Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Escape from the Black Hole!

New Market

North from Sudder Street, we wander past the New Market looking for somewhere to eat. There don’t seem to be so many restaurants in Calcutta compared with Bombay, I think this is because there is much more of a street-food culture. We finally find somewhere, only for me to be told that because I’m wearing a longyi (Burmese sarong – a gift. Yes, I’m wearing a skirt!), I can’t come in! Then the chap “kindly” lets us in as his restaurant isn’t busy at the moment, but by now Thuzar is fuming because of the longyi dig and we both notice that the place is fairly dirty, so we walk straight back out anyway, and end up back in Sudder Street, trying the LP-recommended Zurich Restaurant, which is quite good.


Next we walk to Sealdah Train Station. This walk takes us through the area where Mother Teresa worked. She lived from 1910 – 97, and was born in Serbia, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. She became a nun in 1929, and was posted to India in 1937. When arriving in Calcutta she was horrified by the poverty, and set up a new order, her Missionaries of Charity, to “give wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor”. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. The main criticism levelled against her order is that they do nothing to address the root causes of suffering.

The latest model, I believe

Whilst not knocking in any way the good that they do, except the Catholic “no contraception” outrage that they perpetrate, I agree with this “address the root cause” sentiment in general – on the taxi into town from the airport I gave Thuzar instructions not to give money to any beggars here. There are too many poor in this country and the last thing you want to do is encourage people to beg – if you want to help, donate to one of the organisations that help people out of these situations (being careful to give to one of the organisations where money won’t be swallowed up by “administration” of course.


We don’t find the Missionaries of Charity, but eventually arrive at Sealdah. It wasn’t a fun walk. Inside, we head up to the “computerised ticket office”. Unfortunately there is no foreigner booth here, so I queue and shove my way to the front with everyone else. The chap tells me that there are tickets available on the train tonight, in the same 1A class! Hurrah! What I don’t do is ask him how many, as I later discover there is 1 ticket. How helpful of him to not tell me this. Anyway, he says because I booked on the internet he cannot cancel the ticket, and I must go to the foreigner ticket office the other side of town. I strongly suspect he was lying just to get rid of me.

There is logic there somewhere

I walk away then have a brain wave – there’s an internet café next door! Maybe I’ll be able to cancel my ticket online, then rebook here (or online). I do this, cancel my ticket, then go to rebook for tonight. All the way through, then of course I discover that there is only the one ticket. I check and discover that I’ve also lost my original places on the train in two days – there was obviously a waiting list and my tickets went to the next as soon as I cancelled them. Great! Now I have no tickets at all!


We walk back round to the ticket office but the chap who “helped” me has gone, so we speak to another woman, who confirms that there is only one ticket. However, there are two tickets left in 2A, i.e. air-conditioned second-class, tonight, but only in the “foreigner reserved quota” which she cannot issue. To get them I’ll have to go to this special foreigner ticket office. And hope that no one snags them in the meantime. Right, off we go. I ask them to write down the address for me.

Outside, there’s a taxi stand, and we have a choice – metered or fixed price. I ask them which would be better for me, and am told, in almost a threatening tone that as I don’t know exactly where this place is, I had better take a fixed-price taxi, as otherwise he may be driving round for a while looking for the place. As it happens, he had no idea anyway. In addition to the address, the station person had written “near the GPO”, which is all the driver knew. Luckily for us LP had the train office on their map, otherwise we would never have found the place – I ended up directing the driver myself, which I could have done with a much-cheaper metered taxi.

So in the office at Fairlie Place, we join the queue and wait our turn, eventually getting served and yes, we get the two tickets left in 2nd class AC! We’re leaving the hell-hole of Calcutta tonight! This office is strange. It’s big, spacious, and there are sofas, and desks at the front where two people will serve you at a time. I can only assume that it was set up as the Indian train system is confusing at the best of times, and they didn’t want foreigners clogging up the busy regular station ticket booths asking awkward questions like “how can I go from this station to another?”.

