You Can Check Out Anytime You Like…

by Ekua on January 24, 2011 in backpacking,d.i.y. travel,India

I woke up to the sounds of tinny music and movement. With my body seriously confused about what time zone it was in, I hadn’t slept much. But once I regained an awareness of the fact that I’d spent a night at the Hotel Diplomat, I got out of bed and immediately got into a hotel hunting mindset.

I moved towards the sound of the music. I turns out that room was not windowless as I had originally thought. It had one window that was painted silver. I noticed small holes in the paint and looked through them. I saw a man looking back at me. Not purposely watching, but nevertheless aware of my presence. Thoroughly freaked out, and now alert, I sprang to action to pack before the sun had even risen. I left my luggage in the room and went on another accommodation search walk.

Kolkata was pleasant at that hour and I roamed around fairly undisturbed. I liked the realness and calmness of that time of day. To a city that was barely waking up, I had yet to be a tourist with rupees in my wallet.

At one hotel, I bumped into a group of travelers. I asked one of them what she thought of the hotel and I could tell from her expression that she wasn’t too pleased. On Sudder Street, it was common to hear something like, “I stayed at Hotel ____ my first night, and then I stayed here for a night. Tonight, I’m moving to Hotel ____.” It was clear that I was not alone, hotel hopping was a popular tourist past time in the Sudder Street area. The demand for a decent affordable accommodations was high and the supply was pretty much nonexistent.

A guy from the States with blond dreadlocks and cheesecloth attire heard me asking about hotels and said to me, “I’m staying at this great place around the corner that’s only 150 rupees per night.”

That was 700 rupees less than what I was paying at the janky Hotel Diplomat. About $3. There’s no way it could’ve been “great”. I looked at him incredulously and replied, “Thanks, but I actually don’t want to pay any less than what I’m paying right now. I’d actually rather pay more!”

I went back to the main part of Sudder Street for sustenance. Most businesses still had yet to open, but a restaurant full of travelers caught my eye. It was called “Fresh and Juicy” and I later found it listed in my guidebook. Sometimes the comfort of the Lonely Planet Trail is exactly what you need.

Fresh and Juicy had zero decoration and crappy plastic chairs. But I immediately liked the vibe and it became a daily stop for breakfast or lunch while I was in Kolkata. It was mostly full of tourists, but it didn’t have a tourist-only kind of feeling to it. The food was basic, but always cheap and as fresh and juicy as its name suggested. It was small, so if you were there by yourself, they would fill up your table as the restaurant became more crowded. It was a great place to meet other solo travelers and before long, I had a table full of breakfast companions.

I learned quickly how to decipher those who’d been backpacking in India for awhile from those who like myself, were new to the country and far from adjusting. The long term backpackers mouths were a little less agape. For many of the long termers I met, India was their first big travel experience. I think in some ways, that makes a lot sense. Once you adjust to the country, I think not having anything to compare it to could potentially make it easier. I’ve gotten to a point where travel comparisons are unavoidable. I couldn’t help but think of how I’d found great hostel rooms in other countries for cheaper than a night at the Hotel Diplomat. Or how the amount of staring I was receiving in Kolkata brought back unpleasant memories of being in certain parts of Vietnam, where I’d had my least favorable travel experience up to that point

In fact, Kolkata felt like a combination of the most undesirable aspects of everywhere I’d already been up to that point, with a few extra elements of discomfort added in. I shared this with my breakfast mates. There was the smog and trash of any third world country, constant sales pitches, and constant staring. Then there are the cows and of course, cow waste to go along with it. Human waste and blowing noses onto the sidewalk. And soul crushing poverty magnified by both the country’s potential and the highly discernible remnants of the caste system.

My breakfast mates assured me that eventually you adjust and settle in. I knew that two weeks wasn’t enough to see beyond certain aspects of India and not convinced that I wanted to. There was a type of existence there that I didn’t want to ignore.

