Kolkata (Calcutta), our Last Stop – end of March 2005

Kolkata (Calcutta), our Last Stop:

We had met a couple in Cappadocia, Turkey, who had invited us to visit them when we arrived in Kolkata, where they lived for half of the year. We contacted them when we arrived in India, and they invited us to stay with them. We took them up on the offer, and took public transport from Goa, on the west coast, to Kolkata, in the northeast. Our plan was then to take a flight from Kolkata to Bangkok, Thailand.

First was a 16-hour overnight bus ride from Goa back to Mumbai. Bus rides in India are notable for their pit-stops, which generally consisted of men and women lining up alongside the road and peeing next to each other! You had to be unbelievably quick, because the bus sometimes started to pull away before the women had barely started!

The same day that we arrived in Mumbai, we took off again – this time on a 35-hour train ride to Kolkata. It was a long three days. We drowned in sweat, and the dirt and dust on the train made us feel grubbier than we did after two days of biking in 100F heat! Riding on the train was a bit like experiencing Indian street life – beggars tugged on pants’ legs, asking for money, and men walked the aisles, selling hot and cold beverages and food (snacks, fruit, and curries). “Chai! Chai! Chai!” (Tea!) was a common refrain.

We biked to our hosts’ house from the train station, on an early Sunday morning. They lived in Salt Lake, an upscale residential area of Kolkata. They were Dipak and Aruna, Bengali Indians who had lived abroad in Singapore and Hong Kong for half a lifetime. Their house was filled with beautiful objects, mostly from Singapore. They had several servants, including one girl who prepared our meals on a daily basis. What a treat! Real, home-cooked Indian dishes every day!!

Having lived abroad and traveled extensively, Dipak and Aruna had been exposed to many cultures and ideas, and seemed open-minded about a good many things. They were definitely not your average Indian. Their two daughters, for example (who lived in the USA and in England), were expected to find their own husbands (which is quite an exception in a country where approximately 95% of the marriages are arranged). Their eldest daughter, a Hindu, just married a Turkish Jew whom she had met at college in the United States.

We spent a few days going to and from the Thai Consulate for our visas and booking airline tickets to Bangkok. Our hosts had a neighbor who was editor of the “The Telegraph,” a widely-read English language newspaper. We spoke with him, and then a journalist and photographer came to the house to interview us for an article that appeared the following day. The funny thing was that, following the article, many people on the street came to show us the article or stopped to talk to us. A lot of people pointed and would say, “Cycle, cycle.” Some people even knew our names! Quite a surprise for anyone at all to recognize us in a city of 18 million!

One unique thing about Kolkata that differentiates it from other Indian cities is the pull-rickshaw, which is a sort of taxi rickshaw pulled by men. The passengers sit in a carriage while the men walk – or often run! – barefoot in the street in a humid 100F heat! It is a job done mostly by poor men from the neighboring state of Bihar, which is the poorest in the country. It is hard work, and apparently, they often die of exhaustion. Though it is no longer legal and licenses are no longer given, many pull-rickshaws still carry passengers in the street. It is the only place in Asia where the pull-rickshaw still exists.

Another remarkable thing about Kolkata is the buses. The drivers earn money based upon how many passengers they pick up and how fast they drive. This encourages them to drive quickly, as the expense of safety. They don’t even always come to a complete stop to pick up or let off passengers. We saw men run to catch the bus and hop on as the bus slowed down a bit, while other men grabbed them by their shirts to pull them on. Rush hour was crazy. It seemed impossible to cram so many people onto a bus. The people inside looked suffocated, and almost a dozen men hang onto the sides of the bus, on the steps. I saw one man flattened backwards against the bus, one foot on the steps, and holding on with both of his hands over his head – all during a pre-monsoon rainstorm…scary!

Every evening, when we would ride home from the city to Dipak’s and Aruna’s in Salt Lake, we would pass a street filled with thousands upon thousands of goats. In preparation for a Muslim holiday, the local Muslims brought their goats to slaughter. We never saw the butchering, but the goats, along with hundreds of men, filled the street so completely that it was hard to navigate around them with our bikes. The goats would often pull on the ropes around their necks and bleat pathetically, and I swear it was as if they knew their fate. One man tried to pass a goat up from the ground to a man on top of a large truck. The man on top had managed to grab only one leg, and the poor goat hung for a while by one leg, bleating all the while. The man from below finally managed to give it a good shove in the rear end, and the goat grew wings and flew up over the top of the truck!

At the end of the street were small plastic tents with skinny people sitting around them, some cooking food over a small fire. We stayed in a wealthy section of town and saw different parts of the city, but we didn’t go through the ghettos like we did in Mumbai or other cities. So it is hard to compare the slums to other cities, but it is known that Kolkata’s ghettos are the largest slums in India, after Mumbai. The city is densely populated (18 million inhabitants, India’s second largest). In fact, the population explosion and the poverty worsened after the country was divided into three – India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (which later became Bangladesh). Many Hindu refugees fled from the majority-Muslim country of Bangladesh to the state of West Bengal in India, and Kolkata in particular. This created a situation of desperate poverty for many and an expansion of the slums. Even in the city center itself, men, women, and children live, eat, and sleep on the streets and in tents, and wash themselves with brown water that sprouts up from the sidewalk – a sort of sewer water.

Springtime Festival of Holi:

Along with the locals, we celebrated the Springtime festival of Holi in Kolkata. Held on the Full Moon Day, it is, in essence, a festival to herald the coming Spring. It is widely celebrated in India, especially in the North, where there is a real change of seasons. People make merry and throw colored powders all over each other. People used to believe that the powders were a kind of disinfectant and would protect against disease, but now it is just an excuse for another festival. It is a real holiday, in fact. Businesses and restaurants wee shut down and people didn’t work (aside from a few rickshaw drivers).

We biked 30 km. through the streets that day – which was a great time to bike because there was no traffic (cars didn’t dare to go out, for fear of getting painted!) – and the mood was very festive. Everyone smiled and seemed especially happy. People were very friendly, but then again, we had noticed that the people in Kolkata seemed especially friendly – more so than in most other parts of India. Men yelled to us, “Happy Holi!”

At first, people asked if they could paint us. After a bit, you couldn’t help but agree. It really was very funny, and we had a good laugh. Though everyone asked when we were relatively clean, once we were well-covered, it was a free-for-all. Two women seemed especially intent on getting me!

I didn’t mind about the colored powders, but unfortunately a couple of children got a bit carried away and sprayed us with colored paint with water guns from the rooftops. It left us soaked, and the paint – even after hours and days of scrubbing – didn’t come out of the clothing. Even now, one week later, as I’m writing this, we still have a bit of paint on our skin and our hair! We re-baptized Stephane “Blue Beard” because of the massive amounts of blue color that remained in his beard!

We spent a total of one week in Kolkata, and it was the perfect way to finish our trip in India. Dipak and Aruna were exceptionally hospitable, and after 1 1/2 years on the road, it was wonderful to stay at a real home for a while!