Tag Archives: Calcutta

Traveling in India: Frightful Flights

When I traveled to India, way back when, transportation in all ways was memorable. Flying though, was something else. We first flew to Singapore on Singapore Airlines, a very classy, clean operation. However from Singapore to Calcutta was Indian Airlines and although the airline was fine, the hygiene was terrible. Here is were we ran into cultural issues. In India people use squat toilets or just squat over ditches and runnels, depending on the area. Even a porcelain toilet will be used to squat over, and often have no seat. So the toilets on the plain would be covered in dirty footprints from people hoping up on the narrow ledge to squat over the toilet.

Cleaner for them yes. They weren’t touching anything that had been touched for others. But for everyone of a Western culture it was filthier. We’re taught (but not all are taught well) to clean the seat if you splash but of course since they didn’t actually sit on the seat, they didn’t clean it. Singapore would have arrested people for doing such and indeed toilets there had signs of large fines for not flushing toilets.

But the flights, that’s what I’m really talking about. The next leg of our trip involved taking a smaller plane through the Himalayan foothills to Meghalaya. There were several small airlines but the most direct route into Khasis lands was Vayudoot Airlines. I don’t actually remember which town we flew into but the flight was memorable. The plane was small, one of those where the wheels stay down. I believe it was a Fokker aircraft designed to hold 28 people. Five of those people were my friend and her husband, their two- and three-year-old sons and me. The seats were small and close enough that I could have reach across the middle row to touch the other side. There were, I believe three seats on one side and two on the other.

I sat with Hanocia and her youngest son. The plane took off and we headed toward the Himalayas. The flight attendant on the intercom just came across as loud fuzzy noise and no one could understand her. Being in India, a largely vegetarian country, we were given a light meal, which consisted of white bread with some sort of oddly green paste in it. Then the flight got rocky as we hit air pockets. We dipped, we twisted, we swooped, and so did our stomachs. Hanocia’s young son lost his green sandwich, thankfully into a barf bag. Hanocia, who had done this trip before, sat tight-lipped and white knuckled (even for a brown-skinned person) clutching the seat. I had the window seat, not necessarily a blessing. We sat over the wing and the wheels and I swear there was a crack running up one of the struts.

Needless to say we made it, shaken up but relatively whole. When it came time to leave Meghalaya, we chose different airlines. I was leaving a month early to travel through India and Nepal so I chose another airline, but that meant traveling into neighboring Assam. Because the borders were closed between Assam and Meghalaya due to another fight between the two states, I had to have signed papers. It was an arduous bus trip of many many hours, and passing a bloated dead man in the middle of the road, who had been hit by a car and who knows how long he lay there with the crowd waiting for officials.

The flight from Assam to Calcutta was relatively uneventful once on the flight. But it was over three hours delayed in typical Indian fashion. I sat there for hours, very dehydrated because I didn’t have water with me and didn’t dare drink the local water. At one point, about two hours into waiting three men flurried over, their jackets flapping and said, come with us. In India you can’t really tell who is an official or not. There were no uniforms or name tags but I was taken off to a back room and asked where I was going, where I had come from. I had to show my papers and the guy took them and laboriously wrote out information. I think the painstaking time was to make me worry and really, I was too naive to realize they wanted baksheesh until after the fact.

But I was glad I hadn’t taken Vayudoot on the way out because we had heard, after landing, that one plane had lost a tail on takeoff and another a wing on landing. I hope all my frightful flights are things of the past.

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Traveling in India: Removing the Mask

Years ago, I traveled in India for two months. The first month was in Meghalaya, a Himalayan tribal state in the northeast corner of India. I was there with my friend, a native Khasi of Meghalaya. (I’ll talk about Meghalaya some other time.) The second month I set out on my own, traveling to India and Nepal.

The hard journey began almost immediately. Because the Meghalayans were fighting with the Assamese (and because the plane out of Meghalaya, Vayudoot Airlines, was too scary to fly again) I had to take a bus into neighboring Assam. It was a very long, hot bus ride where we passed a crowd on the road standing near the stiffening corpse of man who had been hit by a car (I presume) and was bloating in the hot sun.