As an example of the inconvenience of the system, take the online booking system. Say you wish to query a journey from Darjeeling to Delhi, both well-known places. The system will merely spit back that no train has been found. Why? Because you need to change trains, and it can’t cope with this. You have to know the train you want, which of course you don’t, that’s why you’re enquiring! Other gotchas include trains all being named, and referenced by their name, rather than source and destination or anything useful geographically. Any idea where the Poorva Express goes? Calcutta to Delhi, surely you could guess?

Finally, if you work out what train you want, next you have to choose what class you want before checking availability. You plug in date, source, destination, and class (there is no “any available option”) and if it happens not to have a seat available in the particular class you’ve chosen, it will give you the same error message as if there is no such train, or it just happens to not run on that date, or any number of other potential issues. You just don’t know.

It’s strange that there are all these quirks, as the system has the potential to be really good – it’s computerised and all you need is an e-ticket number to show to the conductor. It would seem that no common sense has been applied to the whole system. They need Process Analysts here, and to study how people use the system and work out what needs improving. Simple things. And why can’t normal stations issue the foreigner quota tickets? There’s no reason for it at all, just antiquated ways of working.

So we’ve got the tickets.

General Post Office

We walk back to the hotel, another punishing trek. Round the BBD Bagh square, the main administrative centre for the British in India (remember that the British used Calcutta as the capital until the active independence movement here forced them to move it to Delhi) - hence the square is lined with grand buildings that would never have been built by the Indians. At the north end of the square is the Writers Building, which I think is some sort of parliament building – as usual in India the troops won’t let you take photos of anything to do with government: they’re too important, don’t you know.

Next Eden Gardens, for a Burmese Pagoda, past the Raj Bhavan, the British-built (1799) Government House and now home to the Governer of West Bengal, a beautiful palatial palace with hints of Buckingham!

Eden Gardens is closed now, so we continue down, along the Hooghly River and past Fort William, constructed in 1758 after Siraj-ud-daula destroyed the original. It’s still a military base, so you can’t see much of the inside, but looks like it has some lovely gardens. Apparently the whole area around the fort was cleared to give cannons a clear line-of-fire, creating the current Maidan gardens. We also past the West Bengal Cricket grounds, which I’m sure would be fun to visit when a match is on.

According the traditional sources (disputed by some Bengalis) Calcutta was created by Brit Job Charnock in 1686, though a better date would be 1698, when the villages of Sutanuti, Gobindapur and Kolikata were formerly signed over to the British East India Company. Over the next few centuries, the British created a miniature London on the banks of the Hooghly river, with stately buildings, wide avenues, English churches and big gardens. Apparently at the height of the Raj, the average British family had 110 locals working for them.

However, in 1756, Siraj-ud-daula, a local warlord, recaptured the city and imprisoned dozens of the British in a cramped room underneath the original Fort William. About 40 died from suffocation, and this became the legend of the Black Hole of Calcutta. The following year, Clive of India retook Calcutta for Britain, and made peace with Siraj-ud-daula, who sided with the French and was promptly defeated at the Battle of Plassey.

Calcutta was then made the capital of British India, with a new strengthened fort. Little effort was made to improve the lives of those who worked under the colonists though, who lived in slum suburbs, hence why the independence movement was especially strong here – forcing the British to move the capital to Delhi in 1912. Even now, the Communist Party is dominant in local politics, calling general strikes whenever a new policy is introduced from Delhi that they don’t approve of.

Enough walking – we taxi home, though the driver seems to have no idea where Sudder Street, the most famous tourist hotel street in the city is, rather unbelievable - he drives off in completely the wrong direction! I frown, and track his progress on my LP map, undeterred as yet as we’ve agreed a fixed price, 50 rupees, for the journey. Eventually he asks someone, does a U-turn, and heads the right way. We stop off at the Fairlawn Hotel for tea. I had hoped to stay here, a colonial hotel run by the same British family since before Independence, but it is full. It’s rather run down, but has lots of character (you know the type of hotel I am talking about I’m sure!).

