Birganj to Kolkata: November 26–30, 2003
If I said that my Thanksgiving plans for this year were made by my friends while they trekking around Sikkim with the US Consulate to India, I might sound a little over the top, as if I was trying to impress whoever might stumble across these scribblings.
A bicyclist pauses for a photo in Kolkata.
Actually, that’s about the simplest I can put it. My friends took some vacation, went to Darjeeling and then Sikkim, and happened to share the trail with the US Consulate. His name is Geroge.
George and his wife were nice enough to extend invitations to them and their friends (I would fall in to the latter group) to join them and some other foreign service staff for Thanksgiving in Kolkata.
There were promises of a 23-lb turkey, sweet potatoes, and a swimming pool. But getting to Kolkata wasn’t as simple as it should have been.
The problem wasn’t in logistics, since Kolkata is an overnight 12–13 hour train (or bus) ride from Eastern Nepal.
We had four days to get to Kolkata and back to Nepal to be within the good graces of Peace Corps/Nepal. It wasn’t simple. Because we’re morons.
After congregating in Birtamod, we left en masse for Kakarbhitta and then to Siliguri, where we could catch an overnight train to Kolkata.
Andrew was supposed to have bought train tickets, but because of the present security situation in Nepal, none of us were sure that we would be able to go; that is, until the day before we had planned to leave the country. So Andrew hadn’t bought tickets.
Andrew e-mailed me from Kathmandu:
I am in Kathmandu. You are at post. I am watching the BBC. You are listening to it on a scratchy radio. I am taking hot showers. You are sitting under a cold tap. You are listening to the same old music, while I listen to new exciting albums you have never even heard of.
I am staying out late at the discos. You are going to bed at 8 p.m. You know nothing about the trip to Kolkata. I have all the control. I have the tickets. I am negotiating with the office. You do nothing. You sit, and you wait for me, dog.
I was mostly confused because of how Andrew had signed his e-mail. Strange man, he is.
Anyhow, when we finally saw him in Birtamod, he informed us that, in fact, he hadn’t bought any train tickets. So we were left to ‘figure it out’ in Siliguri. And off we went.
Day 1, Wednesday
It was the day before Thanksgiving when we finally were allowed to leave Nepal and enter India. By the time we reached the Siliguri train station, NJP, we had been throwing around a football and talking about white vs. dark meat, pumpkin vs. apple pie, swim vs. nap.
A tree grows in Calcutta.
It didn’t take long at the booking office to know that we weren’t going to get on a Kolkata-bound train. We would require another means of transportation.
Those means were limited to a bus. Kara sounded suddenly excited and talked about a bus she had taken from Goa to Mumbai back in April: seats that reclined into beds, air conditioning, comfort, et cetera.
We bought our bus tickets and waited for our luxury bus to arrive. We sat around the travel agency playing hearts and spades until 7 p.m. Our bus ride would last something like 12 hours, which would put us in Kolkata well before anyone carved anything.
Seeing the bus wasn’t nearly as disappointing as actually boarding it. While it wasn’t any worse than the average bus in Nepal, it was not any better.
As soon as Laurel sat in her chair, it squeaked loudly, collapsed backwards into a total recline, and rested on the legs of the man sitting behind her. It was broken. As I sat down next to her, I thought of her misfortune in not being able to sit upright for next 12 hours.
Logically, my seat next to Laurel’s was incapable of reclining at all. My chair was to remain at a precise 90°ree; angle. I sat perfectly upright for the entire duration of the bus ride, which was, in retrospect, longer than 12 hours.
Sitting in the erect position, as soon as I would nod off, I would slowly begin to lean forward and descend until the bottom of my chin was touching the top of my stomach and then the top of my head would collide with the back of the seat in front of me.
And sometimes just the light from on-coming traffic burning into my eyes was enough to jostle me awake. But I was not alone, as no one slept.
