Guest Post: Perfumed by a Nepal Night (by Matt Faherty)

[We resume the journeys of Matt Faherty, from India to Nepal. The literary allusion in the title of the post–if you didn’t catch it–is the Rush song, “A Passage to Bangkok.” I found one stanza of the song particularly appropriate to Matt’s somewhat pathos-inducing entry into Nepal:

Pulling into Kathmandu
Smoke rings fill the air
Perfumed by a Nepal night
The Express gets you there…

I mean “perfume” in a somewhat broad and metaphorical sense, as you’ll see from reading the post.]

Perfumed by a Nepal Night: Projectile Vomiting in Kathmandu

I arrived in Kathmandu at about 5 PM. I made it through customs and caught a taxi to my hostel, the Alobar 1000. The staff was young, mostly in their mid-20s, and not super professional. They took a while to actually set me up in my room and seemed more concerned with laughing and-or flirting with each other than customer service. At the time I didn’t mind because it fit the generally laid back manner of the bar. Now I mind.

Eventually I was led to my bed in a shared dorm room with about twenty other people. I sat on my top bunk for a few minutes before heading up to the bar-restaurant on the roof top.

From the restaurant I ordered a Chinese chicken and noodle dish plus a bottle of water. At about 7 PM, I ate my meal and talked with some other travelers for the next hour. At 8PM, I started to feel nauseous and had stomach pains. Around 8:15 PM I went to the bathroom and had bad diarrhea. I hoped that would be the end of it, but the nausea and stomach pains only worsened. I usually go to sleep around 11:30 PM or 12 AM, but at 9:30 PM I decided to go to bed because it was too painful to sit against a wall and talk to people.

For the next couple hours I tried to go to sleep but was kept awake by stomach pains. I stayed on my back since it resulted in the least pain. Whenever I tried to turn on my side, I immediately felt like I was going to throw up and nearly did so a few times.

More what?

At around 1 AM, I tasted something in my mouth which indicated that I was going to throw up. I stumbled off my top bunk and made it to the bathroom ready to puke. Nothing happened.

I waited ten minutes and then decided to go back to bed. Five steps out of the bathroom my nausea was so bad that I leaned against the wall and slumped into a seated position. I stayed there for five minutes before again trying to make it to my bed.

I fought through the nausea for about 15 steps, then climbed up my bed and tried to lay on my back. The final movement of laying down finally did me in. I sat up and vomited in my lap in numerous waves for about a minute. A few people around me woke up and tried to help. I was given a bag to catch some of the vomit, toilet paper to clean up what I couldn’t contain in front of me, water for re-hydration, and some anti-nausea pills.

After a few minutes I jumped down from my bed and went to the bathroom to change my clothes. My boxers and pants were covered in vomit, but my shirt was OK. I left the shirt on, changed into the first pants I grabbed (it turned out to be my bathing suit), and put on a jacket. At this point nearly all of my stomach pain and nausea was gone, but I felt extremely weak and dehydrated.

I staggered down a flight of stairs and through a few hallways to the front desk. Nearly every hostel I had ever stayed at keeps a staff member awake at the front desk for emergencies but Alobar 1000 was an exception. There were three staff members wrapped up in blankets, asleep around the room.

I’ve heard the food is awesome. 

I nudged one guy awake and told him that I had vomited on my bed and that it needed to be cleaned up, plus I needed a place to sleep. The guy rolled over, said there were no vacancies, and promptly went back to sleep. I woke him up again and said the same thing. He fell asleep again. I woke him up again and said the same thing. He told me to go to the rooftop restaurant and sleep on the floor (which was padded and people usually sat on while they were eating, so it’s not uncomfortable). Then he fell back asleep. I had to wake him up to more times to figure out where I could get a spare blanket until he pointed me to a sleeping bag.

I staggered up four stories to the rooftop restaurant and slept on the floor in the dining area. It was not an enclosed space, so it was quite cold, but I managed to get somewhat warm between the sleeping bag and my jacket. To the best of my recollection, I fell asleep around 2:30.

I was awakened at 6:30 AM by some cleaning ladies. After trying to go back to sleep for a few minutes, I walked down four stories to the front desk to see if they had responded anyway to my illness.

The guy I had nudged awake was sitting at the front desk with two other employees. At first he didn’t recognize me, but then I reminded him about last night. He asked me if I had cleaned up the vomit. That is, he wanted to know if after being food poisoned by this hostel, and being barely able to stand after profusely vomiting, I had staggered back to my room at 1:30 AM, climbed up to my top bunk, rolled up my vomit-soaked blanket and sheets, and put them… I don’t know where, he never told me. I told him that I had not cleaned it up.

He replied that if the blanket, sheet, or bed were damaged, I would have to pay for it.

My anger was only abated because I still felt completely exhausted and dehydrated. I told him that I would not be paying for damages caused by being poisoned by this hostel. What followed was a five minute long series of evasions and dodges by which the guy did everything he could to deflect blame from the hostel.

First he asked if I was sick from my recent flight. I fly dozens of times per year, including eight times in the last three weeks, and I have never gotten sick from it. Plus I didn’t feel sick until well after I had left the plane.

Second, he suggested that I had become sick during my previous travels. I had been through Bangladesh and northern India over the past three weeks, and I had never gotten anything worse than a cold which ended a week ago. I took antibiotics daily. Then I arrive in Nepal and a few hours later I get violently ill.

Third, he suggested that it was something else I ate that day. I had eaten a lentil soup doha at 10 AM, which is pretty much the most mild food in the world. I had eaten some chicken and rice on the airplane. When I arrived at Nepal I felt perfectly fine, even well rested. Then an hour after eating at the hostel I began to feel sick.

Fourth, he suggested that I was drunk. I had no alcohol that night, nor the night before, nor any night before for two weeks, when I had consumed a single beer in Calcutta.

Fifth, he suggested that I got sick from consuming food elsewhere in Nepal. I consumed nothing in Nepal outside of the hostel. The only time I had spent outside of the hostel was arriving at the airport, the taxi ride, and a five minute walk to an ATM.

Sixth, he threw his hands up and said we can never really know where these things come from and the hostel can’t be held responsible. All of the facts presented and the distinct taste of Chinese chicken noodles in my mouth as I vomited beg to differ.*

I can understand if someone has read up to this point and thought the hostel employee sounded reasonable. But here’s the rub: I was not the only person to get sick. Someone else had thrown up a few hours before me. That morning I spoke to two girls who had been staying at the hostel for more than a week and they reported that people were constantly getting sick after eating at the rooftop restaurant. They were so angry with the hostel that they offered to go with me to the front desk to confront the employees directly.

My schedule has been completely fucked up by this. I was planning on getting on a bus this morning to go to the farm to begin working, but now I felt awful and I had vomit all over some clothes (including my most worn pants). I asked the employee how long it would take to wash my clothes and he said it wouldn’t be ready until that night at earliest, but likely next morning. So I could either carry my backpack and vomit-filled clothes on two long bus rides to the farm and hope I recovered along the way way enough to be able to work tomorrow, or I could wait another day in Kathmandu to leave.

Because the hostel had poisoned me and messed up my schedule, I felt entitled to compensation. I considered my position and made the front desk employee an option. I asked to stay at the hostel another night for free, but I would sleep in a sleeping bag in the hotel restaurant so that I didn’t take up a bed and cost them money. Meanwhile, I would pay the 60 cents to clean my clothes. So I was basically asking them to take responsibility and compensate me at pretty much no cost.

They refused.

I ended up paying for the night I stayed and leaving a few hours later for another hotel. There isn’t much I can do now except write the worst review they have ever or will ever receive on Hostelworld.com and perhaps try to get a refund via Hostelworld.

Irfan: You can read my CO 350 students’ comments on Matt’s experience here. I used his post as a teaching tool in a unit of my applied ethics course on money.

Matt wrote the preceding post more than week ago. He’s much better now.

*Irfan: I’m very grateful to Matt to not having spared us any of the forensic-physiological details involved here, so that we can all think more carefully about the epidemiological and legal-liability issues raised by his experience.

Postscript, March 31, 2015 (by Irfan): I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that yet another secular-minded blogger has been hacked to death in Dhaka. (This comes about a month after a previous attack, mentioned in one of Matt’s earlier posts.) One machete attack is bad. Two is copycatting. Three, I suppose, would be a trend.

Meanwhile, a teenager in Singapore, Amos Yee, has been arrested for criticizing Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s authoritarian “founding father” (who deserved everything that Amos Yee dishes out in the video and more). Lee Kuan Yew was a dictator, just as Yee says. But he didn’t fool everyone.

I actually found Yee’s video exceptionally impressive, especially for a teenager. Props, Amos. You should be blogging for PoT. To close with Amos’s words:

There ya go, Lee Kuan Yew, an overrated, overglorified person, a dictator, and exceptionally Machiavellian in nature. Good riddance, Lee Kuan Yew. I neither hope [that you rest in peace] and neither will you rest in peace.

Amen.

Postscript, April 1, 2015 (Irfan): Matt sends along this item, from “the missed disaster list” for his trip. As I’ve said elsewhere, so far he’s just narrowly missed a machete hacking, a bombing, a ferry accident, a train accident, and arrest for offensive blogging. We can now add a fatal rhinoceros attack to the list. I suppose the rhino in question was not one  in name only.

Postscript, April 8, 2015 (Irfan): Matt sends along the following update:

You are not going to believe this. My credit card just got charged $550 by Alobar 1000. They are actually doing it. They are charging me for damages caused by them poisoning me. Someone may have to restrain me when I return to Kathmandu.

That strikes me as a straightforward case of fraud. I’d report it as a disputed charge to the credit card company and have them hash it out with Alobar 1000. A cautionary tale.

Anyway, if nothing else, this will be an interesting case study in non-governmental adjudication of private commercial disputes. Stay tuned!

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Faherty’s trip to Delhi. Exercising editorial discretion, I’m skipping Day 3, which recounts a visit to the tourist trap of Agra, where Matt went through the touristy paces of seeing (yawn) the Taj Mahal, Akbar’s Tomb (named after the semi-famous Mughal Emperor of that name, not the “it’s a trap” guy from Star Wars), St. Peter’s University, monkeys, took-tooks, trains and other bits of Indianesque lore. We’re too sophisticated for such Orientalist-touristic banalities here at PoT, so we reconvene with Matt back in Delhi.]

Delhi Day 4 – Charlatans, Iranians, and Mughal Fatigue

An interesting day today, back in Delhi.

My first stop was a spot on my tourist map called Swaminarayan Akshardham, which, to avoid further abusing my keyboard, I will henceforth refer to as SA. It is in kind of a remote part of Delhi, across the Yamuna River which runs east of Delhi’s center. I could see a massive temple as I got off a nearby metro stop which I correctly deduced to be the SA. As I walked towards it, I found two surprising things. First, I couldn’t just walk up to the temple; it was in some kind of walled complex that was about a square mile big, and even had a large parking lot. Second, there was a crowd of about fifty people waiting outside the complex, which was made even more surprising when I discovered the temple didn’t open for another forty minutes.

With time to kill, I walked to a much smaller temple nearby which turned out to be really cool. It was pure white like the Taj Mahal, and every square inch of its walls, ceiling, pillars, and exterior was covered in stone carvings. Some parts had little statues of deities, others just had squiggly lines, but it was a real wonder to behold. Again I was reminded of how odd it was that Europe had nothing comparable in its religious buildings. I guess Christians prefer to build tall rather than complex.

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Photo credit: Wikipedia

I walked back to the entrance of SA right as it opened and a followed the crowd inside. At this point we were still about half a kilometer from the temple, and numerous buildings lay in between us and it. Once again I was surprised, this time because the first few buildings were for security. The Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandi (the other major Hindu temple I visited in Delhi) had a small security area and a quick metal detector, which is common for a lot of places in India like the metro and malls. But the SA had a huge storeroom dedicated to bags, at least eight metal detectors, and numerous guards with wands.

