(PICTURE: An Ambassador cab.)
My friend Kevin scared the crap out of me when I told him that I was going to Kolkata. You see, he and his wife Beth went to India for their honeymoon and spent their first couple of days in Kolkata. When I asked Kevin for some advice, he told me to fly in and get the heck out. This scared me because I consider Kevin to be one of the best travelers I know. If this warning wasn't enough, he and Beth insisted that we allow them to treat us to a night at a 5 star hotel when we arrived. It took a lot of arguing but finally I convinced Kevin that it wasn't necessary. Kevin relented and said that he at least wanted to get us a driver to pick us up at the airport because we shouldn't be winging it when we first arrive since he was sure Kolkata would be unlike anything we'd ever experienced. I agreed and Kevin attempted to arrange a driver. After a few days, Kevin told me that he was having trouble getting us a ride because "things are never easy in India." Wiser words were never spoken.
I told Kevin not to worry and arrainged a pick-up with the hotel I booked (for the record, we stayed at a really awesome boutique hotel/art gallery). The hotel sent me a confirmation email and told me that a driver would be waiting at the exit gate with a placard. Naturally, nobody was there when we came. Huyen and I waited for about twenty minutes before we decided to give up on the pick-up. The problem was though that we didn't have a phone to call the hotel and the pre-paid taxi booth was inside the airport. This was a problem because we were now outside the airport and you needed a ticket to get back in. Luckily, the pretty-face-rule works in India too and Huyen sweet talked an army guy with a machine gun to let her into the airport. Huyen paid for a taxi and came back outside.
We took our prepaid taxi receipt to the taxi line and told a circle of drivers where we wanted to go. Not one driver actually knew the spot and they debated on it for about 10 minutes. Finally one guy said to follow him and led us to his taxi which was not in the taxi line. Two other guys grabbed our bags and escorted us to the taxi. The two other guys apparently were homeless men who took our bags to get a tip. Heck, I respect that since they're not just sitting on the street begging for money (I don't mean to sound heartless but when you can't go twenty feet without someone asking for money you don't mind giving something to someone whose going that extra mile) . The problem is we didn't have any small denominations so we ended up giving them our leftover Thai Baht...which they seemed happy to get. Our taxi driver got into the car and shewd off the beggars. He then turned on the Ambassador cab, which rattled to life, rolled down the windows and we sped off into Kolkata...