A Year Away From Home (Part Two)
Added over 10 years ago
Journal entry – 1st May 2002
After four days in Cambodia we fly back to Bangkok and the same afternoon catch a public bus down to the coastal resort town of Hua Hin, 200 km south of Bangkok on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand. While on the bus I try to compose a song called "Take my Riels Away” a sad attempt at witticism based on the on the fact that the Cambodian currency, the Riel, is not exchangeable for anything, anywhere, at any time. We were supposed to declare and leave behind all Riels before leaving the country, so it became a constant battle between us and the Siem Reap shopkeepers, them to get our American dollars off us and us to get rid of our ever-growing pile of Riels. Anyway, as I sit there on the bus I can’t really think of anything appropriate to rhyme with “away” and so lose interest...
The bus trip only takes three hours, although it seems much longer. The bus is dirty, noisy and overcrowded but does not break down or catch fire so I am quite happy. As usual Ian sleeps most of the way.
The town of Hua Hin (pronounced Wa Bin) has an interesting history. Originally a fishing village, it became popular as a rainy season retreat in the 1920's with the construction of a railway line from Bangkok. A colonial style hotel was built in 1923 and Thailand's first public golf course was built in 1924. In 1926, King Rama VII built the Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries) Palace on the beach, which is still attended by the Royal Family during their summer holidays. The tourist blurb for Hua Hin suggests that it is “Unlike any other beach resort in Thailand! If you're looking for bright lights and the frantic all-night action of cabarets and discos, you may be disappointed here! However, if you enjoy walks through the quiet winding streets of a friendly coastal village, sampling delicious seafood in restaurants overlooking the brightly lit fishing boats on the Gulf of Thailand or a round of golf on one of the several international standard links, Hua Hin could very well be what you're looking for!” This unfortunately is just not true. While the occasional presence of the Royal family has resulted in a sense of decorum generally being observed, tourism is the main business of the town these days and as soon as we arrive we discover that it boasts its very own Tourist Alley, filled with sarong stalls, bars and pizza parlours, and constant exhortations to “buy, buy, buy ”. My father has visited Hua Hin in the past and on the last occasion stayed in a place called the City Beach Resort. He liked it and when we told him we were going to Hua Hin, urged us to try it out. At the time I was dubious – my father and I have very different ideas of comfortable hotel standards. But we thought at least the name of the place was encouraging - City and Beach in the same name suggesting both convenience and luxury, and at an affordable price! How wrong we were.
The “resort” consists of a single building with approximately three feet of surrounding manicured grounds. It’s also located smack bang in the middle of Tourist Alley. We are initially reassured by the appearance of the foyer, which is vast, and the staff, who are dressed in smart blue uniforms. They however stand talking to each other in soft voices and ignore everyone. The hotel is swarming with fat, middle-aged Germans wearing Hawaiian shirts, smoking endless cigarettes and meandering about the lobby without apparent purpose. I have no idea whether they are all here as part of a tour group or this is just a really popular German hotel. Once seen to by the less-than-efficient staff, we take the elevator up to the sixth floor to discover that our “deluxe” room has a lumpy bed, non-functioning air conditioning unit and a television that requires an (unfortunately absent) remote to work. We ring reception to ask for one but the staff member pretends she doesn’t understand English and hangs up on us.
After settling in for the night we quickly discover that the house disco goes until 2 am, with every sound and thump transmitted faithfully up into our pillows up on the sixth floor. After two the music stops, but as we try to sleep the sound of people having sex on the floor above us can be clearly heard for over an hour. Given the level of enthusiasm involved we feel it’s unlikely to be any of the fat Germans but if it is, well we’re certainly impressed by their stamina.
In the morning we wake rather depressed and tired. Breakfast consists of watery scrambled eggs, stale bread and German cigarette smoke, and is the last straw. We ring every hotel in the region, and settle on one called the Dusit Polo Club at nearby Cha Am. At $200 a night and that not including breakfast we are already facing a huge budget dilemma – and only three weeks into our year-long trip! Also, we are prepaid at the City Beach for a total of three horrible nights. As clear as a bell, I hear my friend Andrei’s voice in my left ear – “Darling, just be fabulous. Are you being fabulous now? No? Then move”. Our minds made up, we pack our bags and tell the Dusit staff to come and get us.
