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Kolkata, India

The old rikshaw puller asked me if I wanted a ride just now but I said I was just going down the road. Then he tried to sell me his bell, a round silver bell he wears on one finger and taps against the arm of his rikshaw as he pulls it, though I’ve never seen this guy pulling his rikshaw.

He wanted 70 Rupees for the bell. But then you won’t have a bell, I said. I need to eat, he said. What would I do with a bell? He comes down to 60 Rupees. I could put the bell in my rucksack, the one I keep my laptop in, and then if someone tried to steal it the bell would ring, like a basic burglar alarm. I tell him I’m going for breakfast and will think about it.

A tourist walks past the cafe ringing a bell. He did the same thing yesterday. I think he’s a Krishna. There are a few people here who look a bit like Krishnas. Shaven heads with a pony tail left at the back to prove that they could have hair if they wanted to.

A guy with an amputated arm stands outside showing off his stump, making sure everyone inside sees. No one gives him any money and he leaves.

I manage to find the DHL office and ask about sending my bike to England. The question bafffles them for a while but then I’m quoted 8000 Rupees. Way too much. Walking along Park street trying some airlines without any luck someone slaps me on the back. I turn around and see the short guide who took me to the race course the other day. He says he’ll take me the the Shipping Corporation of India. They’ll take my bike and it shouldn’t cost too much. We walk for about an hour through the midday heat to BBD Bagh, the government district of Kolkata. Buildings built by the British. This was where they governed India from, except in the summers when it got to hot and they’d pack their bags and go up to Shimla, a hill station above Delhi. Now it these buildings are occupied by the communist government of West Bengal.

After stopping for a small chai and asking quite a few people directions he eventually gets me to Marine House, where the Shipping Corporation of India is, up on the 7th floor. We sit in front of someone’s desk as he answers four phone calls – he has two landline phones and one mobile. Then as I start to explain that I want to send a bike to England one of the phones rings again. Eventually I get the answer that they only send full containers from this office, but he gives me the address of another office where they deal with small packages.

So a walk back across town and we find the other office. How many bikes do I want to send? Just the one. The receptionist laughs but then shows me into the manager’s office. I write down what I think the dimensions of the bike will be when it’s packed into a box: 1.2m x 1m x 20cm. The manager gets someone else to come in and tells him to go off and calculate the price for me. He tells me it shouldn’t cost too much. I’m offered a cup of tea and chat the the guy while we’re waiting for the calculator to come back with his answer. He wants to know where I’ve been cycling in India (Dum Dum to central Kolkata), what my impressions are of India (bad traffic), and a load of other things. The calculator comes back with his calulations written down on a piece of paper. The prices are in dollars and at first it doesn’t look too expensive. Comes to $54, but then I’m told that’s per cubic meter and has to be multiplied by 5, and there’ll be other charges so it’ll be more like $300.

That’s way too much. The manager agrees. You’re better off taking your bike with you, then you can put it on the plane for free when you fly back. The calculator looks a bit disturbed. See, he thinks I’m doing him out of a sale, but it’s obviously not worth you spending $300 to send this bike back and I’d only be making a $10 profit so I’ll be honest with you. I get up to leave, but the manager says no, stay and have your cup of tea, so I sit down again. The tea arrives and the manager turns out to be a bit of a philosopher, talking about Western know how regarding systems and building things versus Indian spirituality, and then about how people say women don’t build things but he says women create the most beautiful things: human beings. India is a very spiritual place, he says, then asks me why I came to India. I can’t really answer, but mumble something about spirituality since it sounds like a good thing to say. Better than saying I came here because it’s cheap. What is spirituality? he asks. I don’t know, and he doesn’t have an answer either, but talks about how he gets ripped off whenever he goes to the Kali Ghat temple. Not ripped off financially but ripped off spiritually by the people who sell blessings or something there. I’m not sure. I haven’t been there.

It seeems like he could sit here all day talking. The guide who brought me here is waiting outside so I’d better be going, and I go. The guide asks me what happened, I tell him, and then give him 100 Rupees – though feel I should have paid him a bit more but didn’t come out with any more money on me.

Thinking about the calculations when I get back to my hotel, they don’t seem right. Why multiply everything by five? The bike is not going to take up five cubic meters. Maybe I’ll go back there tomorrow, but maybe it’s just that they don’t want to be bothered with the hassle of sending such a small item and I should accept that I’ve got the bike and have to travel with it.