Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The shop keeper.

India. Calcutta.

I thought near on three months in Asia would prepare me for India. I thought I was pretty much a pro traveler (minus the part where I attempt to carry my bags).

It didn't. I am not.

Once I'd left the plane and finally made it through customs (I don't recommend the visa on arrival) I was flung into a very, very foreign world.

I hadn't purchased a Lonely Planet, I didn't have any Rupees, I wasn't really sure exactly how to get to my accommodation or how far from the airport it was. I was stupidly unprepared. I asked around the international arrivals where the closet ATM was - they suggested it was at the domestic terminal, which was a 10 minute walk. I arrived only to find that the ATM was out of service. I had $50 USD that I thought might be wise to change, so I searched around the Domestic terminal to find a currency conversion stand only to no avail. On the walk back to the International terminal a member of staff commented that I must be so cold, walking around in the rain in short shorts and a t-shirt. I wasn't cold, just stupid, the subsequent attention wasn't appreciated. She suggested I try the ATM between both terminals, so I turned around and headed towards. Only to find that it was the most dodge machine in the world. The screen barely worked and it said it was processing my transaction, before randomly turning off completely. No success. Walked back to the International terminal to change my $50 into Rupees. Asked around the International terminal regarding the bus to the city centre. Of course it was back at the Domestic terminal. There were buses there, plenty, but apparently none of them were going city centre. This was becoming too much of an ordeal, so I decided to grab a taxi. One of those infamous yellow taxis. It was a prepaid taxi service which made me nervous. 420 Rupees. I'm still not sure whether that was a bargain or not, but it was certainly an adventure. My taxi driver was sweet. "Where are you from?" was closely followed by "Ah! New Zealand, very good cricket." I regret not researching cricket more. It is their passion, and New Zealand is certainly a team they hold a lot of respect for. My lack of cricket knowledge dampened the conversation.

And so we drove towards the city, slowly. 28 kms to the city centre, which should take upwards of an hour, on a good day. I met my first real traffic jam (s) here. The type where you turn the motor off and some people get up to walk around and converse. This is also where I was introduced to those stares. Not the curious, friendly, smile stares of Thailand, Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. But instead the "what are you and why are you here stares", the ones that are rarely matched with a smile. And as we drove I saw the raw India. People walking on railway tracks, families huddled beside the roadside, cows walking the streets, food stalls made out of tarpaulin and concrete, and old men without an ounce of fat towing people, shoeless, on those old rickshaws.

This was probably when I decided I was homesick (or, rather "Bangkok or Takeo or anywhere I've been - sick"). This was when I almost regretted coming here and wish I'd had an extra thirty days at NFO my home in Cambodia. I went to check in at my hotel. I had pre-booked a dorm. The one slightly organised thing I had done. Of course, it was a male only dorm and while that was not advertised ANYWHERE on their site, there was no opportunity to budge. The single room rates were expensive, so I took my bags and decided to hunt around. A plump man found me lost, with bags in tow, and asked if I needed a hotel. I said yes, and he ushered me into a few places to see if they had vacancy. Eventually we found "Dear Hotel" which is anything but dear to me. It's a shit hole. But at 500 rupees (still expensive I think) I was happy to oblige, for at least a night. I thought this man had helped me find a hotel out of the kindness of his own heart, as people would in Thailand, but then I remembered I was in India now and he waited by the entrance with his hand out. "Tip please, Madam". I'm not really sure what an appropriate tip is, so I just handed him 20 rupees, the smallest money I had in my purse.

My room at Dear Hotel is actually shit. The bed is hard. The toilet is flushing (luxury) but some one has taken the seat off it (not that I'd particularly want to use it). The blankets are old, scruffy and rough. The pillows are made of bricks, I am sure of this. The "shower" is actually a tap beside two buckets, a smaller inside a larger. I took my first shower today and while I thought the cold running showers of SEA were bad, nothing compares to having to shovel a bucket of ice cold water on yourself. I keep reminding myself that this is probably luxury to the locals, but it is slightly depressing. The tiny little window in the room that is boarded up haunts me. I think I'd prefer if it wasn't there.

After settling in my bits in pieces I decided to wander the streets. Straight to an internet cafe in a bid to find myself more organised. I sat down and chatted to friends, feeling homesick and sorry for myself. Why did I send myself to India? What was I expecting? Why didn't it come with a warning label: CAUTION: Abrasive country. I sat for maybe 45 minutes, just aimlessly looking on the net. Maybe trying to find some where better to stay, some where more social or maybe something to entertain myself. Yellow taxis toot horns continuously, old men spit on the side of the road, everyone stares. I decided it was better to up and leave, and go find something familiar to find comfort. As I was trying to pay for my net, waiting by the counter outside, a young man greeted me. He was a store keeper. The store keeper that made India okay. Somehow he became my comfort.