Journal entry – 2nd May 2002 12:00 pm
We are, not to put too lightly, in paradise. The Dusit Polo Club Hotel is one of several international resorts built on the coast known as Cha Am and separated from each other by kilometres of lonely beachfront. No polo is actually played here, nor has it ever been, but I really don’t think anyone minds. In fact the staff are quite surprised when I bring the subject up. They are superbly attentive, the pool is wonderful, the food fantastic. We eat breakfast on our balcony overlooking the pool and the sea (one huge one shared between us each morning to save money) and spend our room-time swathed in big fluffy towels, which like everything else in our room are changed twice a day – $200 a night buys you a lot of fluffiness! I have also been stealing as many Irish Breakfast tea bags as I can as well as several small but perfectly formed packets of detergent, because I am certain they will be just the thing when we reach India. When Housekeeping find out I’m stockpiling they enter enthusiastically into the game and leave extras for us in the morning or whenever they pass by our room. How I wish they could come with us to India!
Journal entry – 2nd May 2002 2:00 pm
In preparation for India and with three days to relax, I decide to begin practicing my spitting. Although this is to be my first trip to India, we travelled to Nepal on a buying trip in 2001 and were appalled by the constant guttural honking that went on around us. This time I was determined to join the party and spit with the best of them. When someone honked up a gooby next to me, I wasn’t going to complain or fastidiously move away, I was going to join them!
As any one knows who has been in either Nepal or India, spitting is an art form. The spit consists of three parts, the snort or nasal honk, the throat clear, and the spit itself, more properly known as the “pitueey”. I regularly mess up part three, dribbling spit down my chin instead of arcing it gracefully towards my chosen target. Ian is patient with my spitting and even provides a critical assessment of my attempts, only drawing the line when I start doing it in public beside the swimming pool. Imagine my delight when I finally get it right! And imagine my disappointment when the first thing I see at Calcutta airport is a sign saying "No Spitting"! But here I am afraid I am getting ahead of my story.
The hiatus is over and we return to Bangkok, with many a backward glance and sigh, in preparation for the next leg of our trip, which is India. We are flying Royal Orchid Airlines and our first port of call is Calcutta.
Journal entry - 4th May 2002
We land in Calcutta on the 4th of May. Never having been here before I have steeled myself to accept the place (having heard all the stories about gaping idiots, unrelenting poverty, wall-to-wall cows and non-stop toilet runs). Instead I am amazed. Bengali’s, on first impression, are urbane, polite, humorous and friendly. Calcutta is dirty and polluted but not as bad as I have been lead to expect. As we travel via decrepit Ambassador taxi to Sudder Street from Dum Dum International Airport, I absorb the sights and sounds of the city and get my first taste of a nation that defies any kind of easy description.
Thirty minutes later we drive into Sudder Street and are let out in front a derelict-looking building which is supposedly our hotel. I insist that the driver is wrong but with much arm waving he indicates that this is indeed the place. Throwing our bags out onto the pavement he briskly drives off, elbows held stylishly high.
Ian leaves me with the luggage and heads off to see whether the inside of the hotel is any better than the outside. I sit on the ground next to our luggage to wait, wave my fan back and forth and up and down, and take stock of our new surrounds.
Sudder Street runs off Chowringhee Road at the Indian Museum and is the tourist and budget-hotel centre of Calcutta. Because it’s a tourist street the guide books will tell you that it has more beggars in it than the rest of Calcutta put together. Some beggars are professionals, others are just very poor. The guides tell you that it's best not to give money when on your way to or from your hotel because you'll be remembered and you won't be able to come or go in peace ever again. As I sit there I notice many, many ravens, but surprisingly few beggars and, apart from a few curious stares I am basically left alone.
