ripped off!
The next morning at breakfast I met Dave, a Scottish guy who has been in south India before but had just arrived in north India (Calcutta is definitely NOT the best place to land in India...far too overwhelming!) We spent the day wandering around, checked out the massive, beautiful Victoria Monument, and generally got lost. I had to mail a postcard, something that would take a few minutes at home...but of course, since it's India, it was a whole new adventure! Inside the post office were tons of people, none in any sort of line, and I went to the helpdesk to ask the lady what I should do - she yelled that I needed an envelope, and when I asked where I could get one, she just yelled 'outside! outside!' So out Dave and I went, wandered around looking for some envelope store, and finally found one in a bookstore run by a lovely old man who made me feel much better. We were soon back there - the scary helpdesk lady yelled at me that I needed to seal the envelope (apparently there is no tape at the post office, anywhere). So it was back to the bookstore, then back into the post office, where I had to see the mean lady one more time so she could weigh my envelope. Then it was into another line to get the stamps, but unfortunately the stamp man couldn't understand how many I needed (some other people in the 'line' helped me out) Once the whole process was over, Dave and I met an adorable 88 year old Indian man without a single tooth in his mouth who talked to us a bit about how crazy the post office was, and then went off on his bicycle!
Last night we went to see a Bollywood film staring Shah Rahk Khan (HUGE star here) about a guy with Asperger's in the US post-9/11...very good movie!
This morning we met up early with our new Aussie friend Brook, had a quick breakfast, and then headed to the Hooghly river to see the ghats. We also wanted to head to the Kali temple, the holiest place in the city, but this turned into yet another adventure! As soon as we got there a priest decided to be our guide...never a good thing. After we had left our shoes by the door (something we would REALLY regret later!) we headed into the main part of the temple, a tiny, dark room that was absolute chaos - people were pushing and running, trying to give their flower offering to the Kali Goddess. Our 'guide' grabbed my shoulders and pushed me to the front, while I was slowly starting to panic because of claustrophobia...it was insane! Once we left, he took us to the next building...the sacrifice building (of course we didn't know this in advance!) Apparently every day about 30 goats are sacrificed in the temple, and then sent across the street to the Mother Theresa mission to be fed to the poor...sounds like a nice idea, but horrible up close! Before I knew what was happening, we were standing in a room, and right outside I could see a goat's HEAD lying on the ground, and a giant bucket filled with blood! I turned away, only to realize that the black, sticky stuff all over the floor was not dirt...it was blood...and we weren't wearing shoes!!
And it gets worse! He next lead us through an alleyway, in our bare feet, stepping on what was most likely sewage, to the reflecting pool so we could make an offering to Shiva. By this point Brook and I were laughing hysterically just to keep from crying, we were so traumatized! When it was my turn to pray to Shiva, our guide, who we now noticed had track marks all up his arms (I've seen many people shooting up here...Calcutta has a huge drug problem) informed me that I now had to make a donation to the poor. I was pretty shaken and basically traumatized, and NOT in a generous mood, so I offered 10 rupees, which was turned down! Brook, who went after me, said that next to my name in the guestbook he had written 2000 rupees...very sketchy.
Needless to say, we were all VERY happy to be safe in a taxi after that experience! After a nice de-stress over lunch, we headed to the main market, only to have to walk through a long entrance of chickens kept in tiny cages and open sewage, topped off right at the end by a line of urinals...definitely a day of sensory overload!!
Once inside the market we made a beeline to the first sari shop we saw, and had a lovely time trying on saris. I bought a super pretty green and red one, which I'm sure I'll make lots of excuses to wear at home!
The past few days here in Calcutta have been absolutely exhausting...all the harassment and constant assault on the senses that is just not the same in the south. It's definitely been full of ups and downs...I'm looking forward to heading to Varanasi tomorrow and getting out of such a big city!
Varanasi is supposed to be full of hassle and touts as well...I guess I won't really have any peace until I head up into the mountains!!! (or until I head to London!)