Saturday, February 26, 2005

Meeting people

I am sometimes asked if it is not lonely traveling by myself, and I usually reply that it is not so bad, as I often meet people on the road. Over the past couple of days that has happened a few times, and I thought I would share a few. On Thursday, after taxiing in from the airport (formerly known as Dum Dum on account of its having been built over a munitions factory) to the Lytton (pleasant enough place, and the Fairlawn was booked) I went back to the British High Commissioners club.

The BHC is akin to a consulate, I think, and every Thursday they have a club there, dating back to the days when Calcutta did not permit the sale of alcohol on Thursdays. I had been there the week before, at the suggestion of a fellow guest at the Fairlawn. I did not recognize anyone (no surprise really) but fell into conversation with a group of Medical students, some Finnish, an Australian, and some local. They went from the club to another place, called Shi Sha. It was very plush, would not have been out of place in SF or NYC. Except that folks were smoking ...

The A/C did a good job of clearing the air. Hookahs are available there, and while I will not say whether I did or did not inhale, I will confess to having developed a profound dislike for apple flavored smoke. We were drinking Fosters which was not as unpleasant as I remembered.

Yesterday I was sitting in the same internet cafe I am now in, and started talking to the British fellow next to me, who was doing some camera shopping. He does volunteer work, and we talked a bit about that, and then I mentioned that I wanted to see the Synagogues here, as I had heard that they were very beautiful.

Nothing is simple here, but Austin knew what was required. He took me to David Nahum's place in the new market. It is a Jewish Bakery. I spoke to Mr Nahum, and got a slip of paper recommending me to the caretaker of the synagogue on one side, with a hand drawn map on the other. With that in hand, we set off. I tried to insist that I could find my own way, but Austin was not afraid of being late for his yoga class, and saw me most of the way there. It was interesting to see him verifying the directions, and getting different (though as I later realized compatible and probably correct) directions from people.

In any case I shortly found myself walking along the shop-laden Ezra street, and figured I must be close, which indeed I was. At the entrance to the synagogue, I found a couple just walking in. She was Canadian/American, he British. It turns out they were just married, and were also on a bit of a tour of Jewish Calcutta. It was fortunate for them I had turned up at that moment, as the slip of paper was actually quite important.

We were admitted into the synagogue, where my ball cap served as a Kippah. Took some photos, then walked to another synagogue, nearby.

There was some fuss there as the paper had been taken at the first place, and when sent for was found not to mention Beth El, only Magen David (which in truth is the prettier of the two). Somehow we were allowed to sign another slip, and admitted there as well.

Martin and Esther were very pleasant, and invited me to tea at the Oberoi Grand. I accepted not just because I was enjoying speaking with them, but because it is the finest hotel in Calcutta, and I wanted to see it.

It is really an oasis of calm in quiet in a very chaotic city. We had "high tea" I think, tea and sandwiches. It was wonderful. It turned out that both of them are authors, and Martin has a website where you can read about and buy his books, including a biography of Winston Churchill. I showed him this blog, and he was kind enough to compliment my photographs.

After taking my leave I went back to the Lytton to rest a bit, then wandered about the street looking for something to eat. I ended up not bothering with an actual restaurant, dining instead on the offerings of various street vendors including roasted corn (4 rupees) and egg roll (really a wrap -- 7 rupees) a veg roll (6 rupees) a small bag of pakora (I think, 5 rupees) and a fresh fruit drink, a mix of sweet lime and orange (about 10 rupees).

Something like 30 to 40 rupees in all, or about 80 cents. Not a bad deal really, as it was all quite tasty. One just has to learn to ignore the site of a bare hand being plunged into the bowl of veg stuffing that made its way into the "roll".

Today I rested a bit, and went to the Victoria museum, which has an amazing exhibit on the history of Calcutta, as well as some arms.

Writing about dinner has piqued my appetite (which is often not strong in this heat) so I will go and get something to eat now.


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