Ian comes back from his investigations with grim but not unexpected news: the hotel is a hovel, with water-stained walls, peeling ceilings and a constant bad smell. They also want US$40 a night (A$80), which is laughable. My father arrives in a taxi in company with a young American guy that he met on the plane (he had split with us in Thailand and made his own way to Nepal to do some stock buying there), we tell them the bad news and everyone heads off to check out the rest of the neighbourhood, leaving me perched with my fan on top of a giant mound of luggage. Nobody has caught on to the fact that there is little I could do if a bag was actually stolen – at this point I’d have enough trouble climbing down to the ground. The menfolk return three or four times to make sure I haven’t been abducted, each time with a larger group of beggars, children and various interested hangers-on in tow. The description of the hotels they encounter is embellished by the hangers-on with head nodding, arm waving and a running commentary until I am looking in five directions at once and am unable to hear anything being said. Finally they return with good news regarding a brand new hotel. One poor lady then says very exasperatedly that this is the place she has been trying to tell us about for the last half hour. The four of us make our way there with our bags and attendants like the Indian chapter of the Barnum and Bailey travelling circus. In this case we decide to slip the lady a few rupees for her assistance. Surprisingly and in contrast to the prediction of our guide book, we don’t ever see her again.
We quickly find out the truth about the local begging population. The latest scam is one that catches many otherwise canny travellers unawares. Knowing that Westerners have become wary about giving money, young women approach travellers holding a squalling baby and ask you to buy them a tin of milk formula. On the surface this seems like a good way of helping – until you find out that the tin is sold back to the shop keeper minutes later for half its cost price and the same tin of formula is sold many times over during the course of a single day. You can’t blame them for trying it on but it certainly makes you cynical about the whole exercise of giving.
----- Email Message -----
Date: 5th May 2002 12:37 AM
Subject: Oh Calcutta!
We had arranged to meet with my father in Calcutta on the 4th May, and as he was arriving from Kathmandu and we from Bangkok at different times of the day we had picked a mutually acceptable hotel ahead of time from the Lonely Planet guidebook and agreed to meet out the front. Ian and I arrived at the hotel first. Imagine an Oxford Street public toilet with two beds and a TV in it and you have an idea of the hotel we had chosen. And this was to cost us US$40 a night! A scrutiny of the area revealed that this was the general standard for anything under US$100. However we were about to get lucky - a brand new hotel had just opened in the area for about $50 a night, and this one looked like a really nice, clean toilet block with a TV, air conditioning unit and lovely pink nylon bedspread. We moved in and the power immediately failed for 12 hours straight. Soon afterwards the water also cut out, this time for 6 hours (no toilet flushing for us!!). We also found out that we had nocturnal visitors - rats. One little bastard sat not one meter from my oblivious sleeping head and ate its way through my precious half packet of biscuits, and these biscuits had not come cheaply: I had traded them for a half roll of perforated toilet paper from a fellow traveller that very day. The hotel staff refused to believe me about the rats. I showed them the packet of biscuits, at which point they conferred gravely then told me that it would not be hygienic to eat them and recommended that I throw them away.
Calcutta is cooler than Bangkok, about 35 C and 60% humidity. The place is a cacophony of colours, sounds and smells (mostly foul), impossible to describe without scratch and sniff technology. There are so many beggars. It is almost impossible to know who to give money to and in any case it is not good to give money at all - it simply reinforces the belief that all tourists are rich. I avoid the professionals as best I can, swatting them with my fan when necessary and shouting when this is not enough. This is hard for me - we spend on average 800 rupees a day on food (for three), and tip 10- 25 rupees at a time. I point out to my father that it would be better to give 1 rupee to 25 beggars a day instead, but he shrugs and says what everyone says: there are too many beggars to make a difference. On our second night in Calcutta we pass a very old woman in a tattered sari, who is sitting on the ground on a small piece of cardboard. She is not begging specifically from tourists, she is looking down at the ground in front of her, and she is very thin. As we pass (checking out restaurants for our evening meal), I throw three rupees into her cup. She looks up at me, smiles and thanks me, and I see that she has only a few rotten teeth in her mouth. I know with certainty that this is my moment to do something right. We go into a restaurant, find it unsuitable, and leave again to find another. In the meantime, I prepare: I roll up three hundred rupees, wait till Ian and Dad are looking the other way, then run back to her and press the roll into her hand. She looks down quickly and gives a small cry of delight. I run back to the others, and they haven't even noticed that I've gone. I look back, and she is staring straight ahead with a smile on her face, one hand moving over and over the notes hidden under her sari. I hope the money might be enough to buy her a couple of live chickens or something she can sell on for a profit. I feel as though I have passed a test and for the first time since arriving in India I enjoy my own evening meal.
