Friday, November 22:
Our last Kathmandu morning;
Our first Calcutta evening

At 8am, Susanne was well enough to join me for breakfast downstairs. I took this as a very positive sign. The Tibetan woman at the restaurant was very pleased to see Susanne up and around. Susanne thanked her for all of her help. As we ate we talked about sending her something from America as a thank you present - she certainly deserved it.

After breakfast, we began our last mad dash shopping spree in Thamel. Susanne had seen a sweater she liked and she wanted to go back and buy it. I desperately needed some t-shirts for my family. We went back and forth between all of the major t-shirt shops on Thamel's main drag. It was obvious there was some collusion going on between the shops, because every shirt carried the same price from store to store, and bargaining was next to impossible. I eventually bought three shirts for my brother and parents, as well as one for myself. Susanne got that sweater she had liked - it fit perfectly. I also grabbed a nice long wool scarf in the sweater shop - at three dollars, a good deal, I thought.

At our final stop, Susanne had her eye on a beautiful leather shirt and a vest for her mom. The Kashmiri shopowner drove a hard bargain, but he eventually settled with her for a reasonable deal. There was a bit of confusion over the exchange rate, but that only delayed us for a few minutes. Back at the hotel, we packed up our bags. The backpacks appeared as though they were about to burst, thanks to our free spending. But I was pretty sure that by this point we had purchased as much as we had planned to for the entire trip, so our lack of any more room in our bags was of little consequence. My only problem was that Kashmiri papier mache plate - it wasn't safe for packing, so I'd have to carry it by hand for the next week. Ah well - vita brevis, ars longa...

We said our goodbyes to our friends at the hotel restaurant and left for the airport around noon. When we reached the terminal, though, I realized that our flight was scheduled at 3:40, not 2:40. This gave us an extra hour to kill at the overpriced airport lounge. Eventually, though, we checked in and went through the efficient immigration process. This left us in the departure lounge for a couple of hours. I was concerned that our flight wasn't listed on the departure monitors, but the airport staff assured me that there was indeed a flight to Calcutta, and that it would be listed as soon as the flight arrived at the airport. So it was running late, and there was nothing I could do except relax, watch CNN and write in my journal. Our plane arrived at 4pm and our new departure time was set for 5pm. I didn't like the thought of arriving in Calcutta so late in the evening - our reservations at the Fairlawn Hotel had been for the day before (it was screwed up because of that cancelled flight) and we were unable to call from Nepal, so we'd have to keep our fingers crossed.

As we taxied along the tarmac, we caught a spectacular view of Bodnath stupa with Ganesh Himal soaring in the background. The sun was setting so it was particularly enchanting. I was also quite glad to see Bodnath one last time, especially as my last view of Kathmandu on the ground. We had wanted to go back to the stupa one last time before we left, but Susanne's illness prevented us from making it back. Seeing it was we coursed the runway was a special moment.

But our wonderful views were only beginning. We took off facing east, and once in the air, the plane made a slow 360-degree turn before heading southeast to Calcutta. This circle offered us a tremendous above-the-clouds view of the Himalayas - we could easily see from one end of Nepal to another. And with the sun so low in the sky, the shadows that reflected off each jagged peak were particularly breathtaking. As we made our final turn to the south, we got what we had been waiting for - a view of Mount Everest. We recognized it immediately. Though it's set back further north than the surrounding peaks, its profile was unmistakable. For a brief time earlier that day, I had regretted our decision not to take a special mountain flight at $100 each just to see Everest. Well, the sight of the world's highest mountain as we departed Nepal did more than make up for it. We had now seen Everest and the entire Himalayas, all aglow from the setting sun in the west. I was content.

