Oh, Calcutta!

KOLKATA, India — After a short flight from the sunny, modern city of Kuala Lumpur, I landed in a city I’d only heard about in references to Mother Teresa and lepers.

Not knowing what to expect because I’d never heard a single Westerner talk about this city of 14 million souls, I had mentally prepared for anything.

Ambassador taxicabs converge at Kolkata’s airport. (Photos by Bruno J. Navarro)

The Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport’s welcoming committee consisted of customs officials greeting arriving passengers in two queues, one for regional travelers and another for everyone else. Bird flu being a major health concern for much of Southeast Asia, we were made to walk in front of infrared cameras to check for abnormally high body temperatures.

Passing the test despite my normal tendency to run hot, I changed some cash into rupeees and made it to the prepaid taxi booth. (Incidentally, what a great idea to avoid being cheated, even if it’s not an $800,000 cab fare.)

A black Ambassador sedan served as my chariot to the hotel. Indian-made, these cars boasted classic lines that could’ve come off any of Detroit’s assembly lines in the 1950s. It’s as if the automotive cast of “American Graffiti” were living in exile.

Spacious and charming, the Ambassador’s novelty wore off — or perhaps was overshadowed — soon after leaving the airport and merging into the citywide scrum they call Kolkata traffic.

Having learned to drive in New York City and working my way through college as an ambulance driver, I wasn’t easily rattled on the road. But this was something else entirely.

Dust from unpaved sidewalks, exhaust from hulking Tata monster buses and the detours necessitated by meandering cows were entertaining enough. Drivers didn’t have much room to maneuver too quickly, nor did the motorcyclists who trickled through any available gap between automobile bumpers and rickshaw wheels. No, the most startling aspect of the ride was the noise.

Cacophony, actually, would be a better way to describe it. It were as if every driver believed he were invisible and could only escape a catastrophe collision by honking.

Dusk quickly turned to night, as the cab wound through seemingly endless intersections marked more by chaos than traffic lights. It was here the advice of my newly purchased Lonely Planet guide came to mind: Don’t give up the taxi payment voucher until after arriving at your destination.

“Here, here,” the driver said along a lively, scruffy street in a neighborhood I couldn’t identify. Pointing to the address I’d written on a piece of paper, I asked him to continue to that location.

This scene repeated itself a couple more times until I saw a street name that looked familiar, and the hotel appeared along a nondescript street.

Checking into the faded, elegant Fairlawn Hotel a few moments later, I prepared for bed, eager to explore the strange, dusty streets.

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