And then at odd moments in the night, when I was neither asleep or awake, the bus would stop and we would be herded off for food. I have a cloudy memory of stopping somewhere in the black of the early morning. It must have been 3 a.m.
I staggered off the bus and faced three identical rice shops, all glowing violently with an incandescent flicker, all with a single bundled man in front screaming—sort of a shouting chanting—to attract people to the respective rice shop.
I was cold. I was half awake, half dreaming, and there were three men, wearing sweater vests, somewhere in anonymous India, shouting at the zombie-like bus passengers milling around a dirt lot.
At some point, jostled by the chanting, I remembered how a few hours earlier I had awoken to find an Indian Army guy walking up the isle in the bus with a digital video camera, sweeping the passengers’ faces while a bright on-camera light shined into our faces.
I remember waking up for a moment to think I was being kidnapped. And then falling back to my near-asleep state.
After that, the next thing I remembered was this most bizarre sight: three rice shops with similarly dressed touts in front shouting the nearly identical things about actually identical food. I found this odd.
The touts chanted,
HEY! WEGOTLOTSOFRICE! LOTSOFHOTRICE! OHRICE! OHROTI! YOUWANTROTIWEGOTROTI! HOTROTI! COLDROTI! LOTSOFFOOD! ROTI! RICE!
During the 20-odd minutes we spent at this rest stop, the three touts never stopped chanting nor, as far as I could tell, breathing.
I ate, but it didn’t help me sleep. The touts haunted my dreams.
Day 2, Thursday (Thanksgiving)
It was still early when we reached the US Consulate in Kolkata. The taxi driver had taken us without any difficulty to Ho Chi Minh Sarayani, the humerous address of the US Consulate.
The Ambassador car in Kolkata.
Apparently West Bengal’s long-standing (and long-ruling) Communist Party thought it quite clever to rename the street in the early 1970s to tease the US foreign service. Kind of like the British with India’s city names.
Anyhow, this was the day of relaxation. We had some breakfast and saw the Buddha that Laloo Prasad Yadav, the then defacto minister of Bihar, had given George.
He told us a story about a man who had met Laloo once to discuss the subject of Laloo’s poor record on education in Bihar. Why was education in Bihar lacking behind other states in India?
Laloo looked at the man.
You’re educated, he said.
Would you vote for me?
Bihar is an interesting place. Even though I’ve been within spitting distance of it (the border town of Raxual, Bihar, is just on the other side of Birganj), I’ve never actually been there. For better or worse.
After coffee, we played a game of touch football with the pigskin that we had brought from Nepal (and tested at the Siliguri bus depot). We ha been tossing it to and fro to entertain ourselves during the lulls of travel. Most people had assumed it was a rugby ball.
When we told them that it was US-rules football, people just stared at the ball with even greater confusions, I assume trying to figure out how one would kick the oddly shaped ball.
Most people who handled the ball, however, were amused and informed us that the ball was made in China.
The Thanksgiving feast was wonderful. We had cleaned up and tried to look as presentable as possible. I sat near the head of the table, next to our hosts, George and Lee.
There were the seven of us PCVs, two other foreign service folks working at the consulate, and both George’s and Lee’s mothers.
The table was set with beautiful china upon a brilliantly white table cloth, with a few candelabrum here and there.
Things got complicated when Andrew and I were both served the gigantic legs of the turkey. My first impulse was to use my silverware, but Lee quickly scolded me,
We’re like your family. You can eat Henry VIII style.
There was a reason that the PCVs had been given these obtuse pieces of meat to eat: shamelessness. We had been eating with our hands since coming to Nepal. The same goes for India.
So who cares if Andrew and I, in the US Consulate on for a major US holidays, looked like we were on a poster for the Society of Creative Anachronism at a medieval festival.
Moser spilled his red wine all over the table cloth. He covered it up with his plate. Liz broke a glass in her bedroom. She stuffed the pieces in newspaper into the bottom of a garbage can. Several of us trampled decorative Deepawali lights while running into the bushes playing football.
