Calcutta, India Touching the Untouchables

This is my longest post ever. I’m getting worse at this. I need an editor.

We met a French Canadian girl on the way out from Varanasi. She was, by all indications, completely insane. After staying in Varanasi for a month, she’d missed her train out by showing up at the station ten hours late. She had decided the train was going to be fifteen hours late, but surprisingly, that didn’t happen. Two days later, there she was, waiting for the next train to come by.

She’d immersed herself completely in the wonders of the Ganges, going every day to walk along its banks. She told us about the other side of the river, which we hadn’t thought to go to cause it didn’t look there was much going on over there.

With the crowded city of Veranasi on one side, the far shore of the river is a vacant expanse – vacant, that is, except for the numerous decomposing corpses along the shore. I’m going to try to paraphrase her chilling monologue as best I can:

"I met this guy from Greece. He was here for two months and he went swimming in the river every day. He only had one bad time when a body floated into him while he was swimming, and also a cow as well, but other than that he said it was fine. I went swimming with him two times.

We went walking together on the other side of the river. In one direction we saw ten bodies, and in the other direction we saw ten more. He laid down with one of them so I could take his picture.

Some of the bodies were fresh, but some of them had been there a long time and they smelled a little bit. Some of the bodies had no heads. A lot of them had no toes or fingers, cause the dogs would come and bite them off. I guess those parts are the easiest to take and maybe the most tender.

We saw a lot of heads. They looked just like rocks, except with eyeballs and noses.

My friend had some problems. He got some kind of infection just before he left. He said it was because the river was angry at him for going away. I’m having some trouble now as well. The skin is coming off my hand. I guess the river is angry at me for leaving too."

Fruit loop!

By and large, the travelers I’ve met in India have been significantly farther out on the fringe than the ones in other countries. I think you have to be in order to fully appreciate the wonders of India, and likewise, to put up with its hassles.

Here’s what the train station in Varanasi looks like.

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Trust me when I say it’s a lot worse at 3 in the morning when everyone’s sprawled out asleep on the floor and you have to carry your luggage through. Most of these folks weren’t waiting around for trains. They live there. The place has a roof, it’s got a water supply, and no one is going to throw them out.

I surreptitiously snapped this photo of a prisoner transfer in progress.

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There’s not much to say about it. I just thought it was interesting.

We caught the train to Calcutta, where we only had a few hours before heading south to Balasore. I was sorry not to spend more time in Calcutta. It’s an interesting place, and altogether more pleasant than Delhi.

At 16 million people, Calcutta is one of the most populated cities in the world. It’s also one of the poorest. But there’s a dignity in its poverty. They’ve held onto something, while Delhi let go completely.

We crossed the Howrah bridge; the busiest bridge in the world. The vast majority of people who cross it are on foot. They number in the millions daily.

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Bad photo, I know. I was in a rush.

I have a thing for big bridges. They move me. This one has a span of 450 meters and no pylons to support it. It’s also asymmetrical and has what appears to be a shockingly inefficient design for distributing pressure equally.

Ah well, it’s not like there are many people using it or anything.

I wonder if it’d even make the world news if it collapsed.

Calcutta is the last place in the world that still uses old-fashioned foot-powered rickshaws.

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With the exception of the occasional tourist novelty in places like China, everywhere else has upgraded to bicycle rickshaws, motor-powered auto-rickshaws, or proper taxicabs. But the cost of a bicycle is too great for most drivers in Calcutta, so they go it on foot – barefoot no less. It struck me that I am far better equipped to get myself from one place to another than these guys. At least I’ve got shoes.

I didn’t get a chance to see the banyan tree in the botanical gardens. It’s one of the largest of its kind in the world, spreading over 400 square meters. They had one in Brisbane and it was my favoritist tree ever.

I dug this abandoned old building.

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Calcutta is the only major Indian city that wasn’t already around before the British showed up. As a result, its imperialist ghosts loom large.

As of a couple years ago, Calcutta is now officially called Kolkata. For the purposes of this entry, I’m sticking with Calcutta. I like it better.

This picture just kicks a llama’s ass.

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It’s like the cover to a lost U2 EP from the ’80s. Something about that kid walking by and the look on his face. I like it a lot.

The excursion to Balasore was the result of some enormously generous string-pulling on the part of my friend from Los Angeles, Chacko. His uncle, Mr. Gowrinath, is the Head of Conservation at the Similipal Nature Reserve, and he arranged for us to get a private tour of the park. This was a very big deal, as the park is hom e to 95 wild Bengal tige rs, a bunch of elephants, leopards, wild boars, wolves, and who-knows-what-else. What’s more, the park closed for the year on June 15th, so a special exception was made in order to get us in.

I was peeing my pants with excitement. And Chacko, in spite of some of the details in the paragraphs that follow, I am eternally grateful.

Our train ride from Calcutta to Balasore coincided with a mass pilgrimage of Krishna devotees to some festival that was going on in the region. Thomas and I shared a row of seats on our four-hour journey with a gaggle of caterwauling nutjobs. They spent the whole ride clapping their hands and hollering out songs about how great Krishna is.

