Kolkata in a Day

Leaving Goa wasn´t easy, but it was time to move. I missed traveling, the moving around with a backpack kind of traveling. I was off to Calcutta, one of those far away places that sounds like it only exists in colonial history, but it exists today as Kolkata, a city beating with West Bengal life so strongly that only the architecture reminds you it was once the capital of British India.

curbside barber shop

I arrived at the airport late at night, to a dysfunctional system of prepaid taxis. There were as many taxis curbside as people that needed rides, but one or two police guys in an office box had to get our names, numbers and destinations printed out and take payment from a long line of tired travelers. An hour later I was finally paired up to a driver that took me to the only hotel in the city that somewhat resembled a backpackers – Kolkata Backpackers Bed and Breakfast. It was more like a homestay, or paid couchsurfing, and the rooftop breakfast was worth every penny.

puchkas waiting to be filled

If you come to Kolkata for one reason only, let it be the food. Flury´s bakery, est. 1927, is a tearoom that sells pastries on par with a Parisienne patisserie. I found a bar called Someplace Else that certainly felt like someplace in Ireland, and two incredible restaurants: Peter Cat and Mocambo (they had steak!). There are street vendors and markets in every neighbourhood, and red carrots almost half a meter long were common. For more familiar things, there´s a beef-free McDonalds, and a local version of a kind of Starbucks called Cafeccino that sells frappuccinos worth waiting in line for.

the memorable Victoria Memorial

I was only going to spend 2 nights/1 day in Kolkata, since I was enroute to Bangladesh. My second night I stayed at the Hotel Bengal Guesthouse, which says it has a bar and restaurant, but doesn´t, and the dorm rooms aren´t arranged by gender, but passport. I stayed in the ´foreigner´dorm, where Indians and Bangladesh travelers can´t stay. There was a middle-aged Chinese man with me, who spoke not a single word of English, and after listening to me trying to cough myself to sleep, came over and tried some Chinese medicine on me, with the help of his smartphone translating.

Park Street Christmas lights

As far as tourism goes, there´s not a whole lot to do or see in Kolkata city itself. If you like architecture and religious monuments, don´t miss the Birla Mandir temple and St. Paul´s cathedral. Nearby, the Victoria Memorial is unforgettable, as big and white as the Taj Mahal, surrounded by groomed, green gardens (nota bene: Indians pay 30 rupees to enter, foreigners, 500). The New Market and Park Street are worth a stroll, especially in the evening, unless you´re like me and trying to avoid Christmas – apparently there are enough Christians and westerners around to justify decorating the whole length of Park street in Christmas lights with festive music beaming from speakers at every major intersection and hawkers selling tacky hats and LED jewellery. I looked forward to arriving in Bangladesh the next morning, where the Muslim city of Dhaka would actually be skipping Christmas.

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Kashish Yoga School

What happens when you spend 24 days in Goa, 21 of them in school for 14 hours a day? You become a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher. I also finally got the balls to roadtrip on my own motorcycle on our only 3 days off to visit the whole coast of Goa and down into Gokarna, Karnataka, when that wasn’t enough, since I’m not used to sitting still for 3.5 weeks in any place. Sleeping in the same bed for 24 nights straight hasn’t happened since college, and even then I don’t ever remember exactly when.

the days off were as refreshing as the yoga training

I enjoyed the yoga a lot, which was good because we had atleast 3 hours of it a day, but I couldn´t get into the daily meditation. Dynamic meditations, Osho Kundalini, just made me tired or energized. The guided, relaxing mediation was wonderful, but never for the right reasons. They always lost me somewhere around “you´re walking in dewy grass, barefoot, and dip your toes in the cold clear water…” or “listen to the babbling brook…” because instead, I was feeling mosquitos and listening to dogs bark and a rickety train pass. When I was relaxed, I’d never fall asleep, but get so distracted, with an intense clarity of mind for all the things I wanted to do and write.

meditating on the sunset at Gokarna beach

The daily structure was the same:

