Coming to Kolkata from the quiet, reserved society of Japan was a shock to most of us on the trip. India was an onslaught to all the senses; sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures inundated our minds from the very moment we stepped off the plane. It seems so cliché to describe India in this way, as an explosion of sensory stimuli, but there is truly no other way to get the point across.
In the mornings, we were awakened to the crowing of roosters, the voice of a man selling coconuts off of his bicycle, and the occasional early morning parade, complete with a small band of drummers. Our breakfast, cooked by the staff of our guesthouse, filled our nostrils with the smell of the warm spices of chana masala (chickpea curry) or aloo masala (potato curry) and the distinctive, sweet smells of freshly brewed black tea. As we ate, our mouths were sent ablaze with the tart, vinegary taste of achari (pickled) mango chutney.
Our bellies full and donning our kurta tops and churidar pants, we would set out in a caravan of SUVs for the University of Kolkata. Traffic in the city was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Drivers weaved in and out of traffic, honking almost without stop. After a few days, we were able to construct the basic rules for honking in Kolkata; one must honk when: passing a car, being passed by a car, when crossing an intersection, when passing a side street, when approaching a pedestrian, when the car in front is going too slow, and when feeling left out that everyone else is honking and you are not.
Arriving at school, usually in tact and without damage, we would walk up the ten flights of stairs to our classroom, which was really eleven flights, considering that what we think of as the first floor is actually floor zero in India. Our classes, which focused mostly on the colonial history of India, were taught by an amazing set of local professors who were all so eager to teach the curious bunch of American university students wandering around their campus. Classes would end with more food and the afternoons were free for us to do with them what we pleased.
That is perhaps one of the most incredible aspects about PacRim; we spend the mornings learning about a topic and in the afternoon we venture out, sometimes alone and sometimes in a group, and experience those very topics first hand. In Kolkata we would learn about famous colonial monuments such as the Victoria Memorial and then be standing right in front of it later that day. Small groups of us would be all over the city on any given afternoon, some at a temple, some at a market, perhaps even a few at a burning ghat, and then we would all be back at the end of the night to share our experiences.
On one particular day, a group of four other students and myself visited Park Street, a colonial thoroughfare that is now a popular place for tourists and locals alike. We visited the Oxford Bookstore, picking up copies of a variety of novels by famous Indian authors, which circulated throughout the group as part of a small book club-type arrangement we had in India. Hungry, like always, we went for dinner at an impeccably delicious Indian restaurant called Bar-B-Q. After stuffing ourselves with a seemingly endless amount of curries, breads, and rice, we hit the street to catch a taxi back to our guesthouse.
What should have been a simple task, ended up being a bit more challenging than we had anticipated. In typical Indian fashion, the city was celebrating a festival of some sort and so all the yellow Ambassador taxis were busy shuttling people to and from the festivities. Standing on Park Street, we attempted to hail a taxi, but were wildly unsuccessful. We solicited advice from a policeman and a few locals, but were still unable to find a ride. Eventually, we split into two groups and two students were able to find a taxi willing to take them home. Still, that left three of us hopelessly hailing taxis on the busy street. After nearly an hour, we gave up and did the unthinkable: we took the metro.
Walking down the stairs into the metro station, there was a din of voices mixed with the distinctive ping of coins being passed back and forth at a ticket counter and the dull whoosh of a departing train. My heart was racing and my palms were sweating, but the two others I was with seemed less concerned. We purchased our tickets to Kalighat Station and headed for the tracks. Just as we were walking up to the platform, a train approached. As the cars slowed in front of us, my stomach began to churn and turn over; the train was unimaginably full. The doors to a car opened in front of us and five, maybe six, people exited almost at the same time as thirty new passengers pushed their way onto the car. Frustrated with our experience hailing a cab, we joined in, quite literally wedging ourselves into the last three remaining empty spaces in the car just as the doors shut behind us.
Realizing that there was no turning back at this point, I began to relax a bit. That is until the name of our station was announced and we discovered that the doors would be opening on the opposite side of the train from where we were standing. The doors were just a mere six feet away, but were blocked by what at the time seemed to be upwards of one hundred people (it was probably only twenty to thirty thinking back on it). Nevertheless, as the train slowed and the doors opened, the three of us pushed with all of our might to get off the train. With extreme relief, and a sound like a cork coming off a bottle of champagne, we popped out onto the train platform. Wiping sweat (a mixture of our own and that of those we stood a bit too close to) from our foreheads and arms, we left the station, hopped into an auto-rickshaw and arrived back at our guesthouse minutes later.
We returned to our rooms and headed to bed, feeling as if the experience was not all that out of the ordinary. Perhaps this is because on PacRim, out of the ordinary experiences are simply the norm. The next day we would wake up to the same sounds we had earlier that day, head off to school, and be on our way to more adventures.