I am, by nature, neither a friendly nor tolerant person. I tried my hardest not to get along with these people, but they weren’t having any of it. I am apparently a wonderful and wise soul who is very open to new ideas and capable of accepting the spiritual enlightenment of Krishna Consciousness. I’m also supposed to rush out and get a copy of Bhagabat Gita by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada at my earliest possible convenience.

Once again, that’s Bhagabat Gita by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada.

In the row across from us, a Hindu, a Christian, and a Krishna devotee were locked in a heated discussion to see who could out-condescend who. It was fun to watch.

When we arrived in Balasore, things got even weirder. At a couple points on this trip, I’ve suddenly and unexpectedly wandered into circumstances of Lynchian peculiarity. There’s no predicting when it’s going to happen. It just does. Some places are like that. It happened in Invercargill, New Zealand. It happened a few times in Micronesia. It happened again in Balasore.

We were met at the train station by a friend of Mr. Gowrinath named Gopal. We later found out that Gopal is or was (unclear) a member of parliament, representing the state of Orissa. He’s one of those guys who you can just tell is well-connected.

It was approaching midnight as he took us through the town to the hotel. We passed by several spontaneous happenings along the way. They looked like mobile street raves. They all had large bands playing, with each musician mounted atop a specially fitted bicycle rickshaw. Power lines for all the instruments and amplifiers were dragging behind the procession like a giant tale. There were numerous women holding up bright neon lights around the perimeter, while all the men congregated in the center and danced…badly.

Gopal explained that they were wedding processions. The caravans were on their way to the houses of the brides, where the ceremonies would occur.

They do weddings awfully late at night in Orissa.

We got to the hotel, which I think was owned by Gopal. It was massively empty, with all furniture and decoration taken down in the midst of a large renovation that was going on. That aside, the place was really nice, and was populated with at least half a dozen helpers who had nothing else to do but serve our needs, which they seemed very interested in doing. They took us up to our room, which was the cleanest, nicest room of all the hotels we’ve stayed at in India. We had soap, we had hot water, we had toilet paper, we had sheets – it was bliss.

I’m pretty sure we were the only people at the hotel.

Concerned that we were hungry, they turned on the kitchen and whipped us up some dinner at 1 in the morning. There were about five separate visits over the next half hour, making sure we had all the drinks we needed, that the food was sufficient, that we didn’t need any more, that the empty dishes were removed from our view expressly. Thomas and I looked at each other quite stunned as it dawned on us that we were totally hooked up.

Thanks, Chacko.

The next day, we went downstairs and were introduced to Vishal, Gopal’s nephew. He was to be our handler for the duration of the visit.

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I feel bad calling him an idiot. He was very very very nice to us and was, without a doubt, wholly committed to making us as happy as we could possibly be. Nevertheless, Vishal and I did not hit it off. We simply failed to understand each other.

His first task was to work out what we wanted to eat on this trip, as we were going to spend the night inside the park, away from the things of man.

"What do you want to eat? You like bread?"
"Yeah. I like bread."
"What kind of bread? Naan?"
"Naan is great."
"You like rice?"
"Yeah. Rice is fine."
"Fried rice, okay. What about noodles? You like noodles?"
"Sure. I like noodles."
"Okay, fruit. What kind of fruit do you like?"
"I don’t eat much fruit, actually."
"You don’t like fruit? Mangos? Bananas? Pineapple?"
"Not so much, no."
"You don’t like fruit. What about biscuits? You like biscuits?"
"Biscuits are fine."
"Salty or sweet?"
"Excuse me?"
"Salty or sweet?"
"Either."
"Which one? Salty or sweet?"
"Look, any kind of food is fine. We’ll eat anything."
"Okay. No problem. You drink tea?"
"Tea is fine."
"We’ll make tea. You like eggs?"
"How about you just surprise us. Whatever it is, we’ll eat it. It’s okay.
"Okay, okay. No problem…You like pickles?"

This went on for a very long time. Neither Thomas nor I were remotely interested in food. In fact, we would’ve happily foregone eating for the day altogether if it would’ve helped our chances of seeing a tiger or an elephant in the wild.

Our efforts to communicate that to Vishal bore no fruit.

So we loaded into a nice 4WD and headed off for the jungle. We stopped at a town so Vishal could pick up some food.

"You like nuts?"
"Yes."
"What drinks you like? Pepsi? Sprite? Mirinda (local orange soda)?
"Whatever."
"You like samosas? Pakoras?"
"Fine."

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This scene interested me because of our proximity to neighboring Bangladesh. In the 1980s, UNICEF helped drill wells like this one in Bangladeshi villages to stop the population from drinking sewage-tainted water from the Ganges. What UNICEF didn’t realize was that arsenic in the soil was seeping into the pipes and poisoning the water. It was called the largest mass poisoning of a population in history, many times worse than the problems caused by Ganges water. Somewhere around 80 million people have been affected.

Despite the irony, I’m at a loss for a punch line.

This is one badass cow.

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Before entering the park, we had to stop at the main office while a number of very official people stood around doing nothing. It was a strange bureaucratic exercise that took several hours to complete, and it gave Vishal a golden opportunity to work out precisely which foods we did and didn’t like.

