Monday, 7 March 2011

Kolkata, India

My last stop in north India is Kolkatta. 

Victoria Memorial 

My initial impressions of Kolkata (once spelled Calcutta) stem from a storybook on Mother Teresa that I read in grade school.  In one scene, Mother Teresa kneels in the garbage on the streets of Kolkatta, treating a man with parisitic worms (or was it leprosy?).  The man looks up at Mother Teresa and asks, "Why are you doing this for me?"  She replies, "Because I love you."

This scene has been stuck in my head for 20 years; this is the Kolkata I expect to see.

But the Kolkata I discover is vibrant, growing and, in many ways, western...  The area around the airport reminds me of Miami...on a lazy, tree-lined side street near our hotel, I see New Orleans. 

Javed tells us that it is acceptable to wear singlets in Kolkata, something that he has cautioned us against in every other city in north India.

I promptly don a tank top over my cargo pants and instantly regret it.  Within two seconds I am being hassled by a skinny, 20-something who follows Tatjana and I for two blocks, repeatedly asking us for our phone numbers until we kindly tell him to f*%# off.  A few minutes later, a man at the ATM bumps up against me.  Something about the way he hits my breasts and lingers there for a second makes me think that it is intentional.  It seems like everywhere I look, men are eating me up with their eyes. 

Maybe I am just paranoid or having a bad experience, but, ladies, no matter what your tour guide says, I would save your singlets for southern India.

Does this remind you of the US Capitol Building?

But on to other things...

Kolkata served as the capital of India during the British Raj (name given to period of British colonial rule in South Asia between 1858 and 1947) and it bears many vestiges of British rule, like the Victoria Memorial (above).  Lonely Planet describes the Victoria Memorial (a structure established in 1921 to honor, yes, Queen Victoria) as a mixture between the US Capitol Building and the Taj Mahal.  Architecturally, I can see why.  It is truly lovely inside and out (some maintain that it is prettier than the Taj Mahal, but because it is a British built memorial, India would never openly admit that). 

The Victoria Memorial sits on 64 acres of gardens; there is even a reflecting pond out back.  Around the reflecting pond, I notice a preponderance of young couples holding hands, embracing and generally swooning over one another (just another example of the western influences sweeping Kolkata). 

Sadly, I am now fully battling the respiratory infection and the dirty air in Kolkata seems almost unbearable.  I walk around glumly, hacking every few seconds.  My lungs feel filthy, as though I've just smoked dozens of packs of cigarettes.  A tourist guide I read says that 25% of travelers to India develop a respiratory infection; at least I'm not alone.

The north India portion of our trip is over and some of the people I am traveling with are going home tomorrow; we enjoy a farewell dinner.  I order a chelo kabab, I dish I later learn was imported from Iran.  It's rice with a fried egg on top, ringed by spicy mutton (lamb), chicken and vegetables.  It's like heaven on earth.  It's also the first time I've eaten meat in India.

I expect that my stomach will rebel later; it doesn't.  Once again, I thank my dad for giving me a "steel stomach."  Some other people in my group without steel stomaches have elected to eat the chelo kabab, too.  In the "took took" (Indian name for taxi) on the way home, they are rigid, sweating and steel-faced.  When we reach the hotel, they rush to the toilet.  I, on the other hand, slowly wander inside...coughing.

I suddenly feel grateful.  I'd much rather have a cough than explosive diarrhea or projective vomiting...

I've loved north India more than I could ever imagine loving any place on earth.  But I am tired.  And I am ready for the south.

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