A Travellerspoint blog

May 2014


Musings on 'THE CITY OF JOY'

sunny 98 °F

Oh Kolkata! Yes, I mean it that way too but I'm actually talking about the name of a restaurant where I am sitting as I write this post. A fancy, Bengali restaurant. Bengali being of West Bengal, the state where the once capital of India, Kolkata lives. My previous home of Darjeeling lives in West Bengal also. Although, the two couldn't be father away from each other in likeness - this being part of the reason why Darjeeling is fighting to become there own state known as Ghorkhaland.

This weird guy from my train ride told me about Oh Kolkata! He was a young, educated, middle class, single guy in the upper sleeping birth across from me. The only ones traveling solo, so we struck up a nice conversation. I find that this generation of modern Indians are in an interesting place in Indian development. They seem to be roaming around in the middle somewhere - reminds me of the title of a favorite ballet of mine by Wiliam Forsythe called "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated."

They are caught in the middle between Indian traditional way of living and the Western supposed ideal way of living. Somewhat elevated from the poverty of their parents but not to the degree of their Western counterparts. Less consumed with religion but still going through the motions of holy rituals for their parents sake or out of habit. More concerned with making money, most taking over their family businesses but taking it up a notch by making it global or viral; moving away from arranged marriage to find love like all the Bollywood movies say is possible; yet finding that love difficult to find because the majority of the country still favors arranged marriages so the pool of lovers to choose from is shallow. See my FB picture of the Indian Marriage Classifieds for a dose of reality. 'Seeking fair, thin woman. Educated not necessary.'

I happened to run into Oh Kolkata! While checking out the Forum Mall. A decent mall. I bought some pants that I love from Global Desi, the only Indian shop in the mall. The rest were English and U.S. stores selling clothes from 3 seasons ago. I stood looking over the menu and a Sikkimese guy recommended I go in. He had just finished eating and said it was delicious and you get a free King Fisher beer with the buffet. We talked about how fortuitous our meeting was- 2 people -one who just visited Sikkim (me) and the other from Sikkim (him) meeting in Kolkata over Bengali food. He later reappeared, in the middle of my meal, with a friend, I think trying to arrange a "friendly" hang out. But I have my Bengali cooking class in 2 hours and I won't be late! Besides I have mastered the art of eating alone. Don't even take out a book most times.

He was right about the food. It is delicious. The clientele are all upper class Indians. Couples and big families sitting around large circular tables with fancy white tablecloths. The staff seems like they are pretending in their stiff black and white uniforms. Pretending to be sophisticated , quiet, orderly Indians. Yet, I have seen their cousins, uncles and sisters all throughout the streets of this town today and so I know who they really are, from where they came and probably where they are returning to tonight after work.

So far, I absolutely adore this city! I realize it has barely been 24 hours but in that little time I know. I think part of the reason I like Kolkata so much is because of its' resemblance to NYC.

Maybe it's the sea of yellow cabs that flood the streets.
71st and Amsterdam?

71st and Amsterdam?

Or the Subway
from the ACE to the 1 Tran?

from the ACE to the 1 Tran?

Maybe the tree lined streets with buildings that resemble the coveted Pre-War real estate in Manhattan. Or perhaps the energy- people moving to and fro as if headed somewhere very important. And yet others, lounging on counters in front of shops talking, laughing or arguing with friends.

IMG_20140504_140513.jpgKolkata architecture and laundry day

Kolkata architecture and laundry day

I arrived here on last Sunday morning (Blog a bit behind) around 7am. The train station was busy with drivers, rickshaws and cycles trying to make some early morning cash. I offered to share a taxi with the weird guy from the upper birth (who didn't get weird until now) because we were headed in the same direction. He said something that made no sense about it being too expensive for him so he'll catch a taxi outside the train station. So it is okay for me to pay the expensive fare buddy?!?! That was the point of us splitting it weirdo!! Whatever. I paid the overpriced 250Rupees ($4.20) to the cabbie. He dropped me off and had the nerve to ask for a tip! I gave the Indian head wobble and mumbled to myself "I got yo tip brother. Stop chewing that masala betel root! Your teeth are rotting and your breath smells!"

