Kolkata, Bhutan, and the Golden ticket

I arrived in Kolkata after an all night flight from London while changing planes in Abu Dhabi; receiving news that my Bhutan consultant work visa was denied during my one hour layover.

My friend Chhimi and I had discussed several projects to work on in Bhutan over the last 6-8 months that would make me feel more useful. This has been in the works.

Not having slept on the flight, arriving at 3:30 AM and Kolkata being a blistering 95 degrees, I opted for a hotel near the airport. With an early check-in and air conditioning, I slept and caught up on plans and strategizing with Chhimi on next steps.

After catching up on sleep and a nice workout, I jumped in a taxi to central Kolkata to get to my $5 a night hostel.

Stepping out of the cab near mid-day in Kolkata was as if someone had decided to wrap my entire body head to foot in one of those hot towels they put on your face before a shave.

Everything stuck to my now intensely sweating body as I dodged filth and feces and folks sleeping on the streets. Food stalls, traffic, temples, dogs, kids, sadhus and complete disorientation welcomed my re-entry to land I love. I was home.

A city of incredible history, clash of cultures, history and religion and some of the friendliest people on the planet.

In this ramshackle hostel tucked in the corner of a non-descript neighborhood, I was the only foreigner at first. And certainly the only westerner.

After weeks of “hanging out in Europe” and cleansing my liver from a solid year of travel and catching up in Bellingham, I needed a quiet and mellow place where I knew no one and could settle into obscurity and relative simplicity. And wait for my visa to Bhutan.

Since the AC in the hostel dorm rooms didn’t come on until 7 PM, and the temperature varied all if maybe 5 degrees during the 24 hour period, I planned my next two or three days to accomplish the tasks at hand and to take my mind off the heat that would hit me like a tidal wave the minute I left my room at 9 AM when the AC was cut.

I remember walking thru the neighborhood near the hostel taking in EVERYTHING that is, well, India. A place of beauty and contrasts that is so impossible to describe. Only to experience. The smile on my face was large as I jumped on the local bus at mid-day to giant Howrah train station to secure my 15 hour sleeper train ticket to the Bhutan border; hoping Chhimi would work his magic on the consultant work visa (he did).

As I dripped sweat on the 70s something women sitting next to where I was standing, I not only reveled in my ability to want to, and to be able to, still travel like this, I focused on each and every one of my decisions that day and their impacts on the people there and The planet. Buying a sleeper ticket in an AC car, taking a taxi home to the hostel instead of the bus, giving money to beggars, buying glass bottle Pepsi instead of plastic, ordering chicken with my rice and lentils I purchased on the street. I kept going back to what a luxury it was to travel rough and live in the margins when you don’t have to. Food, clothing, shelter. And A/C.

How I receive an incredible perspective on the world, albeit a somewhat false one since it’s a choice. I’m sure the people on the bus were like “Dude. What ARE you smiling about you sweaty bastard!?

Receiving news of my visa and purchasing my train ticket within hours of each other, my trip was set. The previous night, the boys running the hostel invited me for a beer, a smoke and some local street food as they celebrated their friend’s bday.

The five of them all grew up together and were celebrating the 25th bday of one of them.

They took me into their circle and took turns talking religion, politics and love like only Indians can. I was invited into that world as if by magic and luck and for over two hours talked music and travel and the far reaches of India we have all visited. Just wish I had my guitar this trip!

You may or may not know, that Bhutan is the land of Gross National Happiness and 100% renewable energy. Since they have only had TV since 1999 and a democracy since 2008, we are watching them grow up right before our eyes. And I get a front row seat through my good friend Chhimi and my third trip there since 2012.

They are cracking down on the visa process since it is being abused. Tourist visas are expensive if you go on a tour. My previous trips I came on a “friends and family” visa which is free. This time, I really wanted to work on something where I could useful. And of course see my friends. And I have a few there now! A consultant work visa is also free. I hope it’s not an indication of the value of any input I may give! Those are your only three options. Well, unless you’re Indian. I’ve begged Chhimi’s wive’s parents to adopt me!

Like Charlie in Willy Wonka, I had to lay in wait for Chhimi to get me the Golden Ticket to the land of the Thunder Dragon, Guru Rinpoche and penises drawn on buildings to ward off evil spirits. Emma Datse, momos and butter tea. Yaks, temples and prayer wheels!

I have it. I’m in. To be continued!

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