Day 1 Part 1
The smell of burnt plastic stings my nose as I walk off the plane. It is not as hot as I expected; quite comfortable actually. Two in the morning I arrive in Kolkata India. Immigration line is as organized as a playground full of schoolchildren. We fill out multiple forms that seem redundant at best. One of the papers is a disclaimer and pre-screening for Ebola virus. Seems serious enough but I squiggle out ballpark answers in a hurry. The immigration clerks all wear medical masks to protect from contagions although several have them positioned incorrectly. One man has his mask down around his throat. I am not questioned about my medical history, nor my departure date, which I was told would be heavily scrutinized.
The baggage claim area seems hazy but I attribute the blurriness to jetlag. I repeatedly try to convince myself that my bags have been lost during the trip and I will be forced to wear the same pair of shorts I spilled wine on during the flight. A man grabs a piece of luggage from the carousel; the zipper breaks open mid swing, and spills every item onto the floor. It appears he packed his luggage to be purposely comical -- full of the widest assortment of miscellaneous junk I have ever seen. A spatula and cheese grater sit on top of a wrinkled collared shirt, stained yellow around the neck. Effigies of Hindu gods are scattered about along with a saltshaker, whole walnuts, an umbrella, a Walkman, and several heavily scratched cd’s. I am surprised when I do not see a clown car drive out from the heap.
Currency exchange is difficult. Ahead of me in line, a group of four turns into a group of fifteen as brothers and cousins all nonchalantly cut in front of me implying association to the original four. One man amongst them sees my frustration and kindly steers the bulk of the herd behind me in line. Men who have concluded transactions hours ago casually walk back to the front of the line to dispute exchange rates. Calculators are drawn.
As soon as I exit the airport a man starts shouting at me to offer his taxi services. I try to avoid him but he is persistent. I see a line of taxis that I’m certain were manufactured in the 1950’s, waiting next to what appears to be the official taxi depot for the airport. I consider this a safer option but the shouting man somehow lures me to his discreet, unlabeled taxi parked off in the shadows. A second man is now by my side and he offers to push the cart with my luggage. What is the use of saying no in a country unwilling to hear it? He loads the bags in the trunk and promptly puts out his hand for a tip. I offer twenty rupees and he point to the hundred note still in my hand. Now upset, I threaten to find a different taxi. The driver shoos the second man away and reassures me all is well. As I get in the taxi I see the second man go back to his pile of belongings on the ground, near a dirt patch, off to the side of the airport exit. I comprehend something in that moment but I cannot articulate it.
Driving away from the airport, I realize what I thought was the smell of burnt plastic is actually a heavy level of pollution, thick in the air. Visible haze lingers under the glow of orange streetlights at three in the morning. Buildings are completely dilapidated and I wonder if this is a post-apocalyptic remnant of a once great civilization? Am I looking at history happening or already passed? Streets are filthy and sidewalks are torn apart as if many projects have been started but not a one has been completed. I speak to the driver, apologize for my initial hesitance accepting his services, and engage in small talk in order to purposely build a sense of trust. Most of his words I cannot understand. The Indian pop on his accent and blazing fast delivery make it impossible to decipher English from not. The streets are noticeably void of human life. It’s 3:30 in the morning.
Packs of dogs walk in the middle of the road aimlessly. A few fires burn near the sidewalks; piles of garbage pluming out black smoke. A body or two stand near the flames and stare into the hollow searching for answers. It seems every person, and every dog, looks straight into my eyes as my taxi squeaks by on rusted springs. I try to hide my shock but can’t close my mouth. I cant believe such a place exists on this planet.
I catch the driver dissecting me in the rear view mirror multiple times. Fear tightens around my chest as I consider the possibility he is leading me to a setup. I could be robbed, and killed, on any one of these streets and only the dogs would bother to pay attention. I plan for combat in my head and run through different escape scenarios. My heart is loud. I can’t remember the last time I have been this afraid. The hotel seems far now and my driver is noticeably lost.
We are counting the street addresses together but his system of math seems different than mine. I insist the hotel is just up ahead. He squints at the address I have written down on a piece of paper while the car swerves toward the concrete center divider. He veers back and misses by a hair.
On the corner ahead, at a street food stand, a man stirs a large metal pot above a propane tank burner. The driver tells me he is pulling over for directions and I am certain this is where I will be attacked. The cook’s wife sleeps on an open cot next to the simmering cauldron. No mercenaries jump out and no robbery is attempted. Apparently we got the directions we need. A few more loops around the block and we are lost again. Pull over to call the number I have written down for the hotel. As I stand outside of the cab and scan the driver’s tone for any clues of malevolent intent, a pack of ten dogs begins to congregate close enough to draw my attention. The alpha male nips at his minions then stares right at me. I know when I am being sized up. He has heavy scarring all across his snout. I get back in the car and the driver agrees with my decision. He says they don’t like my smell.
We find the hotel, unpack my bags, and I pay the driver. He asks for more. I refuse. From the glove compartment he pulls out a sheet of printed-paper inside a cheap loose-leaf plastic laminate. He shows me the paper where apparently I am to see evidence of his fare being official. It looks like a six-year old put the document together. Fuck it. It’s four in the morning. Pay what he is asking and be grateful you were not robbed, I tell myself.
The hotel staff is exceedingly kind and accommodating. I get to my room ten minutes past four. Why am I still inordinately nervous? Deep anxiety in my stomach. What the fuck did I just get myself into? Sleep is uneasy.