Kolkata Continued

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.

India. The journey begins

WARNING: The following is the story of an epic journey through India. Experts agree that it was extremely risky, and that the participants only made it happen because they were extremely lucky. Or was it karma? Regardless, don’t try this in India.

In typical Byron fashion, I started planning India a week before we arrived in Cochin. It sounded like most people were headed north, most to New Delhi, then onward to Agra (the Taj Mahal), some onward to Varanasi (the Ganges), and a few to Jaipur. It seemed, though, that everyone was traveling to the North, and then from west to east. I don’t like traveling in herds with other SAS kids and also I heard that many of the trains in this direction were full, so I assessed the possibility of traveling from east to west. In the Northeast lies Calcutta, the third largest city in India. The SAS bible, known to most by its pen-name, “Lonely Planet Guidebook,” mentioned Kolkata as a highlight of India. I figured that if I went there, I could do the tourist circuit in reverse, from Kolkata to Varanasi, onwards to Agra, then to New Delhi and back to Cochin. As usual, I sent out a Byron email blast to see who wanted to go with me. Five days before we arrived in Cochin, six of us each booked two plane tickets; one from Cochin to Kolkata, and another from New Delhi to Cochin. Our plan was to travel between cities by overnight trains, and booking these trains from outside of India proved virtually impossible. The Indian Railways website required an account, which requires an SMS code to activate, which requires an Indian cell phone number. Thus, we needed to book train tickets once we arrived. Things remained relatively calm until we pulled into Cochin besides my growing anxiety over India itself. People always told me that India was the place in the world to go if you want to feel like you’re on another planet. I was intimidated. The night before our arrival I hardly slept, my mind filled with uncertainty. Already things were not going according to plan. Gracie, one of the six members of our group, was no longer coming with us. In fact, she was entirely leaving the Semester at Sea program. For some sort of health reasons, which she would not discuss, she had to go.

The next morning it took far longer than anyone expected for us to get off the ship. Originally we were supposed to clear immigration by 8 or 9 am. Instead, we weren’t permitted to leave the ship until close to noon. I didn’t think it was possible but India has way more bureaucracy than the United States, and who knows which piece of red tape was holding us back. Eventually we made it off. Four out of the six of us voyagers disembarked for the train station in order to book our tickets. Gracie was no longer coming and Giovanni was on an FDP. He and Adam would fly to Kolkata tomorrow and meet me, Sydney, and Jane at the train station. As usual, outside the port gates there were a number of taxis waiting for us. However, unlike in other countries there were also auto rickshaws, three wheeled taxis that are in every city in India. We had no perception of prices in India yet, but none of the drivers would use their meters, which in any country means you’re being taken advantage of. Regardless, the ship was a considerable distance from where we needed to be, so eventually we hired a rickshaw. We told him we needed to book tickets and he informed us that doing it at the station would take very long, so instead he brought us to a booking agent. Already a group of SAS students was in the office, booking tickets for their own journey. We split the group in two, half of us waiting to book our tickets, half of us leaving in search of an ATM. Interestingly, there are no ATMs in banks, but rather they are freestanding only, each enclosed in its own little air-conditioned room. Many of these ATMs even have their own personal security guard, hired just to protect the machine. I guess that speaks to the low cost of living in India, where a high tech ATM costs more than a security guard’s cost of living. We got our rupees. I took out Rs 12,000 ($240), unsure how long that would last me. We made it back to the booking agent, who was able to only secure our passage from Kolkata to Varanassi. We would have to book each leg of our trip as we went. Trains in India always run full and there are blocks of tickets that are set aside on each train, tickets for emergency last-minute bookings within 24 hours of departure, a quota just for foreign tourists, or a quota for government officials. It was 12:30PM and our flight was at 4PM. The afternoon traffic was murderous and we were unsure how long things would take at the airport, thus we were anxious to leave. Adam stayed at the booking agent and finalized the tickets while Sydney, Jane, and I left in pursuit of a cab. The drive to the airport would take an hour and the auto rickshaws have a top speed of about 30km, so we wanted an actual cab. We walked for a few blocks with no success, then we found a government building with a number of sedans posted in front of it. We asked for a taxi and one of the drivers answered the call of duty. I’m pretty certain this guy was a private driver for some government official and just took us to the airport because he had nothing to do for the next couple of hours and wanted to make some easy money. He asked for Rs 900 ($18) which was a third more than the guidebook suggested this ride would cost. I tried to negotiate but he wouldn’t budge. Considering we felt crunched for time and didn’t see any alternatives, we agreed to his price and got in the car.

