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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Do-Over

Day 21, 500 words, 31 days.

The days here are getting longer. My body is telling me it’s 3 in the morning, but somehow my mind won’t shut down. It’s probably best I turn in soon, and but I won’t, without looking back at my day and where it all went.

For most of the day, I sat in the same spot and “tweeted” and Facebook-posted and practiced all the theoretical principles I preached earlier on in the week about using social media. It doesn’t really feel like work when I do the aforementioned things only when I feel compelled to do so. But when I’m doing it non-stop for an entire day, then I remember that it’s actually my job, and I better do it well.

My credibility depends on it. As does my team.

We started earlier than the day before, and we finished much later. The sun had officially set by the time the last of our workshop participants trickled out of the conference room with us. It was about dinner time, and we didn’t try very hard to think up a different place to go this evening, so we re-traced our steps back to the Forum mall we had gone to the night before.

This time around, though, I brought my camera with me – the Canon D20 DSLR my wife had inherited from her brother, which I then inherited from her. It’s a bulky camera with a broken flash and a screen comparable to the size of that which you find on a “dumbphone”. But, it’s the camera that I use anyway, and it is well-loved.

I decided to test out taking panning shots by the side of the road. Surprisingly, the side that we were on hardly had any cars on it, so I felt safe being on the street. I had to ask my pro photo-buddies to assist me with the technical details – as I had already forgotten how to shoot these shots. We actually had a new friend join us in the evening, a world photographer, as he would describe himself, and he was testing out the Fuji camera Matt had leant him.

So there we were, the four of us taking panning shots on the side of the street over and over, with locals passing by, staring at our odd collection of tall foreigners (minus myself, that is), shooting slow-moving “Ambassador” cabs and taking up too much space.

At one point, I started feeling that we were probably a bit of spectacle ourselves and so I wanted to move on a bit further from the rest of the group and conspicuously shoot my shots, the way I always do, hardly making the effort to talk to strangers and ask for permission to take pictures of people. But my friends’ boldness to do so was encouraging, and challenging, and compelled me, at least, to try.

There was the girl selling grilled corn whom I didn’t manage to take a picture of, and the guys at the shop making some kind of sweet, local delicacy whom I did, though, accidentally – I was actually trying to take a picture of their fryers, but one of the men noticed what I was up to and raised his arms wide, totally photo-bombing my photo, and in turn, saving it from being utterly banal and completely lifeless.

It ended up being a blurry picture but I liked it the most. It made me laugh.

I’m learning to enjoy photography again, and perhaps it’s because I’ve stopped putting pressure on myself to be great at it. I’m perfectly ok with being good enough, which isn’t something I can say for most things I pursue. It might have to do with the fact that I’m around guys far more experienced about the craft than I am, that I figured, instead, to approach photography as though I was learning it all over again, rather than having to show how much of it I already knew.

And it’s absolutely more freeing for me this way. I’m not obsessing over taking the perfect photo. I’m delighting in the process of finding a good one worth taking. I’m curious to see if I’ll stumble upon an unexpected story, freezing all these moments in time to see what I captured, even if, it turns out I actually missed everything.

Really, the more meaningful thing for me, is that I’ve remembered to stay curious. That I’m ready and willing just to learn it all, all over again.

That, in this particular way, I have nothing more to prove.

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.

Luggage

Day 19, 500 words, 31 days

In transit, Kolkata-bound.

Things went from bad to worse, very quickly.

Our flight was delayed from Penang to Kuala Lumpur by half an hour. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if we had just one flight to take, but we were catching another from KL to Kolkata, and we were officially cutting it very close.

When we did arrive to KL, we realized right away that the luggage we checked in wasn’t arriving anytime soon. We still had to re-check our luggage in for our flight to India, but we only had 15 minutes until boarding. After pleading our case with an Air Asia employee (which wasn’t getting anywhere), we decided that the best alternative was to have our luggage sent to India, without us, so we could catch our plane. We’d just have to find a way to pick it up the next day in Kolkata.

