Michelle is another Kiva fellow working in India, the only other one in fact, and she came to Kolkata for the weekend between assignments. Her flight arrived from Imphal, Manipur, which is an area of the Northeast that is totally different from the rest of “mainland India”, as they refer to it. Many inhabitants are members of various hill tribes, and the community she was staying with was Christian. It’s remote and home to active insurgent groups, so she had seen fewer than 10 foreigners in the two months she was there. My foreigner interaction was also next to nil, so we were thrilled to jabber inarticulate English with each other at regular speed. Picking her up from the airport was no easy task, unsurprisingly, but we made it back to my guesthouse, ordered Domino’s and compared notes late into the night.
Mr. Das gave me Saturday off so I could spend time with Michelle, which I much appreciated. One of my co-workers came with us, and we hit up Victoria Memorial, then New Market for shopping. New Market is an enormous maze of shops, slightly reminiscent of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, if a little less grand. Bargaining is in full force, however, and it was nice to have a local with some skills or I would’ve paid way too much for my little Ganesh statue. At Victoria Memorial, Michelle and I sat on one of the benches as a woman walked up with her toddler, asking to take a photo with us. I’d heard about Indians wanting pictures with foreigners, but hadn’t experienced it yet. We hesitantly obliged, a little uncomfortable with our celebrity status. Then a man came up asking for his photo, followed by other men from the same group. After about 8 or 10 photos, we decided we better get up and move or our 15 minutes of fame could easily extend to an hour. It was a full day, capped off with Kingfisher beer in my guest room, which came with a free beer glass from the shop owner for my loyal patronage.
Sunday we were footloose and fancy free. Neither of us had ventured out much on our own- Michelle even less than me- so we were thrilled to be flying solo. The plan was Kali Temple at the other end of the city. We could’ve taken a cab, but my co-worker gave us directions via two auto-rickshaw routes and the metro. Yes, we were up to the challenge. When we reached the metro station without incident we were quite proud. We were so high on our achievement, in fact, that we just laughed when we found out the metro didn’t open until 2pm. Oh India, you test us so.
At the end of our first auto stop (the auto-rickshaws are small, shared vehicles that operate on set routes, similar to busses), we wandered around the neighborhoods near Ultadanga station. I’ve driven through slums in Kolkata, but had never walked through one. It always strikes me how joyful kids appear in the poorest of conditions. I remember this from rural villages in Vietnam and the favelas of Rio. Of course this is purely my perception, but there’s something very sweet about kids playing and having fun together; whether they’re chasing each other in a circle or kicking a soccer ball. Perhaps it’s their innocence that’s so captivating, made all the more precious knowing the struggles that await them.
We arrived at Kali Temple by cab (from the closed metro station) and made our way past vendors to the entrance. Sindur, highly-pigmented red and orange powder that people place on their foreheads, is sold along the way and guided our path.
We had been warned about “priests” demanding 500-1000 rupees for their tour guide services, so Michelle and I were wary when an older man came up and started telling us about the temple. Some are legitimate priests while others have fake ID cards to scam tourists. Per my guidebook, 50-100 rupees is an acceptable donation for their services. We let him continue as he seemed knowledgeable, knowing that it would probably end up costing us. The line to enter the main temple was extremely long, so our guide took us around the back. We squeezed through an impossibly narrow pass between buildings where others were also pushing their way through, to catch a glimpse of Kali. People roared when she became visible for a few seconds. “Can you see her three eyes?” the priest asked. I could barely see anything, but I was ok with that. I have a hard time with large crowds, and the crowds in India are on another scale. After pushing our way out, our guide and his new buddy who showed up tell us 1000 rupees will help buy bread. I handed over 200 for both of us, and thanked him for his services. Luckily he didn’t demand more, so we we’re on our way. Cultural temple visit- check!