Then there was the list of banned items, which I would have taken a picture of except cameras were on it. Some of the items on the list were what you would expect: alcohol, tobacco, food, drinks, shorts, short skirts, etc. But then, running to security-excess, there were ordinary items, like cell phones and all bags, and then there were crazy random items like books, toys, white out, all electronics, and a bunch of others which I unfortunately forgot. Pretty much the only thing I could carry in was my wallet.

Once inside, I finally saw the temple itself. Throughout this travelogue I keep having to describe amazing buildings, and this is one of the most difficult of all. It is truly spectacular. It’s not quite at the level of St. Peter’s Basilica or the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but it is one of the most magnificent religious buildings I’ve ever seen. It has the same level of detail that the smaller temple I just visited has, but it’s on a vastly larger scale. According to Wikipedia, the SA is 141 feet high, 316 feet wide, and 356 feet long, which isn’t as large as the bigger mosques out there, but it more than makes up for it in details.

The temple’s surroundings enhance its beauty. It’s in a walled courtyard made entirely of the same brown stone that the temple itself is made from. Built into the courtyard is a serene artificial pond which zig-zags around the entire temple. Best of all, around the base of the temple are a magnificently detailed and precise series of carvings of scenes of various Hindu stories and parables involving elephants (there are over 100 elephants in total). I really couldn’t get over just how immaculately well carved it all was, and I actually ended up slowly walking around the base and reading all of the stories. Most were harmless religious fluff, but one kind of worried me. The explicit moral of the story was (paraphrasing), “the meek can become great by seeking refuge with the great.”

I took my shoes off and walked up the steps as dozens of other guests did the same. The inside of the temple was even more amazing than the exterior. The detailed stone work climbed the walls and circled a series of domes throughout the temple. I wanted to walk around and study the walls, but a few hundred people were silently sitting on the ground, with monks in orange robes at the front facing a central shrine area, women in the back, and men in the middle. Some guy who worked for the temple but wasn’t a monk motioned for me to take a seat in the back of the men’s area.

I sat down in a cramped space cross legged and quickly remembered why I haven’t sat in that position since elementary school, especially on a marble floor. A few minutes later the monks started chanting and clapping in a pattern, everyone else in the crowd who wasn’t a tourist followed suit. I don’t think the non-monks knew the words or the rhythm, because it sounded more out of sync than the Sunday hymns in my local Epsicopal church.

Five minutes later it ended, so I got up to take a look at the central shrine area. Unlike the grey granite of the rest of the interior and the brown stone exterior, this area was almost entirely gold. It wouldn’t surprise me if they used some real gold either.

As I started looking around, one of the monks approached me and asked where I was from. I would later learn that his name is Sadhu Tyagswarupdas. No, obviously I didn’t remember that polysyllabic mouthful off the top of my head; he gave me a card with his name and contact info, which is apparently something Hindu monks commonly do.

I ended up talking to Sadhu for almost 40 minutes. First he showed me around the temple while explaining who the different deities are and what various statues mean. Then he told me about himself. Sadhu is an ethnic Indian but was born in Uganda where his parents had immigrated for business purposes while it was still a British colony. Sadhu had went to an English college to study mechanical engineering but eventually abandoned his career to become a Hindu monk. He looks to be in his early 60s now, and has been a monk for over thirty years.

Sadhu explained that he belonged to a Hindu sect which was known for being particularly strict and had been thriving over the last few decades. He was not only a vegetarian, but couldn’t even eat foods “sharp” flavors, like onions and some spices. He could not personally buy anything nor even touch money. Sincetaking his vows over thirty years ago, Sadhu had been celibate and had neither touched nor spoken to a woman. He said the penalty for touching a woman in any way was a day of fasting and bathing. They may want to rethink that incentive structure.*

Sandhu spoke to me at lengths about his beliefs. He said the ego was the cause of all unhappiness in man and therefore we should all work to banish it and attain total selflessness. In this sense, selflessness is not just living for the sake of others, but literally banishing any psychological reference to one’s self as an individual in existence.** Thus Sadhu’s name literally means “one who forsakes all.” Sandhu said he had access to modern technology like television and cell phones but he barely used it for fear of exposing himself to the “bad ideas and values” in society. These ideas and values are everywhere and corrupt nearly everyone. To demonstrate just how deeply he understood this point, he explained that before taking his vows, he had travelled throughout the world and had lived fully immersed in the “bad culture” in England. Having experienced that life and this one, he knew the truth path to happiness.

As we parted ways, Sadhu explained that a new Hindu temple was being built in New York which would surpass the SA in size and be the largest Hindu temple in the world. He told me to come to the temple and tell the monks I had met him. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear he was trying to convert me…

Sexism and self-annihilation aside, Sandhu seemed like a guy who was genuinely devoted to what could be considered a holy way of life. That is except for when he totally tried to pitch his temple’s IMAX film to me.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the SA temple complex housed an IMAX theater, a light show, and a “water ride”? There are also concession stands, dozens of maintenance workers, and a gift shop which sells Hindu magnets. And just to make visitors feel like they are getting the fully authentic holy Hindu experience, there are speakers installed throughout the complex which play monk chants nonstop.

I knew something didn’t feel right when I first saw the main temple. It was too new, too nice. Buildings this amazing and elaborate are always built hundreds of years ago by lords with so much ill-gotten wealth that they might as well pour it into an absurd construction project. By now those buildings have crumbled, and if they’re lucky, have been restored. Either way, they look distinctly old and possess a sort of dignity in representing a different era when wasting money in such copious quantities was perfectly acceptable.

It turns out that construction on the SA was finished in the ancient year of 2005 after five years of work. It offends my architectural sensibilities that these guys spend insane amounts of money to make something that looks like it was built 1000 years ago in a remote jungle, only for it to come out looking just a bit too perfect. Of course all of the craftsmanship is amazing, but why would they build something like this?

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Akshardam dome: photo credit Wikipedia

Have I mentioned the pricing? Entrance to the temple complex is free, but every ride and activity costs at least 100 rupees, usually closer to 200. And then there is the expensive food at the concession stands (which explains the ban on food), the expensive crap at the gift shop (which explains the ban on toys), and you can pay for blessings. No, I am not kidding. And at the end of it all they ask for donations. No, I am not kidding.

A full day at the SA, consisting solely of the main activities, costs more than the entrance to the Taj Mahal.

Of course it’s not that the fact that these guys are making money that offends me. That pretty much never offends me on its own. What I have a problem with is somebody espousing a philosophy which condemns much of modernity and liberalism as evil while profiting off of a fucking theme park. As Sadhu was explaining to me that he is literally not allowed to touch money, there was a guy fifty yards away charging people $5 to get their picture taken in front of the temple (which also explains the ban on cameras).

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No, it’s not in Delhi, but did you really think we were going to omit it altogether? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And this is not some weird situation where some profiteer is piggybacking off of a holy site, Sadhu was pitching me this nonsense. He told me about how the guy who designed the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony directed their IMAX video. He told me the light show was amazing and that I absolutely had to stay at the park another seven hours until it started. He told me all of this mere minutes after telling me how evil money and the modern world is. There was so much hypocrisy I think my brain actually froze and I couldn’t calibrate what I was hearing until a few minutes after he had left.

And this isn’t some stray Hindu sect going against the mainstream, this is a major branch of Hinduism with enough capital to build the largest Hindu temple on earth and an enormous complex in India’s capital. The Catholic Church has done some shady profiteering shit, but it’s not as though they put a light show in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. I think someone would get executed just for suggesting putting a “water ride” near the Masjid al-Haram.*** But this is apparently the best Hinduism has to offer.

These guys are charlatans, plain and simple.

I left the SA and took a train to the Lotus Temple in the south of the city. I was concerned that a ride across the Delhi metro would take a long time, since some Chinese metros take 1.5 hours or more to reverse, but it only took about 30 minutes.

Upon exiting the train, two Middle Eastern women in their 30s approached me and asked where the Lotus Temple was. These two did not have a good sense of geography; I could literally see the Lotus Temple from where I stood. I told them I was just walking in that general direction and they asked if they could tag along.

One of their names was something I couldn’t pronounce but translated to Angel****, and the other one was Sarah. They were both on a tour through India. One was an accountant, the other sold furniture or something. They were from Iran. When I told them I was from America, Sarah immediately made a joke about me being dangerous and they laughed.

As we walked to the Lotus Temple, I couldn’t help but ask a few political questions, at least to see if the German traveler’s description of Iranians was true. It was. These two hated the government and wanted to bring the Shah back. They lamented that if it weren’t for the revolution, Iran would be just like any European country today. They also complained that due to the economic sanctions against Iran, nearly all name brands in the country (including Coca Cola) were Chinese knock offs. The only exceptions were on the extremely expensive black market. I asked about what religious activity they were legally required to engage in, but I didn’t really get a straight answer. Both had nothing but praise for America.

Angel and Sarah also asked me about the US. They wanted to know if there was as much racism as they had been led to believe, and if they would personally face discrimination there for having “Asian hair.” I explained that while there are tensions between racial groups in the US, they tend to be overstated and the US population is no more racist than most European countries. Furthermore, Asians rarely face discrimination, though Arabs can.

We arrived at the Lotus Temple twenty minutes later. It was a nice change in scenery from the beautiful but repetitious Mughal architecture. The temple looks like a flower turned upside down, with the bases of a series of white petals converging hundreds of feet in the air. The Lotus Temple is technically a Hindu temple, but there is pretty much nothing to signify that. We went in with a group of twenty or so people who were told to sit down and pray for two minutes. We filed into a room which looked sort of like a flat evangelical church and sat silently while looking around the room. Two minutes later, we left.

Next stop was a nearby temple which I had never heard of but the Iranian women wanted to see. It looked interesting from afar so I accompanied them.

I have to admit this was one of those culturally enlightening interactions. It turned out that I could relate more to these Iranian women than to 95% of the foreigners I’ve talked to, especially in India. They were the first people I’ve spoken to who agree that Indian food is bad and vegetarianism is awful. They complained that India was chaotic, crowded, and dirty, and had the worst vehicle traffic they had ever seen. They raged at the scammers who took advantage of foreigners.

When we arrived at the temple, it was closed, but Angel pleaded with a guard to let us in and somehow it worked. It was another standard temple and not particularly worth writing about aside from some interesting paintings on the ceiling of Hindu myths. Sarah went over to one of the statues, made a faux-serious face, and solemnly intoned, “Look, it’s a god” while nodding.

I traveled with Angel and Sarah for another hour or so to yet another tourist spot which I didn’t know about. But this one was actually really good. It’s called Humayun’s Tomb and it was the basis for the Taj Mahal. Given what the Taj Mahal has become, it basically makes Humayun’s tomb a small, brown, poor man’s Taj Mahal, but at one quarter the price.

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 Humayun’s tomb (photocredit: Wikipedia)

While walking from the metro station to the tomb, the Iranians let me have some snacks they brought from home. Of course they spoke at lengths about how amazing Iranian food is, literally, “the best in the world.” Ugh, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a country on Earth that doesn’t supposedly have amazing food. Seriously, every local and traveler says that every country has great food that I absolutely must try. Even countries with notoriously bad food like England or Germany have promoters who claim that the food there is “underappreciated.” I think these people just lack standards.*****

Anyway, first they gave me an Iranian cracker which tasted like an ok Graham cracker. Next they passed me some weird nut-like thing which they told me was a fruit which I should just bite into. It did not look appealing. I eventually deduced that it was a fig, which I had never tried before. It was surprisingly good–I’ll have to keep an eye out for them. After that they gave me a bunch of normal nuts like pistachios and almonds which just tasted like stronger versions of the ones I’m used to. Finally they gave me what I think was solidified yogurt. It was awful and I hope nobody ever has to eat anything like that ever.******

OK, so I tried a bunch of newish things from a foreign country and they were fine. Obviously I’m not sold on Iranian food, but I’m open to it. The women ended up giving me the rest of their bag of nuts and figs against my protests.