We were a mess. They should have kicked us out.
But they were kind people.
Day 3, Friday
We had set aside the day after Thanksgiving to do a few tourist activities before our departure on Saturday. We asked George’s mother to come along with us, and she was game.
First, we walked over to the India Museum. It was a strange place, the museum itself being as interesting as its holdings. There was a display of a family of gorillas that had been donated nearly a 100 years ago.
Late, we approach our platform to find our train back to NJP.
Stitches down the middle of each gorilla dated the quality of the taxidermy. But even stranger were the clear marks of bullet wounds in the chests of each animal: Papa, mama, and their two baby gorillas.
I imagined an old honourable East India Company Britisher with his entourage of Indians wandering jungles and killing every God damn beast that crossed their path.
The gorillas were a gift to the museum by a man who, most likely, had a sufficient supply of stuffed dead things. Just thinking this guy had blown away a family was slightly disturbing, but I guess that was a long while ago.
Hunting ethics are different, I suppose. Recently I had read about foreigners paying to shoot exotic animals caught in wildlife reserves that were tied to the ground.
Afterwards, we wandered to New Market. Mostly we found shop after shop after shop selling saris and a surprising number of wig outlets. I thought of the gorillas in the museums.
There were porters wandering everywhere and most spoke passable English. Or at least enough to convey that they had a special friend that would give us a special price on some special fabric. It was the same gimmick used across the subcontinent: convince the person that they are being ripped off, and then rip them off.
Which is quite effective, actually.
I did find a shop with a reasonable prices and salesmen unlike starving jackals. Even there, though, buying a CD wasn’t as easy as I would have liked. I found a CD I wanted to buy, and the staff, seeing that I was actually buying something, began producing other things they thought I might be interested in: porno movies.
I thought back to Mumbai when a man in an open-air bazaar had asked me,
You want sex?
I quickly told the man that I really wasn’t much of a spender, put down the CD, and wandered back to find my friends. I saw one of my pals at a similar shop, flipping through a pile of adult films.
I felt foolish for having not realized what the other guy was trying to sell me.
Not like I was going to buy any. I always think that if I were to die somewhere along the way, if our bus crashed or I snapped my spine somewhere, what would my family think when they received my belongings, complete with what people here call ‘blue films.’
We had arranged a time to met as a group to walk back to the Consulate together.
Andrew had been playing a strange game where when approached by beggars, he would direct them to another person in our party saying,
See that guy? He has our money.
The first time Andrew employed this technique, about a dozen young beggar girls surrounded me in less than a minute.
It was a rather passive activity, since about that many had congregated around me at different times while walking through the market.
When I saw Andrew standing aside, I told the girls,
He has lots of money, in my occasionally passable Hindi.
On the train from Kolkata to NJP, somewhere in West Bengal.
In a matter of seconds the girls swarmed Andrew. Before he could get out of the market, he had given the girls about 200 Indian rupees and a packet or two of food he had bought along the street.
After meeting, we jumped in to taxis with kids chasing after us, enjoying our game (really, it was fun) as well as their snacks.
George’s mother freely expressed her contempt for our childishness.
You just ruined it for the rest of the tourists! she told us, holding back her smile.
Our taxi driver didn’t quite know the way back to the Consulate. We had filled two taxis, and our driver finally pulled over to ask the other if he knew the way. The two drivers shouted various directions at one another in Hindi, and I basically understood what they were saying.
So I tried to give as best directions as I could to the two drivers, as if to jar their memories.
George’s, sitting in front with the driver, turned around to ask Andrew in the back as I spoke,
How does he know Bengali?
Andrew looked out the window, shook his hand to indicate contempt, and said with a straight face,
She seemed convinced that I was just parroting the two men and remained quite for rest of the trip.
Really, I thought,
my Hindi isn’t that bad.