6:30 Self Practice and ‘neti’, salt-water nose rinsing

7:00 90 minute yoga class, either Ashtanga, Hatha, Aerial or Yin

8:30 breakfast

10:15 Philosophy or Anatomy

11:30 Yoga Asana clinic

13:30 Lunch

15:20 Philosophy or Anatomy

16:30 90 minute yoga

18:30 Meditation

19:30 Dinner

our wonderful class

All the meals for vegetarian, and the menu didn´t change much from day to day. Breakfast always had 1 hot item, either porridge or pancake (or crepe or roti, whatever you want to call it), oats, corn flakes, yogurt and fruits (watermelon and bananas were constant). Lunch was roti, rice, dhal and a curry, either with red, green or yellow gravy, salad (which was usually cucumber based) and more yogurt. Dinner was roti, rice dhal, curry (a different colour than lunch) and salad, but no yogurt. If you were lucky, there was a milky desert, or someones birthday meant a chocolate cake was shared sparingly around to forty sugar craving mouths.

the newbies, now fully trained yoga teachers!

I had intense chocolate cravings almost the entire time I was there, and Im not even a sweet tooth normally. I never missed meat, and didn’t get tired of rice or poppadoms (the gluten-free substitute to roti), but chocolate was an issue. And half way thru the training, a chocolate monster stole a bunch of my (and some others´) chocolate from the tiny communal fridge and they anonymously received a karma-death sentence since we never found out who it was but made sure everyone knew the chocolate was missing.

fire ceremony

The yoga teachers were wonderful, and taught us so much in less than a month. The learning was intense, and burn out is bound to happen, so they became more than just teachers, but also our friends and mentors. Some were more professional than others, and some more strict, but the only teacher I couldn´t enjoy was the one foreign teacher. The Indian teachers seemed better role models of the yogic lifestyle, while the Australian was only half present, impatient and frankly, not spot on the material she taught.

last day of training… can you see the improvement?

We completed the course with a handful of written assignments, one written exam, and a practical exam that meant teaching our first yoga class. Everyone passed, and no grades were given since giving a mark defeats the whole purpose of yoga. I wish other schools of learning applied the same rules! Although it makes you wonder if everyone that graduates should really be a yoga teacher, especially me…

Return to India

The first time I came to India was with Semester at Sea in fall 2006, and I hated it. I was so sick and tired after a six day whirlwind where I barely slept and got my first case of Delhi belly. We ported in Chennai, flew to Delhi, whizzed around the Golden Triangle in 72 hours. We saw Mahatma Gandhi’s last home in New Delhi, the Taj Mahal in Agra  and the Pink city of Jaipur, traveling half a day between each of the three, before flying back to Chennai and reboarding the MV Explorer. In between, we rode Elephants, fed monkeys and received henna tattoos, but just before sailing away, I drank a cocktail with bad ice and was immobilised for the next 3 days on the ship.

My second visit to India was only to Bangalore and surrounds, including Hampi and attending a Hindi wedding, which was a whole other world of experiences. India is never simple or easy, and I threw a vertebrae out on a jaunty train ride in economy class, but this visit made me want to return.

the not-so-glorious side of Mumbai

Here I am, in Mumbai, the New York and LA of the east, affectionately known as Bollywood. Its worlds away from South East Asia, and different than Delhi and Chennai, but somehow so familiar. India is always a whirlwind, a chaotic circus of cultures, languages, tourists and religion. I try to be a passerby, watching from the sidelines, but I’m already so deep into it by the time I sit in my first rikshaw I’ve hailed from the street outside Mumbai international airport.

The meter goes up, and I pay less than one euro to travel 5 km’s to my hostel. There’s an above-ground metro system, newly installed, which costs three times the price of the deteriorating public railroad transport. I ride both during my day visit to the sights, and hanging outside of the open doors of the train compartment overfilled with women only was much more exciting than the sterile, air-conditioned skytrain.

the Gateway of India

I go to the Gateway of India, and leave from there instead of arrive. I’m on a ferry to Elephanta Island, to see the caves and monkeys. I eat only street food – vada pav, panipuri and bhel puri, breaking my gluten-free diet. I don’t drink anything except lemon soda since I’m starting my one month of detoxing yoga teacher training in a couple of days in Goa.

