Archive | October, 2007

Some Pics from Kolkata

30 Oct

I wanted to post some pictures of the architecture around Kolkata. The Victoria Memorial was kind of like a Taj Mahal for someone alive rather than dead and so strangely out-0f-place, yet so perfect right where it is. When you walk around Kolkata, you really begin to realize HOW invested the British were in this city- they really weren’t planning to leave- EVER. Part of me misses the city, the art, and the architecture, but my lungs do not miss the pollution.

To the left, is a street scene from somewhere near BBD Bagh, though you can’t tell from this picture, the traffic was suicidal for pedestrians. Cars absolutely DO NOT stop for anything, even red lights! Add that to the diesel dust, the petrol fumes, the smoke from roadside food vendor’s fires and you can imagine the type of issues you might have walking around in this city- in fact just take a taxi, they’re ubiquitous and cheap, as long as you get them to use their meters.

The highlight of Kolkata though is the Maidan and the grounds around the Victoria Memorial, here you are actually away from the cars, in the trees and shrubbery and grass and you actually feel like you can relax a little. Families walk through the parks surrounding the memorial, bachelor mans and bachelor womans get their exercise, and people just seem to be enjoying their time here. To the right is a photo of the Victoria Memorial at sunset.

We’ll be heading to Bhubaneswar in Orissa on our way to Puri and couple of days at the beach and the Sun Temple at Konark.

See you soon!

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Do taxis in Kolkata know where they are going?

27 Oct

It’s a valid question.  After being here for a few days and taking our fair share of taxis around the city, the same question I come back to is, “Do these drivers have any clue where they are going?”

Case in point, we got in a taxi yesterday and asked to be dropped at the Netaji Bhawan METRO station so we could walk to a bookshop and arts center that was close by.  The driver took us to Netaji Bhawan, not the METRO station.  When I tried to get him to take us to the Metro, he had no clue where it was.

Luckily a security guard was standing nearby and we asked where the station was.  He told us it was around the corner so we decided to walk.  We paid the driver and set out on foot.

After about three km, we felt totally lost and another taxi driver was sitting in the street, so we asked him.  We were supposed to be on SP Mukherjee Road, but when we asked him he had no clue where it was.  Another driver pulled up next to the first guys taxi and a discussion ensued.  The first driver asked the second (in Bengali) where SP Mukherjee Road was.  The second driver laughed and pointed to the street we were on.  The first driver didn’t even know the name of the street he was sitting on!

Well we finally found the Metro station, but failed to find the bookstore or the arts center.  We gave up and caught a taxi back to Park Street, which the driver WAS able to find… well, wish us luck.

Cheers!

Being a Western Woman in India…

25 Oct

So I have never posted to this blog, it’s kind of Anthony’s project and I leave him to it. It’s good to have projects, keeps people occupied and out of trouble. Well, the time has come to speak out- or rather rant about a major issue here in India. Being a white, Western woman in a land dominated by small, (I’m 6ft. and most men tower out at 5.6ft) mostly uneducated men.

Why is it that men who are holding hands, groping each other, etc. can stare at me, laugh at me, go out of their way to try to bump into me (yes, Anthony is right next to me) and otherwise harass me? In my country, in my world, this would never be considered acceptable. Oh sure, people are made fun of and all of that, but this is different. This is public harassment in a form I have never seen, and more than that- it is totally socially acceptable.

In this ancient society that is trying so hard to step up to the 21st century, staring and gawking are totally the norm and nothing is thought of in publicly harassing people. NOW, this I know is not just left for me- I have had so many conversations with white Western women from late teens to late 30’s who have just hit the end of being able to deal with this issue, feel harassed, bothered, unsafe or otherwise tired of the whole thing. The only place in India that I have been, where both other women and I felt safe was in the hill stations. Starting in Darjeeling and going upwards, the harassment abated and the jeering stares disappeared.

Harassment was replaced with curious stares, questions, smiles and fair conversation. At no time did I feel harassed and insulted- usually I was met with smiles, nice conversations and earnest questions. The harassment that I am referring to has been exclusive to the low lands of India.

Most of this behavior has been explained as the boys/men here only see sex coming out of the West and assume this is what all Western women are about. Oh shit, please. This is a society that allows boys/men to do what they want, when they want, rule with abandon and not give two craps about anything or anyone around. I have seen little boys hit their mothers, scream and yell and otherwise display behavior that made both Anthony and myself drop our jaws. With the “gut and a strut” fathers just standing there, smoking and otherwise not doing a damn thing. That’s just the way it is. In fact, some of the worst harassment I have encountered is by little boys being egged on by older men around them. The favorite is to come up, of course holding hands and groping each other (this will be discussed in a later post…sigh) and they stare. Then they try to get closer and closer, and they try to touch. Now mind you, the whole time Anthony is standing right next to me staring them down. I try to do the same, even saying something-but see, I don’t count! So whatever I do or say is ignored. But they won’t even look at Anthony. They won’t get near him, but they will circle around until he just about jumps them, then they saunter away playing kissy face with each other, pants hiked up under the armpit, belt wrapped 3 times around their waists laughing as loudly as possible. So this happens 6-7 times a day at least. Take that with the glaring stares, trying to touch or bump, and a lady just has enough.