Outside the train station taxi madness, the streets were quiet. Still honking of course but there was a quiet that felt unusual, like the city was still sleeping. As i began to walk around, I could see that they were still sleeping. Literally! As in, they were sleeping on the streets. It wasn't just my vivid imagination, I was actually bearing witness.

I checked into my guesthouse - GUESTHOUSE has taken on new meaning since traveling to India. I used to think of it as a coach house on the grounds of a nicer, larger residence. Small, quaint, charming. Now when I search Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor for a guesthouse, I know what I'm really asking for is a place that is too shitty to be called a hotel but not shitty enough to be called a hostel.

I did not complain. It was a room with a bed and a decent bathroom and only one night umtil I made it Bangalore where I knew my family friend Noelle wouldn't be caught dead staying anywhere like this. Furthermore, as my funds alloted for this trip come closer and closer to $0 so do my bourgeois standards. My champagne tastes can't be supported by my beer bottle pockets! Haa! Jai Ms. Eartha Kitt!

I washed the overnight train off in a lukewarm shower which came in handy because it was hot and humid and the AC unit hadn't yet cooled the room. Kolkata had just broken some weather records the previous week with temps over 40 °C/104F. Today it was around 37 °C/98F. I didn't have any plans for the day except my Bengali cooking class and drinks with a friend of a friend from Kolkata. My day was free to roam. I love roaming!

I walked the streets with all intentions of getting lost. I found bookstores, an amazing at gallery, the aforementioned mall complete with a theater, United Colors of Benetton and a Yogurtland. This is also where I found Oh Kolkata! I saw parks with children playing cricket, I experienced the subway system which didn't start running until 2pm. I asked why and a man said "because it is Sunday!" as if it was a dumb question. I also saw this family which warmed and broke my heart all at the same time. They were sitting across the street from the park under a bus stop. The streets were clearly their home but they were laughing and talking with other as if over brunch at Pastis.

Sunday afternoon with a Bengali family

Sunday afternoon with a Bengali family

When I said Kolkata wakes up slow on Sundays I meant reeeeeeaaaal slow. The whole city looked as if they partied too hard the night before and were now suffering from a most painful hangover. Men were sprawled half naked on the counters of their chai and coconut shops. Some laid on blankets and newspapers, some on their cars or just skin to pavement. By 11am a few were starting to set up their shops hanging t-shirts, sunglasses and random electronics for sale. But not one was in a hurry or really even appeared to caste of they sold one item today. I must have missed a fantastic party last night!

Even on Monday-which was significantly busier than Sunday- I found a shop that I needed to buy something from that was still not open at 10:30am. The man trying to make a commission by showing be around the market said "come back in 30 minutes. Yesterday was Sunday so not open yet.". I laughed out loud! Yesterday was the day spent nursing a hangover therefore it's tough getting to work early on Monday. Definitely been there a time or two. Sounds logical to me.

My cooking class was the highlight of the day. I took the subway to a woman's house named Rajashi. She met me on the main street and walked me a couple blocks to her house which was a 5 story, walk-up apartment that felt like so many walk-ups in Harlem. It was a lesson but also dinner for the family- her mother-in-law, husband and son. Therefore, she did more of the cooking than me. She only handed the spatula to me for foolproof instructions. Stir this, hand me that.

When I arrived she served me the most delicious drink to ever come across my lips! It was a Mango Cooler for lack of a better name. She took green unripe mangoes, charred them over the stove-top flame until burnt, peeled the burnt skin, put the mango flesh in a blender with fresh lime juice and sugar and serves. You can actually taste that the mango has been roasted! It was so refreshing. A definite repeat with our Mexican mangoes in Cali! My roommates are in for some culinary treats!!

