Thursday, April 17, 2008

Monsooning in Kolkata and the blissfully lost in Orissa

Slacking. These last few days hanging about in Rajasthan and Delhi, actually hurrying from place to place since Orissa and Varanasi, it didn't do the blog any good. Nor my motivation could be startled into quick write-ups either by the muffled heat hanging around since I came down from the Darjeeling hills.

Picking it up where I left the thread limp;
Late morning arrival in Kolkata (or known as Calcutta, in colonial terms)
The bus already wrapped me into an immense irky heat and it was no better outside under the scorching eye of the sun. Such hot and humid weather, the concrete and pavement sucking up all the warmth. The cab found the way to the hotel where Miki and I had agreed to meet. So it went without mix ups.

Kolkata as a city was far more interesting and felt nicer than any of the other big cities I had visited in India. Somehow the people were more kind and helpful than say the tedious hawk-and-hassle behaviour in Delhi or other tourist hideouts. Perhaps it comes from the fact that Kolkata is a metropole with a Communist city government and socialism seemed more virbrant in the air than anywhere else. This is just an all-too-quick glance of a 36 hour stopover stay so I don't know if I saw it through rose tinted glasses or took it in with too much subjectivity. For Miki it was her last day in India as the next night she would fly to Europe and travel on westwards for a longer while. It had been so warm all day, that in the evening it started to get unusually dark and grey, windy too. And suddenly, flasssssch. Heavens opened up and down came a power shower for the next hours. Lightning, rumble and fierce winds too. Some thick branches of trees fell down on the road with a moaning crack, some streets were quickly under water and open sewers flowing over.
Early monsoon styled weather it seemed. Like locals said; unusual. They also linked the opinion of the current state of global environment to the result of global warming.

Next day the morning again dried. Walking around the Kolkata streets, I found my way to the Mondal instrument shop, a place famous for making quality instruments, especially the carnatic violin. Since a long while I had wanted one and having seem them being crafted on the spot, I melted and plunged for one of better quality and all included. And at such a modest price too, in like twice a day's wage. More stuff to carry with me on top of all stuff gathered. it makes me my own slave and wagemaster at once, sucker donkeying my way around India. So it shall be then.

I accompanied Miki on her last doings and we visited a colonial graveyard. The only thing touristic that we did in the city. Just for a few minutes where the elderly and chatty custodians wanted us to sign the guestbook twice, and with comments. My comment being that there weren't enough tyrannic ghosts around to hunt the locals. I wonder what they'll make of that.
Miki had to do some sending at the general post office. A parcel. If you have never been in India, this won't raise a chill or hair but to those who know the experience all too wat...yes, exhilarating fun ahead! In we went, by the helping hand of an elderly stoop stitcher. No really, that's their job. Stitching parcels on the postal stoop. Confusion! The 2 middle aged men behind the inquiry counter want to help us oh so good, but the PC won't start up. There is a list that can tell how much a package can cost, but neither looks to it. They quarrel about the methods of shipment; 'air, sea, speedpost, bookpost!' and also about the cost. Hilarious, free entertainment at your own whim, a mental whimsical one that is. Miki gave a few sighs and sang her song in the way she did quite often in likewise situations of compatible masala mix-ups: "Indiaaaa!" All in all, going from one desk to the other, seeing the whole building (which must say is an impressive building in victorian dome style with high ceilings), back to the stoop for stitching. "Indiaaa!"
Finally needing 2 stickers and some writing on the parcel from the same fella's at the enquiry counter. To prevent Miki from collapsing and singing herself into a bittersweet temper, I went up to the counter and only one of the middle aged men was there. The slower one. He was enjoying a game of Patience on the computer screen. Yes, the card game! At least the computer's slowcoming power wasn't wasted for nothing besided our weighing, pfew. The stickers were put on it, as ofcourse, he couldn't keep his glare too long off his game. Ah, the newly found backalleys to motivation! Time, more than an hour. To celebrate it in irony, we passed a shop selling intoxicating liquids, booze. Treated ourselves to a pint bottle of beer of a brand that I otherwise wouldn't be found dead with. Ahem, it was one of my first beers in all these 6 months and likewise for my Miki, so during dinner the it felt weird having this sensation of alcopop bubbles brewing from your stomach into your nerves. This all before I had to catch my night train to Puri, Orissa, so the packing and going went in a rush as usual.
Made it though.

