All Posts Filed in ‘Asia

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Kolkata, India

Coming out of the hotel this morning I was almost run over by a kid on a bike. That’s a nice bike, I thought. He should learn how to use the breaks though. Then I noticed it was my bike. I sold it to a guy who works in the hotel yesterday. I don’t know who the kid riding it was, I think just one of the kids who lives in the same courtyard that the hotel is in. They’re not really houses, more rooms made out of brick and concrete. The men in the families all seem to sleep outside.

I sold it for 2500 Rupees. That’s about £30.

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Kolkata, India

I’ve given the bike away. Or sold it, but for 2500 Rupees, which is just over £30, to the guy who works in the hotel I’ve been staying in for the past two weeks. He’s been asking about it most of the time I’ve been here, seeing it sitting out the back not being ridden.

It’s actually GediBikes who have given the bike away. Donated it to kolkata. Not the most bike friendly place in the world. Probably one of the least bike friendly places in the world, but it is one of the most congested so a bike could be a great way of getting around. It could also be a great way of getting killed, though probably safer than being a pedestrian, which is what most people here are. Almost every day in the paper, The Calcutta Telegraph, I read about someone having been killed in an accident. A lorry carrying a crane tipping over as it went around a corner, killing three. A man out for an early morning walk being killed by a speeding truck trying to get past a police road block set up to take bribes, according to bystanders who rioted and blocked the road themselves after the accident in protest. That was the day before yesterday. And when buses run people over, which apparently happens quite regularly, people will storm the bus and set fire to it. A number of buses look like this has happened to them several times. It’s for that reason that most vehicles here won’t stop after an accident.

One thing the new owner will need to get for the bike is a bell.

I have mixed feelings about seeing the bike go. I don’t want to cycle around India, and it felt like a waste the bike just sitting out the back of the hotel, and travelling on a train would be awkward, on a bus possibly impossible. So being free of it is like losing a burden. But I’ve been through a lot with that bike. That part of me would like to place it in a glass cabinet. On a gold plaque on the base of the cabinet would be written: The GediBikes’ Rush Hour, ridden 6649km from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver, British Columbia between July and October 2005. And sticking out of the cabinet, through holes in the galss, would be the pedals which spectators could turn to see that the bike was still in full working order. But no one would be able to ride it. It would be too precious for that. That’s how it was starting to feel. Too worried about it being stolen wherever I went. Now I don’t have that worry any more.

I still have possessions I’m worried about losing. It would be much better if you could just hire possessions rather than having to own them, which you can but that’s not the point.

I’m not sure if I charged him too much or too little. I could’ve got 3000 Rupees. That was what he agreed to pay, but he was saying he only earns 1500 a month and would have to borrow to get 3000. 1500 a month is 50 Rupees (65p) a day, which would buy a coffee and two biscuits in the cafe I went to today. Maybe he lied about what he earns. Since I’m paying 200 a night for the room I’m in, and the people in the dorm are paying 70 a night, someone is making quite a bit of money out of this place. Though it’s on Sudder Street, the main tourist area, so rents and property prices must be high, and this hotel seems to support about ten people, so once the profits are divided between them, if that’s how it’s done, perhaps they’re not getting that much.

I don’t know. After any kind of deal there’s always some uncertainty. Especially in this country, when you come from a country where prices and values are fixed. Looking at buying a rucksack this evening a guy on one of the stalls where I’d looked at a couple but decided they were crap and I didn’t want them, the guy was trying to get me to name my price, but I wouldn’t. I just repeated the price he’d said to me, 850, as if it was a fixed price. You told me the price was 850, I said. But how much do you want to pay? It doesn’t make any difference how much I want to pay. You told me the price was 850 and I don’t want to pay that so I’ll have a look around some other places. You can have it for 800.

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Sudder Street Internet Place, Kolkata, India

The trouble with coming to the internet place at lunch time is that I have to endure the smell and sounds of people eating curry right behind where I sit. (Whenever I come it seems to be someeone’s lunch time or dinner time or supper time.) At the moment the Spanish woman who works here is eating, using her right hand like the Indians do. I can’t do that. Always need a fork or a spoon. I think she’s Spanish. She speaks Spanish, and she looks more Spanish than South American. The South Americans you meet travelling tend to be the wealthy South Americans who have a bit of a pampered look about them. They wear makeup and expensive clothes, whereas Spanish people look rough, like potatoes that have just been dug out of the ground and still have earth on them. (But potatos are good.)

