Rock bottom

In South Asian cities, where addresses are based off of proximity to landmarks rather than numbered locations on uniquely named streets, a quarter-million-dollar education will not help you find the means to explain where you are intending to go to illiterate cab drivers.

I have empirical evidence. 

One guy drove me into the completely wrong corner of the city. At the get go, he was so sure of himself and confident of where he was going. But I knew something was awry because we hadn’t traveled east at all off of the main road. He took me directly south, maybe even southwest. I knew from comparing the route of the car to my memory of looking at the map the night before, that we needed to be in the other corner of the city. 

I didn’t mention anything, because maybe I had absentmindedly missed a turn. Sometimes these cabbies have tricks up their sleeves, too. This guy seemed superbly confident. He was my age and at every red light would pull his whole body out of the window to comb his hair in the driver’s-side rearview. He stopped at two water pumps during our 15 minute journey, once to fill up his water bottles and chat with his friends, and a second time just to chat with his friends. 

He pulled over on the side of the road, turned around, leaning his arm around the back of the front seat and grinned at me like a puppy who had just successfully fetched a bone. And said, neither to my surprise nor dismay, “The Park!

Addresses work as place name (David’s guesthouse), place site (neighborhood, housing community, or landmark such as Jodhpur Park, a community of houses, or Jama Maslij, which means the big mosque), then finally a more general locality or ward in the city. The address where I was trying to go was Sharani Lodge, Hindustan Park, Kalighat. I had the help of 10 other cab drivers and pedestrian onlookers surrounding my cab as I negotiated destination and determined the price. The cabby selectively heard park and drove me to a park he knew of. 

As he leaned over the seats expecting to get paid, I informed him we were not where I had asked to go and gave him the phone with the manager of the guest house I was moving into. The journey continued for another 10 minutes as we laterally crossed town. We arrived and he demanded that his pay– our set price agreed upon when we started–to be doubled.

I politely refused and crafted a series of under-appreciated arguments of why he was rude, arrogant, and inconsiderate to ask for more money. Point a. I had asked to travel on the meter before I got in the cab, but he refused and insisted on a fixed price. Had he granted my wishes in the beginning, his wish to be paid more would have been granted in the end. He didn’t understand my logic. Point b. I asked him who got lost? That got him thinking.  I had paid him the price we agreed, but he still wanted more and got out of the cab and into my face as I was walking into the guesthouse. Point c: I posed a hypothetical scenario: lets say you order a chai. The chai wallah drops the chai at your feet by accident. No chai. The chai wallah gives you another chai and you enjoy it, happily. How many chai do you pay for? One, he said to my delight, but failed to connect the hypothetical to the real. He was very, very angry at me for not compensating him for his mistakes. 

Due the the geographical pinpoint nature of the addressing system here, I’ve been having a lot of trouble getting to my guesthouse in just one go. Today I needed to take three different taxis to get home. It’s amusing thinking about now, but in the moment it’s as if someone is chiseling away at your nerves, your loneliness, and your insecurity. Lost in Kolkata. It sounds like a reality TV show. This game is not for the faint of heart. 

But, the Kolkata taxi game has an element of what I know as the ‘Mario-Cart effect.’ Mario Cart is a Nintendo 64 video game that has retained its popularity ever since it captured way too much of the idle time of way too many kids in the western world in the late 1990s. When you are losing really badly in Mario Cart, you start getting great power ups that help you get back in the lead, such as lightning that makes all other vehicles miniature so you can squash them! Although in Kolkata, the squashing happens without magic lightning. I cringe when I hear screeching breaks and gasp to catch my breath when the screech absorbs back into regular traffic sounds rather than crescendos into an ugly a crunch. Today I saw a lady on a moped get hit by a car. I’ve also drawn invisible lines between lamed and amputee beggars and hurtling buses that thrust across intersections with neglectful speed. 

When you are close to the breaking point in the Kolkata taxi game, the drivers seem to know it and do their best work with you to get you where you need to go without ripping you off. My spark-notes tip: older taxi drivers. They more often than not resort to using the meter without being asked, so there’s no ambivalence or bargaining required. They know more about the city and where you might want to be going and they don’t drive too fast in these rickety machines that are literally sometimes held together by cardboard, rubber bands, and duct tape.

