I don’t want you to feel this. The heat. Hunger. Bugs crawling on my nape. I tell you, travel engenders nothing but misery.
Three carriage fans mounted side by side on the ceiling are rhythmically whirring, blowing warm air, and the side of the grills just right on my face. I am sitting on the third berth, my head one inch to the roof of the train. 42 degrees centigrade, my energy is melting. It is still ten o’clock in the morning, ten hours more to Delhi.
A skinny young man walks into our section lugging a bucket filled with crushed ice and bottled drinks. He chants, “THANDA PAANEE, PAANEE BOTAL, PAANEE BOTAL.” I am very thirsty but unmindful of his call since my brain is attuned to the monotonous chug of the moving train. At this very moment, I feel my love for travel is spewed by the engine into the distance. “This is not the kind of experience I want. I am sick of being on the road. I must go home and start a stable life again.”
The vendor calls louder, “PAANEE BOTAL.” I look inside the pail and point to the small carton of orange juice, “how much is that?” He replies, “Twenty Rupees.” I have 80 Rupees left in my pocket. If I buy this drink now, I will be very thirsty again a few hours after. I may not have enough money for a ride from train terminal to my hostel. I just swallow all the fluid in my mouth then look away.
Moments later my vision starts to spin. I try to suck in more saliva but the responsible gland fails to function. I realize I have not taken proper nourishment for three days already. As the surrounding blurs, I imagine taking out a large chilled tumbler from the fridge in my guesthouse in Ratchadaphisek.
I savored the ice cold water. I felt it seep through my throat, down to my lungs and into my intestine. It was so refreshing. Back in Bangkok, life was pleasant every day. Why did I come to hell?
Because, I am a drifter.
My 30 day permit to stay in Thailand would expire on the 3rd of May so I had to leave on or before the date. My next host would be in Morocco and work would start in June. I had extra time to visit other places. I tried Skyscanner. There were several options suggested by the booking app but the cheapest flight was from Don Mueang to Kolkata on May 4 at 1:00 AM. Perfect.
This would be my first time to visit the State of West Bengal. I already had seven Indian destinations on my blog site and it would be great to add more travel templates for the incredible country. I also looked forward to visiting Varanasi, India’s spiritual capital, before going to Delhi where I would be taking another forward flight to the Middle East. I was very excited.
I arrived at the Kolkata International Airport few minutes past one in the morning, India time. While I was filling up my arrival card, a guy beside me peeked in then asked, “you are also staying at Bengal Guesthouse?” I said yes and the other guy across us holding a Mexican passport said that he would be going there too. The Mexican guy suggested that we could go together and share the taxi fare. I did not agree because my hotel booking would be for the following night and I could only check in in the morning. I already decided to spend the rest of the night at the airport.
Before going out of the arrival area I went to the money changer. “Hi! How much is the exchange rate, Philippine Peso to Rupee?” The man replied in an apathetic tone, “how much pesos you have?” It was a bad indication. That kind of voice always conveyed an unfair deal. I walked away from the kiosk, unaware that I just walked into a nightmare.
Outside, I found another money changer. “How much for Philippine Peso?” The young man appeared to be confused. I pulled out my wallet then showed him a 1000 Peso bill. “Not accepted!” I showed him my last 1000 Thai Baht, “what about this?” He checked his computer and said “one thousand six hundred minus service charge two fifty!” Phaq! “You are a scammer,” I wanted to tell him. The last time I checked in Google it would be around 2000. “I am very unhappy with your rate, but I need your Rupees.”
After a few hours of fitful sleep, I went out of the terminal when I noticed the day light was already streaming in. The bus station was just beside the terminal and I was lucky to talk to the right person who spoke understandable English and gave me instructions how to get to the area where my guesthouse was located. I paid 40 Rupees to the dispatcher, boarded the bus and waited few minutes for more passengers.
The Bengal Guesthouse was the cheapest I could find in Agoda. Booking was done online but payment would be made at the property. I paid 400 for one night in a dorm room. There were six beds in the room but it was too small that the four beds were fixed next to each other. The two guys I met at the airport appeared to be amused that the three individuals traveling from Bangkok on the same flight and two others who arrived the day before would be crammed together in a shabby storage loft with makeshift beds.
We talked about our travel plans. There was really nothing much to do in Kolkata so we all agreed to go to Varanasi the next day after visiting some attractions. Later, I left the group to go out and find a shop where I could change some money. The guesthouse staff told me that I could take a tuk-tuk to the Esplanade area where there were money changers and several travel agencies doing currency exchange. The tuk-tuk ride should only be 10 Rupees.
I walked happily into the busy street lined with business establishments on each side. I immediately noticed a money changer. There was another one. And another one. I entered the first shop, smiled at the man, then asked, “Do you accept Philippine Peso?” He shook his head. I waited for him to say something. I could not really understand Indians when they would use head movement to communicate. It could mean “yes.” It could be something else only their fellow Indians would know what it meant. The answer was “No!” But there were many other money changers around, “no problem.”
I entered the second shop. Then the third. They only accepted USD, Euro, Yen, and currencies of those countries with a stable economy. “What is wrong with my economy? Have you not seen on the business news that the Philippine GDP is skyrocketing?” Who cared about the GDP. It seemed that Peso was an unrecognized currency nobody wanted it here.
Finally, after about two hours of walking around, in and out of tourist information centers, I found a dubious shop that was willing to buy my Pesos. “How much will you change?” I raised my hand and said, “five thousand!” The man entered the amount on the calculator then showed it to me, “3200!” My jaw dropped, my eyes widened. We were not dealing millions, but he would earn almost 100 percent from the exchange. This man was a robber! I quickly got out of his shop then shook my shirt for air. I was wearing my journey shirt. The flag was intentionally placed above all other prints to constantly remind me that I had dignity to maintain. “I am going to starve but no bogus money changer can exploitatively devalue my currency.”
