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ASIA & CHINA - THE "KEEP ON SMILING" TOUR

CALCUTTA

"COMMANDO AND A CRICKET MATCH"

Calcutta Postcard

Back in Kathmandu, as direct flights to Bangkok were too expensive, it was a quandary as to how I was going to get out of Nepal and make my return to south-east Asia. I eventually 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 12 years ago. Through Turkey, Iran and Pakistan I had been impended from further overland progress by Myanmar and then ‘cheated’ by catching a plane to Bangkok.

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 (through Nepal and China) – if you had plenty of patience and what felt like a life-time to spare.

Now it was time for a 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 in Kathmandu and a total of eight hours of waiting time in queues, my Indian visa was obtained.

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From Kathmandu I took a night bus to the Indian 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 it to the Indian 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.

Riding in the rickshaw, slowly 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 as I continued to look around I noticed all the locals were suffering from malnutrition, old age and a height deficiency. Once I woke up, for them, intimidation in broad daylight was always going to be a struggle. Besides, all my Nepalese rupees had been lost long ago, exchanged for USD while I was still 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.

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 (intimidation in a uniform and the possibility of having my Indian visa revoked).

The third obstacle was finding the train station, which was achieved with the help of the rickshaw driver.

The fourth obstacle was getting rid of the rickshaw driver. This was achieved with a small payment.

I then just had to get to the ATM a short distance into town, withdraw some Indian rupees and wait two hours for the train to depart.

Easy enough until…leaving the train station, heading towards the ATM, I found the Nepalese rickshaw driver was replaced by a younger Indian aspirant, following me every inch of the way, detours included.

I could not shake him off - rude, polite or pleading it did not matter - and as I was planning to withdraw cash I wanted privacy.

In the end it did not matter – the ATM was not working and the bank was not due to open its doors until the train had long departed.

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

I was trapped, not able to leave the train station for fear of been trailed by the Indian rickshaw driver and not able to walk around the train station due to the persistence of the five children beggars.

It had been a long morning.

I looked at the five children beggars, offering them no hope of reward for our collective pain and their persistence.

Just a few words of commentary on the current state of affairs...

“At the moment you probably 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's 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 sleepers to lend a helping hand to start the beast and we then drove like maniacs through the empty streets, across the Howrah Bridge and into the tourist district where I had stayed 12 years previously.

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

Perhaps, in the intervening 12 years, the tourist district had changed its location within the city.

Needless to say everything was still 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 that one day I would like to watch a cricket match there.

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

Outside the ground police were standing everywhere, long bamboo sticks at the ready, waiting for the occasion.

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

Victoria Memorial
Victoria Memorial

At the end of the day's play 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 could not be really bothered but as the conversation had already started and then developed, he pointed to a young couple. He went on to state 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 five children beggars at the Indian border train station the previous morning, standing in front of me with their hands outstretched.

“India is the country with the most millionaires in the world...”

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