Parts, Still Unknown

Day 22, 500 words, 31 days.
Kolkata terminal

I’m beat.

I still don’t understand how sitting around all day can feel so exhausting, and yet, I feel absolutely drained after doing so. Granted, I’ve commuted to and from the airport, three times in five days and I haven’t had a regular night’s sleep for an entire week, thanks in part to a jolly bunch of young folks next door whose idea of a good time was precisely the opposite of mine. (Screaming at the top of your lungs at three in the morning to American top 40 hits doesn’t particularly cater well to my liking, but they thought surely otherwise)

Maybe in large part, due to those things, on top of staring at a screen the entire day, I have legitimate reason to feel as tired as I do.

We’re on a red-eye flight to Kuala Lumpur and I’m looking forward to some serious shut-eye on the plane, provided I’m not seated next to a sick baby or a prolific snorer. This signals the end of our time here in India, and while we’ve endured our share of unforeseen, “surprises”, this week, I’m grateful to have even been here at all. To finally be able to say I’ve set foot in this remarkably unique country and share stories with its people makes it fully worth the time spent, and wasted, here.

Truth be told, I’ve only scratched the surface of what I could have possibly experienced here. I was here to work, after all, and like most work-trips, I make the assumption that I’m spending most of my trip at the hotel.

Yesterday, however, was the exception.

After making over a dozen calls to reach anybody that had information about our lost luggage, I finally got through to an agent in KL, who nonchalantly explained to me that our bags had actually been sent on the next flight after ours, on the 21st.

We could have had our stuff, the entire week.

But since we couldn’t get a hold of them by phone and we weren’t informed when and where we should pick up our luggage, or that it was in Kolkata at all, it took having to concertedly track them down and take an entire day off from our actual work to get our things back.

After lunch, one of our workshop participants was gracious enough to accompany me all the way to the airport. Had he not, I probably would have never made it out there.

Negotiating a reasonable cab fare felt a lot like pulling teeth. The cab driver appeared fully determined to squeeze us dry of whatever rupees we were carrying. Meanwhile, we had to convince him it was worth his time to take us all the way to the airport in the middle of the day, without having him completely succeed in taking all our money. My friend managed to get him to settle on a price a little less than standard fare – whatever standard fare actually is here. So, we were on our way.

Upon arriving at the airport, I immediately witnessed the sort of uncompromising bureaucracy people who move here like to mention when sharing their plentiful experiences in getting simple things done. In our case, I already knew our bags were here. It was just a matter of finding the right person to get it to us.

First, we had to pay a visit to the “airport manager” – a man of emotion as varied as that of a tree trunk. He barely even bothered to look at us. It felt a little bit like confession, without the screen in between parishioner and priest. My friend and I pleaded my case, hoping he had the authority to override whatever system there was in place that prevented people from getting their own bags once they arrive at the airport, because clearly there was one. His explanation was more of a command really, “Come back at 9:30.” Again, and again, it was “Come back at 9:30.”.

We got a little creative. This fast-thinking buddy of mine politely (and how he managed to stay relatively polite is incredible) asked that we get connected to the Air Asia customer service centre in Kolkata, which wasn’t actually located at the airport.

Man of Few Words gave us the phone number and from that one call, we found out that the Air Asia staff wouldn’t be getting in until 6:30, but he’d request that they arrive an hour earlier than that.

It was around 3pm. Waiting around at the airport was better than fighting with a cabbie to go back, and then hopping on a taxi again a few hours later.

Since the security guards wouldn’t let anyone in without any boarding passes (at the gate, mind you), we ended up at a cafe across the arrival hall on the other side of the street. My friend had a Sprite, I had an overpriced Chai, and we had the longest conversation either of us were expecting to have with one another – two natural introverts thrust into this debacle together and trying to stay calm by having more caffeine.

In fairness to my friend – he was actually, completely calm.

Me, I couldn’t help but wonder the worst, over and over again, which was, that the security guards would never let us in, wouldn’t find someone to help us, and would send us on our way, or keep telling us to come back at 9:30, because it was the meanest thing they could possibly do.

After sitting in the same seats for three hours, we had picked up some fun facts about one another. He, an engineer by trade, was happy to explain how the face masks his business distribute reduce one’s exposure to dangerous toxicity levels in the air. Me, whose trade is the farthest thing from that of an engineer’s, happily nodded in complete agreement.

Time passed a lot faster than I had anticipated, and when we finally decided to make another call to check if the right Air Asia guy was around to get us our luggage, the right guy did come along soon after, bags in hand, an apology offered, and an excuse ready – when I had to ask what in the world happened.

——————————————

That evening, we walked from our hotel to the new mall that was erected nearby. It took us about 20 minutes to get there, though we could have cut the time in half had we not taken strolled slowly. For all the hustle Kolkata is ready to rub in your face, it was a nice change to actually be on foot and witness how the locals unravel in the evening.

I watched old men gather around with chai tea in tiny clay cups, while young boys hugged and fought and zipped around the narrowest of alleys and busiest of streets. There were large, boiling vats of green and yellow curries I couldn’t muster up the courage to try, and skewered, charred sticks of Tandoori chicken that I wish I had.

Meanwhile, the traffic could not have been more congested, and it felt like a game I would eventually lose, sneaking around and in between cars swerving and careening around pedestrians and stray dogs. It’s one thing to be in a cab that is wildly zooming from point A to point B. It’s a whole other experience to avoid such cabs, going both directions, while on foot. Suffice it to say, wherever I could make out a sidewalk, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Of course, traveling with two Caucasian colleagues will inevitably draw attention that I almost never have to deal with to the same extent, anywhere I go. Mine is a face far too ambiguous to place, in a place where there are a million other brown faces vying for attention. Neighborhood kids would flank around Matt and Nate with curious stares and honest, albeit at times, odd, questions. They handle that all with a fair amount of grace.

Walking through a neighborhood in Kolkata brought about, in equal parts, the true grit and chaos I’ve come to expect, along with a surprising vivacity and warmth that I fail to acknowledge whenever my thoughts get warped by my own suspicion.

Chances are, they are equally as suspicious of us.

For really long stretches, we looked to be the only “Americans” around, and by that, I only mean two of us who actually looked the part. I can only imagine it appearing a little strange, our trio of Westerners stealthily snapping mobile photos of their neighborhood.

But in spite of that, those stolen moments of smiles we exchanged between strangers would leave a deeper impression upon me than the gruff, curt kind of response we would receive from those just trying to get by, here, while we were at the mercy of their service.

I can’t speak for my colleagues on how they perceived such contradicting responses from the locals – at times an over-the-top hospitality, and at others, an uncompromising commitment to keeping to the bureaucracy of rules, despite the inconvenience it does to their visitors.

For myself, the least I can do is embrace the ambiguity that comes with being a foreigner. For everything I was told about Kolkata, and Indian society as a whole, beforehand and during this trip, all I can truly trust was what I had experienced myself.

And frankly, it was still very little. There is so much about Kolkata, about India, that I won’t, can’t, begin to cover. Not yet anyway.

I just know that if there were a next time, I’d take it – with a securely covered nose and mouth, and eyes wide open to see everything, for all that is beautiful and broken about this place.

(This entry took an entire day to write, as I’ve been in transit and finally reached Penang a little over an hour ago. It’s been a long trip, and I just needed to get this out there, before I forget.)

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