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Kolkata, India

I’ve just been to the delivery place, planning to tell them that I’m not sending the bike back any more, I’m going to sell it to the guy in the hotel who has been asking about it virtually every day for the past week. He can only pay 3000 Rupees, but for him that’s two months wages, and he seems to really like the bike. You don’t get bikes like that in India. You don’t get many bikes like it any where. All the way across Canada people were interested in the bike. Particularly other cyclists.

The delivery place wasn’t open just now. I waited outside from 10 until gone 10:30. I was worried about what to say to them since they have put a lot of work in.

I’m now in a coffee shop called Barista on Park Street, a Western style coffee shop. Air conditioned. It was saying in the paper this morning that there’s a heatwave in Kolkata. Temperatures hitting 40 degrees is high for the time of year. It’s been hard to do anything during the day. Yesterday I was sitting on the roof terrace of the hotel, in the shade until the sun came around the wall at about 4 o’clock. Then I went to my room and lay down on my bed with the fan on, though the air blown down by the fan felt hot. I woke up just after sunset and went out for something to eat, not really having eaten anything all day. Someone bought a watermelon during the afternoon and I had some slices of that, and two slices of toast for breakfast, but otherwise it’s felt too hot for eating.

This cafe is about the only place, other than the internet centre, where I’ve felt comfortable with the laptop. A French guy asked me if I had wiffy. I said I don’t. The laptop does but the cafe doesn’t (have wifi).

This area is where most of the expensive hotels are. Sudder Street, where I’m staying, is more of the budget backpacker travellers’ area. People are older here.

Rugby is on the TV screen, with the sound turned down. A woman is singing American Pie. On the walls are drawings of coffee cups and slogans:

IT’S EASIER TO CHANGE ONE’S RELIGION THAN ONE’S CAFE.

IF YOU WANT TO IMPROVE YOUR UNDERSTANDING, DRINK COFFEE; IT IS THE INTELLIGENT BEVERAGE.

Across the bottom of their notice board is:

Learn from your parent’s mistakes… use birth control.

Went back to the delivery place but they’re still closed. Now in another cafe just off Park Street. Also air conditioned and also very western, but younger, with a loud jukebox currently playing Indian funk rap Bangra…? A table of five girls put it on and cheered when it started, then danced a bit in their chairs, remaining seated. There’s a university just over the road so I think most of the people in here must be from there. Wealthy young Indians. A coffee in here is about 20 Rupees, and a fancy drink, which seems to be what most of them are drinking, is about 40 Rupees. The average daily wage is maybe not much more than that, so these kids really are rich by local standards, but not by western standards. They must feel rich though. The poverty around here is so obvious. Walking out of the other cafe a young girl walked along with me, grabbing hold of my shirt sleeve and asking for money for rice. But maybe when you live here for long enough you get used to that. It just becomes a fact of life that there are beggars and poor people. They’re not people you know so you don’t compare yourself with them, you compare yourself with people you know who are as rich or richer than you so however much money you have you always feel poor.

One o’clock and the place is full.

Delivery shop still closed. They asked me to come back today, so maybe they don’t want my business. Too much hassle for them. That saves me having to tell them I don’t want to send the bike back to England any more. The guy in the hotel will be happy. He’s asked twice today already, and on the second time I told him yeah, unless I get an email from the bike maker saying he wants the bike back he can have it.

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Kolkata, India

It looks like I’ve found a place that’ll send the bike back to England. It’s going to cost 4000 Rupees (more than £50) but it’ll be a relief not to have it. I’ve hardly cycled at all since I got here and didn’t cycle much in Thailand so it’s really just been a burden, making travelling around way more awkward than it needs to be.

The place is in a tiny office below street level, with a door even I have to bend over to get through, just down the road from where I’m staying. I’d walked past it many times.

There’s a lot of bureaucracy to get through though. They were asking for documents to prove it was my bike, which I don’t have, and documents to show that I’d brought the bike over from England, which I don’t have. I’ve just carried the bike as an item of baggage on each flight, and airlines don’t give you documentation for your own personal baggage.