Enjoying our freedom, we zig-zagged through neighborhoods surrounding the temple. Just like earlier, many people were eager to have their photo taken. One woman wanted us to take her daughter’s picture, but the toddler wanted nothing of it and clung to her mother’s leg crying. Yet another woman was so happy to be photographed that she started posing for us, grabbing the grates of a window as she smiled for the camera. Michelle and I both snapped away, giddy from her enthusiasm.
After a few hours around Kali Ghat, lunch was needed. I suggested we head back to Sudder Street, the tourist area, as I don’t get many opportunities to eat non-Indian food. We went to Raj’s Spanish Café which I had seen but never been to. What an oasis! Italian, Spanish, French, Mexican… you want it, they’ve got it. Deciding was not easy, but we settled on a caprese salad and a chicken with bean burrito. I have NO idea where they got buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil, but it was total bliss. Michelle had been exposed to even less foreign food than me, and we kept looking at each other with big eyes repeating “this is soooooooooo good”. Mexican food is always horribly done internationally, so my expectations were really low, but the burrito was actually good! The Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Forum would probably chastise us for being so touristy and unauthentic, but I am definitely coming back.
As we started walking back towards New Market, Michelle suggested we duck into the Oberoi Hotel, one of the few 5-star establishments in Kolkata. It reeked of British colonialism, and was stunning. We sat in the hotel bar and looked at the menu. Holy rupees! A draft beer was $8 and an iced tea around $6. Those are normal Western hotel prices, but a shock to our system after two months in India. I can get a large bottle of the same beer from my local shop for less than $1.50, so I just couldn’t bring myself to order anything. We left the bar and walked through the pool area. Groups of older westerners were sitting at tables enjoying gorgeous sandwiches and pasta dishes with wine. For a split second I was transported home to a Santa Monica hotel- Casa del Mar or Shutters- both of which I’ve dined at and dropped $15 on a cocktail without a second thought. So why did I feel out of place here?
Michelle walked up to one of the servers, admitted we weren’t hotel guests, and asked if we could sit down and order a cup of tea (we figured it would be our cheapest option). She agreed and showed us to a small table slightly away from the others. Birds chirped in the completely surrounded courtyard, presumably to drown out the street noise, which it did amazingly well. I wish I could bring some to my guesthouse! As the sun began to set, lights came on and reflected off the pool. It was… serene.
Our tea came in a white, ceramic pot with two cups. I stared at the Splenda packet that peeked out of the sugar bowl like it was something from a movie. It was a far cry from the tea stall we stopped at earlier, but this was also India. While it wasn’t the India I had come to know, it was still a big part of their history.
Of course we HAD to use the bathroom, which was gloriously spotless. I could’ve sworn triumphant music played as I opened the door. The whole experience was overwhelming, which felt very odd because it was not unlike somewhere I’d been just three months earlier. Perspective changes everything, I guess. After lingering awhile, we decided it was time to re-enter our current reality, so I asked the server for the bill. “No charge,” he said. “It’s been taken care of.” “WHAT?” I exclaim. The hotel comped our tea. I was initially quite moved. They must’ve seen us as travelers who wanted to enjoy the surroundings, but couldn’t afford it. What a kind gesture. Then I was uneasy because my initial feeling of not belonging was confirmed. My label of entertainment marketer was being replaced by NGO volunteer, and it was strange to be in those shoes because I’d been in the old ones for so long. But then I reflected on the start of our day in the slum, which I appreciated just as much (if not more than) sipping tea by the pool. We walked out of the hotel and I took one last breath of the floral perfumed air as we disappeared into the horns, crowds and dust that have grown more familiar.
It was a perfect foreigner day, and the sense of home reaffirmed that I’m right where I want to be. The hotel was literally a breath of fresh air, and I will definitely return to the café for chicken and cheese crepes, but small escapes are enough for now. It’s the grit and rhythm of everyday life that drives me, as a city only reveals her soul if you open your mind and embrace it. Well, ok, cleaner bathrooms WOULD be nice.
More photos from our weekend of fun…