Each week it seems we’re met with feelings ranging from extremes of happiness to the lowest of stanky bottom-feeding lows. One minute we’re cracking up at some hilariously mistranslated sign or a man’s words that, when not understood, sound like a yippy toy dog; the next minute we’re wondering what damn fool thing we’ve gotten ourselves in to. That’s what happened to us when our passports went missing. There we were sitting down and planning the next leg of our journey and complaining about the inedibility of our lunch, when our bag (containing aforementioned passports) was deftly removed from the chair next to us. When I say next to us I mean inches away. But there it went – only one eyewitness out of dozens of potential witnesses – saw a kid running with a bag. Now why this witness stood there looking on helplessly whilst the thief got away, you tell me. Lost were several additional important items including one of our wallets, a pair of prescription eyeglasses, and our camera containing so many precious photos. It took a while to take inventory and calm down, but in the end, to our relief, we still had debit cards and the phone. But then we received an outpouring of support, mostly from total strangers. One guy walked around for two hours with us taking us to various places in search or our backpack. Another lad at the police station (whose brother is at SUNY Albany) told us to call whenever we needed. Our negativity was no match for the kindness and our spirits were lifted. We went back to look for the thief, to no avail, and filed the hokiest police report imaginable.
We were stuck in Siliguri, a transportation hub with as much charm as an overflowing toilet, and our plans for travel in the northeast states of India now scrapped. Since every hotel is required to photocopy passports and report to the local police when foreigners check in, travel was essentially not possible without passports. So the next stop was Kolkata, which mercifully has a US consulate, meaning that an overnight train ride would get us back on track. This also meant that we wouldn’t have to go back to Delhi (an even larger overflowing toilet). With some pleading and sad eyes, we got ourselves on a train the following night under a special emergency quota that trains reserve(after discovering that both the tourist and tarkal quotas had already been fulfilled).
We took a wild and wooly cycle rickshaw ride through busy and exciting parts of the city we hadn’t realized existed, and got to the train station with a couple hours to spare. We set ourselves up with a big plastic mat that we bought from a vendor. They sell these giant plastic sheets meant for sitting on, all of them printed with American food products – Excel chewing gum, M&Ms, Pillsbury muffins, etc. We were sure they were reject packaging from some local factory, but a man told us no, they were simply graphics added meant to make them more visually appealing. The mysteries of India continue.
Seated on our Pillsbury wrapper, we met several Indian travelers who we shared our story with. Despite the fact that they knew we had money, the next thing we know we’re showered with multiple food deliveries from various people – carrrots, cucumbers, cookies, cakes, water, hard boiled eggs – and to top it off, an entire loaf of white bread. The selections threw us off in a land full of delicious Indian cuisine, but we later learned that they had been trying to satiate our needs by providing continental foods. It seemed like they were trying to apologize for the event, apologizing for the whole country even. We got this feeling from several Indians who almost felt like outsiders in their own country. It seemed like they were viewing the craziness around us with the same eyes. Overwhelmed with the generosity, we got on our four-hour-late train and had a great sleep getting to Kolkata.
Straight away, we rushed to the embassy before it closed. After getting through the giant doors and heavy security, we were greeted by the most helpful and courteous civil servants we’ve ever met. The embassy was decorated with massive photos of Indian dignitaries with President Obama in all his stately photogenic-ness and we breathed a sigh of concern for the future. Three hours later we out of the office with new replacement passports. We had some serious USA pride and gratitude at that moment. But of course lost along with our passports were our Indian visas, and the US can’t do anything to help with that. So over we went to the Foreigners Registration Office, where hope goes to die. This was Tuesday, and with two holidays coming up, we were told to come back the following Monday with a plane ticket booked for Thursday. New passports in three hours, but over a week to kill for permission to leave India.
We set ourselves up in the local YWCA, a beautiful high-ceilinged and slightly decaying old building. But it was very clean and we loved the hilariously gruff staff. We spent three days touring the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world. We didn’t see the iconic Bengal Tiger for which it is known, but we did have a ten hour hot and humid boat tour on which one of us got the “Sundarban Runs”. Thankfully the boat was equipped with two porceline adorned relief chambers and running water.
Back in Kolkata, we spent the final days exploring the city, and we surprisingly enjoyed our time there. The city has a unique style and slightly less chaos and slightly less trash than we’ve come to expect from cities. There are also a whole lot of trees which, we were told, are what keep the place clean. It seems the cleanliness might have been more closely linked to proper exhaust controls and fewer random piles of burning trash, but we didn’t argue. In Calcutta, hand-drawn (or running man, as we came to call them) rickshaws are still the norm.
There are plenty of casual cricket players, but these running men, with their keen fashion sense of dhotis and undershirts, are the true athletes.
After a week of Calcutta tourism (and several Kati rolls) we were ready to hit the beach, so we boarded our flight to Kuala Lumpur and didn’t look back. I know that won’t be the last time we’re in India, but I think we’re good for a while, and I’m not sure we’ll rush to get those visas replaced any time soon.