“Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful… And since I’ve got no place to go…”

Kolkata felt instantly different from the first moments stepping off the plane. To start, I could actually see the luggage conveyor belt without standing on a trolly to peer over a mosh pit wrestling to reclaim their belongings, as had been the case during my 1am arrival into Lucknow almost exactly a month ago…  Then on the way from the airport we were driving in LANES, there were big buildings, massive signs, and no cows… it actually made me miss Kanpur a bit…

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Here I am working at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, which is much smaller than the IIT in Kanpur, as it is only for research (no teaching) so there are no undergraduates or peacocks, but instead it is newly home to these little guys…

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… and my home is in the guest house, about 100m away from the institute main gates.

I spent a large part of the first week or so with my head down, trying desperately to clutch hold of the new ideas thrown my way at work and feeling a bit overwhelmed and unsettled again. But my colleagues here have been amazingly warm, friendly and helpful and slowly I began to find my new rhythm and explore my new surroundings, strolling around the parks, taking exhausting yoga classes, wandering wide eyed around the maze of shopping malls, and visiting the glittering “Christmas” markets with stalls from people who have travelled from all over India (Kerala, Rajasthan, Kashmir etc) to sell their hand made gems (half of which are now in my room). And finally, last night I was invited to a (roof top) BAR and was introduced to “sula" (indian sparkling wine). So the natural order of things has been restored.

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Eco Park

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My new (academic) family, celebrating Atanu handing in his PhD thesis.

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All this is taking place on the northeast outskirts of the city, in an area called Salt Lake, and even though there are a LOT of people everywhere, I’m told it is much less crowded and polluted than the inner city and easier to navigate for a newcomer. So once more I am sheltered from the “real india” somewhat… but perhaps it is a good thing, as last week I was given a bike, and I have no idea about the road rules (if there are any), yet I’m out there weaving in and out of lanes, going the wrong way around roundabouts and peddling up roads in the opposite direction to on-coming traffic (not dissimilar to my driving at home…), and no-one has lights, but everyone has a horn, and for once I am grateful!

Micha, my partner in crime, arrives tomorrow (just in time for Christmas!), so finally it will be time to explore the real Kolkata, and in a few days we have train tickets to whisk us up into the Himalayan mountains to visit Darjeeling and its surroundings. Fingers crossed for no cancellations, delays or food poisoning!

“I’ve got white wrists baby, white wrists baby, I’ve got fair complexion wrists”

I am really enjoying my life out here, the weather, the people, the food, and I’d like to think I’m fitting in more. I’m getting braver about doing things on my own, and have frequented the hair dresser, had my eyebrows “threaded”, hair hennaed, face massaged, taken clothes to the taylor (who worked miracles and cost 40p!), I’ve got myself some wheels and today I am wearing my first salwar!  I’ve even started jogging occasionally, in the evening after it gets dark, so as to make myself less conspicuous and avoid the heat. I try to choose the seldom traversed paths circling the outside of the campus which mostly have jungle on the other side, making me run faster when I remember stories about hyena sightings.

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I’ve switched my sandwiches and coffee in the relatively western style coffee shop to samosas and chai in the local canteen, which they serve in tiny cups – the size of which you are grateful for due to their enormous sugar content.

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Sugar is popular out here, my neighbours as a celebration of a festival gave me a bowl containing a sea of rice crisps interspersed with massive rocks of sugar…

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I’ve also got my “kitchen” up and running and have started cooking for myself, with more herbs and spices than usual, thanks to the lady at the market stall who thrust them into my hand before I could respond.

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There are aspects to the culture which seem quite natural to me, the head wobble for example makes complete sense, and used all the time to mean absolutely anything, from “yes most definitely”, “no way”, to “you don’t know I don’t know and neither does the cow…”. And the clothes are so beautiful, I love them all and am in awe of every lady that walks past. I’m also enjoying the music and have a new hindi playlist, and found out today that my favourite song (which I’ve been listening to on repeat at full volume in my room), translates to “I’ve got white wrists baby, white wrists baby, I’ve got fair complexion wrists” – wonder what my neighbours are thinking…

Whilst being fair skinned out here is definitely desirable, freckles on the other hand are thought of as a disease. I actually met one other girl with freckles who asked if I knew how to get rid of them. I found this out around the same time I was asked if I was going grey as apparently henna is usually used to cover up this problem… so my conclusion was that to people here I look like an old diseased person.

I’ve met a few more people now, and found that other foreigners exist within this campus. Sometimes we have representatives from almost all the continents at the dinner table (Australia, America, Canada, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Japan, Nigeria…and of course Indian!)

We’ve been out into the city of Kanpur a few more times to shop, eat biriani and watch Hindi films (in Hindi, which I could mostly follow, but it doesn’t matter much as they burst into song every few minutes which keeps you entertained), and to watch the holy cows, still searching for that delicious patch of grass which must be hiding somewhere in the middle of the motorway.

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I saw rain for the first time since I’ve been here, after which the temperature dropped dramatically, signalling time for me to head south (east). I’m off to Kolkata tomorrow, goodbye to my new safe haven and all change again.