Indian expats, like expats from Ghana and many other countries of the global South do not travel lightly when returning to their original countries. Trips home often require bringing back extra suitcases full of goods and gifts for relatives and friends. So after making it through a slow line to clear immigration at the airport in Delhi, I nervously watched suitcase after box after suitcase pop out of the baggage claim belt as my layover time whittled away. When I noticed that families who’d already collected massive quantities of luggage were still waiting for more, I told myself, “It’ll come.” But as the crowd began to disperse, I was anxious once again. After all but a few people had collected their belongings, my backpack finally came. I exhaled.
I rushed over to the domestic terminal to check-in and then to the security line. There were no air-blowing, naked silhouette x-ray machines and no selective additional screening. Men and women were separated and everyone was getting patted down and/or security wanded. For the women, they do this in a curtained-off section. I made it through relatively unscathed, but like many other tourists, I had a tiny pair of scissors confiscated from my carry on.
All of my rushing was futile because my flight was delayed. One hour then two, then three, then four. But Indira Ghandi International seems to be set up for waiting. There were lounge chairs all over the airport, kind of like padded reclined beach chairs. By then, the adrenaline from trying to make it to my flight in time had worn off and I’d settled into my exhaustion. I laid down and rested as much as one can with regular announcements of gate changes and flight departures regularly blaring on the intercom.
On the plane, one of the flight attendants walked down the isle and gave us delicious sweet lime juice. It reminded me of The Darjeeling Limited. “I could get used to this,” I thought. Turns out I couldn’t. Limes weren’t in season, so fresh lime juice wasn’t available anywhere I went after that. I find it funny that in the U.S., we’re beginning to gain an awareness of why it’s better to stick to eating fruits and veggies that are in season. In so many other places, that’s just what you do. If it’s not in season, it’s not available. It makes a lot of sense. But I, like many other Americans, am still trying to undo years of expectations.
It was a short flight to Kolkata. I went into the bathroom when I arrived, partly because I needed to go and partly because I felt self-conscious. Kolkata was where the excessive staring began. Delhi is a major hub. While it isn’t as diverse as New York or London, people there are used to seeing all different types of people. In Kolkata, I was a clearly an outsider. The only non-Indian person on the plane and one of the few non-Indian person in the airport. I thought I was prepared for the staring, a constant acknowledgment of my outsidership. I wasn’t.
It was just the first of many things I was unprepared for that day. I stepped into the bathroom and poked my head in one available stall. No! I looked into another available stall. No!
Squat toilets. I thought I’d mastered them when I spent a month in South East Asia in 2008. But I wasn’t ready for them at the beginning of my trip to India. And because I was solo, I didn’t have anyone to watch my bags outside of the wet-floored bathroom while I attempted to use one. Toilet trips are often the bane of the solo traveler’s travels.
So I braved the crowds and went out to look out for a driver holding a sign with my name. My friend whose wedding I’d be attending in Kolkata had arranged for guests to be picked up from the airport. I am forever grateful for this because when I stepped into the chaos outside the airport, if I hadn’t had someone waiting for me, I might have been tempted to go back into the airport and arrange for a flight home.
Once in the safety of a car, I felt like a happy traveler again. I saw all things I’d expected to see in India in the first ten minutes of the drive—the cows roaming the streets, men holding hands with male friends, out of control electrical wires, a late afternoon sun beautifully shaded by haze. I was surprised to see green space; farms interspersed with urban dwellings. I was also surprised that every so often I saw a bit of concrete decorated with stencil street art. Most often, it was the word, “CHANGE”.
With the distance and the traffic, it was long drive and it was thrilling. Once I arrived at my hotel and stepped out of the car bubble, I was thrust into India again; not viewing it from inside a shelter, but fully in it.
Most of the wedding guests were staying in a very luxe hotel that I couldn’t afford to stay in. So I’d reserved a room around the corner on Sudder Street, Kolkata’s version of Khao San Road that only has a fraction of the backpackers and amenities of its Bangkok counterpart.
I’d read horror stories about budget accommodations on Sudder Street, but decided to brave it anyway. Like in my experience traveling down an extreme road to a beach in Oaxaca over the summer, I really should’ve paid more attention to the warnings in my Lonely Planet. There were plenty of clues in my guidebook about the miserable state of cheap hotels in the Sudder Street area.
When I was planning my trip, I’d spent days trying to find a place to stay in Kolkata. It seemed that everything was extremely expensive or so cheap that it couldn’t be good. Most places in between were a distance from the fancy hotel that most guests would be staying at and where the transportation to wedding events would pick people up. I found a place called Hotel Diplomat on Sudder Street which appeared to have decent rooms for under $20 a night. While their website was not fancy, they actually had one, unlike many of the other budget accommodations I looked up in Kolkata. And I was impressed with the prompt response when I inquired about available rooms. “It”ll probably be simple, but it doesn’t seem bad!” Wrong, so naively wrong.
When the driver stopped on Sudder Street, pointed at the hotel and asked, “Here?” I wanted to bolt once again. But instead I nodded apprehensively, grabbed my bags and went on in.
Dark, decrepit, filthy. Naming it Hotel Diplomat seemed like a cruel joke. But I knew from my hotel search experience that accommodations fill up quickly in Kolkata, especially during wedding season. I didn’t want to risk not having a place to stay. I checked in and was shown to my padlocked room. I still had a glimmer of hope for a miracle, perhaps there were clean rooms beyond the depressing reception area and hallway. But no such luck. The love I’ve given travel has been unconditional thus far, but the love I receive back from it is often that of the tough variety.
I walked into a room filled with stained sheets, stained walls, dirty furniture and a dirty floor. It was actually worse than the hallway. I tried to set my stuff down on the least filthy surfaces I could find in the dimly lit windowless room. I went to use the toilet. It didn’t flush. I filled up the bucket by the toilet with water and dumped it in.
My first day in Kolkata had been truncated by my flight delays and I spent the couple remaining hours of sunlight trying to find Indian attire for the wedding as well as checking with every hotel I could find to seek out a new room for as soon as possible. I had six nights in Kolkata, and was certainly not going to spend more than one at the Hotel Diplomat.
Both searches fruitless, I returned to Hotel Diplomat and debated whether or not I should take a shower. It had been nearly 48 hours since I’d last showered so I decided I should at least do a quick rinse off. I turned on the faucet which was located almost directly over the toilet. The chilly water smelled like curry. I came out of the shower feeling dirtier than I had before I got in. And though I’ve always thought that brushing teeth with bottled water when abroad was for wimps, I decided that at the Hotel Diplomat, it was absolutely necessary.
I spread out my sleep sheet and crawled in, trying to make sure that I was covered as much as possible. “Today, I’m a dirty backpacker,” I thought. “Tomorrow, I graduate to flashpacker.”