I'm a firm believer that so much of your lasting memory of a location depends on how you entered it. When I arrive in the dark of night to a new locale, it's as if I wear a chiffon blindfold that begets a hazy concept of the city. All you have are the smells, the view from the headlights, and the deceiving cool of the nighttime climate. And in the morning, all previously formed ideas of the surroundings are challenged as you finally see the buildings, the ground, and the people who inhabit the place. The mode of transportation also has a very defining effect on the experience. Dropping into Uganda by plane at night and then having a pre-scheduled ride upon arrival put me in a trance or dreamlike state. I didn't know where I was and thought the hundreds of people in the streets were ghosts. For this reason, I like to come in with the dawn and just start walking. Kolkata had the pulse of most heavily concentrated Indian cities and the pushy nature that never releases its stranglehold. I avoided all persistent taxi drivers and rickshaws of all forms in the early morning bustle and wove into the back streets to relieve the pressure. The buildings rising up around me were the perfect, obvious blend of English Colonial and Indian, classic and colorful, structured and chaotic. The alleys made no logical sense in their layout, but in my attempt to aimlessly wander for the area known as Sudder Street, I encountered the real city.
The neighborhood Starbucks were replaced with scattered men boiling chai on the street. Men turned frothy white from soap lather splashed their bathing water across the asphalt. Not one wheeled vehicle rolled by. Evidence of holiday celebrations materialized over every other alley, giving me the opportunity to pass through temporary temples for tens of Hindu gods. In a way, the activity on the streets and the palpable character of the city reminded me of Florence, Italy, if she were covered in garbage heaps or would allow public bathing in this century.
I didn't bear witness to the intense suffering Kolkata was notorious for; I suppose that sort of dark tourism was concentrated in Chinatown or displayed across from the high-end shopping strips. I believe I dropped into the Indian lower-middle class, where the taxi drivers, shop workers, and food industry entrepreneurs built their community. The sun was still hiding, and the air was still tolerable (for someone used to inland tropics). I took great pride in knowing I made the right decision to walk and look straight into the eye of Kolkata, knowing her for an instant while darting through on this transit journey.
One man equipped with a blue tooth earpiece ran towards me as he watched my descent into yet another alley. He offered some direction towards Sudder Street, which I greatly appreciated and utilized, while still steering clear of the main thoroughfares. The massive buses and trolley cars that passed in frenzies nearly clipped my bag, and since he/she was my only companion, I took great care in safeguarding her existence.
I came within blocks of my destination, and upon turning a corner towards the backpacker district, I came across a massive covered market. Since it was still the wee-hour timeframe, the stalls were still being set up; however, the meat market was in full (cleaver) swing. I held my breath past the stale and decrepit stench of death to emerge on the other side, onto a street so perfectly named it had to be fate.
Lindsay Street. Spelled correctly and everything. I winked as I walked over her paved face, like a Mafioso sauntering into his own Italian trattoria, claiming ownership of a street I had never seen before.
The sun took its throne of power over the city by 8am, when I retired to dine on the Lonely Planet trail. Banana pancakes to my left. Muesli to my right. I had a hard-boiled egg and a cup of no-joke tea. Sitting in foreigner oasis, I made a game plan for the next 24 hours, up to the moment my plane closed its cabin for take-off. It was a day to take advantage of the outstanding prices and innumerable commodities offered. Here's what I accomplished without the help of the unyielding tourist hawkers or transportation:
Found an acceptable hostel for $2.50
Sold my India Lonely Planet and bought one for Cambodia (strictly for knowledge to avoid the local scams), while haggling relentlessly for a great deal
Affirmed my flights for the following day without spending a rupee
Shopped around like a price hawk and purchased 100 pencils, 30+ toothbrushes, paint sets, underwear and other assorted goods for the Palm Tree Orphanage I was about to visit
Found Grandpa 100 stamps from around the world
Discovered a bootleg copy of the mystery movie Alexis and I watched on the sleeper bus in China
Delighted in a meal of Indian BBQ
Got my picture taken for a passport photo to go on my Cambodian visa
Checked out the massive covered market I saw before and bought the cardamom and cinnamon needed to recreate real Kashmiri tea
Read the entire history of Cambodia's Pol Pot/Khmer Rouge regime
Took a cold water bucket shower without waking the ten other people in my room
Slept with my head bent at a 90 degree angle (not an easy task)
Every activity was thoroughly planned out, down to the route I took around town and the choice of lunching location. I even shopped around for the best quality bootleg DVD at the many illegal vendors.
A man followed me through the big marketplace, trying to force upon me a guided tour, and I (barely) tolerated his talking as long as he knew good and well I neither wanted a tour nor would compensate him for his time. Scam was written across his forehead, and he knew I knew it. When these business attempts approach me, I normally soak them in a little, in order to see if a new friend can be made. I don't mind helping the local tourism industry if they have a good heart or make an honest attempt to improve my time in a location. I didn't like his approach nor his inability to listen. I don't like that kind of business at all, and I won't stand for it.
Investigating the taxi "biz" the entire day before, I woke up at the crack of dawn on the day of my departure, 30 days after landing in the Subcontinent, and found my taxi driver waiting at the entrance of the hostel. Windows down, we flew through urban traffic at speeds up to nearly 65 miles per hour in a yellow Ambassador. The rustic, dilapidated, English-style cab was relatively luxurious in the grand scheme of my Indian adventures, and driving at that speed made the rapidly gusting wind pass my face with a lying scent of cleanliness.
I was raring and anxious to leave the country that at times stripped me of all desires to travel and be solo. Cooler temperatures, a different culture, massive ancient temples found within jungles, and fellow American travelers waited for me at my next stop. However, India is not kind when it comes to her bittersweet kiss on the cheek, one that is abrasive and addictive, one that you cringe away from and continue to think about months later. She is a fatal temptress. I lost gallons of sweat through dirty, microscopic pores, developed multiple ailments and had years taken off my life by means of pollution inhalation and personal battery. But I will never stop thinking about India and how much I would like to return. On paper, the relationship seems masochistic on my part, but so much of backpacker travel involves the reaping of pleasure from doing miserable, physically draining, and "never to be repeated" acts of travel. Truthfully, I morphed into the traveler and person I am today because of that month.
India, your poison is the elixir of humanity. I shall sip with caution and sip often. Thank you.