This is the first time I’ve been able to get internet access since coming to Kolkata. Frankly, I’ve been overwhelmed. I didn’t expect to be. I thought, after visits to other developing countries like Egypt, that I wouldn’t be fazed by Kolkata’s poverty, pollution and crowds.

The day after I arrived in West Bengal, the ruling party – the communist CPM – called a bandh, or general strike. Everything was shut down and the streets were nearly empty. People trying to leave from the airport were assualted by gangs of party enforcers who slashed tires and forced elderly people to walk off with their luggage. Garia, the part of Kolkata where I live and work had no incidents, and I walked the half mile from my guest home to the hospital with no problems.

The next day was also a bandh day, but this time it was called by the opposition party. Everyone except government workers seemed to take the opportunity for another day off from work and stayed at home. Government offices were open but the streets were still empty.

The heat here is oppressive and air conditioning is a rare luxury. The streets, even in the city center, tend to be narrow and chaotic. No one observes lanes, few people signal and people are always running across the street. People-drawn rickshaws share the streets with modern cars.  Many streets are also lined with homeless people who earn their daily rice by selling street food or selling trinkets.

The chaos in the streets and the general disorder (flooding, open sewage, etc.) sharply contrasts with the gilded office parks that house Kolkata’s IT centers. The contrast is unbelievable.

Kolkata as a whole gets very few tourists for its size, and in the district in which I live I have never see another westerner besides the people I’m with. It’s not uncommon for people to gawk, sometimes turning completely around to stare.

The monsoons, which usually come around this time of year, came in full force on my second day here. The relief from the heat was welcome, but the flooding made it difficult to get around. It amazes me how the locals take everything in stride and seem unfazed by the constant struggle to get around and survive in a place that is so crowded but has so little infrastructure or regulation.

There is so much I’d like to say, but I’m not sure I can articulate much at the moment. I’m still taking things in and trying to learn how to be comfortable here, so far from home.

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