Well, well, WELL.
I’m writing this from a desk at a nice hotel in Kolkata, India on the morning of September 27th. It’s 7am and things are relatively quiet—there even seems to be a lull in the din created by the seemingly constant cacophony of perpetual horn honking. (Trust me, this is rare.)
Now, of course I have a story to tell you—but before I get too far into the middle and have to Tarantino my way back to the beginning, we should start with the obvious.
This is a good question, but I might follow up with, don’t you ever listen to me? Do you even check my Facebook? What kind of relationship IS this?
I’ll forgive you for not knowing, at least for the sake of telling the story.
I had mentioned a few times before that as a thank you for helping him with aspects of his recent bestseller, The 4-Hour Body, I was invited to come to India with Tim Ferriss.
Now, India wouldn’t have been my personal suggestion—it’s outside my range of experiences; however, Tim happens to be the consummate traveler, and, if ever I was to journey to this unfamiliar I couldn’t think of anyone whose quest I’d rather join.
He’s also a great friend, of course, and hanging out is always a good time.
Add to that the fact that I was told other awesome people would be here (in industries from medical services to insurance) and that I’d have a chance to see some monkeys. As you can tell by the intro pic in this article, I did. And so, I was sold on the idea. I invited my good buddy Dr. K along, and trip was planned.
Everyone all caught up?
So, where were we? Ah, yes. Let’s begin at the beginning—the Arrival.
On a recommendation from Ballantyne, I flew business class on Qatar Air. I was only able to do this because I cashed in some Air Miles. Learning to do this was a crazy adventure in itself, and I have Momma Roman to thank for facilitating in the process—because American Express was certainly no help.
Flying business was a new experience for me, as historically I book economy; and it was a good decision. I’m not normally keen on flying, because although I’m not tall I am atypically wide and find it hard to get comfortable.
Not an issue in business class, as it turns out—despite this being the longest flight I’ve ever taken, it was also the nicest and most comfortable. The food was delicious and the service unreal. If there’s anyone from Qatar Air reading this, hat’s off to you—well done.
As a random little aside, if you haven’t had the chance to fly business or first class, I suggest you do it once in your life. It won’t be a repeat experience for me—at least not for a while—but it was awesome and totally worth spending my miles on; glad I did it.
Getting back to the storyI touched down at Doha International airport in Qatar, and tried my best to get my bearings, which took a second. Now, firstly: what a gorgeous airport; not that JFK is a dump, but Doha is next level. It was spotless, efficient and completed the feel of exceptional luxury I’d begun to experience on the trip. That’s not what threw me.
Instead, it was the sort of cultural fusion that was interesting; that is, the sudden shift towards Middle Eastern culture was expected—the degree to which Western influence was peppered in was not.
To but it bluntly, I just didn’t expect to see Kit-Kats with Arabic writing being sold at the airport.
Anyway, back to the travel—with my flight departing just before midnight and lasting 13.5 hours, I thought it best to simply take the opportunity to sleep—and I did, for over 8 hours. A better slumber than most, at least in terms of length.
Now, given the timing and all, this seemed like a decidedly good decision—the logical decision. I did not, of course, realize that it would again be evening when I landed. In fact, I landed at 6:57pm after being awake for only a few hours.
Which brings us to what is always the most hilarious part of long travel: time differences.
I had no idea which way was up or down—or more to the point, which time zone was back or forward—and I had an immediate fear of never getting back on schedule. In fact I wondered if I’d ever sleep again
Assuming the worst, I contemplated life as a vampire and made my way to my connecting flight, which for some reason I thought was only an hour long.
Upon boarding, I asked a few questions of the staff, and found that my arrival time in Kolkata would be just around 3:15, according to Mouina, who was taking care of service for the flight.
That made no sense to me at all. My confusion multiplied.
My impulse to ask whether she meant AM or PM was incredibly strong, but my reluctance to appear an American Cliché precluded me from voicing my query. I determined to simply arrive when the plane landed and hunkered down to watch a movie.
As it turned out, the second leg of my journey was just over five hours, and despite my concerns, I dozed off during flight. I cannot be given credit for this, as I was forced to sit through Fast Five, which I assume was a strategic choice on the part of the airline to lull travelers into a coma.
My sleep was not unbroken—I was awoken twice by the staff, each time to be served champagne or fresh fruit. A fella could get used to this.
Finally, we landed. I reached turned on phone and waited for it to register the date and time.
It was 3:45…in the morning. I left NY on the 18th and arrived on the 20th.
I stepped off the plane and was in for a rude awakening, as the airport India is a lot less like the lavish transit stations in the Middle East and a lot more like you would expect. Dirty, hot, noisy, and confusing.
Arriving in Kolkata I was met by Pawan, a representative from the travel and tourist agency that took care of the trip. A nice young man with only mildly broken English, Pawan was courteous to a fault and refused to stop addressing me as “Sir Roman” despite my constant assertion that I am not, in fact, a Knight.
We loaded up the car and the drive slammed the accelerator harder than was probably necessary. With a jolt that I can only assume was not good for the transmission we were off. My experience with Indian driving had only just begun.