As I said, Humayun’s tomb was pretty good. There was a pretty court yard, a central tomb building, flanking mosques, etc. But by this point I’m hitting serious Mughal fatigue. These endless tombs and mosques are blurring together. I’m sure if I saw this particular tomb early on, it would have been fantastic, but now I can’t muster that much energy to describe it in detail. This same phenomenon hit me harder in China, but that was temple-fatigue. I really don’t care to see another Buddhist temple for the rest of my life.

The only problem with traveling with the Iranians was that they walked slowly. It was getting late and I still wanted to hit the government district so I left when they sat down near the tomb for an afternoon snack. They said that if I could make it into Iran without getting arrested, I would have a place to stay. Sounds great.

Finally I found the Indian Gate, which looks almost exactly like a smaller, less interesting version of Paris’s Arc de Triumphe. It is at one end of a kilometerish long avenue which is an obvious rip off of the National Mall in Washington DC. On one end is the gate and one the other end is a cluster of major government buildings. I intended to walk the whole thing.

Despite being prominently featured on all of the tourist guides, I had been warned by the Iranians and the Dutch yoga enthusiast that the Indian Gate wasn’t much to see. They were right, though my expectations were already lowered accordingly. It’s a tan arc with an inscription on top about all of the Indian soldiers lost in World War II. The park around it was packed to the brim with Indians lounging about and purchasing street food from portable stalls. I liked the relaxed, but somewhat festive atmosphere.

I hadn’t eaten in six hours so I looked through the food stalls. I saw a treat familiar to me from my travels in Turkey; roasted corn on the cob. I have no idea how this idea hasn’t gotten to America yet, but it’s delicious. The first vendor I approached asked for 50 rupees, which was outrageous, so I walked to another vendor 30 feet away. The kindly little old lady there asked for 20 rupees and I agreed. Unexpectedly, she rubbed lime juice all over my corn which I thought might ruin it. I was wrong: it was the best corn on the cob I’d ever eaten in my entire life. The lime, salt, butter, and corn mixed together to create an extremely powerful taste of overwhelming goodness. I should have gotten another one.

I walked the length of the avenue to the government buildings on the other side. The Parliament building was behind the other buildings and some trees so I didn’t get a good luck at it. But I did see the Department of Defense and some other major government office buildings. Again I got the feeling that a lot of the architectural style here was heavily cribbed from Washington, with a heavy emphasis on marble and Greek pillars (though I don’t think brown marble was a good choice). I asked a guard if I could go in one of the buildings and he explained for a minute that I would have to walk around the buildings to get to the other side, before quickly adding that I wasn’t qualified to enter.

One thing that this place does have that Washington doesn’t is monkeys. I saw dozens of them climbing all over the Department of Defense. Again, this probably does not bode well for the Indian military.

At the end of the avenue is the Rashtrapati Bhavan, the equivalent of the White House, and the current home of Indian’s controversial new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Unfortunately a big gate and a large front lawn made it even more visually inaccessible than the light house so I didn’t get much from it.

[With this, Matt sets off for Kathmandu, Nepal.]

*Irfan: Thus speaks the 22-year-old. Wait a few decades, Matt, and you’ll discover that middle age and monk-hood bear alarming similarities to one another.

**Irfan: A psychological propensity also commonly exhibited by those of us at small liberal arts teaching institutions in the United States.

***Irfan: I’m reminded here of my father’s suggestion that the holy cities of Mecca and Medina be privatized and turned over to the Disney Corporation, since Disney “obviously has better expertise at crowd control than the Saudis.”

****Irfan: Probably “Farishta,” Persian for “Angel.” I’m surprised that Matt doesn’t ask his Iranian traveling companions any pointed questions about Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, here in the States, the call for bombing Iran has started up again in earnest.

*****Irfan: Reader, for God’s sake just ignore this paragraph. This is a guy who can’t eat even the most modestly spiced dish–who regularly orders a salad when we go to the local pizza parlor–passing judgment on the cuisines of the world. Come on.

******Irfan: I really hope he’s not referring to mast o khiar, which is one of the most delectable dishes on the planet. Did I mention that Pakistani food is the best in the world?

Postscript, March 29, 2015: Matt sends along this BBC item on monkey problems in Indian politics. Perhaps the situation might be improved by enfranchising the monkeys and allowing them to run for Parliament?

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Delhi Days 1 and 2 (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt Faherty on his journey through India. From Lucknow, he travels to Delhi.]

Delhi Days 1 and 2: Matt Sees Dead People

My first impressions of Delhi were good. Second impressions… Mixed.

It’s nice to be back in some semblance of civilization. Delhi is the first city I’ve travelled to on this trip with a real metro system (Calcutta had a single line I didn’t use). I was even able to bypass the exploitative airport taxis by taking the metro straight to my hotel. On the above ground portion of the metro ride, I saw one of the biggest traffic jams I have ever seen, but at least it consisted entirely of cars.

I got off the train and had only vague directions to my hotel. Fortunately, a random pedestrian pointed me to an official government tourist office. I entered and was surprised to be a guy on staff at almost 9 PM. He was in his early thirties, good looking, and immediately stood up and smiled upon seeing me. He quickly blitzed me with the usual questions: where are you from, when did you arrive in India, how much longer are you here, etc. It turns out that he had lived in New York City for a while and was familiar with my tiny home town, Garrison.*

I asked for a map of Delhi. He dug through his desk and pulled out a map that was clearly printed off the internet on regular paper. He asked me if I wanted to go to Agra and see the Taj Mahal. I did. He told me that was a good idea, but that contrary to what most people say, I should definitely stay a day or two in Agra, a greatly underrated city. He booted up a program on his computer and immediately began looking for hotel rooms for me.

Wait a minute…

None of it added up. This guy was way too cheerful and talkative to be a government bureaucrat. This was not a real, or by any means official map. And now he’s trying to sell me train tickets and a hotel room, after meeting me three or four minutes ago.

Another goddamned subcontinental scam.

Writing this at the end of day two, I can confirm my suspicions. These fake official tourist offices are EVERYWHERE. Sometime there are literally four or five offices on a single block all claiming to be the official government office. I bounced between a few, well aware of their nature, in an attempt to get a decent map. One office had a big sign outside saying, “free maps,” and then inside nobody could find a map. Two other offices gave me the same shitty print out map. Finally, another office gave me a slightly less shitty print out map which I am currently using. Every single office asked the same exact questions and made the same exact Agra pitch. Eventually, I did find at least one real government office where I bought tickets to go to Agra. I know it was real because it was in the New Delhi Train Station and looked exactly like the DMV. Also, sole employee there was nowhere near as enthusiastic about his job as his false counterparts.

Delhi is like a hybrid of Calcutta and a more civilized Chinese city. It has a business district with a handful of skyscrapers, and it has plenty of government built or maintained monuments. The streets are still not exactly clean, but they are cleaner than Lucknow or Calcutta.

The cost of this slightly nicer city is even more annoying scammers. Aside from the fake tourist offices, I am constantly getting approached by rickshaws, random merchants, and beggars. The rate of random people walking up to me and asking where I’m from has probably doubled. The rate at which those people then ask me to visit their shop, has probably quadrupled. However, I’m finding myself to be increasingly resistant to these tactics. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I can tell by an individual’s voice and mannerism whether he is really curious about this random white guy, or if he just really wants my money.

I woke up at 8 AM and after fooling around with the malfunctioning internet for a while, I made it to the metro by 9 AM. According to Wikipedia, the busiest metro in the world is in Tokyo. I’ve seen it in person, though not during its peak hours when it employs “people pushers” whose job is self-explanatory. That said, I have never personally seen metro crowds as bad as Delhi’s. It was bad enough to make me miss the first two trains that came because I failed to stuff myself and my small backpack into the train. People literally stumble out when the doors open.

The last two cars on every train are dedicated to women. This doesn’t help the congestion, especially when probably fewer than 20% of the people on the subway at any given time are female, but it’s also kind of understandable. India has a massive problem with rape and the general sexual treatment of women. Not long ago, there was a high profile case in India where a woman was gang raped to death while riding home on a bus at about 9 PM. ** The metro has signs all over the place which read, “protecting women’s safety is our top priority” and list a substantial fine for men who use the women’s cars.

I eventually squeezed onto a train and rode it until the very next stop (at a cost of 8 rupees). I got out in an upscale shopping area where I was accosted by merchants and fake travel agents multiple times. I got some useless maps and one good one, before making my way towards the Hindu Laxmi Narayan Birla Mandu Temple.

Throughout my travels, Hindu temples have been a disapointment. They have some cool designs, but none have come close to the best mosques, cathedrals, or Buddhist temples. Granted, the vast majority of Hindus are in India, so maybe I’m being unfair.

The Laxmi Temple was the first great Hindu Temple I’ve seen. It’s another site which is difficult to describe with words, so you should Google it. The Temple is four or five stories high, brown, and consists of dozens of labyrinthine floors, towers, and stair cases. And of course there are swastikas everywhere.

Laxmi Narayan Temple, “Birla Mandir Delhi, a panoramic view” by Vinayaraj – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons 

One odd part was separate entrances for foreigners and locals. The foreigners just left their shoes on the sidewalk, while I got to place my shoes (and was required to place my camera) in a lockbox in an office room. Is the assumption that foreigner shoes are more likely to be stolen and locals don’t have cameras?

After spending an hour at the temple, I made a lengthy trek to Old Delhi. To be clear, I do not currently know the differences between Old Delhi, Delhi, and New Dehli, and I keep forgetting to look it up. I think Old Delhi is a district of the city where Delhi used to be centered, Delhi is the entire city, and I really don’t know what New Delhi is but I’m sure it exists.

On the way, I happened upon the Kamala Market. This was the first of two times today I would strike traveler-gold with my random wanderings. Kamala Market is a wholesaler and manufacturing center based out of some sort of old British building (my guess is either a post office or train station). I wandered through the market and saw stacks upon stacks upon stacks of air conditioning units, refrigerators, fans, toaster ovens, and various other consumer appliances. The whole place was even grimier than regular markets, but I liked the entrepreneurial energy regardless.

Make shift stores were crated out of ridges in the wall, and unlike regular stalls, these things had legitimate sounding company names listed on signs above them. In some of the stores, rows of men were actually building the appliances. It’s very weird to me to think that some middle class Indian’s air conditioning unit was built by one of these guys kneeling on a dirt covered floor in a place like this. I guess I always imagined these things were built in giant factories with machines, but apparently not always.

There is a very important difference between the old parts of cities in Europe and in Asia. In Europe, they are usually quaint displays of the past with some nice modern comforts thrown in. For instance, old Edinburgh is a bunch of hostels and small shops in a castle. In Asia on the other hand, old parts of towns are far shittier versions of the newer parts with modern technology awkwardly slathered on top. Old Delhi is no exception, but I still really liked it.

Old Delhi is like India on steroids. There’s more traffic, more people, more rickshaws, more dirt, more mud, more stagnant pools of water, more obnoxious merchants, and less order. The streets are narrow and windy, so navigation is impossible for a newcomer. There are some old British buildings which were pretty once upon a time, but now have been subsumed in the muck. As or the modernity, Old Delhi’s electrical system looks like it was “designed” by an extraordinarily incompetent electrician with way too much money. Enormous piles of huge wires line and crisscross the streets throughout the district, sometimes to the point of blotting out the sun.

I saw an old Indian guy sitting on the sidewalk. There was a child inserting and twisting a long metal rod into his ear. It didn’t look comfortable.

Within Old Delhi lies the Jama Masjid, which I think is India’s largest mosque. It was built during the 17th century at an excruciatingly slow speed because every single one of its stones had to be blessed or whatever by an imam. Upon my arrival, it was closed for prayers, so I had to go elsewhere and return.

