Marooned in Kolkata


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April 8th 2013
Published: April 8th 2013
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Okay, so I'm not quite as buggered as the title suggests. Still, I should be enjoying my second night in Dhaka, Bangladesh at the moment; instead my afternoon biriyani is oozing out of the pores of my skin in a stiflingly humid Kolkata internet cafe. It would be fair to say that here, on April 8th 2013, my lucky travel streak has petered out to nothing.

I completed the long train journey from Hampi to Kolkata (google maps it, I think you'll find the distance suitably colossal) in surprisingly high spirits. The total door-to-door journey time was well over 48 hours and I spent virtually the whole train ride in the cramped upper berth of a muggy sleeper class carriage - the lowest class in the Indian train system. This time I was thoroughly prepared for the back-cramping misery though. I'd stocked up ludicrously on Indian sweets, cakes and savoury snacks to maintain spirits, and had 3 paperbacks at my disposal. Like a feral child, I snuck this all away on the little ledge that constituted my bed, and hid, gorging on various food-stuffs, for hours in my den/hovel. You might think this antisocial, but I'm tiring of being asked the 3 English questions that every Indian poses on encountering a white gentleman, and I may well have committed murder if I'd been bombarded with the "annoying trio" by those passing, for 2 whole days. Over my two months in India, I have cultivated a new respect for celebrities who no doubt repress similar murderous impulses.

Alas, eventually I was to be discovered. A Hyderabadi pharmacist, who looked and dressed like a Muslim, jumped up onto my bunk (oh god no) and slyly drew a bottle of whiskey out of his dress-like clothes. I say "looked and dressed like" because he prompty undid the bottle top and glugged a significant portion on the bottle (against their law, if you didn't know). He then thrust it at me with a broad smile. I was not really in the mood for this male bonding session, but I was caught between the rock of the ceiling and the hard place of my bunk and anyway, I thought optimistically, night was approaching and I could do with a nightcap. I had a rather small amount of the whiskey, but my "friend", seemingly encouraged by my participation, continued glugging furiously. This was not going to end well. After picking up my book multiple times as a hint for him to get the hell off my bunk, he slapped me merrily on the thigh and garbled some Hindi exclamation that had the surrounding bunks staring. Mercifully, he then withdrew himself and tottered off to the toilet. I slammed my Ipod into my ears and used my body to create an impenetrable wall that the drunken fellow could not hope to break through on his return. Indians really cannot handle their drink.

Happily, on the afternoon of the 5th, I arrived in Kolkata unscathed. My original plan to link up with the British duo I'd met earlier was already looking very precarious as they'd followed their schedule to the day and were already Dhaka-bound, whereas I was 2 days late, clue- and visa-less. After the usual hotel-hunting I set up shop in a fairly decent single room for 250R p/n (decent for a city). The next day, if I was lucky, I'd have my visa and would be on the bus to Dhaka. Unfortunately, when I rocked up at the Bangladeshi mission in the early morning, it transpired that I'd been unlucky, and had committed the rookie error that flaws hardier travelers than me. The embassy was closed all weekend, and it was a Saturday.

Today, Monday, I tried again. I bullied my way to the kiosk and succeeded in arranging an ominous-sounding (but in reality very pointless) interview with the deputy-consulate for 11.30. Despite my pleas, the visa would only be available for collection at noon the next day. Still, at least this gave me time to book my Bangladesh-bound bus. It turned out I didn't need this time: to complete the hat-trick of disappointments, when I went to the coach booking centre, I was informed that strikes in Bangladesh meant that I couldn't leave Kolkata until Wednesday the 10th. I stormed out and swore angrily all the way to this internet cafe, where my hackles have been lowered considerably by consulting the football results (WHU drew to Liverpool away - decent). In summary, I'm paying 70 quid in visa fees for a maximum of 12 days in Bangladesh. This set-back also means that I'm going to have to scrub Darjeeling off my itinerary in order to do Bangladesh justice, and return in time for my flight to Bangkok (25th). Sorry to family and friends who anticipated a package of locally-sourced world-class tea! I'm as gutted as you are!

In the intervening days and moments where I haven't been entangled in red tape, I've seen a great deal of Kolkata. In my mind, the city is tainted slightly by the stress that has gone hand-in-hand with my time here, and hence Mumbai remains my favourite city, but there have been highlights. The magnificent Victoria Memorial (see my flickr photo) is a huge credit to the Anglo-Indian city, and is by far the most impressive building in the city. It's a strange mix of the Taj Mahal and St Paul's cathedral. It works well. Queen Vic stands mightily in the centre beneath the main dome, like a miniature Mother Russia statue, only without the sword.

Most people might know that Kolkata was also the home of Mother Teresa for most of her life. Her legacy remains here in murals, statues and street names, but there is a very small resident Christian population to show for the missionary efforts here. I visited her dubiously named "mother house" where her tomb and old room are on display, surrounded by hordes of dithering old nuns. I suppose for a Catholic it is a huge honour, but for me it was very dull. I left after being told off by a nun for taking a photo of a hilarious quote in the museum section, which is attributed to the cause of canonising the late Mother. It read, paraphrased "I wanted a job. I prayed a bit and included Mother Teresa in one of them. 10 days later, one of the job applications came back and I had a job!" That sums up sufficiently the stringent efforts made by the Vatican to certify miracles.

As usual in big cities, it's been my walks on the wilder side of the metropolis that have been most rewarding. If my legs could survive it, I'd spend every day here getting lost in the back streets, off the Lonely Planet map. Today I got so lost, and was in a neighbourhood which harboured no English-speakers, that I had no choice but to get a hand-pulled rickshaw out of the chaos, to a metro station. In truth, I'd been tempted to get one from the moment I saw the first one striding past, but had questioned the morals involved. I did feel a bit Imperious as the little man trotted along with me on the throne behind him - especially after having just had a side-parting comb-over from a local barber! I gave him more Rupees than I should have.

Tomorrow, I collect my expensive visa from the embassy and do a bit more exploring. Then, at 5.30am the following day, I commence the 13-hour coach journey to Dhaka. Wish me luck - there are still riots dotted around the country!



I keep forgetting to remind you, the blog audience, but I have successfully uploaded over 130 photos onto Flickr now! I like to think some of them ain't 'alf bad. See them at http://www.flickr.com/photos/alexkingphotos/

Feedback welcome. News from home also welcome. Probably won't be writing again for 2 weeks as Bangladesh is not famous for its infrastructure. Love to all x

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8th April 2013

Written with a great sense of humour and wonderful pictures !
Hi Alex ! I have really enjoyed discovering your blog and you certainly know how to untertain the reader with great writing and a great of sense of humour ! Your pictures of Kolkata are beautiful and very atmospheric, like those of a professional documentary...quite fascinating. Good luck for your 13 hours journey to Dhaka and stay away from the riots ! Karim

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