Bangladesh to Kolkata
Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
69Trip End Ongoing
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Our journey out of Bangladesh into India was an interesting one. Despite the hotel guys insisting that we take a car and driver as far as the border, we set off for a journey that would involve numerous cycle rickshaws (which by now we are learning to fold ourselves into), as well as 2 local trains (of the hard-seat-sardine-can variety). The first train to the border isn't too packed and entertainment is provided by the hawkers trying to sell us backpacker essentials like feather dusters and steel wool.
Most disconcerting are the persistent begging cripples, blind-men and children who continually touch your feet and arms. There has been no end to the begging on the streets and public transport in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Even if you gave to 100 people per day you would still feel intense guilt for not giving to the rest of the never-ending stream. For 4 years we have supported a young girl as well as her community in North India throught the World Vision program. It's a small gesture, but doesn't ease the feeling that you are cold hearted when you turn away from reaching hands and desperate faces. Could you ever do enough to ignore the plight of each suffering individual?
Our train journey ends rather bizarrely with an animated man in Muslim dress accosting Tim, holding his hands and pressing his forehead against Tim's while rapidly reciting (we assume) verses from the Koran. He then proceeds to blow/half spit in Tim's face 3 times (no saliva involved thankfully). Tim thinks it may have been some kind of purification right for us western infidels. I was graced with only one spit from the smiling (or perhaps mad) gentleman before he disappears. After a short rickshaw ride we're queuing at the Bangladesh exit desk. A small hic up when we're told that we must obtain a 'Traveler's tax voucher' before we can leave the country. There are numerous passport checks before we are released into no-mans land. One officer takes what he thinks are passport numbers from my Chinese visa before we set him straight!
Despite the Kangaroo and Emu Logo and the words AUSTRALIA emblazoned across our passports we seem to be dogged at every official step with the quizzical question 'you are Australian?'. They look at my passport (including photo) and then look up at Tim (instead of me) and quizzically say 'Kar-en?' maybe I have metamorphosed into a man, its really quite offensive, but equally amusing. Another feature of border officialdom are the annoying hangers-on and opportunists that somehow invade the customs and immigration areas. You have to dodge the irritating teenage boys that like to point out the blatantly obvious in hope of a small fee, but worse are the money changers who feel its their role to make corrections on the forms you have filled out while asking you if you need any Indian Rupees. They have the gaul to reach over the officials desk for our passports so they can have a leisurely perusal! Why these hangers on are allowed in the official areas is part of the subcontinetal mystery.
Our re-entry into India was particularly amusing. Our passports were just about processed by one official when another arrives on the scene with an air of importance. He demands the passports and forms back and spends the next 10 minutes meticulously correcting our hand writing (z's must have a line through them!). We're quite irritated by this stage and are relieved to cram ourselves and bags into yet another cycle rickshaw and get away from the idiotic procedures. Half an hour later we still appear to be no where near the railway station, and as the pins and needles escalate it starts raining torrentially. The rickshaw wallah stops and bustles us into a covered alley between 2 kiosks to shelter with some locals, who find us quite amusing. Finally we make the train and it's soon rammed with humanity pressed into the unrelenting hard seats. Somehow the hawkers manage to ply their wares amongst the masses. One guy even delivers a loud and lengthy fruit juicing demonstration whilst propped up between the mess of passengers. It's hot and uncomfortable with elbows pressing into your rips and a distinct lack of oxygen, despite the lack of doors (presumably so more passengers can cling to the outside of the train). With much relief we arrive in Kolkata.
Kolkata is a tourist paradise after Bangladesh - well there are other tourists here anyway! Finding something to eat doesn't involve a major expedition and there is a much bigger choice of accommodation. However we don't choose to well and spend our first night in an absolute hovel. Next day we find a huge room in an old rambling building and can finally relax for a while.