the tiny train station at Elephanta

I stay at a hostel, making sure to pick the women’s only dorm. Indian men have all sorts of construed perceptions of western woman. There was a banner in Mumbai recently that advertised “Go to Goa to see the Western Whores” with a picture of Pamela Anderson from Baywatch. I wondered if we all really look like that on the beach – light-skinned, blonde bimbos in skimpy bathing suits working on our tanlines and beach bods and thought ‘yeah, touché.´ Mental Note to self: dress more conservatively and try to blend in as an Indian tourist. There are local tourists with my complexion also suffering language barriers so I should fit right in!

returning from Elephanta

I took an overnight train, the beloved Konkan Kanya Express, getting a top bunk in a 9 person berth. It was like a lower level second class, since first class and third class were fully booked, but I was relieved to travel by the cool of the night, undisturbed by others so close to the ceiling. I looked forward to waking up in Goa, and was surprised to find myself the only one left in the train by the time we pulled up at Madgaon.

An Indian Wedding

I was in Bangalore for a Hindu wedding between Yathin and Wendy, a friend from Berkeley. The bride was born and raised on a sheep farm in Wyoming, and Yeti was raised on farm 2 hrs outside of Bangalore. The grooms family all still follow the tradition of arranged marriages, so Yeti is the first from his village to marry outside of this days-old custom. While Wendy wasn’t ‘the chosen one,’ they seemed proud to have their son marry another farmer, and a doctor (she holds a Phd already), with the floral-written wedding banner reading “Yathin weds Dr. Wendy”. Seemingly worlds apart, it turns out they’re not so different, and it was inspiring to see love overcome all the cultural and societal differences each had.

Sindhoor Hall set up for the Wedding show

They had their first wedding in Wyoming, a typical Christian-like ceremony, and in India they were modest in only holding a 2 day wedding ceremony – many Indian weddings last 3 or more days. The first day involved a 1000 guest reception, where the bride wore traditional Indian wear and the groom dressed in a western suit – ironic, I thought. They stood on stage for almost 6 hrs greeting a procession line of important ministers, friends of his father, the few westerners that came from Berkeley, distant family, and some people they admitted they weren’t quite sure who they were. The wedding was in a lavishly decorated event hall, complete with photographers, camera men, a lights and sound tech guy, a few flat screen tv screens fading between camera shots, and a large, camera crane sweeping over the crowd for aerial shots. It was quite the production, to say the least, and I only wished it had subtitles so I could understand a bit better what was going on.

The morning of that day, the groom and bride, one at a time, were totally covered in turmeric by members of the family (only married women or men, I believe), and explained this was something about washing all the evil away. I got to slab a face full of soggy turmeric powder on both her cheeks, feet, and hands, and it was fun. Many of the women got their hands fully covered, inside their palms and on top, with beautiful, intricate henna tattoos.

the bride's mom getting tattooed

For lunch that afternoon, we were fed a delicious, typical southern-Indian Thali meal on banana leaves. The servers came by with buckets, serving us one by one in order to eventually plate a 10 course meal in the matter of a minute or two. It was extremely efficient, as was the clean up that just involved them rolling the paper laid under the banana leaves into a small pile of organic waste.

the procession of servers and their food buckets

For dinner, the buffet included a selection of Northern and Southern Indian cuisine, a fruit stand, a snack stand, and an icecream booth. It was extremely crowded, everyone standing, eating and chatting. By this point I had to master eating only with my right hand since the left is considered unclean, so standing and eating became a bit easier since I had to use my left hand to hold the plate of food.

