There are two questions I am most asked about travelling the world. The first is, “What was our favourite place?” This is by far the harder of the two. There is so many wonderful places and so many moving times to be had when travelling that cutting them down to just one place is impossible. Cutting them down to one country is just as hard, but on the other hand rattling off a list of the worlds top destinations tends to only make one sound like you are boasting. So, I try to match the place to the audience. Outdoors types focussed, or less generously ‘mired’, in Western thinking get “New Zealand”. People of martial bent, or interested in the East, get “China” or perhaps, “Bodh Gaya” (which is coming in the very next article!). The second question I am most asked is the opposite of the first, “What is your least favourite place?” That one is easy:

Kolkata (Calcutta).

Let me tell you why…

We arrived in the city airport quite early in the afternoon and fought our way out. Crowds of touts gathered to feed off the tourists and we were forced to wave away hordes of tuk tuk drivers all bent on our business, but quoting massively over the top prices for trips into the city and profaning our lack of understanding in this area together with the risks to the traveller of a “bad” driver. I was forced to listen to semi-threatening diatribes regarding our choice of hotel (not that we had yet mentioned it) and how their “cousin” runs the only clean hotel in the whole city, nay even the country. Eventually we bargained our way into an actual taxi and it lurched of into darkening day towards the city proper.

The journey was quite a picture.

I remember at one point that we passed a man urinating into a river a few meters from the car window. My head tracked to follow in amazement and Cesca was pulling a face when, not 10 meters south of the urinater, sat another man fishing from the same “waters”.

“Yuk!” said Cesca.

“Considering that scum is on the surface of that water, and that urine is sterile, he is probably adding cleanliness to it!” I exclaimed in response.

We passed on.

Not a few minutes later we passed a rubbish dump of prodigious size. Huge mounds of compacted waste towered over us. Cesca gasped as she looked closer.

“There are people living in it” she said.

And there was. Carved out of the compact were cave like house dwellings. Lights flickered from hollowed out windows. The stench must have been awful. Inside were people, literally living in the rubbish. My mind was shocked and we swept on.

Not and OC image

A Kolkata Slum

Our hotel was quite near the centre of the city, but you wouldn’t know it. The entire road had been dug up and demolished and then just left, like someone had just bombed the street, and the taxi pulled up and bade us to walk the rest of the way. We did and eventually made it to our hotel.

Now, I am not the sort of person who gets all high and mighty about the condition of hotels. I don’t get a sick fascination regarding describing the loath found in these places, or bemoaning the service levels. I don’t read the Daily Mail. On the other hand, while the gentile folk of this hotel tried hard to provide service that left a smile on our face, this hotel was a real shit hole of epic proportions. I woke in the morning wondering how we may leave this place as soon as possible. We had one mission to perform first, we must pick up my camcorder sent to be repaired in England from Vietnam and being delivered down town.

We ventured out for something to eat for breakfast. Picking our way across the bombed out street we passed many street vendors selling hot food to awaiting crowds. Normally I am a strong proponent of street food, but these lads we infested with flies so we walked on. After the “food” stalls we came across three people sitting on the side of the pathway sharing a heroin needle. I remember being very alert as we passed by them not two feet away. I couldn’t help but think about the crap in that needle and the AIDS that probably came along for the ride, and how its owner could easily try and stab it into me. My warning radar buzzed and blood rushed into my hands. Of course, these gentlemen had no intention of wasting their morning injection on us and we walked on by. Next we came to the post office, and Cesca had a large bag of items she wanted to post home. Outside a smart looking man approached us and offered us his packaging service, which we politely refused.

The Box Maker

He gave me a look which said, “see you in 5 minutes” and started on the next guy. The post office was similar to all Indian post offices in that it was complete mayhem with no signs to assist. We did what we always did and hung about for a few minutes to work the place out. We queued and when arriving at the front were told about the regulations regarding international post. Basically, there is an official method of wrapping that all parcels must be presented in. Not only that, but the post office would not do it for you.

“What should I do?” asked Cesca

“Go outside, man out there.”