The menu:

Bengali dal which is the most flavorful I've tasted in all of India! Dal is basically lentil soup and the staple of an Indian meal. With my host family in Darjeeling we had it single everyday, without fail. Because it is a staple sometimes it can be a bit bland. Not in Bengal!

Bengali Dal

Bengali Dal

Bhindi or okra- not usually a fan but she sauteed it in mustard seed oil and then topped it with a homemade yogurt sauce. The yogurt was homemade y'all! In her house by her! So easy to make she says!


Pouri - a fried dough that I can't really explain except to say it's fried dough so it's delicious! We made the dough, rolled it out and popped it on veg oil. As Ina would say "how easy is that?!" Only my foodies will pick up on that one;-)

cooking class finale

cooking class finale

Where's the meat I can hear from halfway across the globe?! I requested a Veg Meal. Schoking I know.

She finished it all within an hour and we sat down to the above dinner and wonderful conversation. After this experience I was in love...again! This place felt so familiar. These felt like my kind of people....Interested in art, culture, education and food. Kolkata is not only known as the City of Joy but as the cultural and intellectual hub of India. When I entered Rajashi's home, there was a huge bookshelf made by her architecture husband filled with books...which she had read! Our dinner conversation revolved around the upcoming elections, Indian politics, communism, mother-in-laws, women and children, feminism, Ayuurveda and food of course. And this was no rich family. Middle classes with stable work putting their children through college on scholarships. I almost forgot to pay her because it felt like coming over a friends house for wine and dinner! She reminded me of coure ;-)

And to put the cherry atop my Indian sundae, Kolkata even has Maha (Mother) Ganga! From Kolkata, Ganga flows into the Bay of Bengal and then the Indian Ocean. My flight to Bangalore took off at dusk from Kolkata's airport. Pink skies and contrasting clouds framed the river. I had never seen her from above! From here I could see her shape. The full flaunt of her figure. The twists, the curves. Her expansiveness. How small I am and how big she is. So clear now why she is considered a Goddess by her people. From up here you don't see her trash, ashes or floating bodies. In contrast, you understand why you go to her to get clean. Only her beauty is visible from here.

Thank you Kolkata. I will return so we may get better acquainted.

***I am really behind on my posts (actually I'm always behind but its never mattered til now). I have to tell you all about Bangalore because 1: it wasn't India, it was L.A. and 2: because Noelle did me proper in that city!! But it will have to wait because beginning tomorrow I will officially be IN SILENCE. 10 days people! Pray for me. My Mom told me that my beloved Nanny, Lucille, used to say "that baby talks...she talks so much she gone run out of things to say when she gets older!" Well Lucille ;-) here we are. Signing off until then.

Posted by Ivoriejenkins 06:51 Archived in India Tagged kolkata: bengali Comments (2)


Within a Hearbeat

With a heavy heart I report that my time as a school teacher has come to an end. Last Friday was my final day and I sadly left my host family the following Saturday afternoon. The hostel boys, Vatsala's brother Ananja and Deven's sister Deepa all saw me to the taxi stand. Everyone bid me farewell with love and gratitude and I felt my heart tugging at the thought of leaving and possibly never seeing this village or it's beautiful people again.

I am still grappling with the idea of altruistic volunteering. I can now honestly say that the choice to volunteer was more for self serving reasons than a pure desire to improve the lives of a village's school children. And I am okay with that. It is what I needed and what I wanted. So without much unnecessary thought I followed the Polka Dotted Unicorn into the forest. If I return to the school, which I have all desires and intentions to do, maybe then I can say my volunteering has been elevated to a more altruistic place. Otherwise, it all becomes a memory.

The other grapple : Was my work effective? I'm sure somewhat. But teaching is HARD and takes more planning than I ever thought. Props to all the teachers reading and all my teachers who molded my adolescent years. Our last lesson was creating a school newspaper for the older kids and rewriting fairy tales for the younger kids. They did amazing work and I think they learned a few things.



