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ASIA & CHINA - THE "KEEP ON SMILING" TOUR

Calcutta Postcard

CALCUTTA

"COMMANDO AND A CRICKET MATCH"

Back in Kathmandu, it had been a quandary as to how to get out of Nepal and make my return to south-east Asia.

As direct flights to Bangkok were too expensive I decided to make my way overland to Calcutta and then fly to Bangkok from there.

Calcutta was the city where I had basically finished my overland trip from London, through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan, 12 years ago.

Returning to Calcutta would be a ceremonial joining of the dots; prove you could take the long way and travel from London to Bangkok overland – if you had plenty of patience and what felt like a life-time to spare.

Question – Why are you given a two-month visa when you visit Nepal?

Answer – So you have enough time to get an Indian visa.

After countless visits to the Indian Embassy and a total of eight hours of waiting time in queues, my Indian visa was obtained.

******

From Kathmandu I took a night bus to the border, along a bumpy road that led to a fit-fall sleep through the long, breezy night.

At 6am I was awoken by a commanding voice standing over me.

The bus was sitting stationary, as though it had come to the end of the road. The commanding voice told me to quickly gather my belongings, get off the bus and follow. Otherwise I would not make the border in-time.

In commando fatigue I followed; the commanding voice continually telling me to hurry ... until 200 metres later I stood before a waiting rickshaw.

Suddenly the commanding voice did not sound so authoritative.

I looked down at the waiting rickshaw, the early-morning adrenaline shock seeping from my veins, causing my entire body to slump.

With no blood pumping towards my heart, I climbed into the waiting rickshaw and agreed to his offered services – a ride of 3 kilometres to the hotel where I had been told to pick up my waiting train ticket, purchased from a travel agency in Kathmandu.

Awakening, I noticed I was in a border town of donkey carts and two-bit sharks – sharks waiting and scheming of tricks to play on the tired or unsuspecting tourist, all alone, with nothing or nobody to lean upon.

Intimidation - they wanted the last of my Nepalese rupees.

But my Nepalese rupees had been lost long ago, exchanged while I was in Kathmandu.

So when the hotel attendant with my train ticket asked for a commission, in addition to the service charge I had paid to the Kathmandu travel agency, I told him to go through the official formal channels i.e. get it off the Kathmandu travel agency.

Then I was back on the rickshaw, heading closer towards the train station located on the Indian side of the Nepalese-Indian border, with just a few obstacles still in the way.

Number one obstacle was convincing the rickshaw driver I had no need for the services of a currency exchange. Instead he unwittingly informed me there were actually ATMs in India – with one such ATM just across the border.

You may consider such a statement bizarre…of course there are ATMs in India but you obviously have not been reading thoroughly.

Number two obstacle was getting through Nepalese and then Indian customs, achieved with an extra payment made to the Indian border officials for an expense I could not fathom.

The third obstacle was finding the train station, achieved with the help of the rickshaw driver, and the fourth obstacle was getting rid of the rickshaw driver. This was achieved with a small payment and then I just had to get to the ATM in town, withdraw some Indian rupees and wait two hours for the train to depart.

Easy enough until…leaving the train station and the Nepalese rickshaw driver was replaced by a younger Indian aspirant. I could not leave the train station without the shadow of his rickshaw following me every inch of the way.

If I was rude, polite or pleading it did not matter.

Then within the train station, looking for respite, I was followed my five children beggars.

As I could not get any money from the ATM I informed them “At the moment you have more Indian rupees than me.”

******

man in river with Howrah Bridge in background
Calcutta sunset

The train to Calcutta was a sleeper; relative luxury after my morning escapades.

Passing through the flat plains of the Indian landscape, the train arrived in Calcutta at the ungodly hour of 4am, sleeping people littering the train station concrete floor.

Calcutta old car

I woke up a taxi driver and asked for his services but his taxi was asleep and could not start. Until he got one of his fellow conspirators to lend a hand and we drove like maniacs through the empty streets, across the Howrah Bridge and into the tourist district I had stayed 12 years previously.

Early morning or not, to my disappointment, I did not recognise a thing.

Perhaps the tourist district had changed its location within the city.

Needless to say everything was run-down and all accommodation was relatively expensive. I ended up paying for a room with bed sheets that looked like they had never been cleaned and the company of a rat in the drain pipes of the shower.

Calcutta taxi cars

But at least I had made it to Calcutta on time – for day four of the five day Test cricket match between India and Pakistan at the famous Eden Gardens cricket ground, a short walk away.

12 years ago I had stood outside an empty Eden Gardens and thought I would like to watch a cricket match there one day.

And today was that day and it had only taken me 40 hours of travel from Kathmandu to get here.

Police were standing everywhere, long bamboo sticks at the ready, waiting for the occasion.

But it never arrived; the match heading for the inevitable tame draw, the biggest applause reverberating whenever Sachin Tendulkar fielded the ball.

Victoria Memorial
Victoria Memorial

At the end of the day I walked to Victoria Garden, with its large Victoria Memorial building dedicated to the memory of Queen Victoria. Sitting down on a park bench I was approached by a young Indian male, in his early twenties, wanting to practice his English.

I couldn’t really be bothered but as the conversation developed he pointed to a young couple, stating that as they are obviously not married they should not be together and that if the couple were seen together in his village the elders would kill them.

It all sounded a bit extreme…but then I suppose that is India.

As I had said to the children beggars at the Indian border train station the previous day.

“India has the most millionaires in the world so ask your government to tax them for your money.”

Test cricket at Eden Gardens
Test cricket at Eden Gardens
Test cricket at Eden Gardens
Test cricket at Eden Gardens