Until next time, stay cool everyone
Journal entry – 6th May 2002
Our forays through Calcutta are delightful. Far from trying to touch me or get close to me (as I had been warned), men leap from me in horror at the hint of any body contact. I’m sure my fan is helpful with this, as wielded vigorously I find it provides a handy all-purpose weapon.
Home town of the late Mother Theresa, Calcutta is the largest city in India in terms of population and is the capital of West Bengal. In 1690 an English gentleman and employee of the British East India Company, Job Charnock, took over the leases of three villages situated together on the eastern bank of the river Hooghly, called Sutanuti, Govindapur and Kolikata. In 1756 the city became famous when Siraj-Ud-Dawlah, the last independent nawab of Bengal, captured it from the British. They regained their power a year later under Robert Clive, and the first British Governor General shifted the major administrative bodies of British India there, making it the capital of British India. By 1800 the city had become a bustling, wealthy town, the centre of cultural as well as political and economic life of the Bengali people.
This history is reflected in the rather compelling architecture of the city. Many of the old colonial structures, like the High Court, Victoria Memorial and Writers Building survive in gracious splendour. The Indian Museum, built in 1875, is the oldest museum in India, and I’ll freely admit that it’s magnificent in spite of my annoyance at being charged 300 rupees to get in when locals only have to pay 30. Many of the minor buildings in the city, however, are in terrible states of neglect. In one case when we look up a travel agent to book the next leg of our journey to Guwahati, our business is conducted in the foyer of one of these stately old buildings which has been turned into an office up to the first staircase landing. The building is actually derelict, and the foyer is the only useable part left.
It’s easy to see why Calcutta is considered to be the cultural capital of India, representing as it does the faded glory of the old regime and the intellectual optimism of the new. There are some of the best bookstores here I have ever seen anywhere in the world; most of them are found on a bustling thoroughfare called College Street. One particular place is panelled in warm timbers and has book cases that reach to the ceiling, complete with mezzanine level and iron balcony. While we are browsing through their wonderful selections on British India, the Moguls, cooking, jewellery and handicrafts, a speaker from the University of Calcutta is talking on the subject of terrorism and religion. She finishes her lecture with a lovely prayer that she had seen last year, inscribed on the smouldering ruins of the World Trade Centre: God, if you exist, protect me from those who believe in you. The talk is very well received.
Journal entry – 6th May 2002
My fan (bought, as you will recall, for US$1 in Cambodia) has become my best friend. On bad days I use it to waft hot air over my perspiring body. I wave away mosquitoes and small children with ease. Snapping it open between my face and that of a persistent beggar stops them in mid plea, and I have used it to swat touts and con artists when they approach too closely. I can use it to hide my face when yawning or laughing at inappropriate moments (there are many of these), and I hide my breasts with it when the stares become too obvious, in spite of the fact that I really don’t have any. When necessary, I open my fan and wave it regally before striding through the crowd like Jackie Onasiss at a charity do. I am considering composing an ode to my fan, but this will take time. I am considering sleeping with it under my pillow, but this may be going too far.
We have been busy buying stock for the shop, things like traditional embroidered cloth and Kondi tribal figurines from Orrissa province in the far east of India, some old pieces and some new. I am trying to source a particular style of artwork from Bihar but don’t get many leads.
The food in Calcutta is great, except for breakfast which we have in the hotel restaurant. Every morning we order the same thing, and every morning it comes out in a different order, or with something missing, or after a delay of three quarters of an hour. It’s very strange as there is never anyone else in the restaurant. There seems to be no problem with our stomachs, all of us are fine, but the food is giving me terrible wind. Tomorrow we are off into India's last frontier, the far northeast, and Assam and Darjeeling, for a great adventure! Calcutta has been fantastic, far above my expectations, and I look forward to returning here in the future.
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Date: 7 May 2002 1:50 AM
We stay in Calcutta for three days then catch a plane to Guwahati, the provincial capital of northeast India. The airport is 30km from the town's centre, and we organise a prepaid taxi for 260 rupees. The taxis, in fact most of the cars I've seen so far in India, are relics of the 1940's - decrepit gangster getaway cars called Austin Ambassadors. The roads are insane, with cars going every which-way. We are now in the Land of Blow-Your-Horn, the place where you blow your horn if you are happy, if you are sad, if you are angry with the behaviour of another driver, if you are overtaking, if you see someone you know, if you see someone you don't but wish to warn them that you are approaching, in fact almost every single moment you are behind the wheel of a car.