I had a super conversation with a few women from Seattle, WA regarding this issue. They were young, in college, cute and all. Studying in Delhi for a few months and then touring India, (why didn’t I do this in college? There was more to do than get loaded? hmmm…) anyway, they had a few things to say also. We compared notes, and we vented. It was great!! I told them about the fantastic book “Holy Cow!” by Sarah MacDonald (just about this very issue) and they ran out and bought it, we spoke some more and laughed over the next few days. The thing we all agreed on was that we just didn’t understand this lust and lurking that these men do. I know they don’t get laid, they have the social maturity of a 5 year old (especially toward the opposite sex) and they are ignorant about so many things in the world. But come on.

I have not in any circumstance been met with this behavior by educated Indian men. I have had fantastic times with educated, intellectual Indian men. Call it respect even!! They know there is something outside of their world and have seen more… I appreciate it greatly. Hands shaken, eye contact, business cards exchanged. All very kind. Now come on, I know that they are looking- but it’s not the same. I am not ranting about looks, I am ranting about all out harassment.

So if anyone knows how to say “Get Fucked” in Hindi, or “Go fuck yourself” or “If you actually had sex instead of fantasizing about me then you might feel better” Please let me know. I really need to say something.

A Place to Avoid in Kolkata

25 Oct

So, I just wanted to convey a little story about our first day in Kolkata.  Astrid and I were coming in by airplane because we couldn’t get a train ticket.  Being the end of Durga Puja, many Bengali’s were making their way back from holiday and many of the hotels in Kolkata were still full of tourists, etc.

I frantically tried to call hotel after hotel to get a place to rest our heads, but to no avail.  Either I couldn’t get anyone on the phone, I couldn’t HEAR them once I got them on the phone, or they were fully booked.  Desperately, I finally got through to a place called Capital Guest House near Sudder Street in the Chowringhee area of Kolkata.  They seemed great on the phone, getting us an AC room for Rs. 700 a night and offering to pick us up at the airport for another Rs. 400.  This seemed a little high to me, but beggars can’t be choosers so we decided to take our chances and go with it.

Fast forward to our arrival in Kolkata- everything is smooth, the guy picks us up at the airport as agreed and drives us to the hotel.  The whole time I have this feeling that the place is a dump- it might have been because of the road worthiness of the car which was dubious at best, or the fact that our driver was cross-eyed, greasy, and obviously woke up on the wrong side of the deodorant stick that morning.  Diesel smoke from the cars around us mixed in with the exhaust that was coming into the car from the engine compartment.  Then, without warning the tire popped and we had to wait for the driver to fix it on a busy Kolkata street with buses, cars, and trucks whizzing by all gloriously honking as they went.

After about 20 minutes, we finally got back on the road and made our way to the hotel.  As we pulled in our hearts sank.  The hotel was so shitty from the outside, I wouldn’t want my worst enemy staying there.  I thought “let’s give it a chance and see the inside…” it was no better- tight, scummy hallways with red paan (betel nut wrapped in leaves that WAY too many Indian men chew) stains on the walls, and seedy looking bellhops.  Our bellhop opened the door to our room and I had to stifle a scream. Totally disgusting, dirty, and unkempt, plaster peeling off the walls that were first painted sometime around the partition of India sixty years ago and then left to molder.  The bathroom had a smell that I can’t quite explain with words- kind of that ammonia/ urine smell, but doubled or tripled.  The AC we were promised was barely kicking out cold air.  It was foul- and we were stuck for the night.  When we completed the paperwork, the manager wanted three days rent up front- “No fucking way!,” I thought and agreed to pay for one night and the ripoff pickup from the airport.

After checking in we went straight out to try to find someplace better to stay and have dinner.  After failing to find anything else (but with promise for the next day), we slunk back to our hotel, tails between our legs and went to bed.  Being surprised with dirty sheets and a smorgasboard of bugs that seemed to come from nowhere.

We awoke the next morning VERY early and went straight to the guest house with promise.  We were shown a VERY nice room in a new section of the hotel with a queen size bed, AC that worked, new bathroom, clean, smelled nice, etc.- it was beautiful.  We took it- right then and went back to our hotel to quickly pack and check out.  We sprinted downstairs, threw our room key to the manager at full trot, and ran from the hotel as fast a possible.  As we were leaving, the manager called after us, “Where will you go?”  Without turning around, we both yelled in unison, “SUPER GUEST HOUSE!”