Yeti being covered in tumeric

The actual wedding ceremony was a quieter event, with only close family and friends attending. This time, they were covered in coconut milk, rice grains covered in turmeric, and again in tumerc, a LOT of turmeric. All the members of the family are somehow involved, partaking in different parts of the ceremony. There was a lot of stuff going on, all ‘in-the-know’ by the Indian family, but I couldn’t really figure out the meanings or importance of one practice from the next. When I asked questions about their Indian wedding traditions, they groom said they’ve gone on for so long that the significance of certain ceremonial procedures has become completely unexplicable, one just knows you have to do it. One thing he did explain was the strange wedding gift of a coconut, 2 green leaves and crushed beetle nuts – the coconut represents God (which one, I don’t know), and the leaves and nuts are some sort of offering of respect to him. Every guest from the reception and the wedding got one, so some 1200-1500 coconut gift bags were prepared.

the bride and groom during their wedding ceremony

While a clout of confusion covered my experience, it was all very charming, and watching the bride take it all in stride even though she probably also had no idea what was going on half the time was perhaps the most entertaining. After being covered in turmeric and hennah, jewels and jewelry, she actually started to fit in just fine, and becamse the mediator between her now Indian family and our oblivious western ignorance.

India; Take 2

India is one of those places that should be categorised as “magical.” I believe Iceland’s also one of those magical lands, but for totally different reasons. India has this complex, seductive appeal that not even a lifetime is enough to fully explore or truly understand this huge sub-continent and all its belongings. You could spend a whole life traveling here and never see the same person twice, much less, each person once. It feels like a country one can never tick off their ‘to-do’ list, since every visit to India will bring a bombardment of new experiences and information. This second trip to India was, for me, totally different than the first. It was just as chaotic, and I got sick again, but having twice as much time here allowed me to settle in a little more, better prepared for the culture shock of arriving here from Iceland, France and Germany – literally worlds away.

(India’s magic inspires me to write, so I apologise for this lengthy post, but there’s just not much one can edit out when trying to describe their time in India.)

I wasn’t nearly as sick as I was last time in India, but was totally paralysed one morning from a stiff upper back resulting after a 10 hr overnight train journey in regular class – not the comfiest beds. Then I got a head cold, with a stuffy nose congested enough to completely debilitate my sense of smell and taste. That’s probably the biggest curse that could have ever befallen me, since I was most excited about being in India to gorge in the abundant flavours and spicy cuisine. Not even the hottest chutney’s or pickled achaar could relieve my sinuses, so I settled for going on texture alone, and I could definitely still feel the spices burning my tongue, the tickle of sugar from the masala chai, and the bitter bite of dal. Losing my sense of smell, however, was probably a blessing in disguise, since I can barely recollect the choking smell of exhaust and piss so often dictating the aroma of Indian cities.

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ground up, colourful spices and plants used for prayer, the source of all those powdery red dots on everyone’s forehead

Even with all the easily accessible, cheap food, Indian people looked really thin. They’re just very small people, and Im not sure if it’s a matter of genetics or nutrition, but probably a bit of both. I saw a sticker reoccurring on the back of rickshaws advertising “Lose/Gain Weight” and a phone number to call – I’m sure more people wanted the latter.

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a muslim vegetable market in Mysore

Another sign I saw, also in a couple different places, was  a big banner offering “Learn Real English”, as if the English people speak isn’t real English. Frankly, I’d say the majority of people, the exception being upper-class, educated or tourism related people, didn’t speak very much English at all. I don’t blame them, since just southern India has 4 major languages (and many, many minor languages and dialectal variations), and all are completely unrelated and use totally different alphabets. Thus, people learn their local language, then pick up bits of neighbouring languages useful or necessary, and most people learn Hindi or read a bit of Sanskrit, so English seems to be lower down in the priority line. Despite English being the national language, few spoke enough of it for them to understand our American-english pronunciation of words and place names. During the wedding, we would flag down a taxi and repeat over and over, in varying speeds, volume and accent, “Sindhoor Hall,” but no-one could figure out the location we were talking about until we directed them there, pointing left and right, and then once we arrived, the driver would exclaim “Ah, Sindhoor Hall!” in exactly the same way we thought we said it.

