After an amazing breakfast of spicy chickpeas, rice, and who knows what else, I checked out of Shree Krishna International Hotel and started to make my way to the hostel I had originally booked for the next 3 days in Kolkata. Since my first taxi driver was able to find it (but I thought it was closed at 4 AM and so went to another hotel), I figured it would be a piece of cake getting there again. But oh I was wrong!
My taxi driver spoke very little English, so I showed him the address and he still seemed confused. Next thing you know, he’s asking people on the streets where it is. He gets a general idea, and we drive for maybe half an hour through crazy traffic and pouring rain into the city center. Once we get close, he starts asking people on the streets again if they know where it is. After trying maybe 7 people, we finally are guided even closer. Or so I thought. I end up on a one-way street, and traffic is so intense he tells me to just walk down the street, and it should be only a few minutes away. I do so, and walk exactly to where Google maps tells me it is. Still, it was nowhere to be found.
So, like my taxi driver did, I start asking people on the streets. Several people claim to know where it is, and give me directions. So I follow what they say, and its nowhere in sight. I ask again, get new directions, follow those, and still can’t find it. Eventually I wander past the Kolkata police station. I figured they must know where it is. I go inside, show them the address, and for a while they all talk with each other about where they think it is. Eventually an officer tells me to follow him, and he grabs a helmet out of his room. I thought we’d walk out to the street and he’d point to me where to go and take off on his motorbike. Instead, he hands me the helmet and tells me (in Hindi) to hop on his bike. What!? We start to cross through 8 lanes of chaos, and all I can think is that I have to trust him. Once we get close, even he starts asking people on the streets where it is! He gets directions, follows them, asks another person, follows their directions, and after 10 minutes riding around on his bike, finally I see the sign: Hotel Bengal Guesthouse! I made it! I wanted to tip him, but the only cash I had was a 10 rupees (15 cents) bill or a 500 ($7). My hour-long taxi ride cost me 500, and I knew that 100 would be sufficient, but the experience of being escorted by an Indian cop on his bike was worth $7 to me. So I tipped and thanked him, “dhanyavaad!” and checked in to my new guesthouse, which for 3 nights only costed me $20.
I soon went to explore after checking in to my guesthouse, though unfortunately it was still pouring. I asked the man at the front desk where I can find a good sheltered spot to go. He recommended Quest mall, and so I went. There was LOTS of security at the entrance, and I had to go through a scanner like at the airport. Once inside, it felt like any fancy big mall you’d find in America. It had 6 floors offering a food court with KFC, Pizza Hut, Chili’s, and lots of high-end shops like Gucci and Armani. Very few stores that you wouldn’t also find in the US.
The mall wasn’t my scene, and once the rain subsided I headed towards the Victoria Memorial, which was built to honor Queen Victoria of England back when India was still under British rule. The architecture was elegant, and the gardens beautiful and well kept. Most interestingly, though, I met many Indians who want to take a selfie with me! Always in a very polite manner, they’d approach and ask, “excuse me sir, would you mind taking a photo with me?” I’d gladly accept, and sometimes chat with them for a little while about where they’re from, what they do for work, etc. I expected to see a few other tourists from Europe or the States, but I was the only one. So I guess it makes sense that they’d want a picture with such a rarity as a blonde-headed white person.
Close to the memorial was a big green space on Google maps which held Fort Williams, so I tried exploring around there afterwards. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed in because I was American. There was very high security there, but even the guards are quite friendly and non-intimidating. On my way back there were there grand chariots painted gold and covered with all sorts of sparkly gems parked on the side of the road, waiting for tourists. Nobody was riding them – I doubt they had more than 2 rides the whole day. When I walked past they were really trying to sell it to me, and though I felt bad for the poor folks who make a living off of these rides, I felt bad for the horses, too, and didn’t want to be the center of such a luxurious scene. Plus, if I have the time and energy, I much prefer walking. You get such a better feel for the culture, the people, the way of life. I’d only take taxis when I had long distances to multiple places I wanted to visit with limited time.
