First of all, if you haven’t read about our flight into India, you should. It was entertaining to say the least.
Our arrival into Kolkata (from Bangkok) was a little rough around the edges. We spent a night sleeping in the airport in an attempt to avoid any serious misgoings that may have occurred to us trying to find a guesthouse in a foreign place in the middle of the night, and also so that we could prepare ourselves for the madness that was sure to be awaiting us. Not that it made a hell of a difference though, as we were still incredibly shell shocked when we made it downtown and were swamped by a ridiculous number of touts, beggars, and rickshaw runners. And hunger did not help the situation. I am not happy when I am hungry.
We spent a couple of days in Kolkata getting our bearings and organising train tickets onwards to Darjeeling. Which, may I add was no mean feat. In our naivety, we left our guesthouse in the morning with the grand plan of walking across town, buying our train tickets, and being back in time for the 12pm check-out. Not only was it a mission to navigate the streets to get to the bridge – a marvel in itself as over two million people traverse it everyday – but when we arrived at the station there was no obvious place for us to buy our tickets. We were shuffled around numerous offices by helpful staff until someone was able to explain to us that we needed to go to the foreign office back across town.
We ticked off a number of firsts in the next few days: drank chai on the side of the road (just a shot in reality, and not big at all), marvelled at people (but didn’t try ourselves) eating meals with their hands (only the right in reality), made friends with some locals (they were drug dealers), managed to cross busy roads like locals (although, I was shitting myself), ate butter paneer masala (turns out butter chicken does actually exist in India), drank lassis, and got ripped off (Angelo spending $3 on a shave instead of 40c – still not breaking the bank).
We spent all the next day filling in time before our evening train, wandering the city in search of cheap attractions. We found ourselves at the Victoria Memorial Hall but were a little dismayed by the sign saying: Indian Nationals – ₹10 (20c), Foreign – ₹150 ($3) – a notion that would become a daily part of Indian sightseeing. Even though I understand that we earn a lot more money than many Indian people, I couldn’t stop thinking about the outcry that would occur if we charged foreigners 15 times the local price to see sights in New Zealand. Anyway, we tried taking a couple of photos from afar and then left briskly as we were getting swamped by locals trying to get their portraits in front of the monument. And by monument, I actually mean us.
We arrived far too early at the train station (5 hours) but as our guesthouse had no common area to sit we didn’t have much choice. The station was so full of people – most of whom I actually imagined were homeless in search of shelter. We approached numerous times by beggars and children after money – one girl even tried coughing on us continuously until a worker shooed her away – and one girl just wanting a photo with us. Watching from a balcony that overlooked the main ticket hall – merely because it was a little out of the way and slightly hidden from the bulk of people – we had the perfect spot to people watch. One of my favourite “India Moments” was watching a homeless man sit up from his sleeping spot on the floor, puke, and then walk away and settle 20m from the evidence. Making no effort to clean it up, we then giggled and cringed at the 15 odd people who couldn’t make out why or what they had just stepped, skidded and fallen over on.
Shuffling our way onto the platform amongst the throngs of people and luggage I was dreading what a second class carriage might look like. We had reserved sleeper beds on the train which meant there were eight people to a compartment (in theory), however, they are all open and so people are constantly moving through and sitting down despite no reservations. Past about 10pm though, we could fold the beds down and sleep. I was awoken well before we arrived by the continuous stream of chai wallahs, hawkers, and beggars that grace the Indian Railway Network. The boys were awoken by a harsh, sharp clapping in their faces – a token sound from the hijras (a third gender group of Asia, who often encourage money from males by embarrassing them with loud noises and displays of genitalia), in their attempts to give blessings and extort money from them. Angelo, in thinking it was someone wanting to sit down made some space, but then was extremely confused to be further pestered by “an ugly man in a dress.”
New Jalpaiguri greeted us in what would become the usual Indian fashion: aggressive rickshaw touts, and I discovered, much to my disappointment that the original British installed Toy Train no longer ran to Darjeeling, thanks to some natural disaster further up the line. Our option was now to squish ourselves into shared jeeps and brave the horrific mountain driving to the hill station town – after a spot of dahl and chapati for breakfast of course…