This is overdue, but we’re going to attempt to give our India trip some justice. Hopefully we’ll be able to share something interesting. We’ll be putting all the pictures up in Picasa and you could look at a slide show of all of them there, but there will be stories here to go with the pictures, so I’d recommend exploring here. However, click on the pictures if you want to see them larger. This will be in multiple installments which will hopefully take less time than the trip did.

Days 1-3: Getting there.

We left from Denver, with a direct flight to London. This might have been more exciting for Lincoln if it wasn’t his 7th or so round-trip flight this year. Still, he likes planes.

From India 2008

One thing that can be interesting to track is the H.P.R. (the Happy Picture Ratio). It is usually much higher at the beginning of the trip.

From India 2008

My brother Ryan has repeatedly told me that being in India is an exercise in flexibility. What he didn’t tell me is that it could start before you even arrived.

Our flight to London was 30 minutes late and we missed our tight connection. We we supposed to fly directly to Kolkata, but instead, we got to hang out in the London airport for a few hours, then fly to Delhi, then take a domestic carrier to Kolkata. This would mean we would no longer have time to stay in a Kolkata hotel, but would arrive the morning our train would leave for northern reaches.

Lincoln did better on the long flights than expected. It was interesting (although sensible) that the cuisine from London to Delhi was quite different than from Denver to London. On the latter flight for example, for breakfast we had a “hot pocket” full of butternut squash, sweet potato, spinach, and ginger.

Descending into Delhi, about 1000 ft. off the ground still, I asked Nicole what the bad smell was. Then I realized, it was Delhi. We were descending into the polluted, brown atmosphere of the city, remarkably similar in odor to an old bowling alley. Within minutes of landing, our eyes burned and throats started itching.

In Delhi, the foreign-ness began. Mostly at this point it was language barrier, but unfamiliar culture reared its head as well. A man gave me paper towels as I washed my hands in the bathroom. I was confused, but then saw he wanted money (and I had no Rupees). They told us to go to the “transfer lounge”, where, apparently everyone was talking to a certain person. So, I talked to this person as well. It appeared that he got you on the right bus to get to the domestic flights. So, I showed him my flight information. Later he called our names and we got on the bus for the Air India terminal.

We drove all the way around the international runways, into the city streets, then back to a terminal and unloaded. That’s when the “Free Valet Service” showed up and started “helping.” When we couldn’t get into the terminal, we found out we weren’t on Air India, but Jet Airways. One of our “free” “helpers” said he’d walk us to the right terminal. At this point we began a 15 minute walk along city streets with a guy we could barely understand. At a point where we couldn’t see the terminal we left nor the one we were headed to, our “guide” says, “Maam, now about my tip.”

Turns out he wasn’t allowed to go to the other terminal. Since we had no rupees yet, I gave him my smallest American money. 5$. Turns out this is roughly five times the right tip. But we got to the right terminal.

Strangers would occasionally ask where we were from. “USA”. “Obama!” a few replied with a smile. It was election day and the prospect of a black man “rising” to the office of president seemed to inspire many.

Magazines in the airport seemed familiar. GQ still had a skinny/sexy girl and Good Housekeeping has a rounder, motherly looking woman. But they had been translated for the audience with Indian women and tamed down somewhat. Still, I was embarassed with the example America sets and it’s scary what the rest of the world follows.

Speaking of following our lead, I saw a “McIndian” restaurant. Surely started by an Irish-Indian couple.

From India 2008

The flight to Kolkata was uneventful, but that was to change. Kolkata had cleaner air quality than Delhi, but other than the air, the city was far from clean. In fact, one of the strongest impressions from India is how dirty everything appears to be. Nicole got to use a “squatty potty” that appears to have traumatized her… I decided to wait.

I saw a couple of fish in an aquarium that appear to have been painted, lipstick and all. Or maybe the same variety of fish can have strips OR flowers on its side.

From India 2008

We had several hours till we had to be at Sealdah train station. We briefly deliberated whether we should try to do something in the city, but decided on heading to the train station soon instead. That was a good choice.

We got in the (50 person long) line for the pre-paid taxis. In theory, the pre-paid is a hassle free way to travel, avoiding the typical haggling. Given that we weren’t sure what anything should cost, it sounded good to us.

At this point, we had our luggage, which we could just barely carry by ourselves, but also a box with some bicyle wheels that we were bringing to Ryan. So naturally, as we left the safe confines of the airport, we were attacked by porters. Ryan warned me that you have to negotiate aggresively with porters. What he didn’t say is that if you came out of the airport looking totally intimidated and naive, that a porter would just look at your taxi ticket, and start moving your stuff. I assumed he might be part of the pre-paid taxi, but when he asked for payment it became clear I was wrong.

After loading up into a small, european, 1960s-looking taxi with no seatbelts, we were off. Most taxis, jeeps, etc. have a small shrine on the front dash. Many have windshield banners displaying the name of a god or a slogan. Some even have “Jesus” on them.

From India 2008

Some of the shrines are little battery-powered idols with blinking LEDs that Ryan labeled Disco Buddhas.

Our first views of India in Calcutta were astounding. Poverty, piles of trash, people, cars, human-powered freight, power lines, more humanity! Diesel soot and horns used like sonar. Drivers would shut off the car at the infrequent red lights (for 10 seconds). Cars drive on the left and very close together. So close that most cars have removed their side mirrors. People carry loads on their heads. Carts with people pushing and pulling rediculous loads. Tricycles with people, tricycles with frieght. Street people, huts, shacks, lean-tos, and tarps homes. Other homes are just a patch of pavement.