Although I wasn't feeling so great the day we crossed the border back into India, I got progressively worse in Kolkata. We did none of the usual sight seeing on the first few days in the city as I just wasn't up to it. On our 3rd night in Kolkata things got more serious when I started (overt your eyes if you're squeamish) experiencing abdominal pain and passing blood. Completely freaked out, we called the useless-from-the-start insurance company who, rather absurdly, gave us the address of a hospital in Delhi, around 1500km away. It was getting very late in the evening by now and Tim decided to attempt to book a flight out of India the next morning. No luck there either. Our answer was found (in between torturous trips to the toilet in which I felt my insides were abandoning me) in an old Rough Guide we had picked up in an internet cafe that gave the address of a medical service that deals with ill foreigners (http://www.armsindia.com). But the answer wasn't so simple....
Around midnight we jumped into an old Kolkatan taxi (locally known as Hindustan Limos) to find the medical service, which is listed as 24 hours. However, after having finally found the address, the building is locked up and dark. A random taxi driver, noting our need for medical help, gesticulates wildly, indicating that we should try around the corner. Indeed, there is a medical centre around the corner and, hallelujah, it's open! Actually, not hallelujah. As soon as we walk in I have the overwhelming urge to run away. There are at least 6 men asleep on the dirty floor in the waiting area and for some unknown reason a small crowd of men around the reception desk. They begrudgingly make way for me and we wait impatiently while the receptionist finishes his lengthy phone call. 'Yes?' he says as he puts down the phone, as if there might be a range of reasons why two Westerners are standing in a medical centre in the wee hours of the morning. 'Umm, we'd like to see a doctor'. Finally, a doctor is woken and we're presented with a small disorientated and disheveled looking man whose English skills are minimal. He leads us into a small grubby room where he asks what is wrong. When I tell him that I've had diarrhea on and off for 3 months he responds in incredulity 'You've had diarrhea for 3 months?!'. When I tell him that I'm passing rather large amounts of blood, there is a period of silence (filled appropriately by the sound of crickets), he blinks a few times and asks if there are any other symptoms and almost as an afterthought asks to look at my tongue. I turn to Tim and in one desperate look convey the fact that it is time to make a speedy retreat from this situation. It is at this point that we stand up and flee from the consultation room, mumbling something to the baffled doctor (if indeed he is a doctor). Luckily a dilapidated ambulance pulls in and creates a distraction as we make our hasty escape into the dark street.
Desperate by now, we decide to try and call the original medical service. There are no phone boxes in India, instead calls are made from small kiosks, all of which are long closed. It seems as if we suddenly became magnets for all life in the shadowy back streets of Kolkata - beggars grabbing our arms, seedy characters offering hash, taxis following us at a crawl, rickshaw men loudly spruiking for business. It felt as if we were in hell. We try 4 taxis before one of the drivers understands 'Sudder St' - the area where our hotel is. Back in a more touristed area, we manage to find a phone and are finally given the mobile number of the doctor for the medical service. He tells us that it he can see us in the morning, and that we should call if my condition worsens during the night.
Next morning we go straight to the doctor's surgery, but the comedy of errors continues - he is expecting us at his other surgery. The receptionist puts us into yet another taxi and off we head into the unknown streets of greater Kolkata. Finally we find ourselves in Doctor Singh's clean and professional consultation room. After thoroughly questioning me and taking my vitals he informs us that he will need to do a number of tests to investigate further. His assistant is deployed to take care of the useless-from-the-start insurance company. Suddenly, everything is out of our control. An hour or so later I'm admitted to Belle Vue Hospital in Central Kolkata. The nurses look Victorian in their white dresses and tall, well-starched hats and the Matron is positively stern. Ominously, she relieves me of my passport (presumably so I can't escape without paying the bill). I fill out the necessary paperwork and I'm taken to a room on the fourth floor. The room is fairly typical of a hospital - more luxurious than our usual accommodation though. I have a TV, air con and my own ensuite bathroom (which actually produces hot water at certain times of the day). It has a view over the small hospital lake and grounds and the pulsing roads and polluted sky beyond. Although I'm glad to finally have medical help, the prospect of a couple of days in hospital doesn't sit well. My disquiet is soon confirmed when the relentless poking, prodding and probing begins. The comings and goings of hospital staff from my room is relentless - one person to take my vitals, one person to give me the red tablets, another to give me the white ones, one to take my blood, another to give me injections, one to bring tea, another to bring lunch, one to dust, another to empty the rubbish, one to sweep, one to mop. My request for toilet paper takes a good 24 hours to trickle down the chain of command. The mind boggles! As ever in India, there is a job for everyone here and everyone sticks to their one specific job. Each little micro-job combines to create a complete and utter lack of coordination!
