Forget the spiritual legacy of India, the exotic incense and spices, the ethereal music and "Incredible India" images seen worldwide in the BBC commercials. Calcutta is none of that and definitely is not the best place to see the country's charming side! I should have known better, but hope springs eternal and my Thai advisers insisted Kolkata would be the best place to make overland arrangements for a visit to Bhutan.
Focused on Bhutan, I overlooked the fact that stopping in Calcutta to finalize ground transport arrangements would require a new Indian visa and the Druk Air check-in agents refused to let me board the flight on November first! So, retracing my steps back into the city I immediately walked over to the Indian Consulate and learned my six month multiple entry visa would take a full five working days to process. A week and a half later the first available Druk Air flight required leaving the hotel before dawn. Cabs parked in front of the hotel at 4AM eagerly vied for the privilege of making the $8 predawn 25 minute run to the airport.
With every seat occupied and the stewardesses overworked passing out meals, I am sure we were all glad the flight only took two hours. Arriving at 8AM in Kolkata has its benefits. With plenty of time to find a way into the city I decided to check out the recently completed high speed airport rail link. The train station about a block from the arrival terminal appeared completely deserted! The modern train link has been kept a state secret. With no signs to inform passengers and only two daily scheduled runs into the city, it is next to impossible for anyone to find or use the service! An investigative reporter for the Kolkata Times speculated corrupt officials were the culprits, but I suspect inept management is an equally likely explanation.
Declining to engage in deliberately confusing negotiations with the enormous swarm of waiting taxis and their obnoxious touts, off I walked in the direction of city. These walks are always educational. I love watching the incredulous looks which greet my explanations for declining to do what most sensible foreign travelers do upon arriving in a strange city. Away from the crafty creatures preying on unwary foreign travelers one discovers a cross section of humanity and activities more representative of reality. Clogged streets full of over crowded rattletrap buses vying with every imaginable form of other transport provided an opportunity to watch the determination with which drivers attempt to be first to squeeze into each tiny traffic gap, horns blasting long and loud to underscore the driver's irritated impatience.
Hoards of dirty denizens crowded the narrow unpaved shoulders as I started my dusty twenty kilometer hike down the highway toward the center of the city. After walking about ten kilometers away from the airport I decided to risk a cab ride to the nearest Metro station. The driver who stopped indicated he would use the meter to establish the fare, but wanting to avoid any opportunity for a misunderstanding I showed him a 100 Rs bill (about $2.20), without any idea what the fare should be. He wobbled his head "yes" and I climbed in. Traffic jams consumed most of the half hour ride, though the driver skillfully maneuvered his car through a maze of side streets and back alleys finally coming to a stop at the obscure entrance to a Metro station. Dark, damp and dirty I plunged into the underground and found the ticket booth. About nine cents got me a ticket to the Park Crossing station where I remembered seeing some of the good hotels on a previous trip. Nothing has changed with the subway system: the old cars are just older and dirtier; the misaligned rails still guarantee a bumpy rocking ride; the station announcements still contain unintelligible English segments designed to confuse rather than inform. But, it is by far the fastest way into the city and local residents good naturedly tolerate what to a foreign visitor is an intolerable aggravation.
Emerging from the motorized catacombs into the city proper, pedestrian sidewalks serving as temporary abodes for the country's poorest don't make progress any easier. Sections with missing tiles or open excavation trenches compete with reckless walkway motorcycle riders who challenge walkers for the right of way. At one point a spread out blanket served as a crib for a tiny emaciated baby crying on the concrete, its parents busy nearby preparing the family's meal of rice and weeds. Rickshaws pulled by skinny barefoot men in rags, pathetic rusty pedicabs powered by scrawny screaming drivers, dilapidated yellow taxicabs sounding their horns in irritation make perambulation slow, hazardous and problematic for any but those who have become oblivious to the jostling confusion.
Spitting, though now against the law is ubiquitous. A good many people still chew betlenut and make an art of distance spitting the red juice produced. Air is full of dust producing a disgusting black discharge every time I blow my nose. Tradesmen carry their heavy tools in canvas bags which they swing side to side as they walk down the crowded sidewalks, too often banging the massive clubs into other pedestrians... including me on one occasion. Smelly uncovered sewers and blackened walls serving as open air urinals remain an unpleasant reminder that Kolkata has a long way to go before it will be ready for finicky First World tourists. Generally, I am not finicky. This time my tolerance for sensory insults finally met its limits.
All of the city street maps I found contained gross inaccuracies: missing or wrong street names and multi-word names with strange unpronounceable spellings made locating any address in the city a challenge. Street signs where they exist at all are difficult to recognize. Most are provided by advertisers with the incidental addition of street names somewhere on the display. Fortunately, buildings are often identified with the addresses spelled out in full or visitors would be perpetually lost! To make matters even more confusing, long streets will have different names at different locations along the way. People never refused to give directions when I got lost: and, every direction turned out to be wrong... or misunderstood. Pronounced with whimsical intonations, "You go second left turning..." and other equally incomprehensible sentence constructions guaranteed adventure during every attempt to navigate the warren of twisting, turning short alleyways and interrupted boulevards.
Finding all the good value hotels fully booked after hours of searching, necessity forced me into a series of over priced four star establishments. At $175, the Peerless Inn might fetch $60 in Bangkok and the $120 Senator Hotel would be hard pressed to compete with a good Motel 6 in America. Both establishments employed as many security personnel as service staff, including a contingent of khaki clad government guards armed with automatic weapons loitering inconspicuously near the entrances. Disheartened and ready to escape the misnamed "City of Joy" I started looking into a quick way out.
Then, very near the so-called "New Market" I spotted what actually turned out to be a quite good hotel... and affordable. I had been avoiding this area frequented by tourists and the obnoxious smooth talking touts who accost every new foreign face, but finally curiosity got the better of me and I made inquiries. Good thing, too because here I discovered the excellent $62 Lytton Hotel... with no rooms available! The accommodating receptionist said she thought there might be a room available later and would know in a couple hours. So, I camped out in the lobby waiting for one to become available. Good fortune emerged from the surrounding slime and I actually enjoyed my last twenty-four hours in a city justly described as the "Cesspool of Asia." So much for "Incredible India." In my opinion, the only thing incredible in this Indian city is the filth and confusion! Arrangements for the exploration of Bhutan can await another time, another place.
Fred L Bellomy