I have asked Alex to send a Blog each weekend of his trip – here’s the first one …
Week 1, May 23rd – May 30th
After a long 16 hour flight with a typical snoring monster whom fully reclines their seat sat in front of me for the entire journey, I had arrived in Kolkata to be greeted by an immense wave of heat and humidity, but no Paul. So as I wonder around the exterior of the airport in search of a friendly face (as any clueless traveller would), an over friendly Indian man had begun to follow me, as for some reason he’d decided to help me try to find Paul (even though this kind gentleman had no idea who Paul is or what he looks like). When I finally found Paul and started to walk towards him, the very kind Indian man proceeded by running up to the car and started pointing at it to me, as if to claim he had spotted it and was helping me to the car – he wasn’t. At first I thought, maybe this guy actually does know Paul, maybe he’s one of the Jungle Crows, so as he opened the car door I went to sit in the back of the car thinking he was getting in the front, but he instead just stood outside the window grinning. It was when I saw Paul give him money and he walked away that I had finally realised what his intentions were.
In a short amount of time we were out driving though the vast and chaotic streets of Kolkata, taking in the sights and smells (both good and bad), and the sound of an angry little Indian man frantically beeping his horn, to which I immediately thought, “Am I going to have to get out of the car to engage in a bout of fisty cuffs with the natives?” Though within a short amount of time I was hit by a vast ocean of beeping cars, and felt obligated to ask Paul “Is the excessive use of horns necessary?” Paul replied by explaining to me that horns are not used in the way that they are more commonly associated in the U.K. i.e. standard road rage, or an impatient passenger waiting for a driver, no; instead they are used to provide spacial awareness to other drivers and pedestrians, as in India for some bizarre reason people do not use the pavement as they are supposed to because the pavements are crammed with various food, drink, and trinket stalls, as well as homeless citizens and stray animals. Instead it seems to be far more suitable to just walk directly down the middle of the road amongst the traffic!
We quickly stopped by the flat for an hour or so to drop off any baggage and to have a power nap and a shower, so I got the grand tour of my home for the next month. There was only one room in the flat that i was remotely interested in at that moment in time though – the bathroom. It had been a long day and night for me and I was already agonising over the heat and humidity, and it was most important that I could throw myself in a cold shower, and do a number 2. So I scurried into the bathroom and shut the door, turned to the china chair and the sight of no toilet roll. Obviously this was a quick fix, all I had to do was ask Paul where he keeps the spares, right? So I unlocked the door, walked into the front room and asked for some toilet roll, to which Paul replied: “If you got shit on your hands what would you do? Would you was them, or would you wipe them?” There was an awkward 5 second silence where I was trying to work out whether he was joking or not, as I began to realise that he wasn’t joking, my facial expression dropped through the floor and Paul has started to chuckle. He looked at me plainly and said “Welcome to India, mate.”
After the bathroom kerfuffle, we left the flat to go and visit a local school where two of the Crows players, Zaffar and Nanda, were participating in a Level 2 Rugby Sevens Coaching Qualification course. I introduced myself to them and stood with Paul while we looked on in the hot sun at them both being assessed on their coaching sessions for a group of girls from the school which we were visiting. This was my first taste of real mid-day Kolkata heat, and I was not coping well. Foolishly of me, after Zaffar and Nanda had finished their assessments I agreed to play a game of touch rugby in the sun – what a mistake! We must’ve been playing for barely 10 minutes, but for the following 2 hours I would go on to sweat enough fluids to leave my clothes as though I’d just been swimming in the Gangees!
Clearly I needed another shower after this, so we went back to the flat to have a wash and get some food. My first native dish was a very nice green curry, except the manner in which we ate it was slightly unorthodox as I was to be educated in Bengali fine dining etiquette. It’s very simple, all you need is a clear area of floor and several sheets of newspaper to cover it with. This is your table. All food is then placed in the middle of the newspaper in serving dishes with plates surrounding, though no cutlery is laid out. So we sit on the floor around the newspaper like the knights of the round table facing towards one another, and begin to dish up our meals. Still no cutlery, so I ask Paul, “Would you like me to go and get the knives and forks?” He says “No”. Nanda and Arun, the two lads who live with Paul then began to eat and I realised that we were to eat with our hands. No problem I thought; not until it dawned on me as I realised what I had to do with my hands earlier in the day. “If you would like a fork I can get you one.” Paul said. Followed by, “Arun here is Bengali, so, he eats with his right hand, and wipes with his left. It’s like common table manners here, and more hygienic. When people go to restaurants you’ll see that they all eat with their right hand.” Very hygienic I thought, but when in Rome … So I gave it a go, and it’s safe to say I probably looked like a geriatric pianist trying to eat with one hand. Ripping naan bread and meat, piling the meat and rice on the naan, then folding and eating it is not as easy as it sounds. But eventually I got the hang of it after Nanda gave me some basic demonstrations of how to eat with my hands in a more efficient way.
