In my sleep I heard singing. I awoke, at first thinking I was still on the ship. In a moment I realized that actually I was in India and the singing I heard was the Muslim call to prayer. It was not even five o’clock in the morning. I put earplugs in and tried to fall back asleep. Then, in what felt like an instant, my alarm clock went off. It was 5:30AM and time to wake up for sunrise laughing yoga. My body objected and insisted that I fall back into bed and return to sleep. I laid in bed and debated whether to go back to sleep or not. I had a long day ahead of me, I needed my rest, but we only had one day to experience Kolkata, and when else could I experience laughing yoga in India? In a few moments my mind overpowered my body and I rose from the comfy bed. I woke up Sydney and Jane and fifteen minutes later we were on the street, hailing a cab. Each time one stopped I told them we wanted to go to Rabindra Savkar, the park. Each one named a price, at least Rs 150 ($3), to which I replied “meter!” They would each refuse to use their meter and drive away. After about five minutes and three refusals we decided just to pay the asked price. The principle of not being taken advantage of was not worth missing sunrise in the park. We hopped into an ambassador and sped towards the park. There was very little traffic as people were only starting to wake up and start the fire for breakfast. Upon arriving at the park the cabbie asked for a tip, which we ignored and walked into the park. It was not clear where the yoga group met so we just walked around the park in a giant circle. The sun rose in a spectrum of yellow and orange, reflecting upon the lake. There were many people in the park, some walking to school, others stretching and meditating, many just taking a leisurely morning stroll. I was grateful that at least at 6AM in the park Kolkata was not completely hectic.
We had nearly completed a full circle around the park when we found a gathering of Indians in their 70s. They were standing in a circle performing exercises. Sydney and Jane kept their distance but I grew closer to watch them. A moment later one of the men in the circle invited us to join them. We filled in their circle and one man would call out the exercise for all of us to perform. “Elbow circles. One, two, three, four, five, SIX! seven, eight, nine, ten. Switch!” The exercises included all muscle groups and parts of the body, including the lungs. We did quick, short laughs, long belly laughs, and all sorts of variations, each coordinated with its own arm movement. We jogged in place, stretched our limbs and an hour later we were finished. Then, to conclude the meeting we tightened the circle and prayed for world peace. After exercise there was time for fellowship. They told us that they are a laughing club, there and laughing clubs all over India, and that they meet every single morning to start their day. They are all retirees, and from my perception, seemed to be middle class indians. One told us his son worked in New York and lives in New Jersey. We told them about our journey around the world and our plans for India and they proffered their own suggestions for our short time in their country. Then they told us which way to the metro station and we parted ways. It was after seven at this point and the subway station was empty, which was perplexing. Where were all the thousands of Indians I saw last night on the way from the airport? Why weren’t they all on their way to work? Soon the train came. It was an old subway car, but still more modern and clean than some of the subways in New York. We took the metro for a few stops and got out at the Park Street Station. In front of every subway station there is a police officer checking bags. We asked him for directions to our hotel and we began walking in that direction. Soon things looked familiar and we found the street it was on. There were a number of hand rickshaw pullers on the corner. Kolkata is the last city in India that still uses hand pulled carts to transport human beings. I had to experience this dying form of transportation. Knowing how cheap they are, I figured we would each take our own, but the driver had all three of us pile into one. The carts have three foot tall wagon wheels, making for a smooth ride and an interesting vantage point. During monsoon season the roads sometimes flood and these raised rickshaws become the only way to fjord the flood waters. He pulled us for 3 minutes before we arrived at our hotels. I handed him Rs 50 and he looked disapprovingly. I gave him another 100 for a total of Rs 150 ($3). Although this is probably the amount of money that he makes in a day, I was glad to overpay this time. These pullers are the poorest of Kolkata city dwellers and usually sleep in the streets under their carts.
A night at the Hotel Intercontinental VIP includes complimentary breakfast. I ordered something Indian and the girls ordered boring old scrambled eggs and toast. This was generally the theme for our meals in India. I don’t know what I ordered each time, I simply tried to discern whether it was poultry, fish, or vegetables, and left the rest to chance. We went upstairs to our room and showered and soon our breakfast came. Apparently I had ordered some sort of bread with a yellow potatoey sort of soupy substance. I scooped the yellow with the bread. It was the best breakfast food I ever had. Full of flavor, but not spicy, it was superior to all the boring bland breakfast foods available at home. The tea was also delightful, sweet and milky but still strong in taste. I called mother dearest at home while everyone prepared themselves for the day. We found a cab that agreed to use the meter and asked for “Chinatown.” Particularly we wanted Damzen Lane, the site of homes carved out of a garbage dump and other humbling sights, but the driver was not familiar with this street. By this point it was 9:30AM and Kolkata was alive again. The traffic was thick at certain chokeholds, so much that the driver would turn off the engine and we would sit and wait for the congestion to clear. I don’t mind sitting in traffic too much in foreign countries. Although I despise it at home, the street life that is mundane to someone who lives their daily life in Kolkata is fascinating to someone there for only twenty-four hours. Soon we were in Chinatown. We weaved through dirt streets too narrow for cars to pass. Sewage ran in the street beside unpainted, crumbling, cement walls. There were numerous spray paintings of hammers and sickles with the caption “cast your vote on this sign.” There were fewer people in these back alleys and our unfamiliarity stood in more dramatic contrast than on the crowded streets. I think this is what they people mean when they say that India can feel like another world. I don’t think I can articulate well enough how strange these backstreets felt. On one block, a man was butchering a cow in the open air. It’s head sat on the ground. On the same block, there was a man selling cell phones and cold coca-cola.
