This has been harder than I thought

Cycle rickshaws outside the book stalls at College Street in Kolkata, India

I’ve been to India a few times before (it was easy when I lived in the Middle East and a flight to India cost significantly less than the cost of a flight from Denver to New York), so I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what to expect when I came to spend two months working remotely from Kolkata.

Three weeks in, and it’s been an enjoyable experience so far- but also, different from my previous trips. Without a longer stay at my ashram, or a specific festival or event to attend, I’m adjusting to the day-to-day life in a part of the city that doesn’t see a whole lot of foreign visitors. 

My apartment is nice, and certainly a much easier way to live than a lot of other parts of the city. That being said, mundane daily tasks still present some unique challenges and surprises. This includes:

1. The staring

Maybe this is a sensitive topic in some ways, but I’m just going to be honest and put it out there: people stare at me any time I go anywhere. And it’s not uncommon for people to randomly take my picture (with or without my permission).

Is an introvert, I find this to be really uncomfortable. I don’t like being the center of attention. Unless I have a reason to draw attention to myself (such as when I’m networking or promoting my work at a conference, for example) I prefer to blend in with the crowd. That’s actually one of the main reasons I chose a penname for my author life instead of just sticking with my regular name.

The staring and picture-taking have certainly happened on all of my previous trips to India- but it wasn’t quite to the same extent while staying at an ashram or in the midst of more touristy areas. Now that I’m in just a regular neighborhood, I seem to be a real curiosity or novelty to people. 

It happens when I’m at the grocery store, just walking from place to place, waiting for an Uber, or doing just about any other daily task. I’m sure people’s intentions are innocent enough, and maybe they’re just curious- but the fact is, I find it to be uncomfortable. I’m adjusting, but it’s been a challenge.

2. Cold water

OK, now when I complain about cold showers… please don’t get the impression that I’m some sort of finicky traveler that requires all Western amenities.

Actually, a lot of my experiences have been quite the opposite. I’ve slept on hard, marble floors in open-air dormitories, where I had to burrito myself in my travel blanket to avoid the hundreds of tropical mosquitoes that came to visit me overnight (I got a net the next day, but continued to sleep on the floor). I’ve climbed hundreds of temple steps in sweltering heat and humidity. 

I’ve also pulled leeches off of my feet… I regularly eat street food in any country I visit… and, while in India, I usually brush my teeth with the tap water rather than filtered water. 

So, all things considered, I like to think that I’m a “go-with-the-flow” sort of traveler. That being said, cold showers are the one thing I’ve never gotten used to. I’m pretty sure I’ll never enjoy them. Every time the water hits me, I brace for the cold, but it still shocks me and gives me the urge to scream and jump away.

3. The humidity

Despite the fact that I have no hot water… my bathroom mirror is often steamed up as if someone just took a hot shower. But it’s actually just from the ambient humidity. As I’m writing this, I just checked the forecast and today’s humidity is at 91%...

I have air conditioning in my apartment, which I use sparingly but it does help. But whenever I walk anywhere outside, even just short distances, I feel like I’m covered with a “coating” of humidity. Even if I’m not hot, I still feel sticky and sweaty. And the thicker air caused a bit of a cough and all sorts of sinus pressure changes in my first week. Again I’m adjusting, but I will say it was quite a shock to the system considering I came directly from Colorado’s dry environment.

There are a couple of pluses to this, though. Besides curling my hair, the humidity seems to easily pull all of the wrinkles out of my clothes- after being line-dried, most of my clothes look like they’ve been steam pressed!

4. Low ceilings

Most places are just fine, but I’ve run into some restaurants and other places that were clearly not designed for someone my height- where I have to duck my head in order to make it to a table. 

In particular, there’s a low ceiling at the part of my ashram where we store our shoes. I’ve only been there a few times, but somehow I’ve cracked my forehead on the ceiling no less than 3 times. Seriously, somehow I keep walking straight into it. Hopefully by the next report, I’ll have broken that habit!

5. Transportation is a challenge

View of a flooded street, from the window of an Uber taxi, in Kolkata, India
A flooded road, which my Uber driver - along with other cars and rickshaws - powered through.

The city is so congested with traffic that it takes a long time to get anywhere, even if you go there directly by taxi or Uber (both of which are very reasonably priced compared to the US: a 45-minute drive across town costs only about $5-6, maybe up to $10 during peak traffic times).

I’ve tried the Metro, or subway, system a few times. It’s fairly convenient, but also a bit of an adventure. I’ve never seen that many people crammed into a subway car before. There’s literally not an inch of space to spare throughout the middle of the city. But, once you get the hang of it, it’s alright.

I also walk to a grocery store and neighboring apartment complex, but even a short walk can prove challenging at times. The monsoon season so far to me has seemed to carry less rains than Florida’s hurricane season did in Sarasota (maybe that will change as the season continues), but it’s still a significant amount of rain…

The major roads handle it alright, but a lot of the side paths are still small, dirt roads that can’t handle the showers. Huge puddles build up (and yesterday there was more than a foot of standing water), and even the locals have emphasized that they don’t recommend trying to walk along these roads during a rainstorm- they tell me that it’s not sanitary, and also that something called “creepy crawlies” like to inhabit the deeper puddles. I’m not entirely sure what a creepy crawly is- but I’d prefer to avoid an encounter! So, I’m heeding that advice and avoiding the roads when they’re rained out. 

And even during dry times of day, some of the puddles remain. I did have one unfortunate experience, like a scene straight out of a bad Rom Com movie, where I was walking along the dry part of the road and some car drove by and splashed through a puddle… spraying me and my white pants with a ton of water and mud and who-knows-what-else. 

6. Cycle rickshaws with squeaky horns

Cycle rickshaws- a rickshaw which is powered by foot rather than motor, with a bicycle part for the front of the vehicle and a passenger compartment in the back – are still a very common site around Kolkata, despite the abundance of other means of transport. And, they are very convenient for short distances, especially when it’s raining and not possible to walk on foot.

On thing that surprised me was the horns that they use- I’m not exaggerating at all when I say they sound like a dog’s squeaky toy. I’m getting more used to it now… but when I first heard the noise, I kept turning my head in surprise, expecting to see one of the street dogs chomping down on a squeaky plastic hamburger. If you own dogs, I’m sure you can imagine exactly the particular type of squeak I’m talking about.

And actually, this falls under the category of pleasant surprises- I think it’s awesome. It still gets a smile out of me each time I hear it, and it’s a welcome source of unexpected mirth during the middle of a traffic jam on a crowded Kolkata street.