03.01.2009 21 °C
My first Christmas away from home; my first Christmas spent on the beach in the sun; my first Christmas surrounded by Indian kids dressed as Santa with bright pink faces...
Seeing your own culture interpreted through the eyes of another is a fascinating experience and Christmas in India didn't disappoint. Our hotel even comissioned a Christmas cake and all us guests were invited to join in the cutting of the cake; it was the cutting, rather than the eating that seemed to be the celebration here.
We spent the day surfing and generally being lazy in the sun and skyped our families back home later in the day. My folks had posted out a magic grow tree and some paper chains to decorate our room with and some xmas presents which we opened over the webcam. Molly dressed as santa's little helper for the occassion at the other end. We'd treated ourselves to a bottle of wine weeks ago which we'd been lugging round with us, but it was worth it sitting on the beach watching sunset, pulling our crackers.
After Christmas, we decided to head North for New Years, to Kolkata (Calcutta) - just about the furthest point from Varkala, in Kerala where we spent Christmas. Getting to Kolkata in time involved 3 sleeper trains, totalling 47 hours of travel. The longest of these was around 22 hours, but very enjoyable as we shared our bunk space with a large Indian family, who throughout the journey brought more and more family members from around the carriage down to meet us, and an American called Chad, who kept drinking coconut oil to try to relieve his constipation - not sure I would have picked a sleeper train for this? Dan was invited to arm wrestle a cousin (I won by the way. DAN), had his dreads plaited by the son and amazed the carriage with his magic tricks. I was given several bracelets and kept being kissed by the baby. We had our photos taken, but my favouritte was the movie made of us just sitting there, thinking we were posing for a photo.
Our final sleeper train was delayed for 2 hours until 1am. When we got on there were 2 women asleep in our bunks, who we had to wake up. After listening to a lot of farting and coughing from the bunk above and deciding the safest place for my face was inside my sleeping bag, we finally settled down to sleep. This was short-lived, as for some unknown reason everyone decided to get up at 4am, even though the train wasn't due in until 9? You might think that getting up this early, people might have whispered and kept the lights out... But, this is India. People were shouting at each other, not because they were cross, but just to be heard over everyone else shouting at each other. The only relief was that the guy above me was up and so somewhere else on the train, farting!! And so we arrived in Kolkata on the morning of New Years eve.
Kolkata is a hectic, busy city. Everywhere in India you're hit by the poverty and riches side by side, but especially so in Kolkata. Coming off the train you'd see the bag carriers being loaded up with bags. 3 large suitcases balanced on the head wasn't enough for some paying for their bags to be carried and they loaded up both arms of their carrier with yet more, well, you wouldn't want to spend out on two carriers would you? It is the only place in India where they still have hand pulled rickshaws and you see thin, older men pulling the more affluent at a trot along the busy roads. It's a difficult sight to see people making their living this way, but then that's how they survive in this busy city, where so many people are struggling to find a niche to fill, to make their way.
Kolkata is full of character and it's fascinating walking around the city, dodging the traffic, rubbish, cows and guilt that the poverty inevitably brings you, seeing the creative ways people have found of making their way in amongst the chaos.
After spending 47 hours getting here, we were a bit concerned to find out that people generally go by a different calender and celebrate New Years in April... Luckily there were January celebrants too.
We spent the night on the streets with everyone else. It was really busy and made more so by hundreds of people wanting to wish us happy new year and shake our hands. Every so often we got caught in a mini scrum and had to escape the crushing crowds and wandering hands and duck under the barriers onto the road. We got interviewed live for 4 different tv channels. Dan borrowed a line he'd heard in another interview about Calcutta being known as the City of Joy and managed to get it into all 4 interviews, while I had to think of a quick response as to whether I felt fearless in Calcutta! Oh, and Dan got electrocuted from a pylon (luckily not badly). All in all a hectic, but unique New Year!
New Years day, a bit hungover, we decided to go to a cemetary. It had crows sitting watching you everywhere and was really spooky. We'd brought some paan to try, which is a mixture of betel nut, some brighty coloured sweet tasting stuff and... I have no idea what else (sometimes best not to think too much about these things), all wrapped up in a big leaf which you chew and spit. It was...ok, didn't do much for the hangover and united Dan with the toilet the next day - if you ever read this Chad - might be worth a try?
We're now on our way to Darjeeling to dig out our warm weather gear again and drink some tea. We get a famous steam train up to Darjeeling tomorrow. It's called the Toy train - hope it's not like the miniture ones back home that always have the guys who work on them riding round the tracks, as it's 71/2 hours and goes up though some quite mountainous terrain.
Happy 2009 to you all!!!