Arrival in Puri. Hot and humid sea air. Hmmm, good smell, but no a fresh crisp salty smell that one is used to on the Atlantic coast. Rather a manky, salty, thickly aired smell. German friend Mischka had given me a good Puri hotel reference back in Darjeeling and soon I dropped all my bags in said place. The Old Sagar Saikate hotel, it was indeed a safe haven of tranquility and shade. Shanti style. That was the word every guest was or started using in the days to come. Yes, everything shanti, easygoing. The building itself had been a small fortress residence of the British about hundred years ago during the Bengal wars. Nice place, funny how the soldier's rooms were now used by low budget backpackers, most of them stoned all day long. That was the peace most came to look for in Puri and easily found, greeted and hugged with. I spent 10 days in Puri as a relaxing daze that still went too fast. Days where you really do nothing, sleep late and fill it by reading or slowly pacing yourself, are the days where time keeps to a different rhythym. The real rhythym of reality! And time thus walks past you while you're creeping at a turtle's pace. Except for visiting the special Sun temple at Konark (thanks for that early tip Winklemann!) and seeing the Irrawaddy (gangetic) dolphins at Chilika lake, other days were lushily wasted. Here a description in nonsensical words;
Kingfish oven dishes crawling your nostrills and yummy into your tummy; bhang chai taking you up and away a full day, bringing you back to your senses; cycling through sand into invisible bambi habituated tropical pine forests that resemble the Les Landes coastal area in France; the spontaneous skinnydipping by some aware of secludedness and wild waves pushing their bodies and faces into the sandbanks topsy turvy; cheerfull Russians playing hiphop, ambient and IDM deeply into the night as nightwalkers, soundstalkers, photoshophoppers and videorodeoriders, all creatively in the tropical beehive of sugared mangopop and ketamine; Japanese, Russian, Belgian and Kiwi folks of allsorts improvising music sessions in the mosquito dazzled and sticky nights; loafing around in a lungi, being most comfortable and integration into local fisherman society; being daily stalked by drunken yet innocent hash pushers lurking about every alley around the hotel and leading to the ever bizarre conversations; hearing the endless oneliners of Kanu, the liberated servant that chains himself to pleasurable chores; the babbling oneliners back at him from the guests; the allmost-fight between the manager and a local on the hotel premises, rumbling through our shanti time, and so forth and so.....

No, to make stories around these little facts of 'life of a Puri saltbowl refugee', that would indulge too much space of this post and hence your affectionate attention. Let them remain folly fiction at best and most unreal, into the unknown black hole that one gets sucked into while on a holiday in an all-too-laid-back spot somewhere in a tropical hemisphere on this globe, wherever it may be. Things could be worse, like trying to translate it into a common context for others to understand, Shiva forbid.

But, Puri honestly was an amazing place, if not my favorite region of India so far. The region was amazing, the smiling people too and same goes for the coast! How many times we have had, or me alone has had, so much empty beach at our disposal without another soul in sight. Many a headturn; one km to the left, one to the right. Nope, nobody. To waste time time with the least worry, the Orissan coast is the place. That alas, also means that I never made it too the tribal parts in the north and south. They all were quite far away (up to 15 hour busrides and no guarantees of admittance) and hearsay said that you can only get into the jungle villages of the 62(!) different tribes if you have a guide and thus have paid a hefty sum that exceeds the 100 dollar mark. Better to plan a next visit in the future and arrange it with people on the inside and stay in said jungle spot for a reasonable time and not through a hopsack-quick-glance breeze by the tourist winds. On the last night I met Elena from Italy who had been living in Orissa for nearly a year and who spent a few months in the Northern jungle communities where she did social work in a project. Needless to say, she saw a lot of ceremonies and was part of local jungle life in a way a 'tribal package deal' can never bring.

On the day before I left, I rented a motoped and went to Chilika lake. 50 km's riding through small coastal roads, men and women standing hipdeep in water, browsing for shrimps and shells in the nets below. People who are half jungle and half cultivated into village life, a life that to them already is über-urban. Seeing them look to you, wave to you, smile from a distance. Ofcourse you stop and make contact. Smiles around, shared laughs about pigment and hair colours, different pierced ornaments on both. And all without the slightest hassle nor nervous hands stretched out with the 'paisa' slogan.
The Irrawaddy dolphins, yup nice animals the few pairs of them, jumping up and down, squirting some water. It's a fun deal, just on time to catch the boat and joining a Kolkatan family layered with several generations. 3 hour ride on the lake, stopover to drink palmnuts, chew their white sallow fruity flesh, nibbling on the namkeen of the generous family. Sure the boat ride was nice, but the ride on wheels through those people's fields, watery patches and their villages was way more rewarding than sitting still on a boat and peering for light grey mammals.
Damn camera gave all of its last power and the snapshots of the 50km ride were the last to be taken.