I'm duly informed that I will be having a colonoscopy the following morning, but the biopsy results won't be available for about a week. I'm still convinced that they'll let me go after the dreaded 'investigation' (I'm trying hard not to think about the details because 'camera' and 'bowel' are two words that should never be paired). The imbalance between the level of communication with the nurses and the amount of pharmaceuticals they pump into me widens. A canulla is put into my arm for injections. The preparation for the colonoscopy provokes a dramatic response. I begin to make notes of the cocktail of substances being fired into my body (yes, slightly insane, but I need something to focus on). Meanwhile, there's been no response from the insurance company and we begin to wonder how much all of this will actually cost...
We soon discover that the nurses don't believe in the healing power of sleep - the injecting, pill-popping, vital-taking regime starts promptly at 5.30am and then I'm unceremoniously kicked out of bed so the still-clean-and-starchy sheets can be changed. The nurses rarely come in alone and often there's a gaggle of them around my bed, bubbling with giggly curiosity. They gossip (clearly about me) in Bangla, occasionally stopping so whoever has the best English can ask me some questions and provoke a whole new topic for discussion. I feel like a captive, trapped on my trolley bed under the fluoro lights with five sets of inquisitive eyes on me. I maintain a rather grim smile by gritting my teeth and reserve my eye rolling for when my room empties out. Later, when my patience abandons me, the eye rolling evolves into the more cathartic banging of my head against the wall - gently, of course.
The colonoscopy isn't at all what I envisaged. Rather than being wheeled somewhere in an unflattering gown, I walk down a couple of levels and have to wait in a busy waiting room. Of course everyone gives up waiting and is soon occupied with staring at the Westerner. After some time a man in a long apron and gloves, resembling a butcher, wanders out into the waiting room. While I'm contemplating his fairly disturbing appearance and wondering which poor blighter he has come to collect, he beckons to me. What follows can only be described as undignified. I'm given an injection beforehand which make me very fuzzy and have no idea what the doctor reports to me after the procedure. To top it all off, rather than being returned to my room, I'm led back into the waiting room. I'm so groggy I can hardly sit up. The staring takes on a whole new dimension. Dr Singh comes later to report on the results, which appear to show I have an Inflammatory Bowel Disease called Ulcerative Colitis. However, he can't be sure until the biopsy results are received and I must stay in hospital till then. To my horror my optimistic vision of a quick stay in hospital dissolves.
The next week passes in a blur of boredom and routine. Blood test... shot... medication... sample... blood pressure... temperature... pulse... doctor visits ... over and over and over... It's amazing how quickly you become institutionalized. The monotony of the same bland, cold dishes for every meal is unbearable. Tim comes to visit everyday and brings me 3 newspapers to keep me amused. I read them cover to cover and do all the crosswords and puzzles. I follow some baffling Indian style news stories. India's desire for spectacle really is insatiable. Minor incidents and issues quickly metamorphose into major and often violent dramas: traffic accidents that provoke raging mobs to punish the offending driver (and often than not, the passengers of the offending car also); the many deaths that result from violent disagreements after cricket games (4 in Kolkata alone in a month); the man seeking a divorce from his wife because he wants her to wear a traditional sari instead of the traditional salwar kameez; the paediatric surgeon who took a bribe of a fish (!) to perform a speedy operation (and was found out when he left the fish in a medicine fridge in the hospital). The desire for spectacle and drama is rife - it's the national sport second only to cricket and the country seems to thrive on it. The theory is to gather in large groups (relatively easy in India), wait for something minor to happen, watch the event or incident with an unparalleled intensity and then, en masse, become enraged about what has occurred.
