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Calcutta: New Year and new perspectives‏

September 2nd, 2009 | No Comments

January 1, 2009

Something so simple as a gecko on a window screen can be hypnotizing. In Vancouver we laugh at tourists taking photos of raccoons in Stanley Park. How ridiculous must we seem in this setting cooing over camels? I regretted not taking a photo in Kathmandu a couple years ago of a bull standing on a bridge. That no longer seems like a unique experience, as cows are more common on the streets of India than Starbucks cups are back home. The transition West across Northern India was tremendous. We exchanged dried rice fields and Neem trees for vast seas of Sarson (green & yellow mustard plants), and increased our sightings of monkeys and parrots, and finally, camels and wild peacocks. While still in the ashram I ate the bitter leaves of the Neem tree to ward off mosquitoes, and the branches are used in everything from toothpaste to very effective skin care products. The people changed as well. The average size of the people in Bihar and Jarkhand is much smaller (which I assume is simply due to less access to nutritious food), and moving west the skin is darker and the facial features are finer. Consistent across the whole north though are the water-resistant, fire-retardant, Kevlar pink napkins.

Rajastan is India’s largest state by size, but has less than 1% of the country’s fresh water supply. Emaciated farmers have been flooding into cities like Jaipur due to massive droughts over the past decade, and the latest census numbers put the population of Jaipur at somewhere between 2.6 and 3.2 million people – it is impossible to know for sure, but it feels like half of them are on motorcycles at the same time. The literacy rate among women is only 25% here, as the discrepancy is magnified as women are rarely seen or heard. The “Pink City” of Jaipur is the first one outside Calcutta that feels like an actual city. The high city walls suggest that this has been the site of many conflicts in its brief history (less than 300 years old – brand new by India standards). These walls were covered in a pink wash twice in history, but now it is more of a burnt orange. Today it is a burgeoning dirty metropolis that would burst upwards past the seemingly self-imposed 5-story limit if it only had the economy to do so.

The Pink City of Jaipur

The Pink City of Jaipur

This is why I travel. Our hotel was an oasis from the high-tension streets, run by a retired India Colonel and his wife, the strong yet funny Mrs. Singh. After dinner the first night we spent time by the fire laughing and chatting with the Colonel and Arun, a history professor from the local university that looked and carried himself like an Indian Bob Hoskins. Friends since childhood, the men carried 2 conversations at once – each telling a story and interjecting on the others simultaneously. We heard about Polish diplomats and regular travelers who bring gifts of vodka, which Arun gets because the Colonel doesn’t drink. The Colonel’s son later told me that his dad likes to call the police when Arun is over and have a roadblock waiting outside the hotel, just to scare him. They were fascinated to learn that Chelah is an actress, and can’t wait to tell other clientele. Had we not been up since 5:30am, I am sure that conversation would have gone through the night. This was the first night in literally a month that I had a room to myself. I have been very fortunate with my roommates this entire trip, but the prospect of moving about your own space was enticing (and affordable here). Unfortunately Chelah planted the seed in my head about insects in the room, so even though I had a queen-sized bed to myself (ok, 2 twins pushed together) I still used my sleeping bag. The whiskey and water I had around the fire facilitated a deep sleep.

We had heard that Jaipur was a shopping Mecca, so we ended up going right to the source – a textile manufacturer. After a brief fondling of the ways and means of producing everything from carpets to silk suits, the shopping began. As it did in Varanasi, this one stop concluded with a significant transfer of rupees to the shop owner. Nothing is an exact science here. Even the label on beer lists the alcohol content as “exceeding 5.7% but not exceeding 8.75%”. And for the record, one does not need to be anywhere near Delhi to experience “Delhi belly”. Which lead to our new game – Public Toilet or Public Execution? At what point would you rather witness the latter? Let’s just say that it was a tight race in a few instances.

My fabulous travel companions for a week across Northen India. Melissa & Chelah shopping in Jaipur.

My fabulous travel companions for a week across Northen India. Melissa & Chelah shopping in Jaipur.

On the last night in Jaipur I had just been contemplating the range of emotions elicited in, and by, the city. Jaipur had been a microcosm of the entire trip – a cacophony of expectations, perspectives, hopes, disappointments, aversions, pleasant surprises, and considerable self-reflection. The cage was rattled completely when I received horrible news from home. A good friend of many years was killed in a motorcycle accident while on vacation in California. I had been thinking about calling him recently to catch up, and am really kicking myself now. I was about to start that sentence with “Oddly enough I had been thinking about him…” but after this trip I am reluctant to accept ironies with any inherent value anymore. This trip has taught me to listen to my instincts, and this was one hell of a final lesson. I felt at one with the turmoil of a state that borders Pakistan during a heightened South Asian cold war. I have just confirmed the service will be held after I get back, which provides considerable relief. Now a few days removed from that, essentially a cut & pasted journal entry, I can more feasibly segue into continuing stories of India.

Melissa, Chelah and Santos continued deeper into Rajastan, with a goal of spending a couple nights under the stars on a camel trek in the desert along the Pakistan border. My route took me back to Calcutta, alone. The only other photos on my digital camera other than of India are from the bonding weekend the group had on Bowen Island. We look like kids in the photos compared to now, and it was only a few months ago. The shared part of the journey that started with 14 beautiful friends was now complete. Now it is just Calcutta and I. Calcutta and I get along now. Or at the very least, we have an understanding of each other. After venturing through 5 Northern states, including the historically criminal Bihar, and the wild west of Rajastan, Calcutta no longer seems like a big bad wolf. Compared to the Indian north, Calcutta is simply the big kid on the playground that you know you can make laugh in tense moments. Yesterday I attempted to hunt & gather something entertaining to do for New Years Eve, but the best I could find was a Madonna retrospective at a local club. I elected to have a beer and close out the year in the aptly named Sundown pub, and watch the ticker of the Indian CNN equivalent on the TV. The bar was quiet except for a few locals and a gay Ukranian guy that kept asking me what my room number was. Sorry dude, I am not making that many changes in 2009. Today I went back to New Market and bought the Ganesh statue that I had coveted when we were here over a month ago, so my shopping is now complete. Tomorrow I will venture to Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity, try and catch a Bollywood movie, and soak up the last bit of shorts & T-shirt weather before flying home tomorrow night.

India attempts to portray a more secular society in response to the exploding Muslim population (150 million), but religion is clearly tied to virtually every nuance of life here. “Homosexual activity” is still illegal, but the local paper expects that to change this year. A new law came into effect January 1st that removes the police’s power to arrest people for crimes where the maximum possible sentence is 7 years or less. The packed judicial system has instead elected to have police issue a “notice to appear”. This includes crimes such as robbery, attempted murder, and “outraging a woman’s modesty” (don’t ask – no idea). The tallest building in Calcutta is only 36 stories high, and there are plans for one to reach 50 in 2009. An increase in stories is definitely synonymous with India.

In the ashram I was bestowed a spiritual name: Tripurari. It means “Lord of All Three Worlds”. Those worlds have certainly expanded in India. The night before leaving Vancouver a friend sent me off with “Enjoy your trip of a lifetime… again”.

Touché.

From Calcutta, Happy New Year!

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