“Jama Maszid” by Nimitnigam – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jama_Maszid.jpg#/media/File:Jama_Maszid.jpg

I made my way to the nearby Red Fort, a massive red fortress built by the Mughals in the 17th century as well. It also housed a Mughal palace and a massive bazaar in its time. From the outside it looks like a five or six story Red Wall which stretched about half a mile before wrapping around. Pretty cool. Entry cost 250 rupees, which made it the most expensive site in India up to that point, so I was expecting a lot. Once again, the foreigners’ entrance was separated from the locals’ entrance, but this time I was glad for it since my line was about one-twentieth of theirs.

The Red Fort didn’t live up to its price in quality, but I suppose I spent two hours there, so it made up for itself in quantity. Given that it is a massive walled palace, I expected something close to Beijing’s Forbidden City, but instead got a few random palace buildings with no interiors. Some nice decorative stonework remained, but just reading a plaque telling me that this roof and pillars in front of me was where the emperors once kept their harems wasn’t quite working for me. On the other hand, I did like the well preserved balcony, which consisted of absurdly detailed designs on pure white marble.

The Red Fort’s layout and composition was a bit odd. The palace only took up less than one quarter of the space so they just threw a bunch of other random stuff in it. Some of the buildings even looked residential but I couldn’t be sure if they were. Half of it looked like some sort of Mughal college campus with nice lawns and walking paths in front of long college-style buildings.

Many white buildings, with large grassy area in foreground

“Red Fort courtyard buildings” by This Image was created by User:PlaneMad.Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons 

One of the random things thrown into the fort was a World War II museum. To the museum curators’ credit, they know what their customers want: the whole museum was filled with nothing but weapons. There were knives, swords, guns, grenades, bombs, and some other assorted military equipment. I wasn’t complaining.

The best random building was the Indian Revolution Museum, which chronicled India’s revolts against Britain from the early 19th century until the mid 20th century. This was the rare Indian museum which had plenty of English writing, and in a coherent order to boot. All new to me:

  •             In the early 19th century, the British used to put captured Indian leaders in dresses when they executed them.
  •             Germany tried to fund and supply Indian revolutionaries to independence during World War I.
  •            Some Indian leaders launched a full fledged revolt against the British during World War II which didn’t go that well. A lot of the leaders fled India for Japan and Germany where they were put to use by the Axis powers to make propaganda pieces about the evil of the British Empire.***
  •             I liked reading about the larger social movements and organizational structures surrounding Indian independence. In the US we typically just hear about Gandhi, and he was obviously very important, but he did not single handedly lead India to victory.
  •             After India achieved independence and Pakistan split off, there were still a few provinces which hadn’t picked a side yet. According to the museum, Pakistan invaded Kashmir at the behest of its Muslim elite and against the wishes of the general populace who actually voted to join India in a referendum. Even more interestingly, the local ruler (nawab) of Hyderabad tried this crazy gambit where he tied India up in diplomatic channels while importing money and weapons from the British so that he could declare Hyderabad its own country, or in the worst case scenario, join Pakistan. Unfortunately for this ambitious fellow, India invaded (supposedly on the pretense of the Hyderabad leader using military force to oppress his own people) and took the province over by force.

I left the Red Fort and made my way back to Jama Masjid. It was open this time. Unfortunately, so was my wallet to the absurd tune of 300 rupees.

I had already taken off my shoes and was entering the mosque when the payment was demanded of me. A sign said entry was free but there was a 300 rupee fee for bringing in a camera. I hadn’t actually taken out a camera at that point, the ticket guy just assumed I had it. I told him I didn’t want to pay and I wouldn’t use my camera. He told me to put my shoes back on, and walk half way down the block to a hotel to store it. That was the only way. It was 3 PM, I was tired, and I did want to take pictures. I paid.

The mosque was nice, though not one of the best I’ve seen. It’s not quite in the same league as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque (or its Hagia Sophia if that counts) or Abu Dhabi’s Sheik Sayeed Mosque, but it sits comfortably on the next tier down.**** At this point, I’m getting the sense that every important Mughal building looks like a variation of the Taj Mahal; in this case it was brown and wider rather than tall. I expecially appreciated the beautiful Islamic designs carved into the side.

A pleasant, though costly surprise awaited me at the mosque. For 100 rupees, I could go to the top of one of its minarets. With the mosque already situated on a hill, the view from the top would give a great view of half of Delhi.

I paid, dodged a tour guide who wanted $5 (I actually laughed in his face) and made it into my first ever minaret. The view was phenomenal. Most of it wasn’t pretty (the exceptions was the side which faced the rest of the mosque and the Red Fort) but it was pretty damn cool. Chaotic and crowded Delhi stretched out before me in every direction. Old Delhi looked like a messy jumble of building. The business district had some sky scrapers with the Indian capital building poking out from behind them in the distance. I always try to get one overview of every city I go to, and this was a worthy one.

I wasn’t really sure where my next destination was. The Nigambodh Ghat was somewhere along the water, but my map was pretty vague. I set out in search of it anyway. On the way I stumbled through an electronics bazaar which sold what were probably but not certainly bootleg video games. I should have asked about the price.

Eventually I got tired of walking and negotiated with a few rickshaws. I shot for 30 rupees, but the first guy wanted 100 (I laughed in his face). Two rickshaws later I got my price. The ride only took five minutes, which is not very far even by bike. Whatever, it cost 50 cents.

This was my second golden traveler discovery. Or maybe “golden” is a bit too cheerful. I entered a gate that lead to an area bout two hundred feet long right next to the river. I smelled smoke. On one side of me was some sort of wood storage facility, which struck me as random. Much of this area was covered by by stand-alone metal sheets, about twenty feet high, which I would later deduce were used to stop rain. As I got closer, I noticed dozens of independent bonfires smoldering away under the metal sheets. There was one unlit bonfire with a crowd of people around it. I began to figure out what was going on.

You think you got scammed in India, Faherty? Does the name Hari Kumar mean anything to you? I’ll show you scammed, goddammit. 

I walked through another gate to the side off the river. Like all ghats, it consisted of stone steps leading to the river, but this area had the same metal sheet set up as the other area. There were five or six bonfires out here.

Then I finally saw it. There was a dead body placed on one of the bonfires. A couple of guys piled more sticks on top of it. I sat down and watched. A random guy in the crowd asked what I was doing here. I was nervous, I did not have a good answer. I told him I was a tourist. He laughed, turned to his friends, said something and laughed some more. He and his friends talked and laughed for a good two minutes while he periodically glanced back at me. This was a less somber occasion than I thought.

I stayed until the body was lit aflame and then left. I have officially seen a funeral pyre.

*Irfan: That should probably have been the tip-off.

**Irfan: The case has now become the subject of a controversial film effectively banned in India.

***Irfan: I don’t have a good history to recommend on the subject (I don’t know the literature), but the classic novelistic depiction of the time period is of course Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, the subject of the famous BBC mini-series, “The Jewel in the Crown.” I’ll force Matt to watch it when he gets back.

****Irfan: Though I have visited precisely none of these mosques, I object to this ridiculous sentence on principle (the principle being sheer ethnic pride conjoined with the credential-conferring fact of having darker skin than Matt and a more authentically subcontinental name and lineage).

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Lucknow (by Matt Faherty)

[We continue with Matt Faherty’s adventures in India. Last time (actually weeks ago in real time), he was in Calcutta. From Calcutta, he flew west to Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. Here’s his report on Day 1 there, along with general anthropological musings about the peoples of Asia. –Irfan]

Lucknow – A Diamond in the Rough

If you haven’t heard of Lucknow, that’s OK. I hadn’t heard of it either until I looked at a map of cities near Nepal when I was trying to figure out where to travel. Lucknow is an Indian city with a population of 2 million not far from the border of Nepal. It is the capital of a somewhat obscure Indian province and was once a major colonial outpost during the British dominion.*

I chose to visit Lucknow instead of a better known Indian city (like Bangalore or Mumbai) for maybe three reasons. First, it was close to Nepal, my final destination for the trip. Second, I wanted to see a smaller Indian city rather than simply to jump from one massive metropolis to another. Finally, I googled Lucknow and the image results were stunning. Lucknow is barely known to tourists but has some of the most beautiful architectural achievements in all of India.

Chota Imambara (Wikipedia)

As expected, Lucknow does not have the big city feel I’ve grown accustomed to over the last two weeks. Even in the heart of the city, most buildings aren’t more than three feet tall. It’s still noisy, but vastly quieter than Calcutta or Dhaka. The relative lack of traffic is also a welcome relief from the overwhelming congestion and jams I’ve grown accustomed to having to dodge.

As also expected, Lucknow is filled to the brim with stunning buildings. In contrast to Calcutta, which looked like an old European city had been built in the middle of the jungle, Lucknow has more of a colonial feel. The predominant architectural style is a hybrid of Mughal and classical English, which oddly creates a sort of Hispanic colonial look, with lots of rounded edges and corners outlining solid marble facades. The main street especially looks like it could be from an Old Mexican town in Texas, with a single straight street lined on both sides by old colonial government buildings.

Because Lucknow gets so few tourists, I’m getting a lot of attention from the locals. Far more rickshaws are making unsolicited offers than in Calcutta. I’ve gotten plenty of smile-handshakes and one random teenager started talking to me about Obama and then asked for my phone number. I turned him down. My hotel manager is especially thrilled by my presence. He doesn’t speak English very well, and I’d bet money that he’s autistic, but that doesn’t stop him from stammering out broken sentences about how amazing America and especially Obama are. One of the attendants at the hotel told me the manager’s father had some sort of cancer which an American doctor operated on in New Delhi, and ever since then he has idolized the US.

Granted, there is somewhat of a caveat to that last paragraph. I’m still covered in pink paint and part of my hair is blue. I took a shower last night to get rid of what I could, but there is much progress yet to be made on my cheeks and forehead. I had totally forgotten that some pink people had dumped blue powder on my head until I stepped in the shower and saw blue water running off my head. This continued for five minutes until the water cleared up, but apparently I didn’t get all of that either because the front of my head is distinctly blue. When I was going through airport security this morning, an Indian TSA agent equivalent said “happy Holi” under his breath while wanding me. I replied in kind.

Lucknow Rail Station (Wikipedia)

It’s entirely possible that a fair number of the stares and attention I’m getting is because I look like an idiot, or alternatively, like I’ve been in a car accident and haven’t bothered cleaning the blood off my face yet. Certainly, the sideways glances, snickering, and occasional outright laughter are for the former reason alone.

Anyway, in the four hours I spent in Lucknow today, I visited a few major sites. First, I saw the Assembly Hall for the provincial government. It’s a massive classical style marble structure with a central rotunda which could easily find its place in Washington DC. I didn’t see any means of going inside, but it was the first of many architectural triumphs I saw in Lucknow. The Assembly was also nicely complemented by a nearby white clock tower I hope to enter tomorrow or the next day.

Second, I visited the Shah Najaf Imambara. I have no idea what that means and it took me a while to figure out what it is. It actually looks really cool from afar. I entered a large walled in field about the size of a football field, with a path running through the center towards the building itself. It looked like a mosque of some sort, and I had to take of my shoes to enter (it was too remote for me to worry about my shoes being stolen), but it turned out to not be a mosque. As I got closer, I noticed the building wasn’t made out of sandstone as it appeared, but was actually plaster over brick.

Eventually I found an inner room, which structurally resembled a mosque, but again, wasn’t one. It was filled with lots of tacky chandeliers hanging from the ceiling for no discernible reason. Lighting wise, they weren’t on and if they were, it would be overkill, but whatever.

Shah Najaf Imambara (Wikipedia: Syedfaraz 11)

A random guy approached me and started giving me a tour in broken English. He explained that the building was a recreation of a tomb in Iraq which housed some ruler and his two wives. He showed me the replica tombs and said some other stuff I didn’t understand. Five minutes later he asked for a tip for being my tour guide. I didn’t give him one.

I’m sounding too negative on the Imambara. It may be a cheap replica, but it’s pretty and makes for a nice place to take a pleasant walk.

