Hitting the Streets

Day 20, 500 words, 31 days.

I can barely keep my eyes open. It’s been a long, exhausting day.

We arrived in Kolkata just after midnight. Given that we didn’t have any luggage with us, we assumed we could quickly file a claim for “lost and found” as was instructed to us by the Air Asia attendant in Kuala Lumpur, and then head straight for the hotel.

The Air Asia representative in Kolkata explained to us that we had to wait until all the baggage was claimed before we could file the report – even though we already knew that our luggage didn’t even make it on the plane. It was a policy they weren’t willing to compromise for us as we desperately tried to assert our Western-ness and explain how we needed to expedite things as much as possible to rest before our conference the day after.

Rules are rules.

We were at the airport for another hour longer than we had taken into account. By the time we booked a pre-paid cab to send us to the hotel, I didn’t even have the energy to feel the least bit frustrated. It was, what it was. I just needed to find a bed to plop upon, fast.

Two things I found surprising right as we stepped outside the airport: first, it was actually chilly. All the taxi men hanging around outside the airport for potential customers possessed scarves bundled around their necks, noses, and mouths. I couldn’t believe how cold it was. Granted, it was definitely a bearable kind of cold, the sort that you experience on an average evening in the Bay Area. But I was mightily surprised at the need for warmth in a place like India. I simply never imagined India to have a use for sweaters.

The second thing I noticed were the cabs.

These “Ambassador” model cabs had the look and feel of bumper cars belonging to to a bygone era. The short story I was told was that these British-manufactured vehicles were being churned out as such even after the Brits themselves had already left India. For whatever reason, India didn’t decide to upgrade these models and have continued to manufacture “Ambassadors” ever since. They are now an iconic staple to the gritty urban scene Kolkata’s streets have to offer.

It was well past midnight and hardly any cars on the road, which felt like another surprise. Our cab driver must have felt an absurd amount of freedom to maneuver his way around the maze of streets like a madman. He turned the steering wheel with such exaggerated movements, it was like watching a child  sail a boat, blindfolded. I was both wildly amused and genuinely frightened for our lives, alternatively. By God’s grace, after taking a route I wouldn’t be able to re-trace even if you handed me a satellite to navigate with, we made it to Chrome hotel.

I could barely sleep. I wasn’t sure whether it was the pre-workshop jitters, pulsing adrenaline, or the constant, cacophonous honking of horns I could hear outside the window – likely a combination of all three, and I figured I was in for a long night.

I managed about four hours of intermittent sleep, abruptly interrupted on numerous occasions throughout the night by noises out from the hallway or next door. Then, as insult to injury, I woke up about 15 minutes ahead of the time my alarm was supposed to ring, and I wasn’t getting back that time I had to spare.

Without getting into it here, by some miracle of heaven I got through my workshop. Equally surprising, and encouraging, was how generally engaged our participants were. We threw at them a lot of tips and terminology throughout the course of the day, and I commend them for their patience, and eagerness to learn. I was just glad I didn’t conk out halfway into it, myself.

We had just enough energy to venture out into town to find the nearest mall and pick up a few pieces of clothing to hold us over while we wait for our luggage, should it ever come. Getting around on foot and avoiding the whirlwind mix of cabs, buses, bikes, and rickshaws zooming in and out of traffic was, to say the least, a high-blood pressure inducing adventure. I can’t remember how many times I jaywalked tonight while cars rushed right at me, headlights flashing violently, as if to signal my demise. The horns, of course, were absolutely, non-stop, as if they were the only language that made sense on these streets. They hardly made any sense to me, and disorienting as it all was, I did my best to do as the locals did – I committed, crossed, and conquered.

There’s an authentic energy to this place that I only began to feel in full effect, after stepping out on its streets on foot. It is at once, both unapologetically intimidating, and inexplicably thrilling, walking these open streets, knowing full well how I really don’t belong on them, unattended. Perhaps it’s that strange and delicate balance struck when fear and excitement collide, and you have not the time or the energy to fully brace yourself for it, that make adventure exactly what it is – the purest sort of rush you can ever find.

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