It is almost 2 am here in Paris. Moments ago I walked through the door of my host family’s apartment and I’m still ligheaded from what just happened.

Sometimes you get by just on luck and the kindness of strangers. Tonight was one of those nights.

Except for the part when I had a strawberry crêpe for dinner, everything was going much as planned in the early part of the evening. I saw Beckett’s Fin de Partie at the Théâtre l’atelier in Monmartre, then went to a bar in the 7th arrondisement with friends.

Paris’ metro closes at 1:15 am on weekdays, so I made sure to leave around 12:40 to make it home in time.

I didn’t.

I made it as far as the Gare d’Austerlitz, where I was supposed to transfer lines, when a voice announced over the intercom that line 5 was closed for the night. Just to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood the announcement, I ran up to the platform where I was politely informed by a uniformed guard that I was too late.

I hurried back down the stairs, convincing myself I could easily catch a taxi the rest of the way home and everything would be fine. It took a mighty effort not to panic.

As I stepped through the nearest exit doors, a man on the other side started talking to me. “No, it’s closed.” I tried to tell him before I realized he was telling me that we could no longer leave the station this way. We had to trick the metro turnstiles to let us back in to find another exit from the building, which was getting quieter and more unsettling by the minute.

We had to wonder across a deserted platform, but we finally made it outside the building. “How are you getting home? The bus?” he asked me (in French). I answered that I had no idea how the bus system worked, so I planned to take the taxi. But there were no taxis around; in fact, the outside of the huge metro station was disturbingly quiet.

The man asked the only people around: two maintenance men in a street cleaner who seemed bored by our question. They suggested looking at the other side of the station, which, since the building itself was closed, was most directly accessible by a sort of highway bridge over the metro rail.

So we walked it. On the one hand, that “short cut” was about as dark and scary as they come, and I was convinced that we would be run over at any second, but not many people can say they’ve gotten to spy down upon a sleeping metro station.

A few minutes more and the man found me a cab on the other side of the station. I shook his hand and thanked him in my best French, though I didn’t know quite how to express “I would have been [screwed] without you,” so I just gave him my best smile.

But there was still the matter of the cab. I told the taxi driver where to go with the best accent I could conjure up under the circumstances, and all but collapsed in the seat.

Then I remembered that I didn’t have any money. I fished around in my change purse: I had 7 € left after our drinks at the bar.

Again feeling that sense of dread, I asked the cab driver to stop at the nearest ATM so I would be able to pay him. He asked how much I had and said not to worry about it, that that would be enough.

Looking outside, I realized I had no idea where we were. He stopped at an unfamiliar street: “Is it this one, right?” Turned out we had had a little misunderstanding about where I was headed.

I figured that he was probably regretting his offer to accept what little I could pay, and it made me uneasy. But instead of dumping me out on the curb he struck up a conversation. “You’re an American student? In government? You know, you must become a politician! And you MUST marry a Frenchman! Best way to practice the language.”

I am so relieved to have made it home in one piece I could just about pass out.

Yesterday, the streets were filled with saffron.

My host father told me not to go out yesterday because the traffic from Rath Yatra would make it impossible to get around. I should’ve listened. I didn’t have any trouble going, but I certainly did coming back, though not because of the festival.

Rath Yatra is a major Hindu festival which commemorates Krishna’s visit to his mother-in-law’s house. The festival takes place over two days one week apart, with a day for coming and a day for going. On each day, the streets are filled with long processions of floats. Troops of young men and women sing hare krishna hare krishna as others dance. Behind them, saffron-robed Brahmins sit atop floats drawn manually by hundreds of the faithful. The general mood is upbeat, as the Brahmins toss flowers into the crowd and spray them with rosewater.

Most interestingly, there were a few caucasians in the procession. These middle-aged men and women joined up with the Hare Krishnas in their western heyday in the 70s and stuck with it. Ironically, they were almost as excited to see us as we were to see them.

I stayed in the city for a dinner that lasted until about ten, after which I planned to catch a bus back to Garia.

It turns out that is impossible.

Though Kolkata is a bustling metropolis of 15 million, its public transport doesn’t run round the clock, or as I discovered yesterday, not even past 10. To make matters worse, most cabbies are unwilling to drive to the southern suburbs at night because they know they can’t pick up new passengers for the return trip into the city. I had to improvise.

I decide to take a cab to Gariahat – a transit hub in the south-central portion of the city – and take an autorickshaw home. My cab driver – who most definitely didn’t understand my broken fusion of Bangla and English – dropped me in the northern part of Gariahat nowhere near where I needed to catch an auto south.

No big deal, I think. I know this area fairly well. I’ll just walk south, until I can catch a shared taxi or an auto.

Wrong.

As I continue walking south, I realize that the lights keep getting a little dimmer and that the density of people sleeping on the sidewalk is a little higher than usual. As I cross the railroad tracks under Gariahat’s flyover I realize I am in the middle of one of Kolkata’s largest bustees, or slums.

My normal reaction in pressure situations is to try to power through, so I keep walking hoping to make it to the other side of the slum to the part of Gariahat I know. This was the wrong choice. Before I know it, I’m in a narrow alleyway right next to an improvised temple, sandwiched between huts covered in advertisments and garbage bags. A group of curious onlookers begins to gather. It’s at this point I decide I need to get the hell out and start backtracking.

I walk across the flyover and keep walking, maybe for a mile or mile and half. Near the shared taxi stand, there are dozens of people struggling to get into a couple of cabs. Deciding I’m not up for a scrum I keep walking. I tell myself I know the neighborhood.

I keep going and the streets keep getting darker. All the Golpark-Garia autos, one of which I desperately need to get on, are full. I get to a corner where a group of people are waiting. I see an empty auto approach, but before I can grab a seat if fills up. One of the passengers, realizing that I’m a bewildered In-gree-jee makes room.

From there on out, things went smoothly, and within 20 minutes I was back in my neighborhood. I always know when I’ve reached Garia because it’s where the sidewalks end and stray dogs roam. Last night, I was more than happy to deal with them.