Cement Mixer Photo Opportunities
Jóna leans forward on the spring-mounted duck, smiling at the camera while seeming not to pose but definitely posing. She’s done this before.
I adjust the lens and expand the composition, taking in more of the children’s playground we discovered near the beginning of our exploration-focused romp around our neighborhood. There’s the slide and the spaceship-esque jungle-gym. In the background is the scary-looking Scrambler-like ride with a complicated method of operation that we can’t quite figure out. Do the kids riding turn it? Does it require an adult to push everyone round-and-round? We move on to the ducks, where Jóna now poses.
Our apartment complex is on the outskirts of Kolkata, a collection of buildings with 20+ stories apiece, in a city where there are few containing tower above 10-stories tall. From our 19th floor balcony, we can see a huge swathe of the area, but there are details we want to take in from the ground, and people we want to meet.
We leave the complex and walk down a dirt road off the main market drag, and find ourselves blocked by a construction site. Like many buildings in Kolkata, this one is a derelict, concrete shell, but unlike most of the others that are rotting by roadsides, subtly occupied by squatters and rats, this is one filled with bamboo supports and is being restored by dozens of workers.
The sound from the cement mixer rumbles as we walk by, but it’s overshadowed in intensity and complexity by the loud conversation of the workers inside.
As we pass, that conversation slows, and then stops. All of the workers’ heads swivel to look at Jóna, her pale skin, her blue and pink hair, her unique fashion sense. We stop to take a picture, and I tell her she should go say hi. At this point, the concrete mixer has stopped, too, and all of the construction workers have gone silent, smiling in our direction, waiting to see what will happen next.
Jóna nods and walks over the broken road to join the workers on the first level of the two-story building. The men there look thrilled at the attention, but nobody moves, they just smile at the camera and out of the corner of their eyes at Jóna as I snap a handful of photographs and then give them all a big thumbs up and ‘thank you’ nod.
A few of the workers nod back, and as Jóna starts to leave, they’re visibly disappointed. A few of the workers yell out something that, in context, sounded like ‘Come back!’ (though for lack of a translator, I have no idea…it could have been ‘Who the hell are you?’), and Jóna turned around and waved, which was followed by a new round of smiles and wobbly sideways nods from the workers. We continue walking, and after we’ve covered a block or so, the concrete mixer turns back on and the workers’ conversation starts up again.
A short while later, our path intersects with a small stream. The road running parallel to the stream is highly trafficked with human-pulled rickshaws and pedestrian traffic, and I hold the viewfinder up to my eyes, zooming in and finding that the landscape is absolutely covered in discarded garbage.
We walk a little further, intending to get a cleaner view of the stream and the people who live by it, and we can only just see a bridge in the distance, so we make our way toward it. When we arrive, we walk out to the middle of the bridge, but we tell see that the photos won’t be as pristine as we had hoped.
“It’s amazing,” I say to Jóna, “that they can just throw their trash over the bridge and not realize, or maybe care, that it’s going to block this stream.” I look down at the massive mound of styrofoam plates and plastic cups and discarded lightbulbs, and wince. “It’s like Easter Island, but instead of deforestation, it’s ruining the environment with discarded trash.”
The inhabitants of Easter Island were a charming sort. Families who lived on the two-mile-long island would fight between themselves, and the losers of these bouts would be eaten by the victors. They also built massive stone heads called Moai, which jut out of the ground at irregular intervals and which range in size from pretty-dang-tall to massively-huge.
To create such monuments was resource-intensive, as the heads had to be chiseled from stone and then moved to their final resting place. The original purpose of these statues is not definitively known, but the cost of creating them is: the Easter Islanders all died off, probably from starvation, because they cut down all of their trees to help move the heads from one end of the island to the other.
Easter Island is small enough that everyone on the island would have known, and probably seen, exactly when the last tree was cut down.
The trash and pollution situation seems to be the same in Kolkata. Though the city itself is massive, around 20 million people, and the land it occupies is equally sprawling, the individual districts and outlying villages are very much aware of the damage they do to their environment. Throwing trash on the ground is as common here as throwing trash into trash cans and recycling bins anywhere else, and the sheer volume of waste that accumulates after a very short amount of time is staggering.
I’ve yet to see a street in Kolkata that hasn’t been covered in food wrappers and discarded tea cups, even an hour after the streets are cleared by the government. The situation is even more dire in places like this village, where the government doesn’t provide cleaning services.
I snap a few photos, which have a very different subject-matter than I would have hoped for. A mountain of trash, rather than an oasis of peace.
Maybe a Mistranslation
As we walk back toward the main market street, we pass a small home, the backyard strewn with laundry on clotheslines. There are two girls standing in the backyard, the older one seeming to help the younger adjust her sari.
Jóna walks right into their yard, past their laundry, and nods her head in hello to them. They nod back, beaming smiles at her, and I make the universal gesture for, ‘mind if I take a photo of you three together?’ The girls both flash smiles like they’ve won the lottery and nod yes, making a few adjustments to their hair and clothing as they pose next to Jóna.
I snap a few shots, and as I do, it occurs to me that this village probably doesn’t get much foot traffic from people who don’t live in the area. I wonder who they think we are and what they think we’re doing here. I wonder what story will be told, if any, about the white couple that meandered through their village, posing with and photographing construction workers and trash heaps and girls with their laundry in their backyard. I wonder what impact our casual stroll around the neighborhood might have on them.
We wander toward the main street and stop into a pastry shop on our way back to the complex.
The wall is lined with all kinds of savory snacks: curry rolls and sandwiches and samosas and something called a ‘fish envelope.’
What catches my attention, however, is a snack called ‘Chicken Internet,’ which seems to be just a normal chicken pastry, but which apparently is the best snack in the shop (according to the kid working behind the counter, whose opinion I ask for). We load up a box with a little of everything (including two Chicken Internets) and walk home.
Later, after we warm up the snacks, I hold one of the Chicken Internets in my hand and look at the texture. “You know,” I say to Jóna, “I’ll bet they call it ‘Internet’ because of the crosshatching of the pastry on top. It’s like a web. Internet. Web. Maybe a mistranslation?”
I take a bite and pause for a second, enjoying the fact that there doesn’t seem to be bad food anywhere in Kolkata.
“Then again, maybe they named it that because it’s awesome. Like the Internet.”
Update: February 14, 2017
We were later told by an English-speaking employee of a jean store in our neighborhood mall that the locals all thought that Jóna and I were Lady Gaga and Brad Pitt, scouting the area for a movie. Different regions have different facial archetypes, and apparently they just couldn’t tell the difference between Caucasians very well. Further, both celebrities were all over the tabloids and Indian TV at the time, and Jóna’s colorful hair and tattoos led them to certain conclusions.