"Butter?"
"Yes."
"Jam?"
"Yes."
"Chicken or mutton?"
"Both."
"Which one?"
"Chicken."
"Coffee?"
"Yes."

After another hour of that, I was getting a little antsy. Some kids walked by, staring in utter fascination, as they often do. I made stupid faces back at them, as I often do. They laughed and ran off.

A few minutes later, the kids came back with an entourage. Word had spread about the strange man who made faces and they wanted to see more of it. I obliged, sticking my thumbs in my ears while wiggling my hands, poking my tongue out, puffing my cheeks, whatever else I could think of.

They kept their distance, but received my gestures with great interest. They responded by aping my performance. It was sort of like that scene at the end of Close Encounters, except with fart sounds instead of synthesized tones. Pretty soon they were improvising, jumping up and down, clapping like seals, hiking their shorts up to chest level and stomping back and forth. I was in stitches. The kids were apopleptic.

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It was increasingly clear that many people in the vicinity disapproved of what was going on. At first I thought it was because I was exhibiting behavior unbecoming of a white guy, but I soon realized there was more to it. When I started towards the kids with my camera, Vishal stopped me.

"No no no. You musn’t go near them."
"Why not?"
"They’re very different. They won’t understand you."

Oh, like you’ve got me all figured out.

I’m not 100% certain about it, but I have an interpretation of the situation that I’m going to present here. Anyone who might have some insight, please fill me in.

For thousands of years, India has had a rigid and complex caste system. A caste is a social class. Whatever you’re born into is what you’re stuck with until you’re reincarnated. Your caste determines the kind of job you can have, the amount of money you can make, and generally how far you can go in life.

The five main castes are the priest class, the warrior class, the merchant class, the peasant class, and the lowest of the low, who used to go by the name of the Untouchables. There’s no easily identifiable ethnic distinction between the classes. People just somehow know.

There’s been a lot of upheaval about it in the last century. Ghandhi devoted several of his fasts to ending the mistreatment of Untouchables. I’m told things are much better in the south now, but parts of northern India still adhere to the old ways.

Vishal is in the highest caste and he was serving me. He was trying to explain that the kids I was playing with were the wretched bottom-feeders, and it was absolutely unacceptable for me to go anywhere near them.

Fine. Whatever. I didn’t want to cause problems, so I stayed by the car. The kids kept making faces though, and try as I might to ignore them, I couldn’t.

Vishal went inside, I guess to notify someone of what was going on. The kids seized the opportunity and ran over to me. This put me in an awkward position, but to be honest it really wasn’t that difficult to decide how to handle it.

Vishal could bite my ass.

I took another picture of the kids and did my standard routine where I show it to them on my little camera screen and watch their heads explode.

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They were so happy, they were literally bouncing all over the place. One of them, I guess being somewhat familiar with Western customs, reached out to shake my hand. We shook. That’s when all hell broke loose.

Vishal and his cronies had been watching from behind the gate. They burst out, shooing the kids away, herding Tom inside, and yelling at me to get in the car. Two men got in the front and we quickly drove off. They took me to some random place a few hundred meters away and got out of the vehicle, leaving me by myself to, I suppose, cool off. When they drove me back, the kids were cleared out and everything was quiet.

Nothing was said to me. There were no punitive words. We just went on after that like nothing had happened.

I really wasn’t trying to crusade or anything, and I feel silly making it out like it was some great social injustice that I was defying. I was just making stupid faces at kids to pass the time and it turned into a thing.

Nevertheless, I do believe that what we do in these situations, once we’re in them, matters a great deal. I don’t feel at all bad about treating those kids with common goddam human decency, even if it did cause a scene.

And besides, I’ve got Civis Romanus on my side. I can thumb my nose at things like that with impunity, and I’m perfectly willing to do so. I am not a believer in the Prime Directive. What I do worry about is that I might have offended people to the point where it reflected badly on Chacko. I really hope that didn’t happen, and if it did, Chacko, I’m very sorry.

The other thing I worry about is what happened to those kids.

Things were eventually sorted out at the park office and we got underway. Once inside the park, Vishal decided we were hungry, so he handed us some sandwiches wrapped in foil, plastic, and cardboard containers. When we finished the sandwiches, he instructed us to throw the boxes out the window.

We were inside a nature reserve, mind you.

I told him I wouldn’t. He insisted that it was no problem and to just toss it. I told him absolutely not. I would much sooner have thrown him out the window.

Tom, ever the diplomat, jumped in and explained about littering fines in America, non-biodegradable substances, and all that. Vishal didn’t get a word of it.

I’d already deeply offended Vishal by shaking hands with those kids. Now he had deeply offended me.

We didn’t get along.

Littering is a funny thing. I think there was a time in America, not too long ago, when we would have treated food packaging in the same way. But something happened in the late ’70s and early ’80s. First it was that crying Native American guy, and then it was Woodsy the Owl telling us to "Give a hoot!" Virtually overnight, our attitudes about garbage changed completely. How horrifying is it now when someone drops a plastic bag on the street? Our eyes bug out. It’s criminal behavior. We learned to give a hoot.