Finally I briefly walked through Sikander Bagh, an old Mughal fort which had been repurposed by the British. During the Sepoy Rebellion, the rebels held the fort until the British launched an assault which killed hundreds of Sepoys. Supposedly the last Sepoy to die was a female sniper who picked off dozens of Brits from a tree until she was finally shot down. She got two pretty cool statues in return.

Sikandar Bagh: Ah, the good ol’ days

Not much is left of the fort but one gate and some walls. Still, another gem to look at and a great place for a walk.

A list of random things I will never get used to in India:

  •             Every vehicle on the road honking its horn every three seconds
  •             Seeing communist flags and posters everywhere
  •             Seeing swastikas everywhere (it’s a symbol of prosperity throughout Asia)
  •             Being targeted by random people for money
  •             Impossible to navigate roads
  •             Exploitative pricing
  •             Squat toilets (though I’ve dodged them all so far this trip)

I really hate tipping. It’s bad in America but it’s ten time worse here. I hate the idea that my payment for a service is only 90% agreed upon, and the other 10% is this tightrope where being too generous means wasting money and not being generous enough means being an asshole. I vastly prefer that both parties just know what they are getting upfront so we don’t have to worry about this insane world of non-mandatory but extremely expected gift giving.

And it really is insane. There’s a reason Larry David has written dozens of episodes between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm about tipping. Even in the US where there are pretty well established parameters for when, where, how, and how much to tip, it’s still a massive minefield where so much can go wrong and so little can go right. Whatever negative things can be said about Chinese culture, I am eternally grateful to the country for driving tipping to the point of nonexistence (and it’s even illegal in some industries).

Tipping in India is somehow even worse than in the US, even if the expected rates are lower. The problem is that tipping norms are arbitrary and ill defined. A quick Google search reveals dozens of different suggested strategies and standards for tipping ranging from US levels all the way down to not tipping at all. Do taxi drivers get tipped? If so, how much? What about hotel clerks? Hotel owners? Random uninvited tour guides? Who knows?

A huge confounding issue is that rules are de facto different for foreigners and locals. I’m pretty sure, but not totally sure, that most locals don’t tip at all or at least tip rarely. The exception is probably wealthy locals, but that’s just speculation. Regardless, foreigners are constantly asked for tips. I’ve been asked by taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers, bellhops, hotels owners, airport attendants, unofficial tour guides, and waiters. I was weak early on, but my firm policy now is no tipping, with the exception of rounding up for taxi drivers when meters price to the cent (which no one has in rupees anyway).

But my problem with tipping isn’t just that no one knows the conventions in India, it’s that the locals prey on this fact. Just as the local merchants prey upon Western standards of politeness, they prey on Western standards of tipping and charity. It isn’t easy to say “no” to tossing 50 extra cents to some rickshaw driver who probably makes $5 per day. They know this fact, so they do everything they can to pressure Westerners. The weaker locals will widen their eyes, hold out their hands, and say “tip” even if they don’t know another word in the entire English language. The more aggressive locals will refuse to give you change for a payment and repeat “tip” over and over again while smiling.

Ambedkar Park, Lucknow (Wikipedia)

Of course, if anyone in the US used the latter tactic, he would at best be called a massive asshole, and at worst be punched in the face. But the Indians know that most westerners feel sorry for them and that our cultural relativism is great enough to make us endure an enormous amount of emotional abuse.

What especially angers me about this issue is that Westerners are so much nicer to locals than thee locals are too each other. I don’t think I have seen a single Bangladeshi or Indian say “please” or “thank you” to each other. Whenever I perform these common courtesies, the locals light up like I’ve bestowed some great honor upon them. Granted, it is usually not the same people receiving my courtesies and trying to pry money from my reluctant hands, but still, it is terrible custom for a segment of the population to attempt to exploit the only people who treat them kindly (not to mention pump significant foreign wealth into their economy).

I have one more observation. Actually, I’ve been thinking about this since I made my way through Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam over the course of a month during last summer. China is doing great.

I don’t just mean that China is experiencing superb economic growth (of course it is), I mean that China has a vastly better culture than its poor neighbors, at least in regards to its treatment of Westerners. I don’t know if this is a development that coincided with China’s growth in GDP over the last twenty years, or if China has always been this way, but in my experiences with China, Southeast Asia, Bangladesh, and India, Chinese people are by far the most honest and upfront with their dealings, both socially and financially.

Granted, that isn’t exactly the case at every level. Chinese businesses are notoriously fraudulent and bad at book keeping, but the average Chinese merchant never pulled half the shit I have to deal with here in India or especially down in Thailand and Cambodia. I never had someone give me back the wrong change on purpose, I’ve never had a taxi driver blatantly over charge me or lie about how far away my destination is (I’ve had Chinese drivers attempt to overcharge me, but not to the same degree, and they were basically upfront in their negotiations, with only one exception). Chinese merchants targeted me in markets, but when I refused to look at them, they left me alone rather than follow me around or grab my arm and pull me into a stall.

What’s so weird about all of this is that Chinese people have a reputation for being a lot less nice than people from these other countries. I suppose its true, the average Chinese merchant doesn’t have a big grin on his face and constantly call me “sir” like they do in India and Thailand. But if that’s the price I have to pay for not worrying if every friendly person is trying to scam me, then I’ll gladly pay it. Of course that’s not to say Chinese people are always curmudgeonly. They can be great fun in normal social gatherings. But they definitely don’t have that overwhelming smiling pep that people in the other countries do.

Some people, I know, have found that off-putting, but I like it. It still weirds me out that Indians and especially Thais seem so ridiculously happy and friendly all the time. I don’t personally know any people in the US who act this way. It’s unnatural. And as I said before, I can’t help but think that the ridiculously happy facade (whether real or forced) helps hide more sinister intentions. That is not to say that every Indian and Thai person wants to rob me, only that the ones who do can camouflage themselves in this cultural norm as a way to disarm me.

Basically, I like Chinese people and Chinese culture more than its poorer neighbors. China is comparable to Singapore, different but equal to Malaysia, not comparable to Japan, but better than Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.**

*Irfan: Lucknow is widely considered one of the centers of Mughal Islamic culture, alongside Delhi, Agra, and Lahore (Pakistan). See, e.g., Abdul Halim Shahrar, Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture.

**Irfan: Despite bad-mouthing the peoples of South Asia, Matt seems to have enjoyed the luck of the Irish there, or alternatively, having left (but himself escaped) abundant devastation in his wake, including a fatal machete attack, near-fatal bombing, and ferry accident in Dhaka, and now, a fatal train derailment in Lucknow. As you can read here, things go harder for Matt when he gets to Kathmandu (Nepal), but he manages to survive and even do some farming by the slopes of the Himalayas. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 4 (by Matt Faherty)

[Skipping Calcutta Day 3, we move to Day 4. Background here.]

Calcutta Day 4 – Going Native

St. Matthew of Calcutta communes with the animals

Traveling around the US and Europe is great. Everything is always comfortable, even when it’s cheap. Everyone speaks English, it is easy to get around, and some of the most remarkable creations of civilization are on display. Asia doesn’t always have these perks but it has something else. Today was the day when I saw the best that poor Asia had to offer.

I woke up at 7 AM, later than usual. The jet lag is finally wearing off. By 8:30 I left the hotel to get breakfast at Au Bon Pain. While I was eating my delicious everything bagel with cream cheese and earl grey tea, I spotted a little beggar girl outside with a monkey on her shoulder. I imagine that the monkey generates lots of revenue, and even considered paying her for a picture. But where did she get it from? Are wild monkeys somehow caught and domesticated in Calcutta? Had someone purchased it for her? Do beggars consider the costs and benefits of capital investments for their industry?

I walked a little ways away from Au Bon Pain, and saw a guy walking a group (pack? flock?) of goats down the street. I love this stuff. At home (upstate new York) I rarely see exotic animals like goats; I never see them wandering around the New York City or Chicago sidewalks at all. But here I constantly come across cows, goats, dogs, cats, and occasionally horses.* And Indian animals are always friendly. Last night I even befriended three adorable puppies and their mother living outside my hotel, taking care not to pet them much, to avoid the risk of getting fleas.

I got tired of walking and took a taxi. The driver wanted 100 rupees up front, but I demanded that he use the meter and he eventually agreed. The ride took ten minutes and my charge came out to 57 rupees. I handed the driver a 100 rupee note and he returned 30 rupees with a pleading look on his face. I let him have my 20 cents as a tip.

Khaligat Temple: “charity terrorism” meets its match 

The taxi left me on a main road, so I had to make my way down some back streets to find the Khaligat Temple. This is the premier Hindu temple of Calcutta and the basis for the city’s name. It houses a shrine to the deity, Kali, the Hindu equivalent of a patron saint to Calcutta. Next door to the temple is Mother Teresa’s original Home for the Dying.

Whatever dignity these two locations once possessed have long since disappeared. Khaligat Temple Road is clotted with tourist trap stalls selling cheap statues and memorabilia for the temple and the Home. It is a poor area, even for Calcutta, and the locals are intent to milk their external revenue sources for all that they’re worth.

I arrived at the temple and initially thought there was a mosque next to it, but the small white domes on the nearby building belonged to Mother Teresa’s Home. I first made my way through the increasingly dense stalls to the temple. An Indian man in plain clothes spotted me from a distance and made a beeline to my location as I entered the temple. He identified himself as a temple priest and immediately began to lecture me about random trivia. After letting him lead me into a court yard, I tried to lose him by slowly looking around at the inner stalls, but he wouldn’t leave my side.

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Kalighat Temple, photo credit: Wikipedia

I turned to him and told him I didn’t need a tour guide. The man repeated that he was a temple priest and that everyone entering the temple was required to go with a priest. I found this claim to be literally unbelievable. Even if Hindu priests wore jeans and ratty open collar shirts, there were dozens of people packing into the tiny inner temple and there was no way the temple employed twenty or more priests simultaneously. After some more discouragement on my part, the man left.

I had successfully dodged another tour guide. Unfortunately, I kind of needed one. This wasn’t a normal Hindu temple where you can just wander in and look at the statues. There was some sort of event going on and people were packing into a tiny hallway in front of the main shrine while repeating prayers. Whatever: I figured I’d wing it.

I looked for a designated spot to leave my shoes, but there wasn’t one; people just left their shoes all over the place. I also spotted a sign warning about pick-pocketers. If the sanctity of the temple won’t stop the locals from pick pocketing me, I doubt it will stop them from stealing my shoes. I opted to carry them in.

I waited in line behind ten praying Hindus before I reached the shrine itself. As soon as I approached a guard spotted me and yelled “NO SHOES!” at the top of his lungs. I scurried out the way I came, accidentally bumping into numerous sweet old ladies.

For my second attempt at entry into the shrine, I decided to leave my shoes outside. I put them under a bench off to the side where I hoped no one would see them. As I walked back to the inner temple entrance, another Indian man approached me, claiming (once again) that he was a priest, and starting yet another lecture on random (albeit shrine-related) trivia. Having already screwed up badly once, I figured I would let this guy show me around, and since he was identifying himself as a priest and not actually asking me if I wanted a guide, I was under no obligation to pay him.

The priest told me that before I could enter, I had to buy some flowers to make an offering to Kali (the goddess). Yet again, this struck me as bullshit, since only a handful of people entering the temple were holding flowers. That said, the flowers only cost 20 rupees, so I bought them anyway. We walked to the entrance of the inner temple and the priest stopped and began to chant something. He asked me the names of my parents and siblings, then ripped off flowers for each of them and put them in my hand.

The inner temple was even more crowded than last time. The space in front of the shrine was only about five feet wide, but a dozen or so people were cramming their way into it anyway. The priest tried to get me a spot up front and in behavior typical of a priest, began shoving worshipers out of the way for me. But his pious pushing was not enough to part the crowd. Exasperated, he told me just to chuck the flowers over the heads of the worshippers at the shrine. I asked for clarification on this command twice. He confirmed it twice. I threw the flowers.

