Calcutta (Kolkata to the locals and travellers)... my first time in India, Germarie's 14th time (all for business, none for travelling in 1 star style). First time for both of us in Calcutta.
First impression of India.... "Holy s***". Sorry, but no other adjective, phrase or other words seem to fit.
First impression of Calcutta... "Holy s*** Batman, what's going on?!?"
I was bewildered and in awe and shock for the first day and a half. As an academic comparrison to what we've seen so far in our trip:
You have the buzz of China and the mass movement of people of South East Asia, but none of the controlled chaos that goes with both.
India (although for now my experience is limited to Calcutta) is many cliches come to life for the first time. We all use cliches, but every now and then we are fortunate enough to experience and/or witness the TRUE meaning of a cliche we have used many times, but never to the extent it was born to be used for. Confused?
Let me give an example:
Cliche: "It's a world apart from..."
Realization: No it's not. Calcutta is a world apart from anything you can possibly imagine.
Cliche: "It's mind blowing"
Realization: An excellent phrase like "mind blowing" deserves a situation where you really feel your mind is physically being stretched as nothing you have as a frame of reference seems to be working.
Imagine taking all your 5 senses (smell, touch, sight, taste and hearing) and throwing them into a box shaped like your brain. Now shake the box and then try to identify the source of each stimulus coming into contact with you from the outside world. You see something, but your mind tells you it's best defined by the sense of smell. You hear something, but your mind tells you it's best defined by your sense of touch.
Still confused? Don't worry, me too.
Please do not confuse these feelings of my distortion and bewilderdness with something negative. It is beyond tags like "negative" or "positive" or "I like" or "I don't like"
This is life in all it's movement and day to day steps for all to see. If you are a fan of life as you think it should be lived, come to India (sorry, Calcutta) and see it as it IS lived without anything covering it up.
If you think you will be freaked out by constant begging (women with babies asking for milk, amputees asking for rice for their families, families living on the street i.e. they go about their day to day existence right there for you to see) or by the total aggressive assault on your senses or the fact that your dormant sixth sense is finally awakened... well then you're right, you will be freaked out.
But then I would suggest that Calcutta is for you. For you can never go back after being reawakened from an easy slumber of what you thought life was all about.
Too many deep thoughts for a first date with India? Maybe. On to the news:
We arrived in India to find we only have 13 days left on our visa to see the North. Hardly enough time. All guidebooks and travel agencies advised us that we need to go out of India and then reapply for a visa and then return (via Nepal or Bangladesh - both a costly choice in terms of money and days). Off we go on our most surreal adventure of Indian bureaucracy.
The Foreigner Regional Office for West Bengal is the place travellers go when they're in trouble or in need of a visa extension IF you have lost your passport. If you have not lost your passport it is "apparantly" impossible to get an extension. We felt we have nothing to lose by asking... nicely.
Enter the old colonial building with two spiral staircases running three floors (is one ever enough?). Ask for visa extension, get a note saying you are asking for visa extension, then go into the room for visa extension. You are called and asked what you want. "Visa extension?" you hear yourself say. "Outside, with the FRO" comes the answer. You don't really understand, but the way it is said indicates you are not in any position to get "pissy" by asking stupid questions like "excuse me, what do you mean".
So you say "thank you sir", get up and walk out hoping your wife understood. As you reach the door she asks you what you hoped she knew... Turn around and ask again, or keep going and hope for the best? Confidently we stride out and back to the reception area and say "the gentleman inside says we need to see the FRO".
Big smile flashes across her face and she says to go upstairs. We wait for a note (of course). We take the note upstairs to 4 guys sitting on benches. They take it, and usher us into a room and ask us to wait. We wait. One guy comes back and says that "he is ready for you".
He leads us to double doors that are opened and in we walk. Please allow me to set the scene a bit. We are two travellers wanting an extension on our visa. This is ussually a request for people in semi-distress (passports lost or stolen) in India and therefore you can expect that the people dealing with such things are usually on the lower half of the bureaucracy ladder. Usually the type of people who get the requests/demands of people and then say "I'll pass it on to my boss, but please don't get your hopes up"
So imagine our suprise when the double doors open and we see a massive airconditioned office with a huge desk, three computers, 4 telephones and one extremely distinguished looking gentleman sitting behind it. Imagine you go to the local mafia guy and want to ask for protection and the next thing you know you're sitting in Don Corleone's office with him staring at you. We look around waiting for someone to say "sorry, wrong office", but he invites us to sit after looking at our passports.
We tell him our story, he looks at our passports, thinks alot, "hmmss" a few times. Asks us what our plans are. Where are we going in India. We say we're on a way home to start a family and to settle down, he asks a few more questions and then with a final "hmmmm" he says that we can stay until the first week in August (already a 10 day extension). We push and say that we were hoping to fly out of Delhi on the 10th of August (giving us exactly one month in North India).
More "hmmms" and some conversation about my job and then he says: "You can stay as long as you want as I think you might not be able to come back to India soon".
"Thank you sir, thank you" both of us are almost speechless, we have done the impossible. Came to the FRO to just make sure it can't be done and then we walk out with 16 extra days!
As we walk to the door he says we need to come back later with confirmed onward flight tickets. We say sure thing.
And then he says... "and when you come back this afternoon, you bring me a souvenir..."
For the next 4 hours we book airtickets and worry/wonder about what "bring me a souvenir" means.
So we got into Don Corleon's office and the Don gave us what we wanted, but just like in the movie (The Godfather), the Don now has us in his pocket.
We find out this afternoon if the visas are all clear and go to collect them. We have no souvenir to give, and we're thinking that cash is probably what's needed most. The challenge now is to figure out how much and how to hand it over...
Our next post is (hopefully) from Varenassi with an overnight train from Calcutta. We'll let you know how it all went.
P.S. Picture is the Taj, but this is not in Calcutta, it was either that or elephants until we get our own photos loaded up.