But some places never learned to give a hoot. They still don’t give a hoot. They’re hootless. India is one of those extremely hootless places.

We finally got to the campsite around 4pm. It was a cabin with four rooms, two of them bedrooms, and a separate building for the servants to sleep in. There was no electricity and all the water came from a well.

We asked wh at was o n the agenda.

"Soon, we eat a snack. Then we have dinner. After that we can drink and talk about things into the night."
"Okay, um…will there be any looking for wildlife going on during any of that?"
"There’s nothing around here right now. Maybe when it gets dark."
"When it gets dark. Okay. Well, if it’s dark, how are we going to see anything?"
"The forest ranger is here. If a tiger comes near, he will hear it."

That claim seemed a little weak to me. Tigers have spent millions of years learning how not to make noise. They do that better than just about anything. As far as I could tell, the only thing the forest ranger does is eat, sleep, and fill out paperwork.

There were tons of enormous termite castles all over the place. They were pretty neat.

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I caught some cute baby pigs running by.

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And there was this pile of mango seeds that had been shitted out by an elephant and was now sprouting into a new tree.

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The circle of life.

Vishal asked us several times if we’d like to drink. Neither of us felt a particular need to do so in a situation like this, but what the hell. I was hoping that by saying "yes" enough times, he’d eventually lose interest. Also, I figured drinking would make Vishal’s incessant badgering more tolerable. We agreed to some whiskey and a beer for Thomas. We had no idea that we were sending one of our servants eleven kilometers through tiger-infested jungle on a bicycle to acquire it.

We were fairly mortified when we found out what we’d done. But Vishal assured us it was no problem. Everyone was there to serve our needs and insure that we were comfortable.

There wasn’t much that could’ve made me less comfortable.

We weren’t allowed to leave the immediate vicinity of the cabin. There was, however, one elevated lookout point that seemed to have a greater likelihood than anywhere else of allowing us to see some lions and tigers and bears. We brought chairs up there and sat ourselves down as the sun set. Vishal joined us to perform as our de facto guide. It was immediately obvious that he knew absolutely nothing.

"Are the elephants here nocturnal?"
"Are they what?"
"Nocturnal."
"What’s that?"
"Do they sleep during the day?"
"Who?"
"The elephants."
"The elephants what?"
"Do they sleep during the day?"
"…I don’t know."

At one point he gestured to a tree and told us that it’s wood was the most expensive in the world. I asked him what the wood was called. "Teak," he said. I was drinking water at the time and I did one of those Jerry Lewis guffaws where you spit the water out.

Once the sun was down, we were staring into absolute blackness. There wasn’t a chance in hell we were going to spot anything.

Vishal, sensing that we had now bonded and could discuss more intimate things, began asking the burning questions.

"You have wife?"
"No."
"You sleep with women?"
"I do okay."
"How many?"
"Uh."
"You force them?"
"No, that’s not really necessary."
"How much money you make?"

He was not growing in my esteem.

As we were getting ready to sleep, or in my case, hide my head under a pillow to escape Vishal, a bicycle emerged from the darkness. After almost three hours, our whiskey had arrived and we were now obligated to drink it. Thomas and I made do using the flat, warm, generic orange cola that was available as mixer. Vishal was fascinated, but I think also intimidated by this white-man’s ritual we were undertaking. He excused himself to go to bed. I had to really think on whether or not I was willing to part with him for the evening, but I eventually relented.

In the gas lit night, deep in the jungles of Bengal, Tom and I drank whiskey and talked. That was the best part.

I surveyed the room we were in, with its two open doorways, and asked Thomas what he thought was stopping the tigers from walking into this cabin and chewing on our heads tonight.

"Statistical probability," he said.
"Good enough, I suppose."

When we were ready to sleep, we went into the bedroom to the bed I already knew we were going to have to share. Using my GameBoy Advance as flashlight, I shined it on the mattress and saw something that sent a shiver through my whole body.

No, it wasn’t a snake or a spider or some other hideous menace. It was Vishal, fast asleep. This was his bed too. The three of us were supposed to share a double.

I wasn’t having any of it. I grabbed a pillow and went back into the den to sleep on the wooden sofa. Tom thought I was being an idiot. He cornered me and told me that attitudes were different here and I was being homophobic.

"Tom, if I’m crammed in a bed between you and that guy, I promise, the gift of sleep will not come. This is not a gay thing. This is a people snoring and rolling onto me thing."

Tom still thought it was ridiculous, and he was pissed at me for stealing one of the pillows (Vishal had the other one). I put it over the armrest, positioned a second chair for my legs, and bent myself into the space that was available. It worked pretty well. I managed to sleep out there until the insect repellent candle burned out. The stinging woke me up just before dawn and I had no other choice but to crawl under the mosquito net and squeeze myself between Vishal and Tom for the remaining hour or two. I did a lot of staring at the ceiling, not so much sleeping.

