back inside the Indian clown car


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when we arrived at the ever hectic New Jalpaiguri railway station my brain immediately snapped back into Indian busy mode.  we negotiated our way through the train station bureaucracy with maximum efficiency and booked a sleeper headed for Kolkata.  with plenty of time to spare before our train left, Escapo and i entertained an unexpected crowd at a nearby restaurant.

i slept on the train in what seemed like hundreds of ten minute increments.  before we even arrived i was already bracing myself for the impact of the chaos and sensory overload that large Indian cities tend to throw at you, but after spending just a little time there i found the place to be… well… pleasant. not only pleasant, but actually one of the most fascinating places i have ever been.

rickshaw2all the processes necessary to maintain human existence all take place out in the open here.  on the street next to the bustle of traffic or tucked into tight alleyways.  animals are slaughtered, prepared and consumed, people sleep, bathe and peddle their wares.  everything that can happen is happening everywhere and it’s all taking place within very close proximities.  it’s life in its ultimate compact and transparent form.  it seems like chaos at first but the more i watched and interacted with it the more i began to notice the fine mechanics.  the fruit seller knows to step over the sleeping man, the chicken killer knows to hold down the dying chicken with his feet so it doesn’t disturb the fruit, the bathing man washes himself discretely so not to un-appetize the passing customers, etc..  everything has its imperative time and place.  these men and women may look like poor savages but in actuality they are professionals of their environment.  it’s not dirty or offensive but rather graceful and efficient.

among them are some of the most helpful, sincere and honest people i have ever met.  they pride themselves on helping you find your way when you get lost and they want to explain things to you… anything.  the people are by far the main attraction of this city.

in the center of town is a giant indoor market with an attached goat slaughterhouse inside an old decaying warehouse where i spent quite a lot of time observing the men go about their work.  they line the goats up on one aisle and herd them into cages under the raised floorboards until they are ready to kill and butcher them on the next aisle over.  i watched one very muscle bound butcher who was aggressively chopping up giant blocks of ice to keep his mutton cold.  next to him were two separated piles of heads and feet and a moat to collect the blood.

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the goat’s heart is the most valuable part

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this urban shepherd lets his sheep out to graze while the children improve their cricket game.  we see him the following day on the other side of town carefully herding his flock through rush hour traffic.

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sandwiched between the Hooghly River and the financial district is a thriving flower market.  right above it a bridge extends to the other side of the river.  this is one of the main arteries through town.

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Hooghly River mouth

when i first looked at the map of the giant sprawl that is Kolkata, i could not help but notice that there was a suburb named “Salt Lake City”.  being born and raised in the other Salt Lake City, it immediately became my mission to pay it a visit.  i simply couldn’t leave Kolkata without visiting what i could tell is the only other Salt Lake City in existence.  after all, how many people on this earth can truly say that they have been to both Salt Lake Cities?  after several days of convincing Nicolas it was a good idea we got in a taxi and told the driver to take us to Salt Lake City.  besides being confused as to why we would want to go there he also asked us where in Salt Lake City we wanted to go.  it is a whole city after all.  Nicolas quickly looked at the map and pointed to a random hospital in the city center.  i also cleared the air by telling the driver that i was from Salt Lake City.  after driving for almost an hour the scenery grew rural then less so when the driver announced that we had crossed the Salt Lake City limits.  it was far different from the Salt Lake City i knew but still very functional.  there were some high rises, nice neighborhoods, shops and restaurant.  the one thing it had in common with the other Salt Lake City is that it had a salt water lake with an island in the middle of it.  we could tell from the reactions of the people that we far from the beaten path.  there was no obvious sign that read “Welcome to Salt Lake City” so instead i had the driver creep slowly through the streets until i saw the words “Salt Lake City” written on an awning, then i would jump out to take a picture.  again i would tell the shop owners i was from Salt Lake City.. as if that made it all better.  the driver took us to the hospital as promised then stopped the car.  yup… there’s that hospital we wanted to go to.  Nicolas and i looked at each other for a moment.  “are you over this yet?” i asked.. “yup” he replied.  then i asked the driver to take us all the way back to Kolkata.  anyway, please enjoy this collage of Salt Lake City signage i pieced together from awnings and buses.

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we also got to put our tourist hats on.  having an extensive history of British rule, Kolkata is speckled with sites including a beautiful cathedral and a giant memorial built for Queen Victoria with a very interesting exhibit inside that covers the span of the British occupation from the rise of the East India Company to the Indian liberation after World War 2.  we also saw Mother Teresa’s final resting place which was my favorite of the sites.  her tomb sits in a chapel in a convent in the middle of a ghetto.i_thirst  when i entered the building and walked into the multi-story courtyard an air of gentle peace washed over me.  the sisters were all there going about their daily business while giggling at each other from opposing balconies.  i saw the prison cell of a bedroom that Mother lived in for over 50 years.  i saw the few well worn worldly possessions she had and read the accounts of her life and works.  her tomb was a simple and sleek marble box that had the words “i thirst” written in flower peddles across the top.

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Victoria Memorial

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

we took a shortcut through the Muslim ghetto that lead back to our neighborhood.  i couldn’t keep my eyes open wide enough to take in all the stimuli around me.  these people seemed so happy despite their destitution.  the next day i came back to the ghetto to give the place a proper surveying by walking the grid of streets in a zig-zag pattern.  a group of gentleman invited me to take cover under a makeshift awning during a brief monsoonal outburst.  they fed me tea and explained the dynamics of their neighborhood.  here Muslims and Christians co-exist in peace.  here a man’s worth is measured by his willingness to help his community.  here community is survival.  my mind was blown.  my ‘zig-zag the grid’ plan soon turned to shambles after several of the narrow streets twisted and turned.  i was lost but i didn’t care.  i was granted additional audiences with more of the neighborhood’s inhabitants.  they were very curious about me and tried their best to explain things as they saw them.  they were so proud of their little community and i can see why.  i was ready to throw in the towel and live amongst them.

on our fifth and final day in Kolkata it came time again that Nicolas and i had to part ways.  after spending every waking moment with him for almost two months i knew it would not be easy.  he had gotten an offer from a local casting agent to take part in a Bollywood film so i waited with him at our favorite bar until the dark and mysterious SUV came to pick him up.  it was a little surreal to watch him get in the vehicle with his backpack and drive away with out me in it.  alone again for the first time in far too long i wandered my favorite streets one last time.  then when i was ready i gathered my things, hailed a taxi and headed for he airport… that’s right, i said the airport.

 

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  1. #1 by Ana on July 24, 2013 - 12:29 pm

    Amazing! Another SLC in the world, huh?

    I’m pretty bummed about the goat slaughtering, but I guess that’s the world for you…

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