The flight to Calcutta took a little over an hour, and we were on the ground by 6:30pm. Immigration and customs were a snap, but our luggage took a bit longer than I would have preferred. We hired a prepaid taxi for RS100, but our driver, a slimeball named Mr. Singh, said the drive to Calcutta would take at least two hours, but that he knew a shortcut that would take less than an hour, if it was worth it to us. Obviously, this guy was trying to scam more money just to take the regular route to town, but I told him to just get us there quickly. If there were any problems with him liking my tip, tough luck. He then took off like a madman, swerving through traffic and driving in breakdown lanes. Twice he had to slam on the breaks to avoid hitting trucks ("No problem, no problem...") He also wouldn't shut up. We finally got to the Fairlawn, at which point I gave him RS50 extra and walked away. He started to yell at me in Bengali, but I ignored him.

The Fairlawn is a lovely green Victorian establishment run by the same English family since the 1930s. I had heard great things about it, so I hoped we'd still be able to get in for the night, even though our reservations were for the night before. Perhaps playing ignorant would be enough. Unfortunately, my luck ran out at the reception desk. Full booked, no exceptions. I played it up by pretending that our reservations were supposed to have been for that night, and that there must have been a mixup. No dice. There were no rooms left, so we'd have to stay elsewhere. The reception clerk was nice enough to make some phone calls for us, and we asked him to ring up the Old Kenilworth Hotel to see if they had any room. They most certainly did. The LP guide recommended it as an aging mansion full of character, and with an eccentric English/Indian proprietress, a Mrs. Joyce Purdy. We decided to give it a go.

Outside the Fairlawn we tried to hail a cab, but none would accept us for less than 60 rupees- an outrageous fare considering the short distance we had to travel. Then, a rickshaw-wallah approached us on foot and offered us a ride at 30 rupees. Susanne and I looked at each other, dumbfounded - have an old rickshaw-wallah walk us to the hotel with all of our bags? We had previously talked about Calcutta's rickshaws, one of the last bastions in South Asia where these poor skinny men actually pulled a giant rickshaw while they ran on foot. Susanne had said she found it to be a humiliating profession and didn't want to patronize is. I too had serious reservations with it, but I concluded that this is how they make our living, and I'd be sure to give him a generous tip for his troubles (besides, Susanne would kill me if I gave the guy anything less than 50 rupees). So, we decided to go for it.

We climbed on the rickshaw seat and held our bags tight. The man then lifted the two polls on each side of the rickshaw and began to run, jingling a small bell with his right hand as we went. I immediately thought of the film City of Joy, which takes place here in Calcutta. I always wondered why in the movie the rickshaw-wallah always jingled that damn bell (it was very loud in the film and got annoying after an hour or so). Now I understood - without that damn bell, we'd be squashed by an oncoming TATA truck or some other form of oncoming traffic. Indian drivers use horns as sonar devices, alerting others of their presence, no matter if it's an emergency or if they're just passing by. Rickshaws were no exception, so the bell jingles and the rickshaw-wallah's precious cargo remain unscathed.

We arrived at the Old Kenilworth 15 minutes later. Let me emphasize the word Old in Old Kenilworth - the place was a decrepit, rundown mansion that was creepy as hell and looked like a backdrop from the Addams Family. We were met inside by Mrs. Purdy, the aforementioned eccentric lady discussed in the LP guide. At first, I thought she was from New York or something - she had an odd, un-British accent, and she looked very Italian or even Jewish. I suppose the blend of an English and a Bengali background will do that. We checked in by signing an enormous old registrar's book that looked like one of those old leather-bound atlases you only see in good libraries. We were given Room 4, a giant suite with antique wood furniture, a vaulted ceiling, and an old-fashioned ceiling fan that hung off a pole that was at least 12 feet long. The room had the potential of being glorious, but the paint was peeling off of the walls, the wood needed a good polishing, and the bathtub, well it just needed to be replaced. No shower for me tonight, thank you very much.

The room was about $30 - typical for big Indian city accommodations. It would have been worth it if the hotel had been kept up, but because of the Kenilworth poor state, I was somewhat frustrated. But it was getting late and we only needed to spend a night there. At least it had character - that much was true.

Next Entry: Oh Calcutta!

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