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October 26-27: Arrival in Kolkata

January 22, 2011

No one understood why we flew to Kolkata. If we were in Darjeeling, and we had been in Kathmandu, why didn’t we take the train or the bus? It’s much quicker and cheaper.

Right. We got it… but despite 4 emails to the Indian Consulate in Shanghai that found new ways to phrase, “But can’t we take a bus or a train? You telling us that we have to fly when we have these other options doesn’t make a lot of sense,” we were told that we had to fly even though the other options available, and that was that.

So on October 26, Wayne and I went through the rigorous security screening process at the Tribhuvan International Airport and got on the 2.5 hour flight to Kolkata. It was quite the sudden introduction to India. It began with us getting hustled by an old Ambassador (yes! the rumors are true!) cab driver (after only about an hour of arguing in the parking lot trying to find the one that would hustle us the least), who we got to take us not to a hotel we’d found online, booked, and had the address for; but a street on which there’d be cheap hostels, or so we read online.

It took about an hour; the whole time we were in crazy traffic interlaced with the people running haphazardly throughout, often with child on hip and in hand, sometimes with something skillfully perched atop their head. The air was thick with the heat and pollution. The city was so alive, so vibrant; and in our post-hike, travel onset exhaustion, it bordered on overwhelming. Laura kind of spoke for all of us when she burst through the doors of Hotel Maria when she arrived a few days later, proclaiming, “Already over it!”

But we didn’t have the liberty of being over it– we still had to find a hotel somewhere in the busy, dirty, moderately sketchy place they called Sudder Street. Our driver left us in the hands of someone who led us down a poorly lit sidestreet where scruffy, toothless men sold hash across from the vendor dishing out thimble-sized terracotta cups of chai and baby kittens convened around the wheels of out-of-service rickshaws. We saw the Hotel Maria, which got a decent write-up online, but it was booked solid. It looked very… old and poorly maintained. We wondered what the ones that didn’t get decent write-ups would be like.

We settled for the neighboring Hotel Paragon, which seemed to be on par with Hotel Maria. Rooms were 300 rupees ($7.50) a night. There were two well-used mattresses spread over two wooden bedframes topped with two thin blankets. There was a little bathroom in which the toilet and shower shared a stall (a common setup in this part of the world). There were concrete walls and floors. And, thankfully, there was a ceiling fan. And no insects (that we could see anyway). After deciding that despite the intimidating nature of our surroundings, we should chin up and check things out by a quick jaunt around the neighborhood, we were sufficiently tired that we slept like kings anyway.

But the next morning taking a daytrip sounded real good. We bought egg sandwiches and fresh juice and spiced chai from the street vendors, and made our way to a travel agent to see what places of interest existed in the surrounding area. We went up to his little office, where there was just enough space for three people, two computers, and a handful of maps. He dramatically gestured to a town in the very northeast of the country called Darjeeling, and spoke of its beautiful views and world-renowned tea. Darjeeling had been on our original list of places we’d like to see (not gonna lie, no less than 100% because of Wes Anderson; a mindset led us to be so easily misled on more than one occasion), and though the trip was more complicated (12 hour bus ride and then a 3 hour jeep on the way there! 3 hour jeep and then an 11 hour train ride on the way back!) and probably too expensive, we decided to go for it. Then the kind Mr Singh shared his breakfast with us and we had our first experience with Idli, steamed Indian bread I grew to really enjoy.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the area, and we also went to the Calcutta Indian Museum, which we didn’t actually enjoy so much, though I guess it’s the biggest and oldest museum in India. Grabbed some Indian food for lunch at the Blue Sky Cafe, a place that would be a lifesaver in the days to come and had dinner from a street vendor on our way to the bus station. At 7 o’clock we were on a nice Volvo bus with big reclining seats that could still make a 12-hour ride only so enjoyable.

have the, ‘what is this, china?!’ jokes gotten old yet?


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