After walking around absorbing our surroundings aimlessly, we began looking for this Damzen lane. A police officer told us it was just around the corner and to ask again and anyone would know. We did so and no one knew. One man with better English than the rest consulted our map and let us know that we were actually in the wrong Chinatown. The Chinatown we were looking for was on the other side of the city. He gave us directions to get there via the city bus and we left immediately. The inner-city busses in India are a spectacle. They follow a predetermined route but the actual bus stops are pretty informal. The bus slows down and one simply hops on while it is still in motion. You don’t pay upon boarding. Instead there is a “conductor” who navigates the crowded bus, selling tickets for Rs 6 a piece. He has a bouquet of low-denomination bills in one hand so that he can quickly give change to people. Somehow he remembers all the seemly indeterminate faces and knows who has already paid the fare. We hopped on one bus and I asked the driver if it was the right one to Delowsi. He told me no, we were on the 24a bus when we needed the 24 bus, and pointed to the right bus, which was going in the opposite direction. We jumped off and shuffled through the insane traffic, coursing through rickshaws, taxis, and trucks, and hopped into the other bus as it drove away. This bus was going to take a while before reaching our destination. No matter, it was simply an opportunity to take in more of Kolkata. Eventually we reached New Market and got off, passing by the old style colonial architecture that stands incongruous in BBD Bagh to the rest of the city’s buildings. The search for Damzen Lane seemed never-ending but eventually we found it. Again, this Chinatown was similar to the first; narrow lanes and the spectacle of poverty and modern civilization contrasting. There were men bathing in the street by a water spigot and women washing dishes by a pipe gurgling up from the sidewalk near the gutter.
We decided we had time for one more spectacle, then we’d head back towards the hotel, have lunch nearby, check out, and proceed to the train station to meet Adam and Giovanni, our other two travel companions. A man led us to the subway station and we boarded a downtown train headed for the Maidan. The Maidan is a 3km-long park that was made from a flattened village in order to give Fort William’s cannons a clear line of fire. It reminded me of the National Mall in Washington DC, except with fewer trees and grass and also a number of malnourished horses chomping dirt and scrubby grass. Sydney dubbed it “pony park,” and I was amused by the contrast of horses, without saddles or hitches, just grazing in the park, with high-rise buildings behind them. We walked down the park to the Victoria Memorial. “It’s a vast, beautifully proportioned confection of white marble domes set in attractive, well-tended parkland. Think US Capitol meets Taj Mahal.” I’d say the guidebook gives it an accurate assessment. It was only Rs 4 to stroll the grounds but substantially more to visit the interior, and besides, our time was limited, so we strolled around the building and its reflection pools. Here a number of young indians wanted to have their picture taken with us, which was unusual seeing as we had received little attention all day. Around the city, little children would say “hello” to us, but at the VM they wanted their pictures taken. The three of us pondered the reason behind it without coming to any firm conclusion. Soon a Kolkatan himself would add insight into the situation. After touring the grounds and stopping for a few more photos we headed for the hotel, stopping to admire the horses along the way to the metro station. On the way back, Sydney spotted a McDonalds. She insisted that we stop in to have a look. The McDonalds was clean and well decorated like the McDonalds in Times Square. They asked if we could eat there, having experienced enough culture shock for one day. I insisted that we sample the Bengali cuisine that would only be available in this part of India and promised that we would experience Indian McDonalds at another point in the trip.
