I was starving waiting to board my little puddle jumper to Kolkata with no food options in sight. As this was a budget airline my faith in the on board food offerings was not high. Wouldn't you know they served sandwiches, samosas and chips. I had a lovely snack of samosas and chips and bottle of water for about $1.25. Saved! The plane landed safely and as I was waiting for my bags to come out a man came over and asked if I was Sanyu. Yikes. A bit apprehensive art first, this was my brother's friend Angsuman. As proof he was waving my Chinese visa application which I had had delivered to his house. Apparently due to the high oil prices there was a shutdown of all vehicles powered by gas except trains and subways. He knew I'd have trouble getting into town so he came all the was to the airport to give me a hand. What a star!
After a bit of negotiating, we hopped into a a real human powered rickshaw to a train station where we took a train to the subway and the subway onto downtown. He wouldn't let me pay for everything and talked to me about Kolkata's politics and history. He walked me to the Sudder St area where there are lots of budget hotels. I wasn't too keen to stay in a dorm again but the Salvation Army was the first hotel we passed. It was starting to rain and he needed to go so I figured I'd chance it again. Poor Angsuman. I think he was a bit hesitant about leaving me there. Probably if a friend of my brother's came to town and asked my to drop them at the Salvation Army, I'd be a little shocked too! I was put into a room with 5 girls from around the world all volunteering at the Mother Teresa's Mission. Usually you can only stay at the Salvation Army for a week at a time but most had been there for weeks and one for nine months. They were nice but not overly friendly. Fair enough as I was just breezing through town for 2 days.
The Salvation Army is in a small area called Chowringhee which caters to expats volunteering in Kolkata. There were lots of small restaurants serving westernized dishes and lots of juice places. I grabbed a quick diner and when I got back around 10pm the girls were all tucking into bed. I found out why in the morning as their alarm clocks started ringing at 5am. By 9am when my alarm went off, they were all gone. I had some breakfast and walked around the open market near the hostel. It started to rain pretty heavily around 11am so I tucked into the first showing of Batman Begins and caught up on some email. I got an email from Masoom, the head ringleader for all the girls in my dorm at the Salvation Army back in Mumbai. Before I had left, a girl Fiona had lost all the money she had just changed, about $100. Well after I left, more of Fiona's money disappeared along with her camera. The police were called. Eventually they found out it was one of the girls in the dorm. O Scandal! Sounds like it was crazy! I'm so glad I wasn't there.
By the time I got out of the movie it had cleared up pretty well so I headed off to Mother Teresa's Mission. I haven't been giving people on the street money so it felt good to donate a little something to the Mission. I walked out past a big shanty town, most places just sheets of blue tarp propped up on sticks. I passed by some butcher shops and vowed not to eat meat for the rest of my time in India. It was getting a bit drizzly so I quickly toured the Church of St Thomas and took in the English showing at the Planetarium. The woman speaking had such a strong Indian accent I didn't make out much but it was fun to lie back in the dark watching the stars. I hit my favorite juice place and hit the hay.
My last day in Kolkata was crazy. I didn't get up early enough and had to push to try and see 2 Jain temples before they closed for lunch. The first one was a gorgeous brick red set back behind a large pool and garden. It was very serene. I jumped in a cab to try and make it the next one but my cab driver didn't seem to understand my directions. He jumped out of the cab and took my Lonely Planet guide to a worker at a shelter. I was annoyed at first because he was causing me time I didn't have but then I realized that he couldn't read and was trying to get spoken directions from the worker. Well, it was my own fault for starting out so late so I just resigned myself to seeing the outside of the temple. The cab driver started crossing the river and I knew he was lost. I got out and decided to hoof it. After about 20 minutes walking around slums I gave up and headed for the nearest metro station. Wouldn't cha know it. I ran right into it! It was closed but I took a chance and went and begged at the door as they were letting someone out. I got in! I'm so glad because it was an amazing temple inside with marble, mirrors and colored glass all around. It does drive me crazy though that at the most beautiful places you're not allowed to take pictures;(
As I left I was asked for a donation. I think I gave too much because the man decided to take me around to 3 more closed temples and at each one he would get the security people to open the locked gates. I paid quite a few donations for this privilege and for his services but I had a great time and in the end I was only about $6.00 lighter. I found my way to the subway and back to Sudder street. I stuffed myself with vegetable dumplings and finally decided that i was definitely not going to try and make my way to Kathmandu. I heard some scary things on BBC world about reporters there and the Canadian government is advising against travel there. I found a train that will take me straight back from Darjeeling to Varanasi without having to stop in Kolkata for the day so I decided to try and get to see the 3 last sites which I had been saving.
The Victoria Memorial is so grand and regal it's a shocking site in the middle of Kolkata. The atrium inside must be 100 feet up in the center and there's a great museum explaining the British history in India with paintings, uniforms, weapons and statues. I jumped in a cab to head to the botanical gardens to check out the second oldest banyan tree known to be still living. It was a bit of a bust because Indian versions of botanical gardens are mostly overgrown forests. I looked and I looked but I couldn't find it. It was a nice walk anyway. My last stop was at the Kain Temple. There were lots of flower leis for sale to bring in to offer up. Lots of men saying they were Brahmans offered to help me but I think they were just faux guides trying to get a little baksheesh. I got pulled in to the temple. A man in there said some words I didn't understand, touched my head and then asked for a donation. I tried to give some change but he wanted big bills. Oh well, I guess I'm damned. I hurried back to the Salvation Army to pack and have one last juice from my juice guy. I had to wander a couple blocks away from the hotels to find a taxi willing to use his meter rather than rip me off. As I settled into my first class air conditioned bunk and ate some chips I saw a cockroach on the bunk opposite me meandering around. I looked down at my sheet and the chip crumbs spattered around, I held my breath and prayed. Living the good life!
Happy Canada Day!