The next morning I was off to Sundarbans National Park, which was some 150 km or so from Kolkata. Its claim to fame is that it’s home to the Bengal Tiger, the national animal of India. The cheapest way was by train, and I was excited to finally experience the Indian railways. I expected the train station to be crowded, but this was a whole new level. I thought that New York train stations were busy, but Sealdah Station made that look like a desert. When a train pulled in, people would hop off before it stops moving, and just floods upon floods of people would swarm all around. I could probably see at least a few thousand people from one vantage point. My train ticket costed 15 Rupees (less than 25 cents!) and took me a decent distance (50 km?) to a town called Canning. Interestingly, there was a separate line at the ticket booth for ladies, which was much shorter than the general line. Also, on the train, women could choose to sit in the Ladies compartment if they wish, or may otherwise sit/stand in the general area (there was no men-only compartment).
Somehow, between all the people squished onto the train standing practically everywhere physically possible, there was a constant flux of people moving from cart to cart selling all sorts of goods: curly chips, peanut-brittle-ish thing, fruits, drinks, and even stuff like toothbrushes, Q-tips, and pencils (but no toilet paper). One middle aged woman came through sobbing, saying something in Hindi that I didn’t understand, holding part of her dress out and asking for donations. It was sad to see, as well as the people whose houses are falling apart and less than a few feet away from the train tracks. India is one great fantasy of glory and hardship all mixed together, harmoniously and chaotically.
Once I got to Canning I had to find a way to get to Sundarbans. I didn’t recognize the taxis at first, because they looked more like a Jeep. But eventually I hopped inside, and the man who is advertising the taxi told me I should hop up top instead. At first I was hesitant. I’ve never rode on the roof of a car before, and the roads were busy and poorly maintained. But then I figured: screw it, I may never be able to do something like this again. So I climbed up the tiny ladder, and sat upon this cargo holder of cross-crossed metal bars which straddled the roof with 2 other Indians.
Ahh the breeze! Oh the amazing views! The extra bit of discomfort was totally worth it. I saw massive rivers, rice paddies, temples and churches, small villages, and an incredible amount of banana trees, coconut trees, and other other fruit trees which I know not the name of. It was a long journey, and already close to 2 PM by the time I arrived. But when I did, it felt like a totally new world. No honking cars passing by every second, no people yelling on the streets selling things. Instead: the sounds of crickets, other insects, and leaves glistening in the wind.
The main part of the national park was separated by a big river, and to take a boat over there would be too timely. So I stuck to the small walk around section on my side of the river, since there was still a lot to see there. As soon as I stepped in there was a beautiful garden with butterflies and dragonflies dancing about, and once I passed through that, a brick pathway with a sign that says: BEWARE OF DANGEROUS MONKEYS. I am naturally excited and cautious as I proceed, and after perhaps only 100 steps I see a group of monkeys off in the distance! I approach slowly, and as another Indian couple passes by them casually, I realize that you can get close without bothering them. So I end up standing maybe 10 feet away and just watching as they monkey around on the netting, gates, and nearby pathways. Some eventually meander past me only a foot away – this is the closest I’ve ever been to a monkey. Their facial gestures and bodily movements are surprisingly even more human-like than I imagined. They really seemed like little furry forest-dwelling humans.
I watched them for about 10 minutes, and moved on to explore the rest of the park. Not too much later, I spot an alligator (on the other side of the fence, thankfully), and a hawk-like bird as well. The path soon looped back around to the starting point, and it was getting rather late, so I thought I’d take one more look at the monkeys and then be on my way. I go back to where they were, and keep even more distance than I had before. The older ones climbed so gracefully, but the young ones were still learning the ropes. They’d have a clear intention of where to go, and sometimes miss their next grip and fall. I watched this for some time… peacefully… undisturbingly… or so I thought.
