Bengali Botch: East and West

February 23, 2010

This was not one of my better segments. It seemed to start OK. I arrived in the morning and shared a taxi into town with a Japanese girl who was following a similar itinerary to mine but in half the time. We parted ways at Sudder Street. She was off for the cheap, popular, but grim sounding Modern Lodge. I went to try my luck with the cheapest place that didn't sound terrible. I sort of had a reservation. Staff was cagey on what that actually meant. Shortly after noon, I had a room, albeit with the expensive and unnecessary AC option.

In the afternoon, I went down to the West Bengal Tourism Development office to check out Sunderbans tours. I would have preferred a day to settle in but the choice was either tomorrow or late next week Not tricky.

Image of Jungle Fowl drinking

But perhaps I should have researched this outing a little more thoroughly. I didn't expect to see tigers but this was exceptionally lame. In three days/two nights, we saw nothing from the boat, visited a viewing platform at an appropriate time only once, and on most occasions we didn't even see birds. I saw nothing with fur other than some macaques, which can be found in most towns in India. The most interesting image capture is a distant photo of a Jungle Fowl. These are the colorful ancestors of domestic chickens. Village life was actually more photogenic.

Image of local woman with net

The snooze cruise wound up on Thursday. Late morning on Friday, I set out for Bangladesh consulate to secure a visa.

But they were unexpectedly closed. I returned the next morning to find them closed again and I was told they were going to be closed on Sunday, too. It was then that I remembered an unpleasant fact: Consulates are possibly the most annoying form of bureaucracy that a traveler can have the misfortune to deal with. They open briefly at irregular and undocumented times. Visa application requirements change frequently and can only be determined by visiting the consulate and being lucky enough to find them open.

I was almost surprised when I found the consulate open Monday morning. Internet references pointed to them being closed again. Unfortunately, another Internet rumor turned out to be true. Bangladesh wants $131 for a visa if traveling with a US passport. Bangladesh is one of a number of third world countries that shoot themselves in the foot with “reciprocal” visa fees. The official I talked to was quite gung ho and refused to entertain the idea of alternatives for short stays. I told him what I thought of his country's attempt at “fairness” and left.

Image of Mosque and shantys

Losing Bangladesh as a destination is not a huge deal but it does present a problem with my India visa. My visa is for one year but the maximum stay for a single entry is 180 days. The gap between fly-in and scheduled fly-out is 181 days. A visit to the Foreigner Registration office down the street revealed that I could get a five day extension for $20. If I have time, I could also nip into Nepal which gives out visas at the border for $20. It is also plausible that I could get away with doing nothing. My arrival date was 10/23, my fly out date is 4/21. Detailed date arithmetic is required to determine that the total is 181 days rather than 178. It certainly confused the FRO people.

Image of damaged tram

Amongst the futility, I did look around. I see Kolkata much like a dilapidated Victorian mansion. The infrastructure is substantial. The city full of character, and yet the decay is impossible to ignore. The analogy isn't hurt by the fact that much of infrastructure is actually from the Victorian Era. Nothing pre-colonial remains. Plying the streets of central Kolkata are the most decrepit trolleys I have ever seen. Mumbai might have the world's largest shanty town but Kolkata has sidewalk shanties less than block from the traveler grotto. Street vendors live and bathe in the street near their shops. Grit and character may not be among my reasons to come to India but it is something to remember.

But there is one more failure. I went to the General Post Office twice attempting to retrieve the BofA ATM card requested nearly a month ago. It wasn't there. Since I don't strictly need this card, I decided not going to wait around for it. I am typing this from a train bound for Assam.

I had a bit of scare while packing away the netbook. The lock securing the laptop chamber refused to open. I envisioned having to pack the Eeepc somewhere less secure and then finding someone in Guwahati to break the lock. I hoped this would happen before I ran out of money since my money belt was also in that chamber. Fortunately, the combination had only slipped by one digit and I was able to get it open. I replaced that lock with a spare of a different design. This is the third lock failure on this trip. The current offender's twin was somehow scrambled before I got on the plane. I never managed to open that lock despite going through every combination. At the Chennei rail station, a lock that I had purchased in Mumbai came apart in my hands. Needless to say, I didn't bother trying to reassemble it.

The room in Guwahati is not especially pleasant but, at 280 Rupees, it is the second cheapest. I'm just here for one night, to recover and find my direction. That will probably be toward Kaziranga National Park, famous for it's rhinos. The guide recommends booking ahead. This might be a challenge given that my phone doesn't seem to work in this town.