So wandering back outside we returned to the packaging man in the street and bartered for our parcel to be wrapped. First, the man’s assistant assembled us a box from spare bits of discarded cardboard. Then he expertly reinforced the corners. We put our items in and then the man wrapped the entire thing in muslin and started to glue the corners with wax.

Box being sewnCesca writes the address

It was then that I received a tap on my shoulder.

It was a female beggar about mid forties, dressed in colourful clothing and with many rings. She looked like a Gipsy more than a poor person. She trust out her left hand under my nose and tapped her right hand index finger in the palm.

“No thanks,” I said and turned back.

She grabbed my arm and loudly demanded something that sounded complex in her language, I presumed money. Now I am no stranger to begging, but this was definitely the most aggressive begging I had ever encountered. I looked her in the eyes and they flashed anger and aggression. I turned to our box cutter and said to him,

“What does she want?”

He shrugged, “money?” he offered. He spoke to her a few words and she rattled something aggressive off. “Money,” he confirmed to me and then he himself reached into his pocket and paid some coins to the women with a sigh.

I looked at her and shook my head. She snapped her finger in frustration and seemed to curse me. Then she moved around to Cesca who waved her away irritated. She persisted and tried to grab Cesca who took offense to how close she was coming.

“Can you tell her,” Cesca said to the box cutter, “that in our country it is considered very rude to get into someone’s personal space and demand money.”

The man complied and the women’s eyes went even wider, she lashed out her hand at Cesca’s  face and spread her fingers centimetres from her eyes, saying in the universal language of the body, “what are you going to do about it? I can do what I like!” It was extremely threatening. Too much.

Something inside me snapped to attention and I reacted. With a loud shout I stepped in front of Cesca and shoved the women hard. She was flung backwards and lost her balance, tripping and falling over herself onto her behind. My eyes didn’t leave her face as she stood back up. I could see her weighing up her options. She wanted to fly at me in a rage, but something in my body language was stopping her. This is the martial arts technique called, “The Invisible Fence”. She shouted at me instead, but stopped when I thrust out my hand and flicked it away and said in my firmest voice,

“Move on!”

She did, screaming insults as she walked away, our eyes remained locked until the crowd enveloped her. The box man then just shrugged and finished our box off. We gratefully paid him, posted the box and went on for food. Amazingly at the very end of then street lay an intersection with another street that was a total contrast. It had neaty shops and even western-style coffee shops. We entered one and sat down.

“You know,” began Cesca, “You didn’t have to get that aggressive with that women.”

“Yes I did.”

“You didn’t have to shove her like that.”

“Yes. I. Did. Let me explain,” I began.

Why is a martial artist capable of defending himself? Is it just technique? No it is something else. Something in the will.

There is an old saying, “Dogs don’t know kung fu”. What it means is anyone can fight and no one should be underestimated. No one. You can die on the knife of a teenager as easily as on the knife of a skinhead. You must be awake to the situation.The problem is one of social conditioning; you are conditioned to be a good person, a rational, reasonable and gentile person. A person who would never commit violence unless it was as a last resort. Unfortunately, this leads to a special kind of blindness. The social contract is based on the assumption that everyone else thinks as you do. And, in general, it works. It is the specific times you need to be careful of and so this blindness manifests itself in a very unique way: You simply refuse to believe that you are under attack. You always extend the benefit of the doubt to the other person and think you can talk your way out of it. You pass right by the “last resort” without realising it.

This had been perhaps the best example I had ever encountered of this point. This women had attacked Cesca, have no doubt of this. Is Cesca to wait until she loses an eye before doing anything? Moreover, the women had been given every possible opportunity to leave us alone, but persisted. She thought us weak and feeble westerners. She clearly hated the sight of us and our bright Western clothes.

Was I wrong in this assumption?

How could I know? We didn’t speak the same language. Do people really have to be reliant on words? Words are essentially rational but, as often noticed, actions speak louder and to the quick. This women had spoken all right and so I spoke back in the same voice. We are not helpless worms I said. We are people; good people. Treat us with respect and we will return it a million fold. Treat us with violence and you will have to deal with the undisputable and salient fact: Basho is awakened.