Hours later I arrived at the airport where of course the plane ran on Indian time and was over three-hours late. I had left in the morning but by the time I got into Calcutta, not that far really, it was early evening. I had a Lonely Planet guide and used it to find quality and affordable hotels. Except they were all full. I tried several places, each less reputable than the last, until I finally found a place. It was dirty, there were so many cockroaches that I slept with the lights on and the water sprayed from the tap at a 45 degree angle. I was completely dehydrated by the time I got into this hotel and asked the staff for some boiled water. They brought it and it was suspiciously lukewarm. I added iodine (this was before they had perfected cheap and easy to carry water purification kits or tablets) but I had to drink it.

Sure enough, three days later began the fall into dysentery and three weeks of traveling to go. Skipping forward, I was back in Delhi and sick as a dog, puking or hanging my butt over a toilet. I spent a lot of my time laying in bed in the hostel, too sick to eat and tired. But I decided one day to go to the Red Fort I believe. It’s been a while and it may have been some other edifice.

Having now been in India long enough to know you had to ask specific questions and bargain, I made a deal with a motorized rickshaw driver (there were bicycle and foot rickshaws as well). We agreed on the price and I said, “That’s for both ways, right?”  He agreed, but when he dropped me off at the fort he asked, “How long are you going to be?” I shrugged lethargically and said maybe a couple of hours or so. And off I went.

You walk a gamut of merchants at the entry of the place and I was looking in this one shop when this merchant reached out and grabbed my breast. I was too sick and shocked to do more than look and walk away. I should have slugged him. But I saw the fort, took pictures and left a couple of hours later. When I get outside there is my rickshaw driver and he starts yelling at me about the length of time. We argued as I said this is what we had agreed to. I had told him I didn’t know for sure how long I would be, etc. etc. However, there were about another ten drivers standing around all staring at me, arguing in both languages. I felt intimidated by the pressure so pulled out half the fee for the one-way trip and threw it at the guy, stalking off to find a bicycle rickshaw driver.

I agreed to a price with him and got in, completely dissolute by the experience. I didn’t look at anything and just sat there in a distant haze. Only motorized vehicles were allowed around Connaught Place, the giant traffic circle (with many lanes from many directions) in New Delhi.  Around the outer circle were stations for the other rickshaw drivers to drop off their clients. I paid and despondently got  out of the rickshaw. As I trudged away I heard, “Mems’ib, mems’ib.” I turned back and there was the original rickshaw driver with the police.

At that point I didn’t think about the corrupt Indian system and paying baksheesh or about the lies this guy had told. I freaked out. I started screaming at all three of them, walking up with my wrists together saying, go ahead take me away. You’re trying to keep me here and who knows what other delirium was going on. Keep in mind that I was very sick and had been traveling with an overloaded backpack and a bag and a carpet (another long story) for three weeks. I was way beyond my normal comfort zone. I cried and screamed and then pulled all of the cash out of my wallet, threw it at the men and then went and sat on a wall and cried. Actually I bawled.

At one point the rickshaw driver came back and put my change beside me. I don’t know if he had an attack of conscience or if the police kept him honest. I didn’t care. I cried and cried and have no idea how long I sat there. At one point I heard a timid, “Mems’ib,” again. When I looked up there were about six men looking at me, concerned. One asked, “What is wrong?”

I cried out something like, “nothing,you’re country is trying to keep me here,” etc. I was at the end of two months and heartily tired of trying to fend on my own which had not been easy in many ways. Eventually, I wandered back to the hostel where I was staying. Before I got there a beggar came up and touched my arm, looking up at me with wide eyes. This was a child of maybe 12. Now I had already been told by my friend, and observed, that no one touches another in public in India. Actually no man will touch a woman and strangers do not touch. She had said if someone touches you, it’s a sign of disrespect. After the illness, the breast grabbing, the fight with the rickshaw driver, the police and my general lack of coping by this point, I sobbed at this poor beggar, “Oh just go die, it’s easier.”