Finally we arrived at Sealdah train station. The driver wants something, but I’m not sure what. I figure it’s a tip (but it was a pre-paid taxi). So I try to give him a tip while the mass of waiting porters grow. After I tip him, he still wants something. Oh! The pre-paid taxi receipt. Whoops. Meanwhile I see one particularly smart-looking porter chuckling. He becomes our porter. It’s at this point that I explain: “You see, I don’t have a ticket, I only have a picture of a ticket that my brother sent me”. It turns out that Ryan sent our train ticket to Mom’s house and we didn’t get it. But he took a picture of the ticket with his cell phone and emailed it to me. Here’s what I had to work with, except it was harder to read printed out:

From India 2008

The porter leads us to the ticket desk. He summons a guy who hadn’t been helping people in line, but was just sitting and talking. At this moment, I’m happy about our smart-looking porter. He’s proactive! Unfortunately, the guy behind the counter informs us that we’re at the wrong train station. We need to go across town to Howrah station. (At this point, imagine me yelling “RYAN!” in the same tone as yelling “ALVIN!” from the chipmunks song).

We head back out of Sealdah and are swamped by taxi drivers, undoubtedly signaled by our porter or the look of panic on our faces. A taxi driver seeks our business, but I tell him we we’re going to use the pre-paid taxi. He’s insistent. I’m insistent. He pulls out a slick-looking laminated card showing how he is cheaper than the pre-paid taxi. Part of me knows that truly it’s not true, but I give in, worrying about getting to the right train station on the right day. When we get to the car, I realize another mistake: I hadn’t negotiated a rate with the smart-looking porter. He insists on 150 Rps, an amount 3 times what I should give him.

I say, “No, 50 Rps.”

“But I took your bags all the way in and back out.” (Normally he would have carried them much further to the actual train car).

I say, “75.”

“But I have children to feed”.

It was at this point that I was not as keen about our smart-looking porter. I think I may have given him 100. As we’re loading up, I see him get a cut from the taxi he helped shuffle us toward. And then, as we set off I hear him yell, “and don’t give your driver any more money”.

From India 2008

Again, we are immersed in Kolkata. We see crazier traffic. People just walking out into crazy roads. We cross Howrah bridge and arrive at the station, where we are promptly dropped on the street.

We are approached by an old porter. This time, I’ve had some time to consider my previous mistakes. He asks for 150. I say 50. When he doesn’t budge, we start picking up our bags. We get 75.

Going into the train station, I try to ask where to get a real ticket from my photo of a ticket. I don’t remember how exactly it happened, but we were directed to a guy in normal clothes who clearly wasn’t a rail employee. It turns out he was a plain-clothed police officer, and possibly a guardian angel. He told the porter to stay with Lincoln, Nicole and the bags, and we headed off. We went down the street to a police station where a couple officers looked like they were straight out of Casa Blanca. There were ceiling fans running slowing, and rocks holding down many piles of paper work that they were working their way through.

My officer put a piece of carbon paper in a folded piece of normal paper and started telling me what to write. I had a hard time understanding all the words due to the accent, so eventually he started spelling a lot of the words to me. One of the other officers got in on the act and at one point actually spelled “to” for me. Eventually, I got the gist of the letter…. ‘Most honorable sir, today I lost my ticket and humbly request that my photo ticket be accepted toward a real ticket, yada yada, you’re the best, date, place, etc.”

Once this was finished and had the appropriate signature, we set off again, back to the side of the train station, into a small room on the third floor that was some sort of customer service. An official-looking official was going over various sums and figures with another and looked unconcerned at our presence. Eventually, we got his attention and the officer presented our petition. Fifteen minutes later we left with an actual paper ticket. The officer kept giving me advice on how to not get ripped off or have my family put in danger. He was a handsome fellow that was intelligent as well. And once I offered homemade cookies and he turned them down, it was clear he wasn’t corrupt as well. I wonder if it was his family history that kept him in Calcutta with his decent, but not extrordinary, job.

After almost an hour apart, I reconnected with Nicole, Lincoln and the porter (who now wanted 100 Rps) and the officer escorted us to where the train would be. We waited for the train for a couple hours, exhausted from traveling for almost 40 hours straight.

From India 2008
From India 2008

Trains came and went, some packed to the hilt.

From India 2008

Across the tracks, under a bridge, more homes had been squeezed into whatever space was available.

I didn’t know how to verify which train was the right one nor where to get in the right car. I struck up a conversation with a nearby man to ask. Almost at once I heard, “Mr. Phillips!” Behind us was the plain-clothed officer, who had returned to sit behind us and keep an eye on us. He brought some friends, and when the train arrived he took us to our car and helped us load our stuff. And he still wouldn’t take our homemade cookies.

Later when I told Ryan about all of this, he said I found a needle in a haystack, that no one in Kalkata would do all that he did for us.

Our train ride was thankfully on a “nice” sleeper car. The bathrooms on the train were basically a hole in the floor of the train down onto the tracks. We met interesting people. Until 10pm or so, hawkers walked through all the cars chanting their list of wares and haggling and selling. There were so many that they had trouble passing each other at times. Saris, chai, peanuts, plastic toys, plastic dishes, pants, more chai, tobacco products, meals, bottled water, and more chai. The next morning we even saw men dressed as women. Transvestites or eunuchs, I’m not sure. But as a lowest-of-the-low caste, they would take your sins upon themselves and for such a service, you give them money. If not, you may get cursed.

There were also many beggars going by on the train. Some young, some old, many with deformities. Some swept the trash off of the floor with a hand broom and then returned for a tip. Others just pointed to their mouth.

Our train was only 3 hours late to our destination where we hoped to connect with Ryan, Amanda and Asher, and I looked forward to giving Ryan a hard time for sending us to the wrong train station without an actual ticket.

(stay tuned for part II)