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selling flowers, like the ones used in wedding ceremonies and to ornament their temples

The scariest thing I saw one day on the road was a boy of about 10 years, driving a scooter with his 3 or 4 year old brother steering, neither wearing helmets, and zipping along in traffic beside a crowd of other law-bending drivers that don’t necessarily know how to drive any better, but certainly the safety of those two boys should be prized slightly more. Little kids were always very friendly, and in fact many Indians were genuinely interested in us without wanting to take our money. Many were curious enough to talk to us, usually asking the same questions: “Which country?” and “What is your name?” Then they would giggle and run off, either because they became too shy to keep talking to us or because it was the extent of their English. Others were a little more passive, just staring in amusement, but never making eye contact as to avoid seeming rude or perhaps avoid being approached. Sometimes it felt like they were the tourists, and we were the traveling attraction, bringing them a bit of culture from our western ways for them to gawk at. Many people asked to take photos of us, with us, or just of them so they could see it on our digital camera display screens. Interestingly enough, the majority of the people we encountered even in touristy parts were all Indian, since Indians probably make up 90 or 85% of their own tourism industry.

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some sleepy goats, tied to a tree with much less freedom than their fellow cows. And of course Coca Cola manages to spoil the rural feel.

Bangalore is a very green city, not in the eco-friendly sense the word is used, but literally speaking. It was probably the cleanest city Ive seen, as far as pollution and smog, even though an irritated cough still crept up once in a while. The city and roadways are littered with big, leafy green streets and parks, yet free-foaming cows seem to take little advantage of this since they like to rummage through trash heaps or take all the free food offered to them. When people go to the temple or have spare veggies, they simply leave it out for the cows to eat, and as a result, they become fat and happy, very tame cows, not even startled by the incessant horn blowing traffic surrounding them on all sides while crossing a highway road. They just chew, poop, sleep and repeat all day, and not much else, so they seem to live pretty relaxing lives. The stray dogs, on the other hand, look quite worse-for-wear, and I even saw puppies and kittens that failed to be cute, a feat I once considered impossible.

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a boy at the residence halls of Sera Je monastery in Bylakuppe

I spent the days before the wedding in Hampi, a small town nestled among hundred year old temple ruins. Its just a few streets and tourism facilities situated alongside a river, and then for kilometres in every direction, sprawling with Hindu temples from different eras between the 14th and 18th century. It was a very spiritual place, with devout Hindu’s pushing some of their practices on visitors like vegetarianism and sobriety – you couldn’t buy meat or alcohol on one side of the river, and finding other sacrilegious things like tobacco or condoms was almost unheard of. Many locals practiced Ayurvedic massage and yoga, but it was hard to tease out the authenticity in either since tourism could have created both. I had an Ayurvedic massage to try and straighten out my back, but with her faint touch and jiggle technique on an unpadded, wooden table didn’t do much – the mouldy pillow in my face probably had more (negative) effect.

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moonrise behind Virupaksha Temple in Hampi

The days after the wedding I took a train to Mysore and explored the beautiful Palace there, watched the sunset from the top of Chamundi Hill, and bedazzled myself in the market selling an array of colourful, sparkling or sweet smelling items. I went to Sera Je, one of the biggest monasteries and Tibetan settlements outside of China. All the places I visited were beautiful, even the train stations and bus stands had their own charm. While India still has the power to overwhelm me, I still loved it, and perhaps it even grew on me a little more. Ill certainly have to go back again to see what happens the third time around, since everything good must happen in threes according to some Indian superstitions.

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sunset from the top of Chamundi Hill, location of another sacred temple

Photo Highlights: Magical India

Alas! I have been reunited with a working SLR again, so Ill celebrate this opportunity to share worthy photography by posting 5 pictures from the very photogenic India.

a woman selling threaded flowers for women to wear in their hair

the intricate carvings of Hindu gods on the Maharajah's temple in Mysore

a brave pedestrian maneuvering the zooming lights around a busy traffic circle

a market vendor selling apples, lots of apples

sunset behind Bangalore's main train station

Identifying with India

My grandmother on my moms side is actually 100% descended from Indian blood. This is a short story I wrote after my first visit to India, in 2006. Things haven’t changed much.

_________________________________________________________

Here I am in the motherland. I am here for only one-hundred-and-nine hours, and that isn’t near enough time to absorb any of this country. I have been forewarned that India is so ugly, I’ll love it. I am surrounded by poverty and disgusted by filth, but there really is something so charming about the discomforts I feel. My experiences are only skin deep, my five senses bombarded, and I have yet to recover from the initial shock. After a while my mind overloads and sensations stop registering at all. This is when I close my eyes, inhale, exhale, and start over, just to feel again.

