I flew from Detroit to Chicago to Abu Dhabi to Kolkata. Chicago to Abu Dhabi was the longest flight I’ve ever been on. It was somewhere around 13 hours. We took off around 9:30 PM, and since we were heading east so quickly, the sun eventually rose, AND set again before we landed! So my longest flight ever ended up being my shortest day ever.
I’m glad I didn’t stay in Abu Dhabi (UAE) for long. It was the middle of the night and still 95 degrees. When I walked onto the plane to Kolkata, there was cool steam coming out of the walls. I felt like I was at a Halloween dance party… on an airplane. On the flight there it finally started to feel like I’m actually going to India. I was one of very few white people on board. Still, it didn’t really set in until I walked outside of the airport into the heat and there were all these Indian women in beautiful, vibrantly colorful dresses presumably waiting for a bus. Immediately someone walked up to me and asked if I needed a taxi. I accepted, and we hopped in his rickety old car.
There were no seatbelts! But at least the windows could manually be rolled down. That was the first time a taxi driver had ever offered me a cigarette, and so we shared a smoke together as he (hopefully) brought me closer to my hostel. Road signs and traffic laws mean practically nothing. Since the streets were relatively empty at 4 AM, we ran plenty of red lights and stop signs. Drove right on the dotted lines that separate lanes, and got so close to some trucks that I could’ve reached the first half of my forearm out the window and touched them. Most of the Kolkata was still asleep, including plenty of dogs lying in the street. A good amount of people were sleeping outside, on the ground, or on tables and under the flimsy roofs of their day-shops.
When we got to my hostel I had booked, it was closed, and I didn’t feel safe waiting around on the streets for it to open. So he brought me to another hotel, guarded by security, and with locals(?) sleeping in the lobby. Seemed great, but was too expensive. They were asking 2300 Rupees ($32 USD), and I only exchanged $50 at the airport. I told the taxi driver I didn’t have enough to pay him and the hotel, so he brought me to another one that was asking 2000 Rupees. I didn’t want to pay that either, and tried negotiating, but to no avail. I was exhausted and just wanted somewhere to sleep. I gave in, paid them and my taxi driver, and at around 6 AM decided to go to sleep.
I was excited to explore, but didn’t want to be delirious and get myself into trouble. Alarm was set for 9 AM so I could enjoy the complimentary breakfast, but when it went off I could care less about eating. I ended up sleeping until around 3 PM. Still wasn’t very hungry when I awoke, so I decided I’d just wander the streets and get a feel for my surroundings. So much life buzzing all around me! So many smells – good and bad – of the flowers they were selling along the “sidewalk”, of the dirty, murky water that ran in channels down each road, of incense, of curry, of human urine and scat, of pollution, of fresh fruits and vegetables. It was an all-in-one package. Turn the corner and you have no clue what you nose will be subjected to.
I thought the honking was excessive at 4 AM, but the noise on the major roads at 4 PM was so much worse, I found myself quickly wandering down a side street to escape from it. Surprisingly, after walking just a few blocks, it was relatively peaceful, and I couldn’t hear the major road anymore. There were still motorbikes and rickshaws and compact taxis and bikes all swerving around me. I learned quickly not to make any sudden divergences from my expected walking path, otherwise I’d get run over. Sometimes it felt like if I were to even just turn my foot outward instead of ahead, it would’ve been ran over by some crazy (in Kolkata: normal) driver. It reminded me somewhat of the streets of Grenada, Nicaragua, but even louder, busier, and with more variety of different types of vehicles all trying to get ahead of each other.
Despite the chaos, Kolkata is a glorious place. Down the skinnier, quieter roads, there were kids playing cricket in the street, people washing clothes and dishes, fixing bikes and cooking over coals. There were incredible plants growing out of the most bizarre places, lots of street dogs and cats, many with battle scars. Lizards, super colorful birds kept in a cage, huge flocks of crow-like birds with bartered wings, and a beautiful brown cow. I found a park with a playground – kind of like the kind you’d see in the states, but more colorful and beat up. A swimming pool for kids, some statues of giraffes and lions, a pond with some goldfish, and an oddly large fenced-off square pool full of nothing.
The most common image you’ll find along the roads are of Krishna or Rama or another Hindu God in the form of painting, poster, and statue. I’m staying at the Shree Krishna International Hotel, which was playing the Maha Mantra (aka “Hare Krishna”) over the radio when I was checking in. Even the WiFi name is KRISHNA3. Lots of people are dressed in all-white robes and other spiritual attire. Along the main roads were towering sculptures of Hindu Gods, often with a sizable Gandhi sculpture right next to it. Gandhi is on (I think) all the paper bills – from 10 to 500 Rupees, and is by far the most common figure that shows up around town.
So, there’s a glimpse of what I’ve observed after a short day of being in India. Kolkata is so busy and exciting, I’m enjoying being here, but will be glad to be heading somewhere much more naturey, quiet, and laid back in a few days: Goa, India. After living in Washington being surrounded by woods and never hearing any traffic driving by, this is a compete 180. It’s great, its me for a few days, but definitely not forever. I stand out here. I saw countless thousands of Indians, one light-skinned Asian, and not a single other white person. At least I’m easy to find in a crowd!