The next morning, Tom and I decided to throw all of our imperialist muscle into ordering Vishal to get us the hell out of the campsite and back to the hotel. He had all our meals planned through to the afternoon, so he was disappointed, but we made it clear that we wanted to leave immediately. We tried to negotiate a visit to one of the nearby watchtowers in the hopes of maybe spotting something before we left, but the forest ranger told us it was closed.

We passed a number of small villages on the way back to the hotel.

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And that was pretty much it. Vishal took us to the train station and waited at the platform with us for twenty excruciating minutes. Tom complemented Vishal on his sunglasses. In a flash, Vishal ripped them off his face and handed them to Tom.

Tom: "No, it’s okay. I don’t want them."
Vishal: "Yes, you must have them. They are yours now."
Tom: "No. Please. It’s okay."
Vishal: "Matthew, who do the glasses look better on: him or me?"
Me: "I want no part in this."

It was clear that I was not going to be in contact with Vishal ever again. He was, by that point, not at all oblivious to my loathing. Tom didn’t get off so easy.

Tom promised Vishal that he’ll do what he can to help him get a visa so he can come to America. He also agreed to purchase and send a digital camera like the ones we have, which Vishal will pay him for in "installments."

As the train was pulling in and I was restraining myself from pushing Vishal onto the tracks, he asked us repeatedly when we’d be coming to Balasore again. Tom promised him very soon. But me, I don’t know. It’s an awfully big planet.

Here’s Tom on the train back to Calcutta.

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I’m now an expert on train travel in India. That’s one part of the trip that I enjoyed a great deal. I’ve got some weird thing with trains. It’s similar to my thing with bridges. Give me an upper berth and a reading light, maybe a pillow, and I can go for days. Sleeper trains are great.

Going to the bathroom on trains in India isn’t so much fun. I’d have to put those experiences near the top of my list of least pleasant bathroom visits. In fact, I think the India trip fills out most of the top ten spots.

You can’t really control when you need to go to the bathroom in India. It just happens. Wherever you are at the time, you’ve got to make it work.

While waiting at the airport to get on our flight to Myanmar, the crazy French Canadian girl appeared out of nowhere and sat next to us. She explained her latest dilemma.

"I feel not very good today. I’ve got a little bit of the Delhi belly. Drinking the Ganges water made me feel healthy, but the water in Calcutta I think is very bad.

I bought one of those round-the-world tickets and I thought it lasted for a year, but I just discovered that it ran out after six months. I’m flying to Bangkok now. I have no money. I will have to get a job there teaching English until I earn enough money for a plane flight home."

See ya later, lady. Have a nice time in Bangkok.

31 Responses to Calcutta, India Touching the Untouchables

  1. Raghu

    Hi Matt

    My name’s Raghu and I’m an independent documentary
    filmmaker based out of NJ. I’m currently making a
    low-budget documentary project on rickshaw men in
    India.

    When I was researching on the internet, I found your
    website with the photo of a calcutta rickshaw. I was
    wondering if I could use that photograph for a few
    seconds in my doc. Since this is an extremely
    low-budget project I will not be able to compensate
    you financially. But I can give you credit.

    If I could use it, is it possible to get a higher
    resolution picture?

    Thank you for your time, please let me know when you
    get a chance.

    Thanks
    Raghu.

  2. Amit Choudhury

    Hey Matt! This is good. I would try to come back to read more at your site.

    Well, I sure like your humor. I live in Dallas, TX presently. But I lived in India before migrating to US. Actually all parts of India. Well travelled in India.

    I saw your film bit on ifilm.com then googled your name and here I am. Dancing is great Idea.

    Great capsule of human ethos in your diary specially the Indian Segment. I would go read other segments another day.

    Well, it is 3.30 am local time got to sleep. Had been at your site for over 2 hours.

    Peace! Take Care! Happiness.

    ps: I am sure your mom knows you achieved quite good amount of respect.

  3. Rich Rossi

    This was a really wonderful read! I, like Amit, saw your video on ifilm and found my way here. Your journal entrees are phenominal. Not only are they hilarious, but they are tremendously educational too. Your sarcasm just has me in stitches, it’s wickedly clever!

    I knew a bit about the caste system from my brother who spent a year in the peace corps in Fiji. There are a lot of Indian’s there too.

    Anyway, I’m off to read yet another entry.

    Ever thought of having this published? I wonder if there is an easy way to make a CD? I know you aren’t at all about making money because I told you I wanted to give you some and you flat refused it, but I really would like a copy of all this stuff. I suppose I could do a lot of cut/paste… hmmm

    Anyway, thanks again for this little “gift to the world” as I like to call it.

  4. JC

    i liked this so much.. i live in toronto (canada).. can i use the picture of the calcutta rickshaw for a blog i am planning?? thanks..

  5. AN

    I have spent the last 3 hours-YES 3 hours laughing-contemplating-laughing-thinking-laughing and laughing!!!

    If I could I would make this mandatory reading for anyone who wants to travel. NO, I take that back. Everyone on the planet should read your escapades.

    For such a supposed slacker–you have accomplished a lot!

  6. bob

    well written. enjoyed reading your blog – every bit of it. ha ha ha vishal is a dumbass.
    btw that bad ass cow is actually a bull – notice the balls it has downstairs?