Next the priest led me into another part of the temple, an empty room characteristic of Hindu temples, where worshipers pray to a shrine. There he brought me to an older man who said he was the head priest. The head priest asked where I was from and then launched into a two minute pitch about how awesome Kali is. He told me Kali was the life force of the entire universe. It was not Islam, Christianity, or even Hinduism, but pure science. Kali is a deity with four arms which constantly beats up the evil around us so that we may all live happy lives.

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Hinduism, religion of peace

Inexplicably, Kali’s protective four-armed destruction of evil had not been bestowed upon any discernibly large portion of Calcutta’s impoverished population.** The head priest explained that the temple had always helped the poor in Calcutta and had even fed 2,000 people per day (Calcutta’s population is 4.57 million). He said in return for Kali’s protection, it is each and every person’s duty to help the poor. Just one sack of rice would be ever so helpful. Then he asked me for 2100 rupees.

            “I don’t have 2100 rupees.”

“It is everyone’s duty to help the poor. Everyone must feed them. It would be so helpful to the people of Calcutta.

“I literally don’t have 2100 rupees on me right now.”

“Just give what you can. 1000 rupees would be great. It is EVERYONE’s duty to help.

“I am a poor student-”

“Do not say you are poor! You can spare money for these people. It is YOUR duty.”

“I’m sorry, but I am a student and I do not have much money.”

“Just give what you can.”

“I cannot give you anything.

“Just give what you can.”

“I have nothing to give.”

“You are not going to give us anything?”

“I’m sorry, but I cannot.”

Telling people I am a student is a trick I picked up from Jewel to stop solicitations.

The head priest gave me a look of pure condemnation and suddenly turned away. The other priest quickly took me away.

Shocking, I know. The only white guy at the temple got a VIP tour and was then solicited for cash. Yeah, I get that it’s for a good cause (assuming that these guys were honest), but it doesn’t change the fact that I absolutely hate being constantly targeted for money. I simply was not in a good mood.

The other priest showed me a few more parts of the temple and then gave his own lackluster pitch as to why I should tip him. I told him that I did not ask for a tour and walked out of the temple.***

Matt assumes the missionary position

Having read Christopher Hitchens’s famous critique of Mother Teresa, I don’t consider her to be the figurative saint she’s made out to be (though I cannot deny that she is a literal saint). I always found it odd that she is one of the most famous historical figures on earth, is considered to be the epitome of selflessness and moral goodness, and yet most people know next to nothing about her. Basically she was a high profile nun who funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into her Indian charity network based out of Calcutta. On the one hand, she gave comfort to millions of dying Indians. On the other hand, she spent her absurdly large charitable fund to buy bibles and other religious items to convert sick Indians to Catholic Christianity on their death beds, rather than work towards any long-term structural changes in the Indian economy, or even among its poor communities.

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St. Christopher, reading Matt’s post with evident approval

Anyway, next to Khaligat Temple is the first of Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying. The purpose of these homes was mostly to give dying Indians a warm bed and some food during their last couple of days though I’m pretty sure they also did food and clothing distribution as well. As I mentioned, the outside of the building looks a lot like a mosque, but the inside looks distinctly Catholic. There are two main rooms, each about fifty feet long, filled with fifty small cots. These are the wards where the patients hang out most of the time, divided by gender.Crucifixes and pictures of Mother Teresa line the walls and the whole place looks like a hollowed-out Catholic school. I wouldn’t call the interior “comforting” but I suppose it is quieter and cooler than outside.

The Home is definitely a weird place to visit. A sign at the entrance says visitors are welcome, but there are no discernible procedures for going inside the place. The Home is still active (though not as busy as it used to be), but there are no brochures or information of any kind for visitors. When I walked through the front door, no one greeted me, so I stood awkwardly in the men’s ward. Could I just walk through the place? I wasn’t sure.

There were about five men lying in beds. Two of them were receiving medical attention, one from a nun, and the other from a volunteer (identifiable as such by virtue of being a young white person wearing regular clothes). All of the men had deformities of one kind or another, most likely indicating leprosy. I walked past them, trying simultaneously to get a good look and not to stare. The nun and volunteer didn’t notice me even when I was five feet away, so I slipped into the next room and found myself face to face with about twenty sick Indians. Most were old, nearly all had deformities. Everyone looked up at me and each grinned from ear to ear. I had forgotten that I still had Holi paint all over my face, and suddenly I realized that I must have been quite a sight to them.

I walked past a row of them sitting down and a few offered their hands to me. For a split second I considered that it might be a bad idea to touch a leper, but then I remembered that Katie had told me they were on antibiotics and not contagious. Plus the nuns and volunteers didn’t have gloves, so unless this was a martyr-run operation, I figured I would be OK to touch the lepers. I shook four or five hands and told them where I was from. They all smiled and laughed. One guy with only two teeth left and no right arm offered me his left hand and was delighted when I shook it.

I left the room and stood near the entrance to take some notes. Finally a young, female volunteer approached me and in an Italian accent asked if I was new here. I told her I was just visiting. She smiled, thanked me for coming, and turned away.

I went up the stairs to the second floor to find a sort of lounge for the staff.  Five volunteers were seated at the table and after a brief glance, none of them took notice of me, except for one guy. It was the quiet Italian I had walked around with last night. We briefly talked and he told me it was his first day here. I asked what diseases the patients had and he said mostly leprosy and that he wasn’t sure about the rest.

Near misses and direct hits: The Marble Palace, Tagore House, and more Holi paint

Next stop was a building called the Marble Palace. I walked for about thirty minutes during which nothing eventful happened besides being shoved by a drunk beggar (it would not be my last physical altercation of the day). After I got tired, I hailed a cab and spent five minutes trying to explain where I wanted to go before I settled on telling him “Mahatma Gandhi Road,” a location transcending all linguistic boundaries.

I got dropped off about a kilometer away from the Marble Palace in a district I had yet to visit. Yesterday Kip told me that we celebrated Bangladeshi Holi Day and that tomorrow would be the celebration of Indian Holi Day. Up until this point, I hadn’t seen any celebrations so I thought he was mistaken. It turns out that I was just in the wrong places. In this district, groups of individuals covered head to toe in pink paint (a different look than yesterday’s painting) were all over the place. While walking I was constantly being stopped to shake people’s hands and shout “Happy Holi.” Worse yet, I had to start defending myself against paint attacks. It wasn’t that I didn’t have fun yesterday, but the paint is absurdly difficult to get off, and I didn’t want to spend the next week looking like a crazy person.

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Another large and imposing imperialist edifice erected by the great and powerful Oz  Raj

At one corner populated by a gaggle of pink Holi Day enthusiasts, three guys approached me with paint. The code of conduct on painting other people isn’t entirely clear. The painters usually ask, but they don’t always take no for an answer. This was one such occasion.

Two of the guys accepted that me holding up my arms defensively, backing away, and saying “no” meant “no,” but the third guy didn’t. He sprayed me with blue paint until his two friends pulled him back. Angered once more, I stomped away in a huff.

When I finally reached the Marble Palace it was closed for Holi Day. This is again the dark side of my aforementioned “no planning” policy. It was really a shame, too, because the Marble Palace looked incredible from the outside. It is a mixture of a classical English estate and the Parthenon, built out of imposing grey marble. After the Victoria Memorial, it’s the most marvelous building in Calcutta.

I walked down a few back alleys looking for the Tagore House.**** The ground was literally pink from washed out paint and packs of pink Holi people roamed around. On a few more instances, I had to fend off paint attacks. On more than one occasion I had to dodge water balloons launched from high balconies. Progress was further slowed from constantly having to shake hands and yell “Happy Holi” every twenty feet.

I finally found the Tagore House (some sort of artist center) but the door was locked. Big surprise. I was walking around the perimeter searching for another entrance when I spotted a cute French girl and her American boyfriend I recognized from yesterday’s Holi Day celebrations. I asked them if they knew a way into the Tagore House but it turns out they were in the same position. We continued walking the perimeter together until we found the main entrance. It was locked. With their plans shot, the couple decided to walk to the Ganges River and asked if I wanted to tag along.

Camille and Blake were traveling around India for two months. He was born in St. Louis and now lived in New York City. Blake seemed like the traveling type, having taught English for a year in Vietnam and traveled through Calcutta the year before. Camille was very bubbly and found every little thing around us fascinating. Given India’s notorious reputation regarding its treatment of foreign women, I was interested in what it would be like to walk around with a girl, especially an attractive one. As mentioned in a previous post, a friend of mine had been sexually harassed while traveling through Southern India, and a girl at the University of Chicago had been so badly treated while studying abroad that she got an article posted in Time.

Camille certainly diverted attention away from Blake and me, though not entirely. The pink packs were more likely to target her, but they went after us with paint as well.  I asked them if they had any problems with her traveling and Blake replied that India is probably no worse than any other Asian country in this regard. Only a few bad instances had created a reputation.

Having traveled through here before, Blake searched for a ghat (stairs leading down to the river where people wash). Along the way we dodged pink packs and water balloons while gazing at more stunning ruins of old English buildings. In front of one building, an extremely scrawny man approached us and asked to do some Hindu prayer thing which involved rubbing yellow powder on our shoes and forehead. I refused, but Blake and Camille let him do it. After he was done, he made the universal sign for hunger. We walked away.

But this was no ordinary beggar. He followed us and wouldn’t let up. He kept repeating, “10 rupee, please!” I always ignored him but Blake and Camille alternated between ignoring him and saying sorry. He wasn’t getting the message. He followed us for three blocks. At one point, I stopped to take a picture of an English building while Camille walked on ahead. As I lined up my shot, I noticed a cop walking behind me out of the corner of my eye. Then I heard a WHACK! I turned and saw the beggar reeling in pain. The cop had hit him with a baton. Camille and Blake apologized profusely. As we walked away, Blake lamented, “that’s just the way things are around here.”

An hour later we arrived at a ghat right next to a bridge. It was one of the coolest places I’ve seen thus far on the trip. It managed to hit that sweet spot where it was dirty enough to be authentic but not too dirty that it makes me want to leave. Dozens of pink people washed themselves in the disgustingly polluted Ganges River. Being the only white people there, we got a lot of attention. A crowd formed around us to ask questions and try to give us paint. Camille and Blake succumbed while I held firm and blocked all paint. Over all, we had a blast talking to the half-naked locals and taking pictures of dozens of them posing by the scenic river.

After leaving the ghat we walked through a flower market under and beside the bridge, stretching about 150 yards. Blake wondered why such poor people would need an entire market for flowers.***** He had a point. I have no idea. There certainly weren’t any tourists around here, though Camille did buy a whole pile of flower necklaces. There were huge heaps of dead flowers rotting just behind the stalls. I can’t imagine how these businesses survive.

As we were nearing the end of the flower market, we heard music blasting nearby. The flower market was a single lane, and on the inland side were a row of houses. The music was coming from a courtyard of one of these domiciles. We got closer and saw about twenty pink people dancing and laughing inside. At the opening, a couple of pink children were playing with lowers until they saw Camille. Two little girls ran over to us, grabbed Camille’s hands and dragged her into the courtyard. Blake and I followed.

For the people living there, I guess this was sort of the equivalent of Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Eminem showing up to a random house party.****** However much fun they were having before, they were certainly having a lot more now. They flipped out. A bunch of guys ran over to drag me and Blake into the dance area. They turned the music up even louder. Different men and women kept jumping around to dance with each of us. Everyone was jumping up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs in Bengali.

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Typical ghat scene

Then they brought out the paint. Blake and Camille were covered immediately. I resisted for about thirty seconds until I gave up and accepted my fate. I was soon drenched head to toe in yellow powder. Next came the purple and blue paint smeared all over my face. I continued to dance and the locals continued to flip the fuck out. One especially energetic younger guy ran up to me and asked me if I wanted a beer. I thought it would be impolite to refuse.

