So much to do!
Our last full day in Kolkata started off with bucket baths. This time, I decided I would probably be much more comfortable showering with hot water from a bucket than with cold water from the shower. Aside from the learning curve of actually having to figure out how to strategically shower this way (or more acurately sponge-bath myself) what I discovered is that the morning routine is one example of how life in India is much slower than in America. It’s no wonder — there’s one bathroom and each person has to use it. Then, you have to boil water for each person separately before they shower/bucket bath. Preiti boiled a pot of water for me. She asked me if it would be enough water (ONE pot!). I was skeptical. I didn’t want to be a bad guest. I didn’t dare tell her this was my first experience with the bucket. Amazingly, it was enough water. I even had some water left over, which I (luxuriously?) poured over my body when I was done.
Luckily, I brought with me a travel loofa. Even though I didn’t have runnning water, I had the familiar smells of my shampoos and soap, in addition to my hair products (in travel containers of 3oz or less, of course). I also had my hairdryer (yes, I brought it with me!) which was soooo worth carrying, as it helped me feel clean and warm.
As I was drying my hair and putting on clean clothes, I could smell the delicious snacks Prieti was cooking up in her kitchen. More Indian bread — pratha — apparently this is the name of roti (wheat bread) when you cook it with oil. The smell of the cardamom in the tea she was cooking mingled with the fresh bread smell, taking me back to childhood summers in Israel visiting my grandmother, when I could smell lunch cooking as I was showering off the sand from a morning at the beach. Something about feeling clean, being in an exotic, unfamiliar place, smelling good food, and the sun shining in through the window made me feel really happy.
Neena and I went up to the roofdeck, soaking in the sun, before the rest of her family joined us to eat.
After a morning of getting ready, we headed off on this sunny day in the afternoon traffic, to see Kolkata’s most famous site, Victoria palace.
Okay. One thing about the traffic — the previous video really doesn’t do the traffic justice. It’s CRAZY. Seriously, there are NO LINES ON THE ROADS. The same way that people rush into movie theaters or onto planes in a big blob instead of a line, well THAT’S HOW THEY DRIVE. There’s no left or right turn signal to tell the person behind you that you want to merge. Nope. Just merge. If someone’s about to hit you, they’ll just honk to let you know you’re in their way. Then you get to make the judgement call if you think you can make it into the “lane” or not. Pedestrians sometimes walk in the street since streets are sometimes better than the sidewalks, bicylists, rickshaws and people running (barefoot) with two-wheeled flats of wood carrying anything and everything weave through traffic — oh, and watch out for animals, which roam free, and it’s illegal to injure them! Then there are guys who walk between the cars trying to sell you strawberries, and the beggars, who come right up to your car, press their noses against your window and make sad faces. (I keep granola bars in my bag and wanted to give those kids some food, but Neena recommended I just keep my head down because if I do that, ALL the beggar kids will come running towards the car.)
I’m amazed people aren’t crashing all over the place. I guess that’s the beauty of India — people just figure it out, and live peacefully among the chaos.
And again, as we headed toward our destination there were loads of people selling food and cooking up colorful feasts of food to sell.
Somehow, we arrived to Victoria Palace (in one piece) without anyone crashing into us, and I couldn’t help but notice the extremes in this city — from the poshness of Victoria Palace, to the poor, dirty beggar kids and shantis just blocks away.
We spent a good amount of time in the palace, which is now also a museum. They had an art exhibit of paintings and drawings of India from all over the country; some of the drawings, dating back hundreds of years. What was interesting, was that many artists, before the first settlers arrived, used their imaginations to draw what they thought India looked like, based on the notes of early explorers.
This romanticised image of India is the one I had (still have) in my head before visiting. It’s why I wanted to come. When I was a little, I had a book about an adventure-seeking little girl named Caroline. In one of her adventures, she and her animal friends visit India. They see the Taj Mahal, temple ruins, the desert. This and other stories of India stuck in my mind for years, so when Neena invited me to come visit with her, I absolutely wanted to go. (I still have that book. These days, I read it to my niece. I hope it instills as much excitement about the world and a sense of adventure in her as it did in me!)
As for Victoria Palace itself, the palace was built for Queen Victoria (of England) who came to visit Kolkata for just a few days. (She needed a place to stay that suited her standard of living.) Apparently, Kolkata was a very important trade hub for the British empire. They stationed themselves there, mining natural resources from the land for export. In return, they imposed their ideals of democracy and freedom on the country. (The British held prominent government positions, here.) As a side note, we also learned the British Empire generated 44% of their world-wide revenue in Kolkata to help support Imperialism not just in India, but around the world where the British took root.
I wonder if Queen Victoria really appreciated the beauty of this palace.
