I really had no expectations before coming to Bulgaria. Not because I am a snob but because we were supposed to be going to Turkey, so I just hadn’t thought much about it. Once upon a time we met some Bulgarian people who were wonderfully friendly and who waxed lyrical about the beautiful nature in their country. Another time we stayed with an English woman who told us, upon hearing our discussion of a possible Bulgaria visit that never eventuated, that her husband had driven through Bulgaria some time in the 80’s – pre wall collapse- and that he had not found it very pleasant at all and what a dumb plan why don’t we go somewhere better?…
We are squashed in an auto-rickshaw, struggling to breathe and trying to ignore the headaches that are pounding insistently inside our skulls. The traffic is at a complete standstill, the fumes from every kind of vehicle and the dry dust of the street poison the air and the beeping is incessant and pointless. It’s hot. It takes us nearly an hour to travel the eight kilometres to the river, then we get out and walk. The auto driver resignedly heads back into the stifling crush. The traffic here is as renowned as the reason it exists.
Sleeper class. Two words that can fill you with nervous unease if you are about to take your first train trip in India and you can’t afford the icy luxury and scratchy blankets of the air-conditioned carriages- or you just don’t want them. But sleeper class is actually better than sliced bread. It isn’t what you have seen in so many movies- the carriages aren’t packed to exploding, there are no people hanging out the doors, you won’t have to cram yourself into a space meant for a child’s backpack. That’s in general class. You don’t want to travel in general class. Although it may be the only place you will ever see a grown man haul his tiny ancient mother onto the luggage racks above the seats, where she settles in for the journey.
It’s eleven pm and we’ve arrived in India. At the airport we go to the prepaid taxi stand so we don’t get tremendously ripped off getting to our hotel, we meet a very eager taxi driver and he rips us off tremendously as he screeches through the midnight streets, braking only when ABSOLUTELY necessary and regarding red lights as mere suggestions. The air is thick and warm and there are people everywhere. Welcome to Kolkata, the Bengali gateway to India.