Then all of the sudden, one falls and makes a yelp, and mommy and daddy monkey come chasing after me! These monkeys went from one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen to one of the most ferocious and intimidating things I’ve seen. I totally regretted not having some sort of stick to scare them away. I had nothing to help me, so I ran. I booked it as fast as I could, so I could show them that I don’t want to hurt them. I end up slipping on some mud and falling to the ground, and I thought I was done for. I was waiting for those huge incisors to dig into my skin, and soon after being rushed to the hospital for a rabies shot. Thankfully, I stood up unbitten, turn around, monkey still growling at me, run a little bit more, and yell very loudly, “Hey! Back off! Go away!”
At that time, I was far enough away from the rest of them to back away slowly. Momma monkey knew that they won, and I won’t bother them. I walk away towards a big group of Indians who were watching the whole thing, and they hand me a branch, telling me to use this for protection. So I walk back through the crowd of monkeys, weapon in hand, and make it past without another incident. As soon as I make it through, heart still pumping a mile a minute, a local claps at me and in hand gestures tells me to follow him. I thought perhaps he’s taking me to the park manager or police, where I’ll be fined for disturbing the wildlife. We walked outside of the park down the road I came from, for maybe 20 minutes, having no clue where he intends to take me. Surprisingly, he was just guiding me back to a rickshaw (a mini 3-wheeled taxi) that I could take back to the train station.
I take it back to the Jeep-like taxi, where I once again sit on the roof for the hour-long ride back to the train station. This time there were 7 of us on top, and maybe perhaps 12 below. That almost 20 people in/on a car that in America you’d typically fit 5 people maximum. Indians know how to carpool! Anyway, I end up making a few friends on the roof as we ride back. One named Rajid(?) who is a hip-hop/R&B dance teacher in Kolkata spoke decent English. We got to know each other pretty well – he said Chris brown is his hero, and loved Man vs Wild. The others were friendly, and pointed out fruit trees, rivers, and rice paddies to me, but the language barrier limited our conversations.
We make it back to Canning, and they won’t let me pay for the taxi ride, which is only 50 Rupees (less than $1). They also bought me a local drink of shaved ice (aah, I tried to avoid this until now so I don’t fall sick, but politely accepted) lime, and soda water. It tastes good, but weird. The water had some sort of dirty flavor to it, and I thought that I may very well get sick from it, but thankfully I didn’t. When we board the train and are waiting for departure, another Indian comes in, puts his arm around Rajit, and escorts him off the train in a very strict manner. All 4 of his friends follow, and I try to as well, but they tell me to stay. I started to become very concerned, and thought that that’s the last time I’d ever see my friend, without getting to say goodbye.
15 minutes passes, and he and his friends come back into my cart. Rajit looked so ashamed and upset. Turns out he was fined 360 Rupees for smoking a cigarette at the train station. There were no signs saying not to, and it seemed like plenty others were smoking too, so I told him how terribly unfair I thought that was, and his most crude remark was, “stupid fools.” Swearing in India is very taboo, and though I’m sure he knew plenty of swear words, he wouldn’t say any. I could tell 360 Rupees (~5$) meant a lot to him, and felt so bad for him, I wanted to offer him some cash but thought it’d be rude.
By the time the train back to Kolkata left it was already around 8 PM. So many other people were squished in between us, we couldn’t conversation much, so instead I hung a third of my body out of the door and watched the night-time Indian countryside and small villages pass me by. There were hundreds, if not thousands of people just hanging out on the tracks. Not drinking and partying, just sitting there, chatting and spending time with each other. I guess in order to enjoy themselves that’s all they need… or all they have. Perhaps both.
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I have been in India for over a week now, but have been so busy that my blogging is lagging well behind my travels. Since then I’ve been ripped off big time, made some great friends at my first Workaway experience, and just today was part of a climate change protest in the heart of Panjim, Goa. Stay tuned (there is a link to follow me on the right side of this page) for even more crazy stories!
Bye for now,