I can't remember his name though, but I will be back today or tomorrow and I will ask him to write it down. He ushered me inside, to see his products. The typical ethnic store for tourists. It had saris, pants, tops, bags, dresses, notebooks, ornaments, jewelry, and photo albums, of course. Those things that look Indian, but Indians themselves probably wouldn't buy. This man was kind and welcoming, I decided to buy some pants, to perhaps fight off the frequent stares. And so he showed me the pants. "Sit sit" cleared some space for me on the floor. Two American guys were already sitting on the floor, not really looking at clothes or products, just being. He introduced myself and asked if I wanted some Chai. I felt very comfortable on the hard, store floor. I browsed the pants, settling on a nice pair of dark plum "hippy pants". The type of pants that look like they are double the size they should be. Exactly sexy enough to fight off the Indian attention. The tea arrived, and I sat browsing through tops. I decided I probably should sort out the money situation before I bought too much, so excused myself from his store, explaining I was hungry and hadn't eaten lunch yet. "Sit sit" he said. "we're about to have lunch, chicken okay?". Although I had decided to be vegetarian in India, I figured if I was offered meat and it was what my hosts were eating, I should comply, and so I did. I sat on the ground, with the storekeeper and his friend, eating out of token metal plates. Thankfully my host was kind enough to fetch a spoon for me, while they ate with their right hands. Dipping their fingers into the mix of rice and curry. So I sat a little while longer and browsed the clothes.

My store keeper asked me what my plan was for India. I was honest and told him I had no idea and that I needed to find a Lonely Planet and sort out my life. He pointed to two copies he had on the shelf. "You take" he said "you can bring back to me in a few days when you are done". I was flattered, but felt it was too much to take a book from a man I'd only just met, so instead I grabbed it and started taking photos of the pages I wanted to have with me. "Izy, don't be silly, please take with you and bring back in a few days." I sat, in his store, for maybe an hour more, reading the Lonely Planet and sipping on Chai tea, as often as my store keeper ordered it for me. He asked when my birthday was, I told him 8th feb and he snuck off for a few minutes. On his return, he had in hand a cute little bag and inside it was a beautiful anklet. It was my birthday present. I really love it :) I found a bag I liked, and a top (or dress by NZ standards!) and decided I really best leave. I asked my store keeper to show me where an ATM was. He said if I waited a few mins, he'd help me. He ordered me another little tea and I waited patiently. His friend minded the store while we walked through the busy night streets of Calcutta. My senses were smothered in bright lights, noise, car horns, the smells of spices, the crowds of people, the real hustle and bustle of India. The first ATM was broken so head lead me to another. It was about twenty minutes walk from his store and on the way he told me about his life in India and growing up. He left home at 13 and worked as a Chai seller. I told him I loved Chai and he asked me to come back to his store this week so he could tell me how to make proper Chai. I withdrew a small fortune of Rupees and we walked back to his store. I thanked him for dinner, and everything and he asked if I had time to "Sit sit and have more Chai". I was flattered, but figured if I didn't leave the store now I never would.

On my way home I saw a little local bookstore. I walked in, the man was friendly and asked my permission to suggest a book to me. He suggested three and I choose one of them: God of all the small things. I grabbed some Samosas (real! and delicious) for 6 rupees and went back to my dear hotel. I sat huddled up to the book, munching on the best indian food I've ever had (and the cheapest too!).

I fell to sleep early, I am a few hours behind Thailand and needed to adjust. This morning at six I was awoken to the loud sound of prayers. I'm not sure where it was coming from, it sounded like it was being broadcast over some speaker system in the hotel. I was too asleep to figure it out, decided it was best to just let myself fall back to sleep. A few minutes later I was awoken to someone knocking on my door screaming out something in Hindi. I'm not sure what they wanted but I was not going to open my door at that time of hour. I hoped it wasn't a fire alarm, and perhaps foolishly encouraged myself back to sleep. I woke again at 7am to the symphony of car horns outside my bedroom window. I decided that any further attempts to snooze would be futile and got dressed.

I went in search of Park street and the internet cafe advertised in Lonely Planet. It took me about an hour of walking in circles to locate it, and then I was rejected access because I didn't have my passport as ID... So I keep searching, eventually deciding to try my luck with WIFI. I wandered down a few streets and eventually came across a bit of the road where I could log on only to find out about the disaster back home in Christchurch. I felt sick to my stomach and attempted to find out all that I could while my iPod battery lasted. I eventually decided to come back with my laptop so that I could write this blog entry and check on my family. My dad is okay, I'm not sure about the rest of my family or most of my friends. My heart, prayers and well wishes are being sent in bulk to everyone in Christchurch. So I sat on the side of the road, on a little concrete slab, writing this entry. I'm not sure whether overall I love or hate India. I am glad I've come and am excited about maybe going with some Indian guys (off couchsurfing) up North for a few days. While sitting here on this little slab I have collected my own entourage of men; 6 in total. Five of them are clustered in a group and every time I look up they wave. The other is sitting in his car playing me very, very sweet India music. I have also had a crow shit literally 2 cms away from me, countless men spit and someone threw a small naan at me. No shit. I'm not sure why, or where it came from, but it landed about a meter from me and after that my entourage of five men suggested I sit closer to the store, as opposed to near the road.

The book I am reading is really beautifully written. I feel quite alone at the moment, which is good. I travel better when I am lonely enough to get curious. Today is a write off because I'm a little too sad and uneasy about all that is going on back home. I need to find an adapter so I can edit my Angkor photos and start taking some India photos.

This is a different kind of adventure to what I expected, but a good adventure no less. I think my flight into Bangkok will be a relief, but I am not going to wish away any second that I am here, because it is beautiful, albeit a little harsh.

So here I am. Seated on the concrete ground, donning my little anklet, wearing my plum temple trousers and a lilac top, sipping on Chai listening to Indian music. Here I am, indeed.

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