Extracts of draft chapter for book
I arrived at Kolkata airport at one am. I had a minor hiccup at immigration with not having the full address of the guesthouse- I hadn’t picked up my husband’s text- and then I was through.
I saw my husband outside and headed out, he wasn’t where I thought he’d be as he had walked to meet me. We had a big hug. It felt slightly surreal, us both being tired from our journeys, and the fact that one day I’m in Japan and he’s in Cambodia and then the next we’re back in India together. It’s such a miracle, travelling.
It still felt warm, even at one am. There was a kiosk open over the road; my husband had been there earlier, when he’d arrived. I got food but wasn’t really hungry; I felt wired, kind of fatigued but not feeling sleepy. There was a steep bank and steps on the same side as the kiosk, with lots of people sitting with suitcases and people laying and sleeping on the steps. We met up with my husband’s Uber driver, and then we were off.
My first impression of Kolkata, which surprised me, was lots of bright lights. A strip of blue lights on the road, very snazzy, and big smart brightly lit buildings; including one which in my sleep-deprived state I thought said ‘Government Enlightenment Institute,’ (was actually Engineering.)
I’d forgotten about the signs- only in India- ‘Give blood but not on the road.’
Then we came to run down buildings, then very run down, I saw a thin cow eating out of garbage, and nearer our guesthouse lots of people sleeping outside, and cycle rickshaws. People were asleep on the top of taxis and just on the pavement in the open.
Our guesthouse was a beautiful grand old building with marble stairs and lots of wrought iron. One of the staff had stayed up to let us in.
Our room was big with two fans and one double, one single bed. It was clean enough although it smelled a bit musty. I saw tendrils of mould growing under the beds, from the floor up the wall a good few inches, like thick embossed wallpaper in the shape of knobbly little trees.
There was a shared bathroom with a padlock and a key, ‘No one much else about though,’ my husband said. The bathroom had blue dolphin tiles on the wall, and an orange bucket. It reminded me of my old bathroom in my house before last, which also had blue dolphin tiles, and orange walls the same colour as the bucket.
The room was very hot, and the wet from the shower was quickly replaced by the wet of sweat in minutes. We spent most of the time covered in a layer of sweat, which was especially itchy at the back of the knees. One window was broken in places, there was no mosquito mesh so we had to be careful with opening the shutters and windows.
It was a big room so I could do stretches, vs Tokyo where I could only do a few stretches at the wash basins, if there was no one about.
When we went out, my husband told me to look out for the bumps in the road, like invisible sleeping policemen, that would otherwise trip you up. There were hand and bicycle rickshaws on the corner near our guesthouse. The rickshaw drivers offered once but were not pushy.
We got a bicycle rickshaw to Sudder Street, which is meant to be the backpacker area. Watching a man’s sweat and muscles take us along was a challenge to my natural sensitivities and conditioning. But a bicycle rickshaw was a great way to experience the narrow streets. The view was super sensory overload, so busy, loads of tiny shops, birds nests of wires, again; and meat, ‘Don’t look right, look straight ahead,’ my husband said a couple of times. He said I looked like a rabbit in the headlights. ‘Maybe something easier would have been better for my day of return,’ I said. ‘I don’t think there is anything easier,’ he said.
Sudder Street was very busy and crowded, there was a long street market, with stalls selling cotton Indian dresses, cheap scarfs, piles of thin bright coloured Indian women’s trousers, and lots of Indian people shopping.
Then we were almost caught up in a huge queue, which we found out was going into a new shopping centre with an opening day sale. It was not flashy, it looked like a 1980s UK shopping centre. We wanted to say, No no no don’t do it, but that’s not how it works, as my husband says, everyone’s got to experience it for themselves, it’s no good us who have had it all telling people who haven’t not to bother (with capitalism, consumerism, and stuff.)
There didn’t seem to be anything in between chicken sticks and street food, and posh restaurants. We went into a restaurant, posher than we’d normally go to, inside it looked more like a bar or a nightclub, and ate veg curry, rice and dal.
It was too hot to do more, so we walked through the crowds and negotiated a cab out of there. I was amazed that my husband had been to Sudder Street already; he’d arrived a few hours before me and gone to look for a different guesthouse, as ours wasn’t really near food etc., but he said the rooms he looked at were horrible; damp, and expensive. Plus Sudder street was crazy, as I saw for myself; I didn’t mind not staying there.
We found somewhere within walking distance for dinner, again, posher than we’d normally go. I noticed white rabbits around in the form of bins, one grey with dust and age, one almost white. In the restaurant area, which was opposite a market and where festival preparations were taking place, a man said, ‘Hello,’ and ‘Welcome.’
At the table next to ours was an Indian woman unselfconsciously taking tens of selfies while waiting for her food.
On the walk from the restaurant to our guesthouse we passed little houses on the pavements, proper homes with cooking set ups outside, a community with neighbours, and people washing at standpipes.
We went out to get my thyroid medication, we searched online for a good pharmacy and then went looking on foot, without breakfast. We ended up going a long time without food or drink in the heat, a mistake again like our first day in Chennai. The fourth pharmacist was able to help and I bought a three month supply to last the rest of the trip. The pharmacist asked what we did for a living back home, ‘We’re in the same business,’ he said.
Tokyo to Kolkata was SUCH a shock to the system. Walking down the main road it was so busy, with lots of people asking us for money, children following and tugging on our sleeves, young women and girls saying hi. If we stopped still for a moment we got approached. We reached a big junction, decided the idea of crossing was too crazy and turned back. There were pavement dwellers right on the main road, right by the pollution from the road; so many people, my heart did swell up a little.
We didn’t have anywhere like Chennai with our chai stall, our coffee stall, our juice bar, our breakfast cafe and our restaurant for the evening, (plus loads of other options available), all of which had been found within the first twenty-four hours, but in spite of the lack of food, I was happy with our area.
The buildings epitomised the descriptive phrase ‘faded grandeur.’ One with newly painted shiny maroon shutters stood out. The details of the buildings were still there, the coving, the arches; now black and white, now sepia, but when new… Grey houses made colourful with washing. A mosque, beside it a pile of rubble and a derelict street.
We found a soda place to sit and have a drink, next to it there was a tiny shop packed with hair products, dyes, jewellery; I bought two pairs of sparkly earrings.
In the street were chickens, cats, white and coloured, and thin dogs.
We passed two Indian tourists, smartly dressed with smart luggage, stood looking like they had arrived in the wrong part of town.
Near the market I saw an underwear advert on a post. The model was voluptuous by Western standards, soft and with a tummy. Seeing underwear pictures and pretty underwear on open display made it feel easy to buy, and the stalls had both men and women serving. I hadn’t seen knickers for sale very often, let alone any suitable. Here, I pointed to my hips and asked if they had anything to fit. I bought two pairs of 100% cotton knickers, and they fitted perfectly.
Our train to Varanasi was overnight so we arranged to keep the room for the day so we could hang about and rest there before going to the station.
I looked again at the mould tendrils under the bed. It wasn’t actual mould like embossed wallpaper, it had been cleaned, and just the marks were left.
Thank you very much for reading
About the author
Sold house left job decluttered almost everything else. With husband went travelling for a year, mostly in India. Here are my India highlights. Currently in Vietnam. Returning to the UK in four weeks to live on a narrowboat. Writing a book about everything…