Tales from Calcutta, and a Diplomatic Pouch
Last thing at night in Dhaka on our way back to the hotel, I jumped in a skip. The passers-by openly guffawed. A scruffy Foreigner had just launched herself into a bin at dusk to emerge grinning with a giant piece of polystyrene. A security guard saw a commotion, and marched over to tell the bloody insolent beggar off… until he saw the bloody insolent beggar was a white tourist in a bin. Then he looked a little perplexed, and snuck off.
But we had a giant custom painting on a bit of tin, and it needed protection. And there weren‘t all that many DIY shops around. And anyway, the polystyrene seemed to work alright. We fashioned a beautiful if somewhat improvised security blanket for it back at the hotel. I wish I had a photo though.
the transport of a painting
The next day saw us embark upon a very long, hard day from Dhaka to Calcutta. It also included a scary border crossing with our slightly forged visas.
why we aren't too keen on the highways in Bangladesh...
We left at 5am to beat the horrendous Dhaka roads into submission.
a strange little homemade tractor using a well-pump motor
i want one. its perfect.
a new and improved hay-stacking method, and lots of grain.
There was a horrible ferry ride we didn’t even know about. The ferry was a deck full of cars and us in the hot sun. We were a very tired captive audience. Everyone got out of their cars to stand within a meter of us and stare for two hours. Then the buses saw us, and emptied. People followed us around the deck as we hid in the shade under the cars. But even when we made eye contact and smiled no one spoke to us.
We bounced through a nice bit of rural Bangladesh with people threshing grain out with their feet, drying it on the road, and trying out various new and interesting ways to stack hay.
threshing with your toes.
At the border the officials weren’t too sure where the customs office was. We tried three offices. At one we found the biggest crowd of Bangladesh so far. It seemed strange at the busiest border. An old Indian Raj-style officer complimented me bizarrely about being honest and sincere, whilst simultaneously screaming at his clerk to process us quicker…
The Indian customs on the other side didn’t want to let us in. They peered at our forged visa stuff and my palms grew a little sweaty. They tried to make us unpack. This hasn‘t happened to us yet, and luckily we managed to persuade them it was entirely unnecessary. They sent us this way and that, forwards and backwards, and then tried us for ‘baksheesh’ (tips).
a big old fishing net. these are everywhere.
Eventually we were through, and without a backward glance we raced straight to a chai stand. A wonderful old lady with a big grin and two teeth cooked us a big dinner with tea for 60p, and asked me why I wasn’t wearing my nose ring and bangles. She patted my head.
We were out of Bangladesh.
In rural West Bengal I saw dung patties flung at the giant trees lining the road, drying in the sun with little handprints in them. They looked pretty, considering someone had been rolling their hands around in cowdung to make them. Big groups of women in the villages rode flat rickshaw trucks to visit relatives, all dressed in their saris, giggling on the back.
well, someone has to take the pigs for a walk
We rode the long way into Calcutta as it got dark-it seemed a crazy city- rich and flashy with giant ‘townships’ of newly built flats with manicured gardens and big gates. Huge modern shops lit up with neon glow. There were gigantic road systems, with real traffic police, and super-markets. There was a tram system. I saw Metro stations.
Without knowing it we had arrived on Diwali. Everywhere had giant strings of neon lights hung up, there were temporary temples erected out of silk, with bright panel light pictures flashing on and off. There were tunnels of light erected, and all the telegraph poles had striplights attached to them. The world was very bright. Everyone seemed excited and buzzing in their finery. New saris crackled. There were red and green fireworks going off above the city and firecrackers so loud it felt like the inside of my head was exploding. We had made it. Tired and filthy, we asked at every junction for directions.
In the centre of Chowringhee there were hordes of foreigners- backpackers in their scraggy groups. We experienced severe culture shock that night, after over a month of really hardly seeing any other foreigners. For three weeks there we were the only tourist-weirdos around. We sat huddled in the corner, gawping at tanned backpacker kids with their skirts in rags. We watched with cynical eyes as travellers had uplifting, life-enhancing experiences sat chatting with the beggars on Suddur Street.
