In the blink of an eye, it has been nearly seven years since my first trip to India. It was also my first extended backpacking trip to a developing country, after weekend getaways to nearby Thailand and Indonesia during the days I was in Singapore for a school program.
India left a great impression on me. As the Chinese saying goes, the learnings from a ten-thousand mile journey is far greater than that from reading ten-thousand scrolls. I learnt a lot, true enough, about life, for a twenty-year old student anyway.
I was not able to my friends why I was going to India for five weeks. Well, I did not have to anyway. It was my own life, my time, my journey. I gave some practical reasons: I had a six week semester break and could only afford one air ticket; I wanted to be able to spend five weeks in one country to save costs; I wanted to go somewhere exotic… But deep down there were other reasons that I did not discover until I embarked on this journey.
While I was waiting to board my flight from Singapore to Kolkata at the llounge in the almost-perfect Changi Airport, I wondered what kind of a place India would be. For a cultural civilization thousands of years strong in today’s world, how much of the old remains and how much of the new has taken over? How do Indians view foreigners? What is the India way of doing things?
I had actually put six fifty-dollar notes into my shoes and wore them for the entire trip (with a plastic envelope around it to protect it from my sweat), just in case of any emergency. Paranoid, yes, but you never know!
The passengers on board Air India Express were 99% Indian. I did not spot any Caucasians. My one hand had too many fingers to count all the Chinese on board. The cabin crews served a hot meal with a big samosa, a box of mango juice and some chai tea at the end. I was really going to India, I told myself. The afternoon flight cruised over three countries, Thailand, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, before finally touching down in Kolkata in the early evening.
Kolkata Dum Dum International Airport. This airport makes Changi Airport perfect. It was a very basic and rundown terminal. The plane took its parking position close to the terminal where we walked down the stairs onto the tarmac. The last time this happened was back around 1997 at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, but then we had a bus transport the passengers to the terminal. Here, we walked into the terminal, lights were dim, signage was few if any, and it felt as if our flight was the only one arriving at this hour. I would have thought we had landed at a military airport judging by the building’s design! The name of the airport sounded quite apt too.
I cleared immigration with my pre-arranged travel visa done at Tekka Center in Singapore’s Little India. As friends and family greeted loved ones, I also had my unexpected line up of “greeters” welcoming myself into one of their taxis. I settle for one who would use the meter, but found myself getting off of it as quickly as I boarded when he quoted 490 Rupees as he started driving off slowly out of the carpark. Furious with this warm welcome, I walked right back into the airport terminal, where in refuge, I found the prepaid taxi counter secured me a 130 Rupee fare to Dum Dum train station.
Chaotic traffic. But heck, I survived it. Eventually I come to realize slow and busy traffic is much safer than sparse and high speed traffic, the latter of which is very accident prone. At the train station, I quickly found my way to the train headed for Park Street, in the heart of Kolkata.
I saw a seat and sat without thinking twice, but noticed after a short while, as the Soviet-style subway car (there was not much interior design) slammed its metal doors shut with a deafening loud bang at each stop, that I was facing a row of ladies seated neatly across from me. Only when an old lady got off her seat and got off the train did I see a “Ladies Only” sign perched somewhere behind the seated passengers. Oops!
It’s very easy to miss your stop if you are not paying attention. The doors start to open as the train approaches the platform and are fully opened before the train completely stops. Two seconds later it slams shut and immediately departs again. My destination was Sudder Street, 6 Rupees from Dum Dum.