Sunday, September 23, 2007

Back to the Black Hole!

We’re up a few hours later to shower next door and breakfast with Tom. I have marmite on toast, goodbye Marmite, I’ll miss you (not enough to burden my pack with a pot though!). Pippi comes over, then we head out loaded up to the airport.

It’s actually cheaper to take a taxi to the airport than use the train if there are two of you, such is the rip-off that is Heathrow Express train. Fourteen pounds each. They should be prosecuted for this abuse of the term “public transport”.


Anyway, at Heathrow Terminal 4, we come out to the check in floor, past my beloved First Class check-in area, but still (with the Silver card) in to the Business Fast Bag Drop lane which doesn’t have anyone waiting. The nice girl who checks us in gives us Fast Track stickers too, something that I suspect I’m not eligible for. Amusingly, when we go into security, after getting past the BAA “security” monkeys who help national security by insisting I jam my camera into one of our other bags, we find that the Fast Track queue is in fact bigger than the normal one, so I dodge out of it.

The business lounge is very busy, and I worry about getting Thuzar in as a guest, but it’s no problem. A bit of free food and drink, and to my horror I find that the internet costs money! Whatever next?! Tomato juice tastes weird too, so we wander out to do a spot of shopping with my last few English pennies. Our flight, leaving from gate 14, is clearly going to be late as it’s 20 minutes to departure and they haven’t started boarding. Their strange excuse is that they don’t have enough people to man the desks – but they are letting families board. So why they don’t then carry on boarding slowly rather than making people wait, I do not know. Anyway, I enjoy pushing into the front of the queue as an Exec card member 

We’re in the same seats as last time of course, 16E and 16F, which surprises Thuzar. Ah, little does she realise the genius and planning that goes into all of this! Unfortunately being just behind the bulkhead has backfired on this trip, as we have *two* babies in front of us! The horror! Ah well, we eventually take off, and even the announcements over the PA seem to echo our relief that we’ve escaped Heathrow.. come on, build that third runway!

Skipping a Night
It’s a long flight to Calcutta, 10 hours, and we can’t sleep as we’ve departed at 3pm. We arrive at 5am, just when we’re starting to feel tired. The food is good in between though, and I watch a couple of movies, as well as a short bit of Creature Comforts, this show by the makers of Wallace and Gromit where they’ve interviewed British people on a variety of subjects, then have but snippets of conversation to animated animal characters. Sounds strange but it’s delightful, I recommend it to you all!

So good to be back in Calcutta. At 4:30am as we descend the ground temperature is already 27C! We come out, clear customs quickly, and collect our bags. The confidence I feel now here is so differentto when I first arrived – I know how everything works now and feel much happier as a result. We walk out, round to the domestic terminal, and at the Indian Airways sales office I buy my ticket to Kathmandu for 3 days time, the same day Thuzar flies off to Burma. 5900r, or about 75 pounds. I was trying to book this online in the UK and it was going to cost about 110! Worth waiting for then!

After this, and now it being 7am and into the 30s so I’m sweating nicely already, we have to talk our way into the domestic terminal to get a taxi (the prepay booth is only accessible inside). The army seem confused by my simple request, but as I’m a foreigner I get away with it. Inside we find that the prepay booth doesn’t start until.. there are two guys standing here as I ask the question, and one says 8:30am, and the other says 7:15am! Welcome to India!

So we wait around, sipping our Mazaa mango drink, until about 7:30am when I spot a couple of Indian guys getting served. I stand behind them, but he seems to ignore me as he takes requests from Indians standing behind me. I say “excuse me” and he takes my order, to Park Street. Now, this booth has just opened, and they charge people funny amounts like 207r or 312r. So, guess how he works out the cash? Easy, he opens with no change at all, and then gets stroppy when you don’t have exact! I have to wait about 10 minutes before enough locals have contributed change to deal with my 500 note.