Rewriting Fairytales

Rewriting Fairytales

school newspaper

school newspaper

school newspaper

school newspaper

I attempted with all my lessons to challenge their thinking. Ask them questions they have never been asked and pose ideas that life in a hill station will not ordinarily offer. But with only 5 weeks (4 weeks after all the holidays) of 40 minute classes (30 minutes on Fridays), I think I was a mostly a break from the norm. I was a strange creature that provided a peek into life outside their village.

Class 6 surprised me and EACH gave me homemade cards! I was floored. Some of them even cried. Not for me though. I think just to see if they could cry on command. When you're 10 and your friend cries there is peer pressure for you to cry. So one drama queen started to cry and before I knew it all the children had these sad faces as they tried to get their tear ducts to work! It was the cutest thing. Of course I told them to knock it off and come outside to the playground with me!

I also got pens, a teddy bear, Nepali scarves which they give to guests kind of like Hawaiians give leis, and this vase.


Yeah, imagine me trying to stuff that in my backpack. Somehow I did though. Couldn't leave it behind. Tovah I think it should go in your room ;-). By the way, my backpack now weighs about 25kgs. I started with about 13. The ever growing:


I am now off to month 3 of my journey. A brief stop in Kolkata. A plane ride to Bangalore where I will enjoy some much needed 5 star R&R with a friend and then a 10 day silent Vipassana Meditation retreat. I know! What about the beach right? Travel takes unexpected twists and turns. I'm happily enjoying the ride. Not to worry. I will see the beach...even if it is monsoon season ;-)

Before I sign off here are a few of my favorite pics from my time here:






IMG_20140423_223518.jpgMORNING PRAYERS






Advaitya: the golden child

Advaitya: the golden child











Ended in a heartbeat. Memory until forever.
Thank you Magno Vale.

Posted by Ivoriejenkins 00:20 Archived in India Comments (3)


Getting my hair "did" in India

rain 68 °F

So, it's been 2 months and I was eager to get my eyebrows threaded. There's never much to thread because my hair is fine hair and grows at a snails pace but I really wanted to say that I paid 25 Rupees - the equivalent of 45¢ - instead of the American price of $10 for threading. When I asked my host Mom, Vatsala if she could recommend a place she suggested I get a hair treatment too.

A hair treatment? I'm intrigued! And what exactly does that entail? Who cares? Of course I want an Indian hair treatment.

I am always complaining to Vatsala that my short hair won't grow long enough or fast enough. I long for something I'll never have which is long, thick beautiful locks like her, her sister, mother-in-law and every other woman in India. But she said no, it IS possible. You just have to get the hair treatment. Whatever you say girl! If you do it to your hair I want to do to mine!

So we planned the excursion for the first of May because school was out in celebration of May Day. Within one month of teaching, the kids had 5 days off because of holidays. Did you know India celebrates Good Friday, Palm Sunday and Easter?! The death and rebirth of Jesus is a National holiday in a Hindu country. Good stuff.

Back to it...Monsoon season doesn't start til June but the way it rained on May Day you could have fooled me. Pouring buckets! The rain began just at the end of band practice for the students. Magno Vale Academy is the village marching band champion and practices just started for the competition approaching in August. Even on a day off from school they are expected to attend practice. The girls play recorders, the boys have a full drum line (not like an ATL, historically black, college drum line but you know, like a village one) and this year they are adding the bag pipes to seal in First Place!

When I showed up for the practice, I was shocked at how good they were. Tears began to well up in my eyes as the girls played the school song in unison on their recorders, all the while marching with their blue and white uniforms and perfectly braided pigtails complete with white bows and barrettes bouncing up and down as they marched around the school yard. It was tooooo much!!! How was this even happening in a small village town on the side of a mountain!