On the way back to the hotel, I pop into a small travel agent which has caught my eye. I hate travel agents, but we need some domestic flights, and Air Deccan don’t take international credit cards. I ask these guys to check flights, but it soon becomes apparent that they are completely incompetent, and I have to prompt them at every step of the way to check alternatives. After a half an hour of my life wasted, I give up, ignoring their suggestion of booking one seat (non-refundable) on a flight with one seat available and trying later to book the second ticket – how ridiculous. Later I use the internet, and on (an Indian travel portal) find another airline with two tickets available for cheaper than those idiots would sell me the one seat, and I complete search to booking in about 30 seconds. As I say, I hate travel agents!

Back to hotel, shower, and we have a cab booked – the damned front desk have pushed me in my tired state to agree to a hotel taxi for 120 rupees, a complete con. I can’t deal with any more hassle though, so we pay up, and before going to the station walk round to the same sweet shop as before to stock up for the journey! Leaving the hotel, the hotel boys, who have done nothing for us – I was particularly disappointed that the room was not made up – we have paid for two nights after all, having only changed our plans this afternoon, demand tips! I somewhat angrily ask what exactly they want a tip for, and the taxi pulls away.

At the station too, we are jumped by porters as soon as we pull up, and no amount of polite declining will get rid of them. Inside we have a look at the air-conditioned lounge we have access to with our second-class ticket, then walk round to the station restaurant for some food. Goodness it’s hot in the restaurant. Absolutely unpleasant – how can one eat with sweat running down one’s nose? We retire to the internet café upstairs, with the lovely air-conditioning, and I check out some more options for trains and planes.

Half an hour before our train we head down to the platform. For some reason all the platforms are number 9, then suffixed with a letter to differentiate. We want 9b. At the foot of the platform is a large board with dozens of lists stapled up – these appear to be passenger lists with seat allocations – this is not done when you buy your ticket, instead shortly before the train. As we only bought our ticket a few hours ago, our ticket does bear the correct carriage and seat numbers, though it’s still a challenge to work out what the random carriage number corresponds to in terms of the train carriages – they all have a five digit number, our ticket says A1.

The Indian Railways are supposed to be the world’s biggest employer, but are they really? I can never find a member of staff when I want one, and ticket booths are always woefully understaffed.

Anyway, in amongst the thousands crowded on to the platform, I finally find someone who tells me that 2A corresponds to 87073! Of course! The carriage looks old, but at least has been painted, and has glass in the window frames!

On board, we are presented with a very narrow corridor with curtained-off sections on either side – single beds on one side, and “rooms” of four beds on the other.

I take upper bunk, Thuzar lower, and we have an elderly Indian couple on the other side. I offer to swap their upper bunk for our lower, but they want to keep theirs – and somehow the husband clambers up once he has been fed by his wife from small aluminium tiffin pots.

Supposedly the carriage is air-conditioned, though there is little evidence of this. Except for it not being unbearably hot I suppose! There is an old fan on the ceiling which is amazingly noisy but at least circulates air in the rather cramped space. Someone comes along and hands out a small towel and sheets; there are already blankets and pillows sitting on the plastic leather beds when we arrive. The train starts smoothly, on time at 22:05, but bumps about as it runs along as what doesn’t seem like a particularly “express” pace. The name of the train is the Darjeeling Mail, despite it not going all the way to Darjeeling - it terminates in New Jalgapuri, which is where we take the "Toy Train".

After working out how to get up to my bunk (secret: there is none, just climb on top of the person below and pull yourself up), I read for a bit then doze off, and get a fairly good sleep all night, with just an occasional toss and turn on my high bunk.

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