Into town
Into town, and I enact my strategy for finding somewhere. We cab to Park Street, to Barista coffee house, which is supposed to be a Starbucks-style place. It is, with the exception of it just opening now and there being rat droppings and dead cockroaches all over the floor! Nice! I leave Thuzar there with the bags, and wander off to Sudder Street to look for a place, as we’re sure as hell not staying at the Capital Guest House, the unfriendly dirty place we used before.

Past VIP International, which the book recommends but which sits on a main road, and into the main area. It’s so run down, and even the recommended places are shabby hovels. The problem is Calcutta, like a lot of India, is that you have a choice – Taj Palace, or Park Hotel, for about 2-300US dollars per night, or some flea-pit for about 10. There’s not much in between. I end up at Hotel Astoria, which looks relatively nice from the outside, but is fairly grim in, but the room’s clean and for AC we pay 850r per night, about 10 pounds.

I think I’ll be clever, and check in without bags to avoid tipping the bloomin’ porter, but reception will not let me check in without my bags. Why on earth not? Rules!! What rubbish, what if I didn’t have any bags? Typical India – rules are there to be followed without question regardless of common sense. So, back to coffee shop, bags, and a trudge through one of the most touristy areas of Calcutta looking like tourist muppets, and of course attracting lots more attention than before. I have to shout at one chap who, on being told firmly no by me, then tries Thuzar. We arrive and check in, and I tip the bloomin’ porter – after all we will be here three nights, and I don’t want them robbing our room or anything.

We’re so tired, and hit the sack as soon as we can, proceeding to sleep through the whole Indian day. We wake up at 7pm and go out, to eat at the Blue Sky Café on the corner, and have some simple tasty curries with dal, rice and naan.

Back for more sleep!

Merchant bankers?

The disaster is we’re completely set on UK time still, including (as I write this) being absolutely wide awake and starving at 2am, or about 9pm UK time! Nightmare. Tomorrow we go to Fire and Ice for free wifi and decent food, and perhaps the Victoria Memorial. Perhaps not!

PS: Eventually we give in and eat Thuzar’s cookies, which does the trick, and we get to sleep as the call to prayer starts from the local mosque.

Doing nothing in Calcutta
We manage to wake up in the afternoon, and head out to Fire and Ice, a twenty minute walk away along the grimy streets. If you want to go there, go to Maidan metro station, take the Karnak Building exit, turn right and at the corner turn left. Walk past the shoe-shiners, then you’ll find the restaurant on the left.

The restaurant is wonderful, an oasis, from the moment the capped security guard opens the door for you with a friendly smile. We sit at a table near a power point, and order insalata mista, pepperoni pizza and some foccacia, and in minutes I’m tapping away on the fast internet over the free wifi.

The food is really good too, the pizzas with thin crispy bases, proper mozzarella cheese, anchovies, good bread with rosemary and a light dusting of salt. Great mellow music plays in the background, and the walls are red brick broken by the occasional poster of a classic film star. And the bill, with a few large bottles of beers, coffees, the lot.. 800 rupees, i.e. a tenner. Great value, despite being probably one of the most expensive restaurants in Calcutta!

On the way back we pop into the bars in the Park Hotel. This place, on Park Street, is one of the luxury offerings, with rooms costing 250-300 US$ per night according to LP. Their “pub”, called Someplace Else, is quite busy and seems like a nice place, but Thuzar doesn’t like the lecherous looks she’s getting – a general problem in all Indian bars. We walk through to Roxy, the night club bar, which is empty now, but open, and have a beer there instead. On the way back we have a nice late dinner at Blue Sky, which will hopefully stave off the early hours “dinner time” hunger. It works, not that we manage to sleep until morning prayer calls. Incidentally, the mosque here does something funny, perhaps Ali or Shaq can enlighten me – at 3:40am, they say a sentence (not musically). Another one ten minutes later. Then the musical call starts at 4am. What are the precursors all about?

Next day another shockingly late start again, and it’s raining. As we walk out, it becomes clear it’s been raining a fair bit, the road entrance to our hotel is flooded. We wade through this, and potter along the streets. Starts raining hard again, so we duck into Zurich Restaurant, which has good thalis.