  7. minnu

    it’s hard going to a country like india by yourselves..i was born here but i’ve spent most of my life back in the u.s.
    i’m back here now and living on my own. it sucks it can get very depressing. but you have to keep in mind that the people of india are pretty much left to fend for themselves. the gov does as much for them as Bush does for scientific progress. it’s changing, albeit slowly.
    there isn’t much press on these issues, b/c well, the indian gov likes to keep that underwraps, and yet maintain the influx of funding that ultimately benefits their bank accounts. mumbai generates an ungodly tax revenue, but it’s still a piece of shit to live in b/c none of it actually reaches the city. and i can personally guarantee about 75% of the rich people you meet here will be arrogant, elitist, ignorant bastards.

    there are a million better places in the world to be, but it’s home to me. i’m sorry your experience has been so negative. had you gone to the south, particularly the state of kerala, i know you would have thought differently. there is a lot of beauty in india; it is unfortunate, however, that you have to go through an unwarranted amount of superficial bullshit to get to it.

    should you ever decide to come to india again, try to make arrangements with someone from here (who’s not a complete dungbucket like vishal) i guarantee you’ll have a much easier and more pleasurable time.

  8. While, I was reading the first comment, I said to myself – now there is a documentary film maker wanting to make a film based on your experience. Though that turned out to be not the case, but I sincerely believe that your writings have just the mix of realism and fiction – worth adopting for a movie. I have been in the States for a while now and reading your post made me imagine the stray dogs, mosquitoes, litters on road – and believe me, I felt nice thinking about them all!It kind of took me on to a quick our of India. Keep writing and inspiring.

  9. cool.k.net

    Great blog.

    Your writing style is very engrossing. Ever thought about writing a book or so? Hey probably yours is the first site where even FAQ is interesting.

    And the photograph from Norway (you standing on that rock in) got me all jealous of you. He he he…

    Vishal does sound annoying but you know I can understand him. I am from India and some people around go to any extent to show (over) hospitality and be (over) caring. That is the way they are and in some communities they are expected to behave like that while entertaining a guest. You just ignore and get along. All they cost you is few calories of nodding. Sorry to read that it spoiled your experience. One thing could have made your day – Just tell the guard ‘show me a tiger in the wild and i will pay you 500 Rs’. I am sure that would have filled some enthusiasm in him and he would have gone great lenghts to spot a tiger for you.

    About littering – There are no laws yet against spitting or littering in public. Unless there are laws and enforcement the radical behavior change will not happen. But things are changing now.

    Anyway I have spent almost an hour on your site now. In 2 words “Best Experience”.

  10. DS

    Hey there! How are you?

    Well this is not the kinda hate mail that many celebrities would get from losers around the world who are plain jealous of what the celebrity could do and wat they themselves couldn’t get to do. Well you are a “celebrity”, considering the fact that the internet these days is no less a strong media than our good old idiot-box. And well, I’m not the “loser” that I talked about just now.

    The reason I decided to write this was just a single line in your post. And all that I read and saw about your trips and videos and stuff, and the inspiring image of yours that had started to grow on me in the 2 hours that I spent on your site, came crashing down.

    And the line was this: “If I had to sum up my time in India with one word, that word would be “fecal.” ”

    Yes you are right. I’m an Indian. I was born and brought up there and have spent a good 23 years out of 24 years of my life there. And a significant part of it was in Calcutta. So naturally I was drawn into reading the post that had the mention of Calcutta or rather “Kolkata”, which you think is a stupid name.

    But the point here is that I’m not complaining that you wrote that line and portrayed my country in bad light. What I want to convey is that, you need to realize that once you reach a level that you’ve reached now, intentionally, unintentionally, fortunately, unfortunately… you gotta be a little more serious about what you say. Because, you may not realize it, but people start looking up to you. They dig the things that you say, they love the things that you are are seen doing, they start relating to the stories you write, they start fascinating about visiting the places that you visit. And this is where you need to watch what you say.

    I’m a software engineer from the country that was under the imperial rule for 200 yrs!! A peaceful country that had its very life sucked out of it. And yet just 50 years after our independence, I’m educated enough to work along with some of the most elite citizens of your country. And I still give a reason to your senators to cry out and mandate laws against offshoring!!

    Being a software engineer yourself, a different kind though I guess, you must be knowing how sometimes we spend most of our time in the cubicles assigned to us, breaking our head over that stupid piece of code. And when at the day-end I come back to my home, I wonder about how beautiful some of the places on earth are. Whether I’d ever be able to let go of this job that ties me down and go out and see all those places. Something that I was born to do. And then there it is… on youtube… a crazy guy doing a kiddish dance in all the amazingly beautiful places on earth. So you think… here is this guy I can relate to. I wan’t to be like him. But since I can’t, let me see the world through his eyes. (And here’s y I’m not that loser that I talked about in the beginning!) So I start going through your site and decide to read about all the places you’ve been to. And unfortunately I started with the one where you had written about Calcutta.

