Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 1 (by Matt Faherty)

[We now continue with Matt Faherty’s adventures abroad. In our last post, Matt offered his musings on Bangladesh. In this post, our young man goes west…to India. Background here. Dhaka Day 1. Dhaka Day 2. Dhaka Day 5.]

Calcutta Day 1 – Oh! Kolkata!*

I am of two minds about India so far. On the one hand, I have been harassed pretty much non-stop since getting here and the airport was really inconvenient. On the other hand…

There is a blog called WaitbutWhy which discusses a variety of topics, including traveling. In one post, the main writer, Tim Urban, recounts his travels to North Korea: “it turns out there is a place in the world that will make you enter China and think, ‘Thank God for this land of boundless freedom.'” To re-use Urban’s ironic insight on Bangladesh, it turns out there is a place in the world that will make you enter India and say, “Thank God for this land of boundless cleanliness, order, and quiet.”

The first thing I did after I got off the plane at Calcutta airport was have a “White Guy Pow Wow.” Chuck**, two Brits, and I mysteriously happened to converge on the same table to fill out our custom arrival cards. We exchanged greetings, briefly talked about the shittness of Dhaka, and proceeded though customs.

I had two goals at that point: find an ATM to get some Indian rupees, and to find a tourist map. There was a tourist station, but it was closed at the dusky hour of 6 PM. There was an ATM, but after it failed to produce Indian rupees for the fifth time, I figured it was out of order. Shamefully, I was forced to use the airport money changer, which every traveler knows is a terrible idea. Most money changers charge a few percentage points in transaction fees, and therefore are a pretty good deal (though not as good as just using a debit card). Airport money changers usually charge four or five times more than the standard rate and therefore should never, ever be used.

My total cash at hand was $101 and about 1550 taka ($19.93). I didn’t feel like burning through my emergency USD fund, so I handed over the taka and hoped for the best. They offered me 800 rupee ($12.93) in return, a suspiciously round number, and nowhere near parity rate. But whatever—what was I going to do?

Gratuitous and irrelevant but essentially self-explanatory image (photo credit: Wikipedia)

I walked outside to search for a cab. I showed the first guy who approached my address, and he told me it would costs 990 rupees. I assumed he was trying to overcharge a tourist, so I countered at 600 rupees. He told me it was the official government rate for my district. Great. I tried a few more cabs and they all gave the same rate. Either it really was a government regulated rate, or these guys were really good at colluding.***

Desperate, I walked back inside to try my hand at the ATM again when I saw a cab stand similar to the one from Dhaka. Even though last time I was scammed, I decided to give these guys a shot. They quoted me the exact same rate, but could take credit cards. Sold.

The cab was surprisingly luxurious. Or maybe it just felt that way since the last five days I had only been in a cheap car driven by a maniac, rickshaws with no seat backs, and metal cages on top of golf cart diesel engines. Shortly after getting in the car, the driver asked if I had made reservations at my hotel. Without waiting for an answer, he started pitching another hotel which he assured me was “very good.” Having read Wikitravel’s entry on Calcutta, I was prepared for this. Cab drivers make deals with hotels wherein if the driver can get a customer to stay at a hotel, he gets a cut of the fee. I shut him my driver immediately by making it adamantly clear that I had a reservation. This did not stop him from trying two more times.

My driver wasn’t exactly sure where my hotel is, so after getting in the general vicinity, he started pulling over and asking random pedestrians. The third guy he asked assured us that he knew where it was. My driver told me to get out and follow him. Sounds legit.

I left the car with my two backpacks and followed this stranger half a block until we came upon some random hotel. He assured me it was “very good.” I walked away.

The guy followed me half a block repeatedly saying “excuse me, sir” until he gave up. Having no other options, I began asking random people if they knew where my hotel was. I was pointed in a vague direction, and walked another block until I found the crossroads my hotel was allegedly on. Along the way, I had to fend off a mere three hotel peddlers, but I was not home yet.

I asked a security guard in front of a bar if he knew where my hotel was. He said, “walk down this street, make a left at the first alley, go into the next building on your right up to the second floor. Sounds legit.

File:Kolkata Banner.jpg

Oh, Calcutta! Why didn’t you say so?

Shockingly, these directions were accurate and I found my “hotel,” which is two floors of a four or five floor “hotel” complex. The guy at the front desk is not a customer relations specialist. He was dozing off when I arrived and seemed distinctly annoyed to be bothered by a guest. After moving very slowly for five minutes, he finally brought me up to my room on the third floor. It is about as minimalist as a room can get. It contains one cot, one desk, a mirror and a noisy fan. There is no air conditioning, unless I pay $3 more. There are two outlets. I tried plugging my phone into one, but it was sideways and I guess the prong slots are too wide, because my charger always falls out.

To reward myself for making it to the hotel and surviving Bangladesh, I bought a beer from a nearby street vendor and relaxed in my room. Better yet, the beer was the perfect height to allow me to balance my charger in the outlet so it doesn’t fall out. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

*Matt’s note: Calcutta and Kolkata are the same place. “Calcutta” is the English name, “Kolkata” is the old Indian and now the official name. Everyone uses them interchangeably, and so will I.

**Irfan’s note: Chuck was a white guy mentioned in an earlier post.

***Irfan’s note: Recall the sage words of Adam Smith:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary.

A regulation which obliges all those of the same trade in a particular town to enter their names and places of abode in a public register, facilitates such assemblies. It connects individuals who might never otherwise be known to one another, and gives every man of the trade a direction where to find every other man of it. (Wealth of Nations, I.10.82-83).

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