Monday, July 28, 2008

Frozen eras in a hectic city

KOLKATA: The sights, smells and sound - not all good - in the "City of Joy" bombard you at every step. Calcutta is my first foray into the subcontinent and what an entrance point. It is the most populous city I have been to and certainly not for the faint hearted, but if you can look past the squalor and hold your nose when needed this is in an incredible city.

The first thing that struck me was how this place had caught hold of moment in time and not let go. The timeline has been ripped up and the historical pieces have been scattered all over. Fragments of 1950s England, a shred of 19th century Asia, a medieval scrap and then there is the modern strand weaving throughout the rest.

Stepping foot outside the airport after our eventful flight from Bangkok (it made the newspapers the next day due to a rowdy drunken man seated in front of us duly arrested on the tarmac), I was greeted by a fleet of 1950s vintage yellow Hindustan Ambassador taxis gleaming brightly in the sun. Every taxi here harks back to that golden age of round fenders and chrome bumpers; I guess if it ain't broke don't fix it.

Ambassador fleet

We got our ride into town in the back of one. With bench seats in the front, climate control via a rolled down window, shutting off the engine at traffic lights, and picking up extra passengers along the road, it was a great way to enter the centre of town.

Removing our packs from the cavernous boot another era struck us, as we were immediately greeted by a rickshaw runner touting his foot-powered vehicle. Surely Kolkata is the only place left on the planet where you can be pulled around on a wooden-spoked cart by a man with bare feet. After five days here we are still yet to use their services. It seems demeaning for me who is perfectly capable of walking to be pulled along by skinnier man with his cart. Then again, it is their way to make a living.

Checking in to the mouldy hotel we stayed in for the first night (we promptly moved out the next morning), we discovered another legacy of the British: their centuries old bureaucracy. We waited for what seemed almost half an hour as the ledger was carefully filled out and all our details were neatly written in – including father's name, where we had been, where we going – and then again for the receipt as we paid.

Escaping the paper work we took to the streets. The streetside sights we have seen while walking – and we have walked a fair way over this spread out city – are things you don't forget in a hurry. It is here that the eras of time really mingle, from ancient ways to the modern.

A typical amble will take you past tiny shop fronts offering services ranging from automotive parts to astrology readings, or the sight of holy Hindu cows outside of halal butcher shops. Food and drink sellers will be whipping up their concoctions of sweets, roti, curries, fresh lime or sugar cane juice and the ever present and my favourite chai (a sweet milky tea in a throw-away terracotta cup, which you have the satisfaction of smashing in the gutter).

Cup of chai?
Cup of chai?

The amble will take you down traffic filled streets full of not only the yellow Ambassadors but their white brothers owned by Government departments. If you pass these government buildings there will be multitudes of them parked with their drivers, some with "On Duty" signs in their windows. I can just imagine scenes inside the government buildings similar to the start of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Rows of desks with clerks and typewriters with fans whirring overhead.

Further on the wander you will be bound to see sights not particularly fetching for the eye. Men pissing into gutters without care for who is around. Children tagging you for a block making hand to mouth gestures are hard to shake from your person as well your mind. Then there are the occasional more sedentary ones, waving stumps at you to gain your attention for some coins in their cup. A man face first on the ground with two short arm stumps flapping about like a seal would have been comical if it wasn't so tragic.

There will also be at some point a beggar woman and her lolling baby. I made the mistake of trying to engage a local shopkeeper to tell me the Bengali words for "please, go away". When the man proceeded to inform me that they were not beggars but only did this out of habit, I was a tad shocked. If someone asks you for money isn't this begging? I politely argued that point.

The shopkeeper conceded, but this unsettled me and made me ponder the best way to approach the beggar hassle. Ignore or give to each of them. Wouldn't handing out money just be perpetuating the begging? I have seen numerous charities giving food handouts. Besides if I gave to every beggar on the street I wouldn't have any money myself.

On these extended strolls we have also visited the traditional sights. The crumbling government buildings from the colonial era when Calcutta was the capital: Dalhousie square, the ornate Writers Building and General Post Office, now overgrown compared to early black and white photos. Then there is the grandeur of the Victoria Memorial – an almost squat Taj Mahal like structure built for the dead queen – one of the buildings from that period which is kept in good condition. The old cemetery of the Raj also still remains.

Sights here have been religious too. We visited the serene resting place of Mother Teresa, and watched the devout come and pray on her tomb. We then contrasted that with a visit to the sacred Hindu Kali temple, where we were jostled, pushed and shoved trying to get a glimpse of the black-skinned three eye god. Kali is very demanding and outside of her enclosure is the sacrificial alter where a goat is brought daily and once a year a buffalo.

Then there was a trip to the Indian Museum, something that looks like it hasn't changed since the British left. Rooms full of dusty cabinets full of dusty rocks are in one section, but more rewarding were the large complete skeletons of elephants and whales as well an interesting wing on the ethnology of the various tribal groups scattered throughout India.

Elephant speciman
Specimens in the Indian Museum

So with most of the sights out of the way, it is time to move on and tonight we do on the Darjeeling Mail. It is perhaps good timing to be leaving as the rains have finally hit us while we have been here. There was concern before we came as to the state of the monsoon, but with relief we have had mostly rain free days. Which of course has made it extremely hot and humid.

Buying tickets for the train was a venture into the realm of the paper pushing clerks. With the only sign a "May I help you" and a person sitting behind it who wouldn't help, it took us a while to work out the system. Eventually after helping myself to a form and more paperwork and waiting, we had some tickets out of the city.

