Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Streets of Kolkata

Where to begin?

The main reason I haven't written in ages was because of Vipasanna. This was a 10 day meditation course I took in Chennai (you can do them anywhere in the world, but the practice originated in India).

After 10 days of silence you'd think I'd be bubbling over with things to say, but it was such an extraordinary and personal experience that I'm not sure any words I write would really convey the experience very well. I can say it was one of the hardest things Ive ever done (test yourself and try to keep quiet for 10 minutes, never mind 10 days!). But it was also really rewarding, I'm so pleased I actually made it through till the end (not everyone did).

I thoroughly enjoyed meditating, though 10 hours a day (ya, that works out to over 100 hours!) was a little excessive in my opinion. So many times during the day I had to force myself NOT to walk out and head back to reality. I will give a little taste of what my days consisted of though, brace yourself:


4:00 wake up
4:30 - 6:30 meditation
6:30 breakfast
8:00-11:00 meditation
11:00 lunch
1:00 - 5:00 meditation
5:00 dinner
6:00 - 7:00 meditation
7:00 - 8:30 teachings
8:30 - 9:00 meditation
9:30 lights out

It was tough stuff. And the weather was insanely hot, hitting 40 degrees everyday. Try sitting perfectly still through that. But what an experience. When I get home I'd love to bore anyone with details of it, but I just don't think blogging about it would do much justice.

Here is the website for anyone interested in reading up on it:

So, saying is a bit of life AFTER Vipasanna.

The day we got out (sounds like I was in prison), my roommate Katie and I chugged around Chennai and managed to suss out a really posh restaurant, full of expats, antique furnishings, a picturesque garden, and a mouth watering menu. One of the main teachings of Vipasanna; the art of living, is to resist craving. So as rebellious students we ordered a really nice lunch complemented by 2 heavily coated chocolate laced desserts! Ooops.

Chennai is supposed to be a not-so-pleasant place to visit so I timed it to fly out of Chennai the day I finished Vipasanna. After the day with Katie I headed to the airport and made my way to Calcutta (now spelled Kolkata). As a rule of thumb, I pretty much never book ahead when I travel. I enjoy the challenge of sussing a place out when I get there. Also, with budget accommodation especially, its easier to choose after seeing a room, rather than reading about it. Its almost always fool proof, but Calcutta proved me completely and utterly wrong. What an entrance to that city I had!

I knew Calcutta was supposed to be a poor city but NOTHING prepared me for what I saw when I arrived. I hopped in a taxi, my flight was a late one already, plus it was delayed, so it wasn't until probably after midnight that I rolled into the city. I had a rough idea of where I wanted to go, where there was a cluster of hotels and guest houses. I picked one and showed it to the driver, who typically didn't speak much English. Getting into the heart of the city, it was as quiet as a ghost town but there were bodies everywhere. Crooked, misshaped, small ones, big ones, old ones and so many young ones, there were bodies sleeping on mats, on newspapers or just flat out on the concrete, or perched on store ledges. I think I was plummeted so quickly from the serenity of Vipasanna, to the harsh and real world of such poverty and it took me by such storm. I couldn't even comprehend it and just sat in the taxi with tears welling up in my eyes.

Then to make it all worse, the taxi driver got frazzled with me cause he couldn't find where I wanted to go and he kept trying to make me get out of the car. Turn after turn and all the streets looked the same and eventually I got out at a hotel that once I gathered all my bags I realized was locked and closed up. The cab had peeled off instantly and I can honestly say I was scared shitless. I had no idea what to do or who to turn to. Almost instantly, out of nowhere, a man came and offered me a hotel if I followed him. Normally this would seem dodgy, but I had no alternative and blindly followed him. He took me to Hotel Paradise (which more aptly should have been called Hotel Parasite), but I welcomed it with open arms and shacked up there.

The next day, Calcutta was not so bad. I think my imagination and my emotions got the best of me. There are homeless people EVERYWHERE, but so many are friendly and just part of the city. There is one family that I keep stopping to chat with. The mother is lovely and has not once asked me for anything but a chat. I had 2 juice boxes with me and gave one to her daughter, no more than 2 yrs old and now every time I pass her, strutting in her underwear and nothing else, she calls me "juice, juice!", waving and grinning from ear to ear! Too sweet.

I am only here for a few days. I went to Mother Teresa's Mission, and after seeing the sick and impoverished here, I have so much more respect for that woman. She did miraculous things. Her tomb is here, set up in the middle of a modest chapel in the mission. I sat there for a few minutes with no one around except a few quiet nuns. It was amazing and yet surprising it wasn't a little more....hmmm, monumental?

Calcutta was a very short stop but it definitely impacted me. I think the mountains will be a welcome change from the sweltering 40 degree heat and overpopulation. I welcome the change of scene, AND TEMPERATURE!

1 comment:

Travelling Chick said...

wow fascinating experience Alex - would love to someday hear in person about the retreat ... I've started to incorporate mediation into my days but we're talking 30 min .. not 8 hours!! wow..I'm sure it would have invoked just powerfully spiritual feelings ...

also interesting observations about Calcutta .. certainly a place you have to experience yourself I believe..

take care and safe travels xx