The only time I escape the ward is to go to the convenience store across the street, or to visit the hospital grounds. Amazingly, the grounds are closed between 10am and 3pm, but the rest of the time are open to the general public. Women come to walk in their saris and chunky trainers and young men gaze into each other's eyes, their hand delicately draped across each others shoulders and laps (as they do here in India). It's not really very peaceful as a there are major roads on three sides producing a chorus of honking horns. I wouldn't go into the grounds if I wasn't desperate for a walk, for the level of staring as you walk around the small lake is disconcerting. In Western culture it's socially unacceptable to stare and you tend feel embarrassed if you're caught looking at someone too intently. In the West intent 'starers' tend to be small children or the clinically insane. Not so in India where you cannot detract a stare with a glare - it has no effect. In fact, as a woman, a challenging stare seems to invite more attention and unwanted gazing. Consequently, I walk around the circuit at a furious pace, trying to calm my rage at the very public exposure. I am incredulous when, by the 8th time around, the same people are still craning their necks as I pass. I really could be wearing a chicken suit and carrying a Kalashnikov and it wouldn't make a difference!
My irritations increase with my ongoing incarceration. Tim has to engage in lengthy bartering battles with taxi drivers on a daily basis to get to and from the hospital. We have ongoing issues with the irritating hospital security guards who seem particularly partial to bossing around Westerners, not letting us up the stairs and through gates and instead making us take a longer route for no apparent reason. The system of making a call from the hospital is so complex that eventually I give up and make calls from the street. The increasingly useless insurance company hasn't quite mastered the art of communication and doesn't seem to get moving until I start harassing them, but even then things happen at a crawl. Most of the consultants are completely unsympathetic and it feels as if you're constantly under suspicion of trying to rip them off (of course everyone wants to be admitted to hospital in Kolkata). I do some yoga in my room, hoping to invoke some calm. One of the nurses comes in during my stretches and my strange behaviour is soon reported to the rest of her colleagues. Yoga isn't such a strange practice here in India, but it seems everything a foreigner does is alien!
Finally the biopsy results come through and the diagnosis is confirmed as Ulcerative Colitis. The doctor recommends to the insurance company that we are repatriated with a nurse escorting. It is another seemingly endless wait before the insurance company comes through with confirmation of this arrangement and finally a flight is booked. Tim stays the last evening with me in the hospital as we're up at 3.45am to head to the airport. We have to pay a small bill (the rest being covered by the insurance company) before the matron finally gives me back my passport. The escorting male nurse (from Singapore) arrives bright and early and we finally leave the hospital once and for all after a terrible night's sleep. Freedom after 9 very unpleasant days! Unfortunately our flight isn't direct and we have to take a domestic flight to Mumbai and catch our International flight from there. To my horror at each airport the nurse insists that I'm moved around in a wheel chair. It means we go to the front of every queue, but I'm not sure this makes up for the level of humiliation I experience. Instead of letting me get on the bus to reach the plane at Kolkata airport, it is deemed safer for the wheelchair wallah to push me across the bus lanes outside the terminal (through thick fumes) and across the tarmac to the plane! Safety certainly isn't first at Indian airports. We spot some airport workers in Mumbai using an aeroplane exit tunnel to pick mangoes from a tree at the edge of the runway! We have access to the executive lounge at Mumbai during which I'm allowed to get out of my wheelchair (Tim found this all very amusing). I get my revenge on the international flight. It's a brand new 777 Boeing and I'm seated in a business class 'pod' (complete with bed) while Tim is on the other side of the curtain in economy cursing his bad luck. The nurse has it pretty easy - he takes my blood pressure once and asks me how I'm doing now and then. And so we make our sad and sorry early departure from India...