I left Puri and Orissa as it was unavoidable. Back westwards towards Delhi, but first stopping at Varanasi. The city of the dead. Not ment in a sardonic or dark way, but in the famed way of the non stop human barbeque, 24 hours a day at the ghats of the Ganges.
My hotel was just behind the main ghat, the main place where the ritual burning was done. First sight from above; a man burns and the cloth around his bodies has all burned up, right to the face. His head lies back into the fire while the face stares up as if looking to the sky for the last time, the mouth open as if making a final grimace. That's just my imagination running loose, but you make up stories to make it more bearable and understanding for yourself. In a pile next to this one, just a half corpse lies in the flames, one leg curled up by the sheer heat and sticking into the air. Bizarre. All other limbs have burned up already. I explain it like this as photographing is not allowed there, very understandable and utmost respectfull to the mourners, so all you can make of it is a mental note inside your head. A dog next to one of the ashen heaps has snatched a tasty piece of something and drags it off. After chewing on it for a little while, he leaves it be and the piece of bone remains there till a worker casually kicks it aside.
I could go on giving descriptions, but that would either bring out gruesome feelings for some of you and this symbolic poetry doesn't live a long life anyway.
You would think that it stinks there, but it doesn't. Local ghat burning workers explained me that they used special sandal and bunyan tree wood that overruled the smell of smoldering human flesh, plus that special herbs and perfumed powders were thrown onto the bodies as well every so often. The worst is when the wind turns, you get all the stark flaming smoke in your eyes and that seriously bites. As if you were crying for the dead. It reminded me of a "fisherman's friend moment', those coughing pastilles. More explanation: the chest of a man does not fully burn so this stays behind in the ash heap. Same goes for the hip bone of a woman. Those bones are plainly thrown in the Ganges river together with the ashes. Children, animals and saddhu's (baba's) do not get burned, same for pregnant women, as they get heavied with stones and into a watery grave in the middle of the river after a boat ceremony. So the river is filled with corpses in the middle and rib n hip bones on the sides, but locals of the lower castes still wash themselves into the river every day, just right next to the main ghat. Same goes for children who endlessly play in the water. I wonder how many times the joke of throwing bones at each other has been played by them.

I had shared the nightly train ride from Orissa with Italian Elena of the night before and her deeply gentle Spanish partner Carlos and I catched up with them later near the ghats. More like bumping into each other, as we had predicted and Varanasi is just a small city in that respect as everything of interest happens on or around the ghats where everyone is bound to be at. Spent some time with them and their Spanish friends in the evening and the next one. Good to brush up my Spanish a bit for a little mediterranian trip down south next month. Also met their baba, as Carlos lives in Varanasi when he is not involved in social project work and knows his baba for a long while now. The baba speak good Spanish and his wise words are given in comical slogans of enjoying life.

On the last night, just before I have to catch by train to Delhi, a big ceremony was starting at the ghat, with none other that the famous and rather quirky yoga figure Yog would appear. Bah, I had to walk away in order not to miss my train, but I almost saw him. Almost ;)
My dear Maarten, wherever you are lost right now, I was so close, yet I missed to gaze at our uncelebrated hero and applaud his virtue of not being perfect, that being the source of his Indian hero status! At least I now know that his real name is Swami Ramdev, ah wisdom gained in the absence of vision. Alas, and missed his tricks too, see!


Not the last post yet, even on this first-to-last day in India. The last few days I went up and down to Jodhpur in search of a rare Kamaycha violin and more talks with Kuldeep Kothari at the Rupayan Sansthan institute of Rajasthani culture.

Big shouts go out to the Puri folks; the mad Russian bunch, Japanese motohomeless, Kiwi and Brit laughter and the ever providing persons (of anything) that was Kanu. Same for Elena, Carlos, Daniel and the couple from Alicante and whoever I blissfully forgot.

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