Later, at the Consulate, we decided to go to the Park Hotel’s club, Tantra—supposedly the swankiest club in town. We sat around in George and Lee’s living room questioning whether or not we would even be able to get in to such a place.
I mean, Kolkata’s quite a bit more sophisticated than Kathmandu. And we were barely getting by there, frankly. Each of us had stories about how we would ended up places, parties, and functions looking quite scruffy.
Lee overhead our talk and asked if we really wanted to go.
Of course, we told her.
She picked up the phone, called a friend, and suddenly we were on The List.
I don’t think I’d ever been on a list before, let alone The List. We were excited.
While the club was far classier than any place we had been in a while, it wasn’t quite what I had expected. Perhaps I had been brainwashed by Bollywood.
I’m smart enough to know that when I see a club or some hip place portrayed in a US movie, I can say,
Yes, this does not exist, but I hadn’t quite been able to do that and had some pretty crazy preconceptions of what this club would be like.
I mean, just watch a Bollywood movie. To prepare myself for the hordes of beautiful women who I would have to fight off at the club, I sat in the living room, drank Corona, and watched Fashion TV for two straight hours while everyone else napped and washed clothes.
Day 4, Saturday
The day before we left went quickly. I slept until 11 a.m. for the first time in a long, long while. Granted, I hadn’t gotten to bed until 4 a.m. the previous day (that morning?), but the fact that I hadn’t been woken by people milling about, calling for milk, banging on my door, was wonderful.
A small shop, open late, near the Howrah train station.
After a hot shower and a strong cup of coffee, I walked over to Flury’s for a late breakfast. A few folks had gone to the Botanical Gardens to check out the world’s largest banyan tree. Others just enjoyed the Consulate’s garden or did some reading.
Soon the day was gone, and we found ourselves waiting for our train by wandering around Howrah Station. We had bought return tickets in Kolkata, although we had been put on a waiting list, which didn’t worry us much. We had been in the same situation back in April when we visited Goa.
I checked in at the station and got our seat assignments, illegibly written on our tickets. Six people were together in one car (I couldn’t make out the seat assignments but knew they’d be posted outside the train once it arrived) and one person was alone in a separate car.
So I elected to be the guy alone in the separate car. As we boarded our train, I waved goodbye to my pals thinking that if I got bored enough during the train ride, I could wander through the cars and sit with the them for a while. But a couple hours into the ride, I discovered that passage between cars was blocked in one car by an iron door.
I went back to my seat and settled in for the night. I didn’t sleep well since I was under the window and froze all night long. Plus I hadn’t brought a sheet let alone a pillow, so I woke early the next morning with quite a stiff neck.
All in a day’s travel, I thought.
Day 5, Sunday
When we pulled into the NJP station, back near Siliguri, I met the others at the entrance to the train station. They looked awful. Apparently, their tickets had been made so that two people were assigned to each bed (on the train, beds are much smaller than a single).
No one had slept, all were grumpy, all were ready to get to Birtamod, Nepal, and take a shower at Andrew’s flat. We arranged for a jeep to take us to the India-Nepal border and put Liz in the middle of two people—out of reach of the doors.
The Howrah station was almost itself alive with activity at all hours.
Let us return to the beginning of our trip for a moment. We only gotten as far as passing through Indian immigration after exiting Nepal, when Liz opened her door without looking for oncoming traffic. Of all things, a fast-moving rickshaw had slammed in to the door, damaging its hinge.
We received an estimate, which was the driver estimating how much he wanted to charge us for the accident, and pooled our money and paid him off—and quickly got another driver before word spread.
At both the Indian and Nepali customs offices, the staff remembered us and asked us how our Thanksgiving had been. Well, they didn’t remember ‘Thanksgiving’ but just knew that we had left for a national holiday.
I was mostly interested in finding out if any security-related problems had occurred in Nepal in the, oh, 108 hours that had passed since we left.
Peaceful. Quiet. Nothing to mention. What a relief. And for that, I was thankful.