    You must understand, not every place on the earth is US or Australia. And not all the people are Americans or Australians. We have so many kinds of people and millions of cultures. And I can bet my life that you know this better than me! And it is this mix that makes it all the more interesting and beautiful. And when you meet those new people, experience those new cultures, you need to look for the beauty in it and not the reason why they are not so great or civilized or rather “American-ish”.

    Believe me I don’t have anything against Americans or as a matter of fact, against anyone. But people like you definitely take away a bit of charm. I know that the WCs in the Indian railways is not that great and might lead to a “fecal” adventure. But did you know that it is surprisingly the second largest railways in the world and it provides employment to 1.54 million people who are able to send their kids to school and educate them because they have this job. Don’t believe me right? Ask google… America’s gift to internet… this… “no. of employees in indian railways” and see what it has to say… I bet that never crossed your mind!

    I’m not on a trivia spree… but do you see yet what i’m trying to say here? Bring out the good about the places, and people will love you for that… I know u don’t give a wise s*** to all that love but then it doesn’t hurt, does it, when people come up to you and say… “good job keep it up”, or ” i really like the way you write” or “it’s simply unbelievable what you’ve achieved”…

    To know about a place, to appreciate its values, culture, tradition, food, language and life… you gotta spend a little more time there than just do your cute little jig and take the next flight out available…

    Have a positive look at things… and your escapades will be merrier than ever. I know they already are but then you’d be saved from experiencing another “fecal adventure”!!

    All the best… Keep up the good work.
    And no, I’m not going to stop reading your blog. Coz that’s the nicest way I’ve found till now to explore the world!

  11. preydator

    Just a shirt note – i don’t agree with cool.k.net, because 1) Matt can not spend all his life to learn about India or any place he visits 2) shitty WC’s is not unAmerican’ish, its just an uncomfortable shitty WC’s nothing more 3) Yes India is 2nd, Russia is 1st, so what ? does it tell something about the railway ? or experience ? 4) I have spent in India about a month or more (have to underline that in the nicer places than are usual for India) and even that left me with exactly same feelings that he is writing in the blog, have to add my experience: 3 people working in a small shop, doing nothing before your visit, during it and after your visit, they are not able to give you advice, count the money, be nice and polite, or just simply look like they are doing something .. terrible and that is the way it looks everywhere, not mentioning the traffic and beggars and other and other ..

  12. Colin

    “a Hindu, a Christian, and a Krishna devotee were locked in a heated discussion”
    Sounds like the beginning of a dirty joke.

  13. Amita

    hey Matt! LOL vishal seems like an extremely nice guy(and irritating as well) 😛 wonder how anyone can cope with that. But yes people like that do exist eveywhere in the world.

    The howrah bridge–dont wory its not going down any soon. its been there for too long and its accustomed to having that many people going across everyday 😀

    Regarding the untouchable thing- yup its still there in the northern india, but I lived in Mumbai where people dont have enough time to think about their own problems–so no one cares whether his/her arm is touching an untouchable person while they are trying to hang on in the local commuter trains 😛

    You should certainly visit southern india and some tourist spots down there–its way peaceful away from the horrifying urban life…just a suggestion coz after reading all your posts about this visit, I dont think you would be interested in going back there again. but its a nice country even though it does have its own share of problems and people in western world feel disgusted when they visit india coz they live in a much better,cleaner place. Having lived in India for many years, when i came to north america for a visit, i realised how much these two cultures differ! and that is the most awesome thing that makes them unique–then forget about the problems.

    Well anyways just wanted to express my view. luv all your videos. your Dance-a-Thon rocks! enjoy and take care!

  14. some 3rd worldian.

    oh please, let’s take a fuckin break on the caste thing. are you telling us that the caste system does not exist anywhere else in the world? look around you in chicago, new york, phoenix…. would your rich white asses mingle with the inner city children? why are success stories out of the ghettoes so celebrated? why has it taken so long for the US to even consider a black president (i won’t even mention sexism, coz it doesn’t exist, right? the role of a female is a girl gone wild, and then nothingness after her 1 minute pole dance)?

    in your west, caste exists fully well, you just have your own “PC” ways of referring to it, and in exercising it.

    oh, and the dance is really stupid. really. i am appalled.

  15. some 3rd worldian.

    well, after going thru a few of the other posts… my bad, i shouldn’t have posted the comment.

    your posts are honest, like a child’s. you have the depth of a 5 year old as a writer, as a traveller. you just decided to get off your ass and make some cash since you ran out of it (and daddy wasn’t going to let you get at that trust fund so easy), and are using the hospitality and the accommodative nature of people around the world to get your cheap publicity and your gum-selling deals.

    oh, and at least run spell check if you *have* to post.

  16. Onegranolagirl

    Hi Matt,
    Normally I don’t get involved in posting and am more than willing to just allow people to be people. However, I have to say in this case I’m feeling really disappointed. I absolutely loved your video. I raved about it and sent it on to my friends and family. My comments were ‘look how inspiring one person can be when they want to be’. Unfortunately I was too curious and found your website and journal. I’m saddened by your attitude, your lack of respect in so many of your journal entries. It’s really easy to be sarcastic and crappy in the world. There’s plenty of it everywhere you look. Sad that you are so willing to perpetuate it, at the same time that you are doing something that could be completely amazing. As I said, I feel really disappointed. It would have been nice to continue believing that you were actually someone who gave a crap about the rest of the world and was trying to contribute something meaningful as I originally thought when I saw your video for the first time…still the video is inspiring and amazing.