Indian drivers are insane. There is no section of the road where it is unacceptable to overtake another vehicle. The take a two lane road and squeeze four vehicles across it. They use their horns almost as frequently as they use their accelerators. Blowing the horn is used for everything from “move over” to “speed up” to “I’m passing you.” Meanwhile, no one says a word while they’re driving. It’s nothing personal, either. Sometimes they’ll even hold down the horn, something that when you do in the USA is the ultimate affront, but no one takes it personally. Despite the cacophony of horns, especially the blaring truck air-horns, everyone remains calm. Our driver had moves, and as soon as we saw a sign for the airport we relaxed a bit in our chairs, knowing that we would make it there in time. We arrived with time to spare and entered the airport as soon as we passed the men with automatic guns. I’m not sure if these are police or military but there is a lot of security in India. All the stores have private security guards. All the transportation hubs, train, airplane, bus, and ferry stations all have guards. The most extreme was at New Delhi where there was armored shelters and sandbags in preparation for a skirmish. None of them gave us much trouble, though. Discrimination is either legal or socially acceptable in India. We entered stores without using the bag check, we passed through security at the mall without being frisked, and we stood in the ladies only subway car without being asked to move. I guess they realize that we are not a threat, just a group of American travelers, and thus they do not waste their time.

There were a number of other SASers at the airport, all of us traveling on the same flight to Mumbai. Mumbai is the hub of India, from which SASers were either staying or traveling on to Delhi, Jaipur, or Kolkata. We relaxed in the terminal given that we had plenty of time to spare. I had a chicken tikka sandwich and grumbled to myself that we could have taken our time and had lunch instead of sitting at the airport. Regardless, we were here now and definitely not going to miss our flight, so I suppose the peace of mind was valuable. Eventually we walked out to the tarmac and boarded the plane. The plane was a standard Boeing 737. I remarked that at least their was one thing made in America and imported to India as opposed to to the other way around. There were a few noticeable differences though. We were flying the budget airline of India, and yet they still served a meal even though the flight was only 2 hours long. Also, we were the only young people on the plane. Most others were businessmen. Only a select few Indians travel the country via planes. I felt overly important amongst amongst the upper crust of India. Jane was still hypervigilant watching her bag though. I slept on the way to Mumbai, trying to make up for my lack of rest the night before. Right before landing I woke up so I could watch us fly in over the largest slum in India. It spanned for miles right below us, like one continuous drab structure, just like Slumdog Millionaire. In Mumbai we had a short layover, which I used as an opportunity to check my email and Facebook on the free internet terminals. Then it was onwards to Kolkata. Again, another meal and more business people. The plane arrived in Kolkata. The airport in Kolkata was noticeably dreary in comparison to Mumbai or Kochi. This was foreshadowing for the city before us.

