Saturday, March 26, 2005

Holi Culture Shock

There are no cows on the street in Kolkata. This city feels like home, or at least Eastern Europe, it's so modern. Billboards are in English, because everyone actually speaks this language. There are no puttering, inefficient autorickshaws, only yellow Ambassador taxis.

Our entrance into this city was all the more surreal yesterday because it was Holi, the festival of color: the streets were almost deserted, in a notoriously chaotic city (I feel like I've described each Indian city this way, but really, Kolkata traffic is supposed to be nutty).

In Varanasi, they've been "playing Holi" all week. I was an unwilling participant, strolling on the ghats the other day. A fuschia-colored boy pelted me with a pink water balloon, staining the new linen trousers I had tailor-made in Jaipur. We (Jessica met me here the other day) half wanted to stay on, to see how crazy things would get--plus, we were exhausted--but we'd booked tickets on. So we hauled ourselves to the train station for the 17 hour ride to Kolkata.

No one plays Holi in the streets here--you get fined--so most people get messy behind closed doors. Yesterday we plunked our stuff down, put on our worst clothes and got really, really pink. The family we're staying with took us to a neighbor's roof party, and we were immediately smeared in orange, yellow, green, and pink powders. They dowsed us in water to make the powder take hold and handed us small clay pots with a "herb" cocktail. Everyone from the stern Reiki Grand Master to his teenage daughter had a cup of this drink, a blend of almond milk, ground nuts, and bhang. We sipped ours gingerly, looking out of the balcony onto coconut trees, giant black crows, and high rise apartments ringed by slums.

Later, hair and hands still bright pink, we were taken out for vodka tonics at a kind of lounge restaurant. The band was awful, spouting badly covered Backstreet Boys and George Michael sung by a fake blond Indian women. Conversation revolved around parties, low-carb dieting, and bargaining tactics to get time off work to travel abroad.

I'm reminded of something an English man told me in Jodhpur during my first week in India. I was still in shock, way overstimulated by, er, everything. He laughed and said don't worry, you'll start to love it. The chaos is addicting.

So Kolkata hasn't delivered, yet, but I'm sure my addiction can be sated with a visit to the markets today. If not, I'm going to need another hit of Varanasi.


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