Three Days in Amazing Calcutta
Part I – Getting to India
Part II – India Travel Journal I
After traveling around by land during my first week in India, I arrive in Calcutta on a late-night Kingfisher Airlines flight from Hyderabad. The flight is great, and serves as a good model for what U.S. airlines could learn from if they were interested in learning anything. Everyone receives a full meal on the all-economy flight, we have Bollywood movies on our own individual screens, and the flight attendants are extremely gracious. It’s just like Jet Blue, except they actually deliver what they promise.
Due to air traffic control delays (something all too universal, unfortunately), we are about an hour and a half behind schedule, putting us getting into CCU airport close to midnight. I think Pico Iyer once wrote that all flights to Calcutta are destined to land at 3:00 a.m. By that standard, I suppose, we’re three hours early.
I stagger out to the arrivals area, book a pre-paid taxi, and meet my driver for an hour-long ride to nowhere. After he stops to ask three or four people for directions, we finally find my guesthouse. I check in, arrange for breakfast, and fall fast asleep after a quick shower. (I’m still working off the effects of the 12-hours of jet lag from Seattle the week before.)
Prior to coming to Calcutta, my Indian experience has been mixed. In Mumbai I loved the food but didn’t enjoy the lack of decent budget lodging options. I went to Hyderabad next, which had both good food and cheap hotels… but something didn’t feel right. I’m the first to admit that it could be totally subjective, but for whatever reason, I didn’t love Hyderabad.
From my first day in Calcutta, everything changes for the better—even the things that were pretty good before. My guesthouse is perfect, and even includes free wi-fi that allows me to catch up on life back home. The food in the city is great, and I regularly eat full meals for under $1.50.
The second day is even better. I discover that I am in Calcutta for Holi, the Hindu festival that celebrates the arrival of spring. On the first day of Holi, nearly everyone covers themselves in body paint from head to toe.
Upon exiting my guesthouse and heading for the nearby metro, I quickly learn that I am not exempt from the practice. A group of excited young me come up to me with fistfuls of the powder that turns to paint as you smear it on your body. “Hello, sir!” one of them says. “Happy Holi!” There’s no getting out of this, and it’s nice to be the center of attention from people who want nothing more than to share their culture with you.
“Okay,” I say as they extend their hands to my face. “But small, please.” No need to go overboard like some people do at these things.
They smear yellow and purple powder on my face and hair. I think to myself, I hope I’m not converting to Hinduism. I ask for two pictures—one of them by themselves and another with me. They immediately agree, and everyone crowds in for the photos. I say goodbye and walk off with all of us laughing.
The metro is closed for the holiday, so I walk the three miles into town. It’s a long trek in the Indian heat, but the walk is made better by countless people stopping me to wish me a Happy Holi. I get my face painted a couple more times at the insistence of festive Calcuttans, and finally make it to Park Street, where I cool off in an air-conditioned café. I drink a liter of water and head back outside.
Lunch costs 25 cents at a sidewalk vendor. I get dumplings and hot soup, which is ironic considering the heat, but it tastes great. After wandering through bookshops and city streets for two more hours, I’m ready for the highlight of the afternoon: a trip to Mother Theresa’s house.
I walk to Mother House, as it’s known here, and get directions along the way from several helpful Calcuttans. When I arrive, it turns out I’ve come at just the right time—the 3:00 p.m. Good Friday service is about to begin. Before I go upstairs, I walk around the small visitors’ area. Reading the information about Mother Theresa’s life and the work of Missionaries of Charity around the world is truly inspiring. This has got to be the only tourist destination in India that does not offer anything for sale or ask for donations. Despite the dozens of foreign visitors that come every day, there’s no bookshop, souvenirs, or mementos to buy.
Upstairs there are at least 100 nuns at the service, along with a small crowd of Western and Japanese visitors. We sit on one side of the room, across from the nuns. The service is nice. Just before communion, I try to sneak out—I’m not a confirmed Catholic, so I’m not supposed to take communion—but I’m stopped at the door by a sister who politely asks me to stay. I learn later that they have a rule: once you’re inside, you stay inside until the end of the service. No one comes late, and no one leaves early. Despite being ready to go after an hour and a half, I’m impressed with this policy. I don’t know any churches in America that would try doing that.
I leave Mother House (after the service ends, twenty minutes later) and spend some more time walking. The metro is open now, so I take it back to South Calcutta where I’m staying.
South City Mall
Before leaving Calcutta the next day, I visit the new South City Mall upon the recommendation of the guesthouse owner. This gleaming five-story building is certainly incongruous with the image of Calcutta as a center of urban poverty. I’ve been to some big Asian malls before, in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Singapore, and most of those were probably superior in a strict shopping sense—but this architectural Mecca of the city’s elite is still something special.
I enter at the ground floor and sit on a bench for a full half an hour, taking it all in and journaling. Outside I was covered in sweat from the heat; inside, I’m shivering from the arctic blast of the a/c. The music is blasting too, and I have no choice but to enjoy all the great Top 40 hits of the 80s on repeat.
“It must have been cold there in your shadow…” Bette Midler sings as I sit on the bench with some Indians. Next up is Tina Turner, followed by Sinead O’Conner, and I finally head upstairs as Rod Stewart comes over the system.
I check out the shops on each floor, and find it strange to see The Body Shop in the same city that Mother Theresa’s house is in. I go back and forth between worlds all the time, but this is a stretch even for me.
There’s an Australian cookie shop downstairs and another place called Kookie Jar in the food court upstairs. Strangely, the Kookie Jar sells curry and cakes, but no cookies. Otherwise, the food court boasts a wealth of world cuisine choices. I debate between Pizza with Friends and Not Just Dosas before settling on Hat’wich, the Indian version of Quizno’s. Unlike Quizno’s, there are real vegetarian options here—a grand total of seven different sandwiches to choose from. Thanks, India. I appreciate that about you.
After a sandwich I go to The Juice Bar, but a sign informs customers that they are out of juice today. A juice bar out of juice, how perfect. I have a sweet lassi instead and spend an hour reading my book.
I leave the mall as Eternal Flame is belting through the sound system. I go back to my guesthouse, get my bags, and take a taxi to the airport. I’m headed back over to Mumbai, where my trip will end in two day’s time. The airport is as frantic as it was the last time, but I’m able to smile at the frenzy. I pay my driver, go inside for the boarding pass, and head off towards the security checkpoint. In three more hours, I’ll be in Mumbai.
Update: My trip to India is almost over. I’m now at the Mumbai airport, getting ready to fly back to Japan. Next stop: Hong Kong, and then back to L.A. for the weekend.
Calcutta really does have the best street food, the sweetest people and the most confused taxi drivers in India. I still dream about hot kati rolls and long talks on park benches with unemployed, on-strike factory workers. Oh, Calcutta.
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