Our taxi driver from the airport turns out to be the village idiot, and his younger brother is joining us for the ride to Guwahati. The place is less insane than Calcutta and much greener, and there is a strong and very obvious military presence in the region, which is strangely comforting and not at all scary. I spy the local school bus - it consists of a large wire cage on the back of a motorcycle and is clearly labelled School Bus. After about 22km the unthinkable happens: the car stops. Have we broken down? Not really. We have run out of fuel. We pile out of the Ambassador and the idiot's brother is sent off to find fuel with a small plastic container in his hand. We join a group of very amused beggars in the two inches of shade that line the pavement and wait.
After about half an hour of ostentatiously ignoring the beggars' stares I am shat on by one of the many ravens overhead. This is no ordinary shit: it skids down my forearm, glances off my black top, hits my trousered leg in two places, runs down my ankle and still has enough momentum to hit the ground with a thud. The beggars are in stiches, but I furiously wave my fan back and forth while poor Ian wipes it all off. After a second splattery crap narrowly misses me I decide that discretion is the better part of valour and move into the sun. Ian suggests that it is just coincidence, I glare at him and point out that no one, including the beggars, have been targeted even once let alone twice. He suggests that perhaps I have shat on someone in a former life, I think that I have no doubt shat on several people in this life, never mind about my former ones. I decide to wait it out in the sun.
After a further 20 minutes, I relieve my temper by shouting at the driver and slapping my fan loudly and repeatedly into the palm of my hand. This achieves nothing as the driver does not understand English but it does renew the amusement of the beggars. The idiot's brother reappears in the distance, the car is refuelled and we are off.
We are delivered to our chosen hotel, and it is worse, gentle reader, than the one we rejected in Calcutta. Our spirit is broken and we move in without fuss. Our room stinks of mildew, the carpet is wet and the windows are askew. We patch the worst holes with rolled-up newspaper to stop the giant mosquitoes and shower in cold water because we have to order hot water half a day before use. We have separate beds and pillows like concrete. The air conditioner sounds like a landing aircraft, and the toilet does not flush.
It is time for dinner once again, Gentle Reader, and so I take my leave. Enjoy your beds tonight, secure in the knowledge that I am not at all enjoying mine...
Date: Thursday, 9 May 2002 9:48 PM
I’m in an internet café, or what passes for one, in the middle of the township of Guwahatti. I’ve just had the most traumatic experience and it involved a public toilet. I need to unburden myself (pun not intended), and frankly you are the closest English-speaking person to hand (even if you are in Australia), baring Ian and dad who absolutely refuse to listen to any more of my toilet stories.
Desperate to relieve myself after the chicken and pea birhiani of last night, I searched in mounting panic and finally found the ladies - squat toilets only, which I actually prefer over here as then there is no botty contact with dirty seats. I'm getting everything right, holding my pants up without getting them wet on the floor, toilet paper ready in my hand (strategically stolen from what passes for our hotel just this morning - toilet paper is like bloody gold over here). I'm positioned perfectly over the hole so that there is no overspray, I’ve remembered to actually breathe and I'm just congratulating myself on all of this when I spot the biggest cockroach one foot from my nose on the wall, with it's feelers gently resting on the foreleg of the biggest daddy long legs I've ever seen in my life. I scream and fall over backwards, people come running, I drop my pants into the sludge on the floor, I begin to hyperventilate, shit spatters everywhere, and I mean everywhere. I can't get my pants up and zipped fast enough and as I explode from the cubicle at the speed of light, I careen straight into the rescue party of both sexes who have come running from all corners of the building at the sound of my shrieks. They look at me in amazement, particularly when I start waving my arms trying to explain how one spider and one cockroach caused such a panic. James, can you picture this scene? This is what my life is like every single day right now...
Hope you do well in the exams and congratulations on the weight loss. I am also losing weight, but not for the same reasons. Tonight we leave for Darjeeling by sleeper train, although I think you should put away any thoughts of the Orient Express. Give my love to everyone - I can't email anyone direct at the moment as I would have to manually type in addresses, which are currently on a piece of paper back at the hovel we are forced to sleep in. More news soon!
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