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A meager attempt to give you a small slice of updates . . .

August 13th, 2012 | dustin

A lot has happened. And I have been so very bad about telling you. I’ll start small.

My skin has been terrible since I’ve been here. The humidity, the pollution, the heat, the stress, the 7 months of travel—call it what you will, but it has. This fact is all the more tough to endure for Indian frankness. A man on the street our first week here asked us How we were liking India? After I was given a moment to respond, he gestured to my chin and forehead and said, Oh but this is very bad. You must not be able to stand the heat. People we know (only a little better) have also made it a topic of conversation, agreeing sympathetically that this city will ruin your skin (as it has, apparently, done to mine).

But I share this not to illicit sympathy. Indeed, I would prefer that most people—myself included—not preoccupy themselves with my skin. However, I came to a breaking [out] point a couple of weeks back. Urged onward by my mother, and a vague notion that perhaps a dermatologist could still be affordable in India, even without insurance, I went for it. A google search, a little agonizing, and a tough phone call later I had an appointment. For the next day.

I imagine that many people are apprehensive about seeing a doctor in another country. You just don’t want to mess with your health. Language barriers, and a lack of general knowledge, means that visiting a doctor could lead you and your health to a potentially grey area. And as a staunchly middle class american girl, I’ve always had (or always assumed I’ve had?) pretty great healthcare. Additionally, I’ve only really utilized those healthcare options when I’ve been dragged or pushed or prodded by, well, my parents. I haven’t seen a doctor since moving to LA. I don’t have a memory of ever going to a school nurse. So going to a doctor outside of the U.S., and going to a doctor in Kolkata in particular, felt like a big deal. [1]

And in all honesty, I have nothing but glowing reviews to report back. The medical tourism thing is a thing, and it is a great thing at that. For 500 rupees (< $10 usd, without any form of insurance), I went to see Dr. Arun Kumar Prasad; he listened to my problem, respected the fact that I would only be in the country for another month, prescribed me a course of medication that is comparable to the U.S. (and told me a couple of differences between U.S. Treatment and general Indian dermatology practices). He told me a couple of courses of action for when I return to America, the beautiful.[2]

And pharmacies. Pharmacies are another thing. Kiosk-style drug counters line every street. As Dustin experienced his first week, they will gladly dole out perscription-strength drugs without a perscription (a fact confirmed by my Kolkata dermatologist, who said “Any chemist or druggist will have this. No need to worry. It’s not like the U.S.”) And indeed, he was right. I did have to go to 3 separate kioscs to get my perscription in its entirety, but I was allowed to keep my written perscription. As in, I can cash that baby in whenever I damn well please. Clindamycin cream whenever I please?! Is this a dream???

Anyways, more (read: images also!!) to come. We’ve moved, I turned 21, we went to a rural village and hung out and talked to a lot of people. We crawled back to Kolkata by the skin of our teeth. I now have to write (a lot) and Dustin has to edit sound, photos, write code or whatever you do for websites. Things are/have been happening. They’ll probably continue to happen, and I’ll try to write about them here with less than a 2 week lag time.

August 1, 2012.

Written about (considerably later) on August 13, 2012

  1. [1] As did getting the vaccines in Buenos Aires before I left. But with a passport and about $12, you can get a lot done. Specifically, a yellow fever vaccine (free—but you get it in a warehouse/garage space across from a naval parking lot in Puerto Madero?), and a polio booster (a travel vaccine clinic 3 blocks from my house. Took 5 minutes. No lines. An argentina-miracle). Those vaccines would have been almost $200 in the US
  2. [2] Though folks, my skin won’t yet be the beautiful. These things take time. Specifically, 6-8 weeks

College Street

August 4th, 2012 | dustin

College Street, Kolkata is a couple of blocks of mythic proportions; it comes up in virtually any travel forum about the city [of Joy], and it characterized my earliest imaginations of the place. College Street. A place where you could find any book, if only you had the time, patience, and gumption to find it. A noisy street. (Don’t stay in a hotel near College!) A continuous literary experience constructed of hundreds of informal spaces, cobbled together, stacked on top of each other.

While the actual College Street does, in fact, meet many of my previously-constructed-constructions, I must admit that it feels only slightly amped up from our day to day experience walking around. We live within walking distance of the famous bookselling venue, and our area blends seamlessly into it. While perhaps our individual block lacks that volume of retail, and that volume of foot traffic, as you move north and west, everything becomes higher density. People begin moving their wares, their stuff, their workshops (their welding) onto the sidewalk and into the street. So no, College Street was not a shock. It was a highly logical progression of retail, vendors, pedestrians, and traffic.