I still have no idea if our bags will be delivered to us, or if we’re heading back to the airport. I’m not sure if we’re getting them at all.

All I have are the clothes on my back, and all my work equipment – as in, camera, phone, Macbook. Thankfully, I have with me some leisure devices – an iPod I loaded up last night and my book, “Bird by Bird”. But I’m three-fourths of the way in it and I fear it won’t last me the rest of the week.

That of course, is a minor problem, compared to the larger one at hand – not having our stuff with us.

I’m trying to exercise a healthy perspective here. We’ve been “assured” that it will arrive in Kolkata, though when, we don’t exactly know. My luggage is just filled with clothes, and clothes are expendable. It’s a minor inconvenience, more an annoyance really, that I don’t have a fresh change of clothes tomorrow, but I’ll live. It’s not like I’m breaking much of a sweat by sitting on a four-hour flight.

These are just, things, that we’re missing. And if all goes well, not having them would only be temporary. As far as our traveling mishap goes, I suppose it could have been worse. We could have missed our flight entirely and ended up losing an entire day of work.

But we’re off to India with nothing more than what we have strapped to our backs. I didn’t envision packing this “light” on the first night, of course, and yet, I’m dealing with this unforeseen hurdle about as well as I could, considering I have no extra underwear to spare.

My friend, Nathan, and I actually managed to laugh off this misfortune, somehow finding the humour in the hypothetical event that we managed to miss our flight. We didn’t, of course, and that makes it funnier, and yet, we have another hurdle to cross tomorrow and I can only hope to take that in stride as well as I have, this one.

I’m proud of myself for not losing my cool. I just felt like I was at the mercy of a flawed system and figured it best to resign myself to any other inconveniences that might come our way.

Because maybe we don’t get our bags until tomorrow evening. If so, chances are I’ll be a sticky, smelly mess by day’s end. Of course, I can’t help but hope that’s the extent of my problems tomorrow. If the Lord could bestow extra mercy upon me and help me just get through the morning. A sudden surge of energy and optimism, supplemented by a  strong cup of black coffee, an air of unfamiliar confidence, and enough interesting points on my presentation to outweigh the unhelpful . Or at least, to make the apparent “unhelpful”, appear a little less so.

My stomach is now grumbling like a rabid animal , and I haven’t even really eaten anything all evening. A single sugar donut, followed by black coffee and a granola bar, do not, a proper dinner, make.

It’s 11:40 in the evening and the unsightliness of the fluorescent lighting the plane has to offer is killing any attempts at relaxation. If this is Air Asia’s idea of lulling us to sleep, I might have some suggestions. I’m not sure how long the snack delivery is going to take, but I’m praying that it wraps up soon so we can hit the off-switch on the lights.

Because it’s time for me to let it all go. Most of all, my consciousness. It needs a bit of a break.

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1 am. The break was short-lived.

It’s fun watching people sleep on planes. The lady that was next to me earlier managed to get herself an aisle seat across from me and proceeded to plop her face on a plastic bag. One man looked downright worshipful, with both of his hands pressed upon his face as though his sleep weren’t merely a state of unconsciousness but a spiritual experience.

Me, I sit straight up, arms crossed, and elbows in, slipping in and out of a daze. At times my eyes droop heavy and are hardly open. But right now – I’m wide awake.

I should be grateful that we’re gaining about an hour and a half of sleep once we arrive. But because the sleep cycles are broken up, it might not matter. I’m preparing for a rough, zombie-like morning, and I can only hope our workshop participants are especially gracious hosts.

Considering that I’m even on a plane, thousands of miles above sea level, en route to a place I’ve never been, these sort of inconveniences won’t undermine the gift of travel. Perhaps these aren’t the perks of the job, but I hope, still, in the surprises that await us, whenever we packs our bags and go.