The city taxi fleet is comprised of HM Ambassadors, an iconic Indian car. They are just as common, probably more abundant than, yellow cabs in New York. They look more yellow in contrast to the backdrop of rotting colonial buildings, tangles of black telephone and electrical wires, and plenty of dirt and grit. They are all outdated and give you a feeling that you’ve traveled back to 1985. Admittedly, I wouldn’t know what 1985 looked like, being -5 at the time. But I’ve heard repeatedly that there are cities like this–Havana, Cairo, Montevideo–that seem to be stuck in a time warp.

As a result, wifi connectivity is more difficult than you might expect to come by. I spent the morning this morning at Vodafone. I was told that I could get outfitted with a zip drive that held a simcard with data capability and give me internet access on the fly with my laptop. Easy. 

Not easy. It’s notoriously difficult to get a sim card in India without a resident reference or a ready supplied sim card through your job, school or business. I did my homework and came into Vodafone with references, passport copies, photographs, and all the relevant documentation in hand. I waited for 45 minutes as they fumbled over my forms, clearly confused by the logical organization of United States addresses. So how far is 38 Occom from the Big Mosque? 

I signed the document, but then the whole process was denied because my signature did not match the signature on my passport. My passport was issued in 2007. That was 7 years ago. I had never worked a job in my life, I never had signed for anything in my life. I wrote my name down next to my blemish and acne filled pubescent face and called it at day, probably ecstatic to get out of the passport issuing office and get myself a cheeseburger.

Little did I know then that I should have tried harder to come up with the definitive signature I’d use for the rest of my life because one day, about 6 years and 11 months from now, some guy in a Vodafone store in South Kolkata, India won’t grant you a little microchip so you can briefly time travel back to the future and write some emails. Do you follow? 

I asked for the manager of the store and pitched a—this time more appreciated—argument about how ruthlessly illogical their reason was. I asked a lady browsing in the store if there was any resemblance between the (2007) picture on my passport and the (2013) picture on my India Visa. She said, no not at all. Right. I’ve grown up and my face has changed. My hands have probably changed too, and as a result I can’t write the same way that I wrote when I was a 17 year old. In fact, I am probably not the same person who wrote that awful scribble on the page, 7 years and 33% of my life ago. 

For the economists reading this, I figured I’d get more utility out of being mad and starting an argument (I was convinced of their illogical stupidity and was determined to tell them how I felt) than I would from peacefully and calming resolving the issue so I left the store and got in the first of a sequence of three cabs back to my temporary home.

I tried to take the Buddhist approach: worldly desires lead to suffering. So avoid worldy desires. But honestly, Buddha lived in a very different time. I sort of envy him for that; I think he had an easier platform to start from.

I needed to book a plane ticket and organize the immediate months of my life and nowadays that all takes place in the arena of abstract space on the web. The internet is an integral part of our lives now. In fact our lives exist on it. Until you take a trip to Kolkata, you have no idea how marvelously convenient Starbucks and wifi connections in cafes are. 

I regrouped and headed into the city center for another stab at it. I serendipitously ran into two wonderful Canadian girls who brightened my day over lunch. Unfortunately they are leaving for Thailand tomorrow. 

I solved the problem after lunch. I found a roundabout way to put the data capabilities for internet on my phone sim card then only had to buy the hardware of the zip drive to connect all the pieces. I just have to take the sim card out of my phone and put it in my computer when I want the internet. 

I wrote a long and thoughtful post about my train trip from Varanasi to Kolkata and the discomfort of being confronted face to face with poverty and begging in India. It was written out on the blog when I was offline and it, to my devastation, nothing saved and the window deleted, so I love everything. 

That was one event in a long strains that could have been featured in a chapter of a Lemony Snicket, Series of Unfortunate Events books. This was after I had my body whooped by a bout of severe Delhi Belly, had slept for 36 hours, listened to one street dog probably kill another street dog suffering while suffering on the toilet, and couldn’t stop thinking about how many days I’d rot in this cheap hotel room in Kolkata before anyone found my dehydrated corpse. It was bad, really bad. The low point of the year. Rock bottom.

In the days before, I was doing well. I was happy to have moved on from Varanasi as much as I enjoyed my time at Kriti Gallery. I was connecting with Dr. Asish Kumar Ghosh, who is a 76 year old professor and one of India’s preeminent environmentalists at his home which doubles as India’s Center for the Environment and Development. He’s a yoda like figure—in mindset and stature. More to follow on him later, he’s well worthy of a full post.