Along those lines, my first exposure to Kolkata, then, was also that drive. And it was strange. As we sped through the mostly-sleeping city, I was given brief glimpses into the dichotomy of India—opulent estates and plastic covered lean-tos appeared next to each other without any break between, and it became clear that my Western notion of neighborhoods defined and separated by income strata would not be applicable here.
Even at that time of night, the poverty was evident, as sleeping bodies by the dozens lined the sidewalks. Roving packs of dogs slept in the middle of the street, unafraid of oncoming traffic and unhurried in their movements to avoid it. As Pawan put it, “after midnight, the dogs rule the streets.”
Those dogs must be crazy, I thought, for surely only madness would prompt one to tempt fate in Indian traffic or let it rest on the whims of Indian drivers, who seem only dimly aware of the existence of traffic laws.
Laws, by the way, is too strong a word, because the idea of a law implies that breaking one leads to some sort of punishment; an idea that is entirely foreign here.
For example, as a once-British colony, in India it is customary that one drives on the left hand side of the road—in theory.
In practice…not so much. And so traffic guidelines exist, with the drivers being content to ignore them when needed.
I arrived at my hotel at just past 4:30am, completely unsure if I was supposed to be tired. In a strange sort of energy purgatory, neither asleep nor awake, my body and mind simply drifted around in the peculiar fugue state that I’m left to assume accompanies time travel. I don’t know how Marty McFly made it look so easy.
Not knowing what else to do, I flopped down to go to sleep—and nearly broke my ribs on the rock hard bed. An inauspicious beginning to my stay.
My gasp of pain woke Kareem, and after a 10 minute catch-up session, I told my body who’s boss and forced myself into a brief and restless sleep.
For almost 3 hours.
Unbeknownst to me, Kareem had called for a 7:30 wake up call, when I heard the phone ring I instinctively rolled over to answer it. I was completely unprepared for the greeting…
I kid you not.
The shock of it was unreal and I almost fell out of bed; however, it was undeniably effective, as I will admit that I was sufficiently awake after that call.
So, I should probably tell you about the hotel, while we’re on this subject.
We spent the first several days staying at a country club/hotel called the Tollygunge Club. Located just South of the main part of the city, the Tolly, as it’s known, was hardly what we’d expected. The draw of this club, according to the travel reps, is the golf course and grounds. In fairness, these were quite nice—the problem is that no one in the group wanted to play.
That aside, the draw ended there. In fact, the pictures and descriptions from our itinerary could not have been more misleading, as the rest of the accommodations were a lot like Kolkata itself—sweaty and sort of jarring, with random dogs everywhere, ‘iffy’ food, and the aforementioned beds, which I suspect were made of and stone held together by a pliant glue.
Anyway, we spent roughly two days sightseeing in a sort of “high society” tour of Kolkata, led by an upper middle class woman who took great joy in explaining the richness of the history of various areas while speaking somewhat disparagingly about the “meager poor” of India.
Some of the more aristocratic holdovers are pretty funny, at least to my decidedly New York sensibilities. For example, we were taken to see horseraces, which is evidently a semi formal occasion. Not having packed appropriate attire (since, you know, I was planning on a safari), I had to pick up a shirt and some dress shoes to get into the racetrack. Seriously.
Once there, we were consistently shushed, because despite this being a sporting event, loud noises are discouraged. Since I’m so loud that any conversation I’m a part of is considered “loud noises,” I was promptly told to shut the fuck up.
This would not have seemed so odd if the Indians in the boxes next to us weren’t screaming at the end of every race and singing the praises of each horse. Seems like only “non-citizens” are told to be quiet.
I have no idea if this is an Indian thing or a British thing, but I’m pretty sure I hate it—any sporting event during where you’re forced to dress up in anything resembling a suit and during which speaking is verboten…well, it’s just not for me.
Forgive me for sounding (possibly) ethnocentric or (probably) uncultured, but I’ll stick the Meadowlands, where I’m allowed to scream my throat raw cheering for the Jets. Like the gent to the right, I’m likely persona non grata at Indian racetracks.
But, I digress.
In any event, while the unique insight into the cultural significance of each aspect of our trip was all very interesting, the trip was feeling far too structured for myself and Tim (whose wanderlust is unmatched). After a brief discussion, we ditched our guide and did things our way.
This was great as we got to see a few of the more Indian sights and do some shopping and all that touristy stuff, including checking out the local fish market, where I got to film Tim killing his first chicken. Relax—it was for research purposes, as this aspect of “food prep” is going to be covered in his upcoming book, The 4-Hour Chef.
We spent the next night at the Tolly, and packed our bags to head to the Sunderbans, a tidal halophytic mangrove forest towards Bangladesh. This was to be a sort of safari adventure where we could maybe see tigers and revel in the glory of not having electricity.
While not overly excited at the prospect of spending four days in the humidity without the possibility of air conditioning, I was armed with several good books and—not having any other choice—decided to suck it up.