Practice ended early because the rain started to fall and everyone has to walk back on an unpaved dirt road back to town. I headed back to the house for another delicious lunch with the family and then off to the beauty parlor with Vatsala. Because of the rain there was the extra chance that the power, which already goes out at random in India, (my head lamp has come in handy NUMEROUS times), would not be available. As we were about to leave, Vatsala told me to wait so she could check if the beauty shop's power was on. You would think she had to go to the beauty parlor to check, right? So I sat down to read the paper while I waited but she was back in 5 seconds saying we were all good. That scenario still doesn't make sense to me but sometimes in India I don't ask questions, I just go with the flow.

We walked all of 1 minute and 30 seconds sharing and umbrella to the local beauty parlor. It was a tiny 2 chair shop with an extra chair connected to a big hair dryer in the corner. The size of everything made me feel like Will Ferrell in Santa's workshop in the movie Elf. I was so tall and everything seemed to be so small...the people, the chairs, the shop. There were mirrors all around and posters of Asain faces with hairstyles from long and wavy to bobs to edgy variations on the mullet. There were 2 women in the shop and a little boy about 4 years old who attends Magno Vale's nursery school located on the basement floor of my home stay. We waited about 10 minutes for them to call the owner of the shop who was pregnant and probably somewhere with her feet up not thinking anyone would come in with the rain coming down as it was.

She arrived and got started on my eyebrows. Vatsala told me she used to have a shop in Dubai which I guess signifies her worth as an aesthetician. Then came the fun part... The power went out! There we all sat in the dark , me holding my eyebrows like they have you do, an assistant shinning a flashlight on my face and the owner carefully threading away unbothered by the circumstances.

I have not learned to speak Nepali, the local language, but I have learned to figure out what is going on through context clues and the random English words that have no Nepali translation. I was able to deduce that because there was no power, the "hair dryer" would not work and they would have to "steam dry" my hair instead. And so the process began. One of the assistants heated a bowl full of olive oil and began applying it to my scalp with cotton balls. She did this to every inch of my scalp. Then came the best part - THE MASSAGE! For at least 10 minutes she rubbed my scalp, tugged on my hair, kneaded my temples, ears and nape. She massaged up, down, in circles, diaganals, figure 8s. It was maddness and there was a clear method to her madness. It felt so good and with a little bit of hurt too. When it was over I felt like going to sleep right in her chair. But no time for that because the owner then came over and began her version of the same head massage! Altogether 20 minutes of heaven at a beauty parlor in India -actually it could have been only 5 minutes but with her hands and the sounds of rain outside the window, I was transported somewhere free of space and time.

After she finished and I returned back to my body, she began coating my hair with a white conditioner. Then the steam portion. Who needs an electrical dryer when you have a bucket of boiling hot water and a towel? She placed the towel in the hot water, wrung it out and placed it over my head. She left it for about 20 seconds just until the heat began to turn lukewarm and then repeated and repeated and repeated again and again and again. Then the rinse... I was wondering how this was going to go because there were no sinks or running water in the shop. Yet, with as many bucket showers as I've taken thus far, I should have known better than to look for water in any other place than a bucket. She brought over the water and gestured for me to dive in. I covered my face and dunked my head and 4 hands rinsed my hair of the oil and conditioner.


And then what happened? They repeated the whole thing from the oil and cotton to the bucket rinse! How thorough is that?! My only complaint was at the very end when they towel dried my hair not realizing that curly hair just turns into a frizzy Afro when you rub a towel back and forth through it. But they didn't know what to do with my short curly do. They were not used to hair that is not long, straight and thick so no love lost. Besides, my locks were soft as baby's hair by the time the whole process was finished.

So that is my story of the Little Beauty Parlor that Could. A tale of a tiny, non-fancy salon, in a village in Darjeeling, with 2 chairs and no electricity. They treated me to my finest hair treatment. A service that would cost at least $80 at any salon in the States and I got it for the bargain price of 300 rupees ($5) including the eyebrow threading and a tip. Thanking youuuu!

Posted by Ivoriejenkins 19:32 Archived in India Tagged beauty darjeeling parlor Comments (3)

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