Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Uncertainty in Kolkata - A New Day in India

A scene from the roof deck of Afreen International Hotel along Marquis Street. Notice the smattering of yellow Ambassador Taxis which is (a color scheme) unique in Kolkata.

From Karunamayee, Salt Lake City area where Dhaka-bound buses depart and terminate, we walked towards a Pre-paid Taxi Booth in the dimly lit bus garage and paid around 100 rupees to get to Marquis Street, in the fringes of Sudder Street, the backpacker’s ghetto. Junaid, a Kashmiri doctor I met in Dhaka, has obviously done this a hundred times. There was no reluctance in his resolve, and I was just glad to tag along. I was still shaken from my horrific border experience.

We stopped right in front of Aafren International Hotel (10 Park and Marquis Street, Kolkata; aafreen@cal2.vsnl.net). This wasn’t even mentioned in my LP, but it deserves to be. We paid 800 rupees ($17.80 or PhP775.80) – a single double-bed, AC, bathroom, cable TV. If we split the bill, 400 rupees is painless. Since I only had 300 rupees with me, I excused myself and looked for a money changer. Junaid had paid, but I was going to hand him my share. I handed my passport at the counter (they photocopy this) and logged myself at their government-regulated logbook. This procedure is standard practice all throughout India. A rather intrusive list of details have to be filled up: passport details, profession, visa number, date and place of entry into the country, coming from and going to (destination), etc. Every detail has to be accomplished.

Our room was at the 3rd floor. I was a bit uncomfortable sharing a bed with Junaid, but so was he, I reckon. Later that night, we slept with a pillow securely tucked at the center of the bed. But before bedtime, we decided to checkout our nearby surroundings.

Afreen Hotel, Marquis and Park Streets. This photo only courtesy of TripAdvisor's tiggeritto.

Our room at Aafreen Hotel (above) and the view of the roof deck (below).

Kolkata - then "Calcutta" - was the capital of the British Raj until 1911, and the country’s 3rd biggest city after Mumbai (22 million) and the capital of Delhi (19 million). Greater Kolkata is home to 15 million people. It was where Nobel Peace awardee, Rabindranath Tagore, thrived as an artist and a poet. It’s also home to Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Mercy. And for all intents and purposes, Kolkata is India’s cultural capital.


But a walk through its congested streets wasn't as threatening as I thought it would be. Yellow Ambassador taxis would occasionally stop for us. Rickshaws pulled by barefoot men were a common sight. There is a moral issue constantly questioning the aforementioned practice, so I watched the whole scenario with intense curiosity. Was patronage of it immoral? Honestly, it didn’t feel like it was. When the bigger picture starts intellectualizing, it paints a different perspective than what occurs in reality. That poverty allows these men to slave through by pulling carts with people on them is no different from seeing farmers persevere under the harsh sun plowing their fields. Yet no one labels the farmers' sacrifices immoral. When trapeze artists risk their life and limb to entertain a paying circus audience, the public calls it performing arts. But how different is it really from these barefoot rickshaw workers?

The cloak of fatigue gradually crept in as Junaid and I made our way into the night crowd. It had been an unpleasant 15 hours from Dhaka. We walked side by side in silence as we observed our surroundings. How do I figure in a historical city of 5.2 million residents? As the Hooghly River snakes through this West Bengali land mass, it was starting to dawn on me that transient as I may be, I was making my baby steps in “Incredible India”. Sooner or later, I’d be navigating strange new places in India on my own. For now, I was walking with a friend. And I was grateful for the opportunity.

Roti for breakfast. Mine was fried egg, dahl (below) and roti. The combination wasn't commendable. LOL

The next morning was a new day. I was excited. It felt like my first day in India ever. Junaid promised he’d take me to the Victoria Memorial, though I never asked. There was also a bit of tension surfacing between moments of conversation. I had shown him my tentative itinerary for the whole trip. If you travel, you have to have an adjustable skeletal framework of where you want to go. My plan was to stay for one more night, then head for Delhi the next day. But Junaid had planned on taking the night train to Delhi. This seemed to bother him. I was a bit sad. And how does that make a day fraught with excitement and sadness in alternating intensity?

We had our breakfast in a food joint that served the usual – roti, dahl. I ordered roti just to conform, but I also ordered fried egg. In this congested little restaurant, everyone was enjoying a hearty breakfast. I picked pieces of my roti (see photo) while engulfing my eggs. Junaid was concerned. “Eat more,” he would encourage. But roti was not an acquired taste for me, the way other people consider steamed rice tasteless.

Kolkata, it would seem, was a small world. And Indians move in small circles. In its vastness of 1.3 billion population and 2.8 million square kilometer of land mass, people navigate almost within a common subset. How else would you explain fellow Kashmiris meeting each other in the far reaches of Kolkata. Junaid introduced me to his friend (photo below). Small world, indeed. Since it was close to noon, we’d need to check out from Afreen Hotel if we weren’t willing to pay another 800 rupees. Junaid’s friend suggested that we move into his room which was 50% cheaper and he didn’t need to check out until sometime in the evening. We moved our baggage.

Meeting Junaid's friend. He was Dhaka-bound.

Junaid took me to a store selling mobile loads and sim cards. He asked for my photo and thrusted an application form for me to fill up. He wanted me to get an Indian sim card so he could check on me once he’s gone. I didn’t have such plans until I heard his suggestion. But it wasn’t a bad idea, just in case I’d need help. Using my own Philippine-based sim for Indian use was expensive and SMS didn't work. I could make and receive calls, but no text messaging. In fact, whenever Junaid would text, he'd use his Bangladeshi sim card. I was to claim my new indian sim card after an hour. India, once again, follows stringent measures regarding purchase of sim cards.

Sometime in the afternoon, he finally asked me if I didn’t want to join him that night for his train to Delhi. It didn’t take an hour when I eventually made up my mind. The whole train system was new to me, and stories about it intimidated me. We went to a travel agency and bought our tatkal tickets. We were, understandably, wait listed. Train seats in this vast rail ways required reservation days ahead of a planned trip. We would know for sure if we got sleeper seats at 6PM.

Buying our Delhi-bound sleeper train seats.

Domino's delectable pizza!

We visited Victoria Memorial later in the day, which I will post separately. While the Indian sun gradually set over the horizon, I told Junaid it was my turn to treat him for dinner before we leave this city. Truth to tell, I wanted a hand on deciding for our meal. I was desperately looking for food that agreed with my constitution. Domino’s Pizza – a huge circular plate of Hawaiian, spruced with a lot of pineapple, anchovies, etc. Next door was a small cinema hosting Kolkata Film Festival. I was tempted, but I’ve already agreed to join Junaid en route to Delhi. Junaid actually looked smug for having convinced me to leave Kolkata earlier than planned. Turned out he was a favored son from an influential political family. He usually gets what he wants. In this case, I didn’t mind. It was to my advantage. We were bound to say goodbye in Delhi anyway. For now, I felt safe. It felt good to bask in the confidence of others, for a change.

This train ride will be something to talk about. I know it.

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Mother Teresa

Sweet tooth in Kolkata

Before leaving Kolkata, I had suggested to Junaid that he should buy a pair of shoes. His slippers were in their early stage of disintegration. He agreed. This was our shoe store visit.

Hooghly River snaking its way through Central Kolkata.

Up next: Victoria Memorial!

Immorality in patronage of human-powered rickshaws?

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