Two minutes later, Blake, Camille, and I were sat down at a table. The energetic guy washed some cups in a bucket filled with undoubtedly disgusting tap water and poured us some beer. I looked at the bottles and saw the alcohol content was a shocking 8%. We all drank a half glass and before I could say no they poured me another. Meanwhile, Blake had walked away and Camille had been pulled back by the little girls to dance. As I sat there with my second glass the energetic guy rambled at lighting speed in broken English about how I was now his brother and we were all family. He said that I could stay inside his house, drink his beer, eat his food, meet all of his friends. He almost couldn’t control himself. He asked where I was from. I told him America and it looked like I had made yet another Asian man’s wildest dreams come true.

The energetic kid said something about food and ran off to come back with some mushy, unidentifiable meat stuff which I politely declined. He ran off again and came back with some nowhere-near ripe bananas which I again declined. He insisted that I couldn’t drink on an empty stomach, but I held him off.

I finished my second drink and he immediately began pouring me a third. I thanked him but said I didn’t want it. Another member of “our family” walked over and insisted I have another. I thanked them again and refused. That’s when things got a bit uncomfortable. They would not relent. The other guy literally picked up the glass and shoved it in my face while I put up my arm and held him off. For a solid minute they repeatedly insisted that I drink while I got more and more stern in my refusal. I was getting dangerously close to the point of actually shoving the guy backwards when a woman came over and yelled at the guys. I got up and walked away.

We partied with the family for another twenty minutes until Blake said it was time to go. I later learned that a particularly drunk older guy had tried to steal his wallet. We thanked the family and they endlessly took turns hugging us. Twenty pink people followed us out the gate yelling with joy, and inviting us back for next Holi Day.

Can you imagine something like that happening anywhere in Europe or America? It wasn’t always pleasant or even good, but yet again I had a blast. I was pulled off the streets and brought into a random family’s house to be painted, dance, and have drinks.

It was a good day.

 

*Irfan: Did I read that right? There are no horses, dogs, or cats in upstate New York?

**Irfan: It also seems problematic for claims about Kali’s efficacy that the Temple’s website is down at the moment, which is why I had to get a rather lame picture of it from Wikipedia.

***Irfan: Matt’s behavior here is a living exemplification of Robert Nozick’s famous critique of the so-called principle of fairness in Anarchy, State, and Utopiapp. 90-95.

This principle holds that when a number of persons engage in a just, mutually advantageous, cooperative venture according to rules and thus restrain their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to similar acquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission. Acceptance of benefits (even when this is not a giving of express or tacit undertaking to cooperate) is enough, according to the principle, to bind one. ….

[But] even if the principle could be formulated so that it was no longer open to objection, it would not serve to obviate the need for other persons’ consenting to cooperate and limit their own activities.

****Irfan: Named after Rabindranath Tagore, the East Indian poet.

*****Irfan: They’re used for ritual purposes.

******Irfan: I’m inferring that Matt represents Eminem in this analogy? I’m trying hard to picture this. Of course, picturing him as Jay-Z would be harder.

Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 2 (by Matt Faherty)

Calcutta Day 2 – Post-Apocalypse

Frankly, I’m a little let down by India. My speculation going into this trip was that India would be the worst country I’ve ever been to. I had been forewarned by others who had traveled through India about its filth, its chaos, and it annoying people. One of my friends had to spend hundreds of dollars when his travel plans turned out to be booked by a non-existent travel agency. Another friend, a woman, had been sexually harassed by a bellhop at her hotel. I expected India to have the bureaucracy of China, the poverty of Cambodia, and the predatory people of Thailand.

Meh, it’s not that bad. It’s not that good either, but Bangladesh was a baptism of fire. Calcutta is filthy, chaotic, and noisy by Western standards, but it feels like a toned down version of Dhaka. Yeah there’s garbage everywhere, but not that much, and huge piles are pushed in the corner instead on the sidewalks. Yeah there’s tons of traffic, but it mostly consists of cars which are far too large to form the swarm of rickshaws and took-tooks of Dhaka. Plus there is a McDonald’s a Pizza Hut, two Subways, and an Au Bon Pain of all places within ten minutes of my hotel. This is child’s play.

Calcutta is generally ugly, but has a unique aesthetic that I really like. It looks like there was some ancient civilization (the British) who for some reason perished off the face of the earth. So a new civilization (Indians) moved into their old ruins centuries later. It really does look like the post-apocalypse. I’m in the New Market District which is a massive market crawling between and inside of old colonial buildings. Beneath the rust, mud, and grime, the building which line these streets could have been built in London, Paris, or New York City.

Matt’s unapologetically pro-imperialist architectural musings

Broad classical facades and spindling towers sit next to mosques and brick hovels. Gorgeous marble balconies protrude into the streets, ignored by hundreds of Indians going about their business. These buildings once housed the elite of the British Empire when Calcutta was the capital of the East Indian Trading Company, and later the British Raj. Today an old train station has been hollowed out to be filled with stalls selling shirts, silk, and all manner of tacky crap. At the center of the station, where the tracks used to be, is an Indian butcher shop. I wouldn’t advise going in there.

The British ruins aren’t confined to my hotel’s district, they sprawl the entire city. One of the busiest parts of the city is two massive high ways on top of one another. One highway is on the ground, the other is built on pillars directly above it. Running the entire length of the highways are stunningly beautiful British estate homes. They are a bit run down and now house union offices, government agencies, and private clubs, but they still possess a sense of majesty in the middle of a grey city overgrown with lush vegetation.

Most of the non-British buildings are pretty ugly, but there is at least a much needed injection of color. The overwhelming color motif of Dhaka was brown, with maybe some hints of grey thrown in. But in Calcutta, buildings are painted green, blue, orange, red, gold, silver, and all manner of color. The rainbow houses compliment the pitch black pavement of the street well, and with some refurbishment and new money, Calcutta could become quite pleasant in a few decades.

I woke up at 5 AM as usual. There haven’t been too many times in my life when “waking up too early” was a problem, but now it is. After taking a shower, brushing my teeth, and going on line for a bit, it was 7 AM and I wanted to go out into the city. Unfortunately, the guy who ran the hotel had locked the gate covering the front door, and I didn’t feel like waking the grumpy old man even as he slept on a cot three feet away from the door. So I sat in my room for another hour.

My first objective was to get a city map. I walked to a nearby book store and purchased the only one they had. The map is annoyingly huge, but at least it folds well. I asked the book store owner about some interesting places nearby and set off upon his directions. It was two hours later that I learned his directions were horrible, and made worse by my worthless sense of direction.

He seemed to have sent me north, into the poorest part of the city, instead of southwest, towards Calcutta’s parks and main attractions. The first think I noticed in the poor area were dozens of chickens being kept in baskets on the ground. In one pile beside the baskets were a pile of dead chickens with their blood running down the side walk. That was the first time I saw a dead animal(s) today.

The scenery here was pretty similar to Dhaka. Merchants selling ultra-cheap street food lined the sidewalks while hundreds of people crowded the street going to wherever they needed to be. Many of the pedestrians were carrying goods in huge baskets on their heads. For the first time I saw a few of Calcutta’s notorious rickshaw drivers. These weren’t the type of rickshaws one sees in Dhaka or parts of China with a bike attached to a cart. These are old school rickshaws where the driver literally runs. According to Wikitravel, Calcutta outlawed these things a few years ago because it made Indians look like a bunch of 15th century primitives. However, the 30,000 man rickshaw union ignored the government’s command.

There are lots of dogs in Calcutta. They are smallish and seem friendly enough towards humans, but they fight each other constantly. I was awakened at 1 AM by dogs fighting outside my window (which doesn’t close). The dogs I saw on the streets were often wounded, some had big scratches, and occasionally they were missing ears. While walking I saw a tragically filthy tiny puppy on the side of the street. Any animal person would want to immediately adopt this dog and take it away from all this poverty. As I got closer, I saw two more tiny puppies and an older dog who looked like the mother. One of the puppies was lying on its side with an eye outside of its socket, but still attached by a few strands. He was mercifully dead. The other three dogs were standing around it. I stopped dead in my tracks at the horrible sight and looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. If they had, they didn’t seem to care. That was the second dead animal I saw today.

Just to get it out of the way, the third and final dead animal I saw was a massive rat about four blocks away from the puppy.

Due to the book store owner’s directions, I was completely lost. I was standing at the corner of a major intersection trying to get my bearings when pure evil hit me in the face. It was a communist flag. There was no mistaking it: red background with a yellow hammer and sickle. These flags were lining all four corners of this intersection. It’s amazing how the most destructive ideology in history still finds a following among so many.

What does it look like?

Truly lost, I finally asked an older gentleman where I was on my map and he helped sort me out. He advised me to take a bus to my intended destination (the row of mansions along the highways). That’s easier said than done. As in Dhaka, there are no bus stops in Calcutta, people just jump on at intersections when the busses stop in traffic. And when there is no traffic… people just jump on anyway.

I thanked the man for his assistance, and he asked me where I was from and how long I would be in India. This was nowhere near the amazement in Dhaka or China, this was mere curiosity. He asked in the same manner that I would ask a random European in New York City who asked me for directions. I answered his inquiry and went on my way.

Getting on the bus wasn’t too bad, and it only cost me 6 rupees (10 cents). Once on the bus, things got a bit more complicated. Due to his accent, I didn’t really understand the man’s instructions, so I just asked a bunch of people on the bus when to get off and the money collector said he would help.

At one point, there was a commotion outside on the side of the bus and the bus suddenly slowed down and a bunch of the riders started yelling angrily at the driver until he sped up. At first I thought the bus hit someone. I asked another passenger what happened and he told me “they are angry because the bus is too slow.” What I think happened was someone tried to get on the bus, so the bus driver slowed down, but the passengers weren’t having any of that shit. If you want to get on a moving bus in Calcutta, you run for it. So the passengers yelled at the driver until he sped up and left the person behind. Did I mention how friendly India was?

After about 30 minutes, I got off the bus (while it was stopped in traffic) and marveled at the wondrous British mansions for a while. Then I made my way past the double highway to approach a cluster of parks. One such park called the “Scenic Citizen’s Park” had the insane business hours of 5 to 9 AM and 3-8 PM so I couldn’t go in. I also passed the Indian Fine Arts Academy. I always found something funny about prestigious organizations in poor countries being housed in dilapidated structures. The Olympic Committee of Bangkok is based out of a Soviet-style concrete apartment building. The Bangladeshi national bank badly needed its windows cleaned. Now, I can add the Indian Fine Arts Academy to this prestigious list for being housed in what looks like an abandoned elementary school.

OK, that might be too mean. To make up for it, I will lavish praise upon the adjacent building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is a gorgeous pure white marble episcopal church which soars high above the jungle of foliage around it. While the other English builds I had seen thus far had been structurally beautiful, they were all run down, and I was pretty much admiring carcasses. This was the first English building I had seen which was well maintained and at least almost looked like new.

Inside the cathedral was equally nice, with the exception of the dozens of fans hanging down over the pews from the vaulted ceiling. I don’t blame the Cathedral for them, I’m sure it gets unbearably hot in there, but all the same it does detract from the structure.

Matt gets taken for a ride–yet again

I left the Cathedral and made my way north towards Calcutta’s most beautiful sight, Queen Victoria’s Memorial. But before I could reach it, I had to get sidetracked–or possibly, horsetracked.

One of the alleged parks was actually just an empty field, which, in typical Indian fashion, was filled with goats. As I walked beside the field, a man on horseback galloped up beside me and asked if I would like to ride the horse. Of course I would. He said it was 200 rupees ($3.21)  for a “small circle”and 400 rupees ($6.42) for a “big circle.” These are high prices for India, so I was immediately hesitant, until I remembered that we are talking about single digit dollar amounts. I fully acknowledge that it was incredibly stupid of me to not inquire as to what a “small” and “big” circle consisted of. I chose the big circle.

I’ve only been on a horse a few times in my life, but I happened to have ridden English style on two separate occasions over the last few months. I noted that this horse here was also set up on English style, so I wanted to see how my skills had developed. This was an even dumber thought than you might surmise. Not only did I barely know how to ride English style, but I had also forgotten how murderously painful it is on your legs, since you have to squeeze the horse with your heels (whereas Western style relies more on the reins). Thus it was the worst possible thing for my legs to be doing after having been doing nothing but walking for the last week straight.