That being said, I wasn’t terribly inspired to go to College Street. But, it being only blocks away, we felt somewhat obligated to see it. And I, having had the weird moral compulsion to read Joyce before returning o school, decided to combine a little bit of this with a little bit of that, and turn our half-hearted tourist venture into something vaguely productive.

And so I was roused from my face-down-into-the-mattress-nap by a freakishly energetic Dustin, who was miraculously not worn out by the day’s first excursion.[1] Lured out of bed by the promise that we would take a bus rather than walk, I trudged along diligently dazed, only to find myself moments later in a rickshaw that dustin had procured.

This was our first rickshaw experience (and we were going to College Street). We’ve been living here a month, and suddenly we were transported to Tourist: 101. But let me explain. When rickshaws are being pulled by barefoot human beings, they simply do not make all that much sense in terms of efficiency. When they don’t have covers (as ours didn’t), they don’t keep you that cool. When you sit up there, you kindof feel like a jerk knowing that some one (one single man, sans shoes!) is wearing out his feet just so you can rest yours. Well, anyways. It did afford us the rare, lofty elevated street view. Which was appreciated. And of we overpaid (by how much? Hard to say precisely).

Ok. So there. We were at College Street. Which is mostly, by the way, oriented towards standardized testing and computer how-to’s. But, shifting through all that you can certainly find beat up copies of Fright Night and new copies of The Dubliners. And David Copperfield. So. Much. David. Copperfield. (And Tagore, obviously).

Feeling proud of my procuration and wanting to continue with our whole ‘new-experiences’ theme, we elected to walk down (what we assumed) was a street parallel to College—which would, theoretically, drop us off right back at home. Not so. Not so. Took us way out of the way, under the train station, through some crazy semi-permanent vendors (ok, the usual fare here, but still. New crowd, some new things. For instance, we discovered the luggage-and-umbrella-vendors, which were highly clustered).

Anyways. Dropped us off atop the pedestrian bridge we usually take to the grocery store, which was quite nice at night. You can check out Dust’s pic’s. For once we had our camera(s) and weren’t feeling too shy to snap a couple.

And that was Wednesday night, August 1st. I swear to god, it was about 5x more interesting and 20x more crowded than both this text and those pictures make it seem.

August 1, 2012

  1. [1] I’m not going to say that I put an excursion-cap on our days, but after going out once, I am invariably exhausted for hours. If I go out early, and then make it out again for dinner, I feel exceptionally proud of my endurance. The heat, the humidity, the whole getting-from-point-A-to-point-B, the interviews. . . the heat. The humidity.

Mirza after dark

August 4th, 2012 | dustin

We, along with everyone else, were walking west. Our feeble efforts to catch a cab having failed, we resigned ourself to the now familiar walk to Park Street, that strip of land filled with Respectable Restaurants, Familiar Brands, Tourists. Everyone, it seemed, was out, and S.N. Banerjee was buzzing despite its lacking electricity.

Our side of the sidewalk had inexplicably retained its power. But the opposite sidewalk, and all that lay between us and Park, was awash with darkness. As we stood at the head of Wellesley, watching our walking companions disappear into the ink washed city, only distantly illuminated by the odd store’s florescent lighting and the pale, greasy smudge of single candles, we avoided our inevitable left and opted instead to continue along bright-lights-Banerjee.

Our street, like many streets are in Kolkata, is lined with vendors. Shoebox dioramas, selling magazines, bracelets, t-shirts, umbrellas, pastries, thali’s of rice/daal/curry, prescription drugs, shampoos, xerox copies, fabricated metal parts. In the dark, this work continues. Each stall, each vendor, each workshop set out a single candle (by which to see? Or more to simply signal their continued existence and willingness to sell to the passerby). But while the single flame of each produce-vendor gave a vague shape to their papayas and watermelons, the focus of the crowd was directed towards a small store, not 6 feet wide. Clearly, the only store for blocks with a surplus of candles.

When we finally reached the stretch of our street that pedals paintings (paintings of horses, of gods, paintings with gemstones, painting in oils), we paused before Mirza Ghalib. Our last chance at cutting an easy left. The autorickshaws were rounding the corner every moment, plunging into the black that separated us from our dinner. With eyecontact and some vague gesturing, we were aboard—diving into a small swathe of large part of West Bengal left Power-less.

The candelit stalls whizzed by. One, lit by a lantern, had remained rather popular; with few taxis to disrupt our ride, we plummeted, in silence and near darkness, to our destination. It was one of our more peaceable transit moments.

 

July 31, 2012

Blackout(s)

July 31st, 2012 | dustin

Perhaps you haven’t heard; we sure hadn’t, and instead spent the afternoon making ramen and reading away in our little apartment, the olympics providing a (muted) pictorial backdrop to whatever audio-edits Dustin is cooking up. But at about 5:30pm, our landlady and a family friend called to warn us.