We are here to ship the bike by plane to Thailand. Calcutta must wait. But inbetween the shipping stuff still happens.
Last night we saw a poor little mad guy screech and claw at the air. Then he threw himself into the gutter. Everyone stood and stared at him, and a procession went past, nearly squashing him.
We met a Norman, an Anglosaxon who likes to chat to Brits because his great grandfather was one. He held Adam hostage for an hour with the bike.
We also met an Ynes, a highly irritating but very friendly ‘market guide’ who appears whenever we turn a corner, to then proceed to walk in front of us, thereby ‘guiding’ us to places we were going to anyway, in the hope of money.
We watched the Kali Diwali procession get the effigy stuck in a tree. It was enormous. The road was narrow. The trees were large. In most places you’d think someone might have thought of the problem beforehand really. But this is India, so the drummers and dancers carried on without a care in the world while the organisers extracted the branch from Kali’s ear.
We smiled at the fattest, healthiest looking women beggars ever seen, wearing nice saris, sat around the tourist district smiling and chatting, and watched them switch on saddened faces suddenly to the passing foreigners.
We walked around trying to get cash from the ATMs and failing. There were streets and streets of night-markets, with every conceivable item, mostly really upmarket stuff, all next to giant chain stores selling suits, and a Rolex branch. Never believe another Lonely Planet writer telling you Calcutta is squalid.
Well no, possibly it is in parts, but we have been through a large part of it now, and I don’t see squalor. (Maybe they keep it well hidden behind the Rolex branches… Maybe Bangladesh has immunized my eyes...)
Giant fat Bengali mammas draped in silk like enormous grinning pincushions, get pulled along on carts by hand by a skinny rickshaw-man straining to walk under their weight. Somewhere in India there are probably little wiry blokes asking passers-by if they need a piggy-back. How much more degrading a job can there be than pulling someone down a road, barefoot? Crazy country…
what a job. Calcutta are actually making these illegal this year.
The shipping has taken us a week. It was supposed to take 2 days. Today is the first day we have had to do anything fun, and we have a flight booked for Thailand tomorrow. Calcutta will have to remain a touristic mystery.
With touristing in mind, we went off to find the Victoria Memorial. Five minutes later I fell into a gigantic puddle of slime in the middle of a busy road. It was a spectacular fall. The slime was oily. The road was scary. I fell completely, and was covered from head to toe. ‘Luckily’, I found a big pond to stick myself in, and dried out on an embankment, like a fish. ‘Luckily’ there were only 4 onlookers…
Anyway, then we found the memorial.
It was packed full of big families. It was impressively large. It featured a lovely statue of Queen Victoria, resplendent in her girth.
a big old queen..
Inside we wandered round an exhibition on the British rule in India. One exhibit was a replica town street from the 1700s. It looked like someone had just cut a window to outside- there was no apparent difference at all.
The only difference between India in 1700 and India now is the lack of hoighty English prigs in breeches, waddling around with 110 servants to dress them.
We meandered around the exhibition, and wandered home via a very good restaurant where the waiters wore bandannas and sneered a lot.
That’s it, we have run out of time in Calcutta and seen, well, not a lot. But we have shipped the bike, hopefully. Its not been all that easy. But it was a lot cheaper than sending it by sea in Bangladesh. We shall see what happens in Bangkok. For any motorcycle-people out there looking for shipping information, I’ll do a whole post on it once we get the bike back from customs that end. That way it will have everything in one place.
At customs: me. looking distinctly fed up. and poor Manfred, suffering.
...and what the hell is in here? It is a 'US Department of State Diplomatic Pouch'. We found it lying around in Calcutta customs. Possibly the US has taken to shrinking its diplomats.