We didn’t have a hotel reservation (of course) but we did have a guidebook, which told us that all of the backpacker hotels are in an area called Sudder Street. Thus, our plan was to take a taxi there from the airport. We hopped on line at the prepaid taxi booth. I’m not sure if these exist anywhere in the US, but in India at most transportation hubs, they have an awesome institution called a prepaid taxi station. You tell them where you are traveling to and they give you a fixed rate. You pay this person at the booth and they give you a ticket with a taxi number assigned. You get into this taxi and he takes you to your destination. Upon arrival, you give the taxi driver your ticket, which he takes back to the airport to receive his compensation. Why is this middleman so meaningful to me? Because by virtue of our foreignness, we don’t pay the going rate on hardly anything in India. If the price isn’t already written down, expect to pay double or triple what an Indian pays. Most of the time the difference is trivial. It means getting charged the equivalent of an extra $2-3. However, its the principle that we’re being taken advantage of, just because we have the money to pay the difference and everyone is doing it, not to mention it adds up when it happens everywhere. Thus, any place, restaurant, taxi, or store, if it said the word “fixed price,” I was giddy. We found our cab outside the airport. It was a Hindustan Ambassador. Ambassadors are the crown victorias of india. They’re used as cabs and police cars everywhere and they run forever. The only difference is that the styling has hardly changed since 1958. Their old-fashioned, British-looking, and everywhere in India. Some day I want to import one to Australia. We jumped in and headed into the city. Even before we left the airport vicinity, I could see the difference between Kochi and Kolkata. There was a woman rummaging through a pile of garbage, searching for anything of value. As we entered the city it grew denser, more crowded, and louder. Hundreds of people everywhere, on foot, auto rickshaws, motorcycles, in cars going their separate ways. People in the street, cows in the street, dogs in the street, goats in the street, People selling food, cooking food, eating food. Washing dishes in the gutter, sleeping on the sidewalk. Bare lights dangling by a wire, big lights illuminating a fancy hotel. The smell of spices, the smell of urine, the smell of food, the smell of damp clothes. Sounds of horns, engines, people talking, yelling, music blaring. It was a total sensory overload. The dirty old cab was our refuge. I wanted to lock the door but I didn’t know how so instead I just sat there and looked outside. Eventually the cab arrived at a quiet street in front of our chosen hotel. We went inside but there was no vacancy so we left for another one supposedly around the corner. It was after dark and so I was on my guard, walking on the street, not the sidewalk, to avoid people. We struggled to find the hotel and had to double back a few times, making it apparent that we were lost. We asked somebody and then found the hotel a block away from where we were looking for it. At the Hotel Intercontinental VIP, there was space available but only in the executive room. It was more than we anticipated paying ($17/night/person) but they just wanted to stop for the night so we took it. The girls settled into the room while I registered at the front desk. Again, I experienced the extent of Indian bureaucracy. Getting a room was like an interrogation. Where were we coming from? Where were we going after checking out? When did we arrive in India? How long were we there for? What was my local address in the United States? Passports, photos with a webcam, everything, as per mandate of the indian government. I asked the guy where i could buy a SIM card and it so happened that there was a vendor right next door to the hotel and he was still open at this late hour. He set me up with a new AirTel phone number. This was an even more bureaucratic process. Passport and visa copies, father’s name, home address, separate photo in addition to passport photo, signature in a dozen places. I couldn’t tell if I was buying a SIM card or taking out a mortgage. Regardless, within an hour I was making phone calls to New York for less than 4 cents a minute. Meanwhile back up in the hotel room, the air conditioner was not cooling down the room. I complained once and they thought they fixed it. An hour later it was hotter in the room than it was in the hallway. I complained again and told him that we could not stay there if the air conditioning didn’t work, and that he must move us to another room. There were no other rooms available except for the executive suite, but that naturally cost more money. I told him that we had already agreed to a price for the night, that it was already nearly midnight and thus the room would most likely not be sold tonight anyway, thus he must give it to us. He capitulated and we moved to the top floor for the nicest room in the house. Here the A/C was nice and icey, and even though the girls were originally too easygoing to care, I think we all appreciated the nicer room. We made plans to wake up at sunrise the next morning and go do yoga in the park the next day. The girls immediately fell asleep but I laid awake thinking about the rest of our trip. Tomorrow Geo and Adam were supposed to meet us at the station. We had no way of communicating with each other. I had sent a text to Geo but received no response and was not sure if his italian iPhone received my indian text message. I called the ship and left a message, instructing them to call me on my new number before they flew to Kolkata. I then tried to rest, my mind swimming with thoughts and anxiety, and after a couple of hours fell asleep.