The bike, a GediBikes’ Rush Hour, was built in July 2005 by Ged Parsons in his open air workshop in Forest Hill, London. Custom made to my specifications, using all the best available parts. Once it was loaded up with lugguage it looked like this.

Gedibikes' Rush Hour just outside Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

That was taken on the first day’s cycling in Canada, just outside Halifax, Nova Scotia. This image is from the GediBikes UK website: www.gedibikes.co.uk. Click on the image to see it on that site.

Here’s another from the same site, featuring my legs:

Images from all the way across Canada can be seen at paul.turnpiece.net, though not that many of the images feature the bike since I was sitting on it for most of the time.

When I was crossing the border from Canada in Maine, USA, American customs were a bit suspicious for a while, wanting proof of where I was going and what I was doing. They kept me there for half an hour, emptying out my paniers, asking loads of questions. It wasn’t until I showed them this website that they let me into the country.

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Kolkata, India

A guy comes around the internet cafe carrying a pot of burning incense and chanting things. A few people look up from their computers. The connection went down a few minutes ago so perhaps the chanting was to bring the network back.

Seems to have worked.

The little kid starts screaming his head off and is placed on the shelf above my head. The rest of the family are eating curry behind me.

I bought a bell today, off this rikshaw driver who’s been trying to sell it to me for the past two weeks. I bought it for 50 Rupees. Probably a lot more than he paid for it, but I wouldn’t know where to buy one. As soon as I’d given him the money he picked up his rikshaw and left. It felt like he’d had it with being a rikshaw driver and had told himself that he would sell his bell and retire, but since I don’t reckon he has a pension I expect he’ll be back tomorrow with a new bell.

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Kolkata, India

I didn’t tell anyone it was my birthday yesterday but three people asked me my age. It’s good to get used to saying it. 40. 40. 40.

Walking down Sudder Street not really going anyone one of the woman with children beggars whom I’ve refused to give money on a number of occasions stops me and wants to talk. She invites me to sit down on the pavement and asks questions. The usual questions: What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Are you married? Why not? Her friend’s child, who I think is a girl – she has a spot on her forehead – tries to hug me but she has milky dribble all over her chin so I try to move away. She introduces me to her two sons, instructing them to call me uncle. She asks me if I want chai, producing a steel pot. Err, okay. Her older son goes off with the pot and comes back with it filled with chai. She pours out a small plastic cup for me.

As I leave I give her and her friend 10 Rupees each, though her friend is saying no, don’t give me money. You go to the shop and buy food for us. I can’t buy anything with 10 Rupees. We need rice, and cooking oil costs 70 Rupees. I tell her 10 Rupees is all she’s getting and leave to have dinner in one of the touristy restaurants: dhal curry, steamed rice, lemon soda and a cup of tea. It comes to 80 Rupees.

Walking back along Sudder Street the woman’s son, the older one who got the chai, spots me and walks along with me, holding my hand and saying give me 10 Rupees uncle, please uncle, I need 10 Rupees for rice. He’s making the eating gesture with his right hand. I tell him I gave his mother 10 Rupees earlier and I’m not giving him any more. I don’t like giving money to children.

Back at the hotel I meet the Japanese woman who is in the room next to mine. I bumped into her in the street earlier, when I was on my way to the restaurant, and she told me that right after she’d seen me a woman came up to her, really angry, saying: what did you say to that man? What did you tell him?

She now tells me those women are not real beggars. They have a house that they go back to each evening. They’re not really homeless. The really poor people don’t speak good English, or any English, and they have their ways of getting by.

When she said they live in a house, I at first thought of a three bedroom semi with fitted kitchen, living room, dining area and a small but cozy garden, but then thought it’s probably not like that at all. I’ve seen some of the places where people live and often they’re just one step up from sleeping on the street.

Down the other end of Sudder Street, where there are fewer tourists, there are makeshift shelters leaning against the fence to the Indian Museum and on the other side of the street leaning against a wall. There are people, adults and children sleeping on the pavement. Others going through rubbish. They don’t seem to approach people and demand money, they don’t stand outside the tourist restaurants, though sometimes as I walk past their children come up to me making eating gestures, but I don’t like giving money to children.

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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.