Power outages. Across all of north/north-east India. The estimates being slung around the internet range from 300 to 600 million people without power.  (but as of right now, we are not among them). [1]

We’ve formed two possible hypotheses for our own, condition: 1. we have a generator (??) 2. it is possible that Dustin and I are living in “some parts of Kolkata that will not be severely affected.”

Mamata Banerjee has declared a holiday. But this is no snow day for West Bengal; aside from lacking power, hundreds of coal miners are trapped until power is restored.

And while you’re doing a little reading about Kolkata off-the-blog, might I recommend this article from the New York Times? Filthy Gorgeous is the perfect adage for this city. If you read the rather polarized comment section, I think you might gain some insight into our daily-internal-love-hate relationship with it. It’s complicated.

  1. [1] But unless the issue is resolved incredibly rapidly, I’m expecting to spend a few hours without power before tomorrow morning. Luckily, Dust brought 2 (!!) flashlights. We’re going to attempt to go out to dinner tonight. Because, you know, theoretically, it’s possible that we wouldn’t be able to cook. Without the power and all.

Views of the apartment, views from the apartment

July 29th, 2012 | dustin

 

 

Towards Delirium

July 24th, 2012 | dustin

Dear reader, I felt compelled to tell you about last weekend first. Before I tell you about last week. Our decidedly less cultured, sickly-haze of a week that culminated on various street-corners over the course of an afternoon and evening, alternately sun-drenched and rain-soaked, looking for the white whale of Kolkata [in the form of a taxi, an NGO storefront, a cafe, another taxi, a restaurant].

Yes, we clawed and crawled and ached and slept and complained our way to Friday afternoon, only to have Friday afternoon nearly hit us with her motorbike and yell in our face.[1] But we made it. We made it. And then we cowered lounged in doors all of Saturday. We did laundry. We read books. We ventured out for a laughably horrible dinner.[2] Things were looking up.

. . . annnd then Dustin was sick again Sunday. And I, I like the responsible young lady I am, instead went to have a Sunday afternoon with some family of friends [3] who took me to a fascinating part of Kolkata (Newtown) and nearly force fed me schwarma and cold coffee and biscuits and then a 3 course dinner (everyone always has room for butterscotch)

I got mine today (sick sick sick! Hope I don’t have what Gwyneth had)

But: please, fear not for our safety, nor your own [4]!

Because Dustin and I have adopted a baby gecko. Turns out, they are as cute as the geico gecko, 5 years ago when those ads were still kindof funny. Baaaby Gecko has become our mantra; our sing along tune. That hypnotic code word [no, hypnotic code-jingle] that immediately transports us to a better place.[5]

 

Taxi strikes, very sweet iced coffee, sickness, and views of the apartment coming soon!

  1. [1] Friday afternoon in Kolkata = shockingly like the thousands of motorbike riders in Kolkata.
  2. [2]  If it’s called a vanilla cube, take heed: it is just as artificial and inedible as the name implies. Can not fault them for that.
  3. [3] Thanks Chirinjev!!
  4. [4] pandemically speaking, I mean, for those of you have seen Contagion
  5. [5] OMG, but replace, “Kill the prime minister of Malaysia” with something more along the lines of “Stay in Kolkata. Continue researching kantha.”

A Brief Recap: Last weekend’s cultural fieldtrips

July 23rd, 2012 | dustin

I am writing to you, good reader, confined to the bedroom of our Taltala apartment, banished here until Dustin finds my general presence less hilarious. It is approximately 3:11 and we have not yet left the house. Dustin has devolved into hysterics; but more on that, and how, perhaps, he reached this state of delirium, to follow.

But before I tell of our slow languishing in the summer heat, I feel it is my [Anna jane jones'] to provide you with a brief recounting of our weekend last. As may or may not be evident from the introductory paragraphs on runningstitch.org, Dustin and I are here in Kolkata researching the revival of the kantha quilt through non-governmental organizations; the field work component of this research entails interviews, along with site visits to the homes, workshops, and production centers where kanthas are being made. Last weekend, Art Illuminates Mankind,one of the NGO’s we are working with, was kind enough to organize a veritable field trip (car, translator, meals included) to the district of Birbhum north of Kolkata. Though well aware that we would be visiting kantha artisans, the exact details of our schedule were hashed out in Bengali–leaving us pleasantly in the dark at each turn of our voyage.*

Our first stop–signaling, immediately, that we were in good hands–Cafe Coffee Day, where we experienced the delightfully competent cappuccino and the ubiquitous ‘cold coffee’ via one Iced Eskimo (coffee a la mode? No, not quite. . ni afogato**, more frappuccino if I am completely honest with myself). After managing to spill 1/2 of the contents of the soap dispenser on myself, tactically endearing myself to our fellow travelers as the clumsy and vaguely flustered one, we moved on.