Once we’d eaten and sorted ourselves out Paul dropped me off in the city where I was to meet up with Zaffar whom I’d met earlier, to go out for a couple of drinks and watch the cricket as Kolkata Knight Rider were to play Sunrisers Hyderabad in their last league game of the season, which would decide whether or not they’d make it through to the IPL finals. We went into a small, underground live music venue where we could stand at the bar and watch the game. “2 bottles of Corona please.” The barman replied: “That will be 900 rupees Sir.” I thought he was having me on, so I asked Zaffar if that was correct, and indeed it was. It turned out that we’d gone to the most expensive bar in Kolkata. That works out at £4.50 for a small bottle of beer, which is doubly insulting as I am a cider drinker at heart and that a drink anywhere else in Kolkata would cost around 70 rupees (equivalent to 70p)! But I bit the bullet and shelled out on some over priced average beers, and retreated to a safe distance so we could watch the cricket. The game ended up taking hold of the bar to the frustration of the band playing at the far end of the room, as KKR (Kolkata Knight Riders) batsman Yusuf Pathan hit 72 runs off 22 balls at a strike rate of 327.27. It was safe to say that the atmosphere was almost electric as the whole bar turned to watch the game. KKR won, and in the heat of the moment myself and Zaff decided it would be a bright idea to stay out for a bit longer, and so we met up with one of Zaffar’s mates and went to a suave nightclub called Tantra in the seemingly luxurious Park Hotel. At first, they wouldn’t let me in as I was wearing shorts, so we quickly jumped into a taxi and solved the issue. Upon return we strut into the club to the sound of music that was popular over a decade ago back at home, but nobody here seemed to be any wiser and were enjoying it nonetheless. There were many amusing characters out that night, but there were two that stayed with me; a nearly midget latino lad who was as hyper as a kid on a can of Red Bull, and an old Indian man who clearly didn’t want to let go of his youth as he shuffled around the dance floor body popping with girls a good 40-50 years younger than him. Just goes to show that anything flies in Kolkata!
The next day with a rough head we went to a home for young boys that are a part of the Khelo Rugby programme ran by the Jungle Crows foundation to play a game of touch rugby, and to do some group coaching activities. We started off by playing a bit of touch rugby just to get everyone involved and wait for the last of the kids to turn up. We then proceeded by playing several different games that would include everybody and teach them team work and patience, and finishing with a semi-contact game. For this I was stood on the field to assume a distribution role so that I could make sure everybody got a touch of the ball (as once a kid had the ball he was not giving it up for anybody unless he had inevitably been tackles), though when the other team had the ball, one of the kids on the opposite team looked me in the eye and passed the ball straight to me whilst grinning ear-to-ear, and knowing what was coming next I braced myself as all the kids jumped on me and tried to pull me down into a mud puddle. I entertained them and tried to walk as far as possibly whilst being swarmed by tackle hungry young rugby machines in the making, but there were too many for me and I began to lose balance, luckily one of my ultra keen try scoring team mates was there in support and I passed the ball away before I ended up rolling in the mud. They were clearly disappointed that they hadn’t got me muddy, so they invited us back to their home.
Nestled away about 500 metres from the area we’d been training we had arrived, and we walked to the rear of the building where they had a large pond, which has been dug out and concreted on one side so that it was a bit cleaner and safer. Disappointed at not being able to get me muddy, this time they demanded that I jumped in with them and would not take no for an answer, and so much to their amusement, I leaped from the railings into the dark, and discomfortingly warm water. As soon as I surfaced from my jump into the water, the same little rascal that had threw the ball to me when playing rugby earlier went to climb on my back while I was attempting to tread water. I asked him if he knew how to swim to which I had no reply, so I just assumed he could and just wanted to include me, but as he climbed on my back I re-submerged and took a nice mouthful of soup-like pond water. So just warning everybody, it’s possible that I might die some time in the next few weeks. But in all honesty, these kids were possibly the cheekiest, and most friendly kids that I have ever met! Every single one of them were really playful and constantly wanted your attention, and I thoroughly enjoyed their company.