Yes, I told a beggar to die, because at that point it’s what I wanted to do. It was perhaps the ugliest aspect of my personality and was one aspect of a life-changing journey. Before I went to India, I had this group of friends and that group of friends. I had the calm me, the conservative me, the partying me, the studious me, etc., and very few saw all of me. Like many people in our culture, I had my masques for different occasions.

Between the dysentery, the overloaded packs and the very different culture of India and their way of  dealing with time and communication, I ran out of coping mechanisms. I was stripped down to my essential self. When I returned to Canada and was at some point telling  a friend about my journey, she said, “Yeah, you’re more accessible now.” After that, everyone pretty much got the same me, amalgamated for good or ill, with fewer masques.

India was a very hard journey into my self, where I learned many valuable lessons about culture, environment, people and life. The biggest lesson was about me. I would still recommend that everyone travel to a third world country if the can. It is an eye opener and truly shows many of us how privileged we are where even conservation can be a luxury. But those are tales for another time.

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Scary Tales About Cockroaches

I got to thinking about cockroaches the other day, probably because the news mentioned that some of Vancouver’s apartment buildings are becoming infested with bed bugs. No matter how you cut it, bugs are just creepy. They make our skin crawl, sometimes literally. They’re the most alien of the animal kingdom (besides bacteria, whatever the heck they are) that we can see. And theories are that should there be a nuclear holocaust it’s the insects that would survive. In fact, comparing populations, there are 12 times more insects in the world than the total of human beings (and we’re at 6 billion). It’s a sobering thought and a good thing that most of them are small.

Most places have cockroaches but unless you’re living in a dirty building or particularly slovenly, you may never see them. I’ve never seen a cockroach in Vancouver and only saw a small thumb-sized one in Seattle once. They prefer warm and dark places, with fecund garbage. In colder climes, that means moving indoors where you and I might be.

They leave scents in their feces and pheromone trails so that their buddies can find them. Once you have one, you’re likely to have a whole gang. Cleanliness, wiping up food spills, vacuuming are ways to stop cockroaches from moving in but once they’re in, they’re extremely difficult to eradicate.

The buggers are tough. Supposedly a decapitated cockroach can survive for several weeks before dying of dehydration or starvation. I take it that’s the body and not the head. They live about a year and can produce 300-400 offspring or more. Some species only need to be fertilized once to produce for the rest of their lifetimes. They’re so hardy that they can take 6-15 times the radiation of a human but would possibly still not survive nuclear war, though they’d fare better than fleshy humans.

They can live a month or so without water, longer without food, be deprived of air, frozen or immersed in water and can recover. They aren’t slimy but like many insects we don’t enjoy touching them. And they are just very alien looking. Hence all the horror and SF movies with buggy creatures. Many humans have a natural revulsion. Cockroaches do have a couple of natural enemies; other insects. Certain wasps and centipedes will attack them but if you were trying to get rid of them, you would then just have a new pest to deal with.

I have really only encountered the creepy crawlies twice. Once was in Mexico, in Taxco. I was on an open restaurant veranda, having a drink with someone. A cat was wandering amongst the patrons. Thinking it was the cat rubbing against my leg, I ignored the light touch, but when I looked down there was a cockroach on my leg. I jumped up and stomped so that it dropped. The waiter and my friend both stomped on the three-inch long cucaracha and it just kept running, right over the balcony.

Later I was in Cuernavaca. The adjoining bathroom to my room had two cockroaches hanging out on the ceiling. I was freaked out by this and tried to close the door, though it wouldn’t shut completely. They never moved but I kept a wary eye on them.

The other time was in Calcutta. Every hotel I tried was full and I was looking at worse and worse accommodations to stay in. Finally I found a place. It was rife with cockroaches so I slept with the lights on to keep them at bay. It also had fleas (or maybe bed bugs) and I slept in my own sleeping bag though it was hot and humid, to save my flesh. (I also got dysentery from that place.) They weren’t as big as the Mexican cockroach had been but they were more prevalent.

Thankfully, I’ve had no more experiences with cockroaches. I share that human abhorrence of things many legged. I don’t mind spiders now, even though I was once phobic (See: Spider, Spider, Burning Bright.) Sometimes it’s fascinating to watch how an insect works, but at a distance, not up close and personal and in your home.

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