04.03.2007 29 °C
A foray northwards in search of Georgetown, the original colonial area and Britains first toehold in India established in 1640, revealed a few architectural wonders of notably Islamic influence but all in all Chennai in 36 degree heat was more work than it was worth it seemed. It was a shame that I had almost accidentally reached this far south and yet with a plane to catch had no time to do the place justice. But then as was noted during conversation at Broadlands the night previous, travel wasnt necessarily that hard in India, it just always required lots of time. Chennai Beach station revealed hints of a working port rather than more sand and so out of time I jumped on a local train for Trisulam and the airport after a halfway pit stop to grab my bag. The shiny A320 of IndiGo looked brand new and the uniquely short skirted hostesses commensurately inexperienced. The seat backs read "Use Seat Bottom Cushion for Flotation", which was a departure from "Life Belt Under Your Seat". I couldnt tell if it was just a colourful translation from the Hindi (dubbed Hinglish) or if it was another new cost cutting measure that you didnt even get a life vest these days, you grabbed a cushion and clung on!
And so I was swapping one rather demanding Indian city sprawl for an even bigger one, Calcutta. Calcutta had a special place in the hearts of Indians as the original capital before Delhi, the base from which the Raj had eventually ruled all of India after the establishment of the first East India Company post there under Job Charnock in 1690, building Fort William in 1699. It was then in 1715 that a negotiation with the Delhi Moghuls sealed its rise. It was only with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 that Bombay then began to find favour, Calcutta lost the opium trade and her moment of glory was over.
In spite of it already being dark in Kolkata though a more welcoming 24 degrees, I pursued another exercise in bloodymindedness by walking out past the persistent rickshaw and taxi touts in search of a bus. Despite the promises of the guidebook, the metro had not yet been extended out to the airport and so I fell upon the advice of some Tourist Office bureaucrat short on help but not lacking in bullshit. He wanted me to sit down and fill in his guestbook just for handing me a useless map, sprinkled liberally with advice on how to buy a bus ticket ie. give the boy your money, just so that seemingly it might prove that he actually did something to justify his post. Disorientated in the dark, the wait for the correct bus afforded me just enough time to appreciate my madness before it materialised. Just an ordinary battered affair from the outside, the bus turned out to be like no other I had ever seen, and I have seen a few. With seats only along the walls facing inwards towards each other, people sat amid brightly painted and ornate wood panelling, twinkling multi-coloured lights and with a Hindu shrine pride of place behind the cockpit. Tired and intimidated I should have been, but moreover the suitably brightly dressed local women were fantastic, I could have been riding the stairway to heaven. I was eventually thrown off too late for the metro station at Dum Dum but found it anyway, this is where the infamous exploding headed bullets of WWI notoriety were manufactured and hence retained the name.
Calcutta's metro was showing its age, it had been cutting edge back in 1984 for India, but it still got me to Sudder Street the main backpacker hangout where the scum factor was as surprising as the plethora of street dwellers, barefoot manual rickshaw wallahs and giant cockroaches. With rooms at a premium I endured a real hovel of a dorm that night where the skeeters provided a hearty welcome along with street noise, fighting cats and my neighbourly mosques 5am wake up call. The Maria Hotel, muslim owned, had a no booze policy and 11pm lockout, you had to wonder if they understood who their customers were, and it actually proved to be an insight of sorts as to just how bad things could get. All the more reason not to stay. The descent into absolute squalor was rather betrayed first in its patronage by the stereotype of a loose gaggle of young oriental guys, it was strange how young dudes from affluent Japan or Korea always seemed to travel on an extreme hardcore basis spending as little as absolutely possible. They hard certainly found their match in this place and you had to wonder how any kind of establishment could allow itself to descend into the blood and stain spattered walls, inch thick dust and hole peppered bedding, they would have struggled to make it worse. The bare floorboards lay loose and askew, and the beds themselves looked to be improvised from random fragments of wood scrap slapped together.
From the rooftop balcony I could see people imbibing next door at what had been my first den of choice due to the name alone, the Paragon, at one time my regular pub back home. The travellers scene here seemed to have attracted a particularly grungy alternative crowd, if you werent Japanese then you had dreadlocks, and it was with one such character I had a passing chat, informing me that the "no longer required" permit for Meghalaya State was needed after all. That could take a week or more and so one more dream was dead. Also my proposed 2 week tour of Bangladesh allegedly didnt merit the hassle and expense he reckoned. I was already beyond optimum time to be in Thailand and with a date to be in Kuala Lumpur on April 8th, only a madman would have attempted my originally intended circuit of Laos and Cambodia beforehand. The build up to the monsoon was imminent too and I had a lot to think about.