We had survived our first day in India. There were considerable challenges ahead of us, namely meeting up with the others and making the rest of our travel arrangements, but all I could do for now is try to relax.

4 hours in Mauritius

Originally, we were supposed to have a full day in Mauritius. Then, there was a cyclone off the coast of Madagascar, slowing our sea passage to such an extent that we would have to stop in Mauritius only long enough to refuel and then chug onwards to India. Then, the day before we arrived in Mauritius, the announcement was made that through the profound efforts of ISE we would be able to stop in Mauritius for four hours so that everyone would be able to experience it. I figured that everyone would be elated as I was that Mauritius was back on, but some people were actually whining about the fact that it was only four hours. Whatever. ISE had to increase its fuel expenditure by at least $80,000 to quicken our pace so that we could hang around in Mauritius in 4 hours and still make it to India on time. I was psyched for those four hours. Mauritius was probably the most unheard of countries on our itinerary. It’s an island nation that’s essentially half way around the world from the US. If I hadn’t done SAS, its probably unlikely that I would ever visit this country, thus I was extra glad that it was back on the itinerary.

That evening, the question everyone was asking was “what are you going to do with your four hours in Mauritius?” The resounding answer was that most people were going to hit the beach, but I was determined to experience the country. The next morning, Bob and I hit the city ASAP. Mauritius has an interesting culture that is a fusion of French and Indian. I had spicy Indian chicken for breakfast and some Lamousse Noir to cool down afterwards. Ethnically, the populace was mostly Indian. I’m sure any immigrants coming from India feel immediately blessed because of the standard of living in Mauritius is very high for an island nation. They even have socialized medicine and access to care even in rural areas! During our four hours we ate, shopped, experienced Phoenix, Mauritius’ national beer of course, but mostly just walked around the city, taking it in, and when we made it back to the ship I was entirely grateful for the experience. Unfortunately, many of the beachgoers just treated the day like it was spring break in Cancun and returned to the ship, before noon, wasted, which was the cause of much tension on the ship, including one very dramatic town hall meeting, but still, Mauritius was a great experience, which is another component of my semester abroad.

one night in Rondebosch.

While getting caught up in the dance fever at Mizoli’s I realized it had been a while since I’d seen anyone from my entourage. I broke off from the dance and scoured Mizoli’s to no avail. I called Katie, my new UCT friend, and the call didn’t go through. I went outside into the street and couldn’t find anyone. It looked like I had been ditched and that I was going to have to take a cab back to the ship by myself. Just as I gave up hope, like a scene from a movie, a white van with obnoxiously loud music and bone-rattling bass rolled in front of me. The sliding door swung open and inside were my friends yelling, “get in!” I hopped into the “mini bus” as they’re called in South Africa. Everyone was there except for Grant, who had gone back into Mizoli’s to find me. A few seconds later Grant resurfaced from the masses in Mizoli’s, saw that I was in the van, jumped in, and we were on our way. The van cleared the crowded street in front of the restaurant and then sped off. There we were, cruising down the highway, windows down in the South African summer sun, 19 Americans bumping to a house remix of Rihanna’s “Only Girl.” Eventually we arrived at the leafy UCT campus. The ride cost only 20 ZAR. We went first to one house and then another, when I received a text message from Rebecca saying that they were back in town but tired and not going to Kirstenbosch. I immediately called her back and told her where I was. We agreed to meet at the local supermarket right up the street.