*                                  *                                  *

I am here in India surrounded by chocolate-colored faces that look wise and worn with crusted Hindi dots between their eyes. Heads like coffee-beans float comedically in their bobble-head shakes, but I have yet to figure out what the nod really means. All the women wear saris, each a different shade of the rainbow adorned with some form of sparkly trim. In Jaipur, the row of markets are equally dazzling in their broad array of bright colors, but when I get closer, I notice the thin film of dirt and dust covering all the items, even the shop owners.

Maneuvering through the streets is a constant struggle. I am easily side tracked by the large array of vehicles encircling me, perplexed at how camels, donkey-carts, 3-wheeled yellow rickshaws, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians can share the road in an organized way. When I think it may be safer to take a rickshaw, I’m nauseated at the abrupt stop/go braking and the last minute diversions from holy cows interrupting our path.

I try doubly hard to enjoy the tourist attractions while tourist-hungry locals intrude on  my peace. At the Taj Mahal in Agra, I give the same cold reaction to middle-aged men elbowing me in the breast trying to sell jingling anklets as I do little children tugging on my sides with the fingertips of one hand moving frantically from their lips to their stomach and back.

My senses again go into overdrive. Not even my imagination is flexible enough to understand the bewildering chaos around me. Blink, inhale, exhale, restart.

*                                  *                                  *

India is hot and sunny, with a beautiful coast line framing the south east city of Chennai. I dare not get too close and ruin the beauty and magic I believe to still exist there, but make sure to visit the beach late one night when everything is safely hidden in a blanket of blackness. I run barefoot across the sand that feels like cold diamonds under my soles and frolic in the shallow wake of the Indian Ocean that I am equally hesitant to see in the light of day. The wave sends a cold chill up my legs that is convincingly refreshing, so I chose not to think about how dirty I know the water really is.

The air in India is a sticky humid like sitting in the backseat of a car with no air-conditioning all day. It tastes like a lung full of carbon monoxide laden with piss and curry. My ears constantly ring with the sound of traffic and the occasional attacks in Hindi and Tamil for food, taxis, or just plain old hand-outs.  Cow shit and garbage blanket the curbs and walkways in a grandeur way, acting as a red carpet walkway for the locals to strut. The streets transform overnight into a large, never ending mattress as the homeless make beds of the concrete. Once the sun breaks, individuals claim parts of the sidewalk as private kitchens or public bathrooms, depending on which corner they wake up on.

Back at my hotel in New Delhi, my cold shower in a bathtub stolen from a spider is the only escape from the suffocating uncleanliness surrounding me. I feel like now I can finally breathe as more and more water streams over my face, down my body, eyes clenched shut.

*                                  *                                  *

The chaos and discomforts are so intense that they invigorate an awakened consciousness within me. I am enamored by all the overwhelming sensations because I have never felt more alive. By the time that I return to my temporary home on the MV Explorer, I’m exhausted.  I have forfeited any attempts to separate my memories, and given up trying to make sense of them. India has become one large sensual blur and I’ve left mentally dysfunctional.

*                                  *                                  *

The chaotic scramble across the country had plummeted my mind and body into thirty-six hours of unconscious recovery. I did not even leave my room to eat; I only woke to use the bathroom. I left India with an upset stomach, a high fever, orange stained henna across my hands and a complicated confusion mildly augmented by the few drinks I had had that last night. I truly had no understanding of what it meant to be part Indian until visiting India and experiencing the culture firsthand. Although I was not fully prepared for the intensity of India, I learned to find the beauty hidden within the layers of dirt and poverty. Even after being hurled into extreme culture shock, I could learn to love this place. As much as I wanted to leave and never return, there is an unconditional love that I have for my heritage that has maintained my affection for India. It’s in my blood, it’s part of who I am, staring me straight in the eyes, slapping me upside the head in a painful reality. Blink, inhale, exhale…

This is my heritage, this is my identity. I loved it as much as I hated it.