Entrusting me to keep my word, they consented and we headed for Rupasi Bangla. It was a clean, air-conditioned restaurant with glass and wrought-iron furniture. I ordered a Bengali fish item with a mango lassi. When the food arrived, I regret to say that I did not really notice the difference between Bengali and Indian food, but then again, I am uninitiated and haven’t spent my whole life eating it. Later I would find out that there is a lot of differentiation between Indian food in North India versus Indian food in South India, but to me it was all the same. We ate our food and headed to the hotel. Fortunately our bags were untouched since we left them earlier that morning. I knew they’d be fine but there is always the slight sense of unease from taking such a risk. We paid for our room and hopped in a cab to Babu Ghat. A Ghat is a staircase that is built on a riverbank. It’s used for accessing the river, either for prayer, washing clothes, washing dishes, bathing, and all the other fun things Indians do in a river. We went to Babu Ghat to take the river ferry across to Howrah Train Station. I was hoping that by taking the ferry we’d get a good view of the flower market underneath the Howrah Bridge. Unfortunately, the ferry did not travel near the market, but I still got a good view of Howrah bridge. At the other side we walked up the riverbank and immediately found Howrah train station. From the outside the station looks beautiful with terra-cotta tiles and a nice desert color. On the inside, though, it is hell. Imagine Home Depot, a giant, wide open warehouse. Now remove all the aisles and make it a wide open space. Now lower the ceilings. Now remove some of the lighting to make it more cavernous. Now add a million indians either walking about, running for a train, or sleeping on the cement floor without even a blanket. Now add a PA system that is so loud you must shout to overcome it, so garbled that you can’t discern a word the voice is saying, and so persistently making announcements it literally never stops. Hopefully you have a pretty good idea of Howrah train station. Originally we told Giovanni and Adam that we would “meet them at the station. Worst case scenario, be at the ticket counter an hour before the train leaves.” As soon as we saw the station we realized the impossibility of our task. How would we ever find two people in this massive crowd? We couldn’t! Especially when you consider that they are probably walking around looking for us while we’re walking around looking for them, making it entirely improbable our paths would overlap. In terms of our backup plan there were a number of ticket counters scattered throughout the station. Adam also had our tickets, making it impossible to know which train to get on without him. I was nervous. We walked about, trying to find our travel companions. I approached a station employee and tried to see if there was a way to look up our reservation using our names and passports. Nothing was working. What would we do? Finally, Giovanni called my cellphone. He told me he was by the ticket counter. I asked him which. The ticket counter he described was the one I was standing at and he was not there. I told him to meet us in front of the taxi stand in front of the station. He agreed and hung up. I realized that I should have set a backup plan. What if there is more than one taxi stand? What if I still cannot find him? We walked in front of the station and went to the taxi stand. Sure enough, down the street there was a second taxi stand. I instructed Sydney and Jane to wait for them here while I walk down and check out the other stand, and under no circumstances should they leave that spot and fragment the group even further. They weren’t at the second stand so I walked back to the first. Adam and Giovanni had found Sydney and Jane. My anxiety was instantaneously relieved.
The group was together, Adam had our train tickets, and all was well in the world. We had an hour or so till our train so we set out in search of a place of refuge from the train station. We were unsuccessful. There was one bar adjacent to the station but they would not let us inside, for what reason they would not say. Jane was nervous because it was approaching nightfall and the area around the station was seedy, so we returned inside and sat down at a restaurant within the station where Adam and Geo had waited for us earlier. It had been a long and busy day in Kolkata and a sleepless night before that. Now that my nervous energy had subsided I was instantly zapped and wanted to go to sleep. A few minutes before its scheduled departure the train pulled up to the platform. It was an old diesel-electric engine with coaches that with the standardized Indian Railways styling, it was indeterminable whether they were new or old. As the train pulled in hundreds of passengers scampered to be the first in front of the door. These coaches were unreserved, and he who does not get their first might not get a seat, being forced to stand or sit somewhere uncomfortable for many hours. Seeing as our berths in 3AC were reserved we walked to our car. We stepped inside and were impressed by the modernity. There was an aisle down the length of the coach. To the right of the aisle there were numerous compartments. Each compartment has 6 beds that are arranged perpendicularly to the aisle. The 6 beds are bunked, 3 on each side of the compartment. On the left of the aisle there were two bunk beds that run parallel to the aisle. Thus, we walked down the aisle until we found our compartment, then turned right, facing the interior of the compartment towards the window. There were two benches, one on the left and one on the right, where we would sit until we went to sleep. When it was time to sleep, we’d bring down beds that were folded up into the wall. The compartment is only separated from the aisle by a curtain; it is not a physically separate compartment. This didn’t cause any particular problem because soon the entire coach quieted down as people were settled, and we chained our luggage to a railing so that it could not be taken in our sleep. Each passenger received a brown paper bag with clean linens and a wash cloth. We had to swap seats with some people but without much trouble we managed to get all five of us into a six person compartment. Thus, there was only one Indian with us. We talked for a little while after the train left and went to bed before 10PM. Ironically, I fell asleep easily on my fold-down middle bunk, far more peacefully than the night before, the motion of the swiftly moving train rocking me to sleep.