I went back to the Hotel Diplomat to collect my things. I realized that as awful as the hotel was, it was just a small glimpse into another reality. Walking around in the early morning, I’d seen many people laying or bathing on the trash-ridden sidewalks and rickshaw drivers sleeping in their rickshaws… their homes. The first world guilt I felt in Kolkata was more powerful than any prior feelings I’ve had of it when traveling. But I still could not stand the thought of another night at the Hotel Diplomat. So I checked out, without having a set hotel to move in to. The feelings followed me as I walked down the street with my backpack and the rickshaw and taxi drivers and women selling henna and kids selling candy trailed behind me.

I went to see if the Fairlawn Hotel further down Sudder Street had any vacancies. The previous night at an internet cafe, I’d met an older Australian couple who were staying there. They were in Kolkata for their daughter’s five day wedding. They told me that it was basic, but clean. It was overpriced which is why I hadn’t considered it during my original search, but in Kolkata paying a little bit more was worth it for a clean room, even if it wasn’t stellar. There were rooms available for the last two nights I’d be in the city, but not for the next five consecutive days.

The owner of the Fairlawn was a lovely Armenian woman. She was 90 and continuing to live a life full of stories as she interacted with hotel guests daily. She scrunched up her face when I told her where I’d stayed the previous night and told me to hang around the Fairlawn because, “Something always happens.”

I think she was thinking that someone would not show up or cancel and a room would open up. That didn’t happen that day, but I hung around, and the receptionist was nice enough to call other hotels and find an available room at a decent place.

The Ashreen Guesthouse was not fabulous. My room smelled like it had housed a series of chain smokers. But it was by far better than Hotel Diplomat, 10 rupees cheaper, and relatively clean. And there were friendly guests in the lobby. A woman from England was checking out right as I was checking in. We struck up a conversation. She was leaving on a night train and she invited me to go shopping with her and an American woman she’d met a few days before. With my hotel matters sorted out for the time being, I was ready to search for Indian clothing for the wedding which started the following day. I quickly threw my stuff in my room and went right back out.

It was a Sunday, so very few stalls in the markets were open. But the American woman had become friends with one of the shop owners and he opened up his stalls for us and of course led us to his friends’ shops that were open. Not a whole lot of shopping got done, we mostly did a lot of chatting and chai sipping. As the shop owner walked us from one section of the market to another, he took us through the meat market which had quite a stench. Noticing the roundabout route, the English woman asked if we really had to walk through that part of the market to get to his other shop.

“No,” the shop owner replied with a mischievous smile. “I just wanted you to see it.” More like smell it.

I began to see that shopping in India takes time. Our standing and milling about was always met with furrowed brows and, “Sit, sit! Do you want some chai?” The small amounts of caffiene in those little cups added up, and I think I have an abundance of chai to thank for minimizing the effects of my jet lag.

There was a lot of waiting which I soon learned was because many clothing stores only housed a small supply of what was available; there was more to be found at warehouses or other stores owned by the same person. I had to let go of my very American shopping style and defer control to whichever small Indian man was running around the market to find what I was looking for. Often, I would ask for something very specific and they’d bring out anything. I’d tell them I wanted something similar to a beautiful femininely-cut embroidered red dress I saw and they’d bring out a loose-fitting bedazzled yellow dress. Later that afternoon, we met a women who frequently visited Kolkata to check in on a non-profit she ran there. She was a no-bullshit kind of person. She reminded us the importance of knowing what you want at the markets and being very firm, which was often easier said than done.

After hours of sitting around, I did have a bit of success. I walked away with kameez without a salwar for the pre-ceremony celebration and figured that if I couldn’t find pants to go with it, I’d wear my own pair of black slacks. I also had a beautiful embroidered purple sari picked out for the wedding ceremony. I would need to go back to get sari undergarments, but I was on the right track.

The American woman went back to her hotel because she felt sick, but the English woman still had hours before her night train. We walked down a street perpendicular to Sudder Street until we found a restaurant. I had a plate of delicious tandoori chicken and naan.

As we were preparing to leave, I sensed something moving at my feet. I looked down and there was a young boy on his hands and knees underneath our table, wiping the floor with a rag. Oh, Kolkata.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Rebecca February 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm

I think the clothes that Indian women wear are just beautiful – particularly when you see large wedding parties. Can’t wait to see pics of you in your outfits!

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