If Cesca was trained in the same way, I would have let her deal with it. But, in all honesty, I like Cesca just like she is. I am the one who has seen the darker side of life – I would avoid Cesca having to see or think like that. We are a team and in any great team each member thinks differently.

I think Cesca understood, but I realised immediately that she didn’t like this “cold reality”. I reminded myself to always try and give her the benefit of the doubt as her instincts are very acute in most respects. I will just pay attention to the “last resort” and mark its passing with action.

Imagine, all this before breakfast!

I would like to tell you that Calcutta got better, but I can’t. We spent the rest of the day being seriously ripped off collecting my camcorder (a long and painful tale I will avoid telling), and again spent the night in the hotel of nightmares. The next day I was determined to leave the city and we ventured to get a tourist train ticket out of there.

The tuk tuk up to the ticket office (a good 20 minutes away) took us through the better parts of Calcutta. Well, if you like massive British Raj parks and buildings stretching to the horizon. I am, like most Londoners, a fan of Victorian buildings, but here they sat so heavily on the city, so aloof and uncaring. They were the expression of cultural power. Of the elite. For a brief and horrifying moment I knew how the French peasants felt when the saw Versailles. I was again amazed when I considered the strength Indian People like Ghandi must have possessed to realise that these enormous monuments to the British empire were actually dying, passing from history. That the filth around him and the people living in it had just as great a destiny to take up and were themselves more permanent.

The train ticket office was packed, but as usual, the saving grace was the “tourist booth”. As long as you had some idea which train you wanted, and easy task with the LP to hand, you could take advantage of the travellers only tickets. The Indian government is to be congratulated for this, and I wish we had the same thing for visitors back home. We left with tickets out of the city for that very same night. Happy for just a moment we walked up the street to see the park visible through the throng of people, tuk tuks and food stalls.

It was turning that corner that I saw the worst thing I saw on all my travels.

She was laying in the middle of the grand path like she had collapsed there, not begging just collapsed. She was naked apart from her only possession, which was the tatty remains of a ripped rough hessian sack. She was dark skinned, covered in crime and sticky with dust. Her black hair was matted into a shuttlecock tangle. Her face was contorted into a grimace and she murmured to herself insanely. People were not even noticing her. At the very moment I spoke to her a couple of brightly dressed Indian people, talking into mobile phones, were stepping over her like she was a simply crack in a paving stone.

I must admit I almost cried it was so awful.

“How can…” I began and then stopped; lost for words. I stood and stared for a good twenty seconds. What could I do? She was clearly insane or mad. I couldn’t rush to her aid, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I tried to think of someone to tell, someone who would care. I realised, to my horror, that this poor women was helpless. whatever fate led her to this – it was beyond my fixing.

Cesca tugged my arm and pulled us away. We remained the only two people in the many who passed who even visibly noticed this women. The rest appeared to have a blank spot*.

I remember thinking to the Buddha’s reaction when he saw such wretchedness for the first time. I wished I could have had his strength to devote the rest of his life to answering the question posed by such revelations.

Used with permission

This is not she, but an example from Flickr of what I mean

Cesca and I walked all the way back to the hotel and tried to enjoy Calcutta, but in all honesty it was too late. That night, we waited in the train station surrounded by sleeping groups of people.

Calcutta Station

Our overnight train eventually arrived and with an extremely grateful sigh we left the black hole that is Calcutta. Having been taken so low by its grime, crime and poverty I felt like my soul had been scoured clean of Western conceptions. In a strange way, this was to become a right-of-passage. Calcutta had posed the question and we were to visit the place where one man worked out the answer.

Was it to become my answer too?

We sat in the trains booth and I setup my camcorder. The video was back, and India was about to give up its most special sights and jewels. Starting with Bodh Gaya; the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment.



[box type=”info”]*Now, since that day I have had someone claim I was merely seeing a certain type of Hindu extreme ascetic (such as the cannibalistic Aghori). I pointed out to that person that they were not there and I can assure you that in my travels I met such extreme ascetic people in Mumbai, Varanasi, Bodh Ghaya and all over India. I have visited umpteen Hindu and Jain temples, and this women was not one of them.[/box]