Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A Stupid American Travels to India

Calcutta in the 80s is now Kolkata, but Howrah and Dum Dum are the same.  Uluberia you can see in the red line.
When I was 19, I decided to travel to India.  God was involved and my church and my father, but I was the one determined to go.  I was planning on going to a Christian school in India, so I filled out the long application in plenty of time and sent it off, waiting to hear if I was accepted.  In the meantime, I got my passport and shots, arranged for the finances and waited.  And waited.  It was 1985 and international mail to third world countries was just terrible.  A week before the school was supposed to start, I was still waiting.  I told my parents that I guess I wasn't going to hear back, so I wasn't going to go.  I was severely disappointed.  I was ready, really ready to go, but nothing.

You saw this coming.  Four days before the school was supposed to start, I received an acceptance letter on onion skin paper.  I paced like I've never paced before in my life.  I'm pretty sure I burned a hole in the carpet.  And I decided to go.  I packed quickly... (should I take a camera?  Absolutely.  Should I take my electric typewriter?  Of course! What about my boom box?  Oh yeah... with a set of cassettes.) Before I left I got all my money in traveler's cheques and sent a wire to the school in Calcutta when my flight was scheduled to arrive. I climbed aboard the plane and I was quite nervous (my first plane trip), but the take off was fun.  Like a rollercoaster. (Landings still bother me.) Then I was off to San Francisco.

I had to go to SF to get my visa and that was where the Indian Embassy was on the west coast of the U.S.   I landed in the SF airport, got a taxi who drove me in circles for a while before dropping me off at the embassy.  I marched in at 9 in the morning, went to the counter and said I wanted a visa.  He said, "Fine, no problem.  Just leave your passport with us and we'll get you a visa in a week."  No, you don't understand, I explained.  I need one today.  I'm supposed to go to school in just a few days.  "I'm sorry," he politely explained, "but our policy is that it takes a week."  "Why?" I said in my best pushy American accent (my normal one).  "You are here.  The stamp is here.  I'm sure you can work this out."  He said firmly, "No. It takes a week."  I thought for a moment and said, "Okay.  I understand.  Well, the next place I go to is India.  So I'll just sit here in front of you until my visa is ready."

And I sat there all day.  I had snacks in my suitcase (I had no where to put it), so I was good.  At five o clock the embassy was closing.  And they handed me my passport back with the visa in it, glad to be rid of me, I suppose.

Back on a plane, with a stop at Korea and another in Thailand. Overseas plane rides are quite long and quite dull.  Nowadays we have computers and hand held devices, but then, you read a book. I brought a collection of short stories by Saki.  You might be able to read, assuming you could focus on the book amidst the babies crying, people talking around you and (God forbid!) to you.  The food was delicious.  Really.  American flights are awful for food.  But on Thai Air, it was wonderful, and everyone was so polite and... well, it was my first flight.  If it weren't for the length, I would have loved it.

Finally, I arrived in Thailand, ready to get my next flight to Calcutta.  Unfortunately, it was monsoon season, so the Dum Dum airport (yes, that's the name of the Calcutta airport) was washed out.  So the airline would put me up in a hotel for the night.  So my first night in Asia... my first night out of North America... was in a five star hotel with a wonderful breakfast, all paid for by the airline.  Things have really changed since 1985.

The next day, caught the flight to the Dum Dum airport (how can I not say that airport name as often as possible) and arrived promptly in India. As I walked off the plane, down the runway to the airport, the humidity is what really struck me.  In the face.  Like a hard slap. I am from Southern California, so I'm used to desert heat, but this humidity is something I'd never experienced.  Completely oppressive.  I was unfazed, though, I had stuff to do.

I proudly showed immigration my brand new visa, and then went to customs.  Customs was confused as to what to do with my electronics.  They weren't sure what the electric typewriter was until I took off the cover.  They weren't impressed at all.  Instead, they explained in a strong Indian accent-- well, it wasn't strong at all, as I was later to find out, his English was excellent and quite understandable-- that if I was interested in taking these items out of India, I had to make sure that I had this receipt he was going to give me, otherwise I would have to pay a tariff on them, which was quite expensive.  I made sure to place that receipt carefully in my suitcase, next to the electronics, to make sure I had it when I left the country six months later.

Free of the lines, I looked for anyone holding a sign or looking for a blonde-haired-blue-eyed American with a funny looking hat.  I looked and waited and no one was there.  I was disappointed.  I really thought that someone would meet me.  After all, I wired them almost a week ago.  And I'm sure that they called the airport to find out the flight was delayed.  But this was the day before the school was about to start.  Perhaps they were too busy.  So I went to the taxi station.

A lot more taxis now than there used to be.
"Hello!" I called out to all the drivers in line, as if I were an older woman looking for a servant.  "Excuse me?  Could any of you take me to Uluberia?"  One driver had enough wherewithall to quickly say, "Yes, yes, I'll take you" while the others were trying to understand what I said.  "Where?"  I repeated, "Uluberia"  I showed him the school address and he took it to the other taxi drivers who gathered around discussing where this insane American wanted to be driven to.  One man seemed to know just where to go, so he explained it to my driver. "Okay," my driver says and motions me to get in the taxi.  I put my suitcase on my lap and we headed off.

Meantime, the school I was attending was in an uproar.  They had just received my wire, about the time I had climbed into that taxi.  The school was run by an American, a woman from Darjeeling and a Filipino.  Of course, they had no phone they were in a village about fifteen miles away from the city, and it would be an all day trip on the train for them to get to Calcutta and back. But one of them agreed to go the the city and look in all the main hotels to see where I was.  They had a prayer meeting where they pleaded with God for my safety.

I really appreciate those prayers because I realized that this wasn't just a trip from downtown to the suburbs.  After we got out of the city, there was only one lane per road.  So if there was any cross traffic, like, say, a bus, we had to get off the road and wait for them to pass.  It was soon dark and we were still driving.  After two hours I wondered how long this was going to really take.  And I was in a desperate state, in need of a bathroom.  Every time a bus passed us, especially when it was dark and there wasn't enough room on the side of the road to pull off, I found that I almost relieved myself there.  Frankly, there didn't seem to be any rules for driving on these roads at all.  But they still didn't drive very quickly, it seemed to me. 

Another hour later, they slowed down, rolled down their window, and asked a man "Uluberia?"  He said something, but they seemed satisfied.  They then asked him about the "Mission House" where the school was.  He shook his head no.  They asked three more people until they finally found someone who knew.  They rolled up at a gate with a sign on one side of it, "Uluberia Mission House".  I gratefully got out of the back of the car with my suitcase and stretched my legs.  The gate was closed and it took five minutes for my driver to explain what was going on to the guard at the gate.  I could imagine the conversation didn't make me look too good.

The gate eventually opened and a white face came out to meet me.  "Are you Steve Kimes?"  I said that I was.  "I can't believe it!  We were just praying for you!  Did you take a taxi here?"  Yes, I replied, from the airport.  "Really?  I don't think anyone has taken a taxi from Calcutta to Uluberia before! Why didn't you take the train?"  The answer to that was, of course, I had no idea about trains being a thing in India.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you," I said breathlessly, "But I could really use a bathroom."  "Of course" the white man said and led me to his quarters and indicated a door.  On the other side of the door there was not a bathroom.  There was, however, a hole with bricks on either side of it.  I stared at it for a while.  Not sure what to do, but too desperate to  think about it too long, I sat down on the hole and relieved myself. 

Feeling much better, I went to the main room and told him, "Did you know there's no toilet paper in there?"

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