a walk on the street

imageMonday is my last free day in Calcutta, and I leave the hotel early, walking to an au bon pain a block away. Yes, it is an international franchise—but I can get a pot of darjeeling served in a ceramic cup and the street vendors are not open yet. It is 7:30 and the workday here does not begin until 10.

I walk on the street because people live on the sidewalk and the camp fires are still smoldering. A rickshaw stops right in front of me and the driver gets out and squats beside the road to urinate while uniformed school girls pass the other direction.

We are maybe fifty yards from Park Street, where the intersection I’m headed to also boasts a Pizza Hut, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a McDonald’s which serves no beef. There are also highend clothing chains where you can buy an embroidered sari for several hundred dollars as opposed to the 2 or 3 dollars you might spend at the street markets just a few blocks away.

Most of our students will spend the rest of the day in the market, practicing their bartering skills and picking up that last gift for friends back home. I have some shopping to do too, and tonight we will gather in a nice Indian restaurant before heading for a whirlwind visit to the Taj Mahal tomorrow.

But I need the morning to make some notes for a trip I’m leading here next year. And here are a few of them.

Don’t expect flatware or napkins unless you are in a restaurant or hotel that caters to westerners. (Don’t expect toilet paper either.) Indians eat with their hands, scooping up their foods with any one of a variety of regional flat breads. You will find a sink for washing your hands in most places, however. Even street vendors will often have a pitcher of water for your to pour over your hands onto the street when you are done.

Do expect to pay less for food. I paid about $20 to feed ten students and myself at restaurant the other day. Even here, at a franchise, you can get an egg on a croissant for about 75 cents. On the street you can get an egg with grilled vegetables wrapped in fresh, hot nan for even less, maybe 25 or 30 cents. The steaming hot tea sold everywhere on the street can be had for less than a dime.

Don’t expect to walk around without extreme vigilance. Lanes, traffic signals—these are mere abstractions, conforming to no reality you know. It is considered rude to honk your horn at someone in the States, but here it is a matter of survival. Every truck has “Please Honk” painted on the back. Otherwise, how would anyone know you were behind them or trying to squeeze between them and the traffic coming in the other direction?

Do expect to be able to interact with others and make new friends. Hospitality is a cultural norm, although vendors can be extremely pushy. Men will follow you through the market place, helping you find what you are looking for but expecting you to visit their shop as well, just to “have a look.” But otherwise you can always find friendly people who speak English you can understand if you listen closely. You will be welcomed, perhaps even admired or envied. And you will be fine, as long as you don’t get run over by a bus.

Don’t expect to leave unchanged. You will make new friends, admiring their persistence and joy in overcoming challenges you only partly understand. You will see material poverty and spiritual darkness you have not yet imagined. You will wonder how to help without doing too much damage. And you will want to come back because there is music everywhere. And because the colors and the textures and the smells are richer than those you left behind. And because there is so much you do not yet understand.

I’m finishing my tea now and an instrumental version of “Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot” is playing in the background.

It’s not likely that they will.

Neither will the new ones.

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