I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in South Africa and I was actually going to meet up with friends from the University of Connecticut. What a globalized world we’re living in. I plopped down in a chair at a cafe in front of the supermarket and waited for the girls to arrive. My eyes were heavy and these packed days in Cape Town were taking their toll on me. I could’ve fallen asleep but I don’t think that would’ve been safe so instead I forced myself to watch the comings and goings of this South African street corner. I think doing just that is probably a fairly good way of assessing whether one should live in a certain place. Just sit for an hour and watch the world unfold from that vantage point and see if it is to your liking. I could live in Cape Town. Eventually Becca and Kimmi arrived. I enthusiastically pounced on them. Kimmi enjoyed it, Becca thought I was making a scene. Even in the Southern hemisphere things between us were unchanged. We decided to go out to dinner and I told them I was happy to go anywhere. They took me to a Thai restaurant. For a while I told them tales from semester at sea but then I asked them about their study abroad experience. The UConn program is Cape Town is hard work! They’re not there at exchange students. They have their own UConn-prescribed program. They have internships in addition to their coursework and they have activities planned on the weekend. It’s a far-cry from your average study abroad program. After dinner we walked back to house where almost all of the UConn study abroad students live. We were sure to time our movement to occur before sundown. Apparently they feel the area isn’t safe at night, even in a group.

The house that UConn leases for the Cape Town program is pretty awesome. It’s a big house with two students per bedroom. There are plenty of common areas, it is stately decorated and there is even a swimming pool. Too bad they have neighbors and they don’t integrate with the UCT students because I definitely saw great party potential in the estate. When we walked in, Becca was heralded my arrival, as is house custom for all guests to be announced. We went upstairs and I was surrounded with more UConn students. It was the most “normal” I felt in months. For once we were not either in transit or having some glorious moment that we must be sure to remember forever and recount to our children. Instead it was just a handful of UConn kids hanging out in one of their bedrooms. They barraged me with questions about Semester at Sea, which I was more than happy to answer; a moment that made me further realize how fortunate I am and what an amazing opportunity I’ve been given. After the Q&A we headed downstairs and life in the house carried on as normal, plus one. Some were cooking dinner, others working on homework, two girls argued about their housing selection for next year. It was a refreshingly normal evening. I only had the slightest pang of guilt that a night spent hanging around was a night in Cape Town squandered. But I easily put that thought out of my mind. It had been another unexpectedly wonderful day. I thought i would be gone for a few hours to church and I’d been out all day with the most wonderful people. It was awesome talking with Becca and Kimmi, being able to talk about shared friends back home and about UConn. Some of the other housemates also seemed pretty cool and I’m going to make an effort to see them again when we’re all back in Storrs next semester, especially Samantha and Brandie. I even was able to see my fraternity brother Maria when she finally came home from a concert. It had been another busy day though, and I still hadn’t recovered sleep-wise, so they called me a cab and I headed back to the ship. Originally I had been skeptical that I’d be able to meet the Cape Town Crew while I was there and I was so glad that in the end it happened almost effortlessly.

Hanging out with my UConn friends was nothing like being at home, but it was a reminder of what I had left back there in Connecticut. It was an awesome reality check, it came at the perfect time, and it will make the rest of my journey all the more meaningful.

Pre-India

It’s 3:18AM and surprise surprise, I can’t sleep. My mind is racing.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to be in India
We’ve got plane tickets to Calcutta and from New Delhi, but no tickets for any of the three trains that are supposed to take us between the two cities
one of my friends is going home tomorrow because of a medical condition
With her gone there are now 5 people in our group exploring Northern India and I’m worried someone’s going to get stuck by themselves, assigned in a separate train car.
My semester at sea is more than half way over
I have been to five countries so far and I’ve done nothing but have fun. My actions have improved humanity only to the extent that I’ve supported the local economies.

I can’t believe it. I feel like this is going to be a way bigger shock than Africa. I’m traveling to two of the three most populated cities in India.
I’m hoping that we can get tickets through the “tourist quota.” If not, I don’t know what we’re going to do.
I can’t believe she’s leaving. It’s all so sudden. I told another friend and she let me know about some other people who have gone home already. I can’t imagine ending this life experience early.
Nothing I can do about this.
Nothing I can do about this. I’m having trouble believing it though.
I need to fix this. I’m not sure how. We’ll see what I can do. Better late than never.