Unfortunately tandoori oven is not going now, it’s mid-afternoon, so we go for some curries. All good. Next we walk in the rain to my choice, the Victoria Memorial. We past the Howrah Bridge in the distance, which you’re not allowed to take photos of.


The flooded maidan park

Take cover!

The Indian government don’t want you to find out about… this bridge…

The Victoria Memorial
This memorial, built for Queen Victoria, can be seen from miles off, sitting in between maidan parks.

LP describes it as a cross between St. Pauls Cathedral in London and the Taj Mahal, and this is not far off.

It’s an enormous Raj-era monument built out of white marble, set in large beautiful gardens. As it’s fairly late now, I don’t want to pay 150r foreigner price for entry, so we go for the bargain 4 rupees for garden access.

It’s damn impressive. Clearly lots of Indian families think so too as they all pose for photos from all angles.

It’s a short walk in the pouring rain back to our sanctuary, Fire and Ice. Despite a thorough brushing on the doormat our feet are filthy, and I have to apologise to the waiters for the footsteps leading to our table. We start with some beers, then go for pepperoni pizza, salad and bread. The usual, one might say. It’s just as tasty as yesterday, and I have a big blog upload session, needed as like a muppet I re-uploaded all the Jaisalmer and Jaipur photos yesterday *that I’d already uploaded* groan!! Idiot!

Home, and it’s our last night in Calcutta, hurrah!

Leaving Calcutta and the Unexpected Mad End
Again, no sleep almost all night, maybe just one hour before my alarm clock went off at 4:50am. The plan was to leave at 6am, as we needed to be at the airport by 7, but as it had been raining heavily, I figured leaving a bit early might not be a non-sensible thing to do. We dropped the key off, and walked out, me super-charged for a fight with the greedy taxis sitting in Sudder Street, generally the worst ones for ripping off tourists. Through the water, and a guy comes up to me. I don’t like the look of him.

Taxi? I pause, look left and right, surveying the scene. Maybe. To the airport, how much? 220rupees. How much? Two hundred and twenty. I’m bowled back. It’s a fair price straight off. I don’t need to haggle. This leaves me speechless for a second, giving the hotel porter guy time to nod at me and say it’s a fair price. To be honest I’m a bit disappointed, I was looking forward to a bit of haggling. I slightly dejectedly sit down in the back. Thuzar says “Your face” by way of explanation. Ah, that’d be it.

The taxi driver takes a funny route, and I wonder if he’s driving me somewhere to be robbed. Later as we see the extent of the flooding, I come to a new conclusion – he’s avoiding “rivers”. I’ve wound down my window, which turns out to be a big mistake as another car whizzes past, showering Thuzar and myself.. in the face… with a flood of dirty street water!! Ooooohhh myyyy god! How disgusting is this??? This morning we were worried about our feet getting dirty, and now this! The water, the filth! Will be get cholera or some horrible unheard-of eye infection? God knows!

At the airport we wash as best we can, but I will feel filthy until I’ve had at least a couple of showers and have washed these clothes! Our army guy says it’s too early for Thuzar to check-in. Her flight is 9:20am, mine 13:50. We wait around, there’s nothing much here, just a couple of grotty shops and an overpriced food place selling almost nothing. No access to the Clipper Lounge this time. We listen to a pair of old Americans, one of whom lost her passport in the hotel. They were supposed to be taking the Druk Air plane to Bhutan. Not today!

If only..

Eventually we get through security, and check Thuzar in. Half an hour till she goes through. Then, how to put this? Thuzar goes crazy on me, decides she’s not going to fly home, she’s going to stay here. What?! I try to persuade her otherwise, but she asks the airline staff to pull her bag. What the hell am I supposed to do? It’s an awful way to end what had been such a lovely time together. Very sad. So she’s going to stay in Calcutta with 500 rupees I’ve just given her, which is enough for a taxi back into town. What is she going to do? I don’t know. She’s 30 years old and I can’t force her to go on the flight. What on earth do I do? I try calling her friends in Yangon but don’t get through. I have to go…

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