Needless to say, I didn’t do a very good job riding the horse. To be fair, it wasn’t just my lack of skill and my soar legs, but also the horse didn’t have a saddle on it, just a folded blanket. So I was constantly almost falling off one side or the other whenever the horse turned, thereby necessitating even more painful leg squeezes.

Then I tried to gallop the horse. In a civilized land, a horse owner probably wouldn’t let some random guy gallop a horse by himself for fear of killing the rider and/or getting sued. But this is not a civilized land. So I kicked the horse’s sides and squeezed him till he took off. I got about forty feet until I fell off, though due to my remarkable agility, I managed to land on one leg rather than my head. The cost of preserving my skull was feeling like I had ripped my leg in half.

I actually got back on the horse despite my leg pain and rid him a bit further. After getting some bad-ass horseback photos, I settled my bill. The guy demanded 800 rupee ($12.85). He claimed that I had made two “big circles.” I guess that was true, even though he didn’t exactly announce that I was beginning a second circle, he just told me to start galloping. Considering that I was only on the horse for about ten minutes, I’d hate to see what the “small circle” looked like.

But this guy was not done yet. I handed him two 500 rupee bills, and he made a joke about the horse needed 200 rupees, then smiled and did nothing. I asked for my change. He smiled some more, said some more stuff about how good the horse was and did nothing. I demanded my change. He finally fished through his pockets and said he only had a 100 rupee bill to give me. I held my ground. After about two minutes of excuses, he finally emptied his pockets and gave me an extra 70 rupee in 10 rupee notes. I rolled my eyes and took it, accepting the fraudulent loss of my fifty cents.

I vowed to myself that the horseback riding would be my only dumb purchase of India. Or at least of Calcutta.

The Raj redux

Finally I arrived at the Queen Victoria Memorial. Whatever other bad things I said about Calcutta cannot change that the Memorial is spectacular. It looks like a mini-Taj Mahal in a multi-acre English garden. It consists of a large central dome with four squares extending outwards. The whole building is made of sparkling white marble. Facing one side is a large artificial lake. Another side has a statue of one of the British kings on horseback atop a small arch. Surrounding the rest of the Memorial are straight walking paths shaded by flowering trees. It really is beautiful.

Within the Memorial is some artifacts and paintings from the days of British rule. It’s a bit odd that it’s all in the spirit of how wonderful the British Empire was. There are transcriptions on the walls from Victoria’s speeches about how great of a subject India is and how it will always be protected by glorious Britain. I doubt I’ll find the same sentiment throughout the rest of India.

Queen Victoria and her most fervent Indian admirer

I left the Memorial and continued walking north to find something called the Command Museum. This turned out to be a bad move. I was trapped amongst a bunch of massive, long, straight avenues with nothing to see for well over a mile. One thing I did see was a horse eerily still in the middle of one of the avenues, holding his back leg up. There was no one on or near the horse and it just stood there as cars weaved around it. It was not a great day for me and animals.

While I stood by the side of the road worrying about the horse, a car pulled over on the opposite side of the road. The driver got out, urinated against a tree, got back in his car, and drove away.

I got tired of walking around and opted to get a taxi. Taxis completely flood the streets of Calcutta, and they all look like charming yellow cars from the 1950s, though I can’t really describe why. Maybe it’s the raised hood.

I stood at a roundabout near a military base where four other guys were also trying to get a taxi. Three guys were clumped ahead of me, while the forth was twenty feet behind me. In one of the weirder moments of the trip so far, a taxi slowed down to approach the three guys in front of me, but then the driver spotted me, so he sped up and blew right past the three guys to pick me up. I told the driver to take me to New Market, where my hotel was located and he told me to get in. Twenty feet later, the fourth guy stopped the taxi and said something in Bengali. The driver told him to get in, so he went along for the ride.

I made a bit of small talk with the new passenger for five minutes until he said goodbye and got out of the cab. He didn’t pay the driver anything, so I guess I ended up covering his ride.

My twenty minute ride ended up costing me 107 rupee ($1.72) which was a great deal. Unfortunately, I didn’t know exactly where my hotel was within New Market (taxis don’t know addresses or minor streets) so I got dropped off in front of one of the hollowed-out English beauties and wandered the area. In possibly my proudest moment of the trip so far, I used bits and pieces of what I remembered from last night to trace my way back to the hotel.

After resting for an hour I set out to explore New Market. I’ve loved markets ever since I went to my first one in Italy. There really isn’t anything like them in the US. I guess flea markets come the closest, but they could never capture the hectic energy of the markets in Istanbul, China, and the rest of India.

For the most part, New Market is nothing special. It’s filled with shoes, cloth, luggage, t-shirts and hand bags. Most of the goods are absurdly cheap, but I don’t really need a $5 pair of jeans right now.

While walking down one of the stall-filled sidewalks, I spotted a sign which read “Wine and Luggage.” Curious, I entered the store. I don’t know what I suggested, but the sign was honest. Half of the shelf space was devoted to wine, and the other half to luggage. Enough said.

I had hoped to dodge one of the biggest annoyances in Southeast Asia, but it appeared here in spades. Unbeknownst to me, I am everyone’s friend in New Market. Or at least that was the impression I got since I was constantly harassed by people saying “Hey friend,” “Friend, look over here,” “You need silk, friend?,” etc.

These guys deeply offend me on a personal level because they prey on cultural differences. I, like pretty much everyone in the West, was brought up my entire life to be respectful to other people. If someone in the US approaches me and says, “excuse me, sir,” I will turn and hear him out. If what the person says doesn’t interest me, I will inform him politely and turn away.

These predators know this, or at least have figured it out heuristically. Every time one of these guys approaches me in the market and says, “excuse me, sir,” my instincts are to give him my attention. If I hadn’t already gone through this nonsense hundreds of other times in numerous countries, I would doubtlessly be sucked into their game. Once they’ve got a person, they invite you over to their stall and try to sell you something. This would be harmless, accept they don’t take no for an answer. They will endlessly throw pitches and products at you knowing full well that it’s awkward for a Westerner to turn away from a person talking because that is considered to be very rude back home.

I’ve seen this work on other tourists, and arguably it worked on me at first. These days it truly angers it me. It is a low-life, borderline coercive tactic designed to get money out of unsuspecting tourists by making them uncomfortable.

Anyway, I also spotted a random cow walking around the market. It had a collar on, but no one was nearby to claim it. So I just walked side by side with a cow down a road in India. He should count himself lucky that he wasn’t made into one of my beloved cheeseburgers.

I can add pigeon to my list of dead animals today. Add a rat to my list of live ones.

Katie, Holi, Kip, and the girl who got away

Finally, the night ended with a bit of excitement. I was at the edge of New Market in a somewhat swanky part of town as denoted by the presence of McDonald’s and Au Bon Pain, when I came across a crowd of people blocking the side walk. I walked on the street alongside the area the crowd was looking into, and saw a guy in a Hurt Locker-style bomb disposal suit looking at a closed brief case. Maybe this was a dumb move, but I took out my camera and got a few shots as he opened the suitcase rather than take cover.

Nothing exploded. The suitcase had no bomb in it. The guy took off his helmet and started talking to some cops. A helpful bystander explained to me that someone found a random suitcase lying on the sidewalk and called the bomb squad. Much ado about nothing. Unlike Dhaka.

One thing today has made me realize is that Calcutta is not a very walkable city. It is massive, sprawling, and the landmarks are too spread out. Given how cheap the taxis are, I’m going to be relying on them over the next few days.

I wrote that last part a few hours ago, evidently the day did not end with a fake bomb scare. I’m currently sitting in my hotel room covered in powdered dye. I got off what I could, but the grumpy hotel manager got mad at me for wasting water, so I’ll have to remove the rest tomorrow. But that’s completely pointless since even more will take its place. I’ll start all over again.

At 9 PM I was sitting in my hotel room when I heard some drums outside. It was that fast, tribal music, far too loud and out of place to be some random street performer. I walked outside and found a crowd gathered around an unlit bonfire in the middle of the street. The following two hours were a blur of color, dancing, and random people wanting to take pictures of me.

I didn’t plan this, but apparently I am in Bangladesh during “Holi,” a Bangladeshi holiday to commemorate the dead. The festival basically consists of dancing around a bonfire while people cover each other with brightly colored powder. At its height, I had a blue neck, red cheeks, and blue lines on my cheeks and forehead.

Because my hotel is on a major hotel and hostel street, there were plenty of white people mixed in with the Bangladeshis and Indians around the bonfire. There was lots of picture taking going on back and forth between the groups, yet, due to my paleness and blondeness, I still got a disproportionate amount of attention. One random white tourist sarcastically asked if I was a celebrity.

I ended up meeting a lot of new people. First, there was Katie, a Minnesotan studying in Calcutta who was currently hosting her own family. Then there was a big Bangladeshi guy and a scrawny Indian guy whose names I’ve since forgotten. Next was a group of Indian children roughly aged from 8 to 13. Finally, there was Kip, a Bangladeshi businessmen roughly 25 years of age.

Katie told me what was going on with the dancing and the bonfire. She is a theology and gender’s studies major from a small college in Minnesota. She also told me there was an even larger festival tomorrow on this very street which I absolutely had to come out to. I am going to be covered by colored powder from head to toe. That seemed like slightly more fun than seeing Mother Theresa’s leper house, so I agreed. She then invited me to attend the festival with her friends tomorrow, so that is the current game plan.

The big Bangladeshi guy took a selfie with me and then asked for my name so he could friend me on Facebook and share it with me (I gave him my real name). He was extremely impressed that I had been to Dhaka and just thought it was the coolest thing for an American to do.

The scrawny Indian guy kept asking me about the Freedom Tower in New York for some reason. I asked him if he had been to New York, and he said he hadn’t.

The Indian children were a blast. They danced with the white girls, ran around the fire, and then covered everyone with paint. For some reason this group took a special liking to me. It might have been because I was the youngest white guy in the crowd. They all kept saying something to me which I couldn’t understand. After about a minute, I finally made out the word, “Wrestlemania.” I said, “wrestling, WWE, John Cena, Undertaker, Triple H,” as I struggled to think of every wrestling fact I knew. Their eyes lit up and they started yelling more wrestling things with joy. They got into a mini fun argument over who was the best wrestler while I smiled and agreed with whoever asked me my opinion.

At one point, a pretty tourist girl walked by and one of the kids asked me if I knew her. I said I didn’t. He immediately grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her: “I introduce you, you meet her.” I smiled and thanked them but tried to stop them. They were very adamant about their intentions but I repeatedly tried to laugh myself out of the situation. Finally, I told the oldest kid, “maybe tomorrow” and he was content.*

Friend, if you’d gotten some silk, you’d have gotten the girl, too. But imperialists never listen. 

Kip speaks English better than any other Bangladeshi I’ve met. He’s a good looking guy with shoulder length hair and wild look in his eye. He was also impressed by my visit to Dhaka and we discussed at length where in Dhaka I stayed and where he lived. Eventually, Kip invited me to have drinks with him, a strange sentiment from a presumably Muslim Bangladeshi. I stood outside his nearby hotel with Kip and one of his friends and we drank orange juice with vodka (I explained to them that it was called a screwdriver). I asked Kip how much he drank at home, and he got this daring look on his face and said, “never.” Then he took another sip of his watered down screwdriver and flinched like a gunshot had gone off two inches away from his ear.

Kip desperately wanted to go to America, and even had an uncle living in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the US government had blocked his tourist visa request (I didn’t ask why), so he said a work or education visa were almost certainly out of the question.

I exchanged contact information with Kip and then he asked if I wanted to do the festival with him tomorrow. I told him I was meeting another group but invited them to join. I hope I wasn’t being to presumptuous towards Katie, but this whole festival sounds like total chaos so I doubt it will matter.

*Editor’s note: WTF? See photo caption above.

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).