I had gotten involved with the Kolkata Jungle Crows Rugby Team which takes a huge percentage of impoverished kids and gives them important motivation and structure in their lives. The crows also have a foundation which introduces rugby to rural villages and holds training camps. They traveled to a village on the fringes of the Sundarban on Saturday, a place right in line with my project research and I was crushed to have missed that. I also spent hours and energies getting my Bangladesh visa issued. That afternoon to celebrate, my body decided to rearrange interior decorations and put everything inside, outside in the most violent and abrupt means possible. 

Here are some of the themes that I talked about in the post that was lost:

Although Varanasi is 1/10th of the size of Mumbai, Delhi, or Kolkata, the station is the most hectic of all I’ve seen. It’s a pilgrimage city and the train is the common man’s vehicle so that made sense. But people were everywhere. It was like being at an urban park on a Sunday afternoon, but it was a tuesday night. There were groups sitting around on every free square foot of the platforms floor. You had to tiptoe within bodies to get around. Although trains were coming and going from the 6 platforms, there was an atmosphere of stagnancy. 

I was thankful that I had taken long distance trains before, being in the heartland of India in Uttar Pradesh there were no english signs or call-markers that predicted where certain carriages would show up. The trains are devilishly long so I aim to be in the general location of where the carriage will arrive. Here in Varanasi there was no marker so I plopped down right in the middle of the station and watched time pass around me. 

I remember watching a fly dance around. It landed on my arm, then I followed it onto a shoeless sweeper lady, at the bottom rung of the caste system, then onto a handsome elderly couple that were sitting facing each other, creating an intimate moment among the chaos, not saying a word while sharing a bag a grapes that was resting upon their basically empty and airy suitcase. I felt at peace just sitting on the track watching the world unravel as it should.

My personal reality came rushing back as as stubbed hand was forced in front of my nose.

Situations such as these are some of the hardest I’ve had to navigate in India. As someone who has grown up in the world and been granted everything, I feel that I’m not allowed to say, act, or do anything to move beggars, who were born into opposite luck, away from me.

I also think that giving one individual money is more of a neglect of the real problems and causes of poverty. It reinforces a mentality that they can live another day off begging rather than trying to make structural and systemic changes to improve the lives poor people lead in general. Also, if I gave one person 10 rupees, then I should give 10 rupees to every person who begs, theres a point where I myself run out and need to beg myself. Over the past two days I read Nobel Peace Prize winner Professor Younes’s autobiography, A Banker for the Poor about his work starting Grameen Bank to give micro loans to incredibly impoverished women in Bangladesh with great interest. 

There was one point at the Agra Train Station, where a legless kid my age stood in front of me for five full minutes looking piercingly right into me. I alternated between looking at him (I couldn’t stare at him too long without feeling condescending) and looking around the station away from him (I didn’t want to seem like I was ignoring his existence). I refused to move or walk away, because this kid was just one example of many millions of lives that exist and it’s something that needs to be confronted rather than run away from. My Dad was standing there a notch behind me and can attest to the difficulty of finding the best way to act. 

Some of the sights of deformations and poverty, especially some of the first times I witnessed such things in Mumbai outside the Haji Ali Mosque, or the deformed man who followed me back to my hotel on bike in Kochi have stuck with me since I witnessed them and sometimes even follow me into my dreams.

After the lady with the stubbed and burned hand walked away, I continued to sit. I felt a presence in the corner of my eye. I looked to my right and jumped as nose to nose, a bull walks right by me. Even in one of the most crowded places in the world, there’s room for the sacred cow.

The 16 hour train ride was great. The first four hours were spent in the right berth, but on the wrong carriage. I found my correct bed and the conductor came along and—in his broken english—spoke uncomfortably loudly to be very, very careful with my belongings, seemingly bringing more attention to the presence of an outsider, than I had brought upon myself.

The full moon shone bright through the window of the train, a comforting beacon of light as I whisked through the unknown darkness of rural India. I woke up at sunrise to the familiar sights of West Bangal—water, palm trees, and rice paddies punctuated by statue-like laborers outlined in the mist of the morning. 

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