If the story was not explicit enough, DO NOT stay at Capital Guest House in Kolkata- they will rip you off and smile to your face while doing it.  Spend a little extra and stay at Super Guest House.

Cheers!

Kolkata- are we in England or India?

24 Oct

Having just spent the past two days in Kolkata, I have to say that I am impressed.  Yes, it’s expensive, loud, polluted, etc.  But it is a REAL city!  But just when you get used to real taxis, good food, decent people, bookshops, and shopping malls, you turn a corner and run into a squalid slum and realize you are still in India.

That being said, Kolkata is a strange mix of British sensibilities and Indian sluggishness.  Having been the seat of British power in India for over 100 years, you see colonial architecture, well-paved avenues, wide sidewalks, green parks and all the other things that wealthy Brits needed to live in India.

At the same time the streets are lined with indigenous people who have no chance of acheiving any form of the oppulence that surrounds them. These are the same people that were marginalized by the British since they arrived in this land in the 1600’s. In fact at the Victoria Memorial yesterday evening, Astrid and I read that a group of four British Raj paperpushers had a total of 101 servants to everything from getting them dressed in the morning to serving them dinner and wiping their butts. We both realized then what it meant to “never lift a finger.” It is really quite disgusting.

It is difficult to be lower class in this city.  In fact just north of us in what used to be Chinatown (the Chinese have long since left) people are living in slums and lean-tos, or just digging themselves homes in the plentiful garbage heaps.  It is really quite humbling.

We’ll be here for about another week.  I’ll post some pictures later.

Cheers!

Back in Siliguri, flying to Kolkata tomorrow

21 Oct

Yesterday I went to the jeep stand in Kalimpong to see when share jeeps left for Siliguri, a two and a half hour ride.  The people running the stand told me to just come back on Sunday and that jeeps would be leaving every half hour.

We checked out of our hotel at 10:00 a.m. and went to the nearest Internet cafe to book our flight to Kolkata as there are no trains available because of the end of Durga Puja.  After booking our flight, we went to the jeep stand to find it closed.  Yes, closed.  In fact the whole transportation hub was a ghost town.  Our only option was to take the four hour mini bus to Siliguri. 

Now when I say mini-bus, I REALLY mean mini bus.  In fact the seats were so small that Astrid and I could not fit into them.  I got off the bus in a hurry and tried to purchase two more seats, I could only get one :(.  So here we are getting ready for a four hour bus trip Astrid in one set of seats and me crammed into a seat with the Indian version of Cheech Marin, (you know, from Cheech and Chong,) bushy mustache and all who is not giving up an inch of room.  My knees are hitting the seat in front of me and I can’t stretch my legs out beacuse there is a large metal bar that is preventing me from doing so.  Then, once the seats filled, people started standing in the aisles.  There were probably seats for 25 and there were another 25 standing in the aisle.  Old men, babies, women in saris, there might even have been a chicken, I’m not sure…

Anyway, arrived safely in Siliguri and we are going to go enjoy the festival to mark the end of Durga Puja where intricately painted idols are being dunked in the river. 

See you in Kolkata.

East Sikkim- Pelling and Yuksom

20 Oct

I can’t really say much about Pelling- there is really nothing there to talk about except jaw-dropping views of the Himalaya. There are about 80 half-built hotels in Pelling, a testament to the hoards of Bengali tourists that infiltrate the town each spring to escape the heat of the plains. The half-built issue is a blight on the town and a direct cause of the incredible amount of money that India is putting into Sikkim. The government is giving low-interest loans to encourage development and tourism and greedy people are taking the loans- putting some of it into the start of a hotel and then skipping out with the remainder.

We spent an exceptional day walking to the Pemayangtse Monastery ( yes, another monastery) which was extremely beautiful and totally open to the public. The idols that were kept there were all incarnations of Guru Padmasambhava, the priest that converted Tibet to Buddhism. On the top floor of the monastery was an incredible seven-tiered carved wooden model of the abode of Padmasambhava complete with Buddhas, bodhisattva, dragons, animals, rainbows and buildings. It was built in five years by one man…an incredible achievement. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take pictures, so you will have to go see it for yourself.

After the monastery, we walked down the road to the posh Elgin Mt. Pandim Hotel to have tea where we met an Australian man in his sixties named Ian who was managing the facilities.  He talked to us during tea and told us about the problems he was running into with people who do not have the same Western work ethic.  Ian introduced us to his wife (whose name I can’t recall) who also worked at the hotel and when we were ready to leave, he refused to let us pay, we were HIS guests!

The next day we took a Jeep to Yuksom and spent the day there before leaving Sikkim and going back to Kalimpong in India proper West Bengal.  We’re going to spend a couple days of rest and relaxation in a nice hotel in Kalimpong.

See you soon!