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Dum Dum to Kolkata, India

A knock on my door at 9am. I get out of bed, put a towel around me and open the door. Time to check out, says an angry looking guy with some sheets.

As I put the paniers on the bike a boy of about ten stood and watched, then out onto the street I get some more attention, and spend a bit of time answering questions like where am I from? where am I cycling to? how much did the bike cost? I take my camera out and take a picture of a cow and some people sifting through a pile of rubbish. I’m well back and don’t zoom in on them, but it doesn’t feel right.

It’s an overcast day. I can’t see where the sun is. I was planning on just heading West until I hit the river and then following it down until I get to the centre of town. I don’t have a map. I ask someone directions and follow a chaotic main road, mostly riding pretty slowly, getting stuck behind rickshaws and bikes loaded down with goods, dodging speeding buses, everyone hooting, all the bikes ringing their bells.

I stop to eat an orange and realize I’m standing next to an open sewer. A lorry stops and two guys get out for a piss. People walking past stare at me. Some smile.

The area I’m in is called Dum Dum. It’s a suburb of Calcutta, about 20km out from the centre. I ask a few more people directions to make sure I’m going the right way, but then as the buildings become more modern a the street wider it’s obvious which way is towards the centre.

A boy on the back of a scooter points me out to his father who asks me where I’m from and then rides along behind me, passing me when I get caught up in a gutter and laughing.

After a while I get used to the traffic and road conditions. It takes about two hours to reach the centre of town. When I do I stop off at a hotel with doormen and go in for a cup of tea, though really just for a place to escape from the noise and chaos and look through the Lonely Planet to see where I can stay.

The room I’m in is basic, in Sudder street, the main backpacker area of Kolkota where there are a number of cheap hotels, but also plenty of beggars and drug dealers, and at the beginning of the street, near the hotel when I had the cup of tea, are a number of bird shit covered tarpaulins and cardboard shacks, women sitting with young children, older children playing in rubble.

Going for a walk down to Park Street to get some cash out and buy a plug adaptor I see what looks like a dog’s tail wagging but as I get closer see that it’s the stump of an amputated arm hitting the sheet on which it’s owner is lying face down.

A woman on Sudder street has come up to me twice now. The first time when I was buying toilet paper she was holding out a baby’s milk bottle asking for money to buy milk for her baby. I refused. And then later in the evening she followed me carrying a child and asking for money for rice. Again I refused. This afternoon a six or seven year old girl followed me asking for money for food and I refused. I’ve only given money to one person today, and that was an amputee who showed me his stump outside the hotel where I’m staying. I’m not sure why I give to some and not others. I never give to children, and in Thailand someone told me that the mothers with children you see begging there a lot, they hire the children. He said there was one just down the road and he saw her with a different child each day. In those cases the child was laying on a blanket in front of the woman doing the wai (praying) gesture.

In a restaurant earlier, which I was shown to by an Indian guy trying to sell me cannabis and prostitutes, I overhead the conversation of a youngish Hungarian hippy talking to an elderly American. The Hungarian was talking about how some people come here and want to change the place but he thought the rule of tourism was to just observe. “If you want to change the world stay at home and change things there.” The American taps his fork on the table in agreement, but I don’t think you can just observe without having an effect on the place you’re in, particularly when you’re in a place where you have so much more money than most of the inhabitants. In Thailand it was far more obvious how tourism has affected the country. Bars playing farang music, beautiful Thai women as hostesses asking to be bought drinks, farnag food being served in restaurants, with Thai food on the menu as a sub-section. Here in Kolkata tourism doesn’t appear to have had such a great effect. In the posh hotel bar they were playing Indian music and in another bar I went to just now, attached to a guest house, they were showing a Premiership football match on the TV but then switched chanels to what looked like a Bollywood film.

But I hear people speaking English all the time, not just to foreigners, but Indians speaking English to other Indians. Perhaps this is because Indians speak different languages so English is the way Hindi speakers can communicate with Bangali speakers, but also I think it’s to do with establishments wanting to appear upmarket and people wanting to appear educated. In a relatively expensive restaurant at lunch time I noticed an Indian woman speaking English to the Indian waiter.

I’m not sure what time it is now. The computer is showing 22:32 but my alarm clock shows ten o’clock. Is India 5 hours or five and a half hours ahead of GMT?

It is 23:57 according to the computer clock now and that’s the one that’s right. I am five and a half hours ahead of everyone in Greenwich. I asked someone out on the roof patio just now. He was passing around something that came out of an Indian cigarette packet. The Israeli was was also there said they don’t put anything in it when I asked him earlier what those Indian cigarettes are like, seeing the packet and having gone for a packet of Marlboro Lights earlier in the day, thinking after this poaket I’ll quit again. They must have put something in it, or it wasn’t a cigarette (why would people pass around a cigarette?) because I don’t usually start talking shit like this when I’m with other people. I talk shit to the computer a lot. Each new paragraph on this blog and I realize everything in the previous paragraph is shit. Each day I realize everything I wrote in the previous day’s entry, which probably wasn’t the previous day but several weeks ago, is shit.

That’s why I stop writing and why I stop talking. It’s only when I realize what I’m saying that I stop. Sometimes it takes longer to realize than others.

In one of the two bars I went to, when I lit up a Marlboro Light one of the barmen came over to me and said “excuse me sir, what is that you are smoking, sir?” There were ashtrays in the place and I’d seen someone else smoking in there so I thought he was just asking out of interest. It’s a Marlboro Light.

Both bars I went to were very male dominated. Dominated by Indian men. Just a few foreigners, out of which a handful were women. There are quite a few in the hotel I’m in though. The ones out on the patio earlier got up and left when I sat dawn, coincidentally I think. But maybe not. I haven’t had a shower since the bike ride, but looking at the shower here I think I’d come out dirtier than I went in.

Differences between Thailand and here: 1) Thailand is much cleaner. They take four showers a day. In Kokata I’ve noticed a number of KP (Communist Party?) signs saying things like “It’s your city, keep it clean” and “Cleanliness is next to Godliness”. in one case the sign was posted on a wall right above a pipe gushing water into a blocked gulley full of rubbish.

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