As it turns out, Tim and his girlfriend Natasha got extremely sick eating fish that night in the restaurant at the Tolly; and a more unfortunately twist of fate would be hard to imagine.
The activity for the following day was touring Kolkata hospitals, which was a ridiculous site to see and almost resulted in a fistfight with a doctor attempting to inject visibly dirty needles into their arms; without hesitation, that hospital was done and off to the next.
Eventually, Tim and Natasha landed in Belle Vue Clinic, where “better” care was to be had. I say that hesitantly, because in fact the care was atrocious, and on some level I’m surprised that they both made it out alive.
Within 24 hours, they were doing much better—which means that they were spiking only minor fevers, and dealing with horrible bouts of diarrhea several times per hour. As you might expect, with a happy couple trading in/out of a bathroom, they quickly ran out of toilet paper. When this was brought to the attention of the “sister” (nurse attendants), Natasha was met with the suggestion that she use her hand and water—a practice not uncommon in Indian hospitals, evidently.
After a bit of a fit, they were given a dirty towel. A single dirty towel. To share. After more of a fit, they were each given their own towel. With that, Tim’s anger rose up around him like a blazing fire, and, fearing for their lives and souls, the sisters procured toilet paper in time to avoid his wrath.
In reading it now, it sounds kind of funny—in that I-can’t-believe-that-actually-happened kind of way—but I assure you it was a dreadful thing.
That said, there were some bright spots in this comedy of errors: when they asked for coconut water, someone climbed a palm tree outside and picked them each a coconut—awesome!
Getting more serious, we were initially told that they’d be in the hospital overnight, but their condition wouldn’t stabilize. Whether this was because of the sickness or the hospital care, I can’t be certain.
In any event, they wound up staying for about 3.5 days, which put a pretty big crimp in the scheduled activities; not surprisingly, our tiger expedition to the Sunderbans canceled. Probably a good thing, as further investigation revealed that apparently there wasn’t much of a chance of seeing tigers anyway, and malaria is at an all-time high in the region where the tigers are supposed to (but probably won’t) be hanging out. So, yeah…I was okay with that.
Based on the effects of the cuisine at the Tollygunge (which we renamed the Tolly-grunge) had on Tim and Natasha, we decided to switch hotels.
We moved to the Oberoi, where I now sit and write this blog post. This hotel is gorgeous, as Western as you can get without being in Europe. The food is amazing and the service is unreal. According to the staff, you can even drink the water there, though based on Tim’s plight I have opted not to tempt fate.
I’ve been be enjoying my time at the Oberoi and will continue to do so until I depart late tomorrow eve, though I suspect I will have been home for a number of days by the time you read this.
Of course, you want to know about the rest of the trip. With Tim and Natasha out of commission, and having summarily dismissed our main tour guide, we were left to own devices to figure out what to do with the remainder of our time in Kolkata.
As it turns out, there’s quite a lot: everything from seeing Queen Victoria Hall to schools and charities built by Mother Teresa.
Overall, Kolkata is a very cool city—lots of open land for such a large city, and a mix of cultures and architecture. The people are universally nice and very outgoing, even when they aren’t trying to sell you something.
The only real negative part of the city (food poisoning notwithstanding) is the poverty, which is just unreal.
For those of you laboring under the delusion that you’d be prepared for it because you saw Slumdog Millionaire, let me just cure you of that fantasy right now: you aren’t.
The poverty is absolutely pervasive. It’s immediate and unrelenting, and it will challenge every notion you’ve ever had about quality of life. I don’t want to ruin your day with too much description, but a largest thing that sticks out in my head is dozens naked babies being used for begging by 6-year old boys who carry them up to your car.
While it’s heartbreaking, I can’t resist thinking with a sick sort of fascination that these children probably do have clothes, and are displayed naked simply because it increases conversions and they make more money. (Hey, I warned you it was a sick thought.)
So, while Tim and Natasha convalesced, we took in the sights and experienced as much of Kolkata as we could during the day, but spent out evenings at the Oberoi enjoying fine food (include a grape cinnamon ice cream on my cheat day which was just fabulous) and each other’s company.
Once the happy couple was released from the grips of both near-death and the Belle Vue Clinic (which, based on Tim’s blog, could be viewed as synonymous), they were back with us at the hotel and ready for some Indian culture.
To that, we scheduled a cooking class with the hotel chef, and that was a truly incredible experience; we all learned a lot. I can’t really give too much info, as Tim will be covering it in the new book, but the cuisine was great—even with me cooking it!
Than that, the last few days have been fairly relaxing. I’ve done a bit more shopping and sightseeing, but by and large I’m ready to go home, despite the fact that I predict my body will have a trouble with the time change.
That said, while Kolkata is an adjustment to say the least, it’s not all of India. Just as I would advise a visitor to the US to reserve judgement after having seen only NYC or LA or Chattanooga, Tennessee, I obviously can’t judge the entire country based on my visit.
This has been, as I expected, the trip of a lifetime, but for reasons no one could have predicted.
I’m looking forward to getting home…but not as much as I’m looking forward to my flight. God, I love business class.