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Kolkata (Calcutta)

[from early December:]

Goodbye to the miniature train community and into an old-fashioned taxi styled after the British round-bumper, crank-down-the-window town cars. Maybe it’s a literal left-over from occupation days, now worn from pushing through chaotic traffic. The truth is that I’m thrilled to be in it, crossing the illuminated Howrah Bridge and passing though Kolkata’s almost-NYC-feel streets. There are some moments when you are thrown out of yourself, an “I am in India!” feeling, where the scene slows and snaps into its own experiential photograph. Any stress becomes worth it.

I’ve heard that Kolkata is a city of the arts, and I am not disappointed. There are enormous museums, a little too hectic for my capabilities at this point; I never made it to the extensive Delhi ones, either. And parks with clusters of cricket games and picnickers. One of my fellow guest house resident’s is here to study the tabla, a difficult drum to learn; most players begin as children if their father is a musician. This lanky hippie man confirms my quiet hope that music events are happening every day in the city. The truth is that I won’t go to any of the concerts either. I love India, in some ways I feel more comfortable here than in the States, but my capacity for stimulation can be maxed out by a walk.

The small foreigner area concentrated on Sudder Street has several bookstores (along with the best naan I’ve ever had and a shop with tacky shiny plastic Christmas decorations): not just books-added-for-foreigners kind of places, proper ones that support the foreigner crowd but aren’t soulless.  Books in India are disproportionately priced; a new book costs as much as a hotel room. One spot has a mixture of new and old books wedged into wooden creaky shelves, some stacked in the corners.The squat man in white with a scruffy beard brightly points out the cheapest Hindi guide; he tells me that his father owned the shop before him, that it’s been there for sixty years. I break through the dramatic haggling over a trade for a popular travel story, Holy Cow, with an American “I like your bookstore and would like to buy it from you, and I think that 200 rupees is a decent price!” He proudly beams, and accepts.

Life in Sleeper Class (a.k.a. O Christmas Chai)


For the twenty-five-hour journey from Delhi to Kolkata, I promise myself the upper side berth, a precious commodity with a guaranteed window seat during the day and a slight privacy advantage at night. I’ll watch the Delhi plains turn into Bengali woodland and think deep thoughts.

I’ve just settled into my forward-facing window spot when a young woman arrives with a baby and a giant suitcase. It’s a movie moment: her hopeful look and my hopefully-hidden hope that she is just passing through before adjusting to make space for her on the bench.

Maybe she does have a seat somewhere, and is waiting for everyone to settle in first.

My Hindi is still terrible but we can communicate without much language, giving the general idea of who we are, where we come from, why we are on this particular train in early December and subjecting ourselves to long distance land travel. The bench is not quite six feet long; I’m on the end, then the baby, then her, then a man who appears to be in his thirties and not at all traveling with them.

The first round of chai begins, and biscuits come out (I can’t remember who starts that, but we pass around different packages to dip into the hot milk tea). The rest of the people in our open-air section are men, but they seem to be respectful, even smiling and waving at the baby (who is able to sit up but not walk, so how old would she be?).

The train has officially been moving for a bit now, and that’s that. The young mother is one of those in-between passengers who have a ticket but no seat assignment. I pull my bags from beneath the lower side berth where we’ve been sitting and one of our “cabin” (non-enclosed section of eight berths) mates lifts my backpack up onto the upper one. We wedge the young woman’s suitcase under the berth, and it’s official. I leave my shoes below with her suitcase and climb, stepping from a bunk-bed-bar to another berth, into my side berth. We pass snacks up down across between. I make silly faces at the baby and the mother laughs. Then more chai and biscuits.

To some, it might look like she took advantage of us by joining our compartment-area. But to have that thought means that you come from a particular cultural background. In the West, your ticket is your ticket, and you sit in your spot, and anyone who does otherwise is being rude. In India, sure, there are assigned seats, but that’s only a guideline and, in reality, if there’s a person who needs somewhere to sit — they sit, and everyone makes space. There isn’t the same sense of property and privacy.

Marie, the best of the India foreign travelers, arrives: a slender woman in a salwar kameez taking one of the upper berths on the other side of our compartment-area. I love her frank cheerful attitude; her stories and persona brighten our space.

This is, of course, a twenty-five (in reality, twenty-seven) hour train journey, so the cycle repeats itself. Sharing stories, offering food, the repetitive sounds of chai-wallahs moving down the aisle. Marie makes noises and smiles at the child. At one point, the mother steps away, leaving us to monitor her baby for a few minutes, and I ponder community.

Night settles in and activity in the train fades into light blankets spread under stretched-out legs. Someone lightly snores on the floor space between the opposing berths; it’s as if there’s been a massive sleepover party on wheels. A baby in an adjacent compartment-area cries, and I think about how we have the best, quietest baby on the train.

Rounds of good mornings, and then breakfast. I’m reading, writing, thinking in my little cubicle, trying to not remember how long I’ve been on the train.

We have another round of chai, we’ve been taking turns to pay like a round of beer in a pub, and Marie succeeds in getting everyone in our compartment-area to take a cup. “Do you want chai, take a chai, it’s Christmas, o Christmas chai” — and everyone smiles and laughs and dunks biscuits.

When people from different cultures interact with open minds, their ways of living can rub off on each other. I am still a little too loud, oh American self, a little more friendly than a woman in India would be, but, like extra people on the train, that is accommodated. And, in turn, we foreign travelers pick up the head wobble, the chai rhythms, and the food-pushing.

Happy Life.

[I set the blog aside to work on other projects, but am taking it up again after the encouragement of a good friend. Thanks, Jenn.]

Here’s the Story

A year ago this week, I graduated from university in Chicago: that’s more than a year as a nomad (at less than three weeks in the same spot), ten months since I first landed in India, and one since I’ve settled in the Himalayas.

Thank you for reading.

In December, I left Kolkata for Thailand and two confusing, adventurous, odd months in Southeast Asia before acknowledging that I had done what I set out to do and booking it back to the other side of the globe.

In April, after flopping around a bit in the States and wondering about the purpose of my life, I boarded a plane for Delhi with my regular gear, plus seventeen books, two pairs of jeans (luxury), three boxes of tea, two proper mugs, a deflated exercise ball…a normal-person move.

I’m back to develop further gender and sexuality workshops for Indian youth with my co-facilitator from the fall. Here to read, write, immerse, and learn, to ponder potential solidarity with gender movements and education in India . I’ll pick up with the stories again, with more insight into social dynamics and the quirks of life.

Developing an ebook on travel experiences of gender and sexuality in India, grounded in this blog — will keep you posted!

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