If you think that New York City is the place for wild taxi rides, try going to Kolkata. After eating my last chicken tandoori of the trip, it was time to get a taxi back to my hotel. Even though it was nine-thirty at night, it felt like 100 degrees with 100 humidity, plus the streets were teeming with people. It seemed that everybody was also trying to get a yellow Ambassador cab of which there were few. After waiting patiently for around 20 minutes, and watching people pummel each other for the use of one of these iconic cars, I dove in to a taxi that stopped close to me while fending off five other prospective riders. I showed the driver the hotel's business card, which was five minutes away, hoping he would know where this busy main street is. I also told him the address in English, so he turned around and said 150 rupees and I said go, knowing that the fare was only 50. Off he went like a coked up Nascar racer. After about five minutes I realized he was going the wrong way, and gave him the card again. This time, he studied it intently, but it was upside down. He didn't understand me, and I didn't understand him but this was my last night, I just had a great meal and it was an another opportunity to really experience Kolkata. Eventually he realized he was lost and asked a traffic cop who was in a white uniform where to go. We finally made it back after running three red lights, almost knocking over a Tuk-tuk, and driving on the sidewalk. He screamed his price at me, 200 rupees. I happily gave him 100 for a ride that should have cost 50, jumped out of the taxi and smiled. On the way out, the driver yelled at me "ghar ka ladka", I thought he was asking me if I wanted to eat a latke, but I learned later on that he said I was "one of the family". I love Kolkata.
Kolkata Taxi… Chaos
When traveling I sometimes meet people and wonder what my life would be like if I was born into their situation. After all it is just a matter of luck, chance, and predetermination that I was born where I was. As my trip to remote India was ending I asked my trusty driver Yalen, who spoke minimal English if he was able to drive me to the Dibrugarh airport so I could catch my flight to Kolkata. I wasn't sure he fully understood my question but he quickly answered that he would be driving me to America as well. We had a good laugh together and it was a shared moment that made a really challenging adventure into something that was a great tale to tell once I returned home.
My guide Chada was also going home after the trip to his home Ziro, in Arunchal Pradesh, India. I spent three great days there and knew that his town had unpaved roads, cows, pigs and stray dogs roaming freely. Plus, it was home to the Apatani people whose women disfigured their faces so that the neighboring Nishi tribe, who believe in taking multiple wives wouldn't raid them. Until thirty years ago the women would wear nose plugs and tattoo their faces. Chada understood my fascination and and interest in photographing these women and felt comfortable taking me around as he saw that I was just as interested in hearing about their lives and what made them happy, as well as taking photographs.
I told Chada that I would be taking a four hour flight from Kolkata to Dubai, and then a fourteen hour flight to New York. He was interested in hearing the details and sharing his knowledge of Dubai. For many Indians Dubai is the promised land, a short flight away where their are opportunities to make more in a month than they can make in half a year at home. He too was taking a sixteen hour trip to go the 180 miles to his home. The overnight bus would take twelve hours and cost him 700 rupees, which is $11 U.S.D . I asked if it had bathrooms and he said no, but that it would stop once so that people could eat. Hearing that the bus only made one stop made me think that the Indian bladder must be exceptionally large. He would then take a shared Mahindra taxi for four hours that would cost 300 rupees, $5 U.S.$. Once in Ziro he would take the ten minute ride in a tuk tuk. After hearing that, all I could do is contemplate the difficulty of his journey. Here I was taking Emirates A380, a massive,comfortable plane with more indoor plumbing than his entire village, being fed three meals and having attractive stewardesses offering me free drinks and snacks. He would have to wait outdoors for the shared taxi in Itanagar while I would be in the Dubai lounge watching the news, reading four magazines at once and seeing how much free food I could eat in the two hour lay over.
It sure would be incredible if he could have the opportunity to take a flight and experience what I take for granted. It makes me realize how fortunate I am to live the life I live. The lesson learned is, don't sweat the small stuff, if you weren't who you are, you might be in that bus to Ziro. Then again, Chada was really looking forward to getting back home to his wonderful wife and his three sons. I could have been him, and he could have been me.
Hotel of My Dreams
I have had the pleasure of staying at some wonderful hotels full of ambiance, great design and all the creature comforts that you can ask for. When traveling I am not one to analyze the towels, thread count or brand of soap in the bathroom. All I want is a clean room, a window to look out of, and hot water. When I organized my trip to Arunachal Pradesh, the tour operator wrote in the itinerary that the hotels would be basic, which I took for no frills, meaning a hot and a cot. In the town of Pasighat, which just opened up to foreign visitors I stayed at the Aane Hotel and experienced what the Indian traveler considers fondly as a hole.
Four stories tall with one side of the building half open, because the builder ran out of money, cement or thought this was a way to air cool in the building was what I drove up to. I lugged my pack up the stairs to the reception area, and behind the counter was this sour faced man in a drab dirty uniform. He was having a loud conversation with four guys all in wife beater t-shirts, no shoes or flip flops and matching brown pants. He gave me the key to room 203 and pointed towards the stairs and as soon as he did that, the four guys all started to scream at one another about who was going to take my bag upstairs. Before I headed toward the stairs the man handed me a towel that looked like it was used to dry cars in a car wash, and a bar of soap that that lost its chemical composition and was oozing out of the wrapper.
Outside of most of the rooms were trays littered with moldy plates of food and empty liquor bottles. The hallway was dark, and the door to the room across from mine was open and the smell of cigarettes was enough to give you cancer by contact. I turned the key in the lock, but the door didn't open. After three futile attempts one of the screaming men from earlier on came carrying my bag and tried his luck. He too had trouble, and eventually punched the door and which caused it to fly open. I saw the spot where he punched it, and this wooden door had definitely been punched many times. We entered the room and he dropped my bag, put his hand out and shouted in my face, "Money now!" I laughed, shook his hand, smiled and whispered, "Money later." He didn't understand this, and walked out of the room. I heard him screaming once he got to the reception area.
The floor had layers of caked dirt, the bed was basically a board with a sheet on it, and the pillow stopped being a pillow years ago. The night table was ornate, yet wobbly and not something I would put my watch on. When I stepped onto the wet bathroom floor, found the toilet seat wasn't attached to the toilet and the shower head was hanging down and oozing, I knew that I would not be opening the door again. I decided I would be joining the ranks of millions of Indians who brush their teeth in front of their homes and find another place to do my business. When my tour operator asked me how I found Hotel Aane I asked him what he thought of it. He said the other foreigners stayed there and never complained, I asked how many last year and he replied; four. I wanted to photograph the room, but didn't want to take my camera out in the room. I slept in my sleep sack, put some clothing in a pillow case that I brought from home and didn't even open my suitcase. With the help of Ambien, I slept six hours and carried my own bag to the car.
Goodbye Hotel Aane in Pasighat, I will not be back.