To round the week off I had the opportunity to go down to Eden Gardens to watch the IPL semi-final between KKR and Kings XI Punjab, as Paul had managed to secured four tickets for myself, Arun (one of the lads who lives with Paul), Roshan (also lives with Paul from time to time), and Lovepreet (who plays for the Crows). We set off walking to the stadium, and about half a mile away you begin to feel the atmosphere of the big game – fields full of cars, pavements overflowing, traffic at a standstill, promotional IPL banners everywhere, and of course as ever in Kolkata, the noise! I was already getting a buzz! When we were about 500 metres from the stadium we had really got into the thick of it, as we were now being hounded by every possible memorabilia salesman imaginable as is very common in India. Being the only white man in a sea of supporters flowing down the pavement I stood out like a sore thumb, and one salesman had caught sight of me and shuffled through the crowd to find me. I did not make eye contact with the man, nor speak a word, but nonetheless he pounced on me with his paintbrushes? I first thought he was just an ultra passionate KKR fan trying to paint the whole crowd purple and gold, so I let him proceed in decorating my arms like the Indian Banksy. It was not until he’d finished and demanded 100 rupees that I realised what was going on – again! Luckily my local friends came to the rescue, and argued that he did not ask me if I wanted paint and nor I did ask him to paint me, so we left the man disappointed and lacking a touch of paint. We continued onwards and neared the entrance gate to our stand, and could already hear the roars of the 80,000 strong crowd inside as the game commenced. We took our seats in the middle of the ground tier just in line with the crease, so had a perfect view of the action – or so we thought. The crowds atmosphere was like none I’ve ever experienced; people singing, chanting, jumping, swinging ribbon banners and dancing on chairs! The atmosphere was almost tribal! Behind us were a group of elderly chaps who seemed to get the most buzz out of the IPL cheerleader girls who came out after every boundary and wicket, as they would jump out of their seats and onto their chairs, howling primal cries and dancing like they were 17 year old girls in their first ever night club. It was safe to say that I was thoroughly amused at the whole occasion. After I’d finished relishing in awe of the crowd it was time to settle down and watch some cricket, and I found myself on the edge of my seat excited at every play, right up until the point that the ticket holders of the seats in front of us arrived and took their seats – or not. Immediately I found myself and every other surrounding spectator frustrated at the two new additions to our section of the crowd, who refused to stay seated to allow others to enjoy the spectacle that was an intense IPL semi-final. Between deliveries they would resume their seat, but as soon as the bowler had released the ball, before a connection from the batsman and let alone a decent strike, they would pounce out of their seats like the Indian Zebedee and Zeebad. Now I consider myself a very tolerant person, and it can take some time before I will even politely make a comment to a person who is frustrating me; and so I must’ve foolishly waited about 20 minutes until I got to the point where I would calmly ask them to refrain from bouncing around in our line of sight. There was no reply, just a brief scowl from both spectators. And at no surprise, they continued to do the same thing. This really rubbed me up the wrong way and within the next two overs I had finally lost it! I waited for the next ball that they would both attempt to leap from their seats, and this time as they went to jump to the heavens I firmly grabbed the pair of them by their t-shirts and planted them straight back down into their seats. Shocked, they both slowly turned their heads to face me with bemused expressions, and offering them no chance to speak I sternly dictated: “No, now you stay in your bloody seats!” I think this may have scared the life out of these two young men, as they said nothing back and cautiously averted their gaze back to the game, and within the over had got up and left the ground. Relieved is not a passionate enough word to explain how I felt, and others around me shared the same feeling. The remainder of the game was an absolute pleasure, and KKR went on to win the game by securing the required score in an intense final over battle.
My first weak has been an intense and rapid exposure to a very diverse culture from our own back at home. But I can gladly say that I love it and look forward to every second of the remainder of my stay – other than the perfuse sweating.
Over and out.