The train we will catch is actually not to Darjeeling but it takes us near enough to get there easily. I would have liked to take the Darjeeling Express and behave like Adrian Brody or Owen Wilson, but unfortunately there is no Darjeeling Express so the Mail will have to do. Whatever is it called it will be my first Indian train. I am sure this will be start of a long affair.

Monday, July 21, 2008


BANGKOK: Every long story, adventure or activity needs to be broken up a bit. The battered copy of War and Peace I just finished had quite a few breaks throughout its long plot. Football has its halftime. The tour de France has a rest day. All the old cinematic epics were given an intermission. And so, like a long epic, the last few weeks have been the halftime in our journey.

Indochina is now kaput. Over. Finished. We hitched a ride on an Air Asia flight and flew into Thailand. After 3 months in the 3 countries (8 weeks in Vietnam alone) it was great to head off again to somewhere slightly different.

By the end, to be honest, we were a tad over Vietnam. There are only so many times of getting ripped off which you can shrug off. My tolerance is around zero. In our last week doing the final tourist loop southeast from Hanoi, we were bound to get shafted. And we did on a few occasions.

We had tried to see the World Heritage Halong Bay economically and via a different route than most people would take, but instead we were sold a "day tour" which didn't last till noon let alone a full day, and didn't include lunch. But shit happens. You grin and bear it. Notch it up on the "experience to try avoid again" board.

The last days in Vietnam did have good moments. In fact some were among the best. Hiking across Cat Ba island was one tour that was really worth it. Most of the island is National Park and very rugged. Flying across the island it would look like those scenes at the start of Jurassic Park; walking 14 or so kilometres across it we saw how Jurassic it was first hand.

It was one of few times in Indochina where we actually saw quite a bit of wildlife. Besides numerous large spiders blocking the path we saw four different snakes, one eating a lizard whilst hanging from a tree. Everywhere else in Vietnam it almost seemed to me that anything wild was already or about to be eaten; a market wander can always be a bit disturbing.

Hang in there
Tree snake dining on lizard

The hike finished in one of the most beautiful places I have been. We first walked and then later cruised through fjord-like scenery where those jungle clad mountains decended into the sea. It reminded me of Norway or New Zealand, and you just can't get enough of a view like that; it made up for (although we didn't know it at the time) the lack of a real cruise around Halong Bay.

Staying on Cat Ba island was also an another experience - to see Vietnamese tourists in the wild. Instead of mountain climbs, they seek beaches to play on. The tiny strips of sand that were available on the rocky island were full to overflowing with locals tackling the surf - no more than waist deep; perhaps because they couldn't swim? Rubber tubes around the waist were certainly popular.

Unfortunately, because the island is so popular during the “summer months” - or at this time of year – the accomodation was more expensive than what we were used to. And on weekends the price automatically doubled. We turned up on a Wednesday (via a dodgy, overcrowded ferry – another story), which was fine until we decided to stay until the Saturday. Friday night we found out it was impossible to get anything for a reasonale price.

Luckily we had made friends with the operator of our hotel, James, who offered to put us in his own house for a price we more used to. This turned out to be an interesting insight into how normal Vietnamese actually live. We hung out in his local neighbourhood for the afternoon, meeting the local kids. And then at night we got to listen to the gentle sounds of the neighbourhood, before sweating in their hotbox room at the top of the homemade house. It was an experience we won't forget for a while.

Another touristy spot on our list was Ninh Binh. It was easily accessible from Hanoi, located on the train line south. Ninh Binh is host to the popular – again with locals and foreigners alike – Tam Coc. It is billed as “Halong Bay on the rice fields”.

Tam Coc certainly has the karst hill landscape interspersed with rice paddies and canals. But it is also now completely set up as a tourist experience that it is almost comical. You you pay an entrance fee to the area and then pay for a little boat for a two hour trip rowed by an elderly lady.

So far so good, but it turns out the boat just travels up the river-canal hybrid for an hour passing through caves. You are bomarbed at the end by drink sellers on little boats who make you by a drink for your rower, and then the boat heads back exactly the same way and your madam tries to sell handicrafts (i.e. embroidered tablecloth anyone?) and at the end asks for a tip. No deviation from the theme please. At least the scenery was spectacular.

Surronding Ninh Binh and Tam Coc were some other spectacular sights, though more mundane I guess for the Vietnamese. This time of year is hay harvesting season and riding through the back villages away from Tam Coc it was almost as if we had been transported back in time to middle ages Europe.

Hay drying streets
Hay drying village streets

Hay was drying on every available patch of road and roof, and to go through the villages you just rode over a hay bed road. After our touristy experience it was great to see locals doing local things. Hopefully that is how I will remember Vietnam, the local side of life. Not the defined tourist trail.

So now we have been in Thailand for almost two weeks and we certainly haven't been far from the tourist trail. But as I have stated it has been a break from our journey and Thailand is an easy place to take a break. We have ventured out of Bangkok - firstly to Kanchanaburi to see the bridge over the river Kwai and the Death Railway. This was something I wanted to see last time I was here two years ago, but didn't. Secondly we ventured up to Ayuthaya for a few days rest out of the smog. I did visit there last time but was happy to go back with Rob.

And so now the next stage of our journey begins. Intermission is over and we are flying to India. A one way ticket to Kolkata and a 6 month visa in our passport. The journey proceeds into new grounds for me. I cannot wait to immerse myself in the experience of India.