  17. Paula C

    Matt,
    I am sure by this point you are not reading the comments..cuz you are bz! Saw you on the Today Show this week. Conrats!!
    Anyway…love the blogs, been coming to your blog everynight..I am addicted. Don’t let the negative comments get you. You’re giving your opinions and this is entertainment. You’re not running for office for christ sake.
    Thanks for this great site!
    Paula

  18. Louisa Seton

    Matt,

    Absolutely hilarious. I was in India this year and your stories took me back there. Your honesty in story telling just makes your adventures so funny. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Travel safe and keep up the entertainment!

    Louisa

  19. Again!!
    The best hotel you stayed in India… came for free??? Right???

    Through contacts… m sure if you would have spent momey… you would have complained about this hotel too!!

  20. dear matt,

    I’ve been watching your video almost on a daily basis since i thought it was so brilliant. Finally came to your site today and started reading and enjoying your journal.

    Now here’s where the experience goes a little sour. I can accept that everyone is entitled to their own opinions and that india is most certainly not the most glorious place in the world for a traveller/tourist or for that matter,the vast majority of its own poor.

    Which is why its really ok for you to say pretty much anything you want. Yes, i hate the caste system; i think its outrageous and despicable. India has much catching up to do with regards to ensuring a decent quality of life to all its citizens.

    Nonetheless, i simply cant believe that the one line you said that would remind you of your time in india was ‘fecal adventure’.Are you serious?? I can not begin to tell you how deeply offensive that is.

    There is value to ‘calling it as one sees it’,but thats presuming you actually understand what your talking about; and im afraid that you have failed to understand india for the most part.One hopes that your future judgements are not as frivolously arrived at as yours seem to have been so far.

    I will gladly take anything that i have said back if you would take the time/effort to prove me wrong.

    regards,
    arjun

  21. Decided to make sure i read through all of your india related posts,thinking that i’d perhaps been unnecessarily harsh.

    I guess not.

    “To review: Shit is for flushing, cows are for eating, left hands are for anything but wiping your ass, and widows are for not setting on fire.”

  22. Manish

    Hi Matt,

    Got introduced to your site through another mailing list today. Being an Indian, first checked out first comment (Calcutta) about India. Interesting!

    Just one comment about your experience with Vishal and kids that you attributed to caste system. Two comments.

    – It is possible that it could very well be due to caste system. Being in US you can appreciate that deeply rooted behaviors and prejudices take long time to change. If it were not for socially required political correctness and legally enforcable laws, you may have to wonder behavior towards African-Americans (or other non-white people) in Southern States of America.

    – Second possibility is from slightly different angle. What would be your response if the foreign guests to your place in Washington, Seattle started doing street dance with (in American slang) “dirty hobos”? You may not encounter that possibility because in US (like most other things) these are compartmentalized and if you don’t want to, you don’t have to deal with them or even encounter them by avoiding specific parts of town. That’s not the case in India. It is there, it is right there, it is in your face there and you have deal with it. That’s how Vishal and others chose to deal with it …

    As I read more posts, will share more comments. I don’t care if you think I am another Vishal :)

  23. SunnyD

    First of all, I love your videos and how you travel around the world! It’s inspiring and I really am quite jealous of this great opportunity that you have.

    Even though this blog/entry may come off as insulting to some people, it kind of made me want to travel to India. I’m not Inidan or have ever been, but it sounds like a really off-beat,cool, cultral place to visit. (Even though your portrayal of India was more negative than positive.)

    The Untouchable thing was really interesting also.

  24. Hey, Matt.

    The building you call abandoned and old is only one of the two actually. Its a building that has survived for almost more than 200 odd years from the British era thus is old however at present (and for sometime) it also houses the Life Insurance Co. of India office, in fact it is called the LIC building too.

    Also, I think you should have shot Vishal dead at night or something.

  25. AP

    Hey Matt,

    I really like your blogs and the dancing! But I would appreciate it if you would spell “Gandhi” correctly. Its just a pet peeve.

  26. shivani

    its nice to have some not just talk about only the “incredible” part of India . sorry about you going through such a time in Calcutta !
    don’t mind the people who have ardently supported the third world characteristics of India !
    but there are some beautiful places here too Matt. like the person said in one of the above comments , Kerala is beautiful and yeah go through the right people you will enjoy your stay :) .
    caste issues.. well. we have f**k ups everywhere . we being the present genereation dont give a damn about classes.
    nice read by the way ! thank you.

  27. Kim

    LOL!!! This was the best blog thus far!! It’s 12:13 AM central time in the States (Texas) and here I am still glued to my monitor, knowing it’s an hour beyond my bedtime, but ever since 10:50 PM, I’ve been enjoying everything I’ve read! I love your sense of humor! LOL!

  28. Another interesting and insightful post Matt… how come you get so much into detail…quite comprehensive read..

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