Wednesday, November 12, 2008

we're not in kansas anymore

Despite three consecutive nights of minimal sleep we awoke at 7 am to our first day in Kolkata. Businesses here don't bother to open until 10 or 11 am and the street food vendors were just getting rolling when we got off the Metro. India is not exactly the best place for healthy food options and our first breakfast of fried dough filled with spiced potatoes was a fine example. Although chai stalls are plentiful, it's nearly impossible to find coffee before 10 am and when found it's watered down Nescafe. We arrived at the Sikkim House (which serves as a combo hotel and Sikkim government office) to be told to come back around 10 am. We returned at 10:05 and waited outside the office. After another 10 minutes we were told that the woman that handled permits wasn't in yet "because of traffic". She arrived at 10:30 handed us some forms, which we completed, and told us to come back at 4 pm.

We headed down to the Hugli river (a tributary of the Ganges) to kill time. As we approached the river we saw evidence of the previous evening's Jagaddhatri Puja festivities. The elaborate goddess sculptures we had passed on the way to the hotel had been tossed into the river or strewn on the sides of the road. After a lunch that included some breath freshening silver soap cubes (?!) we picked up our Sikkim permits. Before heading back to our hotel we attempted to tour the New Market but grew wearing of the touts and left.

The next day we were scheduled to pick up our Enfields in the Kolkata burbs.
We allowed 2.5 hours to get there by train and taxi/walking. The Metro segment went smoothly as always, but when we transferred to the train at Tollygange it was impossible to tell which line to take. We ended up going two stations in the wrong direction and had to wait 40 minutes for a return train. In the interim we were accosted by dirty, sticky street children that clung to us for several minutes. Shortly afterward a man with two macaques on leashes walked by, but fortunately, didn't bother to harrass us. We were supposed to transfer lines again, but decided to take a taxi given our previous delay. The taxi driver took a circuitous route through tiny streets and over dirt roads, magically emerging in the correct neighborhood. The meter said 59 Rps, but he demanded 130 pointing to some chart. I was used to Bangalore, where you pay what's on the meter. We were late so we paid it, later learning that this was a legitimate conversion. The Enfields were waiting for us at the Chakravorty's, owners of IndiaBikes. Their youngest son, Hindol, gave us a run down of the bikes and we came to realize exactly what we was in store. We learned that electric start meant kick start most of the time and electric start only when the bike is warmed up (after 200-300 km of riding). They take at least five tries to kick start, alternating between a decompression stroke. Lucky for us motorcycles are breaking down all over the roads, so if it takes us 5 minutes to restart we would be OK. The bikes are also heavy, 500+ lbs for a 350 cc. We were told to change the clutch and engine oil every 2000 km, which means at least once a week.

Our
first task was getting back to the hotel. Thankfully, Jascha had purchased Bluetooth helmet communicators for us and we could hear each other over the constant drone of horns. In India there are as many lanes of traffic as will fit across a road and this changes constantly. Taxi drivers especially ride your ass, and within the first 10 minutes one had hooked his bumper in my panniers frames and was pushing my bike over. We made it back unscathed, parked close to our hotel, and stopped by the kati rolls stand for a mutton roll. After a brief discussion we decided to do our afternoon tour of the Kalighat temple by Metro.

We headed over to the Kalighat area and picked up some chain and a lock to secure our bikes. As we approached the temple we were instantly stopped by men offering to show us the (self-explanatory) entrance. We purposefully overshot the entrance to avoid the annoyance and ended up at what seemed like a dead end. We caved into one of the touts who took us on an interesting route through the back alleys to a stall with some men who were going to "watch our shoes for us." We promptly left and attempted to enter the temple. A man inside told us to leave our backpacks near the door, so we gave up and headed back.

Jascha was uncertain whether he would ever get his luggage back so we stopped at the clothing stalls near the New Market to pick up some extra clothes. One of the pants vendors tried to run off
with Jascha's money after the vendor tried to overcharge and Jascha would only agree to one pair. This wasn't a wise move, but in the end the exchange was made as initially agreed upon. After a stop of kesar pista kulfi we decided to brave the New Market again to look at kurtis for Jascha. He found two, and the experience was much less chaotic.

When we got to our bikes the man that initially told us where to park on the un
signed street was demanding a 36 Rps parking fee and that we could only remain there until 10 pm. He showed us a Shakespearean Parking Association badge. The New Market touts carry fake "guide" badges so I was skeptical. After weighing our options we eventually told him we would go verify with our hotel, upon which we learned this was legitimate, so we returned to pay him. When we went to move our bikes at 10 pm Jascha couldn't find his keys. After a frantic search he headed out to see if he had left them in the bike. The parking guy had them in his hands, so I paid him 100 Rps as a thank you. The man explained that someone else standing near us had actually found them, so Jascha also gave him 100 Rps. We moved our bikes in front of our hotel and I struggled to lift the beast onto its center stand as a crowd of Indian men watched us (as they always do). I finally had Jascha help.

That night we had an invasion of bugs in our room, including flies that looked like the vector of the protozoan that causes Leishmaniasis. I wasn't certain of the distribution of the disease in India and whether it is the visceral kind or the kind that causes nasty open sores, so I smashed as many as I could with the knowledge that at least it's a treatable condition.

4 comments:

Neal said...

india sounds BRUTAL! keep the updates coming.

Tomatohead said...

Dude, I'm exhausted for you.
They mess with the wrong Asian woman, those touts. Good luck!

Haliku said...

Wow! I just looked at your trip map...what an adventure. Good luck and safe travels. Cheers!

Tristan said...

hi there,

i am planning an Enfield trip that will take to some of the places where you have been, i.e. to the Sikkim, vanarasi. were you happy with the bike you rented in Kolkata? my alternative is to rent in delhi, where there is more choice for bike rentals, but then it's probably more than a week drive to Sikkim.

-- tristan (from SF and Paris, now in SF) - tristan@bok.net - www.loupiote.com