Tuesday, June 21, 2011

First Impressions

(PICTURE: At night, men just gather on the street and play chess.)

Crazy. That's the world I would use to describe my first impressions of Kolkata. I would say "overwhelmed" but really I found myself laughing and staring in the relative safety of our Ambassador taxi. Huyen and I kept on pointing at things and saying, "Whoah, did you see that?" or simply, "Oh my god."

There doesn't seem to be an inch of space wasted in Kolkata. There's something going on seemingly everywhere. There were tons of people standing/squatting/sitting on the sides of roads or hanging out of cars/rickshaws/bicycles/buses. There were animals which seemed to be out on joy walks, enjoying the garbage buffet that lined the streets. There were posters and advertisements that covered every wall from the airport to our hotel.

There was the nonsensical. Coming from Hanoi, I thought driving couldn't be worse. I was wrong. Nearly dead wrong. We'll get into this in a later blog but people had barely any grasp/care for safe driving. Either that, or as I suspect, people just can't afford new brakes.

And then there was the poverty. As we drove in, you could see the squalor everywhere. There were cardboard and scarp metal homes anywhere there wasn't a concrete and brick one. On the streets, there were people begging on nearly every corner. At one point, we stopped at a red light (yes, we actually stopped) and a kid (probably 8) came up to my window holding his sibling (probably two) begging for money. The kid reached in and grabbed my arm. This would be the first of many times this would happen.

At the end of our one and a half hour trip to our hotel (which if the roads were empty would probably have taken fifteen minutes max) our taxi pulled up to a street which was totally under construction. The driver signaled that he couldn't go down the street and told us to walk. Frankly, we had no clue if this was where our hotel was (it turned out to be about a five minute walk down the alley) or if he was just tired of driving us. After grabbing our bags we gave him a little tip. He then started to complain that we should give him a lot more. Really? A lot more of a tip for you not dropping us off not at our hotel (he clearly could have gone one block up and circled around to our hotel)?

In the end, we got to our hotel which was a sanctuary of peacefulness compared to the rest of the city. These first impressions though would last and only become cemented over the coming weeks. We'll delve into lots of these things in upcoming blogs.