On it’s own, it’s magnificent — but compared to the palace of Versailles for example, it’s quite small. (If you’ve ever visited Versaille in France, you know you could spend weeks wandering around there through the hundreds of rooms.) This insight led to a discussion Neena and I were having about standard of living and happiness. My theory is that, the less extravagent your “normal” is, the easier is for you to feel comfortable. I guess that’s one of the subconsious things I like about traveling to this part of the world; I’m more appreciative when I return home — at least for a while, until a get re-acclimated to my “normal.” Maybe that’s why in some studies of happiness (that I read recreationally on MSN) money makes life easier, but doesn’t necessarily make one happier. I think people who have less appreciate what they have, more. (Don’t get more wrong, I still want to have more. Who doesn’t? Lucky me for living in America.)
We spent a lot of time at Victoria Palace and Gurmeet was going to take us to see that temple we saw in the darkness of night, but Neena and I opted to go see a dance performance. This was an event Gurmeet and Preiti had told us about. It was in a “cultural center” somewhere in the city. Unfortunately, the flyer didn’t have an address.
We drove through some unsavory neighborhoods looking for the “cultural center.” It was quite fascinating, actually. Little shanties by rivers, streets bustling with activity, fires on the side of the road for warmth and cooking, people huddled on stools playing games (or gambling?) drinking tea, socializing, mothers with young children out in the street late at night, in the dark among the markets.
Eventually, we found the Cultural Center. I think we were all expecting an auditorium. What we found was an outdoor stage with chairs set up on the lawn in front of it. The whole neighborhood came out to watch the show, which was a talent show featuring Kashmiri song and dance. It was actually pretty cool.
The cultural center, located in a remote area away from general tourist activities was not a place where locals would expect to find someone who looked like me. Kids stared at me. I smiled at them. They smiled back. There was this one family sitting near me. The kids kept looking over. I smiled. They tapped their parents. The parents looked over. I smiled and waved. The kids looked away. The parents laughed, I laughed. When we decided to leave, I felt their gazes follow me. I turned around and gave a grand wave goodbye.
Neena tells me she’s had this experience in the United States, but surprisingly (surprisingly to me) it’s not the Americans who stare her down, but other Indians. She says they’re constantly trying to figure out what region she’s from. She says her Indian look has scored her free donuts and coffee at select Dunkin’ Donuts locations throughout the city.
When we got home, Preiti and Gurmeet left to go run to the store. It was late, but those party animals told us to rest up, as we’d be heading out again when they got back.
When they returned from the store, they brought parting gifts for Neena and I!!!! Preiti had been listening to all the things we had said we wanted to buy in India. She gave me cardamom, bindis, even a “tikka” which is a piece of jewlery you place on the part of your hair, the end of which usually has some sort of decorative jewel and lands between your eyebrows, above where you’d stick a bindi. (Tikka, the jewelry, not to be confused with “chicken tika.” It’s all in the pronounciation of your syllables.)
Preiti said she’d never forget us. Really, I’ll never forget her and her family. Her kindness and generousity was above and beyond anything I ever expected.
Then, at 11 pm, the party continued and we all piled into the car to go out to dinner!
We ate delicious Punjabi food, and Gurmeet kept ordering all kinds of fresh Naan (bread). Yum. Big, fluffy, just-baked pieces of spicy, garlic and plain bread. Indian hospitality is amazing. Just as you finish what you have on your plate, your host will anticipate your needs and there will be another piece of bread in front of you, drink in your cup, or serving of sauce, rice, fish or meat on your plate.
There was a tv in the restaurant playing some classic Bollywood film. We finished just in time to turn around watch the big dance number. Apparently, it’s a famous song. Neena has it on her ipod.
The next morning
We woke up at about 6:30am, as we had a flight to catch back to Delhi. I was sad to leave Kolkata.
The flight was to Delhi flew by fast. When we got here, to Neena’s family’s house, it felt like it was nighttime. It’s foggy here now. We decided to relax for a bit (I decided to spend my time writing on my hakuproductions blog. I’m so glad they have internet in their home!)
Later, we’ll go out to eat, maybe go to a market or something. Neena’s dad is helping me book a flight and hotel in the south (I still have to explore my options). I leave a few days from now, as I leave for the Maldives from the southern state of Kerela. Neena changed her flight to leave from Delhi, so she’ll have a couple more days to be with her family before heading back to the states. (And surely I’ll see her in dance class in Philadelphia the following week!)
I’ve been so spoiled here in India, hanging out with her family, not having to worry about where I’m going, what I’m doing. Not going to think about the end of the trip yet though… in the meantime, we’re ALL gonna leave at the crack of dawn for a family overnight trip to the Taj Mahal and the Pink City, and I’m so excited for that!
Oh yeah, when Neena’s uncle picked us up from the airport I said to him, “Kya haal hai?” (How are you?) It was just a little bit of Hindi I picked up from Preiti. His reaction was priceless. He smiled and gave a big laugh. I think Neena got a kick out if it, too.