It’s now been a month since I arrived in Kolkata – and I’m yet to write anything about it! I’ve dug myself into a blogging black hole, where I feel like I have to say so much to catch up, so I’m just going to roll with the punches on this post and verbal diarrhea (beats the several spells of actual diarrhea I’ve had this month) my way through some thoughts and rants about my first month living in India, aka, how did this happen and what the fuck am I doing here.
There’s two main reasons this post has taken so long: one, I have been overwhelmingly busy with settling in to the daily grind here, and two, it’s really difficult to write about the kind of life that falls between travelling and setting up a new life abroad.
Kolkata is now my permanent home, for the next twelve months. I still have moments walking down the street where it hits me, how did I possibly get here? What is my life right now? What am I doing? Why did I eat that samosa that I knew was going to make me poop all day? Life back home in Melbourne feels like a lifetime away.
It’s daunting, planting myself in one spot for a year that is so different from anything I’ve experienced in Australia. Travelling through Asia gave me a bit of an insight into the difference between a metropolitan city like Melbourne and being in developing countries, but nothing could prepare me for how exhilarating, and how exhausting living in one full time could be.
On one hand, this is a whole new experience, visiting places and meeting people that so much of the world is never given the chance to experience. On the other hand, I live here now. This is just life here. And even somewhere so exotic and different as Kolkata, it’s easy to start living a routine, monotonous life, full of daily responsibilities and chores, where all the points of difference melt away and I stop even noticing the enthralling details about life here that brought me back here permanently.
I’ve been here a month, and I’m already taking a little break next week to explore somewhere new. Like a good wine or cheese (or relationship), some places are so intense and full bodied, that stepping back to have a palate cleanser and refresh your mind can be so important. Next week I’m off to Sri Lanka to give myself that break!
A month here went by so quickly, quicker than I could have imagined, given I’m here so far from home, with none of comforts and no safety net. The first month has been flat out. As I’ve touched on just a tad here, I’m here starting a new job with Pollinate Energy, a social business working in getting clean energy & useful technology to the poorest of the poor here, those living in urban slums. It’s a very rewarding, if often exhausting job.
I came into this job with an innate sense of faith in the universe – that everything would be fine and everything would always work out. And more than that, a warped sense of Murphy’s Law; that everything bad that could possibly happen has kind of happened, so if anything worse than that eventually does happen, it would be a refreshing surprise – I mean, to quote a distressed drunk friend, I am an orphan who’s house burnt down this year (more on that another day). How bad can it be to just up and move overseas for a year?
I haven’t regretted it at all. Which is surprising, as I put so little thought or consideration into deciding if I was actually going to come here. I decided I was going to apply for the position while I was still travelling in South East Asia, and I decided if I got the job I would take it. There was never much of an internal debate about it (more so one from my bank account). Even my house burning down in February, the day before my final interview for the role didn’t put a damper on my enthusiasm to pack up and leave – if anything it just made me more determined to come here and pick a new direction in life, because if I had to rebuild and restart my life somewhere anyway, it might as well be in India! In the end, I came here because there was an opportunity there and I didn’t even want to consider reasons not to take it.
People I’ve talked to about moving here have often said, “that’s so cool! I wish I could do that! But I’m stuck here in X because of Y! “. I don’t want to be someone who ever says “I wish I could” about something that I 100% definitely can do. There was nothing stopping me, and there’s nothing stopping anyone else either for the most part. It’s all a matter of choice, and taking control over the path you want to take in life.
The simplicity of leaving my chaotic home life in Melbourne for a year was tempting, but as was the idea of a life of complete chaos, which is the ever changing dichotomy I deal with here in Kolkata.
Kolkata is a cross between incredibly isolated, and one of the most densely packed places you could imagine. A city the size of any normal city – of Melbourne, or Sydney, or the general 10km radius that most major cities expand to (test it out in Sim City and get back to me), here holds 12 MILLION people. Half the population of Australia, shoved in an area the size of a standard capital city. You’d expect to see hundreds of 50 storey buildings all packing people in like sardines, but you don’t. It’s tough here to work out where all the people go. The answer is usually quite sad: a huge amount of the population (many sources saying a third of the city) live in slums – tiny shacks that fit one family to a western sized bedroom. Some amazing photos of what life in a slum in Kolkata is like are available in this In Focus article, The Slums & Homeless of Kolkata.
Kolkata has it’s challenges for westerners because of this isolation/metropolis dichotomy. It’s not easy to be anonymous here, speaking purely as a white skinned (bottle blonde) Westerner. People stare, people ask for pictures (“mam, mam, selfie!”), kids (and adults actually) follow you around. The good thing about Kolkata compared to other gigantic cities, and other cities in India (I’m looking at you, New Delhi), is that you don’t have a dollar sign floating above your head for simply obviously being foreign.
There are many objectively likeable cities I’ve been to that I’ve absolutely despised being in and checked out of quickly (literally and figuratively), because of this. Tuk tuks or street hawkers following me down the street. Trying to talk my way out of paying 20 times the local price for food/market ware/travel. Kids pestering me at cafes selling their cheap tourist wares – the worst of being that their parents pull them out of school or deny them access to education, which comes with its own pile of guilt and anger at myself for bringing my tourist economy invisible dollar sign existence into their home (I’m looking at you Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, HCMC, and New Delhi again!). But being here in Kolkata, working with Pollinate Energy, I do at least feel that for all of that, I am in a position to make some positive change here.