Well, I’m writing this from Cyberia, Kyd St Kolkata. The keyboard is wonky, and the connection is pretty slow, but I can lodge my first post from India!
On the way here, I spent two nights in Dubai with my friend Ali, his partner Penny and son Jasper. A fantastic way to transition. Dubai is a sprawling, chaotic city, the horizon a forest of cranes. Outside their apartment, the immigrant construction workers work through the night, the only break is Friday night, briefly. The sound, in the right frame of mind, is industrial sound art. We visit the mall (which is Chadstone with some arabic text here and there, but also with a huge indoor artificial ski slope!) and the souks (markets), and I get my first practice at ignoring touts. Dubai is 80% international ex-pats, 20% Emirate; 75% male, 25% female. Poverty is only visible in the bodies of the many construction workers; the Hummers and taxis speed past them.
There is little chance of culture shock in Dubai, but it is guaranteed here in Kolkata. My first experience was the airport. It’s not that bad, I’m thinking, as I stroll down towards the baggage counter (yes, we all have baggage…) – it’s reminiscent of the old pre-Southern-Cross Spencer Street Station, complete with sporadic baggage carousel. I sit down at “Cafe Coffee Day” and order the Veg Tikka Sandwich – the bread is slightly stale and very white, and the filling is very hot. From my seat I can see the crowd outside – families, loved ones, and a whole army of taxi touts. I dive (faux casually) into the wall of people and smog. One of the touts finds me and I hand over my pre-paid voucher, still not knowing if that’s the way it works, but trying to look seasoned. We hurtle towards the city – swerving past dogs and honking almost non-stop, missing other cars by inches – lanes only theoretically exist here, they’re temporary and negotiable. The taxi driver asks if I’ve heard of Mumbai. I say yes, it’s awful. Children!, he says. What can bridge this divide of language and history? I say whoever did this must be crazy. He says it’s Pakistani, they’re very bad.
When I arrive at the Sunflower Guest House, an amazing late 19th century building with an open-air staircase where the pigeons flap and crap, and a fantastic lift (and lift-operator! both are rickety and slow), I fill out the monumentous register book and retreat to my room. I finally work out how to turn the TV on, and surf through Bollywood, Hindi pop music video, religious programmes, mobile phone ads, and news footage of a population furious at their government. As I write, one Minister has just resigned. I’ve not seen much footage until now. I am on the other side of the country, and nowhere near a place like the Oberoi, so feel safe, but there is grief and anger in the air even here.
I am probably in the first stage of culture shock, congratulating myself for sleeping six hours, and for finding bottled water, and breakfast, and walking around a few blocks without stepping in shit or someone’s roadside bed or my own Western guilt. Weird.. I can’t describe what I’m feeling at the moment, apart from disoriented and craving the abscence of dirt and diesel fumes.
My first draft of this post was cut short by a (fairly routine, it seems) power failure, so I’ll sign off here.
Not sure how long I’ll stay in Kolkata. Will probably need to get to the countryside pretty soon. But it may take a few days to organise my way out of this 14-million-population megacity (and that’s not counting the dogs, crows, pigeons, goats…)!
Time to try to find coffee!