Saying Goodbye to Momma India

The Last Chai, Kolkata

I spent my last day in India wandering around Kolkata with a short Taiwanese fashion designer named Vincent. I met Vincent  on the night train from Darjeeling, where he spoke with a soft stutter as he pulled out an extensive sewing kit with various sized needles and a variety of thread, and went to work repairing his rucksack.

I liked him immediately for his openness and earnestness, and for sharing his fruity pound cake with me. We decided to navigate from the train station to the backpacker region of Kolkata together. While waiting for our arrival, I saw that Vincent had ripped the Kolkata section out of the Lonely Planet. He spent a half hour vigorously studying and highlighting various sleeping options, and their location on the map.

Later, as we walked through the city, he periodically stopped and took photos of random statues. He acknowledged that these photos would probably mean nothing to him later, but he still felt the need to click the shutter on a forlorn looking woman cast in bronze, overlooking the causeway.

Our hotel, labeled a “backpacker dive,” in Lonely Planet, was called the Paragon, and the rooms looked a lot like coffins. Crumbling double wooden doors opened into a small cement hovel, where a single bed was the only furniture in the tiny room. The sheets looked dubious, and graffiti littered the walls. Armed with my sleep sack, I decided to take the plunge as the price was right. The shared bathrooms were clean, however, and a nice, sunny, rooftop terrace made the place doable. It occurred to me again how my standard for “clean” has changed.

Vincent in the brown coat, even though it's sweltering out...

We dropped our packs and went for some Indian food, I ordered my trusty vegetable curry and Vincent with his Paneer Butter Masala (I have had trouble ordering that ever since my British friends who took a cooking class told me how much butter and cream goes into this Indian delight). Afterward, we wandered down the streets of Kolkata, looking for various monuments and neighborhoods, and finding fabulous little side streets and colonial looking buildings.

Exhausted after a day of walking around, we took our dinner at a bustling Indian restaurant next to the metro where they served a Kolkata specialty: a thick chapati lightly toasted on the griddle, stuffed with egg, vegetable, or meat, with curry sauce, potatoes and onions, all rolled up and secured with a piece of newspaper. Delish.

The next morning I greeted the day with two large chais from the local shop. As I sat in the alley with my super-sized clay cup (Kolkata tries to reduce plastic by using china tea cups and clay cups for chai) and thought about how much I would miss the steamy milk tea beloved by the whole country. I adore the culture behind chai, and think it strangely fabulous how in a place where each region is like an entirely different country, chai unifies the teeming masses. Locals brew their chai differently in each state of India, so stopping for a chai in every new locale is essential. No matter what trouble momma India is giving you, chai brews an easy answer to every problem. When an Indian asked me what we have in Wisconsin – what we would offer guests when they came over – I said a beer. In India, the first thing you give a guest is a cup of chai.

It seemed surreal in that moment to be leaving India, after all we’d been through together. Days ago, I met two middle-aged sisters from Iowa in the train station on the way to Kolkata. One of the woman had been living north of Darjeeling, in a monastery in Sikkim, for the last seven years studying as a Buddhist nun. When I expressed my mixed feelings on coming to the end of my journey, she said:

“One of my friends compared India to an abusive mother. No matter how much she smacks you around, you still love her.”

A day of travel and a night in the airport later, I landed in Jakarta and began the process of navigating a new country, new currency, new way of looking at the world. Jakarta’s hot and humid. It’s hard to describe, but the sent on the night air has changed from simmering masalas to fried tempe and sambal. You can hear the Muslim call to prayer just about any time of day. I grabbed a late lunch at a busy local place. As I dived into a plate of tempe, vegetables, and rice with spicy sambal, I wondered at the Indonesian habit of preparing all the food for the day in advance. Everyone at the restaurant was eating lukewarm food instead of something made to order. It was good, no doubt, and ready to eat in a moment, but it struck me what a vast difference this practice was from India. In India, you could wait anywhere from 10 minutes to over an hour for food, but it was always fresh.

How quickly we adapt to our surroundings, and start to feel at home in the most foreign of situations. I found myself wandering the streets around the backpacker region of Jakarta thinking, where’s the chemist? where’s the little shop that sells everything you might possibly need? 

In conclusion, since no money changers in Jakarta will exchange the stack of 10 rupee notes I have left for rupiah, I guess I’ll just have to go back to India. Enough said.

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~ by bjordt on February 24, 2012.

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