To more food!

Not even 20 minutes later, we stopped at the Balaji Food Park, famous for its sweets (is not all of West Bengal famous for its sweets?) (Apparently not) (no, and this place deserved its reputation). Dustin and I shyly opted for water at the grocer-cum-sweets counter***, but as we turned around to pay, we realized that our gracious NGO director-cum-tourguide**** had purchased two of what appeared to be oblong, deep brown, vaguely sausage like (?) logs that had been only recently swimming in a vat of hot syrup.

ButYUM! No, really. Langcha is my new favorite dessert. Think “Donut.” And then, before you’ve finished that thought, think “Pancake dripping in syrup wrapped around a breakfast sausage.” And before you finish that thought, take away the sausage—but not the flavor that it surely imparted to your pancake-y-donut-y-breakfast-sweet. Tender. Chewy. Filled with little pockets of airbubbles which soak up every breakfast sin you’ve every really wanted to commit (granted, every breakfast sin in a world without bacon). Behold sweet reader! Langcha!

Well, folks, I was finally awake, we were finally headed to see some traditional kantha, we’d finally made it to the parking lot after two consecutive rest stops, and then . . . I finally drank coconut water with a straw, directly from the coconut after a man scythed off the top with (well, you know) a skythe. All my childhood fantasies, completed beside a state highway in West Bengal. My childhood dreams, I suppose, were less geographically specific than I initially realized.*****

At the risk of turning our weekend to visit the kanthas into a culinary retreat, and our updates-blog into a food-blog (we’re rapidly heading in that direction), our next stop was decidedly not food based. We were going to see the “guru-spiritual-leader-philosopher-type” + baul singers Sadhan Das and Maki Kazhumi in his small complex. On the floor of one of the small open-air huts, mercifully cooled by an electric ceiling fan, Dustin and I accepted the language barrier whole-heartedly and sat listening to our hosts chat in Bengali about the upcoming folk-culture-festivals. Yet our patience did not go un-recognized, and was in fact rewarded with an all-too-generous gift of a mini, private Baul concert. And, of course, lunch. I do have more to say on both of these matters, but my description grows much to long for a simple blog post. I want to keep you updated. I do! But I do not want to force you to slog through my writing. . . so for now, we shall leave that concert luncheon at “amazing,” with plans to elaborate more later.

The rest of the trip was more or less devoted to Our Research. We met 3 separate kantha creators, all making the quilt in different capacities—in their household, as artisans, as businesswomen. Our reception was always incredibly warm, our interviews hectic, with our translator attempting to paraphrase, Dustin attempting to record (and photograph), me attempting to write down notes and simultaneously ask questions. That anyone, ever, is able to glean both useful information and quotes from an interview without recording it (that is to say, from their written notes) is a marvel to me. I need to learn shorthand.

While it may seem wholly disproportionate (1:7 paragraphs about kantha research: paragraphs written), I’m going to leave it at that. You’ll all be receiving a healthy dose of kantha before you know it.

 

*But don’t be fooled. The resident West Bengali’s were similarly in the dark about each literal turn—as we progressed towards and through the small villages of Birbhum, we paused every 100-400 meters or so to ask some person standing roadside for directions. Their response, invariably, was to point in the direction we were already heading.

**hint hint

***very Bengali use of the word cum. Really…

**** I did it again there. Wow, I’m realizing its just so easy to use. So efficient. Such a streamlining, slickening of the english language.

*****And, more colonial. (But please tell me you remember the scene where she is on the beach, drinking coconut water directly from the coconut? If not, reread immediately). Additionally, it’s only fair to mention that she was also called the Lupine Lady and that her life’s mission to travel the world and then make it a more beautiful place. Also, the footnotes have reached 5 stars! Going to quit while I’m ahead and offer you no more wisdom via the footnote.

The First Week in Kolkata

July 10th, 2012 | dustin

It’s hard to describe Kolkata.

Neither of us have ever experienced a city like this before.

To say it is a “sensory overload,” is much too general to address even the sights, sounds, and smells we find on the block we live on.

Here on S.N. Banerjee Road in “the heart of the city,” the specific mixture of beauties, grotesqueries, flavors, aromas, and stenches changes every hour of every day.

We are just learning to take it all in.

Camac Street

*It is monsoon season in India. The rains come by at least once a day. Every so often, you find yourself under the awning of a shoe store on Camac Street, waiting for the rain to pass.*

Victoria Memorial

*The Victoria Memorial. A memorial hall for the glory of the raj.*

Victoria Memorial