I straightened my slouched shoulders and walked towards the food cart. I ordered one glass of fruit shake. It was my first time to try Indian sapodilla and it tasted really good. I had another glass, handed my 40 Rupees to the vendor and said a heartfelt “thank you.” I just had a healthy and delicious breakfast. Well, that was also my lunch.
“We were waiting for you man,” my Mexican roommate proclaimed the moment I got in our room. “We need to buy the ticket for tomorrow.” I told them about my predicament. “I might just go straight to New Delhi. I am pretty sure I can change my money there.” He said alright and asked if I had lunch already. “Yeah man, I’ve guzzled a street food on my way here,” too honest, yet too shy to tell them that the food I guzzled was two glasses of blenderized sapodilla.
One of my other roommates was putting his passport and some cash into a secured pouch. It suddenly dawned on me, yeah! The forex kiosk at the airport! That was my money changer! I ran down at once to the street and waited for the right bus.
Feeling optimistic, I followed the short but sluggish queue at the airport terminal. When it was my turn, I smiled at the security personnel and asked if I could get in to change my money. “Only passengers are allowed.” I have no time to explain and/or beg, there were people waiting in line. Now, my only way in would be through the exit.
I went to the other bay and paced towards the sliding glass door. It did not open. I took a few steps backward, walked forward, and waved my hand over my head. Abracadabra. Open Sesame. The door remained stock-still. The motion sensor might detect only those going out. I leaned closer to observe the movement of the people inside the terminal. It was almost four in the afternoon but no one seemed to be passing through this door yet. I would walk in nonchalantly at first opportunity.
“But you know this is not right. Go find another way,” said the voice in my head.
“There is no other way. People do drive in the wrong direction up the one-way street. This is just one similar minor infraction.”
“But you are a dignified person. Did you just except breaking airport security rules in a foreign country from acts against maintaining dignity?”
“Oh conscience, I am just going to change money, not steal it. Go away!”
Suddenly, someone was striding towards the door.
“Now, prepare yourself for a stunt!”
“No, I cannot do this.”
“Yes, you can!”
The man was wearing a khaki uniform and a beret and holding what looked like a walkie talkie. Shit! Airport security officer. The door opened and the man glared at me and growled. It was not a good idea to turn my back, so I approached him with my eyes fixed on his. “Please, allow me to get in. I need to change my money. The only money changer that accepts Philippine Peso is inside. I don’t have enough Rupees left, please.” His gaze softened and said he would let me in only if I would not go anywhere else but to the forex counter. I put my hands together, “Yeah, I promise. Thank you, thank you so much.”
The girl at the counter welcomed me with a happy face. My happiness was likewise obvious as I handed her my money. She scanned the bills and said in a transformed mood, “this money is not acceptable.” What do you mean not acceptable? Of course. Because I was frantic earlier, I came to the same counter where I had my Thai Baht changed early this morning. She suggested that I could go back inside the international arrival area, the money changer after the immigration counters did accept Philippine money. Yes, that was the one where I intended to go.
I went back to the officer who let me in through the exit and asked if I could go further inside. This time, he said no.
So I made a decision. “I will go to Delhi tomorrow.”
Foreigners traveling in India on a tourist visa could cross states by train but regulated under the Foreign Tourist Quota scheme. In Kolkata, issuance of the limited tickets was at the International Tourist Bureau in Fairlie Place. My roommates who had been to the office the other day warned me about the trouble locating it. It was not pinned correctly on Google map. Not many people knew where it was, or there was such an office. Even being apprised of the direction, I had trouble finding it too.
My service number was 89. At least two Japanese, some Europeans, and many Bangladeshis were waiting to be served. At noon, the employee called number 60, then declared a thirty-minute lunch break. At 3:40, my number was announced. “I want to book the cheapest seat to Delhi, for tonight please,” I told the employee. There was one available berth in a non-aircon sleeper coach. The ticket cost 600 Rupees. The train would leave from Howrah at seven in the evening, “tomorrow.” Tomorrow? I needed a place to sleep.
Howrah Junction Railway Station sounded like a nice accommodation.
I had been observing the influx of passengers in India’s busiest railway station for the last 27 hours. Everyone seemed to be having a cheerful journey. Mine was a failed trip. I wished to have seen the appealing part of this State. West Bengal was not only this chaotic movement of people, the ceaseless honk of vehicles, or the dirty surroundings. I stepped out of the platform feeling lethargic.
Right now, I am on board a train bound for salvation. Only ten hours more, it only takes a little bit of patience. But this train is not moving forward. Rather, it is spinning. Why in the world is this train spinning?
No, I am fainting.
“You okay?” The young Indian occupying the berth beside the window asks kindly. He then signals me to sit beside him. I use my remaining strength to climb down. I sit with the right leg tucked in arms and rest my chin on the patella. Oh, this is a less miserable level of hell. A few moments later, his little sister, who is in another section with his parents, appears with chips and biscuits. He hands me his flask, opens the snack bag, and we begin to nibble. God, I am saved.
Finally, we arrive. I bid farewell to my young friend. I will soon forget your face, but I will remember your kindness forever. Meeting people like you is the foremost reason why I love to travel.
And there is another kind-hearted being. Mo, the Bangladeshi on the opposite berth, asks where I am headed to. “I am going to Pahar Ganj,” I reply. He is going to the same place.
While he is negotiating with the rickshaw driver, I step towards the cart with glasses of lassi and a sign that says “10 Rupees.” I grab a glass, gulp it down. Mo grins at me and cheerfully says, “let’s go!” I am drinking my second glass of sweet lassi. It has been a long ride, let me have three glasses more.